The start of the new millennium has been marked by what may be understood as bottom billion capitalism, an ensemble of practices meant to assimilate the world’s billion or so extreme poor into global circulations of finance. Using the case of microfinance, this essay examines the techno-social formations of bottom billion capitalism. It argues that the work of converting poverty into capital is arduous and fragile and requires technologies of gender. While the analysis of neoliberal penality emphasizes the quarantine, and even banishment, of “at risk” subjects, this essay draws attention to how microfinance invents practices of calculation that can make visible, and fungible, the shadow economies of the poor. Repositioned as entrepreneurial subjects, the world’s bottom billion are more than a new frontier of capital accumulation; they are also grounds of new experiments with risk. Microfinance in particular foreshadows the future of finance capital, where trade in debt will require creative practices of converting hyper-risk into profit. These riskscapes are also formations of modernity. It is through encounters with poverty that the modern self is constituted. Such practices of liberal intimacy are once again mediated through technologies of gender, such that the Third World woman as a timeless image of aspiration becomes the subject that transcends risk.

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