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Monday, February 03, 2014

"A Spectre Is Stalking Capitalism -- the Spectre of Anthropology"; Or; Making History With the Historicized Humanities

Fairy Tale of Capitalist Triumph and Inevitability
The premises of the market-capitalist religion: 1. Humans are naturally greedy-selfish. 2. Capitalism harnesses greed and selfishness for prodictive dynamism. 3. Capitalism successfully delivers the goods. 4. Capitalism is invincible... Anthropology... must challenge each part 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... Biological anthropology reveals primate plasticity, variability, and flexibility. We are not programmed for any particular kind of life... Moreover, all of these so-called traits -- greed, selfishness, altruism, empathy -- even as they might be bioculturally reinforced and developed, depend a great deal on context. Someone marked as greedy in one context can be quite altruistic in another. The values we ascribe to particular contexts can make all the difference. This is a further contribution of biological anthropology -- questioning all those just-so stories about gender relations and domesticity, lately served up by evolutionary psychology... [W]e 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.

Archaeology: Dynamism and Sustainability

... We can now look historically and see other periods of non-capitalist dynamism... [I]n 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... Whereas capitalism has been dynamic for 100-200 years, archaeology shows us incredibly diverse and dynamic societies, flourishing and ebbing, sometimes over a 700-800 year span. Archaeology [also] invites us to consider sustainability... [C]an our planet endure 500 more years of capitalist dynamism? At present trend–and this may already be upon us–we could be facing vast species death and massive dislocations... 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... On balance capitalism has at best been a mixed bag, at worst catastrophic. And this fact applies not just on the edges of capitalism but at its heart–after some periods of relative stability and apparently fine-tuned management of the business cycle, we are back to lurching from crisis to crisis... The world needs cultural anthropology more than ever before... [W]hen much of the world’s population gets written off as irrelevant, then anthropological fieldwork has become even more necessary.
Linguistic Anthropology: Capitalism is Not Invincible
Capitalism is not just an economic system... the “geography of management” is accompanied by a “management of imagination” ... and a projection of “North Atlantic universals” through words like development, progress, and modernity... [I]t 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...  We may disagree on universal grammar or Sapir-Whorf, but we can agree that the imagination of capitalist invincibility is built on shaky and contested terms -- terms that can also be used toward emancipatory ends.
Anthropology: Observe, Describe, and Propose
This account of contributions from each of anthropology’s major subfields is not meant to fragment and divide. The world needs anthropology more than ever, for anthropologists to stand with anthropology as a whole... Anthropology documents human possibility, demonstrates that the way things are is not the way things must be. We do not need to support market-capitalism at all costs. We do not need to believe the capitalist fairy tale, even as we seek to understand its power and allure. At this juncture, anthropologists recognize the U.S. does not have a functioning government. Officials who have signed pledges to never increase taxes -- even as they bemoan deficits; officials who refuse to consider jobs programs -- even after years of unemployment; this is no longer a functioning government capable of acting on behalf of the governed...
A series of attractively progressive policy recommendations follows, about which much could be usefully debated. Follow the link above for the whole piece. I have omitted, for example, all sorts of quotations from scholars elaborating and substantiating the points I have highlighted. I will say that some of what is being called "anthropology" in the piece draws from disciplines that include more than just anthropologists. Science and technology scholars, environmental justice scholars, heterodox economists and economic historians, historians and sociologists, critical theorists and even philosophers, and so on, are contributing to the discourses from which the program draws (and even quotes). This is, no doubt, why the piece ends with a plea that "Anthropologists and allies of all lands, unite!" For me, the piece is really declaring the indispensability to sustainable democratic equity-in-diversity of the humanities and humanistic disciplines, at least to the extent that work in these disciplines has taken the well-nigh ubiquitous turn to situating and historicizing their scholarship. Even if I am not eager to designate anthropology the paradigm of such scholarship, while cheerfully conceding its fabulousness at its best, it is of course a pleasure to welcome such a call as this to an activist scholarship mobilizing facts and figures (I mean both of those terms in their rhetorical sense, I'm a rhetorician, you know) in the service of planetary sustainability, democracy, equity, and diversity.


watching the watchers said...

Hmm, I seem to remember you having a chip on your shoulder about the field of evolutionary psychology, which you seemed to believe was entirely fallacious. How is the section on selfishness vs altruism not an example of evolutionary psychology theory? It's one thing to say that the majority of research in that field is pseudo-scientific Capitalist propaganda (which it is) and another to dismiss it as a whole. The difference being that the former expands the base of knowledge informing present socio-political paradigms, whereas the latter completely denies the opportunity for affirming the biological basis of socialism.

Dale Carrico said...

It's one thing to say that the majority of research in that field is pseudo-scientific Capitalist propaganda (which it is) and another to dismiss it as a whole.

You think so? Uh, okay. All I really care about is your agreement on the former point, especially if you mean by "majority" something like I do when it comes to evopsycho douchebaggery.

There are, as you know, many varieties of socialist discourse and practice, not all of which are logically compatible with one another or historically congenial with one another -- something historicized humanistic scholarship will help you with when you go on to try to show "the" "biological" "basis" of "it" (since not one of those quoted words makes sense the way you are using them in your phrasing, so far as I can tell).

Speaking of all that, I will freely confess to "having a chip on my shoulder" about phrenology too -- even though I daresay a bump on the head is still plenty worthy of examination in a forensic autopsy.