The Entrepreneur and the Broker

Panel 1

between states and markets: brokering value chains and shifting regimes of accumulation

Of Middles and Loose Ends: Intermediating the Alternative in Ecuador

Taylor Nelms, University of California, Irvine

In Ecuador, state-led efforts to build an alternative economy, marked by the end of neoliberalism and the “ends” of solidarity, have enrolled a variety of government officials and economic actors. As low-level bureaucrats have worked to translate the principles of this “solidarity economy” into everyday administrative practice, local entrepreneurs have become targets of their imagination and intervention; both have thus become key intermediaries in the project to build a “post-neoliberal” alternative economy in Ecuador. Drawing on economic anthropology, Latin American history, and the anthropology of infrastructure, this paper explores “the middle” as a site of economic and political possibility through ethnographic examination of bureaucrats and merchants in Quito, Ecuador’s capital city. Many approaches to the solidarity economy celebrate unmediated economic exchange and direct political participation as more “social” forms of relationality. This paper shows how efforts to cut out the middle—by establishing direct links between production and consumption or state and society—dovetail with the long history of ambivalence in Latin America and the Andes towards political intermediaries, cultural brokers, and economic middlemen and -women: from suspicion about indigenous leaders drafted into the Spanish colonial legal and governmental apparatus, to fears of ethnic or racial admixture provoked by highland mestizo landowners, to anxiety over the competitive practices of market retailers and street merchants. Like these figures, vendors in the San Mateo market in downtown Quito are caught in between: as middle-class entrepreneurs, mestizos, and commercial intermediaries whose imported goods straddle socioeconomic and geopolitical divides. The ambivalence these entrepreneurs elicit is linked to the possibility that by acting as intermediaries they might also act in their own interests. That is, even as some state and non-state actors seek to reform and reformat marketplace relations according to new (social and solidary) ends, both bureaucrats and merchants are also oriented by their own ends, through which efforts to build a solidarity economy must be channeled. This paper suggests that a key effect of such intermediation is the (re)distribution of agency, especially the capacity to exert control over flows of knowledge and value. The market thus emerges as a productive site of politics, a clot in the middle of Quito, where profit and meaning are produced in the intermediation of economic value, ideas about the alternative, and the social itself.

Who’s the Boss? Anticipation and Performances of Negotiation along the Global Supply Chains for Fast Fashion in Guangzhou China

Nellie Chu, University of Göttingen

In Guangzhou, China, the volatile and uncertain conditions of subcontract labor along the transnational supply chains for fast fashion require independent contractors to perform acts of negotiation when they come together to discuss the terms of market transaction. Performances of negotiation serve as the bodily and subjective medium through which bargaining power is exercised and contested by participating actors as they work out the terms of exchange. They entail the dual and ongoing acts of creating and anticipating a sense of urgency by mobilizing divergent and shifting figures of expropriation and exploitation, which fall along the vicissitudes of gender, age, ethnicity, and sexuality. These personifications blur the categories of boss and employee, underscoring the structural instabilities and ambivalences of exchange characteristic of fast capitalism. Performances of negotiation serve at once to manage the volatilities of the commodity chain but also the unstable position of being an entrepreneur or a worker.

Panel 2

bureaucrats, brokers, plumbers and thieves: ambivalence of brokerage

The Engineer and the Plumber: Mediating Mumbai’s conflicting infrastructural imaginaries

Lisa Björkman, University of Louisville

Two decades ago, the rules governing the provision of piped municipal water supply in the Indian city of Mumbai underwent a dramatic shift, whereby access to water became linked to the policy frameworks governing eligibility for a property titling scheme – what the paper characterizes as “hypothetical property right.” The paper outlines the ideological basis and practical implications of the profound policy shift, as well as the material, legal and political contradictions of this new regulatory regime. Focusing empirical attention on a neighborhood in Mumbai’s eastern suburbs, the paper demonstrates how these contradictions are increasingly mediated by the material and practical knowledge, embodied expertise, local authority and wide-ranging sociopolitical relations of an intermediate cast of characters known locally as “plumbers.” The social, political and hydraulic imaginaries animating the work of “plumbing” are shown to inhabit a temporal and spatial imaginary distinctly at odds with a network-flow paradigm within which the work of water supply planning and distribution in Mumbai is conceptualized, materialized and institutionalized. The hydraulic and legal contradictions of these clashing infrastructural idioms – of flow and event – have rendered the hypothetical property-right based water infrastructural regime highly unstable. The paper follows these spiraling contradictions, tracing how the instability eventually erupted in Mumbai’s waterscape. With the hypothetical property right based water policy framework delegitimized and effectively unmade, the city’s water infrastructures (their planning and operations) remain caught between dueling infrastructural imaginaries – suspended in a highly politicized state of limbo.

