The Moral Power of Money
Morality and Economy in the Life of the Poor
Ariel Wilkis



Money and Moral Capital

Perhaps behind the coin is God.

—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Zahir”

Mary is a fifty-eight-year-old woman who lives in Villa Olimpia, a villa miseria (slum) in greater Buenos Aires, west of the country’s capital city. The first slums in Buenos Aires—neglected areas to which the urban poor have historically been relegated—date back to the 1930s. With each passing decade, they expanded as migrants flooded the city, first from provinces across Argentina and later from other South American countries, particularly Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru. Like so many of these migrants, Mary and her four children arrived from Paraguay twenty-five years ago.

I met Mary on the side of a road at the beginning of 2008. We were waiting for a bus that would take us to a rally organized by the Peronists, a political party historically associated with Argentina’s lower classes.1 I had gone to Villa Olimpia to examine how neoliberalism was changing the way politics are done among the urban poor in Buenos Aires. For many social scientists, neoliberalism had become the key to understanding the difficult path towards consolidating democracy in countries of the region, where poverty and social exclusion had been climbing since the previous decade. Employing concepts such as political clientelism, researchers were working to understand the political power dynamics unique to this context (O’Donnell 1996; Auyero 2001; Levitsky 2003). I had come to Villa Olimpia with the idea of exploring what role political clientelism played in power relations in the impoverished neighborhoods of the Buenos Aires periphery. However, as I got to know Mary and her family through regular visits, my interest gradually shifted to another aspect of life in this poor neighborhood.

Years after I had finished my research and published Las sospechas del dinero (The Suspicions of Money), which summarized my work in Villa Olimpia, an Argentine newspaper sent a reporter to discuss the book with me. When the journalist inquired about the questions that guided my research, I replied, “You could say that I was trying to get to know Peronism through the patronage system and what I discovered was money” (Página/12, January 27, 2014). In other words, my interest in political clientelism waned as my fieldwork advanced, and I realized that a sociocultural analysis of money would allow me to understand not only political relations but also other power relations in the world of the poor.

How could an ethnography on power and politics in the world of the poor culminate with the meanings of money? To answer this question, I would like to share two stories from my fieldwork. The first reveals certain aspects of Mary’s involvement in the Peronist political network of Villa Olimpia, a network led by a local political boss named Luis Salcedo. The second explores other aspects of Mary’s daily life, especially with regard to supporting her family.

At the beginning of May 2008, I took down the following notes:

Mary is ill. A few years ago she found out that she has a tumor. Sometimes the disease takes over and she needs to rest. Her sons and daughter take care of things at home and keep her company. The neighbors know that when Mary does not come with them to see Luis Salcedo, the local political boss, it is because she is not feeling well. She gets paid for her work as an activist, “a political salary,” she likes to clarify. In Villa Olimpia, Mary isn’t the only one who gets paid for her work to support Salcedo’s political career. A lot of local residents receive a political salary, since the higher up the local leader goes, the more people he needs to consolidate this growth. At the same time, the national government pours more money into the neighborhood to ensure that Salcedo and his people continue to voice their support for the administration. For Mary and other residents of the neighborhood involved in paid politics, this political money brings its own uncertainties: it is rarely clear how much they will earn or when they will be paid.

Over time, I learn that every night before going to bed, Mary spends time at the kitchen table poring over the numbers. Behind these careful calculations is a deep but almost impossible desire to balance a budget that always comes up short. She doesn’t always need a notebook to do the math: she knows exactly how much money the household needs and how much she and her children are contributing. In a nutshell, the sum of her equations determines how concerned she needs to be at any given time. Mary’s moneymaking begins at La Salada, an enormous street market on the bank of El Riachuelo, a river awash with industrial waste and garbage. At La Salada, she buys clothes at a low price and then resells them. Not all of the earning schemes in Mary’s household are licit, however. When her sons come home from the meat-processing factory where they work, they take several pounds of stolen beef out of their bags. Before changing out of their blood-stained clothes, they package the meat in smaller portions; the clients begin ringing the bell shortly after they finish. They negotiate the price for each chunk. Money and meat are exchanged in front of Mary’s attentive eyes. Once the meat has been sold, she demands that her sons share the proceeds. “They know they have to give me the money because I do my part!” she says to me, first in Guaraní, an indigenous language, and then in Spanish. Mary imposes this principle not only on the earned money that comes from the stolen beef, but also on the salaries her sons earn. Mary believes that money must be safeguarded to ensure her family can meet its needs.

These seemingly minor details from the lives of Mary and her family show the critical importance of money. There was never enough money, according to Mary, and it was so hard to earn: imagine how many problems could be solved if there were only more of it. In these narratives, the tensions and dilemmas in Mary’s dealings with the local political boss and with her children are all overshadowed by the lack of money. Yet these accounts also reveal that money is present in other not-so-obvious ways.

When her political money wasn’t delivered on time, Mary would get both angry and sad. Depending on how bad she felt, she might discuss the matter with another important neighborhood leader, the local priest. Whenever she sought out Father Suárez for advice, she would inevitably question Salcedo’s moral authority. The waiting period was a time reserved for remembering all the promises that the political leader had not followed through on. The priest always gave Mary support, with worldly advice like, “Tell Salcedo to put his money where his mouth is.” The recommendation came from someone who knew how to manage money in a context in which material needs, politics, and emotions all came into play.

