National Economies, Performativity, and Failure: An Interview with Hannah Appel

The May 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology included the research article “Toward an Ethnography of the National Economy,” by Hannah Appel, who is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of an interview that contributing editor Tariq Rahman conducted with Appel about her article’s arguments and their relationship to her broader research agenda.

Tariq Rahman: What initially drew you to the social studies of finance literature, and particularly to ideas around performativity? What analytical and/or political possibilities might this literature hold for anthropologists beyond those studying finance?

Hannah Appel: This particular economic theory—the resource curse—was doing a great deal of work in Equatorial Guinea, not only among U.S. oil company personnel, but also among Equatoguineans. I was shocked by how present the theory was and by how productive it was—the work that it was doing in the world, the effects it was having. By appearing merely to describe something that was already there, the resource curse was in fact making new things. Specifically, it seemed to sanction-via-expertise multiple forms of violence—overlapping histories of colonialism, postcolonial brutality, and transnational extraction. The sanctioning came packaged in a thing called “the national economy,” which was first made and then affected by hydrocarbon rents. So the national economy became a licit form, seemingly separate from local and transnational power and history. That might be a simple definition of performativity: actions and processes that create what they purport merely to describe. In short, then, it was the ethnographic performations (see Mol 2002) of resource curse theory, what it was actually forming in the field, that led me to ideas of performativity as social studies of finance (SSF) scholars use them: to show how economics makes the world it purports merely to describe.

In terms of the possibilities of this use of performativity for those not studying finance, as performativity has moved from linguistic anthropology through gender and beyond, thinking with it shows us how something—gender categories, racial categories, “the” economy—can be simultaneously durable and contingent. Performativity draws our attention to the processes through which something comes to have a solidity and naturalness that don’t inhere ontologically, but is constantly built, challenged, built, challenged. Timothy Mitchell’s (1991, 2002) work is also really helpful here, and he is often in tacit dialogue with SSF-influenced thinkers like Michel Callon. Here’s Mitchell (2002, 301) on the economy: “The economy is an artifactual body—a fabrication, yes, but as solid as other fabricated objects, and as incomplete.” Judith Butler actually responds to the use of performativity in the social studies of finance using Mitchell’s work. Drawing on his argument about the state effect, she shows how “the same goes for ‘the economy’ which only becomes singular and monolithic by virtue of the convergence of certain kinds of processes and practices that produce the effect of the knowable and unified [form]” (Butler 2010, 147). In that piece Butler also repoliticizes much of Callon’s work by drawing attention to failure, misfires, and the politics of economic expertise. The question for theorists of performativity, she points out, is “not merely, how are economic matters made? Or how are certain effects instituted? But also, how do we think about the political value of certain economic effects?” (Butler 2010, 149). 

The final thing I’ll say may be the most important, however. It’s certainly the most true. Your question sent me back to original drafts of this article, which I wrote over two years ago now. In those two interceding years the piece was rejected from another journal before I submitted it to Cultural Anthropology, where it went through two full and rigorous rounds of peer review before showing up in the journal. In those original drafts, I actually didn’t use the SSF literature, or even performativity. Rather, the peer reviewers—some of whom, I suspect, count themselves among social studies of finance thinkers—pointed me toward this work. I include this fact because we so rarely talk about the processual guts of articles, the processes they go through that subsequently get fetishized on the page and screen.

TR: Could you clarify the distinction you make in this article between the world, its representation, and the space of the as-if? In what ways do these three scales interrelate? How do you view the concept of the as-if as contributing to anthropological understandings of the normalization of the national in postcolonial contexts (e.g., Escobar 1995; Gupta 1998; Mitchell 2002)?

HA: This goes back to Butler’s argument about the failures and misfires of economic world-making, and hence the limits of performativity theory to the extent that it posits a perfect loop of expertise. As I note in the article, the resource curse in the field “created fractured epistemological and political spaces—productive spaces where the world and its representations (here, the national economy) were pulled apart, sitting mismatched alongside one another for all to see.”

