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The Savage Share

Capitalism, alterities, fiction et economic realities
Ismaël Moya
Traduction de Matthew Carrey
Cet article est une traduction de :
La part sauvage [fr]


In a world brought to ruin by humans and overrun by global capitalism, no space has been left untouched by the transformations of modernity. Yet the intensification of capitalism continues to run into other obstacles than those offered by nature and by power (be this the state or militant resistance). These limits imposed on dynamics of accumulation are what we call the “savage share” of capitalism, where wealth is not domesticated to increase its yield, but captured and redirected towards alternative forms of social life. The “savage” is bound in a relationship of alterity with capitalism, which it treats as a resource and sometimes even as prey

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Notes de l’auteur

I would like to thank Marie Morel, Olivier Allard and everybody who participated in the EHESS seminar “Capitalisme sauvage”: Zoé Deloeil, Maude de Lapeyre de Bellaire, Yohann Moreau, Luca Savioli and Xinyue Wang. I would also like to thank the students and staff of the Estienne school who generously gave of their time and efforts to illustrate this special issue.

The following text is the fruit of a collective project, conceived and conducted with Alice Doublier, who was unfortunately unable to be part of the final writing process. Many of the ideas outlined in the text owe a great deal to her. It goes without saying that any errors or omissions are entirely my own responsibility

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Crédits : © Hélène Bézin-Chaingy, 2022 - ÉCOLE ESTIENNE

1In 2019, Dior launched a campaign called ”sauvage” to promote a perfume brought to the market in 2015. Imagine a familiar cinematic landscape of burnt ochre rocks and arid vegetation. On a clifftop, a man wearing a traditional feather-adorned costume stamps out a war dance in time with a few distorted chords of electric guitar. Johnny Depp, wearing some kind of soft Stetson, a distressed fake poncho and cowboy boots, wades across a swift-running river, while a Native American in wolf skins looks lasciviously on. Next, we cut to Depp, lost in playing an unplugged electric guitar. The music and the dancing continue. Finally, once night has fallen, the actor, caught in the campfire light, looks profoundly up at the heavens and his own voice-over declares “We are the earth, the new Sauvage

  • 1 Joy Porter, « Johnny Depp: row over Dior ad and Native American culture is more nuanced than you th (...)

2After a predictable avalanche of protest on social media, the meticulously planned campaign was pulled.1 This is a sign of the times. 21st century capitalism has to be seen to be tackling the environmental crisis. The new watchword is “sustainable luxury”; a far cry from the cult of productivity and accumulation (Abélès 2022). Dior’s savage, once embodied by the rugged adventurer, now needs to represent authenticity, and care for the self and for nature. But however new this “savage” is supposed to be, he was first imagined in the 16th century and has scarcely changed since he emerged in Enlightenment literature. He still wears feathers and animal skins and performs his traditional dances against a backdrop of untamed wilderness. And above all, he still bears the heavy burdens of personifying authentic humanity and dropping pearls of wisdom about the challenges we face, from absolutism to the environmental crisis. This vision of the savage is an example of what we might, to paraphrase John Quiggin (2010), call “zombie anthropology”: a dead idea, escaped from our disciplinary cemetery and come back to haunt us. This notion of the savage as embodiment of primitive purity, combining a “culturally authentic” human alterity and a “naturally intact” ancestral land, has been repeatedly challenged and deconstructed by modern anthropology in all its various guises, from the most traditional to the most critical. And yet, this zombie anthropology remains at the heart of modern Western ideas of the other. At a time when the environmental crisis brought about by a portion of humanity has become an irreversible reality, the fantasy of a world that is both lost and preserved is particularly appealing. It has generated a great deal of curiosity, which has in turn been milked by certain currents of a discipline that has always, almost by definition, been an ardent fan of productive misunderstandings.

3Anthropologists have also insisted that capitalism is not a closed system, but one that captures and transforms into commodities the resources, skills, labour and relations that it needs in order to continue (Tsing 2015). From Dior adverts to tribal art, by way of ethnic commerce, perhaps alterity is nothing more than another resource for globalised capitalism in times of identity and identitarian politics…

4In the early 1950s, Claude Lévi-Strauss was already lamenting the gradual disappearance of alterity, swamped by the rising tide of globalisation: “It would be of no use to attempt to defend the individuality of human cultures against those cultures themselves. […] Where other cultures are seeking to preserve some part of their traditional heritage, the attempt is usually confined to the superstructure of society, that is to say, to the least enduring aspects of a culture, which it may be expected will be swept away by the far more radical changes which are taking place.» (1952 : 30-31). If we put to one side the substantialist distinction between infrastructures and superstructures, then the fundamental point of this remark is that what allows alterity to survive and even flourish is not simply the conservation of a culture (the superstructure), but of a certain dynamic between this culture and an “infrastructure” (an economic system… and nature). This allows us to distinguish between two conceptions of alterity. On the one hand, the heritage industry’s protection and preservation of what remains of the alterity of yesteryear; and on the other, the anthropological observation that in a world ravaged by humanity and in thrall to global capitalism, there is no longer a world outside or beyond the transformations of modernity. And yet, there are other worlds than ours; worlds in which the purchase of capitalism is only partial, where the wealth it produces is not domesticated and used to increase its yield and drive accumulation, but fed instead into different forms of social life. This is the “savage share” of capitalism.

