Patrick Neveling: HAU and the latest stage of capitalism

As anthropology assesses an increasing number of reports about abuse, bullying, sexism, and financial misconduct and fraud at its now shooting-star journal HAU, it is important to keep a few basics in mind.

First, capitalism feeds on the exploitation and superexploitation of workers. Labor relations across the globe have always been ripe with abuse, bullying, sexism, and far worse treatment of humans by other humans. The large-scale murder of garment workers in the Rana Plaza massacre only five years ago is not only a reminder of the prevalence of all these essential features of capitalism under the current neoliberal condition, but also an important reminder that a wave of outrage and an admittedly less explicit consumer rebellion since then may change little if corporate compacts and expert committees are put in charge and given oversight. What is more, the intricate production networks and global commodity chains that facilitate and sustain superexploitation in the global garment industry are present in the global academic publishing industry. So if academics want to have a thorough debate on open access (OA) publishing and criticize multinational giants such as SAGE and Elsevier, they may want to also consider the working conditions of printers in Asian or African sweatshop presses, and the salaries and access options of copyeditors and language editors, of transport workers, and of others along the chains that produce the monographs and journals on which we thrive (and, from an eco-socialist angle, we may wonder about those servers that host our OA outlets and the energy and labor they consume).

Second, fraud and financial misconduct are likewise essential to capitalism. Ideas about meritocracy, free markets, and competition are ideological lip service in the face of the persistence of established hierarchies and dynastic rackets that reach back to the Middle Ages in many parts of the world. A cursory look at the list of the wealthiest families and largest property owners in the UK is one example here; the revelations in the Panama Papers and many other leaks about tax evasion and the inertia of national governments and international institutions in the face of this blatant refusal to partake in social contracts are yet another (let alone the personal involvement of many high-ranking politicians in tax evasion and fraud). Similarly, many of the richest universities in the UK, for example, have been around for hundreds of years, do not shy away from investing in turbo-capitalist ventures, and are happy to stash their funds in offshore tax havens. And last but not least, the largest endowments are still today located in those institutions with the richest students.

In sum, then, and third, academia—and with it, anthropology—is not an oasis in a desert of cutthroat competition and rip-offs, but rather an integral part of the capitalist world-system. In fact, scientific research and theorizing were central components to the rise of capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, fascism, and neo-imperial postcolonialism and to all the major crimes against humanity that these changing modi operandi mundi required and facilitated.

Therefore, it would be misleading to consider the deeds of HAU’s editor-in-chief as an isolated case. At best, those deeds, if verified, are extremes in a spectrum of social, economic, and political processes that have always driven academia and continue to do so. The abuse of vulnerable, precarious scholars, for example, may not always be as deliberate as is now alleged for the case of HAU, yet it is impossible to imagine that the many departments that contract significant workloads to precarious employees are not aware of the plight of those workers who, in the US for example, are forced into homelessness and in some cases see no other option but sex labor to make a living. Certainly, in order to accommodate this massive imbalance, many universities have established insurmountable divisions between a managerial, administrative branch and an academic branch—divisions that ultimately seem to enable not only the outsourcing of a large number of staff but also the outsourcing of all the solidarity that tenured colleagues might otherwise have about the precarity of their colleagues. And still, if all this creates a sentiment that there is simply no alternative and everyone’s hands are tied, it is striking that no anthropology department has so far chosen the Bartleby way and stated, “We’d prefer not to.”

In the face of such widespread imbalances among the labor relations that scholars are subject to and the eternal apprenticeship mode that many academics are kept in from the start of their PhD work to the very moment when that permanent contract finally arrives or when that next precarious employment offer no longer arrives, it is important to maintain a focus as broad as possible on the issues emerging from HAU. The institutional setup of HAU comprised several “elite” universities of global standing, which corresponds not only with the aforementioned longue durée of hierarchies and dynasties under capitalism, but also the overall message that HAU transmitted. Most readers will have vivid memories of all those one-sentence quotes from famous anthropologists, accompanied by their counterfeit. Who in the discipline has been championed in those HAU memes? Margaret Mead (see Figure 1), Ruth Benedict, Claude Lévi-Strauss, among contemporary anthropologists—Bruno Latour, for example. This short list shows that HAU is about canon making or about consolidating a particular canon (a pantheon of great scholars) without any regard for the fact that many of these may have written some rather shocking things about Native Americans of the Northwest Coast or that some were essential parts of the US Cold War machinery that spread terror, death, and misery across much of the Third World.


Figure 1: Screenshot from HAU Facebook post on the occasion of Margaret Mead’s birthday (published 16 December 2015).

The case at hand thus underlines the existence and maintenance of particular lineages in HAU, infused with ideologies that are to large degree fundamentally opposed to what contemporary anthropology champions otherwise: decolonial practices and theorizing, critiques of persistent racism and emerging fascism, and, bracketing all this, a fierce opposition to overarching and persistently escalating global economic inequality.

How could it then happen that HAU came to be associated at least in some ways with a better, contemporary way for doing anthropology?

