Anthropology on Economics

Is Capitalism the Best Economic System?

For the final part of Introduction to Anthropology 2017 we tackled 10 big and controversial questions anthropology has attempted to answer. Here’s a big one: Is Capitalism the Best Economic System?

The two readings for “Is Capitalism the Best Economic System?”:

Capitalism is made to feel natural, to feel inevitable, to seem like the only way to be human.Click To Tweet
Most answers to the question of “Is capitalism the best economic system?” suffer from a range of biases anthropologists would label as ethnocentric. For most people, it is the only system that we know, and so it is made to feel natural, to feel inevitable, to appear as if it is the only true way to be human, or rooted in human nature. As when we consider the concept of culture, an anthropological perspective should make us suspicious of claims that one particular way of human organization is the one and only divinely sanctioned or natural way to be a human.

Diversity of Economic Systems

Anthropologists begin by taking a broad approach to the idea of economic systems. Economic anthropology considers “decisions of daily life and making a living” (Richard Wilk in LS:324) or “questions of human nature and well-being” (Hann and Hart in LS:324).

Many anthropologists think about economic systems in terms of phases of production, distribution, and consumption. One of the key points anthropologists stress is that production for a cash market is hardly the only way to organize an economic system. People make use of a variety of complex systems that work well without money or markets.

One example of a different exchange systems are those run through ideas of reciprocity (Lavenda & Schultz 2015:329). Such reciprocal exchange relationships characterize gathering and hunting societies. For anthropologist Marshall Sahlins (drawing on the work of Richard Lee), this very different way of thinking about human needs led him to coin the phrase the “original affluent society” (in Lavenda & Schultz 2015:338). As in relationship to Jared Diamond’s “Worst Mistake,” such re-investigations of hunting and gathering challenge the progressivist perspective. When Richard Lee asked Ju/’hoansi why they did not grow crops: “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?”

As Lee discovers during his work, an economic system based on reciprocity can lead to very different social attitudes. This becomes clear as people respond to his attempt to “repay” his hosts with a Christmas Ox! (See Eating Christmas in the Kalahari.)

Do Economic Systems Evolve?

While economies certainly evolve over time, they do not necessarily follow a natural selection mechanism which places everyone on the path to a market economy. As we see in how anthropology asks us to reconsider simplistic and deterministic models of evolution and natural selection, evolution is simply change over time. It comes with no inherent directionality.

Well before the European voyages of exploration, many different economic systems had come and gone. Empires and vibrant cities had risen and fallen. As archaeologists McAnany and Yoffee write (in Lavenda & Schultz:337):

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. In 2500 B.C.E. the most formidable rulers lived in Iraq, Egypt, and Pakistan. (Questioning Collapse 2010:10)

Capitalism’s Origins in Colonialism and Slavery

Another major misconception to address for considering “is capitalism the best economic system?” is the idea that capitalism was born in Europe during the Industrial Revolution. To really examine the origins of capitalism we need to look into the time period from 1500-1800, to the American colonies, and to coerced labor.

One of the most important stories comes from the mines of Potosi. The silver of Potosi would transform the world economy. From around 1570-1650, Potosi became one of the largest cities in the world, larger than London and Paris at the time. Potosi became “the first city of capitalism” in the words of anthropologist John Weatherford. And although there are various ideas about how the US dollar ($) sign emerged, the most plausible is that it came from the Potosi mint mark. (See also Lo que vale un Potosí: la montaña que traga y lo que cuesta el dinero.)

After that, the story of capitalism shifts into the Caribbean, where British, French, and Dutch colonial planters seized islands once under Spanish control and began to establish sugar cane plantations. As anthropologist Sidney Mintz has argued, the Caribbean sugar plantations transformed global diets, eventually feeding the workers of the European Industrial Revolution. Mintz’s even more radical argument is that the slave-based plantation system provides a template for European factory organization.

World of Humankind as Interconnected Processes

In 1982, anthropologist Eric Wolf debuted an incredible book Europe and the People Without History. For many anthropologists, Eric Wolf is part of our anthropological autobiography.

