The work of fate and fortune: the (in)efficacy of (non)human agency in West African livelihoods
(University of Bayreuth)
Paper short abstract:
This paper explores the nexus between work, fate and fortune in the Gambia and in West Africa at large. By assessing the practical implications of destiny-related notions for an ethic of work, it critically reflects on the lure of fate and fortune in the so-called neoliberal age of capitalism.
Paper long abstract:
Notions of fate and fortune have increasingly assumed centre stage in the worldwide capitalist economy, whether in speculative finance or in popular forms of consumption like lotteries and gambling. Some authors, like Jean and John Comaroff (1999, 2000), view the growing economic significance of these phenomena as an epitome of the power of abstraction and messianic character of neoliberalism. Thus, caught between the chimera of sudden enrichment and abject poverty, the dispossessed in the global south are said to resort to magical means as well as to discourses of luck, chance and predestination to explain and control processes of accumulation that are beyond their grasp. Additionally, such 'occult' ways of making sense and generating wealth downplay the input of labour. However penetrating in several respects, these insights fail the test of ethnographic scrutiny in several others. The paper draws on research on multifarious livelihoods in Muslim Gambia, and comparatively on West African case studies, to show fate and fortune to be long-standing features in the making of livelihoods in what have been typically both volatile and auspicious economies, and in particular in regulating work as a specific kind of human agency. While, on the one hand, chance, luck and predestination seemingly lie beyond human control, on the other, they probe people's effort, vitality and ethical conduct. The paper thus shows how understanding this interplay between human and non-human agencies sheds light on the appeal of destiny and luck in the present (neoliberal) moment.
Destiny, fate, predestination: ethnographies of changing forms of political and intimate life