CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 The significance of ethnicity — of ethnicity understood as a foundational basis for forging selfhood and collective identity, feelings of primal attachment and shared affect, political claims to rights and the protection of interests, even for national belonging — has grown visibly over the past few decades. Needless to say, the phenomenon itself is hardly new. [1] As a slippery, polyvalent concept of collective being, it had already troubled Weber (1968: 387ff.) a century ago — although, as a common noun, it only appeared in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary in 1961 and entered the anthropological lexicon relatively recently (Surak, 2010: 152; Comaroff and Comaroff, 2011: 68-72). What has been especially striking of late, however, has been its explosive entry into the market place. Of course, the merchandising of cultural difference — of the emblems, effects, capacities, and embodiments of “otherness” — dates back deep into to the mists of time. But the commercialization of culture and the corporatization of identity, the two constitutive elements of what has come to be referred to as “ethnicity, inc.,” have intensified greatly across the late 20th- and early 21st centuries with the triumph of the market as the ur-ideological nexus of world-making. Nor is it just that such things as heritage tourism, the sale of vernacular musics and art, or the financialization of the exotic have expanded rapidly in scale. It is that ethnic identity itself has been repurposed, taking on more objectified, commodified form. In so doing, it has animated novel species of value, claims to sovereignty, territory, and property, kinds of sociality and sensibility, and claims to distinctive skills.

2 More than a decade ago, in Ethnicity, Inc. (2009), we explored the impact of these transformations on peoples and populations across the globe: on the sense of personhood, sociality, ownership, and belonging they conjured into existence, on the emotive energies they engendered, and on the conscience collective they shaped. We tried, in other words, to plumb the impact of the commodification of difference in terms that went well beyond reducing ethnicity, inc. to the rise of global neoliberalism: terms that addressed the reifying, rationalizing effects of the commerce in things, qualities, and people — and, simultaneously, the slippages, spillages, and mutations spawned by that commerce. In short, we argued that the commodification of ethnic and national identity appeared to be generating new social and productive relations, revitalized affiliations, refigured aspirations, all of them with consequences yet to be fully determined. Nor is this occurring in a vacuum: it is part and parcel of an epoch in which the very essence of personal and political subjectivity, of economy and society and culture, of nation and state, has been under radical reconstruction; an epoch, also, in which the growing salience of identity is manifesting itself in the changing nature of labor, in the transnational migration of ethnically-marked workers in pursuit of livelihoods, and in the emergence of new, culturally-assertive diasporic networks and communities.

3 The commodification of identity and, in particular, the imbrication of ethnic enterprise in the changing global order has raised a number of critical questions. Would, could, the identity business deliver on the empowerment it appeared to promise, especially where received forms of livelihood, local work, and security were under threat? And, if it did, for whom? How sustainable were the relations of production, distribution, investment, and ownership it conjured into existence? When and where did that business fail to take root or flourish. At stake, too, were the sorts of ambitions authorized by identity-as-business – and how they might relate to other kinds of ethno-politics, including those inflamed by violence. Even more pressing was the question of whether ethnicity, inc. was a passing phenomenon at this particular historical conjuncture, or part of an enduring shift in the economic, judicial, expressive, and existential nature of cultural identity. And, equally relevant here, a related matter. To what extent has ethnicity, inc. masked another side, a dark underside, of identity-in-the-market: the devaluation and discounting of ethnically marked labor, especially that of unskilled migrant workers — in response to demand in the extractive, agri- and service industries — with their own affective and material investments in the identity economy?

4 These questions pose another one, one that remains significant. Does the stress on the economics of ethnicity underplay its continuing political significance? After all, is it not the case that any assertion of ethnic self-determination, not to mention the incorporation of ethnic groups, [2] takes shape within the overarching sovereignty of the nation-state and its legal Lebensraum (Surak, 2010: 156-7)? [3] Or, indeed, that any claim to recognition made in the name of identity is always, in the first instance, a political act? This, to be sure, echoes a core assumption of much anthropological and sociological theory-work on ethnicity; also the practical consciousness of a great deal of activism. But the framing of the question in these terms — which, in the spirit of liberal orthodoxy, treats the political and the economic as discrete institutional domains — misconstrues the very essence of ethnicity, inc.: that, in the new order of things, the political, the economic, the social, and the cultural dissolve into each other, mediated by the juridical, itself the frame of reference that validates economic rights and political claims. Put another way, even when the assertion of difference is voiced purely as a matter of politics, even when it disavows the economic, it always carries material, moral, affective, and jural entanglements along with it, whether or not they are made audible or visible.

5 In the age of deregulation, in sum, when capital subdues labor and statecraft is largely shaped by the demands of the market, it is impossible any longer to treat “the political” as a discrete domain unto itself. The identity economy, we shall argue, is at once a political economy, a moral economy, a cultural economy, an affective economy. What is more, nation-states, themselves ever more corporate in form and function, have been drawn deeper and deeper into that economy. Many of them now brand themselves, actively market their intellectual property and creative capacities, celebrate an essential ethno-national character, and assert their putative cultural homogeneity against difference. In the upshot — even when they are constituted, ideologically, as civic, liberal democracies — nations have come increasingly to resemble ethnic groups writ large, especially those ethnic groups that have incorporated themselves, commodified their cultures and human capital, and entered assertively into the identity business.

6 But we are running ahead of ourselves.

The Enduring, the Emergent, and the Unforeseen

7 Far from being a passing phenomenon, a conjuncture purely of the short-run, corporate identity has continued to manifest itself widely among peoples marked by their difference. All available evidence affirms the fact that populations that self-define as bioculturally distinctive have increasingly come to regard themselves as rights-bearing, asset-holding entities, their material and immaterial cultural products protected by law in the same way as is true of any limited liability company (Meiu et al., 2020). In the age of mass production and planetary circulation, moreover, commodities locally produced, and authenticated under the sign of indigeneity, tend to acquire added value — and, as they are interpolated into the economic mainstream, sometimes serve to revitalize struggling communities and defunct industrial margins (Colloredo-Mansfield, 2011).

