Financialization, that “wonky but apt moniker”, has inspired an explosion of publishing since the 1990s. This March, we published the Routledge International Handbook of Financialization, the fruit of more than three years of collective effort making sense of this burgeoning research field. Reviewers have suggested the Handbook will become “an indispensable working tool” and “the defining reference on financialization”, but so far we have received many queries about the cover image. Where is it from? And what exactly does it mean? Here’s the explanation.
One of the hardest aspects of editing the Handbook was to find the ‘perfect’ picture to represent financialization. Books, after all, are judged by their covers, too. How could we picture the abstract notion of financialization without resorting to tired clichés? We struggled.
Three key ideas lie at the heart of much contemporary financialization research. First, that finance is multidimensional, and as much part of politics, social relations, ecology, and space, as of the economy. Second, that finance increasingly dominates rather than serves these realms, and produces a variety of distributional issues and crises. And third, that financialization scholarship needs to critique, rather than accept, this status quo. Any imagery we’d choose for our book cover would need to capture these three dimensions.
The challenge of picturing was compounded by just how diverse financialization studies is as a research field. Financialization means different things to different schools of thought, and their focus has shifted over time. In the past, an image of a stock ticker or of Wall Street may have been good enough. But how to represent more recent research on aspects like the politics of finance, the roles of state and non-state actors in promoting financial expansion, and complicated relationships organized labor has with finance; let alone abstract conceptual debates about the notion of value?
We cringed when we browsed stock images. Most were horribly hackneyed, some were plain weird. Our searches delivered stereotypical stockbrokers (white, male, often in distress), images of lower Manhattan, generic glass-and-steel towers, bouncing graphs and figures, coins and bills (mostly US dollars), happy couples beaming at computer screens, and very many calculators.
Cultural economists have duly noted the ideological contents of these images as popular reproductions of late 20th century beliefs in efficient markets and rational investors, located at a distance from everyday life and labor. Scholars such as Marieke de Goede have highlighted how depictions of finance have revealed societies’ shifting relationships with financial markets, institutions, and logics over time. 18th-century European commentators, for instance, often portrayed finance as inconstant and irrational, and therefore as a feminine character, with “Lady Credit” figuring as “not unlike goddess Fortuna, who ruled capriciously over the fortunes of men.” In contemporary societies, new subjectivities are forged around financial risk-taking and financial literacy as mastery of the self.
A (supposedly) voluntary loan
While we first considered the visual arts as an alternative to the cliché representations of finance, drawing inspiration from – among other works of art – Joy Division album covers and Andreas Gursky photographs, historical imagery came to our rescue, too. A 19th century political pamphlet contained a cartoon which strikingly captured the three key contemporary ideas about financialization: its multidimensionality, the sheer dominance by finance, and the critical ambition of our scholarship.
The collection of cartoons, drawn by Dutch painter and printmaker Herman Frederik Carel ten Kate (1822-1891), satirized an important event and episode of financial overreach in the history of the Netherlands, the country that was home to the world’s first joint stock company and first stock exchange. The, pamphlet entitled ‘Satire on the incentive to participate in the (supposedly) voluntary 3% money loan of 1844’, critiqued an important event in the financial history of the Netherlands.
The Dutch state had faced near-bankruptcy after massive spending by its monarch, whose Minister of Finance Floris Adriaan van Hall concocted a plan to convert the government’s existing debt into a new state loan of 127 million guilders, at a much lower interest rate of 3%. To push his plan through Parliament, he – successfully – threatened to increase wealth tax if the loan were not passed. Hence, the loan became known as the ‘supposedly’ voluntary loan. Ten Kate’s satirical cartoon depicted this as a process of additional value being extracted from the nation’s economy.
For financialization scholars like ourselves, it hardly takes much imagination to see the process of extracting value from production, everyday life and the social and natural world. Even though Ten Kate’s prints satirizes an event that arguably predates contemporary financialization by more than a century, we feel it powerfully conveys essential facts about financialization, particularly the dominant, extractive nature of modern finance. The idyllic human and natural scenery – larger and smaller homes, farmland, trees, sky – is squeezed into assets from which value is extracted. The three men extracting value, rather than being represented as stereotypical capitalists or government officials, rightly appear workers “just doing their job” – and working hard. We can only marvel at how the asset stream adds up to several humble 100,000 guilder bags, and wonder what figures Ten Kate would have chosen today.
What’s in a cover?
Several chapters in our new Handbook examine the details of how finance extracts value, for instance in the financialization of real estate, of the environment, and of human and more-than-human life. The image also accounts for the role of human agency, making visible the work and the workers of financialization, as with how workers in the financial sector exacerbate global inequality; the work households must do to manage “their” finances; and the conflictive relationship of organized labor with financial markets.
Good academic publishing and aesthetics go hand in hand. Sadly, contemporary cost pressures, copyright charges and the divisions of labor in academic publishing mean the visual packaging of scholarly material – which should be part of its appeal – is all too often neglected. We were lucky to find an image that did justice to the multi-faceted nature of the subject matter and was able to powerfully convey, as only pictures can, the process of financialization.