Debt - Occupy Wall Street

Anthropology & Occupy Wall Street

by Jason Antrosio

In October 2011, the Neuroanthropology Blog went on a roll. Daniel Lende did all of anthropology a tremendous service wprith his non-stop coverage of Anthropology-in-Florida. Lende then tag-teamed over to Greg Downey’s extensive and wonderful post: David Graeber: anthropologist, anarchist, financial analyst. The anthropology blogosphere coalesced to support anthropology and support Occupy Wall Street.

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 has long asked: Is Capitalism the Best Economic System? 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 a focus for Living Anthropologically, I was not actively blogging about it 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.

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.

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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  • Daniel Lende

    Jason, thanks for highlighting Greg’s post. I really like it too, and think it’s great that Greg is using Graeber to highlight the power of anthropological imagination more broadly.

    One point I want to ask you about. You write, “the capitalist system is actually not developed through greed.” So, how do you think the capitalist system is actually developed?

    And, yes, answering that could be a book… But I’m just looking for that quick take.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Daniel,
      Thank you for the comment. As you’ve seen, I’m on a bit of a Weber kick in the last two posts, and so the short answer would be that this is one of Weber’s points in Protestant Ethic. Although greed certainly plays a role in the development of capitalism, Weber is correct to note that acquisitive greed is found across many societies and economic systems, and does not in and of itself lead to capitalist development. Adam Smith, so often cited in defense of greed, would agree–Smith saw the pursuit of self-interest as part of a wider framework he expresses in the Theory of Moral Sentiments, a book he considered equally as important as Wealth of Nations.

      Not sure if that helps?

  • Chris Keegan


    Thanks for the post; very enlightening and reflective. As to the question of Weber and capitalism, recall that Weber says what is unique to the modern notion of work and accumulation is that it becomes religious in nature, which is why he spends so long on the notion of a calling. In the absence of knowing if one is saved by God, we can demonstrate our being saved through our hard work and accumulation of stuff, which becomes an outward sign of God’s grace. (Yes, a circular argument.) I’m glad you bring up Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, because in it Smith makes clear what becomes the buffer of our self interest — the sympathy of the moral spectator who assumes the identity of the Other. As usual, those who worship Smith as the father of capitalism forget the importance he put on intersubjectivity and human compassion and sympathy as the root of our moral being. I hate coming off like I’m giving a lecture, because that isn’t my intent; I’m just putting this out in the conversation to see where you can take it — what are your thoughts here?

    I am actually curious about your thoughts on Wallerstein, because many of us in philosophy have a tough time swallowing his world systems approach. Maybe this is because many of us lean more to the side of Marxist humanists than structural Marxists (this has to do with the way most of come to Marx, through Kant and Hegel).

    My last question has to do with agency in all of this. Hasn’t agency been over-sold? That is, autonomy and agency seem to be really quite complicated, and when it comes to the Occupy Wall Street movement, I think this is clear. Where is the agency is all this?

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Chris,
      Thank you for the comment. Philosophers have been in the lead on re-examining Adam Smith. Also Amartya Sen’s introduction to the recent re-issue of the Theory of Moral Sentiments is worth a read. I write a bit about this in Anthropology and the Economists without History but it is really a very brief allusion to lots of work.

      As for Wallerstein, true that he is pegged as world systems and is taking a different perspective on Marx. However, I’ve liked Wallerstein’s End of the World as We Know It because in part he reflects on previous work and what he felt a world systems approach offered that perhaps did not get taken up.

      As far as agency and structure–well, you are certainly correct in the last two decades or so there has been an emphasis on agency. What Wallerstein gives us on this is the sense that really debates about agency-structure are not political or even philosophical: they are empirical. At certain moments structural determinations will prevail. At other moments there may be room for greater agency.

      I once heard that Wallerstein was in a seminar and people were pressing him for more about agency, when he whispered, “Look, some people just get fucked by history.” Now this is third-hand, may be apocryphal, but the key point was that sometimes agency won’t matter. On the other hand, Wallerstein believes we are entering an historical transition when agency can make more of a difference.

