The “Real Economy” and its Pariahs: Questioning Moral Dichotomies in Contemporary Capitalism

From the Series: Finance

Photo by Fabian Blank.

Extase blanche - Comment liquider Tchernobyl (Maude Reitz) © Alain Germond / Musée d’ethnographie de Neuchâtel

The current climate of crisis provides an excellent occasion to examine the foundational narratives underlying contemporary capitalism. One of these is the separation of the economy into two distinct spheres: on the one hand, the “real economy”, a world of predictable relations of production and exchange based on needs; on the other hand, the “speculative economy”, an apocalyptic world of unproductiveness, greed and waste (Hertz 2000). A vast majority of people, the story goes, are doing “real” work that produces “real” value, while a minority of Wall Street’s Gordon Gekkos irresponsibly gambles away the produced surplus in a casino-like arena, formally known as “the” financial market. Remarkably, activists in the Occupy Wall Street movement, commentators, analysts and politicians of all stripes and colors find in this simple dichotomy cognitive, moral and rhetorical resources of enormous value.

Intrinsic to shoring up the boundaries of the “real” or “healthy” economy is the condemnation of the figure of the intermediary. In the Bible, the image of the shady intermediary figures prominently in the parable of the cleansing of the temple, in which Jesus accuses money-changers of having turned God’s house into a “den of thieves” (an image that is, by the way, highly popular among Occupy Wall Streeters). Closer to home, this dichotomy is part and parcel of the rise of liberal thought in the late eighteenth century, used to fend off (with an author like Smith) or found (with Marx) the critique of capitalism. Beyond the strictly economic sphere, the image of the immoral money-lender has, famously, been central to Western literature, for example through the figure of Shakespeare’s Shylock or Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge. And as we all know, the condemnation of intermediaries and the fantasy of original economic innocence has played an important role in bringing us to war and genocide, as with Jews and Armenians whose “cleansing” was to supposed to cleanse nation-states of forms of economic activity that threatened tidy moral distinctions between “useful” and “unproductive” exchange.

So-called ordinary people often rearticulate the moral dichotomy between a “real” and a “speculative” economy, practicing the contradictions in capitalism in inventive ways: from street protests to home farming, from flea markets to artistic creation of all kinds, citizens resist and re-appropriate the economic sphere. But ordinary people also tend to condemn intermediaries: the traders, speculators, hedge-fund managers and other pariahs of contemporary Babylon who are—let us not forget—merely doing their job in a system where regulators and politicians have failed to do theirs.

Anthropologists have a strong tradition of questioning ideologies and popular narratives, and there is no reason to stop at the doors of commonsense critiques of capitalism. As anthropology teaches us, the neat moral dichotomy between greed and exchange will not hold up under pressure. For Marcel Mauss, while traditional exchange systems are generally conceived of in terms of dynamic equilibrium, they can also take agonistic forms as with the potlatch, competitions for prestige between rival leaders based on gift-giving that could lead to the ceremonial destruction of valuables. Mauss’s classic example of the potlatch serves to demonstrate that the destruction of value is based on logic and actions that encompass a whole social system; they are not a simple “economic” game played by a few. Looking at today’s market society, the ideology of ever-growing wealth and economized forms of action likewise goes far beyond financial markets. It reappears in the educational sphere and in large areas of social life and, of course, fundamentally structures the field that is romantically referred to as the “real economy”.

A growing number of anthropologists have started to do ethnographic research among the pariahs of the “real economy”, studying traders, investors, financial engineers and financial analysts (cf. Leins 2011). Many of them, indeed, figure in these pages. In the current economic environment, in which we are seeking ways to shift towards a more sustainable way of dealing with money and debt, it is this kind of research that can encourage new ways of perceiving and thinking about contemporary capitalism. In fact, ethnographic research could play a significant role in reshaping discourse on how to regulate the economy to prevent future crises and their social damage. In order to do that, however, we have to be willing to radically question moral dichotomies about capitalism, particularly in situations where neoliberal and critical narratives converge to condemn the messenger and ignore the message.

* This text is a modified version of that produced for the Neuchâtel Ethnography Museum’s (MEN) current exhibition “What Are Your Doing After the Apocalypse?”. We extend our heartfelt thanks to the MEN for including us in this exciting endeavor. For details, see


Hertz, Ellen. 2000. “Stock markets as ‘simulacra’: observation that participates”, Tsantsa 5: 40-50.

Leins, Stefan. 2011. "Pricing the Revolution: Financial analysts respond to the Egyptian uprising". Anthropology Today, 27(4): 11-14.