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Fairground Capitalism

    Arpad Szakolczai – April 22nd 2021 – 10:00 GMT


    Modernity and the processes of capitalism appear to us from a position of calculative rationality. Capitalism counts, assigns, assesses, streamlines, evaluates and otherwise organises and categorises the social world in a manner which appears to be empirical and open. In this talk, Prof. Szakolczai will show how in its real practices, capitalism is more akin to a fairground than an economic version of physics.

    Making reference to his new book (Tricksterland – still at draft stage), Arpad will explain how fairground capitalism produces and generates the character of the Trickster – an oft neglected concept in the history of anthropology. A trickster (anthropologically speaking) is someone with great (often quite secretive) knowledge, which they use to trick others. This is not as simple as lying, but rather is often a way to break conventionally accepted norms or social rules.

    Traditionally such analyses have been dominated by mythological accounts (famously of the Norse god Loki), but Arpad expands the trickster to our political culture by examining the tricks that politicians play on us, to our socio-economy by looking at the tricky accounts produced by economists for how the economy works, and even to academia.


    Each seminar was recorded and featured one or more readings, please find these below.

    Click here to watch the recording.

    This morning we were treated to a seminar with Arpad who was discussing his new book (still being drafted!) Tricksterland. For anyone who may not know, Arpad has written quite extensively about the importance of the Trickster and indeed the Trick for understanding our contemporary world.

    The seminar was opened today via a conversation between Tom Boland (UCC) and Arpad where the major themes and topics of Arpad’s book were teased out.

    Arpad began by discussing his early career, he trained as an economist but even in his early days found that there were unclear or mystical qualities to economics. Certain things about economics (e.g. markets) were taken as self-evident and everyone spoke about them as though they were talking about the same thing. However Arpad saw this as a kind of trick in and of itself, as economics grew further and further away from, as he said it, ‘reality’. Arpad said the tendency for modern economics to focus on modelling, statistics, demographics, polls, and other quantitative attempts to measure the economy have led it further and further away from a capability to talk about real economic processes. He related an example from his own career when he was based in the United States in the 1980s where the best economics PhD candidates came from Aerospace Engineering. Those who weren’t quite good enough to go to NASA would join an economics PhD programme, and were exceptionally good at modelling, statistics and understanding the embedded assumptions of neoclassical economics. Students from philosophy and the social sciences (deeply important for the history of economics) were not welcome – leading economics to distance itself from its own history.


    These processes have become parasitic. Economists have become tricksters who show up to events to perform mathematical parlour tricks and little else. Advising us on how we should run our economy and society based on little empirical work which speaks to the human experience at the everyday level. This is part of an ongoing process in other academic subjects, Arpad gave us the example of the history of anthropology where the gift relation, schismogenesis, liminality, tricksters were marginalised and diminished in their importance. Arpad is trying to raise our awareness of how important these ideas are for understanding what is happening in our modern world – including the COVID-19 crisis which has brought about many tricksters.

    Certain features of society have become inescapably enmeshed in the performance and creation of the Trick. Politics for example requires Tricksters. It needs people who can dissemble, use ploys or ruses. Arpad is clear that the Trick is not the same as simply lying, many people are taken in by their own tricks, and this leads to another issue, the trickster is very good at hiding from our scrutiny. In many cases they hide in plain sight, open and visible to us, and their very believability leads many people to be taken in by them. We see them in politics, in the economy, in civil society, in the public sphere, in academia and so on.

    Arpad finished his discussion by cautioning us on social constructivism and of seeing things as socially constructed. The signature element of Arpad’s talk was that certain things are real, and cannot be substituted for something else. Human bodies are real, earthquakes are real, etc. etc. we must appreciate what is natural, this will keep us grounded and help us avoid being tricked.

    Previous seminar: Evelyn Brodkin in conversation with Mary Murphy and Joe Whelan – Street-Level Welfare.

    Next seminar: Alex Wood – Work and the Gig Economy.

    We would like to express our gratitude to the European Union for funding this event.

    The Economy and Society Digital Summer School 2021

    DateTime (GMT)Event / TopicSpeakersRecording Link
    --Main Archive Page--Full Playlist
    February 23rd16:00Ideas Lying AroundNidesh Lawtoo & Lynne LaytonLink
    March 4th16:00The Great ReversalElizabeth AndersonLink
    March 9th10:00Economy Theology and MarketisationStefan SchwarzkopfLink
    March 11th10:00Economic Theology and GovernanceMitchell DeanLink
    March 16th16:00Jobseeking & the Labour MarketIlana GershonLink
    March 23rd 10:00The Reformation of WelfareRay Griffin & Tom Boland Link
    March 25th10:00Justifying WelfareMagnus P. Hansen., Fiona Dukelow, Michael McgannLink
    April 13th10:00Precarity and Precarious WorkTheresa O'Keefe, Aline Courtois & Teresa CrewLink
    April 15th16:00The Datafication of WelfareLina Dencik & Ray Griffin & HecatLink
    April 20th16:00Street-Level WelfareEvelyn Brodkin, Mary Murphy, Joe Whelan
    April 22nd10:00Fairground CapitalismArpad SzakolczaiLink
    April 27th10:00Work & The Gig EconomyAlex WoodLink
    April 29th10:00Rationalities and Moral Economies in Illicit Drug MarketsAngus BancroftLink
    May 6th10:00Good Models and Positive MimesisKieran KeohaneLink
    May 10th/11th 20:00/10:00The Leviathan of RationalityDamian O'DohertyLink