11/1 IPRH Lecture, Ananya Roy: "Poverty Capital: The Subprime Frontiers of Millennial Modernity"
Guest Writer: Ergin Bulut

Thursday, November 18, 2010

posted under , , , by Unit for Criticism
[On November 1, 2010, the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities presented “Poverty Capital: The Subprime Frontiers of Millennial Modernity,” a lecture by Ananya Roy of the University of California, Berkeley]

Written by Ergin Bulut (Education Policy Studies)

“This was one of the best talks I have recently attended.” This statement reflects the opinion of at least five fellow graduate students, as well as my own. Roy’s talk masterfully combined geography, history, theory, and visual images, providing a great "feast" of what millennial modernity has to offer to the poor of the Third World.

Roy began her talk with the story of Felicita, a Guatemalan woman. The image showed us a smiling woman who had increased her production with the help of the microcredit. With this system of "bottom-billion capitalism," as Roy named it, we were actually witnessing the "democratization of capital and development." (Roy’s use of "democratization" is distinct in meaning from the spread of political democracy.) The poor, in the new configuration of global capitalism, were being included in systems of finance.

Roy then moved on to another strong image. The words "WTO" and "Democracy" were encapsulated in two arrows, pointing to each other. This was followed by the global campaign aiming to make poverty history. Here, Roy introduced another term, referenced by the title of the talk. Millenials, she said, were people who provided credit to the poor, “animated by global consciousness of poverty.” Such people include celebrities like Bono and Bill Gates. Roy argued that the work of these figures not only served to integrate the poor with the market but also to impact our collective imagination.

Speaking about Millennium Development Goals, Roy made another conceptual move, defining a "global social contract." According to Roy, the democratization of poverty affects imaginative conceptions and consumer choices. We are now asked to consume smartly and consciously. For example, organizations like CARE are influential in creating the millennial self. They produce "new geographical imaginations." It is exactly here that Roy pointed to the case of Africa, which is now presented as an active continent thanks to the work of millenials. As the slogan goes: Microcredit Africa works. As if it never did!

Why microcredit? First, Roy said, is the fact that it is everywhere. Second, it is the panacea of choice. Nevertheless, the central point, Roy asserted, is that "microcredit is the microprocessor in the circuits of capital," reminding us of the fluidity of capitalist relations. It is in these times that we come to see microcredit as good money as opposed to the reckless and bad money described in relation to the financial crisis. In short, microfinance converts human poverty into capital. It is at this historical moment that we come to see slogans like "The poor always pay back," which reflects the monetizing of poverty through Third World women. Microcredit, Roy argued, is the grand experiment on "the productivity of debt." It is gendered and racialized. It deepens the altruistic character of Thirld World subjects.

Suggesting a Foucaultian turn, Roy claimed that "microfinance produces knowledge." She demonstrated that "the poor are classified and categorized" through an example of a Boliviaian whose credibility for finance is codified through new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). Quoting the motto of the millenials, who say they want to treat the poor like themselves, Roy described the ideal of financial democracy as a part of "neoliberal populism." In other words, the millenials aim to maintain equality between themselves and the poor by actually capitalizing on that poverty.

History came into play during the most fascinating moment of the talk. Roy drew similarities between late-nineteenth-century colonialism and millennial modernity, showing us how surveillance of the colonial world expresses the desire to “know” the poor. These historical documents reflected the desire of the upper classes to map the poor as well as their fear of potential social upheaval. Inscribing race and gender into her narrative, Roy related the story of millennial modernity to colonialism and capitalist modernity. In an interesting move, she went back to 9/11 and the attempts by the U.S. to make Middle Eastern geography legible and governable through development. She read Hezbollah’s actions in the region as part of the same nexus: another pillar of millennial development aiming to govern through "data, debt and discipline."

By demonstrating the relations of what she called Washington-Wall Street complex, or circuits of truth and circuits of capital, Ananya Roy impressively and inspiringly reformulated the question of "civilization" and development in a transnational context as well as in their intricate relations to governmentality and integration with global capitalism.


Make A Comment


Lauren said...

Published just yesterday

Sammy Preston said...

A great summary of a great event. Thanks for letting us know about these info.