Anthropology 2012-2013

Anthropology, Moral Optimism, & Capitalism: 4-Field Manifesto

Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and CapitalismWe owe it to ourselves and to our interlocutors to say loudly that we have seen alternative visions of humankind–indeed more than any academic discipline–and that we know that this one . . . that constructs economic growth as the ultimate human value . . . may not be the most respectful of the planet we share, nor indeed the most accurate nor the most practical. We also owe it to ourselves to say that it is not the most beautiful nor the most optimistic.
–Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Global Transformations 2003:139.
[We lost this brilliant anthropologist in 2012–see Trouillot In Memoriam and free PowerPoint Anthropology & Moral Optimism.]

A spectre is stalking Capitalism–the spectre of Anthropology. All the Powers of Capitalism have bound themselves in a crusade against this spectre: the Florida Governor and the U.S. President; DSK and the IMF; Wall Street and Forbes; Napoleon Chagnon, David Brooks, Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker.

Anthropology knows that what currently exists does not have to be. Anthropology knows more about capitalism than any other academic discipline. Anthropology needs to make “an explicit claim to the moral optimism that may be this discipline’s greatest appeal and yet its most guarded secret” (Trouillot 2003:136).

It is high time that the Anthropologists openly set forth before the whole world their perspective, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this fairy tale about Capitalism with a Four-Field Manifesto. To this end, Anthropologists of the most diverse nationalities and subfields assemble to answer the question of What is Anthropology with This is Anthropology. Please read and share, joining our contentious anthropological tradition.

Fairy Tale of Capitalist Triumph and Inevitability

The premises of the market-capitalist religion:

  1. Humans are naturally greedy-selfish.
  2. Capitalism harnesses greed and selfishness for productive dynamism.
  3. Capitalism successfully delivers the goods.
  4. Capitalism is invincible.

One mistake of The Communist Manifesto (which this post borrows heavily from!) was to accept these claims. The first chapter reads like a paean to the bourgeoisie, crediting them with a thoroughgoing revolution and transformation in every aspect of life:

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, making river-traffic possible, whole populations conjured out of the ground–what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour? (66)


Marx and Engels portray capitalism as a revolutionary and inevitable force, and then communism as a further inevitable revolution. Later, when in the reflective-historical mode of the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx was much more circumspect about the influences of past traditions, the complexities of class analysis, and the non-inevitability of historical transformations (see Class Theory or Class Analysis? A Reexamination of Marx’s Unfinished Chapter on Class).

Anthropology cannot make the mistake of accepting the capitalist fairy tale. We must challenge each part of the fable. “When powerful financiers, politicians, and economists tell billions of humans that they should adopt the market as sole social regulator, anthropologists are well placed to show that what is presented as a logical necessity is actually a choice” (Trouillot, 2003:138).

Fortunately anthropology has a four-field rebuttal to the four parts of the fable.

Biological Anthropology: Humans Not Naturally Greedy-Selfish

Greed and selfishness are certainly present across human groups and our non-human primate relatives. But this does not mean greed and selfishness are any more fundamental to human nature than altruism or empathy, as Sarah Blaffer Hrdy demonstrates in Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. As Daniel Lende writes in a beautiful and moving post, Why We Protest: “Our sense of fairness, and the human emphasis on cooperation and reciprocity, is something with deep evolutionary roots, to chimpanzees and capuchins and beyond, and yet uniquely developed in humans so that we can do it in generalized ways.”

Biological anthropology reveals primate plasticity, variability, and flexibility. We are not programmed for any particular kind of life, a point I hope emerges from the fatherhood and testosterone studies–it is not that men are biologically programmed for fatherhood, or women for motherhood, but that our abilities and biological capacities emerge within a process of development. “Human beings are not naturally pre-equipped for any kind of life; rather, such equipment as they have comes into existence as they live their lives, through a process of development. And this process is none other than that by which they acquire the skills appropriate to the particular kind of life they lead” (Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment 2000:379; see also the section on Human Nature and Anthropology).