The savage share of capitalism

5Seen in the broadest possible sense, capitalism is an economic system (which has taken various forms) organised around commodification and private appropriation with a view to accumulating capital. Though grand genealogical narratives (of capitalism, the state, inequality, “from the beginning until today”) have lost none of their appeal, anthropology has largely distanced itself from ideas of unilinear economic evolution. Private property, markets, money, and even accumulation all predate capitalism. There exist countless texts on contemporary capitalism, but most seem to agree that capitalism is a vast and powerful phenomenon, but also a plural and heterogeneous one (Gibson-Graham 1996, Fraser & Jaeggi 2018). We cannot hope to understand it by applying a unitary analytical frame, regardless of time and place. Anna Tsing (2015:viii), for example, has distinguished between: “first nature”, those established ecological relations (including human ones) that are threatened with extinction; “second nature”, capitalist transformations of the environment; and “third nature”, that which escapes capitalist organisation. She also uses the adjective feral (when a domesticated animal or plant goes wild) to describe the ways in which non-human organisms adapt to human configurations, transform themselves and multiply. In so doing, they belong to the world of humanity, but also escape it: they are outside human control, and often below our threshold of awareness. They are not, however, the only thing to have escaped our attention.

6The staggering increase in human population and resource consumption, along with the expansion of contemporary capitalism, has inflicted irreversible damage on the environment, such that humanity is now the principle geological force on earth (Gemenne et al. 2021). As the world literally burns, the question of change, and thus of possible alternatives, has become unavoidable. The intensification of capitalism has, however, not only met with resistance from nature and from power (in the form of the state or of militant resistance). The economic growth of recent years has reduced inequalities between countries, as well as extreme poverty, but it has also led, in many parts of the world, to a massive increase in ceremonial expenses surrounding marriage. More generally, the relative enrichment generated by local dynamics of capitalist accumulation and by international migration has given rise to serious breaches of unproductivity in the wealth-circuit and produced significant phenomena that challenge the logic of economic rationality: both marriages and funerals, annual religious festivals or devotional acts, and even the simple flaunting of wealth lead expenses to spiral out of control. Capitalism, then, isn’t only driving the planet to ruin; it is also giving rise to forms of economic irrationality in which the resources it generates feed into other forms of social life where accumulation stalls as wealth is directed to alternative ends.

7The idea of a savage share of capitalism does not, of course, refer to a lack of civilisation or a state of nature, but to a form of alterity (Maris 2018) – to that portion of capitalist activity that escapes its own logic. The savage share of capitalism is the redirection of capitalist resources to new ends, according to alternative understandings of social relations. It is savage in that it is bound in a relationship of alterity with capitalism, which it treats as a resource and sometimes even as prey. And savage insofar as it involves social processes that confound economic rationality and question the limits of power by avoiding both state regulation and social surveillance by the majority of people who inhabit these worlds. "Savage capitalism” and not the savagery of capitalism or the capitalism of savages. By looking at that which escapes the clutches of capitalism we hope to open our minds to the possibilities of the present.

8There is nothing new in this kind of phenomenon. Indeed, it is the underlying principle of one of the most famous concepts within anthropology: the potlatch, which plays a central part in Marcel Mauss’ The Gift (1924). Mauss and others described 19th century chiefs and nobles of the indigenous societies of the Northwest coast of the Americas as struggling to assert their symbolic superiority via sumptuous exchanges of superfluous gifts, which in their absolute paroxysm, were physically destroyed. Flying in the face of any ideas of utilitarian action, these exchanges that so captured the Euro-American imagination were not, however, a straightforward indigenous tradition, but rather the result of profound social, demographic, political and religious upheaval, caused by colonisation and market expansion (Schulte-Tenckhoff 1986). Indeed, it was precisely because the expenses incurred during potlatches were financed by the market that colonial authorities outlawed them from 1885 to 1951. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins described such phenomena as the “indigenization of modernity” (1999). According to Sahlins, “indigenous people” used the resources of capitalism to resist and reinvent their traditions, in a kind of cultural extraversion. This argument, though, assumes that capitalism is essentially exogenous to such societies. More significantly, such culturalist optimism fails to explain the fact that most people involved in these activities today see such conspicuous expenses less as an essential and valuable tradition than as a waste of rare resources and do their best to put an end to them. Their signal failure to do so is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the whole phenomenon.