When it came to Mary’s children, they were expected to hand over part of the money they earned working at the meat market and selling cuts stolen on the job. With this income, Mary was able to just manage the household budget, though depending on the month, there were times when it was difficult to make ends meet. Still, her sons’ contribution to the household was about more than money. By obliging them to hand over the money they earned, Mary was reaffirming her moral authority, teaching them about masculine responsibility. “That’s how they learn to become men,” Mary would say as she counted the bills.

Narratives like these reveal that money’s existence in the life of the poor is as associated with hardship as it is with the moral dynamics that both define and challenge power relations. In my fieldwork in Villa Olimpia—in households or at political rallies, in the relationships between men and women and between different generations—money had the fundamental ability to sustain, alter, or undermine moral hierarchies. I discovered that the moral dimension of money provided a unique perspective on power relations among the poor, a perspective that eventually led me to write this book. In a dialogue that includes Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology of power and Viviana Zelizer’s sociology of money, I propose the concept of moral capital to interpret the connections between money, morality, and power.

Classical sociologists like Karl Marx and Georg Simmel depicted modern-day money as a homogeneous and universal device capable of keeping societies united. Sociology later questioned this account of money and substituted another, with myriad uses and meanings, moving away from a stagnant view of it. This new approach provided insight into the way classical authors in the field depicted money and enables us to understand that money is more like a puzzle comprised of several pieces.

I use the figure of the puzzle to build this book’s argument. The concept of moral capital allows me to show that the pieces of money are shaped by ideas and beliefs about morality, and that each of these pieces differs from the others. The puzzle fits together according to each piece’s ability to evaluate, compare, and measure people’s virtues.

Erving Goffman (1983) argued that any interaction can be analyzed as a small-scale social order. His sociology showed how people approach and maneuver these different orders, employing them to build their status and ponder their worth as people. In this book, I maintain that the social orders emerging from interactions can be analyzed through pieces of money.

When seen through the lives of Mary and her family, pieces of money are revealed to be diverse, multifaceted and often entwined. I suggest that the following pieces of money that I discovered over the course of my fieldwork establish moral hierarchies among people: lent money, earned money, donated money, political money, sacrificed money, and safeguarded money. I propose that these different pieces are used to create moral hierarchies. The concept of moral capital illuminates this dynamic by showing how people are morally ranked within these hierarchies and power relations are generated as the money circulates. This book thus approaches pieces of money as moral entities, and the money puzzle as a moral puzzle. The dynamic of the pieces—a dynamic involving hierarchies, tensions, and contradictions—challenges the definition and the negotiation of people’s status and power in specific social orders.

This book thus expands the sociological model of multiple monies by considering the moral dimension of money as a fundamental part of power relations. The subject of this sociological study, then, is not money but rather the social orders it produces and responds to in the world of the urban poor in greater Buenos Aires.

The World of the Poor Configured in Pieces of Money

Thousands of life stories like those of Mary and her family show how money influences the lives of the poor. Over the past few years, many scholars have focused on money in the world of the poor in both developed countries and the nations in the Global South. Most of the literature concentrates on a single piece of money. However, as I mentioned with regard to Mary and her family, many pieces of money come into play in their lives, but no single one can explain how social life is rooted in money’s heterogeneous social and moral dynamics.

First, some of the literature has focused on the piece I refer to as money earned to analyze how the poor are involved in the process of globalization. Paul Stoller (2002), for example, sheds light on these connections by examining the use of money among African street sellers in New York City. In Brazil, Rosana Pinheiro Machado (2010) has shown how the money earned by street and market sellers in Brazil forges transnational networks that connect Brazil to Paraguay and China. Second, the study of lent money has become conducive to analyzing the new dynamics of financialization in the economy of the poor. The forms of capitalism that fostered financial liberalization (Chesnais 2004) have made well-being an individual’s personal responsibility. In this context, credit and debt have become core topics in studies of money in the world of the poor. In an extensive volume of articles covering several countries in the Global South (Guérin et al. 2014), financial practices are considered crucial to improving the living conditions of the most underprivileged members of society. Deborah James (2015), for example, reconstructs how black families in South Africa were incorporated into the consumer market after apartheid. This began with a loan market that created new conditions for indebtedness. Finally, other works have focused on donated money as a way to understand new forms of social assistance. James Ferguson (2015), for example, discusses the political significance of conditional cash transfers (CCT), which benefit nearly 30 percent of the population of South Africa. Another scholar, Julia Elyachar (2005), analyzed microlending programs among the poor in Egypt to show how they have contributed to a consolidation of neoliberalism. In another take on microlending, Lamia Karim (2011) has examined the exploitation of poor women in Bangladesh by NGOs.

In this literature, money is an insightful way of understanding the relations between macro-social processes and the experiences of the poor. Understanding these dynamics helps us to identify the current conditions for social integration among those who benefit least from neoliberal globalization and financialization. While I acknowledge the contributions of this literature, this book proposes a different approach by simultaneously considering the many pieces of money at work in the social life of neighborhoods like Villa Olimpia. The concept of moral capital is critical to this interpretation.

