Political Economic Theory in Clara Han’s “Life in Debt”
‘Life in Debt’, by the anthropologist Clara Han, is not the easiest read. It is based upon three years of ethnographic research in Chile, a country with a long troubled past (including a dictatorship), and it is densely filled with information. Today Chile is one of South America’s most prosperous nations and has attracted considerable foreign interest. Han’s ethnography is concerned with a specific area of Santiago known as ‘La Pincoya’, a low-class neighbourhood which locals label as dangerous and drug-laden. In the following essay I shall analyse in close detail her use of anthropological theory in analysing her data, in addition to the strengths and weaknesses of using this theory.
To first paint a picture of where this ethnography is set, La Pincoya is located in the north-east of Santiago, in the suburb of ‘Huerchuraba.’ It is bordered on one side by a small business sector that includes CNN and other prominent companies, and on the other by a trendy, residential area which it is separated from by a series of large hills. La Pincoya is, however, of a different calibre to the above. It contains small streets lined with coloured houses and fenced patios; sometimes the yards are completely enclosed by tall gates or iron placed in a ramshackle fashion, while house windows are barred, the roads full of potholes and the pavements broken and filled with street dogs. People here know little of life outside of La Pincoya (except what they learn from the media) and life is communal as neighbours are both friendly and close. In the patio of some of the houses, at regular intervals, you can find stores which sell an assortment of things one might need such as garlic, batteries, tampons and coca-cola. This is a distinctly lower class neighbourhood and a world away from middle-class suburbs such as Nunoa, or the vast exclusive districts that resemble the leafy parks and stately homes of England. La Pincoya is dusty and full of concrete, but it also full of character, laughter and people like any other suburb.
Before identifying Han’s theoretical approach I would like to draw attention to the metaphorical spider’s web because it helps to visualise what culture is and why theory is used. The theorists Clifford Geertz (1926) and Arthur Radcliff-Brown (1881) both use webs as a way of explaining how culture and society are dependent upon numerous strata, each with the power to affect the other. The many strands of this web represent different aspects of society that together make a whole – a ‘social organism’ if you will (Barnard, 2000: 62). This is a striking notion because (in my eyes) each theoretical approach appears to differ only slightly from another, making the choice of theoretical framework all the more difficult. Furthermore, the ‘living’ nature of society makes analytical observation impossible due to its tendency to evolve, however this does allow for small pockets to be observed depending upon what the anthropologist is looking for. In the case of Han, there are three areas which dominate her work. The first is kinship, which follows the path set by Bronislaw Malinowski (1884), Edmund Leech (1910) and Claude Levi-Strauss (1908). Han focuses her data-collection on the social visits she makes to families (specifically the family matriarch) in their homes. She then explores relationships in this context while looking at the descent systems that are being passed on using participant-observation and interview as her modes of viewing. Her second theoretical approach is political economy, as she notices that many of these descent systems are the result of “centuries of social, political, economic, and cultural processes” (Roseberry, 1988 in Morris, 2015: 2). She chooses to highlight many of these political and economic processes and how they have created a social existence that has contributed to the consciousness of the inhabitants (Marx, 1971 in Morris, 2015: 2). This is closely related to the third theory that I see evidence of, which is the search to see how power has become influential and then a part of a society’s epistemology as per Michel Foucault (in Morris, 2015: 1). In numerous ways Han has traced to those things which have the most power over the inhabitants of La Pincoya – whether that be credit cards or pasta base – and then links to how they have become embedded as part of the local discourse. She uses Foucault’s theory of ‘normalisation’ to trace how monetary spending and consumer habits have become linked at the micro-level in an effort to ‘fit in’ (Morris, 2015: 4).
