The critique of unequal society

Contains: 1. Critical anthropology 2. The anthropology of unequal society 3. French Marxist anthropology 4. Feminist anthropology 5. The globalization of apartheid

Critical anthropology

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 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 But it is no longer the leading anthropological paradigm, having been replaced by a relativist ethnography that is more compatible with a world society fragmented into nation-states.

What is ‘critique’? It is to examine the foundations of contemporary civilization by having recourse to judgment. Judgment in turn is the ability to form an opinion on the basis of careful consideration; beyond that to discern relations linking particulars to more general principles. Although not indifferent to fact and logic, judgment requires consideration of worth. A judge is respected for his or her wisdom and apparent objectivity, that is, for the ability to transcend mere opinion, even to give expression to universal truth. A cognate expression is critic (which is, after all, derived from the Greek word for judgment). But criticism often connotes for us the formation of opinions about works of art. Indeed, critical anthropology, reflecting a trend driven by post-structuralist discourse from the 1970s, has of late often seemed to give priority to texts over life.

Immanuel Kant is the source for the notion that society may be as much an expression of individual subjectivity as a collective force out there. Copernicus solved the problem of the movement of the heavenly bodies by having the spectator revolve while they were at rest, instead of them revolve around the spectator. Kant extended this achievement for physics into metaphysics. In his Preface to The Critique of Pure Reason he writes,

Hitherto it has been assumed that all our knowledge must conform to objects… but what if we suppose that objects must conform to our knowledge?

In order to understand the world, we must begin not with the empirical existence of objects, but with the reasoning embedded in our experience itself and in all the judgments we have made. This is to say that the world is inside each of us as much as it is out there. Our task is to unite the two poles as subjective individuals who share the object world with the rest of humanity.  Knowledge of society must be personal and moral before it is defined by the laws imposed on each of us from above. Kant (2006) launched the idea of ‘anthropology’ as a modern academic discipline. No-one would dispute Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s standing as the founder of modern critique; but a case can be made for him as a pioneer of modern anthropology as well.

Rousseau showed that a critical perspective on society, a refusal to take as inevitable things as they are, requires us to devise new methods of studying and writing about a transitional present. The boundary between fact and fiction has to be blurred if we are to talk about the evolution of possible worlds out of the actual one we live in. In developing a revolutionary critique of politics, education, sexuality and self-identity (Social Contract, Émile, New Héloïse, Confessions), Rousseau came up with a different genre of writing for each topic. Critical anthropologists today might emulate his example, were they not forced to justify themselves to the academic bureaucracy. The two discourses that launched Rousseau’s career, however, are the principal sources for a renewal of critical anthropology, combining as they do a critique of corrupt civilization with an anthropology whose aim is to redress global inequality. In particular, his Discourse on the Origins and Foundation of Inequality among Men (1754), which has inspired anthropologists from Morgan and Engels to Lévi-Strauss, deserves to be seen as a foundational work both for Marxism and what became the discipline of anthropology.

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 (1954) 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 ‘neoliberalism’. 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. 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 likely, hopefully a version that pays more attention to Marx’s own vision of the economy in human history than was the case the last time around.

Feminist anthropology

In the last decades of the twentieth century, feminist anthropology has been in the forefront of cultural critique. It was after all the women’s movement that declared in the 1960s that ‘the personal is political’ and launched a devastating critique of western institutions on grounds of the invisibility, exclusion and exploitation of women. These broader criticisms were readily applied to anthropology. An example of the sophistication reached by feminist and post-feminist discourse is Marilyn Strathern’s The Gender of the Gift (Strathern 1988), where the confounding of western gender stereotypes in Melanesian cultures is taken as a point of departure for a much wider critique of such core conceptual pairs as individual/society and nature/culture. The 1980s were a decade of deconstruction, what Hegel called ‘negative dialectic’, in which the conventional categories of the modern synthesis became confused and discredited. Both inside and outside the academy, this task was performed to a disproportionate extent by women scholars.

Henrietta Moore (1988) provides a useful summary of the various stages through which the feminist movement – and its counterpart in anthropology – passed. At first feminists pointed out the consequences of omitting women from conventional descriptions of society. Their work in the home was treated as being insignificant when compared with working for wages. This led to a critique of the valorisation of production for the market at the expense of domestic reproduction. The implications for economic anthropology are obvious and feminists had no trouble showing what a difference it made to take women’s work seriously. So the initial phase emphasized the need to bring women into view when discussing the economy, to grant them an explicit equality with men.

