Issue 11.1-11.2 | Fall 2012/Spring 2013 / Guest edited by Elizabeth Bernstein and Janet R. Jakobsen

Accounting, Accountability, and Abstraction

Accounting, accountability, and abstraction have been (or, at least, have been said to have been) central to neoliberalism, as both practices and rhetorics. Performances of accounting activities, which constitute and link particular instances, actions, or subjects with economic and governmental regimes of abstraction, are undertaken (or called for) in order to hold individuals or institutions accountable. I briefly explore each of these key terms and practices to give a sense of how they have shaped life under neoliberalism.


Two overlapping sets of accounting practices have been identified as fundamentally shaping life under neoliberalism: 1) Foucauldian scholars have focused on the role of statistics as a tool used to measure and constitute populations for governmental intervention and management;[1] and, 2) those attending to neoliberalism as an economic phenomenon have noted the “financialization of daily life” (as Randy Martin calls it) or the “everyday life of global capital” (in Paul Langley’s phrasing), which require us all—as part of the larger project of personal responsibilization—to manage our own lives through financial accounting practices.[2] These two technologies of accounting are really inseparable; our daily financial lives are shaped by statistical practices, such as credit scoring. Financial accounting at its more “sophisticated” levels is also interdependent with statistical practices: for example, the valuation of derivatives is based on predictions and probabilities. (The financial crisis of the last few years is sometimes blamed on a statistical error in that the correlation in the values of mortgage-backed securities was assumed to be lower than it turned out to be.) These intertwined accounting practices pervade lived-neoliberalism across a wide array of institutions and domains: financial accounting in its managerial mode (cost accounting) and the “metrics” (statistical measurements) meant to track the efficacy of practices and programs are the technologies by which most public institutions are managed (and held “accountable”), including, as cultural studies scholars often bemoan, the universities in which we work. The same technologies are used to run health care and criminal justice systems and K-12 educational systems. But it is important not to be narrowly literal about “governmentality”; these life-shaping accounting practices are not deployed only, or even primarily, by state agencies.

Statistical analyses produced by financial services companies, nonprofit organizations, and academics are circulated through a wide variety of old and new media (television and books as well as websites) that serve as vehicles for the marketing of financial products and services to populations constituted through the statistical narratives. Statistical and narrative claims about the attitudes and behaviors, competence and incompetence, of women as financial practioners (household managers, retirement investors, etc.) produce and deploy gendered norms. But crucially, these gendered norms are deployed not only to constitute markets for financial products and services but more fundamentally as a pedagogy of “entrepreneurial” subjectivity: stories about women’s financial pathologies mark the boundaries of the normative ideal for all. In fact, these narratives work as marketing tools because, as Kathleen Woodward points out, we are hailed by statistics, we learn who we are, and the norms to which we should aspire, through statistical stories.[3] What has been interesting to me is the extent to which we live these aspirational norms in the mode of failure—we don’t measure up, sometimes we don’t even try.


Scholars attending to the neoliberal project of dismantling the welfare state have noted the promotion of “personal responsibility” to justify the upward redistributions of wealth and infrastructures of support. If responsibility is a seductive term, calling on us to voluntarily “do the right thing,” as the Liberty Mutual Insurance Company’s “Responsibility Project” would have it, accountability has a different set of connotations.[4] Accountability suggests a regime in which you will do the right thing (act responsibly) or be punished. Throughout the last few crisis years, the debate over who is to blame and who should be held accountable has obsessed the media.

The New York Times, August 1, 2012. On the left side of first business page is an article, “Jury Clears Ex-Citigroup Manager of Charges,” reporting that an executive who had been accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of misrepresenting a deal to clients (a deal in which the bank put together a collateralized debt obligation that it sold and simultaneously “bet against”) was acquitted.[5] But, the article reported, the jury also offered a statement urging the SEC to continue “investigating the financial industry.” The article then interprets: “The statement appears to echo frustration felt by many Americans that Wall Street executives had not ben held responsible for its questionable actions leading up to the financial crisis.” On the right-hand side of the same page is an article reporting that the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, had once again rejected the idea of offering debt (principle) forgiveness to mortgage holders.[6] The crux of the reasoning seems to come at the end of the article, where it is reported that the head of the agency, Edward DeMarco, fears that doing so would provide an incentive for mortgage holders to default.

I note this (probably deliberate?) juxtaposition because it presents precisely the divergence in regimes of accountability of concern to the jurors in the first article, where those who control the accounts (the financiers) are not only not held accountable, but various policies allow them to believe that they need not aspire to responsibility; meanwhile, excessive concern for “moral hazard” is used to stop any aid from being offered to suffering individuals.[7] The jurors’ view was expressed more bluntly by a guy sitting next to me on a plane recently, who saw me reading Michael Lewis’ exposé of life at the Salomon Brothers investment bank in the 1980s, Liar’s Poker.[8] As we talked about the repetition of similar financial dramas over time, he argued that the Wall Street guys needed to be locked up and lose their fortunes so that their wives would have to live in condos like Bernie Madoff’s wife—then they might be incentivized to stop doing the same thing. To be held accountable is to be put in prison. (Or is the gendered shame more important?). While we may share the jury’s frustration, some caution is warranted before piling onto demands for accountability that affirm the juridical regime of accounting “debts to society” that has been central to the reproduction of racial hierarchy in the United States.


