here is now a long-held critique of theorizing social life from, say, a balcony, or an armchair, or a helicopter. Better to be on the ground with the people, the thinking goes, lest we mistake some distant, elite, and particular view for a generalized experience. In The Licit Life of Capitalism, Hannah Appel creatively turns this critical convention on its head and offers readers a new analytical perspective from which to take seriously the work that goes into making such views seem “as if(3) they are so distant—and what this appearance of distance makes possible in return. Indeed, the book opens with an unforgettable scene of Appel careening above the Gulf of Guinea in an oil industry helicopter on her way to visit a nearby deepwater drilling rig. Yet in the rest of the book, Appel offers the opposite of this birds-eye view: The Licit Life of Capitalism is a detailed ethnographic analysis drawn from fourteen months of fieldwork (mostly) on the ground in one outlandishly important site in West Africa’s (then) booming oil industry. 

Appel’s robust empirical observations in and around this industry are a deliberate counter to their surprising absence from the deep well of scholarship on oil, which has rarely offered fine-grained detail on the extensive work required to produce it. Where previous accounts of this commodity have begun by focusing “too narrowly on oil as money” (30), Appel introduces readers to the life of the industry: her writing carries us comfortably through a hot and humid—at times, horrifying—encounter with the violent, grinding gears of the petro-capital machine. And this encounter turns our attention to how the oil industry depends on and props up the steep inequality usually attributed to corrupt, resource-cursed states. In doing so, Appel makes it clear that she is refusing to tell yet another story about the pathologies of government in Africa. Beyond this book’s many creative conceptual inversions, readers will find an array of eclectic and intimate scenes from “the oil industry’s intentional, aspirational disentanglement from sociopolitical membership in Equatorial Guinea” (25). 

The Licit Life of Capitalism is an energetic and polemical read. Appel’s account brings to life the seemingly yawn-worthy artefacts of the oil industry—contracts, budgets, corporate housing, conferences, sub-contracts—and reveals how these objects depend on and re-create the global, racialized inequality which itself doubles as one of this book’s central themes. Analyses of race/gender/class weave throughout the text, and each chapter is bookended by sharp denunciations of the broader inequities—white supremacy, imperialism, patriarchy, exploitation—on which the oil industry depends and which, in turn, it creates. In this respect, The Licit Life of Capitalism contributes to a renewed debate over how to analyze American racial formations and global racial capitalism in the discipline of African studies which has historically and purposefully excluded such analyses [i]. Oil thus appears in The Licit Life of Capitalism not only as the cause of global racial inequality, but as a product of the unequal world in which it exists.

The first substantive chapter on “The Offshore” introduces an analytical technique that shines through to the book’s final conclusions. Here, it becomes clear that “offshore” does not accurately describe the industry’s still heavy—and at times disastrous—involvement with the places from which it extracts oil. But rather than reveal the “offshore” as a mistake or misconception, Appel demonstrates how the metaphor is “made real through its consequential effects in the world” (40). In the wake of massive oil spills and political disasters elsewhere—particularly in nearby Nigeria—the industry instituted a wave of “highly ritualized safety practices” (63) and audit controls to reassure shareholders that their investments were not at risk. The “offshore” thus became a guiding metaphor for an industry which desperately desired less political friction and more mobile methods of extraction. Appel argues that deepwater drilling—and the new metaphor of the “offshore” which came to describe it—was not only the result of a geologic need, but was also the result of a political need: the risk of the industry’s sociopolitical membership in Equatorial Guinea was, apparently, too high. 

Housing for oil workers and their wives seemed to solve a similar problem, while at the same time exporting a host of old racialized and gendered inequalities from the United States. In the following chapter titled “The Enclave”, “white womanhood” (82) appears as a “constitutive piece of the licit life of capitalism in Equatorial Guinea” (83). Appel follows the domestic life of a group of mostly white women, many from Texas, who are married to mostly white American men who work in the industry. This chapter takes us on a global tour of similarly separated forms—the plantation, the company town, the zone—to elucidate the specificity of the oil industry’s enclave. But it also paints an incredibly intimate portrait of the costs—lost careers, loneliness, guilt—and ethical compromises that these women were willing to make on behalf of their own families and their own bank accounts, or as Appel puts it, “on behalf of the licit life of capitalism” (83). Appel provocatively concludes that the shame and anguish these women feel about their lives recalls what Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (2013) term the “problematic of coalition”, in which “stupid motherfucker[s]” (Appel, 2019: 136) don’t recognize how the social hierarchies from which they benefit are actually killing them, too.

