Parution : “Follow the Money: Banking and Finances in the Modern World” (AHR, 122/5)


“Follow the Money: Banking and Finances in the Modern World”

Dossier central du numéro de décembre 2017 de l’American Historical Review (vol. 122, n° 5)

Le dossier central du n° de décembre 2017 de l’American Historical Review est consacré à “Follow the Money: Banking and Finances in the Modern World”.

Résumé :

The AHR Forum, “Follow the Money: Banking and Finances in the Modern World,” consists of three distinctive articles that, collectively, address the role of bankers, financial instruments, and the flow of liquid capital through the ever-changing sluices of accumulation in the modern world.

The first, “‘Who Hold the Balance of the World?’ Bankers at the Congress of Vienna, and in International History,” by Glenda Sluga (University of Sydney), revisits several pan-European peacemaking congresses of the second and third decades of the nineteenth century (Vienna, Aix-la-Chapelle, Verona) by placing financiers, rather than the usual heroic statesmen, at the center of the remaking of post-Napoleonic Europe. Sluga argues that these bankers and their families—especially their wives and daughters—played an outsized role at Vienna and other peace congresses of this era, deploying emergent “conventions of sociability” to secure diplomatic and commercial networks across national boundaries and interests. In doing so, these masters (and mistresses) of capital also came to advocate for early internationalist humanitarian causes, particularly Jewish emancipation and Hellenic independence. Sluga’s essay thus operates at the juncture of both the new “histories of capitalism” and the “histories of humanitarianism,” bringing social and cultural history to bear on an international past that has tended to leave finance out of the complexities of political settlement. In forging the nineteenth century’s European order, bankers, as much as politicians, cultivated the norms that came to characterize the nascent liberal tenets of a new international system, bending new fiscal and speculative patterns to emergent humanitarian sensibilities.

Sluga’s article is followed by a very different account of the relationship between finance and state-making, one that shows how by the latter half of the twentieth century the manipulators of money helped undermine the international system so painstakingly constructed by their forebears. In “Archipelago Capitalism: Tax Havens, Offshore Money, and the State, 1950s–1970s,” Vanessa Ogle (University of California, Berkeley) reminds us that the power of financial instruments to remake the world easily leaps—indeed, obliterates—the boundaries of space, time, and nation. As she shows, when the potentially profitable “lumpiness” of an imperial world order began to unravel (or smooth out), farsighted financiers sought out alternatives to shelter capital from the fiscal claims made by the regulatory, redistributive, and postcolonial developmental nation-state. In consequence, a far-flung landscape of tax havens, offshore financial markets, flags of convenience registries, and the economic equivalent of a no-man’s-land created a new subterranean space of free-flowing, unrestricted, and often invisible streams of capital. Untethered from the constraints of the disintegrating Bretton Woods system and the fiscal oversight of the weakened nation-state, this emergent “archipelago capitalism” proved a harbinger of a neoliberal world of frictionless financial transactions coupled with growing social inequality and precarity that has come to define twenty-first-century capitalist modernity.

The forum concludes with an article that, much like Sluga’s opening piece, explores the mixed motives and unintended consequences evident when doing well and doing good come into profitable alignment. In “How Americans Give: The Financialization of American Jewish Philanthropy,” Lila Corwin Berman (Temple University) illustrates how shifts in the culture of philanthropy worked in tandem with the gradual transformations in the postwar U.S. political economy, as exemplified by revisions in the tax code. Financial deregulation and the privatization of many public goods both nurtured the fiscal reach of philanthropy and allowed philanthropic capitalists to help craft state policy. As a historian of American Judaism, Berman happens to tell this tale largely through the lens of Jewish history, as communal giving devoted to short-term charitable redistribution morphed over time into large-scale accumulation oriented toward long-term asset appreciation. But, lest this raise any hackles, it would be a grave mistake to understand this (or any other historical financial phenomenon) as a purely “Jewish” practice. Philanthropic organizations of all kinds both advocated for and benefited from refined tax policies that would allow them to redirect large pools of accumulated surplus capital into the social welfare channels of their preference. While this helped disperse private wealth into a more public arena, it also reconfigured and perhaps even eroded state-centered commitments to building human capital with state resources. This, Berman suggests, ultimately may have contributed to inequality more than to redistribution.

Capping off the forum is an elegant comment by Jonathan Levy (University of Chicago), “Appreciating Assets: New Directions in the History of Political Evonomy”, who draws into a single analytical frame the wide implications of the three preceding articles. Levy observes that centering the historical analysis of modern political economy on capital and corporations, rather than the nation-state, throws open new doors to how we might understand the complex interplay of national sovereignty, financial liquidity, and the accumulative process at precise historical moments. The clever title of his comment—“Appreciating Assets”—calls attention to the historian’s task of disaggregating exactly what we mean by an expanding and labile “asset” as we seek to pin down shapeshifting forms of financial speculation beneath the lens of our archival microscope. But it also calls to mind the necessity of appreciating the enormous power such protean forms of wealth had in the making and unmaking of modernity. Levy points especially to one of the great paradoxes of the unprecedented wealth generated over the past two capitalist centuries: it depended, on the one hand, on the fluidity of financial instruments, and yet at the same time “much capital ended up on the ground, in illiquid and fixed industrial structures, within national territorial borders,” not to mention embodied in the human capacity that even in today’s post-industrial, semi-robotic era still makes economies run. Resolving this paradox continues to bedevil the global social order.
Indeed, as Levy notes, the relationship between the ordering and wielding of power and the production and distribution of wealth is particularly unsettled in our current moment. But the obverse to free flows of abundant capital remains the apparently unyielding effort to restrict the movement of human beings. If the former depends on lowering barriers to the instantaneous movement of financial assets around the globe at the click of a mouse, the latter rests, as always, on the erection of physical walls, borders, and boundaries.

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