John and Elizabeth continue their conversation 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 fits into a newish approach in anthropology of researching people with greater power and influence than the researchers themselves. That’s sometimes called “studying up” and Dan and Elizabeth (who’s writing a book about gold, after all!) have both thought a lot about it.
As a fellow anthropologist of finance, I especially enjoyed this month’s Recall this Book conversation with Dan Souleles. His trajectory—from studying monks to private equity mavens!–proves anthropologists can help us make sense of the inequality that the world of finance produces. Building on comparisons with other powerful groups in the anthropological record, such as Inka accountants, Dan’s eye-opening book, Songs of Profit, Songs of Loss, and his subsequent research, emphasizes the diversity of groups within finance. He explores the particularities of private equity investors as well as theorizes on how to compare accounting across the anthropological record, from the present day to that of the Inka.
This analysis of diversity in finance is integral to my own research as an anthropologist of finance in the world of climate finance, a sector of financial markets promoted as financing/refinancing projects that have climate and environmental benefits. In my research, I study different forms of expertise and work amongst climate-finance practitioners: among them bankers, accountants, and policymakers. Climate change itself is defined by the time horizons of our new Anthropocene era. Some may seem distant (when will the last amphibian vanish?) while others (2 degrees Celsius rise, anyone?) now loom terrifyingly near. In climate finance, geological climate time interacts with the profit-and-loss time horizons familiar from accountancy and Wall Street quarterly reports. Understanding what type of time climate-finance practitioners focus on turns out to be crucial to unpacking their assumptions—and their actions.
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.
The Black Lives Matter movement and the policing-related deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others have struck a nerve worldwide. Our“Global Policing” series aims to capture the protests over systemic racism and policing in their various national forms.
In Turkey, for example, a June 19 article in the English edition of DuvaR. news magazine reported that Footage of the detentions of five individuals detained at pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party’s (HDP) press conference in Istanbul reveal shouts from the civilians begging the police to stop pressing on their backs and telling them that their chest hurts…reminiscent of the recent police killing of black Minneapolis resident George Floyd, remembered with his words “I can’t breathe!
The largest slave uprising in the 18th century British Caribbean was also a node of the global conflict called the Seven Year’s War, though it isn’t usually thought of that way. In the first few days of the quarantine and our current geopolitical and epidemiological shitshow, John and Elizabeth spoke with Vincent Brown, who recently published Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Belknap, 2019), centered on a group of enslaved West Africans, known under the term “Coromantees” who were the chief protagonists in this war.
Tracing the vectors of this war within the Caribbean, the North Atlantic, and West Africa, Vince shows us how these particular enslaved Africans, who are caught in the gears of one of human history’s most dehumanizing institutions, constrained by repressive institutions, social-inscribed categories of differences and brutal force, operate tactically within and across space in complex and cosmopolitan ways.
Ajantha Subramanian‘s new book The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India is much more than simply an historical and ethnographic study of the elite Indian Institutes of Technology. John and Elizabeth speak with Ajantha about the language of “merit” and the ways in which it can conceal the continuing relevance of caste (and class, and race) privilege–in India, yes, but also in American and other meritocratic democracies as well.
Our wide-ranging discussion explored how inequality gets reproduced, passed on and justified. We talked about some of the ways caste–often framed as a fundamentally “Eastern” form of difference–not only seems to have a lot in common with race, but also shares a history through colonial, plantation-based capitalism. This may explain some of the ways “merit” has also made race (and class) disparities invisible in the United States. This topic surfaced during our discussion of the ways in which dominant groups excoriate the “identity politics” of those seeking greater access to privileged domains, and claim their own independence from “ascriptive” identities while silently relying on the privilege and other hidden advantages of particular racial or caste-based forms of belonging.