Presumably, the Guinean and Filipino laborers that appear in the following chapters on “The Contract” and “The Subcontract” have made similarly contentious compromises. And Appel only narrowly evades implying that these workers are also “stupid motherfuckers” by highlighting how they are entering into highly complex labor contracts with wages that are only a fraction of the “uplift salaries” (p. 136) enjoyed by their mostly white, mostly American counterparts. Creating this complicated hall of contractual mirrors is one of the oil industry’s central risk-management strategies. And within it, Appel finds that the salaries agreed to in these labor contracts are not based on the cost of living in workers’ place of residency, but on their nationality. Similarly, the industry’s modular “production sharing contracts” tie the sovereign nation-state of Equatorial Guinea to the losing end of continually re-negotiated fiscal revenues from oil. This points to a massive gap between the revenues of the American oil industry and the revenues it distributes to the rest of the world. According to Appel, it is these contracts that, “render licit, liberal even, that imperially inflected gap” (144). While this analysis points to how these contracts legitimize inequality, future research could examine precisely how such methods of labor valuation have been introduced, circulated, and transformed.

This brings readers to a chapter titled “The Economy” which claims that “the national economy” emerged as “a privileged object, perhaps the privileged object, in official discourse” (211). In the wake of the discovery of oil in the 1990s, the Equatorial Guinean government began hosting a series of conferences related to national economic planning. Appel takes us to the latest of these meetings, in which there appeared a rare, unfamiliar, and often illegal object: documents. And more specifically, a “series of unprecedented documents filled with predictions about the resource curse and statistics of unknown origin” (219). Despite their mysterious provenance and dubious accuracy, the papers on which these statistics were printed became a coveted object for officials and investors alike. Yet counter to this chapter’s central claims, it is not evident how much official discourse privileged ““the national economy”” (210). For example, a German businessman was the lone informant to invoke the concept at the conference, and officials subsequently instructed him “repeatedly and loudly to end his presentation” (220).[ii] Nevertheless, this chapter does reveal how descriptive statistics—which are elsewhere often associated with something called “the economy”—offered a new way to envision the nation’s economic future and to evaluate its present.

A similar set of accounting issues appears in the concluding chapter on “The Political”. Here, an international transparency initiative and one office of the Equatorial Guinean government assembled a group of “civil society partners” to oversee the documentation and publication of public oil revenues. While confirming existing anthropological critiques of how transparency often conceals and depoliticizes more than it reveals, Appel also argues that it creates “new kinds of space for political speech” (266). The initiative opened some room for debate over fiscal issues—namely, corruption—but this chapter concludes that transparency nevertheless “failed, on its own terms” (277). “Politics” was purposefully circumscribed to include only the set of civil society partners already approved by the government, and was limited to a questionably consensual conversation with oil industry representatives over which revenues should be accounted for—and thus rendered “transparent”—and which should not. This finding leads readers into one of the major conclusions of the book: “liberalism…is too much in the service of capitalism to work as a trenchant form of politics” (278).


I understand The Licit Life of Capitalism as a call for more ethnographically and empirically detailed accounts of what many scholars continue to gloss as “something called “capitalism”” (29)—and I would add to this glossary “apartheid”, “imperialism”, “liberalism”, and “neoliberalism”. For Appel, “Capitalism is not a context. It is a project” (2). And it is a project revealed here through an “intimate knowledge of capitalism itself” (emphasis added, 34) derived from observations of all the ways that the oil industry attempts to hide itself “offshore”. In this book, Appel claims to elicit the empirical fact of capitalism through participant observation, interviews, and the analysis of key documents in Equatorial Guinea. And it is this methodological approach which brings us to a set of questions on which I would like to dwell for the rest of this review: how does capitalism appear in The Licit Life of Capitalism? And how might its appearance advance reflection on capitalism more generally?

