Marxism, Liquidated

Remember Marxism? It was a current or trend in anthropological theory that began in the mid-sixties and ended in the mid-oughts. Like all schools of thought it has its redoubts and strongholds in certain departments, but it seems to me that on the whole high table anthropological theory has pretty much given up on it. Of course, there are still baby boomer anthropologists who make ritual obeisances in the direction of Marx, and some even believe that their own globalized, frictioned, assemblaged work can somehow be connected meaningfully back to Marx with enough ingenuity and historical reconstruction. But it seems to me that increasingly recent influential ethnographies — particularly those which focus on moneybags himself — seem unaware or uniterested in the paradigm.

Take, for example, Karen Ho’s influential new(ish) book on the culture of wall street, Liquidated. Of the crop of Book That Everyone Mentions At The AAAs Liquidated is really one of the better finds: an actual ethnography, with actual interview data, which takes the time it needs to say something that deserves being said. Of course, the book has its drawbacks: the language could be clearer, redundant repetition of main points could have been cut, and there is a tendency to use words like “explode” and “denaturalize” to describe an activity most of us would call “describing”. Still, it is a solid, real, problem-driven ethnography, which is great.

The strange thing is that despite Ho’s use of the terms like ‘ideology’ and ‘hegemony’ and the obvious appropriateness of the topic, Marx is never really seriously engaged — even to be dismissed — in the book. Ho is, to be sure, critical of her ethnographic subjects — in a sort of amazing way, the entire book is a sustained critique of her informants — but her main point seems to be that we have forgotten what the New Deal was, how it was supposed to work, and how unAmerican it is to securitize corporations. This is a very, very good point about our forgetfulness of history which I think the country would do well to learn. But at the end of the day the fact of the matter is that Ho is surprised, perhaps even shocked, to discover in the course of her fieldwork that companies make money by screwing over their employees. This realization is not just the foundation of a labor theory of value, but the lived experience of the sorts of people who, unlike Ho, didn’t go to places like Stanford and Princeton.

I am sure that this post will draw a lot of comments from angry Marxists arguing that the influence of their master thinker is not dead, and to be honest I’d like to believe that that’s the case — although I’m more of a Weber-Durkheim type than a Marx-Freud type, I think anthropology has lost something important when we forget the history of what, back in the day, used to be called ‘critical anthropology’.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

57 thoughts on “Marxism, Liquidated

  1. Rex, this is an excellent contribution to the conversation. Can I ask you to take it one step further? Pick any one of the opportunities that you identify to enrich Ho’s analysis by reference to Marxist theory or theorists and provide a demonstration— show us how it’s done.

    I ask because I recall a class in which I was using Brian Moeran’s ethnography A Japanese Advertising Agency. The students were enjoying and learning a lot from Moeran’s vivid descriptions of how advertising is made at the agency he studied. Then they came to the chapter where Moeran evoked Lévi-Strauss’s ideas about totemism as a way to look at branding. Was the material about L-S relevant? A case could be made. Did it enrich the ethnography? No, it stuck out like a sore thumb. The students’ basic reaction was, “What is this [bovine excrement]?” To me it was all too clear that Brian felt compelled to incorporate some “anthropological theory,” but the gesture interrupted his narrative arc and fell flat with his readers.

    I’m not saying that you haven’t identified some places where Ho had an opportunity to use Marx or Marxist theory effectively. But I’d like to see how it’s done in a graceful, effective manner.

  2. Reading the introductory part, “Wall Street Habitus: The Cultural Production of Liquidation,” even a freshman social theory student can easily sense that there is no way Marxism will work in Ho’s research. How can it be a theoretical framework for a research that studies the corporate culture and behavior of the capitalist actors, institutions, and networks that shape American capitalism? Marxism is a social identity theory for the alienated and marginalized. It works well in social justice, liberation theology, gender and queer studies, postcolonial history because such issues involve the cultural alienation and social marginalization of the subjects. Are Wall Street bankers marginalized and alienated both socially and culturally?

  3. Yes, their existence is as alienated as that of Nero in Quo Vadis.

    Since when is Marxism a social identity theory, that can’t be right. Whatever happened to holism?

  4. Nero? Are you sure your example works well with Marx’s theory of alienation that is directly related to capitalism?

    Check how Marxism is used in gender, queer, and postcolonial studies that obviously work on the identity politics of the marginalized peoples. Aren’t gender, class, ethnicity social identities? Black scholars, for instance, who tackle racism with Marxist frameworks emphasize the political sociology of identity.

  5. It’s meant as a light-hearted example. Though you could say that the court of Nero as portrayed by Peter Ustinov & co is as alienated from the real basis of their existence as the financial-corporate world is today. It’s funny to reinterpret the movie that way, though of course it has nothing to do with ancient Rome.

    As the workers are alienated from the products of their labor, so the capitalists are alienated from productive labor itself. Not that they don’t work hard, they are just alienated from a certain part of existence (through their expropriation of the workers). Obviously this is put in a rather crudely and way more complicated, but as a simple language game it serves to show that none of these social identities can be understood in isolation from each other.

    It’s good that people of various backgrounds use social theories to figure out their social existence, but only really meaningful if they can consider it as part of the total world they live in. So, a post-colonial thinker from Abidjan cannot consider her social identity separate from the people shaping the destiny of her country in the metropolitan areas. Particularism keeps people at bay, universalism allows for change.

  6. Even the Social Identity Theory of Tajfel is based on a fundamental assumption that is Marxist. It steers away from the notion that social identity is an individual’s personality or a result of interpersonal interaction or relationship but a construct of social forces.

    In relation to Ho’s ethnography, how can one appropriate Marxism in her usage of Bordieu’s habitus and field where the conception of the social is Weberian as opposed to Marx’s in which the social is neither behavioral nor interpersonal but economic dominated by labor, value, class, and ideology. Derrida, too, noticed the absence of psychology in Marxism.

  7. I think there’s a big difference between Marxism as the formulation of a specific ontology of social existence and Marx’ use of a historical-dialectical method.

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