Moreover, all of these so-called traits–greed, selfishness, altruism, empathy–even as they might be bioculturally reinforced and developed, depend a great deal on context. Someone marked as greedy in one context can be quite altruistic in another. The values we ascribe to particular contexts can make all the difference. This is a further contribution of biological anthropology–questioning all those just-so stories about gender relations and domesticity, lately served up by evolutionary psychology: see Anthropology, Sex, Gender, Sexuality: Gender is a Social Construction.

Even Adam Smith, falsely enlisted by fairy-tale capitalism as the defender of self-interest, saw a buffer in the idea of sympathy, that other human beings take the role of a moral spectator (see philosopher Chris Keegan’s comment). In fact, what Adam Smith viewed as the essential human characteristic of sympathy is quite like what Hrdy describes as evolutionary empathy.

The world needs biological anthropology and primatology more than ever before: we can have our disagreements about testable hypotheses, the precise role of biology in the patterns of human behavior, the degree of hierarchy in non-human primate societies–but we can agree humans are not by nature programmed to be greedy and selfish, not by nature condemned to the vast inequalities of contemporary capitalism. Back to Lende: “Chimpanzee society does not function on 1% versus the other 99%. Life does not function that way.”

Archaeology: Dynamism and Sustainability

The second part of the capitalist fairy tale is how capitalism harnesses natural greed to purposes of productive dynamism. As above, The Communist Manifesto over-celebrates this dynamism, ascribing to capitalism incredible transformation and constant revolution. We can now look historically and see other periods of non-capitalist dynamism: there were many who admired Russia in the 1920s, Germany in the 1930s, or Cuba in the 1960s because these regimes seemed to deliver more rapid economic development and dynamism than capitalism. But these systems withered, and today are not a counterpoint to capitalist dynamism.

Fortunately, anthropology has archaeology, which gives us a long-range perspective on dynamism:

Can anyone say that the present balance of economic and political power will be the same in 2500 as it is today? For example, in the year 1500 some of the most powerful and largest cities in the world existed in China, India, and Turkey. In the year 1000, many of the mightiest cities were located in Peru, Iraq, and Central Asia. In the year 500 they could be found in central Mexico, Italy, and China. . . . What geographic determinism can account for this? Is history a report card of success or failure? (McAnany and Yoffee, Questioning Collapse, 2010:10)

Whereas capitalism has been dynamic for 100-200 years, archaeology shows us incredibly diverse and dynamic societies, flourishing and ebbing, sometimes over a 700-800 year span.

Archaeology invites us to consider sustainability. As McAnany and Yoffee write, what will the balance of economic and political power be in 2500? Or, more pointedly, can our planet endure 500 more years of capitalist dynamism? At present trend–and this may already be upon us–we could be facing vast species death and massive dislocations. Jared Diamond was surely wrong about agriculture as the Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race, but industrial capitalism is looking very much like the worst mistake in human history, as it continues to take us to the brink of global annihilation.

As Questioning Collapse rightly demonstrates, we do not need to stress the Collapse of ancient societies–many of which feature remarkable long-run resilience, creativity, and non-capitalist dynamism–in order to question our present course.

The world needs archaeology more than ever before. We may disagree on processual versus post-processual approaches or the comparability of complex societies–but we can agree on the need for a long-term archaeological perspective to counter the extreme short-term horizon of contemporary capitalism.

Cultural Anthropology: Capitalism Does Not Deliver

One reason anthropology knows more about capitalism than any other discipline is that anthropologists have not just studied capitalism from the inside–most anthropology was done with people subjected to capitalism, people who were often forced to provide the labor or coerced into furnishing the raw materials for capitalist dynamism. For much of the world’s population, capitalism has already been–and continues to be–a miserable failure.