A strength of The Licit Life of Capitalism is that it demonstrates how the “offshore” and the “resource curse” came to have a performative force in the world. The experts, officials, managers, and laborers that appear in the pages of this book all invoke these concepts as analytical tools with which to make sense of the world around them, and to frame their collective and individual actions in it. In other words, these concepts and their effects were elicited as ethnographic facts. And yet, there is one such concept that was not elicited as an ethnographic fact in Equatorial Guinea: “Capitalism”. Following Appel, in this review I purposefully put ““capitalism”” (29) in quotes when I refer to the concept of capitalism as an ethnographic fact. I will also capitalize the “C” (144) to call attention to the proper noun qualities and agentic capacities that many critical reflections provide for it.

This “Capitalism” is perhaps expectedly missing from “the mouths of migrant managers” (280) and of their superiors and subordinates who appear in The Licit Life of Capitalism. While it is likely that Texan oilmen and their families—and perhaps also Equatorial Guinean officials and the industry’s racially diverse workforce—would jump to the defense of capitalism if given the opportunity, such conversations do not appear here. As Appel notes, critical concepts did not have much “liveliness in the field” (282). In other words, there was no “talk of Capitalism” (Cf. Caldeira, 2000) among any of the informants that appear in the data presented in this book. So, although Appel claims that “capitalism in its own image…becomes a project, a constant ongoing experiment, a desire, a haunted hope” (26), it is not clear to whom this project or desire belongs. And it does not appear that her informants' project is to make capitalism “seem smooth” (4) or distant, even though it might appear this way to some of us outsiders. Instead, their projects appear to be much more delimited, diverse, and familiar to those involved in the mundane work of the industry: creating more oil, more income, more revenues, less failure, and less risk. But “Capitalism” never appears. 

What does appear, however, is a discussion of the performative work of concepts. So, how might this analytic be brought to bear on “Capitalism”? One way to do this is to analyze what I will call “the Capitalism effect”. 

The Capitalism effect is the scholarly and popular reflection on the ensemble of techniques through which capital is composed, circulated, and confined. And by capital, I refer here to its common meaning today: the stock of wealth intended for reinvestment in assets and industries thought to produce more capital. The popularity of such reflections emerges in response to specific situations in which capitalism comes to appear—and subsequently disappear—as the appropriate frame with which to address contemporary problems. As a result, many understand capitalism to exist in the world as a moral philosophy, a mode of production, a global transformation, a historical era, a context of contexts, and now “a project” (2). In these understandings, “Capitalism” creates the appearance of a world divided between what is and is not considered capitalism, often with a moral judgement about its desirability. And introducing critiques of capitalism has the further effect that others will respond with new intellectual and programmatic defenses of it. In short, there is a wealth of reflection and intervention about capitalism. But such reflections and interventions also create “Capitalism” (144) as a “durable and consequential” (145) form with its own ensemble of social and material effects. This is the Capitalism effect. 

Returning to The Licit Life of Capitalism, where is capitalism? Consider, for a moment, an experimental reading of Elizabeth Povinelli (2006) in which we imagine her to be referring to capitalism: “it is located nowhere but in its continual citation as the motivating logic and aspiration of dispersed and competing social and cultural experiments” (13, quoted in Appel, 2019: 5). What Povinelli would be referring to here is the desire for capitalism as it appears in this book. It would also refer to what I have termed the Capitalism effect. To analyze this effect, we can begin by noting that it is Appel’s desire—not her informants’—to invoke “Capitalism” as an analytical tool with which to make sense of what was going on in Equatorial Guinea. Such an invocation continues a long-held ethnographic convention—and often, requirement—that evidence collection and analysis are mostly separated in time and space. So, “Capitalism” here remains a concept apart from empirics, but the two are brought together in the pages of The Licit Life of Capitalism. As a result, this “Capitalism” is now available to this book’s reading public as an ethnographic fact available for our own analysis—a logos whose ethnos could be conceptualized as critical thought.

I take The Licit Life of Capitalism as a provocation about the location of capitalism, whether in the universe of scholarly writing or appearing, at certain times, “in the wild” as a critical concept (Callon 2007, quoted in Appel, 2019: 30). And I take Appel’s reflection on the “capacious and consequential capitalist project” (36) as an invitation to expand the kinds of empirical objects that scholars consider to be the appropriate methodological starting points in the study of this capitalism. For example, capitalism has emerged in this text through a familiar process: a researcher analyzed her data and communicated this analysis to a reading public. But it also emerges “in the wild” through a different process: when (some) informants analyze the world and communicate this analysis to their own diverse publics. My argument here is that this universe of critical reflection on “Capitalism” and its effects are particularly worthy of scholarly investigation because they may very well be the most central component of the capitalist project today. Indeed, critical intellectuals introduced this concept (Chiapello, 2007), and it is their publics that today continue to reflect on, adapt, and act in terms of a scholarly concept popularized in the 19th century.  

