Marxism and economic anthropology

By | January 8, 2009

The problem with writing about Marx for readers schooled in the analytical tradition is that dialectical thinking is often opaque to them. How can production be both all of the economy and part of it? How can history be philosophical speculation and empirical inquiry without joining up the ends? How can Capital be both a serious work in political economy and a cultural critique, even a huge joke? I suppose I mean this piece to be an invitation to visit the Marx of Grundrisse as one way of circumventing the arid formalism that dogged much Marxist anthropology in the 70s.

An ‘anthropology’ is any systematic study of humanity as a whole. The modern academic discipline has its origins in the democratic revolutions and rationalist philosophy of the eighteenth century. The question then was how the arbitrary inequality of the Old Regime might be replaced by an equal society founded on what all people have in common, their human nature. It was thus a revolutionary critique of the premise of inequality and a source of constructive proposals for a more equal future. Such a future was thought to be analogous to the kinship organization that preceded societies based on the state and class division and that could still be observed among contemporary savages. This framework for thinking about social development was retained and elaborated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But it is no longer the leading anthropological paradigm, having been replaced by an ethnographic relativism that is more compatible with a world society fragmented into nation-states.

Marx was a political economist, to be sure; but he also developed a coherent view of the place of capitalism in human history as a whole. For this reason, I consider Karl Marx to have been the greatest economic anthropologist of all time. Marxism was shaped by the tradition I call the ‘anthropology of unequal society’ and became its most sustained source of development. Rousseau’s example inspired Morgan and Engels a century later; while Wolf and Goody have brought the tradition up-to-date. The most influential marriage of Marxism and anthropology was the French school that flourished in the 1960s and 70s. So this essay will have three parts: the economic anthropology of Karl Marx; a sketch of the anthropology of unequal society; and French structuralist Marxism.

The economic anthropology of Karl Marx

According to Marx, the history of precapitalist economies can reveal elements of the basic categories of economic life – value, labour, land, capital etc. – but only modern capitalism makes of them a coherent, objective system of commoditized social relations. Economy now takes on a general subjective dimension that was previously confined to the unsystematic calculations of merchants. Economy is first of all production, that is, all material activity and one side of an economic process that also includes distribution, exchange and consumption. Its definition is always coloured by the dominant mode of production. Thus for us productive labour is whatever produces value for capital. The commodity is abstract social labour: its highest form is capital. Only one commodity can add to value and that is labour, hence the historic significance of the entry of capital into the organization of production. When the market becomes the main means of social reproduction, the combination of money capital and wage labour under conditions of juridical freedom revolutionizes accumulation and productivity.

In the extraordinary passage of Grundrisse known as ‘The precapitalist economic formations’, Marx lays out a vision of human history in which capitalism is seen as the final dissolvent of those forms of society linking us to an evolutionary past that we share with the animals:

The original conditions of production cannot initially be themselves produced. What requires explanation is not the unity of living and active human beings with the natural, inorganic conditions of their metabolism with nature; nor is this the result of a historic process. What we must explain is the separation of these inorganic conditions of human existence from this active existence, a separation which is only fully completed in the relationship between wage labour and capital (Grundrisse, p. 489).

In making that break, capitalism is the enabling force for the emergence of a human society fully emancipated from primitive dependence on nature. It is, of course, not that society, but its midwife. Human evolution before capitalism is marked by two processes: the individuation of the original animal herd and the separation of social life from its original matrix, the earth as laboratory.

Marx’s ideas about a sequence of modes of production in history are at best sketchy, despite subsequent efforts to generate a formal scheme out of his occasional references to Asiatic (Oriental/Slavonic), ancient, Germanic, feudal and similar precapitalist modes. The economic determination of precapitalist social forms is always indirect. Marx’s method was rather to trace out the logic of the tendency of world history, using idealized examples. Indeed he makes it clear in Grundrisse that the historical explanation of particular cases must draw on an ad hoc series of ecological, political and other variables. He never resolved this split between philosophical speculation and empirical analysis. Class plays a minor role in his economic anthropology. The Communist Manifesto explicitly points to the plurality and confusion of classes, estates and orders in precapitalist societies. Only when commercial logic penetrates the bulk of production does class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat become dominant. Even then, this is more of a potential dualism, a tendency, than historical actuality, since residual classes often play a significant part in the movement of capitalist societies.

Marx’s anthropology is a special theory of industrial capitalism which conceives of the modern epoch as a turning point in world history. It is not a case study of western society. Rather industrial capitalism has set in train a series of events which must bring the rest of the world under its contradictory logic. It is not ethnocentric to deny non-western societies their autonomous evolution; history has already done that. For Marx then, economic anthropology is a set of analytical constructs of the capitalist mode of production, modified by awareness of the world that preceded and lies outside capitalism. Some (e.g. Lange) consider Marx’s greatness to lie in the fine historical sense that he and Engels brought to their study of Victorian capitalism; others (e.g. Althusser) see Capital as a positive text that escaped from the dialectical historicism and subjectivity of the earlier economic writings. However that may be, neither the subsequent Marxist tradition nor academic anthropologists have ever come close to matching Marx’s vision of human history as a whole.