In other words, it wasn’t an encompassing process of creating what it purported merely to describe. In concert with the national economy form, the resource curse may efface the violent history of Annobón, say (an example of the world; a situated historical truth). Or it may facilitate the display of something called “the private sector” in graphs and charts, conflating it with the economy and conjuring a transactional utopia unburdened by the repressive state (an example of representation). And yet there was no Equatoguinean at that conference who didn’t know both the history of Annobón and the relationship of the ruling regime to the private sector. The oil company folks and foreigners in the audience may have been partially fooled; in general, they know little to nothing about Equatoguinean history. But these overlapping misrepresentations, simplifications, forgettings, and longings still create politically consequential spaces. In part, they reinforce the commingled power of the state and transnational corporations, but they also open up a space of dissent for Alberto, for instance, or for the rap musicians on the Orange summer stage. This is agencement as I understand it, in which the world, representations of the world including fabulations, and the as-if qualities generated by the relation between them produce durable, if somewhat open-ended, effects in the world.

As your question suggests, though, and as I try to show in the article, this open-endedness is not an endless play of equally powerful ideas or representations. Plainly, the ruling as-if of the national economy is the national. This is particularly stark in Equatorial Guinea, where oil rents from foreign companies have accounted for well over 90 percent of fiscal revenue for nearly two decades. But the myth of the national extends globally. It is not only that we must think of former colonies in the global South as enmeshed in postcolonial inequalities, but also that we need to understand former and current imperial powers as also, differently, enmeshed in those relationships. Exxon Mobil’s access to Equatoguinean hydrocarbons, and the political terms of that access, enriches a purportedly U.S. economy. Or, as Peter Hudson (2017) so deftly shows, the wealth of the institutions we now know as Citibank and JP Morgan Chase was forged in Wall Street’s imperial expansion into the Caribbean and Latin America. These are not national institutions or economies at all. But labeling them national does work in the world—enabling, for instance, geopolitical ontologies that include various forms of differentiation and assertions of separateness and supremacy.

TR: You powerfully show how the relatively recent establishment of the national economy form elides colonial histories and reframes the hegemonic relationship between the global North and South. At the same time, some might argue that former colonies in Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere are currently mobilizing this form to upset the geographic distinction between developed and underdeveloped. What do you make of these economies in which, on the one hand, the effects of colonialism are conveniently omitted, but on the other hand a significant challenge is posed to the colonial spatiotemporal order?

HA: The effects of this putatively separable sphere called the national economy do not have a single political valence or geography, whether across geopolitical contexts (as you point out) or within a nation-state, as I showed with respect to Equatorial Guinea. But yes, China, Malaysia, the Emirates, Singapore—and of course, in another moment, Japan and South Korea—all trouble any simple argument about the national economy form as a mere avatar of Western (and often white) supremacy. (Kimberly Hoang’s [2015] book Dealing in Desire is an exceptional ethnographic account of these shifts as they are taking place in Vietnam in the wake of the recent financial crisis.) As you say, the form doesn’t only sustain colonial geographies, but may, in some cases, be deployed to subvert them or at least to begin to reorient them spatially. In both cases, however, I’m still struck by the power of the national economy form as both intelligible, possessing representational unity or naturalized authority, and compelling—the stuff of fantasy and desire, power and subjugation.

To illustrate your point as it emerged ethnographically, the literature distributed at the 2007 conference that I describe actually end with two appendices narrating other national economies that Equatorial Guinea should emulate. The first example is of “Dubai’s twenty-three-year transition” away from an economy solely reliant on oil, while the second narrates Singapore’s forty-year rise from “a third world island without resources” to “a true global economic dragon.” These disembodied pasts, offered as Equatorial Guinea’s desired futures, perfectly illustrate the fantasy of something called a national economy, an object that enables the framing of “collective growth or decline, and remedies for improvement, all in terms of what seemed a legible series of measurements, goals, and comparisons” (Mitchell 2002, 272). Dubai offers a model in which local power holders would never have to respond to Alberto’s popular plea for access to credit or capital, but could continue and even expand the extent to which foreigners and the autocratic state monopolize exchange and profit. Singapore, as described in the conference literature, offers a model in which a combination of authoritarianism and orientalist essentialism pave the way for what is billed as perfect control of trade logistics, a judicial system that seems to protect only private property rights, and the most efficient port in the world. Today, these disembodied futures, based on the disembodied pasts of other places, have found a new home.

