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Emerging Subjects of the New Economy: Tracing Economic Growth in Mongolia

Final Report Summary - EMERGING SUBJECTS (Emerging Subjects of the New Economy: Tracing Economic Growth in Mongolia)

Our project began just as the burgeoning extraction-based mineral economy of Mongolia was tipping from a period of rapid economic growth to a self-described ‘economic crisis’. A research group of scholars at University College London and the National University of Mongolia has followed this ethnographic tilt over the past five years, tracking the ways in which people have experienced, come to understand, and also intervene in rapid economic change. Marshalling the expertise and insights of a diverse Advisory Board – including environmental lawyers, journalists, economists, herders and academics - and Five Mongolian Artists / Collectives, it has sought different methodological means by which to bring these experiences and interventions to light, through exhibitions, media events and publications, reaching different audiences and publics. Such diversity echoes features of Mongolian capitalism itself, as well as the shared constraints of living within global forms of financialisation and regulation. Subjects (both people and topics), like the economy, we have found, are made and make the conditions in which they exist, recursively bringing each other into being.

The following represents some of the achievements of the Project. The project held three workshops. One on new future imaginaries, one on Mongolian-made capitalism, and one on new forms of ownership in the global economy. It established a book series, Economic Exposures, with UCL Press, which has to-date commissioned 6 monographs, four of which are currently In Press. With the artist / curator Hermione Spriggs we collaborated with Five Mongolian artist / collectives and put on a major exhibition in the UK, at two different locations, with several related workshops, talks and events, and published a major art/anthropology book, Five Heads, with Sternberg Press. We have also published two edited volumes: one on Mongolian-made capitalism, with Central Asian Survey, which included co-authored and single authored articles with our Mongolian Paired Researchers. The other on the topic of Temporary Possession as a new form of ownership, in the Theorizing Contemporary Series with Cultural Anthropology, which included 11 international scholars. We have also published several articles and chapters in different publications based on our own research and engaged in diverse forms of media and dissemination. Establishing an active blog at the start of the project, which is still running, we published over 86 posts, including several special topic series, and have given talks to diverse audiences, including the Department for Trade and Industry, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Mongol Bank, Mongolian national television, mining investment conferences, and a herder’s subsection meeting on the Mongolian-Russian border, while declining an 8-part series with a Mongolian television company. We have carried out fieldwork together as a whole research group when we visited the mega-mines in the Gobi desert and herders and truck drivers on the Chinese-Mongolian border, in pairs, with our Mongolian researchers, and individually, often with extended family (three babies were born during the project).

In terms of findings, we summarise that the global commodity slow-down, felt intensely in the coal and steal industry, exposed the very fragile nature of basing one wealth on mineral extraction alone. The crisis that proceeded to unravel itself in Mongolia was felt across all sectors of society, and by 2017 the IMF had implemented a strict bail-out package, allowing Mongolia to uphold debt repayments and ride the next couple of years into a more stable, albeit slower, period of economic stability. This intense roller coaster from boom to bust has generated feelings of mistrust, both politically and economically. Like in many other places around the world that have experienced similar situations:
1. Attitudes to personal and national debt are morally ambiguous. On the one hand, debt is linked to corrupt politicians, ‘non-patriotic rascals’, and maximizing individuals who misuse national debt for their own gains, delegitimizing developmental and economic narratives and emptying Mongolia’s wealth for the benefit of those elsewhere. In contrast, being in personal debt may be viewed as an opening and potential, maintaining social networks and forms of exchange, and allowing for the circulation of wealth among friends. Debt, therefore, factors into narratives about the production of economic growth as well as its crisis.
2. There are shifting expectations of what the state – and democracy as a political project - is and can offer. Increasingly state projects (infrastructural and developmental) are perceived as morally thin, materially fragile, and temporally stunted; mere gestures of public good that actually serve individual business interests and networks. The state is not focusing its resources on expanding social welfare, but rather, through banks and other institutions, opening possibilities for citizens to make their own financial futures( i.e. encouraging people to collateralise official documents in exchange for credit, or by initiating or buying into construction developments and taking out further loans). However, even when things become collateralised, valuations shift, making them highly volatile and temporary. This perception has lead to nationalist critiques of democracy and politics more generally, giving rise to accusations of ‘populism’.
3. Experience of volatility and retort to ‘crisis’ has become something of the norm, and not the exception. In this area much of our research has focused on the study of economic speculation. For both our interlocutors and ourselves as researchers, we are often left with the sense that things are changing very fast, and that that more details are needed in order to understand the causes and effects of these changes. Our outputs have attempted to capture some of the strategies and speculations that Mongolians themselves employ to navigate these senses of volatility (reading the signs, making conjectures, seeking connections and revealing the ‘truth’ behind things). This allows us to attend to the kinds of life ways, decisions, and ethical projects that are being made, and the types of explanations and narratives this gives rise to.
4. A major question that we keep returning to is: do capitalist relations and global forms of financialisation create increasingly homogenising worlds and subjects, or can we talk of experimentation and difference? Should we see examples such as people arguing for a larger national share in strategic mining projects, resisting the advice of inter-national lawyers, and redrafting the ‘Law with the Long Name’, as forms of protest and resistance to harsh foreign pressure, financial speculation, and determinisation? Or, are these innovative and unique examples of people and a nation strategically wanting to be more engaged with the economy, to claim a more equal share, and not wanting to be left out? This pull between increasing connection and dependency versus a need to maintain a sense of independence and sovereignty is something that gets played out at a national level well as among individuals and appears to be an increasing feature of ownership regimes around the world.