The common places of alternative finance: assemblages, stoppages, and the political mobilisation of space

Daniel Seabra Lopes
Department of Social Sciences, ISEG-Lisbon School of Economics and Management, University of Lisbon, Lisbon, Portugal

Published in JOURNAL OF CULTURAL ECONOMY 2022, VOL. 15 (1), pp. 103-120 https://doi.org/10.1080/17530350.2021.1974071

This article reflects on the role of physical settings in the inculcation of militant practices consonant with specific discourses. To do so, it draws on firsthand empirical information derived from a multi-sited ethnographic case study of an international cooperative that formed in Europe in the aftermath of the Euro crisis and deployed decentralised cryptocurrencies and alternative digital banking. Here, space is viewed as a relevant material resource that can be occupied and organised to enable the telling of a particular story of revolution, redistribution, and horizontality, while simultaneously helping to actualise that story. The materiality of space is thus related to its expressivity and seen as contributing to both an experience of militancy and the recurrence of the underlying political tale. This approach stresses reminiscence rather than becoming; the existential dimensions of interaction and affection rather than the ontological one of ever-evolving sociotechnical assemblages. On such grounds, the article proposes the concept of stoppage to account for the repetition of specific spatial dispositions that configure extra-institutional immersive environments.

Fintech, space, assemblage, narrative, politics, ethnography

Daniel Seabra Lopes danielslopes@iseg.ulisboa.pt Department of Social Sciences /CSG-Research in Social Sciences and Management, ISEG-Lisbon School of Economics and Management, University of Lisbon, Rua Miguel Lupi, 20, Lisbon 1249-078, Portugal

Over the last decade, a defiant tale of horizontal politics has emerged, highlighting the value of direct democracy, grassroots economy, and reproductive labour in opposition to the centralised bureaucratic-institutional order of the state, the competitive ethos of market actors, and the speculative drive of financial capitalism. Triggered by the Greek (in 2010) and Spanish (in 2011) anti-austerity movements, as well as by the collective mobilisations of the Arab Spring (also in 2011), this tale gained a new impetus with the Occupy Wall Street protests that began in September 2011 in New York, and shortly thereafter encompassed other cities in the U.S. and the world (Graeber 2014 [2013], Szolucha 2017). While the reasons behind these events were certainly diverse, it is nevertheless possible to associate at least the movements in Europe and America with the aggravation of socioeconomic asymmetries following the 2008 financial crisis. Alongside recourse to Web 2.0 social media as mobilisation platforms, the protests involved the physical occupation of urban squares, parks, and streets, which were subsequently transformed and adapted to the political goals at hand, thus actualising the tale and making utopia more real (Juris 2012).

This article follows the trail of those protests and seeks to further analyse the relevance of spatial practices and their relationship with virtual, online spaces in perpetuating that same political tale in [104] the period following the eviction of the occupied public squares and parks. It does so by focusing on a special type of spatial disposition that, while collective, is neither public nor institutional and, though it shares some features of domesticity, neither properly exclusive nor private. Drawing on firsthand empirical information derived from a multi-sited ethnographic case study of an international cooperative that formed in Europe in the aftermath of the Euro crisis, the article will reference three specific buildings – two located in cities and the third in a national park – and a series of virtual domains, describing how each is temporarily used by members of this group. The focus is largely interactional, exploring the agency of both physical and online spaces beyond their logistical role of accommodating people and infrastructure. More precisely, this article will argue that spaces—from screens to desks, and rooms to entire floors of buildings—are crucial for the prefiguration that is performed by the same political story of redistribution and horizontality that inspired earlier protests and which also underlies this cooperative movement. In other words, such reconfigured spaces emerge as expressive materialities that enable the retelling of that story while also contributing towards rendering it more real in the days following eviction.

An additional empirical novelty provided by this study regards the fact that, while most anti-austerity and Occupy protests were straightforwardly against finance, banks, and legal tender money – understood as quintessential instruments of the predatory capitalist order that needed to be overthrown – the cooperative here depicted goes a step further and deploys fintech to reconfigure banking and money, turning them into potentially liberating tools within a particular activist agenda, as well as into motifs of a wider political tale. Nevertheless, the main interest of the present article lies in the relationship between spatial practices, political prefiguration and the reminiscent quality of tales as stories that linger in the collective memory and are susceptible to re-activation in times and situations in which their meaning resonates more strongly (see Benjamin 1969 [1936] and the introduction to this special issue).

While partially drawing on the literature on assemblage and the social studies of finance for the ethnographic examination of spatial practices, the analysis developed here also offers some new insights. By conceiving of specific spatial dispositions as ingredients, or motifs, of a larger political story, it seeks to overcome dichotomies between the practical, material world of things and subject-based perceptions or representations (see Thrift 2007). To this end, it explores what could be called the materialities of expression, thus bringing together that which certain literature on assemblage tends to conceive as two extremes of the same axis or dimension, or two different types of components (DeLanda 2006, p. 12). Furthermore, the dialectic link between recurring spatial dispositions and a recurring tale opens a perspective on that which tends to repeat itself in immediate, momentaneous political action – or what Szolucha (2017, pp. 117-120) calls the here and now of praxis and experimentation – thus refraining from emphasising heterogeneity, potential, movement, and becoming as properties of assemblage. Finally, by drawing attention to new financial practices that evolved outside banks, trading rooms, and other institutional contexts, this article widens the political scope of spatial practices and reveals elements traditionally dismissed by the social studies of finance (Beunza and Stark 2004, Hardie and MacKenzie 2007, Lépinay 2011, MacKenzie et al. 2012). These ideas will be further detailed in the following section and in the rest of this article.

The article proceeds with a theoretical overview that cuts across the fields of philosophy, human geography, sociology, and anthropology to question the canonical distinctions between space, place, representation, and practice, before discussing the concept of assemblage. The second section after this introduction presents the cooperative – Faircoop – and takes the reader on an ethnographic journey through three particular places in three different European countries in which activities related to the cooperative and its disruptive financial projects are ongoing, before analysing the spatial practices at stake and advancing the concept of stoppage to make sense of these occupations. The third section then relates the cooperative’s spatial activities to its websites and online communication platforms in order to discuss the complementarity between the virtual and physical realms. [105] The fourth section discusses the theoretical implications of the empirical findings, while the last section recapitulates the main findings and concludes the article.

