Graeber_Debt

Anthropology and Occupy Wall Street

Update November 2013: Had a few random webhits back on this page, so decided to re-visit. It strikes me now–just after writing Political Stakes for an Anthropology of the State during Globalization–that what still does seem under-thought is the specificity of the state and its relationship to capital, both in the United States and in the periphery. Similarly with regard to schooling and the kinds of comments Florida Governor Scott made about anthropology. The truth is that high-quality education is expensive, and we’ve now seen the rhetoric of “they are the 1%” levied against public school teachers and college professors. Strange times.


The Neuroanthropologists went on a roll in October 2011: 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 Social Construction of Race, Conservative Goldmine).

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 admit 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).

Occupy Wall Street has done more to bring awareness to inequality than a whole bunch of Op-Eds and blogs.


Updates

Please visit Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism: A Four-Field Manifesto. That’s the post developing on the themes and comments initially discussed here.

For an update two years on, see Fragmented Globality: Irony, Paradox, Uncertainty from October 2013.

Several more links from October 2011:

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