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Reviewed by:
  • Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism
  • Donna Perry
Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism. Edited by Jean and John L. Comaroff. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001.

Millennial Capitalism and the Culture of Neoliberalism, by Jean and John L. Comaroff, is an eclectic mix of articles by anthropologists and geographers, as well as a photographer and an economist. Focused on millennial capitalism—“a capitalism that presents itself as a gospel of salvation” (2)—this collection attempts to unearth the “confounding effects,” the “odd couplings,” and the “experiential contradictions” of neoliberalism that the turn of the century has entailed.

Comaroff and Comaroff begin the book with a compelling overview of millennial capitalism’s distinguishing characteristics. It is a regime built upon consumption rather than production, in which the value of labor has been eclipsed by the magic of capital. As capital becomes distanced from the sites of production, an amoral ethos of gambling and speculation comes to reign. Although finance is now popularly viewed as the prime mover of millennial capitalism, the editors point to the continuing relevance of labor: there are more industrial workers today than ever before. This global proletariat is more feminized, more fragmented, and more removed from the centers of investment and consumption. Moreover, this proletariat is increasingly mobile and decreasingly regulated by states. The dismantling of the national arenas upon which class conflicts traditionally raged inhibits the development of class consciousness, which in turn opens up a subjective space increasingly filled by alternative identities and agendas: gender, race, ethnicity, and, particularly, generation emerge as the salient tropes around which individuals build self-consciousness. Individuals untethered from their class identity revel in the personal and the private: “diffuse concerns about cultural integrity and communal survival are vested in ‘private’ anxieties about sexuality, procreation, or family values” (16). The turmoil that results from dysfunctional capitalism is evident in the emergence of “occult economies” and new religious movements. Yet in the midst of global disorder, a counterpoint to neoliberalism flourishes: civil society “reanimates the optimistic spirit of modernity” (41), injecting moral discourses into the anomic maelstrom of free-market fundamentalism.

The articles in this collection are uneven in addressing the themes set forth in the Comaroffs’ introduction. Three articles take a global perspective: Coronil argues that neoliberal globalization, unlike colonial merchant capitalism, conceals growing inequality between Western and non-Western peoples through the rhetoric of an inclusive free market. Storper examines the rise of consumerist identities in the major industrial counties of Western Europe, North America, and middle-income developing countries. His is a dense compilation of economic theories, most of which will already be familiar to the informed reader. Harvey, in the volume’s end-piece, questions the validity of cosmopolitanism. He is skeptical that abstract loyalty to “humankind” can mobilize political change, or that a new global ethics can be developed and put into practice, even if a cosmopolitan education enhanced global citizens’ geographic and cultural knowledge.

The remaining articles are situated nationally and offer in-depth case studies informed by ethnographic fieldwork. It is interesting to note that only one (Povinelli’s) focuses on a particular ethnic/regional group; the rest examine broader phenomena within national arenas reconfigured by neoliberal globalization. The three most insightful articles are by Wright, Geschiere and Nyamnjoh, and Weller. While the article by Morris covers a fascinating topic (a shaman’s self-confessed fakery), it is written in an opaque style that fails to elucidate the processes set forth for analysis. The article by Povinelli, on tourism and “popontology” (popular views of spiritual being), appears not to pertain to millennial capitalism at all, and suffers from a similar shortfall in writing.

Wright links the managerial discourse about employee turnover in Mexican maquiladoras with media discourse about the murders of almost two hundred women near the industrial city of Ciudad Juárez. Both discourses emphasize culturally embedded views of femininity, and both posit women as the agents of their own suffering. Because women are neither committed to their jobs nor career-oriented, they are implicitly blamed for the low pay and lack of job security that characterize maquiladora employment. Likewise, because women wander from the protective domestic...

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