Space, power, and social practices: from institutions to agencements and back
The history of social thought is long and rich in terms of conceptualisations of space, with contributions ranging from the works of founding figures such as Durkheim, Simmel, or Park, to modern classics including those of Foucault, Appadurai, and Augé. One persistent topic regards the distinction between space and place, according to which ‘space’ refers to a neutral, abstract extension of the earth’s surface and a general coordinate for human life; ‘place’, by contrast, constitutes a particular spot endowed with a proper physicality, stemming from the combination of both natural and built environments and a history and an identity of its own, with all these aspects resulting from eventful interactions among successive groups of people (Gieryn 2000, Cresswell 2004, pp. 5-10, Massey 2005, p. 139-140, Low 2017, p. 32). Of course, not all authors agree with this terminology. For instance, Henri Lefebvre (1974) distinguishes instead between abstract (or Euclidean) space and social (or organic) space on broadly the same grounds. Additionally, and as noted by Low (2017, pp. 13-15), there are authors who still treat the two concepts as synonyms or apply them interchangeably, while others separate them while still accepting some degree of overlap. However, the main problem with this distinction arises from how, after accepting that place is any location enlivened by practices and endowed with meaning, space then becomes hard to identify – to name or locate space according to plans, maps, or geographic coordinates would be to insert it into a web of meanings and practices and thereby transform it into a place. Only a Kantian view of space as an a priori condition could save it, it would seem, from being converted into place. Yet, such a view reifies both space and place, and is thus incommensurable with ideas of space as practiced or produced and practices as spatialised. Therefore, in the rest of this article, I will employ the two words – ‘space’ and ‘place’ – to refer to certain spots physically occupied by a group of people while also distinguishing these spots from the two-dimensional (or virtual) domain of screens, websites, apps, and pads.

The idea of space as produced and a producer of practice goes back at least to Walter Benjamin’s (1982) analyses of nineteenth-century Paris in his posthumously published Passagen-Werk. Here, Benjamin carefully relates specific materials to the uses of space, showing how the novel iron and glass buildings of exhibition halls, arcades, and railway stations promoted flâneur itineraries and stories, just as the office interior assisted rational investment activity or the bourgeois domestic space favoured the accumulation of personal property and the hobby of collecting. Space has agency and power, thus moulding specific practices and specific narratives. Foucault (1975) also sought to investigate the spatial features of power, which he conceived – in a Nietzschean fashion – as a positive but rather unstable relation of forces operating at a micro level. Although power had no specific locus for Foucault, institutions could nevertheless temporarily fix it through both visible-structural (e.g. the prison) and discursive-expressive (e.g. the penal code) elements – although the articulation between the two dimensions was never perfect, and power would eventually transcend any institutional boundary (see Deleuze [1986] 1987, pp. 73-75). Thus, for Foucault, the separation between expression and materiality was mostly conceived in relation to the emergence of the modern institutional order.

The same tendency to separate expression from materiality is also apparent in the anti-essentialist notion of agencement advanced by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1980, see also Deleuze and Parnet 1977, ch. IV), which would later inspire many actor-network theories and object-oriented ontologies. The word has been translated into English as ‘assemblage,’ with some authors (though accepting the translation) noting that the term should be dissociated from the word’s conventional meaning in English and instead used in the sense intended by Deleuze and Guattari (Dovey 2010, Müller 2015, Nail 2017) and others preferring to stick to the original French word (Phillips 2006, Hardie and MacKenzie 2007). For the purposes of this paper, I see no need to choose [106] between the two words, but I prefer to use agencement when I refer directly to Deleuze and Guattari’s work. Agencements are unstable arrangements of heterogeneous elements (e.g. persons, concepts, metric standards, digital technologies, buildings), the dynamics of which revolve around two opposing poles: that of a temporary stabilisation and definition of boundaries (i.e. territorialisation) and that of disaggregation and dissolution of boundaries (i.e. deterritorialisation). Each agencement is unique, although it is possible to distinguish a few types, with certain arrangements deploying clear vertical segmentation while others are more horizontal or rhizomatic.

Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, so-called non-representationalist perspectives have moved away from reified conceptions of space and place, shifting attention to ‘spacing’ or ‘placing’ practices instead (Dewsbury et al. 2002, Thrift 2007, Lorimer 2008). The change from noun to verb is intended to capture what Beyes and Steyaert (2011, p. 48) call a ‘processual and performative notion of space’ that perceives it – in a typically Deleuzian way – as ‘an excessive composition of multiple forces.’ It is true that the label ‘non-representationalist’ evokes an ontological separation between the presupposed rigidity of discourse, representations, and models on the one hand and the fluidity of action on the other, which may seem artificial. Aware of this problem, Dewsbury and his colleagues (2002, p. 439) tried to solve it by making one of the elements disappear, arguing that to represent something – that is, to produce a representation in the mind or before an audience, compare a model with reality in order to validate it, or assert the perpetual becoming of being – constitutes a practice or performance. Hence, representation cannot truly exist outside of or prior to any course of action. This quasi-truism leaves open, however, the whole problem of representational action – i.e. how stories and tales act on people, places, and technologies – and whether any analytic separation between discourse and materialities should be assumed (see Müller 2015, p. 36).

The concept of agencement elicits other concerns. At a general level, it is difficult to understand what is not an agencement, since ‘everything is an assemblage for Deleuze and Guattari’ (Nail 2017, p. 28). Or, in the words of Michel Callon (2007, p. 320), ‘There is nothing left outside agencements: there is no need for further explanation, because the construction of its meaning is part of an agencement’. Similarly, Dovey (2010, p. 16) declares that all places are assemblages and therefore can be defined according to a dialectic of territorialisation-deterritorialisation, with the same city, neighbourhood, street, or building subject to a variety of appropriations, or bringing together different, even opposed, drives (ibid., p. 27). Nevertheless, it is also generally accepted that assemblages are creative rather than mimetic (Müller 2015, pp. 28-29), which seems to downplay issues of homogeneity or reproduction, which are crucial for the consistency of a tale. The question of how different agencements influence each other is equally puzzling, as are the distinctions between them. Nail (2017, p. 35) thus alludes to the emergence of new elements or agencies, and the uncertainty around whether these will go on to radically transform the existing assemblage or escape it and be incorporated into a different one. (Should we then, in the meantime, assume that those elements or agencies remain outside any assemblage at all?)

