Gens: A Feminist Manifesto for the Study of Capitalism

1. What is Gens?

Our title signals a major redefinition of the multilayered historical meanings of the term gens. Gens began as the Roman concept of a family unit descended from a common male ancestor and was scaled up to social distinctions like aristocratic lineage. It was transformed by Lewis Henry Morgan to found the anthropological study of kinship and reveal the “original” matriarchal origins of community (Trautmann 1992; Feeley-Harnik 2002). Friedrich Engels then drew on Morgan to argue that the patriarchal form of gens led to the end of matriarchal systems. Gens is also, of course, the etymological root of gender, genus, genre, generations, and generate. We find this term broadly helpful because it carries a long history of the appropriation of human and non-human life-forces by social forms. Its varied usage inspires reflection on the depictions of these life-forces that in turn contribute to forms of social inequality. Moreover, it specifically refers to a history of contradictions between male authority and female kinship ties that signals the mix of capture and generativity that characterizes all social power. Finally, by adopting this term, we play with the irony that a patriarchal unit provides the root for the word gender even as we found our approach to capitalism on a more liberating (but hidden) ancestry of feminist analyses of gender, kinship, and race, as well as other forms of epistemological insights garnered from the margins.

Gens is a capacious, flexible term that references our interest in the generative powers of capitalism and the inequalities these powers create. In this sense, we are particularly focused on the generative aspect of the term that is centrally concerned with the means and mechanisms—the very processes of generation—through which systems and socialities are made.

  • Gens: A collective with feminist ancestry for the study of capitalist inequality.

2. Why a Feminist Manifesto?

It is through a deep engagement with feminist approaches that we recognize the need to challenge the boundedness of the domain of “the economic.” Our alternative approach focuses on the full range of productive powers and practices through which people constitute diverse livelihoods (and from which capitalist inequalities are captured and generated) as they seek to realize the potentialities of resources, money, labor, and investment. We see this conversation as revitalizing feminist substantivist approaches to “the socio-economic” (e.g., Kondo 1990; Mills 1999; Ong 1987; Rosaldo 1980; Strathern 1988; Weiner 1992; Wilson 1999; Wolf 1992). While historically, feminist substantivists recognized that the narrow domaining and disembedding of “market” and “non-market” relations were illusions and used these insights to critique dominant analyses, they did not articulate a more comprehensive approach to capitalism. Redeploying and expanding these tools of analysis not only help us displace other models in which the world of the household, kinship, and “non-capitalist” institutions are radically different in their forms of sociality from the world of the market, but also allow us to develop a “generating capitalism” approach to the inequalities of capitalist social relations.

  • Feminism challenges the discursive representations of “the economic” as a domain.

3. The Economy is not a Logic, nor is Capitalism Its Vehicle

Despite the many and varied attempts to bring politics, society, and history inside analyses of capitalism, we find that an imagined “economic logic” returns again and again as the driving force in this scholarship. The economic is repeatedly and relentlessly imagined as a singular logic that is derived from a pre-made domain and expresses itself in historical and cultural realities. That “the economy” is an accepted and relatively bounded focus of study demonstrates the taken-for-grantedness of such already made worlds, characterized by practices and standardizing logics that are assumed to cohere in them. Anthropologists and other critical scholars (Ho 2005; Kasmir 1999; Ong and Collier 2004; Tsing 2000) have long written against such models, demonstrating that totalizing frames—though explicitly articulated as critiquing and challenging capitalism—end up reproducing capitalist dreams and what Gibson-Graham (1996) call “capitalocentrism.” Alternatively, we understand capitalism to be formed through the relational performance of productive powers that exceed formal economic models, practices, boundaries, and market devices. Instead of taking capitalism a priori, as an already determining structure, logic, and trajectory, we ask how its social relations are generated out of divergent life projects. We are not invested in a singular origin point from which an overarching logic of capitalism is scaled up (or extended down), nor do we assume that everyone holds or operates in accordance with the same core economic principles. Instead, we are concerned with the unstable, contingent networks of capitalism that surround us. These are more fragile and more intimate than accounts of inevitable core contradictions or determining economic logics would have us presume. They are generated from heterogeneity and difference, and from our varied pursuits of being and becoming particular kinds of people, families, or communities (see also Narotsky and Besnier 2014).

