Anthropology, Moral Optimism, & Capitalism

Update 2017: I wrote this four field manifesto in October 2011 during the times of Occupy. It was the first post on the blog to “go viral” and receive attention outside the anthropology blogosphere. The four field manifesto speaks to enduring themes in anthropology, which is the academic discipline most likely to ask: Is Capitalism the Best Economic System? I revisited this article in June 2017 inspired by Sarah Jaffe’s Unexpected Afterlife of American Communism. Jaffe reveals common dimensions for an anthropology that understands race and racism. Jaffe also reveals hidden connections to the Caribbean, an important theater of global history and crucial for the anthropology practiced in this four field manifesto.

Four Field Manifesto: Anthropology, Moral Optimism, & Capitalism

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)
[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 a Four Field Manifesto. Please read and share, joining our contentious anthropological tradition.

The Market-Capitalist Religion

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 four field manifesto 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)

Fairy Tale of Capitalist Triumph and Inevitability

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 manifesto and 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 emerging from the fatherhood and testosterone studies. It is not that men are biologically programmed for fatherhood, or women for motherhood. 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)

Biological Anthropology: Traits in Context

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. We question 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. 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

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)

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

Archaeology and Sustainability

Archaeology invites us to consider sustainability. As McAnany and Yoffee ask, what will the balance of economic and political power be in 2500? Or, more pointedly, can our planet endure 500 more years of capitalism? At present trend, 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 trajectory.

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)

Cultural Anthropology & Capitalist Crisis

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. Keynesianism delivered periods of relative stability and apparently fine-tuned management of the business cycle. But 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; see The Discovery of Sidney Mintz: Anthropology’s Unfinished Revolution)

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).

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). The West is 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)

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 the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. 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 an Introduction to Anthropology more than ever. Anthropologists can 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. Anthropology 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.

The US Government is Dysfunctional (written in 2012; see also 2017)

At this juncture, anthropologists recognize the United States does not have a functioning government. Officials have signed pledges to never increase taxes–even as they bemoan deficits. Officials 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.

Four Field Manifesto: 10 Proposals

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/Medicaid-for-All. Gun Reform.
  3. Increasing inheritance taxes and other measures to address wealth inequalities. 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 employment contradictions. 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 efficiency. 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)

Four Field Manifesto & Academe

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

Anthropologists and allies of all lands unite!

To cite: Antrosio, Jason. 2011. “Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism: A Four Field Manifesto.” Living Anthropologically website, First posted 22 October 2011. Revised 14 September 2017.

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  • Chris

    This post is one of the best things I have read intersecting capitalism, anthropology, and morality — and I truly mean, one of the best things I have read. If I may, I would like to link this piece to my Ethics class next semester.

    This is the kind of thinking and writing academics need to do more of — synthesizing strains of thought to confront the problems of our world. Well done.

    I absolutely agree that the first principle in policy change needs to concern poverty and inequality — here, I suggest the work of Thomas Pogge, who has argued for the moral imperative of addressing poverty, and started an organization ASAP, Academics Stand Against Poverty (I saw a presentation from Pogge two weeks ago on this issue). While some suggest that we need to address discrimination based on gender and race, I would argue (as have others) that race and gender are simply proxies for class, which developed over time to achieve the division of labor that Marx says is one of the axioms of history.

    Also, it is a moral imperative that Christians, in particular, put the address of poverty and inequality before everything else — I mean, before all other political and social issues. The so-called gospel of prosperity (which is especially pernicious in the African American community) needs to be stopped dead in its tracks. I make mention of this because the power of religion cannot be under-estimated.

    For even further reading, I would suggest the text Unto Others, a look at the notion of empathy and cooperation from philosophers of biology. Also, the classic by Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation, and the exchange between Frans de Waal and philosophers, Primates and Philosophers.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Chris,

      Thank you for the enthusiastic comment and further reading suggestions. Your comment on the last post helped me develop this one.

      Please feel free to link to this in your course. There has been some recent discussion on anthropology blogs about how to do this and make it meaningful. See Blogging for promotion: an immodest proposal. (Although you may need to explain a bit about my Communist Manifesto plagiarism!)

      Thanks again,

    • Kirsten

      I know next to nothing about anthropology, but as a critical thinker living in an unjust world, I appreciated learning about this perspective on capitalism.

      I am a student of art history and theology, and I currently have the great privilege of learning from Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, author of A Theology of Liberation. I wanted to suggest this and Fr. Gutierrez’s other work as a line of Christian thought that makes concern for the poor primary and looks to the experience of the poor as the inspiration and starting point for generating solutions to injustice.

      Thank you, Jason, for this great post.

      • Jason Antrosio

        Hi Kirsten,
        Many thanks for stopping by and for the helpful comment. Certainly Fr. Gutierrez and Liberation Theology are very important influences here and happy for the contribution. Although I know there has at times been tensions within Catholicism about these issues, it’s reminding me of a recent NPR broadcast on Catholic understandings of the economy, Occupy Wall Street’s Most Unlikely Ally: The Pope which had this great sentence: “Sadly, few Catholics know of the church’s teaching on economic justice, which has been called the church’s best-kept secret.” Which reminded me of why I wrote this–to point to anthropology’s best-kept secret of moral optimism.

        Thanks again!


  • Todd S.

    I agree, great article. Though I would disagree with the 10 proposals. What Graeber pointed out is not unique to the U.S.; it is global. Clearly there is no solution to be found in politics. We must separate civil society from political economy, and ultimately remove the latter from our vocabulary.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Todd,

      Thank you for the comment. I do agree with the global scope of this. However, I would say that modifying the U.S. could have global implications.

      For the proposals, I actually went back to the Communist Manifesto and read the recommendations of Marx and Engels. They preface their list by “These measures will of course be different in different countries. Nevertheless, in the most advanced countries the following will be generally applicable.” I then tried to have some fun translating and elaborating the 10 points into the present.