While acknowledging the value of Deleuze and Guattari’s contribution, this article will refrain from discussing particular places or cooperatives as assemblages (although it accepts that they can be conceived as such) and focus instead on the underlying tale of horizontality. While this tale could also be regarded as an assemblage (since, as has been mentioned, everything is an assemblage), I will show that, in this case, one must account for an element of repetition that points in a direction less illuminated by the emblematic concept carved out by Deleuze and Guattari. In other words, instead of using the idea of assemblage to testify to the fluidity of being, involving ‘forms that are shifting, in formation or at stake’ (Collier and Ong 2005, p. 12), I depart from there to end up highlighting the consistency of a tale and its reminiscent quality.

Before entering the empirical part of this text, let me briefly consider how the issue of space has been approached specifically in relation to finance. Beunza and Stark (2004), Leyshon and Thrift (1997), Hall (2017), and other authors within cultural economy and the social studies of finance have treated space as part of the set of materialities that support the existence of highly symbolic entities, such as credit default swaps, stock indices, and special purpose vehicles. The work of Caitlin [107] Zaloom (2006) takes the reader to the Chicago Board of Trade, a raucous, crowded arena the size of a large train station, the perfect place for male bodies and voices to assert themselves. With the transition to internet-based screen trading and the disappearance of ‘boiler-room imagery’ (Beunza and Stark 2004, p. 378), authors have nevertheless provided relevant architectural (Pardo-Guerra 2019) and even topographical (MacKenzie et al. 2012) insights, alongside detailed descriptions of situated action, occasionally supported by layouts of trading rooms. The famous article by Beunza and Stark (2004) remains the most obvious reference in this regard, although the contributions by Hardie and Mackenzie (2007) and Lépinay (2011, pp. 92-97) are equally significant. Iconic financial premises and their half-formal, half-symbolic dimensions also prove suggestive – as in Douglas Holmes’ (2014, pp. 55-56) presentation of the new ECB headquarters, whose ‘translucent design’ evokes ‘the free movement of ideas and information’.

In each of these cases, space corresponds almost exclusively to organisational space, and is often influenced by the imperatives of internal hierarchy, division of labour, and operational closure. These characteristics, however, are not always fully analysed; I believe that more could be said about how space is used to tell a story about the organisational realm of market finance. Moreover, it is worth noting that finance is a pervasive realm that includes within it private, domestic (see Deville and Seigworth 2015, Pellandini-Simányi et al. 2015, Preda 2017), as well as public places of protest (Graeber 2014 [2013]). The relationship between finance and physical space is thus manifold and, as stated before, this article will rely on fintech options, which are activist in nature, to open up a perspective on a particular type of arranging space – or appropriating it – that arises in neither organisational spaces nor public and domestic ones.

Three places of alternative finance: Lisbon, Milan, Stražilovo
FairCoop is a cooperative movement formed in 2014 by Enric Duran, a Catalonian financial activist who borrowed (and never paid back) nearly half a million Euro in personal credit and company loans from 39 different banks between 2006 and 2008. In September 2008, Duran publicly announced that he would not pay his debt, asserting that he had committed an act of justice by ‘robbing the ones who rob us’ (see Tremlett 2008). Like a modern-day Robin Hood, he gave most of the money he had borrowed to a host of anti-capitalist activist movements. Following these events, legal action was taken against Duran, though he refused to appear in court. In 2013, he left Spain and went underground to form the Catalan Integral Cooperative and FairCoop.

FairCoop has attracted some scholarly attention (see Barinaga and Ocampo 2019 for a didactic introduction, Dallyn and Frenzel 2020) and can be described as a global cooperative system committed to the principles of integral revolution (including decentralisation, direct democracy, and disobedience towards state authorities), horizontal peer-to-peer collaboration, and hacker ethics, thus valuing the liberating potential of computers, free access to information, and privacy protection. On a permanent basis, FairCoop exists only online, though it is also composed of a number of productive, self-organised local nodes located across four continents, with its strongest presence in southern Europe (Spain, Italy, and Greece). In tune with Occupy Wall Street and anti-austerity mobilisations of public space, it functions on the basis of general assemblies driven by consensus or large majorities. FairCoop activism has a strong financial dimension, present in its own blockchain-based cryptocurrency, Faircoin, and in an alternative service, Bank of the Commons, which is similar to banking; both are examples of what Tooker and Clarke (2018, p. 59) call ‘relational finance’ – that is, finance which mobilises online forms of sociality with the aim of countering traditional business and market relations. FairCoop is thus a contingent network – an assemblage – of local cooperative associations combined with internet and blockchain infrastructures, encryption software, and communication technologies.

While travelling, members of the FairCoop community usually hop from one local node to another, or visit groups with similar ideas (also organised as cooperatives or associations), to which they present the cooperative and its financial services in the hopes of encouraging more [108] people to join them and, if possible, start new local nodes. This is precisely what happened at the Disgraça association in Lisbon, the first stop on this journey through alternative places of finance. On its Facebook page, Disgraça presents itself as ‘a [sic] anti-authoritarian social centre based in Lisbon and horizontally run by a collective’ ( English in the original, see https://pt-pt.facebook.com/disgracadiycenter/ ). Inspired by the 1970s punk movement, the association has a ‘DIY spirit’ and rejects ‘all forms of authority and oppression caused by the [sic] capitalist society,’ supporting ‘anti-racist, anti-sexist, and anti-capitalist struggles’. It was founded in 2015, merging two previously separate anarchist movements. Since then, it has been housed on the lower floors of a residential building owned by a construction entrepreneur, at 38°43’41’’N and 9°07’50’’W. The space is rented for 500 Euro a month and, at street level, there is an anarchist library and bookstore, the large glass windows of which display anti-establishment stickers, posters, pamphlets, and books. Two basement floors house event and concert rooms, a cafeteria, and three or four smaller rooms used for theatre rehearsals, screen printing, and a variety of workshops. The following ethnographic description accounts for the moment when the two movements – FairCoop and Disgraça – temporarily merged.