So, what is at stake in introducing “Capitalism” to the analysis of an ethnographic field that does not reflect on it? And how might researchers take the scholarly and popular reflections on capitalism—and their effects in the wild—as objects of inquiry? 

To start, imagine that Timothy Mitchell (1991) was referring to capitalism when he argued that “the distinction made between the conceptual realm and an empirical one needs to be placed in question if we are to understand the nature of a phenomenon like the state” (82). In this way, analyzing the Capitalism effect could bring scholars closer to a more explicit analysis of what is at stake in introducing such concepts in the first place. Do they reveal a new aspect of capital of which we were previously unaware? Or do they obscure it? Do they open new and diverse political terrains in which to advance a contrasting moral vision? Or do they foreclose them? What, in other words, are the political effects of texts like The Licit Life of Capitalism? Which publics do they address and which publics ultimately form around them? The purpose of such research questions is not to encourage scholars to debate in the abstract if they should or should not continue using “Capitalism” as an analytical or descriptive device—nor is it to criticize them for using it. Rather, the purpose is to expand research on capitalism by taking the invocation of this concept and its effects as legitimate objects of research. 

On this point, consider Pap Ndiaye’s disposition towards the idea and identity of race in France: in the July 12, 2019 issue of Le Monde, he suggested that “there is always a cost of entry when we become interested in such emergent fields—we further open ourselves to critique and to the process of identitarisme” [iii]. With this “cost” in mind, some scholars of francophone Black studies—of which Ndiaye is an exemplary voice—approach the problem of race with a rather suspicious disposition: by invoking racial concepts, one could ask, will those identified as people of African descent be reduced to Black subjection (Mbembe, 2017; Ndiaye, 2008)?  Ndiaye remains skeptical of racial “identities” and “communities” which, as he argues, still risk “weaving a bad cloth of identitarisme” (2019). But he tentatively decides that race is worth this cost of entry, because such concepts can “reach a much larger audience with a stronger sense of civic and social purpose” (2019), an audience now able to turn their collective attention to the “shared experience linked to the negative social marker of black skin” (2008: 65). 

Ndiaye’s tentative attitude towards race could be productively brought to capitalism: by invoking “Capitalism”, will the world be reduced to capitalist subjection? How is this concept’s “cost of entry” known? And why is this concept reappearing today? Debates over “Capitalism” are not new, and they have regularly reappeared in various forms across many corners of popular and academic debate. And although scholars take diverse approaches, many share one common desire: to advance a new definition of capitalism. Indeed, these definitions are as complex as they are abundant. [iv] Yet while some scholars have gestured towards a curiosity about “the work that ideas [like capitalism] do in the world” (Mann, 2019: 1186), few have operationalized this curiosity into a research project.

To advance such a research project, it will be helpful to continue taking cues from similar debates in different scholarly fields. Consider, for a moment, how scholars in urban studies have sought to define “the urban”, “the city”, or “gentrification” [v]. These debates resulted in a flurry of competing definitions, yet it is still rare to pose questions about how non-academics live with these concepts or use them to frame problems (Barnett & Bridge, 2016) [vi]. The dearth of research on such questions is exemplary of what Austin Zeiderman (2018) terms the “enclave of urban theory”. In this enclave, conceptual debates “have been largely confined to a theoretical register” (1115) in which “theoretical” denotes that scholars are discussing their own abstract concepts. Zeiderman argues that one way to loosen the deadlock of these abstract definitional debates is to “examine the social lives of our concepts beyond the enclave of urban theory” (2008: 1123). 

So, what is the social life of “Capitalism” beyond the enclave of critical theory? And why has it emerged—once again—as a popular framing for a host of contemporary problems?

