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Emerging Subjects’ Second Advisory Board Meeting: Features of Mongolian Capitalism

ucsaar028 November 2016

On the 15th November, 2016, we held our Second Advisory Board Meeting at the Club Coworking space, in the ICC Tower, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

This time our Advisory Board was tasked with presenting three features that they think defines capitalism in Mongolia today. Each person was asked to speak for 20 mins or so on their themes, followed by heated questions and intense discussion. The day was divided by lunch at Maggiano, and lasted from 10am until 5pm.

The topic of discussion was a fitting prelude to our conference on Mongolian-made Capitalism, which took place the following day at the Mongolian-Japan Centre (which we will post about shortly). The gathering was also a chance to ask our Advisory Board about current economic and political changes in Mongolia and raise questions that have arisen since our fieldwork, which started a year and a half ago.

 

Once again, we felt incredibly lucky to be able to hear such varied opinion and expert insight from such a diverse group of people, representing so many different sectors of society.

There is a real sense that our research is guided by their advice as much as providing food for thought for further elaboration. Many of the Advisory Board also attended the conference the next day and participated in it.

In order to honour our commitment that everything spoken about in the meeting remains anonymous we have decided to list the features that were discussed below, but not identify them with any individual. We hope that this will provide some food for thought, and also perhaps, in the future, a historical record of how people at this moment perceive the political and economic climate in Mongolia.

 

Three Features of Mongolian Capitalism – November 2016

  1.  The power of networks dominates everything
  2. Capitalism in Mongolia defies market principles – especially property regimes
  3. Wealth above all else is valued

  1. The extractive industry is a dependent economy
  2. Oligarchical governance
  3. Neocolonialism, or the country is a neo-colony to multinational companies and economic powers such as USA, China, Canada, Netherlands and Australia.

  1. Lack of information, knowledge and education of the rural population
  2. Violence toward rural women
  3. Influence of election in the rural regions

  1. Relationship between Mongolia, China and Russia (transport corridor etc.)
  2. Mongolia’s third neighbours
  3. Symbolic representation of Mongolia, China and Russia as Mazalai, Panda and Bear.

  1. Two parties play with the nation’s resource wealth
  2. The political parties and the rich have become the heads of the state
  3. Rulers and ruling institutions are buying the state and state assets through the management of parties

  1. The state is captured by non-transparent business (Erdenbilegism: a new phenomenon in Mongolia’s democracy)
  2. Semi-capitalist society (Marching back to socialism)
  3. Too large government (Fakestan)

  1. Law implementation: common problem that occurs frequently is we have many world-standard legal frameworks, but lack implementation. Here, people who are supposed to enforce the law could be well-informed or ill-suited, or some legal aspects are just not compatible with our level of development (i.e. anti-smoking law).
  1. Organizational check-and-balance: frequently, the balance between key organizations in the public sector is biased or leaned toward one side, so that, at the end of day, human factors define performance results. Thus, at some point, one organization becomes very active or powerful, it may seem our policy is focused on that part. Then, sometimes within the organization, an individual ‘s decision could be implemented unchecked.
  1. The extent of public sector involvement in the market: we’ve seen some back-and-forth thinking in terms of where the line should be drawn for the government to be involved in the markets. In the 90s popular thinking was laissez-faire economy, which is now transformed into more public involvement to regulate parts of the economy. It’s always in flux, a fight about where the balance should be (think of banking sector, which was freely regulated, but now might become our Achilles hill).

 

 

Photos © Rebecca Empson.

 

Beginning the Fieldwork Phase of our Project

ucsaar027 December 2015

This August marked the start of the fieldwork phase of our project. We gathered first in Ulaanbaatar to begin our affiliation at the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the National University of Mongolia (NUM), to meet with our paired researchers, and to set up our research visas. The ten researchers on the project – five from UCL and five from NUM – also had a very stimulating meeting with our Advisory Board, and gave a seminar at the Anthropology and Archaeology Department.

NUM

Seminar at the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the National University of Mongolia, photo by R. Empson.