One night in October 2017, I visited Disgraça, along with Sandra Faustino and Inês Faria, in order to attend a FairCoop presentation. The session took place in the event room on the first basement floor, next to the cafeteria. The walls were covered with graffiti and paintings (see Figure 1), with an assortment of tables, chairs, and sofas, some very worn, scattered around the room. There were around thirty people in attendance, most in their twenties and early thirties, smoking and drinking beer. The presentation began around 10 pm. Faircoop was represented by two men from Spain: Carlos, a medical doctor in his late forties, and Rodrigo, an IT technician in his late thirties. Each wore a black t-shirt and jeans. They sat facing an audience that was loosely dispersed [109] around the tables. On the wall behind the two men hung a white sheet serving as a projection screen, onto which a Lenovo laptop on a chair next to the presenters projected FairCoop’s webpage. There was also a pile of flyers about the cooperative on the counter of the bar, waiting to be picked up by anyone wishing to know more.

[108] Image 1:The Disgraça Cultural Association event room, in Lisbon.
Source: http://kissthebottle.org/disgraca-diy-music-lisbon/

[109] The presentation was given in a mix of Spanish and Galician (which is closer to Portuguese). Carlos first described the Euro as an opaque project dependent on a so-called European Central Bank, the monetary policy fundamentals of which remained unknown to most citizens. Against such a background, FairCoop promised a transparent blockchain-based currency: Faircoin. Like Bitcoin, Faircoin could be converted into official currencies and sought to obtain a global reach. While indexed to the Euro (‘because we must have a reference’), it ostensibly did not depreciate: its quantity was limited, a condition assumed to be essential to the preservation of value, alongside the trust of users – with a fiduciary dimension also applying here. The narrative thus incorporated elements from market finance, such as the indexation of the currency’s value to the Euro and even the allusion to restricted quantity as a source of value. It also stressed its strongly disruptive components in line with the more general political tale of horizontality, from the total withdrawal of money from any form of central control or market fluctuation to the public disclosure of information regarding the actual amount inside each account (with the owner’s identity always protected). As noted by Tooker and Clarke (2018), such a mix of capitalist and post-capitalist forms of value is indeed common in many post-2008 financial movements.

The presentation then focused on FairCoop itself: Carlos explained that the cooperative functioned on the basis of online general assemblies and allowed for the exchange of various goods and services through Faircoin, the Euro, and other currencies. Among the services offered by the cooperative were commission-free banking accounts provided by the recently-created online bank, known as Bank of the Commons. It thus became clear that what was at stake was a cooperative ecosystem incorporating a network of local associations, services, and legal façades.

Carlos and Rodrigo then answered questions from the audience. Without any moderator or chair, the occasion was taken over by habitués of Disgraça, who invited the guests to explain some aspects of their presentation in greater detail. A younger man wanted to know how the new cryptocurrency differed from Bitcoin, ‘Because Bitcoin is anarcho-capitalism and that, for me, is the worst thing possible!’ The presenters reviewed some of the conditions of the cooperative currency, such as how its usage was scrutinised by members and how it had to remain consistent with the collective project as a whole. Thus, the level of anonymity was not comparable to that of Bitcoin, with some questionable activities (e.g. arms trafficking) banned from exchange networks. There were also doubts about how the online assemblies worked. The presenters explained how these assemblies functioned through the cloud-based instant messaging system Telegram, supplemented by a board software program for recording the discussions and decisions of each assembly. The recording then remained accessible to members (see next section).

Someone else inquired whether it would be possible to hoard the cooperative’s currency. Carlos answered that it would, recalling the reserve of value function of money; he added that people were not obliged to buy things which did not interest them and thus were able to put their money aside for future use. The cooperative’s Euro reserves were also questioned, and Carlos explained how this basically constituted a prevention mechanism: such reserves could allow access to essential products and services (e.g. electricity), which could not yet be purchased with Faircoin.

After an hour of questions and answers, Carlos then asked the public what they thought about the project and whether it made sense. Although the political principles of the project were in tune with those of the venue and the audience, no one seemed to be immediately persuaded by the cooperative’s financial instruments (due, perhaps, to the suspicions surrounding finance in many anti-capitalist circles). Someone said that Faircoin might work, but mostly on a local basis, in situations in which cooperative cryptocurrency users already know each other – as they do in more traditional local currency schemes. The session then proceeded on to Rodrigo’s tutorial on the dangers that internet users are exposed to and how they may be combatted with [110] safe, freeware solutions – a more captivating topic related to virtual spaces, and one to which I shall return below.


The second stop on this journey is Milan, Italy’s financial hub and industrial centre. One afternoon in June 2018, Sandra Faustino and I were there for a FairCoop assembly; on the agenda was the official constitution of the previously-mentioned online cooperative bank – Bank of the Commons – as a European Cooperative Society under EU legal regulation. The event took place at a cultural centre called MACAO, which, as part of Milan’s local node, also figures on the cooperative’s map. MACAO is located at 45°27’28’’N and 9°13’28’’E, the coordinates corresponding to a two-story Liberty-style palazzina from the 1920s. The building, now covered in graffiti and lacking any exterior identification whatsoever (see Figure 2), originally operated as a meat exchange within a larger slaughterhouse area that was permanently shut down in 2005. While most of the buildings of this complex remain abandoned, the palazzina was occupied in 2012 by a collective of artists and activists that bestowed its name (MACAO) on it and still runs it as an open assembly. (Among the collective’s activities is a weekly market where local producers can sell their products in exchange for cryptocurrencies.) The palazzina is owned, however, by a municipal company, which has announced its intention to evacuate and sell it. The cooperative, in turn, is determined to finally purchase the place and remove it from the real estate market.

Image 2: The MACAO centre, in Milan
Source: http://duomo24.it/2018/09/22/centro-sociale-macao-di-milano-chiusura/

Sandra and I climbed a short staircase and entered a large interior courtyard covered by a glass roof that allowed natural light to stream in. We approached a small group gathered around laptops, who directed us to Caffè Letterario, located on the second floor, where we were to meet the cooperative members. Caffè Letterario was a two-room area, each room fitted with a table, some chairs, and bookshelves here and there. There were only two people present when we arrived – both programmers working for the cooperative online bank. (For the moment, the cafe was their working space.) Minutes later, others appeared. We learned that they had just returned from Naples, where a public notary had formally recognised the Bank of the Commons as a cooperative.