Diplomat, landlord, con-artist, thief: on ambivalence and mediation in migrant Moscow

Madeleine Reeves, University of Manchester

Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan seeking to make a life in the Russian metropolis are dependent upon a range of intermediaries (posredniki in Russian, ortmochular in Kyrgyz) to help secure work, temporary accommodation and the documents needed to remain legally legible. Many of these are figures are well-established (former) migrant workers who have obtained Russian citizenship and who now facilitate other migrants’ access to the temporary housing market by serving as informal ‘landlords’ (khoziainy), that is: as tenants who take on the risk of monthly rental payments to the owner of an apartment and in turn sub-let mattress-space to between 12 and 30 others. Such mediators often enjoy an ambiguous reputation within the migrant community, celebrated on the one hand as ‘diplomats’ (diplomattar) who provide access to an otherwise prohibitively expensive rental market and demonised as ‘con-artists’ (aferistter) who make money from other migrants’ economic vulnerability and unfamiliarity with the city. This paper engages with the workshop’s call to explore the ‘constitutive tension’ that arises in contexts of contemporary mediation between the broker as hero or villain, by exploring mediation alongside the category of ‘ambivalence’. The paper suggests that while anthropologists have increasingly explored the affective dimensions of migration—as a practice of hope (Pine 2014), as locus of desire (Fioratta 2015) or as source of fear (Willen 2007) or as expression of daring personhood (Alpes 2010)—less attention has been given to the ways that different affective registers coexist. The paper takes the ambiguous figure of the diplomat-cum-con-artist and the complex sentiments that they invite as a way of exploring the intersections between precarity, (il)legality, and political feeling in contemporary Russia. In so doing, it seeks to explore the category of ‘ambivalence’ in ethnographic terms.

Panel 3

money: mediating flows of credit and debt

Mediating debt in South Africa

Deborah James, London School of Economics

When South Africa experienced a sharp upturn in credit/debt activities during the 1990s, this took the form of consumer-oriented unsecured or ‘micro-‘ lending: something justified as a new form of inclusion but alleged by many to have intensified the power and profit of capitalism and acted to the detriment of householders. Yet blame cannot be so easily assigned. Forces of state and market have intertwined to create a redistributive neoliberalism, enabling brokers and intermediaries to insert themselves into the interstices of the system, making money by adding interest at every point in the value chain. Such figures have played a key role in establishing the current credit/debt landscape. Decades of state-induced policies of separate development meant that traders and commercial operators – and later informal moneylenders - relied on agents who bridged the gap between the world of business (whether initially white-owned or later black-owned) and the rural/township world of economic informality; as time passed, agents started setting up on their own, trying to peddle a range of goods to others from similar backgrounds, and always relying on credit to do so. Cases presented in the paper explore this situation, illustrating how difficult it is to separate bad from good protagonists; perpetrators from victims, or benefactors from beneficiaries. Many who lend money borrow it as well; borrowers are also lenders.

When capital “dries up”: Mediation and the dissolution of routes of accumulation

Llerena Searle, University of Rochester

Chains of intermediaries have become a foundational organizational form in the era of globalization, as vertically integrated production has been distributed geographically through flexible chains of subcontractors linked together by cheap transportation. This organizational form also enables financialization. In the period after the liberalization of Indian real estate (2005-8), Indian real estate development companies and foreign investors assembled chains of intermediaries in order to transform Indian buildings (and building projects) into financial instruments that could be traded outside India. This paper extends ethnographic research I conducted in 2006-2008 with North Indian real estate developers and investors through the economic crisis to the present. Based on interviews I conducted in the National Capital Region in January 2014, as well as analysis of industry documents and news reports, I consider what happens to chains of intermediaries when capital stops circulating and when market participants struggle to extricate it. Case studies of two international funds (Trikona Trinity Capital and Hirco) demonstrate that the same intermediaries who enabled transregional flows of capital through the Indian built environment also made it difficult for investors to get their money out after the crisis. The dissolution of routes of accumulation in periods of economic crisis illuminates the work of mediation that enables capital to circulate during periods of growth and, importantly, the contradictions inherent in the role of intermediary. The Hirco case in particular highlights Indian real estate developers’ liminal position as intermediaries, which requires them to balance the conflicting roles of “global professional” and “local fixer.” Assembling chains that can contain and profit from these contradictions – rather than splinter – is the precarious work of financialization.

