Frederic Heine joins Money on the Left to discuss his recent essay, “Performing Hard Money: Monetary Policy, Metaphor and Masculinity in the Making of the EMU,” published this summer in the Journal of Cultural Economy. Heine is a university assistant at the Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies at Johannes Kepler University, Linz (Austria). In his essay, Heine analyzes the cluster of masculine metaphors that ground and mobilize the European Monetary Union’s (EMU) hard-line opposition to “soft” money politics. At the time of this episode’s publishing in early September 2022, what Heine classifies as the masculine performative agency of EMU leaders can be seen all over Europe, with French President Macron decrying the end of abundance and the European Central Bank signaling a coming period of sacrifice across the Eurozone. We speak with Heine about this essay as well as his broader inquiry into the intersections of gender, global finance, and political economy.
See Frederic Heine’s essay here.
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The following was transcribed by Mercedes Ohlen and has been lightly edited for clarity.
Scott Ferguson: Frederic Heine, welcome to Money on the Left.
Frederic Heine: Thank you very much for having me.
Scott Ferguson: To kick things off, can you tell our listeners a bit about your background, be it personal or professional or both, and what brought you to the study of gender, culture and political economy?
Frederic Heine: I am currently working as a lecturer, or university assistant, at Johannes Kepler University (Linz) at the Institute of Women’s and Gender Studies. I did a PhD at the University of Warwick, and before that I did a master’s in global political economy at the University of Sussex. That’s my academic background. Before that, I studied at the Free University of Berlin, the place where I got interested in gender in political economy.
Basically, at the Institute for… Political economy, Marxism, feminism. And led me to ask all these questions. And at the same time, shortly after I started, there was also the beginning of the first signs of the global financial crisis kicking in. So that was a big part of me being interested in trying to understand what was happening there. And at the same time, maybe gender and masculinity has been something that had been a more… permanent [interest] in my background. I needed the inspiration by the feminist flare at the university. But then I started questioning masculinity and relating it back to my own experiences of gender masculinity, some gender-related bullying in my youth.
When I came across Roman Connell’s work on hegemonic masculinity and subordinate masculinity, hierarchies of masculinity, that was very much a game changer in understanding my own identity, and also my place within the larger agenda structures in some ways. But at the same time, as male at birth and with a masculine self-presentation, I also experience it very much as a privilege, especially in combination with whiteness. For example, the attribution and assumption of competence, and even some level of authority now that I get older, which seems a little absurd at times.
In any case, that’s my background: On the one hand, there were these big macro events, like the global financial crisis that I was trying to understand. And on the other hand, this understanding of my own identity within that context. I think the tension between those macro events and identity/subjectivity, on the other hand, was what maybe always kept me in this interest about how gender and political economy relate, especially, of course, when I discovered feminist political economy as a sub-discipline, when I came to the UK and discovered IPE [International Political Economy] and the complexity and diversity of approaches. And feminist IPE in particular. That shaped a lot of the ways in which I was approaching these questions.
William Saas: Thank you for that really great answer. We’ve come to your work by way of an article you’ve published very recently in the Journal of Cultural Economy, titled “Performing Hard Money: Monetary Policy, Metaphor and Masculinity in the Making of EMU.” I wonder if by way of starting our conversation and making sure that we all have a common ground or grammar to work with, could you share with listeners who may not know what the EMU is, where it came from, and maybe its role in shaping the neoliberal project in Europe and beyond?
Frederic Heine: The European Monetary Union, the EMU, is the monetary aspect of European integration. It’s the institutional context for the single currency that probably all listeners know, which is the Euro, a currency that was first meant as a currency for the entire European Union, but a number of countries decided not to participate or haven’t adopted the Euro yet. The European Monetary Union is governed by the European System of Central Banks, comprised of National Central Banks, and, at the top, the European Central Bank.
The idea of some kind of monetary union to proceed with economic integration and political integration has been a long time in the making. Since the first proposals in the 1970s, there has been ever closer European economic integration. As a background to these proposals, that meant that a single currency seemed desirable for economic and political reasons.
And even before the European Monetary Union, there had been several attempts to reduce currency fluctuations between European Union and European European Community member states, trying to keep exchange rates and inflation rates somewhat aligned, mostly to foster trade and mutual investment. And that had been the case ever since the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates. This is the background why the project was taken in the first instance. And ultimately, this process cumulated in suggestions for a European Monetary Union, a single currency, and so on.
The crux, however, is not so much in the fact that we do now have a currency union, but the kind of currency union we have. Instead of an integration of financial policies and monetary policies, only monetary policy is Europeanized and institutionalized in the European Central Bank. And while there are some restrictive rules for member states, which are also arbitrary rules for how much debt and how high a deficit they can run, there isn’t a political mechanism by which, for example, an expansionary fiscal policy approach could be coordinated. And worse, that’s partly on the insistence of of the Bundesbank [the German central bank], which we will talk about.
There’s the “no bailout clause” that forbids the European Central Bank to act as a lender of last resort for member states. So the monetary union ended up as a setup that works okay in normal times, but in times of crisis seriously limits the room for maneuver, for example, the demand-led recovery from crisis. And we know all this because of what actually happened in the Eurozone Crisis from 2010 onward. So that’s what we experienced as a result of that.