Later in the evening, the project was presented and discussed by a slightly larger but still informal group in the MACAO interior courtyard. There were around 25 people present, their ages ranging [111] from early twenties to late sixties. We all formed a circle and sat on wooden benches built by refugees (see the article by Faustino, Faria, and Marques, this issue, in which the legendary motif of the round table is presented as a metaphor for equality). After a round of presentations, one of the cooperative’s founders described it as a network of local producing groups united by the common objective of ‘going beyond capitalism and beyond the state to support a grassroots economy,’ thus explicitly invoking the tale and projecting it into the future – but not, however, an ideal or mythical future. The idea of creating a European cooperative to ‘cover the banking side of the project’ had first emerged two years prior. Now that the Bank of the Commons was officially recognised, it would be able to act legally and provide banking services to cooperative members either unable to access the mainstream banking system or wishing to leave it. The construction of an alternative world was thus already underway.

As a cooperative, Bank of the Commons held a bank account at a famous ethical bank which, according to our interlocutors, avoided contact with speculative finance as much as possible and, instead, supported sustainable projects. All the cooperative members’ money was in fact deposited into this official account. However, through a software program, it was possible to ascribe specific sums in euros, dollars, pesos, or bitcoins to individuals, thus setting up virtual bank accounts for them. Such a scheme allowed the cooperative to operate as a bank informally, without the need for a banking license. The same software also enabled commission-free forex transactions among cooperative members, as well as between them and outside parties – all officially registered in the name of the cooperative. Other banking services included prepaid cards and contactless ones; individual transfers for the payment of salaries or electricity and gas bills were also being studied.

The discussion ended after 9 pm, in the by-then-shadowy interior courtyard; because of a temporary problem with the electricity supply, the whole building was without electric light. The group then returned to the rooms on the upper floor, where we shared dinner by candlelight. Darkness notwithstanding, the discussion continued. After a while, the group moved to the balcony to take advantage of the light from the street. We learned that overnight visitors from other cities usually shared rooms on MACAO’s premises that lacked electricity or running water – a minor issue when compared to the adversities faced when camping in public squares (see Graeber 2014 [2013], Szolucha 2017), and one that did not affect the enthusiasm of these activists. The next day, working sessions were held in Caffè Letterario and circular assemblies on specific aspects of the cooperative banking project, such as the services to be provided or the bank’s legal and communication strategies, took place in the interior courtyard (see Figure 3). The discussion topics were handwritten on three sheets of paper taped to a wooden board: as at Disgraça, there was no data projection equipment or other technical support devices; everything very much looked handmade, even though the ecosystem drew a great deal on online communication platforms and other virtual facilities.

[112] Image 3:The group discussing in MACAO’s interior courtyard…
Source: Faircoop

[111] The third and last stop on this journey is Fruška Gora National Park, in the valley of Stražilovo near the Serbian city of Novi Sad. There, at 45°10’20’’N and 19°54’46’’E, there is a property known as Planinarski dom (‘mountain cabin’ or ‘mountaineers’ lodge’), which was chosen to host the second FairCoop ‘summer camp’ between 20 July and 19 August 2018. Planinarski dom is a two-story building constructed in 1962 – when Serbia was still part of Tito’s Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – and since then owned by a mountaineering and skiing association. The place functions as a hostel, club, and restaurant (see Figure 4). It is located in a picnic area on the summit of a hill, a 15-minute walk from the park entrance nearest to the village of Sremski Karlovci, with direct car access implying a 5-kilometre journey from the village of Bukovac, the last half over unpaved forest roads with several forks in the road and no signs to guide visitors.

[113] Image 4:Planinarski dom, Fruška Gora National Park (Serbia)
Source: https://fair-coin.org/en/join-our-next-summer-camp-now

[111] The cooperative rented part of the lodge for the camp and dozens of people were staying for at least a week, sharing the upstairs bedrooms and bathrooms as well as the downstairs kitchen and living rooms (fees were payable in either Dinar or Faircoin). Sandra and I were a notable (and [112] maybe even notorious) exception: uncertain as to the number of beds available and with research funds available, we opted instead to book two rooms in a hotel in the city of Novi Sad and rent a car to commute to Stražilovo. Not yet sensitised to the role of space in the construction of this political project, we had thought that access to Planinarski dom would be easy and that choosing a hotel would be considerate of others, as it would free up beds in the lodge for members who wanted to spend their crypto coins. Also, the summer camp webpage presented the Novi Sad local node as rather active, which suggested that there might be other people commuting, thus piquing our curiosity about the functioning of this local economy. These assumptions proved both wrong and overly optimistic. Most likely – and deservingly so – we were labelled as bourgeois by our friends at the camp.

In contrast to Disgraça and MACAO, Planinarski dom was less established as an alternative sort of place. It was, above all, a nature-friendly and relatively isolated spot, removed from urban hustle and bustle but open to hikers of all sorts. During the summer camp, the lodge was mostly occupied by FairCoop members – 25–30 people with different nationalities and professions, and though a majority may have been computer programmers or developers, there were also accountants, professors, jurists, and small farmers. As at MACAO – and equally at Disgraça, though in that case it was not specifically related to FairCoop – the dress code was extremely informal, with most wearing shorts or t-shirts and some even walking around barefoot. Although situated in a remote location, Planinarski dom had electricity, running water, and wireless internet.

The last week of the summer camp featured several discussions and assemblies, which were announced via a handwritten timetable displayed on a portable easel inside one of the living rooms. During the meetings, people usually sat on an assortment of chairs and sofas arranged in a circle or, alternatively, around one or two tables outside. Again, no modern data display [113] technologies were used, even though most participants had laptops and some were even immersed in intense online work at times, eyes focused on their screens and fingers flying over their keyboards. With little vehicle traffic and no other buildings around, most campers spent the entire week in Planinarski dom’s lodge and the picnic area. The seclusion was both intentional and proof of militancy. The final discussion stressed the importance of face-to-face meetings, which were deemed to provide the entire cooperative project with much-needed strength that was unavailable via text shared online. Nevertheless, some participants felt that the lodge was too isolated and would rather have had the camp closer to Novi Sad.


