Oh dear. Oh dear. I’m going to have to say unkind things about a book I’d been rather looking forward to reading. The book is Aftermath: The Cultures of the Economic Crisis, edited by Manuel Castells, Joao Caraca and Gustavo Cardoso.
When they first came out, I read eagerly Castells’ three books in The Information Age trilogy and found them enlightening (if quite heavy-going) – my copies still have lots of bookmarks sticking out of the pages. I’ve also been keen to find some good sociological analysis of the financial markets. Gillian Tett, an anthropologist by training, wrote the terrific Fool’s Gold. John Lanchester, a novelist, gave us Whoops! But (like Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian) I’ve been wondering about the absence of careful sociological study of the markets (in fact, Mark Granovetter was asking long before the crisis why sociologists left important domains of study to economists).
So, I was pleased when Aftermath arrived. But I’ve given up part way through. The introduction is just a summary of the main events since 2008. The first chapter is about budget cutting and protests at Berkeley, mildly interesting but a touch navel-gazing. Subsequent chapters are unexpectedly abstract. This is a typical passage:
“The key analytical observation is that the current crisis has produced strong resistance identities against not only the measures used to treat the crisis but more deeply against the development model that led to the crisis and from which the current attempts to rectify the situation derive. Therefore, there is an explicit tension between identity and the global network society as it is expressed in its currently dominating form. …. We can make a further argument: the root of the current crisis is the fact that the generally dominant model for development has been based on systematic debt-taking.” (p159)
In other words, a statement of the the unintelligible followed by a statement of the obvious. Now, I do know that every discipline has its own jargon so ‘resistance identities’ may well be a piece of it. But I don’t know what the first bit of the quotation means.
To be fair, a couple of later chapters (on Catalonia, on China) look more empirical so I’ll give them a go. But what I’d really hoped for was some insight into questions like: Why did it become normal for so many people to take on debts they would never repay to buy cars and clothes and houses? What was it about our societies and governments that mean the only way many people could find a home of acceptable standard by lying about their incomes to a dodgy mortgage broker? Why or how did people working in the financial markets lose all their sense of everyday ethics, their connections to the rest of society? Who are the people who went into flogging sub-prime mortgages? How did it come about that regulators were content to take hundreds of pages of complicated and unread documentation as proof of adequate risk-management? And many more.
Now, I certainly am not going to get on my high horse about how wonderful economics is – having written so much about economists’ need to acknowledge its flaws and fix them (see eg What’s The Use of Economics) – and as sociology is not my discipline, maybe there are new pieces of research into such questions by sociologists and other social scientists, and I’d be grateful for the references. But I have a sneaking suspicion that it isn’t the kind of work sociologists have been doing.