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Capitalism in the wild

Capitalisme sauvage

Terrain journal no.78

Revue « Terrain » n°78

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Published on Monday, August 02, 2021 by Céline Guilleux


« Le capitalisme sauvage » et non la sauvagerie du capitalisme. L’idée de ce numéro de la revue Terrain est de se pencher systématiquement sur ce qui échappe structurellement à la « domestication en vue d’obtenir un rendement » dans le monde capitaliste contemporain. Il ne s’agit donc pas tant de discuter de la brutalité, des dangers ou des ravages des régimes économiques modernes ni de proposer une analyse de la diversité ou de l’hétérogénéité économique au sein du capitalisme (si l’on entend par là les sociétés dont l’économie est organisée par des régimes d’accumulation du capital). Ce numéro propose d’explorer des situations conceptuellement inverses, celles où les richesses et les dynamiques sociales produites par le capitalisme sont captées pour alimenter des formes de vie, avec une ampleur et une intensité qui impose, pour l’analyse, un décentrement du capitalisme et de l’économie.



Issue coordinated by Alice Doublier (CCJ-CNRS) and Ismaël Moya (LESC-CNRS/X)


“Capitalism in the wild”, rather than capitalism gone wild. This special issue sets out systematically to discover those aspects of the contemporary capitalist world that structurally avoid being “domesticated in order to generate a yield”. We are not, therefore, disposed to highlight the brutality, danger and ravages of modern economic regimes, nor to analyse the diversity and economic heterogeneity of capitalist systems (understood as societies whose economies are organized according to regimes of capital accumulation). There is an ample sufficiency of literature showing that contemporary capitalism, both within and without the “West”, is heterogeneous and generative, and that the capture of economic and other resources is central to it (Insel 2008; Zelizer 2005; Gibson-Graham 1996; Tsing 2015; Bear et al. 2015; etc.). This special issue instead aims to explore the conceptual mirror image of these processes– viz. ones in which the wealth and social dynamics produced by capitalism are captured and redirected towards what we call forms of life. The breadth and intensity of such phenomena requires us to decenter capitalism and the economy in our analyses. We endeavor to understand the nature of these forms of life in which the wild share of capitalism is not pushed to the margins, but takes center stage and use this to explore situations that require an anthropological redescription (Lebner 2016) and recomposition of familiar concepts.

Some seventy years ago, Georges Bataille suggested, in The Accursed Share (1988 [1949]), that the shape of human societies was governed by the use they made of production, thus relocating capitalism with a general theory of economics. Though the main thrust of his argument was structured around a theory of energy and self-consciousness that has now fallen into desuetude, the question of resource consumption is more urgent than ever. Economic growth is both the motor and the cancer of modern society. Resource consumption is not, however, merely a matter of environmental predation. As capitalism has globalized, large parts of the world have begun to experience an unprecedented boom in the ritual economy. In China, economic growth has, in mazy and sometimes contradictory ways, fueled a bewildering development of the “religious sphere”. Numerous works on Subsaharan Africa, the Maghreb, the Middle East and Asia more generally (see, for instance, Cleuziou & Mc Brien 2021) have shown that the economic growth of recent decades has driven a parallel growth in wedding ceremonies. This ceremonial inflation is the frequent object of moralizing and utterly futile public discourses. More broadly, contemporary ethnography has shown, time and again, that as well as inequality, social tumult and environmental degradation, economic growth also produces considerable “leakage” in the economic circuit.

In short, such phenomena cannot be understood as marginal practices, or reducible to a mere desire to maximize prestige. Rather, they are so widespread that they act as a limit on accumulation and are a source of no little confusion, even for those the actors themselves. For instance, the female ceremonial system in Dakar consumes more than a third of disposable savings and is considered, by men and women alike, to be a serious obstacle to economic development. In such cases, we are not dealing with a “gift economy” (or even losses, in the classical sense), but with a phenomenon that forces us to recognize the secondary role of the economy in the social system and instead to foreground female ceremonial exchange and affinity (Moya 2017). In a similar vein, investments by Chinese entrepreneurs in divination practices and temples are undoubtedly strategic economic decisions, but they are also, and above all, a manifestation of one of the key paradoxes of Chinese capitalism: the extraordinary economic growth of recent decades, under the authoritarian aegis of the Chinese Communist Party has led to a massive expansion of the religious sphere, that has been debated, condemned and widely combatted by this latter (Yang 2020).

Capitalism’s wild share is not limited to wealth expenditure, but also emerges when social practices and institutions generate contradictory dynamics that restrict the capitalist domestication of wealth. For instance, the Japanese fermentation boom around an edible mold called kôji has generated activities that cannot be fully framed within alternative projects for transitioning to a post-industrial society, nor within classical efforts to improve market share in a stagnant economy. Indeed, this volatile, and partly uncontrollable, microbe is seen as central to Japanese culture and considered a material substrate, a model and a tipping point for reconstructing in toto a society described as suffering. The breadth of the networks and the intense reflection that surround kôji also force us to redescribe the social worlds that produce them.