  • Daniel Lende

    Jason and Chris, thanks for the enlightening comments. But I guess I wasn’t looking for the Weber answer, but rather the public/bloggy answer. How do you think the capitalist system develops?

    I guess the reason I am insisting is because I am wondering how to get to a system that doesn’t have quite so pernicious effects at times. We can’t go back to Weber’s imagined days, and now Graeber exhorts us to imagine other possibilities. But those possibilities depend on the system in place… So, what’s the system today? And yes, in bloggy terms so this eighth grader can understand it…

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Daniel,
      Thank you for taking this up again and point taken. I am going to insist that with respect to “how does the capitalist system develop?” there is simply not a bloggy answer. To even say “capitalist system” is already simplifying quite a bit, as it is not entirely clear that capitalism is unitary or systematic. Here, Marx’s work is instructive. Marx was in-and-out-of revolutionary work and movements: while the Communist Manifesto was a bloggy-broadside, he spent many years holed up in the British library to finally write Capital.

      That said–and I’m not trying to be high-faluting or obnoxious–when it comes to getting to “a system that doesn’t have quite so pernicious effects at times,” the answers can be very simple: raise the tax rate for people earning over X amount (1million?) in annual income. Close capital gains loopholes so all income gets taxed. Limit or tax rapid-fire stock trading. Listening to the Graeber interview is very instructive, as Graeber speaks of going back to the tax rates under Eisenhower, when some income sources had tax rates as high as 90%. As Graeber points out, that was still capitalism, and the economy was humming.

      So, while principles from anarchism may be quite useful to organize the movement, the solutions to make the system less pernicious may be simpler. But a movement is necessary when even the consideration of a “millionaire tax” (and that was on income, not wealth) is pushed off the table by an organized group that has hijacked all forms of reasonable political discussion.

  • Daniel Lende

    Jason, point taken back on capitalism as a system. Still, one day I’d love to see a one or two paragraph description that comes from more of an informed anthro view on capitalism. So (1) Weber, and the notion of ethics & motives in capitalism, (2) Marx, and how wealth is created and taken away (perhaps with some EF Schumacher & Peter Drucker for some more balance), and (3) Wallerstein/Foucault, on power and ideology, etc.

    I’m not as versed in econ anthro, but one thing that does strike me is that anthropologists don’t quite capture the ability of capitalism to harness human energy and to drive social change, both good and destructive (yes, in relativistic sense!). As you say, simply saying it’s greed isn’t actually accurate, and simply saying it’s ideology doesn’t account for the energy. Any thoughts?

    Finally, I really like how you emphasize solutions that are simple and that are policy oriented. I would love for more anthropologists to do that, along with critiquing the “entire neocapitalist agenda” in, umm, one or two paragraphs. That way we might have a better chance that other people will actually listen to us, and a chance to incorporate some of our more radical and more optimistic (!) ideas.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Daniel,
      Thanks so much for coming back at me with these challenges. I tried to do it in Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism: A Four-Field Manifesto and hope it works. I may still say that the analysis of how the capitalist system develops may be beyond me or my blogging, but I am convinced we can say something!

      It did end up being more than 1-2 paragraphs…

      Thanks so much,

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  • Hey Daniel and Jason:

    I am glad to see this discussion about anthropology, economics, and OWS. I have been pretty slammed this week, but following a lot of the news about OWS, but didn’t have any time to write anything (just passed my qual exams though!).

    Chris’s question above about Wallerstein is pretty interesting:

    “I am actually curious about your thoughts on Wallerstein, because many of us in philosophy have a tough time swallowing his world systems approach.”

    I think that Wolf provides a pretty good overview of Wallerstein’s approach in Europe and the People Without History, and specifically how he wanted to shift the approach. Wolf basically argued that while Wallerstein and Frank’s approaches were a critical challenge to previous development paradigms, they were missing some key elements. One of the main shortcomings of Wallerstein/Frank was their choice to focus on how core nations subjugated periphery nations, while ignoring how those processes actually played out in more local levels. Wolf makes the point that the omission of the detailed experiences and reactions of periphery nations is ultimately no better than earlier frameworks that characterized these same places as “traditional” societies. Wolf’s project was to take off from where the world-systems and dependency theory approaches of Frank and Wallerstein left off, and inject a deeper understanding (read ethnographic and ethnohistoric) of “micro-populations” as they exist within wider capitalist systems.

