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Dialogues in Human Geography

2015, Vol. 5(2) 183–200
The limits to financialization ª The Author(s) 2015
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/2043820615588153

Brett Christophers
Uppsala University, Sweden

Over the past decade, the concept of financialization has moved from the periphery to the mainstream of
scholarly inquiry across several social–scientific disciplines, human geography among them. The subject of a
burgeoning, variegated literature advancing both theoretical delineation and empirical substantiation,
processes of financialization, on many accounts, belong alongside those of globalization and neoliberaliza-
tion as the defining dynamics of late modern capitalism. In the spirit of fostering a constructive dialogue, this
article develops a broadly based critique of such accounts, one structured around the core idea of limits.
Financialization, it suggests, is substantively limited, both as a concept and as the array of real-world pro-
cesses to which that concept variously pertains. The article identifies and fleshes out five key sets of such
limits and the connections between them: analytic, theoretic, strategic, optic, and empiric limits. If the
concept of financialization is to do substantially positive descriptive and explanatory work going forward,
the article submits, these limits must be explicitly recognized and their implications explicitly factored in.
This, the article concludes, is no small challenge.

capitalism, financialization, limits, money, theory

Contemporary wisdom in political and cultural econ- meanwhile, particularly in its Anglo-American man-
omy has it that three interlocking ‘-ization’ processes ifestations, consists of the increasing prominence and
give post-1970s capitalism a highly distinctive fla- influence of what has come to be understood as finan-
vor. The first of these is globalization, which has seen cialization. It is this feature that we examine in the
the core structures and dynamics of capitalism come present article. For reasons that will rapidly become
to materialize and operate at scales increasingly apparent, however, the question of what processes
approaching the global. The second is neoliberaliza- the concept of financialization is actually used to des-
tion. The set of processes denoted by this label is ignate will, for the time being, be deferred.
clearly contested—those conceptually bundled ‘Financialization’ meaningfully entered the lexi-
together as ‘globalization’, of course, being no less con of the cultural–economic and political–economic
so—but encompasses, at the very least, a growing
role for markets in organizing social and economic
life, a retrenchment of welfare-state provisions, and,
Corresponding author:
concomitantly, major new rounds of privatization of Brett Christophers, Institute for Housing and Urban Research,
public assets. The third and final allegedly key dis- Uppsala University, Box 514, Uppsala 75120, Sweden.
tinguishing feature of contemporary capitalism, Email:

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184 Dialogues in Human Geography 5(2)

literatures on capitalism later than either globaliza- such limits and to think through their implications
tion or neoliberalization. Roughly speaking, if globa- for the ways we use the concept and for the work
lization was the new buzzword of the 1990s and that we expect it to do for us. The limits are suffi-
neoliberalization—or, in form rather than process ciently substantive, and their implications suffi-
terms, neoliberalism—of the 2000s, then financiali- ciently material, to warrant a tempering of
zation is very much the buzzword of the 2010s, enthusiasm, if not a turn away from the concept alto-
although of course neoliberalization has been con- gether. More specifically, we need to be much more
ceptualized as handmaiden, not replacement, of glo- wary of relying on the concept and of mobilizing it
balization and financialization, in turn, of both. To be for the purposes of both categorization and
sure, pivotal statements on and conceptualizations of explanation.
financialization appeared well in advance of the The article proceeds in five sections, which
2010s, and we shall revisit many of these here. But respectively correspond to and delineate the five
it is in the past half-dozen years—those, not coinci- connected types of limits that attach to financializa-
dentally, coming after the onset of the global finan- tion. The first such limits are analytic. For a concept
cial crisis—that financialization has seemingly to be analytically valuable, it should be possible for
taken root in the critical scholarly vocabulary and scholars to invoke it in such a way that it brings
consciousness. A Google Scholar search, for exam- recognizability and clarity to the particular topic
ple, yields 170 hits for financialization (or financiali- of analysis; the critical properties or dynamics of the
sation) between 1996 and 2000, 1088 between 2001 empirical object of investigation are foregrounded,
and 2005, 5790 between 2006 and 2010, and 12,010 if not comprehensively accounted for, simply by the
between 2011 and the midpoint of 2014.1 use of a term whose reproducible coherence offers
In response to, and in the face of, this mushroom- ready-made analytical expedience and insight. For
ing financialization literature, the present article a variety of reasons, however, not least unchecked
constitutes, essentially, a call for caution. With and promiscuous conceptual reiteration, the idea
scholars from various disciplinary constituencies of financialization has by now largely lost any
having enthusiastically invoked the concept in coherence that it previously enjoyed: increasingly
attempting to understand contemporary capitalism standing only for a vague notion of ‘the (increased)
and its specificities, and with a critical mass of contemporary importance of finance’, its enrolment
increasingly breathless and boosterish scholarship today risks raising more questions than it answers.
on the phenomenon having crystallized, now is the Does this then mean that the concept is valueless
time, the article submits, to pause, breathe in, and and that it has facilitated no scholarly progress?
carefully (re)evaluate. Are we—not just geogra- Absolutely not. But, the article goes on to argue,
phers but other scholarly communities to have there are crucial limits to its positive contributions,
invested in financialization—comfortable with our not least—as discussed in the ‘Theoretic limits’ sec-
collective, if contested, theorization of the concept? tion—of a theoretic nature. Here the argument is
Is it working for us as we want and need it to? that there are very real limits to the depth and range
Should we simply plow ahead with mobilization and of genuinely new conceptual insights generated by
elaboration of the concept broadly along the lines the positing and theorization of financialization.
we have been tracing to date? The central concern in this regard, to be clear, is not
Having reviewed the state of the field, the article so much with the sophistication, rigor, or novelty of
argues that caution is not just advisable but neces- theorizations of financialization per se, although as
sary. It makes this case by invoking a multiply con- we shall see there are legitimate questions to be
stituted idea of limits. Financialization, it suggests, asked here, too. Rather, our main concern is with the
is limited, both conceptually and empirically. As limits to the power of financialization and its con-
such, in continuing to use the concept—as surely for ceptualization to meaningfully advance our theore-
the foreseeable future we, as a constellation of scho- tical understanding of capitalism’s cultural and
larly communities, will—it is essential to recognize political economies more generally.