William Saas: And how have critics and critical scholars engaged with the EMU previously?
Frederic Heine: There has been a lot of attention, especially since the Eurozone Crisis, on the institutional side of of the European Monetary Union. And there’s a literature that looks at the evolution and institutional design of the European Monetary Union and regards it as more or less as institutionally flawed, a result of political compromises between the main players, especially France, Germany, etc. It also looks at the power politics between the main major nations, so this is the intergovernmentalist approach to how the European Monetary Union formed.
There is also a literature that looks at the relevance of ideas, and especially the emerging neoliberal consensus as discussed by [Kathleen] McNamara, for example–how, in the process of creating the European Monetary Union, there was an increasing shift towards the understanding that a central bank should be independent, that the nation-states should have a limited room for maneuver to run deficits, that welfare states should be reduced.
These elements are also part of the institutional setup of the European Monetary Union by design. And that is the focus of an interpretation that looks at the European Monetary Union mostly as a result of class politics, an institutionalization of neoliberal principles by constitutionalizing them, by setting them up in the treaties of the European Union, and therefore making them uncontestable (by the labor movement especially). And in the way of central bank independence, and this focus on price stability, rather than other central banks also are concerned with making sure that there’s full employment or that levels of employment are as high as possible. This is not within the remit of the European Central Bank. And so it’s also seen as a way of, through monetary policy, limiting the room for maneuver of trade unions and the labor movement.
Scott Ferguson: In your essay, you take up from a critical perspective what you call “gendered performative agency.” Can you define “gendered performative agency” for our listeners? And why, on your reasoning, does it matter for critically understanding the EMU?
Frederic Heine: One reason why I wanted to do this, and one thing that I haven’t seen in that literature that looks at the evolution of the European Monetary Union was to look at: Did gender plays a role in all of this? I tried to do this with that concept of gender performative agency. And it might get a bit abstract now, but basically, I was looking for a way to conceptualize how gender discourses and narratives might matter in economic governance.
I tried to do this without reifying either what gender is or what exactly the economy is, and rather understand it as the result of these kinds of processes. Very briefly, it’s a lens that focuses on how agents mobilize performances and constructions of masculinities and femininities in their political discourse in their practices, to serve specific agendas within economic governance. And I use the term “performative” because in this way, this process both describes the performances involved in it: speeches, language, but also bodies, mannerism, dress, etc. I invoke the concept of performativity, the idea that language doesn’t only passively represent the kind of things that describes, but that it has at least some power in shaping it. A very basic example would be that if a child is told that it has a certain gender at birth, and then later is told and demonstrated what it means to be that gender, to perform the gender, then there’s a likelihood that it will behave according to these ideas as well.
Although, of course, there’s always a chance of failure, and of a critical questioning of these. But basically, the idea is that that language doesn’t just represent something that is outside of it, but does create what it describes, in some ways, and through mechanisms and social practices. This idea has been developed in relation to gender famously by Judith Butler, as the listeners will probably know, and also in relation to the economy by scholars such as Michel Callon and others.
In a sense, I tried to capture how the economy is gendered through this performative language. And then, I looked at how these practices are very much leveraged by actors within economic governance. If we look at elite actors, such as the Bundesbankers in the paper, that have also a lot of moral authorit,y as I will explain hopefully, later. So even though single actors always have limited performative agencym as Butler argues, they still have comparatively more than you and me, for example.
I argue that this agency and performing the economy is gendered because gender is not always but often a central component of our subjectivity and our worldviews, and even if we’re not necessarily aware of it, it shapes us. For example, V. Spike Peterson argues very deeply how we ascribe cultural value, effective value to things simply because the dominant worldviews are still very much gendered. And for this, studying how gendered meanings are mobilized, basically, look at language and metaphors. I hope this wasn’t too abstract.
Scott Ferguson: It was really clear, thank you. I really want us to spend some time as you do in the paper, unpacking these metaphors. Why metaphor? What are the metaphors? How are they being mobilized? How do they work through very often hierarchical binary oppositions that position certain terms as subordinate? As lesser? And then also how do these potentially change over time?
Maybe, to get things going, I just want to say one of the many things I appreciate so much about your work, is that very often when we’re thinking in terms of gendered performance or gender performative agency, we’re thinking about how broad social constructions, social meanings, discourses, imagery, etc. shape the way that individual persons and bodies become legible. And I think that work is very important.But what I see less done, but I see operative in your paper, is to say no, actually institutions that are irreducible to just–I mean, of course, it matters that these are men, who are the presidents of the Bundesbank, who have this authority in the European Monetary Union, and of course, their individual performativity matters. And legibility matters.
But it seems like you’re arguing that the very kind of constitution of this vast institution is a gendered performance. Is that fair to say?
Frederic Heine: I think that’s correct, thanks for your thoughts and for your developing the ideas of the paper. What I try to do is to see how the construction of certain institutions and certain cultural political economies as gendered is a process that is in principle contingent. It does use, of course, the larger discourses and cultural meanings ascribed to gender and mobilizes this data is only possible because there are shared understandings of what gender is and how it matters, etc.
