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Marxian Crisis, Maussian Gift: The Mutual-Help Practices of Lisbon’s Cape Verdean Labor Immigrants in an Age of Austerity

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The post-2008 economic crisis in Portugal has been particularly severe in the neighborhoods in which many of the country’s Cape Verdean labor immigrants live. In this article, I will attempt to examine how my informants have conceptualized the
  Cadernos de EstudosAfricanos 24 (2012)Africanos e Afrodescendentes em Portugal: Redefinindo Práticas, Projetos e Identidades ................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................ Samuel Weeks Marxian Crisis, Maussian Gift: Themutual-help practices of Lisbon’s CapeVerdean labor immigrants in an age of austerity ................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................ Aviso O conteúdo deste website está sujeito à legislação francesa sobre a propriedade intelectual e é propriedade exclusivado editor.Os trabalhos disponibilizados neste website podem ser consultados e reproduzidos em papel ou suporte digitaldesde que a sua utilização seja estritamente pessoal ou para fins científicos ou pedagógicos, excluindo-se qualquerexploração comercial. A reprodução deverá mencionar obrigatoriamente o editor, o nome da revista, o autor e areferência do documento.Qualquer outra forma de reprodução é interdita salvo se autorizada previamente pelo editor, excepto nos casosprevistos pela legislação em vigor em França.Revues.org é um portal de revistas das ciências sociais e humanas desenvolvido pelo CLÉO, Centro para a ediçãoeletrónica aberta (CNRS, EHESS, UP, UAPV - França) ................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................ Referência eletrônicaSamuel Weeks, « Marxian Crisis, Maussian Gift: The mutual-help practices of Lisbon’s Cape Verdean laborimmigrants in an age of austerity », Cadernos de Estudos Africanos [Online], 24 | 2012, posto online no dia 13Dezembro 2012, consultado o 13 Dezembro 2012. URL : http://cea.revues.org/629 ; DOI : 10.4000/cea.629Editor: Centro de Estudos Africanoshttp://cea.revues.orghttp://www.revues.orgDocumento acessível online em:http://cea.revues.org/629Documento gerado automaticamente no dia 13 Dezembro 2012. A paginação não corresponde à paginação da ediçãoem papel.© Centro de Estudos Africanos do ISCTE - Instituto Universitário de Lisboa  Marxian Crisis, Maussian Gift: The mutual-help practices of Lisbon’s Cape Verdean labor i (...)2 Cadernos de Estudos Africanos, 24 | 2012 Samuel Weeks Marxian Crisis, Maussian Gift: The mutual-help practices of Lisbon’s Cape Verdeanlabor immigrants in an age of austerity Paginação da edição em papel : p. 27-43 1 Since 2010, the escalation of the Eurozone crisis in Portugal has radically altered the country’ssocio-economic landscape. In April of 2011, the Socialist-led Portuguese government wasforced to accept an EU-IMF-ECB bailout due to pressure from the German and Frenchgovernments and a relentless assault from the bond market, which had priced up the country’sdebt to levels deemed unsustainable. Since this time, Portugal has beenon the receiving end of an unremitting austerity program, the likes of which has not been seen in post-WWII Europe.This period has resulted in a dramatic drop in the living standards of many Portuguese, as bothworkers and pensioners have lost about a third of their incomes. The actual unemploymentrate is said to be around 20 per cent (the ‘official’ rate is 15.5 percent), with the figure twiceas high among 25-to-34-year-olds, while GDP has declined by at least eight per cent since thestart of the crisis, a drop comparable to the downturn in the 1930s (Gray, 2012, p. 104). Thispunishing regime of austerity has produced a series of mass mobilizations since Novemberof 2010, with large demonstrations, three general strikes, and a brief ‘Occupy’ encampmentin front of the Parliament Building. Central to the protesters’ demands is that the Portuguesegovernment renegotiate its debt to French and German creditors, in an attempt to save the EUfrom resembling the 1830-48 July Monarchy in France as described by Marx (2003): “a [mere] joint-stock company for the exploitation of national wealth”, run by and for “the financialaristocracy” (p. 38). 2 The post-2008 crisis has been particularly severe on the Lisbon periphery, where the middleand working classes have witnessed their buying power diminish, as wages and salaries dropand the prices for basic necessities increase. In the capital region, unprecedented economichardship has engendered striking new distinctions between wealth and impoverishment,as spiraling class disparities have affected a majority of the population. While similarconsequences are being felt in much of the ‘developed’ world, the crisis has altered, perhapspermanently, the topography of the Lisbon Metropolitan Area, which the national mediaportrays as being increasingly dangerous (Carvalheiro, 2008, pp. 284-288). In this narrative,private security guards and gated communities provide Lisbon its few perceived zones of ‘safety’ (Raposo, 2006, p. 50), outside of which teem youth gangs, drug dealers, and otherdelinquents ( marginais ). 