AAA Conference Minneapolis

Philanthrocapitalism Across Legal and Illegal Markets

From Indian Business Elites to the Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation

17.11.2016, Minneapolis, AAA Conference, 10:15-10:30

Following the financial crisis accompanied by the global rise of socio-economic inequality and environmental destruction caused by relentless capitalist exploitation, businesses worldwide suffered from a series of crises of legitimization. In 2008 the Indian press unanimously considered greed as bad and so the millionaires. Yet, by 2011 something has changed and the Indian millionaires were suddenly represented as patriotic benevolent patrons, as the only thinkable hope for India. Following the crisis, Indian business elite embraced, with great vigour, the notions of philanthrocapitalism, corporate social responsibility and ethical business, thus reinserting morality back into the market in an attempt to legitimize their informal power. But we have to ask, is the ‘ethical turn’ that we are witnessing merely a legitimization strategy or has it turned itself into a specific cultural form that has emerged under the intensified neoliberal conditions and that spreads beyond the social field of business into other fields? In order to answer this question I will juxtapose two cases, one from my fieldwork among the Indian business elites, in New Delhi and the other from my most recent fieldwork among the charters of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club/Corporation (esp. Norway, Germany, Austria, California). This outlaw motorcycle club, considered by law enforcement as a criminal organization, has over the last decade increasingly engaged in attempts to resist criminalization by transforming its public image, in particular through diverse charity programs and philanthropy. The Hells Angels, who often operate businesses in both legal and illegal economies, have embraced business rhetoric and a model akin to the one endorsed by the Indian business elites. The goal is also similar, namely acquiring legitimacy for their informal power both in the neighbourhoods as well as in the transnational markets in which they engage. But is this enough to explain why these notoriously bad boys, much like the greedy corporate elites, all of a sudden want to appear as nice guys – especially considering that they capitalize largely on their intimidation power? The paper will attempt to search for alternative answers to this widespread embrace of the rhetoric of ethical business, even among such groups as the ‘outlaws’.