Subjects of Risk: Technologies of Gender in the Making of Millennial Modernity

By Ananya Roy:

In the new millennium, the world’s poor are still at the bottom of the pyramid, but this time they are the fortune that can be mined, not the workers whose labor feeds all. In the age of poverty, it is this erasure of labor and exploitation that enables the renewal of development and makes possible the ethicalization of market rule.


This essay is an effort to take seriously the particular conjuncture of market rule and dissent represented by the 2011 Microfinance USA conference. Microfinance, the practice of making microloans to the world’s poor, mainly to poor women, is a highly popular poverty intervention. It is also an instantiation of what may be understood as “bottom billion capitalism,” the integration of the billion or so people living under conditions of extreme poverty into global circulations of finance capital. In my previous work, I have shown how bottom billion capitalism must reconcile specific contradictions. On the one hand, it is an experiment with the democratization of capital, or with what Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and others have conceptualized as the creativity of capitalism. On the other hand, it is an experiment with strategies of capital accumulation, those that can mine what business school guru C. K. Prahalad famously titled “the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid.” Microfinance is a microcosm of bottom billion capitalism and thus a useful site at which to investigate such conjunctural formations.

Globalized as a poverty panacea in the mid-1990s, microfinance was retooled by World Bank experts as a global asset class with the potential to become a valuable portfolio for investment banks. At the margins of the “risk frontiers” of money markets, microfinance was the exotic instrument that survived the financial meltdown of 2008. But what is at stake in the 2011 Microfinance USA conference is much more than the unrelenting march of global capital. The anxieties on display at the conference speak to the active production and negotiation of bottom billion capitalism and in particular to the deployment of “ethics” to manage frontiers of risk. If this is neoliberalism at work, then following Jamie Peck, what must be traced is the mongrel character of such neoliberalism, its fragile construction, its contradictions. And if Patrick Joyce provokes us to think about the agonism of liberalism — “its definition of itself as a moral struggle, a struggle in and with the world of the political” — then it is also necessary to investigate the agonistic character of neoliberal reason. (…)

A rage and fury animated the 2011 Microfinance USA conference — “We are building a movement, not an industry” was the mantra. This motley crowd of nonprofit executives, social venture capitalists, and financial management experts had been transformed into activists, reclaiming “microfinance space” from aseemingly rapacious commercialization. The reclamation of the microfinance commons took place in the name of the poor: “the pride, dignity, and rebuilt self-worth”of the poor. But ultimately it was finance that was the grounds of such rebuilt self-worth.Not surprisingly, then, the conference was also the work of finance. Alongside the effort to restore an “ethics,” a “moral compass,” to microfinance was the mundane and banal work of enacting credit scores and managinginvestment vehicles. (…)



The 2011 Microfinance USA conference was haunted. At every turn, whispers of  suicide filled the sessions and lurked in the hallways. After all, the global headlines of microfinance were no longer simply about resilient finance; they were also about a “suicide epidemic” among microfinance borrowers. If the 2009 Citigroup advertisement pictured microfinance through the universalizing gesture of the unnamed and heroic microentrepreneur, a year later, this image of resilience had come to be replaced by a dramatically different media narrative about microfinance — testimonials of death and despair. Told in the villages of South India, these stories are marked by hardship, abandonment, and suicide. The media portraits this time are of shrunken and shriveled women, their aged faces lined with worry. Third World woman — no smile adorns her, no bustle of microenterprise surrounds her. A spectral presence, she is the new face of microfinance. If the 2009 Citigroup advertisement claimed the “maximum impact” of microfinance, then now the global media headlines tell of burdens of indebtedness. Take, for example, this caption from a New York Times photograph: “D. Mallama spoke about her daughter, Durgamma, who ran away from her village in Andhra Pradesh, India, after not being able to pay back loans from microfinance agencies.” The trade in debt had been transformed into what, following Achille Mbembe, can be understood as “necropolitics,” where “becoming subject therefore supposes upholding the work of death.” At the 2011 Microfinance USA conference the theme of “responsible finance” was an effort to manage a new “risk frontier” — how the global media story about microfinance had switched from entrepreneurialism to debt and despair, how the work of finance had become entangled with the work of death. Also at stake was the status of the icon at the heart of global microfinance: Third World woman, or as I have argued “millennial woman” — the figure of resilience charged with converting poverty into enterprise.15 These “timeless images of aspiration” were now gendered victims of exploitation, helpless and powerless. As a local economics professor is quoted in the report by journalists Yoolim Lee and Ruth David, “Microfinance was supposed to empower women. . . . Microfinance guys reversed the social and economic progress, and these women ended up becoming slaves.” Microfinance’s “suicide epidemic” has engendered a predictable critique of predatory lending, of the “Walmartization” of microfinance. In the face of such crisis, key interlocutors of the self-labeled microfinance movement have turned to “ethics,” to the theme of responsible finance. The set of “client protection principles” circulated at the 2011 Microfinance USA conference was meant to mitigate “unethical collections, illegal practices, poor governance, and high interest rates.” But the crisis is more than the work of death. It is also a crisis of the trade in debt, specifically of the “imminent collapse” of microfinance through the politicization of debt. In the state of Andhra Pradesh in India, it is estimated that repayments on nearly $2 billion in microfinance debt have ground to a halt, with “local leaders urging people to renege on their loans.” (…)


(…) It is clear that millennial modernity, as a global regime of development, implicates what Sylvia Chant designates “the feminization of responsibility and obligation” or what Maxine Molyneux labels “female altruism at the service of the state.”42 The productivity of development programs, including microfinance, depends on and deepens the domestication of care relations. Poverty capital can thus be understood as the capitalization of altruistic burdens, carried disproportionately by poor women. Victoria Lawson argues, “The very model of profitability rests on, and reproduces, vertical relations of control, dependency and gender ascription, even as the rhetoric obscures (downplays) these relations and espouses the entrepreneurial individual and women’s empowerment.” Such capitalization lingers at the nexus of culture and household, social capital and economic capital, financial discipline and self-penalization.

But poverty capital involves more than the domestication of care relations. In fundamental ways, it is constituted through technologies of gender. I borrow the term technologies of gender from Teresa de Lauretis, who conceptualizes gender as the “product of various social technologies” as well as “institutional discourses, epistemologies, and critical practices.” Technologies of microfinance are technologies of gender and vice versa. Microfinance’s productivity is enabled through the gendered intimacy of the joint liability peer group, but it is also such a peer group that reproduces gendered subjects, specifically the financially responsible moral woman. In this inescapable density of social relations, default is transformed into death; the trade in debt becomes necropolitics.


I was invited to speak at the 2011 Microfinance USA conference. Along with Carlos Danel, cofounder of Compartamos Banco, I participated in a plenary session titled “Balancing Act: Mission, Profit, and Impact in Microfinance.” My critique of financialization was taken up with enthusiasm by conference participants, folded into the mission to ethicalize finance, and even appropriated by the numerous Wall Street strategists eager to map the risk frontiers of bottom billion capitalism. Critical theory, I realized, was always part of the matrix of microfinance, always implicated in the convertibility of capital.

Read article at Public Culture 24:1 – 2012


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