Eric Wolf describes a world of interconnection: “The central assertion of this book is that the world of humankind constitutes a manifold, a totality of interconnected processes, and inquiries that disassemble this totality into bits and then fail to reassemble it falsify reality” (1982:3).

Wolf drew on Karl Marx to delineate three broad modes of production (in Lavenda & Schultz 2015:333): A Kin-ordered mode of production, which would correspond to most gathering & hunting, horticulture, and some herding societies. A Tributary mode, corresponding to many farmers and herders with a political ruling class. And finally a Capitalist mode, in which production is for profit and leading to industrial intensification.

For Wolf, the “people without history” not only really did “have history,” but they made capitalism and Europe possible. Moreover, the people anthropologists studied had already been shaped and transformed by the global transformations from 1500-1900, long before the first academically-trained anthropologists ever did ethnographic fieldwork.

So for example if we turn back to Richard Lee’s work, mongongo nuts are great but what goes un-discussed is the German-led colonial genocide of 1912-1915 (Robert J. Gordon, Hiding in Full View, 2009). If Gordon is correct about the genocide in 1912-1915, then it would have had obvious demographic effects at the time of Lee’s work.

The Capitalist Ruins

Perhaps more than any other economic system or mode of production, capitalism seems to make people as well as natural resources disposable. This happens both globally and within each country. Such disposability has often been seen with regard to race, ethnicity, gender, and for immigrants. We can also observe this disposability by looking at what happened to previous capitalist centers like Potosi or Caribbean sugar plantations. But today, we can also see this happening in the capitalist heartland of the United States. People who were once the engine and backbone of industrial capitalism seem to be no longer needed. “Not only are middle-aged white people drinking more, using more opioids, and killing themselves at higher rates, more of them are getting sick with the diseases that usually kill older people. And when they do get sick, they don’t get better” (Why Are So Many Middle-Aged White Americans Dying?).

Or, for a 2017-2018 update, see the Somatosphere series on “Toxicity, Waste, and Detritus,” including:

  • Residue by Gabrielle Hecht examines the afterlife of industrial gold mining in South Africa.
  • Waste by Jennifer Wenzel. “Waste isn’t what it used to be. Waste is Alpha and Omega: the beckoning origin of development and its troublesome end product. For example, hazardous industrial waste, rotting wood, outgrown bike trailers, paintings taking up space in the basement” (October 2017).

In Summary: Is capitalism the best economic system?

We 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 . . . [a capitalism] 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; see Anthropology, Moral Optimism & Capitalism.

Anthropology says capitalism 'may not be the most respectful of the planet we share, nor indeed the most accurate nor the most practical (system).... It is not the most beautiful nor the most optimistic.' --Michel-Rolph TrouillotClick To Tweet

So what should we do?

1. Local actions can matter

Here it is useful to explore the anthropology of food and nutrition (Lavenda & Schultz:343-345) through the work of Carole Counihan Around the Tuscan Table: Food, Family, and Gender in Twentieth Century Florence

2. Regional differences are important

One interesting way to approach the issue of regional differences is by looking at Daniel Miller’s work on Coca-Cola (Lavenda & Schultz:342-343). Miller demonstrates how capitalism can be regionally appropriated and these regional differences can be important.

3. Don’t be afraid to think big and differently about economic systems

In the end, anthropology tells us that as we wonder “is capitalism the best economic system?” we should not be afraid of “out of the box” thinking about economic alternatives. One interesting and provocative idea is of Walmart Socialism, or a rethinking of how contemporary capitalism has re-shaped production, distribution, and consumption.

Anthropology & Economic Systems

Anthropologists began by describing non-capitalist systems which many did not see as economic or systems. Anthropologists also often described the underside of capitalism. Many people either did not see the underside to capitalism, or they denied any connection to capitalism.

In some ways when trying to think about the question of “is capitalism the best economic system?” anthropology faces the impossible tasks:

  1. Document richness and viability of non-West and non-capitalist systems.
  2. But don’t lose sight of how much destroyed, interrupted, and influenced by colonialism and capitalism.
  3. Understand human creativity, possibility and change; but also describe constraint and limitation.