Money and Development

Scholars were not the only ones to return to the topic of money in the world of the poor. Experts in development have helped create a new paradigm for examining the world of the poor through the looking glass of money, while also expanding on the life stories of people like Mary and her family. Portfolios of the Poor (Collins et al. 2009), an acclaimed book that recounts the life stories of women, men, children, and entire families “living on less than two dollars a day,” is an excellent example of this new paradigm.2 These stories are empirically rich, revealing how actors deftly combine multiple financial instruments. In The Fortune at the Bottom of Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits (2005), C. K. Prahalad goes a step further, avoiding the topic of what the poor are lacking and instead focusing on their abilities and, more specifically, their financial capacity. This book describes how many successful businesses in different regions of the Global South incorporate the poor into the world of retail transactions. Prahalad calls on the corporate world to follow their example, since businesses play a critical role in development and in reducing poverty.

Unlike the scholarly literature that I reviewed in the previous section, both Portfolios of the Poor and The Fortune at the Bottom of Pyramid offer clear-cut guidelines for development. In this paradigm shift away from microfinance, the problem becomes not the poor but the institutional framework that excludes them from the banking system and the formal market. Innovation, then, requires a whole new financial and business system designed to include subaltern groups.

A similar trend is seen among development experts who focus not on NGOs’ role in business but on state policies, especially the new CCT programs. These experts also make a case for a paradigm focused on getting money into the hands of the poor, acknowledging their financial abilities and developing the adequate institutional environments to allow low-income individuals to improve their situation. Just Give Money to the Poor: The Development Revolution from the South (Hanlon et al. 2010) analyzes the outcome of programs of this sort in different parts of the world, revealing that beneficiaries use the money “efficiently.” The findings of this book also show that CCT programs reduce poverty and in the long term favor economic and social development.

Although this development paradigm provides us with a new perspective on the poor, it offers no such innovation in its approach to money. This is critical to understanding both its scope and the recommendations associated with it. Portfolios of the Poor, The Fortune at Bottom of Pyramid, and Just Give Money to the Poor do not seek to show how power is built and sustained by money relations; instead, they view power as a contextual variable associated with uses of money. For this reason, their authors are able to propose the idea of expanding financial and market opportunities as strategies to enhance development and overcome poverty without inquiring into the new types of snares these strategies may create for those they intend to benefit. The Moral Power of Money takes the opposite path, offering a new perspective on power in the everyday lives of the poor. This conceptual approach begins by exploring the concept of moral capital.

A New Sort of Recognition: Moral Capital

Over the past few years, the sociology of morality has adopted a new agenda, underpinned by the connection between moral dynamics and power relations and shifting away from the search for “normative” components as researchers strive to find new ways to identify moral actions and beliefs (see Hitlin and Vaisey 2010). As Jal Mehta and Christopher Winship observe, connecting morality with power can really get people’s attention. Morality and power are often taken to be opposites, with morality grounded in altruism and a commitment to the common good, and power associated with self-interest (Mehta and Winship 2010, 426). Reinterpreting the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, I seek to show how the concept of moral capital contributes to this new agenda of the sociology of morality by pushing past the simple question of morality versus power.

In the sociology of morality, Bourdieu’s work has received little attention. The fact that his sociology has been classified as reproductivist (Merchiers 2004) or utilitarian (Caillé 1994; Alexander 1995) has prevented it from being considered in relation to moral acts. Patrick Pharo has explained this as follows: “If values and virtues are essential [in Bourdieu’s work], it is not as objects of knowledge but as tools of political struggle. Ethics remain on the periphery of the system and do not become a direct object of analysis” (Pharo 2004, 124). I believe, however, that certain interpretations of Bourdieu’s work have contributed to this oversight.

In his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Bourdieu describes the cultural ethos of the petite bourgeoisie in a way that I believe is highly useful when reflecting on the concept of moral capital:

The rising petite bourgeoisie endlessly remakes the history of the origins of capitalism; and to do so, like the Puritans, it can only count on its asceticism. In social exchanges, where other people can give real guarantees, money, culture or connections, it can only offer moral guarantees; (relatively) poor in economic, cultural and social capital, it can only “justify its pretensions,” and get the chance to realize them, by paying in sacrifices, privations, renunciations, goodwill, recognition, in short, virtue. (Bourdieu 1984, 333; emphasis added)

This paragraph is insightful for many reasons. First of all, Bourdieu argues that moral virtues must be recognized as sustaining a social position; these virtues serve to distinguish the bearer. Second, these virtues can stand in for other types of capital (economic, cultural, and social capital). Respecting individuals—because they have certain values or show goodwill—is the basis for accepting their actions and words as moral guarantees. These moral guarantees stand in for the “real guarantees: money, culture or connections.” Here, then, Bourdieu notes that the recognition of virtues can be a source of power.

Bourdieu’s sociology deals fundamentally with the legitimacy of power, and this led him to the concept of symbolic capital. Certain interpretations focus on the fact that for Bourdieu, the concept of symbolic capital was based on the central assumption that social life is an endless series of struggles for recognition (Corcuff 2003). However, unlike other approaches by scholars such as Axel Honneth (1996), Bourdieu believed that these struggles are marked by power relations (Bourdieu 2000). Bourdieu’s work to develop the concept of symbolic capital created an investigative framework for analyzing the different forms of recognition that confer power and legitimacy. The different subtypes of symbolic capital require different types of recognition. For example, agonistic capital (Mauger 2006) recognizes skill in the use of physical violence. Erotic capital (Hakim 2010) acknowledges adeptness at seduction. In this book, I view the concept of moral capital as another subtype of symbolic capital and, by expanding on Bourdieu’s analysis, I argue that it is capable of helping us to understand the dynamic of recognition and its effects on distinguishing individuals based on their perceived morality.

