Theodoros Rakopoulos and Knut Rio

For Marx a critical aspect of modernity and capitalism originated when forms of immovable and inalienable wealth such as land and natural resources, family or clan property, infrastructure or capacities for work, sex and consumption were set free from social structures of kinship or aristocracy and recycled as moveable and alienated property. The commodity form was thus invented as a specific new form of wealth, but one that, historically speaking, also broke away from and negated the concept of wealth as a deeply embedded social form.

In European cultural history there are two different strands of ideas related to wealth. The first and perhaps most ancient concept has survived in the word ‘rich’. Words for wealth such as ‘rikdom’ (Norwegian) or reichtum (German) or richesse (French) grew out of that meaning. Rikr in Old Norse, and back to its Germanic roots, and possibly also related to Celtic reg and Gothic reiks, meant kingdom, reign, realm or estate, reflected for instance in the ending of Henrik or Fredrik as kingly names. Such wealth did not figure so much as property, nor as exchangeable goods, but as inseparable from the aristocratic realm and power. This specific association with the kingdom, or at least chiefly power and authority, took a turn towards the ‘wealth’ that developed within the English speaking world. Wealth was used from mid-13th century for “happiness,” and also “prosperity in abundance of possessions or riches,” developing from Middle English wele as “well-being” as borrowed from West Germanic welo. This sense of ‘weal’ has survived in Norwegian up until today, where vel is associated with looking after the commons and ‘common good‘ of a local area. Hence, In England the riches of the Crown became inseparable from the wellbeing and prosperity of the kingdom. In this sense wealth is more a notion that brings out associations of, health and governance, whereas riches refer more directly to an alienable mark of status and power. Contained in-between the two words, riches and wealth, lies an implication not only of power, of estate and aristocracy but also an interest in the commons and the wellbeing of the subjects of the realm. No doubt such concepts as ‘commonwealth’ and ‘state’ have absorbed these earlier perspectives combining power and wellbeing.

According to Marx and Polanyi, society was transformed from relating to ‘wealth’, as a spiritual, qualitative and generative principle based on essential properties of gods, land and kin, to becoming based on a form of ‘commodity’ – as something quantitative, distributive and based on exchange and consumption. Still we question the idea (inherent in Marx’s Capital and other major works), that the industrialisation of labour saw a transformation of the social world, which became fully economic, completely invested into the circuit of labour, production and money. We hypothesise that the basic economical process of society was (and continues to be) the opposition between wealth and commodification. This may be described as a structural and perpetual mutually reinforcing as well as opposing dynamic of modernity. The intricate dynamics of conversion between quantity and quality, ritual wealth and disembedded matter (most often in some of form of money) are a constant source of social intensity. The power of numbers is constantly counter-measured by the impotence of quantity when set in relationship to originality, inventions, and “true” status or ‘real’ wealth that can only be located in items of historical authenticity. This has always been the problem of ‘new money’ when set into a social relationship with the contexts of ‘old money’, and a reason why people who qualify as ‘rich’ by quantitative measures do not themselves consider themselves ‘wealthy’ (as reported in a survey by Time magazine recently). Further, the conversion of wealth into; money, real estate, commodities, debt or credit is never straightforward. And these attempts at conversions run into different problems in different places. The taboo concerning converting water into a commodity, for instance, in European debates about the commons, might stand in contrast to the forms and metaphors that wealth takes in India or Melanesia, where conversions take other forms.

When conducting ethnographic observations into wealth, we find things tied to values that resist and object to being counted, sold or manufactured. An easy and simplistic example would be the object we call ‘a home’. One can of course sell one’s house-home, but at that point there is a conversion taking place, since whereas one party is selling ‘a home’ the other is buying a ‘real-estate’ with the potential of becoming a home. You cannot live in ‘real-estate’, or at least, if you live in your house as a form of real-estate you live there differently from living there as a home. Between real-estate and home there is a process of conversion that indicates existential tension. In big cities like Paris or London the real-estate value of houses has become so high that many houses are not even lived in any more. They are instead used as investments in a booming housing market, and in the most expensive areas of these cities houses are left empty, waiting to be sold again at the right time. Their conversion from home to real-estate has become more or less permanent.

When conducting an anthropology of wealth we find the above type of conversions worth exploring since they allow us to hold on to the concept of “true” wealth as being in tension with capital, commodities and money.

Knut Rio and Theodoros Rakopoulos are currently working on a special issue of History & Anthropology Journal titled “What is wealth”?, and Knut Rio is working on a monograph on the cultural history of wealth and egalitarianism.