9In one of those strange inversions that history reserves for us, our positions appear to have been reversed. In the West, progress and the modernity to which it pertains are criticised as unsustainable and dangerous, as they have led us to our current impasse (Foessel & Charlier, 2023). Meanwhile, many other societies (such as those discussed in this special issue) struggle to achieve the progress and promise of capitalism and lament their failure to do so. They try to remove the obstacles along their way, but are unable to eliminate them. This is the paradoxical form taken by capitalism’s internal alterity: the impossibility of achieving it. Somewhere, something resists. The articles in this special issue thus attend to the limits imposed on dynamics of accumulation not by the environment, but by human sociability. They explore some of the idiosyncratic human landscapes that make up our shared world by maintaining a relationship of alterity to capitalism. Economics then, is not our object, but our starting point. The goal is not to describe the range of alternative economic forms or resistance to capitalism, but to start from the idea that what we observe ethnographically may, by dint of systematisation, shed light on persistent forms of alterity. To be clear, these worlds are not “anti-capitalist” and they offer no solution to our present conundrum. What they represent is possible trajectories and, as such, they help us to explore the conditions of possibility of such forms of alterity. Whether it be a matter of pouring financial flows into interminable Georgian banquets, costly family ceremonies in Senegal or Tajikistan, or patron saint festivals in the Andes, of efforts by Amerindians to become market predators rather than remaining prey, of the continued importance of a Chinese divinity, or simply of making money rain, the cases we present in this special issue have one thing in common: though it is not an explicit social aim (to the contrary, it is a source of complaint), capital is used as a resource to fuel forms of social life whose aim is something other than accumulation. The question is what…

The savage isn’t what it was: capitalism and predation

  • 2 By which we mean the notion that living beings all have souls (a shared interiority) and are distin (...)

10There is no objective quality to being a savage, rather “it is a condition one inhabits relative to an other” (Bazin 2008: 53). This precisely describes the situation of the Shuar of Transkutukù, as described by Natalia Buitron et Gregory Deshoullière. They belong to a cultural ensemble, famous for its shrunken heads (tsantsas) and formerly referred to by Spanish colonizers as the Jivaro, which literally means ”savage”, though they call themselves Aénts Chicham. This indigenous Amazonian people is quite unlike contemporary ideas of animist2 populations as they appear in the anthropological literature, resisting the state and capitalism. The Shuar, who have been grouped in villages since the 1970s and live principally from agriculture and stock-rearing, largely long for progress and economic development. Relations to non-humans and shamanic visions have not disappeared, but they are marginal phenomena when compared to the desire to be entrepreneurs, which Shuar see as key to their personal and collective autonomy. And the capitalism to which they aspire is predatory. Perhaps we are witnessing the liberal turn of Amazonia… It is this possible misunderstanding that the article resolves to clear up. Predation is a generalised relational principle in Amazonia, whereby the expropriation of vital resources from others is a condition of group continuity and renewal. There are only three possible relational positions: predator, prey or congener (Taylor 2006). And for the time being, the Shuar are prey: mestizos and Whites use their money to appropriate indigenous resources. The Shuar, meanwhile, struggle to reverse this situation and become market predators themselves. As the authors note, these acts of predation, extractivism and appropriation are mostly means to achieve autonomy and sharing. Beset by envy and sorcery, the Shuar world remains in thrall to a social logic that, for all its dangers and internal tensions, values people and relations more than things.

11In this sense, the logic of accumulation at the heart of capitalism has been “provincialised”, to use the language of Dipesh Charkarabarty (2000). This is not a matter of actively challenging capitalism in the name of non-capitalist norms and/or values, as we see in situations described using the term moral economy (Thompson 1971, Scott 1976, Fassin 2009). Rather it implies a decentring of capitalism – in other words, we are dealing with a mode of relationality.

Savage migration

  • 3 By migration, I refer exclusively to what is typically referred to as economic migration, where hum (...)

12Amazonian predation relies on alterity: it implies incorporation, particularly of enemies, as a means of self-perpetuation. Migration3, meanwhile, relies on exteriority: it involves moving elsewhere in pursuit of resources, typically in order to repatriate a large part of them. The globalisation of contemporary capitalism has accelerated the circulation of goods, capital, ideas and also people. To fully understand migratory phenomena, we need to remind ourselves that in many societies, be they nomadic or sedentary, human mobility is an integral part of social organisation. In West Africa, for instance, residential arrangements almost invariably include absent members, who have left to find resources for the collective back home (Dessertine, 2021). This is the broader context of contemporary international migration, which is characterised less by its novelty, than by the sheer size of the flows. According to World Bank estimations, in 2019, migrants remitted 550 billion dollars to their families – three times more than official development assistance. Though the macro-economic impact of these flows is hard to assess, research suggests that they significantly improve the living conditions of those who remain (Gubert 2019) and inject huge sums into local financial circuits.

