Abstract: For Aristotle, a just political community has to find similarity in difference and foster habits of reciprocity. Conventionally, speech and law have been seen to fulfill this role. This article reconstructs Aristotle’s conception of currency (nomisma) as a political institution of reciprocal justice. By placing Aristotle’s treatment of reciprocity in the context of the ancient politics of money, currency emerges not merely as a medium of economic exchange but also potentially as a bond of civic reciprocity, a measure of justice, and an institution of ethical deliberation. Reconstructing this account of currency (nomisma) in analogy to law (nomos) recovers the hopes Aristotle placed in currency as a necessary institution particular to the polis as a self-governing political community striving for justice. If currency was a foundational institution, it was also always insufficient, likely imperfect, and possibly tragic. Turned into a tool for the accumulation of wealth for its own sake, currency becomes unjust and a serious threat to any political community. Aristotelian currency can fail precisely because it contains an important moment of ethical deliberation. This political significance of currency encourages contemporary political theorists to think of money as a constitutional project that can play an important role in improving reciprocity across society.
Abstract: During the Coinage Crisis of 1695, John Locke successfully advocated a full recoinage without devaluation by insisting on silver money’s “intrinsick value.” The Great Recoinage has ever since been seen as a crucial step toward the Financial Revolution and it was long regarded as Locke’s most consequential achievement. This article places Locke’s intervention in the context of the post-revolutionary English state at war and reads his monetary pamphlets as an integral, if largely neglected, part of his political philosophy. Instead of taking Locke’s insistence on “intrinsick value” itself at face value, I argue that it was precisely money’s fragile conventionality that threatened its role as a societal bond of trust. In response to this fragility and corruptibility Locke tied money by fiat to an initially arbitrary but unalterable quantity of metal. While Locke’s argument contributed to the modern naturalization of money, it arose from a paradoxical political act of monetary depoliticization.
Abstract: This article argues that realist invocations of Max Weber rely on an unrealistic reading of Weber’s realism. In order to escape the allure of Weber’s dramatic posture of crisis, we place his seminal lecture on “Politics as a Vocation” (1919) in its historical and philosophical context of a revolutionary conjuncture of dramatic proportions, compounded by a broader crisis of historicism. Weber’s rhetoric, we argue, carries with it not only the emotion of crisis but is also the expression of a deeper intellectual impasse. The fatalistic despair of his position had already been detected by some of his closest contemporaries for whom Weber did not appear as a door-opener to a historically situated theory of political action but as a telling and intriguing impasse. Although the disastrous history of interwar Europe seems to confirm Weber’s bleakest predictions, it would be perverse to elevate contingent failure to the level of retrospective vindication.
Abstract: According to Daniel Bell’s Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), during the 1970s advanced post-industrial societies became entangled in a fateful contradiction. The postwar boom and the counter-culture of the 1960s had entrenched a consumerist ethic of immediate gratification and self-realization that undermined the Protestant virtues of frugality and modesty, which Bell – following Max Weber – considered the pillars of capitalism’s historical success. Far from entrenching conservative values, the corporate capitalism of the postwar years had unwittingly produced a hedonistic consumer society. By implication, the patriarchal household had become destabilized as a basic institution of economic discipline. The 1980s seemed to prove Bell spectacularly wrong. Instead of a cultural contradiction between hedonism and discipline, the decade explosively fused the two. But if Bell’s prognosis turned out to be wrong, this was precisely because his diagnosis had been so acute. While failing to envisage what was to come, Bell was extraordinarily prescient about the central political dilemma of advanced capitalism that produced an unexpected politics of depoliticization. Democratic capitalist politics after the boom, Bell concluded, was stuck in a seemingly inescapable dilemma between the essential need for economic intervention and the devastating effect that those very acts of intervention have on political legitimacy. This article reconstructs Bell’s dilemma and places it into conversation with recent feminist histories of neoliberalism and the sexual revolution.
Working Papers (available upon request)
"The Theodicy of Growth: John Rawls, Political Economy, and Reasonable Faith"
Abstract: Rediscovery of John Rawls’s early interest in theology has recently prompted readings of his philosophical project as a secularized response to earlier theological questions. Intellectual historians have meanwhile begun to historicize Rawls’s use of contemporary philosophical resources and his engagement with postwar economics. In this paper I argue that holding together Rawls’s evolving interest in theology and political economy was his understanding of the task of philosophy as reconciliation. In placing Rawls in the intellectual context of postwar political economy as well as in relation to the history of political thought, including his reading of that history, I defend two claims. First, I argue that Rawls’s philosophical ambition is best understood as providing a secular reconciliatory theodicy. Secondly, I suggest that Rawls’s theodicy was initially rendered plausible by the economic background conditions of economic growth that disappeared with the book’s publication in 1971. This divergence between text and context helps to account for Rawls’s peculiar reception.