People are constantly measuring, comparing, and evaluating their moral virtues, because these virtues bestow a very specific kind of power. Possessing moral capital means having these virtues acknowledged. Meeting moral obligations, for example, can be a source of such recognition (Mauss 1966), and therefore a source of power as well. The moral component of moral capital thus depends on meeting social obligations in order to have one’s virtues acknowledged by others. In this regard, moral capital creates a social ranking: the more of it you have, the more benefits you will reap in a given society.

To illustrate this point, the main ideas of the classic study by Norbert Elias on the dynamics of power between the established and the outsiders in a fictional working-class neighborhood in the 1960s are particularly telling. Elias and John Scotson write: “Approval of group opinions . . . requires compliance with a group’s norms. The penalty for group deviance and sometimes even for suspected deviance is loss of power and a lowering of one’s status” (Elias and Scotson 1994, 11). These authors focus on the efforts to prove one’s morality and thus gain privileged access to power.

As we see in Elias’s work, there is an intimate connection between moral capital and the legitimacy of social hierarchies (Dumont 1966). This is a core theme of this book as well. People have certain obligations to meet, and they are ranked accordingly; meeting obligations bestows a social status. Accumulating moral capital means gaining legitimacy in a position on the social hierarchy. The social hierarchies constructed on this subtype of symbolic capital are unstable because they can be challenged and need to be continuously reiterated. The moral universe is not neutral but agonistic, inasmuch as agents vie to stand out from one another. And morality is precisely what allows agonistic and hierarchical positions to unfold in the social realm.

While the relationship between morality and power can be explored through Bourdieu’s sociology, it is necessary to go beyond his perspective to understand the moral dimension of money. The relationship between money and morality is, according to Bourdieu, between “hostile worlds,” to cite Zelizer (2005), and Bourdieu’s concept of money is hostile to morality. In both his investigations into the sociogenesis of a capitalist economic habitus among the Algerian peasantry (1977) and in his works on the economic field (2005), Bourdieu tells a one-sided story of money in which it inevitably appears as accidental and separate from morality. Bourdieu tends to view the ever-increasing capitalist money exchanges as dynamics void of the moral values of economic relations. This is the so-called principle of the formation of the “capitalist” economic habitus and of the autonomy of the economic field.

Bourdieu’s perspective does not allow the moral dimension of money to be considered in conjunction with an analysis of power relations. His perspective prevents a comprehensive understanding of how money circulates and the resulting moral struggles and power relations. To make this shift, we must go beyond the concept of money presented in Bourdieu’s work and move towards the conceptual framework of Zelizer.

From Homogeneity to the Sociology of Multiple Monies

The rebirth of a sociology of money in the 1980s can be interpreted as part of a global trend of questioning money as universal and homogeneous. In the classic narrative, money is viewed as a “general equivalent of value” (Marx 1976 [1867]), “the value of values” (Simmel 1900), or “all-purpose currency” (Polanyi 2001 [1944]). In contrast, a new narrative focused on multiple meanings of money has been constructed in fields like history (Kuroda 2008), economics (Théret 2007), anthropology (Guyer 2012; Neiburg 2016), and sociology (Zelizer 1994; Blanc 2009; Dodd 2014). Unlike the perspective of money as an instrument that can be replaced or exchanged independently of the form it takes (coin, bills, checks, etc.) and of its origins, this new narrative brings up the question of the conditions and limits of its fungibility.

Nigel Dodd (2014) has recently summarized this shift by arguing that while classic sociology focused on how money shapes culture, contemporary sociology does the opposite, revealing how money is formatted by culture. Dodd describes this change as follows:

Against this [a view of money as culturally corrosive], a strong literature has developed, mainly during the last quarter of the twentieth century, which advances the view that money is richly embedded in and shaped by its social and cultural context. What is needed, according to this view, is a theory of money’s qualities, not simply an account of its role as a quantifier. Such a theory needs to focus not only on how money is “marked” by cultural practices from the outside but also on a deeper level, on the way in which those practices shape money from within, for example, by defining its scales of value. (Dodd 2014, 271)

From this point of view, a qualitative theory of money requires the radical belief that culture (or morality) does not influence money from the outside but instead shapes it from the inside. This is about interpreting culture and morality as intrinsic properties of money, not as accidental features that can be ignored when trying to understand how money operates in social life (Bandelj 2012; Wherry 2016). In keeping with this proposal, the challenge is to make the analytical shift from an interpretation of culture or morality as the settings for money practices to a perspective that shows how they produce money from within. In this way, the conceptual refocus that I propose consists of also understanding moral capital as one of money’s intrinsic properties. This allows us to combine Bourdieu’s perspective on power with Zelizer’s concept of multiple monies.

Moral Capital: An Accounting Unit for the Pieces of Money

In The Social Meaning of Money (1994), Viviana Zelizer demonstrated that money acts as a powerful socializer. Her sociology offers an inverted image of money in social life in comparison to classical sociologists. While these authors had depicted money as a “social acid” that dissolves interpersonal ties, Zelizer showed how people in fact use money to forge and reinforce such ties, assigning specific transaction types (differentiated ties) and different budgetary earmarks for different types of social ties. Zelizer also emphasized these differences in her concept of the circuits of commerce (2010). The existence and maintenance of these circuits depend on the boundaries established by members of the circuits and others, and the use of relationally marked monies plays a crucial role in establishing such boundaries. More recently, Zelizer proposed the term “relational work” to refer to “creating viable matches among those meaningful relations, transactions, and media” (Zelizer 2012, 151). There is one constant throughout Zelizer’s work: money always serves to distinguish (and sometimes condemn) people and their social ties morally.

