Magical Capitalism

  • Brian Moeran
Keywords: Cultural production, economy of appearances, education, illocutionary acts, magical system, media, sport, technology


This essay looks at ways in which various branches of capitalist enterprise and their supporting mechanisms are often not as rational as they make themselves out to be, but operate instead according to magical premises. Magical thinking, as a mode of thought, creates or invokes extraordinary connections between things, people, organizations, and beliefs in order to understand, explain, influence, and occasionally predict, events. Magical practices involve magicians, magical rites, and magical representations ― almost invariably working together to perform the overcoming of uncertainty. And uncertainty, in the sense of unpredictability, is what underpins government, business, and the economy. The essay makes use of seven scenarios ― ranging from Davos and Brexit to GPS and Japanese manga ― to illustrate how politicians, media, education, and various forms of cultural production make use of language, technologies, and images to perform magic in contemporary societies.


Anand, Narasimhand and Mary Watson. 2004 “Tournament Rituals in the Evolution of Fields: The Case of the Grammy Awards.” The Academy of Management Journal 47 (1): 59-80,

Anand, Narasimhand and Brittany Jones. 2008 “Tournament Rituals, Category Dynamics, and Field Configuration: The case of the Booker Prize.” Journal of Management Studies 45 (6): 1036-1060.

Appadurai, Arjun. 1986 “Introduction.” In A. Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Appadurai, Arjun. 2015 Banking on Words: The failure of language in the age of derivative finance. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Arnould, Eric J., Linda L. Price, and Cele Otnes 1999 “Making consumption magic: a study of white-water river rafting.” Journal of Consumer Research 28 (1): 33-68.

Assaf, Katya. 2012 “Magical thinking in trademark law,” Law & Social Inquiry 37 (3): 595-626.

Austin, J.L. 1975 [1962] How to Do Things with Words. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Bielby, W. and D. Bielby. 2004 “‘All Hits are Flukes:’ Institutionalized Decision Making and the Rhetoric of Network Prime-time Program Development.” American Journal of Sociology, 99(5): 1287-1313.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1993 The Field of Cultural Production: Essays in Art & Literature. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Brenneis, Don. 2016 “Reading, Writing, and Recognition in the Emerging Academy.” In H. Wulff (ed.), The Anthropologist as Writer: Genres and Context in the Twenty-first Century. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Callon, Michel. 2009 “Elaborating the notion of performativity.” Le Libellio d’Aegis 5 (1): 18-29.

Caves, Richard. 2000 Creative Industries: Contracts between Art and Commerce. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Didier, Emmanuel. 2007 “Do Statistics ‘Perform’ the Economy?” In D. Mackenzie, F. Muniesa and L. Siu (eds.), Do Economists Make Markets? On the Performativity of Economics. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, pp. 276-310.

Dion, Delphine and Eric Arnould. 2011 “Retail Luxury Strategy: Assembling Charisma through Art and Magic.” Journal of Retail Marketing 87 (4): 502-20.

English, James. 2005 The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, awards, and the circulation of cultural value. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1937 Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Farquar, Judith. 1996 “Market Magic: Getting Rich and Getting Person in Medicine after Mao.” American Ethnologist 23 (2): 239-257.

Garsten, Christina and Adrienne Sörbom. 2016 “Magical Formulae for Market Futures: Tales from the World Economic Forum Meeting in Davos.” Anthropology Today 32 (6): 18-21.

Gell, Alfred. 1988 “Technology and Magic.” Anthropology Today 4 (2): 6-9.

Gell, Alfred. 1992 “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology.” In Jeremy Coote and Anthony Shelton (eds.), Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics, pp. 40-63. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Graeber, David 2012 “The Sword, the Sponge, and the Paradox of Performativity: Some observations on Fate, Luck, Financial Chicanery, and the Limits of Human Knowledge.” Social Analysis 56 (1): 25-42.

Grindstaff, Laura. 2002 The Money Shot: Trash, Class, and the Making of TV Talk Shows. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Holmes, Douglas. R. 2014 Economy of Words: Communicative Imperatives in Central Banks. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Hsiao, William C. 1994 “’Marketization’ ― The Illusory Magic Pill.” Guest Editorial. Health Economics 3: 351-357.

Katz, Pearl. 1981 “Rituals in the Operating Room.” Ethnology 20 (4): 335-350.

Johnson, Warren R. 2010 “Magic, Morals and Health.” American Journal of Health Education 41 (1): 14-17.

