Anthropology & Democracy II: Democracy in your neck of the woods

So here’s part two in a continuing series of posts about anthropology and democracy.

Here’s what I have in mind for this one: there are a lot of you anthropological folks out there in the world, and I think it might be interesting for some of you to put your skills into practice and see what you can come up with.  This invitation is open to all: grad students who are so busy you can’t even fathom democracy, assistant profs, undergrads, famous anthropologists, and everyone in between.  Let’s see what we got.   Here’s the prompt: What is democracy looking like through your little peepholes into the world?  Where is it and what’s it all about?  Let me know what it’s looking like on your street, at your college, your field site, excavation, lab, or in your neighborhood, city, or community.  Is democracy just some rumor, some fantasy–or is it unmistakeable, concrete, and material?  Is Democracy the local chapter of a political party that’s going door to door trying to rally support for their candidate?  Is it a bunch of signs stuck in lawns?  Or someone driving through town with a megaphone blaring?  Is it some whisper in a restaurant–or graffiti screaming about politics from some freeway overpass?  Let’s hear some details, folks.  I am looking for the good stuff, the real nitty-gritty of democracy as you see it, taste it, feel it, and crash into it like some sharp-edged table in a dark room.  Ya, that stuff.  Don’t over think it all, just post it.  250 words?  500?  100?  Whatever, just post something.

Since it’s my idea, I will be the guinea pig and go first.  Here’s my off-the-cuff response:

To me, democracy seems to have a bit of a problem crossing those little international lines in the sand we call borders.  I am in Mexico right now doing fieldwork.  They just had elections not too long ago, but that wasn’t my democracy.  I grew up in San Diego County, at the edge of a massive international border. While all kinds of things manage to flow back and forth through that line, I don’t really think that democracy is one of them.  Even the coke and the marijuana gets through, but democracy seems to dry up and wither away like the gushing rivers that once flowed from el norte, now reduced to desolate mud flats.  This happens to each system, Mexican and American: they only go so far.

I am not saying that there’s no democracy here in Mexico–not at all.  What I am saying is that we seem to be running on different operating systems, and the rules and freedoms and rights from one place don’t really transfer to the other.  Well, depending on who you are, I guess.  I got mine, you got yours–that’s how it seems to work for the most part.  Democracy and democratic ideals stop when you get to that border checkpoint.  You get the green light, pull up to the little kiosk, grab your passport, and get ready for the shift from one system of rights to another.  All men are created equal, except when they cross certain political boundaries–then all bets are off.  Constitutions speak about the universal, but have absolute geographic limits.  So when I think of democracy, I tend to think of the one that I am connected to, the one that I take part in, the one where I get to walk into a curtained voting station at the little grade school down the street and pick between option A and option B and call it a day.  Then I get a sticker as my prize, just like grade school: I VOTED.

Democracy is back home to me, so I look for it there, seek it out–these days it’s something I experience through this laptop thing, as a series of words and images on a screen that tell me the latest news about debates, candidates’ gaffes, pundits’ reactions, public opinion, and polls polls polls.  My laptop is my way back in.  My portal.  I see democracy through a funny little glowing box, like I see the news, movie reviews, and weather reports.  It looks even stranger from here, I think.  Like just another show among the many in the prime time lineup.  Just another show.  Watch it, vote, and then move on to the next thing.  I’m going to be away from the US on November 6 so I am voting absentee.  Detached–that’s how it seems.  But I always find election season surreal–this one just steps it up a notch because I’m looking into the fishbowl via satellite internet of all things.  Mostly, though, I am stuck on this question about borders and democracy, wondering why it is that certain rights, ideals, and democratic process can get so congested, if not completely strangled, because of those lines we draw in the sand.  Democracy is bounded, and we all seem to be ok with that fact.  I don’t understand why.  Maybe we have it all wrong.

Ryan Anderson is an environmental and economic anthropologist. His current research focuses on the social dynamics of coastal development and conservation in Baja California Sur, Mexico. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher in the department of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

18 thoughts on “Anthropology & Democracy II: Democracy in your neck of the woods

  1. I live in Paris where the drivers are every impatient. Anything that slows them down gets a long blast of the horn. One day our street was blocked by the kids from the local secondary school making a demonstration. It was about the run off for the presidential election. That year the socialist did not make it to the final two and the candidates were Jacques Chirac, a conservative former mayor of Paris being investigated for corruption and the far-right nationalist, Jean-Marie Le Pen. The kid were shouting a slogan while carrying placards: Votez l’escroc pas le fasho: vote for the crook not the fascist. The car drivers sat back in their seats with indulgent smiles on their faces. The kids were keeping up the tradition of manifestation, of occupying the streets. The spirit of the French revolution was alive in them.

