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Reections: Moral Economy of Markets, Race and the Lessons
Guest Editors: Michaeline A. Crichlow and Dirk Philipsen
Moral and Market disordering in the time of Covid-19 145
Michaeline A Crichlow with Dirk Philipsen
The tragedy of the private: Theft, property, and the loss of 163
Blacks weather, Whites climate 175
COVID-19 and the modern plantation: Debunking the 185
neoliberal moral economy
COVID 19, communal capital and the moral economy: 194
Pacific Islands responses
Liminality, third-culture and hope in a quarantine camp 199
Play it again, this time with meaning 203
Another economy calls for another perspective 207
Volume 33 Number 3 August 2021
Free access to tables of contents and abstracts. Site-wide access to the full text for
members of subscribing institutions.
Jamaica, Covid-19 and Black freedom 220
Friendly moods 234
Life versus Capital: The COVID-19 pandemic and the 238
politics of life
Nicholas De Genova
Ayni and Neltilitztli: The reconstitutions of the destituted 246
Walter D. Mignolo
A discussion: Capitalist crisis and economic estrangement 253
Radhika Mongia, Indian Migration and Empire: A Colonial
Genealogy of the Modern State
Birth of a nation: Race, regulation, and the rise of the 257
Jennifer M Chacón
Indian Migration and the Shift in how States limit free mobility 263
On Learning Lessons from the Past: Slavery, freedom, 267
and migration regulation
Call for papers 276
2021, Vol. 33(3) 145 –161
© The Author(s) 2021
Reprints and permissions:
2021, Vol. 33(3) 145 –161
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Introduction: Moral and
Market disordering in
the time of Covid-19
Michaeline A Crichlow with Dirk Philipsen
Duke University, USA
This special issue composed of essays that brainstorm the triadic relationship between
Covid-19, Race and the Markets, addresses the fundamentals of a world economic system
that embeds market values within social and cultural lifeways. It penetrates deep into the
insecurities and inequalities that have endured for several centuries, through liberalism for
sure, and compounded ineluctably into these contemporary times. Market fundamentalism
is thoroughly complicit with biopolitical sovereignty-its racializing socioeconomic projects,
cheapens life given its obsessive focus on high growth, by any means necessary. If such
precarity seemed normal even opaque to those privileged enough to reap the largess of
capitalism and its political correlates, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic with its infliction
of sickness and death has exposed the social and economic dehiscence undergirding wealth
in the U.S. especially, and the world at large. The essays remind us of these fissures, offering
ways to unthink this devastating spiral of growth, and embrace an unadulterated care centered
system; one that offers a more open and relational approach to life with the planet. Care, then
becomes the pursuit of a re-existence without domination, and the general toxicity that has
accompanied a regimen of high growth. The contributors to this volume, join the growing
global appeal to turn back from this disaster, and rethink how we relate to ourselves, to our
neighbors here and abroad, and to the non-humans in order to dwell harmoniously within
capitalism, care, Covid-19, love, markets, neoliberalism, race, socionature
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and
wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of
Michaeline A Crichlow, Department of African and African American Studies, Duke University, 243E Friedl
Building, 124 Campus Drive, Durham, NC 27708, USA.
1014304CDY0010.1177/09213740211014304Cultural DynamicsCrichlow with Philipsen
146 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the
profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.”
It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.”
The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn
from them is not just.1
Martin Luther King
Covid-19 has unambiguously peeled back the layers of socioeconomic inequality and
sociocultural divisions globally. In stark terms it has revealed the gendered, raced and
classed sacrifices and suffering endured by those unable to retreat from its ravages
and secure themselves. Dis/ordering forces of capitalism, while offering wealth and
wellbeing to some, have always been mediated by violence of various kinds generally
involving the death and displacement of peoples as well as the disruption of traditional
norms, cultures and institutions. The Covid-19 pandemic has multiplied the modes of
disruption and cumulatively deepened insecurities at various levels—from local health
and employment, to housing vulnerabilities, macro-economic shocks, systemic market
strains and a global specter of unprecedented levels of debt and poverty (IMF 2020;
IBRD 2020). Capitalist market forces that once forcibly brought together disparate
worlds, identities and cultures now seem to be pulling globalization processes apart as
its relentless process of accumulation breaches planetary boundaries, multiplies social,
economic, ecological and climatic crises, sparks racist xenophobia and terror, and cre-
ates hospitable grounds for the transmission of zoonotic diseases such as this novel
This volume comes in the wake of the calamitous fallout from COVID-19 and
responds to a special call for critical reflections on transformations needed in the moral
economy of markets. It is also anchored in a Duke University Bass project on the Moral
Economy of Markets: Constituting and Resisting Relations of Power that sought to
enquire into the nature and logic of capitalist markets—how they work, what their une-
ven effects are globally, and how people respond to and confront their incessant and
voracious quest for growth as the vehicle for righting the economic crises affecting
human and nonhuman, and indeed planetary wellbeing. In addition, the project sought to
highlight the experiences and narratives of those thrown into various states of vulnerabil-
ity, indebtedness, racial objectification and precarity. Overall, the project team examined
the following key questions:
How do vulnerable populations reconfigure territories and lives with and against the incursions
of marketizations and what can be learned from their experiences.
In what ways do individuals and communities navigate, operate outside of and/or
defy the market’s system of dependence and precarity to find creative means of
resilience, sustainability and wellbeing?
What lessons might be gleaned from modes of persistence, resilience and resist-
ance that inform responses to planetary disasters, escalating inequalities, the
Crichlow with Philipsen 147
disintegration of traditional communities, the expulsions of peoples and species
and the deadening of land and seas?
What alternative narratives exist that may point the way toward a more equitable,
just and sustainable future? And what might the role of markets be in this future?
Even before the onset of COVID-19, the imbalances and inequities generated by the
uncaring and expulsive politics of neoliberalism upended communities around the
globe, forcing them to imagine, explore, and build alternative ways of living and inter-
acting. In our Bass Connections classes students explored some of these emerging
alternatives. They ranged from the attempts to build various models of Community
Supported Agriculture (CSAs) geared toward the affordable provision of organic and
nutritious produce to the community, to community banking schemes where partici-
pants pooled their savings to procure short term loans among themselves, to examining
the efforts by countries such as China to address environmental concerns as they push
toward urbanization and advanced industrialization.
Given neoliberalism’s centrality to the social and political crises (growing inequality,
climate crisis, and ecosystem depletion, as well as the growing threat to democracy and
the epistemological crises of “alternative facts” and information technology that turns
people into products), it necessarily brokered our conversations. Some 50 years into the
regime of neo/liberalism, it has become obvious that the Global South, and post-colonial
states in particular, have suffered under its logic and the new moralities that it has engen-
dered. As the relentless drive of unfettered markets has torn asunder the fabric of socie-
ties across the globe, states, governments, civic organizations, and labor unions have
retreated or been dismantled, limiting or eliminating their capacities to serve as bulwarks
against the predatory demands of the market logic. As Wendy Brown argued:
To speak of the relentless and ubiquitous economization of all features of life by neoliberalism
is. . .not to claim that neoliberalism literally marketizes all spheres, even as such marketization
is certainly one important effect of neoliberalism. Rather, the point is that neoliberal rationality
disseminates the model of the market to all domains and activities – even where money is not
at issue – and configures human beings exhaustively as market actors, always, only, and
everywhere as homo economicus.2 (p. 31)
These brutalities and complexities, according to Saskia Sassen and other analysts,
have provided the rationale for budget cuts to social programs and public goods such as
education, health, and environmental protection, and have effectively bulldozed the
existing social infrastructures of the global South’s economies. In the process, neoliberal
rationalization has weakened already tenuous ties of citizens to States, overthrown home-
grown moral economies, and even altered traditional diets by forcing local economies
into the vortex of producing and consuming the “cheap” goods of industrialized agricul-
ture while exporting their staple crops. Stephanie Blacks’s film, Life and Debt, examines
the results of [this] neoliberal structural adjustment in Jamaica, but [she] also makes
clear that the story she tells could just as well reflect the experiences of the majority of
the Global South. The film depicts farmers uprooting their crops and dumping their milk
148 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
and produce because they could not compete with the flood of subsidized corporate prod-
ucts, and because their produce could not meet the industrialized standards of size,
weight, and appearance.3 Repeating a dynamic that plays out also in the Global North,
farmers are brought under the sway of merchants, with the latter becoming the ‘new’ and
more powerful socioeconomic classes.
Even as we speak of Global Souths, our imagination extends this rubric to cover the
growing populations and regions in the more industrialized north where parallel disloca-
tions and dispossessions have occurred. For example, Margaret Somers’s (2008) investi-
gates the changed assemblage of citizenship through the lens of the 2005 debacle following
the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, in the US South. She compel-
lingly shows the insecurities inherent in that State-society relationship, highlighted by the
sharp disequilibrium between the State, the market and civil society. And as she demon-
strates, these were conditions that existed even before the 1980s, the alleged start of neo-
liberalism in the Global North. Well before Katrina, the market—a “partner” grown
powerful and enabled especially by the State—had successfully dragged the population
into its neoliberal organizational logics, making survivability of citizen/subjects almost
entirely dependent on the possession of “social capital,”4 which had been effectively
denied them. Defined as the network of opportunities that accompany the social connec-
tions, “social capital” means that under the new dispensation individuals must rely on
their personal networks to create opportunities for upward social mobility and recognition
within this reshaped economy of power.
Thus, the neoliberal market works mainly against those without—those who lack cred-
ibility and profitable socioeconomic affiliations, key possessions in this era of biopolitical
sovereignty.5 Yet explorations of the reconfigurations of citizenship and the changed forms
of governmentality (in the Foucauldian [Foucault, 1978] sense)6 need to be complemented
by discussions of the myriad ways that capital has attempted to resolve its recurrent crises
of accumulation, whether through acts of dispossession of land and cultures, or other forms
of what David Harvey calls Accumulation by Dispossession (ABD). These ABD processes
are registered in the spheres of debt, housing, the degradation of the environment, the
spread of dead seas, destruction of land through acts of [dispossession] and expulsions, and
the search for new commodity frontiers.7 They also appear in the externalization of eco-
logical disasters and plunderous extractivism of natural resources—gold, diamonds, oil,
and gas—that make possible luxurious lives for the few who control these resources and
those who benefit from them. All of these so-called value chain creations, upend econo-
mies of North and South and bring untold social and physical death and despair to humans
and threaten all other life forms. Indeed, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First
Century, with its extensive tracking of wealth and income inequality, posits a contempo-
rary scenario that resembles the 19th century with a thin layer of oligarchs controlling the
economy and using their influence to manipulate politics in a (self) class-interested man-
ner. When these one percenters pass on their wealth to their scions; inheritance, Piketty
predicts, will play a key role in recreating oligarchy, much as it did in the 19th century.8
COVID-19’s impact shows the intertwinement of racialization, gender and economic
deprivation, and its accompanying consequences along a spectrum of illness and deaths.
Moreover, it has produced the worst forms of inequality and hopelessness ever to have
Crichlow with Philipsen 149
visited the US.9 And it is worth noting that it wasn’t simply in the US where these trends
manifested; “runaway capitalism” even of the Chinese State variety posted similar trends
in the growth of inequality. While aggregate incomes in China have undoubtedly increased
spectacularly, so has inequality.10 Today, China’s success story is equally characterized by
the degradation of common resources like air and water and the growing disparities signi-
fied by the migrations of millions away from rural areas to urbanizing regions, where
poverty and its attendant ills have become a defining feature.
It is no wonder that the concept of racial capitalism has gained such traction in recent
scholarly work and in the scripts and pronouncements of activists. Originating with
South Africanists like Bernard Magubane, as well as the early work of the Guyanese
historian Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Oliver Cox’s magnus
opus, Caste Class and Race, and Cedric J. Robinson’s 1983 exploration of the Black
Marxist tradition, the use of the concept elucidates the organizational logic of capitalism
as it first ruptures the bonds of feudalism, carrying along with it the seeds of racialism
that would be deepened and magnified in Atlantic Slavery.11 In other words, slavery, the
racialization of Africans and others, became an essential part of the DNA of capital accu-
mulation. Though many who embrace the concept of racial capitalism connect it to the
thesis of Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery, Dale Tomich (2020) reminds us that the
“and” in the title, so central to the structure of the Williams’s argument, still addresses
both capitalism and slavery as two independent processes, which he then linked. Marx
himself recognized this mutuality:
But as soon as peoples whose production still moves within the lower forms of slave-labor, the
corvée, etc. are drawn into a world market dominated by the capitalist mode of production,
whereby the sale of their products for export develops into their principal interest, the civilized
horrors of over-work are grafted onto the barbaric horrors of slavery, serfdom, etc. Hence the
Negro labor in the southern states of the American union preserved a moderately patriarchal
character so long as production was chiefly directed to the satisfaction of immediate local
requirements. But in proportion as the export of cotton became of vital interest to those states,
the over-working of the Negro, and sometimes the consumption of his life in seven years of
labor, became an actor in a calculated and calculating system. It was no longer a question of
obtaining a certain quantity of useful products, rather of the production of surplus value itself.12
Slavery capitalism in the US South and elsewhere is here recognized as a particular form
of capitalism—slavery as constitutive of, not separate from, capitalism. This process of
accumulation facilitated violent forms of extractivism, decimating both the environment
and human bodies. At various moments of capital accumulation, from its colonial con-
solidation based on plantation slavery to more modern industrial profits derived from
Fordist and post Fordist enterprises, the othering of bodies and the mutilation and trans-
figuration of nature have produced new forms of abjection. Such violence has been inte-
gral to these projects of development and progress. And indeed, such abjection has been
spilling out of its familiar sites, which have historically demarcated the socioeconomic
lives of people of color and the poor generally, to the unfamiliar and once relatively safe
and secure places of America’s varied classed and raced middle classes.
150 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
With COVID-19 now compounding and exposing these systemic inequities in the US
and the wider world, there has been a renewed call for racial and social justice. Judging
from the ongoing international marches of solidarity, minoritized peoples and their allies
have seized the moment to air their anger, angst, and frustration, and have raised demands
for systemic restructuring. In the wake of repeated murders of Black residents by mem-
bers of US police, Black Lives Matter (BLM), the movement which began in 2013,
became alive again, its demands for racial justice resonating in many parts of the globe,
where racialized forms of violence where racialized forms of violence prevail. For the
first time, the US based BLM tied violence against Indigenous Americans to the strug-
gles of Blacks, including the projects of genocide that conditioned the mobilization of
enslaved Africans to the plantation and other work sites in the Americas. In the wider
global awakening, the struggle by various Native peoples against modern forms of settler
colonialism was stimulated by and stirred this pervasive global consciousness of socio-
BLM sprang into action in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a
Minneapolis police officer who, despite Floyd’s plea of “I can’t breathe,” knelt on his
neck for 8.46 minutes. Kneeling, which is often seen as an act of supplication, submis-
sion, or protest as in the case of the US footballer Colin Kaepernick to protest racism and
the police killings of Black and Brown people, became an act of killing itself.
There is not just a haunting here of these earlier times-of slavery’s fading forms and
projects, but live traces- living flesh that continues to sustain the insatiable wants of the
earth’s inhabitants-not all equally of course. Hidden in plain sight, human trafficking,
loosely called modern slavery, easily folds into our intimate networks-one’s diet, of
shrimps, fish, chocolate, various food crops, or one’s consumption of fashion and elec-
tronics. Human trafficking, as a particular variant of forced labor, thrives as much under
economic neoliberalism as chattel slavery did under plantation capitalism. As studies
suggest, capital’s forays have not only been devastating for those exploited and margin-
alized but also costly in terms of dollars and cents for the captains of industry! A recent
Citibank study calculated that, since 2000, racial discrimination has cost the U.S as much
as 16 trillion dollars since 2000.13
The demands emanating from these twin crises, Covid-19 and racial justice, seem to
coalesce around the need for an economy that is more caring than what we have known
and endured. where the unfettered market is given sacrosanct status. From calls in the US
to “defund the police” in order to refund and reinvest in social services and community
development, to demands for diversity in leadership among businesses, public and pri-
vate, to a renewal of racial sensitivity to reduce practices of overt and subterranean rac-
ism, large and growing numbers of people seem interested in improving life for everyone,
not just the privileged. We may well be witnessing a resetting that centers care and pro-
motes the interdependence of humans and the environment. The question is: how are we
to uncouple these various violent forms from the socioeconomic practices of governmen-
tality and the market? Margaret Somer’s solution of rebalancing the relations among
states, the market and civil society, so that social connections among people are not
embedded in market relations, is important to bear in mind but more structural change is
definitely needed. A racial reckoning seems to be underway in the US; A concern and
outrage about institutional injustice; and the renewal of the call for reparations to name a
Crichlow with Philipsen 151
few of the more prominent ones. In this moment of multiple interrelated crises, as we
search for alternatives, we might enquire into the possible safeguards against a return to
what is clearly an uncaring world economy boosted by a dystopian politics that centers
the securitization of the nation-states (particularly those in the Global North) while the
suppliant pleas of the dispossessed and marginalized within are ignored: all this as States
innovatively reborder and expand their jurisdiction to keep at bay those seeking refuge
allegedly from the “outside” (most of whom hail from the former colonies of the Global
A question of care
What does it mean to center “care” within the frame of economic wellbeing, and why
does a focus on “care” matter? The recently published The Care Manifesto calls for
such a recentering of “care.” It explores a three-pronged approach, (1) caring for; (2)
caring with; and (3) caring about.14 The authors call for an ethics of care, a “promiscu-
ous care,” that is to say a caring that embraces all areas of life and pursues all practices
of reimagining life without the carelessness to human, nonhuman, and ecological life.
Such a caring imagines kinship beyond the immediate family to include broader net-
works of citizen/subjects, networks and forms of friendship not built on social capital
such as those contained in the rolodexes of our minds—“a what can you do for me-
approach” central to the cultures of neoliberalism. New forms of kinship will require
the invoking of the “we” and an embracing of the seemingly distanced “them”. This
obviously will require a different question than who gets to be in or out. As the collec-
For us promiscuous care is an ethics that proliferates outwards to redefine caring relations from
the most intimate to the most distant. It means caring more and in ways that remain experimental
and extensive by current standards. We have relied upon ‘the market’ and ‘the family’ to provide
too many of our caring needs for too long. We need to create a more capacious notion of care.15
This promiscuous care extends beyond the domains of the private to include community
care. Consider the impact of the failed promises of sovereignty and commitment to
health care that the US government made to Native Americans like the members of the
Navajo nation. In early April of 2020, NBC news ran a story of a Native American doctor
caring for Covid-19 patients in rural Arizona, mainly members of Navajo communities
of whom roughly 30% suffer from severe water shortages.16 The story highlighted not
only the sacrifices of the doctor but brought into sharp relief the sheer neglect and disre-
gard for the wellbeing of these communities, and the high risks of the marginalized who
live in them.
Indeed, according to the latest statistics, the Navajo community, which constitutes the
largest reservation in the U.S., comprising 270,000 square miles with a population of
roughly 173,000 residents in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, was by far, the worst hit
area in the country by the COVID-19 epidemic. The tragic irony of a Navajo doctor try-
ing valiantly to save lives amidst the decay of her community, serves as a visceral
reminder of the enduring history of dispossession, displacement and consistent betrayal
152 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
of US native nations. Who benefits from US citizenship? In native lands, where sover-
eignty has been promised for centuries, a few crumbs fall from the government, but no
trickle-down rewards from markets that otherwise direct the benefits to the top as they
despoil the land.17 Communities hang on by a thread, distended in time, improvising
while governments and markets count them out.
One reads of Navajos not waiting for government assistance nor depending on empty
promises from distant bureaucracies. A grassroots organization known as Navajo and
Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund provides water and food for significant sections
of the population, as they fight to stave back the ravages of the virus, in order to protect
the spaces of the community and the lives of its members. This certainly qualifies as
community care. As the care collective stated, community care involves identifying the
spaces and institutions that can sustain community relations, such as parks or libraries—
environments that involve sharing of time and space thereby empowering the practices
of democracy. In this way we can structure a new global politics representing a more
ethical and productive form of cosmopolitanism, one that “. . .means being at ease with
strangeness; knowing that we have no choice but to live with difference, whatever differ-
ences come to matter in specific times and places.”18
A focus on care entails a set of practices that unsettles the present condition, for it
champions a fundamentally different imaginary in human-relations, and in humans’
relations with nonhumans and the environment, than either the State or the market can
offer. Its premise pertaining to the latter is not just the broad framework of a social, one
may say a Polyanian, approach; but goes further in identifying a social order pock-
marked by varied forms of racialization, social-classisms and gender. In short, it iden-
tifies the different locations that humans occupy on the spectrum of humanness. Once
care displaces growth as the center of human existence, it follows that we must pay
close attention to how care/lessness and inhumanness, of abjection and alienation,
have been lived by particular populations. It becomes possible to situate how this
juridico-economic system has worked to facilitate or produce dispossessive states of
existence—of native populations, of black bodies—in the Americas, but also in Africa
and the blackened elsewhere—where denigrated peoples endure at such gross disad-
vantages. Attention to care in this historicized manner illuminates the rhizomatic roots
of a market logic that has now metastasized into the nooks and crannies of our every-
Certainly, centering care stands a good chance of reconfiguring the idea of the moral
economy of the market. Recall that the idea of the moral economy can be traced to the
centering of common over private needs, of household connection over returns on invest-
ment from peasant labor processes, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot would say.19 Peasant pro-
duction became hijacked through policies favoring export markets, particularly in
countries considered “developing,” in the Global South. In the process the peasants them-
selves were relegated to households unable to produce sufficient subsistence and forced to
enter the labor market as wage workers, or as casual labor in informal sectors.20 This
attention to growth has stymied the flourishing of alternative agricultural systems, e.g.
alternative knowledge pertaining to crops soil, and disparaged them as traditional, non-
modern, antiquated, and irrelevant while peasants have been (forcibly) encouraged to
Crichlow with Philipsen 153
adopt suspect high growth farming technologies, new agricultural methods of farming, as
they become more incorporated into a market that preys on the vulnerable.
These outcomes are more often found in the spaces where marginality holds sway,
both in parts of the Global North (where, for example, one in seven people face hunger
as a direct result of their impoverished and marginalized existences) and in the Global
South, where poverty and marginalization are defining features of lower income groups.
Indeed, one report poignantly notes that in reference to scarcity amidst wealth in the
[Food insecurity] looks like a lot of things. . . It looks like empty cupboards in some households.
It looks like having to choose between paying the electric bill or buying groceries in other
households. There are a lot of families struggling to make ends meet, stretching money to cover
costs, including food.
There is existential scarcity in the midst of plenty. In the US, the richest country in his-
tory, thousands now regularly line up for free food, as depicted in a photograph from a
CNN newscast on November 30th last year. In short, all is not well, even among the
wealthiest countries of the world. Fifty million US Americans will face food insecurity
by year’s end (2020). Meanwhile, the BBC reports that in England the poorest communi-
ties have suffered dramatically and the need for food is “massive.” In the wake of Covid-
19, England too has shown itself incapable of distributing its wealth in a fashion to avert
devastation for those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. The same is occurring
Figure 1. Photograph taken by Michaeline Crichlow from CNN television news coverage,
circa November, 2020.
154 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
in the US, where the number of people living in poverty has sharply increased as a result
of Covid’s impact on the economy. The problem is compounded in the formerly colo-
nized countries of the Global South, the postcolonies, where abundance has bypassed
most of their citizen-subjects. There, significant swaths of the population improvise
through the general condition of scarcity, compounded by the pandemic’s impact, but
these are also conditions that have deep historical roots in the unequal relations between
the Global North and South.
While the tendency for scholarship on these issues to focus on the Global North for
solutions, it is precisely the marginalized peoples of the world who have developed sur-
vival strategies in response to the unique and various forms of ruination they have
endured. And they may yet offer the most cogent alternatives to the regime of neoliberal
markets. Four decades ago, Bill Warren (1980) stated in a different context, that those
places lacking development were not sufficiently exploited by capital. Warren was, of
course, extolling the virtue of high growth models of capitalist development. Yet, where
Warren saw innovation heaped upon hopefulness and prosperity, we now witness capi-
tal’s partialities and an acceleration of the sorts of disasters and ruination that have come
to define the global situation in the age of neoliberalism and climate change. Without
seeking to trivialize our passing present now, the spreading wretchedness of the earth and
its peoples, even insightful comedians like Dave Chapelle may have identified some of
the ironies amidst it all. In a monologue on Saturday Night Live, Chappelle addressed the
growing impoverishment of whites during the pandemic, commenting on their declining
life expectancy rates due to the diseases of despair, such as drug overdoses, and the ensu-
ing rage which has spread through their communities. He felt their pain, he said.
Reminding the audience of Ronald Reagan’s characterization of Blacks as a welfare
“queens” and drug addicts, he piped, “who does that sound like now. . .stimulus cheques,
heroin?” He then reminded the audience of his deeper truth: “you don’t know how to
survive; black people are the only ones who know how to survive. . . You need us.”
Black people have experienced the ravages of the market logic for generations. Those
“blues people”21 have a lot to teach those whites who now find themselves “blackened,”
—ravaged by capital’s brutal contractions, their flesh trampled, living in a world defined
by despair. Chapelle continued, “you need to find joy, begin to care for each other and if
you find you can’t, then ‘come get your nigga lessons.’”22 But trampled whites not only
have much to learn from Blacks and the other more vulnerable US and of other global
communities. Chapelle also alludes to the need for alliances between peoples in the face
of the brutalities unleashed by capital and an uncaring State.23 A caring approach con-
fronts the scenes of humans’ subjection and subjugation-socionature, as Arturo Escobar
refers to that relationship, and uses them to envision a way forward through community
cooperation to resist the harsh blasts of unfettered markets and begin reframing alterna-
tive ways of living.