But the idea is that how this is articulated in a specific context is principally contingent. And that there can be variations, be specific institutions that do this more than others. I think you understood exactly what I’m trying to do. Thanks for these thoughts. But to go back to your first question, sorry.
Scott Ferguson: Let’s get into some of these metaphors. I don’t know if you first want to talk about your archive a little bit more? What you’re studying?
Frederic Heine: I was going to start with the background of why I think metaphors matter in the discourse of these Bundesbankers. To talk about the archive: I looked at a lot of speeches and interviews these Bundesbankers did in the context of of the question: How should an EMU be structured? Should it exist in the first place? And all these issues. In that context, I looked at the public performances and speeches they did.
And on the one hand, some of that discourse is pretty dry for the average audience member. It might seem surprising that metaphors play a key role here. But despite the technical role these central bankers often have, it is curious that in the German public, there used to be quite well-known, quite important public figures. Jacques Delors, for example, who was a very important figure in the EU negotiations and the President of the European Commission at the time, made the joke that not all Germans believe in God, but all Germans believe in the Bundesbank. So it had quite a big cultural role within the German polity. How is that possible for technocrats? Part of my argument is that this is the case because their discourse is not just technocratic, it’s not just about economics, but it carries a moral message that carries an effective stance.
And this is where the metaphors come in. They help to imbue the speech and discourse with meanings borrowed from other source domains. And metaphor theory has shown that metaphor is an important way in which cognition works. We understand something in terms of something else that we already know, that we are already familiar with. And metaphors can also mobilize affect and motivation, borrow authority and legitimacy from the source domain. In the paper, I argue that the Bundesbankers use a range of metaphors in their discourse on inflation and the necessity of price stability, that they were trying to make sure that the EMU was going along this direction. I examined these metaphors and I argue that the the range of metaphors used weaves together a tapestry that constructs a more or less coherent narrative. But the moral story of why price stability should be so important as to make it the cornerstone of the European Monetary Union.
And one element of this is how inflation is described through the metaphor of temptation. So this is something that seems irresistible. So this is literal, for example, when Karl-Otto Pöhl talks about the always lurking temptation, or related metaphors, such as a pinch of inflation, or the drag of inflation, and so on. The most pointed one is when Helmut Schlesinger, his successor, calls this “the siren calls of inflation,” a metaphor that is then repeated a few times. Or back in the 60s, one of the first Bundesbank presidents called inflation a nymph that doesn’t contend itself with the light flood. So what we have here is a discourse that compares inflation to something that equalizes giving in to desires and in the Greek mythical figures of nymphs and sirens, and this is a sexualized femininity that represents this temptation.
And you can imagine this temptation to the assumed heterosexual men that are usually the assumed subjects in this language as well. So it plays on this feminization of temptation. And the assumed consequence of these temptations, following the songs of the sirens means shipwreck, flirting with a nymph, in this mythic mythological background means a threat of madness, distraction, taking drugs, addiction, etc. So, these are all consequences of losing self- control. The key to resisting that kind of temptation that inflation supposedly is, is the idea that of self-discipline.
Self-discipline is regarded as the key not only to not giving in to this temptation, to resist the temptations, to [not] walk the path of least resistance, and all these kinds of metaphors are also implied to represent the remedy against the temptation of inflation. And so, this discipline in relation to EMU–the metaphor is used to stress the importance of discipline on the side of member states, for example.
Pöhl evokes self-discipline, on the one hand, on the part of member states. Also market discipline is thought necessary to avoid these temptations. Market discipline as a result of investor behavior. And then also external discipline, through institutional mechanisms. And the latter, especially the the mechanism to create discipline, on an institutional side was the focus very much of the Bundesbank, who argued that this external discipline was required because member states couldn’t be trusted with this kind of self discipline, nor could market actors in themselves.
The idea here is that there needs to be an authority that instills this discipline and that itself needs to be highly disciplined. So, these kinds of binaries between temptation and discipline that are connected to femininity on the temptation side and masculinity on the discipline side, were used by Pöhl to argue for the kind of an EMU focused on instilling discipline. And it did so from the position of the Bundesbank that prided itself in having that function within the German economy and arguing that the German economy has been much better placed to resist that kind of temptation. Because of its “stability culture” that is called in the language of the Bundesbank, and that stability culture itself then, is the result of the past tough choices and tough policies of the Bundesbank.
So, again, we have here, or I’ll come to that set of metaphors in a second. And basically, I argue that these metaphors of temptation and discipline reference enlightenment, as well as reformist ideas of masculinity, of the composed, rational subject, that never strays from its mission, so to speak, that is always in control. And I also argue that these ideas of masculinity were particularly strong.
For reasons we might later go into, in Germany, where the idea of the rational will conquering the bodily temptations was a key component of constructions of masculinity vis-à-vis femininity hich was seen as much less able to control the self, the impulses etc., in 19th century discourse, and therefore, needed a male guardian and patriarchal ideology. And at the same time, it was also constructed in an emerging national discourse as something that distinguished Germans.
And the assumption here is, again, particularly German masculinity, which was often the focus of the national stereotypes as they developed in the 19th century. And also from other nations within Europe, particularly France, and Southern Europe as reference points. And here, this was not only a nationalist discourse, but also related to the idea of race because the idea of rational self controlled masculinity was also very prevalent in European colonial discourse, seen as a key feature that was supposed to distinguish white Europeans from people of color, ultimately, this discourse was one of governance.
