The Licit Life of Capitalism

US Oil in Equatorial Guinea

Book Pages: 344 Illustrations: 21 illustrations Published: December 2019

Author: Hannah Appel

African Studies, Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Globalization and Neoliberalism

The Licit Life of Capitalism is both an account of a specific capitalist project—U.S. oil companies working off the shores of Equatorial Guinea—and a sweeping theorization of more general forms and processes that facilitate diverse capitalist projects around the world. Hannah Appel draws on extensive fieldwork with managers and rig workers, lawyers and bureaucrats, the expat wives of American oil executives and the Equatoguinean women who work in their homes, to turn conventional critiques of capitalism on their head, arguing that market practices do not merely exacerbate inequality; they are made by it. People and places differentially valued by gender, race, and colonial histories are the terrain on which the rules of capitalist economy are built. Appel shows how the corporate form and the contract, offshore rigs and economic theory are the assemblages of liberalism and race, expertise and gender, technology and domesticity that enable the licit life of capitalism—practices that are legally sanctioned, widely replicated, and ordinary, at the same time as they are messy, contested, and, arguably, indefensible.


“A brilliant and deeply ethical rumination on the emancipatory potential and limitations of ethnographic critiques of capitalism, this searing ethnography delves into the very making of landscapes of exploitation and subordination. It is a theoretically and methodologically breathtaking investigation into the conditions of possibility that allow global capitalism to self-represent as ‘aboveboard’ and ‘transparent.’ By delving into the muck of what constitutes ‘the licit’ in the architecture of capitalism, Hannah Appel notices and refuses ‘comp-licit’ normative assumptions. The Licit Life of Capitalism thus achieves what few ethnographies have: it shows how capitalist abstractions are culturally deliberate and painstakingly reproduced.” — Karen Ho, author of Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street

“In this compelling and engaging work Hannah Appel ethnographically captures a big thing: capitalism as a project. Asking after the fulsomeness with which capitalism powerfully does all the things it is supposed to do, Appel sets out a new path for grappling with this dominant force in contemporary politics and economics. Her book exemplifies the best critical writing on the workings of capitalism in anthropology, geography, sociology, and allied fields.” — Bill Maurer, author of How Would You like to Pay?: How Technology is Changing the Future of Money

"This book deserves a very wide audience. Scholars and activists engaged with the impact of multinational corporations in African countries, neoliberal efforts to control the movement of bodies while endorsing unlimited flows of capital and uneven distributions of blame, and the limits of neoliberal calls for political reform really need to read The Licit Life of Capitalism." — Jeremy Rich, African Studies Quarterly

"Appel’s study of US oil companies in Equatorial Guinea is revelatory for its theoretical contributions to the anthropology of capitalism (beyond the rather more niche anthropology of oil), with a critical recentring of attention on the role of industry in shaping the politics and economics of resource extraction. With enviable access to the internal operations of these transnational corporations, Appel provides key insights into the assumptions and worldmaking strategies of what has long been an ethnographic black box." — Wen Zhou, LSE Review of Books

The Licit Life of Capitalism is essential reading for anyone interested in the politics of oil or the itinerant infrastructures of global capitalism. While Appel’s subject matter is complex, the book’s clear, compelling, and approachable prose make it an excellent addition to graduate-level geography courses focused on political economy, political ecology, infrastructure, or racial capitalism. Portions of the book, particularly ‘The Enclave’ and ‘The Economy,’ would also be appropriate for upper-division undergraduate courses on global development, postcolonial geography, and natural resource geographies.” — Kendra Kintzi, Geographical Review


Availability: In stock
Price: $28.95
Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Hannah Appel is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and coeditor of The Promise of Infrastructure, also published by Duke University Press, and Subterranean Estates: Life Worlds of Oil and Gas.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction  1
1. The Offshore  37
2. The Enclave  79
3. The Contract  137
4. The Subcontract  172
5. The Economy  204
6. The Political  247
Afterword  279
Notes  285
References  295
Index  317
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing
Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-0391-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-0365-6
Funding Information This book is freely available in an open access edition thanks to TOME (Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem) – a collaboration of the Association of American Universities, the Association of University Presses, and the Association of Research Libraries – and the generous support of Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, and the UCLA Library. Learn more at the TOME website, available at: