Self-Reliant Subjects of Finance: Investing and Borrowing in Working-class Households in Contemporary Capitalism

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Mulcahy, Niamh 

This thesis examines the integration of households within finance markets in the United Kingdom, through increasing reliance on personal investment and borrowing, in order to understand how finance and risk have been rationalised as effective ways to make ends meet in the subjectivation of individuals and households. Against declining public provision of welfare services, many households invest in unit trusts and private pensions to provide for their futures, while the expansion of retail banking services during the 1980s has enabled the proliferation of borrowing for loans, mortgages and credit. These developments accompany a growing discourse in the UK about the importance of self-reliance and entrepreneurialism among the middle and working classes in creating a prosperous economy. I thus draw on accounts of financial restructuring in Britain, as well as national indicators on investment and borrowing patterns among households, to chart the rise of the entrepreneurial subject leading up to the financial crisis of 2008. These accounts, however, reveal striking disparities between middle- and working-class engagements with finance, with the latter overwhelmingly saving and investing less for their futures, while they tend to borrow more than they can reasonably expect to repay. This, I argue, represents the limits of financial subjectivity, with working-class subjects of finance restricted in their ability to save and borrow by structural inequalities such as stagnating wages or precarious employment. The thesis therefore approaches the issue of contemporary financialised inequality from a critical realist perspective, in order to examine the causal mechanisms underlying the shift to financial subjectivity, and the potential for change contained within new forms of stratification.

Lane, Christel
subjectivity, sociology of finance, financialisation, inequality, class, critical realism, political economy
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Canada)