Care permits a sustainable re-existence of traditional peasant-based (and peasant
inspired?) modes of life, founded on more harmonious relations to the land. It re/stores a
market logic that is not entirely dependent on the paradigmatic growth models which
require the wresting of agency or autonomy from people and places. It also reanimates
peoples’ capacities to forge new paths into the future. Indeed, “[O]nly by confronting the
past and prioritizing the needs of those who have been most marginalized, violated and
Crichlow with Philipsen 155
negated by uncaring nation states will we be able to move forward into a more just future
and cultivate a radically different way of relating to others and the world itself.”24
Not simply an altruistic gesture, care can be grounded in a politics of activism that
centers relationality as key to ontologies of being, becoming, belonging and conviviality.
It necessitates a different kind of politics for its sustenance. In his most recent text,
Escobar (2020) outlines his activist scholarly endeavors in Colombia with Indigenous
and Black communities unpacking the concept. By relationality Escobar means. The
relational, he defines as “the socionature configurations from the recognition of the radi-
cal interdependence of all living things, where nothing pre-exists the relationships that
constitute it-is the great correlate of autonomy and communality.”25 Naming such a poli-
tics, “Pluriversal” pitted against what he considers its opposite, “universal”, Escobar
calls for projects that conjure a human ontology which promote a human defined by a
sense of relational care. This type of care operates in diametric opposition to (and treats
with deserving hostility) the uncaring politics of extractive, exploitative, and growth-
centered capitalism. Citing the efforts of Black and Indigenous communities in Calí,
Colombia, he discusses their cosmovisions (vision of life and, therefore, of worlds) as
rooted in sense of territory that reflects their harmony with nature, humans and the spir-
itual. It is around these interdependencies that the struggle for territory exists. Escobar
was told by a community leader, “[T]he economy is causing a mental deterritorialization
among our young people.”26 What did he mean? He meant the dislocation that happens
in the “there” as when “[T]hey don’t just take people out of the territory, they take the
territory out of the people—that is, they make people live according to individualized
and commodified dynamics,” conditions which cause the decay of the communal worlds
once known.27 The market can be seen here as the displacement of a communal morality,
based on traditional relationships, for another market-based morality, one that involves a
veritable disposability of people and place.
This “Reflection on Markets, Race, and COVID-19” represents an attempt to explore,
and find meaning in, what collective and individual experience living with this global
pandemic might have to offer. Who is being dislocated by whom and why? Are all rela-
tionships reduced to some form of transaction? What morality is possible in this reality?
In our current situation people seem to face an ever-present disposability, and the very
concept of morality seems equally dispensable. The interrelated and overlapping triad of
markets, race, the experiences of a pandemic such as COVID-19 has revealed deep fis-
sures in our social. Yet, it has revived new visions of a more expansive and inclusive
Dirk Philipsen, political economist and historian, examines the linked phenomena of
climate change, systemic racism, and a global pandemic. He posits a “tragedy of the pri-
vate,” as it inevitably “separates, exploits, and exhausts those living under its cold logic.”
The systemic imperatives of capital’s market regime—to commodify, extract, grow, and
exploit—have historically been justified by scarcity. Today, however, “we face an entirely
different challenge. Not too little, but too much.” Informed by a burgeoning literature on
degrowth, markets, and wellbeing economics, Philipsen argues that while “our dominant
economic systems continue to follow colonial extraction and brutal exclusion,” a life
beyond growth, beyond mental and cultural imprisonment and the drudgery of wage labor,
has become possible. Although the private “has repeatedly brought the world to the brink
156 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
of disaster,” the human capacity to create and cooperate can bring about “what others could
only envision: a system focused on wellbeing of people and planet.”
In “Blacks Weather, Whites Climate” Mark Driscoll, intellectual historian and East Asia
specialist homes in on what might well be our biggest collective challenge—the destruc-
tion of people and our ecosystems. His title evokes weather and climate as verbs. Driscoll
contends that referring to COVID-19 as a pandemic confuses cause and effect. Whiteness
is the pandemic. Building on examples ranging from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century
climate changes that resulted from the White genocide of Indigenous peoples of the
Americas to the 2020 all-White anti-COVID restriction demonstrations in Raleigh, North
Carolina, Driscoll shows that it is White people’s actions that manipulated the climate. As
such, they were “weathering” races and populations “dealing with the fallout from what
W.E.B. DuBois called the ‘title to the universe claimed by White Folk.’” Driscoll specifies,
as well, that White capitalism and markets “are saturated with coercion and unfreedom
from beginning to end,” from the enclosure of the commons to slavery and racial terror.
Contemporary prison labor by Black and other non-White inmates are used to uphold the
system’s hegemonic position, considered the “most destructive to our natural environment
and the most predatory on people of color.”
Social anthropologist Marisa Wilson’s essay, “COVID-19 and the Modern Plantation:
Debunking the Moral Economy,” explores modern agricultural practices to analyze the
concept of essential workers alongside the value of different types of labor. She inquires
into who is deemed “worthy.” Wilson is concerned with the profoundly racialized hierar-
chies in modern capitalism’s formation of the “moral” economy. Reflecting on a widening
critical literature of globalization and trade liberalization, Wilson investigates how the ben-
efits of the system flow in massive proportion to corporations in the Global North. During
crises like COVID-19, meanwhile, the injuries are most strongly felt by low-income people
of color, oftentimes giving rise to “hunger pandemics.” Contrary to neoliberal claims about
the superiority of industrialized agriculture, she finds that “mixed farming systems are bet-
ter able to respond to external shocks than specialized farms.” In the global capitalist food
system, its moral calculus to prioritize economic values over all other human/non-human
relationships, inevitably fails the majority of the global population.
Steven Ratuva, political sociologist, challenges the standard economic lexicon in his
article, “COVID-19, Communal Capital, and The Moral Economy: Pacific Islands
Responses.” Ratuva addresses the central role of “communal capital” in the life and sur-
vival of Pacific communities. He juxtaposes communal modes of enterprise with domi-
nant market systems, showing how producing for community consumption and sustenance
has proven remarkably resilient and effective in responding to COVID-19’s economically
paralyzing impacts. He underscores that the “predatory, expansionist, exploitative, and
manipulative nature of neoliberalism” needs to be replaced by an economy that is com-
munal and moral, one that serves everyone instead of solely the elites. Furthermore,
Ratuva suggests that now is the time to push for transformative action for “the series of
events linked to COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement has galvanized a new
synergy for revolutionary change.”
How is COVID-19 experienced in intimate spaces and captured in visual art?
“Reflections on Markets, Race, and COVID-19” also attends to the pandemic’s aesthet-
ics. Documentary photographer Minh-Hoang Nguyen finds himself in a two-week
Crichlow with Philipsen 157
COVID-19 quarantine camp at the outskirts of Hanoi, Vietnam. He ruminates on aliena-
tion in an otherwise familiar environment. His piece, “Liminality, Third-Culture, and
Hope in Quarantine Camp” casts light on a “third-culture” of globalization, one that, in
his case, has strong ties to Vietnam and United States. Nguyen asserts that transitions can
mold and establish identities. They create communities of hope and creativity outside a
clear sense of belonging. COVID-19 here reveals itself as creating a possible experiential
frame that can occasion a new belonging propelled by a shared sense of alienation.
Illustrator Antonia Santolaya, whose images are dispersed throughout this volume,
suggests the inescapable idea of living with COVID-19 at home, regardless of a positive
or negative result. It is another occupant, exploding in a mind-blowing manipulative
fluorescent green, reminiscent of slime, a bouncing rubber ball, spiky, or spiny. Our new
chewy “gummy bear”: food for thought.
“Play it Again, This Time with Meaning” is a short reflection by Patrick McHugh,
independent research manager at the nonprofit advocacy organization North Carolina
Justice Center. He maintains that the shocking level of violence and disregard for basic
norms of civility and democracy we experienced between 2016 and 2020, while histori-
cally not without precedent, “holds the potential to challenge an economic system rooted
in lies, theft, and oppression.” Despite its appalling shadow, this irreverent moment
points to the increasing gulf between “economic-speak and reality.” McHugh dismisses
narratives calling for a return to normal. Instead, he urges the reader to acknowledge
modern capitalism’s predatory and racist nature in a collective effort to embrace the
opportunities before us.
Dutch cultural economist Arjo Klamer’s essay “Another Economy Calls for Another
Perspective” argues for opportunities to build a transformative economic system reach-
ing beyond the market and government’s predominant narrow logics. Klamer shows that
neither markets nor governments have conceptual or organizational room for families or
communities or relationships. “There is no space to imagine a ‘we’ of any kind,” he says.
Governments and markets cannot adequately, much less fully, home a human: they can-
not “generate relations, a community, culture, care, or a sense of well-being.” Klamer
intimates an expanded sense-making paradigm that allows for people to enter into social,
rather than contractual, interactions.
Race, or, more precisely, the way racial identity and racialized lives are constructed,
have, from the beginning, been an inextricable part of the history of so-called develop-
ment. In Jamaica and Black Freedom in a Time of Covid-19, Maziki Thame probes
articulations of race as they were shaped in the context of Caribbean plantation slavery
and shows how they cannot be extricated from social class—power and wealth both
inform and closely follow skin color. And yet, the devastating consequences of Covid-19
on poor and black lives in particular also open new opportunities for a de-colonized
alternative re-existence in which, for the first time within the history of capitalism, Black
For Claudia Milian, a LatinX Studies scholar, COVID-19 created an aperture to re-think
and embrace friendship amidst crisis and uncertainty. Derailed by the pandemic’s onslaught,
Milian’s part personal and part philosophical contemplation ponders how “social distance-
trust-distrust organize the pandemic-everyday.” It is a negotiation fraught with contradic-
tions and pain as much as an invitation for a more bonded way of being. “Friendly Moods”
158 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
is a celebration of human connection—of encounters and acts of kindness that are rela-
tional rather than transactional. What she calls “perilous times of isolation and dread” also
posit opportunities for “holding friends dear and dearly holding the world,” a process that
could lead to developing a “loving way of being and living.”
Death always “confronts us with the fragility of life,” writes cultural anthropologist,
geographer, and social theorist, Nicholas De Genova. Yet COVID-19 does much more. It
exposes the “unfathomable travesty” of how our own sociopolitical arrangements create
“wildly exaggerated and grotesque disparities” in the ways illness, death, and suffering are
experienced. Building on Marx and Foucault, De Genova explores a “racial theory of
labor.” He appraises the “utter and abject disposability of human life”—unevenly distrib-
uted under capital. What is hastily referred to as “essential labor” routinely turns out to be
“sacrificial labor”—expendable in our world of dissimulation-as people are literally forced
to work themselves to death. The pandemic “sheds a glaring light” on the heightened pre-
carity of life in racial capitalism: devalued, degraded, and disregarded. De Genova’s line of
thought productively draws on philosopher Giorgio Agamben. He suggests that human life
should not be defined by “modes of production” but by “form-of-life.” In this disruptive
moment, there is a potentiality of life “no longer subordinated to the . . . merciless require-
ments of the regime of capital accumulation.”
Philosopher and Cultural theorist, Walter Mignolo concludes this collection of
reflections by reminding readers of the profound difference between societies with
markets and market societies, as Karl Polanyi (1944, 2001) put it. Prior to capitalism,
“no economy has ever existed that, even in principle, was controlled by markets. . .
Gain and profit made on exchange never before played an important part in human
economy” (Polanyi, 1944, 2001). This emergence of gain and profit as the organizing
logic of modern societies, Mignolo posits, required a “colonial revolution,” simultane-
ously establishing “Western Civilization” and the “destitution of whatever threatened
disruption,” such as Ancient cultures as well as traditional economies and non-Western
epistemologies. Mignolo argues that the necessary reconstitution of the communal,
centered on giving and reciprocity, not selfish gain and exploitation, will occur neither
in existing nation-states nor their political and economic institutions. On the contrary,
such systemic changes will require a decolonial reconstitution of communal places and
As the editors of this volume, we, would like to express thanks and appreciation to all
the contributors, many of whom were not involved in the original project on the moral
economy of markets, but nonetheless generously agreed to share their time and thoughts
with us. Our initial plan was to bring the authors into conversation with each other,
respond, reflect on, and discuss each other’s contributions, and to include their respective
reactions in the volume. But, with the humbleness that group efforts of this scale rou-
tinely tend to impart on its originators, we had to give up on this rather expansive vision.
It is thus with particular gratitude that we want to thank Kathi Weeks who, quite late in
the day, but never short on brilliant insights, agreed to serve as a kind of collective dis-
cussant of the entire collection. As readers will see for themselves, we were exception-
ally fortunate in our choice, for her aggregate reflections provided both solid footing and
illuminating brackets for a wide-ranging set of essays.
Crichlow with Philipsen 159
Thanks to the editorial suggestions of Patricia Northover of the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute for Social and
Economic Studies, at the University of the West Indies, Mona Jamaica, who has been our general inter-
locutor on the Bass Connections project and also presented on debt (see https://kenan.ethics.duke.edu/
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
1. King (1967), “Beyond Vietnam.” April.
2. Brown (2017) Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, 31.
3. Black (2001) Life and Debt.
5. Here I am gesturing to the correctives made by analysts such as Georgio Agamben, and oth-
ers who identify the exceptionalism of governing through the figure of “homo sacer” and
the argument that biopolitics never left the politics of sovereignty behind. The concept of
necropolitics introduced by Achille Membe suggests that we disavow assumptions that such
governmentality is always or determined by a politics of life as conveyed in the notion of
biopolitics—animated by developments on the African continent, but as we all know inhabits
politics, whether in the US or in any part of the Americas, with long histories of State and
parastate violence, intentional death, to cause to die, to put to death is the ever present under-
side of the politics of preserving life. See Michel Foucault (1978), Agamben (1998) Homer
Sacer; Mbembe (2019) Necropolitics.
6. Governmentality, for Foucault refers to the “conduct of conduct,” the institutions including
the State but not restricted to that relationship, that shape the conduct of subject/citizens. So
that government and the State are not the same. The idea of governmentality operates contrary
to disciplinary power, seen as the purview of the sovereign. It focuses on the forms of power
that focuses on the life of the population as a technology of control, whereby citizens and
subjects so defined, conduct themselves accordingly.
7. Sassen (2015) Expulsions; Moore (2015) Capitalism in the Web of life.
8. Piketty (2014), Capital in the 21st Century (Pemberton, 2019).
9. See the documentary “Requiem for the American Dream.”
10. The Documentary, Capital in the 21st Century suggests that those of the 1% increased by
2000% compared to the others by 800%, but these figures do not say much about the cost of
living and the growing disparities among specific cities and regions.
11. Robinson (2000).
12. Karl Marx Capital, Volume I, 345 quoted in Dale Tomich (2020), “Capitalism in Slavery,
Slavery in Capitalism: Original Accumulation, Slave Rent, and the Formation of the World-
13. According to the study broken down as : $13 trillion lost in potential business revenue because
of discriminatory lending to African American entrepreneurs, with an estimated 6.1 million
jobs not generated as a result; $2.7 trillion in income lost because of disparities in wages suf-
fered by African Americans; $218 billion lost over the past two decades because of discrimi-
nation in providing housing credit; and $90 billion to $113 billion in lifetime income lost from
160 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
discrimination in accessing higher education. See https://www.npr.org/sections/live-updates-
lion-because-of-discrimination-bank-says. But here again solutions to racialization involves
undoing it since it is a veritable obstacle to economic growth. Here we see a recentering of the
variable of growth without racialization. The humanization of capitalism.
14. The Care Collective (2020).
15. Ibid, p. 41.
18. The Care Collective, p. 95.
19. Trouillot (1988).
20. Tabak and Crichlow (2000); Hart (1985), “The Informal Economy”; De Soto (1989), The
21. I am gesturing here to Baraka’s (1999, 2002) (LeRoi Jones) Blues People.
22. Of course, race does not explain everything. Social Class matters. But we recognize the
poignancy of Chapelle’s claims.
23. Chappelle (2020), Saturday Night Live, November 7.
24. The Care Manifesto, 60.
25. Escobar (2020), 40.
26. Ibid, 125.
27. Ibid. . .
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Brown W (2017) Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. New York, NY: Zone
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night-live/video/dave-chappelle-standup-monologue/4262843 (accessed December 2020).
De Soto H (1989) The Other Path. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Escobar A (2020) Pluriversal Politics: The Real and the Possible. Durham & London: Duke
Foucault M (1978) The History of Sexuality (trans. R Hurley). New York, NY: Pantheon Books.
Hart K (1985) The informal economy. The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 10(2): 54–58.
IBRD (2020) The World Bank-IBRD-IDA, Annual Report. Available at: https://www.worldbank.
org/en/about/annual-report (accessed December 2020).
International Monetary Fund (IMF, 2020) A crisis like no other: an uncertain recovery. Available
at: https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2020/06/24/WEOUpdat (accessed
King ML (1967) Beyond Vietnam: A time to break silence. Available at: https://www.goodreads.
Mbembe A (2019) Necropolitics. Durham: Duke University Press.
Moore J (2015) Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London:
Crichlow with Philipsen 161
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Piketty T (2014) Capital in the 21st Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Polanyi K (1944, 2001) The Great Transformation. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Robinson CJ (2000) Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill, NC:
University of North Carolina Press.
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Harvard University Press.
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Cambridge University Press.
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Hopkins University Press.
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2021, Vol. 33(3) 163 –173
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The tragedy of the private:
Theft, property, and
the loss of a commons
Duke University, NC, USA
In a world of escalating climate crisis, metastasizing market logic, structural racism, growing
inequality, and a global pandemic, this essay argues, the tragedy is not one of the commons, but
one of the private. The relentless capitalist focus on self-interest rather than common good,
on efficiency rather than resilience, on more rather than better, on the private over the public,
has brought societies and ecosystems alike to the breaking point. As COVID-19 has helped us
rediscover, wellbeing instead depends on a healthy commons—resilience, reciprocity, solidarity,
and sharing. The essay ends with practical suggestions as to how to move in the direction of an
economy squarely focused on wellbeing of people and planet.
capitalism, commons, economic growth, markets, private property, public good, race, wellbeing
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.
The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who takes things that are yours and mine.
The poor and wretched don’t escape
Dirk Philipsen, Sanford School of Public Policy, Department of History, Kenan Institute for Ethics, Duke
University, Durham, NC 27708, USA.
164 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.
—17th Century folk poem
I’ve witnessed massive swarms of fireflies
grace my garden like never before, drawn
to the air cleansed of our arrogant greed,
their glow a flashback to the time before
us, omen of Earth without us, a reminder
we’re never immune to nature. I say this
might be the end we’ve always needed
to begin again . . .
—From the poem “Say This Isn’t the End” (2020) by Richard Blanco
A basic truth is once again trying to break through the agony of worldwide pandemic and
the enduring inhumanity of racist oppression. Healthcare workers risking their lives for
others, mutual aid networks empowering neighborhoods, farmers delivering food to
quarantined customers, mothers forming lines to protect youth from police violence:
we’re in this life together. We—young and old, citizen and immigrant—do best when we
collaborate. Indeed, our only way to survive is to have each other’s back while safe-
guarding the resilience and diversity of this planet we call home.
As an insight, it’s not new, or surprising. Anthropologists have long told us that, as a spe-
cies neither particularly strong nor fast, humans survived because of our unique ability to
create and cooperate. “All our thriving is mutual” is how the Indigenous scholar Edgar
Villanueva captured the age-old wisdom in his book Decolonizing Wealth (Villanueva, 2018,
48). What is new is the extent to which so many civic and corporate leaders—sometimes
entire cultures—have lost sight of our most precious collective quality.
This loss is rooted, in large part, in the tragedy of the private—this notion that moved,
in short order, from curious idea to ideology to global economic system. It claimed self-
ishness, greed and private property as the real seeds of progress. Indeed, the mistaken
concept many readers have likely heard under the name “the tragedy of the commons”
has its origins in the sophomoric assumption that private interest is the naturally pre-
dominant guide for human action. The real tragedy, however, lies not in the commons,
but in the private. It is the private that produces violence, destruction and exclusion.
Standing on its head thousands of years of cultural wisdom, the idea of the private vari-
ously separates, exploits and exhausts those living under its cold operating logic.
In preindustrial societies, cooperation represented naked necessity for survival. Yet
the realization that a healthy whole is larger than its parts never stopped informing cul-
tures. It embodies the pillars of Christianity as much as the Islamic Golden Age, the
Enlightenment or the New Deal. In the midst of a global depression, the US president
Franklin D Roosevelt evoked an “industrial covenant”—a commitment to living wages
and a right to work for all. During the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr gave voice to the
broader idea when he said that no one is free until we are all free. On Earth Day 1970,
the US senator Edmund Muskie proclaimed that the only society to survive is one that
“will not tolerate slums for some and decent houses for others, . . . clean air for some and
filth for others.” We should call these ideas what they are—central civilizational insights.
Social and economic prosperity depends on the wellbeing of all, not just the few.
Cultures that fundamentally departed from this awareness usually did not, in the long
run, fare well, from the Roman Empire to Nazism or Stalinism. Will neoliberal capital-
ism be next? Rather than acknowledge the endless variety of things that had to be in
place to make our individual accomplishments possible, it is grounded in the immature
claim that our privileges are “earned,” made possible primarily by private initiative.
But what a claim it is: where would we be without the work and care of others? Without
the food from the farmer? Without the electricity and housing and roads and healthcare and
education and access to information and hundreds of other things provided to us, day in and
day out, often for free, and routinely without us knowing what went into their existence?
Seeing ourselves as seemingly free-floating individuals, it’s both easy and convenient to
indulge in the delusion that “I built it. I worked for it. I earned it.”
The painful flipside are the billions of those who, through no fault of their own, drew
the short end of the stick. Those who were born in the wrong country, to the wrong par-
ents, in the wrong school district—“wrong” for no other reason than that their skin color
or religion or talents didn’t happen to be favored. The limited focus on the individual can
here be seen as nakedly serving power: if those who have privilege and wealth presum-
ably earned it, so must those who have pain and hardship deserve it.
Old and young, meanwhile, sense the loss of a cultural heritage that transcends the
private, a purpose beyond the marketing of self. We likely fear, with good reason, that, in
all the self-promotion, we can no longer rely on others to be there for us, to provide us
with consistent work, a stable community, a bit of love and kindness. We are scared of
climate change, the ultimate consequence of our voracious consumption. We dread lone-
liness and depression, too much work, the loss of jobs, debt. We sense, and often experi-
ence, that everyone looking out for themselves brings out the worst in us—me against
you, one tribe against the other. Many experience it simply as a culture in distress
(Wilkinson and Pickett, 2019).
Standard economic thinking both seeds and feeds the underlying fear by instructing that
we’re all in a race to compete for limited resources. Most definitions of mainstream eco-
nomics are based on some version of Lionel Robbin’s 1932 definition as the “efficient
166 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
allocation of scarce resources.” The answer to scarcity coupled with people’s presumed
desire for more is, of course: keep producing stuff. Not surprisingly, the guiding star for
success, of both policymakers and economists around the world, is a crude, if convenient
metric—GDP—that does nothing but indiscriminately count final output (more stuff),
independent of whether it’s good or bad, whether it creates wellbeing or harm, and notwith-
standing that its ongoing growth is unsustainable (Philipsen, 2015).
It’s circular logic: (1) scarcity makes people have endless needs, so the economy needs
to grow; (2) for the economy to grow, people need to have ever more needs. Such thinking
dominates the field of economics, and much of contemporary culture: Man (yes, those
ideas overwhelmingly come from men) as the endless optimizer of self-interest; people
reduced to producers and consumers; all aspects of life that go beyond the mere accumula-
tion of stuff—morality, joy, care—confined to kindergarten, fiction and the occasional eth-
ics course in high school or college (Smith, 2010, 2011). The result is what Nicholas Kristof
in The New York Times calls a “moral myopia” threatening to collapse under a mounting
pile of stuff (Kristof, 2020).
Dysfunctions such as climate change, racism and inequality are not unrelated and
naturally occurring features of life. On the contrary, they are based on the fictions and
failures of the “private” that later turned into systems that now govern our lives (Polanyi,
1944/2011; Speth, 2009).
In reality, we collaborate, organize together, show love and solidarity—as the Nobel
laureate Elinor Ostrom documented in her book Governing the Commons (Ostrom,
2015)—in the process invariably creating common rules and values that organize com-
munal life. We rely on society, community, family, day-in and day-out. And yet the tragic
disconnect between our lived reality (however embattled at times) and the dominant
ideology, celebrating “the private” in textbooks, newspapers and Hollywood movies,
often eludes us. When large corporations, run by people who preach the gospel of the
market and private gain, need the public to bail them out, few in power raise the most
obvious question: why do you need public money to bail you out if you are supposed to
be pulling yourself up by your bootstraps?
A deeper question might be: why should wealth and privilege—largely built on the
free work of nature and the cheap work of laborer’s—be rescued, when in trouble, by the
very people otherwise deemed “disposable”?
The particular version of the “private as property” likely has its origins in the Roman
empire. It comes with the notion of absolute dominion—denoting one’s right to have full
control over one’s property. Initially, such dominion was exercised by the male head of
household, over both things and people—or, more precisely, over things, but also over
people who, in what was possibly the first legal power grab in the name of the private,
came to be defined as things (children, slaves).
When George Floyd was killed on 25 May 2020, it put on global display, once again,
that most people—poor, younger, older, Black, Brown, non-male—remain disposable in
the regime of private interest. All too often, they are violated in the scarcely disguised name
of private property, perpetrated by those tasked to defend it, the police. The mistake of
vandals in recent demonstrations, as satirists have pointed out, was that they didn’t loot in
the name of private equity firms. Put differently: in order for the law not to put its boot on
your neck, your theft has to come at white-collar scale and the sanction of power.
The tragedy of the private, in short, doesn’t come from the private as individual, but
from the private as ownership, as control over land, resources and others. To own was
always less about protection of the self than it was about exclusion of others. As such, it
is a logical violation of the “other self” or, really, other selves. You against me—your
gain as my loss (Göpel, 2016; Hickel, 2018; Felber, 2019).