The anthropology of unequal society

The most impressive achievement of Marxist synthesis in late twentieth-century anthropology is Eric Wolf’s Europe and the Peoples without History (1982). Against the prevailing norm of producing narrowly circumscribed ethnographies as standalone examples, Wolf places a wide range of anthropological knowledge within a comprehensive history of western capitalist expansion and local response. Rather than adopt the tainted conceptual vocabulary of precapitalist states (Asiatic, feudal etc), he coins a new term for societies organized by a ‘tributary’ mode of production. Jack Goody has produced a series of volumes comparing Africa and Eurasia, insisting that claims of Western exceptionalism in respect of Asia are false. Goody’s vision of world history was drawn from the Marxist prehistorian Gordon Childe’s materialist synthesis of the two great turning points — the ‘neolithic or agricultural revolution’ of 10,000 years ago (which Africa participated in) and the ‘urban revolution’ of 5,000 years ago (which it did not). The industrial revolution marked the third definitive stage in the history of human production and society. Childe got his basic framework from L.H. Morgan’s Ancient Society (1877) which some have seen as the origin of modern anthropology. Morgan’s achievement was to draw on the contemporary ethnography of groups like the Iroquois to illuminate the ancient Mediterranean origins of western civilization. At the same time he identified what are still considered to be the principal stages of social evolution (bands, tribes and states). His work was made more widely accessible by Friedrich Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), drawing on Marx’s extensive notes on Morgan’s book. But all of them got the basic framework from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men (1754).

Rousseau’s essay deserves to be seen as the first great work of modern anthropology. He was not concerned with individual variations in natural endowments, but with the artificial inequalities of wealth, honour and the capacity to command obedience that came from social convention. In order to construct a model of human equality, he imagined a pre-social state of nature, a sort of hominid phase of human evolution in which men were solitary, but healthy, happy and above all free. This freedom was metaphysical, anarchic and personal: original human beings had free will, they were not subject to rules of any kind and they had no superiors. At some point humanity made the transition to what Rousseau calls ‘nascent society’, a prolonged period whose economic base can be summarized as hunter-gathering with huts. Why leave the state of nature at all? He speculates that disasters and economic shortage must have been involved.

The rot set in with the invention of agriculture or, as Rousseau puts it, of wheat and iron. Cultivation of the land led to incipient property institutions whose culmination awaited the development of political society. The formation of a civil order (the state) was preceded by a Hobbesian condition, a war of all against all marked by the absence of law. He believed that this new social contract to abide by the law was probably arrived at by consensus, but it was a fraudulent one in that the rich thereby gained legal sanction for transmitting unequal property rights in perpetuity. From this inauspicious beginning, political society then usually moved, via a series of revolutions, through three stages:

The establishment of law and the right of property was the first stage, the institution of magistrates the second and the transformation of legitimate into arbitrary power the third and last stage. Thus the status of rich and poor was authorized by the first epoch, that of strong and weak by the second and by the third that of master and slave, which is the last degree of inequality and the stage to which all the others finally lead, until new revolutions dissolve the government altogether and bring it back to legitimacy. (p. 131).

One-man-rule closes the circle in that all individuals become equal again because they are now subjects with no law but the will of the master. For Rousseau, the growth of inequality was just one aspect of human alienation in civil society. We need to return from division of labour and dependence on the opinion of others to subjective self-sufficiency. His subversive parable ends with a ringing indictment of economic inequality which could well serve as a warning to our world:

It is manifestly contrary to the law of nature, however defined… that a handful of people should gorge themselves with superfluities while the hungry multitude goes in want of necessities (p. 137).

Marx and Engels made fertile use of this precedent in their own critique of the state and capitalism, while Morgan’s legacy as Rousseau’s principal successor in modern anthropology has persisted in the twentieth century. In the postwar period, teams at Michigan and Columbia, including White, Wolf, Sahlins, Service and Harris, took the economic and political basis for the development of class society as their chief focus. But Claude Lévi-Strauss tried to redo Morgan in a single book, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949).

The aim of Elementary Structures was to revisit Morgan’s three-stage theory of social evolution, drawing on a new and impressive canvas, ‘the Siberia-Assam axis’ and all points southeast to the Australian desert. Lévi-Strauss took as his motor of development the forms of marriage exchange and the logic of exogamy. The ‘restricted reciprocity’ of egalitarian bands gave way to the unstable hierarchies of ‘generalized reciprocity’ typical of Burmese tribes. The stratified states of the region turned inwards to the reproduction of class differences through endogamy and the negation of social reciprocity. The argument is bold, but its scope is regional, not global. In any case, its author later abandoned the project in favour of a ‘structuralist’ approach to studying the human mind through stories.

French Marxist anthropology

French Marxist anthropology enjoyed cult status in the Anglophone world during the 1970s. The crucial text was Althusser and Balibar’s (1965) Reading Capital that brought Marxist political economy into line with Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist methodology and American systems theory. The human subject, dialectical reason and indeed history itself were in effect dropped from their scheme. A deep structure of the ideal mode of production was outlined, having three elements – producers, non-producers and means of production – whose variable combinations were realized as concrete modes of production. Much attention was paid to the relationship between economic, political and ideological levels of the mode of production and to the question of which was dominant and/or determinant in any given case. Althusser abandoned the ideological notion of ‘society’ in favour of ‘social formations’ where, it was recognized, several modes of production were normally combined.

