Beyond Economization: State Debt and Labor

From the Series: Generating Capitalism

Photo by Steve Buissinne.

In an ironic simplification of Marx’s original project, recent economic anthropology and sociology have focused on acts of exchange. This work traces the ethics of “neoliberalism” and the dominance of economics and financialization as they are extended to new territories and objects. Capitalism appears to be reproduced solely through a repetitive realization of market values and valuations. It is also shown to be newly penetrating domains of family, religion, and kinship, pressing on them through microfinance initiatives, commercial credit, self-help, or financial advice. I argue that such approaches offer a very partial understanding. By focusing on the conversions of exchange while ignoring state debt and labor, they obscure how the ethics and inequalities of capitalism are reproduced.

The limits of current approaches became increasingly clear to me during my recent research on austerity policy on the Hooghly River in West Bengal. Here, as in so many sites since the 1980s, the bureaucracy that governs this waterscape has economized the political. Across the world, state debt has altered from a long-term political investment into a short-term financial mechanism that serves to mediate between ethical, political, and economic relationships. In its new technical forms (repo government bonds, market discovery of borrowing price, central-bank control, debt offices) it exists to sustain financial markets. This radically alters the management of labor, nature, resources, technology, and capital by bureaucracies, which become oriented toward short-term fiscal goals. Yet, on the Hooghly, this change in the bureaucracy did not lead to an extension of market values. Instead, it amplified the ritual and kinship associations of labor and the river, thereby intensifying forms of Hindu masculine selfhood (Bear 2015). Rather than interpreting these ethics as an “Indian” anomaly to the logics of capitalism or neoliberalism, I began to take them seriously as signs of theoretical limits.

To give a sense of these ethics, state-sector unionized port workers were, for example, fascinated by one ruined place—the Ash Ghat dock—and an annual ritual held there. State outsourcing and reduced investment had led to much decay on the Hooghly. Workers told me that if I really wanted to know about the river, I should speak to the old mooring crew who used to work at Ash Ghat, as they had a special shahosh, or masculinity. They also talked of the puja for Ma Ganga (Mother Ganges) that takes place here and insisted that I attend. The festival reenacts the descent of the goddess to the earth, and worshippers receive her life force by eating food she has blessed. Here a low-caste rural boatman’s ritual has been adapted to a situation of industrial labor. Through this reenactment, relations with the state and potent masculinities are commemorated together through the garlanding of memorials to the mooring crew and the first chief minister of West Bengal. The growing numbers of informalized port workers are excluded from these events and their work is represented as belonging to an amoral space of “the market.” This ritual is one small part of the Hindu ethics of labor increasingly practiced on the Hooghly, which aim to regenerate the ruins of austerity capitalism through masculine productive powers. They release fertile forces that are represented as similar to those found in ritual and kinship (Bear 2013a, 2013b, 2014). Here we see everything that is supposed to be held apart in capitalism flowing together: things and humans; nature and society; state, deities, and economy.

A distinct theoretical path from that of economization is needed to explain this. To do so, I will draw on and critique a 1985 essay by Marilyn Strathern, one that makes a classic substantivist and feminist move. It explores the different categorizations of persons, things, labor, and relations in bride service, bride wealth, and capitalist societies. Strathern (1985, 204) draws a stark contrast between capitalist and other societies, asserting that for us:

Under a commodity regime, “kinship” is not a code for “economic” relations . . . “Society” is seen to rest in the conscious cultural effort to separate persons from things . . . Persons replicate this process internally, being able to separate off parts of themselves. Thus creative “social” or “cultural” ways of behaving are seen to overlay other attributes fixable to persons as a matter of “nature.”

Strathern argues that all of these distinctions emerge from the capitalist representation of things as commodities and alienable property, which hides the social form of production. For her, our sense that women are biologically different from men is diagnostic of these foundational separations that sustain class inequality. Forms of masculinity and femininity reveal the fault lines in our concepts of the persons, things, society, and nature that generate capitalism.