  2. To answer the following, Ryan: “What is democracy looking like through your little peepholes into the world?  Where is it and what’s it all about?”

    Two terms pretty much sum it up for me, from where I’m sitting: voter disenfranchisement & unequal citizenship. When the Republicans (and others) encourage race-baiting and voter suppression tactics and Willie Horton-style racially coded attack ads/Birther ‘jokes’/’Obama loves to give those people welfare from your hard-earned paycheck’ ads, they are directly targeting people who look like me, and encouraging notions of unequal citizenship and voter-suppression tactics which make it clear that in this democracy we do not really think “all men are created equal” (and certainly don’t think that women are equal to men, or that all women are created equal).

    The voter suppression tactics are also a reminder of why some anthropologists have to care about race, while others have the privilege of not doing so. When yours is the phenotype associated with claims about lazy, hypersexual ‘welfare queens’ and menacing ghetto violence, which invariably get trotted out and recirculated every election cycle, especially around discussions of ‘entitlements’ and a need to ‘get tough on crime’ (and when you have, repeatedly, had ugly and abusive personal experiences of people projecting these stereotypes onto you and using them to try and limit your supposedly constitutionally-protected freedoms), and when you belong to one of the racial groups most being targeted for voter challenges and voter suppression, it is hard not to think about. Hard not to think about the espoused ideals of US ‘democracy’ v. the daily realities of unfreedom and unequal citizenship; and hard not to think about how the so-called ‘freedoms’ of US ‘democracy’ (like the right to vote) stop long before the US border for many US citizens, whose rights to be treated as full and equal citizens are constantly under assault.

    The current US presidential election, with its deceptive Romney/Ryan welfare ads and Birther ‘jokes’, also reminds me of something Harry Reid said about Obama during the 2008 election: that his light-skin helped him to get elected. I find this comment interesting for two reasons: first, it acknowledges the colorism which clearly affects all aspects of US life but most people (anthropologists included) would rather pretend does not affect their decision-making (though unconsciously it clearly does); second, the continued ability of many Obama detractors/Romney supporters to see President Obama as ‘too black’, though light-skinned and half-white, is a reminder of how far we still haven’t come from the racial slavery which cannot be extricated from the origins of US democracy. US democracy has always been about unequal citizenship and voter suppression, as well as ‘racial penalties’–and it still is: http://blogs.berkeley.edu/2012/10/17/obamas-racial-penalty/.

    Lastly, when you talk about how democracy does not cross over the US/Mexico border, while your body does, I can’t help but think about how differently a white male body moves across this same border as compared to a black female body. There may be different systems of democracy on either side of this border, but georaciality, colorism, and antiblack racism span this border fairly well, and well enough that I would not expect to have the same experience as you crossing the border, even if we have the same little blue passport–precisely because I am nowhere near Obama’s light-skinned blackness. Those notion of black ghetto criminality will be following me to the border, to the checkpoint, and across the border. Mine is supposed to be a body more likely to carry drugs, based solely on racial ascription and race/color bias. Likewise, and certainly in the context of (Mexican) democracy, I am reminded of Vicente Fox’s comments about ‘jobs even blacks won’t take’ and the Sambo controversy from a few years back. So yes, some notions and practices of democracy maybe different on either side of the US/Mexico border may be different, but some notions of racial otherness/hierarchy are shared.

    I know, another of my uplifting comments! I can only imagine how uncomfortable reading it is will be for many, to the extent that it is read at all. I know that simply posting as Discuss White Privilege is enough to cause many readers of this site to skip reading my comments: Oh, she’s just ‘whining’ about race again, goes the complaint. Except that I’m not. This comment shows why I post as I do. Race matters, across borders. Especially for anthropologists. Especially as how one looks clearly matters for crossing borders (or being detained, strip searched, abused at borders) and for how one will be treated in one’s field site.

  3. I am in Australia right now, and will also be voting absentee. From my peep hole, viewing the election outside the US is interesting as it allows me to see US democracy in a new light. Even though I am a registered nonparty voter, I never considered party platforms outside the two main ones. However outside the US I have been relying a lot on news websites which allowed me to read about the Green Party and their goal to get into the debates. Should not every candidate who has made it on enough ballots to win an election be given the chance to participate in debates? A two party system could be argued to be a new modern take on an oligarchy where influence and power is passed down through a complex system of lobbyist, corporations, and party politics.

