EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Works that matter (not): valuing productivity through and against the market
Location U6-1E
Date and Start Time 20 July, 2016 at 14:30
Sessions 2


  • Ivan Rajković (UCL) email
  • Andre Thiemann (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology) email

Mail All Convenors

Chair Andrea Muehlebach (University of Toronto)
Discussant James G. Carrier (Max Planck Institute)

Short Abstract

Following recent polemics on the contested boundary between the productive and the unproductive, work and non-work, this panel asks what an anthropological focus on value and valuation can add to an understanding of the ambiguous importance of human action in late capitalist worlds today.

Long Abstract

For a while, arguments have abounded that late capitalism is approaching 'the end of work' (Rifkin), where processes of technological change, financialisation and rent-seeking make labour unimportant. Recently, however, we have seen how neoliberalism did not simply re/devalue different forms of labour, but created an entire 'value-anxiety' (Sykes), a situation in which boundaries between activity and inactivity, production and destruction, 'work' and 'non-work' became contested, blurred and reshaped. Ethnographies of contemporary capitalism document new forms of human creativity and dedication, and new, conflicting ways of valuing which ones are 'real', meaningful, useful or desirable. These sometimes oppose market commodification, but also relate more ambivalently to it: creating forms of meaning, ethos and status that mimic, convert into, or simply help markets run.

Following recent anthropological quests for a holistic theory of value and valuation, we seek to explore where this value ambiguity of human action today may lead us theoretically and politically. We ask: what new opportunities arise when the boundary between the exchange value and the social importance, the commodified and the processual becomes porous again?

Taking 'productivity' broadly, potential topics include:

1) doubts in work's value: 'simulated' (Roberman), 'bullshit' (Graeber) and 'unproductive' jobs

2) productivity ethos and hidden everyday labours of maintaining wider social wholes

3) regaining self-worth in unemployment, superfluity and devaluation

4) financialisation, new markets, and new forms of (un)commodified creativity

5) rhetoric and pragmatics of distinguishing valuable, valueless, and negative activity

6) anthropology's position in arguments for and against 'work'.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Towards ethics of giving: Heroes of Labour and Shock Workers

Author: Andrea Matosevic (Juraj Dobrila University of Pula)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper I will analyse the logic that is inscribed into the particular working ethos of Heroes of Labour and Shock Workers on YLA that took place in socialist Yugoslavia. Both had to combine work, education, and culture with a particular logic that was inscribed in them-the logic of a gift.

Long Abstract

In this paper I will analyse the logic that is inscribed into the particular working ethos of Heroes of Labour and Shock Workers on Youth Labour Actions that took place in socialist Yugoslavia. Both had to combine work, education, and culture with a particular logic that was inscribed in them - the logic of a gift. Moreover, it was Peter Sloterdijk, a German philosopher who recently drew attention with his thesis that a state financial system should be re-established in terms of a new ethics of giving if we are to overcome the moment of hard pessimism that West is overwhelmed by. It is from this starting point that I will try to show that Shock work on YLA and post-war Heroes of Work (Alija Sirotanović, Sonja Erbežnik, Marija Bonaš, Vicko Lapov, Franjo Turčić etc.) were already huge "gift-giving" systems with individuals being inscribed into "historical labour successes". But starting form 1950s this trend changed - particularly on YLA a different feeling of prestige was created among volunteers because only university students and high-school students that had good grades (and healthy ones) could leave and gain first-hand shock-work experience. A new feeling among brigade members was created - their work was now "relaxing, fancy, and a real spa treatment" if compared to previous labour actions. This also meant that a new ethics of giving and receiving was created.

Pyramid Schemes at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Network Marketing in Rural China

Author: Charlotte Bruckermann (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)  email

Short Abstract

Network marketing allows commodities to circulate through social networks in the Chinese countryside. Personal prosperity and capital accumulation must be mediated through social relationships in network marketing, leading to accusations of 'killing relationships' in these 'pyramid schemes.'