So it justifies and legitimizes governing over others, because one is able to demonstrate the ability to govern over the self. And that is the context in which this self discipline became central in these self representations subjectivities in that context. And so, another set of stereotypically masculine traits that is also used through metaphor in this context is strength, toughness, hardness, they often use to talk about currencies and to talk about basically, relationships to others. So, when choosing, for example, frequently emphasizes that the European currency, the euro, needs to be at least as hard as the D-Mark.
This is on the one hand, common pylons and currency trading. So hard currency is one that has has a relatively low level of inflation. But it carries the potential metaphorical charge. So the Bundesbank was founded, basically on the mantra of its first president, who repeatedly said with soft measures, you can’t have a hard currency, meaning basically, that you need to be tough and resilient for your currency to be hard as the result of the toughness of the decisions that are being made.
And the Bundesbankers themselves needed to perform this toughness as well. Schlesinger for example, was asked whether he had turned into a softy when he was perceived as not defending the D-Mark enough, which Schlesinger then sought to strongly deny. And Tietmeyer, who was the third president I look at, described himself as a tough oak, this fabian oak, to instill this idea that he will be unwavering in the face of crisis. And there’s this level of trust and resilience and resistance towards any attempts from outside to influence the decisions that might be present. And so you have, on the one hand, this reference to self discipline, and on the other hand, these references to toughness and hardness as a badge of honor of the economyt hat is masculinized in this discourse.
For example, maybe I should add this is Schumpeter, for example, described also the idea that basically, the monetary policy of a people demonstrates, shows, as he formulated it, what kind of wood it is made of, which is the literal translation of the German which also expresses this idea that there’s a sort of… it reflects the morale, the toughness of the people that it represents. And this is very much present as the badge of honor in some ways of the national pride of the hard currency. It relies on the fact that it demonstrates this toughness.
And both references to self discipline and toughness, together, make sense as a discourse of the strict father. This is also what George Lakoff has identified as the metaphorical, a kind of core argument also in US Republican discourse. The idea that the moral authority of a strict father is the desirable cultural trait. The strict father that is, on the one hand, morally strong and constantly and in self control, fighting off the possible internal temptations that he might have. And on the other hand, disciplining the dependents. So children, especially, and also the wife, to some extent, to do the same. And by being also strong and tough enough, to confront external dangerous or external kinds of threats.
The metaphorical tapestry of the Bundesbank invokes this strict father performance both for themselves and as the authority figures and as a cultural moral ideal of the ideal economic behavior. And in that way, there is this charge of the discourse around the D-Mark and the German values of being very hard-working people and tough etc, is reflected in these metaphors. I hope I made myself somewhat clear.
Scott Ferguson: Extremely clear, just for our listeners, something that I think is implicit in what you’re saying, but just to air it out: When you’re discussing the political rhetoric and legal construction of the EMU, you threw in metaphors of temptation versus self- discipline and hardness.
We’re talking about fiscal capacity, and how it should be constituted. And we’re also talking about interest rate policy. And we’re talking about employing and not employing certain kinds of people. So that while we have this intensely gendered institution, that’s a real legal construct. It’s a real social-ideological construct at this macro-political, economic, and even geopolitical level, but that construct is doing real damage through enforced austerity, whether it’s through the… baked into the Maastricht Treaty which founds the EMU. Or its individual decisions in relationship to crises, such that this metaphorical language and talking about being self-disciplined and not being tempted is about not being tempted to provision jobs that might be needed for an immigrant community.
This is dangerous, not just because the discourse itself, the metaphoric city itself, is so colonial and patriarchal and exclusionary as a cultural imaginary, but it itself is justifying all of this institution-building and policy work that is systemically violent in its ways. I just wanted to spell all that.
Frederic Heine: Thank you. That’s very important. As you say, completely implicit, or… and what I said, but an important consequence, … it’s also related directly to the discourse that makes it seem as if inflation was a result of indulgence and of overly luxurious consumption practices–basically, of living beyond one’s means and all these other kinds of narratives that belong there as well.
And not about abilities to have a welfare state that that is able to take care of people in need and to create jobs and to have an economy that works for everyone and all these possibilities that could be created by an environment in which monetary policy could be used in a way to support policy goals, rather than as a result of this approach of the Bundesbank being in the hands of unelected set of people, mostly men, that make the decisions about the bounds around which the economy and economic policy basically has to orient itself.
Maxximilian Seijo: In your essay and in this discussion, you focused a lot on the German specificity of the EMU’s hard money, metaphorical and damaging discourse and policy as well. And I wanted to maybe hover a little bit on some of these threads that I think I’m sensing in your answers here.
At the end of one of your answers, you implied Max Weber’s idea of the Protestant work ethic or perhaps that there’s something specifically German, even embedded in German history, in the language about this hard money, patriarchal discursive and cultural approach to monetary and fiscal policy. Can you talk about this history? I mean, I think of Protestantism, a word you just use a second ago was “indulgence,” which I think also links up to that history in its own way. There’s something there. I think that I want to hear you dive into a bit more.
