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Conjuring the spirit of multilateralism: Histories of crisis management during the ‘great credit crash’


In recent years, critical scholars have emphasised how the recollection of past events as traumas can both constrain and widen the political possibilities of a present. This article builds on such research by suggesting that the management of contemporary financial crises is reliant on a ritual work of repetition, wherein prior ‘crisis’ episodes are called upon to identify and authorise specific sites and modes of crisis management. In order to develop this argument, I focus on how past crises figure within the public pronouncements of four key policymaking organisations during the financial instability of 2007–9. I find that while the Great Depression does enable these organisations to reaffirm old ways of managing crises, both it and the more recent Asian crisis are also made to disclose new truths about the evolution of multilateralism as a form of governance. In so doing, I argue, these historical narratives reveal how the management of global financial crisis depends upon a kind of ‘magic trick’. Rather than a strictly rational, historical process of problem solving, contemporary crises are instead negotiated through a contingent and self-referential conjuring of crisis-histories.

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1 President of the European Central Bank (2003–11) quoted in Peel, Quentin, ‘Europe writes a history of crisis management’, The Financial Times (9 October 2008).

2 Oatley, Thomas, A Political Economy of American Hegemony: Buildups, Booms, and Busts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

3 Drezner, Daniel, The System Worked: How the World Stopped Another Great Depression (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

4 See Minsky, Hyman P., Can ‘It’ Happen Again? Essays on Instability and Finance (New York, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1982); Delong, J. Bradford, ‘Financial crises in the 1890s and the 1990s: Must history repeat?’, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 1999:2 (1999), pp. 253–294; Reinhart, Carmen M. and Rogoff, Kenneth S., This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

5 Duncan Bell provides an invaluable overview of this literature in his edited collection, Memory, Trauma and World Politics: Reflections on the Relationship Between Past and Present (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). See also Edkins, Jenny, Trauma and the Memory of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); and Zehfuss, Maja, Wounds of Memory: The Politics of War in Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). In relation to global finance and financial crisis in particular see Brassett, James and Clarke, Chris, ‘Performing the sub-prime crisis: Trauma and the financial event’, International Political Sociology, 6:1 (2012), pp. 4–20, and Brassett, James and Vaughan-Williams, Nick, ‘Crisis is governance: Sub-prime, the traumatic event, and bare life’, Global Society, 26:1 (2012), pp. 19–42.

6 Eliade, Mircea, The Myth of the Eternal Return: Or, Cosmos and History, trans. Willard Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991 [orig. pub. 1954]), p. 149.

7 ‘Historiophany’ is a neologism intended to specify an epiphany brought on through the apparent manifestation of History to humankind. It is a play on ‘theophany’, where of course it is God that appears.

8 See Koselleck, Reinhart, ‘Crisis’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 67:2 (2006), pp. 357–400 (pp. 358–61, 368–97).

9 Marx’s writings on crisis are notoriously fragmented, spawning an entire cottage industry in critical exegesis. My comments here relate to his discussion of over-accumulation in Capital: Volume III (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977 [orig. pub. 1894]), pp. 247–59. For more on the role of ‘crisis’ in Marxian economics see Mattick, Paul, Economic Crisis and Crisis Theory (London: Merlin Press, 1981), pp. 43–77.

10 On history and the sublime see Hayden White’s 1982 article, ‘The politics of historical interpretation: Discipline and de-bublimation’, reprinted in The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), pp. 58–82 (p. 69ff). See also Nietzsche’s ‘On the uses and disadvantages of history for life’, in Daniel Breazeale (ed.), Friedrich Nietzsche: Untimely Meditations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997 [orig. pub. 1874]), pp. 57–124.

11 White, , Content of the Form, pp. 2325, 44–6, and 66–8; cf. Mink, Louis O., ‘Narrative form as cognitive instrument’, in Robert Canary and Henry Kozicki (eds), The Writing of History: Literary Form and Historical Understanding (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), pp. 129–149 (pp. 143–4). Paul Ricoeur also appropriates and builds on Mink’s concept of configuration. For example, see his essay on ‘The narrative function’, in Thompson, John (ed.), Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on Language, Action and Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 274–296.

12 Kerwin Lee Klein, ‘On the emergence of memory in historical discourse’, Representations, 69:Winter (2000), pp. 127–50 (p. 128). With ‘counter-concept’ Klein means to highlight the ability of ‘memory’ to reorient the focus and conduct of historical studies. For Klein and others there are signs not only that this reorientation has taken place, but also that a reversal may be underway. See Rosenfeld, Gavriel, ‘A looming crash or a soft landing? Forecasting the future of the memory industry’, The Journal of Modern History, 81:1 (2009), pp. 122–158.