      Interestingly, for Marx and Engels their immediate words after the list are “When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production is concentrated in the hands of associated individuals, public power loses its political character.” Not sure if that parallels what you say about civil society and political economy, but wanted to elaborate a bit on the reference.

      Thanks again!


  • I agree with the underlying premise: anthropology has a unique perspective and we need to be louder and more insistent on sharing it. As an archaeologist, for me the most important thing our knowledge of the past offers is the ability to directly challenge the assumption that human society has an inevitable trajectory toward greater inequality– normally called “complexity” or even, too often still, “civilization”. In a world where other possibilities have been crowded out, only the past offers the ability to argue that what is today, was in no way inevitable.

    I could develop my own list of specific demands for the US government– and my colleagues around the world no doubt have their own for their governments. But what I feel is most urgent for anthropologists at this juncture is to contest the premises that are treated in the general media as given– and to insist that instilling this critical perspective in students is valuable in itself.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Rosemary,

      Thank you for the comment. I just finished teaching my version of the archaeology segment in Anthropology 101–I was definitely trying my best to challenge the assumptions of inevitable trajectory to complexity and civilization, but we’ll see how the exams come out! What strikes me every time I teach this is how durable progressivist assumptions can be–even those people who seem to be challenging the inevitable trajectory can sometimes end up repeating it in other works.

      With regard to the list–I wouldn’t really call them demands, as they are mostly proposals for thinking, and as I mentioned to Todd, I was trying to revisit the Communist Manifesto and see if the 10 suggestions could be translated and updated. However, in my defense I would say the list could do the very work you say is the most urgent, as it functions to contest the premises of contemporary political practice. I’m also trying to derail the suggestion often levied against anthropologists, that we always critique but never offer alternatives.

      Thanks again and thank you so much for your work in archaeology and on the blogs!


  • Jason Antrosio

    Gracias por esta mención y la traducción. Debo mencionar que el primer párrafo, el tercer y algunos de los últimos son tomados casi directamente del Manifesto Comunista y tal vez puede ayudar en la traducción. ¡Gracias!

    Interestingly, the original reads: “Communists of the most diverse nationalities have assembled in London, and devised the following Manifesto, that is to be published in the English, French, German, Italian, Flemish and Danish languages.” I obviously changed this to assembling online and dropped the list of languages–but curious reading it now that Spanish was not included!

  • sam

    I wholly agree that this is one of the best discussions of the intersection of anthropology and capitalism. A direct attack on the myth on of capitalism by the entire field of anthropology could not be more timely.

    I would just like to add to your comments on Biological Anthropology’s criticism of the “selfish and greedy” human. For too long the ‘scientific’ facts of competition and survival of the fittest have been raised to stop any criticism of a capitalist economy while it is quietly forgotten that these theories have been advanced and popularized in and by capitalist societies. Science is not free from the cultural milieu of its time and nor is it field without its own myths. In may ways competition is not the most appropriate metaphor for biology, as it is far too simple and context-free.

    Long live the anthropological tradition of critical inquiry so that we do not need to simply accept the ‘facts’ we are told.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Sam,

      Many thanks for this insightful comment. Before all this got going I was working on a post tentatively titled “We give up culture if you give up natural selection.” The idea here, which is exactly in line with your comment, is simply that the term natural selection has become irremediably linked to survival-of-the-fittest and competition that has a trajectory to complexity. As much as I try to explain how traits can be adaptive or maladaptive by context, in an ever-changing environment, as much as I try to convey that there is no inherent drive to complexity, when the term natural selection comes up, people inevitably go right back to survival of the fittest. I say a bit about this in the blog-section Evolution and natural selection, anthropologically but hope to do a post about it soon.

      Thanks again!


  • Daniel Lende

    Jason, thanks for writing this! What a great piece. One of the things I most appreciate about it is how you seemlessly mix together academic and online references, treating them equally and all to good effect. A perfect demonstration that online work represents significant scholarly effort!

    I’m sure the next time you work on this draft your overall argument will come across more strongly – that is what drafts are for. I’m guessing you’ll have an even more streamlined one, as well as one that digs further into the intellectual issues.

    Three suggestions to that regard: (a) draw on even more of the great anthro/economy literature to give us some ideas outside the context of the Marxist critique; (b) add my own pet peeve to the list of US changes, that local property taxes largely support public education, setting up a dynamic where families choose neighborhoods based on “better schools” and thus help drive systemic inequality through wanting the best for their children; and (c) perhaps consider if public/applied/online anthro might qualify as a fifth field, or at least bring to light the important point of “imagination in action.”

    Really enjoyed it! Daniel

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Daniel,

      Glad you enjoyed it, and hope this can help in making your case.

      Thank you for the suggestions, as it would be great to add more from economic anthropology. With regard to your “pet peeve,” it is truly a significant issue for taxes-and-education to make the kinds of citizens as recently discussed in the education posts linked to above. (My pet peeve, which is more truly a pet peeve, is the whole Box-Tops-for-Education silliness.)

      I did wonder if anyone would bring up the fifth field–I guess I still see the public/applied/online part of it as a crucial part for all of us, although can understand different approaches.

      I find myself lately constantly emphasizing four-field anthropology, even as that may seem a bit traditionalist or out-of-step with cross-cutting holism. But I feel at this particular juncture, talking about four-field anthropology can be a broad welcome and a way to emphasize holism. It also seems a good tool as we fight for funding and lines!

      Thanks again!


      • Daniel Lende

        Yeah, the four fields does provide a good framework, and I think a case can be made for keeping public/applied as implicit throughout – that that is simply the way things are done.

        Also, I liked my phrase “imagination in action”, so I hope to see at least one of us do something with that…

        • Jason Antrosio

          Imagination in Action — Go for it!