Strathern’s account of the partitions central to capitalism serves as an important precursor to later work in economic anthropology and sociology, including that of Koray Çalışkan and Michel Callon (2009, 2010). Yet I suggest we can only partly follow this argument, retaining the reflection on gender that is not present in later discussions but searching out the limits of these partitions. Forms of gendered identity do reveal foundational concepts, but the separations Strathern describes as characteristic of capitalism are only one part of its architecture. They are crucial for acts of exchange, and yet they do not extend in the same way to acts of labor and relations with the nation-state. In labor and citizenship—both so central to capitalist modes of production—there is a persistent conjoining of nature, culture, objects, society, and economy. In fact, in the flow of experience, capitalist relations are generated out of the contradictory triadic oscillation between separating acts of monetary exchange and conjoining acts of labour as well as imagined collectivities such as the nation-state.

Perhaps this oscillation has been omitted from our discussions of capitalism because of the power of the representations used within exchange. These representations index a higher spatiotemporal logical order of the economy that Bill Maurer (2002) suggests is grounded in a hidden epistemology of a divine order. But acts of monetary exchange are only one site of capitalism, as of course Marx argues. Here is where I think we can hold on to some of Strathern’s insights, even as we move beyond her. We can follow her means of tracing the diverse representations of the relations between persons, things, nature, and society, but not only between capitalist and noncapitalist societies. We can trace these heterogeneous categorizations within capitalism. Exploring these, we can also retain Strathern’s emphasis on forms of masculinity and femininity as crucially diagnostic of the key representations that generate class inequality.

What precisely does a theoretical shift to a focus on labor and state debt reveal about capitalism? It allows us to survey a vast terrain of economic governance in which bureaucrats and citizens engage in popular ethical projects that take place in complex time-spaces. Those whom I worked with on the Hooghly combine concepts derived from science, economics, ritual, and kinship to create a sense of large-scale, permanent, generative processes. Conjoining what is held apart in acts of monetary exchange, they seek to harness these productive powers by enacting certain forms of labor in the world and by becoming particular types of people. Importantly, their understandings of persons, nature, property, things, and relations emerge from the experiences of very particular time-spaces of work. We need to explore further how people use and experience these various rhythms, disciplines, technologies, and representations of time in acts of governance and labor. It is also important to map the diverse ethics of productivity that are consequently generated within structurally related state and market institutions. Ultimately, it is through the combination of such heterogeneous projects that forms of class inequality and accumulation are able to emerge.


Bear, Laura. 2013a. “The Antinomies of Audit: Opacity, Instability and Charisma in the Economic Governance of a Hooghly Shipyard.” Economy and Society 42, no. 3: 375–97.

_____. 2013b. “‘This Body is Our Body’: the Productive Powers of Viswakarma and Ranna Puja in a Neo-Liberal Shipyard.” In Vital Relations: Kinship as a Critique of Modernity, edited by Susan McKinnon and Fenella Cannell, 155–78. Santa Fe, N.M.: SAR Press.

_____. 2014. “For Labour: Ajeet’s Accident and the Ethics of Technological Fixes in Time.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 20, no. S1: 71–88.

_____. 2015. Navigating Austerity: Currents of Debt on a South Asian River. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Çalışkan, Koray and Michel Callon. 2009. “Economization Part I: Shifting Attention from the Economy Towards Processes of Economization.” Economy and Society 38, no. 3: 369–398.

_______. 2010. “Economization Part II: A Research Programme for the Study of Markets.” Economy and Society 39, no. 1: 1–32.

Maurer, Bill. 2002. “Repressed Futures: Financial Derivatives’ Theological Unconscious.” Economy and Society 31, no. 1: 15–36.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1985. “Kinship and Economy: Constitutive Orders of a Limited Kind.” American Ethnologist 12, no. 2: 191–209.