Ethical Subjects: Market Rule in an Age of Poverty
At the start of the new millennium, poverty is newly visible. Countless organizations and campaigns have made the alleviation of poverty their leading issue. In this sense, the new millennium can be understood as the age of poverty, one in which the concern for poverty not only shapes social life but also serves as a key part of the remaking of the global economy. This collection of essays examines how this emerging interest in poverty has facilitated the construction of new forms of market rule. The contributors, Julia Elyachar, Peter Redfield, Vincanne Adams, and I, are interested in three formations: the renewal of development through reconstruction, humanitarianism, and bottom billion capitalism; the struggle to find a moral compass for the forms of market rule associated with poverty interventions; and zones of intimacy where poverty is encountered through volunteerism, philanthropy, and other acts of (neo)liberal benevolence.
Development, following Elyachar, can be understood as an organizing concept for a set of practices, discourses, and social technologies that emerged out of the late colonial era to organize the relationship between the United States and the global South. Prominent as a global project in the decades following the Second World War, by the 1980s development was under attack by critics spanning the political spectrum. On the one hand, global social movements insisted that development was a neo-imperialist project, one that had to be disrupted and disabled. On the other hand, the rise of free market ideologies challenged the idea of development as the business of the state. But it is in the crucible of this uncanny convergence that development has been renewed.
The renewal of development in the new millennium has been shaped by global imaginaries, especially those about poverty. Newly visible, the world’s “bottom billion” — that is, the billion or so people living under conditions of poverty — are now the subjects of development in a postdevelopment world. As Redfield argues, their conditions of life (and death) form the basis of new configurations of biopower and of the production of new types of humanitarian goods. In other words, bottom billion humanity is becoming the grounds of global ethics.
But also afoot is bottom billion capitalism, a set of dispersed but coherent efforts to construct, and make productive, a global economy where poverty is a frontier of profit and accumulation. For example, in my essay on the global microfinance industry and its horizons of financial engineering, I show how the world’s bottom billion are assimilated into global circulations of finance through microloans. Similarly, Adams examines disaster capitalism as a process whereby catastrophes, and their disproportionate impact on poor communities, are turned into market opportunities for profit. This, as Elyachar notes, is the effort to mine the “fortune at the bottom of the pyramid” — a striking concept emanating from the world of business management, which envisions economies of poverty as a new kind of business infrastructure, rich in connectivity and dynamic in its informality.
The conversion of the shadow economies of the poor into spaces for enterprise and profit is both complex and fragile. It requires elaborate practices of calculation and rationalities of risk, as well as nimble forms of expertise. It requires formatting social infrastructures as an infrastructure for global capital. It requires speculative arbitrage on the cultural habits of the poor. It requires converting the urgent temporalities of need into repetitive contracts of long-term profit. Prone to dissent and disorder, bottom billion capitalism and disaster capitalism are thus always under construction, never guaranteed.
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