Plenary B
Contemporary capitalism and unequal society: obscene exchange, complicity and grassroots responses

Convenors:
Silvia Vignato (Università Milano-Bicocca)
Alice Bellagamba (University of Milan-Bicocca)
Simone Ghezzi (Università di Milano-Bicocca)
Format:
Panels
Location:
Aula Magna
Start time:
22 July, 2016 at 14:30
Session slots:
0

Short abstract:

What constitutes contemporary capitalism for anthropology? Noam Yuran, Deborah James, and Susana Narotzky will confront on this question by discussing historical transformations, grassroots responses to neoliberal policies as well as the participants’ engagement in the financialisation of the economy. Within such a context emerging contradictions will be analysed.

Long abstract:

In discussing what constitutes contemporary capitalism Noam Yuran reviews the historical peculiarity of capitalism, often described as an economy where everything is up for sales. The full meaning of this commonplace is that things that are formally outside the market are suspected as hiding an obscene exchange. To explore this idea the paper will revisit Werner Sombart's Luxury and Capitalism, which traces the origin of capitalism to the rise of illicit love and the luxury industry it propelled. He also examines why in contemporary cultural imagination prostitution is associated with finance. Through the analysis of ethnographies of Southern Europe, Susana Narotzky addresses major tensions within the political economy of capitalism. While mainstream neoliberal policy discourse points at enhancing competition, mostly through reducing regulation, the practices of large firms point to various privileged deals supported by political elites. The grassroots responses to this situation focus on recuperating regulatory practices, a return to an economic nationalism, or quasi-autarkic projects of an alternative community economy. This view does not preclude a general belief in the need to gain a competitive market edge. Deborah James deals with the South African context where sharp rises in indebtedness have accompanied the rapid financialization of the economy over the past two decades, debt factors in other socially important relationships and meanings in the everyday life of the family and household. Different obligations and imperatives balanced against, or converted into, one another are examined. She challenges the overly deterministic assumption that these sets of relationships, and the conversions between them, embody a monolithic framework, imposed from above by financial institutions which intrudes into people’s intimate relations and commitments. She suggests exploring the complicity of participants’ engagement with the ‘financialisation of daily life’ rather than seeing it as imposed on unwilling victims.