Gambling and late capitalism
MACAU — Here in Macau, I feel like a fish out of water: There are no mountains for me to climb, no regions for me to explore. The most densely populated territory in the world, this “special administrative region” is mostly built on reclaimed land, with its area expanding tenfold from under 3 square kilometers in precolonial times to over 30 square kilometers today.
Casino buildings — not the hills of Kowloon or the skyscraper-surrounded peaks of Hong Kong island — dominate Macau’s reclaimed landscapes. Garish in their opulence, these buildings include replicas of the Rialto Bridge and Eiffel Tower.
Of course, Macau has its cultural history, one that has surprising divergences from nearby Hong Kong. Handed over by the Portuguese to China as part of the HK-style “one country, two systems” setup in 1999, Macau retains some of its Iberian influences; the charming Senado Square is a Unesco Heritage Site. Although very few can actually speak Portuguese, it is still an official — and very visible — language.
Still, Macau is more Las Vegas than Lisbon. Casinos account for nearly 90 percent of Macau’s revenue; this economy—and its close linkages with China—explains in part why Macau does not see the protests happening in Hong Kong today.
What’s inside the casinos? Driven by curiosity, I stepped inside one of the halls, only to discover a surreal world where people are immersed in their tables and slot machines, as a plethora of CCTV cameras watch over. Without clocks or windows, time seems to stop even as the rolling of the dice continues. All of it—from game programming and table spacing, to the scents and sounds—is carefully designed for people to happily lose money.
Humans have engaged in gambling since ancient times; there are examples from Ancient China, classical Greece and the Inca empire. Pigafetta reported early Filipinos placing bets on cockfights in the 1520s, the first description of a practice that continues to this day. While gambling was morally problematized by the Catholic Church, the Spanish colonial government abetted gambling operations; famously, Jose Rizal won the state-run Manila lottery in 1892.
These historical antecedents notwithstanding, gambling has increased in significance over the past decades. The anthropologists John and Jean Comaroff (2000) link this trend to the spectral nature of economy in late capitalism: Because the mechanism of profit—e.g. the stock market, trading on futures—has become so far removed from people’s experiences, many take to gambling to at least have a chance to profit from the world’s uncertainty.
Another important shift, the Comaroffs argue, is that while gambling was seen as a vice in the past, it has “changed moral valence and invaded everyday life” as a socially acceptable activity—a move that is both reflected and reinforced by the semantic shift from “gambling” to “gaming.”
Nation-states have actively contributed to gambling’s rise. Themselves subject to the global lottery of economic fortunes, states have run or licensed gambling operations to raise revenues, as in the Philippines where the PCSO and Pagcor are seen as sources of health funding. Pogos are another move toward this direction, but it comes with huge social costs that the government is confronted with today.
As for individuals, scholars agree that despite the inevitable net loss, players derive a “pleasure of consumption” that explains in part gambling’s appeal. For many, moreover, the price of a lottery ticket is the price of hope, a hope they do not otherwise see in their own lives. However, gambling can also be an addiction with social and medical—not just financial—consequences, an activity associated with job loss, relationship breakdowns and high rates of suicide. The stakes cannot be higher in this growing public health concern.
I did not last long inside the casino hall, despite the encouragements of the Filipino staff, and I was quite relieved to see the night sky outside. But when I think about the logic of casinos, I wonder: How different, really, are our malls, and for that matter, our consumption-driven lives? And what wagers — and wages — are asked of us when, in Fidel Castro’s words, “The world has become a huge casino?”
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