          • Daniel Lende

            Weren’t you the one saying I was surely sleep deprived from all my service? So you go for it!

  • justy

    well .. have you lived in Communism? did you see what communists to anyone who dare to have different views then theirs? do you know that people who were not in the party were not promoted and had to conduct simple jobs becasue only communists (no matter how stupid they were had been promoted to rule everywhere from a factory to university) I am afriad marx didnt a solution for this

  • Jason Antrosio

    Hi Justy,

    Thank you for your comment. I should stress and clarify that by drawing on Marx, Engels, and The Communist Manifesto, I am using these works for analysis and literary devices, not as a recommendation to adopt the policies found in the later development of actually-existing states claiming Marx as justification.

    I would add too that capitalism also has not found a solution to what kinds of people get promoted to run factories and universities, indeed whole states and countries.

  • Great article – as far as it went – needs to advance to Capital volume 2&3
    – especially Engels comments on armed force – changes the dynamic – see my work on the defeat of the working class – free

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Ralph,

      Thank you for the comment. As much as I appreciate Marx’s notion that “there is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits,” I will confess that I’ve never made it into the second and third volumes of Capital.

      Thanks again,

  • Jason- Very nice post. While I agree with most of what you say, I part ways with the specific political recommendations. I do not disagree with them – as an individual I am in strong agreement with most of these ideas. However, I feel that by making explicit political statements, anthropologists undercut our authority to speak to these issues. When we make such recommendations, then people will view our research as tainted by ideology and political bias (regardless of whether this is true or not in individual cases).

    The argument against scholarly organizations and disciplines taking political stances is made very strongly and with empirical support by sociologist Doug Massey. Please check out his work on the topic, particularly the 2007 chapter.

    Massey, Douglas S.
    2006 Doing Social Science in Anti-Scientific Times. American Sociologist 37:87-95.

    2007 The Strength of Weak Politics. In Public Sociology: Fifteen Eminent Sociologists Debate Politics and the Profession in the Twenty-first Century, edited by Dan Clawson, Robert Zussman, Joya Mistra, Naomi Gerstel, Randall Stokes, Douglas L. Anderton, and Michael Burawoy, pp. 145-157. Universitiy of California Press, Berkeley.

    I have been disturbed by the politicization of the American Anthropological Association for some time, and that is one reason I resigned from the AAA this year. But in some ways, I have been more upset about the reactions of some colleagues to my views on this — they assume that my objection to political resolutions and such means that I must be a conservative and disagree with the content of most AAA resolutions (usually not true).

    So from my viewpoint, you have a very strong essay that is undercut by your list of specific political recommendations at the end.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Michael,

      Many thanks for your comments. I’ve been trying to keep up with your work and perspective and was thinking about it as I wrote this post. I am quite in agreement that anthropology is not in itself a political position and that specific political stances do not belong in classrooms, research, or professional organizations. As you can probably tell, I grew up as a graduate student under Michel-Rolph Trouillot, and I remember how he talked of the need to separate a political project and political activism from the job of anthropology: “You can’t have your job and eat it too.” (I discussed this a bit in a previous post on Anthropology Ambushed.)

      However, Trouillot would go on to emphasize how much we need to recognize that our research questions are often shaped by political-economic forces we do not control and how we have to be aware of how research can be used for political purposes. We cannot “assume a liberal space of enlightenment–a space blind to the world, isolated from the messiness of social life . . . That space does not exist. Once launched, the concepts we work with take on a life of their own. . . . there is not guarantee that the final meaning will be ours. Yet without such prior attention to the wider context of deployment, the words that encapsulate our concepts are most likely to become irretrievable for us” (Global Transformations, p.108, 112).

      In other words, although anthropology should not be politicized, we also have to recognize the implications of our work in the messy political world. Taking an anthropological stance may in fact inform and entail certain political commitments. We cannot argue for the non-determinism of biological race and then take no stand regarding racism and health disparities. We cannot argue for the importance of a long-term archaeological perspective and then take no stand regarding short-term economic expediency. We cannot argue for the importance of treating people like human beings and then take no stand regarding discriminatory measures targeted at immigrants. We cannot critique the language of profit maximization and efficiency as the exclusive measure of educational outcomes and then take no stand regarding those outcomes.

      In my list, I was hoping to write recommendations and proposals which flowed from anthropological research. You may be correct that this list undercuts the earlier points. However, I am hoping these are things that most anthropologists would not just personally support, but are actually supported by real anthropological research and an anthropological perspective.

      Thank you again–I’m very grateful for your perspective and reading suggestions. I’ll be thinking about this and keeping up with your work.


    • Not an anthropologist per se

      I have to say, the idea–or practicality–of separating politics from research I think is farcical and empirically *invalid*. Transparency in political leanings–as in other aspects of conducting research–is much to be desired, in my opinion, among academics. Otherwise, what we are doing is pretending that by not telling people our political conclusions, we are less biased–as if keeping such thoughts to ourselves and our friends and family makes them less real or relevant or manifest in our work, rather than simply sublimated.

      I am found of this and this discussion of these points, among others.

      • Jason Antrosio

        Thank you to “Not an anthropologist per se” for the comment and interesting links. I basically agree with you, and may have worded my reply to Michael in an unwieldy way. Transparency on political commitments is an important part of research, rather than going through the sublimated gymnastics.

        I guess what I was trying to say was that we cannot imagine our research is our political project. And I would also hold open possibilities for empirical research contradicting initial political leanings. Not to say you were saying either of these things, but those are just some of the common next-step confusions when it comes to political transparency.