In the 1970s, feminists went beyond the demand for inclusion as equals and some of them demanded the right to develop separately on their own terms. The exploitation of women by men could best be resisted by going it alone. This had its counterpart in arguments that poor countries could not benefit by seeking to reform their relationship with the rich countries, but only by making a break with the capitalist world system (Wallerstein 1974; see also theories of dependency and underdevelopment to be discussed in Chapter 6). Thus Lisette Josephides, in The Production of Inequality (1976), challenged Marilyn Strathern’s account of the same New Guinea Highlands in Women in Between (1972) on grounds that reflect quite closely the shift in feminist thinking from the 60s to the 70s described by Moore. In the 80s, the presumption of women’s unity as a class was broken by the emergence of powerful internal differences – between black and white women, lesbians and straight women and so on. Sarah Green’s study of Lesbian communes in London, Urban Amazons (1997), vividly highlights this development. Marilyn Strathern, in her epoch-making Gender of the Gift (1988), questioned her own attachment to feminism, thereby opening up a further division between the movement and anthropology. Despite this history, feminists have been in the forefront of critical anthropology, not least in economic anthropology. Above all, they have pioneered the reflexive critique of capitalist economy through theoretically informed ethnography of the highest standard.

Hart recalls a conversation with a Ghanaian student about money and sex in cross-cultural perspective. The student met a young American woman at a party in his country and they spent the night together afterwards at her place. When he was leaving in the morning, he put some money on the table as a token of his affection, quite unprepared for the explosion this gesture provoked. ‘Do you think I am a prostitute?!!’ As far as he was concerned, cash was no different from a gift in kind and much more useful. He did not know that the payment of money transforms a relationship into something impersonal. Money in capitalist societies stands for alienation, detachment, impersonal society, the outside; its origins lie beyond our control (the market). Relations marked by the absence of money are the model of personal integration and free association, of what we take to be familiar, the inside (home). In practice, the separation of these two spheres was never completed and the fact that household consumption relies on spending money adds endless complications.

Sophie Day’s book, On the Game (2007) explains why and how the sale of sex in public contradicts this moral economy of capitalist societies. In the world of work, we submit to impersonal organization in exchange for money payment; at home, we express ourselves through intimate relations sustained by unpaid services. If modern capitalist societies encourage individuals to cultivate an integrated self, this daily oscillation between ideal-typical extremes poses severe existential problems. No wonder that ‘working girls’ who shamelessly trade sexual intimacy for money outside the home are often the object of moral panics. This blatant confusion of cultural categories undermines the huge institutional effort to keep women, sex and money in their proper place.

Day shows how individual women reconcile the public and private dimensions of their lives. She does this through personal narratives illuminated by a wide literature in anthropology, social theory and history. The core of the ethnography addresses their strategies for coping with the personal/impersonal divide. The women were inevitably critical of public institutions whose flaws and confusions were on daily view, but they also reproduced societal norms of division in highly inventive ways. They were at pains to circumscribe impersonal sexual encounters, leaving their personal lives in separate compartments. But, as with everyone else, these efforts were often contradictory and the lines of division blurred.

Prostitution is a total social fact and so it engages society’s core institutions: the state, law and citizenship; the market, money and economic life; gender, family and health; public and private cultures. If the recent economic crisis revealed the risks entailed in attempts to reduce ‘public’ society to ‘private’ economy, Day’s ethnography, informed by the feminist tradition, but also by much else, shows how much anthropologists can contribute to a renewed theoretical engagement with the conceptual and practical contradictions of capitalism.

The globalization of apartheid

In the Great Depression, J.M. Keynes (1936) offered a solution to national elites concerned that their governments would be overwhelmed by the poverty and unemployment generated by the economic collapse. It was to increase the purchasing power of the masses. The rich countries today are similarly cast adrift in a sea of human misery that includes most people alive. Marx used to say that the social relations of production act as so many fetters on the development of the productive forces, by which he meant that capitalist markets could not organize machine production for the benefit of society as a whole. The main fetter on human development today is the administration of the world economy by nation-states who inhibit the emergence of new forms of economic life more appropriate to the conditions of global integration that have emerged recently. This prevents implementation of a Keynesian programme that would alleviate world poverty by transnational redistribution of purchasing power.