Latour, Bruno. 1993 Why We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2010 On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Leach, James. 2012 “Leaving the Magic Out: Knowledge and Effect in Different Places.” Anthropological Forum 22 (3): 251-270.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1966 The Savage Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mackenzie, Donald, Fabian Muniesa, and Lucia Siu. (eds.) 2007 “Introduction” to Do Economists Make Markets? On the Performativity of Economics. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, pp. 1-19.

Malefyt, Timothy de Waal. 2017 “Enchanting Technology.” Anthropology Today 33 (1).

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922 Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1954 (1948) Magic, Science and Religion, and Other Essays. New York: Anchor Books.

Markus, M. Lynne and Robert I. Benjamin. 1997 “The Magic Bullet Theory of IT-enabled Transformation.” Sloan Management Review 38, Autumn/Winter: 55-68.

Masquelier, Adeline. 2004 “The Return of Magic.” Social Anthropology 12 (1): 95–102.

Mauss, Marcel. 1972 A General Theory of Magic. Translated by Robert Brain. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

McCloskey, Deidre N. 1998 [1985] The Rhetoric of Economics. 2nd Edition. Madison, WI: Wisconsin University Press.

McCreery, John. 1995 “Malinowski, Magic, and Advertising.” In John F. Sherry Jr. (ed.), Contemporary Marketing and Consumer Behavior: An Anthropological Sourcebook. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Meyer, Birgit and Peter Pels. (eds.) 2003 Magic and Modernity: Interfaces of Revelation and Concealment. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Moeran, Brian. 2010 “The Book Fair as a Tournament of Values.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (n.s.) 16: 138-154.

Moeran, Brian. 2014 The Business of ©reativity. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.​

Moeran, Brian. 2015 The Magic of Fashion: Ritual, Commodity, Glamour. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Moeran, Brian. 2016 “Performing the EY Referendum.” Anthropology Today 32 (6): 1-2.

Pálsson, Gísli. 1988 “Models for Fishing and Models for Success.” Maritime Anthropological Studies 1 (1): 15-28.

Powdermaker, Hortense. 1951 Hollywood the Dream Factory: An Anthropologist Looks at the Movie-makers. London: Secker & Warburg.

Saito, Kumiko. 2014 “Magic, Shōjo, and Metamorphosis: Magical Girl Anime and the Challenges of Changing Gender Identities in Japanese Society.” The Journal of Asian Studies 73 (1): 143-164.

Schechner Richard. 1988 Performance Theory, New York: Routledge.

Searle, John R. 1998 Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World. New York: Basic Books.

St. James, Yannik, Handelman, Jay M. and Shirley F. Taylor. 2011 “Magical Thinking and Consumer Coping.” Journal of Consumer Research 38 (4): 632-645.

Stevens, Phillips Jr. 2001 “Magical thinking in complementary and alternative medicine.” Skeptical Inquirer 25 (6).

Suchman, Mark C. 1989 “Invention and Ritual: Notes on the Interrelæation of Magic and Intellectual Property in Preliterate Societies.” Columbia Law Review 89 (6): 1264-1294.

Sugawa Akiko. 2015 “Children of Sailor Moon: The Evolution of Magical Girls in Japanese Anime.”

Tambiah, Stanley J. 1968 “The Magical Power of Words,” Man (n.s.) 3 (2): 175-208.

Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja. 1985 Culture, Thought, and Social Action: An Anthropological Perspective. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taussig, Michael. 2003 “Viscerality, Faith and Skepticism: Another Theory of Magic.” In Brigitte Meier and Peter Pels (eds.), Magic and Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Tsing, Anna. 2000 “Inside the Economy of Appearances.” Public Culture 12 (1): 115-144.

Tyler, E.B. 1929 Primitive Culture, Volume 1. London: John Murray.

Vangkilde, Kasper. 2012 Branding HUGO BOSS: An Anthropology of Creativity in Fashion. Ph.D. Series No. 70. Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Weber, Max. 1948 “Science as a Vocation.” In H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (eds.) Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Westbrook, David A. 2016 “Magical Contracts, Numinous Capitalism.” Anthropology Today 32 (6): 13-17.

Whitehead, Karen, E.W. Taylor, G. Bannister, T. Chesworth, P. Hoffman, and H. Humphreys. 2002 “Behaviours and Rituals in the Operating Theatre.” Journal of Hospital Infection 51: 241-255.

Williams, Raymond. 1980 “Advertising: The Magic System.” In Problems in Materialism and Culture. London: Verso, pp. 170-195.

Yelle, Robert A. 2001 “Rhetorics of Law and Ritual: A Semiotic Comparison of the Law of Talion and Sympathetic Magic.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 69 (3): 627-647.

Zaloom, Caitlin. 2006 Out of the Pits: Traders and Technology from Chicago to London. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.