Neoliberal capital and the mobility approach in anthropology

James B. Greenberg, Josiah McC. Heyman

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


Our colleagues in this volume provide a rich history of neoliberal policies in Mexico and compelling case studies of the transformations they have induced. We draw on these rich materials to lay out an argument about how anthropologists might study the relationships between places within the world system, highlighting the ceaseless movement of people, commodities, and biophysical components among them-orchestrated by peculiarly rootless forms of capital. This puts neoliberalism in its place as just the latest phase of capitalist orchestration of space and power, reworking previous formations. We emphasize mobility as constitutive of places, in both stabilizing as well as transformative ways, thus providing a processual alternative to the prevalent "outside impact on previously static locality" approach to the ethnography of globalization. The literature on neoliberalism and globalization is enormous and complex (see Held and McGrew 2003; Kalb 2000; Lechner and Boli 2000). However, there are two broad tendencies that we feel are flawed, and we find it useful to develop our perspective by contrast with them. First, globalization is often envisioned as a sudden and dramatic connection and movement affecting communities and regions that were previously unconnected and static. This ignores historically deep economic and cultural connections embedded in the daily life of such places, and it sees change in epochal terms as an unprecedented transformation from localism to globalism (or, at best, localism to hybrid "glocalism"). Second, exogenous connections are often envisioned as forces for change, specifically for the weakening or even disappearance of place ("deterritorialization" [Appadurai 1996:37-39]). The entire complex relationship between the movement of people and commodities and the making, erosion, and remaking of historical places is ignored in favor of a simple dichotomy between static place and dynamic globe.1 This style of thinking intersects problematically with certain biases in social and cultural anthropology. Specifically, our otherwise powerful method of periodic, intensive fieldwork gives anthropologists a misleading sense of the givenness of places at the time we first encounter them and, by contrast, of the novelty and externality of the forces of change. We then fall into a historically fallacious dichotomy, that the past was immobile while the circulation of ideas, capital, people, and goods is a recent apparition with uniquely powerful impacts. A recent alternative to the "outside impact" approach to globalization has been to abandon inquiry into emplaced issues altogether, as represented by the theorizing of Arjun Appadurai (1996; see Heyman and Campbell 2009 for a critical review) and the more extremely deterritorialized interpretations of George Marcus's "multi-sited" ethnography (1995). It is not that anthropologists are unconcerned with change and connections; rather, in dealing with globalization, the field has embraced problematic ways of thinking about them. To rethink how anthropology approaches globalization, past and present, and in particular the recent workings of neoliberalism, we reach back to the work of Eric Wolf. In Europe and the People without History (1982), Wolf offered a full-blown argument for an anthropology of world historical connections. Long before that, however, he had begun to rethink the character of ethnographic "places" in his pioneering work on the closed corporate community in Mesoamerica (Wolf 1957). As he later admitted (Wolf 1986), this ideal type had many flaws, but what inspires us is his general perspective linking movement of people and goods in the world economy to the making, reproduction, and remaking of local social formations. In Wolf 's account, silver was a crucial export from colonial New Spain (Mexico) to Europe and Asia, which had been chronically short of metallic currency. Haciendas (large rural estates) supplied silver mining districts with food, leather, tallow, and so on. Rural communities supplied permanent and seasonal out-migrant labor to both mines and haciendas, with the income supporting the rise and then the reproduction of ritual political-religious organizations whose concern above all was the expression of bounded localism. The indigenous, closed corporate community of the twentieth century, which at first glance appeared to have been explicitly isolated and culturally conservative, was in fact involved in dynamic movement from its emergence through its reproduction and into its recent decline. We follow Wolf, then, in exploring the constant organization and reorganization of connections in the world system, within which boundaries and arrangements emerge and disappear, rather than assuming an epochal shift ("modernization," "globalization," or "post-modernity") in the basic nature of society from bounded and static to unbounded, mobile, and dynamic. Places are contingent products of interlocking movements over time, in terms of both material flows and ideological-political projects to delineate named and characterized geographies, resources, settlements, social groups, and so forth. Throughout this chapter we refer to dynamic processes of movement as mobilities and the way such movements are truncated and bounded in place as enclosures (Cunningham and Heyman 2004). Our conceptualization has three important points. The first is that many different mobilities are going on and affecting each other at once. They can be roughly categorized as the movement of capital, people, commodities, ideas, and biophysical components. We argue for the relative power of certain types of capital under the conditions of neoliberalism. But capital's power is incomplete, as its calculations only partially realign an immensely complex network of diverse flows, all of which have to be taken into consideration. The second is that movement's effects include reproduction as well as transformation. We question the sole association of mobility with weakening of place (deterritorialization) and with dramatic change more generally. Certainly, some movements of people and goods have these effects, but other mobilities reproduce existing social, cultural, and geographic arrangements by bringing in and out people and resources on which such arrangements depend. The final point is that movement is ever-present, so that when we do encounter scenarios of change (whether as ethnographers or theorists), we need to understand it not as a shift from stasis to motion but rather as a rearrangement of the network of ongoing flows, including the introduction of new kinds of flows. We take a living, flowing, processual approach to all manner of spatial arrangements. This summarizes our broad orientation, but it remains to add what we think is distinctive about the study of neoliberalism. It is a particular way of channeling and governing dynamic mobilities, rearranging various locales and flows rather than attacking a previously static terrain. In this regard, we follow the recent synthesis by Neil Brenner, Jamie Peck, and Nik Theodore (2010) that articulates the "variegated" character of neoliberalism-not just that it is complex but that it is inherently processual, relational, uneven, and differentiating. Neoliberalism is a set of policies that favor strong property rights, open movement of investment, free trade in commodities, and few, if any, labor and environmental regulations but not necessarily free and open movement of people. We argue that its central component is discretized capital, a configuration of capital that has emerged over the last two centuries. The peculiar properties of discretized capital, as opposed to more emplaced forms of capital and people, commodities, and biophysical components, are explored in the next section of the chapter. We then examine the effects of capital mobility and neoliberal policies on human communities and regional ecologies and close with a synopsis of Mexican history seen within our framework of dynamic networks of flows, especially in relationship to the United States.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationNeoliberalism and Commodity Production in Mexico
PublisherUniversity Press of Colorado
Number of pages28
ISBN (Print)9781607321712
StatePublished - Dec 1 2012
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)

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    Greenberg, J. B., & McC. Heyman, J. (2012). Neoliberal capital and the mobility approach in anthropology. In Neoliberalism and Commodity Production in Mexico (pp. 241-268). University Press of Colorado.