Which is a great way to explore the theme of Why Does Politics Matter?

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2017. “Anthropology on Economics: Is Capitalism the Best Economic System?” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 8 April 2017. Revised 10 January 2018.

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  • Victoria Subik

    I never thought of anthropologists studying economics, but after reading the text
    it definitely opened my mind to how broad the studies of anthropology can be.
    Economic and political anthropologists attempt to explain why certain societies
    have different social structures. Economic anthropologists specifically study the main variations in human livelihood found in different societies. They base these of several models, first being the model of self-interest which is based on the assumption that all
    individuals are first and foremost interested in their own well-being, that people being selfish is natural. Anthropologists who accept and use this model should then go forward and investigate the different properties set by different societies and study how these proprieties affect the maximizing decision of individuals (L&S 324). The other model is the social model of human nature, meaning that they pay attention to the ways people form groups and exercise their power. The view of human nature assumes that people will ordinarily identify themselves with groups to which they belong to. It suggests that this view of human nature should focus on institution’s meaning, “a stable and enduring cultural practices that organize social life-not on individuals” (L&S 325). Meaning that the society’s economy consists of the cultural specific processes its members use to provide themselves with material resources. The last model is the moral model, where economic anthropologists are committed to the human nature that is assumed that people’s motivations are shaped by culturally specific belief systems and values. People are socialized into these values and practice them over their lifetime so that when they experience distress and conflict if tempted to make the decisions (even economic) it is contrary to their internalized morality. In conclusion it is seen that economic anthropologists focus on persons rather than calculating individuals (L&S 325). Overall when I think of economics I think of the calculations, and economies of countries and the
    business behind it; certainly not scientists studying individuals and their human nature in different situations and societies. Which made me wonder that based off of what anthropologists study with economic anthropology what does there data solve or can tell us( other than the variations in human livelihoods based off of different societies)? I can understand based off of the models how they can solve that but what other questions can be answered?

    • Nice reflections. Indeed, while some anthropologists have found a “self-interested model” useful (LS:325), for the most part we are suspicious to reduce economic systems to the idea of human nature as self-interest. I am not sure if this helps us solve problems, but I do hope it provides a variety of possible answers, or things to think about.

  • Joey

    After reading the article “Eating Christmas in Kalahari” and seeing how the Xai Xai people reacted to the buying of the ox goes directly with what the book says about how individuals are selfish. On page 323,324 it talks about this and tells how individuals are first interested about themselves. The article shows this because the Xai Xai family shows how they are first worried about themselves in showing that nobody is above them even if they buy them food for Christmas. Instead of the Xai Xai family being appreciative about the food that someone else has bought them they make sure they do not feel inferior and try to make everyone equal to them.

    • I am not sure if Lee’s “Eating Christmas” article would support the self-interested model discussed in Lavenda & Schultz. In fact, they seem to be about “enforcing humility” and letting people know about their social connections to others.

  • jessica Meyers

    Eating Christmas in the Kalahari is the article i wanted to focus on the most.
    Richard Lee went to visit this tribe around Christmas time and discovered something amazing. He went to study the hunting and gathering subsistence economy of the Kung tribe. What i found most interesting was the way that Lee was treated by these individuals, Although by no means did i think Lee’s actions were meant to be taken as though he was above the tribe members, the individuals of the Bushmen had to knock him off his high horse a few pegs. We discussed this article in class today and it opened my eyes more to different cultures and thir economic values and what they hold. Lee was so concerned about getting the perfect OX for Christmas he even stated “Food consumption calculations are my specialty, and I quickly figured that bones and viscera aside, there was enough meat—at least four pounds—for every man, woman, and child of the 150 Bushmen in the vicinity of the /Xai/xai who were expected at the feast.” Lee didn’t realize that these individuals were not concerned about the size of the Ox they would consume at Christmas, they had bigger issues to deal with. The tribe members knocked on Lee for picking the Ox that he had picked to lower his confidence down just a few pegs. Although this article is not directly related to economics in a money or capitalism sense, you are able to understand what these people consider to be wealthy and meaningful to them. Money isn’t always the best form of currency. These people work hard to survive and make it work day to day.