        Thanks again–grateful for the perspective,

  • Jason-

    I see a big difference between “arguing for” the things you mention (points about race, or the value of a long-term time perspective) and producing empirical scientific evidence about these things. I prefer to keep political views out of research as much as possible. I am not arguing for a naive value-free objective ideal for research. But if I want some policy-maker or politician to listen to what I have to say about an anthropological topic, I will be more successful if my research results are framed in an objective, nonpolitical framework than if they are seen as as carried out in service of a political agenda. This is Massey’s point, and he makes it eloquently.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Michael,

      Thank you for the reply. I’d like a chance to look over the Massey piece you recommended before responding further. I’ve now entered into a continuous grading loop but will try to get back to you soon.


  • Daniel wrote:

    “One of the things I most appreciate about it is how you seemlessly mix together academic and online references, treating them equally and all to good effect. A perfect demonstration that online work represents significant scholarly effort!”

    Yep. I’ll second that one. Good ideas are good ideas, whether they are published in a journal, or a blog. The content, arguments, and ideas are what truly matter. Nice work making that point in spades with this one, Jason.

  • Powerful post, buddy. Many good points and a fine read. I do agree with Michael E. Smith, however, about the list of policy suggestions. Though I largely agree with them, I feel the essay would have been stronger had the list been omitted.

    Anthropologists like you (along with David Graeber, Gillian Tett, and others) give me hope that perspectives normally viewed as “radical” will soon enter the Overton window of today.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi cremaster_,

      Thank you for the comment here and the positive outlook.

      Obviously my list of things “anthropology urges” has been called into question. It may be that I just wrote that part badly and need to revise. Or maybe cut it. However, I would say that if anthropology is to be taken seriously out there, we will need to move from critique and the empiricals into proposals. As Michael E. Smith said in a recent comment at Savage Minds: “We need more op-ed pieces, more blogs that present our findings to a wider audience (Neuroanthropology approaches this), and more emphasis on the fact that anthropology has developed solid, empirical knowledge about how the world works. Critique and interpretation and relativism won’t cut it in this arena.”

      To that I would add that if we are going to write those Op-Ed pieces, we are going to have to distill things and make succinct proposals. I doubt the people who dismiss “critique and interpretation and relativism” are going to do much wading through empirical data and try to guess what anthropology might propose.

      Thank you again, and will be thinking about this for revisions and further work,

  • Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld

    This–the post, the approach, the blog, the whole enterprise–is outstanding. I got here through your message on the SEA list, which leads to my first thought: self-promotion is a great idea and you should do it where ever you get the chance.
    Second, I think you show a way for anthropologists to make peace with with and draw strength from the four fields. With so few contemporary anthropologists publishing outside their speciality, most (at research universities anyway) do not feel they have the expertise to authoritatively move across topics from contemporary issues to prehistory to evolution to language. Yet, you show anthropologists can still serve as thoughtful guides for wider audiences to findings and issues across subfields. I think you also show that more than a free floating holism, the four fields starts to deliver a thick empiricism.

  • Roger

    If you want to bring anthropology to economics, it would be helpful if you didn’t start by constructing a progressive wet-dream straw man of the “fairy tale” “market capitalist religion.” Yes, I know this is what economically illiterate people think are the foundations of free markets, but I would expect more from an anthropologist.

    First, free markets do not assume people are wholly selfish (though it may be true that progressives assume capitalists are wholly selfish.) Indeed free enterprise is rooted in the assumption that reciprocity and cooperation are essential for division of labor and exchange. Free enterprise does recognize that people often ARE selfish, but it requires them to pursue their interests in a positive sum way via voluntary, un-coerced exchange.

    Your second point starts by conceding that free markets may deliver productive dynamism (over socialism/totalitarianism) but then suggests anthropologists know better because they are aware of older non capitalist cities that were powerful, large and flourishing. Do you really believe Smith, Hayek, Mises and Friedman were unaware of mighty cities of the past? Are you really arguing that standards of living or lifespans or health were better then than now? Seriously? Best estimates are that the masses had lifespans of less than 40 years, with substantially worse health, little or no education, little or no freedom and they lived on the equivalent of a dollar or two per day. Progressive utopia!

    You then shift to sustainability — though you concede the prior “flourishing” cities weren’t sustainable either as they all “ebbed.” You then just assume that all right minded readers will agree that free markets are unsustainable and the “worst mistake in human history.” How you can describe something that has helped billions escape poverty and ignorance and slavery/serfdom this way simply escapes me. If you want to argue free enterprise is unsustainable, feel free to do so, but you have not.

    Then you suggest free markets have not delivered the goods — indeed it is a “miserable failure.” Would you care to back that statement up with fact rather than friendly quotes? Are any readers of this forum aware of the reductions in poverty over the past 10, 50, 100 and 200 years? Are you aware that it is countries that have adopted free markets earliest and most vigorously that the greatest gains were achieved? Are you aware of East vs West Germany? North vs South Korea? China before and after its embrace of markets? Maybe I just don’t understand your definition of “catastrophic.”

    You then go into some linguistic mumbo jumbo on how capitalism is not invincible. Trust me, if your readers can make sense of what you write, free markets are doomed, not invincible.

    You then lay out a litany of master planned, top down solutions that just reveal your ignorance of the true power of free enterprise — that it is a bottoms up system of mutually voluntary win/win, positive sum, value creating activities. Your list will get you right back to China of 1500CE, or Rome of 200CE. Funny thing, you actually convince the masses that will be impoverished by your foolishness to clammer for it.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Dear Roger,

      Thank you for reading and taking time to comment on each aspect of the post. I readily agree that I am simplifying–as in many blogs, especially when working with the genre of a “manifesto”–but would maintain that these comments are backed by solid empirical anthropological research, which I would invite readers to further consider. In some ways this is meant as a corrective to the insistence on markets-at-any-cost approach, and is very much in the spirit of economist Herbert Stein’s “Adam Smith did not wear an Adam Smith necktie” (1994). That is, trying to recapture the true richness of people like Adam Smith and others who had a much more nuanced view of markets and capitalism than current caricatures.