The uneven distribution of accountability and the centrality of diverse practices of quantitative accounting to the depredations visited by neoliberalism, have led many scholars to attribute these violences to the technologies of quantification, calculation, and abstraction themselves.[9] These scholars can draw on a long history of theorization of abstraction as an inadequate or illusory representation that reduces, marginalizes, or excludes particular difference in order to produce political or economic commensurability: a “political emancipation” that comes at the cost of real “human emancipation” and the increasing penetration of commodification into all domains of life.[10][11] In “Can Numbers Ensure Honesty?,” Mary Poovey describes an emergent “culture of finance” as a “new axis of power,” in which “quantification, […] an inherently abstracting process” produces a “conflation of representation and exchange,” which allows financiers to manipulate accounted values at will for their own benefit while putting others at great risk.[12] Poovey’s “The Twenty-First Century University and the Market” posits that “the language of numbers” is the instrument by which “market logic” has devalued and diminished “the humanities.”[13]

In his widely circulated book, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, David Graeber argues that quantification is what allows debt to become “a matter of impersonal arithmetic—and by doing so, to justify things that would otherwise seem outrageous or obscene.”[14] Meanwhile, he describes abstraction as the physically violent removal of things and people from their embeddedness in social relations for purposes of commercial exchange.[15] Similarly, Woodward suggests that abstraction separates or detaches:

A statistic is completely detached from the world, much as today’s global financial markets are detached from actual production in a local economy […] statistical probabilities seem to implicate us as individuals in scenarios of financial ruin or disaster by disease and weather; that is, abstraction, expressed by the ultimate abstraction, one that is infinite–numbers.[16]

And yet, Woodward’s argument for interpellation by statistics suggests that statistical abstractions do not just “seem” to implicate us, but are lived particularly and concretely, just as it turns out that global finance has an “everyday life,” lived by mortgage holders and student debtors, among others.

This analysis suggests that justice can be achieved neither by joining the demand for accountability nor by refusing abstraction. The productivity of accounting, accountability, and abstraction in constituting subjects and social formations demands a critical practice that can grasp and engage the dialectical processes of abstraction and particularization.

  1. This type of work might be said to have been launched in Michel Foucault, Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991). Nikolas Rose and Peter Miller, among many others, have produced extensive scholarship in this vein. [Return to text]
  2. Randy Martin, Financialization of Daily Life, (Philadelphia: Temple U P, 2002); Paul Langley, The Everyday Life of Global Finance: Saving and Borrowing in Anglo-America (Oxford: Oxford U P, 2008). It is also worth noting that Foucaultian approaches to financial accounting articulate its operations as, like statistical accounting, integral to governmentality. See, for instance, Michael Power, The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification, (Oxford: Oxford U P, 1997). [Return to text]
  3. Kathleen M Woodward, “Statistical Panic,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 11.2 (1999):180. See also Kathleen M. Woodward, Statistical Panic: Cultural Politics and Poetics of the Emotions, (Durham: Duke U P, 2009). 
Universities use “social norming” campaigns—posters displayed all over campus that read, for instance, “80% of UA students typically party one night a week or less”—to shape student behavior based on the theory that this kind of Althusserian interpellation actually works. [Return to text]
  4. [Return to text]
  5. Peter Lattman, “Jury Clears Ex-Manager At Citigroup In Debt Case,” The New York Times 1 Aug. 2012. [Return to text]
  6. Binyamin Appelbaum, “U.S. Agency Bars a Plan to Reduce Home Debt,” The New York Times 1 Aug 2012: B1. [Return to text]
  7. Rick Santelli’s Feb 19, 2009 appearance from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange has been credited with inspiring the Tea Party movement; in it he argues against Obama’s proposed stimulus and mortgage modifications. He suggests a “referendum to see if we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages,” and then turns to the traders on the floor around him to say: “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbors’ mortgage?” They respond with a good, loud round of booing and hooting. A few sentences later he proposes a “Chicago Tea Party.” [Return to text]
  8. Michael Lewis, Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street, (New York: Norton, 1989). [Return to text]
  9. Some Marxist scholars offer the opposite evaluation, demonizing what they consider to be a fetishization of the concrete among poststructuralist scholars of culture in favor of analyses that aim to grasp the abstract social totality. See, for example: Teresa L. Ebert, The Task of Cultural Critique, (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2009). [Return to text]
  10. This history is described in A Toscano,”The Open Secret of Real Abstraction,” Rethinking Marxism 20.2 (2008): 273-287.
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  11. Marx makes this distinction between “human” and “political” emancipation in “On the Jewish Question,” in Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Robert C. Tucker, The Marx-Engels Reader, (New York: Norton, 1978). Wendy Brown gives a productive Foucaultian turn to Marx’s argument in “Rights and Losses,” in States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity, (Princeton: Princeton U P, 1995). [Return to text]
  12. Mary Poovey, “Can Numbers Ensure Honesty? Unrealistic Expectations and the U.S. Accounting Scandal,” Notices of the American Mathematical Society 50.1 (2003): 27-28. [Return to text]
  13. Mary Poovey, “The Twenty-First-Century University and the Market: What Price Economic Viability?” Differences: a Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 12.1 (2001): 9, 12. [Return to text]
  14. David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2010) 14. [Return to text]
  15. Graeber 2010: 159.
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  16. Woodward 1999: 209. [Return to text]