    • Good, although might be useful to also connect this to the discussion of Lee’s work in Lavenda & Schultz (238-239).

  • Taylor Manzelli

    I thought that the most interesting lines out of “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari” were these: “…when a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.” This group of people was thought to be selfish and arrogant but they actually do it for a good reason (although there are probably better ways this could be executed- but whatever works for them). Teaching someone, especially a young person, that they aren’t some higher up, special god because they are doing something that they are supposed to be doing within their culture (killing large quantities of meat) is good because then that individual will go on to be fortunate for what they can catch no matter the size. They will (hopefully) also grow up to be thankful and grateful in general for everyday things. That was the overall message received from that. In Lee’s case, he got the ox out of respect and such for tribe, but just because he got this big and mighty ox does not mean that he is some hero- he should have done it with the mindset that he needed to do it, not because he wanted to be some nice guy, “saving” the day. So this is how Tomazo made his statement apply to Lee.

    • Yes, this does exhibit a quite different economic and social value system, which you might then connect to the textbook.

  • Corrie Fenn

    The article “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari” raises many interesting issues archaeologists face when investing and engaging oneself into a new community or society. I found it interesting how not only archaeologists but other people as well still struggle to understand political and economical beliefs in certain populations. It seems that many of us have a hard time keeping an open mind and saying that we believe we understand a group of people when in the end realizing we actually don’t. For Richard Lee he was treated differently from what he would have expected. At first I thought it was rude of the Bushmen to treat Lee this way, but after reading more into the article I realized there was meaning and an important lesson learned for this treatment. With the !Kung Bushmen this is how they always treated each other which included a good reason behind why they did so. Lee says “Why did you tell me the black ox was worthless, when you could see that it was loaded with fat and meat” and the Hakekgose replies “It is our way. We always like to fool people about that. Say there is a Bushman who has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggard.” They do this because they do not want to seem arrogant or better than anyone else in their group. Just because someone killed a bigger animal does not mean they have control/power or rights to shove it in everyone else’s faces. They must pretend like it was nothing and not make a big deal out of killing a large animal. They needed to learn not to take anything for granted and to be pleased with what they have. When it came to making sure there was enough food for everyone they pretended or joke that they had very little even though they had more than enough for everyone. For what Lee thought was being kind and showing appreciation for being able to do research on this group of people may have been seen differently in the Bushmans eyes. Although they did realize Lee was not doing it on purpose, they still joked with him so that he would understand this aspect of their social and cultural values better.

  • Patrick Skidgell

    On page 332 of the textbook it talks about how labor is useful and what it is. According to the textbook on page 332 Labor is defined as ” the activity linking human social groups to the material world around them.” This is vary important because without people doing labor or not have people doing an equal amount of labor means that the society that you live in will not be as productive. The textbook also says that ” human beings must actively struggle together to transform natural substances into forms that they can use.” The textbook also talks about how Marx emphasized the importance of physical human labor. Marx especially finds labor important in the production of food, clothing, shelter, and tools.

    • Definitely Marx’s work emphasizing labor was very important to economic anthropology and especially to that of Eric Wolf as described above.