    Daniel asks:

    “I’m not as versed in econ anthro, but one thing that does strike me is that anthropologists don’t quite capture the ability of capitalism to harness human energy and to drive social change, both good and destructive (yes, in relativistic sense!).

    I think that Keith Hart’s work on the “Human Economy” might be a good place to look. His work draws from Polanyi and Mauss (Graeber also pulls from Mauss a lot), and makes some pretty interesting arguments about markets and economics. Hart doesn’t argue that markets are automatically bad, or that they should be done away with. He argues that economics needs to put people back into the picture. He also argues that there is a need to save economics from the economists (whose models are based more on assumptions and “virtual” people than actual people). Hart’s 2010 book on the Human Economy has some great stuff, and his 2000 book on money is pretty fascinating too. Oh, and for a great article about some of the problems with economics, check this out:

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Ryan,

      Thanks so much for writing this–and congratulations on passing your exams!

      The sorting out of Wallerstein-Wolf is nicely done. The reminder on the importance of Keith Hart’s work is great–he’s been so important on this stuff. I tried to incorporate some of this in the Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism: A Four-Field Manifesto post.

      Thanks again!


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  • thanks jason. you are on a roll here lately. the latest post is great, and i am going to either comment here or write up something about it soon. by the way, i have been thinking that i need to get “Global Transformations,” and your latest posts have convinced me–finally–to grab that one. i meant to get it a while back, but, well, you know how things go. anyway, i his book “Silencing the Past,” and have read chaps from GT, so I figured now is a good time to read the rest. i really like MRT’s perspectives on anthropology–a good compliment to some of the optimism of Mauss (and definitely a good counterbalance to the unending criticism of Marx!). Graeber makes the point in his 2001 book on “value” that we have to balance out the deeply critical approaches with some measure of moral and political optimism, and i agree…

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  • Shaun

    Has there been any published ethnography’s that have come out of the OWS movement as of yet?

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Shaun,
      Not that I know of! The ethnography-to-publishing time in anthropology is usually unbearably long. My latest update on such issues was a post I called The Stakes for Anthropology in 2012 which includes a link to some reflections by Keith Hart on the implications of this moment on the themes of his “human economy.” However, that’s not like a published ethnography. I’ll keep my eyes open.

  • Shaun


    Thank you for the reply, and your linking article. That is a shame that nothing has yet to come out of occupy. Are there any published papers that may not be an ethnography but still tackle OWS from an anthropological perspective perhaps?

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Shaun,

      Thanks again. There’s a great new online issue of anthropologies, Occupy & Open Access which has just become the go-to and most recent place for updates. Also might keep an eye out on the American Ethnological Society spring conference, Anthropologists Engage the World (April 19-21, 2012, NYC).

      Hope that helps!

  • Jackie

    As someone who was in the Occupy movement sidelines as a minor activist I was disappointed in the quality of the Occupy movement branch in my hometown. The Occupy movement was really successful through how it was not too informative or wonky to have at least scant media attention in the ratings driven media system.
    Of course, the whole point of why activists can have influence is how they represent the common people in the electorate. Occupiers harnessed the credibility of representing voters on the streets through their power of being poorly informed by lower quality education available in this country. They were successful through their lack of success in organizing to educate with a unified voice. That’s why they were allowed to have high media coverage in comparison to the level of coverage normally given to low profile grassroots progressive activism.

    • Hi Jackie, thank you for the comment. It’s interesting and helpful from someone who was on the scene. I do think there was quite a lot of variability in the Occupy manifestations, and as I mentioned in my update, at least here the idea that “hey, they’re the 1%” is now often used to deride school teachers or professors.

      • Jackie

        Strange, because elite college degrees or advanced degrees in liberal arts were at least slightly overrepresented among leading Occupiers probably. At least in comparison to the general population.

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