To illustrate: no single event, short of war, created as much misery in a country like
England as when those with access to violence (arms, laws, wealth) privatized and fenced
in the land that people needed to stay alive. It came to be known as “enclosure of the
commons” but represented a largescale and bloody theft, allowing a tiny percentage of
people to exclude the majority from access to a common heritage. The result has since
been naturalized and replicated the world over and sanctified in law as “the rights of
No bodies were ever more violated than those brutalized as slaves or serfs, all in the
name of profit and—as authors such as Kidada Williams (2012) have documented in
painstaking detail—sanctified by a vicious regime of private property. Racism, as think-
ers from C L R James (1989) to Angela Davis (2016) to Barbara and Karen Fields (2014)
remind us, is an essential building block to the system of private capital.
No form of governance, social or economic, has plundered the resources provided by
nature as much as private property (though the state ownership of communism came
No single circumstance undermines political rights and freedoms today more than
poverty—the violent exclusion from essential human rights: access to work, income,
The private as dominion over property thus inevitably violates the private as personal
integrity and freedom. Humans become objects—my slave, my worker, my child—and
are denied access to the essentials of life. Thus deprived of independence, the private
reduces the freedom of the majority, all those without access to sufficient capital, to the
narrow choices provided by the marketplace in service of private property—they are, in
Amartya Sen’s words, effectively denied “the capability to realize one’s full potential as
a human being” (Sen, 1999).
Over generations, open theft of common heritage became disguised as private prop-
erty, hiding behind legal contracts and the cold fiction of money as wealth. One gets used
to customs, this history suggests, even when they defy rational thought. The original
freedom fighters against the enclosure of common land, groups such as “the Diggers,”
were remarkably less mystified than their modern compatriots: no one is free, they
declared in 1649, “till the Poor . . . have a free allowance to dig and labor the Commons.”
Thomas Jefferson (the freedom fighter, not the slaveholder) would’ve understood the
logic—as would’ve Toussaint L’Ouverture or Nelson Mandela.
Legally “set free” to sell their labor power, the landless were instead reduced to a state
of abject poverty where they became the unwilling “masses” populating the satanic mills
of early industrialization—freedom as a choice between misery or death.
The excuse for the ruthlessness of the exclusion and exploitation of others in the name of
private interest was always the same: the prospect of a better future for all. Today, we should
ask: has it succeeded? It is a question far more difficult to answer than modern apologists
168 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
such as Steven Pinker would have us believe. Yes, by any available measure, capitalism
(based on private interest) has generated unprecedented wealth and knowledge.
This explosive creation of wealth, however, came, and continues to come, with a
steep, and exponentially rising, price. Powered by fossil fuels, it is both depleting and
burning up the planet. Grounded in extraction and exploitation, capitalist progress carries
mounting violence and destruction in its wake. The flipside of civilization, in Walter
Benjamin’s words, appears to be “a document of barbarism” (Benjamin, 1928). Growth,
expansion, development—the struggle to conquer scarcity both gave and took in large
measure from those who populated our land. Perhaps it’s finally time to recognize the
carnage that created the wealth.
At first, modern economies succeeded in providing more calories to a starving patient.
Based on this initial success, the economics profession (no doubt based on sophisticated
mathematical models) concluded that more calories will forever improve health. Now
dealing with a lethally obese patient, our leaders and economic advisors stubbornly resist
acknowledging the obvious question: if we continue on an exponentially increasing regi-
men of calories, won’t we incapacitate, if not kill, the patient—ourselves?
Much has been said about how the incessant race for more, bigger, faster has also led to
a crisis of meaning and purpose, what King, Jr called a widening “spiritual death” of living
in a “thing-oriented” rather than “a person-oriented society” (King, 1967), or what D H
Lawrence simply labeled “the Mammon of mechanized greed” (Lawrence, 2011, 97).
But whether the death is one of spirit or meaning, or the actual death of nature and
people, all spring from a common root: the single story of self-interest, and its logical
manifestation, the private. “We do not have to escape from the Earth,” as the environ-
mental activist Vandana Shiva exhorts us in Oneness vs the 1% (2019, 175), “we have to
escape from the illusions that enslave our minds . . .”
We live in a different world now. Whatever might have been justified in the past to
overcome poverty and scarcity no longer holds sway. Today, we face an entirely different
challenge. Not too little, but too much. Not scarcity, but abundance.
In the modern world, more is actually less. Indeed, the costs of economic growth have
begun to outpace their benefits, visible in the plunder of the environment and escalating
inequality. We no longer need more, but rather better and more fairly distributed, in order
to provide prosperity for all. Collectively, we produce and grow enough for every child,
woman and man to have a good and dignified life wherever they live. As a world com-
munity, we know more and create more than we know how to process. It’s a huge accom-
plishment. We should celebrate and enjoy it together, rather than remain on the deplorable
path of pitting one against the other in the race for ever more, one dying of too much, the
other of too little.
And yet, our dominant economic systems continue to follow colonial extraction and
brutal exclusion, in the process creating two organically related, existential problems: the
perpetuation (and in some cases intensification) of poverty, and the violation of the bio-
physical limits of our planet (Meadows et al., 2004; Speth, 2009; Raworth, 2017). What a
tragic irony that, in the early 21st century, higher education’s economics departments
worldwide still instruct some of our brightest minds in simplistic economic models about
the efficient allocation of scarce resources, rather than in how to sustainably build the
good life based on an abundance of knowledge and resources.
To emphasize: chasing the bogeyman of scarcity, we are, by now, in the process of
passing some frightening historic thresholds, altering the very makeup of life and creat-
ing an unsustainable future for our children and grandchildren (Wallis-Wells, 2020). It’s
I wonder if the real tragedy of the private lies in separating what can function only
when together, in the process excluding, individualizing, destroying, alienating and, in
consequence, undermining the innate creativity and resilience of a necessarily complex
system of interaction—between human and human, and between human and nature.
We’re living in the midst of a historic transition. It might be our great fortune that, at
this juncture, we still have a choice: to wake up, or continue to muddle along on our cur-
rent path. If we choose the latter, as most mainstream experts from around the world keep
telling us, “collapse is very difficult to avoid” (Motesharrei et al., 2014).
Certainly, the history of how we got here, and the options of changing course, are
immensely complex. Yet the reason why collapse is virtually assured if we continue on
our current path is actually quite simple: too much.
The Achilles heel of modern economies is the exponential nature of economic growth.
Based on what economists consider a “healthy” growth rate of about 3%, the economy
would have to double in output roughly every 23 years. If such growth is difficult to
imagine, that’s because it is absurd. Imagine economies such as the United States with 16
times the output in 100 years, 256 times in just 200 years, or 5000 times in as little as
300 years. There is one diagram in economic theory, writes Kate Raworth in Doughnut
Economics (2018, 26), that “is so dangerous that it is never actually drawn: the long-term
path of GDP growth.”
Instead, we should ask, what do we really value? And how do we measure it? When
authors write about economies for the common good, or for the wellbeing of all, they
highlight a very different set of values than those, based on private property and private
gain, that dominate modern economies today—not efficiency but health and resilience;
not the bottom line but collective wellbeing (Dietz and O’Neill, 2013). They are founded
on the basic moral claim that, as the legal scholar Jedediah Purdy puts it in This Land Is
Our Land (Purdy, 2019, 98), “the world belongs in principle to all who are born into it.”
Most civilizational traditions agree that everyone brought into this world should have
an equal claim to thrive. If we follow those traditions, we must conclude that cultures
“already parceled out” into private property and wealth are morally bankrupt. They value
the private over people.
In The Value of Everything (Mazzucato, 2019, 225), the economist Mariana Mazzucato
points to an underlying flaw in thinking: “until now, we have confused price with value.”
Economists and policymakers have created a system disconnected from the real world
that privileges market transactions over our personal and planetary wellbeing. This, too,
is standard circular logic: earnings are justified because something was produced that
presumably has value; value, in turn, is defined by the amount of earnings.
Here perhaps is the crux of our technocratic era: we value what we measure. When we
measure the wrong things, the result is perverse. Today, what matters most to a thriving life
is not counted at all in our dominant economic performance indicators. A natural environ-
ment that will continue to provide us with fresh air, clean water, rich soil—not counted.
Communities that educate and nurture their members—not counted. Forms of governance
170 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
with a stable degree of accountability—not counted. In the end: our ability to continue life
on Earth (what is meant by the word sustainability)—not counted. We have an economic
system, reflects Lorenzo Fioramonti in Wellbeing Economy (Fioramonti, 2017), “that sees
no value in any human or natural resource unless it is exploited.” The result is what the
medical historian Julie Livingstone calls “self-devouring growth.” The triple challenges of
climate change, pandemic and systemic racism highlight the deeper systemic defects.
Perhaps it is, then, unrealistic to expect individuals to make smarter choices, when
dominant economic reasoning rewards them for moving in the wrong direction. I see this
every spring when talented undergraduates face limited choices for their future: corpo-
rate law, consulting, finance, highly specialized medicine. Can we build forward on
fleecing investors, addicting consumers to ever more products or making a career lying
to the public, yet make it virtually impossible for those seeking a sustainable future and
balanced life to pay their bills?
The urgency of now might instead require a change in the operating logic, a system
that supports the core values that make up all thriving life—health, diversity, and resil-
ience. One might call it “shared prosperity within biophysical boundaries” or, as Raworth
has it, “doughnut economics” (Raworth, 2017).
Whatever we call it, we need an economy focused on shared flourishing, rather than
on the chimera that more money will somehow, someday magically get us there. It’s a
simple and hard-nosed recognition of reality.
Beyond what is possible, we should ask what we actually want. Perhaps the deepest
tragedy of the private is not even the destruction of our home in the name of self-interest,
but missing out on history’s greatest opportunity, failing to realize what thinkers of the
past could only dream about—a life liberated from want and scarcity. A culture where
“the love of money as a possession,” in the words of John Maynard Keynes (1930), “will
be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity.” A future, as Vandana
Shiva aptly summarized it, in which the economy’s “currency is not money, [but] life”
(Shiva, 2014, 270).
It is a sorrow of the narrow that modern cultures, for the most part, no longer give
themselves permission to dream and strive for a better life. Rather than idolize some past
greatness or false realism that never was, why not imagine a grown and healthy adult
who is no longer prisoner to the regimen of “ever more calories”—a mind liberated from
“the love of money” that the sustainability economist Tim Jackson envisioned in
Prosperity Without Growth (Jackson, 2016). Yet it could be even more. Prosperity with-
out mental and cultural imprisonment, without the drudgery of wage labor, and the dis-
mal reduction of life to cost-benefit analyses—a life, in the words of the poet Langston
Hughes, “where greed no longer saps the soul” (Hughes, 1995, 311).
It could be a life as imagined by theorists such as adrienne maree brown in Emergent
Strategy (2017) and the young activists of the International Indigenous Youth Council, the
Movement for Black Lives, Fridays for Future, the Sunrise Movement or the Wellbeing
Economy Alliance. People in such groups are imagining life within stable and healthy com-
munities, respectful of difference. They envision regenerative and carbon-free economies,
communities that offer meaningful work to everyone who wants it. They have drafted
sophisticated policy proposals (see links above), and authored detailed accounts of a pos-
sible wellbeing economy. They are fighting for what the legal scholar Amna A Akbar in
The New York Times called a governance system “whose primary allegiance is to people’s
needs instead of profit” (Akbar, 2020). In short, by finding our personal and collective
sovereignty, we could, in solidarity with each other, build a thriving society for the com-
mon good, not just for the select few.
Given our current global situation, the temptation is to dismiss all such thinking as
idealistic and naive. And yet, if you pay close attention, signs of life are cracking through
the edifice of the old everywhere (Hogan, 2019).
German millennials have called out their elders with the missive Ihr habt keinen Plan
(2019), or “You Don’t Have a Plan,” and then set out to construct a vision that holds
promise for future generations. The public intellectual Rutger Bregman asks us to finally
stop defending the indefensible. His book Utopia for Realists (Bregman, 2018) is
grounded in a profound realization: many utopias are more realistic than current reality,
no matter how much the latter is defended as the only option by those with suits, impres-
sive university degrees and big bank accounts.
We need to have a broad democratic dialog on the mix of policies that might work best
in promoting the common good, in overcoming the tragedy of the private. A new freedom
will have to nestle within the realities of nature and the rights of others. Limits will be redis-
covered as essential to freedom (Kallis, 2019). This will require difficult transitions—away
from fossil fuel or the mass-produced consumption of meat or the acceptance of rampant
inequality. Yes, a sustainable wellbeing future will make obsolete many skills and profes-
sions, likely eliminating more jobs than it replaces, opening up opportunities for shorter
working weeks for everyone (Lovins and Wallis, 2019). Among the many possible paths
forward, the following core features will be essential:
Local, national and international regulations preventing the violation of critical
Repair of the most egregious market failures through true-cost accounting, prop-
erly valuing essential work(ers), ending the privatization of gains and socializa-
tion of costs, and compensating for essential ecosystem services and the care
economy (if American women had received a minimum wage for the work they
did in the home in 2019, they’d have earned $1.5 trillion (Kisner, 2021); fossil
fuels, according to the IMF (2019), are subsidized at a whopping $4-5 trillion a
year, without which gasoline could go up to $16 a gallon);
Making available basic services and basic income to everyone (we could call it a
“self-evident truth that all Earthlings have an unalienable right to the precondi-
tions of life, liberty and happiness”);
Access to work for all, for everyone deserves the opportunity to make a meaning-
A basic moral recognition that nothing—not race, not nation, not gender, not per-
sonal contributions, not your zip code—should ever be legitimate cause for either
extreme poverty or excessive wealth;
And, most fundamentally, a basic acknowledgment that we don’t own or control
this planet, but simply borrow it “from the seventh generation”—those coming
after us. The principle should always be, as many learned in kindergarten: “Leave
it as good as, or better than, you found it.”
172 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
Yes, it is time to rewrite the script. A climate in deep crisis, a global pandemic, systemic
racism and inequality are all part and parcel of the same bad script, the tragedy of the
private, aggravated by an elite inability (or unwillingness?) to contemplate a better future.
Even though narrow selfishness, when elevated into ideologies in service of the pri-
vate, has repeatedly brought the world to the brink of disaster, we have thus far survived
largely because of our underlying ability to cooperate. It is now time to make our excep-
tional human capacity to create and cooperate part of our governance structures—part of
the operating logic of modern societies. Perhaps then we can bring to life what others
could only envision: a system focused on wellbeing of people and planet, liberating our
individual and collective capabilities.
A similar version of this essay was first published by Aeon in October of 2020 https://aeon.co/
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
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Blacks weather, Whites
UNC-Chapel Hill, USA
This essay explores the intersections of race, weather and climate. Earth science construes
weather as the temperature and precipitation that impacts environments. Thinking about how
this applies to bodies has come into vogue in trying to understand the disproportionate number
of COVID-19 infections and deaths for Blacks and Latinx people. Arline Geronimus pioneered
this in 1992 when she transposed the notion of “weathering” from its standard meaning of a
process that decays wood onto the cumulative racism experienced by Black women resulting
in excessive maternal death. Her “weathering hypothesis” tracks the assemblage of negative
health outcomes for all African Americans caused by dangerous work environments and polluted
neighborhoods. My essay shows how these embodied health effects are linked to larger histories
of burning fossil fuels. We now know burning coal and oil transforms the climate by increasing
the ratio of CO2 molecules. We also know that this shifting climate determines specific weather
outcomes. However, we don’t yet have a full picture of the racial dynamic undergirding this. As a
corollary to weathering, this essay proposes a “climating hypothesis” to help expose the power
that Euro-descendant whites have wielded for centuries to intervene in the earth’s climate.
capitalism, climate (change), COVID-19, health, race, whiteness and white supremacy
I don’t want to die and leave a few sad songs and a hump in the ground as my only
monument. I want to leave a world that is liberated from trash, pollution, racism,
nation-states, nation-state wars and armies.
—George Jackson, 1970
Part I: White skin, no masks
On May 5, 2020, I went to a far white protest in North Carolina’s capital of Raleigh organ-
ized by ReOpenNC, a group that challenges the restrictions on businesses and churches to
Mark Driscoll, Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, UNC, 310 South Road, Chapel Hill, NC
176 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
control the spread of COVID-19. North Carolina is undergoing intensification of an already
polarized political environment and these protests reflect that. Starting at the end of April,
the regular Tuesday marches in Raleigh attracted between 2 and 600 protesters. As North
Carolina is an open-carry state, some of the participants brought handguns.
For 15 years I have been writing and teaching about the 19th century origins of white
supremacy, so I decided to check out the May 5th event. I and about 10 journalists and
counter-protestors wore masks but only a handful of the 500 participants had bothered to
don protective face coverings. When I asked why they weren’t wearing masks, most
refused to answer. Finally a woman in her 50s offered the neo-Confederate rationale
“rebels don’t wear masks.” A man in his early 30s said simply, “COVID is for coons”.
A few weeks later, on May 30th, I was at another protest in the exact same place in
downtown Raleigh, this one against police brutality and for Black Lives. Among about a
1000 people, approximately half of them Black, I didn’t see anyone without some form
of protective face covering. After an hour of speeches, police closed in to disperse the
peaceful crowd with batons and tear gas. Only then did I realize that, apart from Robocop-
like darkened face shields and knee guards, most of them did not have face masks on.1
The differences in the two protests are stark. The diverse anti-racist group followed the
recommendations of public health officials and their own politics emphasizing collective
well-being by wearing masks to prevent infections. In contrast, the far (all) white group
blithely disregarded the recommendations of public health officials and the well-being of
those around them, claiming that mask mandates and forced quarantine for those exposed
to the coronavirus unnecessarily inconvenience them and violate their personal freedom
and civil liberties. Ironically, given the white claim that the coronavirus only infects Black,
Audrey Whitlock, one of the two organizers of ReOpenNC, tested positive for COVID-19
in April. The Raleigh News and Observer reported on April 27 that although Whitlock
insisted she had reluctantly skipped the regular Tuesday protest on April 21st, she appeared
to have attended the first ReOpenNC protest on April 14th and vowed to attend the April
28th event, putting other white protestors at risk. The asymptomatic Whitlock denounced
the orders mandating a two-week quarantine for everyone testing positive for COVID-19
and refused to acknowledge the fact that asymptomatic people can easily infect others. She
complained that because she had almost no symptoms of the disease, she should be allowed
to freely attend church services and the anti-government protests.2
A pandemic is an outbreak of a disease with global effects and, at the time of writing,
that definition is being applied to COVID-19. But it’s easy to see that identifying COVID-
19 as the pandemic confuses cause and effect. In the situation above where far white
protestors are putting other people in danger by refusing to physically distance; far white
heads of state like Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro refuse to wear protective
face coverings; and, in the manner of Audrey Whitlock, white people rail against any
governmental attempt that inconveniences them or curtails their boundless sense of free-
dom, it is more accurate to call whiteness the pandemic. In the manner of a highly infec-
tious coronavirus, whiteness has caused death and destruction at a planetary scale. The
old African American saw, “when white folks catch a cold, Black folks catch pneumo-
nia,” is turning out to be an understatement.
Whiteness emerged as a pandemic with planetary effects during the 16th century. The
earth scientists Lewis and Maslin demonstrate conclusively that the global temperature
drop between 1550 and 1700, causing the Little Ice Age, resulted from the Spanish and
Portuguese genocide of 90% of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.3 While the
Iberian terrorists butchered millions, most Native Americans died from the new diseases
and microbes brought by the Europeans—the first mass exposure to whiteness. This
extermination wiped out much of indigenous agriculture and infrastructure and resulted
in an extensive forest regeneration, which sequestered so much carbon that atmospheric
CO2 levels fell by six parts per million between 1520 and 1610; average temperatures
dropped accordingly. As a direct result, colder and wetter weather in Europe reduced
agricultural yields and increased heating costs, putting downward pressure on profits.
This pushed European investors and militarists to intensify their conquest of the warmer
tropical areas in the Americas, this time forcing African slaves to clear forests and work
plantations from Brazil to Maryland.4
In 1992 Arline Geronimus proposed a “weathering hypothesis” to explain the negative
health outcomes for Black mothers, especially when compared to their white age-mates.5
Weathering usually refers to the breaking down of rocks and wood through exposure to the
earth’s atmosphere. Geronimus chose the word to reference the cumulative (atmospheric)
racism experienced by Black women in particular and African-Americans generally which
she saw leading to conditions varying from maternal death to premature heart and lung
disease. In a recent essay, Linda Villarosa deployed Geronimus’s weathering hypothesis to
frame the preventable loss of Black life in and around New Orleans in March 2020.6 Just
as cell phones and social media make it harder to hide police brutality, the flagrant racial
disparities in COVID-19 infection and death rates make it increasingly impossible to
ignore the fact that Blacks weather. In other words, since the mid-16th century, Afro-
descendants continue to bear the brunt of specific political ecologies, or shifting assem-
blages of the natural environment, racial capitalism and social politics.
Weather is construed by earth scientists as the combination of temperature, humidity,
precipitation, clouds, and wind. We talk about changes in weather in the short term, and
how it impacts us on a daily level. On the other hand, climate is the larger container for
the weather of a place. With this we can expand on Lewis and Maslin’s thesis on 1610,
that Europeans’ near genocide of the Indigenous people of the Americas caused a signifi-
cant drop in atmospheric CO2 levels. Consequently, we can move from that to underline
the continuity with the explosion in carbon emissions from the proliferation in the UK
and US of coal-powered technologies like Watt’s steam engine at the turn of the 19th
century. And add to these the white US military industrial complex culminating with the
Manhattan Project’s successful detonation of a nuclear weapon in July 1945. Even if
readers accept only a part of this chain of causation we still need to confront the issue that
Caucasians stand alone in creating the systems that have directly altered earth’s climate.
It follows that when imperious whites like Spanish conquistadores, British industrial
capitalists, and US nuclear physicists alter the climate, this will impact weather. But
equally as important, white people’s direct manipulation of the climate “weathers” races
and populations of people dealing with the fallout from what W. E. B. Du Bois called the
“title to the universe claimed by White Folk”.7 Since the Conquest of the Americas by
European Catholics, people of color have been relentlessly weathered by climate-
interfering white people. As the focus of this essay will be on Afro-descendant people, I
will insist that Blacks weather, while Whites climate.
178 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
Part II: Labor markets, capitalist masks
It’s more accurate to say that, when we are talking about the US, Europe and most of
Latin America, white capitalism climates. And like all iterations of capitalism, its mar-
kets work through the theft of a part of work, as Marx argued convincingly. However,
this central critical insight that value in capitalism is based on social necessary labor time
is frequently misunderstood. Marx’s idea comes first from Adam Smith in his 1776
Wealth of Nations—building on his 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments—who tried to
arrive at a fair price for commodities on the market, and then from David Ricardo. In
Marx’s synthesis, the value of any commodity is anchored to the average amount of
labor-power that has gone into making it. Following Adam Smith’s contention that any
good’s worth should be an accurate reflection of how much labor time goes into its pro-
duction—the design, the materials, as well as the labor that went into producing these
and assembling the final product—the value of labor-power is, ideally, similarly deter-
mined.8 In other words, the value of labor indexes the total time and cost of materials
required to keep the worker alive and to reproduce daily her capacity and readiness to go
to work every day.
At this point, Marx breaks significantly with Smith and Ricardo. While all three stress
the importance of labor in creating all the things needed and desired in a society, Marx
singles out labor as the “special commodity” in capitalism. Why so special? From Smith
he insists that the capitalist must begin with money, purchase commodities at their true
cost, and ultimately sell his product at a fair price. Nevertheless, the capitalist must end
up with more money that he started with. In Capital Volume 1 Marx clarifies:
Our friend the money owner must be lucky enough to find within the sphere of circulation, on
the market, a commodity whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of
value, whose actual consumption is therefore itself an objectification of labour, hence a creation
of value. The possessor of money does find such a special commodity on the market: the
capacity for labour, in other words labour-power.9
Capitalist bosses buy an employee’s ability to work in exchange for a wage. But the
worker will routinely create more value during her shift than the sum total of the daily
wages with which the capitalist purchases her labor power; ideally for the capitalists,
much more. Marx tries to calculate this more through his notion of the rate of surplus, or
the rate of exploitation.10 In other words, exploitation in the capitalist versus labor rela-
tion is determined by the ratio of the total amount of unpaid (or surplus) labor done to the
total amount of wages paid. Labor power is, indeed, a very special commodity but only
for the capitalists who reap its advantages. Capitalist market apologists insist that this
situation isn’t coercive and that workers are free to choose the best situation for them.
Opposed to this fantasy (or mask) of freedom, theorists of racial capitalism like Cedric
Robinson11 and Ruth Wilson Gilmore12 insist that markets are saturated with coercion
and unfreedom from beginning to end. This coerciveness emerged first in the capitalist
enclosures of the commons in the United Kingdom which occurred simultaneous with
the Atlantic slave trade, what Marx depicted as the “turning of Africa into a warren for
the commercial hunting of blackskins”.13 Given this history of foreful dispossession and
racial terror, Cedric Robinson argues that in slave and post-slave societies like Brazil or
the US the uneven power dynamic of the capitalist versus worker relation and the hie-
rarachies of white supremacy overdetermines all market relations.
After considering a labor market shot through with racial discrimination, any aspect
of “freedom” remaining for the worker of color evaporates upon entering the workplace.
“The use of a commodity belongs to its purchaser,” explains Marx, “and the seller of
labor-power, by giving his labor, does no more, in reality, than part with the use-value he
has sold. From the instant he steps into the workshop, the use-value of his labor power
. . . belongs to the capitalist.”14 In other words, Marx makes clear that there is nothing
free about the working day for laborers in capitalism. Of course, in many cases, workers
maintain the legal right to terminate employment. But with many workers of color lack-
ing the resources to refuse work, even temporarily, this supposed freedom to walk off a
job is yet another mask hiding the structural unfreedom of labor markets in a capitalist
regime. Indeed, COVID is for coons when workers of color are twice as likely as whites
to be designated “essential workers,” and therefore stripped of the right to strike and
walk off the job—if they ever had those rights to start off with.
