Unequal childhoods and imaginative play in an era of financialized capitalism
Rising up from a grassy knoll on the edge of the City of London, the naturalist wooden playground structure at Tower Hill Garden both blends into the park space and jolts the senses, lying as it does at the core of global finance. In dominant social imaginaries, nothing and no one could be farther from the operations of financialized capitalism than children, childhood, and play. Rendered “economically worthless but emotionally priceless”, to borrow from American sociologist Viviana Zelizer (1994), sacred children appear to have little if nothing to do with political economy – except for their seeming need to be protected from its vagaries and vulgarities.
Indeed, the playground is a mark of the increasing generational segregation of public space in advanced capitalist countries, where children are viewed as out of place unless found in sites of purported “child protection” (Gillis 2011) like the nursery, school, or playground. The project of child protection, exemplified through compulsory schooling and normative imperatives of child development, is productive of something other than protection: it turns small bodies into children. The child, one of the last bastions of acceptable essentialism, materializes as innocence, vulnerability, and dependency de facto and in toto. Children are at once the seemingly preferred denizens of the twentieth, and now twenty-first, centuries and yet little is done to address the subordinate social status which they are accorded.
In what follows, I seek to upset the narrative of child protection that accompanies the most mundane and extraordinary moments of many of our lives. I suggest that ambiguity of playgrounds, and the play they symbolize, epitomize and are central to the contradictory character of financialized capitalism.
The playground is at once a symbol of the creation of a growing market of child consumers (Cook 2004) and those who purchase, invest, and incur debt in the name of the child. Nations seek to secure their imagined and material persistence and dominance on the world stage through the figure of the child. Inhabited by the culture repertoires provided by financialized capital, where the language of the market has become ubiquitous in understanding ourselves and others, schools, early childhood programs, and even playgrounds are treated as sites for ‘investing in children’, or more precisely their ‘human capital’. The World Bank even offers an early childhood calculator for quantifying profits from social investment programs (Penn 2011).
And in order to quantify such ‘benefits’ (against the ‘costs’), children and their play become the site of intensive surveillance, with every jump, skip, and hop being subject to measurement, recording and storage for future reference against comparable data sets. Developmental data becomes a child’s lifelong companion. In my own ethnographic research in London nurseries, the teleological logic of developmentalism looms large in educators’ anxieties that children will get “stuck” in play, particularly about controversial themes (Rosen 2015). Repetition, dwelling in and with, and replication are threats to be staved off. Constant innovation (the celebrated bedfellow of financialized capital), and the furiously flexible and playful self, are in demand. As such, themes of raucous consumption, creative self-making, and speculative trading are not only considered desirable, but point to the centrality of play itself to the operations of financialized capitalism.
The rendering of children as human capital takes on a particular tenor in a time of securitized debt where the future – and its uncertainties – loom large. We are living in “speculative time”, to borrow from Lisa Adkins (2017). We are the purported masters of our possible futures, with parents, children, and whole communities tasked with inoculating ourselves against risky futures. But we are also asked to join the ranks of debt driven speculation, where anticipatory imaginaries are inhabited by anxieties about commandeering security in a competitive and increasingly unequal world. It is hardly surprising that the child is a preferred site of investment. For what figure more aptly encompasses our hopes, dreams, and worries for that which is yet-to-come? The child embodies futurity, as Whitney Houston has sonically etched in our collective cultural repository. No worry, goes the refrain, that such possible futures may only be enabled by a never-ending schedule of debt repayments that may even outlive our individual lives (Adkins, 2017).
Indeed, state retrenchment means that responsibility for making lives, and lives worth living, is increasingly shouldered by individuals, with a differential impact on impoverished communities who cannot afford to shoulder the costs of social reproduction or at least not without the presence of easily secured, but a lifetime of unshakable, debt. As geographer Cindi Katz (2002) argues: finance capital, with its increasingly mobile and “placeless” character, is the true hero and beneficiary of liquid modernity while working class and poor children’s futures are rendered “moot.” Playgrounds make such contrasts abundantly clear. Green grass, magnificent views, and creative wooden playground equipment such as that found in Tower Hill Garden bear the hallmarks of neoliberalism’s niche middle-class child market, appealing in its natural ‘authenticity’ and hefty price tag. Right next door to the park where the children of wealthy investors and tourists play with abandon, lies the borough of Tower Hamlets, where close to 50% of children are living below the poverty line and funding for public provision of services including public spaces like playgrounds has been slashed in the UK’s austerity climate.
Yet… This is not all there is to say. While the playground exists as a space of class contradictions, generational segregation, and intersectional inequalities, it simultaneously suggests a space of possibility.