8 Some culturally assertive, well-established ethno-corporations have continued to grow into major businesses, ever more firmly situated in the global economy; vide the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Inc. (, whose income in 2019 was $ 853.84m, [4] whose asset value is estimated to have risen to $ 12bn, whose brands now cover a wide range of industries, and whose holdings currently pay an annual dividend of $ 128,000 to every man, woman, and child in the Seminole Nation. [5] Nor, it appears, are they the biggest or fastest growing Native American business in the USA. That honor, it is said, belongs to the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux of Minnesota; their entertainment operations and diversified holdings are reported to yield a yearly distribution of approximately $ 1m to every member of the four hundred and eighty strong community. [6] In South Africa, famously, the Royal Bafokeng Nation — or Bafokeng, Inc. (e.g. Cook, 2011; Kriel, 2010), the object of a fair bit of anthropological attention — has expanded its financial and business interests, as have other ethnic mega-firms all across the world. And between them and those that struggle to eke out a sparse living through selling culture, are any number caught somewhere in the middle, striving to incorporate successfully and command a niche in the existential business of marketing products and skills under the sign of their identity.

9 At the same time, a number of fine-grained ethnographies have begun to address the inverse situation: that in which corporate ethnicity fails to emerge where it might be expected to fluoresce. Such in the case, for instance, in Australia (Darian-Smith, 2020); its government has largely crushed the autonomous efforts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples to trade their internationally known, highly valued arts — itself part of what many see to be an oppressive “cultural backlash against minority peoples” — by subsuming them into the national tourist industry (ibid.: 241-242). This points to the significance of the state in the process of ethno-incorporation. Australia is not alone in discouraging indigenous populations — by means coercive or constitutional or managerial, for reasons stated or unstated — from entering into the moral and material economy of the market on their own account. By contrast, others have actively encouraged ethnic enterprise and even incorporation — like the USA, where the Indian Reorganization Act (1934) and Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971) made “Recognized Tribes” into legally-founded corporations, [7] although many have ended up in brute poverty. For identity to be minimally viable, and to become the stuff of enterprise, some validation of a legally-recognized right to difference must exist in the wider political context. Or be assertively claimed — all the more so since, otherwise, it risks being devalued, racialized, discounted.

10 But it is not just state action that may intervene in processes of incorporation and the commodification of identity. There are also cases of endogenous refusal, not least when ethno-populations mistrust the market, believing that alienating their cultural products, their labor, or their knowledge, may lead to alienating themselves from their identity and its core values. Hence the long-time unwillingness of the Navajo and Hopi to join the Native American world of “reservation capitalism,” which only dissipated in the face of deep economic crisis. [8] There are contexts, as well, in which the very idea of incorporation or the commodification of culture — indeed, even the assertion of ethnicity — provokes frank ambivalence. This is true of Roma, who are scattered all across (especially Eastern) Europe. A significant proportion of their number appear to doubt whether, in fact, they have customs or an identity in common; some actually hide that identity for fear of evoking a long history of stigmatization. Or worse. This is in spite of strong encouragement, coming from UNESCO, the Council of Europe, and sundry other protagonists, for them to “reclaim” their intangible heritage in the form of language and culture; also in spite of efforts by the activist Romani Movement to assert not just a collective identity, but “non-territorial nation” status (see e.g. Petrova, 2003; Covrig, 2004). [9] And so we have, today, such entities as the Romani Cultural and Arts Company (, registered in 2009, but as a non-profit, itself an ambivalent entry into the world of ethnic incorporation — a half way house, of sorts, on the road to ethnicity, inc.

11 It goes without saying that some populations evince a simple lack of inclination — rather than outright refusal or indecision — to incorporate themselves and/or market their cultures. Moreover, ethno-business, at base, requires something to sell, something that others can be persuaded to buy. Many ethnic groups simply do not have anything much to merchandise. The ecology of cultural production excludes them from the wherewithal to engage in the identity business, except perhaps for their availability as relatively unskilled, even abject, labor. Where they do engage, however, and do so actively, the marketing of culture-as-commodity, its objectification and enclosure, is seldom free of argument. More often than not, it sparks bitter dispute and invariably requires careful choreography to disambiguate the messages it conveys. This is a point persuasively made by Chudakova (2020) in respect of the contested effort to market Buddhist merit in Buryatia, eastern Siberia, and by Kerrigan et al. (2012) on the ongoing struggle of the Incredible India Campaign to brand the kaleidoscopic, volatile, hybridizing cultural commonweal of the world’s largest democracy. It is also evident in Graan’s (2013) analysis of the fractious local response to efforts by Macedonia’s rulers to refigure Skopje as a historic European capital.

12 These accounts illuminate some of the complexities involved in ethno-commodification: in the symbolic and material labor invested in making and retailing the tangible stuff of difference, thus to transform identity into capital. They also underscore the fact that the more power it packs, the more the process of incorporation is likely to become the object of argument. And the fact that, when it does, it brings into sharp focus latent ambivalences over the financialization of culture itself. This is not in the least surprising. For those who see themselves as sharing it, “a” culture, duly reified, has transcendent value. It is taken to be above the market, beyond price, vested with existential, timeless worth. And yet culture, sui generis, has never been entirely outside of the market or beyond price. As a form of monopoly capital, moreover, it promises to yield recognition, rights, royalties, and returns to those who “own” it. But only if and when it is rendered into — its relative worth determined by — a currency of universal valuation. Monetized, that is. And sold.

13 Colloredo-Mansfield (2011) has sought to cast further light on the kinds of activity on which ethno-commodification depends. Bringing cultural objects to the market and securing a sustainable niche for them, he shows, rides on, among other things, the intensification of local production, the mastery of new technologies and expertise, and mobilizing external sources of investment and merchandising. The viability of ethno-commerce, he adds, is often threatened from within by efforts to privatize shared vernacular knowledge, skills, or hereditary status — and from outside by those who seek to profit from that commerce by investing in it on exploitative terms. Conversely, the intellectual property law used by individuals or sub-groups to appropriate (i.e., “enclose”) shared cultural practices and possessions can also be deployed in the name of the ethno-commons to protect joint heritage from its privatization.