Contemporary Smithians often respond to these kinds of critiques by insisting that
capitalism is still relatively young and gradually getting more free. Many point to Smith’s
notion of the “natural order of liberty” in the Wealth of Nations as correctly identifying a
progressive tendency inherent in capitalism that will bring more and more freedom. This
is the argument in, for example, Robert Sirico’s 1994 A Moral Basis for Liberty and the
famous neoclassical economist Arthur Laffer’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of
the Wealth of States.15 The Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker went so far as to
posit that truly free markets will end racism.16
Again, Marx broke with (neo)Smithian orthodoxy went he insisted on the unfree-
dom of commodified labor. While racial capitalists go further than Marx in exposing
capital’s reliance on racial discrimination, the early and late Marx tore off other masks
of capitalist ideology. The most important of these was Smith’s historicist assumption
of an increasing realm of freedom for societies that adopt liberal capitalism, some-
thing that neoSmithians have tried to elevate to a science. However, against this sup-
posed “law” of increasing freedom in capitalism, Marx largely refused to impute
deterministic “laws” to contingent historical processes. For instance, in the 1844
Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts he showed that older, feudalistic elements
continued to play a role in modern capitalism: unpaid apprenticeships; child labor;
prison workhouses; etc. Different from capital’s progressive temporality guaranteeing
more and more freedom, the early Marx showed how capitalism needs to be under-
stood in its specific configuration, largely outside of any “general laws”. Even in
Capital Vol. 1, Marx underlined the fact that the unfree labor of the poorhouse worked
together with the “free” labor of the early proletariat British capitalism in the 1840
and 50s.17 While Smithians and neoclassical economists dismiss these unfreedoms as
“distortions” and “irregularities,” Marxists insist that they should be construed as
perfectly compatible with capital accumulation.
More than anything, this unmasks the ways that capital is necessarily supplemented by
the state and extra-economic violence. Marx states clearly that “the rising bourgeoisie needs
the power of the state, and uses it to “regulate” wages, that is, to force them [workers] into
180 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
the limits suitable for making a profit, to lengthen the working day” etc.18 While Marx
refuses to construe the actual experience of wage-labor under market capitalism as anything
approaching “freedom” he also shows how the force of the state is required by capitalists
both to keep wages low and to lengthen the working day. But Marxists aren’t the only ones
that see the extra-economic authority of the state as essential for capitalism to generate
profit. John Maynard Keynes famously understood that the role of the state in capitalism is
to stabilize the wage-labor system, to maintain the legitimacy of sovereign currency, and to
mediate between the different and competing interests of particular capitalists.19
Different from Keynesians and Smithians, Marx underlined the complicated dia-
chronic process involved in getting workers into asymmetrical relations with capital-
ists. When we look through Marx’s eyes at what he calls the “terrorism” necessary to
create conditions so desperate for displaced peasant farmers that all they have left to
sell is their labor power, the relation between capital and labor in the workplace seems
relatively inconsequential. Elaborating on the centuries-long process of privatizing
church lands and enclosing the commons, Marx scathingly characterizes new proletar-
ians as terrified and traumatized when they finally arrive at the factory door desperate
to sell their labor-power: “Thus were the agricultural folk first forcibly expropriated
from the soil, driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds, and then whipped,
branded, and tortured by grotesquely terroristic laws into accepting the discipline nec-
essary for the system of wage-labor.”20 In other words, both the longer historical pro-
cess birthing a new species of humans—the proletariat—having no means of survival
other than to beg for wage labor, and the actual conditions of wage labor where the
capitalist bosses rule over proletariat in the workplace, unmask the ideology of “free-
dom” in market capitalism.
Part III. Colored skin, no (money for PPE) masks
Since the end of the Civil War, prisoners in US correctional facilities have worked for no
or extremely low wages. The types of labor ranged from laying railroads and mining coal
at the end of the 19th century, to building and maintaining highways in the first half of
the 20th century. With the shift to mass incarceration beginning in the 1980s, work in
prison has diversified and now includes making everything from computer parts to
Victoria’s Secret lingerie. As the United States attempts to control the transmission of
COVID-19, more than a dozen states are now relying on prison labor to make personal
protective equipment (PPE) desperately needed by health care workers and other front-
Thanks to activists and scholars working on mass incarceration we know that US citizens
convicted of a felony are stripped of many of their rights. This means that many prisoners
live and work in conditions bordering on slavery. What is most troublesome during the
COVID pandemic is that prisoners in federal and most state prisons (Vermont and Hawai’i
are exceptions) are excluded from the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration
protections that require employers to provide a safe working environment.
One of the only ways to get information about inmates suffering serious injuries and
even death doing prison labor is through Freedom of Information requests. Linda Delp,
the director of the University of California Los Angeles’s Labor Occupational Safety and
Health program, did just this in 2015. As covered by The Intercept, Delp and her team
found that injuries in California prisons such as those leading to amputations were easily
avoidable: “I did not really see anything in here that wouldn’t have been preventable,”
Delp claimed.22 This critique of California prison laborers doesn’t include the frontline
firefighters who get paid one dollar an hour to do the most dangerous work in California,
as the fire season has become longer and more intense in the last few years—this season
is the worst on record and had extended to Oregon and Washington states.
Previous iterations of prison labor contributed even more directly to the Blacks
weather, Whites climate calculus. The convict leasing of Black men after the Civil
War in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee was deployed in extractive industries like
coal and steel, and in building railroads for coal-powered trains. Before and after
World War I convict labor was also important in laying down the nascent infrastruc-
ture for automobiles, allowing a shift from coal to oil. In these two instances, Black
captives degraded atmospheric conditions through the labor commands issued by cli-
mating white masters. In other words, captive Black labor in the US from 1865 until
1929 made a crucial contribution to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the
earth’s atmosphere, kicking off the beginning of rising temperatures and climate
breakdown. Obviously, this Black (labor) power deepened the weathering conditions
for all Afro-descendant people.
Arguably the most intimate linking of Blacks weather, Whites climate is in African-
American inmates working for the fossil fuel industry and its subsidiaries. The US is the
second highest exporter of plastic waste in the world (just behind China) and the massive
amounts of US municipal plastic waste is devastating poor countries in Africa and
Central America. And here at home, the plastics industry has been a leader in the use of
prison labor.23 This clear relation between profits for white (and Asian) investors based
on the super-exploitation of its labor force and its dumping of “externalities” in majority
Black, Brown and indigenous countries highlights the fact that some of the most profit-
able industries in racialized capitalism are the most destructive to our natural environ-
ment and the most predatory on people of color.
Nowhere is this more the case than when Black prisoners work for fossil fuel compa-
nies. In Louisiana, which has the largest concentration of workers in extractive industries,
prison laborers routinely work for less than one dollar an hour for white capitalists climat-
ing by their ownership of oil and gas companies.24 When Black inmates do this across the
Deep South they are fueling ecological breakdown in places most vulnerable to its effects.
In Louisiana’s Lafourche Parish Work facility, on the Gulf Coast west of New Orleans,
male prisoners, 80% of whom are African American, are loaded into vans at 4 a.m. and
taken to places chosen by the facility operators, to toil for anywhere between 12- and
16-hour workdays. These are usually equipment leasing companies renting pumps, vacu-
ums and generators to the large number of refineries and drilling operations nearby.
These businesses—all white owned—pay the Lafourche Parish and the state of Louisiana
a total of $9 an hour for the right to the inmates’ labor power, while making a handsome
profit for themselves on work that is often waged at $25 and $30 dollars an hour for non-
prison labor.25 Ten years ago, almost all Lafourche Parish (together with neighboring
Terrebonne Parish) prison labor worked for fifty cents an hour cleaning up oil and toxic
chemical dispersants from Gulf Coast beaches following the BP Oil Spill.26 Predictably,
182 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
no protective equipment was provided to inmates to defend them from the toxic fumes
emanating from the dispersants. While BP paid for much of this (at a huge cost savings),
some was paid for by the state of Louisiana—one more example of fossil fuel capitalists
dumping the “externality” costs of its operations onto the public.
So, whether it is Black inmates exacerbating their own environments by directly
deepening the ecological crisis elicited by white racial capitalism —as in Louisiana
prison labor working for oil companies in the Gulf Coast—or indirectly through com-
pletely unremunerated storm mitigation work, the binary of Blacks weather, Whites cli-
mate is consolidated. And whether it is face masks preventing the transmission of the
coronavirus, or protective plastic shields blocking the inhalation of toxic fumes, for
Black and other minority prison laborers the hegemonic position is Colored Skin, No
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
1. Probably due to the emphasis on self-and community-care in BLM more generally, almost
no coronavirus cases have been linked to protests of police violence anywhere in the US; see
Black Lives Matter (2020).
3. Lewis and Maslin (2018).
4. Moore (2020).
5. Geronimus (1992).
6. Villarosa (2020).
7. Du Bois (1920), 31.
8. Marx (1969).
9. Marx (1977), 270.
10. Marx (1977), 320–321.
11. Robinson (2000).
12. Gilmore (2020).
13. Marx (1977), 915.
14. Marx (1977), 290.
15. Laffer et al. (2014).
16. Becker (1971).
17. Marx (1977), 822–825.
18. Marx (1977), 899.
19. Keynes (1971).
20. Marx (1977), 899.
21. Eisen and Seabrooks (2020).
22. Woodman (2016).
23. Fernández-Campbell (2018).
24. Berlin (2020).
25. Wolfe and Liu (2020).
26. Young (2010).
Becker G (1971) The Economics of Discrimination. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Berlin C (2020) How Louisiana’s oil and gas industry uses prison labor. Southerly, 23 March.
Available at: https://southerlymag.org/2020/03/23/how-louisianas-oil-and-gas-industry-uses-
prison-labor (accessed 11 August 2020).
Black Lives Matter (2020) Healing in action: A toolkit for Black lives matter healing justice and
direct action. Available at: https://blacklivesmatter.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/BLM_
HealinginAction-1-1.pdf (accessed 6 August 2020).
Du Bois WEB (1920) Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace
Eisen L-B and Seabrooks L (2020) Covid-19 highlights the need for prison labor reform.
LaborNotes, 8 May.
Fernández-Campbell A (2018) The federal government markets prison labor to businesses as the
“best-kept secret.” Vox, 24 August. Available at: https://www.vox.com/2018/8/24/17768438/
national-prison-strike-factory-labor (accessed 19 August 2020).
Geronimus AT (1992) The weathering hypothesis and the health of African-American women and
infants: Evidence and speculations. Ethnicity & Disease 2(3), 207–221.
Gilmore RW (2020) Change Everything: Racial Capitalism and the Case for Abolition. New
York, NY: Haymarket Books.
Keynes JM (1971) The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. London: Macmillan.
Laffer A, Moore S, Sinquefield RA, et al. (2014) An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the
Wealth of States. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Lewis S and Maslin M (2018) The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene. New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Marx K (1969) Theories of Surplus Value (trans. J Cohen, R Dixon and SW Ryazanskay), vol. 1.
London: Lawrence & Wishart.
Marx K (1977) Capital (trans. B Fowkes), vol. 1. New York, NY: Vintage.
Moore J (2020) Spaceship or slaveship? In: Keynote presentation to annual world-ecology work-
shop, Binghamton University, 7 February.
Robinson C (2000) Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill, NC:
University of North Carolina Press.
Villarosa L (2020) Who lives? Who dies? How COVID 19 has revealed the deadly realities of a
racially polarized America. New York Times Magazine, 3 May, 32–37.
Wolfe A and Liu M (2020) Want out of jail? First you have to take a fast-food job. Working
towards freedom. Mississippi Today, 9 January. Available at: https://mississippitoday.
org/2020/01/09/restitution (accessed 6 September 2020).
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2021, Vol. 33(3) 185 –192
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COVID-19 and the modern
plantation: Debunking the
neoliberal moral economy
University of Edinburgh, UK
Plantations have long been justified by moral and racial hierarchies that value specialised, export-
oriented producers over domestic or subsistence-oriented producers. In this paper, I associate
this value hierarchy with the neoliberal moral economy, explain its roots in classical political
economy, provide examples of its workings and argue that the Covid-19 crisis provides a crucial
opportunity to debunk the neoliberal moral economy. Collective experiences of food insecurity
wrought by the pandemic expose the fallacy of central moral economic values underpinning
industrial capitalist food supply chains, such as comparative advantage. Shared experiences of
food supply chain failures, borne by people in the global North as well as the South, strengthen
the moral and economic legitimacy of alternatives.
food supply chains, moral economy, neoliberal, plantation economy, racial inequalities
Satnam Virdee1 has argued that racism was fundamental to the development of capital-
ism. From the time of colonialism, moral distinctions have separated economically
rational individuals from backward rural ‘others’ who are often racialized.2 Colonial
policies that favoured one ethnicity over another, such as the selective favouring of Afro-
or Indo-Trinidadians,3 enabled elites to set subaltern groups against one another,4 thwart-
ing class alliances as well as alternative configurations of food and farming.5 As in the
past, modern plantations continue to work through moral economic and often racialized
binaries between specialised, export-oriented production/producers and domestic or sub-
Marisa Wilson, School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh, Drummond Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9XP, UK.
186 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
The recent disruption to global food supply chains wrought by Covid-19 provides an
unprecedented opportunity to debunk such moral economic distinctions. In this brief essay,
I argue that collective experiences of food insecurity wrought by the pandemic expose the
fallacy of the market liberal, and now neoliberal, moral economy that underpins our food
system. Shared experiences of food supply chain failures, borne by people in the global
North as well as the South, strengthen the moral and economic legitimacy of alternatives.
Market liberalism as a moral economy
Most scholars associate the term ‘moral economy’ with non-capitalist economies, where
norms of fairness or justice guide transactions between a (para)statal authority and a
group of people, such as peasants.6 Yet, as I have argued elsewhere,7 market liberalism is
a moral economy like any other, as it too establishes norms for ‘good’ economic behav-
iour, based on an idea of collective justice. Central to the moral economy of market lib-
eralism are concepts that stem from classical treatises on political economy, written by
European men during the initial stages of imperialism. One crucial theorist is Adam
Smith, whose ideas of free trade and competition ascribed universal wealth to the unfet-
tered flow of supply and demand between economically rational, self-interested indi-
viduals (in Smith’s time, these were only white, propertied men). Living during the
height of the Atlantic slave trade and creating moral economic arguments used by both
pro- and anti-slavery writers,8 Smith contended that free trade should be scaled up to the
level of countries competing in a global marketplace, and that this form of economic
organisation would establish universal prosperity for all.
David Ricardo, who lived a generation after Smith, disputed the latter’s formulation;
yet his concept of ‘comparative advantage’ continues to be extolled as a counterpart to
Smith’s ideas.9 For Ricardo, the power comparative advantage – the mutual gains from
specialised production and free trade – rested on the belief that it would level the playing
field between rich and poor people and places: ‘The rhetorical power of the theory of
comparative advantage rests on its promise that everyone will emerge a winner.’10 Yet,
despite claims about universality, comparative advantage theory centres on specialised
export production, creating a value hierarchy that places global market actors above
peasants and others who produce goods for their families and communities.
Questioning comparative advantage
In his On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817), Ricardo quantified
the mutual benefits of specialised trade between a hypothetical Portugal and a hypotheti-
cal England trading in wine and cloth, respectively. His formulation has been criticised
for its simplistic assumptions about complex socio-economic realities. First, the theory
assumes perfect factor mobility, or the idea that in the event of an external shock both
labour and capital can be redirected from one productive activity to another, without
anyone losing out.11 This is not usually the case, and apart from certain exceptions (e.g.
the re-deployment of factories from chemical weapons during the World Wars to pesti-
cides and fertilisers in the mid-20th century),15 fixed capitals are not so flexible.
A second assumption of Ricardian comparative advantage is that, in a free market, all
countries or firms are able to access and use the ‘best’ technology for specialised produc-
tion, even if the technology is developed elsewhere.12 Yet as institutional economist
Ha-Joon Chang13 has shown, technological and industrial development in high-income
countries became possible only through the suspension of comparative advantage in
lower-income countries – that is – through restrictions on international technology trans-
fer maintained by tariffs, subsidies and, later, intellectual property rights and patents.
State protections were essential for the early industrial development of high-income
countries, as Chang14 argues for the cases of textiles in the United Kingdom, cars in
Japan and Nokia phones in South Korea.
The assumption of a free market in T&D also begs the question of what we mean by
the ‘best’ technology. In the moral economy of market liberalism, the best technology is
that which ensures the most economically efficient production for the global market,
such as high yielding varieties of crops and seeds. Yet this normative framework deval-
ues other technologies that may be more ecologically efficient and resilient to climatic
shocks, such as agroecology.
Perhaps most seriously, given the continued moral weight of market liberalism, is the
historical and geographical blind spots of theories such as comparative advantage. As
Matthew Watson16 argues, Ricardo’s hypothetical trade relationship between England
and Portugal could not have worked in real life without the products of a third country,
Portugal’s colony, Brazil. In the early 19th century, Portugal used Brazilian gold to prop
up its waning terms of trade with Great Britain. Brazilian gold, in turn, was dependent
the tragic flow of people from West Africa to the Americas, who were enslaved to pro-
vide labour for the mines and sugar plantations. Ricardo’s theory, then, silences the expe-
riences of enslaved people in Brazil, the breakup of communities in West Africa and
widespread genocide in the Middle Passage, treating these as externalities, just as later
economists were to treat the work of the non-human world. Yet such human and non-
human ‘externalities’ have been as crucial for the development of global capitalist supply
chains as the moral economy itself.
In the moral economy of market liberalism, engagement in global markets is the measur-
ing rod against which different kinds of production and different kinds of people are
deemed ‘worthy’.17 Economic differentiations between types of production easily slip
into moral differentiations between types of people. The fallacy of the market liberal
moral economy, and its dangers, is evident in the case of Caribbean sugar and its neolib-
eralisation in 2008. Arguing for the need for a ‘Global Repositioning’ of the Caribbean
sugar industry, Executive Director of the Inter-American Development Bank, Richard
Bernal, argued that it was the psychology of Caribbean peoples, rather than any external
factor, that made the regional sugar industry uncompetitive in global markets. ‘Why does
the region take for granted that it can and will produce world class performers and indeed
world champions in every field of sport and the creative arts but doubt that our entrepre-
neurs and workers can be internationally competitive?’18 Under the stranglehold of high
external debts, regional actors such as Bernal may have little option but to uphold the
188 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
hegemonic moral economy, according to which any divergence from collective prosper-
ity is the fault of ‘unworthy’ individuals.
There are numerous other examples of this kind of moral and political deception, all
of which use liberal frameworks to portray a ‘harmonious view of globalization in which
all countries can gain from trade liberalization’.19 Yet it is not the rhetoric, but how it
shapes actual policies regarding who gets what, why and how, that concerns me here.
Instead of acknowledging the perpetuation of past social and environmental injustices
wrought by the sugar plantation, Bernal ‘starts from the assumption that all economies
compete on an equal playing field’.20 Like textiles, cars and Nokia phones, however,
sugar plantations could only rise in global importance under the mercantilist policies of
Britain’s colonial regime,21 protections that favoured white, male plantation owners and
that directly counteracted the exigencies of comparative advantage. After independence,
state supports for sugar were withdrawn in countries deemed ‘uncompetitive’ in the
industry such as Trinidad and Tobago. Under current ‘authoritarian populist’22 regimes,
prime agricultural lands once used for sugar and short-term crops are being usurped for
residential and industrial development. As in the past, farmers who produce high-input,
specialised crops for export receive far more public resources than low-input small farm-
ers, who feed far more people.
Covid-19: shocks to the system
The moral economy of neoliberalism continues to determine who is prioritised for
‘development’, even though it bears less and less resemblance to the ways global supply
chains actually work. Instead of sovereign nations, global supply chains are controlled
by an increasingly consolidated number of companies, mostly from the Global North,
who reap vast profits from managing just-in-time orders between a global network of
producers and buyers. The speed of these transactions is facilitated by complex compu-
tational systems and (mostly) European finance companies, who provide short-term
credit to make up for any payment delays between producers and buyers, and trade credit
insurance to ensure that producers receive money in the event of the buyers’ insolvency.
While fixed capitals still make up all the nodes in the network, including land, factories,
ships, trucks, etc., operations increasingly depend on powerful umbrella companies that
coordinate connections between them.
Given the interdependencies between each specialised link in the productive chain, if
a shock (e.g. the pandemic) enters the supply chain, the whole system may be compro-
mised. Jan Douwe van der Ploeg provides a recent European example.23 With Italian
restaurants closed during periods of lockdown, the demand for luxury Italian dishes such
as vitello tonnato (veal with tuna sauce) came to a halt. The fall in demand for veal led
to a sharp drop in imports of male calves from Germany and Eastern Europe into the
Netherlands, where calves are usually fattened on dairy farms and processed in slaugh-
terhouses for shipment to Italy. During lockdown, dairy farms in the Netherlands were
full of calves, restauranteurs in Italy faced insolvency and the umbrella company control-
ling the whole supply chain, Van Drie Group, lost their market in processed veal.24
During the Covid-19 crisis, such vulnerabilities of global supply chains have taken shape
across the globe. In wealthy countries, Covid-19 has induced food shortages, panic buying,
and other food system shocks, leading to empty supermarket shelves. Shelves have been
restocked quickly, however, as wealthy governments such as the United States and the
United Kingdom have provided billions to back trade credit insurance providers and as sup-
ply chain data management systems adapt to the new circumstances. In poorer countries, the
situation is much more calamitous. In urban areas of Africa which depend on imported
plantation rice from India, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar, the effects of Covid-19 are
felt increasingly in the stomach. In these places, Covid has given rise to a ‘hunger pandemic’
that may be deadlier than the biomedical pandemic itself.25 And while Covid-19 as an illness
has disproportionately affected Black and Asian populations,26 its economic effects have hit
low-income people of colour the hardest: migrant agricultural workers are immobilised,
remittances are paused and fixed capitals are unable to shift to other productive activities.
Debunking the moral economy
As citizens and states reel during the crisis, cracks in the moral economy of neoliberal-
ism are beginning to surface. The presumed advantages of global market integration and
specialisation have become increasingly questionable, not only for social movements
such as Via Campesina, who have long defended the rights of ‘peasants’ to control their
own supply chains, but for governments across the world. In Jamaica, where the sugar
plantation and its legacies continue to discipline people, places and plants in the neolib-
eral era, the pandemic has focused government attention on small farmers and short food
supply chains. In line with previous efforts, the Jamaican government is promoting a
‘Say Yes to Fresh’ campaign, which encourages Jamaicans to buy local produce, while
the government is dealing with bottlenecks in food supply chains by buying and selling
small farmers’ produce directly.27 In the United Kingdom, food and vegetable box
schemes and local butchers have been given a boost during the pandemic, as wealthier
consumers are unable to spend their extra cash on dining out.28 Other UK residents have
taken up gardening to overcome food shortages.29 Despite these positive trends, the
majority of people in the world, in the global North as well as the South, depend on
global supply chains for cheap, industrially produced food.
Given their flexibility, mixed farming systems are better able to respond to external
shocks than specialised farms, including climatic shocks. Low-input, family farms rely
less on external markets for inputs, technologies, seeds and labour than specialised plan-
tations, and often market produce directly.30 As Ploeg argues:31 ‘In the framework of
‘modernization’ such features were all considered as signs of weakness and backward-
ness (‘legacies of the past’), but in times of Covid-19 they re-emerge as embodying
resilience’. As countries halt exports of grains and other essentials to feed their popula-
tions, the pandemic is re-playing global food crises, which will continue to recur unless
governments, aid agencies and civil society to come together to radically reverse moral
and economic biases against domestic and subsistence agriculture.
Moral economies create powerful logics for perpetuating the status quo, even if the prac-
tices so endorsed are destructive to people and planet.32 The industrial capitalist food
190 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
system has been enforced, legitimated and sustained through a moral economy of market
liberalism, which prioritises globally-derived economic value over all other values and
human/non-human relationships. Given the serious failings outlined in this essay, it is
alarming that Eurocentric concepts such as comparative advantage, free trade and com-
petition, and related assumptions about ‘good’ economic behaviour, continue to provide
the moral, political and economic grounds for global market integration.
Yet with Covid-19, the failings of this model, and its moral economic foundations, are
more than ever in evidence. As Ploeg33 argues, Covid-19 has uncovered major structural
weaknesses in the global food system, namely the dominance of the financial economy
over the bread and butter of real food economies. With states and citizens in both the
global North and South restructuring supply chains to feed their people, now is the time
to find common ground for developing a formidable counter-narrative to the moral econ-
omy of neoliberalism.
I would like to thank Dr Patricia Northover and Professor Michaeline Crichlow for the invitation
to write this think piece and for their ongoing political and intellectual stimulation.
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
1. (Virdee, 2019).
2. (Crichlow et al., 2018).
3. (Brereton, 2009).
4. (Virdee, 2019; Beckford, 1972).
5. (Wilson, 2017).
6. (Scott, 1976).
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8. (Swaminathan, 2007).
9. (Watson, 2016: 257–258).
10. (Watson, 2016: 261).
11. (Lin and Chang, 2009: 490).
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13. (Chang, 2002).
14. (Chang, 2002).
15. (Altieri and Holt-Giménez, 2016).
16. (Watson, 2016).
17. (Wilson, 2014: 34).
18. (Bernal, 2008: 20, cited in Wilson and Parmasad, 2015: 20).
19. (Winkler and Milberg, 2013: 1).
20. (Wilson and Parmasad, 2015: 20).
21. (Richardson, 2009).
22. (Scoones et al., 2017).
23. (van der Ploeg, 2020: 948).
24. (van der Ploeg, 2020: 948).
25. (van der Ploeg, 2020: 948, 950, with reference to Beasley 2020).
26. (Razai et al., 2021).
27. (Ewing-Chow, 2020).
28. (Petetin, 2020: 333).
29. (Petetin, 2020: 334).
30. (van der Ploeg, 2020: 965).
31. (van der Ploeg, 2020: 965).
32. (Wilson et al., 2020).
33. (van der Ploeg, 2020).
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global North? Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/309385013_Can_agro-
ecology_survive_without_being_coopted_in_the_Global_North (accessed 23 April 2021).
