Marx between Mill, Mayhew and Dickens

By | November 18, 2010

Phil Swift’s brilliant post on the relevance of Henry Mayhew’s 19th century investigations of London’s working classes for a politicized ethnography today has set off many reverberations inside my skull. One issue is the relationship between Mayhew’s project and Marx’s. Both are highly critical of the social causes of the condition of the working class, but Mayhew’s ethnographic realism offers insight into their lives with some ethical commentary, while Marx was a radical journalist, philosopher, economist, anthropologist, political activist and on a par with the great novelists of his day, such as Dickens, Balzac and Zola. Capital has an imaginative scope that places it in my iconography alongside Moby Dick.

The best ethnography belongs within the genre of realism. Raymond Williams identified its three central features: a work of realism reveals a new class to its readership; it is contemporary; and it is secular in that it breaks with the sacred myths upholding unequal society. In this sense, Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific was a work of realism that broke with the evolutionist myths upholding racist empire. So too was Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. But Malinowski, like Marx, was standing on an intellectual tradition that he intended to turn on its head. Mayhew’s intellectual ambitions were more modest and his antecedents less grand.

Anthropologists should consider these examples together since we have to find ways of continuing the ethnographic tradition of the 20th century while adapting anthropology’s objectives to the task of remaking world society in the 21st. If we don’t break with the pattern of the last century, there will not be a 22nd. This applies to our disciplinary practices as well as to much else.

Francis Wheen has written a nice little book, Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography. It has three sections: before, during and after writing the book. Wheen’s main claim is that it is a mistake to read Capital as just a work of political economy. Its subtitle is The Critique of Political Economy. if you want to read Marx as an economist, try Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, a refutation of contemporary economics as promoted by J.S. Mill.

The first chapter of Capital Vol. 1 on ‘The commodity’ is particularly difficult to understand since it takes off from an uncritical account of the liberal theory of money since Adam Smith and ends with the powerful, but tricky notion of ‘commodity fetishism’ which has people dancing to the tune of the markets. Marx’s aim was to capture how world history was being transformed by Victorian capitalism and, to that end, he produced a remarkably prescient analysis that works both as profound theory and as vivid description.

Marx did not spend 15 years in the British Museum reading room for nothing. The results are now available in Grundrisse, written as a precursor to Capital. Here is where you find the passages known as Precapitalist Economic Formations that underwrite my claim for Marx as an anthropologist, a claim explored at book length by Tom Patterson.

But Wheen points to another conclusion about the sources of Marx’s creativity. In order to grasp the future potential of what he could observe, Capital had to be a work of the imagination and the best analogy with that would be novelists like Dickens. (Balzac probably beat Dickens as a student of money). Hard Times is a withering denunciation of the kind of economic ideology then flourishing in Manchester. I find it rather programmatic and much prefer Oliver Twist for its coverage of much the same ground as Henry Mayhew’s work.

I have been stimulated of late by reading Noam Yuran’s PhD thesis, Rethinking Money Through Desire. Noam looks to Marx and Veblen, but also to Dickens and Weber, to explain the money value of modern brands. There is not much online yet, but this notice gives a flavour of his work. Noam thinks of himself as a philosopher, no journalist or ethnographer he (at least not here). But he opens up questions and sources that a serious economic anthropology would have to address, whatever our political motives.

The relationship between ethnography and fiction was invoked explicitly by Oscar Lewis, the outstanding 20th century ethnographer of the urban poor. La Vida was based on the ethnographic research of a team he supervised in Puerto Rico and New York, but it takes the form of a novel for reasons that he explains in an extended introduction to his ideas concerning the ‘culture of poverty’. As the subsequent controversy over Lewis’s ideas showed, neither ethnography nor fiction is immune to political critique.

The chief fault of ethnography is that it tends to whitewash social evils by making them appear to be at least human. I recall a Michigan student, David Stark, who studied the mob in Northern Japan, the Yakusa. A policeman denounced him as a spy one day in a Yakusa bar. He was summoned, quaking in shoes not yet ready for cement, to see the Big Boss. The latter showed him a newspaper. “You see what they call us? Dragons, fiends and worse. You are an anthropologist. I know that whatever you write, we will come across as human beings and that is good for the Yakusa.”

For all of Mayhew’s ethical concerns, his documentation of London’s ‘dangerous classes’ shows them to be immensely resilient. The same thing happened when I published the results of fieldwork in a West African slum. Instead of the unemployed masses feared by their rulers, I showed people at work for small and erratic returns, but still working and with some ingenuity. This was soon taken up as a positive factor in developing economies (‘the informal sector’), even though I went out of my way to argue that the economic consequences of their activities could be positive, negative or negligible.

The 1860s, when Marx, Mayhew and Dickens were at their peak, were in fact the crucible of a new social form, national capitalism, that has come to dominate our world since. This form may or may not be on its last legs now. It is clear that the new alliance of the bourgeoisie with the military aristocracy then had as its object the taming not only of the industrial working class but also of the criminal gangs that had taken over large swathes of the principal cities.

We need not be restricted to the print media to follow up this history of philosophy, journalism, ethnography and fiction. David Lean’s expressionist remake of Oliver Twist the movie is extraordinary and, more recently, Martin Scorsese’s version of Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York is to my knowledge the first movie to address the formation of national capitalism in its principal matrix, the American civil war.

This rambling post is a preliminary collage of my impressions when asked to contemplate the anthropological significance of Mayhew’s relationship to Marx a century and half ago. It may go some way towards explaining my enthusiasm for Phil’s act of remembrance.

One thought on “Marx between Mill, Mayhew and Dickens

  1. matthew hammond

    This is spot on- there is a real feal of imagination, and the blending of fiction reality and literary criticism (almost speculative/surreal fiction) – shot through Marx, which sharpens his Critique – I love the moments in chapter 15 of Capital, where Bill Sykes gets a mention… and gets ‘confused’ with normal respectable capitalists…..

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