Theses Doctoral

Legitimation Trials. The Limits of Liberal Government and the Federal Reserve's Quest for Embedded Autonomy

Jürgenmeyer, Julian

Economic sociologists have long produced rich accounts of the economy’s embeddedness in social relations and the hybridity of contemporary governance architectures. However, all too often, they contented themselves with merely disenchanting a liberal ontology that divides the social world into neatly differentiated spheres, such as the state and the economy or the public and the private. In this dissertation, I argue that this is not enough. If we want to understand actually existing economic government, we also need to attend to the consequences of its persistent violation of the precepts of liberal order.

This dissertation does so by accounting for the simultaneity of the Federal Reserve’s rise to the commanding heights of the US economy and the repeated, multi-pronged controversies over it. I contend that together, the Fed’s ascendance and the controversies surrounding it are symptomatic of the contradictions inherent to a liberal mode of governing ‘the economy’ which, on the one hand, professes its investment in a clear boundary between the state and the economy but which, on the other hand, operationally rests on their entanglement. Its embeddedness in financial markets exposes the Fed to attacks that it is either colluding with finance or that it unduly smuggles in political considerations into an otherwise apolitical economy.

In response, to secure its legitimacy as a neutral arbiter of market struggles, the Fed needs to invest in autonomization strategies to demonstrate that it is acting neither in the interests of capital nor on behalf of partisan politicians but in the public interest. Its autonomization strategies in turn feed back onto the modes of embeddedness and governing techniques the Fed deploys, often resulting in new controversies. Combining insights from economic sociology and the sociology of expertise, the perspective developed in this dissertation thus foregrounds the persistent tension between embeddedness and autonomy and the sequences of reiterated problem-solving it gives rise to.Based on extensive archival research and interviews with actors, I reconstruct three such sequences in the Fed’s more-than-a-century long quest for embedded autonomy in three independent but related empirical essays.

The first focuses on the decade immediately following the Federal Reserve System’s founding in 1913. It traces how the confluence of democratic turmoil in the wake of World War I, its hybrid organizational structure, and an alliance with institutionalist economists led Fed policymakers to repurpose open market operations from a banking technique into a policy tool that reconciled different interests. This made it possible to take on a task no other central bank had attempted before: mitigating depressions. This major innovation briefly turned the Fed into “the chief stabilizer” before it failed to fulfill this role during the Great Depression. The essay thus adds a critical, oft-forgotten episode to the genealogy of the Fed’s ascendancy and the rise of central banks to the foremost macroeconomic managers of our time.

The second essay most explicitly develops the theoretical argument underlying this dissertation and applies it to a practice that has been all but ignored in the scholarship on central banking and financial government: bank supervision. Emphasizing its distinctiveness from regulation, I reconstruct how the Fed folded supervision into its project of governing finance as a vital, yet vulnerable system over the course of the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st. I especially focus on the Fed’s autonomization strategies in the wake of the 2008 Great Financial Crisis and its internal struggles which resulted in a more standardized, quantitative, and transparent supervisory process centered around the technique of stress testing. However, the Fed’s efforts to reassert its autonomy and authority have in the meantime become attacked themselves. The essay traces these controversies, and subsequent reforms, to the present day, further demonstrating the recursive dynamic of the Fed’s quest for embedded autonomy.

The third essay finally zooms in on a single event during the Great Financial Crisis: the first major public stress test run by the Fed and the Treasury between February and May 2009. By reconstructing its socio-technical assembling in detail and comparing it to the failures of stress tests run by European agencies between 2009 and 2011, I show that the stress test’s success rested on a reconfiguration of the state’s embeddedness in financial circuits, allowing the Treasury’s material and symbolic capital to back the exercise and the Fed to function as a conduit that iteratively gauged and shaped its audiences’ expectations as to what a credible test would look like. This made it possible to successfully frame the test as an autonomous exercise based on expertise. Probing the structural, socio-technical, and performative conditions of the Fed’s claims to legitimacy, the essay thus resolves the ‘mystery’ (Paul Krugman) how a simulation technique could become a watershed event in the greatest financial crisis in a lifetime.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Eyal, Gil
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 15, 2023