Beckford GL (1972) Persistent Poverty: Underdevelopment in Plantation Economies of the Third
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Bernal R (2008) Globalization: Everything but Alms. The EPA and Economic Development.
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Brereton B (2009 ) A History of Modern Trinidad 1783-1962. Champs Fleurs: Terra Verde
Chang H (2002) Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective.
London and New York: Anthem Press.
Crichlow M, Northover P and Giusti-Cordero J (2018) Race and Rurality in the Global Economy.
New York: SUNY Press.
Ewing-Chow D (2020) Jamaica responds to Covid-19 by ramping up healthy food consumption.
Forbes 30 April. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/daphneewingchow/2020/04/30/
(accessed 9 October 2020).
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tive advantage or defy it? Development Policy Review 27(5): 483–502.
Petetin L (2020) The Covid-19 crisis: An opportunity to integrate food democracy into post-pan-
demic food systems. European Journal of Risk Regulation 11 (Special): 326–336.
Razai MS, Haydn KNK, Azeem M, et al. (2021) Mitigating ethnic disparities in Covid-19 and
beyond. British Medical Journal 372: m4921.
Richardson B (2009) Sugar: Refined Power in a Global Regime. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Scoones I, Edelman M, Borras S, et al. (2017) Emancipatory rural politics: Confronting authoritar-
ian populism. The Journal of Peasant Studies 45(1): 1–20.
Scott J (1976) The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia.
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Swaminathan S (2007) Adam Smith’s moral economy and the debate to abolish the slave trade.
Rhetoric Society Quarterly 37: 481–507.
van der Ploeg JD (2020) From biomedical to politico-economic crisis: The food system in times of
Covid-19. The Journal of Peasant Studies 47(5): 944–972.
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Wilson M and Parmasad V (2015) Political economies of sugar: views from a former sugarcane
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Economy of Food and Agriculture. Third World Quarterly (ahead-of-print) 1-16.
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Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2021, Vol. 33(3) 194 –197
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COVID 19, communal capital
and the moral economy:
Pacific Islands responses
University of Canterbury, New Zealand
One of the impacts of COVID-19 is that communities have looked for alternative means of
survival as the market economy went into a major crisis and people lost their jobs. For many
communities in the Pacific Islands, who have relied largely on the market economy over the
years, this means falling back on their communal way of life which has provided resilience for
centuries. The revival of various forms of communal capital such as kinship exchange, subsistence
farming and strengthening of social solidarity have become features of this bourgeoning moral
economy. In the post-COVID era, there needs to be a major rethinking of how community-based
moral economies can be mainstreamed as assurance for resilience and as a responsive mechanism
against future economic calamities.
barter, communal capital, COVID-19, market, moral economy, Pacific, resilience, social
This essay examines the significance of communal capital in Pacific communities as a
central constituent of what Peterson and Taylor refer to as the “indigenous domestic moral
economy” (Peterson and Taylor, 2006) and how these have been mobilized in response to
the COVID-19 social and economic calamities. I define communal capital as the array of
social and cultural norms, institutions, innovations and resources, which are embedded in
and mobilized by communities to satisfy their basic needs, sustain social solidarity and
develop resilience. Some examples of communal capital are kinship-based social networks,
reciprocal goods exchange, collective labor, group landownership, cosmological connec-
tions, common ethical principles and shared intellectual property.
Despite being vilified by neoliberal economists as outdated and un-innovative
(Duncan, 2014), communal capital has proved vitally important as wellbeing ‘subsidy’
for lowly paid employees in the formal economic sector by providing resilience in
Steven Ratuva, Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies, College of Arts, University of Canterbury,
Christchurch 8140, New Zealand.
normal times as well as act as social protection mechanisms in times of crisis (Ratuva,
2014). In many Pacific communities, the pandemic has forced people to “reset” their
development strategies away from the dominant market system to a communal mode of
enterprise based on strengthening socio-cultural connections and producing for con-
sumption and community sustenance rather than for the market. How this plays out in the
current climate of economic depression resulting from COVIOD-19 is the focus of this
COVID-19 has generated unprecedented impact on the global neoliberal order, exac-
erbated deep-seated inequalities and accentuated the marginalization of subaltern groups
around the world (International Labour Organization, 2020). It has jolted humanity into
rethinking strategically about framing a new developmental path which is resilient, peo-
ple-centered, sustainable and empowering. For many Global South countries already
fissured by the predatory excesses of neoliberalism, this has become a major challenge,
especially for many still reeling from the post-colonial structures of inequality and vora-
cious appropriation of resources by big multinational corporations. In many of these
countries, the communal and market economies are betrothed in a complex syncretic
way and people use selected and accessible aspects of both systems as they attempt to
navigate the contours of social change, political tension and economic hardship. In a
deliberative way people oscillate between the two modes as they see fit.
Since the advent of COVID-19, most Pacific Island communities have resorted to
alternative means of survival and the one they are most familiar with is the communal
economy, which has been part of their indigenous livelihood for centuries (UNDP, 2020).
For instance, within the last 3 months, communities have resurrected the age-old practice
of what anthropologists refer to as generalized reciprocity, commonly referred to as the
barter system. It started in Fiji as the Barter for Better Fiji project and this expanded
around the Pacific to Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, New Zealand and other Pacific countries
(Williams, 2020). This operates on the basis of the centuries old practice of economic
exchange where people from different islands or different parts of the same islands near
the coast exchanged goods they produced or specialized in with goods from other com-
munities. This was common throughout the Pacific. In Papua New Guinea for instance
the Kula trade routes between islands has been well documented by anthropologists.
Ancient trade between Fiji, Tonga and Samoa on red bird feathers, mats, canoes and
other artifacts existed for centuries, the same as trading links between various Micronesian
islands in the north Pacific. Other forms of communal economic activities practiced in
the Pacific now in response to COVD-19 include the “green thumb” model for local
farming; rise beyond the reef economic empowerment for women in rural communities;
incubator and seed fund for start-ups by those losing their source of income; smart farms
Fiji; Pacific Blue farming; and alternative communities trade, to name a few (UNDP,
2020). These are largely based on the use of communal capital.
In the pre-COVID era social reciprocity existed in various forms, especially in relation
to ceremonial practices, but these were largely overshadowed by the dominance of the
cash economy. Reciprocity was often stereotyped as a backward, uncivilized and anti-
modernity practice often carried out by lazy people who had no ambitions for progress.
This was a colonial narrative which, through colonial education and cultural domestica-
tion, was assimilated by locals as part of the new hegemonic ideology of colonial cultural
196 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
enlightenment. The demonization of the past and the reification of colonial values of
subservience and capitalist values of individualism became a dual process of intellectual
Despite the expansion and dominance of the colonial capitalist economy, the com-
munal economy continued to thrive because the extent of capitalist penetration was inter-
mittent and limited, although the colonial political pacification process was more
transformational, although this differed in degree from country to country. Also, most of
the land was still communally owned by traditional clan groups and this formed the basis
for the communal economy. Local communities played a decisive role in negotiating,
leveraging and synthesizing both the capitalist and communal modes of production to
serve their interests. The communal economy was based on reciprocal exchange of
goods, kinship support system, communal labor exchange, cultural production of ser-
vices and use of land and resources for ceremonial, subsistence and surplus for cash.
Production was based on a complex interrelationship between people, representing com-
munal capital and the land.
The COVD-19 has in many instances strengthened the communal capital further
through global virtual support. The virtual world has been reinvented as a site for com-
munal gathering and reinforcement of kinship identification and relationships. People use
it to share cooking recipes, transfer money, help to seek out resources and provide psycho-
logical support. However, there are also drawbacks to the virtual communal networking.
Rethinking the future
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to rethink about alternative economies, ethics and
strategies for life. The global economic recession emanating from the pandemic has
revealed in a starkly manifest way the fragility and vulnerability of the global neoliberal
system thus dispelling the myth that it is the imperative and natural order of the time. The
search for alternatives needs to have a conceptual, practical and moral basis and must be
framed by human security values such as equity, diversity, participation, empowerment and
progressive social transformation (Carrier, 2018). The neoliberal order has often created
conditions for the creation and enhancement of conditions which undermine these norma-
tive principles. The predatory, expansionist, exploitative and manipulative nature of neo-
liberalism has undermined and marginalized the significance of human values and morality
as basis of a new economy, a new moral economy, or in the Pacific, communal economy.
In the Pacific Islands, the basis of the communal economy is communal capital, which
refers to the interconnecting synergies between reciprocal system of trade, kinship net-
works, collective labor and skills, social and spiritual relationship to land and environ-
ment and connection with the ancestral and wider cosmology. These have provided the
basis for communal resilience as communities and individuals have responded and
adapted quite successfully to the economically paralyzing impacts of the pandemic.
Reverting to the old system of exchange has proven to be effective and durable while
strengthening social bonds ensured that no one in the community suffered from the
severity of the lockdowns, unemployment and lack of access to resources.
The future of how humanity responds to social calamities in the post-pandemic era in
some ways dependents on the types of social and economic configuration we construct
to address inequality. Reliance on a mono-system, driven by powerful economic interests
and profit motives of the very few is unsustainable. There is now an imperative need to
incorporate elements of the communal capital and the moral economy to address ine-
quality, empower people and strengthen resilience in times of crisis. This requires think-
ing outside the box and incorporating the centuries old wisdom of other communities and
cultures which were often regarded as subaltern and insignificant in the neoliberal gaze.
Many people in Global South such as the Pacific, used this as basis for communal sup-
port and realized that it worked. The promises of eternal wealth and progress by the
prophets of neoliberalism did not eventuate and like the ‘American dream,’ it only served
the interests of some and left the majority in a state of limbo. The series of events linked
to COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement has galvanized a new synergy for
revolutionary change and rearticulating of new strategies and new hopes.
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
Carrier J (2018) Moral economy: What’s in a name? Anthropological Theory 8(1): 18–35.
Duncan R (2014) Reflections on constraints to growth in Pacific Island countries. Devpolicy.
Available at: https://devpolicy.org/reflections-on-constraints-to-growth-in-pacific-island-
International Labour Organization (2020) Social Protection Spotlight. Geneva: International
Labour Organization. Available at: https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_pro-
Peterson N and Taylor J (2006) The modernising of the indigenous domestic moral economy. The
Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology 4(1-2): 105–122.
Ratuva S (2014) Failed states or resilient subaltern communities: Pacific indigenous social protec-
tion systems in a neoliberal world. Pacific Journalism Review 20(2): 39–57.
UNDP (2020) Local COVID-19 response projects in Fiji and Vanuatu to benefit from UNDP’s
support. Available at: https://www.pacific.undp.org/content/pacific/en/home/presscenter/
Williams L (2020) Facebook barter page grows cash-free trade in Fiji and beyond. Available at:
2021, Vol. 33(3) 199 –201
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2021, Vol. 33(3) 199 –201
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Liminality, third-culture and
hope in a quarantine camp
Independent Artist, Vietnam
Through the experience of a quarantine camp in Vietnam, the essay discusses how the experience
was a third-culture phenomenon in overdrive because of spatial and social isolation. Through
such resemblance, the author points toward a path to understanding and embracing third-culture
in the larger context of globalization.
globalization, hope, isolation, liminality, multicultural, quarantine, third-culture
It was difficult to imagine the experience of the Covid quarantine as I landed in Vietnam
after a 20-hour charter flight from the United States. Little could I imagine that the
2 weeks I spent there could be a blissful time to fondly look back at. I made friends and
felt light, free, and genuine. The more I thought, the more I realized how the liminality
of the space, both spatial and social characterized the experience. I argue that in certain
ways, the space in the quarantine resembles that of a third-culture, the quarantine experi-
ence is a small scale third-culture phenomenon, and that approaching the quarantine as
such can reveal implications beneficial to the study of the dynamics of cultures.
Third Culture Kids, is the term was popularized by Pollock and Van Reken (2009) are
individuals who are (or were as children) raised in a culture other than their parents’, and
also live in a different environment during a significant part of their development years.
The term applies to both adults and children as the “kid” part points to the formative,
childhood development period. Accordingly, third culture is one that does not fall into
one or two cultures, but rather a culture shared with all other third culture kids, character-
ized by the cultural liminality they face. This liminality is evident in the experience of the
The factors contributing to the sense of liminality in the camp were produced by
simultaneous physical and social isolation. The quarantine facility was a military barrack
on the outskirt of Hanoi, the capital city. We moved straight from the airport to the
Minh-Hoang Nguyen, Independent Artist, 99/4/25 Nguyen Chi Thanh, Hanoi, 100000, Vietnam.
200 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
facility within 5 hours with no contact with others but government officials in charge.
From then on, our contacts were limited to the army personnel who were already running
the barrack before the onset of the Covid virus. There were police posts outside the facil-
ity to keep the quarantine security tight. While we were allowed to have relatives send
supplies from the outside, the sense of physical isolation was complete: no contact was
allowed with people outside the barrack. For the people who had just returned from the
United States, we were at a strange place in between, home but not yet home, familiar but
at the same time alien to our countrymen.
Socially, we were also stranded. Most people at the camp had been self-quarantining
in the States for months. Many had just completed their education, from high school to
graduate levels. For one person, it had been 15 years since she last saw Vietnam. By get-
ting on the charter flight, they have all had left a significant part of their life behind for
their safety. As such, for them, the past was already bygone. At the same time, there is a
sense of suspended future. Many were facing an uncertain time ahead. As they were
moving back from another country, they had little immediate responsibility to take care
of. There were no school, no job, no family, no friends, only a 14-days period of waiting
at their disposal. The quarantine, in that sense, was a liminal space blessed by its isola-
tion from both the dangerous past and the hopeful future.
Given the liminality of the quarantine, people behaved differently from when they are
outside. A frequent comment I heard from others were how they felt free as if they were
on a school trip. Friendships were easy to make, some romances also blossomed. While
the people at the camp came from different backgrounds, they treated each other respect-
fully and comfortably as equals. Many of them wouldn’t have met if not for the pure
coincidence of being at the same camp. In this aspect, the experience of the quarantine
camp is a third-culture phenomenon in overdrive. The people in the camp, by their cir-
cumstances, were all third-culture individuals who had spent a significant portion of their
life in another country. In the camp they bonded despite their hometown, education, and
other differences. Because of the commonality of their mobile experience, together with
the enforced isolation from the larger society, they found a sense of belonging with each
other. Because of the quarantine, their common experience and behavior became much
more apparent, and a community of like-minded people was quickly formed within days.
My experience at the quarantine camp suggested that perhaps the feeling of being in
a liminal space holds a key to understanding and embracing third-culture. While third-
culture kids often feel the loss that comes from being unable to belong to their first and
second cultures, once they have understood and accepted the notion that there is in fact a
population of people just like them and a culture they all share, they would be able to
embrace the positive aspects of having grown alienated from a specific culture. In par-
ticular, they can recognize the commonality in their cultural intelligence, interpersonal
sensitivity, cultural adaptability, and an expanded and multicultural worldview.
In my opinion, the phenomenon is particularly relevance because of the increasingly
multi-cultural world we live in due to globalization. Third culture literature once focused
on a minority of children whose parents were diplomat, expats or other professions
which required international travel and stay. However, I propose that it no longer takes
physical displacement to feel estranged from cultures. With the development of informa-
tion technology and the increasing ease of international travel, children are now more
exposed to a variety of cultures, making barriers between cultures more porous. Within
an increasingly multicultural reality, it is understandable to feel stressed about finding a
place where we belong. Perhaps this existential stress contributes to the rise far-right,
nationalist movement around the world, especially in developed countries in an advanced
stage of globalization. In that case, perhaps the experience of constructive third-culture
bonding in a remote Vietnamese quarantine camp can shed some light on how we can
transform the stress, inject optimism, and move forward to a more tolerant future.
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
Pollock DC and Van Reken RE (2009) Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing up Among
Worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealy.
2021, Vol. 33(3) 203 –205
© The Author(s) 2021
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2021, Vol. 33(3) 203 –205
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Play it again, this time
NCBT Center, USA
The potential exists to rebuild a more just economy in the wake of COVID-19. By illuminating
the gap between what economic institutions promised and the reality billions of people face, this
crisis is focusing attention and activism in new ways, particularly at the juncture of race and class.
Advocates for racial and economic justice are effectively using this moment to forge new shared
understandings of our history and what it will take to build an economy which truly serves human
state power, capitalism, markets, COVID, race, class
“Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take on those which were now
given to them. Reckless audacity came to be considered courage of a loyal ally; prudent
hesitation, specious cowardice. . .To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, and
divine a plot, a still shrewder” (Thucydides, 1982).
What’s happening right now is unprecedented but it’s nothing new. Writing millennia
ago, Thucydides’ account of how the Peloponnesian War shattered shared meaning feels
all too on brand for 2020: Words like honor, justice, and democracy being used in ways
that boggle the mind; states unapologetically using violence to preserve systems of
oppression; leaders celebrating naked self-interest as strength and virtue; widespread
rejection of facts or the need to root claims to truth beyond subjective feeling. This
unraveling of shared meaning played a leading role in Athens’ fall and seems to be repris-
ing its star turn now in 2020.
The current moment is terrifying to live through but also holds the potential to chal-
lenge an economic system rooted in lies, theft, and oppression. COVID-19 is forcing a
long-overdue reckoning. We now have the opportunity to build a shared understanding
about how an economy can meaningfully serve human flourishing.
Patrick McHugh, Research Manager, NC Justice Center, 224 S. Dawson St, Raleigh, NC 27601, USA.
204 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
For a few years it appeared economic orthodoxy had survived the Great Recession
largely intact. Captains of industry stayed at the helm of their ships. The same politicians
and talking heads kept nattering on about unleashing the power of markets to solve our
problems. Many of the institutions and leaders which had overseen the collapse were
entrusted with managing the recovery.
But it was all hollow. The reality that billions of people face every day has been ren-
dering the reassurances of economic elites increasingly meaningless. What does it mean
to hear pundits and politicians talking about the “strong” pre-COVID economy if you
don’t know where your next meal is coming from? What does a growing stock market
mean if you don’t own stocks? How can this be a “free” market when most high-paying
jobs require going into massive student debt? What does “recovery” mean if your family
and community are still worse off than before?
The gulf between economic-speak and reality has been growing for decades, but
many of those tensions really started breaking loose in the last decade. Populist leaders
around the world exploited the vacuum and played on the uncertainty it had created.
Propaganda peddlers filled spaces that once-trusted sources had left behind.
Misinformation thrives when shared meaning is in short supply.
As disturbing as these developments are, the loss of received economic meaning cre-
ates an opening for a different kind of response. Mass movements are collective acts of
meaning-making. To succeed at any scale, movements must create stories and shared
language which can bridge across different lived experiences. Building new shared
understandings to capture the realities laid bare by COVID-19 has the potential to reor-
ganize how the economy is understood and governed.
The movement for racial justice is a profound case where new shared meaning can
reshape the post-COVID economy. Take the concept of structural racism. Up until very
recently the term carried relatively little meaning outside of a limited set of spaces. Other
than within certain circles of organizers and academics, racism was still talked about in
predominantly inter-personal terms. Particularly among most white people, racism con-
noted conscious, intentional, and vitriolic acts of racial hatred. It was something from the
past. It was comfortably over there. Even for white people who acknowledged implicit
bias in themselves, the idea that our entire economic system is built on structures which
perpetuate white privilege was mostly foreign. That is starting to change. The year 2020
may prove to be a watershed year when people who benefit from structural racism start
to more deeply recognize its presence in our everyday lives. COVID-19 has thrown a
spotlight on how people of color are cut off from economic opportunities that would
provide more buffer against a crisis, on the deadly consequences of inadequate health-
care, on how private internet providers leave entire communities in the digital dark, and
on a host of other lopsided features of the economic playing field. The reality predated
the term, but shared meaning is a key step toward helping more people to recognize
structural racism when they see it. It is a concept that focuses attention, allows people
and organizations to orient themselves toward solutions, and highlights our collective
power to do things differently.
A related process of meaning-making is also emerging at the intersection of race and
class. Particularly (but hardly exclusively) in the United States, race has served as one of
the most potent weapons elites have used to amass wealth and power. The wedge of race
has been wielded in breaking up efforts to unionize, preserving segregation in housing
and education, excusing predatory lending practices, and the list goes on. In many
instances, the economic systems which cause the greatest harm to people of color also
serve to keep most white working people economically insecure. COVID-19 provides a
fresh reminder how our current system leaves most everyone–Black, brown, and white–
economically exposed. So perhaps it should be no surprise that Black Lives Matters
signs suddenly sprang up in a lot of white suburban front yards in 2020. George Floyd’s
murder and the ensuing protests weren’t anything new, but they took on a different reso-
nance against a backdrop of existential fear. The sad fact is it took something like
COVID-19 for millions of Americans who have never worried about dying at the hands
of police to attend more closely to what people of color have been telling them for gen-
erations: Our system is rigged, and dangerous, and some day it might come for you.
These shared meanings are starting to show up in economic attitudes and policy
demands. Fundamental policy changes which could go a long way toward restructuring
the global economy are quickly entering mainstream political conversations. A previ-
ously unknown tech executive surged to prominence arguing for a guaranteed minimum
income. Support for increasing taxes on the rich and global corporations is on the rise.
Reparations for slavery are no longer dismissed out of hand. Free higher education and
universal healthcare are gaining traction. None of these shifts in public opinion would be
happening without an underlying change in our shared understanding about what is
wrong with the current economic system.
What’s happening right now is unprecedented but it’s nothing new. We needn’t go all
the way back to Thucydides to find times when received meaning crumbled in the face
of realities it can’t explain. We’re living at another of those inflection points full of grave
danger and great opportunity. The path forward will be charted by how we define what
we owe to each other, how we sift truth from lies, and what kind of shared meaning we
use to organize our economic lives.
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
Thucydides (1982) The Peloponnesian War. New York: Random House.
2021, Vol. 33(3) 207 –218
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Another economy calls
for another perspective
Cultural Economics, Erasmus University, Netherlands
Economics makes sense of the economy. Another economy that may or may not come about
in response to the Corona crisis will require another sense making. This article provides a
possible alternative perspective, a value-based approach. It includes a model with five spheres
that encourages a visualization and conceptualization of the economy beyond the market and
governmental spheres that dominate the standard economic perspective. By including social and
cultural spheres as well as the sphere of the oikos (home) we are encouraged to think of social
arrangements, relationships and other “shared goods,” sense making, culture and other qualities
of living. The exploration of another perspective includes two concrete proposals for alternative
institutions to deal with problematic debts and creating work for people with limitations.
culture, markets, oikos, private and public spheres, social sphere, value-based economy
The question is to what extent the Corona crisis has disturbed the dominant perspective in
ways that are sufficiently strong to make people receptive to another perspective?
It is too early to tell. And yet, one surprising change has already taken place. Until
February of 2020, it was all but unimaginable that any event would dethrone economics
from its top spot in the world view of politicians—not even the climate crisis had accom-
plished this. Suddenly, human health proved to be more important than economic health.
A clear indication was the political willingness to sacrifice economic progress for the
sake of saving human lives.
A reason to doubt a lasting change in perspective is that the pandemic crisis does not,
at least at first sight, appear to be the consequence of a systematic failure. The virus
appears to be an exogenous factor that shows up as a dummy variable in economic equa-
tions. While there is a raised awareness of the frailty of the human race and a deepened
Arjo Klamer, Cultural Economics, Erasmus University, Burgemeester Oudlaan 50, Rotterdam, PA 3062, The
208 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
sense of the fate that all humans share, there seems to be a failure to realize what is fun-
damentally wrong with the dominant perspectives and the current economic system.
In this contribution I want to advance an alternative perspective on the economy and
society, and show how it would alter our sense making of both. Exploring two different
cases, I will argue such a perspective is necessary to bring about possible solutions to our
most existential crises.
The need of another perspective
The current dominant perspective came about in response to the big crisis of the 1930s.
Then the dominant perspective more or less presumed that the economy was a force in
and of itself, that markets on the whole functioned well, that churches and societies took
care of the poor and the weak, and that the state organized the defense of the country,
protected property rights, conducted the legal system and took care of some other minor
tasks. In the thirties politicians began to distrust the social and market forces. If nothing
else, mobilization for war showed the effectiveness of state-controlled production efforts.
But the state also stepped in and took over major responsibilities for the care of the poor,
the unemployed, the weak and the elderly. In communist societies, of course, such state
control took on almost all-encompassing forms, though the majority of industrialized
nations adopted various hybrid forms with a role for the market next to an increasingly
large role for the government. These hybrid forms came to be named Keynesianism after
the British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946).
An important dimension of this new perspective was reserved for the role of science.
It was in the twenties and the thirties that not only politicians but also people in organi-
zational life (i.e. business people) began to imagine that scientific outcomes could guide
their governance. Inspired by the sense making of economists they began to imagine the
economy as a machine with knobs that they could turn. To make that work the economy
had to be quantified. The numbers that economists constructed, like profits, rates of
return and, of course, GDP, became important inputs for their imagined economies and
subsequently for their decision making. Economics was conceived as a science to ration-
alize economic policies.
The question is whether that “shared social imaginary” of a scientifically backed eco-
nomic role of the government next to the disciplinary role of markets, is sustainable to
make sense of the world today and suffices to motivate needed changes.
A shared imaginary, as Taylor (2004) calls it, is a complex of images, concepts and
narratives that a group of people share in order to make sense of their world. Taylor
(2004) shows that in modern times people in the western world came to share an imagi-
nary of “the economy,” “the public sphere,” and “a private sphere. Displacing shared
imaginaries of competing kingdoms ruled by honor and power, or of a world revolving
around religion and the church and of a small, or of a local world in which people tried
to make a living, the modern social imaginary made people realize first of all that they
are interconnected by a bunch of markets, and that they have to make their living by
participating in markets as buyers and suppliers. It really was an imagination as markets
are not concrete and physical, except for farmers’ markets and stock exchanges. It is not
immediately clear that going to a shop signifies a participation in all kinds of markets,
that is, a market for each product you buy. Or that getting a job is a market transaction.