3 Certain parishes in the suburban municipalities of Amadora, Oeiras, Loures, Almada, andSeixal have been exceptionally hard hit by the crisis, compounding already existing socialproblems due to poor schooling, few job opportunities, inadequate government services, andstigmatization on the part of ‘mainstream’ Portuguese society (Barbosa & Ramos, 2008, p.175; Horta, 2008, p. 165; Vale de Almeida, 2002, p. 68). In these neighborhoods lives much of the country’s sizeable population of Cape Verdean 1 labor immigrants, the majority of whomtoil in the most poorly remunerated professions under precarious working conditions (Batalha,2004, p. 11; Batalha, 2008, p. 33; Åkesson, 2011a, p. 155). They are adrift within a social andeconomic system that is largely indifferent to their wellbeing 2 (Weeks, 2011, pp. 610-611). 4 In this article, I will attempt to show how this population has conceptualized the currentdownturn, as well as how they have used ‘gifts’ of mutual help ( djuda ) to cope with, or evenovercome, the profound challenges of living on a Lisbon periphery in crisis. I employ theideas of Marx and Mauss to assist my analysis of these phenomena, for the methods of thesetwo thinkers are simultaneously dialectical, evolutionary, comparative, and political (Gregory,2003, p. 920). This literature provides a creative framework for exploring what mutual-help  Marxian Crisis, Maussian Gift: The mutual-help practices of Lisbon’s Cape Verdean labor i (...)3 Cadernos de Estudos Africanos, 24 | 2012 gifts mean to immigrants from the islands during a time of unprecedented crisis. That the closepersonal relations and economic activities of Cape Verdean labor migrants are so stronglyinterlinked makes such an approach essential (Åkesson, 2011b, p. 341). 5 In general terms, I hope to demonstrate why Cape Verdean immigrants ‘answer’ in a particularway the ‘questions’ they have about the post-2008 crisis. I also attempt to explore the meaningsthey ascribe to the mutual-help gifts they offer to one another. From academic sources to thenews media, we hear daily about the horrors of this current crisis, but seldom are we told whatpeople do to survive in, or perhaps even prevail over, situations of great hardship. What is therole of the Maussian gift in a Marxian crisis of erratic labor demand and whimsical capitaltrajectories? Marxian crisis “I don’t know this Mr. Crisis.” – a Cape Verdean joke 6 Living in a state of crisis ( krizi ) is not new to non-elite Cape Verdeans in Portugal. To thisday, labor immigrants from the islands continue to suffer from institutional discrimination andeconomic vulnerability that severely inhibit their social mobility within Portuguese society(Batalha, 2004, pp. 178-179). Many live on the fringes of legality and are socially segregatedvis-à-vis the poor housing, education, and healthcare available to them. They are able to ensuresurvival largely due to the inexpensive goods and services and opportunities for low-wageemployment that their peers provide in the ‘informal sector’ (cf. Narotzky, 1997, p. 83; cf.Grassi, 2007, pp. 130-133; Horta, 2008, p. 200). 7 While our current situation would have come as no surprise to Marx (1992, pp. 24-25),for whom capitalism inherently tended towards crisis, what has happened to Lisbon’s CapeVerdean labor migrants in recent years is of a wholly different and more desperate qualitythat must give one pause. Among my informants, there is a palpable sense that ‘what was’ hasnow been undone. Postmodern pessimism has run up against the ‘promises’ of late capitalism,with everything appearing at once unfeasible, unstable, and irreversible (cf. Pina-Cabral,1987, p. 715). The crisis economy of the Lisbon periphery fuses promise with desperation,usefulness with pointlessness, and hope with fatalism. The current situation is one of rapidsocial transformation, marked by “an ambiguous mix of possibility and powerlessness, of desire and despair, of mass joblessness and hunger amidst the accumulation, by [the few], of great amounts of wealth” (Comaroff & Comaroff, 1999, p. 283). 8 Among migrants from Cape Verde, there is an acute sense of confusion ( konfuson ) aboutthe not-quite-fathomable mechanisms of the crisis. The ‘downturn’ has undermined oldsubjectivities and established a new order whose social coordinates are still in the process of being defined. With ‘normality’ seemingly in flux, and without stabilizing structures in place,deep unease over how to make a ‘living’ now colors how Cape Verdean immigrants in Lisboninterpret the radical shift in crisis-era political and economic values (Sylvanus, 2012, p. 244).This anxiety over the profundity of the crisis has generated various degrees of panic amongmy informants, who are adamant that they lack the ‘knowledge’ necessary to make sense of it.The perceived complexity of the crisis has brought about a growing feeling of powerlessnessamong those who do not possess the resources to negotiate its rhizomatic power. In this light,‘crisis’ serves