The Temporalities of Financialization: From GE’s Schenectady to the Hedge Fund

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 8:50 AM
Gramercy (Sheraton New York)
David Huyssen, University of York
In his 2008 essay, “The temporalities of capitalism,” William H. Sewell, Jr., observes that capitalism’s capacity to reproduce its logics and dynamics in mimetic forms across long gaps of time seems to defy historical contingency or eventful causation. Early twentieth-century Schenectady, New York, might restore some of that contingency in our consideration of late twentieth-century financialization’s connections to an earlier moment of industrial capitalism and political radicalism.

When it became the headquarters of General Electric in the late-19th century, Schenectady began to experience many dynamics—corporate dominance of politics, privatization of the built environment through public subsidy, growing class conflict, and the imposition of global markets on everyday life—that constitute basic elements of neoliberalism’s contemporary definitions. This might suggest a “stillness-in-motion” at work between early and late twentieth-century capitalist forms.

Yet the strikes, realty developments, and local political battles of that era in Schenectady can also help situate financialization as a historical effect within a longer trajectory of a transforming capitalist political economy—in this case, because they helped politicize a young Schenectadian named Alfred Winslow Jones. After stints as a communist-sympathizing anti-Nazi spy and democratic-socialist intellectual, Jones invented neoliberalism’s quintessential financial form, the hedge fund. The reasons behind his invention provide an eventful, counterintuitive link between the industrial capitalism of G.E.’s Schenectady and the financial capitalist forms that fueled the 2008 collapse: socialist politics.