A handful of French anthropologists made substantial contributions to Marxism around this time. Maurice Godelier’s Rationality and Irrationality in Economics (1966) was the first to cross the Channel. It offered a rather conventional treatment of the formalist-substantivist debate launched by Polanyi, while claiming to synthesize Marx and Lévi-Strauss. Godelier applied the notion of rationality not only to persons but to systems, thereby setting up a contradiction between structure and agency that he could not resolve. Marxism, said Godelier, can add a specific kind of function to Lévi-Strauss’s structures, thereby allowing a complete anthropological analysis of social systems. The result, however, resembles an ecological version of structural-functionalism more than Marxism.

Claude Meillassoux, Emmanuel Terray and Pierre-Philippe Rey all acknowledged their debt to Althusser, while debating ethnographic interpretations of their shared area, West/Central Africa. Meillassoux’s The Economic Anthropology of the Guro of Ivory Coast (1964) became the main point of common reference. His later synthetic study, Maidens, Meal and Money (1981), was an ambitious attempt to compare the main means of accumulation (women, food and capital) in tribal, peasant and capitalist societies. In an essay reinterpreting the Guro ethnography, Terray argued that Marxist analysis is often too crude, labeling all primitive societies in much the same way, leaving non-Marxist ethnographers free to explain their specificity by reference to kinship structures and the like. Instead, emulating the approach of the British structural-functionalists, he laid out a method for classifying the material base of a society in great detail, so that its modes of production may be inferred empirically and concrete particulars incorporated into a materialist analysis. There is little history in this version of historical materialism, even though Terray went on to produce meticulous histories of a West African kingdom. Pierre-Philippe Rey’s Colonialism, Neo-colonialism and the Transition to Capitalism (1971) was an original contribution to the literature on matrilineal kinship, slavery and European penetration of the Congo, in contrast with the prevailing Marxist norm of merely restating what was already known in a new jargon. He outlined here his famous idea of a ‘lineage mode of production’. Moreover, he spelled out the ‘articulation of modes of production in a structure of dominance’, showing concretely how colonial capitalism restructured the lineage and petty commodity modes of production in the interest of accumulation.

We are left with a mystery: how to account for the disproportionate influence of this small band of French Marxists on Anglophone anthropology in the 1970s? It cannot be that they clarified a number of concepts and wrote a few untranslated monographs. Their success may have had something to do with the explicitly synthetic position French structuralism occupied between German philosophy, including Marxism, and Anglophone scientific empiricism. The modernization of Marx, by incorporating systems theory and dumping the dialectic, produced a version of structural-functionalism at once sufficiently different from the original to persuade English-speakers that they were learning Marxism and similar enough to allow them to retain their customary way of thinking, which had been temporarily discredited by the end of empire.

Meillassoux’s Guro book became a mine of parables allowing rival political positions in France around 1968 to be expressed as interpretations of West African ethnography. Thus one issue was whether elders’ disposal of young men’s labour should be attributed to control of distribution through marriage exchange (Rey) or rather to the organization of production (Terray). This was in effect a replay of the argument between communist and ultra-left factions in Paris. There the question was whether the Soviet Union, in emphasizing state ownership of the means of production, was a genuine instance of socialism or rather a state capitalist society. Whereas the Stalinists held that it was indeed socialist, their opponents such as Bettelheim (1963) claimed that property relations operated only at the level of distribution and a more thoroughgoing Marxist analysis would be based on the organization of production. Seen from the perspective of managerial control of the work process, Russian factories were no different from capitalist firms. It is hardly surprising that these aspects of the debate within French Marxism were missed by their imitators.

French Marxism disappeared by the end of the 1970s, as suddenly as it had burst on the Anglophone scene. It did not survive the great watershed of post-war history, when welfare-state democracy gave way to ‘neo-liberalism’. With its demise went the last vestige of a central focus for debates within economic anthropology. In the period since then, Marxist anthropology has found isolated protagonists, but their voices have not added up to an intellectual movement. One beneficiary of this relative decline has been Karl Polanyi, whose institutionalist critique of liberal economics has become more prominent of late. In the last three decades, anthropologists have turned for the first time in significant numbers to the ethnographic study of western capitalism, usually without that critical perspective on world history that Marxism provides. The economic crisis of 2008-9 should change that, by unmasking the pretensions of economic orthodoxy and reinforcing the need to acknowledge our global interdependence. Under these circumstances, a revival of Marxist economic anthropology is desirable and even probable, one that will hopefully pay more attention to Marx’s own vision of the economy in human history than was the case the last time around.

3 thoughts on “Marxism and economic anthropology

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  2. Ranjan Lekhy

    Yes, Marx is ever unmatchable economic anthropologist. Future Marxism will have no debate with culture. In Nepal several ethnic groups with their distinct cultural patterns have joined the Maoists! It reflects the future of Marxism is ahead!

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