You need to imagine such practices as “transactions” in a “set of markets”.
Likewise, living in the modern world implies the imagination of a public sphere in
which all people can participate by talking or doing politics, joining movements, reading
and watching the news, and being interested in societal affairs such as free speech,
democracy, the climate and justice. The imagination of a private sphere conjures up the
image of autonomous individuals doing their things in their own private sphere that may
need to be safeguarded by a judicial system.
With such imaginaries people frame their world and tend to act accordingly. The
imaginary is clearly recognizable in the way standard economics frames the world.
Individuals form preferences in their private sphere and then enter the market to optimize
their preferences with the constraints that the market imposes in the form of (limited)
income and the prices to pay for the preferred goods and services. People are to imagine
a world of transactions in which they need to operate in order to achieve their goals. It is
a world of quid pro quo, a world of presumed efficiency and of rational choice.
The countervailing power to this world of transactions is provided by the public
sphere in which economists envisage the government operating, taxing people and
spending on the provision of public goods and welfare. The government is needed to
correct imperfections of the market sphere, to provide stability, a physical infrastructure,
education and some justice by means of welfare, unemployment benefits and social secu-
rity for the elder.
With these two spheres in mind, economists, and with them politicians and many oth-
ers, make sense of the economy. When they discuss inequality, it is in terms of income
and financial wealth (cf Piketty, 2014) and the solutions are inevitably tax measures by
the government. When they discuss environmental problems, they think of a CO2 tax. A
financial crisis calls for governmental regulation. To stimulate innovation, they will
evoke the need for the right incentives in market settings. The health care sector requires
more market, or less. Education needs more market pressure, or less. Anything extrane-
ous to these two spheres economists call an externality, something external. Apparently,
the standpoint to assume is in the market space, in the transactional sphere.
Let us depict the two spheres of the market and the government with two squares,
joined by a circle for the private sphere (Figure 1):
Economists are prepared to inflate the M square to be the dominant sphere. Free mar-
ket economists such as Hayek, Friedman, McCloskey, Boetke, and Storr will claim that
the disciplinary effectiveness of the market is superior to that of the government, or G,
and accounts for the greatly increased richness of the last two centuries (McCloskey,
2016). Keynesian economists see in G an important corrective force, especially needed
in times like the Corona crisis to fill the gaps left by the M.
By thinking in this frame, we are drawn into thinking in terms of the M logic versus
the G logic. The M logic is about transactions, about things as products that need to be
priced in order to be exchanged. M is the sphere of incentives as economists envisage
them, that is, the effect of pricing on the behavior of people. It gets us to think that a
football player or actor is a product that can be bought and sold. It makes us look at jew-
elry as precious for the price it may catch in the market. And it makes us think that a debt
is a transaction between the creditor and the debtor and that the transaction has a price
210 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
for the debtor. It is hard, if not impossible, to think otherwise when you think in this
When people operate in the sphere of governance, they rather think in bureaucratic,
legal and managerial terms. This is the sphere of contracts, functions, rules, protocols,
hierarchy, supervision, and control. When people want to get things done in this sphere,
they issue orders, fill in forms, submit proposals to committees, organize meetings, make
plans, draw up budgets, issue regulations, impose standards, and enforce financial
accounting for actions taken. In the sphere G we imagine the governmentality of things,
of practices (cf. Foucault and Senellart, 2008).
Both spheres are value laden. The Market sphere is loaded with positive values like
“freedom,” “efficiency,” “consumer sovereignty,” “innovation,” “progress,” “rational-
ity,” and negative values like “inequality,” “commercialism,” “greed,” “monetization,”
“monopolies,” “exploitation,” and “instability”.
The G sphere evokes positive associations with “justice,” “control,” “leadership,”
“democracy,” “welfare,” “the common good,” and “stability” and negative associations
with “inefficiency,” “bureaucracy,” “unfreedom,” “hierarchy,” “control,” “impediment
to innovation and progress”.
After WWII the dominant perspective put the G in a positive light with the M as a
supporting sphere that was in need of careful control and regulation. Economists like
Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek who advocated free markets, and with that the
dominance of the M sphere, were the minority. The tide changed in the eighties when the
voices of free marketeers grew and the so-called “third way” became dominant (Giddens,
1998). People who operated in the G sphere began to adopt the M logic in their govern-
ance. Civil servants and politicians began to speak of privatization and liberalization;
they sought to introduce incentives in the workplace (bonuses) and began to imagine
clients and students as “customers”. In the so-called New Public Management movement
public government became to be viewed as commercial organization. Policies had to
become demand-driven, rather than determined by supply factors. Governments had to
Figure 1. The dominant (economic) perspective: the market sphere, the governmental sphere,
and the private sphere.
organize competitions when ordering goods and services, with complicated tender pro-
tocols as the result. “Efficiency” became the norm for governance.
Thus, the Third Way turned into what became known as neo-liberalism (Foucault
and Senellart, 2008). It actually represents a mixing of two logics with the G logic
incorporating M logic. It makes for a perspective that is distinct from a liberal free mar-
ket perspective. The latter takes a standpoint within the M sphere and casts a shadow on
the G sphere. The neoliberal perspective assumes the standpoint of governors who are
seeing the M logic operating within their G sphere.
The neoliberal perspective had to be recognized as a perspective. That was far from
obvious. When I took up a position as political governor in a local government in 2014,
I discovered that my civil servants used economic terms to make sense of their world.
People on welfare were “customers,” the civil servants that were to “serve” them were
called “customer managers,” they said that they worked “demand-driven,” and when I
wanted to change the neighborhood policy they proposed to tender for the sake of “effi-
ciency”. None had heard of the term “neo-liberal.” I teased them by asking whether
“demand-driven” meant that a homeless person would get booze when he asked for it, or
drugs. No, so they had to admit; he got around 700€ a month as that was the policy. I
pointed out that we ran a strange shop as our customers do not pay for services but get
paid for no services. I proposed to call them “citizens” instead, or “participants” if they
took part in a program or “candidates” if they were looking for a job. The proposal met
significant opposition. Most civil servants did not see the need for such a change.
Language matters. I was battling the neo-liberal perspective on the world.
It is a vision that, I realized as a cultural economist, lacks an understanding of culture,
that is, of sense making practices in the broader society. The social imaginary of a world
consisting of a Market sphere, a Governmental sphere and a private sphere does not have
space for what people do trying to make sense of their lives and their world. Yet, they
practice religion, all kinds of arts, make and watch movies and television programs, and
argue about national, ethnic, and personal identities. How to make sense of such prac-
tices when, according to economists, ideas do not matter in the dominant perspective?
According to the neoliberal logic, sense making practices can make sense only if they
can be imagined as products for sale in the market or as public goods provided by the
government. Otherwise they do not exist, at least not as imagined. The implication is that
economic models do not account for their impact on what people do. Can we fill this gap
with an alternative perspective?
Another lack is absence of the reality of a “we,” of various forms of communities.
People form families and friendships. They have relationships. They participate in politi-
cal practices, join movements, take part in open resources. All this cannot be imagined in
the standard perspective. There are no families, no communities, no relationships in the
standard economic perspective; there is no space to imagine a “we” of any kind. We are
left to think in terms of individuals making rational choices in their private sphere, operat-
ing in the market sphere and being taxpayers to and beneficiaries of governments. When
economists turn their attention to family life, they imagine such life in terms of production
and consumption, that is, as an expression of market logic. Is there an alternative?
To make up for these gaps in the dominant social imaginary, I developed another
perspective (Klamer, 2017, Doing the Right Thing). The three spheres become five.
212 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
I follow others who have made similar proposals such as Polanyi (1944), Zelizer
(2005), and Luhman (1997). This is how the new picture looks (Figure 2):
The cultural sphere encompasses all others. It is the sphere of all sense making activi-
ties, like the writing and reading of this article, and the discussions that ensue, like the
reflections on one’s identity, the making and listening to music, but also political dis-
course. In this sphere people form their world view, assign meanings to actions and
events, and entertain ideas about the meanings of their lives, or the lack thereof.
The O stands for oikos: this is the sphere in which people realize a home, and practice
their intimate, personal life. In the oikos we take off our public masks to “be ourselves,”
and to share our life with intimate others. In O we practice the logic of personal and
In the social sphere (S) we go out on the street to join others, to practice friendships,
partake in communities, join societies, and form groups. Here we practice the social
logic, that is the logic of relationships, of groups and of communities.
Moving further away from our oikos and social life we enter societal practices and
become part of the public sphere. We do so by becoming member of political parties,
joining a movement, identifying with a nation, or partaking in a demonstration or a plat-
form on internet. Here we practice a societal logic, the logic of collectives, the logic of
When we move into the sphere of G we step into an organizational system, like a firm,
a business, a governmental office. Here we practice organizational logic, respecting
structures, hierarchies, bureaucratic procedures, contracts, orders, and assignments. This
sphere is more than envisaged in the dominant perspectives as it comprises not just the
government but all organizational systems, including those of private firms.
In the market sphere we practice the logic of the market just as the dominant perspec-
tive envisages it.
All kinds of insights follow from this expanded picture, as I have shown in Doing the
Right Thing. For one, the practices that are of ultimate importance to people, they realize
Figure 2. The five spheres: the oikos sphere, the social sphere, the market, the sphere of
governance, and the all-encompassing cultural sphere.
in the O, S, and the C spheres. It is there where people realize a home, friendship, art,
faith, trust, collegiality, justice, and love of nature. The spheres of M and G are merely
instrumental in the sense that they provide the conditions, inputs and ingredients for
meaningful and substantive practices. In order to realize a home, people get jobs at
organizations, submit to their systems, and use the money that they thus earn, to buy
tomatoes and a house and all other stuff they need for their home.
I should note that this more comprehensive vision has to be realized in the cultural
sphere. Without a relevant cultural practice this writing would be meaningless.
Note that what people realize in the O, S, and C, they cannot buy in a market, or
organize in the G sphere. While a house can be put up for sale in the marketplace, a home
cannot. A government or any other organization (like a building society) can provide a
house but not a home. Markets and organizations cannot, in and of themselves, generate
relations, a community, culture, care, or a sense of well-being.
In order to be able to imagine these social and cultural practices, in short, we need
terms that are distinct from those with which we make sense of the M and G logics. We
are in need of other concepts besides private and public goods. The proposal is to identify
social practices as shared practices and societal practices as common practices (Klamer,
2017, chapter 6).
A shared practice, like a friendship or a home, involves a limited number of people
who participate and contribute to that practice, and therefore can say it is theirs. They
need to be willing to participate and contribute to share the practice. Participation and
contribution are important elements of the social logic. Such logic is distinct from the
logic of exchange that reigns the M sphere. It is not a quid pro quo as the return to a
contribution is usually left undetermined, to be addressed later. When you do something
for the sake of a friendship, the benefit can come as a shared experience of the friendship.
Imagine your friend would pay you for a ride to the airport, or for a nice dinner. While
such a gesture makes perfect sense in the market sphere, it would likely undermine the
shared practice of a friendship.
The willingness to contribute and participate also characterizes the logic of common
practices, such as platforms and political movements. Again, market exchanges and
organizational systems cannot generate such practices with their logics. They are differ-
ent from public goods and the commons as identified by Ostrom, because they depend
on people and groups of people who are willing to participate and contribute. A neigh-
borhood becomes a lively common practice not because the local governments organizes
it, but because people in the neighborhood engage in all kinds of social practices—they
interact, organize pot lucks, and share Halloween.
The impact of Corona on sense making practices
As I noted earlier, the it is too early to tell what the long-term effects of the Corona
crisis will be. While the impact may fall short of a systemic crisis, there does appear to
be a growing awareness of the negative effects of mass tourism, global trade, airline
traffic, unnecessary commutes, or meat consumption. Whether COVICD will sharpen
our sense of imminent environmental disasters or the threat of another financial col-
lapse remains doubtful. Equally uncertain is whether and how people will change their
214 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
daily routines, such as working from home, distance learning, meeting on zoom, or
Politicians, in the meantime, may fall back on conventional and well-tested measures
to restore the economy in accordance with what the dominant perspective makes them
see. Presently, they increase government spending even if that means that they had to
overcome a repugnance against large government debts. At a later stage they may resort
again to cut government spending and increase interest rates to combat an excess demand
for funds. They do so because they perceive the problems in the sphere of M, that is, in
the sphere of transactions.
The picture of the five spheres helps change our perspective, and with that may alter
“sense making” and the actions that make sense. One difference is that whereas the
dominant perspective compels people to assume a macro perspective, the picture of the
five spheres invites us to see the world starting at home. It makes us reflect on what con-
stitutes a good life in the sphere of the oikos and the social and societal sphere, rather
than what constitutes success in the market sphere (cf. Doing the Right Thing, MacIntyre,
1981; Sandel, 2012; Taylor, 1992).
Lives may have been compromised by the virus. For some working and learning at
home has meant more closeness, more care, more intimacy. For others, usually those liv-
ing in social housing, the lockdowns and other measures have put inordinate pressure on
the relationships at home and have contributed to increasing loneliness. People are finding
out the importance of socializing, to get out and about in the social sphere, and to engage
in meaningful conversations, to attend church, sports events, concerts, and festivals. And,
of course, lives are affected by jobs lost, businesses going broke, and poverty.
Accordingly, the impact of the virus on the spheres of M and G do matter for the lives
of people. In a way the spheres of the M and G have continued to work reasonably well
for people. In most highly developed countries people continue to have access to the
whole variety of consumer goods. It is actually amazing to realize that with the lock
down people can continue to get buffalo mozzarella, phones, eggplants, clothes, and
whatever else they desire. We order food online and get it delivered to our doorsteps. The
working of the M is a miracle. But that is made possible because organizations continue
to function even with their workers at home. That, too, is remarkable. While many organ-
izations are folding because of a lack of customers, including bars, shops, theaters, and
travel organizations, others are thriving. All this makes for a large diversity in effects.
The serious problems are occurring in the social and societal spheres and especially the
cultural sphere. For a while there have been signals that the social sphere is eroding, that
societies are getting fragmented socially and culturally. The Corona crisis appears to aggra-
vate these problems. People find it harder to socialize. Students have difficulty making
friends. Church communities are in trouble and so are choirs, sport clubs, and many other
places where people meet and mingle. Cultural economists and others have pointed at the
crowding out of social and cultural practices by market and governmental practices.
More serious may be the impact of the Corona crisis on the sense making. The virus
and its impact on their personal and social life as well as on their market and organiza-
tional practices get people to question their world view. Virtually everyone has reason to
figure out what is going on, how the virus works, what doctors can do, whether hydroxy-
chloroquine works or not, when we are immune, and what the chance is that the virus
kills us. Especially in social media contradictory messages come through. How to make
sense of them? What is the truth? In times of such fundamental uncertainty, with lives at
stake, scientific practices come under scrutiny and are being questioned. Other, conflict-
ing ideas emerge. Conspiracy theories gain a wide following. People harden in their
views, radicalizing their standpoints. Societies fragment (see the US), the establishment
loses position, other forces gain momentum. The consequence is a cultural crisis, that is,
a crisis in sense making. We have seen in the thirties what disasters can follow, in the
form of risky and dangerous societal experiments in countries like Germany, China and
Russia, that ended up in a devastating world war.
What to do?
To address the crisis in sense making we scholars study, investigate, reflect, and write
about our conclusions. How effective we are is another matter, but this is what we do. In
terms of the picture of the five spheres, we contribute to cultural practices in the hope to
affect societal processes by making decision makers aware of alternative approaches to
the current crisis.
I conclude with two examples that illustrate the benefits of thinking in terms of prac-
tices in five spheres, and thus, to think beyond the modern social imaginary of the mar-
ket, the government, and the private sphere.
The first case concerns private debts. As economists will recognize, private debts
have grown disproportionally during the last decennia, and pose a serious threat to the
stability of the economy. Local politicians are experiencing debt as a serious social prob-
lem. Lives become hopeless, families get destroyed, people drop out of the productive
process, some enter criminal circuits because of debts. In the meantime, an extensive
industry of collection agencies, curators, and web-shops benefit from such debts. The
law usually declares debtors guilty when they do not pay off their debts. Policies are
therefore directed at the debtors, making them pay somehow. The market logic is lead-
ing; a debt is a transactional arrangement that has to be adhered to. The government
imposes penalties on debtors when they do not honor the arrangement. When this puts
debtors into serious trouble, the government may provide assistance in form of a social
program. In the Netherlands, a debtor is offered a way out by agreeing with a strict
regime for the duration of 3 years after which creditors will write off the remaining debt.
This approach accords with the dominant perspective.
Bringing together experts with backgrounds in theology, anthropology, the law, public
policy, and economics, I looked at how modern societies deal with debt from the per-
spective of the five spheres. The theologists and anthropologists pointed out the particu-
lar if not peculiar framing of the problem in light of other perspectives. The bible offers
quite a different framing. There creditors are under suspicion and debtors seem to deserve
sympathy. In Deuteronomy 15: 1–2 we read about the jubilee, the acquittal of debts every
seventh year. That is what the Lord asks from us. Graeber (2011) corroborates this
account in his book Debt: The First 5000 Years. For a long time, the practice of asking
interest for a loan was condemned, as it still is in Islamic countries. A loan was perceived
as a social arrangement, a kind of partnership with a shared responsibility. It still is when
parents lend to their children, or when friends share funds.
216 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
The legal scholars recognized legal possibilities to reframe a debt as a social relation-
ship with a shared responsibility. When a debt becomes problematic, both parties share
responsibility. The creditor may partly to be blamed for entering into a contract that the
other cannot honor. There is also a societal responsibility in case the debt becomes prob-
lematic for reasons that the creditor and debtor could not foresee when they entered the
arrangement, like the devastating effects of a virus. The relevant community, usually
represented by a local government, can take part of the responsibility.
Our proposal is to set up a regional credit cooperative that takes over problematic
debts and makes arrangements with both the debtors and creditors. The debtors agree to
do their best to pay off the debts, agree to a budget regime when they have trouble man-
aging their budget or to other programs to address problems they may have (like an
addiction). Creditors agree to a write off at the start, and a total write off of the remaining
debt after 7 years. Some of them may decide to become member of the cooperative to
express their responsibility.
This institutional innovation does justice to the social character of debts and valorizes
the shared as well as the communal responsibility. Thus, it contributes to strengthening
the social sphere, with a positive effect on the personal sphere. One implication is the
elimination of the debt industry of collection agencies and the like as they have no busi-
The proposal is practical and can be realized. What stands in the way is the dominant
perspective. As long as debt is seen as a transaction and a problematic debt as the sole
responsibility (guilt) of the debtor, it does not stand a chance. For its realization a change
of perspective is needed.
The same conclusion applies to another case of my time in local politics. Here the
problem was the great number of people who could not find a job in the regular labor
market. In the spirit of the Keynesian approach local governments had a department that
put some of these people to work. That requires special guidance and supervision. Most
of the work consists of maintenance work in town, simple metal work, cleaning, and
packaging. All that work is heavily subsidized. The neo-liberal perspective made politi-
cians question this approach. The proposal was to switch the responsibility for putting
these people to work to the private sector. Job coaches and match makers were hired to
realize the plan. When I took up my political position, I quickly concluded that this
approach was failing. It tried to make up for an imperfection of the market by imitating
a market. The idea was to generate transactions—jobs with private firms-by way of
active match making and by providing wage subsidies to the employer.
That approach did not work, so I found out, because of a lack of urgency and shared
responsibility. Employers were interested in the wage subsidies but because these lasted
for a limited time, they would let the people go as soon as the subsidies stopped. They
saw the arrangement as a transaction, just as the M logic dictates.
I was struck by the story of a civil servant who lived in a strongly religious town
nearby. He told me that they did not have the problem of vulnerable people, like those
with a down syndrome or a psychiatric affliction, left out of a job as the community
would take care of them. If not an uncle, someone else would offer a position in his or
her firm. The idea is that people in the community take care of each other. I recognized
the social logic at work.
That got me to think. How to address the issue and strengthen the social logic? After
much deliberation and discussion, the proposal was to set up a cooperative of local
employers. By participating in this cooperative they could express their social responsi-
bility. Most local employers were more than willing to do so, I found out. (Franchises of
larger nationwide companies were reluctant and had specific demands based on their
corporate policy). The cooperative would offer a job to anyone seeking one but not able
to find one in the regular labor market. It would provide support and training to those
who required such. The members would join forces to create the work. We found out that
when they got together to figure out what work would suit the candidates, they were
quite creative. Businesses in a business park decided to set up a shared service center
where about 15 people could be put to work. Building societies decided to reintroduce
care takers and concierges and get renters to contribute to compensate them. The mem-
bers were willing to pay for those employees in this program yet appreciated that they
remained employed by the cooperative.
Such a cooperative contributes to a common practice in a local community. It is the
practice of sharing responsibility. With the support of the local government, the practice
side steps the logic of the market and creates a social arrangement instead.
Needless to say, neo-liberal parties opposed the proposal. Together with some associ-
ates I now try to realize the plan outside the government. The challenge is the sense
making, to get people to see the social sphere in which such a cooperative needs to be
Ideas matter. Sense making is the key, especially when it is shared. Fragmentation and
polarization in a society can become highly problematic when responsibilities need to be
shared, when social cohesion is called for.
It is too early to tell what the Corona crisis is doing to shared sense making. The
impression is that the dominant, neo-liberal perspective is losing its footing. That could
create a dangerous vacuum in which fundamentalist ideas and radical experiments can
take hold. Therefore, we need to develop strong alternative perspectives that make sense
of the world in such a way that decision makers are inspired the real problems of this
world, like the increasing fragmentation, the climate change, and (political) alienation.
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
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1978-79. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
Giddens A (1998) Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy. London: Polity Press.
Graeber D (2011) Debt: The First 5000 Years. London: Melville House.
Klamer A (2017) Doing the Right Thing: A Value Based Economy. London: Ubiquity Press.
Luhman N (1997) Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
218 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
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Jamaica, Covid-19 and Black
University of the West Indies, Jamaica
This essay is concerned with the conditions of Black life in the 21st century and the continued
need to imagine Black freedom as projects of self-sovereignty, in the current moment of global
protests centered on the socio-economic inequities that people especially those of color face,
deepened by the devastating effects of Covid-19. The essay’s focus is on the Caribbean island
of Jamaica. I highlight the articulation of race and class that springs from a world history of anti-
blackness, historicized through plantation slavery. The essay addresses the enduring violence
manifest in physical assaults and political projects of Development, that lead to widespread
deprivation for lower-income Jamaicans. Yet the essay suggests that it is these very sordid
conditions that generate alternative imaginaries for a sustainable re-ordering of life.
anti-blackness, Black, freedom, violence, Jamaica, police, social-class
Globally, Black life is under-valued and Black governments are not free from the glo-
balization of anti-blackness, which for the Americas, consolidated under trans-Atlantic
slavery, becoming internalized within the Atlantic led capitalist world economy, but
acquired a life of its own. Whereas we can view such a reality in demographically white
countries as a clear marker of racism, its expression in the Black world ties such under-
valuing of Black life to a colonial past (Rodney, 1972; Williams, 1994; Wynter, 2003).
Not easily recognizable, racialization in places deemed Black is complicated by the
intersections of race, ethnic or nation-identities (as in Africa) or, class, gender and other
social features. Yet even in Africa, the place where black skins was colonially forged as
an inferior attribute, Jemima Pierre (2013) in The Predicament of Blackness challenges
the myth of colonial racelessness. The Covid-19 pandemic shows the glaring reality of
Maziki Thame, Institute for Gender and Development Studies, University of the West Indies, Mona,
Kingston 6, Jamaica.
these social fissures. At the intersection of race/class, the Black poor, among the super-
marginalized of the global poor, bear some of the worst effects of anti-blackness.
Exploring what happens to poor Black bodies in postcolonial Black countries where
governing rests in the hands of a Black ruling elite allows us to reflect on the complexi-
ties of these presences and textures how we apprehend the idea of Blackness and Black
freedom in the present.
This essay explores the Caribbean island of Jamaica as a Black space, where anti-
blackness still remains seared within the social and political life of the nation-state. I
consider how antiblackness expresses in places where it continues to be mediated by
other social divisions, namely, social class. It is particularly poignant to view how race/
class is lived, engaged and resisted, especially in the context of the crisis of Covid-19 and
the lessons it offers for thinking about Black freedom. As much of the observations made
on the Global North and South attest, and as many of the contributors in this volume
assert, Covid-19 exposes and even compounds such inequalities and suffering of those
bodies already dispossessed. It does so, not merely by its widespread circulation and
intensification within the spaces where poverty mainly of Blacks, Browns and other
minorities occupy, but because it demands immobility or put more aptly, restrained
movement as a solution to its prevention.
When considering the historical struggles of Black people to move unbound as a con-
dition of their notion of freedom, one thinks about Black freedom in terms of fugitivity-
the desire for escape from the reach of authorities who gain their sovereignty through
violent acts designed to keep the marginalized in place. Exploring these constructions
allows us to understand how it is that the movement for Black Lives in the US, resonates
in a country whose history has unfolded differentially. Perhaps, we might paraphrase
Stuart Hall to ask, what are the differences that seem similar here in Jamaica, not only to
the US condition, but the condition of Black people living as so-called minorities in
White Spaces, globally? As we have seen, the recent explosion of protests in Nigeria
against the special branch of the security forces called SARS (Special Anti-Robbery
Squad) was led by Nigerians against the Nigerian State. How is it one may ask, that the
Nigerian State still operates like a colonial state in its declared violence against its citi-
zens, no longer subjects of a now defunct British Empire? How is it that such violence
continues to be part of its governing practices? I raise these questions but given the scope
and meditative quality of the essay, cannot tackle them here. This is the sort of question
that arises in thinking about the sameness that is sutured into difference in the global
economy of Blackness and shall we say, Whiteness.
Spaces of the Jamaican Social
Jamaica is seen by the world as a Black nation within which resides a people brimming
with self-confidence. Undoubtedly, the global reach of the country has like the rest of the
Caribbean region, extended beyond its size. The phrase, “we likkle but we tallawah,”
(we’re small but we’re powerful) resonates with this consciousness. Jamaicans are val-
ued for their world circulation of cultural and political ideas of Blackness and struggle.