  • Paige Restivo

    Based on the reading for Tuesday’s class and the class discussion. I want to focus more on the In their own words box on page 337 in Lavenda and Schultz. The section that I would like to talk about is the Choice and Geographic Determinism which Lavenda and Schultz bring up Jared Diamond who we read and discussed in part 2 of the course when we talked about the switch from hunting and gathering to agriculture and domestication. In one of his books on societal collapse he proposes that societies choose to succeed or fail. but on the other hand in Guns, Germs, and Steel he proposes that there was no choice and that today’s inequalities among the modern nation-states are argued to be the result of geometric determinism. In a scenario that Lavenda and Schultz give which I found interesting is that societies make the decisions that result in long term success or failure…At the root of this thesis Lavenda and Schultz give us the neoliberal theory of self interested motivation as well as the assumption of unconstrained and rational choice. Lavenda and Schultz then go off and tell us that many economists view this motivational assumptions of self interest and rational choice as lacking explanatory power, even when it is applied to Western Societies. This leads to the quote that “If we are to understand global events today, we must perceive that the basis of intentionality and motivation can differ profoundly across the globe… For those of us studying early states, archeologists and historians alike, it isn’t easy to discern intentions and their effects in the remote past… Many current global inequalities indisputably are the product of historical colonialism and its enduring legacy. To me it still feels like as I said in the last section of this course that Jared Diamond is still contradicting himself here and leaves him and I with the question of Can anyone say that the present balance of economic and political power will be the same in 2500 as it is today? and Is history a report card of success or failure?

    • Great work tackling these issues. I mentioned them in the post above, but did not discuss them much in class. I’ve tried to summarize some of these issues in a section I call Real History versus Guns Germs and Steel which is a critique of Jared Diamond’s trajectory.

  • Devon C. Weldin

    Based on our class discussion in Tuesday, anthropology is much more political and economically invested than I would have ever previously imagined. Like you said, I had thought of anthropology as mostly bones, pottery and relics of the past. But its more than just the “money” aspect of things that we would traditionally believe to be economics. Its about appreciating the value of everything. After reading the “Christmas in the Kalahari” article I made the connection that people appreciate things differently and have different values based on their culture, and for the bushmen, a pretty funny way of showing their appreciation. What I thought about is in our culture and it was said that “With us whites, he began, “Christmas is supposed to be the day of friendship and brotherly love. What I can’t figure out is why the Bushmen went to such lengths to criticize and belittle the ox I had bought for the feast. The animal was perfectly good and their jokes and wisecracks practically ruined the holiday for me.”(Richard Borshay Lee) But they never meant to hurt his feelings. It is meant to break a mans arrogance, something that is plentiful in American society and could often use some breaking. They appreciate things differently and the way they speak to each other shows this. They call the meat worthless and even tell each other that there kills are worthless but this is simply just not true, any meat to them should be worth a great deal in a society without much for monetary currency. They do appreciate what Richard Lee has done for them but just have an odd way of showing it.

    • Good summary. I think Lee’s point at the end, that “one black ox slaughtered at Christmas does not wipe out a year of careful manipulation of gifts given to serve your own ends” might help. After all, who would gain more from Richard Lee’s research?

  • Gina G

    Not everyone in the world is open minded, people still judge people on there different beliefs and ways of life. I really noticed this after I read the “Christmas in Kalahari” article. At first you believe think that Bushmen is being very mean to Lee about the ox but if you keep reading you realize that is this is there custom for the Bushmen to be mean but it’f really a compliment. The Bushmen’s was of being kind is something we call ‘sarcasm’ these days, where someone says something mean in a joking way to be nice. Also the bushmen didn’t want Lee to think he was above them since he tried to buy them an Ox. The Bushmen did this to Lee so he would understand there culture and social values better. This makes me think of a “Social organization, the patterning of human interdependence in a given society through the actions and decisions of it’s members” on page 324 on the textbook because the Bushmen people knew to not enjoy the rock because they have interpreted it from other people in there group.

  • Kyle Kessler

    In the text book on page 232 and 233 it talks about Modes of production. Lavenda and Schultz describe this as ” a specific historically occurring set of social relations through which labor is deployed to wrest energy from nature by means of tools, skills, organization, and knowledge”. This makes getting food and water a lot easier and there everyday life easier. They also say in the textbook on page 233 that the means of production are tools, skills, organization and knowledge. This is what you need to have a productive production period. By following these rules your production will be successful. In the textbook it says that there are three different modes that are important to human history there is the kin-ordered mode, tributary mode, and capitalist mode. These modes help farmers and herders with there production.

    • Good work in the textbook, although your page numbers are off by a hundred (332-334). As discussed above, it was mostly Eric Wolf who synthesized the idea of a mode of production to make it useful for analyzing economic systems.

