Patrick Neveling & Joe Trapido: Modes of production: Try again, fail better?

The mode of production (MoP) was an important term in the Marxist anthropology of the 1970s. Its origins can be traced to the diverse uses of the words by Marx himself, to elaborations on this by Louis Althusser and Étienne Balibar (for an excellent overview, see Resch 1992), and to contributions from various French Africanist scholars. It was part of a wider conceptual vocabulary—about “articulation,” “social reproduction,” and “social formations”—that underpinned a number of innovative works in history and anthropology (Anderson 1974; Rey 1971; Wolf 1982).

Crucially, the mode of production concept marks the one and only point where Marxist conceptions of anthropology have been the disciplinary mainstream. This moment was not without consequences or beneficial effects. Before MoP analyses, an anthropology that imagined “every human community sat isolated on an island in the midst of a limitless ocean” (Gledhill 2000: 41) was the norm. During the heydays of MoP analyses, instead, anthropologists looked at what happened when human communities and their specific relations of production were integrated into relations of production of higher scale, such as colonial/imperial formations and global systems.

The concept also stimulated a much wider debate within the social sciences and beyond. Revolutionary and reformist movements incorporated modes of production approaches into their political strategies, and some have argued that decisions in this regard were a matter of life and death. In Chile, for example, “‘abstract’ debates on the presence or otherwise of ‘feudalism’ … had a direct bearing on class alliances (e.g., the existence or otherwise of a ‘national bourgeoisie‘),” which informed the political strategy of Salvador Allende’s government before the United States–supported coup d’état and the mass murder of Allende and his followers under the rule of General Augusto Pinochet (Foster-Carter 1978: 52).

In other words, the mode of production debate was engaged with the tumultuous realities of the 1960s and 1970s. Given how much was at stake, and the right-wing backlash that followed, it is understandable that increasingly bitter arguments developed, both within anthropology and within Marxism. By the mid-1980s, debates over modes of production were nowhere as central, with proponents of the culturalist turn considering it as an “unappealing reduction of ethnography’s rich tapestry into a tight classificatory scheme” (Gledhill 2000: 41).

Try again ... (Photo: Patrick Neveling, 2015)

Try again … (Photo: Patrick Neveling, 2015)

And yet, seen from 2015, it is the reductionisms of the culturalist turn that are apparent. The demise of the modes of production debate marked a turning away from ethnography as engaged reflection toward the kind of conservative modernization where everything changed so that everything could remain the same. This reductionism moved concern away from “social, relational and interactive structures” (Kapferer 2005: 1) toward a revival of methodological individualism and an interest in subjectivities. Even the “novel” debates (over structure versus agency, for example) reified what they initially had sought to overcome. Likewise, 1990s arguments against modernism reified “the dichotomies of modernism” (subject/object, us/them, and so forth) and the dialectical principle of modernist thought, ostensibly abandoned, continues to haunt the poststructuralist glasshouse (this is a freehand extension of Kapferer 2005: 2).

While some elders have completed the long march from critical materialism to increasingly post-secular anthropology (to give a randomly chosen example, compare the two publications Ingold 1987; 2011), a new generation of anthropologists realizes that something went astray and we need to move “from essence back to existence” (Vigh and Sausdal 2014) and that the conditions of possibility for novel theories have something to do with the condition of capitalism in a given era.

This linking of the production of social sciences theory to capitalist exploitation and the violence at the disposal of the bourgeoisie is a crucial move, for the case of Chile under Pinochet reminds us that in revolutionary situations, “bad theory can kill” (Foster-Carter 1978: 52). It is against this last instance that we might want to reframe present-day anthropology’s interest in Jacques Derrida’s aporias on “conditions of possibility and impossibility” so that they do not peter out into a notion of “undecidability” (Reynolds undated).