14 Colloredo-Mansfield (2011: 53) makes another important claim: that, rather than being regarded as discrete or opposed spheres, commerce and the commons frequently “grow... up together.” Like the gift and the commodity, we would add, ground zero of economic anthropology. The very idea of the commons in its contemporary sense, he suggests, is a consequence of market development, not a vestige of precapitalist relations. Hence the conviction of many resource activists that, if the business success of ethnopreneurs can be sustained, it would enhance their power, on behalf of the collective good, to limit the potential damage wrought by commodification, especially at the hands of outsiders. Not coincidentally, it is primarily against the rapacious tendencies of global capital that indigenous movements have grown up all over to champion stewardship of the commons: many local communities have taken a strong stand against the commercial erosion of their territories and, with it, the basis of a secure local livelihood. Witness, in this connection, the quest of the population of Haida Gwaii to preserve the custody of their terrain in British Columbia, Canada (Weiss, 2018). Or the eight-year-long battle of Saami (also rendered Sami or Sámi) reindeer-herding cooperatives in northern Finland to retain control of their historic grazing lands (Sanders, 2015).

15 This strange symbiosis of market and ethno-commons is evident, too, in contemporary development discourse. For some time now, and increasingly, marketing strategists have stressed the competitive advantage of rooting translocal production, even of mainstream commodities, in locally grounded sites, as Apple, Inc. has done in Cupertino, California, for instance. This is said to confer on them a distinctive “geographical indication,” or GI, a tag recognized by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to denote “the possess[ion] of qualities or a reputation... due to [their] origin.” [10] In enhancing product identity, “geographical indication” is thought, in prospect at least, to invigorate the local cultural terroir and its generativity (Colloredo-Mansfield, 2011: 51) — as though it were ethnicized. But not always. In practice, resort to GI may be, and often is, patently tenuous. Fontefrancesco (2012), for example, notes that the “crafting of locality” in Valenza, Italy — where distinctive jewelry is manufactured in ostensibly traditional fashion — is belied by the rigid enforcement of techno-scientific norms from outside. In the age of finance capital and deregulation, the narrative of the commons and commonality is often just that: a narrative that, with ever greater intensity, romances vernacular authenticity, productivity, creativity, and togetherness while still being commandeered by those who control the means of manufacture and marketing. Meanwhile, the policies of more traditional development agencies, those aimed at populations on the margins of established economies, display a newfound emphasis on the capacity of inalienable heritage to generate alienable value. In the upshot, they have taken to urging people/s marked by their difference to regard alterity itself as a species of unlimited monopoly capital, an “abundant,” profitable source of wealth waiting to be harvested (see Hirsch, 2020).

16 The very intangibility of ethno-cultural heritage enables and enriches the rhetoric of value without limit, of the conjuring of money from nothing (see James, 2015). To the degree that it does, investors and developers also have continued to push financialization, encouraging competitive ethnoprise and the recognition of indigeneity as a site of abstract investment capital (Nakassis, 2013: 118), however uncertain it may be to yield returns of any magnitude. All too often, the discourse of natural abundance reverberates cynically, often alchemically, in marginal environments, environments already stripped of other assets or employment opportunities. In such places, as noted in Ethnicity, Inc. (2009: 41-42), the concept of “human capital” can take on ever more unnerving concreteness. Not only their culture or their natural habitat, but the very bodies of ethnic subjects increasingly become the source of exploitable — and for venture capital from outside, sometimes highly profitable — value in the form of branded raw material: for genomic and pharmaceutical research (Abu El-Haj, 2012; Benjamin, 2015; Petryna, 2009), for “natural” prowess in sports, [11] for innate musicality (Copeland, 2018), military force (May, 2020), and exotic sexuality (Meiu, 2017 and 2020), or for other aptitudes and skills, including taxing physical labor.

17 It seems clear, then, that, over the past several decades, ethnicity, inc., has been on the rise in many places, some of them unexpected. Such is the story of the Griqua, a marginal population in the South African interior (see Schweitzer, 2015), who, at one point in their history, were said scarcely to exist and who have based their “reinvention of indigeneity... [and] the commodification of [their] ethnic history and culture” in a struggle for land rights (Zips, 2015). Or, half way across the world, in Tibet, where, Saxer (2013: 201) tells us, being Tibetan “serves as a commodity or asset... [as] actors engage, willingly or not, in the economy of Tibetanness.” Some mass media have picked up on the global story: the Vancouver Sun, for one, published a report in early 2018 under the title “The Rapid Growth of Ethnic Economies.” These economies, it said, had increased dramatically in both geographical scatter and visible incidence over the previous few years. [12] We could go on ad infinitum: the phenomenon, patently, has entered the realm of the new normal.

18 This is not to deny, as we have already made plain, that the spread of ethnicity, inc., founded conjointly on the commodification of culture and the incorporation of difference, has been very uneven, that it has sometimes been flatly repudiated, iconoclastically redeployed, or paid no heed. Moreover, it has had positive effects for some and steep downsides for many others, typically along pre-existing lines of inequality; worst yet, it has reaped brute exploitation where marginalized populations have nothing to sell but their ethnically-branded labor power in a market in which the commodification of difference meets the logic of racial capitalism (Maldonado, 2009). But at base, there is no question that ethnicity, inc. — as a constructed sociological, political-economic, affective, and ethical reality — has sunk deep roots and, however haphazardly, is spreading. Nor only spreading. It’s framing logic is also extending itself further and further into the heartland of collective conscious and material life. Just as it is radiating out horizontally across the geoscapes of the planet, so is it upscaling vertically, to more embracing forms of being in the world — including nationality, which itself appears to be becoming ever more ethnicized. And in both its horizontal and its vertical extensions, identity, inc. is interpolating itself deeper and deeper into the contours of the labile, constantly mutating global economy. In fact, the strident efforts by marketers everywhere to invest commodities, producers, and brands with a distinctive essence, to particularize, exoticize, and root them in a given terroir, underlines a core feature of the identity economy: the more that culture is made marketable, the more the commodity itself is rendered cultural, thus to resonate with the desires of identity-seeking consumers. Commodification is, indeed, a queer process.