13This is precisely what happens in the “scandal” of Georgian migration explored by Maroussia Ferry: primarily female migrants remit money back home, where it is squandered by the men who stayed there. The end of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe for Georgia, which had prospered under communism thanks to its dynamic, informal economy, organised around networks of men bound by shared values of virility, honour and “respect”. These networks were maintained thanks to exclusively male sociability, especially during supras: long, sumptuous and well-watered banquets featuring ritual toasts. The shift to capitalism put an end to this economic model and led to a structural crisis. But male sociability kept its central role. The husbands and sons left back home continue to spend the money their womenfolk remit on such banquets. Everybody knows where the money really comes from, but everybody acts “as if” it flowed from the male host, who is lauded for his generosity. This leads to a paradox that Ferry calls “assisted virility”: conspicuous male generosity is subsidised by women. The tension between male dependence and the expectations that rest on their shoulders is a source of pain and internal conflict. The women too are caught in an ethical trap: they continue to support male dependency, whilst constantly lamenting it. The aesthetics of male tragedy, which seeks to impart value to their dependency, is matched by the heroism of female sacrifice, such that the two are locked in a kind of implicit competition. In short, accumulation plays second fiddle to the deep structures of the social compact: virile sociability is maintained thanks to a fiction that allows men to relive a more prosperous and glorious past.

14These dynamics are completely reversed in contemporary Tajikistan, as described by Juliette Cleuziou. In this post-Soviet, Muslim part of Central Asia, the collapse of communism also provoked economic collapse and a wave of migration. Here, however, it is mostly men who leave, principally for Russia. The moneys remitted by this male migration, which constitute a considerable portion of national income, are not poured into a crisis of virility, but rather into marriage ceremonies. These ceremonies, which are managed by women, are financed in part by the families themselves (using remittances), but also, as is often the case with such exchanges, by a system of female solidarity organised around the exchange of washbasins. A large part of women’s and (especially migrant) men’s disposable income goes into these ceremonies, but marriage is also a vital relational resource for women and an important space of autonomy. The centrality of affinity and the sumptuousness of the marriages does not make them particularly long-lasting, especially in a context of widespread migration and economic instability. This produces a paradoxical situation whereby men and women complain both about the spiralling cost of unstable marriages and about unsuccessful state attempts to legislate against it. The resources mobilised around marriage show the centrality of affinity in this society (especially in the mother-in-law daughter-in-law dyad) and the singular place of women, recognised as both guardians of affinity and agents of economic irrationality.

15Flora Baudry describes a quite different ceremonial system present in the Andes and Meso-America: festivals celebrating the patron saint or tutelary virgin of each village. These festivals occasion huge expenditure, which has since the mid-19th century been funded by each member of the village in turn. As with Tajik marriages, the villager whose turn it is to pay relies on networks of reciprocity (family members, compadres, friends) to muster the goods and sums required. These festivals and the way they are financed has remained stable despite significant out-migration since the early-20th century, driven by political problems (the Peruvian civil war, for instance) and the spread of capitalism. The networks of solidarity extend to encompass migrants, especially the successful ones, who have gradually become the principal source of funding for the festivals, leading to ceremonial inflation (Arias, 2012, Yaya McKenzie, 2019). Patron saint festivals have thus become a privileged mode of maintaining connection to the area for many migrants, some of whom only return home for the festivities.

16In each case, what is at stake is the production of persons and/or the reproduction of relations (of affinity, belonging, etc.) over time. There is more to it than this, however. These patron saint festivals, Georgian banquets and Tajik marriages are also united by their sumptuousness and ostentation, to which we now turn.

Conspicuous consumption and labour value

17Conspicuous or ostentatious activity has, with few exceptions (Baudrillard, 1981), a fairly bad press in intellectual circles. Thorstein Veblen (1899), for instance, proposed the idea of “conspicuous consumption” to describe the assertion of status by means of relatively visible expenditure. “Waste” serves as tangible proof of one’s resources and visibility ensures social recognition of the status aspired to. The concept of conspicuous consumption also implies competition for prestige in a hierarchical society, such that conspicuousness is always accompanied by the spectre of its inauthenticity – viz. a desire to assert one’s membership of a social stratum to which one does not really belong.

18Prestige is literally an artifice, but is it necessarily misleading? The distinction between that which is shown and the “reality” of things lies at the heart of the articles on Dakar and Abidjan.