These three examples, I hope, provide clear evidence regarding some of the features of the Faircoop cooperative and its spatial practices. First, this project depends on a series of conditions common to mainstream or market finance, including electricity and communication infrastructures, banking services, and legal procedures. This is not a contradiction, but a strategy assumed by activists seeking to develop new forms of organisation departing from technical and legal resources that comply with the dominant capitalist system. Second, the coherence of the overall project is reinforced by a defiant narrative that identifies capitalism, mainstream banking, and the central control of money as adversaries—with the internet and computer technologies seen as potentially revolutionary tools capable of liberating money and finance and turning them into public goods. The main argument I develop here is that space also integrates this narrative itself as a malleable resource, one which contributes to the actualisation of the defiant tale. Some additional observations are due in this regard.

Other authors have noted that public protests associated with anti-austerity movements were not simple demonstrations, but prolonged events comprising a reconfiguration of urban space; thus, encampments were created in the midst of public squares, equipped with kitchens, libraries, and [114] other facilities. At these sites, direct democracy was rehearsed and practiced (Szolucha 2017, Corsín-Jiménez and Estalella 2017, Juris 2012). Although more modest, the examples depicted above share obvious similarities with public occupations. All refer to temporary, ‘non-permanent’ (Szolucha 2017, pp. 138-99), occupations of space and thus appear similar to relays, stations, or stoppages. I also observe that, in each of the three places described above, certain parameters of organisational spaces, which separate insiders from outsiders and reproduce hierarchies, are clearly dismissed; there are no building concierges, dress codes, or other requirements for admission, and the disposition towards forming a circle of chairs prevails over that which favours a fixed centre, typically embraced in reception areas and/or retail counters, classrooms, and parliaments. Stoppages are thus informal, communal spaces.

Another important characteristic of these temporary occupations is how they tend to dissolve not only the segmentations between different specialised functions, but also those between work, leisure, political militancy, and private life—rendering spaces plastic and multifunctional rather than devoted to a single activity (cf. Massey 2005, p. 178, Corsín-Jiménez and Estalella 2017, p. 116). Though the descriptions above are mostly focused on meetings and assemblies, the same spaces were simultaneously occupied for other purposes, including work (for instance, in Stražilovo, some participants took the opportunity to instruct others in using their Bank of the Commons payment cards). Notably, there were no children present in any of the three places, but this is almost certainly a contingency of this particular fieldwork, as other authors account for the presence of children’s playgrounds in local assemblies (Corsín-Jiménez and Estalella 2017).

Furthermore, stoppages are political spaces in which an anti-capitalist, counter-hegemonic narrative is reinstated and reenacted. This emerges, for instance, in an openness towards newcomers, and in many features of the spatial organization of these places, from their pamphlet-heavy overall decor (less evident in Planinarski dom, though not entirely absent) to what appears to be a deliberate avoidance of projectors in favour of artisanal modes of display by a group of people otherwise sensitive to the revolutionary potential of digital technologies. The lack of the usual bourgeois comforts represents another line of continuity with former protests (Corsín-Jiménez and Estalella 2017), with living space requiring commitment and even sacrifice while at the same time contributing to a sense of shared experience and togetherness, generating what Setha Low describes as affective atmospheres (2017, pp. 152-153). Of course, stoppages can also be spaces of tension (Szolucha 2017) or even exhaustion (Corsín-Jiménes and Estalella 2017), and can produce uneven results. In fact, it would be inappropriate to regard each stoppage as a step towards a more ample development rather than as a specific environment where a counter-tale can actually be retold and relived. In this sense, stoppages are similar to Foucault’s (2004 [1984]) heterotopies, conceived as effective and real counter-places devoted to the actualisation of utopias. (Although most of the examples advanced by Foucault correspond to enclosed institutional spaces such as prisons, psychiatric hospitals, or museums, there are also interesting exceptions such as gardens or ships.)

From the physical to the virtual: free, open, and shared spaces
The physical places described in the previous section all fit in the classic micro level of symbolic interactionist sociology. They represent, as it were, the most fully existential dimension of contemporary forms of financial activism that draw on online connectivity, thus testifying to the importance of face-to-face relationality within these movements (see Juris 2012, Corsín-Jiménez and Estalella 2017). With this idea in mind, I now turn to the two-dimensional virtual domains mobilised by the cooperative. In the absence of any physical headquarters, the websites of FairCoop, Bank of the Commons, and Faircoin also function as their most visible façades. Here, the main political ideas behind the project are clearly detailed and visitors invited to join. However, the fieldwork experience directed my attention to a series of other online applications and platforms which, like the physical places, were temporarily occupied by the movement.

[115] This was evident at Disgraça when, after the presentation of FairCoop and Faircoin, Rodrigo, the IT technician, offered a small workshop on how to use the internet without implicitly reinforcing the capitalist hegemonic order. He started out by presenting a software that blocked the current geographic location of any computer, indicating how his own laptop was reporting its location as somewhere in the city of Paris, rather than 38°43’41’’N and 9°07’50’’W. (Such an abstract or standardised representation of space acquires, in this case, very concrete political meaning derived from data privacy protection.) Then, after instructing the audience about the type of user information that is systematically collected by computer operating systems, licensed software, and trackers (he described some as closed systems, with concealed functions undetectable even to an expert like himself), Rodrigo proposed some alternatives: a safe e-mail service (Protonmail), search engines that protect user privacy (SearX, DuckDuckGo), encryption software applicable to any information issued by a computer (Bitmask), a cartography system (Openstreetmap), and a protected cloud storage system (Disroot.cloud). He even recommended Linux over the more common Microsoft or Macintosh systems, while stressing that any solution that is reliable today could become corrupted tomorrow.