In the United States, the concept is today living a vibrant and popular life in which a surprising array of officials and activists are once again bringing it to light in a diversity of public spheres. And there is similar resurgence across Africa, in which young entrepreneurs are advancing a distinctly continental idiom of “Africapitalism” to which its critics are opposed (Ouma, 2020). Indeed, being for or against capitalism seems to be back on the moral agenda [vii] Luckily, scholars have long been experimenting with tools to understand and transform the effects of “Capitalism” in the wild. In their insightful couplet of belatedly influential texts, J.K. Gibson-Graham (1996, 2006) decades ago questioned the costs of critical intellectuals’ propensity to reduce all economic activity to being essentially capitalist. And in their first book, they offered readers a way to re-imagine economic life by refusing something they called “capitalocentrism”: the idea that most social life is “fundamentally the same as (or modeled upon) capitalism…; as being opposite to capitalism; as being a compliment to capitalism; as existing in capitalism’s space” (6). And they posed a series of anti-essentialist provocations: Are all markets capitalist? Are all business enterprises capitalist? Is all paid labor and urban land necessarily capitalist? Is a non-capitalist bank possible? Why do people always capitalize the “C”?! 

Even more importantly, they invited readers to feel differently about capitalism: “what practices of thinking and feeling, what dispositions and attitudes, what capacities can we cultivate to displace the familiar mode of being the anti-capitalist subject, with its negative and stymied positioning?” (2006: xxxv). Early on, this feminist critique was not well received (Gibson-Graham, 1996: viii), and a similarly incredulous attitude towards their intervention has persisted since. To take just one ethnographic example, I attended a small roundtable discussion at Temple University in 2011 in which a prominent Marxist scholar from Manhattan dismissed their work for its inability to “meet Capitalism at the same level of totality” (capitalization assumed). To demonstrate, he held up his hands in a common gesture meant to mimic an unbalanced scale. Such criticisms are widespread. But one effect of their ubiquity is to obscure a central focus of Gibson-Graham’s thought: their aim was not only to describe and decenter capitalism as it appeared to them, but to conduct an analysis of the effects of this description. 

There has since been an exciting wave of reflection and intervention taking Gibson-Graham’s feminist critique in new directions [viii]. And The Licit Life of Capitalism clearly advances this scholarship: rather than attempting to determine what “Capitalism” is by returning to an abstract debate over Marx, Appel just moves quickly to an ethnographic scene in which people are creating a particularly consequential commodity. The Licit Life of Capitalism does not provide a clear or precise definition of what capitalism is or should be. And instead, it offers an ethnographic account of the people and things usually associated with “Capitalism”, leaving any definitional disputes or new capitalist adjectives to simply haunt the margins of the text. However, Appel still conceptualizes the lives of workers and their families as a “constitutive piece” (83) of a capitalism which remains at the center of this book’s analysis. And unlike the action research of the Gibson-Grahamian Community Economies Collective, the effects of Appel’s concepts have yet to be documented or analyzed: what, for example, will activists, anti-capitalists, laborers, wives, economists, oil executives, and other academics think of The Licit Life of Capitalism and its “Capitalism”? Who will be its audience? And to what effect?

Until now, many of this book’s critical interlocutors have been—perhaps diplomatically—obscured by the passive voice. For example, when discussing the anthropological propensity to deconstruct, Appel counters that, “something widely recognized as global capitalism persists despite that kind of deconstructive work” (3). In this way, the critics doing this widespread recognizing—those for whom capitalism “seems smooth” (4)—are conjured away from the scene. Similarly, in this “project we know as global capitalism” (171), I still wonder who exactly is this “we” that recognizes it as such? Where are they discussing their recognition? How do they recognize capitalism today? What kind of programs, techniques, and interventions arise out of such a reflection? And crucially: how is it that this “we” has come to frame a vast diversity of contemporary problems in terms of capitalism? 

These questions are outside the scope of this book, because “Capitalism” did not appear in Equatorial Guinea as an ethnographic fact. But these questions are within the scope of an analysis of the Capitalism effect. In The Licit Life of Capitalism, this effect appears only in gestures to its mysterious interlocutors, object, and audience. Appel (2019) has elsewhere reflected on the stakes of addressing diverse audiences and is here successfully pulling together one such audience around this “highly anticipated ethnography” (Jobson, 2020: 5). Indeed, this book addresses a “we” that is increasingly—and once again—framing a host of contemporary problems in terms of capitalism and its diverse forms. In other words, Appel is participating in a process of critical reflection through which a set of identifiable problems and solutions are formed [ix]. And although this capitalist problematic is reappearing today, it should not be immediately evident to what it is a response: it may not be that there is empirically more or worse capitalism today, but that there is more attention to it. This attentive response is precisely what I am curious about (see also Appel, 2014), and there is still much to be learned about the heightened concern with capitalism today. Yet rather than analyze such concerns, many scholars are selecting to advance and intervene in them.  