In light of these analyses, Zelizer’s sociology is an invitation to think of money not as payment, exchange, store of value, or abstract accounting unit but as a moral accounting unit. Earlier writers viewed the abstract commensurability of money as its potential to bring people together; Marx, for example, saw the abstraction of money as the basis for people to connect and exchange goods. In this new approach to money, social connections are instead produced through a sort of moral commensurability associated with it. People are measured, assessed, and morally ranked through specific pieces of money in circulation, linking money with the concept of moral capital.

In other words, I suggest that as money circulates, people’s moral capital is put to the test. Money allows people to judge the virtues and defects of others and thus establish rankings among the people they know, creating moral hierarchies through money. People can be good for the money; they can be loyal, respectable, generous, and hard-working; or disloyal, unreliable, frivolous, greedy, and lazy (Wherry 2008). These are only some of the classifications that appeared during my research. The moral judgments that people reach reveal how moral capital comes into play when money changes hands or is salted away.

Articulating the concept of moral capital with the sociology of multiple monies involves a conceptual shift with respect to Zelizer’s argument. In this shift, I believe the work of the anthropologist Jane Guyer is particularly illuminating. While the sociology of Viviana Zelizer emphasizes the means of payment people choose for intimate transactions, Guyer’s anthropology (2004) pays more attention to the hierarchy between currencies. In the case studies Zelizer presents, this dimension is much less of a focus. For example, in her book The Social Meaning of Money, we know little about the interactions between domestic monies and non-domestic monies, namely, how they are produced and used in market dealings. When we read about the notion of the circuit, we get an in-depth look at how migrants use the money they send back to their country of origin but we find out little about the other monies they use, the monies outside the circuit. In Zelizer’s arguments, it is clear these monies are different, but not as clear which take priority over others; as a result, the consideration of how these affect social life is not as insightful as it could be. In contrast, in the context of the economies of Atlantic Africa, Guyer notes how people relate to heterogeneous currencies with different values. In her analysis of economic transactions, people resolve these differences by establishing a hierarchy of payment methods. For Guyer, all monetary transactions express a social order.

In order to analyze the production of moral hierarchies produced by money, I utilize Zelizer’s relational perspective and add Guyer’s contribution to reveal the hierarchies between currencies. In this framework, to interpret the multiple moral meanings of money I propose replacing Zelizer’s notion of “kinds” with “pieces” of money. This analytical shift provides a better framework for understanding the interaction, overlay, and hierarchy of monies.

In the introduction to her recent translation of Marcel Mauss’s The Gift (2016), Guyer suggests that the original text is like a puzzle that can be assembled in different ways. Instead of offering readers a solid interpretation of the text, Guyer instead helps them put together the puzzle. The puzzle pieces have no established order or outline. Reading The Gift thus means discovering these pieces and putting them together in different ways. Guyer’s approach to the translation could also apply to my proposal here: I also employ the notion of assembling puzzle pieces, but my aim is to examine the role of money in social life.

The pieces of a puzzle provide only a partial understanding when observed on their own; they need the other pieces to form the big picture. Similarly, the value of each piece depends on how it connects to the others. The move from the notion of “kinds” to “pieces” suggests that moral capital is forged by fitting the different pieces of money together and constructing a pattern. Through these pieces, it is possible to understand how people are judged by certain monetary practices and acquire a certain moral reputation. The money pieces work as moral accounting units, expressing the moral capital that all of the pieces share in the sphere of economic life.

In order to understand the analytical strength of the concept of moral capital, it is important to differentiate it from another important concept that has been used to interpret the relationship between morality and economy. I am referring to the concept of the moral economy. I’ll first explain how the concept of moral economy is generally incompatible with a sociology of multiple monies and then explain why the concept of moral capital is better equipped for an analysis of money as a savvy tool for understanding power relations.

Coined by E. P. Thompson, the term “moral economy” emphasizes fairness, justice, and mutuality, values that mobilize opposition to the emerging capitalist economy (Thompson 1971). The concept was later revived in an analysis of resistance to colonial exploitation (Scott 1976). In general terms, Thompson and James Scott both sketch a dichotomy between economies embedded in social activity (the moral economy) versus disembedded economies (i.e., guided by markets), an argument that had a lot in common with Polanyi’s work. This argument differs from Zelizer’s hypothesis on the moral ubiquity of money. For Zelizer, monetary transactions are always moral negotiations, whether they occur on or off the market. Like other scholars in the field (Boltanski and Thévenot 2006; Stark 2009), Zelizer thus argues that all economies are moral economies, be they embedded or disembedded, calling into question the dichotomy traced by Thompson and Scott.

In place of the moral economy, the concept of moral capital reveals how money can mobilize virtues and moral values according to different monetary logics. We find these monetary and moral dynamics in both the informal and formal economies, in illegal dealings along with those of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Paying back what one owes, for example, brings repute on any of these circuits, which can all be interpreted by examining the values that circulate alongside money and the efforts people make to have their virtues acknowledged.

