A book of records from a former sekser (broker) listing names of former creditors, amounts deposited in the pyramid schemes Gjallica and Cenaj. As the records indicate, the sekser managed deposits in Albanian lek, Greek drachmas, Italian liras, and German deutchmarks. Photo by Smoki Musaraj (Last names of former creditors have been blurred to protect their anonymity)
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I am currently in the process of revising my dissertation for publication as a book. The book challenges the widespread view that the Albanian Ponzi schemes and, by extension, financial bubbles broadly speaking as isolated events driven by “irrational exuberance” or the “ignorance of market logics.” Rather, by engaging with economic anthropology, social studies of finance, and neo-Keynesian economics, the dissertation takes an approach to economic formations—in this case, the pyramid schemes—as emerging from specific institutional arrangements and repertoires of economic transactions and as active forces in turn shaping institutions and practices. Based on oral accounts from former-participants and archival research, the book highlights the specific postsocialist financial institutions, discourses of entrepreneurship, and political acts that enabled and legitimized the pyramid schemes in Albania. For instance, former participants underscored the legal status of the schemes and their role as a quasi-banking system by pointing to (and even sharing) their notarized “contracts of credit” which they continued to save in the hope of recovering their lost deposits. These contracts cite specific articles in the Albanian Civil Code that legitimized the schemes as limited liability companies and their taking of deposits as a sanctioned form of credit. Based on the legal status and the nature of their activities, I suggest in the book that, in practice, these schemes provided an alternative means of credit and investment to people without access to formal credit.
Further, by tracing how former participants used the schemes to move different forms of wealth— remittances, stacks of cash, multiple currencies, socialist property, family/kin relations—across different value registers, the book documents a historically and culturally specific propensity for value conversion. This propensity, I argue, is a prime mode of wealth and value creation in a context of enduring marginality from regional and global markets. At the same time, this propensity for conversion extends beyond the economic; it constitutes a modality of imagining and shaping the future which manifests itself in practices of arbitraging life prospects (by, for instance, investing in transnational migration) and is driven by a deep longing for becoming “European”. Finally, tracing the legacy of Ponzi logics of accumulation into the present, the book looks into the enduring presence of these institutional formations and their effects on the crisis of liquidity in the construction industry.