19As Ismaël Moya explains, Dakar looks, at first sight, like a place where the market has triumphed. All relations are mediated by money. But appearances are deceptive. As finances are the warp and weft of social life, any relation can potentially be leveraged for money. Yet the only moments at which all relations can be mobilised and transformed into a sizeable (and otherwise unobtainable) sum to be spent forthwith are family ceremonies. As a result, the ceremonial sphere, here too managed by women, captures considerable economic resources. This conspicuous expenditure is widely considered to be wasteful, unavoidable, a brake on development and contrary to religious morality, and yet it plays a central role in this pious Muslim society. Here, the logic of accumulation reaches a kind of limit that resists the desire for change of those involved. And just as in Tajikistan, colonial, postcolonial and religious authorities have, for at least a century, been unsuccessfully trying to prevent or at least restrict them.

20Though affinity is a central form of relationality and one that is brought to the fore in the ritual system, this social function of the ceremonies, which are once again important spaces of female autonomy, is not valued: to the contrary, people simply complain about their cost. To account for this paradox, Moya notes that in the public sphere, and especially during ceremonies, people do not act on their own behalf, but via the intermediary of griots, who are paid to act on behalf of others and to sing their praises using “beautiful words” that embellish reality and inflate their status. In Dakar, keeping up appearances is an essential principle of relationality. Appearances are paramount but nobody is fooled: enormous amounts of social labour and very considerable sums go into producing and displaying a world of appearances that is ostensibly different from what we might intuitively call “reality”. Moya suggests that we would do better to see them as two distinct strata of reality, or even as a hierarchical relationship between two partial realities, in which “appearances” matter most and impose their reality on the rest. This explains people’s complaints, but also their impossibility of changing the system which they pay for and reproduce. This is the paradox of ostentation.

21In her article, Muriel Champy analyses a yet more radical phenomenon: travaillement (“workerising”), a surprising and ostentatious practice associated with the “coupé décalé” musical genre that emerged in the space between Abidjan and Paris in the early 2000s. It involves the ostentatious handing out of banknotes during musical performances as a way of demonstrating one’s worth and status. Whilst the singer chants his name, the “worker” (travailleur) throws money in the air or gives it to the artist. Travaillement is the ultimate form of “boucan” (literally “noise”): the act of drawing attention to oneself during an evening out by conspicuous consumption. The money required for travaillement always comes from the outside. Initially, the “boucanteers” were migrants, but now most of it comes from broutage (“grazing”) – i.e. online fraud. The word travail (“work”) also refers, across Francophone Africa, to witchcraft and the occult. The suspect, even dangerous, perhaps sorcerous, origins of money derived from grazing are obvious. Travaillement, though, does not aim to launder occult money to allow its uncomplicated circulation, but rather to produce subjects with this money.

22Thanks to back-stage agreements, some of the cash thrown around front-stage is later recovered, but boucanteers often find themselves walking home after the party or unable to pay for the next day’s breakfast. Such conspicuous distribution might seem absurd, as the wealth they are displaying is entirely fictive, but boucanteers do not try to “pass” as wealthy (in terms of their holdings); rather, they display wealth, which is merely a means to other ends. This is not then, as Sasha Newell (2012) suggests a demonstration of potential – “look, I might end up rich”. This fiction is sumptuously performed with conviction and it creates its own objective conditions of existence. The use of terms like artifice and misrepresentation have an obvious descriptive appeal, but they are analytically problematic. As Douk Saga sings, “they have new concepts”.

23We need to recognise the value of conspicuousness/ostentation in and of itself. It would be a mistake to try to find in these different practices an equivalent of more familiar ideas, by opposing say, a (our) realist understanding of wealth and a (their) conspicuous or artificial idea of the same. The wealth that circulates in these events, whether they be family ceremonies or travaillements, is singular because the whole point of obtaining it is to display it and then fade back into the scenery. This is not to say that wealth is simply performed (which would be meaningless), but to cite Douk Saga once again, “to make do with the concept of boucanteer” – viz. to take seriously the ways in which it subverts our standard conceptions of what counts as real. Conspicuousness forces us to rearrange our concepts, to “make do” with a world where what gives itself to be seen is always dual, because the empirical or the real is destabilised by the ostensible or apparent and these two domains are clearly hierarchically distinguished. It would, once more, be a mistake to neglect the unashamed distance that conspicuousness places between itself and the real. It is, the scholar of Roman Law Yann Thomas suggests, precisely this distance that generates the power of fiction qua “power of controlling the real, a power that it acquires by means of ostensibly breaking with the real” (2021: 99). Fiction, insofar as one sees in it something other than an imaginary construction or an expression of individual creativity, is thus a powerful tool or social technique that densifies the real by establishing a distance with it. These fictions do not (unfortunately) have exclusively positive impacts on the bank accounts or material situation of the people concerned (if they even have a bank account). Au contraire! But they are nonetheless an essential part of the social reality upon which they work their sway. For this, they require uninterrupted and extremely expensive social labour that, to our interlocutors’ disgust, places clear limits on the possibility of accumulation.