Ethno-Economics: Scaling out, Scaling up

19 Perhaps the most immediate expansion of the reach of ethnicity, inc., is to be found in its original locus classicus: ethno-communities in postcolonial states and former settler colonies, emergent “nationalities” in postsocialist societies, and culturally marked minorities in (more or less) liberal democratic polities. Here, where they are positioned to do so, ethnic corporations tend to make claims for political and legal recognition as they widen their horizons in pursuit of business opportunity, some of it an intensification of older kinds of commerce, some of it new: in, among other things, heritage, eco-, and thanatourism (“dark tourism,” e.g. Hartmann, 2014; Light, 2017); [13] in enclaved enterprises such as gambling and licensed big-game hunting (e.g. Cattelino, 2008; Yatsuka, 2018); in mining, forestry, transport, and communication (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2009); in the marketing of indigenous knowledge, arts and crafts, ritual performances, music and vernacular theater (ibid.), even in “living museums” that offer menus from which visitors may purchase culture at “fixed prices” (Zips, 2018: 22).

20 In Africa, moreover, there is now wide acknowledgment of the “rebirth” of the “kingdom of custom,” the sovereign terrain of indigenous rulers, a number of whom — like the King of the Royal Bafokeng Nation (see above) — have emerged as powerful corporate figures, even CEOs (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2018). The liberalizing thrust of structural adjustment policies, under the Washington Consensus, played a significant role in this turn of events. It actively encouraged the devolution of aid and investment away from national capitals toward so-called “local communities,” thereby (re)legitimizing their rulers as their sovereign representatives — with fiduciary jurisdiction over their often considerable material and cultural interests (Comaroff and Comaroff, ibid.; Geschiere, 2018). It is no wonder that many of these rulers have become skilled dealers in ethnic patrimony, willing real estate and labor brokers with mining companies, and adept venture capitalists on their own account (e.g. Coyle, 2018; Smith, 2018). Or that, emboldened by a mix of authority at once corporate and customary, some have taken to challenging the sovereignty of the state (e.g. Buthelezi and Skosana, 2018). These cases illuminate, yet again, the entanglement of politics and economy at work in ethnicity, inc,: how it may potentiate unprecedented inflows of value and, in so doing, reconfigure “traditional” modes of empowerment — while opening the door to new, or repurposed, vectors of inequity, exclusion, even despotism (Darian-Smith, 2020).

Outscaling: From the Country to the City

21 As it has continued to move beyond its “traditional” terrain at a quickening rate, identity-based enterprise has become ever more caught up in the force-fields of mainstream regional and national economies. Where the commodification of culture takes shape at the interface with state-level institutions — and the local meets its exteriors — it often gives rise to remastered categories of subjectivity and belonging. Take two examples.

22 One concerns a process of emerging ethnopreneurial citizenship in the tourist industry of mainland China. In a village in the southwest, reports Wang (2012), people who identify as Buyi (or Boutei) have responded to government development initiatives by establishing a museum that has turned their everyday household goods into protected cultural artifacts. There is nothing new in this, but, as Wang shows, the attempt to make the village itself into a timeless open-air diorama of traditional culture has been undermined by the very process of museumization. For the largely script-based rendering of Buyi life as ossified essence to be consumed by outsiders, itself an act of “internal orientalism,” has thrust their micro-universe into the currents of national history. And economy. In the upshot, the villagers have begun to live these scripts both in their daily interactions and in their dealings with the state, enabling them to become energetic agents of their own commercial enterprise — thereby proving, too, that “they needed to be traditional first... if they want to be modern and ‘developed’” (ibid.: 452). In the Age of Ethno-commerce, like so many others elsewhere, they find themselves pushed to be both at once to qualify for recognition and its returns. Thus does locality extend itself outward in time and space. Of course, “the local” can only be recognized as such, and take on meaning, in relation to other localities, other geographies, beyond itself; it is never given, never simply “there,” always produced (Appadurai, 1995).

23 The other example dates back a decade or so to Bogotá, Colombia. At the time, the local Asociación de Cabildos Indigenas, an organization of urban ethnic groupings, was trying to form a coalition of Kichwa, Ambika-Pijao, and Muiscas; these ethnic communities are not legally recognized as such under the Colombian constitution because they lack their own territories. Their objective? As Ati Quigua, a well-known activist leader, explained to anthropologist Diana Bocarejo (2007 and 2015), [14] they wished to build an “indigenous shopping mall” in order to “generate resources, income and sustainable projects.” But “what would an indigenous mall actually look like?,” asked Ms. Bocarejo, given that the plan was to have the mall also house all the usual major stores in a somewhat conventional, high-end retail palace. To “symbolize indigeneity,” replied Ms. Quigua. But there was more to it. As a Kichwa notable added, the point was to “have a... space where we can display our cosmology... [I]t will narrate the history of the place, there will be small plazas where we will do, as they say in North America, our pow wow, what we call a ‘minga’,” a vernacular term that refers to collective ceremonial work. There would also be theaters in which to “perform our dances, our rituals... where people,” not least tourists, “can be with us.” Where better for commodified custom and custom-made commodities to converge, and to infuse each other, than an urban shopping mall in the regional and national capital? Where better “to anchor and fix modern indigeneity”? (Bocarejo, ibid.)