Frederic Heine: Thank you. I definitely think there is a of specificity in German history on that. However, I haven’t looked at it comparatively. But as you say there’s specifics to German culture that one can trace this discourse back to and I have done that a little bit in the context of my PhD thesis, which maybe I can also later talk about a little bit. But for me, there might also be a larger picture that I’m missing. The two key processes that I have identified as maybe one of the reasons why this is prevalent in German monetary policy discourse, in particular, is on the one hand, the polarization of discipline in Prussian culture.
And that’s partly because of Prussian state formation. Gorsky has this argument that in the Prussian state formation, under the first kings that was central to the Prussian state formation and the reform reforms that created the bureaucratic and military structures of that state, very much informed by Calvinism. The Protestant Ethic that you just mentioned, was very important in the top-down formation of the state, and particularly through military discipline. The Prussian state was very much an innovator in that respect. And stereotypically the German, the Prussian military, was known for its extreme level of core discipline.
That was reflected in the Prussian culture as well, where the military had a particular hegemonic quality, representing masculinity in that period. So I think that’s one reason for the historical trajectory for that kind of discourse. And then why, what does that have to do with central banking, monetary policy? This is where I believe the Weimar Republic comes in. The experience of hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic, after the First World War in the period between 1918 and 1923, there was a period of hyperinflation in Germany. At the end of it, people had to carry bucket loads of cash to buy basic necessities because it devalued so rapidly after the First World War. So on the one hand, there’s a scare about inflation there.
That is often referenced as well, as one of the reasons for a general culture of stability, the hardest core. But then again, you could have similar experience of national trauma in relation to hyper deflation in some ways, if we look at the consequences of the world economic crisis of the 1930s and of mass unemployment that happened in Germany at that time, that was certainly had arguably a lot more economic social consequences than hyperinflation period. But in any case, so, I also looked at that period and the cultural discourses around that period, around hyperinflation and partly building on Ben Videx’ work in relation to that.
And what we have seen just now in relation to the references to metaphors, about temptation, discipline, etc., are … how to say this? Basically, I kind of tame in relation to the metaphors that were used at that time because one of the sort of key metaphors there was of inflation as a vicious Sabbath, the figure of the witch was basically mobilized in relation to the experience of hyperinflation. And so that’s another sort of deviant femininity that is kind of seen as being involved in this process and this experience of inflation. And that’s very interesting, right? Because that goes back to misogynistic representations of femininity, as they were abound in the period of the witch hunts in Europe, which were particularly savage also by the way in German speaking regions.
In that context, witches stood for those aspects of deviant femininity that are seen as threatening to the patriarchal order as Silvia Federici, for example, has argued, famously argued, and witches were seen as kind of those aspects of femininity. Mentally weak, being insatiable, insatiably lusty, insubordinate, incapable of self-control, etc. So the witch embodied all these things that threaten patriarchal social order. And this mobilization of this metaphor, I argue, has to do with the time period in which this happened, because after the First World War, Germany has lost the kind of military ideal of masculinity, has lost a lot of legitimacy in that context.
And on the other hand, there was renewed a progress for women in the Weimar Republic, who had during the war taken on a lot of jobs in the economy that had been reserved for men previous to the war, and were still employed in that area. So there was a lot more female employment. There were also a lot more political rights in the Weimar Republic, they were granted the, I mean, the world suffrage, universal suffrage was introduced in the 1980s, as well.
So I think it also reflects in some ways that there’s anxiety not only about the loss of monetary stability and monetary order, but also the anxiety about patriarchal order, expresses itself in some ways in those metaphors of witches that can contribute to inflation. And on the other hand, just to finish on that, then, when inflation was ended by the introduction of a new currency, and the appointment of a new central banker, named Hjalmar Schacht, the kind of patriarchal military masculinity that he represented in that context was again celebrated as he was called a magician who was able to rein in these demonic forces of the inflation, and in that context, also had a specific ways of retooling certain decisions, fiscal budget decisions, and started that discourse of “we have to limit the fiscal resources of the state” etc.
So I think, in that context, the attention to monetary policy and what it means culturally and this association with ideas of masculinity on the one hand in order to bring under control some aspects that were ascribed to femininity is something that also dates back to that historical base.
Scott Ferguson: I’m fascinated by all the tensions and the contradictions that I think are teeming beneath all of these metaphors. So certainly from the point of view of Modern Monetary Theory, hard money policy, let alone hard money metaphors, tend to be destabilizing because they induce crisis, and they have a crisis response to crisis.
So it’s ironic, it’s contradictory. It’s hypocritical in addition to being violent and unjust, that it’s the very construction of hard money as an institution and as a metaphoric that is actually a massively destabilizing element in its own right. And then there’s so many other things I want to ask you about, for example, have you thought much about the figure the “schwarze Null,” “the black zero” that is so prized in in German banking? I think it’s fallen out of favor in more recent years. But, you see these these helicopter view shots of all these bankers celebrating a balanced budget. With this aestheticized giant zero, like a plastic sculpture that they treat as a kind of fetish object. I don’t know if how much you’ve thought about that.
