Category Archives: economic anthropology

A Look at Petty Capitalism

Petty Capitalists and Globalization: Flexibility, Entrepreneurship, and Economic Development. Eds. Alan Smart and Josephine Smart.

Michael Blim (2005) makes an interesting argument of petty capitalism as a way to decenter the power of large corporations. Who are the petty capitalists? They are “individuals or households who employ a small number of workers but are themselves actively involved in the labor process” (3). There was some concern in the past that petty capitalists were marginalized, but David Harvey’s observation that Fordism has given way to more flexible accumulation seems to point to increasingly significant roles of petty capitalists. This volume exposes the diversity of petty capitalists and its unstable and complex position, drawing from its potential for both economic advantages and heightened exploitation.

Simone Ghezzi’s article about family-run enterprises in Brianza and Frances Rothstein’s article on small-scale garment manufacturing firms in Mexico demonstrate the grim reality of surviving the global market that make family exploitation necessary. I find Ghezzi’s explanation of exploitation useful: “in discursive terms exploitation may be articulated in various sublimated ways: one of the most recurrent seems to be the ideology of ‘hard work’….The exploitative character of the social relations of production within and among workshops is intertwined with the artisans’ increasing concern for the potential loss of competitiveness in the region” (118). In many cases, it seems, petty capitalists lose out because they have to subcontract to remain competitive, and subcontractors end up investing in technology which puts them in debt and both groups face economic challenges in trying to keep up and yet remain lucrative.

Compare this to Jinn-yuh Hsu’s research on petty capitalists in Taiwan’s semiconductor industry. Trust and social networks involving friends and classmates rather than kin play crucial roles in facilitating connections in Hsinchu and Silicon Valley, which keep petty commodity production (PCP) firms competitive and successful. “Technical cooperation proliferates as personal networks spread. More importantly, a repository of specialized industrial skills and capabilities is formed within the social networks in the HSIP” (156).

Close collaboration with engineers in Silicon Valley partners helps them develop new technologies and also keep up with the latest trends. Yet these collaborations are not fostered by multinational corporations. They are, however, mediated by overseas organizations which aid workers in tapping into local social networks to gain access to technology and “absorb them effectively.” Thus, in this case, the social networks benefit both Silicon Valley and Hsinchu firms. A key feature of the two-way flows of capital and technology is the encouragement of joint ventures and equal partnership at the local level. This is undoubtedly enhanced by a common language, culture and level of experience among the workers. As Hsu points out at the end of the article, it seems this kind of mutually beneficial collaboration occurs under certain conditions — more commonalities than not. Culture as perceived by the workers seems to be most salient in fostering social solidarity.

Then, there’s Michael Blim’s account of the petty capitalists of the central Italian Marche region who inspired some disappointment in him due to their “failures to invest in radically upgrading their production processes so as to assure their own survival and the region’s well-being” (257). Blim offers a very thoughtful reflection of why academics tend to sympathize with petty capitalists: “given the depths of our own domination, and by the perfection of craft in teaching as well as in thought, our appreciation of petty capitalists may derive as much from our own confinement as from their relative freedom to take on the world economically on at least a few of the terms they choose.”

Despite the multiple challenges petty capitalists face, there is something admirable about their determination to persist despite the odds and risks. But, as Blim shows, this might have as much to do with a particular representation of petty capitalists as possessing attributes of loyalty and thrift and hard work as the academic’s own desire for more autonomy projected onto the people they study. Nonetheless, Blim tells us, studies on petty capitalists generate mixed results.

With regards to microlending, Blim asserts that this particular form of petty capitalism may not lead to greater economic inequality, even though it may in some instances strengthen “petty bourgeois values such as thrift and hard work…among women entrepreneurs” (268). It’s particularly fascinating that the ideology of the individual pulling herself up by the bootstraps becomes so prevalent in the realm of microlending, but Blim does not elaborate on whether this is an outcome of microlending or petty capitalism in general or simply a justification used amid growing economic inequality.

On M.G. Smith and Lambros Comitas: Study of Local Economy

Economic anthropology is concerned with material processes integrated in social life. The sub-discipline is divided into various facets, ranging from the study of the relationships of social structure and domestic economies to the ways in which consumption and desire are shaped by colonialism and macro-economic forces and how modes of production at the local levels interact with global economies and forces of globalization. Exciting contemporary research explore the effects of global neoliberalism and the gravity of capital embodied in multinational corporations wreaking havoc on ecological systems and exploiting local labor (e.g. Maquiladora studies). Economic studies from an anthropological perspective can be quite challenging because it involves as much depth and intensity at the local levels as breadth when discussing macro-structures in the national and global arena. That is why I appreciate the meticulous and insightful contributions made by M.G. Smith and Lambros Comitas.

