Migration, productivity, education and urbanisation are not making everybody happy

The article was first published by the University of Bergen on 21 March 2024. 

Capitalism is not just an economy, it is a type of society, according to professor in social anthropology, Don Kalb. For the past few years, he and his team have tried, through field work and research, to understand what is happening to people and communities in areas that have recently become capitalist.

«We always tend to think that capitalism and democracy go so well together, but there is inevitably an enormous tension between the two,» the Dutch social anthropologist, Don Kalb says.

For one, capital is global and democracy national.

«That gives capital a permanent right of escape, making it much more likely that democracy gets disciplined by capital than the other way around,» he continues.

Don Kalb has dedicated his professional life to study globalisation, nationalism, labour history and class, and was one of five researchers that came to the University of Bergen (UiB) through the Trond Mohn Foundation’s Toppforsk grant. Kalb now works as a professor and as the Academic Director of the Global Research Programme on Inequality (GRIP) at UiB (with the International Science Council in Paris).

«Contradictions of globalisation of capitalism is a topic that has kept me going as an anthropologist and critical author. The Trond Mohn grant allowed me to explore this topic further. I am very grateful for that opportunity,» Kalb says, and adds:

«The grant enabled me to extend my interest of the inner transformations going along with the expansion of capitalism after 1989, beyond postsocialism and beyond Central- and Eastern Europe, and look at this phenomenon worldwide. We have been doing intimate ethnography in places like China, Myanmar, and India».

A complete inner transformation

Don Kalb argues that the rise of the far right in Central- and Eastern Europe is a response to the way capitalism hit these societies.

«It led to enormous social inequality, enormous out migration, the collapse of this and the collapse of that, an enormous increase in efficiency and later of course economic growth. It was a complete inner transformation of societies,» Kalb says.

It was not just about the populist politicians, he says, but more an organic social process, where people began to protest what they very often thought were foreigners or foreign capital, or minorities like the Roma ‘corrupting’ their societies.

«A strong sense of a lack of sovereignty. These are all symbols that become attached to a puzzling and alarming situation of entropy. But the populist Right cannot and will not resist the spread of capitalism, while they are also against it at the same time,» Kalb says.

Escalating contradictions

The aim of the Toppforsk programme was to recruit internationally excellent researchers to strengthen the number of leading research groups at the University of Bergen.

Don Kalb used the grant to establish a research group that studied the escalating contradictions of the new global capitalism in China, the global South, Europe, and the US. The aim was to identify exemplary trends in class relationships, in politics and capitalist urbanism in these diverse world regions.

«We have done a lot of local research and field work, to try to understand what is happening to people and communities,» Kalb says.

A starting point has been the East-West axis.

«What you get from this axis is a clash between – historically – liberalism in the West and tyranny in the East. But both are capitalist. And increasingly they look like each other, although things are slightly differently organised,» Kalb explains.

Kalb’s research group had projects in the UK, the US, Eastern Europe, Southern Europe, The Middle East, South Asia, South-East Asia, and China. In each of the ten cases they focused on what the most remarkable aspects of capitalist growth and expansion in the region were.

A lost vocabulary

Kalb says that usually when people think about capitalism, they focus on money and economic growth, not about the nature of social relations and social life. But capitalism, he says, is not just an economy, it is a type of society.

«Migration, productivity, education, urbanisation, the basic processes, are not necessarily making everybody happy,» Kalb says.

Kalb says that most people are not consciously anti capitalist, even though they see its many interrelated shortcomings.

«It’s become difficult to talk socialist. If you do that, you become a revolutionary. If you talk nationalist, there is a space of alliance with capitalist accumulation and you simply want to restore something that seems lost, like sovereignty and community,» he says.

The way Kalb, as an anthropologist sees it, capital insinuates itself in manifold ways into our most intimate relationships and practices.

«We lack an effective vocabulary to talk about the intimate changes that are happening to societies. This is where the rise of populist, illiberal nationalism comes in. Nationalism is always an element of all these new right-wing ideologies that we see springing up. It is an effort to put the finger on the thing that is missing. To talk about what you can’t really talk about. When you globalise capital and lock democracy up in ever more meaningless units,» Kalb says.

Green offset markets in China

China has had enormous industrial urban growth over the past 30 years. Kalb and his research group were particularly interested in the development of so-called green offset markets.

«This is a purely capitalist mechanism, where you basically pollute, and in compensation for your own pollution you invest in offset markets as part of general secretary in China, Xi Jinping’s, promise to create an ‘ecological civilisation’,» Kalb says.

What kind of lives do people that live in these carbon offset areas have, the researchers wondered.

«There has been a massive out migration over the past years. But it is circular. People come back when they are old. And so the green offset markets here produce an enormous polarisation between urban higher educated people who come in, and run the projects, on the one hand, and mostly older women, whose children have left for the coast, and who do completely deskilled and very, very badly payed work, in the desert, trying to raise forests,» Kalb says, pointing to the research done by his postdoc Charlotte Bruckermann, who now works at the University of Cologne.

In South Asia, India and Nepal, Kalb’s collaborators looked at fast urbanisation and how urban elites and small proprietors align in the creation of property rights over land and then sell the land to the project developers.

«The ground rent in the whole of South Asia is rising enormously. And local landowning people earn a lot of money speculating about land. These lands are originally commons, not private property, but then they are turned into private property via bureaucratic processes and then sold to private developers. This is one of the backbones of the Modi regime in Inda,» Kalb says.

The importance of academic freedom

Kalb believes that anthropological research is a form of academic activism. He is one of many researchers who critically followed the global expansion of capitalism after 1989.

«With our research, we have been talking back against the steamroller of capitalist globalisation for a whole generation. Since 2010 more people have been open to discussing the challenges with neo-liberalism. Inequality has become a big, contested issue. And that is partly possible because academics have been talking back against ever greater global inequalities for a long time, and created a critical space that does have effect over time, when people are ready to pick it up,» he says.

Kalb thinks it is important that some researchers, like himself, ask different types of questions than policy makers necessarily find important. In fact, he believes it is the democratic task of academia, and his discipline in particular, to do so.

«This is why academic freedom is so important. Maybe our insights will only be interesting to a wider audience in 10, 20 or 30 years. Academia must be a space where questions can be asked that are uncomfortable for the powers that be, and yes beyond the grasp of majorities,» he says.