13 Ricoeur, Paul, Memory, History, Forgetting, trans. Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 5–55.

14 Ibid., pp. 56–92, 234–92.

15 Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1988 [orig. pub. 1975]), p. 94.

16 Brassett and Clarke, ‘Performing sub-prime’.

17 Ibid., p. 14. See also Brassett, James, Rethel, Lena, and Watson, Matthew, ‘The political economy of the subprime crisis: the economics, politics and ethics of response’, New Political Economy, 15:1 (2010), pp. 1–7.

18 Brassett and Vaughan-Williams, ‘Crisis is governance’.

19 Ibid., p. 28.

20 See Brassett, and Clarke, , ‘Performing sub-prime’, p. 18.

21 In this context the Holocaust still serves as the paradigmatic case study, but trauma thinking has also proved influential in the study of other genocides, as well as plagues, wars, famines, terrorist attacks, and even financial crises. See, for example, Caruth, Cathy, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); LaCapra, Dominick, History and Memory After Auschwitz (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998); Jenny Edkins, Trauma and the Memory of Politics; Maja Zehfuss, Wounds of Memory; and Paul Crosthwaite, ‘Is a financial crisis a trauma?’ Cultural Critique, 82:Fall (2012), pp. 34–67.

22 Radstone, Susannah, ‘Trauma theory: Contexts, politics, ethics’, Paragraph, 30:1 (2007), pp. 929. In contrast, see Friedlander, Saul (ed.), Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the ‘Final Solution’ (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).

23 Bousquet, Antoine, ‘Time zero: Hiroshima, September 11 and apocalyptic revelations in historical consciousness’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 34:3 (2006), pp. 739–764 (p. 739).

24 Lawless, Kate, ‘Unrecyclable times: the traumatic topographies of global capitalism in W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz’, The Word Hoard, 1:2 (2013), pp. 94108 (p. 94).

25 White, , ‘The historical event’, p. 29, emphasis in original.

26 Ibid., p. 30, emphasis added.

27 Eliade, , Eternal Return, p. 149.

28 Eliade’s terminology is unlikely to sit well with the contemporary reader, but what he means to designate with terms like ‘archaic’ are societies without historical discourse. In his study these ‘premodern or “traditional” societies include both the world usually known as “primitive”, and the ancient cultures of Asia, Europe, and America’ (in Eternal Return, p. 3). Moreover, for Eliade the ontologies of such societies need not give way to historicism. Indeed he anticipates the opposite: ‘as the terror of history grows worse … the positions of historicism will increasingly lose in prestige’ (ibid., p. 153).

29 Ibid., pp. 73–92, pp. 112–30.

30 Ibid., pp. 102–12.

31 Speaking of later Hebrew and Christian theodicies, Hayden White terms this the ‘figure-fulfillment model’ of trauma, thus highlighting the retroactive structure of revelation. See White, , ‘The historical event’, p. 28.

32 White, , Content of the Form, pp. 169184.

33 Berressem, Hanjo, ‘Crystal history: “You pick up the pieces. You connect the dots”’, in Bernd Herzogenrath (ed.), Time and History in Deleuze and Serres (London: Continuum, 2012), pp. 203–228 (p. 215).

34 For example, compare Kindleberger, Charles, The World in Depression, 1929-1939 (London: Allen Lane, 1973); Polanyi, Karl, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001 [orig. pub. 1944]); Trachtenberg, Marc, ‘Keynes triumphant: a study in the social history of economic ideas’, Knowledge and Society, 4 (1983), pp. 1786; and Ruggie, John Gerard, ‘International regimes, transactions, and change: Embedded liberalism in the postwar economic order’, International Organization, 36:2 (1982), pp. 379415.

35 Nsouli, Saleh, ‘Lessons from the Recent Financial Crisis and the Role of the Fund’, Paris (26 June 2008), Section I, available at: {} accessed 22 June 2009.

36 Mishkin, Frederic, ‘Global Financial Turmoil and the World Economy’, Eliat (2 July 2008), Section I, available at: {} accessed 29 July 2009.

37 Stark, Jürgen, ‘EMU: Weathering the Perfect Storm’, London (25 June 2009), Section I, available at: {} accessed 30 June 2009. See also Barr, Michael, ‘Remarks on Regulatory Reform’, Washington DC (15 July 2009), Section I, available at: {} accessed 18 September 2013.