    Democracy as bounded. Democracy is more than just an election, it is an ideal to be strived towards. No democracy to my knowledge has ever achieved the utopia of complete equality and freedom. How can they? In the US democracy strives to uphold the rights of the minority while ruling by the majority. There is bound to be conflict between the minority and the majority as evident by the occupy wallstreet movements that crossed many borders with occupy movements popping up in Australia as well. In terms of democracy being an idea it can cross borders and it does as the prior example shows. Also considering the Arabic Spring movements could they not also be considered democracy has citizens rising up and voting (not with a ballot but with action)? I suppose it all depends on how you define democracy… In short democracy to me is the idea that we all have the right to live as equals free from tyranny. Democracy may not be present in the real world but it does exist the minds of people across the globe who push the world and their governments to strive for the ideal.

  4. Addendum, Ryan: You know, it’s funny that you’re asking people to speak freely about democracy, and listing a range of positions in the academy (from grad student to celebrity anthropologist), given that the academy itself is not a democracy. A delicious–and frightening–irony.

    I think it is also worth thinking about democracy in relation to the ways in which the academy, and especially the neoliberal corporate university, is a repressive, abusive, vindictive, undemocratic hierarchy often fundamentally and existentially–though certainly not openly (i.e. contrary to the official PR you will get from colleges and universities about their commitments to ‘fairness’, ‘equity’, and ‘inclusion’, as well as ‘academic freedom’)–committed to subverting many democratic ‘rights’, principles, and freedoms. Once again, I think the previous comments on the campus abuses Jim Kim covered up while Dartmouth president is germane to this discussion.

    It is germane because he did what universities always do when aware of serious violations of what are supposed to be students’ (and faculty’s) protected federal/constitutional/democratic rights (including and especially hostile climate and discrimination violations: http://www.change.org/petitions/ucla-chancellor-gene-block-stop-discriminating-and-retaliating-against-dr-christian-head): he prioritized protecting Dartmouth’s reputation and making sure that the college was not sued for violating the rights of students. And because the university is not a democracy, this denial of rights/refusal to protect rights can be enforced, especially the more precarious one’s position in the academic hierarchy, via intimidation and retaliation tactics which end up pushing those who have already had their rights violated out of the university. As was seen with the UC Davis pepper spray trial, universities make a point of fighting to get away with what are clear violations of people’s rights, rights which are supposed to be sacred and foundational to (the practice of) US democracy, including freedom of speech and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. And yet, every day undemocratic universities are working hard to get away with depriving members of their university, or former members, of what are supposed to be protected rights in a democracy, especially when the university knows wrongdoing has clearly occurred: http://archive.dailycal.org/article/112088/handling_of_harassment_hearing_draws_complaints. It is a mistake to think the Penn State scandal is an anomaly, even if it is an extreme outlier. Universities often get away with these rights deprivations cum cover-ups, because they have the money and legal resources to do so. This is one more way that money perverts (our) democracy.

    I hope people will think seriously about this issue, especially in relation to the current revelations about Amherst* and Wesleyan administrators not responding appropriately to sexual assaults on their campuses (http://articles.courant.com/2012-10-05/news/hc-wesleyan-rape-lawsuit-1006-20121005_1_wesleyan-university-student-wesleyan-community-lawsuit). Remember, covering up sexual assaults, especially by fraternity members and/or at frat houses, is one of the issues raised in the Rolling Stone exposé on Dartmouth; so as I always say, anthropologists should be thinking about systemic problems here, not isolated events.   

    So, Ryan, you have prompted anthropologists across all strata of the academic hierarchy to give our thoughts on democracy, and yet we cannot even all give those thoughts freely, because of the unequal, undemocratic structure of the academy. Some of us (are compelled to) comment  pseudonymously for fear of retaliation: because to speak ‘too freely’, to exercise our (US) constitutional, democratic right to free speech will actually result in retaliation and the refusal of other anthropologists to employ us (especially celebrity academics who often don’t appreciate being challenged and contradicted by ‘subalterns’ who are seen as not respecting ‘boundaries’). Speaking truth to power is really not what anthropology is all about when one has to worry that so doing will result in retribution for being honest and offering a legitimate anthropological analysis, precisely because the academy is most certainly NOT a democracy. (And here I am reminded of David Graeber’s comments in his 2006 Charlie Rose interview that the academy is a hierarchy and you are expected “to cower”, or else… And I would add, Iftar darker and more junior you are, you had better cower even more, especially when also female. Because, yes, Harry Reid is right about acceptance and light-skin, sadly.)

