5th August 2013

Suspicious Money

What follows is an overview of my forthcoming new book, published by Paidos, titled “Las sospechas del dinero. Moral y economía en la vida popular” (Suspicious money. Morality, economy and the everyday life of poverty).

Additionally, an English translation of the book’s introduction can be downloaded here.

Suspicious money. Morality, economy and the everyday life of poverty

Tapa Wilkis SOSPECHAS_4

Street marketplaces in Mexico City, La Paz, or the outskirts of Buenos Aires are packed with goods and money, both of which permeate the dreams and hopes of the thousands of men and women who walk along the streets of these precarious places of purchase. Financial institutions now lend money to people along the outskirts of major cities: they have set up shop near the poorest neighborhoods, sometimes even in them. No longer a privilege of certain social classes, credit cards now represent a passport to the  consumer economy for informal workers, independent contractors, welfare beneficiaries, and young men from the shanty towns. Latin American governments have all adopted identical paradigms of social intervention in which money is simply handed out to the poor, with governments distributing money to families through plans drafted by experts at international institutions, like the Inter-American Development Bank or the World Bank.

This book argues that money has assumed a new role in the life of the poor in Latin American countries.

Money can circulate within quite different types of relationships, including commercial dealings, political activism, religious activities, love and family relationships, illegal trafficking and gambling. It is also associated with transnational developments like the globalization of goods, financialization, or the money transfer programs that transform the landscape of the poor. Due to money’s vast reach—encompassing the local and the transnational, the new and the traditional, the commercial and the emotional, all of which are entangled—it has acquired a new and central role in these people’s lives. Money is everywhere. All the dimensions of individual and social lives are connected by and through money, which becomes—to quote a concept very dear to Marcel Mauss— a total social fact.

This book is an invitation to think about this new role. To do so, it addresses the experience of the poor as a lab which enables money to be understood much more comprehensively than anywhere else.

Money has a long history in the Western world and has held responsible for an equally long list of wrongdoings. It has been accused of causing corruption and social disintegration. Viviana Zelizer (1994), whose works have been the main inspiration for this book, offers a vivid image to describe this point of view, in which money appears as an acid that dissolves social life. This book explores the tension between the suspiciousness of money and the actual reality of money in the individual and social lives of poor people.

From this standpoint, money becomes as crucial as pieces are to a jigsaw puzzle. Just as jigsaw puzzles require many different pieces, the multiple meanings and uses of money shape social life. Zelizer has outlined this idea in an exemplary manner in The Social Meaning of Money (1994). Without these different monetary pieces, it is not possible to complete the puzzle of individual and collective lives. A Suspicious money  approach would leave the puzzle incomplete. Money not only serves to express humiliation, corruption, or individualism, but also connects people through subjective aspects such as hope, affection, dreams, respect, pride, hatred, and conflict.

Bill Maurer (2006) suggests that the tension at the very core of money’s representations is critical, since none of these representations fully capture its meaning. In other words, there is always something else, an addition that highlights its heterogeneous nature. According to Maurer’s thesis, money’s involvement in social life is because of its very flaws—flaws that originate in both its representations and its actual uses. In the book, I propose a moral sociology to capture the meanings and the flaws of money, in order to reconstruct the tensions, conflicts, and dilemmas that monetary acts produce in people and in social relations.

Money tests people and their social ties (Boltanski and Thevenot, 1991). While in circulation, money brings with it moral hierarchies and sketches a social order where people position themselves. The moral sociology of money I introduce here analyzes how money does or does not circulate, in conjunction with the testing of moral virtues and the struggle to accumulate moral capital. People can be good for money; they can be loyal, respectable, generous and hard-working; or disloyal, unreliable, greedy, and lazy. They are terms that arise during conflicts, ones that reveal the ongoing dispute to define the moral boundaries that enable or impede money from circulating.

This book combines a myriad of materials. Many of these came from my research for a doctoral dissertation in sociology at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, France and the Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina. Between 2006 and 2010 I began an ethnographic study in the most impoverished neighborhoods of Greater Buenos Aires in order to understand the social uses of money among the poor.

Each chapter focuses on a different piece of the jigsaw puzzle and by putting together the puzzle this book proposes an approach to understanding the lives of the poor. Chapter 1 analyzes the economy of donations, which fills the life of the poor with monetary resources. Studying donated money demands answering a crucial question: how, when, and which needy people can and should receive money from those who are higher up the social ladder?  Chapter 2 studies militant money. Has the monetization of political activities dissolved values, commitments and loyalties among the poor? I was thus able to understand money’s central role in the political sociability of the lower classes.  Chapter 3 explores the world of popular religion. How and why is money condemned or permitted in a universe marked by spirituality and sacrifice? This story is about sacrificed money but also another sign of the moral antagonism of money in the popular life, something confirmed by every chapter in the book. Chapter 4 examines earned money. The drive to earn money is not a natural fact, nor is it the same amongst different social classes. In this chapter, I focus on the information I gathered from merchants who run small stores, who are sellers at street markets, and participants in transactions in the illegal economy (in particular underground lotteries and stolen goods). Chapter 5 analyzes the conflicts and the agreements between parents and children about money in the familial universe, where it binds together domestic economies and creates affective ties, as long as it is protected. This chapter recounts the stories of families, showing similarities in the values that parents try to pass along to their children. What are the moral disputes that arise to define who can receive a loan and under which conditions? How do unpaid debts affect moral discrimination? Chapter 6 answers these questions by looking at the moral boundaries that delimit of lent money. Indebtedness is the main theme that connects the myriad of situations observed during four years of field research: “fiado” or, in English, “credit”, connects merchants with the inhabitants of poor neighborhoods; it also creates connections in money lent from one family member to another; in the use of credit cards; in the payment of installments directly to retailers; and in the loans offered by financial agencies. I attempt to understand the growing role and the multiple forms that borrowed money can assume in the economy of the poor.

The path I follow offers a way to understand the new connections among the poor, money, and morality. Along the way, I attempt to offer a potential interpretation of the current forms of integration and subjection that are being redefined at every turn by the economic, political, transnational, and local dynamics in Latin America.