Opening Anthropology: part 2 of an interview at Savage Minds

This one is about property and privatization of the commons, standing back from the issue of Open Access and the universities to look at more fundamental issues for which economic anthropology (especially Marcel Mauss) provides some of the answers.

Ryan Anderson: Earlier you referred to OA as “a strategy of resistance to privatization of the commons”.  Can you elaborate on that point?

Keith Hart: "I meant that private property is still the great unresolved contradiction of modern society, not least because its ubiquity often makes society invisible. For Rousseau, the invention of private property was the origin of social inequality. The liberal Enlightenment looked to anthropology for the knowledge needed to realize a democratic revolution against the Old Regime. Morgan (followed by Engels) used Rousseau’s framework to make the history of unequal society the main object of a democratic anthropology. More recently, Lévi-Strauss, Wolf and Goody renewed this tradition, each in their own way. Now David Graeber has taken it up again. But the ethnographic turn made this a marginal current in twentieth century anthropology.

(. . . .)

There has never been a society so committed to private property as the United States and this goes with unusually weak social protection by the state. In the movie Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore asks why American society is so prone to gun violence. He inserts a cartoon at one point to explain that it is because of the history of racism. But the cause is more plausibly an unchecked system of markets based on private property without the social protection of an effective welfare state. This also accounts, in my view, for the apparent anomaly of the US being the most modern society and the most religious. God and guns fill in for the welfare state. Canadians are both secular and less violent. The Europeans are hardly religious at all.

The euro crisis also hinges on privatization. After the Cold War ended, the Europeans decided that the winning side was the free market, forgetting their own long history of formal and informal public institutions shoring up markets. So they introduced a new currency to make a single market, without addressing the gap between North and South or developing fiscal institutions in common. They supposed that markets based on private property would lead them to political union. (The Americans, in contrast, fought a civil war before centralizing their currency.) The basic flaws in all this were hidden by the credit boom, but the financial crisis brought them out with a vengeance."

Continue reading this section of the interview

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I am particularly struck by the last paragraph. One could add that in Europe, a half-hearted attempt at political union, something along the lines of the United States in the period of the Articles of Confederation that preceded the constitution, came after a great war that tore the continent apart. The American Civil War was a test of the limits of a union in place, whether one nation would remain indivisible, as opposed to many nations attempting to form a conglomerate in which the constituent nations would retain their distinct identities.

One must also note, of course, that this problem has not completely disappeared in the United States—note the continued existence of regional stereotypes, the special position of the states that formed the Southern Confederacy in American politics, and recent calls for secession in Texas, following the reelection of Barack Obama as president of the United States.

To anthropologists, these sorts of considerations might be seen as demonstrating the need to regard projects aimed a political union as always incomplete projects, whether at the band, tribe, chiefdom, nation, or imperial level, as likely to fall apart as hold together, theoretical objects whose existence needs to be explained rather than taken as given.

Thanks, John. It's not the main point of the piece, but it is one that intrigues me. If globalization is straining the competence of the nation-state ("one nation under God") as the dominant political form in our world (the reason for the EU), how might we begin to think of alternative, more plural forms? And of course the candidate is federalism which is as old as the nation-state (Switzerland, the US), but is sometimes represented as a union. It turns out that many of the largest countries are federations, as a way of coping with their size and diversity: the US, Brazil, Russia, India, China, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Nigeria etc. The principle of federation is what the Catholics call subsidiarity, the idea that decisions should be devolved to the level of greatest competence to deal with them. But centralization and presumptive unity is always there. Economic redistribution is one method for this, but another is strong central government (China) or a powerful military (the US). One could argue that when the US became a world power (even an empire) after WW2, it began to behave more and more like a nation-state, despite all the decentralizing tensions.

The interest of all this for me is how we might study historical cases that could inform discussion of how to move to a world federation. How the US, Brazil, India and Russia (11 time zones!), for example, have managed the tension between unity and plurality would be informative, not least for the EU's current travails. My main point is that economic management is important, but political solutions are vital and these have been discounted in Europe because the EU is a neoliberal formation which can't accept the priority of politics over markets. That is why the attempt save the euro through the Central Bank will fail.

John McCreery said:

I am particularly struck by the last paragraph. One could add that in Europe, a half-hearted attempt at political union, something along the lines of the United States in the period of the Articles of Confederation that preceded the constitution, came after a great war that tore the continent apart.

Still simplistic, but I wonder if it would enrich the discussion to consider these issues in light of what Amitai Etizioni says about the ways in which organizations get people to do what the organization wants them to. Etzioni's framework has three components: compensation (economics), shared values (politics), and coercion (threats or sanctions). Joseph Nye proposes something similar in his discussion of economic, soft (cultural) and hard (military) power. Each of the categories is, of course, no more than a door opening on a morass of specific detail, but at least the this framing reminds us that economics are not almighty and other, political and military, factors are in play in nation-state and empire building. 

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