Of course indigenous response has varied; there have been those who have profited tremendously from capitalism; people have ingeniously appropriated capitalist products and styles; people have not just been pawns in the system but have actively influenced and altered that system; no one knows these facts better than anthropologists. As Thomas Hylland Eriksen writes in a new foreword to Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History:

Through the dual processes of integration and disintegration, wealth creation and poverty creation, empowerment and humiliation, global capitalism leaves contradictions in its wake. The story of contemporary globalization is not a straightforward saga of development and progress, nor is it a simple tale of neocolonialism and oppression. It needs to be narrated from a local vantage point, and whatever their degrees of interconnectedness, localities are always unique blends of the old and the new, the endemic and the foreign, power and powerlessness. (2010:xiv)

On balance capitalism has at best been a mixed bag, at worst catastrophic. And this fact applies not just on the edges of capitalism but at its heart–after some periods of relative stability and apparently fine-tuned management of the business cycle, we are back to lurching from crisis to crisis, in ways not seen since 1929 or the times of Marx and Engels.

Anthropologists are well placed to face these changes, first by documenting them in ways that are consistent with our disciplinary history. The populations we traditionally study are often those most visibly affected by the ongoing polarization brought about by the new spatiality of the world economy. They descend directly from those who paid most heavily for the transformations of earlier times. . . . We cannot abandon the four-fifths of humanity that the [ 1% ] see as increasingly useless to the world economy, not only because we built a discipline on the backs of their ancestors but also because the tradition of that discipline has long claimed that the fate of no human group can be irrelevant to humankind. (Trouillot 2003:138)

The world needs cultural anthropology more than ever before. We may disagree on the importance of Jared Diamond or Napoleon Chagnon–but we can agree that when much of the world’s population gets written off as irrelevant, then anthropological fieldwork has become even more necessary. Back to Eriksen, who tells us Wolf’s “perspective is even more sorely needed than it was when Europe and the People Without History was written in the early 1980s” (2010:xvii; see also Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History; Brian Ferguson & Napoleon Chagnon; and Epigenetics on The Edge of Human Nature).

Linguistic Anthropology: Capitalism is Not Invincible

Capitalism is not just an economic system. What Trouillot terms the “geography of management” is accompanied by a “management of imagination” (2003:36) and a projection of “North Atlantic universals” through words like development, progress, and modernity:

North Atlantic universals so defined are not merely descriptive or referential. They do not describe the world; they offer visions of the world. . . . They come to us loaded with aesthetic and stylistic sensibilities, religious and philosophical persuasions, cultural assumptions ranging from what it means to be a human being to the proper relationship between humans and the natural world, ideological choices ranging from the nature of the political to the possibilities of transformation. . . . As a discipline, we have launched the most sustained critique of the specific proposals rooted in these universals within academe. Yet we have not explored enough how much these universals set the terms of the debate and restricted the range of possible responses. (2003:35,46)

We could continue. But it is here we most need the insights of a linguistic anthropology attuned to language and power, the condensed histories of words, and how words become harnessed to imagination. Anna Tsing’s Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection contemplates a similar project, examining how the particular universals travel: “This brings to light a deep irony: Universalism is implicated in both imperial schemes to control the world and liberatory mobilizations for justice and empowerment. . . . Universals beckon to elite and excluded alike” (2005:9).

The world needs linguistic anthropology more than ever before. We may disagree on universal grammar or Sapir-Whorf, but we can agree that the imagination of capitalist invincibility is built on shaky and contested terms–terms that can also be used toward emancipatory ends.

Anthropology: Observe, Describe, and Propose

This account of contributions from each of anthropology’s major subfields is not meant to fragment and divide. The world needs anthropology more than ever, for anthropologists to stand with anthropology as a whole. As Tim Ingold opens Being Alive: “I am an anthropologist: not a social or cultural anthropologist; not a biological or archaeological anthropologist; just an anthropologist” (2011:xi).

Ingold’s comparison of anthropology with art and architecture is pertinent:

The truth is that the propositions of art and architecture, to the extent that they carry force, must be grounded in a profound understanding of the lived world, and conversely that anthropological accounts of the manifold ways in which life is lived would be of no avail if they were not brought to bear on speculative inquiries into what the possibilities for human life might be. Thus art, architecture and anthropology have in common that they observe, describe and propose. There is, perhaps, a discipline waiting to be defined and named where those three fields meet, and if some readers would prefer to regard this book as a kind of manifesto for that discipline, then I shall not object. (p. xi)

Anthropology documents human possibility, demonstrates that the way things are is not the way things must be. We do not need to support market-capitalism at all costs. We do not need to believe the capitalist fairy tale, even as we seek to understand its power and allure.

