Do Not Tamper with the Clues
Do Not Tamper with the Clues
Notes on Goldman Sachs
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter offers an argument for the religious work of corporations through a specific engagement with Goldman Sachs. Common sense may suggest that there is no organization perhaps less religious than Goldman Sachs, described variously by its critics in recent years as a demon, a snake pit, and a vampire squid attacking American finance, the investing public, and the good of global humanity. Yet the labeling of any agency as such a scourge ought immediately tempt the scholar of religion, since one of the grounding assumptions of our work has been that the demarcation of the profane is intimately tied to the elucidation of the sacred. To that end, this chapter considers the Goldman Sachs Group as a case for students of religion. The chapter exposes the connections between the practices of this multinational investment banking firm and accounts of religious thought and practice in the modern period, focusing in particular on the control of information, the focus on institutional survival, the maintenance of relationships, the development of alternative forms of speech, and the commitment to the group above all other identities or alternative epistemologies.
Culture is our religion.
Eric Dobkin, Goldman Sachs & Co.
THE VERY FIRST GOLDMAN EMPLOYEE WHOM I meet begins in the middle of the conversation. “You must be here about the rabbis,” he says, immediately turning to the waitress and ordering his lunch. I haven’t looked at the menu. We haven’t shaken hands.
Since 2012, I have conducted forty-two unstructured interviews with past or current employees of Goldman Sachs. Already that sentence sounds undeservedly scientific, and needs immediate emendation. It is more accurate to say that over the last four years I have found myself running into, eating hasty breakfasts or having abbreviated coffees with, or stealing a corner of a fund-raising event with people who claim affiliation with Goldman Sachs. Everything about this experience runs counter to my experience as a researcher with largely historical interests, and so it requires some elaboration, if only to explain to myself how this has come to pass, how I came to chase accounts of Goldman’s culture from those who occupied it.
This chapter was originally going to be an explanation of what I, a university professor, found in common with those I met from a large bank holding company. Perhaps predictably, it became something larger. I say that this is predictable because it is what professors, and especially humanists, do. We make bigger things of small things, deciding that whatever we thought something was at first glance wasn’t quite what it appeared to be. (p.244) Scholars within the humanities pursue many different things, of course: we might analyze a painting and its painter, laws and the legal systems that give rise to them, or sign systems that range from Babylonian cuneiform to the semiotics of new media. What unites these projects is the intimate labor by the humanist scholar to perceive how individuals imagine, create, and interpret the worlds they occupy. The university is one such world, imagined and made by its workers every day; the bank is, too. Uniting the two places—colleges and banks—may seem a pugnacious comparison. Yet I think the comparison provokes something important, pointing us to the way a corporate subjectivity informs each venture. Scientism is, for both, an important effect. Yet I hope this work exposes the humanity of that performance, the way seeming like you’re in control is essential to the social norms that unite their elite economies of distinction.
This is, therefore, an account of how we propel confidence through very specific acts of interpretation. Faith in the market, faith in merit, faith in the future—the hypothesis that something might work is commonly central to modern capitalist survival. The question at the end of this chapter is not whether Goldman Sachs is good or bad, or if modern universities are working or not. The question is whether we have done as much as we can to resist the smooth surfaces handed to us by each of them. Humanistic thinking has been a place for such resistance, a place where surfaces are exposed as such. It should still be.
In the first several years that I taught at Yale, it became clear to me that a large majority of my students would become either bankers or consultants.1 The consultants are the ambivalent capitalists. They may have long resumes indicating theatrical talent, volunteer commitment, or a concern about international development. But they have no singular focus within this profile of above-average interests, and don’t think of themselves as uniquely talented enough to risk their future in the entertainment industries that were another distinct post-Yale pathway. Consulting is a compromise: it is the highly performative helping profession; the one that is as much about a charismatic use of Power Point as anything else. It is a layaway for students who liked the club feeling that dominated Yale and who need a certain income to weather postcollegiate years. Consulting offers a two-or three-year postbaccalaureate circuit of big-name companies who are the clients of the big-name consulting (p.245) industries. The discerning student could use the consulting firm as an employment dating service, checking out the available options while magnifying his or her professional skill set and flying around on the company’s dime. Few students who go into consulting would describe themselves to me as being people who loved money or business. Many of them write beautifully, or have secret devotions to a peculiar subgenre of popular music. Consulting is not for the people who want to win. It is for the highly competent who want a laminated transom into the compromises of adulthood.
Bankers are different. They are often less chatty during my office hours, and rarely do they expose any particular struggle about their life as a student at a highly competitive school, or their life eventually played out in a highly competitive marketplace. Students cry so frequently in my office that I have a shawl crocheted by my Midwestern mother for people to wear in the postcry hiccupping stage. “The blanket of tears,” one young man called it.
The future bankers never ask for the blanket. They never ask for extensions on the due date for their papers. They never need anything other than clarification of points discussed in class or my edits on their drafts of papers they have prepared many days before the deadline. Once I asked a future banker how she liked a class on lyric poetry I knew she was taking. The syllabus was one I told her that I wished I could take. The student shook her head. “I don’t understand humanities professors,” she remarked. “You all like interpretation so much.” I asked her what there was in life other than interpretation, other than a series of determinations about what’s in your head relative to whatever is placed before you. “I like things more solid,” she replied, underlining this as one of the better characteristics of her chosen major, economics.
I want to be clear that I like the bankers. This is partially a class affinity. The vast majority of consultants are determinedly upper middle class. They are children of egalitarian marriages between two highly professional adults who have nurtured their offspring with every scholastic and developmental opportunity. Future bankers are invariably either the scions of the megarich, or children of more precarious economic origins. No matter which is your genealogical inheritance, banking is what you do if you know for certain that you cannot be poor. The students who came to banking with such a resolute relationship against their proximate ancestral poverty are more racially and ethnically diverse than the consultants. Yet they never speak of this racial or ethnic difference, unlike other students whose otherness spurns them to think aloud about privilege in a way that suggests they will someday write for a national magazine, become an attorney, or run for public office. Future bankers—those who are not descendants of former (p.246) presidents—possess what can only be described as a kind of unflappable grit. My critiques of capital are not going to get in the way of their ascent, because it is about time this capital got to be theirs, too.
It is with this experience of banking that I went to lunch several years ago with a recent graduate of Yale College who had returned to campus to visit his brother, a new freshman. This was the first day off he’d had since he’d begun working. He didn’t say much about what he did exactly, only that he worked constantly, and felt challenged “in every way a person can be challenged.” I felt similarly, I said. When students are still enrolled at Yale, I refrain from discussing my experiences as an employee, but once they graduate I don’t hesitate to connect to them. I’ll quickly offer tales of exhaustion, confusion, and ambition, especially if I think it will help soothe their own sense of being overwhelmed by the expectations of professional life. On this Saturday in November, I replied to this former student’s sense of being absolutely wrung-out by work with my own feeling of being pressed to the limit of physical and mental wellness. He smiled as I careened forward in my divulging monologue, and I thought the smile meant that I had comforted him, and I was inwardly pleased. He was a serious person, who spoke rarely in the one class he took with me. But his final paper was so good I wrote to him, asking that we meet the next semester, perhaps with the hope I could cajole him to consider religious studies his major. I failed absolutely in this persuasion, but we continued to get quick lunches at the residential dining halls with relative frequency during his remaining time in college. I would ask him about his classes, and he would ask me what thing I’d been thinking about lately that I was “making religious.” Now, after a more personal monologue, I hoped I could help him feel like whatever he was enduring was understandable and survivable. However, when I finished, he indicated no need for counsel. He just smiled and said, “I think you would love Goldman.”
This statement established the database for my circuitous route around the Goldman Sachs Group. Quite quickly, my former student made it clear that I wouldn’t want to be an employee of Goldman. “I don’t mean you would like it like it,” he said. “I mean you would like it as a thing to talk about. Because it is really religious.” I asked him what he meant by that, and he offered a couple immediate examples. People believe in Goldman more than anything else; the structure of relationships within Goldman is very carefully conceived to include a reflexive decision-making structure; and something about a treasure hunt. He didn’t have a lot of time, and neither did I. He conveyed only that whatever struggles he was having, this was his commitment. Being a Goldman employee was of greater value than his wellness. It (p.247) was the most determining force in his life. It was his worldview. It was how he organized not only his workday but his description of what was valuable in life relative to, and other than, work.
I have a lot of conversations with students that include hypothesizing whether something produces a religion or not. Within the last week, students have written or spoken to me about a Snapchat star named DJ Khaled, the baby name Saint West, and Donald Trump’s followers, raising each example to me as a potential subject for my courses. It is not weird for an undergraduate to say to me, “If you think that is a religion, check out this,” at which point I watch a newly popular YouTube video, or get shown some meme that has taken over their social media. These conversations are both serious and unserious. They are serious because I do treat the archive of culture as a repository of religious substance; they are unserious because the fact that I do this has become an easy source of satire.
I did not therefore make a big deal out of this student’s remark about Goldman Sachs. After all, finance wasn’t my idiom. Every subject I had previously researched was one that was available by driving to some archive with business hours, visiting a library, or getting on my favorite search engine. If you wanted to check my sources, you could, easily. Whether I was studying Christian modernists or Britney Spears’s song lyrics, Oprah Winfrey or soap advertisements, my documentary interests have leaned toward the excessively accessible, not the insistently obscure. Goldman was absurdly secretive, and I had been following the financial crisis enough to know that even international investigations had not produced a revelation of material discovery about the firm and its functioning. I am interested in public things, popular things, things that people can use even with limited resources, limited literacy, and limited class privilege. Some scholars of religion are fascinated by the hermetic and the esoteric, by the kinds of organizations that “manifest true zealotry in their desire to keep their secrets hidden.”2 These have not been my interests. So turning to Goldman felt like deciding to study the inner workings of the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors or the Order of the Golden Dawn or Opus Dei.3 People should do it, I thought, but not me. I want to study the things that avail themselves at every turn.
In the months that followed this interaction, I repeated it to several colleagues and friends. In this retelling, I didn’t emphasize the fact that my (p.248) student had pressed me to think about Goldman as a religion. Rather, I focused on how similar his life sounded to mine, like ours, like those with whom I worked at Yale. In the limited things he divulged about being an employee of Goldman, I felt great recognition of my life as an employee of a private university, especially insofar as the brand name of your enterprise so superseded anything particular that you, the individual worker, might do or become. Grousing with colleagues about the corporatization of the university and our complicity with it, I would pull out this anecdote, and ask rhetorically whether we were like or unlike the world’s most famous investment bank.