Lambros Comitas, an expert on the Caribbean and Latin America, challenges the validity of certain classifications, such as “peasants” and discusses the implications of their uses when applied to Jamaica. Emphasizing ecological and economic factors, Comitas argues that categories and generalizations about peasantry and occupation set forth by earlier anthropologists like Eric Wolf simply did not hold in rural Jamaica. Borrowing from Smith, who was his mentor and close friend, Comitas maintained that most rural Jamaicans engaged in occupational multiplicity, working in agriculture as well as possibly wage labor, trading, fishing or artisanship, thus rendering simplistic conceptualizations of peasant-plantation workers quite misleading

Comitas conducted research of five coastal settlements in rural Jamaica in 1958 on fisherman and discovered that around 63 to 79 percent of the males were engaged in occupational multiplicity, encompassing other types of work related to carpentry, shopkeeping and wage-labor activities in addition to agriculture and fishing. As men grew older, Comitas observes, the number of occupations increased, primarily due to added responsibilities and new domestic roles. As their occupations expanded, so did their social networks. “In each status, he is interlocked with a distinct set of individuals who perform requisite roles in production, distribution, and consumption. If, for example, a man was occupied with mixed farming and mixed fishing, he may well be structurally linked with neighbors for the exchange of free labor in the fields and with a finite number of ‘higglers’ who distributed any surplus subsistence crops within the Jamaican market; and he would most likely be organizationally tied to the local branches of the all-island crop associations, which markets his cash produce” (Comitas 171). While occupational multiplicity connected workers to variety of networks, it is also apparent that it locked them in “horizontal socioeconomic segments,” within a seemingly rigid structure, which consequently prevents them from obtaining upward mobility. At the development level, Comitas points out, many projects failed because the uni-occupational model that constitutes their foundation was perceived by many Jamaicans to be impractical.

Similarly, in an altogether different setting among the Hausa in Northern Zaria, Nigeria, M.G. Smith illuminates the complexity and variation that exists in domestic economy, revealing the need to tailor one’s methodology and ability to generalize about the processes according to the type of class of unit, whether it be urban or rural economies, and hamlets or market-towns. Based on a study of over 120 Hausa, Smith discovered that many men farmed and combined this with other occupations. Variations in the degrees and types of production for subsistence were discovered, owing to economic factors, such as the need for cash income, as well as ecological ones, including the length of farming season and lack of marshland (Smith 336). Despite the diversity of motivations for engaging in other types of occupation, more often than not, Hausa men combined farming with non-farming activities.

Hausa domestic units consisted of individual or joint families. As Smith defines these concepts, individual family included the man, his wife or wives and their dependents, while joint family included individual families in one unit of domestic economy, and at times, referring to a unit in which brothers, one married and the other single, combine their resources within a household. Families, thus defined, can then become a useful unit of analysis to better understand family budgets, a topic of special interest to economic anthropologists. However, as Smith forthrightly concedes, gathering such data, especially initially, was quite challenging due to its sensitivity.This writer wonders how Smith received the consent and assistance from the village chief to ensure farmers participated in interviews and surveys. That one of the early work diaries contained fabricated information strongly suggests that there was some concern about the possibility of stigma attaching to a more forthright divulging of household income and expenditures. Still, on the whole, Smith succeeds in collecting accurate financial information. However, while Smith’s careful and nuanced analysis attest to his prowess as a scholar and fieldworker, this writer nonetheless believes that further explication of the data might shed light on some especially puzzling features that seem to be revealed.

Perhaps one could explain the reasoning behind this complex set of interrelated conclusions. Hausa members spent about 48.6 percent on average of their income on food. Among their expenditures on food, they spent on average 28 percent on grain, which along with roots and snacks, amounted to significant percentage of their income. Yet they only received about 22.9 percent of their cash income on crops sold. Unsold farm produce accounts for 75.5 percent of their kind income. Given these statistics, one can conclude that there much be a substantial amount of grain (encapsulated within “farm produce” and “crops”) that is missing, or they must suffer quite a substantial loss. If they were simply absorbing self-produced grain, it might make sense, though does not account for the wide gap in percentage of unsold farm produce and amount they spend on food.

Smith mentions that they had to supplement by purchasing or borrowing grain when self-produced grain was insufficient. Given the high percentage of unsold farm produce in kind income, it seems rather unlikely. However, if they did have quite a substantial amount of unsold farm produce, it’s quite puzzling that they would still spend over one-quarter of their budget on grain. Smith states that grain purchased represents 20 percent of total grain consumption, which seems rather high given the incredibly high percentage of farm produce that are unsold. As Smith concludes, further analysis is indeed needed, albeit this puzzle is only a minor shortcoming in an otherwise excellent piece of scholarship.

Works Cited

Comitas, Lambros. 1964. “Occupational Multiplicity in Rural Jamaica.” Proceeding of the American Ethnological Society, 1963, 41-50. Reprinted in Comitas, Lambros and David Lowenthal, Eds. Work and Family Life: West Indian Perspectives. Anchor Press/Doubleday:157-173.

Smith, M.G. 1952. “A Study of Hausa Domestic Economy in Northern Zaria” in Africa: Journal for the International African Institute. 22.4: 333-347