Ryan Anderson has suggested over at Savage Minds that now might be a good time for anthropologists to pool ideas about democracy in the context of the coming US presidential election. Seems like a good idea to me, especially since the origins of anthropology in the 18th century's revolutionary democratic project has been forgotten by practitioners (honorable exceptions include L.H. Morgan) for over 200 years. So join in (and that doesn't mean that comments are inappropriate here too).

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Thanks for posting this here as well Keith. 

So what do you say OAC folks...what's "democracy" looking like from where you stand? 

 

The enlightenment is characterised by the view that civil society is an outcome of human freedom. Adam Ferguson has a nice passage to the effect that the person living in a tree on the Orinookoo river is just as much a free citizen in this sense as the sophisticate in a European coffee house. It is not an original insight to notice that with the visible decline of the nation state form, elements of enlightenment thinking have come back into view. But, as they say, the problem with words like 'freedom' and 'democracy' is whose mouths they were in before we got to use them.

"But, as they say, the problem with words like 'freedom' and 'democracy' is whose mouths they were in before we got to use them."

That's a good way of putting it, Huon.

A little cryptic perhaps. Huon, could you spell that out a bit more?

Freedom and democracy are words with a history. Simmel wrote an essay where he claimed that liberal revolutions were about freedom of movement, but by the late nineteenth century, people wanted the freedom to be different. When they are combined, as liberal democracy, they are taken to represent the political system of the United States, in contrast to Western Europe's welfare states. After WW2 countries everywhere turned to developmental states which in the US was labelled by Eisenhower "the military/industrial complex". The path of Keynesian state management of the economy lasted for roughly three decades and was known as social democracy, a centre-left line that some authors prefer to call "embedded liberalism" (partly because the early communist parties of Germany and Russia called themselves social democrats). The terminology is further confused by the use of liberal in Europe to denote the pro-capitalist right and in the US to identify the socially progressive left.So calling a political strategy liberal or social democracy was already complicated.

This was compounded by the "neoliberalism" of Reagan and Thatcher which combined strong repressive states with deregulated markets, inaugurating one-world capitalism (aka globalization) for the first time after the end of the Cold War. There are strong grounds for arguing that this "free market" regime was anything but and that it rather supervised the siphoning up of wealth in the form of rent (income gained from politically guaranteed property rights) into the hands of very few rich people (see Dean Baker's The End of Loser Liberalism). The US was a plutocracy in the Gilded Age of more than a century ago and it has become one again. It promotes "democracy" by maintaining dictatorships around the world. Moreover, all of this is done using Jefferson's language when Americans fought for their independence.

Capitalism in its original sense has moved offshore to Asia, while each of the BRICS (except Russia) is moving towards its own version of the social democracy that characterised the Western industrial countries after WW2. The US, Europe and Japan are mired in rent-seeking bureaucracy which has stifled economic growth and accelerated inequality there. A case can be made that the West has reverted to the Old Regime before the political and industrial revolutions of the late eighteenth century. What after all is the difference between George II enforcing a tea monopoly for the East India company (of which he was the largest shareholder) in the American colonies and George W's imperial White House invading Iraq for the benefit of Halliburton, Blackwater and the oil companies?

I argued in The Hit Man's Dilemma that it is very hard for us to talk about democracy, given this recent history. The task is made even more confusing by the collapse of the distinction between real and artificial persons in law, granting business corporations the rights of individual citizens. If Walmart is legally the same as you and me, despite its size, wealth and longevity, what does it mean to be a citizen in a democracy? It may even be that the corproations have launched a drive for self-government in a world society of which they will be the only citizens. The most striking feature of the present US election is that it is the first after the Supreme Court refused to limit corporate political spending on the grounds that it would infringe their "human rights" to do so. You have seen the results.

Jefferson must be turning in his grave when these Republicans invoke the traditions of liberal democracy. He identified three threats to democracy: central government, organized religion and commercial monopolies (which he called "pseudo-aristocrats"). He was prevented by the Federalists from inserting curbs on them into the Constitution. We know what happened next. Yet I still believe that the United States has the most democratic culture in the world. Confusing, eh? I suppose something similar could be said of Athens when they lost the Peloponnesian War.

So what can anthropologists contribute to discussion of democracy? We have studied stateless societies, but usually write about them in the form of an allegory. His son claims that Evans-Pritchard's most valued possession was a letter written by one of the American founders from the period of independence. EP wrote The Nuer in part as an allegory of Anglo-Saxon democracy struggling against the Norman jackboot. In other words, "ordered anarchy" was a Whig liberal myth. How could anthropologists sort out this mess if they know no history? Better to adopt the slogan "Stop the world! I want to get off!" A Pacific island anyone?

How could anthropologists sort out this mess if they know no history? Better to adopt the slogan "Stop the world! I want to get off!" A Pacific island anyone?

Part of a response to this would be to say that if you need to know two centuries of history in order to exercise democratic capacities then you will be waiting a long time to do anything. The point about the enlightenment was that people at that time thought everyone had the basic capacity to act freely/democratically full stop. Arguably it is the historically minded sociologists like Weber and Marx who do most to undermine that view (not Simmel who maintains it). I notice we as anthropologists are still stuck in this dualism - ethnography versus anthropology, small versus big - I find that frustrating because it is such an obvious Rylean category mistake; there is no objective 'big' and 'small' in actual human experience in that sense - only in the sense of anthropologists who want to claim the big or claim the small.