      It is most revealing that my relatively modest list of reformist proposals–which as one of my colleagues commented really would do nothing to alter capitalist systems of production–is taken to be a radical rupture with the current system.

      I would again invite interested readers to explore further the empirical anthropological work done on these issues and to compare these accounts with these statements.

      Best regards,

      • Gustavo

        I would invite you to respond to Roger’s critique.

      • Roger

        Thanks Jason,

        I don’t have any concerns with your anthropological observations. My concern is with your progressive caricature of free enterprise. Indeed the current paradigm seems to be “undermine free markets at any cost.”

        Voluntary, positive sum exchange combined with science are the twin engines of prosperity and progress. As an anthropologist, you are aware that no prior society has been able to deliver the standard of living, the education, the population and the health of the modern liberal world. Yet you characterize its dominant economic system as “the worst mistake in human history.”

        As for your list of suggestions, I have no issue with open borders, and “boring” finance. The concern I have overall with the list is that it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of problem solving in modern society. In general it suffers from what I call “the Big Kahuna” fallacy. This is the fallacy that problems are solved and systems are run primarily from the top down rather than the bottom up. It sees the world through centralized, monopolistic, coercive solutions rather than decentralized, voluntary bottoms up experimentation.

        Don’t get me wrong, there is a role for top down problem solving as long as it doesn’t interfere with where the real progress is usually made. Let me just end by saying we won’t really understand free enterprise, evolution, culture, science, biology, social insects or other decentralized learning systems until we free ourselves from the Big Kahuna fallacy.

        • Jason Antrosio

          Hi Roger,

          Thank you for this comment. I really appreciate you coming back to take some time on this, and this further elaboration gives me a chance to work more with the material. I would even add that some items on the list would increase the kinds of free enterprise and voluntary positive sum exchange you discuss: for example, I am asking for a serious scaling back of agricultural subsidies to large monocroppers as well as dropping trade tariffs that harm the world’s poorest farmers. This would have to be a “top-down” measure, but should result in more bottom-up solutions.

          I am hoping to compose a fuller reply, and will get back to you when I can. I did want to make one comment on the “worst mistake” characterization. Here, I am playing with a Jared Diamond article titled “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.” I am actually very critical of Diamond and this article, but you should know that this is where some of these terms are coming from, and I apologize if I did not explain what may be a kind of inside joke for anthropologists.

          When I speculate that industrial capitalism may turn out to be “the worst mistake” I am referring both back to what looked like a possible total nuclear annihilation of the planet (fotunately this possibility seems to have receded!), and forward to the kinds of anticipated climate and other disruptions forecast over the next 100-200 years. With seven billion people on the planet seeking the yet-unfulfilled promise of a capitalist standard of living, it must at least bring pause, no?

          Thank you again,

          • Roger

            Hi Jason,

            Yes, the future brings pause. Progress is not inevitable. I am not even sure it is likely. I am confident though that it is possible.

            As we solve problems, sometimes we create new ones. Often the new problems are harder than the ones we already fixed.

            Free enterprise has helped those that have embraced it better than the alternatives — as has science. Reality has continued to penalize those that have ignored these solution systems. The problem is of course that science and free enterprise have led to a lot fewer deaths and higher populations, as well as to a lot more prosperity. All this contributes to environmental impacts and species endangerment.

            Two suggestions: First we need to solve present and future problems without throwing the baby out with the bath water. Second, we should study effective problem solving and use it for keys to future problem solving. Specifically, we should embrace the powers of decentralization, variety and constructive, competitive-cooperation.

            I will now go to your powerpoint….

  • StephenUpson

    I think I would have to agree with Roger. Having just finished David Graeber’s book on the history of debt, I am not sure I would have preferred to live in one of those dynamic, pre-capitalist societies you and he mention as alternatives to current capitalist societies, unless, of course I could choose my status (and by the way, I hope Graeber’s knowledge of anthropology, of which I know almost nothing, is sounder than his knowledge of economic history, of which I know something).

    This isn’t to say that criticizing the brutalities and unfairness of contemporary life is not legitimate and valuable, but romanticizing alternatives that are even worse isn’t, and too often becomes just a cover to roll back the messiness of democracy. I am afraid that during periods of upheaval, like the 1930s most obviously, many of our intellectuals respond to the confusion and lack of clarity of contemporary life with a romanticization of earlier and largely imaginary communities, allying themselves to the same old anti-democratic tendencies masquerading as “real” democracy.

    Powerless intellectuals tend to romanticize the various forms of fascism. I hope we don’t once again experience the treason of the clerics. Of course if we don’t it will be something truly new in modern history.

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Stephen,

      Thank you for reading and for reading David Graeber–it’s really great to see this interest. See above for a bit more dialogue with Roger–I actually think we can agree on several points, including how to truly bring a kind of bottom-up or decentralized energy. One objective in writing this was to point out how much the world’s resources have been concentrated at the very top, which is in fact leading to the very outcome of a kind of fascism which you lament in your comment, and stifling the entrepreneurial win-win Roger espouses.

      With regard to the romanticization of past or other forms of life, I would agree that this is a danger. I hope you will read the comment below from Catherine Blampied, as this expresses what I was trying to do. However, Catherine’s summary is much better than I have been able to accomplish.

      Thank you again,

  • Thank you for this brilliant piece, which I stumbled across meandering online, and which I will definitely be sharing – one of the best things I have read in a while. I really wish I would see more of these synthesis pieces by ‘engaged’ scholars (even saying that I feel like it’s a dirty word!) who refuse to burrow down into their own constructed fields/sub-fields but rather are motivated to use their critical skills and knowledge to address profound problems in the contemporary world. I initially studied as a historian, with a little bit of anthropology, and I think your central point about deep exposure to alternative social/economic/political/cultural systems can be readily applied to historians as well. I was always disturbed by how superficially (if at all) ‘examples from history’ are used to illuminate thinking about the present, and shocked at how so many scholars ignore this, in my view, critical responsibility, or indeed deny it through a discourse of supposed objectivity and independence.

