The Role of Money in Social Life: Morality and Power in the World of the Poor

by Ariel Wilkis*

“Perhaps behind the coin is God.” — Jorge Luis Borges, The Zahir (1949) 

My book The Moral Power of Money: Morality and Economy in the Life of the Poor (Stanford University Press, 2017) offers a new focus for interpreting the multiple power relations that configure the world of the poor. It analyzes heterogeneous money exchanges among the urban poor in Buenos Aires and regards how the money circulates on formal, informal and illegal markets, through welfare and NGO assistance, and around political, religious and family ties. Along this path, the moral dimension of money plays a critical role in the production of economic, class, political, gender and generational bonds. In an innovative dialogue that includes Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology of power and the sociology of money of Viviana Zelizer, this book proposes the concept of moral capital to interpret the connections between money, morality and power. This sociology allowed us to understand that money is more like a puzzle comprised of several pieces. The concept of moral capital allows reveals that the pieces of money are shaped by ideas and moral feelings, and that each of these pieces differs from the others. The dynamic of these pieces—a dynamic involving hierarchies, tensions and contradictions—challenges the definition and the negotiation of people’s status and power in specific social orders. This research explores the roles of money that do not appear among its functions in economy textbooks. Along the way, we hit upon subjects such as hierarchy, domination, status and competition. In short, the proposal of this book is to build a toolbox based on the moral sociology of money to understand the role money plays in social life today.
The Moral Power of Money morality and economy in the life of the poorIn Argentina and in other parts of the world, the capitalist credit market has expanded to play a key role in the economic lives of the poor. The financialization of the economy shapes the economic life of the poor, creating spheres for distinction and moral domination. The poor must make an effort to have their virtues recognized in order to access credit. By examining how consumer credit began expanding to low-income sectors in 2003, chapter one unveils the moral hierarchies rooted in the circulation of lent money.  This chapter shows the moral ubiquity of money lent in heterogeneous situations, both formal and informal where money circulates. It also reveals how moral capital becomes a guarantee that sustains the power relations at the core of these situations. For those with scarce economic and cultural assets, the daily management of finances involves fighting to have their values acknowledged. Moral capital is their passport. However, like all forms of acknowledgment, it is rare and thus can become a form of domination that some are forced to accept in order to access the material benefits capitalism has to offer.
The chapter two analyzes how the underground economy operates as a moral space of income. This exploration will reveal the dynamics of questioning and legitimizing what has to be done to earn money. Therefore, the concept of moral capital is a useful instrument for understanding how this piece circulates or is taken out of circulation in response to a moral assessment of people’s actions. Having moral capital is the way in to these economic transactions that are not regulated by law. Informal and illegal markets are moral spaces where the legitimacy of money earned comes into play. To get involved in these transactions, moral hierarchies are established among participants and they are the also the prerequisites for successful participation.
The conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs have become the new paradigm of the struggle against poverty. These programs have progressively expanded to around thirty countries in the region that has come to be known as the Global South. The expansion of CCT programs changed the household budgets of the poor and became a focus of public debate. The use of money donated by the State became a way to morally discredit the poor. Money donated to the poor instantly becomes a source of suspicion. To understand this, the chapter three reconstructed the place of money donated by the state in different hierarchies of money. This chapter identifies the different strategies individuals use to elude the biases associated with this type of money such as stigma cleansing rituals, exclusion strategies and silence in response to such judgments. Beyond the efforts to avoid the stigma associated with donated money, the reconstructed scenes show how monetary hierarchies uphold power relations among those who have the authority to judge and those who must acquiesce to such biases.
Through the processes of democratization in Argentina (and most of Latin America) that began at the beginning of the 1980s, political scientists and sociologists began examining money in political life through the financial of political parties and the political clientelism. The chapter four goes beyond a narrative of money’s instrumental use in politics. Has the monetization of political activities dissolved values, commitments, and loyalties among the poor? Is this corruption or an ethical exchange among people who lack cash but possess moral capital? This chapter explores how politics involves power relations that can be understood through the moral dimension of money. This chapter shows how residents of Villa Olimpia, a villa miseria (slum), made political money the accounting unit to acknowledge the fulfillment of political obligations that bind leaders and their followers together in relationships of power. To put it more succinctly, this community places political money at the core of its collective life.
The chapter five narrates the competition between political and religious leaders of Villa Olimpia. It shows how these power struggles are rooted in the accumulation of moral capital associated with the pieces of money. Both religious and political networks create social distinctions among their members. While circulating, political and sacrificed money carry a series of social orders and hierarchies of money that often overlap. Each piece is indecipherable outside of the hierarchy of money and at the same time projects a social hierarchy. Between the two pieces, there is fiery competition for the range of objects and people involved. These two puzzle pieces, regulated by specific systems of feelings and perspectives, compete with one another.
The previous chapters explore how money produces political hierarchies as it circulates. The last one presents the logic at work when money circulates in the domestic sphere. It explores how the social order of the family is rooted in money. The pieces of money produce a hierarchy among family members (fathers and sons, husbands and wives) to determine each family’s ranking in the social order of the neighborhood. The different pieces of money (with their hierarchies, tensions, conversions) form a unit that allows us to observe and understand the family universe. On the one hand, they help us understand intergenerational relations. The parents instill the value of safeguarded money in their children. This piece of money shows how people create and recreate the family social order in the sphere of money, which involves both mutual assistance and conflicts, helping complete family projects or tearing them apart. On the other hand, they help us understand gender relations as well. Safeguarded money provides a piece of evidence that applies to all the pieces. Its circulation carries gendered obligations; men and women are judged based on whether they meet these obligations. Poor women are viewed positively when they safeguard their households both emotionally and economically. In the hands of women money had to be used to guarantee family continuity. Any other use of the money would be questionable, transforming the safeguarded money into suspicious money.
The contributions from the moral sociology of money stem from an ethnographic reconstruction of the everyday life of poor people who live in Villa Olimpia. In this work, I identified and assembled the pieces of money that best captured the dynamics of solidarity and conflict that characterized social bonds. However, the book takes the arguments, concepts and empirical evidence presented in the hope of reimagining economic sociology (Aspers, Dodd and Anderberg 2015) outside Villa Olimpia and the world of the poor. The moral sociology of money that I propose is a theoretical and methodological toolbox that can be applied to other social worlds, establishing bridges with other areas of knowledge in sociology.
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* Ariel Wilkis is a researcher at the National Council of Scientific and Technological Research (CONICET) and Co-Director of the Center for Social Studies of Economics at the National University of San Martín, Argentina. 

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