Because I repeated this story in the places that I did, I would often hear about other Yale students who had gone on to work at Goldman. Or I would hear about a Goldman donor to our university. Or I would hear about a friend whose friend is a managing partner at Goldman. Everything about these references indicates the deeply intimate relationship between the Ivy League and Wall Street. My ability to access any part of Goldman is not coincidentally due to my affiliation with Yale. It is only because of that affiliation. When I would then meet with these connections—alumni, donors, friends of friends—our entire interaction was organized by the fraternalism of this long-standing relationship between elite educational institutions and the elite economic institutions they supply with young talent. “Elite kinship,” as Karen Ho writes, “creates a bridge or network to access finance capital.”4
This relationship, and the resulting cast of participants, is easy to caricature. Consider, for example, this depiction of financial workers:
Plainly, when we look at the heroes (and demons) of the last forty years in global finance, especially in the United States, we cannot see in them much of the spirit of the ascetical Calvinist businessman who was deeply opposed to greed, excess, exuberance, and worldly pleasure in almost any form. Rather, the typical “master” of the financial universe is not a dull or nerdy accountant or lawyer but a gaudy, adventurous, reckless, amoral type who embodies just the sort of avarice, adventurism, and charismatic self-motivation that Weber saw as the absolute enemy of systematic capitalist profit-making.5
Arjun Appadurai here suggests that Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky, and Bernie Madoff are the telling figures of finance. He suggests that the sociology of Wall Street is one just thinly removed from its Delta Kappa Epsilon (p.249) brotherhood. And it may seem easy to accept this account, since it is the one portrayed in Wolf of Wall Street and The Bonfire of the Vanities. It is the portrayal of Wall Street circulated most strongly in popular culture. In it, the passageway between elite universities and elite financial industries is one defined by a kind of bad-boy white fraternalism in which hard partying is the required accompaniment to high-risk trading.
Without a thoroughgoing sociological survey of Wall Street, it is hard to disagree altogether with Appadurai’s caricature. I can only say that in the literature on Goldman Sachs, and in my own encounters with its workers, I met nerds. Nerds who may have homes in France, nerds who had apartments in the exclusive street numbers of Manhattan, but nerds nonetheless: people whose commitment to controlling the world through knowledge greatly superseded any obvious interest in blowing it up at a Mediterranean yacht party.
The surprise of this incongruity between pop profile and individual reality was a key reason I kept agreeing to these conversations. I followed up on inquiries or opportunities for connection out of curiosity about a species of people who were, in some weird sense, now a kind of kin. I wanted to hear about Goldman as a place to work, and about why people worked at Goldman rather than other banks. I wanted the reasons they stayed, the reasons they liked it there. Because I was not recording our conversations, the conversations were more akin to networking encounters, not a grilling session with a journalist. In a couple of instances I wrote down something that was said and e-mailed it to that person after our meeting to confirm it was accurate to our conversation. In each of these instances, the reply was exactly the same: sure, you can use it, but don’t think it means anything. I had accurately quoted them, they explained, but they wanted me to know that those words shouldn’t be taken as telling. Time and again, our conversations indicated to me that the reason I could be trusted—to the extent that I could be trusted—was because I was understood to be a part of an organization equally anxious about privacy and the preservation of its perpetuity. But just because I was treated like kin didn’t mean I understood the family way, and at every turn they reminded me that I just didn’t get it.
This was a committedly noncommittal relationship to ethnography.6 I was honest about my intent as a researcher—everyone knew I wanted to talk about why Goldman is like a religion—but I wasn’t wholly open about my conflicted regard for some of the things they said. I didn’t say if something they said sounded illogical or too quick by half. I just nodded and asked for more. My anthropologist friends say this is normal. But because (p.250) I thought I was getting to know something about estranged cousins, it felt incomplete. I had, merely and pointedly, said I was interested. Interested in how Goldman and Yale are alike, interested in how a corporate entity is like a religion, interested in how the workplace defines contemporary ethics, interested in how individual people reconcile their individuality with the companies to which they attach themselves in ways described properly as intensely devotional.
In her anthropology of Wall Street banks, Karen Ho uses her own experience of being downsized as a bank employee to reflect on the capriciousness of that industry. From this work, Ho is able to offer a stunning profile of banking as a persistent experience of contrariety, from recruitment to downsizing, defined by a tentativeness of commitment to the workers that make its transactions possible. Informed by her first-person encounter with financial fickleness toward its workers, Ho is able to make an observation that it seems unlikely she could have achieved without that involvement. What she finds is that her informants did not see themselves as losers in this economy. Instead, they “viewed themselves as gatherers and purveyors of the capital that forms the foundations and enables the growth and expansion of our largest corporations and public and private works.”7 Enduring in the field of capital without employment security made these employees more confident in their economic importance. As Ho explains:
They understand their lack of employment security as testing and developing their “mettle.” In this context of privilege and insecurity, investment bankers, on a practical level, are incentivized and learn to relentlessly push more deals (usually short-term transactions intended to boost stock prices) on to corporate America. By thus pressuring corporations, bankers transfer their own models of employee liquidity onto corporate America and set the stage for market crisis.8
As a scholar working in a twenty-first-century university, it is impossible to avoid seeing a correlation between the liquidity of the banking industry and that of university life. With the prevailing insecure academic job market, the preparation of a graduate student for postdoctoral survival seems quite akin to this description. Our lack of security seems itself a test of mettle. (p.251) Our insecurity often presses faculty to publish early, to bring their work forward sooner than is sometimes advisable. We don’t make bad financial deals, but maybe in our press to produce we make wasteful arguments, arguments that exist for argument, not for sustainable discourse.
I have gotten ahead of myself. I want only to emphasize the way that Ho may have taken her experiences as a graduate student and as a junior bank employee as critical phenomenological resources in her clear-eyed perception of a diffuse and battering industry. Her anthropological lens is in part the result of her consciousness of liquidity at a very personal register of privilege and precariousness. Ho studied banks, but she knew what she saw in part because she was an academic, an academic considering other options, and someone who had been unemployed after an extraordinarily privileged educational launch into the world. Her hermeneutical panache among bankers derived significantly from her nerd autobiography.
Without an immersive encounter with Goldman Sachs, I decided instead to default here to print and public materials. With the exception of one exchange, what I have written here can be immediately checked against your reading of the texts that I cite in the notes. The existence of a commonly accessible documentary field makes the process of ongoing refereeing possible. You and I can have a discussion about the nature of these interpretations because you, too, can have my archive. As a scholar of religion, what matters to me in this work is to make that evasive something perceptible. This seems especially important, given that so much of Goldman’s history is intentionally not in a public archive.9 How do you debate something that is beyond your investigative reach?
This question is the question when it comes to Goldman Sachs. How do we debate it, when it is so resolutely retreating from our ability to know it? If this chapter offers anything, I hope it is the beginning of a scholarly conversation about a form of industry that survives in part by being inaccessible to scholarly (and regulatory) scrutiny. What happens at Goldman is not unlike what happens at elite universities. Like scholars, Goldman employees hoard facts, cultivate filial ties, and calculate minimal risk in the hypotheses they wager.
The challenge of the public record for Goldman is that it is redacted and highly polemical. It includes business-school textbook descriptions of economic (p.252) events, Wall Street Journal comments on Goldman deals, and testimony by Goldman employees before congressional committees. It includes two detailed, if quite celebratory, histories by industry insiders.10 These sources reveal especially what Goldman represents in the global economy. But this representation is not the same as an objective account of what it is to be Goldman. And I wanted a portrait of being Goldman in everyday life. I wanted the lived religion, the absorbing enclave of geeky people whose ambition was to interpret and resolve the world through the precise management of its scarce resources on behalf of their corporate gain.
In Charles Ellis’s admiring portrait of Goldman, The Partnership (2008), he frequently alludes to some key characteristics that, he argues, define its longevity, including teamwork, frugality, humility, and intensity. Ellis suggests that individual Goldman employees are trained to adhere to certain unstated norms. They are unstated, but Ellis can quickly find sources who will articulate them. He quotes one manager, who reportedly said to junior employees, “Clients are simply in your custody. Somebody before you established the relationship, and somebody after you will carry them on.” Employees are expected to maintain open communication, and employees learn that flashing their wealth is unacceptable. Employees understand that business triumphs are collective, while business failures are solely borne. “Ego management has been a continuing priority at Goldman Sachs,” Ellis explains:
If someone new to the firm says “I just did so and so,” a partner will say, “Excuse me?”
- “I just did a big trade,” the newcomer repeats.
- “Stop. Wrong pronoun. We just did a big trade. Try again.”11
One of the key ways human beings locate one another culturally is through their uses of language. The use of such a plural pronoun—we rather than I—associates the speaker with a larger group. They are component to a whole they don’t entirely control but they do consider themselves a part. Members of particular religious units, especially emerging sects, indicate their membership exactly this way; that is, “we believe,” “we don’t eat that.” Retraining language is essential to the establishment of a religious community. However, to be clear, such language is not as common as it once was; in general, narrow sectarian language has receded as a public religious language.12 Public speech acts, whether on behalf of the state or any corporate sensibility, must be, at least on the surface, nonsectarian. The main way that individuals (p.253) distinguish themselves in such a society is not to reiterate their individuality but to represent their individuality as voluntarily submissive to the whole.
Language is the trade of humanists. This is why I was so surprised when Goldman employees were so diffident when I asked them to confirm their words to me. Whatever quotation I would recite back to them received in reply a shrug. This wasn’t how they were about all topics. They had an array of questions for me as a Yale employee regarding our governance, culture, demographics, and difficulties. In my role as a scholar of religion, they were game to offer free associations about finance and Hinduism, Goldman and the medieval church, stochastic calculus and numerology, associations meant to discern my own acumen as much as to display theirs. Yet, whenever I posed as a researcher about Goldman, I think the kindest thing I could say about their response was that it was bemused. This seems appropriate, given my general lack of acumen about business finance. But it also seems right given their certitude that whatever I said about Goldman, it would be inadequate to what they know about what they do. There was a confident discretion in their gatekeeping, as if what I wanted to know was something that would be kept rightly out of reach. Whatever first-person thing they said to me about this or that was just that—some individual remark not really meaningful to the corporate whole of their enterprise. This commitment to their collectivity was their sectarian privacy.
Thinking of this remoteness, I thought of the quiet that often exists around long intimate partnerships, the privacy of confidentiality that is not exposed to public light. Goldman employees knew that I could come to know some surface things about what they are, but that the thing I most wanted to understand would always be just beyond reach. A novelist could conceive it, a filmmaker could try to depict it, but these two would be fantasy facsimiles. The assumption of our exchanges was that we knew where power was, and where it wasn’t. And the strongest power, the biggest in the world, isn’t in telling everybody everything. It’s keeping things private. Goldman’s inaccessibility is the perpetuity of its power.