In some ways, anthropology has, since Evans-Pritchard (1937), abandoned the attempt to explain apparently irrational behavior, focusing instead on descriptions of underlying rationality and difference. This special issue aims to do the same for capitalism and the economy. Capitalist economies fuel forms of social life wherein wealth is used to drive sociality and accumulation seems to come up against its limits. These restrictions can be seen as forms of radical difference at the very heart of capitalism and are, as such, irreducible to their political and economic dimensions, however sophisticated our conceptual apparatus for representing them may be (monist, heterogeneous, generative, etc.). We thus propose to address this diversity of forms of production and exchange not as alternative economic facts, but as a starting point for anthropological comparison. This is not a matter of simply describing the diversity of economic forms and theorizing the “wild share” of capitalism, but rather of starting from the assumption that certain ethnographic phenomena reveal, and operationalize, forms of difference that we can engage with comparatively. How would it decenter our analysis to take this wild share of capitalism seriously? In which semiotic worlds are these practices deployed? How might we reconfigure our concepts of a commodity, the economy, wealth, but also the gift, religion, nation, the individual and society to account for these differences and acts of decentering? 

The cases that interest us here are not necessarily punctuations of wider projects, but they must be nonetheless be broad enough to have two analytical implications. The first is that they generate forms of reflexivity that are ethnographically observable (either negatively, as when ceremonial expenditure in Dakar is seen as one of society’s principal ills [Moya 2015) or positively, as when an invisible and largely unpredictable form of life, such as kôji, is used as a starting point to reconfigure a society often seen as exhausted. The second is that the reorganization of an assemblage of Euro-American concepts must be a condition of their analytical intelligibility. As Marilyn Strathern makes clear, such a rearrangement “can only take place for creative effects when it is seen to be motivated by an external context that stands to it as an independent source” and not as the product of a self-referential imaginative effort (Strathern 1990 :210).

It is these contemporary forms of diversity, which flourish at the heart of capitalist processes, that this special issue aims to explore, as a counterpoint to the ubiquitous figure of societal or environmental collapse and the alternative projects they engender. Contributions may address a broad range of situations and empirical cases, from ceremonial consumption to semiotic reconfigurations in late capitalism.

Submission guidelines

Submissions should be addressed to the editors (terrain.redaction@cnrs.fr) in the form of an abstract (.doc)

by Monday 4th October at the latest.

Accepted papers will be collectively discussed at a workshop to be held in Paris and final articles should be submitted by the 15th of June 2022.


BATAILLE Georges, 1991 (1949). The Accursed Share, Volume I: Consumption. New York: Zone Books

BEAR Laura, Karen HO, Anna Lowenhaupt TSING & Sylvia YANAGISAKO, 2015. “Gens: A Feminist Manifesto for the Study of Capitalism.”, Theorizing the Contemporary, Fieldsights, 30 Mars 2015, https://culanth.org/fieldsights/gens-a-feminist-manifesto-for-the-study-of-capitalism 

CLEUZIOU Juliette & Julie McBRIEN (dir.), 2021.“Marriage quandaries in post-Soviet Central Asia”, Oriente Moderno, no100/2, p. 121-146. doi:https://doi.org/10.1163/22138617-12340246 

EVANS-PRITCHARD Edward Evan, 1937. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande. Oxford: The Clarendon Press. 

GIBSON-GRAHAM J. K., 1996. The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy, Oxford, Blackwell. 

INSEL Ahmet, 2008.“7. La part du don. Esquisse d’évaluation”, in Philippe Chanial (dir.), La société vue du don. Manuel de sociologie anti-utilitariste appliquée, Paris, La Découverte, p. 145-16. 

LEBNER Ashley, 2017.“Introduction: Strathern’s redescription of anthropology”., in A. Lebner (ed.), Redescribing Relations: Strathernian Conversations on Ethnography. Oxford, Bergen Books.

MOYA Ismaël, 2015.“Unavowed value. Economy, comparison, and hierarchy in Dakar”, Hau. Journal of Ethnographic Theory, no 5/1, p. 151–172.

—, 2017.De l’argent aux valeurs, Nanterre, Publications de la société d’ethnologie.

STRATHERN Marilyn, 1990 “Negative strategies in Melanesia”, in Richard Fardon (dir.) Localizing Strategies, Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, p. 204-16.

TSING Anna Lowenhaupt, 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World. On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins Princeton, Princeton University Press.

YANG Mayfair Mei-hui, 2020. Re-enchanting Modernity: Ritual Economy and Society in Wenzhou, China, Durham, Duke University Press.

ZELIZER Viviana, 2005. “Encounters of intimacy and economy”, in The Purchase of Intimacy. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 29–32.


  • Rédaction Terrain MSH Mondes Pôle éditorial 21, allée de l’université
    Nanterre, France (92)


  • Monday, October 04, 2021


  • capitalisme, anthropologie, domestication, consumation


  • Revue Terrain Rédaction
    courriel : terrain [dot] redaction [at] cnrs [dot] fr

Information source

  • Marie Morel
    courriel : terrain [dot] redaction [at] gmail [dot] com

To cite this announcement

« Capitalism in the wild », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Monday, August 02, 2021, https://calenda.org/901510

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