His performance was convincing – the virtual spaces of computers and the internet were more familiar territory than the intricacies of money. At the same time, this session provided a taste of what would be a hallmark of both the Milan and Stražilovo meetings: the profusion of online spots offering a variety of open-source privacy application software with strong potential for sharing. The list included the app Chip Chap, an online currency converter that allows for exchanges between a series of official and crypto currencies; the Freecoin toolkit, enabling the creation of blockchain-based currencies and transparent reward schemes; board.net, a platform enabling simultaneous online writing and content protection, where FairCoop assembly minutes were almost instantaneously completed; and, of course, the then-omnipresent Telegram, an encrypted messaging system that functioned as the main communication platform for both assemblies and several working groups. As one of the camp participants speaking about a new initiative that still lacked its own specific Telegram group put it, “If there is no Telegram group, something is suspicious.” Because of this, FairCoop membership also meant integration in a community of (online) practices of communication and coordination (cf. Juris 2012).

However, and contrary to earlier mobilisations that heavily leaned on social media provided by private companies, FairCoop members were far more proactive in terms of choosing and managing their virtual platforms. As the tutorial at Disgraça made clear, the fight for a truly trustworthy and democratic internet is a demanding and perpetually incomplete quest. The virtue of online platforms in terms of enabling connectivity and partnership with projects deploying intersecting political agendas – or what Juris (2012) called a ‘logic of networking’ – nevertheless remained clear. One concrete achievement of the Stražilovo summer camp was the establishment of a collaboration protocol with the Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS), a blockchain-based education and research community that functioned on a Matrix platform – a proprietary Learning Management System, as GCAS was still unable to develop its own platform and there were no decentralised Learning Management Systems available at that time. Among the GCAS lecturers were famous names, such as Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, and Julian Assange. Under this protocol, FairCoop was expected to run its own courses dealing with a post-capitalist world.

Alongside these alliances, which were based on strong political affinities, the fight against market finance also involved establishing temporary compromises with the capitalist order (as I mentioned, this was an intentional strategy). Less than two months after the meeting in Serbia, a video was shared in the ‘Summer Camp’ Telegram group showing a member of the local community in Milan at the 2018 World Blockchain Festival in Saitama, Japan, presenting FairCoop, Faircoin, and Bank of the Commons to an audience of over 10,000 people. Suddenly, through that online platform, the issue of physical space was back, this time on a bigger scale. The festival was held in the impressive Saitama Super Arena, one of the largest indoor multi-purpose arenas in the world, with its 37,000-spectator capacity, duly equipped for the occasion with state-of-the-art [116] data presentation technologies – more than a match for Zaloom’s (2006) Chicago Board of Trade example cited above. The festival presentation lasted about five minutes and was technically supported by a wireless headset microphone, a software application, and a large projection screen. While avoiding confrontational arguments against the state or capitalism, it was clearly in tune with the cooperative’s paradigm, stressing issues of decentralisation, horizontality, open-source tools, high quality/small-scale production, and the network of local nodes – and more intently focused on MACAO’s activities. It ended with an open invitation ‘to all those people who want to build this new future with us, to join us with new local nodes and help us build a global community.’


As this section has made clear, the temporary occupation of physical spaces also entails the mobilisation of a series of parallel online spaces, which stand out as being mostly open-source and free of charge (as opposed to proprietary online services), protecting user privacy with encryption (as opposed to free online services that profit from the commercialisation of user data), and promoting the internet as a public good for communication and sharing (as opposed to the internet as a commercial space). Although some of these virtual domains may endure even after the temporarily occupied spaces have dissolved, they are equally vulnerable to what cooperative members perceive as the pervasive capitalist order and, correspondingly, demand ongoing attention. In this sense, there is contiguity between physical and online spaces: both are essential to telling a tale of horizontality over hierarchy, the common good rather than private property, local production instead of global capital. Similar to physical places, these virtual platforms are thus endowed with prefigurative agency, in the sense that within them, the world that Faircoop tries to bring about is already taking place (cf. Leach 2013, Szolucha 2017, pp. 117-121). Through such platforms, the tale is also retold and relived. However, and as noted by authors who have researched the occupation of public places (Juris 2012, Corsín-Jiménez and Estalella 2017, Szolucha 2017), the tale attains its strongest existential dimension within physical space contexts marked by face-to-face interaction, emotional intensity, and even exhaustion, among other forms of relationality. Online platforms appear more limited in this regard.

Discussion: stoppages in perspective
Instead of focusing on a particular place and showing how it is subject to a variety of appropriations and concomitant territorialisation processes, the analysis developed here reveals how a similar type of appropriation was practiced in three different spaces, one which also has clear affinities with earlier reconfigurations of public places put forward by the anti-austerity and Occupy protests. I have used the term ‘stoppage’ to refer to these communal occupations, which render physical spaces informal, multifunctional, and temporary, while simultaneously seeking to free virtual spaces and render them open-source, user-oriented, and commonly shared. This corresponds to a political stance or, more precisely, to the re-creation of an alternative political order lying somewhere beyond the authority of the state and its bureaucratic institutions. In this sense, stoppages endow a defiant tale with strong existential meaning.

While reflecting on these spatial occupations as stoppages, I rely on Alfred Gell’s (1998, pp. 242-251) analysis of the work of French-American artist Marcel Duchamp – particularly his 1914 painting Réseaux des stoppages (‘Network of Stoppages’). At first, Gell observes (ibid., p. 246), this painting looks like the map of a railway system, with a series of curved lines departing from a nodal point and each line marked with one or more circular points resembling stations. However, the idea of stoppage should not simply be associated with stopping points on an itinerary. Gell stresses how each of Duchamp’s artworks can ‘be traced, by direct or circuitous ways, to all the others’ (ibid., p. 245), certain elements of which they either retain or anticipate. Thus, the curved lines that [117] figure in Réseaux des stoppages first appeared in a 1913– 1914 work called 3 stoppages étalon (3 Standard Stoppages), while the whole network in the painting is featured in the 1913–1925 composition Le grand verre (‘The Large Glass’). As such, Duchamp’s oeuvre possesses a global unity as a collection of ‘objective traces of his agency’ (ibid., p. 250).