Because—and I want to underline this, at the outset—every single Goldman person I met demonstrated an uncanny grip of the matter, a knack with the articulation of perception. They all refused to be subjected to anyone’s study without getting some study of their own in return. They were, in a word, smart. Not smart in that schmoozing way of knowing how to handle me, the inquisitor, but smart in that way of world-seeing, like they have figured out where I sit in a kingdom they had mapped out long ago.13 People (p.254) keep connecting me to Goldman employees, I realize, because they want to show me a society that they think I should know, that they think I might like. And quickly I see why. I, a world-mapping humanist, have a lot in common with the world-mapping financiers. We both look out into the world, and have the confidence to imagine we can explain its mistakes. We also think we have some good recommendations for revision.
Even as I write this commiseration, I am haunted by a September 2014 episode of the weekly radio program This American Life, in which listeners heard dialogues between Federal Reserve Bank examiners and Goldman executives, dialogues that suggest that for many Fed employees embedded in banks, regulatory capture is inevitable. “Regulatory capture” is the phrase commonly used to describe a situation where banks co-opt regulators—a kind of governmental Stockholm syndrome. The psychological phenomenon known as Stockholm syndrome, also referred to as capture bonding, refers to a reaction in which hostages develop positive feelings toward their captors, often defending and identifying with them. Humanists have a strange relation to this syndrome, since sympathizing with our subjects—trying to understand their logic as well as our own—is a professional mandate.
Anthropologists have written well of the worry they have about going native.14 Of either confusing their life with that of the contexts to which they are visitors, or being a poor steward of the communities that they benefit from analyzing. I experienced this, in a way, by thinking of what I did and what Goldman employees did as something similar so as to justify the kinship assigned to us by our institutional occupations. But these moments were rare. The more pervasive feeling that I had was one of hustle. When I sat or stood and walked with Goldman employees, the one consistent feature, stronger than anything else, was the press of time. Even if we were together for two or three hours, every speech act seemed to have the meter of an Aaron Sorkin script: commentary, question, punchline, commentary, question, punchline. We moved through words, through the exchange of our thinking, with enormous rapidity. It wasn’t short-shrift, exactly. But it was precisely not ruminative. As a result, the sense I got from these encounters was that this was Goldman. Goldman was a place where every resource would be tapped to maximize the encounter. Statements would be made, questioned, commented on further, and then dismissed. Topics would be raised, abandoned, cycled back to, summarized, and then abandoned. Lingering was for a college seminar. Goldman was for lassoing every wit at your disposal. I began to think of Goldman Sachs as this cadence of (p.255) intense interactivity and dismissal, quick glances and brisk walks and talks and lunches.
What do I make of this affect, of this insistent hustle and exchange? As I’ve reflected on the style of Goldman engagements, I am especially moved by a remark from Bruno Latour, in which he describes the fetish that people—modern people, or Moderns—have for facts. Before I transcribe the quotation, I’ll just remind you that in his significant bibliography on the formation of the contemporary regimes of science, Latour uses the word Moderns to describe a particular posture of authority in society. He is wary of the Moderns, yet also fascinated by them. Why? He writes that the way Moderns function in our world “allows the Moderns to see all other peoples as naive believers, skillful manipulators, or self-deluding cynics … the Moderns refuse to listen to the idols; they split them apart like coconuts and from each half they take two forms of dupery: you can deceive others, and you can deceive yourself. Moderns believe in belief in order to understand others.” He concludes, perhaps surprisingly, “Can we recover their way of thinking for our own use?”15 Latour—master ethnographer of the lab, the statisticians’ nest, the tallying and measuring of the world—here presses us to consider what we might learn from tracking these Moderns, knowing them not simply by their insults (the way they can, sometimes, make us feel pretty lousy—naïve or self-deluding) but also by their clarity. Maybe we can learn something from all that clarity.
Like many organizations, religious, educational, and otherwise, Goldman begins its work with the simple supposition that you should know everything possible about what you want to understand. And, like many organizations, sectarian orders, and corporations, it imagines that once you know all you need to know, you’ll likely choose it. Whether you’re engaging a priest at a Hindu temple or an agent at a Scientology center, you’ll find that a defining feature of things we designate as religion is their total confidence of the totality of their world knowledge. Everything they describe connects to everything else. Religions are never specialized operations—they never only talk about feet, or only offer rituals about childbirth. The word religion describes an epic container, a thing that organizes all of life into and out of certain ideas and rites. The idea is that if you knew everything about Scientology, you wouldn’t be only a little committed; if you understood everything they can explain, you’d be all in, and make it yours.
Goldman is openly, unapologetically totalizing: you’re in or you’re out, you’re a we or you’re still just an I. I offer an initial portrait of Goldman Sachs with a specific emphasis on aspects of its organization that I think tell (p.256) us about how it has survived in the marketplace, and how it is problematic to a broad public that draws devil horns atop its every action. I focus in what follows on the discursive attributes of the Goldman workplace—on how Goldman understands itself and other people (sometimes known as clients, sometimes known as potential clients, sometimes referred to simply as our relationships)—in an effort to sketch a portrait of Goldman Sachs that renders it less impenetrable to our accusations. I want, in other words, to make sense of its sensibility, and in so doing, begin to consider what its incommensurability tells us about our present age.
Every research project includes an encounter with the existing bibliographies on the subject. Quickly, three areas of scholarly interest seem especially pertinent to contemplating the relationship between Goldman Sachs and the history of religion: the history of Jews and finance in the United States; workplace sociology; and social theory of finance. First, you could consider the religious history of the place and time of its origin. In this case, you would research late nineteenth-century New York City, and evaluate the origins of the firm in its ethnic and religious environments. For almost fifty years after its inception, Goldman Sachs’s partners were members of intermarried German Jewish families, the Goldmans and Sachses. When its founder, Marcus Goldman, retired, he left the firm in the hands of his son, Henry Goldman, and his son-in-law Sam Sachs. By the time the firm joined the New York Stock Exchange in 1896, Goldman Sachs was the largest dealer of commercial paper in the United States, with sales nearing $70 million annually.16 Even after members of the immediate family no longer dominated the partnership, another Jewish family, the Weinbergs, occupied many key leadership positions in the firm. “These unbroken chains of succession allowed Goldman Sachs to remain a family firm long after all of the other major Wall Street partnerships had transformed themselves into large public corporations,” Lisa Endlich, a former Goldman partner, exclaims.17
Since Max Weber, it has usually been assumed that industrial capitalism is the stage of capitalist development that superseded the Jewish history of profit-making activities based on money-lending and is of a political character.18 A latter-day Weber, Yuri Slezkine, has reflected at length on the role Jews played in the history of capitalism, commenting:
(p.257) The Jews did not have a monopoly on familism, of course, but there is no doubt that their entrepreneurial success was due to a combination of internal solidarity and external strangeness—and that the only way native entrepreneurs could compete (as it turned out) was by battling kin solidarity and legislating strangeness.19
Writing about the history of socialism in Europe, Slezkine argues that what made Jews especially good agents of any economic program wasn’t an archaic familism but a new version of it in which the family was a building block toward something more cosmopolitan, namely the nation. “In a sense, good citizenship … is a version of the ever vigilant Jewish endeavor to preserve personal and collective identity in an unclean world,” Slezkine provocatively suggests.20
It is inviting to track Slezkine’s words relative to Goldman’s story. With Slezkine, you could argue the sort of thing that Marx argued in On the Jewish Question, or that Weber argued in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, namely that “certain kinds of religious orientations have profound, if unintended, material effects.”21 It would be easy to slip into an essentialist tale of Jewish families giving rise to the close-knit, disciplined partnership that Goldman became. Yet these kinds of writings invariably run up against historical and demographic critique. Any statement about Jews’ ability with entrepreneurship can be countered with archival instances of Jews who were unsuccessful financially, and any celebration of Jewish family ties can be challenged with sociological descriptions of the multiple kinds of households with Jewish members in America. Conflict between Henry Goldman and his brother-in-law Sam Sachs due to differing opinions about World War I (Henry supported the kaiser, Sam stood with the Allies) deteriorated family relations and led to a media firestorm when it became apparent that Goldman was not united in support of Britain.22 Correlating arguments about German Jews and financial culture seem hollow at best, flatly racist or weirdly celebratory at worst.23
US economic history is almost invariably a plural story in which groups intermingle in American streets, markets, and banks. A religious examination of Goldman Sachs would think about the interlocking of its founding Jewish families in a historical context that included an insurgence of what some younger historians of US religion, such as Janine Giordano Drake, Heath Carter, and Chris Cantwell, have recently called “working class religion,” that is, the large number of early Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish (p.258) workers who were united by a common anticlerical disposition and a moral critique of capitalism.24 This religious history would be buttressed by the long-running bibliography addressing the relationship between Protestant churches and Gilded Age economic life, from Henry F. May’s 1949 masterpiece Protestant Churches and Industrial America to Thomas Rzeznik’s 2013 monograph Church and Estate.25 Somewhere between these two bibliographies—between that of Protestant industrialism and that of working-class dissent—sits the story of Goldman Sachs.
Every available history of Goldman repeats the critical importance of family to its origins, with the primary evidence for this being the long marriages connecting a small number of families in New York City. One history suggests that the founding families of Goldman Sachs largely used synagogues not for worship but as centers for German Jewish socializing. “Marcus paid lip service to the Sabbath at the Society Hill synagogue, sure that his mother would be disappointed if he didn’t, and he learned to play baseball on Saturday afternoons,” one family historian writes about the New York piety of the recent émigré Marcus Goldman. About Marcus’s son, Henry Goldman, the same writer reflects:
Contrary to what some may have assumed, in spite of his Jewish heritage, Henry Goldman was no Zionist. He was, in fact, far more partisan to assimilating German Jews into the American lifestyle and regarded Palestine as a sanctuary for persecuted Jews and a seat of Jewish learning, not as a prospective sovereign Jewish state. He revered scholarship and considered organized religion of any kind irrelevant in his life.26
Likewise, it becomes apparent that a significant wing of the family embraced a variety of philosophical views toward religion once Henry’s brother, Julius, married the daughter of Felix Adler, the social reformist who founded the Ethical Culture movement in New York City. Adler established a retreat in Keene Valley, New York, and was part of a circle of theologians, including Henry Sloane Coffin of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, who had settled there and enjoyed interdisciplinary and ecumenical discussions on philosophy, morals, and religion.27
These are shards of a religious history, nothing quite complete, but enough to suggest something about what kind of upwardly mobile immigrants organized Goldman Sachs, and how they assimilated into the American culture within the dramatically changing, rapidly globalizing cultural and intellectual landscape of the second half of the nineteenth century.
