Salvage Accumulation, or the Structural Effects of Capitalist Generativity

From the Series: Generating Capitalism

Photo by Steve Buissinne.

How is it that capitalism is at once so generative, flexible, and creative, and, simultaneously, so effective at doing certain things, such as making rich people richer? I address this question by investigating the edges of what can conceivably be called capitalism, where non-capitalist forms of value are constantly being converted into capitalist value. Such edges are found in the middle of capitalist formations as well as out-of-the-way places. These are sites where we cannot help but see the diversity of human and non-human social arrangements. What makes capitalism happen there (Tsing forthcoming)?

Let me begin with non-humans—the so-called raw materials of capitalist production. Most analysts of capitalism, following nineteenth- and twentieth-century leads, have ignored the formation of “raw” materials, taking them for granted as capitalist resources. Yet these materials have their own genealogies of production outside the capitalist purview, and our recent awareness that capitalism is destroying Earth’s livability makes inattention to these materials untenable. Where do capitalist resources come from? Capitalists are unable to make most of their resources. Consider oil and coal, those formerly living products whose formation has required so much more time than capitalists can imagine. Capitalists use them, but they cannot manufacture them. This is not just true for ancient things. Capitalism makes use of animal digestion and plant photosynthesis without having any clue how to shape these processes, despite the sophisticated engineering of plants and animals. In agribusiness, milk and grain created in these non-capitalist processes are translated into capitalist value. These are the processes I call “salvage accumulation.” Accumulation is the amassment of wealth under capitalism; salvage here refers to the conversion of stuff with other histories of social relations (human and not human) into capitalist wealth.

Similar processes happen with human labor as well. Even factory labor, that icon of capitalist production, cannot be made by capitalists, since capitalists can shape—but not manufacture—human beings. Feminist scholarship has long drawn our attention to the reproductive labor that underwrites capitalist production from the so-called “private” (and largely feminized) sphere of family and home. And even in shaping labor, capitalists rarely bother to instill all the talents and habits necessary for work on the assembly line that is undoubtedly “skilled,” even if it is rarely recognized as such. For example, where factories employ women workers to sew, knit, or process food, owners rarely train their employees; they assume that women already know how to do this work from growing up as women. It is salvage accumulation to harvest the value of this training in making capitalist commodities.

The ability of capitalists to take advantage of non-capitalist labor processes is even more striking in supply chains that use work outside factories. In my recent research, I studied the commercial gathering of wild mushrooms in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Is this capitalism? On the one hand, the mushrooms I studied end up in Japanese commodity chains, where they are bought and sold like other commodities. On the other hand, no wages or benefits are paid to workers, who come to the forest to pick mushrooms for their own reasons, involving communal survival agendas. Many of the mushroom hunters are survivors of the U.S.–Indochina War and the civil wars that followed; their explanations of what they are doing in the forest commonly involve remembering and forgetting war and displacement. No one picks mushrooms as a form of industrial labor. No companies employ them; they work for themselves. The mushrooms their work procures must be translated into capitalist commodities: salvage accumulation.

We used to think of factories as the basic units of capitalism. But supply chains, which spread production across many sites—from factories to independent work processes—have put an end to that core figuration. Commercial wild mushroom picking may sound peripheral, but it is also iconic of the supply-chain economy, in which independent contractors in many kinds of situations make the stuff and supply the services we need. Indeed, the freeing of inventory from production has made it simpler to disengage the procurement of things and services, on the one hand, from the making of profits, on the other. This is the genius of companies such as Wal-Mart, which concern themselves not with making things but rather with the “everyday low prices” of salvage accumulation. Wal-Mart’s products and services are made in many kinds of situations: illegal and legal, paid and unpaid. Profits are made in their conversion of these products to capitalist inventory: salvage accumulation.

My ability to think about capitalism as emerging from generative processes draws from the legacy of feminist anthropology. At the origin of the field, feminist anthropologists found that they could not study gender as a trans-historical principle; gender emerged, they found, in ethnographic and historical encounters in which it mingled with social forms—such as race, class, and kinship—that are not ordinarily understood as “gender” (Rosaldo 1980; Crenshaw 1989). The converse turned out to be equally true; social relations such as class only emerged from histories of gender (Ong 1987; Rofel 1999). This insight changed how feminist anthropologists looked at capitalism. Instead of a political economy ornamented by inequalities of gender and race, feminist scholars showed us a system emerging from histories of difference, including gender and race (Yanagisako 2002; Ho 2009; Bear 2015). It is in such emergences that the genius of capitalism appears as both spectacular creativity and as the mundanely repetitive restructuring of wealth.

All of this is not just ethnographic detail, but also the basis of political and practical generalization. Scholars and pundits continue to tell us of a world of straightforward economic logics, a world without the generative making of capitalism. Only when we begin to notice the elaborate and heterogeneous making of capitalist worlds might we usefully discuss vulnerabilities, points of purchase, and alternatives.


Bear, Laura. 2015. Navigating Austerity: Currents of Debt Along a South Asian River. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. 1989. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 139:139–67.

Ho, Karen. 2009. Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Ong, Aihwa. 1987. Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline: Factory Women in Malaysia. Albany: SUNY Press.

Rofel, Lisa. 1999. Other Modernities: Gendered Yearnings in China after Socialism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rosaldo, M. Z. 1980. “The Use and Abuse of Anthropology.” Signs 5, no. 3: 389–417.

Tsing, Anna. Forthcoming. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Yanagisako, Sylvia Junko. 2002. Producing Culture and Capital: Family Firms in Italy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.