    Here in the UK (as I’m sure similarly elsewhere), the economic recession has been used as a way to increase the stranglehold of the Conservative government over universities – with growing pressure through such mechanisms as the ‘research excellence framework’, needing to constantly demonstrate ‘impact’ (obviously a certain kind of preferred ‘impact’), Research Council funding becoming even more pitiful and constrained than before for the humanities and social sciences, and recently a scandal over the Research Councils increasingly using electoral slogans (Cameron’s ‘the big society’) as formal premises of their priorities. Given all this, especially the precariousness of funding and the pretty much utter contempt in which social scientists and humanities scholars are held by the public, the government, and other parts of the academy, I can see why Michael E. Smith makes the pragmatic point that declaring specific political manifestos might seem frighteningly offputting, and that the last thing we want is our integrity and authority to be questioned. On the other hand, the fallacy of thinking it possible to separate out ‘politics’ from teaching, research, or actually any endeavour in life – indeed, even conceptualising ‘politics’ in this way – is itself only a bolstering of a different type of politics, a discourse which downplays the extent to which not explicitly questioning certain assumptions and, by extension, policies and systems, encourages acquiescence and discourages critical thinking. I also agree with you that specific political ideas/proposals may emerge quite directly from academic work, in which case is it not disingenuous and unethical, and certainly ‘political’ in itself, to deny these?

    My question is, therefore, how do you actually envisage or recommend that scholars be able to break free of this encouraged quietism and engage in some kind of action or activism as a logical corollary of their academic work? How do you think this can be done without rocking the funding boat etc? In particular I am thinking of early career scholars, who want to bring their own expertise to bear on broader public debates, and not just ‘do’ academia in an ivory tower but potentially shake up the model of what academia means and what is should set out to achieve. What are your ideas along these lines (aside from biding your time until your stature is such that – I’m thinking of people like David Harvey – you can say whatever the hell you like!)?

    I would also just like to say in regard to some of the comments above, it strikes me that your article does not at all romanticize past civilizations but rather uses them as a counterpoint to expose the much more common fallacy of romanticization of our present global capitalist civilization as the ‘end of history’, a myth that very much lives on. Historical and anthropological knowledge of the astonishing plethora of systems, ideologies, beliefs that have, in the blink of an eyes that is the last few thousand years, flourished, fallen, changed, and been made to seem entirely ‘natural’ and legitimate, creates a critical distance from what we are doing in the present and a space to imagine all kinds of weird and wonderful things that humans might get up to over the next few thousand years. Furthermore, it allows us the capacity to realise there is extraordinarily little we have to accept as ‘inevitable’, and that there may be many more diverse ways to define a ‘good life’ (ecological/planetary health, global equity, parity and justice) than the criteria listed in some above comments, set out to show we are definitely ‘progressing’.

    I look forward to keeping an eye on your future work.

    • Roger


      I have no response to views of capitalism as “the end of history” or “inevitable.” These views seem equally hollow to me. I also share your excitement over the weird and wonderful possibilities of the future, which may indeed be very post-capitalistic (What happens when we no longer require most people for most productivity? Beats me!)

      There are indeed at least as many ways to define the good life as there are people on earth. The point is that despite thousands upon thousands of societies chugging along for thousands upon thousands of years, every single one of them ended up in pretty much the same place — people living 30 or 40 precarious — often chronically painful — years on a dollar or two per day. Furthermore, once states and empires emerged, it shifted to the same except you can add a level of stationary bandits and their intellectual/priestly rationalizers that exploited the fruits of those actually producing value. An anthropologist should be asking — what sets apart those rare societies that have broken out of this trend?

      Yes, we need to solve ecological problems, and yes we need to do it in a way which does not pull the rug of potential prosperity (and life) out from under 7 billion people. To repeat my comment to Jason, progress is not inevitable. But it is possible.

      If I offered a future that looked like the past in terms of disease, life expectancy, income, education, class mobility, slavery and exploitation I am pretty confident that most human beings would view it not just as regression, but as catastrophic regression. If you insist that movement the other way is not progress, then I do suspect you are romanticizing the past. Please do clarify.

      • Jason Antrosio

        Hi Roger,

        Thank you for clarifying your position. I believe one of the most recent statements of capitalism-as-progress is from economist Deirdre McCloskey, who has contributed to a volume titled The Morality of Capitalism: What Your Professors Won’t Tell You. Personally I find it strange that an economist who was so useful for explaining the rhetoric of economics has now apparently embraced a role of using rhetoric to promote “bourgeois values.”

        Although economists may know a lot about models of capitalism from the inside, for many anthropologists we learned about capitalism from its hidden underside–from the linked effects between the rise of industry and capitalist-driven extraction from the colonies, resource and labor exploitation, both internally and externally. One of the best sources on this is still Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History. I still remember reading it first year of college–changed my life.

        We have a pretty good representation of viewpoints here, so I’m going to close these comments.

        Thank you again,

    • Jason Antrosio

      Dear Catherine,

      Many thanks for this comment, and I second the subsequent trackback calling it an “Excellent comment.” It’s a comment bloggers live for, a comment that inspired a whole other blog-post from half-way around the world!

      I’m disturbed to hear about the developments in UK academia. We in the U.S. probably think we are getting quite enough of corporate models, outcomes-based assessment, the cuts to funding, and imagine some other world of respect and relevance. I guess the upside is we can share experiences and collaborate on responses.

