Indebting Others

Sometime in December, I glanced at an article on the increasing automation of the service industry. All I remember of it was that the journalist admitted that most mornings, she avoided the local coffee shop in her neighborhood in favor of a chain where she could get her coffee without having to interact with another person. This struck me at the time as awful, and another instance of how extreme our commodity-exchange society has become in urban, affluent parts of the globe – where one can go an entire week without even the token obligation of saying “Please,” “Thank you, “How’s it going?” or “Fine, thanks,” much less any other humanly-mediated exchange of goods or services. With this in mind, I was looking forward to reading Larisa Jašarević’s new book, Health and Wealth in the Bosnian Market: Intimate Debt. It was, as expected, a plunge into a world where such a coffee experience seems flat out impossible, and not just because it would be difficult to find coffee to ‘take out’ and drink alone.

The read was a holiday gift that offered up multiple pleasures, among them, a view into the complicated and seemingly contradictory world of post-socialist, post-war Bosnia, where ephemeral communities form and dissipate (à la Jean-Luc Nancy) in the two primary sites for the book: in local markets and in the pursuit of health care. These are communities that transcend the ethno-national, religious and other institutionalized differences for which Bosnia is more often known. The book was also an immersion into a world where daily economic transactions are thoroughly embedded in the local social order through gift exchange, even though these are structured by the world of hard commodity exchange in the form of inadequate fixed incomes on the one hand and undeferrable deadlines for high-interest microloan payments on the other. All this is presented in elaborate, evocative prose that strives to capture the collective experience of what it is to live in Bosnia at this particular historic moment, one where neoliberal globalization has eviscerated most of the national economy, particularly larger-scale manufacturing.

Jašarević deploys the indefinite pronoun to include the reader as well as herself (as both objectifying ethnographer and homegrown participant), in what it is to be a person in contemporary Bosnia rather than to be Bosnian. Thus, in Bosnia, “one can be left with no one obvious way to pay or extend a gift, but might feel obligated and indebted in a convoluted way that leaves one with no means of responding graciously” (p. 17), or “Incomes and profits hinge on one’s willingness to lend money to others, to extend goods and services on credit, to wait for payment, and to secure alternate sources of money if the clients’ deferrals of debt settlement upset one’s own schedule of loan installments and investments,” (p. 28)

This inclusive ethnographic voice is particularized by an abundance of stories of memorable people, in specific circumstances, with singular talents, kinship relations, afflictions and prosperities. They are mostly middle-aged or older, living “on the edge.” Many once enjoyed a socialist professional career and middle-class lifestyle that now defines their expectations for “living well.” They are traders and their customers, pharmacists and medical professionals, health-seekers, and a healer-queen. We encounter them in open-air markets, in trains, taxis and buses, in lines in pharmacies and in waiting rooms of various health providers, from the biomedical to mixtures of bioenergetic, herbalist, augury, and Koranic. They are intertwined in webs of indebtedness that comprise gift-like exchange relations, always owing and obligated and incessantly lending and giving. They exchange to acquire for themselves and family but also to provide others with not just needs like medicine, house repairs and bank loan repayments, but cosmetics, sweets, “most-modern” fashion items and the sacred annual vacation – the things necessary to “live well.”

These are never anonymous actors engaged in terminal, disembedded, commodity-exchange, but people who turn even money into a gift – as when a trader indulgently lends a customer money to pay for a vacation, because she has faith not that it will be “repaid,” but that it will be “given back” (p.95). Likewise, the commodities traded here are never abstract exchange values but always use-value particulars of consequential materiality, holding out potential for outright gifting or some kind of exchange depending on the moment: flower bouquets, colorful nail polish, local honey, out-of-fashion pants, Coca-Cola, medicinal Japanese mushrooms, cell phones and cheap but sparkly costume jewelry. At the same time, medical care and pharmaceuticals once provided by the socialist state have become increasingly commodified and more difficult to bring into the gift economy. The book is thus a masterful example of how the financialization of neoliberal capitalism globally can both increase commodification of areas once enclaved from such pressures, but also, counterintuitively, decommodify both commodities and exchange relations in local flea markets. As Jašarević demonstrates, in such sites of exchange, left-over and out-of-date things that are nonetheless material, displayable and giftable, circulate among people shut out of productive and institutionalized “normal” employment. Although she draws explicitly on Marxian thinkers, the book seems more in dialogue with work drawing on Simmel and Polanyi (though she does not mention them). It furthers our understanding of how contemporary societies are complex mixtures of gift- and commodity-exchange principles – often in ways that this classic opposition fails to capture. It also illustrates the need for far more nuance in what counts as a commodity, when, and under what conditions, than Marxian definitions allow.

Jašarević makes the case that in Bosnia, people living lives of incessant, inescapable indebtedness are thereby inculcated with a “disposition to generosity,” or a habitus of sharing, rather than just the calculating strategists Bourdieu depicts in his elaboration of Maussian gift-exchange theory. She celebrates the generosity provoked by intimacy-generating debt even though a major theme of the book is that this life of constant indebtedness is perilous to health and well-being, and, as she admits, no one else but the anthropologist calls it “generosity” or confuses market debts with gifts (p.104). The many accounts of her informants – friends, family, neighbors, pharmacists, healers, favorite traders and acquaintances – are convincing, in that generous affect does seem to flow between spheres of market and gift relations. At the same time, for me there is a melancholy irony to the fact that Yugoslav socialism is now remembered as a time of “living well.” It was also a time when people throughout eastern Europe expressed hope for conditions where one was not forced to go through informal networks to get things done, and yearned for the possibility of friendship and intimacy “free” of instrumental needs, unburdened from obligations, and sequestered from economic exchange. Simmel’s thought is instructive here, as it embraces the profound ambivalence of modernity and the effects of money; exploring what is gained and what is lost; how and when it matters; of alienation in freedom and of oppression in social obligation.

While sometimes I seek it out, this morning I avoided the regimented, branded space of Starbucks, where barristas are coached in what they can or cannot say, and every sight, sound, taste and smell is subjected to an abstract commodity logic (i.e., produced entirely with exchange-value in mind, combining freedom from obligation for the consumer and profit for the corporation). Instead, I chat with the middle-aged woman at a locally-owned coffee shop chain, where they serve branded coffee, and put a folded dollar bill into the tip jar; “Here you go, honey,” she says when she hands me my bagel. To identify both places as simply realms of commodity exchange is to collapse the distinctions between them. At the same time, they are infinitely more commodified than the coffee-commodity purchased at a Bosnian open-air market and gifted to create shared, momentary pleasures by traders burdened with mutual indebtedness.


Krisztina Fehervary is Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Michigan. She draws on materiality and semiotic theory to look at political-economic transformations in Eastern Europe. Politics in Color and Concrete: Socialist Materialities and the Middle Class in Hungary (2013 IU Press), examines successive aesthetic regimes in socialist & postsocialist housing and furnishings. She’s now exploring embodied manifestations of the transforming political economy over the past century in Hungary, by focusing on teeth and their display in the smile (and thus, servitude, customer service, welfare, and class).

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