Panel 4

scale: space, land and accumulation

Social Capital as Obstacle to Development: Brokering Land, Norms, and Trust in Rural India

Michael Levien, Johns Hopkins University

Based on a study of how rural land brokers mediate the arrival of a Special Economic Zone in rural Rajasthan, this paper argues that theories of collective social capital cannot explain how networks, norms, and trust interact in a process of economic change. It then reconstructs Bourdieu’s distinct theory of individual social capital by showing how better-connected farmers are able to broker land and capture profits at the expense of fellow villagers, undermining trust, norms, and collective action. It argues that social capital is most plausibly seen as an aspect of social inequality that hinders inclusive development.

Counterinsurgeny as an 'Urban Problematic': Spatial Fetishism in David Kicullen's Out of the Mountains

Ahmed Kanna, University of the Pacific

In this paper I look at the theory of so-called Network-Centric Warfare, specifically case studies from recent theories of urban counterinsurgency such as David Kilcullen's Out of the Mountains, the Small Wars online journal, and the questions they pose for the study of interconnections between US empire, capitalism, and urban theory. Beginning with a brief discussion of the genealogy of urban counterinsurgency starting with the imperial adventures between the 1890s to the 1930s, I focus on the recent and much more fully-fledged urban turn in US military theory over the past two decades. In this turn, we see a move a away from quasi-anthropological notions of culture, increasingly regarded as too static, too “incarcerating” of the colonial native, and toward an approach that emphasizes disciplinary power and, above all, the native as subject of market logics as normalizing techniques of domination. In this example of the “new military urbanism” (as Stephen Graham has put it in Cities Under Siege, 2011), theorists draw upon the language of scale to argue for a militarization of every aspect of urban life: the terrestrial, the littoral, the “super-surface,” the “sub-surface,” and the virtual space in which the city is embedded. This hyper-militarization of the city in turn is justified by discourses of business “opportunity” and free markets: as the slogan of Kilcullen’s counterinsurgency consulting firm has it: “from complexity, opportunity.” Capitalist accumulation therefore presupposes militarization of geographic scale. While network-centric warfare theorists speak the language of radical academia (citing poststructural architectural theory and radical urban studies), its true genealogy is in what Marx, in volume I of Capital, calls “primitive accumulation.”

Panel 5

migration (1): materiality of movement

Coyotaje and the Construction of ‘el Camino’: Migration Brokerage and the Clandestine Route from Central America through Mexico

Noelle Brigden, Marquette University

In narratives recounting the story of their unauthorized journeys across Mexico and into the United States, Central American migrants often frame their experience as a paradox of danger and opportunity, suffering and adventure, and a series of encounters with both good and evil. I pay particular attention to the equally ambivalent figure of the coyote (i.e. the human smuggler) in these narratives. The coyote alternates between hero and villain in the popular imaginary of Central American migration. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in El Salvador, Mexico and the United States, I ask what role coyotes play in both the mythical and material route north. In so doing, I elucidate how these key brokers contribute to the duality of the migration experience and shape the lived incongruities of a place known as el Camino (i.e. the road). Despite the indefinite ends, flexible mobility strategies, and often-illusive destinations of migrant journeys, el Camino is imagined as a definite place. Despite its clandestine and liminal character, el Camino represents a way of life; it is a series of everyday brokerage practices, known as coyotaje, which become the lifeblood of the communities through which migrants frequently transit. Thus, through the persona of the coyote, I explore the relationship between the material practice of migration brokerage and migrants’ imagination of the transnational route as a bounded but accessible social space.