“Untouchable Money: B.R. Ambedkar’s The Problem of the Rupee (1923)” (for The Cambridge Companion to Ambedkar, ed. Anupama Rao and Shailaja Paik).
"Does Money Talk? Money and Speech in Political Theory"
"John Maynard Keynes and Burkean Liberalism at the Dusk of Empire"
"Old Utopias, New Tax Havens: The Politics of Bitcoin in Historical Perspective," in Regulating Blockchain: Political and Legal Challenges, ed. P. Hacker, I. Lianos, G. Dimitropoulos, and S. Eich (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
Abstract: Cryptocurrencies are frequently framed as future-oriented, technological innovations that decentralize money and thereby liberate it from centralized governance structures and the political tentacles of the state. This is misleading on several counts. First, electronic currencies cannot leave the politics of money behind even where they aim to disavow it. Instead we can understand their impact as a political attempt to depoliticize money. Secondly, the dramatic price swings of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin challenge their claims to be currencies and place them more persuasively as speculative assets. Ironically, while the preferential tax and regulatory treatment of cryptocurrencies hinges on their nominal status as currencies, their success as speculative assets has undermined precisely such claims. Thirdly, far from heralding a radical break with the past, electronic currencies serve as a reminder of the still unresolved global politics of money of the 1970s. To support these three interrelated theses this chapter places the rise of cryptocurrencies in the historical context of the international politics of money since the 1970s and the response to the Financial Crisis of 2008.
"Restructuring Democracy and the Idea of Europe" (with Seyla Benhabib), The Cambridge History of Modern European Thought, ed. Warren Breckman and Peter E. Gordon (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).
Abstract: This chapter takes stock of the ways in which debates about Europe’s exterior boundaries intersect with discussions about the nature of European identity. The collapse of the Soviet Bloc recast the European project and reopened the question of what Europe is. Alongside the formation of a European single market and currency union, the Eastern enlargement of the European Union and Turkey's quest for membership revived old debates about where Europe ends. Embattled debates over European identity dovetailed with discussions of Christian Europe and its Islamic other. Today, echoes of the EU’s self-image as a bastion of humanitarian reason and a beacon of democracy find their test in the refugee crisis. Stuck between seemingly perennial austerity and managed inhospitability, the EU’s “thin cosmopolitanism” appears all too content with integrating markets and merely fulfilling minimalist human rights norms. In a painful twist of irony, the only ones who still appear to take seriously the preamble of the failed European Constitution that described Europe as “a special area of human hope” are the refugees landing on Europe’s shores or, more often, drowning in the Mediterranean. While Europe’s politicians are working hard to discourage potential asylum seekers and appear determined to prove that Europe is not a special area of human hope, refugees are voting with their feet for a life in Europe.
"The Great Inflation" (with Adam Tooze), Vorgeschichte der Gegenwart. Dimensionen des Strukturbruchs nach dem Boom, ed. Anselm Doering-Manteuffel, Lutz Raphael, and Thomas Schlemmer (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016).
Abstract: As the 20th century ended, a reappraisal began of the 1970s as a crucial turning point in modernity. For some historians the 1970s were marked as the moment “after the boom”. For others the epoch was defined by the shock of the global. For cultural historians it was an age of fragmentation. The 1970s were clearly an age of economic crisis, but this too could be understood in different ways. Deindustrialization and the end of Fordism were two options. Globalization another. The discovery of the limits to growth provided a resonant phrase to announce the environmental age. But, for economists and policy-makers, the 1970s stood for another type of epochal break, a revolution in monetary affairs. The end of Bretton Woods between 1971 and 1973 marked the universalization of fiat money. From the 1970s onwards, for the first time since the invention of money, nowhere, anywhere in the world was money directly anchored on gold. How would monetary systems be managed without this anchor? What would be tested in the 1970s and 1980s was a fundamental institutional question of the modern world: the relationship between capitalism, fiat money and democratic policy-making. If it is the double ending both of the postwar boom and the Great Inflation that defines our present, the history of anti-inflationism was never as simple as it appeared in narratives of a “great moderation” designed to legitimate currency policy.
Translations and Other Work
I have translated several essays, lectures, and prize speeches by Seyla Benhabib into German. In 2012, I translated her Leopold Lucas Prize Lecture, which appeared as Gleichheit und Differenz (Mohr Siebeck, 2013). An abbreviated version also appeared in Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik.
In 2014, I translated her Meister Eckhart Prize Lecture, which was published in Kosmopolitismus ohne Illusionen: Menschenrechte in unruhigen Zeiten (Suhrkamp, 2016).
I assisted in a minor capacity in editing a collection of essays by the late Robert Wokler: Rousseau, the Age of Enlightenment, and their Legacies (Princeton University Press, 2012). The volume was edited by Bryan Garsten and includes an introduction by Christopher Brooke. (The amazing first chapter on "perfectible apes" is available here.)