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Christophers 185

The third section discusses limits of a very dif- the article’s last substantive section argues, have
ferent type. One of, if not the most important con- ordinarily not been recognized and critically
tribution of the financialization discourse and reflected upon, and nor, therefore, have their impli-
‘movement’ has been of a strategic nature. It has cations for the discourse of financialization actively
served to make finance a more acceptable, indeed been considered. Recognizing and robustly concep-
more obligatory, object of study for a range of scho- tualizing these empiric limits, it is therefore argued,
larly communities for whom it historically repre- is in fact an indispensable component of the simul-
sented something of an unmentionable and taneous process of working through financializa-
unknowable other. In the process, it has also helped tion’s analytic and theoretic limits.
bringing those communities into productive conver- Having identified and expanded upon these five
sation with one another. In other words, it—finan- sets of limits, the article concludes by speculating
cialization—has served vital strategic purposes. briefly on the futures of financialization.
Yet there are limits to this strategic function, which
the third section of the article identifies and reflects
critically upon. If financialization’s great contribu- Analytic limits
tion has been to alert new constituencies to the sig- On first blush, the concept of financialization, in its
nificance, broadly defined, of finance, at what point various incarnations, appears to be very much a
can we say that this contribution is more or less creature of the 21st century: so much so that the first
complete? two scholarly articles explicitly to name financiali-
The latter question of finance’s significance— zation in their titles were both published (in the
economic, political, and cultural—is considered same journal special issue) in the first year of the
explicitly in the article’s fourth section. It argues new century (Froud et al., 2000; Grahl and Teague,
that notwithstanding the self-evident and demon- 2000). Yet the scholarly literature includes sporadic
strable importance of finance to contemporary references to financialization as far back as the late
social life on all manner of axes, its significance 1980s (e.g. Gelb, 1989). And, more importantly, one
nonetheless risks being overstated, and arguably of the most influential accounts of financialization
already has been in influential financialization was published in 1994, namely, Giovanni Arrighi’s
accounts. The scale of finance’s significance is one The Long Twentieth Century.
aspect of such potential overstatement, and the his- In the 20 years since the publication of Arrighi’s
torical novelty thereof is another. In attempting to seminal account, the concept of financialization has
understand and account for the possibility of such not only taken root but also substantially spread and
overstatement, meanwhile, the article invokes, once diversified. Particularly influential versions of what
more, the central trope of limits: a susceptibility to financialization is include not only Arrighi’s—
exaggerate finance’s contemporary significance is empirically fleshed out, explicitly or implicitly, by
embedded, it submits, in the limited nature of the the likes of Stockhammer (2004) and Krippner
optics brought to bear upon contemporary ‘financia- (2005)—but also the aforementioned intervention
lized’ phenomena. by Julie Froud and coauthors (Froud et al., 2000)
To recognize that exaggeration of financializa- and, thirdly, the account offered by Randy Martin
tion’s reality as a historical–geographical set of phe- (2002).2 The first of these three versions (Arrighi/
nomena is conceivable is to recognize, at the same Krippner’s) is concerned with processes of capital
time, that there are material limits—fifth, and accumulation and profit generation, arguing that
finally—to the various processes referred to with financial sources and institutions have increased
that term. In other words, financialization-as- their share vis-à-vis nonfinancial sources and insti-
‘thing(s)’ is no less limited—or, better, no less tutions; capitalism, that is to say, has (been) finan-
required to confront limits to its conditions of possi- cialized. The second (à la Froud et al.) is
bility and its scope for intensification or extension— concerned with the realm of corporate motives and
than financialization-as-concept. But these limits, governance, arguing that the growing importance

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186 Dialogues in Human Geography 5(2)

of models such as ‘shareholder value’ reflects an chaotic, motley idea. Indeed, Lee et al. (2009:
attenuation of business objectives, and all that mat- 729), assuming as long ago as 2009 the unenviable
ters, increasingly, is (financial) value. And the third but important task of cataloguing the materially dif-
(à la Martin) is concerned, more obliquely, with ferent meanings imputed to the term in the scholarly
expansion in the sphere of finance’s influence. If literature, were able already to identify 17. Since
capitalism and business enterprise have been finan- then, there has only been further stretching, effected
cialized, so too, it is said, has daily life and its cul- by the further lodging of competing definitions (e.g.
tures and identities; credit and debt, as Martin Fine, 2010; Hardie, 2011; Lapavitsas, 2009). If
emphasizes, are lived realities. Yet if these remain financialization now means anything consistent at
broadly the three most cited and influential versions, all to all of those who regularly invoke and fall back
they decidedly do not constitute the totality of finan- on the term, therefore, it is perhaps only the hazy
cialization discourse. New readings, iterations, and conviction that ‘finance’, itself variously under-
emphases, some of which we shall encounter below, stood (of course), today enjoys a historically unique
have continued—and continue—to proliferate. significance.
Is such conceptual proliferation an analytical All of which is to suggest that if financialization
problem per se? Not necessarily. The vast bulk of has not yet reached the limits of reasonable analytic
influential social–scientific concepts expand and permutation, then it is rapidly encroaching there-
mutate, attracting different and frequently divergent upon. So stretched—sometimes discriminately,
interpretations from different analysts in different sometimes indiscriminately—has it become that
contexts. This is all to the good: the scholarly world there is a very real risk of it falling apart, no longer
would be a dry and conservative and probably not able to tolerate the accumulated weight of the myr-
very illuminating place if this were not the case. iad meanings loaded onto it.
Typically, the very processes of expansion and This problem, to be clear, is not primarily an
mutation tend to sort the wheat from the chaff—the issue of how the term is used in a borrowed, deriva-
analytically powerful from the weak or incoher- tive sense—of the fact that today it is frequently
ent—as alternative conceptualizations are deemed sufficient simply to invoke financialization
advanced, considered, and adjudicated. Arguably, without explaining what exactly is meant by the
substantive problems only arise if mutually incon- term, as if the standalone concept itself is a suffi-
sistent readings remain on the table; and in this cient classificatory and explanatory signifier (which
respect, it would be difficult to argue that there is it is not). Such a problem, after all, plagues all pop-
anything in any of the three particular readings of ular social–scientific concepts, ‘neoliberalism’ no
financialization discussed in the previous paragraph less than financialization. The central problem at
to gainsay either of the other two. stake here, rather, lies in the status of the concept per
Yet there are surely limits to useful and manage- se.
able expansion and mutation. Stretch a concept too A comparison with neoliberalism or ‘neoliberali-
far, invest it with excessive or extraneous significa- zation’ is instructive in this respect. Quite clearly,
tion, and the danger increases of it ultimately disin- there is no consensus concerning the meaning of
tegrating. Beyond a certain point (the location of those concepts, either. Furthermore, they can clearly
which is impossible accurately to pinpoint or pre- be useful and illuminating, despite their fluidity and
dict), the recognizable and coherent—if also often chameleon-like character—indeed, such attributes
multiply constituted—sense of meaning that once arguably lend them much of their power: we need
gave a concept its potency risks being lost. dynamic and variegated concepts to grapple with
This is increasingly true of the concept of finan- dynamic and variegated worldly phenomena (Peck
cialization. Once relatively coherent, albeit con- et al., 2010). Is the same not thus true of financiali-
tested and attended by limits of other kinds (see zation? Is analytical tension, fluidity, and flux not
below), financialization has long since begun to only to be expected but celebrated—as befitting of
crumble before our eyes becoming in the process a the phenomena in question? To a point, yes, it is. But