Screenshot from the film Atlantics by Mati Diop (2019)

The Licit Life of Capitalism is one such intervention. In it, Appel offers readers a new way to conjure up capitalism itself: “as spectral” (33) or, perhaps, as haunted by “unforeseen implications and potentials” (Simone, 2011). At times, Appel imbues this spectral capitalism with proper noun agency such that it becomes possible to refer to “capitalism in its own image” (33). But just as quickly she whisks this agency away, turning our attention once again to the specific people, places, and things that are struggling to create oil. In this sense, The Licit Life of Capitalism could be understood as a creatively uncanny argument: familiar enough to address an audience who still desires to unveil—and avenge—the original sins of Capitalism, but with the strange and discomfiting disappearance of such a Capitalism from the scene of the crime. In this spirit, Appel offers a rejoinder to the danger that this book will nevertheless make “capitalism seem more coherent and hermetic than it is in reality” (emphasis added, 33). To protect from this danger, Appel reveals capitalism “in its own image of scalability, efficiency, and disembeddedness” as nothing more than “desire, aspiration, failure” (33).  

And yet, in this review, I’ve taken Appel’s rejoinder as an invitation to reconsider the location of this desire and how it might be linked to a rise in critical reflections on capitalism today. The spectral capitalism as it appears in this book should leave readers with an uneasy sense of where capitalism exists—if at all. And this brings a similarly uneasy feeling that denouncing this capitalism by conjuring the failures that haunt it could leave an anti-capitalist audience tilting at windmills: the industry, as this book reveals, is already aware of these ghosts; it just frames them differently. This contemporary conjuring is, I think, what The Licit Life of Capitalism invites readers to reflect on. And what it encourages us to be curious about. 

In short, it seems that the specters of capitalism continue to haunt critical thought. And reflecting on these ghosts as they appear in The Licit Life of Capitalism has elicited a new concept—the Capitalism effect. In return, this concept leaves one question to haunt future reflections: are industries like oil giving life to capitalism? Or, might a resurgent conjuring of “Capitalism” among critical intellectuals and their publics be doing the bulk of the heavy lifting for the capitalist project, while industry goes along churning out—and depending on—inequality, oil, profit, and capital without taking the time to weigh in about its status as a conceptual, societal, global, or historical “-ism”? The Licit Life of Capitalism should remind readers that the specters of capitalism are part of an (anti)capitalist “fantasy” (Healy & Gibson-Graham, 2019: 1183) which is once again framing a host of new problems in its own terms. In return, readers might “learn to live with ghosts” (Derrida, 1996: xviii). 

