The Play Ethic and The Financial Crisis
For those of us whose topic is the cultural, psychological, and evolutionary reality of play in the human condition, the financial crash of 2008–2009 only confirms the ambiguous and paradoxical nature of our subject.
One can cite immediately the self-description of many financial agents in this environment as players in the financial game themselves, part of a long tradition of sportive and contestive metaphors in Western business culture.1 The oeuvre of the journalist Michael Lewis, which moves effortlessly between casino capitalism and sports studies, is exemplary here.2 In his classic writings on the organization man of midcentury America, William H. Whyte notes that when business uses sports metaphors, “the goal of sports activity is always unambiguous.… Participants do not come together to discuss or debate the ends for which the activity has been established, but rather take this end for granted and apply themselves in a single-minded fashion to the task of developing the most efficient means to achieve the predetermined, unchanging and noncontroversial end: winning.”3
What’s interesting in Whyte’s quote is the implication that contestive, zero-sum games as a framework for finance are not the only way that participants in a marketplace might come together. Discussion or debate on “the ends for which the activity has been established”4—what mainland Europeans might easily call stakeholder capitalism or South East Asians the infinite game of the keiretsu—is not within the autotelic purview of the AngloAmerican financial player.5 They are focused on their own and/or their