24 As far-flung as these two cases are, they exemplify processes of identity management found increasingly across the planet: processes of scaling outward, that is, in which the material assertion of collective being and the commodification of culture transcend the local, seeking to realize themselves in worlds beyond their own visible horizons. When this happens, when ethno-incorporation takes root, expands its reach, and asserts itself, it may challenge state sovereignty and national belonging, not least by (re)fashioning and claiming the primacy of bioculturally based citizenship. And styling themselves as “nations” in their own right: hence the Seminole Nation, the Great Sioux Nation, the Royal Bafokeng Nation, the Griqua Nation, to mention just a few. Of this, more in a moment.

25 The interpolation of ethnic subjectivity into the conscience collective of the larger body politic, and its materialization in regional, national, and global economies, has also become a rapidly growing concern of the mass-marketing industry; palpably more so than it was in the early years after the millennium. The emerging practices of this industry are revealed in a burgeoning literature on ethnicity and advertising. Shankar’s (2012 and 2015) studies of merchandising to Asian Americans in the US, for instance, suggest that mainstream copywriters — not themselves Asian American — engage in a complex set of identitarian marketing strategies. They aim to fashion common brand identities in ways that reconcile received stereotypes of a homogenous Asian identity with the internal diversity of the population categorized as Asian-American, thus to embrace “their” difference in the market at large. The overriding aim of their messaging is to transform this population into targeted consumers for their products; this by way of a process of “racial naturalization” that makes them visible as fully-fledged citizens on the endemically-plural but putatively inclusive US cultural landscape (Shankar, 2015: 15).

26 As minority populations come to constitute lucrative target markets in their own right, ethnic publicists, as distinct from mainstream marketeers, seek to sell their cultural products back to those populations as much as to others. Dávila (2012), one of the first scholars to explore ethnicity inc. in North America, wrote of the ambiguous implications of this endeavor in Latinos, Inc., which explores the multibillion-dollar Hispanic advertising industry in the US. Insider efforts to harness the potential of the Latin American “nation within a nation” (ibid.: 4) and to brand its diversity, she notes, have turned out to be only a little less reductive, homogenizing, and exoticizing than the exertions of mainstream marketers — thereby abetting the tendency of the latter to render the Latino population marginal to the larger (i.e., white) consumer public. Not surprisingly perhaps, the reception by Hispanic Americans of these vernacular marketing strategies has been deeply ambivalent. They have provoked estrangement, anger, bemusement — and vigorous debate not merely about the politics of Latino identity, but also about the perverse pleasures of consumer recognition. Like other instruments of merchandising, advertising seeks to mobilize the creativity of market forces as an abstract form of capital, one that has the capacity, in and of itself, to generate value. As such, it has emerged as both a means and an object of collective action. No wonder, then, that the argument of images within Latino marketing has become complicated, ironic, and ever more sophisticated as widening cultural and class diversity among Hispanics resists stereotypy or encompassment. And as “Hispanic business,” like “Asian American business,” becomes more and more entangled with the wider US and the transnational economy.

27 Again, much the same may be said of the outscaling effects of ethno-marketing on other culturally-defined populations, east and west, north and south.

Upscaling: From Ethno- toward Nationality, Inc.

28 Talk of the Hispanic “nation within a nation” points, in turn, to the upscaling of the identity economy; specifically, to Nationality, Inc. This phenomenon has gained a good deal more visibility, traction, and scholarly attention of late, all the more so as nationhood has itself become more explicitly ethnicized; all the more so too, perhaps, as, in counterpoint, many ethnic groups — recall the Seminole, the Sioux, the Bafokeng, and the Griqua — style themselves as nations. Orthodox political theory, famously, assumes the reverse (Tamir, 2019: 425-426). It takes ethnicity-as-polity to be a primordial form of association, derived from “‘hot” attachments of ancestry and blood relations — and destined, with the advent of modernity, to give way to “cooler” ties of solidarity, vested in a social contract and rational-legal authority (e.g. Smith, 1986 ; Kamenka, 1975). Critics have long been skeptical of this evolutionary telos and the ideal-typical opposition on which it rests. In some contexts, ethnicity, inc. and nationality, inc. merge seamlessly into one another. This is especially so in those polities that actually see themselves as ethnonations, polities whose citizens, ostensibly united in blood and soil, language, culture and faith, are held to share a unique, primal substance. Germany, Israel, Russia, Malaysia, and post-socialist Eastern European countries, among others, are often given as examples, although the matter is more complicated, since ideology, sociology, and demography do not always line up seamlessly with one another. But even modern civic nations, as Anderson (1983: 7) reminds us, hold to the fantasy of cultural homogeneity and shared heritage, a fantasy that also is often racially-inflected — and, in any case, grows in part out of the suppression of their ethnic undersides, their local “tribalisms.” Even in western Europe, heartland of the liberal democratic state, ethnic and civic nationalism typically infuse each other (Tamir, 2019), their difference, despite often shrill claims to the contrary, more a matter of degree than kind (Weber, 1968: 925; Povinelli, 2006: 197 ; Tilly, 1990). What is more, nation-states of both sorts long foreshadowed ethnicity, inc., having acted, almost from the first, as proto-corporations, concrete abstractions that possess sovereign territory, invest themselves in signs of distinction, and marshal their economic and cultural interests by recourse to law and war.

29 Ethnicity and nationalism, to be sure, are political artifacts of a broadly similar sort (Weber, 1968: 392), both being mythopoetic fictions and imagined communities (Anderson, ibid.) sustained by idioms of genealogy and family. And mobilized under the sign of existential solidarity, exclusivity, and a commonweal. The former, moreover, is seldom ever erased by the latter: nationhood is a perpetual work-in-progress — a “daily plebiscite,” as Renan (1992) once famously quipped, [15] a “cry of passion, a tug of war against reason,” noted Gellner (1965: 149; in Tamir, 2019: 422) — not least because heterogeneity almost always remains present to trouble it. This is most overtly so in postcolonies, whose histories have left them with a legacy of “tribalism” invented or exacerbated by the violent divisiveness of colonial rule (Mafeje, 1971). But, with the turn to the political logic of neoliberalism — its celebration of deregulated economic interest over collective solidarity, privatization over a social contract, rights over responsibilities, locality over centralization — the sovereignty of civic nation-states has increasingly been challenged by claims made against it in the name of biocultural difference.

