Revolutionary Expertise?

As the New York Occupy movement goes on, it also spreads out. 16 Beaver, Charlotte’s place, and the Atrium of 60 Wall Street (now home to General Assemblies), remain nodes in the occupied downtown real estate network, but the overwhelming gravitational force of lower Manhattan and Liberty Park has eased. Spokes council meetings happen regularly in Brooklyn or the Upper West Side, Occupy Town Square roves Manhattan, the OWS People’s Think Tank holds sessions in Queens and the Bronx, and many other working groups have found new, post-park homes. And so it was that I ended up on the 14th floor of Columbia’s International Affairs building one Sunday in early January to attend my first AltBanking working group meeting. I was horribly late.

Having grossly underestimated the subway ride from Coney Island, I stumbled out of the elevator and out of breath into a classroom of thirty-or-so people gathered in groups around three sets of tables. Phrases were flying — “fraudulent conveyance,” and “negotiated-bid vs. auction-bid municipal bonds.” Like any good anthropologist newly among “natives” whose language and daily practices are totally foreign to her, I sat down and started to take notes.

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, the OWS working group AltBanking has two subgroups. “In the first, the goal is to explore and, if possible, establish alternative banking systems … In the second, the goal is to broadly understand and educate people about the current financial system, as well as come up with short and long term plans to improve it.” I was now frantically taking notes about things I didn’t understand in the second of the two (which I’ll refer to simply as AltBanking). Among the groups core participants are bankers and former bankers, bank analysts, private equity managers, economists and economics professors, former hedge-fund quants, Wall Street traders-turned freelance writers, tax specialists, small business owners, math PhDs, and the odd Fed conspiracy-theorist or two. Many participate in the group unbeknownst to their employers. On average group members are older and whiter than other Occupiers, but perhaps the most striking difference from other OWS events are the meeting proceedings themselves. Meetings are tightly organized and thick with often-arcane financial content. Each meeting starts with announcements, after which participants propose and vote on agenda items (Greek Debt and Germany, Volatility in Financial Markets, Mortgage Cram Downs, Direct Actions to Pressure the Financial System). Proposed topics with the most votes are given a place on the afternoon’s schedule. Concurrent break-out sessions two or three deep then proceed rapid-fire in increments of 25 minutes. The sessions are full of quick exchanges of expert knowledge with a few voices posing questions — what does it mean to say that the financial sector is an overhead cost and shouldn’t be considered productive income toward GDP? What is the FOMC (The Federal Open Market Committee)? Meetings end with report backs from each break-out discussion.

I am struck in this atmosphere by my own desire to keep up, to compete, to demonstrate my rightful place in this more-subversive version of what Karen Ho has called “the culture of smartness” that permeates Wall Street and arguably the world of finance more generally:

Positioning themselves as smarter, savvier, and more cutting-edge … investment banks construct a mutually reinforcing connection between the market and the Ivy League: because we have “the best of the brightest” working for us, then what we say about the market must be believed … By the same token, their naturalized smartness elides the ways in which their financial practices and advice often lead to shareholder value implosions, corporate decline, and financial crises. Smartness can also act as a cover for expedient (and detrimental) short-term decision making.[1]  

Many of us participating in the AltBanking meetings, I realize, thrive in the hierarchies of expertise, even as we have come to recognize their destructive capacities. We feel  comfortable and indeed stimulated by wonking-out in a Columbia classroom with fellow finance aficionados, where Liberty Park may have felt alienating and even “unproductive.” So the question arises, what does revolutionary financial expertise look like? Is it the same expertise put to other ends? Or, is it predicated on a change in the embodied procedures of knowledge exchange and activation themselves?

Before agreeing too smugly that the knowledge/power nexus itself has to be affectively and institutionally broken before expertise can be revolutionary, I want to point out nascent changes in the culture of financial expertise in whose midst we already dwell, changes that bring many of the AltBanking folks out of their private equity firms and into Occupy Wall Street. From Alan Greenspan to Joe Stiglitz to Harvard students in Econ 10, the ideological rampart of neoclassical and neoliberal economic theory and practice has cracked. The financial crisis and its aftermath began to erode the clear distinction between experts who speak about “facts of the market” and the non-experts who were asked to accept their authority, often on the grounds that finance is “too complicated” for the average citizen, and hence rightly governed by experts rather than democratic oversight. The crisis was a controversy that challenged and eventually overflowed this distinction, creating “a new kind of political space, a forum in which the composition of the collective is at stake in questions over possible states of the world.”[2] OWS has stepped into that new kind of political space, and with them, members of the AltBanking working group have too.

We often disagree in AltBanking, generally along progressive/radical lines. Some  discussions focus on
“realistic” incremental change within the system..

  • If you’re in danger of foreclosure, you should be able to stay in your house because you are de facto bankrupt, and US bankruptcy laws state that you can’t lose your primary residence. (The legal issues at this point are 5th amendment “taking” issues/eminent domain.) Or, people should be able declare bankruptcy and have the mortgage written down to the value of the house. Bankruptcy courts are one of the few places you can break contracts. 
  • Hedge fund managers, among the wealthiest group of Americans, claim their salaries as capital gains. They pay no income tax. Tax loopholes like this one not only perpetuate socioeconomic inequality but also incentivize one type of financial activity over another — hedging over commercial banking.
  • We must preserve public financing of the housing market. With privatization, Fannie and Freddie became quasi-financial organizations. Public Housing Finance should be in productive investments, not securitized mortgages. 

Others move in more radical directions…

  • The alternative bank posed by the other Alt Banking group
  • Massive debt renegotiation or jubilee – the acknowledgement that the renegotiation of debt has both historical and legal precedents.
  • The suggestion that where mathematical models or formulas are used (i.e. in calculating credit scores) that they be open

In this early moment of Mitchell’s “new kind of political space” the point is not, I think, to know the answers. Just the opposite. The point is that all of our expertise is at stake as we choose to come to the forum as bank analysts, anthropologists, anarchists, or activists.  

Top image courtesy of Flickr user ET420.

Hannah Chadeayne Appel