Long Abstract

Banned in China between 1998 and 2005, the re-emergence of network marketing allows transnational products to circulate through local social networks across an increasingly integrated rural-urban landscape. In central Shanxi Province a rising economic trend for young women consists in buying into corporate schemes for the right to sell products directly to friends, family and acquaintances. Commodities ranging from foreign cosmetics to costly lingerie are circulating through these instrumentalized personal networks. Salespeople take part in training courses and motivational meetings to instil an optimistic mindset, chart relative success, and embody qualified business standards. In addition to selling the products, salespersons are frequently subjected to illegal practices, especially being forced to recruit others to the scheme to profit from their sales.

In rural China the evaluation of this work ranged from denunciation of network marketing as parasitic to scepticism over their profitability, but also included praise for their productive reach of commodity chains into the far corners of the countryside. These assessments were overlaid by government suspicions towards the schemes, and the state's attempt to regularize this form of labour in more familiar employer-employee relations with a fixed workplace. However, network marketing is not just an organizational form of service provision, but a very specific form of labour whereby affectionate ties must be instrumentalized for commodity sales. In line with the theme of this panel, this paper asks: How do morality, legality and history play into the various ways of attributing and denying value to network marketing as work?

Milk for money: work, value, and moral appreciation in rural Serbia

Author: Andre Thiemann (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology)  email

Short Abstract

How did Serbian villagers negotiate contradictory value systems? Sharing moral economic notions of working the land and maintaining the house, the decreasing market value of milk–a household staple and valued substance of kinning–produced double binds of disengaging vs. intensifying production.

Long Abstract

The post-socialist food production landscape in central Serbia has been riveted with friction, debate, and occasional mobilizations around shifting scales of values, social (in)equalities, and market relations. In the hill village where I do fieldwork since 2009, deindustrialization led to a return by laid-off workers since the 1980s. Many had co-produced their social security through agriculture before, but now they reinvigorated the 'house' and the 'village' around pre-socialist ideals of the "good householder" or socialist ideas about the making-do-"land-worker". Be it for economic or moral economic reasons they increased the land's productivity, revived communal work and reciprocal exchanges, and renovated underused 'spatial fixes' (production facilities). What from a gender-perspective approached re-traditionalisation, from a political-economic perspective reversed the "moral depreciation" of capital and labour (Marx), thereby "morally (re)appreciating" the village.

Since 2005 the producers were confronted with an oligopolising dairy market and deflated milk prices. If reducing their milk production, the women, customarily charged with milking and dairy-processing, risked losing a valuable resource of economic 'in-dependence' and for nurturing kin-ties. Some households completely disinvested, others maintained cows 'as a hobby', or processed their cheese, yoghurt, and cream with milk obtained from neighbours. Meanwhile, intensification took three forms: (a) cottage production for customers, (b) establishment of brands, and (c) articulation with vertical milk distribution chains. In the latter cases, the female workload increased disproportionally to milk's economic/kin value. Nonetheless neighbours supported these households being concerned about "ethical consumption", about the "farmer's welfare", or thankful for their upholding of the living village.

Boundaries of work: working for second-home owners in Poland

Author: Amanda Krzyworzeka (University of Warsaw)  email

Short Abstract

The aim of this paper is to present relations between second home owners and local inhabitants in Poland. The mixture of friendship and business relations makes it very difficult to establish a stable relation, putting clear boundaries between work and non-work and requires a lot of social skills.

Long Abstract

In my paper I would like to focus on a problem with establishing what is work and what is non-work. On a basis of my fieldwork in Polish Mazovia region I'll focus on situations of hiring a local worker by a second home owner to do some job around the house (painting, taking care of a house when owners are far etc.). Such tasks are treated differently by both sides, locals are often claiming it's not a real job and rejecting it (here I'll focus on local idea of work).

