From Client to Comrade: Alternative Currency and Market Relations in Mexico
Thesis, University of Manchester for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Faculty of Humanities
This thesis is an ethnographic exploration into people’s attempts to re-signify the meanings of money and market relations in contemporary Mexico. The thesis looks at producers, traders and service providers who are striving to institute their own economic system through a project called the Mercado Alternativo Túmin (MAT, or Alternative Market of the Túmin). In essence, the MAT is a solidarity economy network, held together by an alternative currency called the túmin. The túmin is both the material and symbolic basis through which the tumistas (project members) strive to create the conditions for a good life together. It acts as a medium for imagining and creating social relations guided by the project’s foundational principles of trust, solidarity, mutual aid and autonomy.
Drawing on 18 months of ethnographic research conducted in multiple field sites, the thesis narrates and analyses part of the MAT story as it grew from a small, localised affair in a small rural town, to a nationwide network made up of individuals and collectives across the country. The chapters look at the multiple manifestations of the MAT in different settings, documenting how the tumistas understand and engage with their project according to their particular life trajectories and contexts. I argue that the tumistas overwhelmingly engage with the project as a vehicle through which they can imagine and enact their visions of a good life. This is most commonly expressed through values and a sense of dignity, which they feel have been denied to them living under the conditions of neoliberal capitalism. The MAT provides a framework through which the tumistas can reflect on their position in the world, and make ethical judgements and decisions which inform their actions towards constructing a better life for themselves and their fellows. I suggest that we can understand the MAT as a process of collective and self-transformation through which a certain sort of person – a compañero solidario (a solidary comrade) – is formed.1 The ethnography focuses on how the tumistas strive to enact and materialise their ideas about alternative values and ethics; efforts which inevitably exist alongside and often in tension with pre-existing social forces, relations and imaginaries.
Given the growing interest in the ‘solidarity economy’ in recent years from activists, scholars and policy makers alike, a study of the MAT is a worthy endeavour. I contribute an ethnographic study that takes seriously the multiple possibilities and contradictions that arise when the solidarity economy is lifted from the page and animated in real life. I also contribute to ongoing conversations in the anthropology of money and to debates on the value question, as well as providing insight and inspiration for all those who contend that ‘another world is possible.’