Our approach aims to join with other important interventions that anthropology has made as a discipline to such debates. Pioneering work has revealed both the power of economistic practices and the diversity of the social relations of capitalism (Dunn 2008; Elyachar 2005; Miller 2002; Mitchell 1998, 2002). While we draw from this rich analytical tradition to highlight diverse pursuits of value and the constitutive power of boundary-making, our approach does not begin with markets and explicit economic practices. It focuses instead on the diverse and wide-ranging practices of life and production that cross-cut social domains.

It is crucial at this stage to underscore our recognition of the influence and power of capital. We also acknowledge the importance of systemic and structural analyses. Yet, we emphasize that structure itself is not pre-formed, but heterogeneously made through processes of aligning multiple projects, converting them toward diverse ends that include (but are not limited to) the accumulation and distribution of capital. Acknowledging the power and structural formations of capital does not in any way necessitate that we grant either capital or capitalism a singular, coherent, and totalizing logic.

The gens approach, then, is a concerted strategy to reveal the constructedness—the messiness and hard work involved in making, translating, suturing, converting, and linking diverse capitalist projects—that enable capitalism to appear totalizing and coherent. Representations of capitalism that do not underscore these labors run the risk of conflating the interests and the actions of capital, thus inadvertently and teleologically reproducing the invisible hand. Furthermore, our questions about instability and generativity return us to the contingent production of inequality and structural violence. To notice heterogeneity is not to deny the depth or breadth of these injuries, but to explain and thereby, ultimately, to challenge them.

  • Capitalism is at its core a diverse, intimate network of human and non-human relations.

4. Class is Generated within Historically Shifting Dynamics of Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Kinship

A central finding of feminist anthropology has been this positive fact: Class does not exist outside of its generation in gender, race, sexuality, and kinship (Bear 2007; Fernandez-Kelly 1984; Ho 2009; Ong 1987; Rofel 1999; Rubin 1975; Yanagisako 2002, 2013; Zavella 1984). If we want to understand structural relations within capitalism, we need to begin with how they are made through broader processes of human and non-human relations. Positing “class” as an ideal-type outside such relations obfuscates the analysis, once again confusing capitalism with some imagined, overlaying economic logic. Feminist scholars have traced how Marxist approaches—however otherwise productive—used gendered, sexualized, and racialized figures in the making of even its earliest critical analyses (Scott 1999; Ferguson 2004; Tsing 2009). Moreover, the feminist critique of nature has showed how the fertile generativity of the world has been repeatedly used to represent and construct distinctions of class, race, kinship, and nation (Yanagisako and Delaney 1995; Franklin and McKinnon 2002; Stoler 2002). We draw on this work in many ways, in particular we use it to explore how, not just forms of unequal personhood, but even the raw materials and machines of capitalism are configured in historical encounters (Tsing forthcoming).

The question of accumulation is central to our discussion. We are interested in how inequality emerges from heterogeneous processes through which people, labor, sentiments, plants, animals, and life-ways are converted into resources for various projects of production. We recognize that these conversions—although tremendously powerful—are not always complete, consistent, or coherent. Some of these conversions are enacted through formalizations such as money, contracts, audit, yield curves, and financial models. Other conversions occur through intimate social relations such as marriage, parenthood, friendship, gifts, and inheritance. Yet the life-worlds, as well as the processes and outcomes of these conversions, can remain divergent. The recent study by Thomas Piketty (2014) on wealth inequality documents the crucial role that inheritance from parents to children has played historically in the divergence of wealth. His findings provide overwhelming evidence of the centrality of kinship to capital accumulation and class relations. His history of inequality in the “leading” capitalist societies provides overwhelming evidence that class inequality cannot be understood or solved without attention to other structures of power, including those at work in the most intimate relations.