At this juncture, anthropologists recognize the U.S. does not have a functioning government. Officials who have signed pledges to never increase taxes–even as they bemoan deficits; officials who refuse to consider jobs programs–even after years of unemployment; this is no longer a functioning government capable of acting on behalf of the governed.

As David Graeber recounts in On Playing By the Rules:

After all, how could there have been a more perfect alignment of the stars than happened in 2008? That year saw a wave election that left Democrats in control of both houses of congress, a Democratic president elected on a platform of “Change” coming to power at a moment of economic crisis so profound that radical measures of some sort were unavoidable, and at a time when popular rage against the nation’s financial elites was so intense that most Americans would have supported almost anything. If it was not possible to enact any real progressive policies or legislation at such a moment, clearly, it would never be. Yet none were enacted. Instead Wall Street gained even greater control over the political process, and, since Republicans proved the only party willing to propose radical positions of any kind, the political center swung even further to the Right. Clearly, if progressive change was not possible through electoral means in 2008, it simply isn’t going to be possible at all. And that is exactly what very large numbers of Americans appear to have concluded.

With respect to the specifics of our political-economic situation and the condition of capitalism, anthropology urges:

  1. That poverty and inequality–globally and regionally–be placed at the forefront of policy agendas. Walmart Socialism.
  2. Progressive income taxes and taxes on conspicuous consumption, with revenue devoted to a true national healthcare system: Medicare-for-All. Gun Reform.
  3. Increasing inheritance taxes and other measures addressing wealth inequalities, with revenue devoted to prenatal care, infant nutrition and early childhood education.
  4. Abolition of off-shore tax havens, declaration of all income from investments, and full enforcement of capital-gains taxes, with revenue devoted to reparations.
  5. Regulations on credit and banking so the financial industry becomes a boring sector dedicated to allocating investment, not a glamorous parade of outsized returns. Expropriate Goldman-Sachs.
  6. Investment in mass-transit and regional infrastructure to provide alternatives to individual automobiles.
  7. An agricultural plan to phase out subsidies for monocropping, to encourage environmentally-sustainable farm management, and eliminate the tariffs harming the world’s poorest farmers.
  8. A true jobs program to increase employment, with work targeted toward infrastructure improvement and environmentally-sensitive retrofitting. Consideration of measures such as reducing the work week in order to address contradictions of a high unemployment rate coupled to overwork by the employed. Local Economy Manifesto.
  9. Comprehensive immigration reform to bring rationality and humanity to a broken system.
  10. Investment in education to create truly informed citizens. An educational system based on human holism, not just mono-dimensional economic efficiencies. Anthropology is the Best Major to Change Your Life.

Anthropology has expertise and knowledge about each of these issues. Anthropologists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their objectives can be attained only by breaking the shackles of tradition:

 In fact, my whole outlook upon social life is determined by the question: how can we recognize the shackles that tradition has laid upon us? For when we recognize them, we are also able to break them. (Franz Boas 1938:202, “An Anthropologist’s Credo” in The Nation)

Let the deep modification of the human sciences begin. Anthropologists have nothing to lose but our irrelevance. “We can make the world less unjust; we can make it more beautiful; we can increase our cognition of it” (Wallerstein, The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century 2001:250).

The life expectancy of irrelevance tends to be short. More courageous and healthier is the acknowledgment of the many dead ends within the human disciplines brought about or brought to light by current global transformations, including the death of utopia.

We might as well admit that all the human sciences may need more than a mere facelift; most will be deeply modified and others, in their current institutional shape, might disappear. As the world changes, so do disciplines.
–Trouillot 2003:138; see also Anthropology Is Your Ally – Science & Humanities Together

Anthropologists and allies of all lands unite!

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