  • Terrill Davis

    In the story “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari”, Richard Borshay Lee presented many valid points that I can relate to. Lee says, “The London Missionary Society brought the holiday to the southern Tswana tribes in the early nineteenth century.” This reminds me of my culture because most of the holidays that America celebrate are holidays that were brought to us. On page 324, Lavenda and Schultz brings up a key idea. It says, “Although our physical survival depends on our making adequate use of the resources around us, our culture tells us which resources to use and how to use them.” This shows us that we adapt and modify our lives according to what we are surrounded by.

    • Some good quotes but might be able to go a bit more into depth to analyze them.

  • Zach Simmonds

    I found the article “Eating Christmas in Kalahari very interesting. The piece that stood out to me was how the bushmen communicated with each other. It was comical that they played such a prank on the white man. They kept telling him that the ox he bought was too skinny and worthless. They elaborated that it was old and would not provide enough meat to have a real Christmas dinner. People were going to be going home hungry with their stomachs rumbling. This frustrated the author to no end and almost caused him to flee the camp. However it slowly came to his attention that the bushmen were just having a laugh. It turns out that this is the custom way they talk to each other, a kill is never good enough or big enough. In fact it is custom to down play what ever you caught. For example even if I killed the biggest ox in the area I would have to say my hunting day was slow, boring and that I am not very good at what I do. This reminded me of me and my friend group. Being a highly competitive group we are constantly in contests trying to see who the best is. No matter how good one does everyone still talks like that person is the worst ever. It does not matter if you hit 45 three point shots in a row if you miss the 46th you better believe that your going to hear about it for the next two days. This most closely related to the story about the guy who hunted with the rifle. No matter what he did he always fell short of the expectation. All in all I found this norm very interesting.

    • Interesting possible connection to contemporary daily life, although I do wonder if it is an equivalent form of “enforcing humility” to what Lee describes.

  • Stephen Junjulas

    The article “Eating Christmas in Kalahari” brought up some interesting points that caught my eye. One section that i thought was particularly interesting was when the article said “My spirits dropped rapidly. I could believe that Ben!a and /gaugo just might be putting me on about the black ox, but Halingisi seemed to be an impartial critic. I went around that day feeling as though I had bought a lemon of a used car.” This statement to me shows that Richard Borshay Lee was doing an anthropological field study and he had assumed something about their culture. He assumed that by getting the biggest ox people would be really thankful and enjoy eating that big of an animal, but it actually turned out to be a laughing matter amongst the tribe because there wasn’t much meat on the ox. Lee learned something about this culture in his field study from this scenario, he figured out that the tribe knew much more about hunting than he did prior to the field study.

    • Good initial point, but would need to read further in the article about what happens when they kill the ox and the lessons Lee draws from it.

  • Liam D. Kane

    Capitalism has been rooted into our lives from the day we receive our first dollar until they bury us 6 feet deep. I can spend days hitting the pros and cons about capitalism and if it is the most optimal system. Before this Anthro class I never suspected anthropologists being this invested into economics ( < sweet wordplay right there). Lavenda and Schultz talk about means of production and how thats closely related to tools and skills. Possessing tools and skills gives you the ability to create items that then can be bartered for allowing you to advance your own utility. Being an economics major and reading this chapter has really opened my eyes to how many connections can be made from anthropology and other social sciences. It's tough to tell if capitalism is the correct system but it sure does work in the United States.

  • Jessi-Lee Grant

    In Lavenda and Shultz the textbook begins discussing the economy and the multiple factors that tie into an economy. In the section that discusses if production drives economic activity it goes into detail about some of the factors. L & S starts to talk about the modes of production to tie into the economy. He defined modes of production as the ways different human groups carry out production. It then goes into the anthroplogist Eric Wolf and how he breaks it down. He defined a mode of production as ” a specific, historically occurring set of social relations through which labor is deployed to wrest energy from nature by means of tools, organization, and knowledge.” I feel like this statement is almost spot on because through out our many years humans have created a multitude of different tools to make production easier for us. With these tools production can increase because it is easier and faster to produce more without as much labor. The book then goes into how these different productive tasks are assigned to different social groups which Karl Marx labeled as classes. We see this in everyday life you have the blue collar class who have more corporate desk jobs which require not much labor and then you have the groups of people who do all manual labor during their jobs like construction workers.

