The Neuroanthropologists went on a roll in October: Daniel Lende did all of anthropology a tremendous service with his non-stop coverage of Anthropology-in-Florida, and then tag-teamed over to Greg Downey with an extensive and wonderful post: David Graeber: anthropologist, anarchist, financial analyst.
The issues raised by Occupy Wall Street are extremely relevant to anthropology. David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years is part of a long anthropological tradition of looking differently at issues of value, money, and credit. Anthropology also has relevant findings about contemporary economic and political inequalities, and how those inequalities get organized around categories of difference such as race (see section on Racism and biological anthropology).
Although an anthropology of contemporary economics and politics is one of the focuses for Living Anthropologically, I have unfortunately over the last few weeks not been active on this thread–at the very time Occupy Wall Street materialized. I will admit to initial ambivalence. First, I was unsure of the parallels to the Arab Spring–although these tactics seem appropriate for dictatorial regimes, do they make sense in electoral democracies? Second, I was perhaps taken in by the mainstream media portrayal of a lack of coherent message, and even some proponents seemed to say the message was “against greed.” As Max Weber reminds us in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the capitalist system is actually not developed through greed:
The greed for gold is as old as the history of man. But we shall see that those who submitted to it without reserve as an uncontrolled impulse, such as the Dutch sea-captain who “would go through hell for gain, even though he scorched his sails”, were by no means the representatives of that attitude of mind from which the specifically modern capitalistic spirit as a mass phenomenon is derived, and that is what matters. At all periods of history, wherever it was possible, there has been ruthless acquisition, bound to no ethical norms whatever. (16)
That said, Occupy Wall Street can answer both of these objections. To the first, although the United States is technically an electoral democracy, an entrenched plutocracy dominates most political decisions. To the second, it is also the case that what we have seen in recent decades is a complete overturning of the “ethics of capitalism” in which greed and realizing short-term profit at any cost threatens the very capitalist system that makes such profits possible.
So indeed, Occupy Wall Street seems part of what Immanuel Wallerstein predicted in 1999, a time of profound transition, as the current capitalist system breaks down. What will follow is uncertain, with the potential for reformulation, or something worse, or something better. Human agency takes on heightened meaning: “it is precisely in periods of transition from one historical system to another one (whose nature we cannot know in advance) that human struggle takes on the most meaning” (The End of the World As We Know It, p.3).
And so, Occupy Wall Street has probably done more to bring awareness to inequality than a whole bunch of Op-Eds and blogs.
22 October 2011 Update
Please visit Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism: A Four-Field Manifesto. That’s the post developing on the themes and comments initially discussed here.
18 October 2011 Updates
Several more links worth checking out:
- Honored to play a small part in a beautiful, moving post from Daniel Lende, Why We Protest. See the comment stream below for some of the back-and-forth.
- Graeber gets some coverage in the Chronicle article Intellectual Roots of Wall St. Protest Lie in Academe.
- Krugman analyzes the effect in Losing Their Immunity.
- Wallerstein says what I thought he might say in The Fantastic Success of Occupy Wall Street (I wrote this blog-post before reading his own piece).