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Christophers 187

the degree of analytical splintering is crucial. For all the cultural and political economies of late capital-
the squabbling and definitional disagreement ism has been conducted explicitly from the perspec-
around neoliberalism and neoliberalization, a core tive of narratives and understandings of
conceptual thread nonetheless runs through financialization. All three of the accounts high-
accounts even as divergent as those of Harvey lighted in the previous section (Arrighi, 1994; Froud
(2005), Ong (2006), and Wacquant (2009). The ana- et al., 2000; Martin, 2002), for example, fall into this
lytical tensions are productive since some shared category. So, too, do studies including—and, nota-
conceptual coherence remains. Financialization, bly, as varied as—Paul Langley’s The Everyday Life
by contrast, has fundamentally fragmented. To the of Global Finance (2008), Greta Krippner’s Capita-
degree that it is excessively vague and stretched, it lizing on Crisis (2011), and Costas Lapavitsas’s
is an increasingly nebulous and even, arguably, Profiting without Producing (2013).
unhelpful signifier. Even as we recognize and hail such contribu-
Which, of course, does have material implica- tions, it is important, at least in the present context,
tions—profound and problematic ones—for usage to ask careful questions about the role therein of the
of the concept within the context of wider social– financialization concept. To what extent, most
scientific analysis. If the appeal to financialization materially, do the insights and arguments contained
no longer entails a referencing of a discrete, broadly in these studies depend upon the/a theorization of
recognized and socially material phenomenon or set financialization—is such theorization essential to,
of phenomena (if it ever did), and instead requires or even, less onerously, facilitative of, the genera-
the reader to ask—if the writer does not herself tion of those insights and arguments? Relatedly, are
painstakingly identify and justify—which of the the propositions and conceptual generalizations that
17 going-on 27 meanings of financialization the constitute such ‘theory’ really novel propositions
writer has in mind, then perhaps the time has come and generalizations, and worthy, as such, of the neo-
to ask: Would it not be preferable, for the sake of logism that financialization represents? Or, conver-
analytical and communicative clarity, to dispense sely, do they merely dress up existing theoretical
with the term altogether?3 Or, at least, to render it claims in new terminological clothes? In sum, we
analytically subordinate: to assert instead that the might ask, where does financialization in its various
object of one’s empirical research is, say, the grow- manifestations sit on the spectrum between power-
ing penetration of financial logics into our daily life- ful and innovative theory at one extreme and super-
worlds, or finance’s increasing dominance of ficial and redundant label at the other?
processes and outcomes of capital accumulation, Inevitably, the answer in all cases is probably
or even the links between the two; while also per- ‘somewhere in between’. But in most cases the spe-
haps choosing to observe that the processes in ques- cifically theoretical contribution of financialization
tion have been described elsewhere as ones of per se is, at best, debatable. Take, to begin with, the
financialization? For relegating the latter concept three highly influential studies encountered earlier.
to such a supportive role should be understood as Was the concept of financialization mobilized in
much more than a merely phraseological ges- Arrighi’s elucidation of the political–economic
ture—it is a substantively analytical one, relieving dynamics of the ‘long twentieth century’ in any
the concept of financialization of the onus, which respect a theoretical breakthrough? Manifestly, and
it can arguably no longer bear but with which it con- avowedly, not: Arrighi (1994: ix–x) himself makes
tinues to be widely invested, of conferring analytical clear his direct indebtedness, in this regard, to Fer-
significance and coherence in its own right. nand Braudel’s empirical and theoretical analysis
of ‘finance capital’ as a recurrent phenomenon of
capitalist history grounded in periodic financial
Theoretic limits expansions. What, secondly, of financialization
It is indubitably the case that some of the most and/as ‘shareholder value’ (Froud et al., 2000)? The
impressive and important writings on finance and concept of financialization assuredly served as a

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188 Dialogues in Human Geography 5(2)

useful hook on which to hang the important story of seem important to register. First, the nominal power
value metrics-based management, but the fact that of financialization to provide original insights is
very similar and equally compelling political– constantly dogged by the fact that as almost all
economic arguments about shareholder value (e.g. commentators agree, and as Bryan et al. (2009:
Henwood, 1997; Lazonick and O’Sullivan, 2000; 460) explicitly state, the macro political–economic
Rhodes and Apeldoorn, 1998) were developed in the developments associated with financialization—
same period without the financialization ‘hook’ including, in their reading, the reconstitution of
throws doubt on the latter’s necessity. Perhaps only labor as a form of capital, and capital’s ‘living
in the third case, namely, that of the financializa- abstraction’—are ‘not all necessarily new’.4 Sec-
tion of daily (Martin, 2002) or everyday (Langley, ond, and linked to this (and for more on which, see
2008) life, does financialization provide original section ‘Optic limits’ below), it is questionable how
and forceful theoretical insight; and even there, it far financialization has taken (and has needed to
is suggested below (‘Optic limits’ section), such take) today’s theorists beyond their forebears: just
originality is rendered questionable when a more as Arrighi leaned on Braudel, Lapavitsas is, avow-
expansive historical optic is adopted. edly, ‘following Hilferding’s path’ (2011: 619).
Subsequent scholarship, building upon and And third, if the power of financialization really
extending these formative three contributions, has cannot be denied, it is difficult not to wonder why
certainly pushed the envelope further where theori- even theorists working in the same (Marxian) tradi-
zation and theoretical contribution are concerned. tion cannot agree on the phenomenon’s essential
This is perhaps most true of work in the characteristics—Fine (2010, 2014), for example,
financialization-of-capitalism vein. Of the three objecting to Lapavitsas’s (presumably not so pow-
main financialization ‘schools’, this one receives erful) theorization of financialization as the direct
the principal critical attention both in this section exploitation/expropriation of workers through the
and subsequently (especially ‘Optic limits’ and extraction of (abnormal) profit out of wages/sal-
‘Empiric limits’ sections), and it does so partly in aries, envisioning it instead as a generalized subjection
view of this heightened theoretical ambition (but of economic activity to the logics of interest-bearing
also because, on this author’s reading, it has been capital.
the most influential). Working from a largely Marx- In other important and influential accounts of
ian perspective, the likes of Lapavitsas (2009, 2011, financialization, meanwhile, the limited nature of
2013), Bryan et al. (2009), and Fine (2010, 2014) the theoretical advances nominally associated with
have ventured well beyond—and in some respects the concept is much more clear-cut. Perhaps the
directly questioned—Arrighi’s rather minimalist prime example here concerns the burgeoning con-
reading of financialization. The ineluctability of temporary literature on the financialization of ‘prop-
theorization has, in fact, been a core tenet of such erty’ broadly conceived, whether the property in
work, Lapavitsas (2011: 617), for instance, castigat- question is figured specifically as property per se
ing other scholarship on financialization accord- (Theurillat et al., 2010) or, alternatively, in terms
ingly. ‘Emphasis is placed on revealing key of land (Kaika and Ruggiero, 2013), home (Aalbers,
features of contemporary capitalism almost as 2008), or urban redevelopment processes (Rutland,
“thick description”’, he observes, ‘rather than 2010; Weber, 2010). For, in each of these cases,
advancing theoretical explanations’. what the authors identify and conceptualize as
Like Fine and Bryan et al., Lapavitsas has sought financialization is, in large measure, the selfsame
therefore not only to theorize financialization but to process that David Harvey (1982: 347), three decades
put this theory to work in retheorizing contemporary earlier, described as ‘the increasing tendency to treat
capitalism. And, while admitting that the concept of the land as a pure financial asset’. Treating the land
financialization is ‘still raw and undeveloped’ (purely) as a financial asset—and thus prioritizing its
(2011: 611), he insists that ‘its power cannot be exchange over its use value—is what financializing
denied’. But is this really true? Three counterarguments land/property/urban redevelopment, in the hands of