From pioneers to professionals: African brokers in a maturing Chinese market place

Heidi Haugen, University of Oslo

This presentation explores the role of brokers in facilitating export form China to Africa. Brokers are crucial to sustaining global value chains in economic environments characterized by informality, monetary instability, political uncertainty, and a large number of small-scale actors. The brokers decrease the need for codified information and makes value chains more adaptable to changing demand- and supply dynamics. They also provide informally organized services, such as money transfer and customs clearance. Nigerians first settled in Guangzhou as brokers in the late 1990s. They made the market legible to African traders, allowing them to source directly from the mainland rather than via Hong Kong and Dubai. From 2002 onwards, Africans from across the continent operated as trading agents in China. They could initially charge generous commission from both Chinese producers and African customers. As the marked matured, they faced increasing pressure: The costs of being based in China surged, clients became familiar with Guangzhou's trading economy and less dependent on brokers, and competition made the trade far less profitable. As a response, some brokers have moved towards trading on their own by investing previous gains into a business. Others seek to control larger parts of the value chain by setting up production, warehouses, and wholesale outlets. Brokering is professionalized, with higher barriers to entry. The analysis is based on data collected through interviews and economic ethnography 15 months of fieldwork in China and Nigeria.

Panel 6

migration (2): mediating imaginaries and desires

Worshipping at the Golden Age Hotel: Transnational Networks, Migration, Religion and Economy of the Congolese in Istanbul

Gerda Heck, University of Göttingen

Turkey, known for many decades as an emigration country, has become during the last twenty years an important transit / immigration hub for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. Starting around fifteen years ago, Congolese migrants, asylum seekers and (suitcase) traders have increasingly targeted the Turkish metropolis of Istanbul. In my presentation I will examine, how Congolese revival Christians in Istanbul use their transnational mobility, their religious networks, religious belief, and sacred spaces, to established a trading network, which extends globally beyond the formal market and beyond nation-state regulations. This paper is based on the findings of my multi-sited ethnographic field research (Marcus 1995): “Migrants’ Routes – Religious Routes: The role of (neo-)Pentecostal Churches in the Migration Routes of Congolese Migrants,” which was conducted in the scope of the research project “Global Prayers. Redemption and Liberation in the City” (

“Absolutely Made In Italy”: Diasporic Entrepreneurs, Fast Fashion, and Far-Flung Families

Betsy Krause, University of Massachusetts Amherst

This paper draws on a collaborative, transnational project focused on the fast-fashion sector in Prato, Italy, where more than 4,800 Chinese-owned firms were registered at the end of 2012. This diasporic development of the Made in Italy brand reflects a dramatic shift in the character of Prato’s postwar industrial district. It explores the ways in which fast-fashion firm owners produce, sustain or subvert entrepreneurial energies and worlds. The analysis investigates the dialectic between economics and intimacy. It argues that Chinese entrepreneurs and workers’ desires to make money are situated in three structural encounters, each at a different level of scale: the Wenzhou regional model of economic development; a Central Italian small-firm environment connected to the made in italy brand; and global restructuring of the clothing industry. These encounters structure migrant experiences. The paper engages with data from interviews with more than 40 Chinese entrepreneurial firm owners and workers to offer three related observations: 1) that this dynamic niche resulted from a particular ethos of hard work, suffering and desire; 2) that the fast-fashion industry was sustained not only through bitterness and high-mindedness but also through reciprocity in the form of global families, especially the circulation of children; and 3) that the rise of fierce competition in light of the financial crisis of 2008 threatens to subvert it. In a recent New Yorker essay reporting on Angela Merkel’s visit to Italy made clear that the figure of the entrepreneur holds the promise out of crisis and into a golden future. As the Chancellor reminded Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, the German view was that entrepreneurs, not states, needed to promote jobs (Kramer 2015). On the global stage, and more specifically on the stage of development from the diaspora, a different entrepreneurial figure has emerged. This figure serves simultaneously as a transregional broker, a menace to small-firm entrepreneurial ideologies, and a paradoxical lifeboat to a crisis-ridden economy. This paper disrupts certain assumptions of global processes. As such, it contributes crucial ways in which entrepreneurs who energize certain niches do not adhere to straight scripts of a globalized economy or models of hegemonic capitalism.

Migration Infrastructure and Labor Circulation in the Indonesian-Malaysian Oil Palm Complex

Johan Lindquist , Stockholm University

This paper describes the formation of the socio-technical channels that make transnational labor migration possible, rather than the process of migration itself. More specifically, it focuses on relationships between labor brokers and employers who negotiate the recruitment of Indonesian workers to Malaysian palm oil plantations. Through the ethnographic description of a series of transnational encounters between brokers and employers in the context of the transformation of the regional airline industry, the expansion of telecommunication technologies, and the growing demand for flexible labor, the paper aims to conceptualize the migration infrastructure of the oil palm complex.


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