This paper is not about the financial crisis per se. Rather it is about the creation of a monetary regime—a regime impelled by a series of communicative experiments that predate the crisis and that have continued to be refined and modified in the teeth of unfolding turmoil. Indeed, this compendium of experiments—in which we are all participants, knowingly or not—has been instrumental in the management of some of the most vexing circumstances that arose in the wake of the failure of financial markets after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.
At the heart of this regime is a far-reaching premise: the public broadly must be recruited to collaborate with central banks in achieving the ends of monetary policy, namely, “stable prices and confidence in the currency.” Persuasive analytical stories crafted by the personnel of central banks serve as the experimental instruments for shaping public sentiments and expectations and, thus, economic behavior prospectively. Research sustains and enlivens this evolving communicative relationship, research that continually gleans the descriptive, explanatory, and interpretive labor of economic actors, incorporating their intelligence for the purposes of formulating policy. The challenge for central bankers, many of whom had a hand in designing this regime, is to navigate and manage the shifting grounds upon which members of the public become protagonists in the monetary drama and their predicaments the imperatives of and for policy. The paper draws directly on ethnographic research at The European Central Bank, the Bundesbank, the Swedish Central Bank, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, and the Bank of England.
Douglas R. Holmes teaches anthropology at Binghamton University. His new book, Economy of Words: Communicative Imperatives in Central Banks (Chicago 2014), examines an emerging monetary regime—a public currency—in which words and explanation play a decisive role. The book is based on research over the last decade at the European Central Bank, the Deutsch Bundesbank, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, the Swedish Riksbank, and the Bank of England. He is currently working on a new project that examines what is at stake in the regulation and management of monetary affairs.
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