    So, it is not lost on me that even this discussion of democracy is also a discussion about and constrained by unfreedom and academic precarity.

    To paraphrase The Wire: the game is real, and it’s all connected.

    And with a final nod to Orwell’s Animal Farm: all anthropologists are equal, but some anthropologists are more equal than others. Certainly a comment on democracy, and lack thereof, within and beyond the academy, and certainly despite the democratic principles officially espoused by AAA.

    *And for a concrete example of how this leads to getting pushed out of a college/university: http://www.salon.com/2012/10/19/damning_light_shone_on_rape_at_amherst/?mobile.html

  5. Apropos of the Animal Farm reference: What are the consequences of theorizing democracy from the academy when the academy itself is undemocratic and encourages hierarchy and inequality (especially in its economy of prestige)? The more elite your position as a tenured professor, especially when also a university administrator, the more invested you will probably be in maintains the inequality and undemocratic practices of your elite university given how such hierarchy and inequality makes it possible for you to be in your academic position, so what effect does this end up having on how you think about and define democracy, and your real world commitments to enacting democratic principles in daily life? How much and when will you really challenge the status quo, especially so as to make the university more democratic (and not just for full-time faculty)? Can universities be democratic? What would a democratic university look like?

  6. The following is cross-posted from OAC.

    This morning I was one of four individuals, all men aged forty or older, one Caucasian, US citizen, permanent resident in Japan, myself, and three Japanese, who are members of a special projects committee formed to develop proposals related to replacement of (1) the south-facing sashes/sliding glass doors that separate the interiors of our condominiums’ flats from their verandas, (2) the north-facing doors that open onto the corridors, and (3) the north facing windows that also open onto the corridors. To understand the discussion, some background information is needed.

    This condominium complex was built in 1970. In its day, it was a symbol of high modernity, the first such complex built in our neighborhood. When new it attracted owners who included a first-class architect, university professors, bankers, and several individuals with construction industry experience. Community minded activists drawn from this generation formed the core of an active condominium owners association, who have, over the years, overseen periodic major overhauls of the buildings. The next such major overhaul is scheduled to occur in 2020. But serious concerns have arisen that suggest that some of the repairs that overhaul would include should be undertaken sooner. Last year’s earthquake and tsunami in the northeast of Japan has sharpened worries about the ability of these relatively old buildings to resist earthquakes. The pipes that supply water to the buildings are severely rusted and need to be replaced. There have been complaints that during recent typhoons there has been water seeping into apartments through the south-facing sashes. Compounding these material problems is the fact that the local activist-experts who have taken charge of previous overhauls are now in their seventies and eighties and the loss of their expertise and knowledge of the the buildings-a very real possibility during the next eight years-would severely reduce the condominium owners’ association’s ability to oversee the next overhaul. Another consideration is the rise in the consumption tax and loss of tax credits expected within the next year or two, would suggests that acting now instead of later would be cheaper. An additional complication is that the complex has five buildings with different sized apartments whose owners contribute different amounts to the building funds set aside for major repairs. Some buildings have ample reserves to cover the costs of all suggested repairs. Others have sufficient reserves to cover some but not all of the suggested repairs. One, the smallest building, lacks the funds to pay for any of the suggested repairs. The plans for which the committee on which I sit is responsible will, at the end of the day, have to be passed by a majority vote at the next condominium general meeting scheduled for next April. By then, it is hoped, we will have gathered relevant information, developed proposals, vetted them with the current board of directors and the long-term planning committee composed of the aging experts mentioned above, and prepared the detailed schedules and budgets that the general meeting must pass before any work can go forward. There are many more details I could add, but these are sufficient to indicate the question I have for my colleagues. What you have here is an example of local democracy in action in a modern society. What can we anthropologists say about this case that might be of use to those of us who must wrestle with its details?