On the other hand, there are many examples of interesting owner-local inhabitant relationship. They are friends (sometimes it goes from one generation to another among the family), helping each other, sharing the deepest secrets of private life, but at the same time one of them hires the other and pays them with money, which complicates the situation a lot (cf. F. Pine). As a result, such a situation requires a lot of specific skills to deal with it, e.g. the moment of giving/taking money or establishing the price is to be camouflaged by actions like drinking alcohol together, chatting etc. Another aspect of such a relationship is power - and it is not obvious who is the powerful party here. Thus it is a skillful action to balance such a relation so that it doesn't become either a totally business-like or totally friendship-like. It is intentionally placed between work and non-work and people try hard to keep it so.

When working class people don't get working class jobs: dignity, labour and value among Manchester's unemployed

Author: John Foster (University of Manchester)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines actions and narratives of unemployed volunteers in terms of an anthropological theory of value and finds that, by mobilising pre-existing working values, these volunteers contribute to the reproduction of a system which has marginalised them.

Long Abstract

This paper examines actions and narratives of unemployed volunteers in terms of an anthropological theory of value. After a brief introduction to the field of unemployment and employability in Manchester, I move on to re-count certain narratives espoused by unemployed people who volunteered in work clubs. These volunteers often framed their work in narratives of redemption and set them in opposition to both the sense of loss they felt due to their lack of work, and their frustration at new disciplinary mechanisms imposed upon them. Through their volunteering they were able to re-create a sense of personal value by helping others. Such narratives would appear to support an emerging notion of the reclamation of dignity through proclamations of the right to work. In performing a value analysis on the values underlying this situation however, I attempt to move beyond such a perspective by suggesting that, though they appear to be socially minded and are set in opposition to a world of work which has ceased to function, these actions are everywhere conditioned by an imperative to acquire wage labour. Subsequently these means by which to re-create personal value ultimately end up in practices which support a ramping up of competitive conditions within the job-market while legitimising the widespread giving of free labour. In this situation I suggest that the activation of a value structure which equates dignity with labour is responsible not for salvation but for continued participation in and reproduction of a system which actively marginalises the unemployed.

Waste and wealth: labour, value and morality in a Vietnamese rural-urban recycling economy

Author: Minh Nguyen (Max Planck Institute)  email

Short Abstract

This paper develops a theoretical framework for my study of a waste trading network in Vietnam. To explain the development of the network and its linkage to political economic processes, I propose a notion of moral economy underlined by logics of care that are premised on reciprocity and social aspirations.

Long Abstract

For people in Spring District of Vietnam's Red River Delta, urban waste has long been a valuable source of livelihoods. Since the socialist country adopted economic reforms in the mid-1980s, they have developed a thriving urban waste trade. Through strategic use of marginal and transient urban spaces, the trade is highly flexible, capitalising on the liminal status of migrants working with waste and the social ambiguity of waste to generate income and wealth. This paper develops a theoretical framework for my ethnographic study of the waste trading network as part of an expansive recycling economy in the country. I propose a conception of moral economy underlined by local logics of care that are premised on reciprocity and social aspirations. Rather an enclosed system that operates on the periphery of or alternatively to political economy, I argue that it is intimately connected with political economic processes in post-reform Vietnam and mutually constituted with a form of market socialist governmentality that cultivates particular notion of moral personhood. This moral person operates based on patron-client ethics, neoliberal ideas of the self, and socialist structures of feelings. These moral elements intermingle and reinvent each others in their practices of care, labour and entrepreneurship, their engagement with the state, the market and other institutions. They produce uncertain value transformations and ambiguous moral evaluations in line with the contested nature of market socialism.

Mock-labour: clashing valuations of (un)productivity in a dilapidated Serbian factory

Author: Ivan Rajković (UCL)  email

Short Abstract

In conversation with the recent literature on evaluative dilemmas of contemporary work, this paper follows the conflicting valuations of labour in the production slowdown of a Serbian car factory, and the simultaneous affirmation and denigration of the market logic they create.