  • Historical encounters make structures rather than the other way around.

5. Conversion Devices do not Produce Reality

In recent years, a good deal of scholarship on capitalism has focused on market devices and economic modeling. While important, this work often takes for granted what counts as, or what is, included in the economic. It thereby narrows analyses of the generative processes of production, distribution, and consumption, and removes from consideration the ways in which these processes variably entail broader human and non-human relations. Rather than focusing on how economic models generate the real or how the real exceeds them (two undoubtedly productive, if limited, critical moves), we approach these formalizations as conversion processes between diverse life projects. This mediation is important because it shapes accumulation and class relations without determining them. We argue that diverse life practices, relations, experiences, and contexts—shaped by kinship, charisma, sentiment, status, race, gender, class, nation, etc.—articulate with these dominant processes in unexpected ways.

We also argue that formal models emerge from diverse lifeworlds and are not simply manifestations of singular core logics. Instead, they are generated by particular social and historical experiences, and, through laborious translation and conversion work, they often become “global.” In so doing, they mediate objects that come to appear abstracted and cut off from their origins. The key power of these models in contemporary capitalism comes from their ability to erase particularity and sever objects, people, and resources from their contexts (Tsing forthcoming; Bear 2013).

Because conversion devices have this capacity to decontextualize, they make diverse social and economic projects seem coherent despite (and through) the heterogeneous, disaggregated practices from which they are constituted. A central aim of our collective is to examine how these mediations make capitalism appear to be a consistent force. Our focus is not just on formal procedures of documentation, mathematical modeling, and contracts, but on the sentiments and performances of personhood, collectivity, and sociality that always accompany formal (and informal) processes. We also look beyond market exchanges and monetary forms to explore these conversions to take into account the full range of mediations: for example, between state debt and social debt, humanitarian projects and entrepreneurship, and non-human forms and commodities or resources.

  • Conversion devices mediate, but do not determine sociality or human/non-human relations.

6. Financialization is a Powerful yet Heterogeneous and Contingent Process of Capture and Conversion

Finance’s undue influence in the twenty-first century is often taken to index the penultimate expression and triumph of neoliberal logics, but the specificities of finance’s rise are important here, and underexamined. On the one hand, finance—as a constellation of priorities, practices, and ideologies that engage with, are based on, and seek to convert already existing (and highly varied) assets into more liquid forms of capital—is age-old. Financialization, it is important to distinguish, refers to the scaling up and growing influence of finance, and specifically the increased linking, translation, and interactions between a financial mode of apprehending the world and other social domains (Ho forthcoming).

While our generating capitalism approach tackles head-on the massive socio-economic shifts that have made institutions, natural resources, governmental entities, education, retirements, etc., increasingly dependent on financial products, measurements, and values, we also insist that the processes of finanicalization are uneven, specific, and contingent. Moreover, this scaling up (i.e., the far-reaching influence of finance institutionally, regionally, and globally, as well as its remaking of individual subjectivities and selves) is dependent upon those multiple and non-linear cultural, material, political, and legal transformations that also need to occur in order to enable the messy conversions of non-financial assets.

How does investigating the devolution and outsourcing of risk to these heterogeneous lifeworlds help us to understand processes of financialization differently? Does a re-assessment of the assumption of risk in finance and its historical configuration enable us to rethink purported capitalist logics and the dominant narrative of financialization? Undoubtedly, yes and yes. For example, if the widespread imposition of subprime credit depended, in part, upon the historical encounter with racist redlining as well as subprime credit’s productive recalling and active differentiating from this trauma (while reproducing its effects) in order to lubricate the conversion of household incomes and relations (especially among African Americans) into finance, then we can begin to see how financialization is integrally a story of households, race, and the manufacture of risk. Indeed, various financial products and forms of advice can both rely on and enable conversions within households that mediate the market and the family (Han 2012; James 2014).