Frederic Heine: Totally. I also talk about the years on the crisis period itself in my thesis, and there’s a lot of… the shots celebrated when Schäuble was stepping back from the Finance Ministry positions. You have actually the Prussian references that I was kind of making, you have the Bild Newspaper, which is the biggest German tabloid. And at a certain point before Mario Draghi was doing the “Whatever it Takes” speech that was a turning point in the European Crisis Governance. When he was appointed, they depicted him with a Prussian spiked helmet, which is this military thing, kind of declaring him an honorable German, that was adhering to the monetary ideals of of Germany and later also, during an interview, presented him with the precious spiked helmet–an original one–from some time in order to remind him of the Prussian virtues that he was supposed to inhabit. So there’s a lot of fetishism is I think the right word to kind of describe this.
Obviously, the Bild newspaper is not the Bundesbank itself, but actually you even have at one point and this is shortly after the announcement of the of the “Whatever it Takes” speech. You have the then-president of the Bundesbank, Jens Weidmann kind of deliver a speech in which a press release which is about the treatment of monetary policy in Goethe’s work, Faust. And where basically he cites Mephistopheles, or the devil, in relation to un-backed paper money, and kind of I don’t have the exact quotation but something else you know, if the devil says you know, if you have un-backed paper money, you don’t have to worry about gold or silver or anything like that you can just indulge in lovemaking and wine drinking and everything and that of your problems will be solved essentially.
Maxximilian Seijo: Well, just to add on that point–Goethe, in his life, and feel free to add to this, is responding to this feeling of expropriation and in his era in the context of the French Revolution, and later on, and these particular monetary allegory and Faust as, as you say, is dealing with in that same model of trauma and then looking and searching for that hard ground and allegorizing all of the externalization that that that go on whether it’s in the figure of the witch or later on, or the vampire or…
Of course, during World War Two and precursors with the Nazis, the figure of the Jews. But I find your exploration of this really, really exciting and fascinating, I think precisely because that history that you’re bringing up all the different strands is so rich with all of this detail and all of these metaphorical tensions and problems that you’re playing out.
Frederic Heine: Thank you very much. And you probably know more about Goethe and Faust than I do. And I realized recently that probably I should do some more studying of that, because it also combines the sort of thinking about inflation on the one hand and a very present kind of work that prominently places the witch as a cultural figure in German discourse, might also be related to why that was so present in the Weimar Republic as a metaphor. Just to say that, maybe I should go into that a little bit more.
William Saas: A little bit more out of left field, but I was intrigued–Was it Schäuble who got the spiked Prussian hat? The pickelhaube?
Frederic Heine: It was Mario Draghi.
William Saas: Mario Draghi. Okay, I was just very curious, because one of the things that I think another thing that’s been implicit in our conversation and maybe it’s worth talking about or not is the sort of phallic character of a lot of these metaphors. And that that helmet, of course, is quite… I got I got interested in the relative height of the spikes on top of those helmets, and a very reliable source here, maybe you can correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks like: “an AKO of May 1899, would set the height at 9.5 centimeters for officer spikes and 8.5 centimeters for all other ranks.”
Lots to talk about here, I suppose. I wanted to also circle back to talking about hard money, hard leaders. And kind of the theory of history at play here. It’s very tragic and romantic and zero sum where you have these hard leaders managing hard money systems in order to kind of defend but also fend off vulnerability and femininity. And I wonder if, as we’re having these conversations and talking about the EMU and your published work, if it’s hard not to in the States, look at our situation, and try to trace out and track the perhaps, German lineage of much of the same kind of rhetoric and discourse over here around inflation, especially today.
And so for example, we talk one of one of our most recent episodes with Brett Scott, and we got into all sorts of money metaphors, and we sort of brought up the metaphor of Paul Volcker, at the end of the 70s, breaking the back of inflation, which is an interesting also that kind of displacement of or characterization of inflation in this case, thinking of them as kind of like a mortal enemy that you want slain, maybe not so feminine.
But in any case, Volker, probably not who you would think of as this sort of heroic figure of history being cast in this heroic role. All of that, by way is saying, have you done much thinking about the way that these metaphors and systems of metaphors have ramified and played out in international finance discourse?
Frederic Heine: I think… Well, that’s very interesting observations. The short answer to this question is not very much. But Melinda Cooper, for example, has looked at the inflation period, like the 70s, sort of high levels of inflation in the US and kind of traced is somewhat similar discourses kind of in social conservative thinkers that kind of also have seen this as a sign of moral weakness and moral kind of lack of morals in the American population.
I can’t recall any particular metaphors at this moment, but certainly I think there’s a lot of circulation of this kind of thinking I mean, Schumpeter as well was widely regarded economists that kind of also contributed to the circulation certainly have these ideas. I would have to speculate maybe to answer.
William Saas: This is following my Germanist colleagues. Maybe y’all can help me figure out… are there… can we track any? Are you seeing direct connections, as you’re asking these questions between these sort of inherent or essential Germanness of many of these metaphors, and the way that these are also found, I think commonly in other and especially US contexts.
Scott Ferguson: I guess Max’s questions about Protestantism, reformed Christianity’s role in and beyond pressure is maybe one avenue. One thing I’ll say is that the metaphor of whipping comes up everywhere. The Ford Administration had a campaign called “Whip Inflation Now”, and that’s in Frederic’s article, there’s whipping all the time in EMU discourse.
