Generating Capitalism

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Anthropological and broader social-scientific critiques of capitalism have faced two related analytical puzzles: First, if capitalist relations are generated within heterogeneous social encounters, how is it that they have similar enduring effects? Second, how do such diverse forms of capitalism lead repeatedly to inequality, environmental destruction, and structural violence? We aim to push beyond the answers to these questions offered by work drawing on Marx, Weber, Foucault, and Callon, which emphasize pre-established class interests, neoliberal ethics, or the formal devices of economization. Each of these projects, while crucial, analyzes capitalism in terms of structures or models that define or distill its core features. Furthermore, they tend to conflate capitalism with economic motivations and logics. As an alternative, we turn to feminist substantivist traditions within anthropology in which the specificity and multiplicity of power relations shape both the contexts and forms of systemic processes, and thus are essential to every level of analysis. We also draw on our own current ethnographies in East Asia, South Asia, Europe, and the United States. Our focus is on how the generative powers of the body, spirit, and world are imagined, deployed, and experienced in contemporary capitalism. Our interest in these issues is both analytical and political. We want to understand the complicit and intimate ways in which inequality is propagated, recognizing that without tracing these realities, we can neither comprehend nor challenge them.

Our group authorship grows out of conversations started in the spring of 2012 at Stanford University among Laura Bear, Karen Ho, Anna Tsing, and Sylvia Yanagisako. We have woven our approach from feminist substantivist scholarship and the ethnographies of capitalism that have emerged from this work. Recent discussions of financialization, debt, and markets have not foregrounded this rich analytical thread. Most strikingly, they have thereby failed to fully understand the feminist critique of Marx, which argued that kinship, personhood, the household, and social reproduction reside firmly within capitalist creations of value. These failures are perhaps most clearly evidenced in the misleading characterization of the present as a period marked by a greater penetration of capitalism into intimate domains.

We begin our inquiries with the foundational argument that forms and senses of self, family, ethnicity, race, and community are always “inside” and mutually constitutive of capitalist social relations and vice versa. We also take as central the original feminist critique of the category of nature, which subtly showed how the non-human world is drawn on to represent the fertility of human actions and social relations. It also further explored the diversity and compelling generative power of figurations of race, kinship, and nation. We draw on this feminist foundation and critique to move beyond the prototypical subjects, objects, and expressions of capital. We trace the diversity of agents (including non-human elements such as resources and infrastructures) and the multiple forms of meaning, motivation, and productivity that actively generate capitalism. Instead of building from presumed or precategorized “economic” and “market” realms, and anticipating the values and practices that should cohere to them, we start from the diversity of life projects and the full range of social relations and productive powers, and then track how they are part of processes of accumulation.

Since 2012, we have been in dialogue with an expanding group of collaborators, which, in a departure from conventional academic hierarchies, includes several generations of scholars. At the American Anthropological Association meetings in 2013 and 2014, we co-created texts and convened a formal public panel, and we plan to pursue our ideas further in the years to come through sharing curricula, developing online teaching materials, organizing conferences, and co-authoring essays.

Posts in This Series

Gens: A Feminist Manifesto for the Study of Capitalism

On Simultaneity

Beyond Economization: State Debt and Labor

Valuing Nature

Capitalism and the Private/Public Division

Your Family and Friends are Collateral: Microfinance and the Social

Generating Home

Salvage Accumulation, or the Structural Effects of Capitalist Generativity

Tales of Physics and Cosmographies of Capitalism