Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Anthropologist’s Credo

Anthropologists poking at Capitalism? With the Four-Field Manifesto? Part 1

Anthropology documents human possibility, and demonstrates that the “way things are” is not the way things must be. Anthropologists do not need to support market-capitalism at any costs:  This prevalent need to believe capitalist’s fairy tales of power and allure.

What kinds of fairy tales that capitalists dump on us?  

The premises of the market-capitalist religion are:

  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.

I have read a lengthy article by a team of anthropologists, and I will split it into two parts, with minor editing.

The first part is to refute the claims of triumph and inevitability of capitalists, and the second part on how Capitalism has not delivered the goods

“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.

What is this Moral Optimism? Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote: “We owe it to ourselves and to our interlocutors to say loudly that:

1.  We have seen alternative visions of mankind and we know that the alternative economic growth constructs as the ultimate human value may not be the most respectful of the planet we share, nor the most accurate, and  nor the most practical.

2. We owe it to ourselves to say that it is not the most beautiful and nor the most optimistic”.

A specter is stalking Capitalism–the specter of Anthropology. All the Powers of Capitalism have bound themselves in a crusade against this spectre: the Florida Governor and the U.S. President, Dominique-Strauss Kahn and the IMF, Wall Street and Congress.

Trouillot resumed:

“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”

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 sub-fields assemble on open threads like Academia and #OWS, informing the following Manifesto.

On the fairy tale of capitalist triumph and inevitability:

One mistake of  The Communist Manifesto was to accept the claims on Capitalism four premises. Its first chapter reads:

“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 labor?”

Marx and Engels portray capitalism as a revolutionary and inevitable force, and communism as a further inevitable revolution. Later, 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.

Anthropology cannot make the mistake of accepting the capitalist fairy tale. We must challenge each part of the fable. Trouillot wrote:

“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”

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

Part 1. Biological Anthropology: Humans are 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 Hardy 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 Capuchin and beyond, and yet uniquely developed in humans so that we can do it in generalized ways.”

Biological anthropology reveals primate plasticity, variability, and flexibility. We are not programmed for any particular kind of life, a point I hope emerges from the fatherhood and testosterone studies: It is not that men are biologically programmed for fatherhood, or women for motherhood, but that our abilities and biological capacities emerge within a process of development.

Tim Ingold wrote: “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”

Mankind, even as they might be bio-culturally 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, and rightly taken to task in posts like Kate Clancy’s Mate magnet madness.

Even Adam Smith, falsely enlisted by fairy-tale capitalism as the defender of self-interest, saw a buffer in the idea of sympathy, that other human beings take the role of a moral spectator. In fact, what Adam Smith viewed as the essential human characteristic of sympathy is quite like what Hardy 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.”

Part 2. Archaeology: Countering dynamism with sustainability

The second part of the capitalist fairy tale is how capitalism harnesses natural greed to purposes of productive dynamism. 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. McAnany and Yoffee in Questioning Collapse wrote:

“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?

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

Archaeology invites us to consider sustainability. For example, what will the balance of economic and political power be in 2500? Or can our planet endure 500 more years of capitalist dynamism?

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 course.

The world needs archaeology more than ever before. We may disagree on process’s 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.

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.
  2. Progressive income taxes and taxes on conspicuous consumption, with revenue devoted to a true national healthcare system: Medicare-for-All.
  3. Increasing inheritance taxes and other measures addressing wealth inequalities, with revenue devoted to prenatal care, infant nutrition and early childhood education. Particular attention to the ongoing racism manifest in infant-mortality disparities.
  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. Make banking boring again.
  6. Investment in mass-transit and regional infrastructure to provide alternatives to individual automobiles.
  7. An agricultural plan to phase out subsidies for mono-cropping, to encourage environmentally-sustainable farm management, and eliminate the tariffs harming the world’s poorest farmers.
  8. A true jobs program to increase employment, with work targeted toward infrastructure improvement and environmentally-sensitive retrofitting. Consideration of measures such as reducing the work week in order to address contradictions of a high unemployment rate coupled to overwork by the employed.
  9. Comprehensive immigration reformto bring rationality and humanity to a broken system.
  10. Investment in education to create truly informed citizens. An educational system based on human holism, not just mono-dimensional economic efficiencies…

Anthropology 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.

Franz Boas in “An Anthropologist’s Credo, 1938)” wrote:

“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”.

Wallerstein wrote in The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century: “There is 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”

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. Trouillot wrote:

“We might as well admit that all the human sciences may need more than a facelift; most will be deeply modified and others, in their current institutional shape, might disappear. As the world changes, so do disciplines”

Anthropologists and allies of all lands unite!

Note 1: Most excerpts were borrowed from the Findlay edition

Note 2: You may read Class Theory or Class Analysis? A Reexamination of Marx’s Unfinished Chapter on Class

Note 3:  You may read Rosemary Joyce Don’t Know Much About History, Don’t Know Much Anthropology…

And Alex Golub at Savage Minds In America education should produce citizens, not workers.




June 2023

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