ASAP Column – 2016 May (Nielsen)

Living with Debt

Kenneth Bo Nielsen (U Bergen, Norway)

Reposted from Anthropology News Online (May 2016)

If one journeys up the Hooghly River from Kolkata (Calcutta), the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, one can get a condensed impression of India’s colonial past. Dotted along the river banks are the towns of Bandel, Chinsurah, Serampore, and Chandannagar, where the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Danes, and the French respectively settled. While this part of the Hooghly aspires to become a veritable riverine “heritage trail,” Navigating Austerity takes us on a different journey on the Hooghly to analyze the history of state debt crises in the context of contemporary austerity capitalism. By tracing the strategies through which people negotiate altered public-sector policies, the book shows how debt, circulation, conduct, and time work in austerity economies.

The agenda, as laid out in the introduction, is ambitious: Navigating Austerity aims to lead us towards a new anthropology of debt and a new anthropology of economic governance. It is to Bear’s credit that this disciplinary ambition is pursued in all chapters; chapters that show that there can be no singular anthropology of any of these phenomena, and which illustrate diverse anthropological engagement with “the unpredictable material, ethical and political effects of public debt policies” (6) of “the rentier austerity state” (50). The analysis is based on fieldwork in four key sites and takes us into the lives of bureaucrats, marine crew and officers, river pilots, entrepreneurs, and casual workers as they seek to navigate, subvert, contest and evaluate these effects.

Chapter one charts the emergence of public deficit management in the Calcutta Port Trust. For decades, the Trust has been mired in a permanent state of fiscal crisis, a truly paradoxical situation insofar as it is the single largest landowner in Kolkata, with trade on the Hooghly steadily increasing over the past 30 years. Yet public-sector austerity drives imposed since 1980 transformed the Trust primarily into a fiscal resource that could be used to repay sovereign debts. The chapter shows how this policy regime leads to a casualization and deunionization of the workforce; pushes the Trust into an intensified pursuit of rentier income; and privileges the adoption of least-cost, short-term solutions.

The following chapters turn to the experiential dimensions of this new state debt policy regime. Chapter two focuses on the marine crew and how they ethically evaluate what they see as the destructive and unjust effects of austerity capitalism and its “amoral forces of selfish individualism” (66). Here, Hindu ritual and worship play key roles in the idealized regeneration of the ruins of life and labor. Chapter three turns to the bureaucrats/marine officers and entrepreneurs who are increasingly drawn together in formal or informal public-private partnerships. Marine officers play a key role as brokers for outsourcing work to private-sector companies, something which often results in least-cost technology and the exploitation of informal sector contract workers. Chapter four focuses on mutually beneficial relations of friendship between bureaucrats and entrepreneurs, which can be turned to speculative and profitable use. By unpacking the notion of jogajog kora (to do relationship), Bear shows how such relationships enable the creation of new productive activity in a context marred by public austerity. Chapter five examines how austerity policy creates new, highly unsafe, risk-filled working conditions, while chapter six analyses informalized labor in a shipyard where “workers become the bearers of the greatest amount of physical and monetary insecurity” (158). The result is a situation of chronic uncertainty and the deferral of all activities associated with long-term social reproduction. Yet the shipyard is also an intensely emotional environment, free of caste prejudice, and associated with equality and social mobility for the downtrodden—a collectivity of brothers united in the love of men (163).

The first of the two conclusions draws on the ethics of this environment to generate a new measure of value, a “totalizing social calculus” (181) with profound implications. For informalized shipyard workers and their families, all labor should be for the generation and amplification of life and sociality, and ties between people at all levels should be marked by affection and trust. This, Bear says, is a totalizing and cosmopolitical ethic that places economic activity inside its social calculus. And it is fundamentally incommensurable with the short-term monetary ties that otherwise dominate life on the Hooghly under austerity capitalism. The second conclusion scales up this argument to make a larger, utopian (186) case for evaluating policy proposals for sovereign debt and public-sector financing using a social calculus. It also outlines how such a calculus can be applied in practical terms, not just to evaluate specific policy measures, but also to create new spaces for a different kind of public conversation about sovereign debt and government financing.

Navigating Austerity covers a vast terrain of social life, provides thought-provoking conclusions, and may inspire new forms of critical reflection and practice among anthropologists interested in the dynamics of contemporary global capitalism. Some of the arguments appear to derive additional force and appeal from the establishment of overly strong contrasts. One is occasionally left with the impression that the Nehruvian state represented a realm of long-term planning, durable infrastructures, predictable public investments and perhaps even morally upright civil servants. But while this implicit portrayal establishes an evocative contrast to the current unstable, short-term, extractive austerity regime, it is not an exhaustive characterisation of the Indian state prior to 1980. Similarly, the idealized description of the ethics of the informalized shipyard workers is treated explicitly as this: An ideal that is upheld for emulation, but whose potential and actual links to everyday practices of exclusion and inequality—including along religious lines—are left unexamined, even if these are mentioned in passing. This notwithstanding, the political and moral compass this book offers to anthropologists working on contemporary capitalism is likely to remain relevant for a long time to come.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen is an anthropologist working at the Department of Sociology, University of Bergen, Norway. He also coordinates the Norwegian Network for Asian Studies hosted by the University of Oslo’s Centre for Development and the Environment.