Teaching Capitalism in the Time of Corona

It so happened that I was teaching “Ethnographies of Global Capitalism” in spring 2020, the semester that the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States. We began the course with contemporary and classic readings on capitalism, exploring a wide range of topics from labor theory of value and the Protestant ethic of capitalism to commodity chains, outsourcing, and neoliberalism. Little did we know that, as the pandemic encroached on all of our lives, these early readings would come back to haunt us and take on a whole new set of meanings. As we rushed into the new reality of Zoom meetings and video lectures, the course became a roadmap for examining the coronavirus crisis in light of the current neoliberal economic condition. The crisis called for an ethnographic perspective to crucial economic aspects of the pandemic such as the human and financial risks built into global supply chains, the privatization of public infrastructures, and the inequalities of access to healthcare.

The coronavirus in the United States is exposing similar uneven distributions of the burden of care.

I began the course with Sydney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power, the classic ethnographic study of sugar as a global commodity. This book never fails to impress with its genius historical ethnography of a global commodity chain before globalization as we know it. The book foreshadows present discussions about the human networks that make up global commodity chains. Indeed, disrupted supply chains of the masks that are now so prevalent today have become a focal point of public scrutiny in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. During the early days of the lockdown, in my own naive search for surgical masks, I learned what has now become common knowledge; namely, that half of the global supply of masks are made in China. The outbreak in Wuhan and the unprecedented lockdown that followed had a domino effect on disrupting the flows of this supply chain, making visible how bodies, health, economies, and global politics are so tightly intertwined. But while in public discourse “supply chains” continue to be discussed as disembodied relations among commodities, money, and borders, an ethnographic approach á la Mintz would bring attention to the human networks and bodies vital in the making and distribution of the masks..

Another important theme in the anthropology of capitalism that has come into focus recently is the neoliberalization of public infrastructures. Day after day, we have witnessed efforts of the administration to manage the health and economic crisis by calling on the market to care for public health and favoring competition among private companies over a coordinated public health response. Ethnographically informed histories of neoliberalism, such as David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism and Philip Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, situate the birth of neoliberal policies and ideology in the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1970s and 1980s. Among other things, they define neoliberalism as a set of policies that advocate the privatization of public services, including health care, and as an ethic of the entrepreneurial (and, often, uninsured) self.

Another important trajectory is the deployment of neoliberal ideology in the Global South. Julia Elyachar outlines the shift from public infrastructure to private entrepreneurship embedded in structural adjustment policies implemented across the Global South since the 1980s. This shift has been devastating to public health systems around the world. The current pandemic is bringing these histories and critiques of neoliberalism into a broader public debate. Thus, the blind commitment to neoliberal ethic is blamed for predatory market practices such as price gauging, profiteering, and the pitting of state against state and country against country in the savage global markets for masks and ventilators.

Anthropologists have also underscored the structural inequalities generated by neoliberal policies. Clara Han’s study of the urban poor in neoliberal Chile, for instance, documents the burden of care that family members absorb in the absence of public infrastructures and the dominance of a widespread credit economy.

The coronavirus in the United States is exposing similar uneven distributions of the burden of care. As one student put it in her final paper, “COVID-19: The United States and the Developing Countries”: “I know this firsthand as my father, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s, can no longer go to his daycare. While my mom has to work, it is up to me to finish school, work my part time job then add on taking care of him. So many people who are in similar situations as mine are struggling to get through.” These intimate accounts call for further ethnographic inquiry into the intertwining and the vulnerabilities of our economic and health care systems.

Smoki Musaraj is an associate professor of anthropology and the director of the Study, Honors Tutorial Program at Ohio University and author of Tales from Albarado: Ponzi Logics of Accumulation in Postsocialist Albania.

Cite as: Musaraj, Smoki. 2020. “Teaching Capitalism in the Time of Corona.” Anthropology News website, July 311, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1467

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