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Christophers 189

today’s analysts of financialization, is ultimately and mobilization of the concept of financialization

about. This is the case even when it (financialization) provided? Are we able to point to a particular
is defined differently; David and Halbert (2014: 517), domain and say, more or less unequivocally: yes, the
for instance, understand financialization of business concept of financialization, and its active enrolment
property as ‘increasingly prevalent direct and indirect in scholarly research, has clearly been valuable in
ownership of commercial buildings by financial this context?
institutions’, yet such ownership is deemed material One sense in which it would be hard to argue with
precisely in view of its implications for the calculative such positive value ascription is strategic. By this,
treatment (as ‘financial’) of the buildings in question, we mean that the concept has done not so much the-
even if ‘pure’ financial logics must always in practice oretic as strategic ‘work’. More exactly, it has been
contend with ‘a different “hybrid collective of actors instrumental in galvanizing research on finance
and instruments”’ (David and Halbert, 2014: 518). within and across disciplines—especially anthro-
That the latter-day literature on financialization pology, geography, political economy, and sociol-
builds upon insights formulated several decades ogy—where finance historically represented a
previously is not in itself problematic. The problem, significant lacuna. This is not to imply that there was
rather, relates to the implications of this replication no significant work on finance by scholars from
for the value—or otherwise—of financialization as these disciplines before financialization meaning-
a putative theoretical innovation. Interestingly, in fully arrived on the scene in the 2000s; Harvey’s
two of the aforementioned studies (Kaika and Rug- earlier (1982) work at the geography/political–
giero, 2013; Rutland, 2010), the authors explicitly economy interface and Viviana Zelizer’s (1979)
invoke Harvey and explicitly style urban/land finan- work in anthropology are only the most obvious
cialization as, pace Harvey, treatment as a financial counterexamples. Nor is it to argue that research
asset, which begs the question of why the concept of on finance from anthropological, geographical,
financialization is required at all when a perfectly political–economic, and sociological perspectives
adequate theorization exists already and is acknowl- would necessarily not have emerged in the volumes
edged to do so. (Wanting to connect to the contem- it subsequently did if there had been no financializa-
porary zeitgeist is probably at least part of the tion discourse. Instead, it is to insist that from the
answer.) In the other studies, even if Harvey’s work mid-2000s financialization self-evidently became,
features, his notion specifically of land being treated in the words of French et al. (2011: 805), ‘an effec-
as a financial asset, and his substantive discussion of tive rallying point for researchers working on the
the reasons for and ramifications of this develop- social consequences of money and finance’ from all
ment, is absent. Either way, however, and notwith- manner of different disciplinary and theoretical
standing the fact that in recent years Harvey has standpoints.
himself increasingly written about financialization The reasons are not hard to fathom. Finance had
(albeit much more generically than in relation spe- previously been largely the (self-appointed) pre-
cifically to property or land), a critical question serve of (financial) economists, wrapped in a forbid-
looms large. If in certain significant variants (e.g. ding mantle of technicality that warned outsiders of
land/property financialization) theorization of finance’s inherent complexity (Christophers, 2009);
financialization consists to a large degree of rein- graspable, as such, only be the select few, it had
venting the wheel, what of the theoretic limits—the been black boxed as essentially unknowable and/
limits to its meaningful theoretical advances—of or peripheral by the other social sciences, a hostile
financialization more generally? terrain that only intrepid souls such as Harvey and
Zelizer dared breach. Financialization, however,
has changed much about this scheme of things. It
Strategic limits was and is, on the surface at least, a relatively (mis-
Moving on from the question of its theoretical value, leadingly? dangerously?) simple and thus accessible
what other types of value, if any, has the formulation concept: things (capitalism, business, and life) are

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190 Dialogues in Human Geography 5(2)

becoming more financial in nature or in terms of positive strategic returns on investment in the dis-
their guiding rationale. (Relatedly, and not insignif- course and the concept of financialization rapidly
icantly, financialization was and is not a mathemat- diminish.
ical concept.) It was and remains also, for all the Second, if financialization has plainly encour-
splintering discussed in the ‘Analytic limits’ sec- aged research of some very important varieties, it
tion, a single concept, and the significance of this has arguably discouraged or dampened others of
singularity cannot be overstated, inasmuch as it equal, and perhaps even greater, importance. What,
promised that one window opened the way to an for instance, has happened to the critical study not of
expansive, even limitless, vista on changes in soci- finance/financialization but of money? The disci-
ety and economy. And, last but not least, it was and pline of geography has traveled a striking, though
is not discipline specific, allowing it readily to serve not unique, journey in this respect. The 1990s saw
as the above-mentioned rallying point around which the publication of several landmark texts on mone-
new constituencies could gather—even if some of tary geographies (Corbridge et al., 1994; Leyshon
those accordingly corralled did not and do not and Thrift, 1997; Martin, 1999), but as financializa-
actively ‘use’ the concept in their work. It thus tion’s star has ascended geographies of money—
became, and still serves as, a metaphorical lodestone with scattered exceptions (Christophers, 2011;
where a heterogeneous community of scholars Mann, 2010)—have recently largely receded from
‘meets’ and through which multiple heterodox con- view. This at a time, moreover, when the signifi-
versations on finance pass, catalyzing one another in cance of money, monetary policy, and central bank-
the process. ing could hardly be greater, some commentators
Is this strategic function not, then, an unqualified even being moved to speak of ‘central bank-led
positive development? For two sets of reasons it capitalism’ (Bowman et al., 2013): an interesting
may not be, or at least (in regard to the first such set) alter-narrative, if nothing else, to financialized
it may not continue to be. The trope of financializa- capitalism. The point is not that money and finance
tion has undoubtedly helped bring more scholars can or should be studied separately nor that one
and new perspectives to the table as far as the critical should be prioritized over the other. On the contrary,
study of finance-related processes is concerned. But neither can be comprehended in isolation from the
are there limits, firstly, to the scope and life span of other, and hence the critical analysis of finance
this positive strategic function? Arguably, in the should incorporate monetary questions at its core.
strictly strategic terms at stake in this section, finan- The scholarly zest for financialization may not of
cialization has now done its job. The sociology of course have caused the apparent eclipse of research
finance is thriving (Knorr Cetina and Preda, 2012). into money, but it clearly has not helped; and it is
Finance in general—and financialization in particu- worth noting in this regard that the one discipline
lar (e.g. French et al., 2011)—is a vibrant subfield in which, as noted, has not unequivocally embraced
geography. And, from its historic positioning at the financialization—anthropology—is one in which
margins, finance has moved to center stage in con- money remains a central concern.5
temporary political economy, not least explicitly Meanwhile, it is also striking that the vast bulk of
through the consideration of financialization (Bryan the financialization literature skirts the equally
et al., 2009; Fine, 2010, 2014; Lapavitsas, 2009, important questions which, ironically, animated
2011, 2013). Perhaps only in anthropology has Arrighi’s (1994) own interest in the phenomenon
financialization failed fully to work its strategic in the first place: questions about US power and
magic (Gregory, 2009). The extreme view would hegemony and their durability. As geographers and
therefore be that no substantial and amenable con- others have been exploring financialization pro-
stituencies remain on the ‘outside’, yet to be en- cesses, still others, such as Peter Gowan (2009a,
listed in the flourishing interdisciplinary study of 2009b), have been asking very different and very
finance. A more moderate, but still significant, view searching questions—with profound political–eco-
would simply insist that with every passing year, the nomic implications—about the future willingness