In a more decisive way, the concept of the moral economy collides with a sociology of multiple monies because it does not reveal the relational work of the dominant groups to differentiate themselves. According to Thompson and Scott, the term “moral economy” describes the obligations and norms associated with economic distribution. These moral values encourage subordinated groups to act collectively. From this perspective, the moral economy describes the moral consensuses that allow for resistance to the elites. Thus, it is not a concept that sheds light on the role of money in the moral hierarchy of social groups.

In short, my work here contributes to the literature that has attempted, to cite Marion Fourcade and Kieran Healy (2007), to open up the black box of morality in order to understand how the moral performativity of economy shapes its exchanges and defines legitimate actors. Opening up the black box of morality through the concept of moral capital helps to reveal social dynamics, rules, and behaviors that are often naturalized or otherwise overlooked. This book thus aims at a new way of interpreting the connection between morality and economy, which continues to be a key topic in the social sciences today (Fourcade and Healy 2007; Graeber 2011; Wherry 2012).

Pieces of Money in Context

Pieces of money represent realities that correspond to specific sociohistorical contexts. To paraphrase Marx, we can say that people negotiate their status and power within monetary hierarchies under circumstances not of their choosing. Monetary hierarchies are embedded in institutional and macro-level social dynamics. To briefly summarize the idea, each specific sociohistorical context facilitates the emergence, expansion, and disappearance of certain pieces of money.

At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, after nearly thirty years of economic cutbacks, the consequences of neoliberal policies could be felt in the neighborhoods along the periphery of Buenos Aires. These consequences ranged from job market exclusion to a growing informal and illegal economy and severe deterioration of the urban infrastructure. In the years I spent visiting Villa Olimpia, other processes were also under way. When President Nestor Kirchner took office in 2003, Argentina’s economic policy took a sudden turn, because his administration questioned neoliberalism and its negative effects among the poorest members of society.3 This process was continued under President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was elected in 2007. According to political analysts (Cameron and Hershberg 2010; Levitsky and Roberts 2011), these administrations were part of a “left turn” in the first decade of the twenty-first century among the countries of the region (Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Venezuela). During both of the Kirchner presidencies, the strategy for economic growth was based on expanding consumer spending though different policies, including conditional cash transfers to raise the purchasing power of the lower classes.

The pieces of money that I detected during my fieldwork in Villa Olimpia represent a complex combination of the money dynamics associated with job market exclusion and integration to the consumer market. These dynamics were based on money earned from the informal and illegal economy; lent money associated with the role of family help and the growing importance of financialization among the poor; donated money associated with conditional cash transfers; political money that mediated the power relations in democratic governments in contexts of poverty and inequality; sacrificed money associated with church and charity work in these same contexts; and money safeguarded with family networks that support individuals down on their luck.

The sociohistorical combinations of some of these pieces of money are connected with the neoliberal policies that began to expand globally at the end of the 1970s (Harvey 2005). Based on these processes, there was a “new regime of urban marginality” (Wacquant 2008) in which salaried work began to decline as the principal source of income among dwellers on the urban outskirts, and there was a growing dependence on money from informal and illegal markets, welfare, NGO assistance, and mutual assistance networks among the poor. In Argentina, neoliberal policies were first implemented during the 1976–83 military dictatorship, though such policies were common across the region during the period of authoritarian governments in power during the 1970s and 1980s.

From 1940 until the start of the military dictatorship, Argentina’s job market was characterized by formal employment, low levels of unemployment, and a small wage gap (Altimir and Beccaria 1999). During this period, unions provided workers with security and gave them a voice in politics (Torre 1990). Under the military regime, political repression and market deregulation led to lower salaries, a rise in unemployment, and a lack of attention to the poor and the marginalized. Thus, the number of people employed in industry fell by 30 percent between 1974 and 1983 (Schorr 2007). Between 1974 and 1980, the income of contracted salaried workers dropped by 15.5 percent and that of salaried workers without contracts fell by 16.9 percent (FETIA–CTA 2005). While 4.4 percent of the residents of greater Buenos Aires reported incomes placing them below the poverty line in 1974, this had climbed to 11.1 percent by 1980, and by the end of that decade, owing to the effects of hyperinflation, poverty had reached almost half the population (Bayón and Saraví 2002).

During the 1990s, a democratically elected president revived the neoliberal policies initially implemented two decades earlier by the military. Strict measures were needed to stabilize the Argentine economy, and the administration of Carlos Menem (1989–99) opted for neoliberal reforms, including harsh state cutbacks, the privatization of state-owned companies, market deregulation, and the elimination of import tariffs (Torre 1998). One of the most dramatic consequences of these policies was to consolidate the deindustrialization that had commenced under the dictatorship. Unemployment reached a historic peak (19 percent in 1995), and the proportion of informal workers in the economy rose to 38 percent of the workforce in 2000. The least qualified low-income workers bore the brunt of this process, which culminated in a significant rise in the wage gap. In 1990, the richest were earning 18.4 percent more than the poor; a decade later, this percentage had risen to 24.8 percent (Delfini and Pichetti 2005).

Although it reduced state protection for salaried workers through measures such as the privatization of retirement pensions, the Menem administration did provide welfare to the poor and to others excluded from the job market as part of state policy (Franco 1996). In an attempt to remedy the soaring levels of poverty and unemployment, this government developed social assistance programs financed with funding from the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank.