Long Abstract

In this paper I explore the ambiguous inner (il)legitimation of work during production production in a Serbian factory Zastava Cars, after 1990. As in many firms in the country, the wars in former Yugoslavia led to a sudden, yet enduring decimation of production. However, in what was perceived as the politics of 'buying social peace', under-productive employment became increasingly financed by the state. In conversation with recent literature on evaluative dilemmas of contemporary work, I follow the ambiguous valuations of labour in such situation. On one hand, Zastava's slowdown has created new forms of activity at the work place, reintroducing physical labour and craft in what have previously been spaces of more automated production. Referring to such actions as 'skillful improvisation' and 'endurance for the firm', Zastava's workers valued their activities not in terms of their exchange value, but as self-organised commitment to 'gridding' (Jansen, 2015) - maintenance of an 'ordered system' of social reproduction in a time of crisis. At the same time, ethnography shows the limits of such social revalorization. Workers have gradually experienced their activities as disjointed from an ethos of mass productivity and rhythms they remembered from their previous working years. They started to depict themselves as only pretending to work for the state - what I call 'mock-labour' - and in the everyday boredom at the work place, experienced complex affective registers between righteousness and complicity, nonchalance and shame. Market logic kicks in as offering stable solutions for such value problems.

Between social work and action: the poetics and pragmatics of the `active' in unemployment-related social work

Author: Jens Kjaerulff (Aalborg University)  email

Short Abstract

The `active' is a recent buzzword in unemployment-related social work. Drawing on scholarship on value, and on Arendt’s distinction between `labour, work, and action', the paper explores articulations of (un)employment and sociality, which social workers have long attempted to work out/work around.

Long Abstract

A broad scholarship regards the late 20th century a watershed in welfare policy and practice, marked by a turn from so-called `passive to active' measures, where (e.g.) social work related to unemployment is pursued through schemes of workfare and activation. This paper suggests that the `active' in such contexts is more complex, and has a longer history, than commonly acknowledged. Exploring how, entails appreciating the ambiguous qualities of human activity and its value. To this end, the paper brings anthropological scholarship on value together with scholarship extending from Arendt's tri-part conceptual distinction between `labour, work, and action'. The perspective serves as a lens through which to consider social work related to unemployment in Denmark, drawing partly on historical material, but mainly on fieldwork in progress among social workers. The paper suggests that at issue across this material are articulations of ideals of employment and social identity with ideals of `active life' and sociality in a broader sense - value articulations which the paper argues social workers have long attempted to work out and work around, and about which they hold valuable insights.

When all that is solid does not melt into air: the materiality of political struggle in the Bosnian detergent factory "Dita"

Author: Larisa Kurtovic (University of Ottawa)  email

Short Abstract

What happens to capitalist logics of valuation when waiting becomes labor, and a ruin of socialist industrialism, a site of political action and cooperative economic enterprise? I explore this question through an ethnography of workers’ occupation of a detergent factory in northern Bosnia.

Long Abstract

What happens to capitalist logics of valuation and productivity when waiting becomes labor, and a ruin of socialist industrialism, a site of political action and cooperative economic enterprise? This paper interrogates the political force and material grounding of alternative conceptions of value and productivity, by focusing on the "Dita" detergent-producing factory in the northern Bosnian industrial town of Tuzla. Formerly a part of once successful chemical industrial complex, "Dita" was nearly decimated by postwar privatization—the violence of which transformed the factory into a cradle of a burgeoning new labor movement. For years, Dita's workers had been occupying the factory grounds in an effort to preserve what is left of a now a largely devastated industrial park. In summer 2015, with the help of their court appointed bankruptcy manager, they re-started the production of its iconic products, in order to prove to the public and potential investors their factory was still viable. Their strategy in some ways fell in line with the principles of marketization, particularly by imagining the solution to Dita's predicament through the sale of the company to a foreign investor. Yet the workers' self-organized effort to produce a viable future could have never happened had they fully accepted neoliberal criteria for ascertaining value. My paper demonstrates how the workers' postsocialist imagination and their affective attachment to the materiality of their nearly decimated industrial park, actually made their struggle both imaginable and possible.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.