30 That challenge has provoked energetic push-back framed in emphatically ethnonationalist terms: hence Brexit in a Britain formerly known as Great; hence, too, the Trumpist call, amidst the ebbing global hegemony of the USA, to “Make America Great Again,” a coded euphemism for “white ethnic”; hence the appeal, in a Russia devoid of the Soviet Empire, of Russkii, broadly understood as Russian ethnic culture, language, and “traditional” values (Blakkisrud, 2016); [16] also the assertive rise of Hindutva, an exclusionary Hindu nationalism, in India (Basu, 1996); and the strident efforts of the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD) to essay “Germany [only] for the Germans.” [17] These populist movements, and there are many more, have been fueled by the worldwide increase, under economic and political duress, of migration and other kinds of traffic across state boundaries; they speak to a crisis of coherence, of solidarity, of the ability actually to imagine community amidst fragmentary interests and impulses. Referred to by Triandafyllidou (2021) as “neo-tribal nationalism,” [18] this push-back invokes the homogenized nation-as-identity, claiming to defend the integrity of its culture, heritage, autochthony, and patrimony against difference-as-dissolution. As one observer put it in explaining the attraction of Brexit for so many Britons, “[it asserted] “a sense of rightful ownership” [19] amidst, in the phrase of another, “the anger that some genuine British identity — remembered or misremembered — was being drowned within the shallow waters of the European Union...” [20]

31 It is in this context that the contemporary salience of nationality, inc., as a distinctive, late modern phenomenon, is to be understood. While the state might always have been a corporation in the broadest sense of the term, in recent times it has become corporate sensu stricto: a metabusiness, so to speak. It acts an und für sich, subcontracting and franchising out its operations to the private sector, financializing its biogenetic endowment, its intellectual property, and its other assets, commodifying its collective Geist to attract commerce, and creating a conducive fiscal environment for its stake-holder citizens. No longer simply a custodian of the treasury or a guarantor of the welfare of those citizens, government under “neo-liberal political rationality” (Brown, 2003) has largely relinquished its role as a mediator among “class and sectarian interests” in the cause of a greater public good (Harvey, 1990: 108). It is itself ruled by the logic of the market (Foucault, 2008; see above).

32 As the state mimics a holding company, as the aforementioned line between politics and economics gives way, as the social contract is translated into the language of stake-holding, so nation branding becomes a potent vehicle of collective representation and so-called “world-making.” Increasingly, ruling regimes are told by their subjects: “market us” (Graan, 2013: 281). Increasingly, the market is where the alchemy of legitimation and vitalization lies. And so heads of state become businessmen, and some businessmen become heads of state, be they Silvio Berlusconi or Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron or Cyril Ramaphosa, Mark Rutte or Tihomir Orešković. [21] On occasion, countries that lack a CEO-president call for their leaders to act like one: in Kenya, when Mwai Kibaki was elected in 2002, he was told “we want [you] to operate like the chief executive of a company and... ensure that the country ‘makes profit.’” [22] The convergence between CEOs and presidents, suggests Lin (2014: 1351f.), is not surprising: the two “form a double helix of executive power” at the center of contemporary economy, law, and society. This, he adds, is itself “reflective” of “the convergence of the public sphere of government and the private sphere of business,” along with the “trend towards the privatization of government functions” (ibid.: 1353). Hence the “construct of the President as CEO” (ibid.: 1354; emphasis added). And the nation as a brand to be managed and marketed, its being-in-the-world to be monetized.

From Ethnic to Nation Branding… and Its Undersides

33 As it seeks to recast 21st century nationhood in the mold of the commodity form, nation branding echoes and extends the cultural and material logic of ethno-commodification. Now highly developed, widely theorized, thoroughly fetishized, the former is an analogical projection of the latter into the digital era. Yet conjuring the civic nation in ethnic terms always involves addressing a challenge. Because civic nationhood lacks the essential and essentializing coherence that ethnicity presumes, it has to assert homogeneity, fraternity, and a sense of affective connection in the face of social difference, cultural heterogeneity, and internal dissent ; in the face, also, of the fact that the metaphors of kinship and genealogy on which nations draw tend to stretch thinly across their typically diverse scapes.

34 This is why politicians, confronted by forces that pull against national integrity — global capital, world religions, transnational movements and migration, the planetary electronic commons, border-breaching social media, and the like — invoke the emotive power of autochthony: of inalienable belonging rooted in a homeland by virtue of birth (Geschiere, 2009). And why branded, culturally-authenticated commodity images are enlisted in essaying and enacting the value, and values, of nationhood. Ours, after all, is an age in which trade is taken to be the prime engine and index of wealth; in which diplomacy is displaced by professional marketing and the enchantments of advertising (Coombe, 2012; Marsh and Fawcett, 2011); in which the international order, formerly composed of more-or-less bounded national economies, melts into a largely boundless emporium for transacting the emblematic objects of national je ne sais quoi; in which patriotism may be explicitly asserted in shopping for homegrown brands, even in places where one might not expect it — like China, for instance, currently “undergoing a consumer brand revolution,” encouraged by the state, in which a nationalistic “young generation is... actively looking for brands that align confidently [with] Chinese identity.” [23]

35 Recent work on nation branding makes clear quite how pervasive it has become. Professional ad men and women have grown adept at hyping their “indispensable” ability to engender esteem, trust, and investment potential for their client nation-states, especially in uncertain times. [24] They point to an array of triumphal achievements: how stagnant, strife-torn Tatarstan elevated itself from the dreary Russian periphery by rediscovering a masterful medieval history and sense of ethno-national purpose; how Cape Verde, an arid archipelago off the African coast, became an attractive “melting pot of cultural flavour”; how the minuscule West Indies polity of St Kitts and Nevis became the world’s most patronized and popular — but far from the only [25] — purveyor of citizenship (and second passports) acquired in exchange for a hefty investment in local real estate or a donation to the country’s Sustainable Growth Fund. [26]