(p.259) Yet no matter what this area of historical research shows about the past, it is important to underline how little it matters in the future. Nothing in the contemporary culture of Goldman Sachs suggests something familial. The incorporation of charisma from its founding is complete: today’s Goldman boldly promotes itself as an international assemblage of individuals culled from a meritocratic pool of exemplary applicants, not as relatives connected by any genealogical relation. Talk of its origin as a family business is something Goldman doesn’t promote on its website or in its recruitment materials. It is something the historians recall, as if to try to render familiar and accessible something outsized and incomprehensible.
A second area of research on Goldman as a subject for students of religion would be to consider the organizational operations of the company, the ways that Goldman is a total culture for which its participants gladly—to borrow a metaphor repeated on employee reviews of the firm—drink the Kool-Aid.28 Such a study might focus on the phenomenal array of religious metaphors, disciplinary structures, and ritual habits of the Goldman workplace. When my interlocutor began our conversation with “you must be here about the rabbis,” he was referring to the informal mentoring imperative at Goldman. No junior analysts will survive if they don’t identify, and are not identified by, a senior employee during their initial year, “someone who liked you, thought highly of you, wanted to work with you, mentor you.”29 Rabbi here could be a one-off joke, a contemporary recasting of the firm’s Semitic origins and its multinational pluralist triumph over all the WASP-run operations that once excluded it. No document about investment banking culture, and no interaction with an investment banking employee, did anything other than amplify the list of possible religious metaphors worth deploying when describing the total world of these companies, Goldman being chief among them in seriousness, internal difficulty, and external cachet.
In this sense, the first route to Goldman and the second path intersect. While it is true that the Goldman and Sachs families faded from employee rosters long ago, the firm prides itself on its highly stable workforce. Employees tell me that Goldman’s ability to maintain relations with so many long-term clients is dependent on the number of partners who have been at the firm for more than ten years. There is not a lot of coming and going in the upper echelons. Likewise, employees point to the fact that Goldman is not an amalgamation of many firms, having made only one major acquisition in its history. Goldman extols firm monogamy. “This is why we make an unusual effort to identify and recruit people who, in addition to their (p.260) intellect, share our commitment to leadership in business and to the communities where we work and live,” the firm crows on its website. Employees put it to me differently: we do well and give back, they say, pointing to the number of partners on nonprofit boards of directors. One partner tells me that he doesn’t trust any employee who doesn’t seem to have close friends at the firm, since those friendships indicate that an employee has forged kinship ties. Studying the workplace sociology of Goldman might show how its present intimacy is foundational to its success.
A third way to approach Goldman would be as the high church of what Randy Martin has called the financialization of everyday life. The neologism financialization has not yet been as widely used as the more evocative globalization, but in scope and import they describe substantially coextensive economic developments. Martin quotes Michael J. Mandel’s basic explanation of financialization from The High-Risk Society (1996):
Historically, activities on the financial markets—the buying and selling of stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments—have been regarded as far different from the day-to-day endeavors in the real world. … This distinction is quickly disappearing, as the high-risk society becomes as fluid and as competitive as the financial markets. … The combination of high uncertainty and unrestricted competition is reducing the difference between the real economy of factories and offices on the one hand, and the financial markets on the other. The rules governing Wall Street now apply to the entire economy.
The implication: In the high-risk society, workers, businesses, and countries must start thinking like investors in the financial markets, where the only way to consistently achieve success is to accept risk.30
Whether this development is figured as neutral, malevolent, benevolent, or utopian, financialization represents a colonizing of daily life. Financialization entails a relentless exhortation to “financial self-management” that “leaves no corner of the home untouched,” so that “cradle to grave, dawn to dusk, the oikos of economics returns to its original residence where home organizes both labor and its reproduction.”31 This, for Martin, is something for serious moral concern, and an exploration of financialization would open pathways for philosophical critique of the economic work that Goldman does. Or, we could offer a theological exegesis of the contents of modern economic thought, as the economist Robert H. Nelson has spent the past (p.261) decade producing in his scholarship. This would examine how “the major theories of economics as they developed in the intellectual history of the West can best be understood in terms of one or another of the great contrasting traditions of theology.”32 Nelson has written, “Economists think of themselves as scientists, but [I argue] they are more like theologians. … We economists are … the heirs of Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther.”33 Such an analysis of economics and religion would specifically look at the values inlaid in the Chicago school of economics that have had such an influence on the last thirty years of Goldman Sachs strategy, and would, perhaps alongside Nelson, consider the hermetic principles of such alchemy.
These bibliographies indicate how we explain religion: through historical, anthropological, and philosophical examinations that seek to draw contextual and metaphorical connection. Religion isn’t something that can be solved with one lens, or stated in a single sentence. To get at its modes of containment, you need to grab for many containers; to get at its claims of freedom, you need to identify many thruways.
Goldman Sachs was founded in 1869, when a German Jew named Marcus Goldman hung out a shingle, “M. Goldman,” and advertised himself as a banker and broker of IOUs for the tanners and jewelers along Maiden Lane in New York City. By buying promissory notes at a discount in the morning and selling them to banks in the afternoon, he enabled merchants to raise short-term working capital at attractive rates and, at the same time, to garner handsome commissions for him. The notes, originally referred to as trade bills, later came to be known as commercial paper.34 Commercial paper summarizes an ongoing transactional feature of investment banks: an unsecured, short-term debt instrument is issued by a corporation, typically for the financing of short-term liabilities. Today the Goldman Sachs Group Inc. is an American multinational bank holding company that provides a wide range of financial services to a substantial and diversified client base which includes corporations, financial institutions, governments, and high-net-worth individuals. It is a publicly owned entity regulated by the Federal Reserve. It covers about 2,750 companies worldwide and over fifty national economies. Goldman has been called “the most profitable securities firm in Wall Street history.”35
(p.262) Understanding what Goldman is and does is one of the greatest problems in its assessment by social observers and in its regulation by governmental authorities. As Michael Lewis has noted, the financial system has gotten so complex that regulators must have it explained to them by the financiers who create it.36 In her celebratory history of Goldman Sachs, Lisa Endlich describes the activities of Goldman as highly diversified, and quite legible: “The firm, among other activities, traded coffee and lumber, underwrote bonds and stocks, arranged mergers, and invested its own capital in growing businesses.”37 This makes what Goldman does seem simple, when in fact its success is anything but:
Of the many ongoing mysteries about Goldman Sachs, one of the most overarching is just how it makes so much money, year in and year out, in good times and in bad, all the while revealing as little as possible to the outside world about how it does it.38
There are scholars whose knowledge of arcane materials is such that publishers have a hard time finding people able to referee their materials—so obscure is their archive, only they have it mastered. Researching Goldman is not unlike trying to upend such a sage elder of arcana. Students begin with the basic humility that whatever they know, members of the firm have been in its hexagonal rooms for a lot longer than they. David and Goliath is not quite the right casting. It is more like being the new librarian at “The Library of Babel” described by Jorge Luis Borges.
It seems best, then, to start from the outside in. To start from the things we know before we start plundering the hexagonal rooms. Of the many words associated with Goldman, one word used in recent years has been enduring. Goldman persisted through all the major economic crises of the twentieth century, and strongly through the harshest one of the twenty-first. Why do certain institutions endure, and others do not?
This is a particular kind of question, one that focuses on duration as a metric. I do not see duration as necessarily a marker of positive value. We use the word sometimes in a positive way, remarking positively about an enduring marriage or enduring hope. But I want to flatten the word to counter any affirmations of durability with a critical sensibility. One of the most prominent questions in post-9/11 scholarship on religion has been to ask how and why religions have endured. Why is there still religion in the twenty-first century? Why are there religions marked by violent, public actions, religions (p.263) often labeled strong or fundamentalist? The presumption of such a question is the sense that better reason ought to have prevailed. What keeps people in something despite everything? This is my question, one obviously formed in no small part due to the raging conversations about the secular, the secular that hypothetically removes us from the hold of tradition, of institution, or traditional relation or institutional autocracy. In the midst of the sex abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church, many pundits asked: why do people still go to church? After hearing about yet another divorce, you may ask: why on earth do people still marry? And after contributing to, being witnesses of, and being involved with multiple financial crises, how on earth is Goldman still standing (not just standing, but thriving, dominating, standing as sui generis in the world of finance)?
I connect here many images of institutions—denominational, financial, and relational—and I’ll add one more, namely our own: the university as a frame for our work, the university as a kind of test case of institutionalization. How do we exist? And will we exist for much longer?
I want to pull your mind to think about the difference between ideas or relations that become institutions, and ideas or relations that fade as mere historical curios. Why do rabbinical councils continue to hold sway, and Karaite Judaism is nothing but a minor movement? Why does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continue to grow, and the Strangites have but two known congregations? Sociologists have made the study of new religious movements one of rich answers to these inquiries, and I will apply some of those analytic frames to consider how it is that Goldman endures, and what its endurance reminds us about the definitional facts of institutions. Scholars who look at successful sects emphasize how new religions endure if they include a new synthesis of truth, foster strong relational ties, and bind the community together through a sense of distinction from the broader society.39
And I want to be clear, unless there is any confusion: Goldman endures. Its stock price shot up nearly 40 percent in 2013, despite the choppy performance of its fixed-income unit and continued uncertainties around tightening banking regulations.40 Goldman did not easily survive the financial crisis. The crisis produced many hours of self-scrutiny within the firm. But this self-analysis only shored up its domination, positioning it as the bulletproof post-crash colossus. Given our sense of constant institutional crises, given our sense of constant institutional battery and loss and gain and loss, and given our general worry that institutions themselves are, perhaps, the (p.264) problem, let me offer several things that Goldman Sachs can teach the study of religion about what makes, and what might break, an institution—religious, educational, marital, or otherwise.
Information is a distinguishing feature of enduring institutions. Institutions can be businesses, universities, people, even concepts. What differentiates a person or a business from other institutions is their representation of something greater than their core service. Businesses that become institutions somehow find a way to become not mere processors of information but producers of vast amounts of it. Through the acquisition and upkeep of names on ledgers, registered participants, and rolls of census data, they acknowledge who associates with the institution. This processing of information never stops. No matter the historical, economic, or psychological contexts, an institution never stops its processes of information collection, information management, and information control.