How do people live with economic inequality? The short answer is that they don’t, not if they can help it. Most people like to think of themselves as good (Kant). This normally involves being compassionate in the face of others’ suffering. The worst thing would be to be held responsible for that suffering in some way. Better to explain it away: perhaps they deserve to suffer or are just pretending to be poor. Better still not to have to think about it in the first place. In the last resort, we can define the poor as less than human (not like us). Distance (physical, social, intellectual, emotional) is the normal answer to the conflict between inequality and human compassion. And, while we all distance ourselves from the suffering of others in thousands of voluntary acts, the task is performed more reliably, at the collective level, by institutions.

An institution is an established practice in the life of a community or it is the organization that carries it out. The core idea is of a place to stay, as opposed to the movement, flux and process of life. Institutions and agriculture go together. The conflict between fixing society in the ground and reinventing it on the move underlies the global crisis. Maintaining inequality depends on controlling the movement of people. If the poor are to be kept at a proper distance, it would not do to have them invade the protected zones of privilege established by the rich. Better by far that they should know their place and stay there.

The two principal institutions for upholding inequality, therefore, are formal political organization (law enforcement by states) and informal customary practices widely shared by members of a community (culture). The most important task of both is to separate and divide people in the interest of maintaining rule by the privileged few. Classifying people is as old as language and society; and, as Durkheim and Mauss pointed out (1903), it can help to define solidarity within and between groups. But labelling people differently is also a means of preventing them from combining. Modern ruling elites everywhere have come to terms with the anonymous masses they govern by pigeon-holing them in classification systems. The intellectuals devote themselves to devising and maintaining such categories. Social science itself would be impossible if individuals were not subordinated to these impersonal systems of thought and enumeration.

To the extent that society has become depersonalized interaction between strangers, an important class of categories rests on overt signs that can be recognized without prior knowledge of the persons involved. These are usually visual — physical and cultural characteristics like skin colour or dress; speech styles may also sometimes be taken as revealing social identity. Modern states are, of course, addicted to identity cards, preferably with a photograph of the bearer. By a standard symbolic logic, these sign systems are taken to reveal personal character — trustworthiness, ability and much besides. On this arbitrary basis, personal destinies are decided; people are routinely included and excluded from society’s benefits; inequality is made legitimate and policed; the world is divided into an endless series of ‘us’ and ‘them’; and monstrous crimes against humanity (like genocide) are carried out.

South Africa’s ruling National Party set out from 1948 to institute what they called apartheid. Despite the close integration of people of European and African origin in the country’s economic system, they decided to separate the ‘races’, by allocating to ‘blacks’ a series of homelands (themselves fragmented according to ‘tribal’ origin) and denying them the right to reside in the cities, where the ‘whites’ mainly lived, except with a work permit. Within the cities, black and white areas were kept apart and were unequally endowed with resources. Establishing and keeping up such a system required the systematic use of force, although collaborators were not hard to find. Internal resistance built up gradually and the rest of the world expressed varying degrees of outrage, eventually translated into a boycott. The release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 signalled a retreat from this policy which culminated quite soon in African majority rule. But apartheid can’t be abolished by the stroke of a pen.

The South African experiment was ugly, but not the most extreme form of inhumanity known to the twentieth century. Stalin and Hitler between them were responsible for much worse; and, even as the ANC was being peacefully elected, a million people lost their lives in Rwanda and Bosnia revealed that genocide was alive and kicking in Europe. Yet the Afrikaners managed to provoke the most coordinated international opposition since the Second World War. Why? What they did was obnoxious, but was it so exceptional? Perhaps their main crime was to be explicit, even boastful about their method of maintaining inequality. For the same method could be said to operate everywhere, without being acknowledged so openly or practiced so violently.

South Africa became a symbol of a universal institution about which many people felt uneasy. It offered a limited target, outside the societies of its international critics, which could be vilified and rejected as an alternative to more painful introspection. For do not people like to think of themselves as good? Opposing evil elsewhere is a way of displacing our ambivalence over how we handle inequality closer to home. In any case, long after the official demise of apartheid in South Africa, something similar to it is the ruling principle everywhere for managing the inequalities of world society today. This principle may be stated briefly as follows. Inequality is intrinsic to the functioning of the modern economy at all levels from the global to the local. The rich and poor are separated physically, kept apart in areas that differ greatly in their living standards. Movement between the two areas cannot be prevented in any absolute sense, since the rich need the poor to perform certain tasks for them on the spot (especially personal services and dirty work of all kinds). But movement of this sort is severely restricted, by the use of formal administrative procedures (state law) or by a variety of informal institutions based on cultural prejudice. Systems of classification uphold all this and racism is their prototype. It is still the single most important means of inclusion and exclusion in our world.