The accursed savage share

  • 4 For an anthropological discussion of Bataille’s arguments, see Weber (2013).

24The idea of capitalism’s savage share is obviously intended to echo Bataille’s contention in The Accursed Share (1991) that all human societies are governed by a need to burn off or consume the excess they produce, thus situating capitalism as part of what he calls a “general economy”. The question of resource consumption is, of course, a burning issue in contemporary society (which is condemned to consume and condemned by its consumption), but the broader thrust of Bataille’s argument revolves around a theory of energy and self-consciousness that has had its day. The accursed share is essentially a surplus. This is also typically how we think about luxury, as that which occupies the space beyond necessity, which is priceless (Abélès 2020). And so we remain in our familiar, comfortable world divided between the necessary and the superfluous, between the indispensable and the rest.4

  • 5 For an explanation of the phenomenon, see Duflo & Banerjee (2011), p.36-37

25Perhaps surprisingly, the most convincing refutation of this way of seeing the world comes from the economists Esther Duflo et Abhijit V. Banerjee (2011), who have convincingly demonstrated that “the poor” have an unfortunate tendency to spend a great deal of their income on “partying”, at the expense of their food budget.5 The domain of “excess” takes precedence over the necessary. In other words, not only do fictions intervene in the real, but they are as essential to people as food.

26Indeed, in the cases under discussion here, the very idea of surplus is untenable, because wealth is not seen as produced by exploiting factors of production. Production, here, is decentred, not in favour of consumption or expenditure, but by a process of management of flows. But such management is very often incomplete and even paradoxical. Once resources have been captured or mobilised, they often seem to escape the control of those concerned. Wealth is ephemeral, ungraspable: it is displayed, so it must be there, but it immediately slips our grasp. With the exception of the coupé-décalé “workers”, the people whose voices we hear in these articles all complain about their inability to control the flows of wealth.

27This recurring motif of lament is interesting. Such complaints are not “strategic”, unlike those studied by Nancy Ries (1997) during perestroika, which were both a way of valorising one’s suffering and of hiding one’s successes in a context of generalised mistrust. On the contrary, it is the conspicuousness itself, and so the loss of resources, that is bemoaned. No more are they nostalgic complaints, like those described by David Berliner (2020), that foreground the misfortune of being caught in a present that is understood as inferior to the past (or to tradition). Our interlocutors comments are not uttered in resignation, in that they envisage the possibility of doing things otherwise, but nor are they political, as they are not directed towards an actor supposed to be capable of changing things. Much of their time, their complaints instead bear witness to their experience of the limits of power.

28The rhetoric of complaint should not then be understood in exclusively psychological or expressive terms, as a sort of safety valve to let off steam (cf. Colleyn 1996). They do, of course, express people’s discontent, but they are also reflexive utterances that highlight the deep-seated contradiction in which they find themselves caught. As should be clear, the savage share of capitalism neither aims at nor achieves redistribution of resources or a reduction in inequality. In their complaints, people contemplate the possibilities that wealth potentially offers, but which are restricted by the obligations and expectations that structure their social lives. They are not, however, a kind of sociological description (“it’s all society’s fault”); rather they index the contradictions occasioned by the ascendancy of the “savage” within modernity. When wealth is a potentiality that is visible and within reach, but can never be realised in accumulation, then complaint is a way of coming to terms with the limits of power (whether it be that of an individual, a state, etc.) and with the wider context of capitalism, which nonetheless incites to growth and accumulation. Even states appear incapable of domesticating this savage share of capitalism that continues to resist them. By complaining, people lament the limits on accumulation, but also the impotence of power when confronted with this aspect of social existence over which it claims to be able to transform.

The “savage” against the state?

  • 6 This has been going on for centuries. We find official attempts to rein in the conspicuousness and (...)