Undecidability was never in the cards during the MoP debate, and the debate’s concrete concern for the links between theory and action is yet another reason for revisiting and reinvigorating it. Ours is not the only work to suggest that revisiting the MoP concept may be relevant in finding pathways out of the current impasse. For example, David Graeber’s effort at “turning modes of production inside out” (2006: 61) appears to lay some of the groundwork for his monumental Debt: The First 5,000 years (2011). Given the prominence this work has achieved, it would be insightful to consider to what extent Graeber’s work makes these urgent links between theory and the praxis of political movements. As for Chile before Pinochet—or indeed for all moments of political possibility for the left—there are real dangers that come with bad (or simply unexamined) theory. For Occupy Wall Street, and more generally, such considerations are emerging (see Buier 2014; Davidson 2015), and, among other things, this feature section offers pathways for a critique based on the mode of production literature.

... fail better? (Photo: Patrick Neveling, 2015)

… fail better? (Photo: Patrick Neveling, 2015)

Rachel Smith argues that there is little that is new in Graeber’s call for the inclusion of the production of people in a modes of production approach, which was already central to Karl Marx’ framing. As she further argues, this is a step back from Jonathan Friedman’s intervention that “the production of individuals [happens] within socially determined relations” (Smith 2015), such as the temporary migration programs for Vanuatuan people to New Zealand’s labor market, which Smith has researched.

Samuel Rose offers an important alternative to the isolationist principle guiding much of anthropological research on Native American groups in that he reveals how “the concept of mode of production in the form of neotribal capitalism … obliterates these indigenist-idealist obfuscations and makes clear the structural principles upon which these societies operate” (Rose 2015).

Sandy Smith-Nonini takes the analysis to a global scale, showing how the aggressive pushing of dollar loans by United States banks in the 1970s, acted as a bridgehead, which, with a little help from Paul Volker and the IMF, broke open the Mexican economy. The resulting dollar indebtedness was not unhelpful to the Mexican ruling classes as it pulled power and resources away from labor, while abundant oil profits were diverted toward what Smith-Nonini identifies as a finance-dominated “late-capitalist” mode of production.

Janice Newberry takes an analytical trip down memory lane and reconsiders the rise of Foucauldian-oriented governmentality approaches in the late 1980s, which was also the moment when the modes of production debate lost relevance in anthropology. As she shows, however, through the various evolutions of the postcolonial state, Indonesian welfare programs have been based on women’s labor. Given this continued reliance on householding, a focus on the reproduction of labor, which was at the heart of MoP debates, offers greater analytical insight than riffs on Foucauldian governmentality.

The contributions from Joe Trapido and Patrick Neveling take a historical perspective further and consider the long-term articulation of different modes of production in two very different circumstances—Congolese and Mauritian global integration.

This feature section emerged from a panel at the 2014 American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting in Washington, DC. The call for papers at the time proposed several further inroads for a reassessment and possible resurgence of the modes of production debate in anthropology. Among these were reconsiderations of forms of class struggle that depart from the classic bourgeois/proletarian divide, the relationship between production and reproduction, the (co-)existence of noncapitalist and capitalist modes of production within various social formations, and what analytical possibilities may emerge from an application of the modes of production angle to periodizations of recent capitalism as Keynesian/Fordist or neoliberal/post-Fordist. The editors of this feature section hope that someone, some day, may pick up some of these suggestions.

Patrick Neveling (PhD, Martin Luther University, Halle-Wittenberg) is Researcher at the Department for Cultural Anthropology, Utrecht University. He publishes on the historical political economy of capitalism, with a special focus on the global spread of export processing zones/special economic zones and on the small island state Mauritius. He is an editor of FocaalBlog, and several of his publications are available for download here.

Joseph Trapido teaches anthropology at Birkbeck College. He received a PhD in Social Anthropology at University College London and undertook a two-year fellowship at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. He was British Academy postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His research is about the Democratic Republic of Congo.


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Cite as: Neveling, Patrick, and Joe Trapido. 2015. “Modes of production: Try again, fail better?” FocaalBlog. 10 November.