Maxximilian Seijo: One thing I’d add, when I was studying economics, it was very common for people to ask you, “are you a hawk or are you a dove?” And there’s something complicated there, too, with regards to I think metaphors. Hawk is the predator. And the dove is in a sense, well, as an image in religion and theology is important. But but also is not a predator, we just say, so that’s maybe another avenue in the US context to… where this kind of exploration would be fruitful.
Frederic Heine: That kind of hawk was the stuff kind of metaphors have also been also used in the European discourse around central banking and during the Eurozone Crisis, there was also this kind of talk about Mars and Venus relating to an IR-type approach, which kind of position the US as Mars, so the masculine kind of foreign policy, and Europe as the Venus which was kind of trying to have influence through soft powers, as it’s also called. And that was kind of referenced in the German press in relation to monetary policy being like, “Yeah, but in monetary policy, we are Mars and the USA is Venus.”
Scott Ferguson: Maybe we can situate this article in your dissertation. So it’s our understanding that this article is one of the fruits of your dissertation that I would presume you’re turning into a book, although I don’t want to speak for you. What’s the broader project of the dissertation and perhaps a future book?
Frederic Heine: Basically, this is correct. Yes. It’s based on one chapter of my thesis. And in that thesis, I kind of look, I mean, the focus of the thesis is the governance of the Eurozone Crisis. And I asked similarly to what I do in the article we just were just talking about, I asked what role cultural gender politics play in the governance, discourses of the crisis. And the rationale to do this was because there was a lot of research about how the crisis and austerity had gendered impacts on social reproduction on public sector employment, on gender equality policy, in that regard, but not so much research to understand maybe gender, if gender can also be seen as integral to the governance of the crisis.
And so I ended up looking at these metaphors and this cultural kind of politics. And I also ended up taking a historical approach, right discussing these things we’ve just been talking about both in relation to Weimar Republic and then the period of the making of the European Monetary Union. And so the broader argument and the thesis maybe is that masculinist performative agency, as discussed, for example, today has been constitutive for the crisis by asserting a valorization of disciplinary masculinity in the governance of the European Monetary Union.
But secondly, that also that cultural gender politics have shaped and contested crisis governance in a contingent way as well. And that there were sort of variations in the kinds of performative agency that was the general performance of agency that was employed. We’ve already talked about some aspects in which they have been reinforced right in certain levels in relation to how central banking views of the ECB have been represented–the Prussian spiked helmet for Mario Draghi, etc. But also, there have been variations, for example, when Angela Merkel, advanced as a figurehead of austerity with the image of the stabian housewife.
So kind of mobilizing more an image of domestic femininity as as a sort of virtuous kind of role to apply to austerity. And that sense, in a similar move to some of the discourses around, post financial crisis, would the crisis have happened, if it would have been Lehman Sisters, rather than Lehman Brothers? And this kind of valuing valorization of certain kinds of femininity in this context, as a result maybe of a portrayal of certain masculinities as well.
And I also look at how anti-austerity discourse, for example, that masculinity is also mobilized with some exclusionary effects, partly in anti-austerity mobilizing. I look at the context of Spain, where at first there was this kind of sense that feminism doesn’t really have a place in this kind of anti-austerity movement. But then, at the same time, that was very strongly contested by feminist activists and kind of formulating centrality of social reproduction as well as the topic of contrasting austerity. I look at those politics as well in my thesis.
And so overall, the argument basically, is that gender representation still matter very much in legitimation of that economic governance, but how they do so is principally subject to specific circumstances, but also to agency in some level. And to answer the the other question that you have, I am working on a book of manuscripts on the basis of this, but I haven’t sort of formalized the book contract yet. So it might be a while until it sees the light of the day.
Scott Ferguson: We wish you luck. I want to follow up with one comment, before we move on to our last big question, which is yet another dimension of what you’re up to a bit we really appreciate that really jives with our project is that while on the one hand, it is important to have a critique and a refusal of austerity is as natural or given or necessary. And zero some trade offs and other kinds of exclusionary punishing systems.
But it’s not enough to have a positive political or economic language of anti-austerity, because because the world is more than just narrow, political and economic language, all kinds of other language, all of language and culture is involved. So what I think what we’re often trying to do and you’re doing spectacularly on your own journey here is teasing out and shining a critical light on languages that remain austere, that remain exclusionary, that may remain deeply problematic, even as you suggested in the midst of overtly anti-economic austerity campaigns.
Frederic Heine: I like very much what you’re saying here, and it’s important to remain also self critical, and not to kind of assume a sort of coherent understanding of the economy and sort of a coherent system of contrasting power structures within the economy with reference to one’s own class position, for example, without also reflecting intersectionality on the one hand, on sort of the different impacts that crises have on different subject positions.
An important paper, also on the subject of the Eurozone Crisis, by Bassel and Emejulu made the argument: whose crisis? If we talk about economic crisis, it might be experienced as big crisis in particular by maybe privileged subjects who are immediately losing out, but then for very sort of marginalized people it might not even sort of register as much because they’re concerned a lot more with for example, refugee status within a country. And obviously, crisis still affects them in the long run, but it also… so it’s important to reflect on the way… on the intersectional ways in which economic social policies matter.