A large portion of Goldman’s profit comes from trades transacted for mutual funds, pension funds, endowments, hedge funds, and other big institutional investors. For the majority of its transactions, Goldman is a facilitator, making bets on the deals of others. Particularly with the slow demise of proprietary trading, it’s always been true but now it’s almost exclusively true that Goldman’s role is to lubricate the wheels of finance. It takes large principal risk positions within both proprietary books and customer books. As such, two factors are of overwhelming importance: information and relationships.41 Every observer agrees that Goldman has developed extremely close relationships with the largest customers in the market and the largest power brokers in positions of governmental power.42 (The extensive network of top government officials who previously worked for Goldman Sachs is so extensive that led to a nickname for the firm: Government Sachs.) These relationships are Goldman’s primary source of information, and the major reason it can claim a controlling hold of information. “Goldman Sachs believed in and observed the religion of client service,” one former employee would write.43 A central practice of that religion is to cull and analyze information from clients in order to provide precise accounts to those clients of what other connections, deals, or opportunities could be pursued.
To call Goldman an information manager is to understate the case dramatically. Everyone associated with the firm speaks about facts as the primal (p.265) coin of their realm. No fudging. No lying. Know your facts. Such recall is a practical skill in a world of client management, and a necessary imperative in an increasingly regulated financial landscape. Even the apostate Greg Smith praises this feature of Goldman training, recounting:
I liked the fact that the firm took its culture so seriously; I liked that we were learning to be so serious about giving clients correct information. This is what the Open Meeting instilled in us: Don’t make things up; don’t exaggerate. Just be up-front. If you don’t know something, be very skillful at finding it out, and that’s good enough. And if you make a mistake, admit it—immediately.44
Employees throughout the ranks are relentlessly tested on the facts. You will know about that which you speak and fulfill the deal by way of its details. It starts at the top but applies to everyone: “Accuracy about names, dates, and facts is a strong habit—even a compulsion—for investment bankers generally and particularly for the partners of Goldman Sachs.”45 When the summer interns are told to get very specific breakfast orders for fifteen people on the Emerging Markets Sales Desk, this is a component of their evaluation. We can be sure, “Wall Street looks at attention to detail as an indicator of how people are going to do in their job.”46
Goldman employees assume, in some ways, not the facts as facts but the facts as the commensurable grammar of exchange, the way we convey who we are to one another. The title of this chapter, “Do Not Tamper with the Clues,” refers to one of only two rules for Midnight Madness, a scavenger hunt played annually by Goldman employees. Media reports about the event tend to focus on its expense (roughly $270,000 for a single evening of play, raising over five times that amount for charity, etc.). What interests me is the way the rules of the game are a synecdoche for the employees’ work. The game requires teams to solve a series of puzzles placed around New York City. The solution to one puzzle points players to the location of the next puzzle, and so on. All the players receive at the outset a note that reads: “Welcome. There are only two rules to Midnight Madness: 1. Do not tamper with the clues. 2. No private motorized transport.”
A lot of player behavior is driven by mistrust of the thirty-four people running the game, who are collectively known as Game Control. Information is not offered in an advance packet or in an archive of preceding games. No, information emerges through the playing of the game itself. Participants are not informed of the location of the starting line until the (p.266) day of the event. They are not told where the finish line is until they have solved the final puzzle. Nor are they told how many puzzles remain in the game. What they are told is: Do not tamper with the clues. Most players’ default assumption was that Game Control was trying to double-cross them, giving them information that looked like one thing, but needed to be read closely to find the duplicity. The clues are all the truth you need to know, but that truth is not readily apparent. Do not tamper with the clues, since they are all you have. Their potential falsity is an inherent feature of their facticity. Question the facts, but don’t tamper with them; they are what you can think them into being.
Such a game makes sport of clue handling, especially when we know that there is a profound, intense drudgery to most information management. Facts here are object and profession. This is a prescriptive vision for market conception and occupation, enjoining those involved to be not merely informed but also dominant in the consumption of information. You cannot exist in a system unless you make facts a kind of superlative exigency, and you make yourself into someone who could survive any hunt, no matter the surprises. Because there are no surprises if you see the world as endlessly unveiling itself through prices, situations, appraisals. “Much of what happens on Wall Street is terrifically boring,” writes William D. Cohan.47 The work of institutions is the work of managing information, of handling it with a view of the deceptions embedded in the facts. This sometimes seems like an abstract puzzle. Sometimes it seems like a house of cards.
This is an abstract series of statements, when in reality the practice of investment banking is one of ferocious specificity. Goldman Sachs prides itself on being a “mark-to-market” firm, Wall Street lingo for being ruthlessly precise and transparent about the value of securities—known as “marks”—on its balance sheets. Investment banking is an information processing business, moving valuable information around to the greatest advantage of the firm and its clients. Goldman believes that its precision about this information promotes transparency, allowing the firm and its investors to make better decisions. Lloyd C. Blankfein, chairman and chief executive of Goldman, once wrote, “Because we are a mark-to-market firm, we believe the assets on our balance sheet are a true and realistic reflection of book value.” If, for instance, Goldman observed that demand for a certain security or group of like securities was changing or that exogenous events could lower the value of its portfolio of housing-related securities, the firm would lower the marks on these securities and take the losses that resulted.48
(p.267) Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera have written, “The modern Goldman attitude—that there was no conflict it couldn’t manage, no complex product too complex, and few trades the firm should turn its back on—was bound to leave a bad taste in the mouths of people who were not part of Wall Street.”49 If you were on Wall Street, though, you understood that Goldman workers were agnostic toward the clues, toward the deals, toward the trade. Their only imperative was that agnosticism. Take the facts, and manage them, organize them, place them in layered deals, and keep them true. They are our rationality, our common grammar, our ethical supposition. Framing the facts was what defined Goldman’s client relations.
In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, critics suggested that Goldman’s role in the crisis deserved serious federal scrutiny. Goldman would release nine hundred documents, including an e-mail written by Goldman’s chief risk officer on May 11, 2007. The e-mail explained how Goldman would stay in the black while many other banks went down the tubes. It said that Goldman’s decision to mark down the prices on its portfolio of derivatives such as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and synthetic CDOs “will potentially have a big [profit and loss] impact on us, but also to our clients. … We need to survey our clients and take a shot at determining the most vulnerable clients, knock on implications, etc.” Goldman would prove to be correct about the value of these securities—they were worth far less than most of Wall Street was saying they were. Many of the discussions in the wake of the financial crisis focused on how to interpret what Goldman did with this knowledge, and how it protected itself against grievous losses.50 There is a vast bibliography of assertions and counterassertions. A newspaper reported, for example, that Goldman had decided in 2009 to exit the federal government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). In this story, the reporter for the Financial Times suggested that the only reason Goldman converted itself into a bank holding company in 2008 was so that it could be eligible for TARP funds. Three days after this article appeared, Lucas van Praag, a managing director at Goldman, wrote that this report was wrong: Goldman had filed to become a bank holding company one month before the US Treasury announced TARP.51 The reader is left unsure who or what to believe: the newspaper that accused Goldman of (p.268) throwing off its “golden fetters,” or Goldman, who said that nobody got the facts right. Goldman is good at the facts; it’s good at getting the regulations to work to its benefit; it’s good at staying on the right side of the law. Can any of it be seen as wrong?
Supporters of Goldman Sachs would argue that buyers shouldn’t have cared what Goldman’s position was during the financial crisis. Goldman had better information than Lehman Brothers or Bear Stearns, and it made good on that information for its clients. Other banks, the banks that failed or faltered, were responsible for doing their own analysis of the underlying securities. “The deal is the deal,” Dan Sparks, the former head of the Goldman mortgage desk, later told the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.52 That many buyers didn’t do that analysis was not Goldman’s responsibility. “It wasn’t Goldman’s job to protect clients from their own mistakes … Goldman’s job is to protect Goldman’s interests.”53 Goldman says it looks after its interests for all our benefit. If we all watch our interests with discipline, reason, and a commitment to the facts, a right outcome will occur. For Goldman, there is no concept of capitalism that is distinguishable from society, no concept of society distinguishable from the community of people established by coordinated interactions with society. Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein explained this as a contribution to the common good: “We help companies to grow by helping them to raise capital. Companies that grow create wealth. This, in turn, allows people to have jobs that create more growth and more wealth. It’s a virtuous cycle. We have a social purpose.”54
For many people on Wall Street, such claims are not empty talk. A 2010 poll showed that by a landslide, Goldman was understood to be the place most financial professionals want to work. It is, as this report suggested, the ethicist of Wall Street; it is the who’s who that establishes the standard of care, innovation, and prescience by which everyone else is measured.55 Goldman employees reflected this sense of their superiority to me time and again, arguing that they are the firm with the greatest diversity among its employees, the strongest ethical culture within its ranks, and the best record of client service in the business. Some analysis of the financial crisis suggested that if Goldman was as diverse as it argued itself to be, then this might be one of the reasons it survived the crisis. This research argued that price bubbles are affected by ethnic homogeneity in the market and can be thwarted by firm diversity. These findings suggest that price bubbles arise not only from individual errors or financial conditions but also from the social context of decision making; firms with greater diversity have a greater likelihood of internal friction and debate. Such debate enhances (p.269) deliberation and upends conformity.56 If Goldman is the meritocratic palace it proposes itself to be, perhaps this makes it more ethical than the average banking operation?
I want to hold in temporary abeyance the reply that you might have to such a claim, namely that such praise is inherently contradictory. Those who might home in on its contradiction would observe that there can be no ethicists on Wall Street, since Wall Street is nothing but a steroidal locus of capitalism, which is itself an unethical frame for human exchange. Even reputable economists can sometimes partake of this view. For example, John P. Watkins has suggested that on Wall Street, there is no Golden Rule, only the Goldman Rule, which he states as “pursue profitable opportunities regardless of the effects on others.”57
I don’t quickly join Watkins in such an appraisal, because I am interested in the way Goldman employees, with clear eyes and full hearts, absolutely dissent from it. Goldman employees don’t just have a different view of capitalism from Watkins. They have a different view of their occupation of the world relative to this concept of the Golden Rule. I admit to being transfixed by this discursive conflict—between a sense that the system is elegantly occupied and that which says the system is inherently corrupt.
For me, this sort of divergence is precisely where the study of religion has the most to offer. Scholars of religion are especially good at listening to accounts of the world that are totalizing, accounts of the world that have accompanying ritual practices, and accounts of the world that exclude certain communities from participation in those rituals. The tension between those who get to be inside a ritual community and those who are left outside defines much of human activity, theology, and technology. For some scholars, that tension has been described as the maintenance of a distinction between the sacred and the profane. “Religious beliefs are the representations that express the nature of sacred things and the relations they sustain among themselves or with profane things,” Émile Durkheim famously explained in 1912, setting the stage for the modern study of religion as one devoted to the analysis of the perpetuation of that binary.58 Is it merely that financial institutions have different conceptions of the sacred?
