Anthropology and capitalism: Beyond gifts versus markets
Editors: Don Kalb & Patrick Neveling
Capitalism is in crisis. And anthropology is at the forefront of the public’s ongoing critical engagement with that crisis.
The present seems to resonate with an earlier moment in the 1970s, when Northern anthropology sought to engage with politics and the public through the institution of the “teach-in.” On the one hand there was a turn toward primitive communism and “societies against the state;” on the other was the development of structural Marxism and political economy within the discipline.
What shifts in anthropological enquiry does the current moment compel us to make in order to effectively translate our critiques of capitalist reality to critical publics today? We see updates on Marxian, anarchist, Maussian, and other theoretical traditions. In the line of an established communitarian trend in economic anthropology, quite a few anthropologists find alternatives to the capitalist state and economy in microforms of gift-giving and alternative circuits of exchange. We also see new ethnographic studies of the micro-rationalities of financial operatives who have allegedly brought this crisis upon us.
This FocaalBlog theme section features eight contributions from a strong and well-attended session at the 2013 AAA in Chicago that wanted to advance on a slightly different genealogy—that of historical and global anthropology in the tradition of Wolf, Mintz, Worsley, Leacock, and others. Such an approach primarily draws its analytical and political force not from a focus on micro-rationalities or subaltern moralities but from engagements with the changing nature of profit, accumulation, and class that underpin capitalist (re)production itself.
Here, gifts and commodities are seen not so much as two morally opposed systems but as shifting and temporary outcomes of the variable integration of people and places in a globally evolving capitalist system of social relationships. It also sought to bring back the overriding issue of power and counter-power by looking at matters of class, populist confrontations, and the vexed subject of the state.
In short, this session sought to explore the ways our discipline can generate realist analyses of capitalism beyond “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”