Liberationist ideas pervade the movement of Garveyism, an ideology which gained
222 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
popularity through the world-wide movement of its leader, Marcus Garvey,
Rastafarianism, with its signature hairstyle, called dreadlocks, signifying black roots,
and reggae music. Though 92% of the population identifies as Black; like other Caribbean
countries, the nation also sees itself through a multiracial lens. Minority groups have
been embraced and magnified within its collective self-identity captured in the national
motto: “Out of Many, One People.” Further, within the contours of Blackness, color mat-
ters and mixed-race people, Browns (6%) are generally perceived as privileged.
On June 6, 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic and at the height of anti-racist protest
in the US, a small group of Jamaicans held a Black Lives Matter (BLM) solidarity protest
outside the US embassy. Though they were motivated by US-based protests, they high-
lighted Jamaica’s own racial/class dilemmas, as one protester made clear that the “reason
we are here is not just for BLM”. According to that protestor (Jamaican) people experi-
enced, discrimination based on class and color, and not racism declaring “believe it or
not colorism exists.”1 In Jamaica, as in many other postcolonies, colorism is seen as
distinct from racism, but recognized as one of its species, since it operates within the
racial hierarchy where white skins are valued higher than black or brown ones. In the
Jamaican context however, I argue that brownness has displaced the value of whiteness
but like in other Black countries, there is a sense in which darker skin color is devalued
Jamaica’s claim to harmonious multiracialism emphasizes nationality over race but
negative stereotypes about Jamaicans as violent, tricksters, freeloaders and unruly do not
generally refer to non-Blacks. It is dark-skinned people who carry the weight of stigma-
tization and especially the Black poor who embody systemic lacks. Shared understand-
ings about the value of Blackness internal to Jamaica, normalizes unequal experiences of
high rates of violence, limited access to resources, alienation and demeaning social con-
texts. Popular discourse often contends with a seeming lack of value for human life
among killers from the lower income groups, but this disregard is wide-spread and its
consequences are not experienced by all bodies equally. Consequences are most felt by
Blacks at the bottom who live in ghettos and find themselves in conflicts and confronta-
tions with each other, and with the State over police killings, lack of water, roads or
opportunities. As such, a poor Black person’s intimacy with violence is not limited to
her/his experiences of physical violence. As analysts posit, any form of objectification is
a form of violence since such a condition deprives a person of life’s potentiality. And one
can certainly argue that such deprivation associated with dispossession and marginaliza-
tion is the lot of poor Black Jamaicans.
Though often considered separately, my contention is that the phenomenon of raciali-
zation cannot be extricated from social class in much of the Caribbean or even the
Americas. Social class is a mediatory relation that ebbs and flows in its articulation with
forms of racialization. Both tendencies parallel, overlap, yet somewhat maintain their
singularities. It is the signature of the region’s social structure. Yet class-based inequality
reproduces and also reflects a particular variant of anti-blackness given the over-
representation of Blacks at the bottom and the associations made between their condi-
tions and the meaning of Blackness. It is a postcolonial paradox as it were, or one may
argue for the sheer impossibility of it being otherwise in a world where such hierarchies
of race hold. In a country that boasts a harmonious multiracialism, the socio-economic
structure favors ethnic minorities. With the exception of the descendants of indentured
Indians, there is no significant representation of racial groups other than Black people in
Jamaica’s ghettos, or among the rural poor. How could it not be so, where postcolonial
states have been incapable or unwilling to imagine life outside of the coloniality of gov-
erning structures? Poor Black Jamaicans proliferate in informal spaces – as squatters, as
self-employed “higglers” and in the precarious living arrangements of “inner-cities”.
These are the spaces specifically impacted by Covid-19 and targeted for their alleged
laxity toward the pandemic.
On violence and its different similarities
With these complexities of how race/class is lived, one can point to the fundamental
ways in which the Black Lives Matter movement which was at the center of one of the
most powerful modern protest movements in the US refracts within the social and politi-
cal spaces of Jamaica. At the June 6 protest in Jamaica, a placard announced: “we may
not have racism in Jamaica, but we have a serious problem of black on black crime that
cannot be fixed.”2 Protesters called the names of victims of State violence in Jamaica,3
who have all been killed in various confrontations between communities and the police.
One of these victims, Mario Dean died after being beaten while in police custody after
he had been held for possession of ganja (marijuana) in 2014, before its decriminaliza-
tion in 2015. Ganja though important for religious practice among Rastafarians, had long
been the basis for the criminalization of the poor and Rastafari, a fact rendering it popular
in the protest song of Jamaican reggae artists. Protestors referenced the “Tivoli massa-
cre,” where at least 73 people were killed in a joint military and police operation to
apprehended alleged drug “don” and community leader Christopher “Dudus” Coke, who
was wanted for extradition by the US government. Community residents saw the opera-
tion as normal given earlier operations in the community, but they had not anticipated the
scope and scale of this particular assault. Criminologist, Anthony Harriot points to the
disruptiveness of such spectacular performances of law and order on such communities.
In these cases, he states, “police attention is not just fixed on criminally suspect behavior
of individuals but to attributes, places and events. These attributes and the routines that
lead to encounters with police are often shared by whole and even the majority of some
subpopulations, such as young innercity males” (Harriot, 2000: 83). The group is the
Black poor who are aware that police have “no love for ‘ghetto people’, no respect or
‘feelings’ for their lives.” (Levy and Chevannes 2001: 40).
Thomas (2011) holds that Mbembe’s argument made in the context of Africa, that
colonial and postcolonial “‘miniaturization’ of violence, the arbitrary and everyday
forms of ‘micro-actions’ were designed to socialize the population into a constant state
of fear and vulnerability, resonates for the Jamaican condition” (p. 12). Following the
work of Gray (2004) she posits that, “predatory, violent and illegal forms of rule are the
legacies of colonial and plantation-based extraction [sic] foundational to post-colonial
state formation in Jamaica” (p. 13). The postcolonial State’s participation in the routini-
zation of violence is a consequence of a racial capitalism that heightened the devaluation
of Black bodies. Whereas Black and Brown people can be incarcerated and labor for low
wages in the carceral US state, in the Caribbean context, States currently participate in
224 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
the cheapening of their labor through the rebirth of export processing zones that were an
early feature of the expansion of markets in neoliberalism. But of course, this is hardly
the fate only of Black people or Jamaicans, generally, one sees the cheapening of Asians
by Asian postcolonial States for instance, through widespread practices of outsourcing or
call centers. The shift from dependence on agriculture to services, particularly tourism
have added another twist to the devaluation of the poor and dispossessed.
The devaluation of life in the postcolony is shown by the incapacity of capitalism to
create “decent work”. But capitalism’s fullest expression in postcolonies, might well be
the production of unemployed, “unusable” and disposable laboring peoples who must
fend for themselves in the neoliberal global market where their labor is not cheap enough
to be competitive or might be considered too unruly to be disciplined. When they create
work in illicit economies, such as drug trading and “lottery scamming” (“scammers”
source information on potential “customers” from call centers), the State is forced to
contend with containing the outgrowth of violence embedded in such economies. And
just as capitalism’s expression in the region generally and in Jamaica specifically, some-
what paradoxically lies in the overproduction of the unemployed, unemployable, and
exponential growth of an informal sector, one may argue that the Jamaican State has
been simultaneously producing the conditions for the flourishing of violence, its nor-
malization and the responses to that violence, in the countless deployment of States of
Emergencies.4 Indeed, the killing of poor Black people at astounding rates both by agents
of the State and criminal gangs (though the two are not always distinct) is part of the
overarching devaluation of Black lives.5
Though quite common, police killings are typically protested by communities;
rarely do they produce a national outcry or are perceived through racial lens. More
often than not, they are viewed through a social class lens. This is partly the case
because such killings usually occur in historically criminalized spaces of inner cities
and as I have mentioned before the idea of race is mainly lived through class. Jamaica
as a Black space leads to the general assumption that such violence has nothing to do
with race, especially when killings are done by other Blacks in high crime contexts.
The high homicide rate protested in the June 6 protest was against seemingly intracta-
ble crime, its interpretation framed within characteristic stereotypes of the places and
people from whence killers and victims originate. And so there is no urgency coinci-
dent with a consciousness of the devaluation of Black or poor peoples’ lives. Or so it
seems. Instead the response has led to the militarization of social spaces, State and
non-State alike. As is the pattern in much of the world, which witnesses the militariza-
tion of the State as well as neighborhoods themselves, (neighborhood watches, private
security, etc.) multiracial privileged Jamaicans, Blacks, Browns and Whites, those who
can afford them, hire security guards and/or they live behind high walls with electronic
gates. Those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, are increasingly marooned in
violent spaces where the State operates as the principal force that keeps them there,
through the use of States of Emergencies (SOE) and curfews.6
Agamben (2005) expounds on the State of Exception (“the suspension of law itself”
as expressed in States of Emergencies) as a paradigm of sovereignty or a “transformation
of a provisional and exceptional measure into a technique of government” (p. 1). Of the
Third Reich, he argues that:
modern totalitarianism can be defined as the establishment, by means of the state of exception,
of a legal civil war that allows for the physical elimination not only of political adversaries but
of entire categories of citizens who for some reason cannot be integrated into the political
system. Since then, the voluntary creation of a permanent state of emergency (though perhaps
not declared in the technical sense) has become one of the essential practices of contemporary
states, including so-called democratic ones (Agamben, 2005: 3).
For post-slavery, post-colonial societies like those in the Caribbean, we might think
about how these States of Exception have been used since political independence of
1962, to respond to notions of “unruliness” of populations that have been resisting rule
over them since slavery. This is consistent with Harriot’s (2000) argument that it is the
group and not necessarily individuals that are targeted by the police. States of Emergency
have been used in response to political disorder and crime, particularly in lower income
communities, as an alternative to raw violence or in conjunction with it. With the cover
of legality, governments have been able to abrogate the rights of some citizens. The gov-
erning Jamaica Labor Party’s (JLP) response to crime and violence has been to establish
and expand SOEs, first established in January 2018 and extended through 2020.7 In
response to the petitions of five men who had been detained without charge for between
177 and 431 days under the SOEs, the Supreme Court ruled that the detentions were
unlawful and an overreach of executive powers (Scott, 2020). The government signaled
its intention to appeal the judgment even as management of Covid-19 by curfews and
lockdowns, already had militarized surveillance of communities without the enactment
SOEs. In defense of the use of SOEs, National Security Minister Horace Chang argued
that “[i]n any civilized society that is [in] a crisis [sic] what the states of emergency give
to the security team is almost double the strength to [sic] the police force immediately,”
“the army can get directly involved in territorial security” (Loop News, 2020). The gov-
ernment’s increased reliance on the military for imposing control, points to the overall
militarization of the State that has grown steadily since the country’s independence in
1962 with escalating violence from the mid-1970s. The JLP has also relied on the estab-
lishment of the Zones of Special Operation (ZOSO) featuring military and police occu-
pation of communities that are deemed “high crime”. ZOSOs are also meant to have
social intervention components but critics routinely report that attention to that dimen-
sion is woefully inadequate.8
Resistance in the time of Covid-19
When the deadly virus, Covid-19 spread to Jamaica, the government announced a lock-
down of borders and the closure of schools, businesses and parts of the public sector.
Lockdowns exacerbated the economic informality and poverty of already poor peoples’
lives. As in other parts of the Global South, and the Souths of the Global North, many
low-income people intentionally or unintentionally defied curfews and continued their
economic activities in urban centers where they are mostly concentrated. A television
report aired on March 30, 2020 on observance of Covid-19 protocols, exposed the con-
tradictions of Jamaica’s, poor Black experience. In what was interpreted as a lack of
value for life, one report disclosed the absence of social distancing in the crammed
226 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
vending area of downtown Kingston. People there said that they had no other choice,
because “they had to hustle” for a living.9 One vendor reported that only the rich could
“keep their distance,” while the poor had to “mix and mingle,” since “ghetto people have
to look our own” (they are on their own and must fend for themselves). A shopper indi-
cated she would be worried if the government announced a full lockdown because “peo-
ple have to live” and some people “live hand to mouth”. Though handwashing was
everywhere promoted as a preventative measure, public bathrooms remained closed in
the area, leading to the sale of such necessary services.
Conducting business in the informal commercial sector of downtown Kingston mir-
rors life in overcrowded, dilapidated and sometimes unsanitary conditions of the inner-
city. It represents conditions of lack and neglect that lower income people face normally.
Covid-19 highlighted not just inequality per se, but the risky business of being Black and
poor, a catch 22 situation, where living requires the risk of dying or prospects of dying to
live. Further, the deepening effects of deprivation was reflected on the pandemic’s impact
on education. Championed as the main route out of poverty, the technological divide
between “haves and have-nots” was stark. At the start of the delayed school year in
October, only 32% of children in primary schools were able to log on to online school
sessions (Gleaner, 2020b). Children were impacted by access to electronic devices and
internet as well as to quiet space for learning.
Added to the difficulties and impositions of lockdowns on the poor, is the heavy polic-
ing of urban common space. Across the island Jamaicans would also defy curfews by
continuing to hold dances. Dancehall spaces in Jamaica, are important spaces of social
living, enjoyment and escape from the vagaries of degraded lives.10 Those spaces have
also historically been spaces of confrontation between the State and the poor.11 At one
event where police officers were assaulted for shutting down the dance, and patrons
detained; the latter pointed to the contradiction that some “uptown” people (upper/mid-
dle class) had the freedom to party without fear of police interference. A patron told the
Gleaner, “Imagine, [track star] Usain Bolt had a party, and nobody got locked up, but
when poor people do the same, the police draw down and throw people inna jail.” He
continued, “the police should go look for [real] criminals. Party affi keep” (parties are
essential) (my emphasis) (Gleaner, 2020a).
During the period of lockdown up to October, murders declined negligibly, while
police killings increased (Gleaner, 2020d). Police blamed this increased violence on
increased brazenness of criminals (Gleaner, 2020c). High violence has normalized and
rationalized the use of SOEs and its curtailing of freedoms. Public opposition to SOEs is
not strong – 71% of respondents in a newspaper poll believed that SOEs were effective
in fighting crime and 67% felt that they should be continued (Scott, 2020). Unlike the
cries by activists to defund the police in the US, in Jamaica’s poor communities, women
in particular, expressed support for the military occupation of their communities even
while anti-police sentiment is strong across the nation. At the rollout of ZOSOs, a group
of mothers in Salt Spring in tourism dependent St James, a community considered high
crime, appealed to the State to establish a ZOSO there. They said they were tired of see-
ing their sons die, that they were desperate for help and that their distrust of police, made
preferable a military operation. They wanted the State to deploy “plenty” of drones and
metal detectors (Gleaner, 2017). The women used their vulnerability to call for the
protection of the State, while on other occasions they demanded accountability when
security forces violated rights in their communities. Women are often on the front lines,
grieving publicly before their children are taken away by the police, and after their chil-
dren are killed. They demand to be heard, calling for empathy, recognition, and justice.
Men are rarely dominant in such protests. Prior to the “Tivoli massacre” for instance, the
women of the community took to the streets in front of the House of Parliament – dressed
in white – (as the madres de la plaza in Argentina and female protesters in Cuba), appeal-
ing for peace, bearing signs that read: “leave ‘Dudus’ alone please”.12 Thus, in Jamaica,
though men are mostly the victims of homicide and State violence, the burden seems to
fall on women who are the principal mourners.
The Covid-19 lockdowns followed on the 2.5 year-long SOEs and offered the potential
to silence debates around the value of freedom. As the high rate of homicides diminish
opposition to SOEs as crime fighting measures, so too does the Covid-19 pandemic dimin-
ish potential opposition to the State. The risk to the community of the spread of Covid-19
assuages concern over loss of freedom due to curfews and lockdowns. These security and
safety measures hide the realities of dislocation since people’s suffering is hidden from
public view given the constrictions on movement. Shared suffering also has increasingly
less opportunity for public expression, and for solidarity building and organizing.
To these conditions one can add the decline in the social welfarist state, little critique
of structures of inequality in the neoliberal age and the rise of a post-truth world. For
countries like Jamaica, the World Bank and IMF message of good governance and self-
responsibilization had long replaced the critique of the global political economy and its
marginalization of the world’s poor. Greg A Graham points out that the language of tak-
ing responsibility has been key to holding up the legitimacy of the Jamaican neoliberal
state in recent times. He cites where Jamaica’s Health Minister’s 2018 Sectoral
Presentation entitled “Taking Responsibility,” “saw it fit to stress the important role that
personal responsibility had to play in the stability and growth of the health sector”. “[W]
e must get to the fundamentals of good health and wellness, by firstly taking personal
responsibility” (Graham, 2020: 631). The government’s message of personal responsi-
bility in the management of Covid-19 (Smith, 2020), was consistent with, as many ana-
lysts have pointed out, the delinking of the State’s responsibility to the public and to
tackle the social inequality emerging from neoliberal policies (see also Joseph, 2011;
Meeks, 2014; Watson, 2004).
On Black freedom
Of relevance in the time of Covid-19 is the question of Black freedom. Graham notes
that: “The ethic of responsibility and the network of obligations it generated was even
more pronounced in the Prime Minister’s 2018 Independence message. ‘Freedom is not
free,’ he admonished, ‘the cost of freedom and independence is responsibility.’” (Graham,
2020). That type of discourse raises the question of State legitimacy, given its failings
and the premises of transferring “responsibility” back on to the individual. For a popula-
tion with an unforgettable history of racial slavery, what does it mean that freedom is not
free? Justifications for slavery and colonialism generated and deployed the trope of the
lazy Black who had been rescued from inertia and backwardness in Africa and came to
228 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
enjoy the pleasures of being cared for by Whites in the “New World” (see Benn, 2004;
Lewis, 1983; Wynter, 1995). Further, Europe’s civilizing mission hypocritically under-
scored its intent to civilize Black people into self-responsibility that could potentially
prepare them for self-governing (Lindsay, 1981). On the matter of responsibilized free-
dom, Scott (2001) writes in the case of post-emancipation Jamaica, that the institutional
spaces upon which the freedom was to depend, obliged the enslaved to perform their
freedom not as they chose but in “appropriate,” modern ways (p. 444). The continued
emphasis on the relationship between freedom and responsibility for a supposedly free
people is to suggest that they are failing to take responsibility. This contrasts with the
ways in which the White world has historically been able to assume freedom (as free)
and Whites as ultimately responsible humans. That racist assumption represents its own
kind of violence and assault upon the idea of free, autonomous and unencumbered Black
being in the world.
A critique of Jamaica’s Prime Minister, Andrew Holness offered by a young man from
the ghetto turned the lens on the Prime Minister’s (the State’s) own responsibility and
failing during the pandemic. Mitchell appeared with other men (breaking the curfew) on
a video circulated on social media on March 30 decrying the government’s lockdown and
questioning the Prime Minister’s authority to impose it. Phrased in patriarchal and
misogynist terms, (a language not uncommon to State-speak), he stated that the Prime
Minister should turn his attention to controlling his wife before demanding that other
men stay inside. Mitchell was decrying what he saw as the disproportionate subjugation
of working class men. In defiance, and invoking popular inner-city identity constructs,
Mitchell advised that he and his friends would not be held indoors since “wi unruly,” (we
are unruly). In response, the government deployed the police to find and detain Mitchell.
On April 3, Mitchell appeared on Jamaican Television apologizing to, “the honorable
Andrew Holness” and the Jamaica Constabulary Force, humbly cautioning the nation to
treat Covid-19 seriously. Public approval for Mitchell’s detention missed the signifi-
cance of the Holness administration’s willingness to use the resources of the State to
muzzle opposition and abuse the power of the Prime Minister’s office. It was also an
attempt to reinscribe the masculinity and status of the Prime Minister who had been
upbraided (in Jamaican terms “dissed”) by a nobody from the inner city, the type of
nobody especially targeted by State violence.
Can or should Diasporic Black freedom be thought outside of the context of Black
peoples’ enduring history of unfreedoms and without any gesture to how capital and
markets have propelled, prolonged and reproduced various constraints of abjection? The
evolution of racial capitalism along with the practices of governing in postcolonies and
elsewhere for that matter, suggest, not. As Trouillot (1995) so astutely noted in his formi-
dable book, Silencing the Past, the past can only be authentically apprehended or should
be through its activity in the present. For African Americans the legacy of slavery is not
embedded in a past that is passed but steeped in the present, where it actively continues
to position the former as the inferior other of White Americans.13
Slavery produced notions of freedom attached to physical and mental unbounding –
removing chains from the body and ostensibly from the mind. In Jamaica, freedom has
been theorized beyond freedom from slavery, to repatriation among Rastafari, Garveyite
mental emancipation (Campbell, 1987) and decolonization beyond independence
(Lindsay, 1975), all of which involved the lifeways of the collective. The Jamaican politi-
cal scientist Rupert Lewis contends that in the Caribbean, “we have had mostly to theorize
about the radical tradition of freedom within the contradictory framework of European
enslavement and its adjunct plantation systems, colonial rule and white minority rule” but
the Caribbean radical tradition is “framed as an answer to the existential question of what
it means to be human.” “For people who have been defined as anything other than human
requires more than philosophy, it involves praxis.” (McCalpin, 2018: 64).
Though Covid-19 has not expressed itself in mass death in Jamaica, it has pro-
duced and exposed declining prospects for living. Living, facilitated by access to food
and water, gainful employment, mobility, escape to the dancehall and to worship or
shared communal space, has become increasingly unviable. Living also raises the
question of the human. Can it emerge within the context of the State’s commitment to
global neoliberalism, and its particular uses of Black, Brown and poor bodies in capi-
talism? Neoliberalism has presented opportunities within the informal sector includ-
ing its illicit economies which capaciously fuel violence by the poor usually directed
against their neighbors. When the State shifts responsibility for these livelihoods and
social services to those who have little means to effectuate their own upward social
mobility, the result as we have seen is accelerated poverty and violence. Such pro-
cesses reinforce the disposability of lives of the poor and Black people. Can the State
retreat from neoliberalism and engage its vulnerable populations, through a flexible
practice of popular co-cooperation? The flux and uncertainty that the pandemic guar-
antees can well be apprehended as a veritable opportunity for the Caribbean’s people,
to make freedom from Caribbean history meaningful because it refocuses our atten-
tion on the consequences of inequality. The global call to respect Black life emerging
in the US offers an alternative to the silencing and post-truths that Covid-19 exacer-
bates. Even as the pandemic threatens further decline of life and livelihoods for the
marginalized of the Global Souths it is also as Roy (2020) suggests, a portal to seize
the opportunities for reconstitution, and the reconfiguration of life on planet earth.
For the expansion of rights must include the right to a satisfying, fun and productive
re-existence, one where Black Life Matters.
I am very grateful for the extensive editorial comments and suggestions that I received from the
editor, Michaeline Crichlow.
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
1. There were other protests held during the period. Footage of the referenced protest can be
seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NTVe3j6_SX0.
2. This formulation of crime as black on black crime, has its origins in the US where it is seen
as a racist apprehension that highlights the idea that it is blacks who destroy other blacks. It is
230 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
seen as a way to obscure the overall systemic racist social structure, that positions blacks as
inherent predators, even ‘super predators’ who devastate their own communities. Obviously,
such simplistic soundbites beg the question of the genealogical racist roots of violent crime in
the US and in the postcolonies.
3. They called Susanne Bogle, Mario Dean, Michael Gayle and those killed in the Tivoli “mas-
sacre.” Bogle died in a joint police military operation in 2020 but it is as yet undetermined
who shot her. Gayle died in 2009 from injuries acquired after being stopped in a “spot check,”
arrested and beaten for committing the crime of being disrespectful to police officers. His
case was taken to the Inter-American Human Rights Court after no officers were charged
building on a pattern of impunity.
4. There were other contexts of routinized violence against Black Jamaicans in the post-inde-
pendence period, such as political violence attached to “garrison politics” in Jamaica. See
Carl Stone (1973) and Amanda Sives (2010).
5. Jamaica’s 2018-homicide rate was 47 per 100,000, representing three times the rate in Latin
America and the Caribbean and the 4th global highest rate.
6. At the same time, these are sites of resistance that led Obika Gray to qualify these communi-
ties as “Demeaned but Empowered” (Gray, 2004).
7. They ended in preparation for a September general election.
8. Social interventions would include skills training, counseling and especially parenting
9. TVJ reporter Kirk Wright.
10. For a discussion on the character and meaning of dancehall space, see for instance, Stanley-
11. For a discussion of the subversiveness of dancehall See Cooper (1995) Noises in the Blood:
Orality, Gender, and the “Vulgar” Body of Jamaican Popular Culture. Durham: Duke
12. Though Christopher “Dudus” Coke was wanted for extradition by the US for drug-running,
he had played the role of patriarch, protector against rival communities, enforcer, community
leader (Don) and ally of the JLP in the constituency of Western Kingston, including the sub-
area of Tivoli Gardens. As patriarch, he played a welfare role in the community, seen to be
more vital than the role played by the State in determining access to resources. Community
persons would as such come to his defense in their appeal for the State to leave him be. In
preparation for the State operation, men from communities across Jamaica came to offer
13. These conditions are especially prevalent in tourism, which is a mainstay of Caribbean econo-
mies and which Levitt (2005) and the New World theorists, like Norman Girvan would argue,
is the new plantation. The ethos of the plantation is clear and present in the (lack of) value for
life and living in Jamaica, including during Covid-19. It is also present in the philosophical
musings among Rastafari whose constant labor is the affirmation of the Black and distinctly
African-self for Black people.
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Ian Randle Publishers.