      As to your questions about how to do these things and trying to re-shape the ivory tower. All good questions, difficult, and tricky. I was struck re-reading Trouillot by his assessment that “institutionalized anthropology has tended to choose comfort over risk, masking the relevance of its debates and positions and avoiding a public role” (2003:137). But it’s definitely easier to advocate risk from a tenured position!

      I hope you will join some anthropology bloggers who have been thinking about this recently. A couple great posts by Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology are relevant:

      Blogging for Promotion: An Immodest Proposal
      An Online Anthropology Compiler

      Finally, I’ll just never be able to say better what you said about not wanting to romanticize but to emphasize human possibility and fight the romanticization of capitalism, which is still more powerful than the other way around.

      Many thanks,

  • Laura


    I loved loved loved this piece. Until the 10 suggestions. And then the comments. My question is why, in a discussion that makes reference to Marx, and David Graeber, and in a discussion that should be about recognizing the scope and breadth of human possibilities, are we still only thinking inside the capitalism box? I understand that the 10 suggestions are a (quite) watered-down, modern version of Marx’s 10 Planks, but this does not change the fact that they constitute what we would call today “Social Democracy.” Every time I read an article about broadening the discourse on economic systems, I get excited, and then let down. The elephant in the room is socialism. Graeber is an anarchist, and Marx– well Marx was Marx. If we are going to agree that capitalism is so problematic and unsustainable, then the question should not be how to fix capitalism, nor should it be whether capitalism is better or worse than economic systems from the past. The question should be how can anthropology shed light on the possibilities for a post-capitalist future, and this should include discussions of egalitarianism, socialism, communism, anarchism, parecon, and all other ideas about how humanity can move forward and away from capitalism. Anthropologists can use their unique insights into the past and the present to inform a real and imaginative discourse about the future.

    Thank you.

    • Roger


      You write: “If we are going to agree that capitalism is so problematic and unsustainable, then the question should not be how to fix capitalism, nor should it be whether capitalism is better or worse than economic systems from the past.”

      Because if it IS so much better than the past, then you need to tread carefully before dismantling it. Nothing in this article offered any data on “defects of free enterprise vs alternative economic systems.” The body of this article started with a “progressive” caricature of capitalism and then went on to a list of recommendations (some of which I agree with btw).

      My advice, use anthropological, empirical and economic vigor before agreeing on the problem.

      • Jason Antrosio

        Hi Roger,

        Thank you for the additional comment. I believe we have here a pretty full range of responses to my proposals, from those who thought them inappropriate to those who wanted different proposals, to those who thought they would end capitalism, to those who said they would only perpetuate capitalism. So probably it’s time to close these comments and let people investigate further which position they might take.

        Best regards,

    • Jason Antrosio

      Hi Laura,

      Many thanks for stopping by–glad you enjoyed the first part, although sorry things went so far downhill for you. I suppose I’m feeling a bit hemmed in about the proposals–several anthropologists seemed to think such proposals were inappropriate or a diversion. Others seemed to think they were OK but not the right ones. Roger originally said these would end capitalism, although he did take a more nuanced position later. Others took them as entirely within the system and therefore nothing like what needed to be accomplished. Off-list, one reader e-mailed to say something similar:

      The proposals appear to be confined to policy changes, all of which seem to presume the existent relations of production but coupled with a more beneficent state. In other words, it seems that the manifesto calls for the continuation of capitalist production.

      I agree anthropology may be able to do more to imagine and envision possible futures. Toward that end, this commenter is part of a “special track” event at the upcoming meetings of the Society for Applied Anthropology in Baltimore, on Alternative and Non-Capitalist Political Ecologies.

      My own views have been influenced by several sources. First is simply to present the idea of possibilities even within current configurations–that choices are made, not inevitabilities. Second, my own research has been on peasant and artisan economies, and part of my research has been on understanding how thoroughly enmeshed in markets such people can be, but also to show the larger meaning of market relationships. In particular, with my colleague Rudi Colloredo-Mansfeld (mentioned above), we’ve been exploring how in many ways the market plaza can also be conceived as a kind of “commons.”

      Finally, I am interested in how we might imagine getting from our current position to other modes of life, perhaps by subtle transformations in what exists. Here, I am intrigued by a footnote from Frederick Jameson: “The Walmart celebrated by [Thomas] Friedman becomes the very anticipatory prototype of some new form of socialism for which the reproach of centralization now proves historically misplaced and irrelevant. (Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, 2005:153). I discussed this a bit in Anthropology and government planning, a post urging anthropology to stand against representations of all government planning as inherently bad.

      Thank you again for the comment, and hope we can work together,

      P.S. One of the things I loved about your comment was the part about socialism being the “elephant in the room”: Reminded me of a great scene from Bulworth, when he grabs the microphone at a fundraising party and starts chanting: “let me hear that dirty word–socialism.”

    • Michael

      Spot on…very well said. Draw upon lessons from what we know as a starting point. But it is clear, a unique post-capitalist model that respects/rewards humanity and the environment must be created. The world and our future generations of life may depend upon it. Make haste!

  • John McCarthy

    With respect to the contribution of archaeology to this project, I will note that due to its basis in an objective physical reality (apart from the problem of objectively observing that reality), archaeology provides a record of past and recent socio-cultural conditions and change that transcends (or at least has the potential to do so) the biases of the ideological structures of the moment.

    • Hi John, thank you for that! Anthropology can really benefit from this consideration of long-term transformations, as based in real materials.

  • Helga Vierich

    Wow. I love this paragraph:

    “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.”

    I thought about it, and then, having read the rest of your essay and all the comments, find myself uneasy. Not with the overall bravery and challenge here – but with the idea that the problem is actually just “capitalism”. Capitalism may just be one of several systems of economic organization for doing industrial production. Maybe it is both the myth of “progress”and the unsustainable nature of industrial production systems (as economies, whether dominated by capitalist OR hypothetical communist or socialist systems, that we need to try to focus on.