  7. i’ll give you a post on this (and keep within the word limit) later today…suffice to say, democracy in taiwan among indigenous people is a complicated and conflictual category

  8. so ryan. electoral politics in taiwan are a much more colorful affair than they are in the united states, and much more personalized: in taiwan, you will see candidates for the legislature personally visiting nearly every household in their district, at least on a procession during which they greet each household from the street. that the processions resemble religious processions places into relief how electoral politics closely connect to the practice patron-client relationships, with all of the elements of “favors,” “benefits,” and at times outright vote buying.

    people are conflicted, too, because elections put into relief the contradictions between democracy’s normative framework (understood on taiwan to include individual choice, rational decision making, and relatively fair processes) and relationships on the ground. for example, one of my best friends supported a progressive candidate (mayaw biho, a documentary film maker and activist in land and language rights movements) for the legislature, but was a classificatory nephew of the incumbent. what did he do? he voted for his candidate but couldn’t avoid helping to campaign for his uncle, driving one of the procession trucks. when driving the truck, he sported a mayaw keychain, but had to wear a hat advertising for the incumbent. “i’ll tell them to vote for number one for president,” he said, joking about the incumbent’s ballot number and that of the opposition candidate for president. he was not the only person in such an awkward situation. many young people–particularly those in an age set named for the legislator–didn’t know how to negotiate their support for the promising, progressive candidate and their kinship and other ties to the incumbent.

    there is also a sense that democracy (here, perhaps i should place the word in quotes) is flawed not only because of the ongoing role of patronage, but that it is contrary to traditional means of arriving at decisions through consensus among village elders, who then pass down their decisions to middle aged men who administer them. and, because party politics on taiwan are connected very closely with ethnic blocs, indigenous people often feel that the party positions do not represent them. certainly, when nearly each election is posed as a referendum on taiwan’s national identity, they feel asked to weigh in on a question that concerns ethnic chinese people rather than themselves. aware of their minority status, they also do not believe that democracy as majority rule can ever serve their interests. the problem, as i see it, is that democracy has been defined as the workings of electoral politics within a representative system. of course, that is not a problem restricted to taiwan

    are there different ways of conceiving of democratic politics? here, the ‘amis, who make village decisions through deliberation in meetings, would seem already to have a possible model; however, democracy on taiwan refers not to “traditional / local” systems but the “modern / (trans)national” sphere. so i think that one of the questions you might want to ask here is “what is the scale at which democracy is seen to operate?” we might discover many different answers to this question

  9. Discussing White Privilege, as another subaltern in anthropology, I am 99% with you, except for this:

    “can only imagine how uncomfortable reading it is will be for many, to the extent that it is read at all. I know that simply posting as Discuss White Privilege is enough to cause many readers of this site to skip reading my comments: Oh, she’s just ‘whining’ about race again, goes the complaint.”

    Your argument is a bit more fierce if you omit the public secret.

  10. Dj asked a question about democracy and scale. That is, of course, a big focus of questions about democracy here in the Netherlands and in much of Europe at the moment. Can democracy work at the transnational level of the European Union? It seems to me another question follows after it: is “the people,” whose rule democracy is supposed to be, the same as “the nation?” In the conventional model of the nation-state, it is – which might explain why nationalism and opposition to the EU in the name of democracy go together at the moment.

    The other end of the scale spectrum has its problems too, though. John, in your example of small-scale democracy in action, you paint a picture of a fairly well-off, highly-educated group with the time, expertise and interest to plan and do the proposed repairs. I suspect the system works much less well in areas where these luxuries are in short supply.

    Ironically, the problem of interest/attention applies to both ends of the spectrum. The media here still reports mostly about national politics; most people don’t know the names of the European Parliament members (member of parliament). In the US, I’ve heard many people complain about the local sections of the ballot: having to look up names they have never heard of in order to vote them into positions they have never heard of. If almost nobody is watching, can there be transparency? If almost nobody is voting, is it still democracy?

    My opinion is that despite the EU’s many shortcomings, large-scale government is necessary because the biggest threat to democracy is large-scale companies. To have any hope of keeping transnational corporations in check, balancing the interests of profits and people, democracy needs to be transnational, too – even if it becomes more imperfect in scaling up.

  11. Meesh, you are absolutely right when you talk about my painting a picture of a well-off, highly educated group. Some others that I have belonged to include Students for Democratic Society (SDS) during the anti-Vietnam War movement of the late 1960s, a local chapter of Democrats Abroad in Japan, where I served two terms as Chapter President, and the Democratic Party Committee Abroad (DPCA), where I served one term as International Vice-Chair and was privileged to attend (at my own expense!) meetings of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Association of State Democratic Chairs (ASDC). These activities took me from involvement with students and faculty who self-identified as members of the radical left to involvement with elected party officials in a center-left coalition party whose members have highly diverse opinions — thus Will Roger’s famous quote, “I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat.”