UYANA WELANGA (I) By Cigna Samson (2018)
[i]  This is a renewed scholarly conversation around how to address this exclusion (Allman, 2019) which is advancing long-held criticisms of the discipline of African studies in the United States (Drake, 1984; Skinner, 1976)
[ii] In chapter four, oneGuinean laborer also references “the economy” in his discussion about what he terms “the rules of the economy” (186). But this invocation is not a part of the official discourse analyzed in chapter five.  
[iii] Identitarisme is a concept that emerged to describe far right claims to white propriety over—and foreign exclusion from—European territories after World War II. It is today used in France as a pejorative metaphor to refer to any group asserting the primacy of their particular claims over that of the general (here, national) collective.
[iv] Fred Block (2018), for example, has recently criticized the concept of capitalism as an “illusion”, arguing that many “societies” may not be capitalist and that scholars should stop referring to them as such. Some have disagreed with Block and argued that the concept should not be abandoned because it helps illuminate a worldwide process (Potts, 2019), and that it should be further refined, diversified, and expanded to more accurately reflect actually existing forms of “variegated capitalism” (Peck, 2019) at a diversity of scales (Clark, 2019). In contrast, others have sought to question the size and importance of this form by “putting global capitalism in its place” (Yang, 2000); to reveal how capitalist commodities were perhaps previously gifts (Tsing, 2015); to define capitalism as relations in which one’s survival is “governed by rules of competition and profit” (Li, 2014: 4); or to “produce a vision of capitalism” as a “complex hegemonic order” of “the network of trade and market relations” (Sanyal, 2014: 7-13).
[v] Scholars have recently advanced several competing conceptions of “the city” and “the urban” (Brenner & Schmid, 2015; Robinson and Roy, 2016; Scott and Storper, 2015) and a similar controversy emerged around the concept of “gentrification”around the same time (Ghertner, 2015; López-Morales, 2015).
[vi] Indeed, there appears to be only one article that gives full analytical priority to how people outside the academy invoke “gentrification” in diverse ways to advance their own moral claims (Werth& Marienthal, 2016). And one other which takes a related empirical approach to “the city” (Lauermann, 2016).
[vii] This includes the panoply of new condemnations of capitalism from American politicians and activists, alongside the intellectuals that are talking about it today (Latour et al, 2018). But it also includes the programmatic defenses of capitalism that have arisen in response (see Krugman, 2018; Piketty, 2020; Stiglitz, 2019).
[viii] A fantastic anthropological forum has consolidated one such approach into a “manifesto” for research (Bearet al., 2015) and the Communities Economies Collective has similarly expanded its compendium of experiments in non-capitalist alternatives (Roelvink et al.,2015).
[ix] Michel Foucault (1984) described problematization as the“transformation of a group of obstacles and difficulties into problems which the diverse solutions will attempt to produce a response” (389). Here, I am thinking with a host of scholars who have advanced Foucault’s reflections on problematization in various ways (Barnett & Bridge, 2016; Callon, 2009; Collier& Lakoff, 2015; Scott, 2013)


Kevin Donovan, Brittany Meché, Alex Werth, and Geoff Aung offered so many thoughtful comments and criticisms of this article, for which I am deeply grateful. Many thanks to Charmaine Chua for the chance to write a less than traditional review and, as always, to Hannah Appel for her inspiration and encouragement.