TR: While reading your article, I couldn’t help but think of Donald Trump’s figuring of the U.S. economy during his presidential campaign and since he has taken office. If Equatorial Guinea’s economy has been constructed as a “daydream,” then we might view Trump’s rendering of the U.S. economy as a nightmare—bound for crisis, barring a dramatic change of course. I am curious about how you view this particular moment in the life of the U.S. economy. That is, how are you thinking about the turn toward describing this national economy as failing, and what work might such predictions be doing?

HA: Donald Trump’s national economy illustrates Daniel Speich’s (2011, 21) point that white supremacy “finds easy expression in the statistically based language of economic strength,” but through the looking glass. Threats to white supremacy find easy expression in the language of economic weakness or decline. Here I take “easy” to mean sanctioned, not only legitimate but also authoritative, imbued with the weight of expertise. Trump and many others before him use the national economy as a licit idiom through which to reinforce white supremacy in Frances Ansley’s (1989, 993) sense: “a political, economic, and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority are widespread, and relations of white dominance and nonwhite subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.” 

I think two points of departure from the article are helpful to think this through. First, a given national economy is, in the first instance, an epistemological project of the state, in dialogue with politics internal and external to its own borders. Just as the national economy was first envisioned in the mid-twentieth-century moment of depression, war, and imperial decline, so too today, but now it is the United States and not Europe whose imperial power is increasingly tenuous, and with it, perhaps, global visions of white superiority (see Hoang 2015). Second, the national has always been made in and by the transnational. The national never preceded the transnational historically, as many of us too often teach in facile accounts of globalization. And yet the story Trump and others tell, in which there was a fabled time of the U.S. national that is today engulfed by the foreign (again, both internal and external to U.S. borders) is a politically consequential story. False teleologies of globalization offer white supremacy a new, retroactive origin myth—the good old days when high school–educated white men could count on upward mobility. Listening to Trump and others, we have to see the national economy—as with any socially consequential form—as raced, classed, gendered, and sexualized. In other words, part of the play of both its intelligibility and its compellingness (which autocorrect wants to change to comeliness—yes!) is the way those categories can speak licitly through the national economy form.

What then is to be done? Here is Robin D. G. Kelley:

We cannot change this country without winning over some portion of white working people, and I am not talking about gaining votes for the Democratic Party. I am talking about opening a path to freeing white people from the prison house of whiteness. True, with whiteness comes privilege, but many of the perceived privileges are inaccessible to most, which then generates resentment. Exposing whiteness for what it is—a foundational myth for the birth and consolidation of capitalism—is fundamental if we are to build a genuine social movement dedicated to dismantling the oppressive regimes of racism, heteropatriarchy, empire, and class exploitation that are at the root of inequality, precarity, materialism, and violence in many forms.

TR: In your discussion of “private-sector desire,” you explain how the private sector is both popularly viewed as a liberatory space and empirically knotted with state power and multinational capital. In my own research on the relationship between Pakistan’s speculative real estate market and the country’s ever-increasing housing shortage, I’ve noticed a similar embrace of the private sector in order to overcome the perceived inadequacies of the state, when in fact it is precisely the former through which the latter can be understood. Given your other writing on economic imagination (e.g., Appel 2014), I was hoping you could say more about the “alternative social conceptions” at which you hint in the article’s conclusion, particularly in the instance of Equatorial Guinea. At the heart of this question is my interest in thinking beyond the state, the private sector, or some combination of the two, when attempting to address egregious yet persistent inequalities. Invoking J. K. Gibson-Graham (2006), what existing or potential practices might be available in Equatorial Guinea for conceiving of alternatives?