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2021, Vol. 33(3) 234 –237
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
Duke University, USA
This exploration is a journeying toward ethical encounters with others in unfamiliar locales. It
attends to friendship, close association with non-relatives, and a nexus of themes that arise amidst
the COVID-19 global health crisis: quarantine life, networks of belonging and human connections,
and new forms of research and productivity. The piece’s ruminative thinking draws on what
the author discovers at a personal level in Madrid, Spain, pursuing a knowledge of what is to be
gained—produced—by not moving, but from dwelling indoors. Not a travelogue underpinned by
tourist optimism, this postcard essay is a travel story of a philosophy of life through friendship and
a caring commitment to strangers. This approach allows for coping through and understanding
the most important problem of our time, the COVID-19 pandemic.
friendship, Madrid, pandemic, productivity, quarantine
With gratitude and love to the Mira el Río Baja Crew.
I show up in a sabbatical body, a visitor’s body, an American body with a U.S.
I never got to study abroad as an undergraduate. But I make up for these reverse visits
and meditations in middle age.
I am in Madrid.
I arrived at February’s end, ready to welcome 2020’s spring, to live an unlived season in
this city—Madrid Central, city of bocadillos de calamares, conquistador city, city of looted
treasures, city of comings and goings. My easy-to-spot orange suitcase crams all illusions.
I want to lose myself in the accidental here, in discrepancies, in analytic wilderness,
in dillydally. A serendipitous inventory of epiphanies: I like 6:30 in the evening, taking
in the Madrid sun’s valediction. The sonorous city’s language—a quick tongue coming
at me in slow, satellite transmission, never in real time—salutations, and textures hit me.
I’m a wanderer—a pedestrian observer, hopping from an Anglophone linguistic empire
to a Hispanophone one.
Claudia Milian, Department of Romance Studies, Duke University, 205 Language Center, Campus Box
90257, Durham, NC 27708, USA.
I’m a tourist, waking up daily to a different city. I’m passing through, but I intuit its
mood swings, intensity, quotidian alterations.
Headlines announce the disrupting arrival of the coronavirus: it moves from China to
Italy to Spain. Madrid is the new Italy. My only defense against the unfathomable and unfor-
giving virus liable to attack me at any moment is a two-ounce bottle of Dr. Bronner’s organic
peppermint hand sanitizer. It smells like home—and an outbreak. I relocate pell-mell from
the studio apartment I rented above a churrería and take refuge in a friend’s place.
The streets are empty. Amidst the anxiety, fear, and worry I see a young woman ring
a friend’s buzzer. She yells to her friend on the balcony to come down, that she has flow-
ers for her. Holding a colorful bouquet, she delivers fortitude and brings a good dose of
friendship to the front door. How touching, how healing, how cheerful, and . . . how
Social distance-trust-distrust organize the pandemic every day. I’m in mental limbo. I
can’t read or concentrate. I scroll and graze online. What does a general theory of non-
reading—or, rather, of reading differently—under enclosure produce?
Travel has turned into a foe. Everything is urgent. I am in a republic of strangers:
everything I know is a continent—and another confinement—away.
I don’t get to see Madrid’s sunset again.
Here means unchartered territory, and I find myself outside my place.
Where does the distressing present excess and its transformations take me? What does
one become in mobility, in stagnancy, in suspension?
I chart my thinking points through these abrupt life-changing circumstances because
my moving forward, humanly speaking, depended—and relies—on ethical encounters
and the building of friendships as armor to shield before the world.
My Madrid research trip became a journey to friendship, a step into a network of
belonging, and interpersonal solidarity (cf., Chatzidakis et al., 2020).
Where does human connection—and a caring commitment to strangers—fit not in
professional scholarship or our working lives, but in our intellectual growth, explora-
tions, ethical reflections, and accounting of global needs and human wellbeing?
Time collapses. Everything is slow motion yet intensified under mass quarantine,
provoking a strong desire to go outside. But what is gained from being—and from open-
In my friend’s home there was fellowship, conviviality, modesty, spontaneity, joint think-
ing, silence, vulnerability, social care. Conversation—trifling, insignificant, significant—
lay behind and invigorated our ordinary conduct of life. Stay-at-home existence was both a
reckoning and a peaceful calming of the mind amid the horrific possibilities I avoided thanks
to friendship. This microcosm and its micro-stories affect how we relate, connect, and re-
connect at the macrocosm—a formidable beginning, as philosopher María Lugones reminds
us. A possible world “may be inhabited by just a few people. Some ‘worlds’ are bigger than
others,” she posits through her concept of “‘world’-travelling”—or, a collaboration between
friends that modifies and transforms that lifeworld and worldviews (p. 10).
The spirit of that—this—time in isolation is dizzying, anxious, terrifying. COVID-
19’s steepness cues us that we will also be living with it through long-term analysis.
What kinds of creative meaning do formative and enduring friendships create?
236 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
Political theorist Patrick Hayden (2015) proposes that our global context’s moment
occasions a human association characterized through an active practice of “befriending
the world.” This critical stance moves in a threefold manner, molding an interconnected
triptych of self-world-other. Hayden centers the world in friendship to stress the earth’s
ecological vulnerability and metamorphoses, alongside entrenched structural asym-
metries of dehumanization, uneven opportunities, and social power dynamics. These ten-
sions and hierarchies emphasize that the shared world can be remade. Hayden’s triad of
“we-ness” acquires more weight under COVID-19’s myriad unknowns, health side
effects, and disturbances. “Self-world-other either flourish together or deteriorate
together,” he avers (p. 758).
Holding friends dear and dearly holding the world is the essence that also embraces—
befriends—the self and self-understanding. You can grow to love and appreciate others.
Friendship-cum-turbulent existence becomes “a loving way of being and living,” as
Lugones might render it in connection to social activity, knowledge, and change (p. 3).
The capacious subject of friendship is not simple or uniform. Its seeds have a bound-
less intellectual tradition, preoccupying classical authorities (e.g. Aristotle and Socrates)
and the twentieth-century’s most towering philosophers (e.g. Hannah Arendt, Michel
Foucault, and Jacques Derrida). Modern friendship has been hummed along the popular
culture music canon (for brevity’s sake, recall The Beatles, Carole King, Clarence
Clemmons and Jackson Browne, Dionne Warwick, and Red Hot Chili Peppers), and
represented on film and television (for ease of reference, see Beaches, Steel Magnolias,
Ghost World, The Golden Girls, Friends, That ’70s Show, and Girlfriends).
Our contemporary era is marked by a friendship praxis that lacks a physical presence
and accumulates “friends” on electronic social media. Its fickle scale includes group
enmity recognized as “haters” and catty acquaintance with coeval friends and foes known
as “frenemies.” Online culture industries help fashion one’s media destiny through
friending and defriending—infinitely seeking, clicking, sitting, and waiting for “friend-
ships” to amass or dissipate.
Yet this kind of mass appeal and hollowed-out meaning of friendship predates social
networks. Dale Carnegie’s influential self-improvement manual—the international best-
seller How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936)—proffered entrepreneurial les-
sons on how to be instantly likable and successful. Contacts outdo close friendships. One
must “sell” the self and “win” over prominent individuals.
Friendship’s cultivation and commitments—outside family ties and romance—mar-
shal an open line of inquiry, an alternative to stifling society and social conformity. These
perilous times of isolation and dread urge us to continuously stop, think, and rethink—a
reorienting of the day to day and our standard of living. Intimacy, interactions, emotions,
ephemera, observations: They all have a research place in this social formation and trans-
formation, in our flourishing, in these enactments of human togetherness propelling us to
take other things to heart and the scholarly table.
When life ceases to be business-as-usual under a global health crisis, what counts as
productive knowledge? What is corrected and crossed out? Life-altering realities bring
out new arrangements and new “productive” practices that direct our attention to accept-
able lapses in “productivity” at a time when distraction, fragmented articulation, stress,
the risk of infection, and a dark and uncertain future permeate everyday life.
Knowledge construction takes new understandings—and new forms of catching up
with scholarship outside one’s research areas. There is a lightning-fast bibliographic
need that puts into question specialized documents from one’s field. One’s critical atten-
tion and intellectual capacities are now turned somewhere else, tuned into everything on
the web. Reading about—and making sense of—the present is another form of research
and work. It is inevitable—and a necessity.
Madrid stripped off my tourist identity, as was the speed of life. I traveled and I did
not travel. I had nowhere to go. It was down to kindness, to taking the time to notice
friends, neighbors, and actual life, and to simply recognize humanity. My (“tourist”)
memories exceeded the vagaries of individual experience.
Novelist Sandra Cisneros has noted that, through her sojourns, she has become aware of
her father’s migration. “What it was like, for him, to come across,” she says, “and to feel
uncomfortable and to find friends among strangers and to be alone and to be taken into peo-
ple’s homes” (Tippett, 2020). “You have gratitude, when you’re traveling and you don’t
have a lot of money—or even if you do, if someone invites you to come into their home and
share a meal. There’s a kindness in that.” More striking than relocating from one country to
another is Cisneros’s emotive take on new beginnings and goodwill. The “tourist” event is
becoming a housebound traveler—surviving, finding comfort, and safety, no matter how far
one journeys. Friendship-making and experiencing a home on the road matter because they
are part of the human community that can spontaneously build a home anywhere.
Meaningful friendships are vital to what the world has thrown at us at this moment. If
the reckoning before us is how to rebuild—how to be better—in a post-COVID world,
then we should celebrate, as well, living life through human bonding, fondness, joy, love,
The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
Carnegie D (1998 ) How to Win Friends and Influence People. New York: Pocket Books.
Chatzidakis A, Hakim J, Littler J, et al. (2020) The Care Manifesto. London: Verso.
Hayden P (2015) From political friendship to befriending the world. The European Legacy 20(7):
Tippett K (2020) Sandra Cisneros: a house of her own. On Being with Krita Tippett, 13 February 2020.
Available at: https://onbeing.org/programs/sandra-cisneros-a-house-of-her-own/ (accessed 10
2021, Vol. 33(3) 238 –245
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
Life versus Capital:
The COVID-19 pandemic
and the politics of life
Nicholas De Genova
University of Houston, USA
Like all ostensibly “natural” disasters, the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic unceasingly reveals
the depths of social inequality and political myopia or governmental recklessness that predictably
exacerbate the effects of a more strictly natural calamity. The pandemic thereby exposes
the grotesque disparities in how illness, death, and suffering are unevenly distributed. As the
COVID-19 public health crisis has summarily provoked a global economic crisis, furthermore,
it is simply unthinkable to comprehend the real ramifications of the pandemic outside of the
sociopolitical relations of labor and capital, more generally. Furthermore, the global public health
crisis commands that we reflect anew on the relations between human life and state power.
Both for those who have historically and enduringly been subjected to expulsion from gainful
employment, as for those whose labor-power is a commodity of choice for capital, exceedingly
selected for hyper-exploitation, the coronavirus pandemic is a toxic matter of both class and
race. These dire and increasingly desperate circumstances, however, reveal not only what is most
barbaric about capitalist social relations but also the opportunity latent within this crisis.
capitalism, class, COVID-19, inequality, race, state power
Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the
more, the more labour it sucks.
—Marx 1867[1976: 342]
Death confronts us with the fragility of life. Early in Camus’ (1947/1972) The Plague,
following one of the first deaths, the narrator remarks, “The perplexity of the early days
gradually gave place to panic. . . And it was then that fear, and with fear serious reflection,
began” (p. 22). This is all the more poignant when we confront the bitter absurdity of
Nicholas De Genova, Chair of the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Houston,
Houston, TX 77004, USA.
1014335CDY0010.1177/09213740211014335Cultural DynamicsDe Genova
De Genova 239
unnatural, premature death. The horror of mass death produced by our own sociopolitical
arrangements, moreover, converts this existential absurdity into an unfathomable travesty
of human fallibility and hubris, if not sheer cruelty.
Like all ostensibly “natural” disasters, the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic unceas-
ingly reveals the depths of social inequality and political myopia or governmental reck-
lessness that predictably amplify and exacerbate the effects of a more strictly natural
calamity, and thereby exposes the wildly exaggerated and grotesque disparities in how
illness, death, and suffering are unevenly distributed. As the public health crisis insti-
gated by the pandemic pandemonium has summarily provoked a global economic crisis,
furthermore, it is simply unthinkable to comprehend the real ramifications of the pan-
demic outside of the sociopolitical relations of labor and capital, more generally.
* * *
In the midst of this pandemic, the global public health crisis first of all commands that
we reflect anew on the relations between human life and state power. It is well known that
one of Foucault’s (1976/1978) decisive contributions is the identification of the historical
emergence of a form of power that “exerts a positive influence on life . . . endeavors to
administer . . . and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regula-
tions” (p. 137). This biopolitical impulse and mandate for state power to cultivate human
life and superintend the parameters for human wellbeing presents us with a paradox, con-
founding classic examples of sovereignty as a definitive power over life and death (as
epitomized in the state’s customary reliance on its capacity to kill, torture, or execute),
with historically unforeseen governmental duties of care. In the face of the coronavirus
pandemic, many of our critiques of incompetent or self-serving politicians, of inept gov-
ernments, and even of the state as such—recapitulate the fundamental biopolitical expec-
tation that the obligation of the state is indeed to take care of us, to safeguard our wellbeing,
and to provide the necessary predicates and protections for our collective thriving.
Public health is intrinsically and inextricably a discourse of the state. Any analysis of
the comparative achievements and failings of one or another government’s management
of the COVID-19 public health crisis therefore compels us to assess and reconsider our
own often-unexamined presumptive expectations of the state. Confronting furthermore
the sociopolitical problems instigated by this and other pandemics—massive-scale prob-
lems of planning, organization, coordination, distribution, and delivery of goods and
services, as well as regulations on mobility or restrictions to our liberties—begs the ques-
tion of how things might be done differently, and by whom or with what organization of
power? In this respect, we are instructively reminded of Foucault’s (1997) discussion of
“counter-conduct” in the essay “What is Critique?” in which he considers efforts to
short-circuit the modern arts of governing not in terms of “how not to be governed at
all,” but rather, “how not to be governed like that, by that, in the name of those princi-
ples, with such and such an objective in mind and by means of such procedures, not like
that, not for that, not by them” (p. 28; emphases in original). What indeed might be alter-
nate forms of “governing” life and “managing” resources?
Bio-power, in Foucault’s (1976/1978) analysis, notably emerges as “without
question an indispensable element in the development of capitalism” (pp. 140–141).
While biopolitics operates, for Foucault (1975/1979), as an emphatically regulatory
240 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
power (p. 139, 144) over populations as such, it is also inextricable from the govern-
ment of bodies:
“The body is also directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold
upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies,
to emit signs. This political investment of the body is bound up, in accordance with complex
reciprocal relations, with its economic use; it is largely as a force of production that the body is
invested with relations of power and domination; but, on the other hand, its constitution as labor
power is possible only if it is caught up in a system of subjection (in which need is also a
political instrument meticulously prepared, calculated, and used); the body becomes a useful
force only if it is both a productive body and a subjected body” (pp. 25–26).
At both the collective or societal scale of “populations” as well as the micropolitical
scale implicated in the disciplining of individual bodies, then, it should come as no sur-
prise that such a power over life itself becomes indispensable to capitalism. For, human
life—in all its vigor and ingenuity—is indeed the real secret of labor, which for capital is
the indispensable source of all value.
The constitutive and irreconcilable antagonism of labor and capital is well known to be
a central thesis of Karl Marx’s thought, but it is less well appreciated that the endemic
struggle of labor against capital is, for Marx, fundamentally a struggle of life against
death. From the standpoint of capital, everything is (at least potentially) capital, such that
labor itself is reframed (and disfigured) as “human capital.” From the standpoint of labor,
in contrast—which is also to say, therefore, from a Marxian standpoint—everything that
enters into the scope of human social life is always already intrinsically socialized by
purposeful human activity: labor. Hence, all of social life is either a manifestation of
human productive powers and creative capacities, or the product thereof; it is either living
labor, or the product of past labor (which Marx instructively depicts as “dead labor”).
Capital, as an accumulation of the wealth produced by labor performed in the past, is
therefore dead labor, which nonetheless can only sustain and replenish itself by constantly
feeding upon the vitality of the living. Labor, consequently, is merely a particular form
and specific expression of human life itself. The famous class struggle of labor against
capital, then, is merely one manifestation of the endemic and irreconcilable struggle of
capital, vampire-like, to cannibalize the creative energies of human life, and the struggle
of human life against its objectification and alienation—our struggle, to preserve, protect,
and promote our own flourishing. By escalating the intrinsic antagonism of human life
and capital, the COVID-19 pandemic exposes capital’s absolute and utter dependency
upon human life-as-labor—which is to say, more precisely, capital’s constitutive require-
ments for the subjection of human life as subordinated (alienated) labor.
Capital accumulation requires all labor to be ultimately disposable. Indeed, as I have
argued elsewhere, the historical condition of enslaved labor must be recognized to be the
defining and constitutive limit figure for how we comprehend labor itself under capital-
ism, and slavery thus names the ultimate condition of labor’s subordination and subjec-
tion to capital. In what I propose as “a racial theory of labor” (De Genova, 2018)—starting
from the recognition that Blackness, as a racialized construct that is historically specific
to our (colonial capitalist) modernity, is inextricable from slavery—there is a tendency
for all labor under capital to be pressed toward a sociopolitical condition approximating
De Genova 241
racial Blackness. The utter and abject disposability of human life is the enduringly mani-
This is not to say, of course, that the conditions of all labor are equal, or that this dispos-
ability is distributed evenly. On the contrary. Poor people everywhere are disproportion-
ately relegated to conditions of precarity, abandonment, and expulsion, and under the
conditions of this pandemic, they are very predictably abandoned to the perils of inordinate
exposure to the virus, from the homeless, to slum dwellers, to migrants and refugees cross-
ing borders, stranded on boats or confined in makeshift camps, imprisoned in detention
prisons, or living in over-crowded barrack-like workers’ dormitories. The hierarchies of
class inequality have been demonstrated in remarkable ways, moreover, as many of those
characterized as “essential workers” are expected to continue working with no adequate
health and safety protections. Among transit workers in New York City, it has become com-
monplace to sardonically remark, “We are not ‘essential’; we are sacrificial.”1 With slavery
as the horizon and ultimate limit figure for the abject disposability of human life, the pan-
demic has generated sometimes shocking examples of people being driven by what Marx
(1976) depicts as “the silent compulsion of economic relations” (p. 899) to potentially
work themselves, literally, to death. Alongside healthcare and emergency response workers
in every category (from doctors and nurses, to paramedics, police, and firefighters, to hos-
pital orderlies and cleaning staff), the health of a much wider cross-section of the working
class—namely, the working poor—has likewise been flagrantly put at risk. As people are
made to gamble with their lives (and also those of their loved ones) in exchange for the
brute necessities of sustaining their livelihoods, the pandemic has demonstrated the grim
truth that those whose labor is indispensable are among those whom capital renders perma-
From farmworkers, to grocery store employees, to meatpacking and other food pro-
cessing factory workers, to warehouse workers and delivery drivers, to mass transit and
other transportation workers, to janitors and sanitation workers, to nursing home staff, to
home-based elderly care workers—the fact that so many of these essential categories of
labor are also among the lowest paid and least protected (often including no sick-leave
benefits whatsoever) ensures that they are disproportionately reserved for racially subor-
dinated “minorities” and migrants. In the United States, where meatpacking plants have
more or less universally become hotspots of mass coronavirus infection due to the spa-
tio-temporal organization of the labor process, Donald Trump issued an executive order
commanding this industry to keep its workplaces open rather than shutting them down as
a clear and present danger to the wellbeing of their employees and more generally to
public health. Republican governors in states dominated by the meatpacking industry
likewise threatened workers that if they refused to go to work for reasons of their health
and safety, they would be denied access to unemployment benefits. The mercenary
efforts of these state officials to coerce such workers to risk their lives on the job in order
to bolster the profitability of their employers have been brazen. The contemptuous disre-
gard for their health cannot be separated from their racial subordination, however.
Meatpacking is notoriously dangerous work under “normal” circumstances, and is over-
whelmingly dependent in the United States upon the exploitation of Mexican and other
242 Cultural Dynamics 33(3)
Whether we consider those working poor who are disproportionately forced to con-
tinue working at risk of infection and potentially death, or those whose lives are dispro-
portionately ravaged by marginalization, endemic underemployment or permanent
unemployment, and poverty, the heightened risks of COVID-19 infection and severe
medical repercussions are concentrated on the Black and Brown. In many U.S. cities,
such as Chicago, for instance, the repugnant but utterly unsurprising fact is that Black
Americans are seven times more likely to die from the coronavirus than whites. In the
state of Georgia, 80% of all people hospitalized for the coronavirus have been African
American. Gilmore (2007) poignantly proposes that this sort of unequal distribution of
“vulnerability to premature death” may indeed be taken as the very definition of racism
(p. 28). Both for those who have historically and enduringly been subjected to expulsion
from gainful employment, as for those whose labor-power is a commodity of choice for
capital, exceedingly selected for hyper-exploitation, the coronavirus pandemic is a toxic
matter of both class and race. Thus, we cannot afford to contemplate how human life and
health become inseparable from labor exploitation and class inequality outside of a criti-
cal scrutiny of how capitalism itself is incomprehensible outside of its global sociopoliti-
cal configuration as a racial/(post-)colonial regime. The entrenched legacies and enduring
logics of the racialized coloniality of our modernity have, for centuries, never ceased to
enforce the conditions by which some human lives and bodies—and more specifically,
particular categories of human life—have been systematically degraded and devalued,
and continue to be.
Within a global regime distinguished by the permanent and routine disposability of
human life, the coronavirus pandemic sheds a glaring light upon realities that are ordi-
narily taken for granted or derisively disregarded, while also intensifying the reach of
that regime’s ruthlessness by extending precarity and disposability dramatically. In the
United States, where new unemployment claims rose by more than 39 million over a
9-week period from March through mid-May 2020, the anachronistic absence of any
genuine public healthcare system as such and the widespread reliance upon employment-
based private health insurance dramatically illustrate how, for tens of millions, losing
one’s position as labor-for-capital is tantamount to expulsion from any dependable access
to healthcare. While people wait in 3-mile lines for hours at food pantries, many of the
businesses that produce food (farms, ranches, and dairies) have been left to destroy mas-
sive quantities of their products in the face of the collapse of their commercial markets.
The raging pandemic and the mounting economic crisis are therefore inseparable, and
this is increasingly palpable in the immediate lived experience of countless people.
These dire and increasingly desperate circumstances, however, reveal not only what
is most barbaric about capitalist social relations but also the opportunity latent within this
crisis. In the face of the sudden collapse of a wide cross-section of economic life, and
therefore the abrupt disappearance of gainful employment for so many, the bleak pre-
dicament of having little or no means to buy food and other necessities has quickly
befallen a very large portion of the general population, alongside the imminent prospect
of being unable to pay rent or mortgage and other debts. Simultaneously, particularly in
the United States and other countries where there is no public provision of universal
health care, the pandemic presents everyone, more or less immediately, with the exigen-
cies of access to care. Consequently, many of the elementary contradictions of life under
De Genova 243
capitalism are brought into excruciatingly sharp focus. Suddenly, universal healthcare, a
universal basic income (or some other form of assurance of all the necessities of life), a
moratorium on all debts, including a suspension of rents and house mortgages, free pub-
lic transportation and health and safety protections for all whose labor is deemed essen-
tial, etc.—to ever larger numbers of people, these all seem like simple common sense. A
radical rethinking of the totality of capitalist social relations is more timely than ever.
Reflecting on an aporia in Marx’s thought, Agamben (2014/2016) suggests that the
classic Marxian concept of the “mode” (or form) “of production” must be complemented
by the concept of the “form-of-life,” which coexists with the mode of production but
renders its workings inoperative and facilitates putting those works to new uses (p. 94).
Inoperativity is a key concept in Agamben’s thought, signaling the intrinsic potential of
human life to not be defined by any particular work, its inherent open-endedness, its
undecidability. If power, in its “most oppressive and brutal form,” “separates human
beings from their potentiality, and in this way renders them impotent,” Agamben (2011)
argues, a “still more insidious operation of power . . . does not immediately affect what
humans can do—their potentiality—but rather their ‘impotentiality,’ that is, what they
cannot do, or rather, what they can not do” (p. 43). This “impotentiality” is precisely the
“specific ambivalence of all potentiality—which is always the power to be and not be, to
do and not do—that defines, in fact, human potentiality. This is to say that human beings
are the living beings that, existing in the mode of potentiality, are capable just as much
of one thing as its opposite, to do just as to not do” (44). Agamben reframes this capacity
to not do as “inoperativity,” as notably exemplified in the abstention from productive
labor involved in festivity. “Inoperativity . . . coincides with festiveness itself in the
sense that it coincides precisely in neutralizing and rendering inoperative human ges-
tures, actions, and works, which in turn can become festive only in this way” (p. 109).
Festivity, then, is defined by the fact that “what is done . . . becomes undone, rendered
inoperative, liberated and suspended from its ‘economy’” (pp. 110–111). “What is essen-
tial here,” he continues, “is a dimension of praxis in which simple, quotidian human
activities are neither negated nor abolished but suspended and rendered inoperative” in
order to “open them to a new—or more ancient—possible use” (112). “In inoperativity,”
Agamben (2014/2016) therefore contends, “the classless society is already present in
capitalist society” (p. 94). Thus, amidst the glaring class inequalities of the coronavirus
pandemic—whereby the conditions of mass quarantine for some exist alongside the
compulsion for others to put their lives at risk for the sake of earning their meager liveli-
hood—what is nonetheless exposed for many is the latent potentiality of a society, or
form-of-life, no longer subordinated to the exigencies of labor and the merciless require-
ments of the regime of capital accumulation.
Here, the COVID-19 pandemic and the regnant politics of life and death compel us to
reexamine how we in fact live—what we do, and can not do. It is noteworthy that
Agamben’s discussion calls us to reflect anew upon “simple, quotidian human activi-
ties,” and the possibility for them to be re-directed toward new or discrepant uses. As
Agamben (1996/2000) explains, the concept of “form-of-life”—which he juxtaposes to,
yet embeds within (and against), the “mode of production”—is meant to designate:
“a life that can never be separated from its form . . . a life for which what is at stake in its way
of living is living itself . . . never prescribed by a specific biological vocation, nor . . . assign