I was not talking about the capacity to act freely in a democracy, but trying to explain why there is so much confusion, especially in the Western societies, about the meaning of the words. Americans are told they live in the greatest democracy in the world, but they don't feel free and don't understand the discrepancy. I claim that one reason is words that had a clear meaning in the 18th century have been mangled by their appropriation since (which I thought was your point, Huon) and are used to describe structures that are far from being free or democratic. This makes it hard for anyone to think about democracy in a meaningful way and, I would suggest, to act democratically. The post concerns whether anthropologists can contribute to enlightening a public confused about what democracy might mean for them. I think that history should play a part in explaining this issue, but not to bring about democracy as such and that anthropologists who have separated their intellectual practice from the study of world history are in a poor position to do so. It is not about big vs small and I enlisted Simmel as an illumination of the general point, not as a culprit. I am sure there are plenty of those.

I agree with your view completely and I wasn't simply naysaying. But I want to put the other side of this dualism in order to get somewhere else. There was a democratic spirit involved in the development of synchronic ethnography and modern anthropology. Malinowski was a social cosmopolitan though he was also a polish cultural romantic. Most obviously ethnography was a way of emphasing what people do in the present counts; against the principle that they can only do anything at all because of what happened in the past or the idea that certain people are destined to be stuck in it (the past) understood as a ladder of evolution. (For example, the kind of analysis of 'large' entities that Goody develops, - Eurasia versus Africa - isn't really history at all but rather a scaled up version of african ethnography versus indian ethnography). Malinowski also allowed that words don't count for all that much by themselves. So, though philology and precedent matter, human  beings can and do cut linguistic connection with the past all the time in order to do things.

Yes, I understand where you are coming from, Huon. It is a pity that it comes across as history vs ethnography. I am trying to get ethnographers to learn some history and you are trying to remind us what ethnography has always been good for. I am building an interdisciplinary research program in South Africa on the human economy. Its base is the ethnographic method and vision: we must study what people do, think and want where they live. But human problems are not just local and somehow we must extend that vision to a more inclusive, even planetary level. As Ted's recent OAC seminar made explicit, we must also ask what it is all for, which means engaging with the good and how to get it.

It irks me that I come across as a nineteenth century German philologist/historian who tells young people "Learn forty languages or master world history and then you might have something to say". Most of the time, when I lay out my cumbersome historical analyses, I pine for a way of cutting through the crap to something more immediately practical that does not depend on acquiring decades of education to be valid. So we are on the same side. I note that you are much more of a historian than you make yourself out to be and I am in fact an ethnographer.

But how do you address South Africans who have been told they have been living under democracy since 1994 and now their government shoots miners down and leaves the majority of the population to subsist on unemployment and state grants? I would use ethnography as a method of finding out what people are saying, doing and really want, but it requires a wider comparative perspective to explain why the ANC replicates so faithfully the failures of postcolonial government in the rest of Africa and what might be done about it for the general good. I find that many South Africans who were alive in the 1980s have such a perspective, but most people born since then don't. This is a task for public education and it cannot rest on ethnography or history alone. I took my audience here to be anthropologists, not people out there struggling to see through the lies they are told all the time. They could be the same persons of course.

Keith wrote: " If Walmart is legally the same as you and me, despite its size, wealth and longevity, what does it mean to be a citizen in a democracy? It may even be that the corproations have launched a drive for self-government in a world society of which they will be the only citizens. The most striking feature of the present US election is that it is the first after the Supreme Court refused to limit corporate political spending on the grounds that it would infringe their "human rights" to do so. You have seen the results."

Ya, I think these are incredibly important questions that need to keep getting pushed to the front of the conversation. It's strange, many people talk about the problems with corporate control, or 'crony capitalism' in the US, but at certain stage in the electoral process they sit back and just go along with it. But why are there always just 2 candidates from the same two parties year in and year out? What happened to the rest of the choices and voices? I think it's incredibly ironic that Americans view these "debates" as a pinnacle of the democratic process, while seemingly not noticing that they are highly massaged, controlled, fairly innocuous media events that take place between prime time TV slots. This may suffice for democracy for many people, but I have my doubts. The histories of the debate process is telling, especially after the Democrats and Republicans wrested control of the event from the League of Women Voters in 1988. This partially explains why third parties have a hard time getting into the national discussion: they have been overtly excluded for the past 20 or so years.

And yes, I definitely agree that history is a vital tool for pulling this idea of "democracy" apart.

"So what can anthropologists contribute to discussion of democracy? We have studied stateless societies, but usually write about them in the form of an allegory ... In other words, "ordered anarchy" was a Whig liberal myth. How could anthropologists sort out this mess if they know no history? Better to adopt the slogan "Stop the world! I want to get off!" A Pacific island anyone?

Agreed. History is key. But I also agree that ethnography can be a good tool as well for finding and exploring democratic practices around the world--whether on some pacific island or in the streets of Mainstreet USA.

Huon wrote: "Most obviously ethnography was a way of emphasing what people do in the present counts; against the principle that they can only do anything at all because of what happened in the past..."

Another important point, and something I had in mind when I posted the topic on SM in the first place. I think there is an important role that ethnography can play in showing us what people do in the present (in this case related to democratic practices) despite some of the larger trends, problems, roadblocks, power structures, and histories.

Keith wrote: "I would use ethnography as a method of finding out what people are saying, doing and really want, but it requires a wider comparative perspective to explain why the ANC replicates so faithfully the failures of postcolonial government in the rest of Africa and what might be done about it for the general good."

I think that's a good framework. Ethnography to find out what people are "saying, doing and really want," set within a comparative perspective that accounts for wider trends, histories, politics, etc.

 

Market theorists usually use a kind of  ( holistic ) assumption : there is one-to-one correspondence between democracy and market developments. Are there correspondences indeed ?

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