These political and social processes have impacted the ways in which the poor sectors organize in Argentina. The deterioration of the formal job market made the poor dependent on informal and illegal work, welfare, and charity. In response to the noxious effects of neoliberalism, the Peronist party reconfigured its own organization, becoming what Javier Auyero has called a “problem-solving network” (Auyero 2001) that distributed funds and resources among the poor. Steven Levitsky (2003) writes eloquently of this process when he claims that during the years of neoliberalism, the logics of the Peronist party changed along with its support base, which shifted from unions (formal workers) to beneficiaries of the spoils system living in marginal areas.

At the end of 2001, a major economic, social, and political crisis mobilized the population against neoliberal policies, and starting in 2003, a new political cycle began in Argentina. During the successive presidencies of Nestor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the state invested in manufacturing, expanded the domestic market, and implemented a set of novel welfare policies that aimed to improve the critical situation of the most relegated social sectors. As a result, poverty and unemployment dwindled while welfare and urban infrastructure rose (Kessler 2014). Like their peers in Bolivia (Evo Morales), Venezuela (Hugo Chavez), Brazil (Luiz “Lula” da Silva and Dilma Rousseff), Ecuador (Nestor Correa), and Uruguay (Jose Mujica), the Kirchners established “market inclusion” as a paradigm of well-being for the poor. This paradigm repurposed public funding for the country’s most marginal population, allowing them not just to eat but also to participate in the consumer market. Such government policies marked a shift from what I refer to as a “contention policy”—aimed at merely keeping the poor above the poverty line—to what I call a “rehabilitation policy,” where the purpose of giving the poor money is to integrate them into the market and reactivate the entire economy (Wilkis 2014). For the Kirchner administrations, the rise in spending among the low-income sectors was proof that their social and economic policies were working. The country’s poorest households saw their average monthly income quadruple in real terms between 2004 and 2013. The rich, in contrast, only saw theirs rise 2.6 times. This trend can also be seen in terms of spending: the gap between average spending per capita between rich and poor fell from 7.3 times to 5 times (Informe Encuesta Nacional 2014).

Bearing in mind these macro-level social and institutional processes, the pieces of money that I intend to describe in this book reveal the juxtaposition of job market exclusion—and the resulting dependence on informal and illegal monetary circuits, welfare, and so on—and integration into the consumer market through state money and credit access. This narrative reconstructs the complex money and power dynamics that configure the world of the poor in Buenos Aires.

Villa Olimpia: A Money Puzzle

“Money grows on trees here in Villa Olimpia,” Mary said to me one cold winter morning as we passed a house under construction. She was clearly referring to the new access to money and consumer products that she, her family, and her neighbors were all enjoying, owing largely to conditional government cash transfers and a vigorous expansion of the lending market to low-income borrowers.

Between January and December 2008, I visited Mary’s house at least three times a week.4 I gradually gained the trust of Mary and her children, and through them, my network of informants expanded and diversified. The daily dynamics of Mary’s household were a microcosm that revealed transformations across Villa Olimpia, a neighborhood that both government officials and residents alike considered an exemplary case of the changes Argentina had experienced since 2003. The government had invested heavily to create new jobs and improve urban infrastructure and marginal homes. President Nestor Kirchner himself had visited the neighborhood in person a few years during his term. Governors and mayors also came. Many locals remembered these visits, and they were quick to pull out their pictures with elected officials whenever the topic arose.

When I visited Villa Olimpia that first time, an urbanization program was already well under way. As in the urban improvement projects in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro (Brakarz 2002), new cement-block houses were being constructed, and almost all homes were connected to electricity, running water, and gas. The goal was to modify the typical configuration of the villas miserias, where precarious houses are often built from discarded materials. The population density is extremely high and when homes do have public utilities, it is usually thanks to an illegal connection to the network (Cravino 2007). As a result of the urbanization program, many Villa Olimpia residents believed that the social and urban stigma associated with living in the slums was a thing of the past.

In the history of Villa Olimpia, October 1999 marked the start of a new period. A group of locals got together to occupy some twenty hectares of neighboring land belonging to the company Gas del Estado. A series of different factors led to the occupation, including the accusation that neighborhood leaders had been embezzling funds; frustration over promises not met by different administrations; and the brisk growth of Villa Olimpia’s population, which expanded from 1,000 to 1,600 families between 1992 and 2008. The enormous empty plot allowed locals to dream of their own homes. For several months, a group squatted on the property in an impromptu camp, assigning lots and organizing a co-operative. Everyone seemed to agree that Luis Salcedo was the leader of this process.

Salcedo had virtually no political experience, which was seen as a virtue in times when the seasoned political leaders of Villa Olimpia were widely viewed as corrupt. In a context in which Peronism had gradually become a problem-solving network in marginalized neighborhoods (Auyero 2001), veteran community leaders could no longer get state officials to provide resources for the neighborhood, causing locals to lose trust in them. Thanks to the leadership Salcedo displayed in occupying the Gas del Estado property, he had replaced them. Now the success of both the urbanization project and the new leader would depend on closer ties with elected officials and with Peronist party members, the main supporters of both the project and Salcedo.

When Salcedo heard that I was doing research on the neighborhood’s success story, he asked me to take a walk with him. He wanted to show me a building that had been demolished to make way for a new home. After a few minutes, we reached a pile of debris, and Salcedo said: “People around here used to only dream of a house if their son grew up to be a soccer player or a boxer. Now anyone can dream of a home of their own.”

“What happened?”

“Well, people here understand that we got involved in politics to make the neighborhood a better place. Maybe someone who’s not from here wouldn’t get it because they always had a home. We don’t preach Peronist doctrine, just the project to build houses and pave streets. Now, if you want to come in here and you tell me you’ve got a better plan than I’ve got, well, OK, then, tell me see it is and I’m on board.”