And also often in anti-austerity movements and discourses there’s a tendency of men participating in these movements of assuming this grand analysis and grand strategy approaches that have it all figured out and have this sense of authoritative knowledge that doesn’t need to concern itself with the details maybe or the internal processes. What’s happening within one’s own movement. And that’s also one place where then hierarchies reestablish themselves within contrasting austerity and those those hierarchical relationships. It’s important to be reflective of these things.
William Saas: Absolutely. Frederic Heine, it’s been wonderful having you, but before we let you go, we’d like to take some time and chat with you about another essay you’ve recently co authored and published with James Brassett titled “Men behaving badly”? Representations of Masculinity in Post-Global Financial Crisis Cinema, published in the International Feminist Journal of Politics in 2021.
Essentially, the essay analyzes complex and shifting gendered depictions of finance and films released after the Great Financial Crisis, such as Inside Job, Margin Call, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Big Short. Can you, as we’re on our way out the door, give us a window or glimpse into how you and your co author read the role of gender in these post-GFC films?
Frederic Heine: Thanks for asking this question. Basically in those films about finance, we look at how they represent masculinities and how this changes in some ways over time, so more often than not films about finance do center quite strongly on the male protagonists. Even in more recent films on finance, despite maybe the rhetoric of Lehman Sisters that kind of emphasize a bit more the increasing role of women in finance as well. Anyway, so, we try to understand how these representations of masculinity is what functions they serve in those firms. And often in these films, there is a kind of analogy basically between a critique of finance and a critique of masculinity or a critique of excessive masculinity.
So, the predatory excessive masculinity if, for example, take the film Wall Street and the iconic figure of Gordon Gekko it portrays financial excess in terms of a toxic financial system and in some ways, that is seen as toxic to the real economy or to the heteronormative family, or the fabric of society. Kind of understood in the context of embedded liberalism. And this toxicity of finance in this respect is represented through hyper masculinity. So, masculinity is of, for example, Gordon Gekko, that are seen as extremely dominant, as greedy, as extremely sexually active, promiscuous, predatory.
And in that kind of sense of embody in some ways, this disembeddedness of finance being represented as toxic through toxic masculinity basically. And that happens also in the post financial crisis films to some extent, the most extremely this is the case in The Wolf of Wall Street, which is a film about excess anti-gravity from the beginning to end basically. But it also focuses quite clearly on the realm of the legal because it’s actual financial fraud that is described in the film.
And so, in some ways focuses more on the behavior of the bad apples rather than systemic issues. And it’s also partly coupled with class distinction. So, in the film, it’s about working class guys basically turning to investment banking, and sort of adopting some elements of working class culture within that process, and then you have a representation of brazen risk taking, overt sexualization, etcetera, in in these processes. As a shift cipher for something going wrong in finance, but in The Wolf of Wall Street, through the distancing through humor, and through the distancing through class and through sort of focusing on a particular case of clearly illegal sort of practices. It’s not necessarily as sort of indicting as the Wall Street film.
But then, in the films, Margin Call and The Big Short, you also have elements of this brazen risk taking, overt sexualization, partying, as metaphors for the excesses of finance. But you have a redemption of certain masculinities in those films. And with them off finance, too, as we argue, so that’s on the one hand, the geeky masculinity that doesn’t understand social clues and therefore doesn’t get caught up in the irrational exuberance that is portrayed by the sort of culture of excessive partying, etc.
And so this idea of this hyper rational, geeky masculinity that’s not subject to these temptations, if you want to connect this also to some of the stuff that we’ve been talking about before. And these masculinities don’t get distracted and they look at the real data and therefore aren’t taking part in the herd behavior, as Keynes would have said, for example. And then turn out to be the real men and the heroes of the films like Michael Burry in The Big Short, or Peter Sullivan in Margin Call. And on the other hand, there’s a level of emotional learning as portrayed in the films particularly in The Big Short that sort of good apples and that behave that sort of have a moral compass still intact that learn from past mistakes from past or working like Baum in The Big Short.
And so, we kind of see this sort of redemption of some aspects of masculinity as a way in which the potential of both finance and masculinity is kind of seen as to kind of remain with maybe unfortunate toxic masculinity referenced earlier. But sort of the kind of redeeming that and sort of kind of portraying a masculinity that has come under some level of criticism within the sort of kind of discourse of excessive predatory masculinity in the context of financial crisis, the excessive risk taking, etc.
And kind of redeeming a figure of reinstating rationality of the market and of finance, through references to on the one hand geekiness and rationality and that aspect. And on the other hand, of sort of emotional learning of appropriating, if you will, some aspects of femininity of kind of off yet constitute femininity of being emotionally more aware of oneself into sort of a discourse of resilient finances. Basically, what we come out with at the end of these movies.
Maxximilian Seijo: Well, Frederic Heine, it’s been a real pleasure having you on Money on the Left, we hope at some point, maybe to have you back soon.
Frederic Heine: Thank you very much. It was a great pleasure. And thank you so much for these great questions and spin offs. It was a very good and pleasurable experience. Thank you very much.