As Goldman’s reputation in the general public suffered in late 2008 and 2009, several Goldman spokesmen began to invoke religious themes in their media appearances and public events. “The injunction of Jesus to love others as ourselves is an endorsement of self-interest,” Goldman Sachs international adviser Brian Griffiths said on October 20, 2009, to a crowd in Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. “We have to tolerate the inequality as (p.270) a way to achieving greater prosperity and opportunity for all.”59 In addition to describing his company’s work as having “a social purpose,” Lloyd Blankfein described himself as “doing God’s work.”60 While he later said this was meant as a joke, he also told one of Vanity Fair’s editors that “what’s good for Goldman Sachs is good for America.”61
Institutions need perpetual critique. This critique from the outside reiterates the difference between what they are versus those who are outside of what they are. Goldman’s theological hyperbole about its good—its inherent good, and it’s good for you—occurred precisely in the moment of its greatest evisceration. Perhaps the most dramatic assault came from a lengthy article in Rolling Stone, in which the writer, Matt Taibbi, placed Goldman Sachs at the center of every market manipulation since the nineteenth century, including the Great Depression, the Internet bubble at the end of the 1990s, the housing craze that led to the 2008 financial meltdown, and, most recently, the speculative surge in commodity prices. Calling Goldman a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity,” Taibbi concluded, “the bank is a huge, highly sophisticated engine for converting the useful, deployed wealth of society into the least useful, most wasteful and insoluble substance on Earth—pure profit for rich individuals.”62
The way Taibbi figures Goldman is as outsized as the way Blankfein does. Blankfein thinks he’s God, Taibbi thinks Blankfein is the devil. They each need the other as the Other in order to maintain their categorical differences and their oppositional purity. Goldman’s position as an institution continues, not in spite of critiques like Taibbi’s, but through the underlying assumption of such indictments, namely that Goldman’s power is so powerful, we need mammoth abstractions to capture its domination. God is the squid, the squid is God.
No one at Goldman other than Blankfein would agree that God should be figured in their promotions. This is distinctly the language of a charismatic director, not the language of executive officers or the management committee. A part of the Goldman acculturation is an education in a certain ferocious modesty. The firm knows everything and rules everything (this you know within minutes of meeting any Goldman worker), but it doesn’t show off its wealth or its power in any flagrant way. Goldman office buildings never have the Goldman name on them, and those office buildings are (p.271) invariably understated in their look (describing the new 200 West Street headquarters in New York City, one employee said its baseline aesthetic was “German airport”).63 In his account of Wall Street, the journalist Kevin Roose describes one Goldman employee’s reflections on its offices:
But as much as 200 West Street seemed familiar, it also had an odd sterility to it. Samson wasn’t sure how to characterize it, but something about the building felt fortified—as if the entire place had been sanded down to make it a little more secure and a little less welcoming. The new building felt designed to keep employees and information securely inside, while keeping outsiders at a total remove.64
The fluidity between Goldman and government work makes sense, insofar as Goldman employees are accustomed to feeling simultaneously in charge and compulsively abject about this power. Whatever God they are, whatever theology they practice, it isn’t swaggering as much as it is savvy; it isn’t oppressive as much as it is patient. Invariably, the world will come to them to solve its problem. Their only job is to anticipate your arrival, and to know everything they need to know to answer questions you don’t know yet that you’ll be asking.
Critique is not just external to successful institutions. Durable institutions organize ritual frames for internal dissent. Institutions incorporate radical discontinuity as a component of the substance of the institution. People will change, opinions will change, and markets will change. The institution has as its task the formalization of dissent so that any internal act of critique is a component to the system which propelled it. This is a hard balance to achieve. Institutions can’t survive without criticism. Within institutions, there are often elaborate review procedures to consider complaints against parties. For instance, the Beth Din of America is a court of Jewish law affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America that serves to adjudicate purported violations of Jewish law; likewise, the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, also known as JAG Corps, refers to the legal branch of the US military concerned with military justice. These are highly formalized structures of internal jurisprudence. There are also many smaller practices of interrogation, as in the Oneida Perfectionists, a small sect in the antebellum United (p.272) States founded by John Humphrey Noyes. In that community, mutual criticism was established as a regular practice in which members were subjected to criticism directed at traits which detracted from the unity of the group. These examples demonstrate how groups seek to organize criticism within a given system in order to control its effects. This isn’t easy, since members’ anguish often causes the severest strain in a specific association. Yet criticism must, ultimately, occur in order to preserve the institution. Institutions that manage talent are especially challenged, since a hallmark of talented people can be their idiosyncratic views, their resistance to easy conclusions and their impatience with processes.
Let talent be talent. In his history of Goldman Sachs, Charles Ellis concludes, “At the heart of it all has always been the ability to attract and keep extraordinary people. Of all the firm’s competencies, recruiting must be the most consequential.” As John Whitehead (a Goldman Sachs codirector from 1976 to 1984) says, “If you don’t have the best people, you can’t be the best firm. But if you do have the best people and you train them rigorously, organize them effectively, and motivate them to do their best work consistently, you will inevitably become the best firm.”65 If you read Forbes or Fortune or Bloomberg or Business Insider, this is what is repeated when Goldman is compared to Merrill Lynch or Deutsche Bank or JPMorgan Chase & Co. It gets the big talent. In most ways, all the major investment banking competitors are equals. All firms strive to serve the same customers; all firms use the same computers, telephones, markets, databases, airplanes, hotels, and office buildings; all firms are subject to the same regulations; and they all know one another and can quickly copy one another’s newest services. So with all these equalizers, how can any firm get out ahead—and stay out ahead? The people it gets inside, and how it organizes them once it does. Goldman gets first bid at the best, and this is what it claims to sell. Goldman’s own promotional language reflects this principle of competitive excellence in the first words of its public self-description: “Goldman Sachs is a meritocracy built on the belief that collaboration, teamwork and integrity create the right environment for our people to deliver the best possible results for our clients. When we’re recruiting we look for people who we believe will thrive in this environment, prioritizing quick thinking, passion and communication skills above specific qualifications.”66
And, once it gets them, Goldman organizes its workers in a way that promotes criticism. The easiest way to lose your job at Goldman is if you show yourself to be passive in critique, if you don’t point out mistakes or problems in strategies. Conversations are structured so that consensus occurs (p.273) only once all the criticisms have been aired. Keep analyzing, the culture instructs, and keep doubting. See the trade from all angles. See your weaknesses from all angles. They may have drunk the Kool-Aid, but like many religious traditions, conversion doesn’t mean obedient silence. Rather, it inaugurates relations of mutual criticism that makes Goldman a place “intoxicating” in its intellectual seriousness.67
I was telling a colleague, Eliyahu Stern, about this culture at Goldman. I said that what everyone remarked on was how nice everyone at Goldman was. These weren’t frat boys fist-bumping at strip clubs; these were people committed to a common decorum by a kind of rigid interpersonal kindness. He sent me this quotation, from an eighteenth-century Lithuanian rabbi, Hayyim of Volozhin, who was the founder of the yeshiva movement: “It is permissible to argue with our great teachers who now lie in the ground but whose well-known books are still with us. They themselves gave us permission to duel and fight against them … provided that one takes extra precaution not to treat them disrespectfully or be haughty when disagreeing.”68
This quotation captures exactly the way that form becomes the controlling feature of the Goldman environment. Recruitment focuses on trying to identify individuals who can be “culture carriers,” a phrase used to describe people who could “deal with clients and colleagues in a way that preserves the firm’s reputation.”69 The hiring process invariably includes something more than mere assessments of excellence. It also becomes an evaluation of how the contenders might fit with the firm. Descriptions of “right fit” by any given institution can be a space of significant discrimination. Fit is not just an aesthetic calculation but a determined investment in a concept of culture, a concept of ourselves as components of institutions. We want commitment to our concepts of ourselves as institutions, even more than we commit to our concepts of concepts, as ideas abstractly debated in the marketplace of thought.
Institutions endure because the participants, consciously or unconsciously, desire their continuance. The participants subordinate their individuality for the sake of the brand. They carry the culture of their institution as a component to carrying themselves. Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian philosopher, puts this in a certain way: “Desire inheres to capitalism at a … systemic level: drive is that which propels the whole capitalist machinery, it (p.274) is the impersonal compulsion to engage in the endless circular movement of expanded self-reproduction.”70
For Goldman, such an image of reproduction is why it understands economics not as a game that someone wins but as a science of constraints of which it is a devoted student and scientist. “Someone wins, someone loses” is not Goldman’s view. Goldman does not understand its practice as a practice of gain. It is a science of constraints. Everyone experiences constraints, everyone participates in a system of negotiation between parties. Goldman understands its economics as definitively relational. This does not mean that the firm’s economics is a neutral matrix of determination. It means, according to Goldman, that the system will not work if everyone does not experience some loss and some gain. This is how we become dependent on systems. Not because we lack the enlightenment to perceive our dependency, but because that dependency is in some senses remunerative. We get back something for our submission.
This is why Goldman describes itself as having no more conflict of interest than any other investment banking firm. Indeed, it prides itself on its conservative treatment of clients and client relations under a banner mantra, long-term greedy, which Goldman executives translate to mean “don’t kill the marketplace.”71 The preservation of the market—that is, the relations between parties determined by a variety of constraints—is Goldman’s priority. Its market, your market: it is all the same market. Goldman’s public critique of other economic participants is always articulated in terms of a failure to fulfill this obligation to foster the market. Sharp listeners may hear the echoes of a certain philosophy that does indeed lurk within this dynamic, namely the voice of John Galt. As Ayn Rand, who wrote—in Galt’s voice—in 1957:
I work for nothing but my own profit—which I make by selling a product they need to men who are willing and able to buy it. I do not produce it for their benefit at the expense of mine, and they do not buy it for my benefit at the expense of theirs; I do not sacrifice my interest to them nor do they sacrifice theirs to me; we deal as equals by mutual consent to mutual advantage.72
Like all institutions, Goldman can’t be as sovereign as Galt portrays his individual principles to be. At the end of any transaction, Goldman employees must forge a continuing profitable relation for the firm first (and secondarily for themselves). The firm must exist in the end. In their history of the financial crisis, All the Devils Are Here (2010), Bethany McLean (p.275) and Joe Nocera observe, “[Goldman] had no grand scheme to destroy Wall Street. … Mainly, Goldman’s traders were just doing what they had always been taught to do: Protect the firm at all costs.”73 This bolstering of the firm is why institutions are not just and can never be purely market driven. They have one standing value beyond profit, and that is their existence.