“And otherwise?”

“You get on board with us.”

“A new project for change after fifty years” was the slogan members of Salcedo’s network repeated time and again. It represented a shift in political rhetoric. This widespread perception was also present in a brief lesson that a neighbor gave me as he pointed out Salcedo’s house: “If you want to know how all this works, look over there. That’s where it all starts.”

In a short time, the process of urbanization (and Salcedo’s political rise) made Villa Olimpia into the perfect place to understand the role of money in the life of the poor. The state began to allocate funds to the neighborhood to improve infrastructure and build houses, but it also provided money for residents through new jobs, welfare benefits, and funding for the activities carried out by Salcedo’s political network.

In showing that the monetization of personal life in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century neither rationalized nor impersonalized social ties, Zelizer postulated that money should not be considered as a variable independent of the process requiring explanation. In other words, money’s mere presence is not indicative of its role in social life. If we view money as an isolated fact, we tend to see it homogeneously, as if it always produced the same effects regardless of context. However, if we consider that its meanings depend on a morally informed hierarchy, as I propose in this book, we must examine the connections between pieces of money and differences in the way it is used within a monetary order. Villa Olimpia forced me to adopt this principle in order to understand power relations through money.

How This Book Is Organized

In 2015, a conference was held in Paris to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of The Social Meaning of Money. Zelizer, the main speaker, shared the changes she would make to the book if she had a chance to rewrite it. Besides mentioning that a new version should explore e-payments, Zelizer reflected on the need to incorporate so-called real monies into her argument, that is, those that exist on the market, in commercial relations. “Why was that problematic?” she asked. “Because the term ‘special monies’ suggests that the areas I discuss are anomalies or exceptions to value-free market money. Although the book explicitly disputes that conclusion, still its argument has often been misunderstood as applying only to marginal phenomena and not to the allegedly colorless monies exchanged in commercial or professional market transactions” (Zelizer 2016).

This reflection twenty years after the release of The Social Meaning of Money reveals that for Zelizer, the tenet of the sociology of money is its moral ubiquity, even when considering the main trends of the capitalist economy. This book expands on this tenet by simultaneously analyzing heterogeneous money exchanges among the urban poor in Buenos Aires. In the pages to come, I analyze the pieces of money circulating on formal, informal, and illegal markets, through welfare and NGO assistance, and around political, religious, and family ties.

This book reveals that sociology is not interested in analyzing money inasmuch as it is interested in the social realities money helps to shape. Money is morally ubiquitous because it has a hand in social orders, moral hierarchies, and power relations. Each chapter of this book supplements the previous chapter, showing that no piece of money is more moral than the next: all revolve around the efforts to establish, appropriate, and accumulate moral capital.

In the first chapter, “Lent Money,” I explore the expansion of the credit market to the poor working classes. The stories I share reveal how moral capital is critical to accessing this market and to the power relations it implies. In the second chapter, “Earned Money,” I analyze the moral hierarchies that appear on the underground economy of Villa Olimpia. The third chapter, “Donated Money,” recounts the moral struggles associated with being on welfare. For example, the money received in the new conditional cash transfer programs is associated with the power to determine who is deserving of such assistance. Power relations among political leaders and their followers are the topic of the fourth chapter, “Political Money,” which focuses on the money that leaders pay their supporters. In the fifth chapter, “Sacrificed Money,” I analyze the competition between political and religious leaders of Villa Olimpia, showing how these power struggles are rooted in the accumulation of moral capital associated with the pieces of money. Finally, in chapter 6, “Safeguarded Money,” I analyze how family hierarchies and power are embedded in a monetary order and suggest that the various aspects of money help to produce both gender and generational hierarchies.

In the pages to come, money appears as a conceptual and methodological tool. This book offers a new focus for interpreting the multiple power relations that configure the world of the poor. Through it, I’ll explore spheres of social life that are generally analyzed separately. Along this path, the moral dimension of money plays a critical role in forging economic, class, political, gender, and generational bonds. Instead of focusing on each of these spheres, this book aims to highlight the continuity between these, and by doing so, leaves little doubt as to the moral basis of money.


1. Peronism is the political movement that has been historically associated with the Argentine poor since its founding in the 1940s by three-time president (1946–51; 1951–55; 1973–74) Juan Domingo Perón. When the party was founded, its political agenda included defending workers and their rights, promoting state intervention in the economy, and defending national industry. Peronism depended on strong, charismatic leadership and the support of industrial and farm workers, small and medium-sized business owners, and certain other sectors of the urban middle classes. The party managed to survive even the death of its founder, Perón, and perhaps more surprisingly, a Peronist administration headed by President Carlos Menem (1989–99), which implemented sweeping neoliberal policies nationwide. Presidents Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner have been the most recent Peronist leaders, and as a power couple in Peronism, they evoked the party’s founder, Juan Domingo Perón, and his popular wife Eva Duarte de Perón.

2. For a list of reviews and other articles about the book see (accessed March 26, 2017).

3. In Brazil, similar processes led to the appearance of a “new middle class” formed by the nearly forty million people who had escaped poverty and accessed the consumer market thanks to the redistribution policies implemented by President Lula da Silva (Oliven and Pinheiro Machado 2012).

4. In the appendix, I provide a detailed description of my fieldwork methodology.