Gell’s theory of art is influenced by some air du temps. He is concerned with highlighting the value of agency against that of meaning and representations, which he conceives more as a function of words and texts than of visible artifacts and indexes. Notwithstanding this, his attention to the lines of continuity that can be drawn between different artworks by the same artist (or the same culture) carries valuable suggestions for the study of meaningful experiences. Each stoppage described in this article can also be read as retaining elements from previous public attempts at dismantling state authority (such as the circular orientation of assemblies, the multifunctional capacity of space, the collaboration with local associations and cooperatives, and the mobilisation of social media) and introducing others (such as the refusal of proprietary software or the recourse to handmade information display techniques). Physical space is at the centre of this process, organised in such a way so as to heighten an experience, a choice which seems necessary to keep the defiant tale alive and ensure its continuity, even if Faircoin or FairCoop cease to exist or give way to other projects.

All this gains in significance when compared to other types of spatial practices involving so-called mainstream finance. Although the institutional nature of market finance offers little for discussion, it is not commonly looked at through a comparative lens that also includes that which lies outside the organisational sphere. In this case, my argument is not that communal and institutional dispositions are incompatible or mutually exclusive. After all, a disposition towards circular assembly can be found in places such as the Governing Council room on the top floor of the new European Central Bank (ECB) headquarters, and it is possible to discover horizontal segmentation inside many other financial organisations – see, for example, Beunza and Stark (2004, pp. 378-379) à propos open-space working areas. Moreover, and as the literature on assemblage likes to stress, even a state agency such as the Pentagon can be conceived as a rhizomatic structure (see Dovey 2010, pp. 20-21).

The approach rehearsed here, however, is not so much focused on the description of ontologies as assemblages as it is on the political-existential nature of defiant tales, understood as stories that are recurrently experienced and enlivened. This means that it is mostly the human side of the assemblage and its subjective modes of perception – rather than the multiple and evolving combinations of concepts, technologies, artifacts, etc. – that the concept of the tale allows to bring back. From such a standpoint, materialities still matter, but their significance changes. Thus, instead of perceiving open-space working areas or the circular disposition of the ECB Governing Council Room as elements that seem to defy state or capitalist assemblages, I prefer to look at them as devices that integrate and hold those same assemblages together by experimenting with, but not disposing of, exclusiveness, internal hierarchies, selectivity, specialised labour, and formality (cf. Massey 2005, p. 178). The underlying tale is obviously different, and this difference assumes clear political connotations. From this comparative perspective, it also becomes possible to reappreciate the nondescript motifs present in certain accounts of space – particularly buildings – in the social studies of finance (see Hardie and MacKenzie 2007, p. 66, MacKenzie 2017, pp. 172-173; MacKenzie and Pardo-Guerra 2014, pp. 153-154, Pardo-Guerra 2019, p. 3). Here, the uncharacteristic façades of venues are deployed to tell a political story in which small actions by fringe actors end up having wide organisational effects, very often accompanied by contestation and struggle, but always remaining within a system of power anchored by the state, the rule of law, and the market – a system of power which FairCoop members and other activists openly oppose.

Even though any institutional appropriation of space is thought of as precarious and implying the continual enactment of organisational geographies (cf. Beyes and Steyaert 2011, p. 47) such as those which stress internal hierarchies or separate insiders from outsiders (cf. Ernst 2017), [118] stoppages are comparatively far less enduring. Like guerrilla sanctuaries, they only exist for a relatively short period of time – a few years, in the case of successful building occupations, a few months or weeks in the case of successful public camps; in some other cases, it may be merely a few days. Train stations and bus stops, on the other hand, with their fixed itineraries and timetables, seem closer to an institutional organisation of space and movement, which ensures the preservation of their functional identity even when there is no one waiting inside them.

The issue of placeness continues to be relevant in the social studies of finance, as Pardo-Guerra (2019, pp. 306-307) duly notes with regard to stock markets, adding that computerisation has not been accompanied by an effacement of geography. This is as much evident in the physical localisation of stock exchanges in global cities as in the backstage spaces where vital data communication infrastructures are housed. However, such an analysis does not have to be limited to institutional premises. Finance, indeed, has many places, and this article focused mostly on the extra-institutional, following an international, fintech-engaged collective across three spots in Europe.

Space – especially physical space – was treated as an expressive material resource that contributes to actualising, even if for only a moment, a disobedient political tale of a world with no hierarchies or socioeconomic asymmetries. Stoppages, understood as communal occupations organised according to the principles of multifunctionality and informality, are thus part of a recurrent story-living process that brings revolution back to the here and now (cf. Blanes and Bertelsen 2021). The environments of institutions, by contrast, merely combine the elements of formality, hierarchy, and professional specialisation with those of experiment and innovation. Needless to say, state or market institutions can regain possession of stoppages, which usually involves the mobilisation of narratives highlighting property laws, court justice, bureaucracy, or police authority. Likewise, the spatial dispositions of institutions can be subverted (i.e. occupied) with the help of counter-tales that question each of those elements. However, there is a difference – a significant and political one – between, on the one hand, a council of central bankers resorting to a circular arrangement of chairs in the space in which they periodically meet to work, and, on the other, the occupation of physical or virtual institutional spaces with the aim of prefiguratively transcending the capitalist market and the state. However, in order to fully understand that difference, it is necessary to take people’s aspirations and tales into account.

The association between spaces and tales thus configures an existential approach that highlights copresence, interaction, sensation, experience, and emotion, while also showing how the materiality of spatial dispositions can contribute to rendering stories more meaningful by transforming storytelling into story-living. In this vein, the produced physical and digital spaces were primarily understood as expressive resources that convey messages, induce feelings, stimulate a certain type of conduct, and allow for the recurrence of a political tale – rather than elements of an ontology made up of hybrid, ever-evolving, and extremely voracious assemblages.

Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

This study was supported by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia) through the following grants: SFRH/BPD/78438/2011, PTDC/IVC-ANT/4520/2014 and UIDB/04521/2020.

[119] Notes on contributors
Daniel Seabra Lopes is an anthropologist and sociologist who teaches and researches at the School of Economics and Management at the University of Lisbon. He has conducted ethnographic fieldwork among urban Roma communities and, more recently, in diverse institutional contexts, including retail banks and courts. He has published articles in a number of international journals, including Economy and Society, European Societies, Social Anthropology, Anthropological Quarterly, Cultural Studies, and the Journal of Cultural Economy.

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