38 de Rato, Rodrigo, ‘Confronting the Future with Wisdom and Courage’, Washington DC (19 July 2007), Point 7, available at: {} accessed 28 May 2009.

39 McCormick, David, ‘Remarks at the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics Conference on IMF Reform’, Washington DC (25 February 2008), Section II, available at: {} accessed 18 September 2013.

40 Smaghi, Lorenzo, ‘From Tuscany’s 19th Century Currency, the Fiorino, to the Euro’, Florence (15 May 2008), paras 28–9, available at: {} accessed 27 October 2009.

41 Strauss-Kahn, Dominique, ‘Remarks to the Board of Governors of the IMF’, Washington DC (13 October 2008), para. 12, available at: {} accessed 22 June 2009.

42 Sobel, Mark, ‘Remarks on the Global Financial Crisis and the IMF’s Response’ (2 December 2008), Section I, available at: {} accessed 18 September 2013; Lorenzo Smaghi, ‘The Financial Crisis and Global Imbalances’, Beijing (9 December 2008), Section II, available at: {} accessed 5 October 2009.

43 This, for example, is the narrative that underpins Kindleberger’s The World in Depression. Incidentally, Kindleberger’s narrative of the Great Depression was carried through into subsequent theories of hegemonic stability within international studies. On these theories and the debates they inspired see Grunberg, Isabelle, ‘Exploring the “myth” of hegemonic stability’, International Organization, 44:4 (1990), pp. 431–477.

44 I discuss these and other narrated threats of recurrence at length in Samman, Amin, ‘The 1930s as black mirror: Visions of historical repetition in the global financial press, 2007–2009’, Journal of Cultural Economy, 5:2 (2012), pp. 213–229. For a similar analysis that focuses specifically on trade discourse and policy, see Siles-Brügge, Gabriel, ‘Explaining the resilience of free trade: the “Smoot-Hawley” myth and the crisis’, Review of International Political Economy, 21:3 (2014), pp. 535–574.

45 Smaghi, Lorenzo, ‘The Euro Area’s Exchange Rate Policy and the Experience with International Monetary Coordination During the Crisis’, Brussels (6 April 2009), Section I, available at: {} accessed 19 October 2009; Timothy Geithner, ‘The United States and China: Cooperating for Recovery and Growth’, Beijing (1 June 2009), Section II, available at: {} accessed 18 September 2013.

46 Lipsky, John, ‘Crisis Lessons for the IMF’, New York (17 December 2008), Section IV, available at: {} accessed 28 May 2009.

47 Smaghi, ‘Financial Crisis and Global Imbalances’, Section II.

48 Strauss-Kahn, ‘Remarks to the Board of Governors’, Paras 3, 7, and 10.

49 Ibid., para. 19.

50 Lipsky, ‘Crisis Lessons for the IMF’, Section IV. See also Dominique Strauss-Kahn, ‘Speech delivered at the 44th SEACEN Governors’ Conference’, Kuala Lumpur (7 February 2009), Section I, available at: {} accessed 22 June 2009.

51 See McCormick, ‘Remarks on IMF Reform’, Section II; and Sobel, ‘Global Financial Crisis and the IMF’, Section I.

52 Strauss-Kahn, Dominique, ‘Multilateralism and the Role of the International Monetary Fund in the Global Financial Crisis’, Washington DC (23 April 2009), Section I, emphasis added. Available at: {} accessed 28 May 2009.

53 Strauss-Kahn, Dominique, ‘Economic Stability, Economic Cooperation, and Peace’, Oslo (23 October 2009), Section II, available at: {} accessed 23 October 2009.

54 An early and influential version of this critical response is outlined in Robert Wade and Frank Veneroso’s article, ‘The Asian crisis: the high-debt model vs. the Wall Street-Treasury-IMF complex’, New Left Review, March–April (1998), pp. 3–23.

55 See, for example, Haggard, Stephan and MacIntyre, Andrew, ‘The political economy of the Asian economic crisis’, Review of International Political Economy, 5:3 (1998), pp. 381–392.

56 On this compare Gore, Charles, ‘The rise and the fall of the Washington consensus as a paradigm for developing countries’, World Development, 28:5 (2000), pp. 789–804; Hayami, Yujiro, ‘From the Washington consensus to the post-Washington consensus: Retrospect and prospect’, Asian Development Review, 20:2 (2003), pp. 47–54; Sheppard, Eric and Leitner, Helga, ‘Quo Vadis Neoliberalism? The remaking of global capitalist governance after the Washington consensus’, Geoforum, 41:2 (2010), pp. 185–194.