 

Many of us brought our children with us, so we were very pleased that Helena Reeve joined us for part of this phase. She held ‘School Club’ with the project’s children every morning. Reading, writing and maths classes were centred around lots of interesting projects, including a study of the Tsam ritual, which resulted in the children making masks and giving their own performance.

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Some members of the Emerging Subjects’ ‘School Club’ performing a Tsam Dance with Ms. Reeve, photo by R. Empson.

'School Club' on the steppe, photo by R. Empson.

‘School Club’ on the steppe, photo by R. Empson.

We are very fortunate to have an active and diverse Advisory Board, ranging from herders to female activists, to independent economists and lawyers – whom we consult on an individual basis. This board was invaluable in advising us at the start of our projects and introducing us to many groups of people and individuals. Having all worked in Mongolia before, the 10 researchers themselves also have different networks that cross over and extend in different directions.

Advisory Board

Advisory Board Meeting, September 2015, photo by R. Empson.

 

After consulting with different people, we began fieldwork on our topics, in different field sites and among different groups of people. I, for example, have spent this autumn working in pawnshops, and in something called ‘nonbanking financial service centres’ in order to understand how people access cash in Ulaanbaatar and the countryside. Others have been working on construction sites and in ger districts, and others still at Naran Tuul, Ereen and Choibalsan markets. Some have been working on land ownership and mining issues, while others are exploring environmental movements and political protests.

Ulaanbaatar's Sukhbaatariin Square, photo R. Empson.

Ulaanbaatar’s Sukhbaatariin Square, photo R. Empson.

 

These topics are taking us to different places allowing us to meet a huge range of people while engaging in very diverse activities. One member of our research group, for example, gave a talk at the Government Building on contemporary American knowledge and perceptions of Chinggis Khaan, while another is following the making of a documentary about infrastructure in the ger districts of Ulaanbaatar. Some of us are still on fieldwork while others will be returning again in March.

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Khubilai Khaan (1215-1294) 800 years celebration, Ulaanbaatar, photo R Empson

 

The project’s title ‘Emerging Subjects’ is focusing our research in two senses. Firstly, we are using this term to explore the broader themes, or subjects, that are emerging in the current economic climate, and their articulation through different kinds of activities. These include forms of political protest, construction and infrastructure projects, and ways of transacting and accessing goods and cash, such as through pawn shops and barter.

Secondly, we are finding that the term ‘Emerging Subjects’  refers to actual people, or to distinct forms of subjectivity that are being articulated as an outcome of particular kinds of economic and political experiences. Here we are looking at gendered forms of political protest, such as hunger strikes and self-immolation, and ways of sustaining life while constantly being in debt. We all share a wider theoretical focus on the way in which particular kinds of economic activity give rise to certain forms of subjectivity and vice versa.

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Evening traffic jams in the city centre, Photo R. Empson.

 

For many of us there is a sense that Mongolia is currently in a gap, between futures that have disappeared from view, and new ones not-yet-realised.[1] The government is focused on the looming election and on how to pay back public loans, some of which are due in 2016. Public discontent is growing, and is increasingly dismissed as ‘populist’ or ‘nationalist’. There is a sense of stalling, of people getting by before things can pick up again or collapse completely.

The situation reminds me of a cartoon featured in the Mongolian media a few years ago. Only now, with increasing public and private debt, and declining commodity prices, the person featured in the cartoon is in the gap rather than standing on its precipice.

In some ways this may not be such a bad place to be – we are finding that there is lots of innovation and creativity in this gap. The substantive adaptation of formal economic models, for example, has lead to lots of exchange along the lines of an ‘economy of favours’, such as barter and informal lending.

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‘The Market Economy’, www.shinjeech.mn

 

The other side of the precipice may not have been reached, but there is the chance to get back up. The minerals (mostly) remain in the ground (albeit with a slow trickle to China) and people’s lives are relatively stable. One issue that we have all found is incredibly prominent in our research areas is debt. In the next few blog posts, we will each report on a particular area of debt that has come to the fore in our research. We hope you will enjoy reading them!

 

[1] Reference to ‘the gap’ is actually an ethnographically-derived concept that was articulated to me by several people during this period of fieldwork as they described how previous visions of the future have not been met.