To answer this question it is important to consider the timing of HAU’s launch. When the first issue of the journal appeared in 2011, the world was not only in the grips not only of a global, so-called financial, crisis (aka revamped class warfare from above), but also under the impression of a global resistance movement called “Occupy” that had David Graeber as one of its most prominent speakers and thinkers. Anthropology was “something” in 2011, and Graeber has done a lot to make the discipline visible to a wider public, most recently in his support for the cause of the Kurdish progressive movement in Rojava/Afrin that is otherwise strikingly absent in anthropology’s campaigning.

Yet, I see a certain parallel in the rise of HAU with the ritual centrism of the late Occupy movement. If Occupy chose to go into a showdown with Wall Street with the Zuccotti Park occupation and put far too much thrust behind this unwinnable endeavor when the movement was going strong in so many global peripheries, anthropology seemed to embrace HAU at a moment when new initiatives for different publishing practices mushroomed across the discipline. It was as if the discipline was simply not ready for a multifarious polyphony and instead desperate to find its own ritual center and declare this its kingdom. Why, otherwise, did so many departments sign up to HAU-N.E.T. and commit financially to one among many, many OA publishing initiatives at a time when everyone knows that adjuncts are grossly underpaid?

Or was it, in fact, that many subscriptions to HAU-N.E.T. emerged from the only now apparent charges that were levied by the journal for article processing after success in the peer-review process? However this question may be answered, it is important to keep in mind how harmful and possibly traumatizing this was for the authors affected and, at the same time, to stand in shocked surprise that a renowned institution such as the University of Amsterdam ultimately subscribed to such practices and did not join a chorus of loudly ringing alarms raised by other departments where scholars were affected.

Taking this yet another step further, it is important to ask what impact such practices had on those colleagues who either refused to pay such charges because they thought it was wrong to do so or who had no institutions happy to shoulder processing charges and, possibly because of this one five-star publication missing in their CV, therefore did not receive prestigious grants that led to permanent employment. This is where we encounter academia’s very own capitalist anti-markets and where careers may have been not only damaged but broken. Too many departments seem to have an increasingly narrow focus on allocating tenured positions based on supposedly four-star publications under the UK Research Excellence Framework or similar metrics that dominate academic research and publication cultures in the Netherlands and other European countries and certainly the decision-making of elite-grant bodies on national and transnational scales.

The question then may be whether it is not rather the higher education industry as such that is the cradle of pyramid schemes and whether it may therefore be better to regard ourselves as the template and not the victim of a particular software design that facilitates running journals such as HAU. Therefore, it is important to give new meaning to the concept of open access, which is certainly an important development—especially developments in the blogosphere, of which I am part of myself as an editor of FocaalBlog, have sometimes mesmerized me and certainly taken my thinking and my exchanges with colleagues to an entirely different plateau (and not necessarily a Deleuzian one). However, looking at all the blogs that we have created and all the OA journals that have mushroomed in past years, I cannot help but wonder why we were all so ready to stomp such massive ventures out of nothing without ever asking for permanent or at least part-time, temporary positions that would back this significant expansion of academic writing, reasoning, and communication with the global public.

A better future for OA may thus be one in which we are vigilant that the publishing industry should no longer be comprised of oligopolies that either charge inflated fees for publishing our work and/or make it available in pay-walled repositories that are, in fact, not very expensive to run. If this critique of SAGE, Elsevier, and others has been a given, we should stop gifting and giving away our labor for free and instead push for appropriately remunerated positions for those highly qualified academics who may wish to trade their precarious adjunct positions in university departments for editorial work, for example.

Taking this further, and seconding Elizabeth Dunn’s thoughtful, sharp, and groundbreaking commentary, we should make sure not that OA ends up meaning that the chains that now bind us are replicated in free-of-charge publication outlets, but rather that academia as such turns into an arena where interactions are open access. This will require us to shed many of the chains that bind our disciplines to the powers that be. In light of the overall conditionalities of capitalism that I have mapped out at the beginning of this contribution, we should not expect this to be easy, and we should not fall prey to an identity politics that declares our discipline as something that is better than the world beyond anthropology. This, I think, is one of the mistakes that happened when HAU gifted us with a revamped version of the standard, conservative canon of twentieth-century anthropology, which it successfully rebranded as anarchist and revolutionary. That fake revolution, the atmosphere of departure toward a better future in 2011, the uncritical endorsement of the journal by so many of anthropology’s “traditional” authorities, and the lack of critical assessment of OA as such, which I sought to highlight in my elaborations on unpaid labor and on superexploitation in the global publishing industry, have certainly contributed to the ordeal that HAU staff now say they had to shoulder. So, in the absence of a revolution that never was, we should remind ourselves that the revolution may not be televised, it may certainly not be a high-flying academic journal, and it may also not be anthropology that is the spearhead of any revolution—yet our discipline should acknowledge and tackle the often abysmal labor relations that dominate our daily interactions so that we can look after our own and after all those other workers who are tied into the academic industry via numerous global commodity chains.

Patrick Neveling is Researcher in the Frontlines of Capitalism project in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen. He works in social anthropology, global history, and development studies and is foremost interested in developing a new global historical anthropology of capitalism. He has published widely on special economic zones, colonial and postcolonial development, neoliberalism, global class formations, the invention of tradition, tourism, and other themes. Some of his publications are available open access here.

Cite as: Neveling, Patrick. 2018. “HAU and the latest stage of capitalism.” FocaalBlog, 22 June.