as a floating signifier for Cape Verdean immigrants (cf. Lévi-Strauss, 1987, p.63); its meaning is masked and consensus about what constitutes this dire situation becomesimpossible to establish. As the downturn deepens in 2012 and assumes an air of permanency,it has become difficult, if not impossible, for Cape Verdean labor immigrants to believe thatthis crisis will ever end. 9 Whereas for bourgeois Portuguese, financial crisis is more of an imbalance that requiresthe intervention of ‘experts’, for Cape Verdean labor migrants, crisis remains imminent andomnipresent, accounting for and explaining most economic misfortune (cf. Scheper-Hughes,1992, p. 235). When my chronically unemployed mother-of-four informant told me that shewas leaving Portugal for Angola, where her husband was born, she used a drowning metaphorto describe her predicament: “Before ( antis ), the water was at knee level. Now ( gosi ), it hasreached our mouths and we must flee”. This ‘crisis’ discourse speaks to the instability of my  Marxian Crisis, Maussian Gift: The mutual-help practices of Lisbon’s Cape Verdean labor i (...)4 Cadernos de Estudos Africanos, 24 | 2012 informants’ social and economic order and invites apprehensive Cape Verdean immigrantsto express and register their anxiety and discontent. Like Talcott Parsons’ ‘sick role’ (1974),the idiom of crisis provides thwarted Cape Verdean agents a ‘cover’ in which their individualhardship is overshadowed by incomprehensible ‘global’ developments over which they haveno control. 10 In this crisis economy, the access of many of my informants to the capitalist mode of production has been severely restricted, with capital excluding the unemployed from the cycleof production, circulation, and consumption (Marx, 2011, p. 691). Thus, the labor-power of the unemployed has been ‘removed’ from any means of production. The crisis has made‘redundant’ the labor of two of my construction-worker informants, as sites of productionand capital have moved elsewhere. Tragically, these long stretches of unemployment havethwarted their life ambitions. Material instability 11 Not limited to wage labor, the crisis trope extends to housing and commodities. Municipalofficials order homes demolished in ‘problematic’ neighborhoods ( bairros problemáticos )if they ‘believe’ that the home has been ‘abandoned’. If no one answers the door on theirweekly rounds, the authorities post a demolition order on the dwelling. If the ‘owners’ do notrespond to this warning within a certain time, the municipality razes the home and charges afee for storing the owner’s belongings. My musician informant spoke to this aggression in noambiguous terms: “it is crisis from all sides”. 12 Likewise, the crisis is perceived as having even subverted the ‘stability’ of certaincommodities, such as foodstuffs, clothes, shoes, and perfume. According to my informants,post-crisis packaged croquettes have less meat; clothes and perfume bought from Romani( siganu ) merchants are ‘inauthentic’ ( é ka di marka ); surreptitious supermarket employees slipbad apples into the bottom of the bag; tablecloths do not fully cover tables; and retail merchantsare always trying to bilk the cash-strapped of their change. 13 Feeling duped out of their hard-earned money, my informants accuse these dishonestpurveyors of deceiving them into buying inadequate or deficient products. Thus, a Lisbonperiphery flush with crisis has caused my informants to doubt the ‘real’ equivalence valueof their material purchases (cf. Narotzky, 1997, p. 45). “Everything is Mafia in Portugal”,summed up a domestic-worker informant of mine. 14 I heard this distressing quotation in the cramped room of a boarding house ( residencial )in a working- and middle-class neighborhood of Lisbon during the spring of 2012. Thisperiod saw an acceleration of the multiyear crisis caused by a biting regime of austerity,deepening unemployment, macroeconomic contraction, and falling incomes. My domestic-worker informant’s sense of betrayal is obviously profound. Not only had she perceivednumerous instances of financial deception, she had also seen violated her sacrosanct ‘rights’to stable material forms. By invoking a ‘Mafia’ that technically does not exist in Portugal,my domestic-worker informant found a ‘culprit’ whom she accuses of disrupting her senseof ‘normalcy’. 15 Later in the conversation, she added another critical detail to her overall indictment of the‘crisis’ economy. When discussing the purported increase of cashiers failing to give customersproper change, she said that since 2008 she has needed to “count the money with her hands”after receiving it. Her suspicion of post-sale deception is noteworthy in that it has become notsimply enough to ‘see’ the change; one must now count it ‘by hand’ in front of the cashierto ensure its accuracy. 