The playground is a site marked for play, an engagement with the world where the world it is taken apart and built anew (Henricks 2006). Reminding us that the present is only so through our instituting imaginaries, play helps us to recognize the fissures in our current situation and approach the future as an open possibility. Without negating the pressing and ever-present pressures of the quotidian world of financialized capital that it is a part of, imaginative play may open up tiny of spaces for us to be otherwise: to physically and emotionally embody different selves and enact imaginaries of social and economic justice (Rosen 2017). Play offers a site where it becomes possible to imagine reworking generational power relations through the recognition that we all (adults and children) have the capacity and do engage in the joyful, delirious, messy, nasty, and political practice that is play. Imaginative play, to the extent that it is not solitary, necessarily collectivises us, at very least in fleeting moments, and certainly contention, dissensus, and dialogue are ever present. Play collectivizes us because to do/be otherwise, the imaginative world we have constructed between us tumbles unceremoniously to the ground.
Playgrounds, and the imaginative play they gesture towards, are thus a site of contradiction and ambiguity. They are at once part and parcel of capital’s incessant expansion and zealous accumulation, and certainly play themes, resources, and subjectivities are emphatically part of this world rather than some inherently untouched Rousseaunian space of natural freedom. At the same time, play can open up spaces for disruption and collective re-imagining as the 3- and 4-year-old children in my ethnographic field work made clear to me on the day that we set about deliberating on ways to respond to the voracious, marauding ‘monster’ who had materialized in our collective imaginations.
Huddled in a small group hiding from the monster, Sabir wiped his brow and Cecilia breathed rapidly as Kenza whispered: “We have to trap the monster in there.” She pointed to a set of fenced-in stairs. Peter exclaimed: “No! He’s the hulk. He’ll just jump out. We have to get him with our guns.” A cacophony of voices responded, shouting conflicting strategies. “Let’s cut his head off with the sword!” “Let’s put ropes across the top so he can’t get out.” Hiding alongside the other players, I was amazed to find my heart racing in the shared adrenaline of the moment.
“We need more children to help us,” Kenza pronounced authoritatively. “The monster is so big. He is eating all the fish. We have to save them.” Seeming to concur, the group set off in search of assistance. An assembled group of nine players gathered around Kaltrina as she insisted: “OK. We need many plans,” moving her hands up and down as if to show the magnitude of tactics necessary to stop the voracious beast. Shouting their assent, the players set out in all directions.
Throughout, my mind raced with the complexities of the problems we were grappling with as an insatiable monster devoured an entire fish population for its own individual benefit. What sort of action is possible, ethical, and even necessary in the face of such unbridled expansionism, private appropriation and existential threat? Is a multitude of strategies necessary or are we best served by coordinated, collective action? Do strategies of resistance simply reproduce the grounds of domination they seek to replace or is it possible to construct other ways of doing and being through collective action?
Now I am not arguing that the children I played with on this morning six years ago articulated our moment together in terms of the challenges of pre-figurative politics, revolutionary strategies, or networked versus mass organization building. Nor am I suggesting play is an inherently liberatory space. It is just as much an oppressive and violent space as it is a space of radical change, particularly in an era where innovation and creativity are so central to financialized capitalism. But such recognition does not necessitate throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
The challenge, as Aris Komporozos-Athanasiou and Chiara Bottici write, is to reclaim the “radical” in the imagination , including in play, by any and all possible means. The haptic, affective, and ambiguous character of play make it a powerful tool for such a political project of radical reclaiming. Play is not apart from, nor does it take us out of, the world of financialized capitalism. But in thinking back to the efforts of a group of pre-schoolers in the face of monstrous appropriation, I am reminded that alternatives, and the new solidarities which will engender them, are not only necessary but possible.
Rachel Rosen is Associate Professor of Sociology of Childhood at University College London. Her research interests include the politics of children and childhood, social reproduction theory, and the interaction of migration and care regimes.
Adkins, Lisa. 2017. “Speculative futures in the time of debt.” The Sociological Review 65 (3):448–462. doi: 10.1111/1467-954X.12442.
Cook, D. T. 2004. The Commodification of Childhood: The Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer . Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.
Gillis, J. 2011. “Transitions to Modernity.” In The Palgrave Handbook of Childhood Studies, edited by J. Qvortrup, W. Corsaro and M. Honig. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
Henricks, Thomas S. 2006. Play Reconsidered: Sociological perspectives on human expression. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press.
Katz, Cindi. 2002. “Stuck in place: Children and the globalization of social reproduction.” In Geographies of Global Change: Remapping the world edited by R. J. Johnston, P. J. Taylor and M. J. Watts, 248-259. Oxford: Blackwell.
Penn, Helen. 2011. “Travelling policies and global buzzwords: How international non-governmental organizations and charities spread the word about early childhood in the global South.” Childhood 18 (1):94-113. doi: 10.1177/0907568210369846.
Rosen, Rachel. 2015. “Children’s violently-themed play and adult imaginaries of childhood: A Bakhtinian analysis.”International Journal of Early Childhood 47 (2):235-250. doi: 10.1007/s13158-015-0135-z.
Rosen, Rachel. 2017. “Play as activism? Early childhood and (inter)generational politics.” Contemporary Social Science 12 (1-2):110-122. doi.
Zelizer, Viviana. 1994. Pricing the Priceless Child: The changing social value of children . Princeton, N.J. ; Chichester: Princeton University Press.