  • Financialization is the explicit application of particular financial market values to new domains, fracturing illusions that capitalism is separate from multiple, intersecting sites of production, such as the household, corporations, or education.

7. Immaterial and Affective Labor are Old and New

A critical yet more encompassing vision of the generative powers that are drawn upon and converted in the capitalist production of value also leads us to challenge recent claims that capitalism has undergone a historical shift from an industrial era in which “industrial labor” was dominant to a “post-industrial” era in which “immaterial labor” has become hegemonic. These narratives of capitalist transformation are rooted in the well-documented decline of the secondary sector (industrial production) and the concomitant increase in the tertiary sector (service industries) that have occurred since the 1970s in dominant capitalist countries. Because no material or durable goods are produced in service industries ranging from health care and education to finance and transportation, work in this sector has been classified by some scholars as immaterial labor. In an “informational economy,” social relations, communication systems, information and affective networks have supposedly made such immaterial labor increasingly crucial and, therefore, more highly valued (Hardt and Negri 2000).

To be sure, discussions of immaterial and affective labor acknowledge earlier feminist critiques indicating the narrowness of Marxist conceptions of labor, and reiterate the argument that the unpaid domestic work of women is as socially productive as industrial labor. At the same time, however, by constructing a binary in which immaterial labor is imbued with affect while industrial labor is devoid of it, this approach erroneously attributes inherently different creative energies and communicative powers to these forms of labor.

Missing in discussions of affective labor in particular is a critical recognition that the distinction between the “instrumental action of economic production” and the “communicative action of human relation” (Hardt and Negri 2000, 293) is itself an ideological construct that obscures the communicative dimension of all human action, including capitalist production and distribution. Treating this ideological distinction as an objective difference misses the most central and enduring core argument of feminist scholars—namely, that it is through the making of such categorical distinctions among human actions and actors that inequality is generated (Yanagisako 2012).

  • The category of immaterial (affective) labor creates a false binary that attributes inherently different creative energies and communicative powers to forms of labor ordered in a hierarchy of value.

8. The Time-Spaces of Capitalism are Heterogeneous

The first wave of theories of “neoliberal” capitalism wrote of global workplaces as the epitome of the compressed and accelerated space-time that accompanied new forms of production and technology (Castells 1996; Harvey 1989). Other authors suggested that all social experience was now suspended in a shallow present characterized by an evacuation of the near and far future (Guyer 2007). But ethnographic analyses of outsourced, globally linked and financed workplaces reveal a different reality. Although compressed and accelerated space-time appears to be a force external to society in new technologies and managerial strategies, its implementation in workplaces brought it into relationship with complex social practices of time-space (Upadhya 2009; Zaloom 2006). There is no singular or uniform social timespace in contemporary capitalism. Instead there are complex timescapes in which we attempt (through the labor in and of time) to coordinate human and non-human activities (Thrift and May 2001; Bear 2014).

Yet in spite of opening up a diversity of timescapes to analysis in these ways, there is still a lacuna in our understanding of how such timescapes intersect in practice. In particular, we have yet to trace how the polychronies of finance capital, technological instruments, predictive devices, representations of time, social disciplines, non-human resources, and social reproduction are mediated within workplaces and communities. This gap is problematic because without an analysis of the contradictions and negotiations of these polychronies we cannot explore two key elements of contemporary economic life: the increasing uncertainty of the process of capital accumulation; and the centrality of the rhythms of credit and deficit to productivity (Bear 2014; Graeber 2012; Roitman 2003). In addition, attention to these issues should ultimately undermine any idea that speed or time economy—the grossest simplification of efficiency’s logics—is at the heart of capitalism. Instead, we will be able to explore the heterogeneous forms of pacing, duration, waiting, pause, obsolescence, and delay that also characterize its generative rhythms.

  • The time-space contradictions of capitalism are multiple and mediated through the human labor in/of time.


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