There is a great lie at the heart of modern politics. We live in self-proclaimed democracies where all are equally free as a universal principle. Yet we must justify granting some people inferior rights; otherwise functional economic inequalities would be threatened. This double-think is enshrined at the heart of the modern nation-state. Nationalism is racism without the pretension to being as systematic or global. So-called nations, themselves often the outcome of centuries of unequal struggle, link cultural difference to birth and define citizens’ rights in opposition to all-comers. The resulting identity, built on territorial segmentation and regulation of movement across borders, justifies the unfair treatment of non-citizens and makes people blind to the common interests of humanity. ‘The pitfalls of national consciousness’ (Fanon 1959) are the main obstacle to political progress in our world.

There are other ways of classifying the poor, of course, besides visible signs of ‘natural’ difference encoded as race. Nationality, ethnicity, religion, region and class may be signalled in many other ways. But the pervasive dualism of modern economies derives from the need to keep apart people whose life-chances are profoundly unequal. Engels noticed it when he came to Manchester in the 1840s. In medieval cities, the rich and poor lived together. Here the rich lived in the suburbs and worked in the city centre; and they rode to and from their businesses along avenues whose facade of shops concealed the terrible housing conditions of the slums behind. Post-apartheid Johannesburg takes this to extremes, with its rich white Northern suburbs policed by private security firms and poor blacks still crowded in monochrome townships. The apartheid principle is now to be found everywhere in local systems of discrimination, more or less blatant. Passage though any of the world’s airports today shows how the ‘war on terror’ universally strengthened state apparatuses in their attempts to control the movement of people.

The historical relationship between the peoples of rich and poor countries is one of movement in both directions. If the decades before the First World War were an era of ‘globalization’ marked by mass migration of Europeans to temperate lands of new settlement and of Asian ‘coolies’ to tropical colonies (Lewis 1978), our own period has seen migration of the inhabitants of poor countries to the main western centres. Then western capital unified the world economy and the rise of large-scale machine industry encouraged the emergence of a high-wage economy at home separated from the cheap labour of the colonies. Now the cheapest agricultural products come from Brazil, the cheapest manufactures from China, the cheapest information services from India, the cheapest migrant labour from the ruins of the Soviet empire. Following a wave of immigration from poor countries encouraged by three decades of neoliberal economic policies, western workers are facing increased competition both at home and abroad, just as capital has become truly global for the first time by diffusing to new zones of production and accumulation, notably in Asia. Keeping high- and low-wage labour streams apart through systematic racial discrimination has been elevated to a universal principle of world society, replicated at all levels more or less blatantly.

The neo-liberal conservatives who dominated world society for the last three decades aimed to dismantle the social democratic institutions (welfare states) that arose in the mid-twentieth century to protect national workers and their families. This also involved engineering consistent downward pressure on wages through the threat of exporting capital to cheaper countries or through importing cheap labour, latterly from Eastern Europe. The result in the rich countries is endemic racist xenophobia, exacerbated by job insecurity and rising levels of poverty at home. This is the immediate context for the globalization of apartheid as a social principle. It is echoed in increased security measures aimed at regulating movement in the name of the ‘war on terror’. More than two centuries ago, Kant (1795) argued for universal freedom of movement as a ‘cosmopolitan right’. Our world seems to be the negation of that now. But, sooner or later, economic and political crisis will force a reconsideration of the principles organizing world society. Anthropologists need not only to show how people organize themselves in the face of global inequality today, but how society might be made more just. This involves a fundamental critique of current ideas and practices carried out in the name of ‘development’.

Comments |1|

  • Hey Keith,

    Thanks for this brilliant piece, I absolutely love it.

    One remark though, I’ve always found that the idea of pre-social humans to be, well … false. Humans like other pre-mates are inherently social and have been living in communities since the earliest time. There is so such thing as a lone savage. In that respect, the study of humans prior to the neolithic has to be concerned with the study of community life.

    I never understood where this idea of lone humans has come from, but to me it doesn’t make any sense.