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Christophers 191

and capacity of third parties to continue to hold US its value—then the prospect of diminishing strategic
debt; and rarely the twain, it seems, shall meet. In returns is neither here nor there. We continue to use
fact they meet, significantly, only in those (rare) the concept because, intellectually, it works.
accounts of financialization that are also at pains But, if we take financialization’s theoretic and/or
to take the monetary dimensions of financialization analytic limits seriously, we have no choice but to
seriously (see especially Lapavitsas, 2013). take its strategic limits seriously, too. For while in
One might even take this type of argument a step the past the strategic upsides from using the concept
further. For not only do studies of financialization may have outweighed any theoretic/analytic (as
tend not to advance our understanding of money, well as strategic) downsides as new critical scho-
they also, curiously, and seemingly contradictorily, larly constituencies were brought to the financial
have relatively little to say about finance per se. The table in droves, the law of diminishing returns
reason is that financialization is typically depicted means there will come a point—it may already have
as something that is ‘done’ by finance to or within been reached—where that happy equation no longer
other or wider domains: life, business, and capi- applies. The downsides outweigh the (ever smaller)
talism. As such, we learn about the intersection upsides. Moreover, and not unrelatedly, diminishing
between finance and those domains and/or about strategic returns may eventually become negative
how their financialization changes them—the liter- ones. If the initial burst of selective and judicious
ature on the financialization of nonfinancial cor- discussion of financialization sparked widespread
porations (e.g. Orhangazi, 2008) representing a enthusiasm, how will we—as a scholarly commu-
prime example. Yet finance itself—its institutions, nity—react as mobilization of the concept becomes
its functions (control, financing, insurance, interme- increasingly generalized and, arguably, undiscrimi-
diation, payment, etc.), its revenue-and-profit- nating? It has not taken long, after all, for studies to
generation models (fees, capital gains, interest rate appear on the financialization of phenomena rang-
spreads, buy–sell margins, etc.), and its socio- ing from commodities (Wray, 2008) to law firms
spatial configurations—is all too often black boxed, (Faulconbridge and Muzio, 2009), from food
as if finance’s usurpation of the world thoroughly (Russi, 2013) to the port and terminal industry
transforms the latter but does not require us to over- (Rodrigue et al., 2011), and from disaster manage-
haul our conceptualization of the former (cf. ment (Grove, 2012) to (urban) politics (Pacewicz,
Michell and Toporowski, 2014). That such a black 2013). To register this is not to suggest that any of
boxing has theoretic and analytic as well as strategic these phenomena have not in fact been financia-
implications should be plain to see. lized, and nor, importantly, is it in any way to
None of this is to deny the strategic benefits that oppugn the merits of any of these particular individ-
the turn to financialization has occasioned, or to ual studies. Rather, it is to suggest that if such pro-
suggest that we are at the absolute limit, wherever liferation persists, and everything in its turn is
one may care to look, to the realization of such ben- adjudged to have been financialized, it is not diffi-
efits. Indeed in some scholarly disciplines (e.g. cult to imagine fatigue and jaundice setting in.
political science and international relations, not to
mention mainstream economics) and some coun-
tries (e.g. Germany), key proponents of the concept Optic limits
remain insistent that the limits to its productive At the heart of the theory of financialization lies the
practical capacities—to dislodge dogmas and to basic premise that in recent decades finance has
destabilize legitimating lobbying discourses— become considerably more important on several
remain some way off.6 And, of course, if we are related fronts. In the vast bulk of influential
of the view that the concept of financialization does studies of financialization, furthermore, it is either
have substantive theoretic and/or analytic value— (implicitly) assumed or (explicitly) argued that finan-
that there are, this is to say, few other material lim- cialization is a historically novel phenomenon—
its, along the lines indicated in previous sections, to something unique to contemporary capitalism.

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192 Dialogues in Human Geography 5(2)

Arrighi’s (1994) study is, on this latter score, the been driven not by financialization of national
most notable and important exception, arguing as capitalisms but by growing surpluses repatriated
it does that the contemporary period of financializa- from foreign markets. Using a restricted and
tion is actually strongly comparable—although not restrictive analytical optic, in other words, creates
identical—to three previous periods of financial a risk of overstatement of the putative financializa-
expansion, each similarly bookending a distinctive tion trend.
‘long century’ in the history of the capitalist world The temporally limited nature of the optics
system. through which financialization is diagnosed, mean-
In line with the article’s overall objective of while, is a much more generalized feature of the
urging caution in our collective appeal to the finan- paradigm and warrants more extensive consider-
cialization concept, this section raises the possibility ation. It is not limited (no pun intended) to the thesis
that the significance of contemporary financializa- of capitalism’s structural financialization—
tion—in respect of its empirical magnitude and his- although, Arrighi, in particular, excepted (cf. Lapa-
torical novelty—has been overstated. Its primary vitsas, 2013), it is certainly in evidence there.
claim is not so much that there has been overstate- Indeed, it is striking how few of those who see in the
ment. Instead, it argues that studies of financializa- contemporary shift toward financial income sources
tion are in important respects predisposed to such and institutions a deep-seated makeover of capital-
overstatement in view of the restrictive scope of the ism’s very essence—Gerald Epstein (2005: 4),
lens through which the phenomena labeled financia- emblematically, speaking of ‘structural shifts of
lization have typically been surveyed. As such, its dramatic proportions’—actively consider the multi-
core concern is not statements about financialization ple significances of the fact that, according to
but rather the optics mobilized in the course of gen- Arrighi at least, this has happened before (not once,
erating those statements—and, more pointedly, but three times), even if not in exactly the same form
what it identifies as the significant limits associated or manner. Deploying a restricted historical optic,
with such optics. Those limits are, it maintains, two- and thus overlooking historic parallels and (dis)con-
fold: spatial and temporal. tinuities, this version of the financialization thesis
The case that the thesis of financialization—or a generally projects a false sense of newness.
particularly influential variant thereof—utilizes a Much the same is true, moreover, of the two other
limited and thus problematic lens in a spatial sense most influential variants of the financialization nar-
has been developed fully elsewhere (Christophers, rative. Both the shareholder value revolution and the
2012; French et al., 2011) and can therefore be rel- financialization of daily life are posited as quintes-
atively briefly rehearsed here. It pertains specifi- sentially late 20th-century/early 21st-century devel-
cally to the first of the three influential readings of opments. But they are not. Consider, for instance,
financialization identified in the ‘Analytic limits’ the following observations from JM Keynes, penned
section: that which discerns a financialization of in 1933. They are worth quoting at length, not only
capitalism (as a system of value creation and accu- because today they are among Keynes’s least cited
mulation) and which sees the US and UK economies (and thus least well known) but because they repre-
as exemplars thereof. This is a geographically sent remarkable critiques of very similar develop-
‘anaemic’ thesis (Christophers, 2012) insofar as it ments and dynamics to those hastily styled
tends to read the evidence for capitalism’s financia- financialization (which Keynes called ‘the financial
lization—for instance, a rising share of US and UK fashion’) today. First, on precursors of the
profits flowing to the finance sector—through a spa- shareholder-value preoccupation (Keynes, 1933:
tially restricted lens. Treating the US and UK econo- 763–764):
mies essentially as bounded ‘national’ economies,
divorced from international financial flows, it The nineteenth century carried to extravagant lengths
neglects the possibility that much of the reported the criterion of what one can call for short ‘the finan-
rise in domestic finance sector profits could have cial results,’ as a test of the advisability of any course