It is thus evident that all of the above points appear to be related although many can be attributed to class and economics, for example the introduction states that Han will “explore how political and economic forces are realized in people’s lives’ (2012: 6). Accordingly, I shall focus upon Political Economic theory. The introduction defines the current system in place, which Karl Marx has defined as “the superstructure” (in Morris, 2015: 2). Han explains that it draws upon the University of Chicago’s economic theory, of which encompasses “all of human action and sociality, and economic science was the analysis of and intervention into this reality” (Burchell & Lemke in Han, 2012: 6). Chile, she writes, became a testing ground for this theory in the 1970’s, with its “economic manifestation (…) as the structuring principle for life itself, the market became the primary mode of governance (…) actors made choices in their own self-interest” (Han, 2012: 7). During the oppressive years under the dictator, Augusto Pinochet, many state-owned enterprises such as health care were privatised, banks were deregulated and “the economy was opened up to the global market by reducing trade barriers and passing new foreign investment laws” (Han, 2012: 8). The eventual result of many of these decisions profoundly affected Santiago’s urban poor while at the same time Chile was celebrated across the globe as a shining example of neoliberal reform (Han, 2012: 9). Macroeconomics has therefore divided Santiago into a city with obvious class distinctions: the urban elites, who live in their isolated bubbles, the striving middle class, and those at the lower rung which the anthropologist Eric Wolf would label as ‘proletarian’ (Morris, 2015: 4). To be defined as proletarian, residents of La Pincoya must be alienated from any Means of Production except their own labour. Han follows Senora Flora and her family who have no ability to sustain themselves as they live in a property “scavenged from construction sites” that was furnished by “bank loans and department store credit” (Han, 2012: 28). When Rodrigo, the patriarch, loses his job in a textile factory the family have no choice but to take all the odd jobs they can to pay utility and loan bills (Han, 2012: 29). Their position is thus so far removed from the Means of Production that the only thing they have to exchange is themselves and their labour, or in other words “Only under capitalism does human labour become a commodity to be bought and sold” (Hands, 2000 in Morris, 2015: 4).
That which can be bought and sold is a tenement of the Capitalist Mode of Production. Known as commodities, these are things which are produced for sale and judged according to its exchange value (Morris, 2015: 4). It’s exchange value is dependent upon its use value to the consumer, and this use value has no relationship to the market (Morris, 2015: 4). How, then, do things receive use value and how can this be seen in La Pincoya? For starters, the far-reaching arms of the media have considerable power because it helps to create and adjust the narrative at large. As an example, Han refers to a 2005 newspaper article which stated that the number of Chilean households in debt have risen at elevated rates that are above the growth of their incomes, and that the highest percentage of these debts are owed to department stores (2012: 31). However, the media downplayed this as an issue by writing that “indebtedness is natural (…) the greater the development of the country, the greater will be persons’ debts (…) [it is] less than in developed countries” (Han, 2012: 31). In one report in 2000, a reporter says “they bombard us with offers to change the car, the television, the house, without caring” (Han, 2012: 32). As political scientist Veronica Schild explains, now even “basic necessities (…) through credit has become ubiquitous” (2007 in Han, 2012: 33).
To enforce this, Han gives the relationship between house, individual and capitalism as an example. She writes that “the house is spoken of in terms of intimate kin relatedness – one’s ‘house of blood’’ and that one becomes committed to it (2012: 33). This highlights how a commodity can be afforded kinship-level status, even more so when its function is to strengthen connections both within and without (Han, 2012: 33). Renovating the house, cleaning it with all manner of products and adorning it nicely has therefore become a way to maintain relationships and pull women into further domestic relations (Han, 2012: 34). A further example can be found in Kevin, the husband of one Senora Flora’s daughters. Kevin was addicted to the drug pasta base, the derivative of the cocaine-making process and a highly addictive, very low-cost drug that plagues Santiago’s low-income neighbourhoods. While in the process of quitting drugs, Kevin dreamed of “buying myself [things] from here and there. And I had the desire to buy myself a car also (…) so I put myself to work” (Han, 2012: 35). This quotation shows that a) sobriety was viable if there were the option of commodities and b) that a certain commodity had the power to change his life. However, when a stroke gives him a bad hand and neurological damage, he opted to retire and his life became filled with panic attacks (Han, 2012: 35). Han writes that this is due to the power commodities have over actors, for in Kevin’s case “the desire and the wonder for the car could not be disassociated from a desire to work and to have a working body” (2012: 35). Further, pasta base has become “a pervasive concern, provoked by a general sense that the number of neighbourhood youth addicted to base is increasing” (Han, 2012: 35). The only reason Kevin and his wife Florcita began taking it was when “the family’s debts to department stores began to soar”, most likely due to improvements to the house and domestic relations (Han, 2012: 35). During this period, they sold all their possessions and took to stealing even from their family members, further impacting relations and perhaps (in a vicious cycle) prompting more house renovations (Han, 2012: 36). These improvements are not solely relegated to the home – any commodity may find a place in the social discourse. To deal with Kevin’s addiction, Senora Flora borrows her neighbour’s credit card (having reached the limit on her own) to buy him a stereo because she thinks music will calm his nerves, while his wife Florcita sells food from the house to pay for sleeping pills and alcohol to send him to sleep (Han, 2012: 37). Senora Flora and her family are not an isolated case. All across the lower-income neighbourhoods of Santiago the relationship between commodity, market and self have become enmeshed, causing “cycles of theft, destruction, and debt in households struggling with addictions to pasta base” (Han, 2012: 36). Commodities therefore are not simply something that capitalism needs but something that the actors have come to need as well. The above examples reveal just how far removed La Pincoya’s residents have come from Kin/Tribute-Modes of Production, and how the ripple effects of capitalism have entrenched themselves into the everyday narratives.