36 As this suggests, branding promises to exceed ordinary means and ends. In so doing, it is like the transformative magic of ritual. But is it ever unambiguously efficacious? It is never without excess, argues Nakassis (2013), never without a surfeit of meaning, always open to contestation, redeployment, even parody. As semiotic confections, brands invariably run up against other signs circulating in the world — and, in the process, often spawn unexpected associations. We have seen how, in the case of Latino, Inc., efforts to interpolate ethnic consumers by marketing “their” culture seldom take place without friction, often producing doubt, dispute, or censorship. Nation branding, like ethnic branding, traffics in a double abstraction. On one hand, it calls into being a collective identity, a tangible imagining, the very stuff of fetishism. On the other, it turns the content of that identity into a currency, a species of capital (ibid., 117). But as a medium of investment and speculation, its alchemic capacity to animate commodities and produce wealth is open to demystification the moment it fails to deliver.

37 And it has failed to deliver quite visibly of late, in tandem with recurring economic crises, rising rates of mass debt, and government-by-austerity. As often as not, states find it hard to back up hype with substance, thus to make good on the vaunted power of commodity images to stimulate production and/or consumption — especially where marketing seeks, by means magical and mimetic (Mazarella, 2017), to breathe life into postindustrial urban wastelands and postcolonial or postsocialist peripheries. Efforts to brand and market Malta some years back, to cite one vivid example, were declared a “total failure,” and a costly one at that. [27] Romania, to cite another, is said to have had a long history of unsuccessful attempts to sell itself and its cultural products. [28] This, of course, presumes that success and failure are actually measurable in a meaningful way, itself a dubious claim (see e.g. Browning, 2016).

38 Some ethno-nations brand themselves without relying on the ad industry to market their putatively unique capacities and commodities. Take, for instance, the Philippines. In 2008, an essay appeared in urging the state not to employ expensive “market gurus.” Better to establish its own brand by directly selling its culture with more real substance, with its “true spirit and essence,” to the world, in order to “add value to practically everything associated” with the Philippines. In their own words, “Filipinos ARE the brand.” [29] In 2011, the government formed a National Branding Council to “shape the... brand” And to create a “stronger [sense of] nationhood and national pride.” [30] Of all the things that the Philippines offers in its own branded self-image, however, perhaps the most notable is “caring for others.” It is taken to be “innate in the Filipino culture,” embodied in malasakit (empathy). [31] As a Manila newspaper put in, in 2017, “[b]eing a caregiver is not only a matter of profession... [It is] about deep love, respect and care to someone of old age or anybody else who needs treatment... This is something rooted in Filipino culture and an identity as a Filipino.” [32] And something that has been steadily financialized. The country relies heavily for its economic well-being and social reproduction on remittances from migrant laborers employed abroad — not least from the very many women in the care sector, for which the Philippines has become known globally. [33] The assertion of their culturally-validated expertise in this sector is also an effort to dignify and valorize low-paid service work.

39 As this suggests, it is not just cultural objects that have come to embody ethno-nationality in the global market place. So, in many contexts, has ethnically-indexed labor power. Indeed, it is here that the underside of ethnicity-in-the-marketplace becomes visible: in the long history of mobilizing difference as a critical mark of contrasts in human capacity and worth. Simply put, different ethno-racial populations are held to have dissimilar skills and capacities for work — menial or managerial, blue or white collar, cerebral or physical — and are deployed, managed, and remunerated in the planetary division of labor accordingly. Hence the bleak, often violent history of capital accumulation founded on brute ethno-racial exploitation, a.k.a., racial capitalism (Robinson, 1983); hence, too, the long history of (more or less coerced) translocal labor migration. With the ever more complex division of productive labor across the world in the age of liberalization, with rising planetary inequality, and with mutating global supply chains, the flow of people on the move in search of wage work has been dramatically intensified. So, also, have the efforts of nation-states — both the exporters and the recipients of labor — to interpolate themselves into, and profit from, the traffic. Migrant workers stereotypically coded in ethno-national terms, patently, vary in their situation in labor market hierarchies, ranging from, for example, high-level Indian computer technicians and Pakistani doctors through professional Fijian soldiers to lowly paid, abject Mexican fruit pickers and Uyghur cotton workers; both of the latter, the fruit and cotton pickers, being part of a planetary pattern in which an overburdening percentage of debased agricultural work is done by ethnically-marked migrants.

40 It is into this context that Filipino care work fits. In 2006, the Manila Bulletin, one of the country’s most widely read publications, posted a prominent ad featuring then president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and a woman named Mary Joy Bunil, both dressed in super-hero capes, along with thirty other women in maids’ uniforms (Guevarra, 2014: 130). Highlighting “the latest Philippines export commodity, the Supermaid” (italics added), the commercial portrayed these women as a “different kind of domestic worker.” It cited malasakit and repeated the claim that a special skill in caring for others is “innate” in Filipino culture. But the prominence of Filipino workers at the frontlines of transnational domestic and residential labor — which reflects a “crisis of care” across the world, especially in the Global North (Hochschild, 2000) — has a less happy face to it. Filipino female labor migration, patently, is not new. It dates back to the time of US colonization in the early 1900’s. However, ethno-nationally driven labor brokerage has grown exponentially since 1970’s, using gendered and racialized tropes to sell migrant carers as preferred domestic workers — not least because they are notoriously vulnerable, being frequently unprotected by national labor standards, and hence open to exploitation and abuse (Nasol and Francisco-Mernchavez, 2021).

41 The Philippine state is not alone in relying heavily for its economic well-being and social reproduction on the underside of its ethno-national brand, its exported, culturally-certified labor power. To the contrary, it illuminates a much more widespread phenomenon; vide the cases of, among others, India and Pakistan, the nations of Central America, and much of West Africa. Nationality, inc., especially but not only among the poorer polities of the planet, is frequently Janus-faced. Nation-states seek to sell their commodity image and branded cultural products on one set of global markets while, simultaneously, augmenting their coffers from the remittances of subjects who alienate their ethno-nationally validated labor power on other, equally global markets elsewhere.