    Maybe it is industrialized systems of production that create inequalities of a socio-economic sort. Rather than focussing on capitalism and contrasting it with Marx’s ideal communism, perhaps we might consider the possibility that BOTH are essentially “progressive” models of human economic history, as well as current rivals for the claim of being better systems for organizing an industrial economy. maybe they are both equally flawed. Maybe NEITHER is the solution – the solution might be the abandonment of industrial production systems altogether. Only then will we get a collapse of the financial and political institutions that industrialization tends to entrain. Both alternatives and even various mixes (socialism?) always seem to produce great income disparities, no matter whether people are called citizens or comrades. There are always tiny elites at the top. Admittedly, it would seem that the less regulated the market is, as in full-blown capitalism, the greater the inequality.

    Industrialization tends toward consolidation and centralization of authority over production systems. This is taken to considerable extreme today, with even land owners not entitled to claim priority rights over more a few feet of topsoil. If you have oil or coal or natural gas underneath, these assets can be literally sold out from under you. Our industrial system privileges corporate entities, both “legitimate” and “criminal”, to the point where today, a number of them exist which outweigh whole national budgets in terms of control over the planet’s resources.

    I am going to have to give this more thought. I see the value in some of your proposed solutions, but am perplexed by the way they seem too specific to the situation in the United States.

    Also, these stray form the scholarly pursuit of knowledge, and cause and effect analysis which can dismantle the ideological mythologies (of both extremes; of both capitalism and communism) into a kind of social reform policy – activism, in fact. Are you suggesting that anthropologists should take to the streets and man the barricades… or that we should all run for public office, or what?

    You see, until and unless anthropological analysis of the present economic system can been clearly shown to debunk just about everything currently firmly believed in the discipline of economics, we will harpy be likely to replace economists as the experts called in by our governments to advise them on such policies. I suggest it will take a huge effort from literally thousands of anthropologists to pull this off. Furthermore, it will not succeed unless it is done with dispassion – free of ANY ideological leanings in the direction of either left or right – or political leanings either way. Moreover, it will not succeed unless it is done with a ferocious and rigorous scientific methodology in which the data from all four subfields are marshalled together.

    One other point: for this does not end with concerns for human welfare or political justice. The list, to our dismay, includes a looming energy crisis, imminent climate catastrophe, on-going species extinction, vast population overshoot, sheer environmental destruction and pollution… and need I mention the possibility of resource wars in the presence of enough nuclear armament to completely wipe out all life on earth?

    There is scientific data being collected in all these areas. Certainly not all of it is being collected by anthropologists, although it may take an anthropological imagination to integrate it all.

    Thus, finally, and most important of all, I think there is NO possibility that we can do it without a whole supporting cast of scientific characters. If anthropology strides out alone, like David to confront Goliath, one slingshot might not do it. In the real world, it would be too easy just to discredit and defund the whole of our discipline. In fact, as we all know, this has already begun. Those who oppose all efforts to destroy the giant myths of our present global industrial civilization are the most powerful people on the planet and they WILL keep propping up the “scientists” who deny and debunk each and every study that threatens their position and their ideology.

    Anthropologists need allies among other sciences. We need lots and lots of allies. Luckily for us, there are brilliant people in other fields, who are also working very hard on tackling aspects of these problems. People like Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett for example:

    If not this kind of networking and group effort, with any all branches of science that will work with us, …then what… is going to save our species from the collective calamities industrialization has produced? I don’t think anything less will stand a chance.

    • Hi Helga, thank you for this comment. This piece was written at a particular moment and borrowed heavily–plagiarized really–from The Communist Manifesto. I’m not sure manifestos can be written in anything but ironic mode these days, and would never think this constituted a programme. If I were in more analytic mode regarding the relationship (and non-equivalence) of capitalism and industrialization, I’ve found this Friedman and Friedman 2013 useful Globalization as a discourse of hegemonic crisis: A global systemic analysis.

      • Helga Vierich

        The issue is not so much globalization of trade, is it? That has been going on for thousands and thousands of years…and it is not so much a question of having some nation states dominating world affairs, either, in my humble opinion. Surely the key issue is that particular association of extreme socio-economic stratification and the way that elites turn political agendas to their own benefit?

        • Hi Helga, I guess it would depend on what you mean by “key issue,” that is, with regard to what? When we talk about extreme socioeconomic stratification and elite political agendas, that is also perhaps thousands and thousands of years old, no?

      • Collin237

        It most certainly is possible to be not ironic. Consider the following:

        Humans are naturally kind and charitable.
        Capitalism harnesses lack of emotion to preserve wasteful production methods.
        Capitalism doesn’t even try to deliver the goods.
        Capitalism lasts only until something fit for today’s world is invented to replace it.

        That’s right, the world. Nothing large like the cosmos, and nothing small like the best and worst nation of the month. Nothing more or less than the human species using all of our knowledge to share all of our wealth and resources and keep the earth viable.

        We are not a dead-end; we are a mesomorph. And it’s time to break out of the cocoon and overwrite all we know is wrong about today’s world order. It’s time for anthropologists to stop being a spectre, get real, take up their paper and quill, and start founding something. Because the end of this era won’t be a Manifesto. It will be a Constitution of the United States of Earth. And if anthropologists don’t write it, nobody will.

  • Marxist Materialist

    Marx was honest about the power and dynamisn of early capitalism which, like a juggernaut, steamrolled Europe and most the world in its development and brought about progressive change, like free labor, republics, and mass production.

    To think for a second Marx was somehow praising capitalism is kinda silly, if you are at all familiar with his works. We can’t lie to ourselves and say that capitalism hasn’t changed the world and brought about the skeleton of a society that can be better.

    Marx’s comment about tradition in the brumaire illustrates that a revolutionary society will still struggle with problems it inherits from the old society, like Cuba ‘s struggle with racism and homophobia