69 Recall this Buck 4: Daniel Souleles on private equity (JP, EF)

In this installment of our Recall this Buck series, John and Elizabeth talk with Daniel Souleles, anthropologist at the Copenhagen Business School and author of Songs of Profit, Songs of Loss: Private Equity, Wealth, and Inequality (Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press 2019). Dan’s work explores the world of private equity “guys” (who are indeed mostly guys) and the ways they are “suspended in webs of significance [they themselves have] spun” as Clifford Geertz puts it.

Further, he explores the ways we are all suspended in these webs through the immense buying and managing power of private equity firms. Private equity investors buy out publicly traded companies, often through enormous debt (which is why these deals used to be called “leveraged buyouts” or LBOs), manage the companies and then sell them. They argue they are creating value by cutting fat in management; typically workers bear the brunt of the debt while executives–and the private equity firm and lawyers and others servicing the deal–receive hefty payments.

Dan pulls off a tough feat in his book, helping us see the concerns and motivations of people he’s working with as understandable and the people themselves as reasonable and even likeable, while also maintaining his own view of private equity as, generally speaking, a noxious force in society.

We end with a discussion of the Occupy movement and how it helped to change public conversations about inequality and the power of finance (another angle on the themes we tackled in our earlier “Brahmin Left” conversations).

Looking west across the Deegan Expressway at Stella D’Oro, closed and for sale, 2010. Founded in 1930, the Stella D’Oro cookie company was sold to a private equity firm in 2006 and closed after an ensuing strike in 2009. The company was sold and production moved to a non-union facility in Ohio. Photography by Jim Henderson, Creative Commons license.

Mentioned in this episode:

Bryan Burrough and John Helyar, Barbarians at the Gates: The Fall of NJR Nabisco

Karen Ho Liquidated; ethnography of Wall Street, and of “smartness”

Edwin Lefèvre, Reminiscences of a Stock Operator, (John misremembered the title as Confessions of a Stockjobber)

Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho (1991)

Listen and Read here:


Author: plotznik

I teach English (mainly the novel and Victorian literature) at Brandeis University, and live in Brookline.

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