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Christophers 193

of action sponsored by private or by collective guise, has generally been envisioned as an excep-
action. . . . Instead of using their vastly increased mate- tional trend, a diversion from historical capitalist
rial and technical resources to build a wonder city, the ‘norms’—the ‘financialized exception’, as it were,
men of the nineteenth century built slums; and they to complement Ashton’s (2011) ‘financial excep-
thought it right and advisable to build slums because tion’. And, indeed, viewed through a restricted his-
slums, on the test of private enterprise, ‘paid,’ whereas toric lens that takes in only the eight decades
the wonder city would, they thought, have been an act beginning in the mid-1930s—a period exactly coter-
of foolish extravagance, which would, in the imbecile minous, significantly, with the lifetime of formal
idiom of the financial fashion, have ‘mortgaged the
national income accounting, a calculus that has
future’—though how the construction to-day of great
proved vital to the empirical substantiation of
and glorious works can impoverish the future, no man
financialization and specifically of its nominal
can see until his mind is beset by false analogies from
exceptionality (e.g. Krippner, 2005)—the financia-
an irrelevant accountancy. . . . [T]he minds of this gen-
eration are still so beclouded by bogus calculations that
lization of the post-1970s does look exceptional.
they distrust conclusions which should be obvious, out But what happens if we stretch our optic to
of a reliance on a system of financial accounting which encompass all of capitalist history? Arguably, when
casts doubt on whether such an operation will ‘pay’. we do so, it is not the last three to four decades that
stand out as anomalous but the four decades imme-
And, second, on the associated 19th-century diately preceding them. Only from the mid-1930s to
financialization of everyday life—for which Georg the mid-1970s, in the leading Western industrialized
Simmel’s earlier (1990 [1907]) meditations on nations, was finance truly shackled. The final
money’s pervasive socio-cultural facticity can, as decade of the 19th century and the first two of the
Bay and Schinckus (2012) argue, equally well be 20th may have represented the high point of
mobilized to exhibit the financialized consumer citi- Arrighi’s third (British) period of ‘financial expan-
zen (cf. McFall, 2014; McFall and Dodsworth, sion’, characterized by deep financialization pro-
2009)—more generally (Keynes, 1933: 763–764): cesses documented at the time by, inter alia,
Lapavitsas’s inspiration Hilferding (2006 [1910])
The whole conduct of life was made into a sort of par- and (as we shall see in the next section) Thorstein
ody of an accountant’s nightmare. . . . The same rule of Veblen (1912). But was the rest of the 19th century
self-destructive financial calculation governs every really materially less financialized? Keynes would
walk of life. We destroy the beauty of the countryside
suggest not; and in this he concurred (for once) with
because the unappropriated splendors of nature have
Marx, who in volume 3 of Capital, drafted in the
no economic value. We are capable of shutting off the
1860s and 1870s, had marveled already at bankers’
sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend.
‘fabulous power’ (1981: 678) vis-à-vis industrial
London is one of the richest cities in the history of civi-
lization, but it cannot ‘afford’ the highest standards of
capital. And, while Arrighi’s chronology similarly
achievement of which its own living citizens are capa- depicts two prior financial ‘expansions’ (styled
ble, because they do not ‘pay.’ Genoese and Dutch) as abridged periods of abrupt,
exceptional financialization, other influential
If there exists a better description of financializa- accounts—in particular Larry Neal’s The Rise of
tion—and, perhaps, of how it might be resisted Financial Capitalism (1990), an explicit historiciza-
(‘once we allow ourselves to be disobedient to the tion of Hilferding—figure the financialization of
test of an accountant’s profit, we have begun to capitalism as a much more generalized and enduring
change our civilization’ (Keynes, 1933: 765))—this phenomenon dating from at least as early as the late
author is yet to encounter it. 17th century. If we follow this reading and adopt a
All of this adds up to a set of crucial implications wider historic optic, then, perhaps what we see is
for how we view trends in general, and periods a financialized capitalist norm punctuated, from
or developments of ‘exceptionality’ in particular, the mid-1930s, by four decades of exceptional defi-
in economic history. Financialization, in whatever nancialization—a picture consistent, moreover,

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194 Dialogues in Human Geography 5(2)

with the same period’s clear exceptionality in the previous section, however, we began to change
respect of levels of international financial integra- tack, thinking more about financialization as a
tion (Christophers, 2013a), of financial sector com- real-world process (or set of processes) than as a
petition (Christophers, 2013b), and, not least, of concept brought to bear to apprehend that world,
socioeconomic inequality (Piketty, 2014). and arguing that the optics through which this
Does it matter, though, if today’s discussions of ‘actual’ financialization has been viewed are them-
financialization use a historically restricted optic selves, problematically, limited. Now, in the arti-
and intimate a dubious sense of newness accord- cle’s final section, we complete the journey from
ingly? And if so, why? It does, and for at least two concept to thing. If it is important to consider the
reasons. First, if we are blind to comparable devel- nature and significance of the limits to
opments in the past, we close our minds to the pos- financialization-as-concept, is it important to do
sibility that analysis and understanding of those likewise in relation to financialization-as-pro-
previous periods might enrich our analysis and cess(es)? And, if it is, how might these two sets of
understanding of the contemporary conjuncture. limits—to the thing(s) that is financialization, on the
Arrighi (1994: x), significantly, was especially one hand, and, on the other, to the dedicated con-
forthright on this point: not only could the recon- cepts arrayed around it—be related to one another?
struction of previous instances of capitalism’s finan- Part of the reason for asking these questions here
cialization help ‘deepen our understanding of the is very straightforward: they are, to be blunt, seldom
current financial expansion’, but this was, in the par- asked (although, for exceptions, see French et al.,
ticular context of The Long Twentieth Century, the 2011; Froud et al., 2000). This clearly matters ana-
only reason for revisiting them. Think back, also, lytically, if only because in the absence of such
to the ‘Theoretic limits’ section: one reason why questioning—and thus of the recognition and factor-
those contemporary chroniclers of financialization ing of empiric limits—narratives of financialization
who do demonstrate a more expansive historical tend implicitly to become one sided, even teleologi-
awareness—especially Arrighi and Lapavitsas— cal scripts of linear, uninterrupted, ineluctable devel-
have not needed to theorize financialization entirely opment. In fact in one such narrative, which we
anew, harking back instead to Braudel and Hilferd- encountered earlier, the script is explicitly teleologi-
ing respectively, may simply be that what they are try- cal. Here is Harvey (1982: 371) on the real-world
ing to theorize is itself not entirely new. Second, process that would later (e.g. Kaika and Ruggiero,
however, revisiting the past should never be only 2013) come to be labeled the financialization of land:
about learning lessons from it. To figure things (only)
this way is to maintain a false separation between past Only that kind of landownership that treats the land as
and present, suggesting as it does that the past really is a pure financial asset will do. All other forms of landed
property must give way. The land must become a form
past, the present really present. In reality, of course,
of fictitious capital and be treated as an open field for
the present is always connected to the past, ideologi-
the circulation of interest-bearing capital. . . . How far
cally as much as materially; the latter inhabits the for-
capitalist social formations have advanced down such
mer. Looking at financialization in the present
a path is a matter for historical investigation. That the
through a strictly presentist lens, in other words, can law of value under the capitalist mode of production
only ever furnish a partial perspective on its entails such a transformation process is incontrovertible.
But is financialization, of the land or anything else,
really inexorable; or are there meaningful limits to
Empiric limits its potential depth and scope, recognition of which
The early parts of this article were primarily con- would require us to tailor our concepts of financializa-
cerned with financialization as a concept: with the tion and, perhaps, to acknowledge their own limits?
theoretic and analytic limits of that concept and with Is, in short, (complete) financialization (of every-
the limits to the strategic benefits of mobilizing it. In thing) inevitable (cf. Leyshon and Thrift, 2007)?