29The ideas of Pierre Clastres have, at least ethnographically, had a long and storied afterlife (Allard 2020). The indigenous peoples supposed to embody these “societies against the state” now depend for their continued existence on the legal protections and resources offered by modern states (as regards heritagisation, tourism, etc.) that preserve their lands and cultures. Alongside this active and political, but ever-threatened alterity, this special issue seeks to sketch out the contours of another kind of alterity. We might describe this as an “endured” (subie) alterity, insofar as those it concerns rarely look kindly upon it, and one that resists both the dominance of capitalism and the intervention of the state, as attested to by the countless attempts to limit ceremonial expenditure. This savage share of capitalism might look like a secondary, perhaps marginal concern, when compared with fundamental economic realities and the urgency of the environmental crisis. And yet… Whilst humans have the wherewithal to annihilate entire populations and set the planet on fire, we seem to be astonishingly impotent in the face of this savage share, which however trivial it may appear, is a constant obstacle to power. Conspicuous ceremonial expenditure persists despite repeated condemnation and efforts to reform it by virtually every conceivable form of authority.6

  • 7 And a concomitant explosion of ceremonial spending…

30Hélène Bloch presents a limit case of this phenomenon, drawn from her fieldwork in China. As the anthropologist Mayfair Yang has stressed, the Chinese state has, since the late-19th century, aspired to the administrative ordering of nature and of society (2020: 9). Religion, which was understood as an obstacle to development, fell within the purview of this desire for total control, particularly during the Maoist era and its paroxysm in the Cultural Revolution. The resources deployed by the Chinese state to control ceremonial expenditure are incomparably greater than anything seen elsewhere. Yet, since the Cultural Revolution, the transition from a planned economy to a socialist market economy has witnessed a remarkable reflowering of religion7, which bridges a sphere of state-managed ceremony and another of wildcat popular religiosity, with which the state is forced to rub along.

31In her article, Bloch focuses on the existential vicissitudes of a divinity from a small mountainside town in the province of Sichuan. The area is indelibly associated with the King of Medicine, Sun Simiao, a mythical 7th-century doctor renowned across the country. There is a profound link between the divinity and this territory, but its presence can be hard to ascertain. Its temple was twice razed and threatened multiple other times. Chinese capitalism has a plan for everyone and everything, however, and in 2015, the regional development plan highlighted the wellness industry, and particularly the Daoist art of “feeding/nourishing life”, as a key local priority. No reference was made to the divinity, but the mythical doctor’s presence in the area 1400 years earlier was presented as a “resource advantage”. Though the divine aspects of the territory and local divinity worship are by definition absent from official discourse, nobody is fooled, and wellness entrepreneurs head directly to the temple to extract resources from the divinity. This confluence of divinity, doctor and state strategy has yet to produce tangible results, but the story illustrates how, despite 100 years of efforts to eliminate them, the Chinese state keeps on having to come to terms with local divinities. Here, once again, it is the distance established by fiction that allows for this turning of the tables. It is a matter of “feigning ignorance” (zhuang hutu) of the divine presence. The authorities didn’t hesitate to invent a secular celebration for a documentary, using images drawn from local religious practice. The authorities’ ostentatious secularism allows them to rub along with the divinity without batting an eyelid and, more significantly still, to allow the market to exploit the divinity to generate wealth.

Savage capitalism, savage fiction

  • 8 This cast Euro-American apocalytptic imaginaries in a particularly cruel light…

32It might seem that we have strayed, here, from the hard “realities” of economics, that firm foundation on which if not all societies, then at least capitalist ones, are constructed. Of course, at certain junctures, as during the COVID pandemic, economic “reality” seems rather fragile. Indeed, once we had moved beyond the initial terror of running short of lavatory paper8, dreams of other worlds and other ways of living began to flourish. “Reality”, however, swiftly reasserted itself… Wealth still needs to be produced, one might say. And yet, it is fiction that created the conditions of possibility for capitalism and its “productivity”.

33Drawing on the work of the anthropology of his time, Karl Polanyi (1944) was probably the first author to insist on the historical singularity of 19th-century capitalist development. Far from being an inevitable process, capitalism emerged out of a historical centre (the British Empire), upon an intellectual foundation (political economy) and around a radical intellectual and institutional innovation: the creation and protection of an independent economic sphere. This rupture, Polanyi insisted, required a series of fictions. Over the course of the 19th century, and under the aegis of the state, labour, money and land (another word for nature) were transformed into what he called “fictive” commodities. They were fictive in the sense that they had not been produced for sale, but also and more importantly because even when they had been commodified, they retained some irreducible quality: they cannot be entirely transformed into market goods to be bought and sold without irreversibly damaging humans and/or nature. The consequences of this innovation were horrific: nature was transformed into an exploitable resource; the commons were privatised; humans were reduced to labour units; and money became an object of speculation, paving the way for modern financialisation. Polanyi also showed that the social world was no mere passive spectator to the creation of an independent economic sphere and its dramatic consequences. The emergence of a self-regulating market produced a counter-movement aimed at controlling the action of the market via protectionist legislation and so placing a familiar clamp on dynamics of accumulation. In this sense, contemporary capitalism continues to be caught between these contrary forces, struggling to limit the extent of commodification to prevent it consuming the entirety of social and natural existence. Here too, the conceptual and practical distance proper to fiction must be restored if we are not to condemn ourselves to self-destruction in an increasingly probable climatic collapse.

