Mobilising the literature on global governance, governmentality and accounting regulation, we trace the historical deployment of transparency and the associated assemblages of actors and technologies in transnational economic and market governance. Starting with the first uses of the term “transparency” in the European Common Market (ECM) after World War II, we show how transparency came to inform and frame the imagined rational individual as the central economic (customer, central to price discovery) and later political (citizen, central to the market’s public accountability) participant. We then show how in the 1990s, with the rise of the New Financial Architecture (NFA), the role of transparency in economic/ market governance was fundamentally transformed. Beginning with their good governance programs, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank gradually adopted “standardised transparency” (in the form of financial accounting, as well as standardised statistics, state budgets, corporate governance, etc.) to govern market participants through financial market discipline. This disciplining program worked in concert with a program of moral persuasion enacted through an intensifying performance measurement apparatus. We elaborate on the implications of this transformation for the political economy of accounting, by reflecting on how the reliance on standardised transparency in neoliberal governmentality has been about: a reconfiguration of the sites of problems (focused on the national level) and solutions (focalised at the global), a liquidation of transnational market governance (that is increased reach, flexiblisation and self-organisation of both the disciplining and moralising/ subjectivising governance processes), and a reconfiguration of the topology of actorhood (away from states and individuals both as enablers and beneficiaries, and towards financial investors and private standard bodies).
Since the 1990s, transparency has imposed itself as a world society norm (Meyer, Boli, Thomas, & Ramirez, 1997) and a universal panacea in national and transnational governance. The discourse and rituals of transparency, account-giving and verification have been central to the deployment of contemporary governance regimes (Arnold, 2009a, 2009b; Humphrey, Loft, & Woods, 2009; Power, 1999). Over the last thirty years or so, transparency has co-evolved with a complex transnational architecture of economic governance (Braithwaite, 2008; Djelic & Sahlin-Andersson, 2006; Jordana, Levi-Faur, & Marín, 2011), where audit and accounting have played an increasingly central role (Arnold, 2009a, 2012; Humphrey et al., 2009; Wade, 2007). Strangely enough, in spite of its crucial role, we do not know much about transparency and the dynamics through which it has become a dominant norm. There has been little historical exploration of the emergence and institutionalisation of transparency, particularly in the context of transnational economic and market governance (Arnold, 2009a; 2009b). We contend that an exploration of the historical trajectories of the transparency imperative is integral to our understanding of the contemporary dynamics of economic and market governance and the associated institutionalisation of accounting programs and technologies at its centre. An examination of “the ideological roots of the notion of transparency” (Arnold, 2009a, p. 807) is an important step in the development of a political economy of contemporary accountability and accounting (Arnold, 2009a, 2009b; Perry & Nolke, 2006 € ).