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Christophers 195

It is a central premise and argument of the present For our purposes, however, the exact historic
article that it is not and cannot be. In terms of Har- number does not so much matter. The question to
vey’s thesis that all forms of land ownership and consider is: how large might this share conceivably
treatment that do not financialize it eventually ‘must become? In the region of 50%? 80? 100 (all other
give way’, Christophers (2010: 104–106; cf. David forms of capitalist accumulation, in Harvey’s terms,
and Halbert, 2014) has counterargued that there are ‘giving way’, with finance becoming not just what
good reasons to suppose otherwise: there will Bob Lake (1995) and others have termed a ‘frontier
always be people and institutions willing and able of accumulation’, but its totality)? Or is 40 just
to resist such a trend; and, more fundamentally, the about the theoretical maximum attainable, the quan-
attempt to treat land as a pure financial asset ulti- titative ceiling to the economy’s ostensible financia-
mately runs into some fairly elementary economic lization, beyond which the latter cannot progress
limits to such a mode of treatment, especially when lest, say, (financial) crisis breaks out? This question
the attempt is made by those (such as house owner– may appear abstruse and intangible, but contemplat-
occupiers) for whom land never can be only a ing it is important if only because it requires us to
financial asset. And, on the question of limits to the confront not just the location but the nature of finan-
financialization both of business objectives and of cialization’s limits. What forms, for example, would
‘everyday life’, we would do well to recall Key- any limits to capitalism’s financialization likely
nes’s own clarion call to show disobedience ‘to the take? Would they be imposed from outside the
test of an accountant’s profit’—often very diffi- economy, in the shape of political or cultural resis-
cult, to be sure, yet rarely entirely out of the ques- tance to augmented financial power and rationality;
tion. More generally, we might say that the empiric or would they materialize inside an economy ulti-
limits to financialization can and do take multiple mately compromised by its own reduction to finan-
forms. Some of these limits can be thought of as cial(ized) motions and mores?
existing outside the process of financialization We can only gesture here at the minimalist shape
itself, where resistance to financialization arises of some possible answers; but it is vital to do so, for
within the socioeconomic domain being financia- the sake of insisting: there are surely limits here, too.
lized. Other limits, however, are probably better Let us think about the matter first of all in the
conceived as ‘inside’ financialization, representing abstract. Of a dozen individuals dropped on a desert
tensions inherent to the process(es) in question and island, and setting about creating a capitalistic divi-
liable to deepen as financialization intensifies and sion of labor, how many might conceivably work,
approaches the limits thus crystallized. and make their living, in the financial sector? It is
Such speculations can perhaps be best fore- unlikely to be zero, at least if one assumes the exis-
grounded by way of a closer appraisal specifically tence of money as unit of account and of credit and
of the idea of the financialization of capitalism as debt relations. But still, it is more likely to be zero
a system of value creation and accumulation—and than twelve. In a fully financialized capitalism,
of the limits that this particular process may come where financialization intensifies without limit,
to face. Finance, it has been widely argued (e.g. finance is all, economically, there is. Such a sce-
Epstein, 2005; Krippner, 2005; Lapavitsas, 2013), nario may be theoretically possible: all other activi-
has in recent decades become a much bigger compo- ties we think of as ‘economic’ could be conducted
nent of the formal, measured (Anglo-American) outside of the ‘capitalist’ economy, either through
economy. A greater share of income has been cap- an informal division of labor or independently (all
tured by the finance sector and by the financial 12 individuals feeding, clothing, and housing them-
activities of nominally ‘nonfinancial’ corporations. selves, after the end of the ‘working’ day). But aside
A figure of approximately 40%—for the finance from its profound impracticability at all manner of
sector’s latter-day share of total corporate prof- levels (and hence ‘external’ limits), what, in such
its—is, for instance, often cited for the United a scenario, would finance finance? This financia-
States. lized desert island, home not to the butcher, baker,

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196 Dialogues in Human Geography 5(2)

and candlestick maker but to the trader, fund man- perhaps because of—increasingly intense and
ager, and corporate financier, would not only be pretty broadly based scholarly scrutiny, it remains unclear
dull, but would offer, at best, extremely limited growth what financialization ‘is’ and, relatedly, how it can
potential. Past a certain point (the internal limits to most productively be conceptualized and analyzed.
financialization), this notional financialized capital- What is clear, however, is that although financiali-
ism begins to look like a zero-sum game, a solipsistic zation existed as both real-world phenomena and
economy simply spinning (on) its own wheels. theoretical paradigm for many years before the
If the practical limit to desert–island financializa- onset of the global financial crisis, the latter has for-
tion lies somewhere between 0 and 12, therefore, the cefully reanimated interest in somehow squaring the
question remains: where? To the best knowledge of theory with the reality. We arguably stand, there-
this author, this issue has not been given careful, for- fore, at something of a crossroads in financializa-
mal consideration; the empiric limits to the financia- tion’s history. Just as commentators foresaw in the
lization of capitalism remain hazy. But there is early days of the crisis the possible death of neoli-
suggestive work out there, and if we take the issue beralism, similar prognostications were made for its
of limits seriously then we should take such work sibling. ‘The Wall Street crash is happening as I pre-
seriously, too. Before Keynes, for example, Veblen pare the final draft of this paper for publication’,
(1912: 166–168) wrote equally powerfully about wrote Chris Gregory (2009: 298). ‘If the remarks
financialization in his day, arguing that the rate and of the pundits can be relied on, this event could very
magnitude of accumulations arising from ‘finan- well signal the end of the era of financialisation’. The
ciering traffic in vendible capital’—such traffic pundits were, it now appears, wrong on both. But if
being ‘the pivotal and dominant factor in the mod- financialization survived the crisis, what lies in store
ern situation of business and industry’—surpassed for it as the ‘postcrisis’ landscape takes shape?
‘all recorded phenomena of their kind. Nothing so The present article has attempted, from a critical
effective for the accumulation of private wealth is perspective, to take stock of financialization, and, at
known to the history of human culture’. Yet, he least where financialization-as-concept is con-
insisted (Veblen, 1912: 62–65), there were ‘limits cerned, its findings provide some fairly clear sign-
to the growth’ of such traffic. Figuring the traffick- posting as to where things might be heading.
ers of capital (those involved in ‘large-scale financier- Firstly, with consensus on how we can best envision
ing work’) and other ‘men’ of ‘business enterprise’ as financialization seemingly no closer, it is reasonable
one class, and ‘the corporations whose capital is to expect further stabs at definition to emerge—
involved’ as another, he argued that disproportionate assuming, at their most explicit and proprietorial,
growth for the former ‘would lower the effective vital- a financialization-is-not-this-it-is-that form that is
ity of the community to such a degree as to jeopardize already very much in evidence. Viewed from the
its chances of advance or even its life.’ (Picture the standpoint of this article, such a development would
atrophy of our financialized desert island . . . ) What, be, at best, unhelpful. Secondly—and as (also) hap-
then, was ‘disproportionate’; where did the limit lie? pened with neoliberalization as that concept
‘The limits which the circumstances of life impose matured—we can confidently expect the empirical
in this respect are of a selective character, in the last domains within which financialization is posited
resort’. This was not to duck the question. It was, to have occurred to further proliferate: if this indus-
rather, to argue that the answer to the location of finan- try and product and process have been financialized
cialization’s limits is always: it depends. (and neoliberalized), so too have that one and that
one and that one. Again, it hardly needs saying that
unless studies of this ilk are able to hint at wider,
Conclusion more generalizable findings, perhaps concerning the
Financialization, we have seen, notwithstanding its relational connections between different orbits and
relatively short lifespan, has already enjoyed a com- modes of financialization, they do not offer huge
plex and contested pattern of evolution. Despite—or promise either.