    What I have observed about the democratic process in these explicitly political and several other volunteer organizations with which I have been involved is a recurring pattern. A few people step forward and get this organized. A somewhat larger number show up for events. Many more wind up on the mailing list but are rarely seen or heard from. Even among the activists, moreover, rivalry and misunderstanding are rampant. The political skills required for “herding cats” and building sufficient consensus to get anything done are rare. The moments of what Vic Turner labeled “communitas” are rare and fleeting. The tasks that Paul Wellstone describes in the slogan “Energize, mobilize, organize” are never ending.

    The samples on which these conclusions are based are, indeed, composed of relatively well-off and highly educated people—people of precisely the sort that 19th century Progressives believed were essential for democracy. There may be somewhere a hidden valley where everyone is equal and all is peace and harmony. But let’s face it, Bhutan has a king, Tibet has the Dalai Lama, Polynesian paradises were run by aristocracies. And, as Aristotle pointed out in his Politics democracy, conceived as majority rule, tends to decay into tyranny. The U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights is intended to prevent that happening but, we have all noticed, the Bill of Rights tends to get overlooked when “National Security” rears its ugly head.

    A serious anthropology of democracy has to consider the world as it is, as well as the one we would like it to be.

  12. It was not my intent to close the thread with my last comment. To my mind, exploring the material and social conditions under which different types democracy flourish is a hugely important anthropological problem. Ryan, when do we get to see your third installment?

  13. Hey everyone, thanks for all the comments here. Apologies for starting this thread and then dropping off the face of the blogosphere this week–had a bit of an emergency with my loyal fieldwork buddy (my one year old pup) that is still ongoing. A really long, difficult week. But I will hopefully be about to get back to SM soon.

    @John: the next installment will be coming soon, I promise. Also, let me know if you have ideas for some other ways of looking at the anthro and democracy thing. I want to keep exploring this issue.

    More soon.

    RA.

  14. Hi, Ryan

    Stimulated in part by this thread, I just found myself browsing a bit in Amartya Sen’s 2005 collection of essays titled The Argumentative Indian. One of the Nobel Prize-winning economist’s aims in this book is to rescue India’s long history of public debate, rational thinking and respect for diverse opinions from the oblivion to which it was consigned by British imperialists who preferred to imagine an Indian culture permeated with magical thinking and spiritualism. On page 80, I find the following paragraph:

    Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, put particular emphasis on the toleration of heterodoxy and pluralism in Indian history. The Chair of the Drafting Committee of the Indian constitution, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, a distinguished scholar and political leader from the community of Dalits (formerly, ‘untouchables’), also went in some detail into the history of local democratic governance in India to assess whether it could fruitfully serve as a model for modern Indian democracy. Ambedkar eventually saw little merit in drawing on local democratic experience, since localism, he argued, generated ‘narrow-mindedness and communalism’ (speaking personally, Ambedkar even asserted that ‘these village republics have been the ruination of India’).

    Reading this paragraph, I recall what Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 1. The plan to which he refers is the U.S. Constitution.

    Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected. The plan offered to our deliberations affects too many particular interests, innovates upon too many local institutions, not to involve in its discussion a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions, and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.

    In statements like these I see a serious challenge to an anthropology of democracy, especially one that aims to generalize the significance of the primitive communism noted by David Graeber (the everyone pitching in to help as much as they can found in families and small work groups around the world) to larger settings, where rivalry, freeloading, exploitation, hierarchy, and occasional heroism seem omnipresent.

  15. Be it after the french revolution or the american independance, republicanism* was supposedly meant to prevent the “excesses” of democracy. It’s a garde-fou against the will of the masses. It’s for peaceful transition amongst the same group of people who’s power is limited by certain documents and organs.

    But that is only at the upper levels of governance. It’s seeps through our everyday lives by re-using words (like “democracy”) and and changing their original meaning. I don’t see why anthropology couldn’t study the day to day forms of governance, be it democracy or communism, anarchism, etc., embedded in a greater litterature on democracy.

    *also true of parliamentary monarchy of course

  16. Carlos, I couldn’t agree more. We can and should study the everyday forms of governance, whatever the “official” system in which we find them. But we should always ask about the opportunity structures that make them possible and the constraints that limit their operation. We should also bear in mind that to assume that people are inherently nice and inclined to cooperate with one another flies in the face of massive primatological, ethnographic and historical evidence to the contrary.

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