42 Ethnicity and nationality, inc., then — primed by their commodity-branding, by the logic of the market in goods and labor, and by prevailing political, material, and social rationalities — seem here to stay, be it as accomplished social facts, active aspirations or unrealized fantasies. So, too, are other modes of incorporation that replicate them in substance and/or spirit. To be sure, the temporalities and trajectories of the identity economy lead in all directions. They run from nation to ethnicity, ethnicity to nation, and both to many other species of imagined community: locality, region, religion, race, and so on. All alike are vested in the commodification of culture and the presumption of shared essence — manifest in material and immaterial property, in human capital and labor.

43 But the identity economy is itself a symptom, not a cause. So, too, are the forms of commodification and incorporation in which it is imbricated. The rise of that economy is a corollary of the rush to financialize life itself. And to financialize the different forms of sociality, solidarity, and affect, of cultural affinity and conscience collective, in which life invests itself. It scarcely needs saying any more that our bodies, our selves, our quotidian activities, our very being world are all under threat of being reduced to a greater or lesser cash value; this in times in which trust in most forms of solidarity and civic community — beyond the most immediate “hot” ties of blood and soil, and perhaps faith — have been lost. As the contemporary world places ever more pressure on us to become entrepreneurs of ourselves, both individually (as “me”) and collectively (as “we”), we are encouraged to see our human capital lying in an essentialized personhood mediated by, among other things, race and class, gender and generation, sexuality and ethnicity. That is not all we are, patently, not by a very long way. Nonetheless, in these, the early decades of the 21st century, identity increasingly appears as an economy — and, reciprocally, economy appears irreducibly caught up in identity.



The commodification of culture as intellectual property and the corporatization of identity — the two constitutive elements of what have come to be known as “ethnicity, inc.” and “nationality, inc.” — have intensified greatly across the world in the past few decades. Ethnicity has been repurposed in the process, animating new species of value, new claims to sovereignty, territory, and property, new kinds of sociality, sensibility, and political subjectivity. And nationality has, of late, come ever more to mimic ethnicity, albeit on a larger scale. This essay explores the commodification of difference, its material, political, social, cultural, and juridical implications. The 21st century identity economy, it is argued, is at once a political economy, a moral economy, a cultural economy, and an affective economy. What is more, its recent historical development has had significant implications not merely for the ways in which ethnic groups and nations capitalize on their cultural difference. It also has a direct effect on the nature of ethnicized/racialized labor, and transnational labor migration, across the contemporary world.

  • ethnicity
  • labor
  • nationality
  • ethno-nation
  • identity economy
  • commodification
  • capital

La richesse des ethno-nations : étude sur l’économie de l’identité

La marchandisation de la culture comme propriété intellectuelle et la transformation de l’identité en société commerciale — deux éléments constitutifs de ce que l’on dénomme à présent « Ethnicity, Inc. » et « Nationality, Inc. » — se sont largement intensifiées partout dans le monde au cours des récentes décennies. L’ethnicité s’en est trouvée reconfigurée, donnant vie à de nouvelles valeurs, revendications de souveraineté, territoire, propriété, à de nouvelles formes de socialité, sensibilité, et subjectivité politique. La nationalité s’est mise à imiter de plus en plus l’ethnicité, cependant à plus grande échelle. Cet essai explore les formes de marchandisation de la différence, ses implications matérielles, politiques, sociales, culturelles et juridiques. Il soutient que l’économie de l’identité est, au XXIe siècle, tout à la fois une économie politique, morale, culturelle, de même qu’affective. En outre, ses développements historiques récents ont eu des conséquences significatives non seulement sur la façon dont les groupes ethniques et les nations capitalisent leur différence, mais aussi sur la nature du travail ethnicisé/racialisé, et sur les migrations de travail transnationales dans le monde contemporain.

  • ethnicité
  • nationalité
  • travail
  • ethno-nation
  • économie de l’identité
  • marchandisation
  • capital

La riqueza de las etno-naciones: estudio sobre la economía de la identidad

La mercantilización de la cultura como propiedad intelectual y la transformación de la identidad en una sociedad comercial — dos elementos integrantes de lo que constituye ahora «Ethnicity, Inc.» y «Nationality, Inc.» — se intensificaron considerablemente en todo el mundo durante las últimas décadas. En el proceso, se reconfiguró la etnicidad, dando vida a nuevos valores, nuevas reivindicaciones de soberanía, territorio y propiedad, nuevos tipos de sociabilidad, sensibilidad y subjetividad política. En los últimos tiempos, la nacionalidad imitó cada vez más a la etnicidad, aunque a mayor escala. Este ensayo explora las formas de mercantilización de la diferencia, sus implicaciones materiales, políticas, sociales, culturales y jurídicas. Argumenta que la economía de identidad del siglo XXI es a la vez una economía política, una economía moral, una economía cultural y una economía afectiva. Además, su reciente desarrollo histórico tuvo repercusiones significativas no sólo en la manera en que los grupos étnicos y las naciones capitalizan su diferencia, sino también en la naturaleza del trabajo etnizado/racializado, y la migración laboral transnacional, en todo el mundo contemporáneo.

  • etnicidad
  • trabajo
  • etno-nación
  • nacionalidad
  • economía de la identidad
  • mercantilización
  • capital
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John Comaroff
Hugh K. Foster Professor of African and African American Studies and of Anthropology, Oppenheimer Research Fellow in African Studies, Harvard University, 260 Barker Center, Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA,;
Jean Comaroff
Alfred North Whitehead Professor of African and African American Studies and of Anthropology, Oppenheimer Research Fellow, Harvard University, Barker Center, 2nd Floor, 12 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA;
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 19/05/2022
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