    • Nice work with Eric Wolf and social class; maybe people are starting to talk about such issues again!

  • Melissa Sperry

    The article “Eating Christmas in Kalahari was very interesting because at first you would assume that they are just playing a joke on the white man. You think that they are doing this simply because he is an outsider. However, you learn that it is just part of their culture and they do the exact same thing to each other. It just shows how different cultures can be and how easy it is to misunderstand another culture if you do not know the meaning behind what they do.

    • True, but could elaborate more on this initial statement.

  • Alice Spina

    Before I explain whether capitalism is the best economic system or not, it is important to look at the concept ethnocentrism, which we discussed in Chapter 8. If one looks at economics thinking that his or her political system is superior to another, then they are always going to come to the same conclusion. Anyway to answer the question, I don’t necessarily think that one economic system is better than another. Some people like capitalism because it gives people the opportunity to transcend social classes, but in “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari” with the communal economic system that they have going on, they seem to like their system too. If they switched over to capitalism all of a sudden, I don’t think they would be happy and it may not work. So, I think that the best economic system is one that best fits a groups values.

    • Nice work bringing up the idea of ethnocentrism. Of course this also leads to some of the issues we discussed in that section which is that there may be quite a bit of individual variation within a group and what is working “best” for some people may not be working well for others. But that’s also a good way to start talking about politics and power.

  • Oh look. Another statist who can’t tell the difference between ills of government and the benefits of capitalism.

    • Anyone who believes government brings only ills and capitalism brings only benefits is probably an ideologue. I thought such ideologies were thoroughly disproved by reality, but as Paul Krugman writes, they continue as zombies: “Policy ideas that should have been abandoned long ago in the face of evidence and experience, but just keep shambling along.”

      It’s not so simple. Government policies can have good and ill effects. Capitalism can have benefits and drawbacks. And you always need to ask: “for whom?” I discuss these matters more extensively in Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. Go buy it! It’s on the free market! Capitalism!

      • The issue is that the ills attributed to capitalism in these instances at least are actually a result of government, and exist in society regardless of capitalism being present or not. Ancient Egypt wasn’t a capitalist society.

        (1) We don’t have a free market.
        (2) Capitalism is not the only market system. Many forms of socialism are market systems.
        (3) Relating to that, this article just does not properly identify what capitalism is and therefore is making a straw man from the beginning.

        • Thank you for elaborating. However, I am unsure of what you are actually critiquing here.
          (1) I definitely never said Ancient Egypt was capitalist. You may be misreading the quote from the archaeologists regarding the “most formidable rulers.” Never said capitalist!
          (2) It is certainly true that markets and capitalism are often intertwined but separable. I go into more detail about this in my book, but it would be too much for this short blog-post.
          (3) There has been a lot of debate about what capitalism is and many attempts to define it. In this post, I am mainly referring to the globally interconnected system of industrial production which emerges in the 19th century but has its roots in the colonial relationships of the 16th-18th centuries.
          Thanks again,

          • My point was that most of the ills that you mention existed under the state socialist institution in ancient Egypt.

            Capitalism is any economic system characterized by the excesses of production returning to those who “own” the means of production. As for the industrial revolution, it occurred for the same reason that most technological revolutions occur: “it was time.”

            And the industrial revolution was a good thing, not a bad one. Then again, the industrial revolution was not “capitalist.” That’s a technological change, not an economic one. Many systems emerged during and following the industrial revolution.

          • Thank you for the clarification. I need to add some material to the post above regarding the conceptualizations Eric Wolf developed for kin-ordered, tributary, and capitalist mode of production. I need to get some related projects finished regarding anthropology & music. I’ll return to this post as soon as that’s finished.