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Christophers 197

While an ongoing flowering of alternative and strategic, optic, and empiric—that we need to insert
competing definitions of financialization does not into the debates on financialization, too.
necessarily augur well, it would be no less proble- None of the caution advised in this article is
matic to seek out a single fixed or relatively stable intended to suggest that there have not been enor-
consensus definition around which researchers mous changes in the political and cultural econo-
could happily congregate and mobilize, and this mies of capitalism in recent decades, or that
article certainly does not call for such. For one thing, financial institutions and processes have not been
if actually existing financialization is anything, it is centrally implicated in such changes. Respectively,
processual and open ended—attempting to secure there clearly have, and they clearly have. Instead,
our conceptual purchase on financialization once- two central questions have been posed and can be
and-for-all would likely be counterproductive inas- usefully reemphasized. First, how useful a concept
much as inherently unpredictable developments is financialization to help us come to terms with
demand analytical fluidity and flexibility. For those changes? Second, relatedly, and more pro-
another thing, to call for definitional certainty is to foundly, do we really need a single meta-con-
assume that there exists something ‘out there’ yet cept—with or without the internal variegation that
to be adequately defined but nonetheless deemed financialization in its current iterations displays—
befitting of the financialization label. If this state- to assist us in this explanatory reckoning?
ment appears to complicate the issue, consider the If, then, we have conjectured regarding where
fact that the various existing attempts at ‘definition’ research and writing on financialization will likely
comprise two main types. One essentially concerns go, where, given those two questions and the various
terminological usage: the moniker financialization limits identified in this article, should it go? What
is most profitably used, according to such argu- might a more normative stance look like? In addi-
ments, to denote this or that known development tion to more serious attempts to substantiate finan-
(rather than another). The second type is subtly but cialization empirically, for which Krippner rightly
substantively different: it posits that something we calls, this article suggests three important para-
choose to call financialization is happening, but that meters for the ongoing study of financialization.
this thing remains not fully known and that the chal- First, it seems self-evident that the concept of
lenge is therefore to pin it down and capture it con- financialization should be used as prudently and
ceptually. If the former type is somewhat facile, the selectively as possible, otherwise the analytical
latter—toward which calls for conceptual coherence fragmentation highlighted in the ‘Analytic limits’
and consensus largely tend—is ultimately like try- section will simply accelerate. To highlight the
ing to bottle the wind. extreme (but certainly not merely theoretical) case,
Above all, then, this article has sought simply to just because one is researching and writing about
advance a call for caution. It is not the first to do so. finance and its apparent importance in a particular
Perhaps most notably, Krippner, despite being well historical–geographical juncture, one should not
known for her affirmative work on the ostensible feel obliged to invoke financialization to provide
financialization of ‘American capitalism’ (2005), conceptual leverage. It may be appropriate and pro-
has more recently sought to sound the alarm, argu- ductive to mobilize the idea (or one version thereof),
ing in her book on the modern political history of but equally likely it may not be. And, just as impor-
finance in the United States that ‘enthusiasm for the tantly, where financialization is put to work to help
concept of financialization has run far ahead of seri- illuminate certain empirical realities, this should not
ous attempts to establish evidence for this phenom- exempt us from being rigorously specific—much
enon’ (2011: 23). Quite so. This article shares her more specific than is often presently the case—
concern, but then has attempted to add to it: there are about what financialization, in this particular con-
limits to our quantitative research into actually text, actually, unambiguously, means. To take an
existing financialization, yes, but there are also var- example we have already encountered, if financiali-
ious other important limits—analytic, theoretic, zation means something increasingly being treated

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198 Dialogues in Human Geography 5(2)

as a pure financial asset, this needs to be clearly Phil Ashton, Gary Dymski, Ben Fine, Sarah Hall, Paul
spelled out. Langley, Costas Lapavitsas, Andrew Leyshon, Andreas
Second, the optics brought to bear in examining Nölke, the Dialogues editor (Richard Le Heron), and, in
processes of nominal financialization need to be particular, two anonymous referees (who number among
radically widened. As they have been identified and the commentators). That said, all responsibility for the
analyzed in the literature to this point, such pro- arguments presented in the article is mine alone.
cesses have been posited as being concentrated
overwhelmingly in the Global North—and espe- Notes
cially in the United States and United Kingdom— 1. July 2014.
and principally in the post-1970s neoliberal era. But 2. In identifying these as the three most influential read-
there are, for one thing, good reasons to believe that, ings of financialization, this article closely follows
at least on the historical axis, this is a far too restric- Christophers (2012: 273–274) and, more recently, van
tive reading of financialization. And, for another der Zwan (2014). Needless to say, all manner of alter-
(and arguably more importantly), even if contempo- native renderings of the financialization literature—
rary, Anglo-American processes of financialization identifying different combinations of prominent narra-
are unique in scale and form, this still does not jus- tives—are possible.
tify optical narrowing. The past infuses the present. 3. This article, note, has no interest in trying to provide an
And as the postcolonial literature, above all others, answer to this question—only in raising it.
has amply demonstrated, processes seen to be 4. The same authors thus elsewhere (Martin et al., 2008:
‘occurring’ in one place typically depend upon— 121), suggesting that ‘it is surely wise to be sceptical of
and asymmetrically enlist—constitutive sociospa- any new era-type appeals for financialization . . . ’.
tial others/outsides that may not be immediately 5. I am grateful to Paul Langley for this observation.
visible to researchers in the ‘core’, but which are 6. I am grateful to Ben Fine and Andreas Nölke (personal
no less material for that. communications) for this point.
Third, and finally, the question of the limits to
financialization as a process or set of processes on References
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