16 In the above examples, attention should be given to the ways in which my informantsexperience the newfound fluid nature of items whose status they no longer perceive to befixed. Their anxiety over material possessions, whose ‘real’ value only comes to light after themoment of transaction, has become one of the more pronounced ways in which my informantshave come to experience Portugal in the throes of a severe multiyear recession (cf. Sylvanus,2012, p. 244). As shown, my informants believe these changes to be the local manifestationsof a large-scale crisis that has left them with increasingly less economic autonomy. When  Marxian Crisis, Maussian Gift: The mutual-help practices of Lisbon’s Cape Verdean labor i (...)5 Cadernos de Estudos Africanos, 24 | 2012 attempting to reconcile the global crisis with their individual loss of income, my informants aredriven to reinterpret the meanings attached to people and things around them. In doing so, theysense acutely their powerlessness due to the confusion about the material world they inhabit. Maussian gift “As you receive with the one hand,so should you give with the other.” – a Cape Verdean proverb 17 Although not under circumstances freely chosen by themselves (Marx & Engels, 1992, p. 30),Cape Verdean labor immigrants have in part been able to ‘create’ a particular social world onthe Lisbon periphery (Batalha, 2004, p. 144). As I (2012, p. 27) have shown elsewhere, theidea of kinship among islanders in Lisbon is largely one of providing, or ‘gifting’, mutual help( djuda ) to family and friends. As such, the social relations between Cape Verdean migrants areexpressed in the bonding that ensues from giving of mutual-help ‘gifts’ (cf. Narotzky, 1997,p. 44). My informants’ gifts of mutual help have the power to create, transfer, and manifesta multiplicity of sentiments among different people, reproducing concurrently many of thesocial and moral forces that bring together a group of individuals. In Maussian parlance, thegift is a “total social phenomenon” (Mauss, 2002, p. 3; Sahlins, 1972, p. 169), with the powerto enmesh material items, relations, values, and contracts. 18 Among my informants, ‘gifts’ can be material goods (e.g., clothes, food, consumer products,building materials, etc.) or services (a ride, childcare, use of appliances, etc.). Providing a ‘gift’good can return a favor that was done in the form of a service, and vice-versa. For instance, anafternoon ‘gift’ of childcare can be ‘exchanged’ for hand-me-down baby clothes or a bag of cement. By means of their circulation, these ‘gift’ goods and services not only help to fulfillparticipants’ daily needs in a context of scarce resources, but also serve to regenerate the socialfabric between participants. Even though Mauss (2002, p. 101) wrote about the role of the giftin ‘primitive’ societies, one finds that many aspects of gift circulation are strongly embeddedwithin Cape Verdean communities amidst a backdrop of commodity exchange on the Lisbonperiphery (cf. Martin, 2012, p. 133). 19 My informants often see mutual-help gifts as the result of voluntary, even spontaneous, action,though they seldom acknowledge that in giving gifts, givers (re)create ties that tacitly obligereceivers into returning the favor at a later date (cf. Stack, 1974, p. 34; Narotzky, 1997, pp.43-44). A gift circulated between my informants does not become the total ‘possession’ of its receiver, for the giver can often lay claim to a subsequent instance of the practice. Similarto the classic descriptions of Mauss (2002, p. 4), these gifts should be seen in a context of circulating favors that engages the honor of both the giver and receiver. The lapse in timebetween the giving of a gift and its ‘repayment’ 3 is indicative of the durability of the social bondbetween the two parties (Bloch, 1973, p. 77). A delay lets my gift-giving informants believethat their exchange was simply an act of generosity. In this regard, not expecting an immediate‘pay back’ serves to stabilize and prolong the relationship between the collaborators. If a giftof mutual help is not ‘returned’ with another, the receiver can expect social consequences,constraints, and sanctions: “To refuse to give, or to fail to invite, is like refusing to accept –the equivalent of a declaration of war; it is a refusal of friendship” (Mauss, 2002, p. 17; cf.Malinowski, 1920, p. 100). 20 Akin to the interpretation of Mauss (2002), the tendency of Cape Verdean labor migrants tocirculate goods and services within mutual-help networks obliges them to give, receive, andrepay these ‘gifts’. Notably, the donor often needs whatever is given as desperately as does thereceiver. In this sense, a mutual-help gift is never entirely alienated from its giver and does notbecome the sole ‘property’ of its receiver. When a network participant offers a gift that a friendor family member wants or needs, she gives under a voluntary guise in the spirit of mutuality.However, the offering is in effect obligatory, and failure to do so results in the recipient beinglabeled ingratu, or ungrateful (Åkesson, 2011b, p. 337). 21 Gifts of mutual help between Cape Verdean immigrants in Lisbon mostly take the form of generalized reciprocity, in accordance with the scheme of Sahlins (1972, p. 206). Unlikerelationships of balanced reciprocity, in which giving and returning takes place within a
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