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Hoarding: (Im)mobilizing things

Published 30 March 2020 / By Dace Dzenovska

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Introduction

In the Soviet Latvia of 1980s, it was simultaneously exhilarating and unnerving to catch the moment when a grocery store received a delivery of eggs, sausages, or toilet paper. In the late Soviet period, when shortages were severe, shops limited the amount people could buy. For example, each individual could buy 0.5 kg of sausage. While my grandmother held our place in line, I would run up and down the line, counting how many people were in front of us and calculating whether we would get our share if there were 15 kg left and 27 people ahead of us. It was particularly frustrating when a lone person was suddenly joined by several more family members, and the kilograms available to us shrank in front of our eyes.

Revolution street in Riga, Soviet Latvia, 1980s; photo: Atis Ieviņš (click image for original article)

These skills came in handy when I spent two months in Havana, Cuba in 2007. My notes from the time reveal ongoing, sometimes frustrated, sometimes victorious, efforts to procure things. On one occasion, I spotted a man in a doorway selling eggs. Since there were no eggs in stores, I bought a whole carton of 30 eggs. As I was walking home, I was approached by a woman who asked me where I had gotten them. I felt like a local despite my rudimentary Spanish.

In late Soviet Latvia and in socialist Cuba, I was navigating the landscape of economies based on redistributive – or, as Katherine Verdery argues, allocative - power rather than maximization of surplus value.[1] Mid-level administrators, from enterprise directors and collective farm managers to local government officials, were “piling up resources in order to enhance the bureaucracy’s capacity to allocate.”[2] Hoarding was not an individual strategy or ailment,[3] but routine economic behaviour. Because production targets did not correspond with the availability of resources, managers hoarded materials and labour in order to use them at a later date or to barter for what they needed. This created: (1) an official economy of shortages where goods either existed, but not where they were needed, or were not produced at all, and (2) an informal economy through which people and institutions tried to obtain the goods they needed.[4] Hoarding did not render things immobile: the challenge was to figure out their whereabouts and circulation patterns. While administrators hoarded and bartered, ordinary people tried to access goods, from toilet paper to eggs, through expansive networks of personal ties. Things and services moved through informal networks at multiple scales. Goods rather than coins were the currency of the day.

Domestic hoarding in the UK and elsewhere in the time of coronavirus is caused not by inefficiencies of a centrally planned economy, but by excessive demand in a moment of disjuncture: normal life has been suspended by an extraordinary event, but capitalist economy is still running—or attempting to run—its normal course. Hand sanitizer, toilet paper, face masks, and eggs hoarded by individuals are not fed into an informal economy, but remain within a capitalist economy dominated by financialization and the logistics sector. Profit derives from repacking, bundling, and reselling, whether in the form of apps, collateral debt obligations, or stocks of hand sanitizer. Some individuals or companies are dropping stocks, while others are hoping to profit from removing things from the market and putting them back into circulation at a higher cost. That is, until the government interferes. In the time of coronavirus, it is not administrators who are hoarding resources, but would-be-profiteers and ordinary people who stock things for possible later use.

Empty shelves, Oxford, UK, March 2020; photo: Dace Dzenovska

Some economists argue that hoarding will stop, because people’s storage capacity and purchasing power are limited. They believe that the demand that drives hoarding is not sustainable. Such assumptions are typical of mainstream economics, in which temporary disturbances of the otherwise perfect market mechanism are expected to be sorted out by the market itself (through the normalization of the supply-demand dynamic). In the meantime, government and non-government actors are appealing to humanitarian solidarity and calling upon hoarders to stop buying and /or donate their hoarded resources to hospitals or those in need.

We can see two different logics of remobilization of hoarded things at work: barter in socialist economies and a combination of profit maximization and humanitarian reason in Western capitalist democracies. In this context, China’s case is especially interesting. It cannot quite be located within this framework. While Western leftists use China’s assistance to Italy to criticize a lack of European solidarity, others are suggesting that such assistance is part of China’s geopolitical strategy made possible by hoarding. Hoarding as temporary immobilization of things may just turn out to be a useful lens for analysing the economic, moral, and (geo)political landscape of the day.

References

[1] Verdery, Katherine. 1991. “Theorizing Socialism: A Prologue to the ‘Transition’,” American Ethnologist 18(3): 419-439.

[2] Ibid, 421.

[3] Lepselter, Susan. 2011. “The Disorder of Things: Hoarding Narratives in Popular Media.” Anthropological Quarterly 84(4): 919-947.

[4] Verdery, Katherine. 1996. What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.