Allman JM (2019) #HerskovitsMustFall? A Meditation on Whiteness, African Studies, and the Unfinished Business of 1968. African Studies Review 62(3): 6–39. 
Appel H (2014) Occupy Wall Street and the Economic Imagination. Cultural Anthropology 29(4). 4: 602–625. 
Appel H (2019) To Critique or not to Critique? That is (perhaps not) the Question…. Journal of Business Anthropology 8(1): 29–34.
Barnett, C. and Bridge, G., 2016. The situations of urban inquiry: thinking problematically about the city. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 40(6), pp.1186-1204.
Bear L (2015) Gens: A Feminist Manifesto for the Study of Capitalism.
Block FL (2018) Capitalism: The Future of an Illusion. Oakland, California: University of California Press.
Brenner N and Schmid C (2015) Towards a new epistemology of the urban? City 19(2–3). Routledge: 151–182. 
Caldeira TP (2000) City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paulo. Univ of California Press.
Callon M (2007) “What does it mean to say that economics is performative?” In Do Economists Make Markets? On the Performativity of Economics, edited by Donald A. MacKenzie, Fabian Muniesa, and Lucia Siu. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.
Callon M (2009) Civilizing markets: Carbon trading between in vitro and in vivo experiments. Accounting, organizations and society, 34(3-4), pp.535-548.
Chiapello E (2007) Accounting and the birth of the notion of capitalism. Critical Perspectives on Accounting 18(3). Elsevier: 263–296.
Collier S. and Lakoff A (2015) Vital systems security: Reflexive biopolitics and the government of emergency. Theory, Culture & Society, 32(2), pp.19-51.
Clark J (2019) Remodeling capitalism: A return to scale. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 51(5): 1178–1180. 
Derrida J (1996) Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Routledge.
Drake StC (1984) Black Studies and Global Perspectives: An Essay. The Journal of Negro Education 53(3). Journal of Negro Education: 226–242. 
Foucault M (1984) Polemics, politics and problematizations. In P. Rabinow (ed.), The Foucault Reader. Pantheon Books. 
Ghertner DA (2015) Why gentrification theory fails in ‘much of the world’. City 19(4). Routledge: 552–563. 
Gibson-Graham JK (1996) The End of Capitalism (as We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy; with a New Introduction. U of Minnesota Press.
Gibson-Graham JK (2006) A Postcapitalist Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Harney S and Moten F (2013) The undercommons: Fugitive planning and black study. Minor Compositions.
Healy S and Gibson-Graham J (2019) Fred Block, capitalist illusions, inhabiting post-capitalist desires. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 51(5): 1181–1185. 
Jobson, R.C., 2020. The case for letting anthropology burn: Sociocultural anthropology in 2019. American Anthropologist, 122(2): 259-271.
Krugman P (2018) Capitalism, Socialism, unfreedom. The New York Times. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/26/opinion/capitalism-socialism-and-unfreedom.html (accessed 6 November 2020). 
Latour B, Stengers I, Tsing A and Bubandt N (2018. Anthropologists are talking–about capitalism, ecology, and apocalypse. Ethnos, 83(3): 587-606.
Li T (2014) Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier. Durham ; London: Duke University Press.
López-Morales E (2015) Gentrification in the global South. City 19(4). Routledge: 564–573. 
MacKenzie DA, Muniesa F and Siu L (2007) Do Economists Make Markets?: On the Performativity of Economics. Princeton University Press.
Mann G (2019) Magnetic capitalism. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 51(5): 1186–1189. 
Mbembe A (2017) Critique of Black Reason. Duke University Press.
Mitchell T (1991) The Limits of the State: Beyond Statist Approaches and their Critics. American Political Science Review 85(1): 77–96. 
Mitchell T (1998) Fixing The Economy. Cultural Studies 12(1): 82–101. 
Mitchell T (1999) Society, economy, and the state effect. State/culture: State-formation after the cultural turn 76: 90.
Ndiaye P (2008) La Condition Noire: Essai Sur Une Minorité Française. Calmann-Lévy.
Ouma S (2020) ‘Africapitalism’ and the limits of any variant of capitalism. Review of African Political Economy. Available at https://roape.net/2020/07/16/africapitalism-and-the-limits-of-any-variant-of-capitalism/ (accessed 10 December 2020). 
Peck J (2019) Problematizing capitalism(s): Big difference? Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 51(5): 1190–1196. 
Piketty T (2020) Capital and Ideology. Harvard University Press.
Potts S (2019) Defining capitalism: The case for (relational) abstraction. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 51(5): 1197–1200. 
Povinelli EA (2006) The Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality. Duke University Press.
Robinson J and Roy A (2016) Debate on Global Urbanisms and the Nature of Urban Theory: Debates & Developments. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40(1): 181–186. 
Roelvink G, Martin KS and Gibson-Graham JK (2015) Making Other Worlds Possible: Performing Diverse Economies. U of Minnesota Press.
Sanyal K (2014) Rethinking Capitalist Development: Primitive Accumulation, Governmentality and Post-Colonial Capitalism. Routledge.
Scott AJ and Storper M (2015) The Nature of Cities: The Scope and Limits of Urban Theory. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 39(1): 1–15. 
Scott, D., 2004. Conscripts of modernity: The tragedy of colonial enlightenment. Duke University Press. 
Simone, A. (2012). Infrastructure: Introductory Commentary by AbdouMaliq Simone. Curated Collections, Cultural Anthropology Online.
Skinner EP (1976) African Studies, 1955-1975: An Afro-American Perspective. Issue: A Journal of Opinion 6(2/3). Cambridge University Press: 57–67. 
Stiglitz J (2019) People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent. Penguin UK.
Stiglitz JE (2019) After neoliberalism. Project Syndicate. Available at https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/after-neoliberalism-progressive-capitalism-by-joseph-e-stiglitz-2019-05 (accessed 6 November 2020).
Tsing AL (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press.
Werth A and Marienthal E (2016) ‘Gentrification’ as a grid of meaning: On bounding the deserving public of Oakland First Fridays. City 20(5): 719–736. 
Yang MM (2000) Putting Global Capitalism in Its Place: Economic Hybridity, Bataille, and Ritual Expenditure. Current Anthropology 41(4): 477–509. 
Zeiderman A (2018) Beyond the Enclave of Urban Theory. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 42(6): 1114–1126.

James Christopher Mizes is an IFRIS postdoctoral research fellow at the Institut de Recherche Interdisciplinaire en Sciences Sociales at the Université Paris-Dauphine. His research focuses on fiscal and financial politics in West African and North American cities.