34There is, then, nothing natural about dynamics of accumulation; rather they rely on particular fictions and incessant social labour. The economist Arthur Jatteau illustrates another, more concrete dimension of the social labour that underpins accumulation in his experimental narrative regarding the very rich in France – i.e. those people who manipulate flows of wealth to their advantage. To give corporeality to the dizzying array of financial and fiscal figures, Jatteau invents a fictive character: Mr. Martin, a statistical personification of the 1% in France. Mr. Martin is not real, but no more is he mere puffery. He is a realist fiction, the name of a statistical, financial and fiscal reality. And the ways in which Mr. Martin benefits from flows of wealth are not even primarily attributable to his deft financial hand and good sense. Rather, they rely on considerable institutional support, notably from the French state, which allows him to optimise his financial management and holdings with a view to accumulation and intergenerational transfer. Simply put, Mr. Martin is a “Welfare Queen”. His wealth relies on considerable social labour, which has a significant cost for the collective: collective goods are a resource for private capital. What is more, as the author demonstrates, the vast state support that goes to the wealthy few is, unlike that which helps the poor, completely occluded and thus rendered invisible.

Against imagination

  • 9 Empirically, those to blame are easily identifiable: it is a tiny minority of the global population (...)

35In 1972, a commission headed by Meadows published a report entitled The limits to growth. We have, then, known for more than half a century that the finite nature of global resources presents a limit to growth and capital accumulation. What is still to be settled is the exact nature of the current situation, whence the proliferation of names to describe it (Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene, Phagocene…), as well as its origins and who is to blame (capitalism, inequalities, modernity, the nature-culture divide, colonialism…).9 Many people find themselves looking elsewhere for surprisingly similar inspiration for possible post-capitalist futures, from science-fiction to indigenous communities (Déléage 2020), whilst others place their hope in the rational repurposing of social systems with the aim of fostering truly sustainable development.

36This special issue pursues another potential avenue of enquiry, by exploring a handful of contemporary forms of alterity that serve as surprising, sometimes confounding, buffers to the expansion of capitalism. These few examples offer an outline of one perspective, among many, on the current situation. They paint a portrait that lacks both imagination and charm. These forms of alterity are neither incommensurable otherwheres, nor alternative economic systems. Not only do they offer no obvious solution to our problems, but they cannot even overcome their own. The savage share of capitalism resides in these partial realities that assert their ascendance over the wealth produced by capitalism, but this ascendance is also always partial in the sense that accumulation is not actually prevented, but simply restricted, or repurposed towards logics that prioritise relations, people and temporalities. These worlds, then, are subject to contradictions and a generalised feeling of a lack of structural control over the flow of resources from one part of the social world to another.

37Yet, by virtue of their very existence, these forms of alterity also show us, albeit not in an unproblematic way, that there are alternatives within the practice of capitalism to the dialectic of predatory accumulation and decommodification. The importance of fiction as both powerful technique and undeniable social fact is clear. Imagining another world from the perspective of a demiurge is an extension of the artificialist project, based on a naïve belief in our capacity to transform the world according to our will. On the other hand, respecting social fictions, taking them seriously implies establishing and acknowledging the hierarchical distance between different strata of reality with the hope of establishing some partial purchase on our existence. Even if we complain about it…

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1 Joy Porter, « Johnny Depp: row over Dior ad and Native American culture is more nuanced than you think », The conversation, 4th September 2019.

2 By which we mean the notion that living beings all have souls (a shared interiority) and are distinct by virtue of their physical bodies.

3 By migration, I refer exclusively to what is typically referred to as economic migration, where humans voluntarily move to other human contexts in search of resources. We are not concerned here with refugees or environmental migrants (regardless of whether they move or are displaced).

4 For an anthropological discussion of Bataille’s arguments, see Weber (2013).

5 For an explanation of the phenomenon, see Duflo & Banerjee (2011), p.36-37

6 This has been going on for centuries. We find official attempts to rein in the conspicuousness and excess of family ceremonies were already at least as far back as Ancient Greece (Gherchanoc 2012).

7 And a concomitant explosion of ceremonial spending…

8 This cast Euro-American apocalytptic imaginaries in a particularly cruel light…

9 Empirically, those to blame are easily identifiable: it is a tiny minority of the global population (the wealthiest segment) who have caused the damage (Piketty 2024).

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Ismaël Moya, « The Savage Share »Terrain [En ligne], 78 | 2023, mis en ligne le 06 novembre 2023, consulté le 19 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Ismaël Moya

CNRS, Laboratoire d’ethnologie et de sociologie comparative/École polytechnique

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