Within Goldman, the tension has been whether the relationship to be preserved is its relationship with clients or the one among its employees. One of Goldman’s critics argues that the firm decides time and again to preserve its own profits above those of its clients. Goldman replies that a profit for Goldman is a profit for the world. One private-equity investor offered this example to explain the situation:
If I’m a [widget] company and I’m using Goldman and they’re analyzing my business information for a potential sale of it or an IPO of it or whatever, and they see that like my daily orders are declining before that information is released to the public on a quarterly basis, well, they take that information and they go, “Holy shit. We need to go short the [widget] industry.” That is their business model! To use their client—and their client relationships—to generate information on which they can trade.74
In response to such a worry about conflict of interest within Goldman, the firm replies that it has thought about this, carefully. And (in the words of the Goldman Sachs Business Principles), “We regularly receive confidential information as part of our normal client relationships. To breach a confidence or to use confidential information improperly or carelessly would be unthinkable.”75
Of course, in the wake of the financial crisis, there was evidence that the unthinkable was thinkable. The standard embrace of conflicts by Goldman was shown to be more ethically challenging than it had imagined. Goldman had argued that conflicts “are evidence of a healthy tension between the firm and its customers,” reported the New York Times. “If you are not embracing conflicts, the argument holds, you are not being aggressive enough in generating business.”76 Yet governmental observers, especially senator Carl Levin (D-MI), were unsatisfied, as this dialogue between Levin and Lloyd Blankfein before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations indicates:
In the context of market making, that is not a conflict. What clients are buying, or customers are buying, is they are buying an exposure. The thing that we are selling to them is supposed to give them the risk they want. They (p.276) are not coming to us to represent what our views are. They probably—the institutional clients we have wouldn’t care what our views are. They shouldn’t care. We do other things at the firm. We are advisors. We manage their money. There are parts of the business where we are fiduciaries.
Yes, and that is the part that’s very confusing to folks, they think you—
They think you are fiduciaries, and then—
Not in the market making context.
Yes, but they are not told that not only are you not a fiduciary, you are betting against the same security that you are selling to them. You don’t disclose that. That’s worse than not being a fiduciary. That is being in a conflict of interest situation.
I don’t think our clients care or they should care what our positions are—
That you are betting against the security you are selling to them? They don’t care?
You say betting against—
Yes, you are betting. You are going short against the very security … I read you over and over and over again, you are selling securities, many of which are described as crap by your own sales force internally … there is an inherent conflict when you don’t disclose to your client that this security you are buying from us has obviously a short side, but we are the people who are keeping the short on this one. We are betting against this security succeeding, and you don’t think that is relevant to a client?
We live in different contexts and this is a professional—this is a market—
I am just calling it in an inhuman context.
In a human context, the markets work on transparency with respect to what the item is. It doesn’t carry representations just of what a position the seller has. Just think of buying from a stock exchange or a futures market. You are not even supposed to know who’s on the other side. You could have the biggest mutual fund in the world selling all its position in something. They could hate it. You would never know that if you were a buyer of a stock. … Liquidity in the market demands transparency, that the thing is supposed to do what it is supposed to do. The people who are coming to us for risk in the housing market wanted to have a security that gave them exposure to the housing market and that’s what they got. The unfortunate thing … is that the housing market went south very quickly … and so people lost money in it. (p.277) But the security itself delivered the specific exposure that the client wanted to have.77
Many observers of this exchange were impressed by Levin’s hardball questions, and perceived Blankfein as evading responsibility. But it should be clear by now that Blankfein was accurately conveying what Goldman sells to its clients. It sells the best of the thing you want. This is a relational exchange. The client asked for risk, asked for financial exposure. Why should Goldman be responsible if the risk of that exposure exposes itself?
As part of a Business Standards review initiated by Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman examined its approach to conflicts that arise in its business and how it could strengthen procedures for resolving them. In particular, the firm reviewed the various ways in which its role in serving one client may intersect with its role in serving other clients or with its own interests. And it decided to enhance disclosure and origination standards for each business unit responsible for originating structured product securities, and to provide explanations in plain language to its clients about Goldman’s conflict resolution and business selection processes, including describing activities it might continue to conduct while advising or financing a particular client.78 In other words, after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, Goldman said: We’ll try to be clearer with everyone about how risky this is. We won’t change what we’re selling. We’ll just do a better job explaining to our clients, and to ourselves, how liquid the whole enterprise is.
Whatever the severity of the interruption, whatever the deconstruction or secularization or immolation that transpires in society, no one is free of institutional dependency. We are all embedded in structures of our containment. We are all hedged. All of us submit ourselves to systems in which we do not hold all the parts. There is no secular safe haven out there wherein we can escape such contingency. We cannot avoid being organized, being structured into financing, being counted in a demographic, being responsible for things in the small print we never knew would hold us accountable.
Let me try to say this in a less absurdly opaque way. Why did the financial crisis happen? Here is a summary of the crisis from the most popular financial textbook for business schools:
(p.278) The availability of very low interest rates was accompanied by the willingness of individuals, businesses, and institutions to take on large amounts of debt. Individuals in the United States were not saving and had borrowed large amounts on their credit cards and their homes in the form of mortgages and home equity loans. Lenders were offering large numbers of subprime mortgages to home purchasers with low credit scores. The deregulation of financial institutions and lax oversight by government regulatory agencies and private debt rating agencies contributed to the severity of the financial crisis. Financial institutions and business firms borrowed large amounts of debt in an attempt to reach out for a little higher return for their investors. Individuals, financial institutions, and business firms failed to “balance” the financial principle relation to “risk versus return” with the result being the taking on of excessive risk.79
Notice how blame is distributed among “individuals, businesses, and institutions.” This view suggests an equality of culpability among those groups. Indeed, the explanation unfolds with careful neutrality, dropping a measure of blame each for individuals, businesses, and financial institutions. The description suggests that no one was more powerful than anyone else. Individuals did their part, so did lenders, and so did government. Our complicity is our connectivity, this explanation suggests, remaining neutral on that connection. Others are, of course, not so mild. Resisting Žižek’s account of desire in capitalism, the political scientist Jodi Dean has observed, “Desire alone can’t account for the persistence of capitalism. Capitalism cannot be reduced to our desire for it. Rather, capitalism persists as a system of practices in which we are caught.”80 Dean turns us away from thinking of ourselves as consumers, and instead frames individuals as captives.
In the documents that Goldman Sachs made available to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the firm stated that it “did not have access to any special information that caused [it] to know that the US housing market would collapse.”81 It explained that its risk management decisions
were motivated not by any collective view of what would happen next, but rather by fear of the unknown. The firm’s risk management processes did not, and could not, provide absolute clarity; they underscored deep uncertainty about evolving conditions in the US residential housing market. That uncertainty dictated our decision to attempt to reduce the firm’s overall risk.82
(p.279) Jodi Dean points us to this passage, and wickedly asks a question that returns us to religion. She writes, “The Goldman Sachs’ report presumes a binary of absolute clarity versus deep uncertainty, of knowledge of what would happen next opposed to fear of the unknown. It’s as if Goldman Sachs’ defense is that it is not God.”83 I hold in check the question of the divine sensibility of Goldman and focus instead on how Goldman here admits its own contingency. It, too, exists in a system that it does not fully control. Goldman says: we did the best we could do, given our principles, given our context, given the facts. And our job—as scholars and humans and citizens—is to decide: would we have done any differently?
For more than two years, Goldman Sachs’s reputation was under fire for its alleged role in the financial crisis. On August 9, 2012, the US Justice Department (DOJ) announced it wouldn’t prosecute the firm. In response to the DOJ’s announcement, Blankfein’s interrogator, Senator Levin, said in a statement, “Whether the decision by the Department of Justice is the product of weak laws or weak enforcement, Goldman Sachs’ actions were deceptive and immoral.”84
It is for us, a public, now to decide whether Levin was right to slap Goldman right before the feds let Goldman go—for the feds to be catcalling as they take off the cuffs. As Richard Posner has recently explained, the financial crisis cannot be neatly blamed on financial industries, since financial industries were, by and large, functioning within the (wrongly drawn, by his view) parameters of the law. Deregulation was the problem, he argued, pointing the finger back at figures like Levin. “The movement to deregulate the financial industry went too far by exaggerating the resilience—the self-healing powers—of laissez-faire capitalism,” Posner said.85
Goldman agreed. In his testimony before Congress, Steven Strongin, head of research at the firm, would report:
Some financial firms used the relatively favorable rules around securitization to reduce the capital held against poor quality loans. They also made their balance sheets appear healthier than they were by reporting that they were holding “good” public securities, rather than the high risk loans underlying these securities.86
The combination of these actions taken by some financial firms left the system under-capitalized and brought the balance sheets of all financial firms into question—regardless of whether a specific firm had engaged in these questionable strategies. … It is precisely this loss of faith in the balance sheets of all financial firms that moved this problem from an institution specific crisis into a general one, and caused all firms (healthy or not) to require government assistance.87
It is precisely this loss of faith in the balance sheets of all financial firms that moved this problem from an institution specific crisis into a general one. Acquiring the right facts, maintaining strong relations, absorbing critique—institutions need all these things. But more than anything else, Strongin suggested, institutions also need something quite intangible. Our belief in them.
Why do you keep going to church? Why do you stay in that marriage? Why do you buy a house for which you can’t afford the down payment (and why did it get sold to you)? Faith creeps into answers, clumsily and embarrassingly. Because maybe there is a good here. Because I want to believe. The roots of credit in faith, evident in the general appearance of financial services today, constitute what Marieke de Goode calls “a genealogy of finance,” whereby our confidence in money is established through all manner of religious and artistic representation.88 In this moment in his testimony, a Goldman Sachs employee says it so we can all hear. At some point, what an institution does ceases to matter. What matters is what you believe about what it, the institution, can do. He suggests that institutions can’t be institutions unless we are somehow, somehow despite ourselves, latched onto them, believing in them.
“You must be here about the rabbis,” he says, arranging his Blackberry in line with his napkin, straightening his fork to be perfectly parallel with his place setting. “Well,” I say, “not exactly. I know that there is an intense (p.281) culture at Goldman, and I guess I want to understand what that culture produces. What do you think is the thing Goldman makes?”
“That’s easy,” he replies, knee jiggling under the table. “We reply to the limits of the markets and we organize its exchanges.”
“For the whole economy?” I laugh. “Aren’t you worried that makes you sound like God, or Oz, or Donald Trump?”
“No,” he says, pointing his finger in my direction, very serious, and not a little proud. “If you knew what the economy was really like, I think you’d be asking whether that makes me a mobster. That’s why we were investigated, and that’s why we got to keep going: because the line between a mobster and a rabbi is entirely in how you understand the law, and we are, like the rabbis, really, really good at reading the law.”