57 Kang, Laura Hyun Yi, ‘The uses of Asianization: Figuring crises, 1997–98 and 2007-?’, American Quarterly, 64:3 (2012), pp. 411436.

58 Warsh, Kevin, ‘Market Liquidity: Definitions and Implications’, Washington DC (5 March 2007), Section II, available at: {} accessed 6 October 2009.

59 Burton, David, ‘Asia: Ten Years On’, Singapore (5 June 2007), Section I, available at: {} accessed 28 May 2009; Randall Kroszner, ‘Analyzing and Assessing Banking Crises’, San Francisco (6 September 2007), Section II, available at: {} accessed 6 October 2009.

60 The then Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke first articulates this crisis history in a speech entitled ‘Global Imbalances: Recent Developments and Prospects’, Berlin (11 September 2007). available at: {} accessed 6 October 2009.

61 On the global narration of state failure in South Korea after its crisis, see Hall, Rodney Bruce, ‘The discursive demolition of the Asian development model’, International Studies Quarterly, 47:1 (2003), pp. 71–99.

62 Rodrigo de Rato, ‘Ten years after the Asian currency crisis’, Tokyo (22 January 2007a), Point, available at: {} accessed 28 May 2009.

63 In late 2007, the IMF faced considerable budgetary pressures, prompting it to layoff 15 per cent of its staff in order to reduce operating expenses. See Broome, André, ‘The International Monetary Fund, crisis management and the credit crunch’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 64:1 (2010), pp. 37–54 (pp. 45–6).

64 Frederic Mishkin, ‘Systemic risk and the international lender of last resort’, Chicago (28 September 2007), Section III, available at: {} accessed 12 October 2009.

65 Jean-Claude Trichet, ‘Reflections on the international financial architecture’, Salzburg (29 September 2007), Section III, available at: {} accessed 23 June 2009.

66 Ibid., Section I. Paradoxically, in this schema the task of ‘crisis prevention’ is at once both never and always the same – never, because each new solution always has its particulars, and always, because these solutions never actually solve the problem which prompts them (namely, the emergent properties of globalisation itself).

67 Ibid., Section I.

68 Ibid., Section I.

69 For an indication of this shift from optimism to disappointment, compare Noble, Gregory and Ravenhill, John (eds), The Asian Financial Crisis and the Architecture of Global Finance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); and Best, Jacqueline, ‘The limits of financial risk management: Or what we didn’t learn from the Asian crisis’, New Political Economy, 15:1 (2010), pp. 29–49.

70 See Trichet, ‘International financial architecture’, Section III; and ‘Reflections on the global financial system’, Washington DC (20 October 2007), Section II, available at: {} accessed 23 June 2009.

71 Jean-Claude Trichet, ‘Remarks on the Recent Turbulences in Global Financial Markets’, New York (14 April 2008), Section III, available at: {} accessed 23 June 2009.

72 Clay Lowery, ‘Remarks at the Annual Conference of the Institute of International Bankers’, New York (3 March 2008), Section IV, available at: {} accessed 18 September 2013; David McCormick, ‘The International Response to Financial Market Turmoil’, Chicago (16 April 2008), Section III, available at: {} accessed 18 September 2013.

73 Trichet, ‘Turbulences in Global Financial Markets’, Section III; Sobel, ‘Global Financial Crisis and the IMF’, Section III.

74 Daniel Tarullo, ‘International Cooperation to Modernize Financial Regulation’, Washington DC (30 September 2009), Section I; available at: {}, accessed 15 October 2009. For a discussion of this transformation and its potential signifiance, see Helleiner, Eric, ‘What role for the new financial stability board? The politics of international standards after the crisis’, Global Policy, 1:3 (2010), pp. 282–290.

75 Trichet, ‘International Financial Architecture’, Section III.

76 Jean-Claude Trichet, ‘Lessons from the Financial Crisis’, Frankfurt (15 October 2009), Section III, available at: {} accessed 23 October 2009.

77 Krugman, Paul, The Return of Depression Economics (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1999).

78 Krugman, Paul, The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2009).

79 Brassett and Clarke, ‘Performing sub-prime’; Brassett and Vaughan-Williams, ‘Crisis is governance’.

80 Brassett and Clarke, ‘Performing sub-prime’, p. 18.

81 Roitman, Janet, Anti-Crisis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), p. 90.

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