HA: In my own activist work, which is squarely focused on finance, inequality, and racial capitalism in the United States (partially chronicled in the 2014 article you mention), my sense of alternative social conceptions is both ethnographic and autoethnographic: What are we doing? What are we thinking? What are the contexts in which we are thinking and doing? What effects is that assemblage having? To be able to address that question for Equatorial Guinea in the same way, I would have needed to do really different ethnographic work with the brave dissidents, activists, and artists who are, in their own ways, challenging the complicity of multinational capital and the ruling regime. (Shout out to Tutu Alicante, Ramón Esono Ebalé, Juan Tomas Avila Laurel and others.) Instead, I did fieldwork in the belly of the beast, with the corporations themselves. Hence, I don’t have an immanent or deeply ethnographic sense of situated alternative social conceptions. But I do have a very good sense of power as Elizabeth Povinelli has defined it: “That which enables arrangements to maintain their apparent unity and reproduce their apparent unity over time, no matter that these arrangements are continually creating their own otherwises . . . The analytic study of power and politics asks why, given that the otherwise is everywhere, some existent-existences stay in place?” I actually think that’s part of generating any rigorous, imaginative alternative.

But I will say this: you articulate the question around an interest in thinking beyond the state, the private sector, or some combination of the two. When I hear that, I hear a desire to think beyond liberalism, which at its heart is about the relationship between the individual, the state, and the market. Now, Equatorial Guinea, and perhaps Pakistan too, is infamously illiberal in the eyes of the so-called international community. I actually think illiberalism can be a cue here, in part because liberalism is so violent and hypocritical. But first, what does the international community mean when it calls Equatorial Guinea illiberal? Well, in general, it is gesturing to lack of rule of law, absence of free and fair elections, deep conflation of public office with private gain (which they call “corruption”), the presence of a dictator who is now the longest serving head of state in the world, and so on. To the extent that these assessments and accusations are true—and many of them are, in various ways—they are nothing to aspire to or emulate. However, within them are all kinds of nonliberal ways of practicing governance, distribution, kinship, and social obligation, alternatives that disrupt the state/market/individual trinity.

“Let’s see here, let’s be serious, gentlemen. You think this country will change because you call me a dictator? I have what the international community wants. And all you can say is that I’m a dictator? God! Do something more original. At this rate I’ll organize five more African Union summits, not counting the ones my son’s donkey will organize. What a shame!” Cartoon courtesy of Ramón Esono Ebalé.

So, what might it mean to see beyond liberalism without romanticizing oppressive otherwises? It’s so hard. Even harder, I think, than seeing beyond capitalism. It’s so hard, in part, because liberalism is capitalism’s sanctioning faith and ideology. But as the Ebale cartoon illustrates, liberalism and the so-called international community are hypocritical at their core. As Wendy Brown (2009, 51–52) puts it, liberalism has “always been compromised by a variety of economic and social powers from white supremacy to capitalism. And liberal democracies in the First World have always required other peoples to pay . . . that is, there has always been a colonially and imperially inflected gap between what has been valued in the core and what has been required from the periphery.” It is those founding hypocrisies of liberalism—white supremacy, colonialism, imperialism—that we actually have to move through and past for alternative social conceptions to be realized.

Let me conclude by noting an alternative-to-liberalism social conception that Siba N’Zatioula Grovogui presented recently at the University of California, Los Angeles, in an unpublished paper entitled “An Empire of Morals Revisited: Universalism, Rights Talk, and African Imaginaries.” In his essay Grovogui argues for a new, historically and geographically situated genealogy of rights and morals that proceeds not from liberalism’s universalizing and unrealized inclusionary pretensions, but from the immanent experiences and struggles of those who have been systematically oppressed. Enslavement and colonialism, misogyny and queer phobia, and by extension environmental destruction are at once the constitutive violences of liberalism and, Grovogui argues, the protracted struggles whose practices, histories, and potentials may show us a way out.


Tariq Rahman extends thanks to Taylor Nelms for his feedback on the interview questions. Hannah Appel notes that two days before this interview was published, the cartoonist Ramón Esono Ebalé was unlawfully detained in Equatorial Guinea, with interrogators charging that his art could be considered defamation of the president. He remains in detention as of September 20, 2017; for more information or to sign a petition demanding his release, see this update and follow the hashtag #FreeNseRamon.


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