“I know I said I wouldn’t quote you, but can I quote you on that?”
“Sure,” he says. “But be sure you mention that I think the Old Testament god was a mobster. That’s why I stopped going to synagogue long ago.”
Like all scholars, I tend to look for certain things more than others. In my work, I am seeking to offer a profile of the present, and I do so through a variety of histories of the word religion. I choose this word with a little wickedness. It is a word people have spilled no little ink deriding, and one over which many people claim we have spilled no little blood defending. On both points (derision and defense) there are even more words. Is religion finally an unsalvageable category? Is what they’re fighting over really about religion? I invite those discussions. I invite your sense of what religion names in this time and place. I invite those discussions because I think if we have them, we may begin to reply to both the derision and the defense. We will begin, in other words, to see what we value.
The thing I found most moving about Goldman employees—in reading their vast testimony before multiple national government committees, in consuming their web presence through blogs and message boards, or in finding in their apostate literature accounts of their experiences—was the way they felt unabashed about their work. In religious studies, we might speak of their piety, reaching for a word to describe the way they can be simultaneously very wakeful, critical, and thoughtful about every deal, yet never finally question the soundness of their overarching institutional enterprise. (p.282) “This is a good place to work,” you hear, time and again. “These are good people, smart people, working to the maximum of their capacity.”
Religious studies is a field of inquiry committed to understanding this devotion with a neutral eye. Scholars of religion have explained a wide variety of human practices, including acts of violence and submission, with a quietly steady interest in understanding the theological, ritual, or historical logic that makes someone sacrifice an animal to a deity, or wage war with an entire community of people. Take the facts of the case, and show how the case can be made.
It is very easy to imagine that animal sacrifice or holy crusades are something other people do out there. It is easy to believe that we occupy an era after miracles, after divine prophecy, and after spiritual calling. It is easy to be disenchanted, even cynical, about everything. About what collectives can do, and what our values might be.
Universities are places where it is rare to hear people speak with easy fondness about their institutions. Very often you hear resignation about and disdain for their employers. This is a critique inlaid with examples indicating how far their institutions have fallen from the ideal of higher education. Goldman employees like where they work. We could call this a dislikable greed, a moral bankruptcy, or a convenient delusion. If you want to find hatred toward Goldman, there is plenty of it, filling Tumblr pages and Twitter feeds, sitting in comic punchlines and newspaper editorials. Rather than sit in that aversion, I ask what other institutions besides Goldman could we imagine to be worth creating, and worth sustaining? What kind of culture carriers are we now, in this epochal time, in this geographic place? And what do we think our work, our culture, our commitment, is supposed to make, to do, out there? If we do not have answers, if we do not have institutional actions commensurate with our answers, I ask, finally: why are we here? And what do we see of the world from where we stand? “So long as the actions of the masses are not commensurate with the reach and effectiveness of the media, dissent will continue to be atomized, and group behavior erratic, connected more by consumption than by communitarian desires,” writes the anthropologist Néstor García Canclini.89 Goldman persists because it has made—for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health—a religion. If its religion isn’t ours, what is?
(1.) In Karen Ho’s ethnography, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), she makes the same point, citing a Yale Daily News article that says, “If you go to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, there are really only two career fields presented: banking and consulting” (p. 43). See also Josh Duboff, “Six College Students Create Job-Search Site,” Yale Daily News (11 February 2005), http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2005/02/11/six-college-students-create-job-search-site/.
(2.) Charles T. Mathewes, “Religion and Secrecy,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74, no. 2 (June 2006): 274.
(3.) Julius H. Bailey, “The Final Frontier: Secrecy, Identity, and the Media in the Rise and Fall of the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74, no. 2 (June 2006): 302–23; Alex Owen, “Magicians of the New Dawn,” chap. 2 in The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 51–84; Bethany E. Moreton, “Opus Dei and the Transnational Catholic Cold War,” unpublished paper given at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, 6 January 2013.
(5.) Arjun Appadurai, Banking on Words: The Failure of Language in the Age of Derivative Finance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 46.
(6.) Karen Ho’s remarkable Liquidated, the single best ethnography of financial life, exhibits the extraordinary analytic opportunities for ethnographic research in this arena. Her work also reiterates the contexts of privilege that make conceivable an intimate access to this industry. In a considerable opening discussion of her method, Ho describes how she cultivated a broad range of informants for her work. She took a leave from her graduate work at Princeton and got a job at a Wall Street investment bank, Bankers Trust New York Corporation, where she would ultimately work for one year. Her job focused on workflow efficiency, allowing her access to the multiple departments of that bank in her effort to improve operations. During this time, she extended her alumni networks—already existing from her undergraduate days at Stanford and her graduate work at Princeton—among multiple institutions on Wall Street. After six months at that job, she was downsized, though would continue to work on a particular downsizing project, focused again on worker efficiency, for another six months. After a year off (during which time she returned to Princeton to write grant proposals, defend her dissertation prospectus, and garner human subjects’ approval), she engaged in seventeen months of fieldwork from February 1998 until June 1999. She describes this fieldwork as one specifically not defined by a single-site immersion but instead was one of “polymorphous engagement” (a conceit borrowed from Hugh Gusterson’s work). The sites of this fieldwork were therefore quite many: she relied on many interviews with contacts already established, and she expanded and deepened these connections (p.338) by “shadowing” individual bankers and attending industry conferences, panel discussions, and networking events. She reports that she had “little trouble” creating a “sizeable network of informants, especially through the process of direct referral.” Through her undergraduate connections, for example, she had a “fairly close relationship” with a former senior vice president at Lehman Brothers. Her identity politics and activist interests (involved as she was with ethnic studies organizing at Stanford, as well as Sponsors for Educational Opportunity at Princeton) allowed her particular access to nonwhite bankers and other financial workers. All her informants were given pseudonyms, but the institutions for which they worked were not. Ho, Liquidated, 13–22.
(9.) The only publicly available archival materials related to Goldman Sachs are not archives of their operations. They are, rather, a collection of public statements by Goldman or an assemblage of newspaper clippings about Goldman. Of the former variety, there is the Goldman Sachs Foundation archive, a small sheaf of materials in the Ruth Lilly Special Collections at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis that includes the public statements Goldman has made since 2002 about its philanthropic arm. The Brooklyn Museum of Art archive also holds one folder of materials that include announcements, clippings, photographs, press releases, brochures, reviews, invitations, and small exhibition catalogs for those events sponsored by Goldman Sachs. In addition to these two minor archival collections, oral histories from Walter Edward Sachs (partner at Goldman starting in 1928) and Edward Schrader (partner at Goldman starting in 1936) are available at Columbia University. The Museum of Modern Art and Harvard University Art Museums Archives contain papers of Paul J. Sachs, grandson of Goldman’s founder, who himself became a partner at Goldman and director of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard.
(10.) Lisa Endlich’s Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success (New York: Touchstone, 1999) is written by a former vice president at Goldman, and offers an especially enthusiastic look at how the culture at Goldman has contributed to its persistent leadership position in the market; Charles D. Ellis’s The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs (New York: Penguin, 2008) is written by a leading American investment consultant and the founder of Greenwich Associates, a research firm that offers market consulting for financial services. With overt admiration for the firm, these works function quite analogously to denominational histories: extremely useful for their historical data, and quite telling in the aspects they choose to promote as especially consequential to Goldman’s endurance.
(12.) Vernon L. Bates, “Rhetorical Pluralism and Secularization in the New Christian Right: The Oregon Citizens Alliance,” Review of Religious Research 37 (1995): 46–64.
(13.) Karen Ho describes well this “culture of smartness” on Wall Street, which—she argues—is “not simply a quality of Wall Street, but a currency, a driving force productive of both profit accumulation and global prowess.” Ho, Liquidated, 40.
(14.) Clifford Geertz, “From the Native’s Point of View: On the Nature of Anthropological (p.339) Understanding,” in Culture Theory: Essays on Mind, Self, and Emotion, ed. Richard Shweder and Robert A. LeVine (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 123–36; Renato Rosaldo, “From the Door of His Tent: The Fieldworker and the Inquisitor,” in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, ed. James Clifford and George E. Marcus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 77–97; Kirin Narayan, “How Native Is a ‘Native’ Anthropologist?,” American Anthropologist, 95, no. 3 (September 1993): 671–86; John Tresch, “On Going Native: Thomas Kuhn and Anthropological Method,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 31 (2001): 302–22.
(15.) Bruno Latour, “fetish-factish,” Material Religion 7, no. 1 (2011): 47.
(18.) Jack Barbalet, “Max Weber and Judaism: An Insight into the Methodology of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” Max Weber Studies 5.2/6.1 (July 2005/January 2006), 51–67.
(19.) Yuri Slezkine, The Jewish Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 43.
(21.) Max Stackhouse, foreword to Economics as Religion from Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond, by Robert H. Nelson (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001), ix.
(22.) June Breton Fisher, chap. 5 in When Money Was in Fashion: Henry Goldman, Goldman Sachs, and the Founding of Wall Street (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 89–118; William D. Cohan, Money and Power: How Goldman Sachs Came to Rule the World (New York: Anchor Books, 2011), 37–40; Ellis, The Partnership, 14–15.
(23.) For an excellent example of the kind of work that queries overconfident claims about the relationship between Jews and capitalism, see Francesca Trivellato, “Credit, Honor, and the Early Modern French Legend of the Jewish Invention of Bills of Exchange,” Journal of Modern History 84, no. 2 (2012): 289–334. There have been very good recent studies that explore caricatures of Jewish economic practice, most of which conclude that economic history never is a simple story of ethnic innovation or unified triumph. Rebecca A. Kobrin, ed., Chosen Capital: The Jewish Encounter with American Capitalism (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012); Rebecca A. Kobrin and Adam Teller, Purchasing Power: The Economics of Jewish History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015); Rebecca A. Kobrin, “Destructive Creators: Sender Jarmulowsky and Financial Failure in the Annals of American Jewish History,” American Jewish History 97, no. 2 (Spring 2013): 105–37; Eli Lederhendler, Jewish Immigrants and American Capitalism, 1880–1920: From Caste to Class (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
(24.) Janine Giordano Drake, “‘Working Class Religion’: A Thing unto Itself?,” Religion in American History (blog; 9 February 2014), http://usreligion.blogspot.com/2014/02/working-class-religion-thing-unto-itself.html.
(25.) Henry F. May, Protestant Churches and Industrial America (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949); Thomas Rzeznik, Church and Estate: Religion and Wealth in Industrial-Era Philadelphia (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2013).
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