The benefits to Han’s approach are obvious because one cannot deny the invasive nature of capitalism. “Look for connections everywhere” Wolf proposes and Han does this – overwhelmingly so – across some two hundred and eighty pages (1982: 2). However, critics of political economic theory argue that placing too much emphasis upon modes of production comes at the cost of ignoring other structures of influence, along with human creativity and agency (Morris, 2015: 7). From my own standpoint living in a similar community close to La Pincoya, I would agree with this up to a point. I recall the theorist Alan Barnard who believed that “Societies have structures similar to those of organisms. Social institutions, like the parts of the body, function together within larger systems. The social systems, such as kinship, religion, politics and economics, together make up society” (2000: 62). There are numerous other strata which play a role in the construction of societal and cultural identity and it is this concern which I believe to be the most lacking in Han’s approach. For example, her analysis is limited to the years of Pinochet’s dictatorship until the present but this blinds her to additional influencing data, such as religion, geography, rural occupation, linguistics and gender division which all factor into this discussion. Han herself agrees: “the neighbours of La Pincoya may have very different ideologies to each other but this does not determine their identity” (2012: 20). I wonder then what does – a superstructure based on economic modes? The question is unanswered by Han. The most pressing question which I would have liked Han to answer is why capitalism is being integrated at such a rapid pace in places such as La Pincoya in comparison to the rates found in other areas of the globe with a similar history. This is a particularly pertinent question because many of the ideologies in La Pincoya may be “experienced in some form or another by major sectors of any working class population experiencing rapid structural change anywhere in the world” (Bourgois, 1995: 29). This is an important question to try to answer as it pertains to the crisis’ currently occurring in the domains of diet and health: Chile’s children are growing up with a radically different diet to their forebears with increasing wellbeing and obesity issues (Bambs, Cerda & Esalona, 2008). Within the realm of political economy, it would have also been beneficial to look at how the Modes of Production in Santiago differs from the rural areas of Chile, and how this change of pace may affect newly-settled people in the metropolis. To assist with all these questions, perhaps the adopting of Foucault principles would be beneficial to gauge the different contributions of power which may have been lacking under a political economy gaze.
The road to Capitalism has not been an easy one for the residents of La Pincoya, however it is hard to imagine a time when it was not present. I have seen through my own experiences just how firmly entrenched it has become, as it is continued by habit, education and tradition which is strengthened over time until it is “self evident laws of nature” (Marx, 1967 in Morris, 2015 6). Wolf wrote that the present cannot be understood without an understanding of the world market, and this cannot be achieved without a theory that can be applied to the unfolding processes (1982: 19). In ‘Life in Debt’, Han uses the theory devised by Wolf and laid out by Marx to discover the multi-layered effects and affects in a low-income suburb of Santiago. She searches through the multitude of ways in which institutions and social and moral debts have impacted, and continue to impact, upon La Pincoya through specific interactions with people going about their daily lives (Han, 2012: 168). She identifies the decisions made by Pinochet’s government as the leading cause of foreign interest in Chile, which has lead to the privatisation of many of the nation’s resources and later resulted in a steeply tiered class system within Santiago. She recognises that, despite being on the lower rungs of society, many of the lower classes are still able to participate in much of the same consumer trends as the middle and upper classes but with the price of great financial and emotional debt. Her ethnography is profoundly detailed and rich with information but what it includes blinds the reader to all that it excludes, namely other influencing factors that may form the superstructure of La Pincoya and Santiago. Regardless, there is truth to Han’s opening statement that “we can think of multiple ways in which the state is layered in people’s intimate lives” and therefore the use of the political economic approach was beneficial (2012: 17).
Bambs, Claudia, Jaime Cerda & Alex Escalona (2008). “Morbid obesity in a developing country: the Chilean experience”. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 86: 10, pp. 737-816. Retrieved 14 Junes 2015 from: http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/86/10/07-048785/en/
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Bourgois, Phillippe (1995). “From Jibaro to Crack Dealer: Confronting the Restructuring of Capitalism in El Barrio”. In Jayne Schneider and Rayna Rapp (eds), Articulating Hidden Histories: Exploring the Influence of Eric R. Wolf. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 125-141
Han, Clara (2012). Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile. University of California Press. Kindle Edition.
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Wolf, Eric R (1982). Introduction. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 3-23.