I have been traveling from one place to another the past couple of weeks, but I have still had some time to keep up on the goings-on in the anthro-blogosphere. The first one I want to share is Jason Antrosio’s post Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History–Geography, States, Empires. Antrosio links the discussion to Jared Diamond and his famous answer to “Yali’s Question”:
Starting in the 1960s, Eric Wolf was already asking what Jared Diamond in the 1997 Guns, Germs, and Steel called Yali’s Question: “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”
Answering that question, as Eric Wolf understood, means accounting specifically for how Europe went from being a land that in A.D. 800 “was of little account in the affairs of the wider world” (1982:71) to those effective polities that could launch overseas adventures. Diamond would have us believe that the answer lies in the shape of the continents, latitude and longitude gradients, and agriculture, particularly large domesticated animals. Although this much older story may account for the fact that many of the most powerful polities have been in Eurasia, it cannot account for the rise of Europe 800-1400 A.D.
Everyone agrees that geography matters. Eric Wolf’s survey of the world in 1400 is full of maps, descriptions of terrain, and accounts of available resources. But serious historians reject Jared Diamond’s rationale for the rise of Europe.
To truly get a grip on Yali’s Question, we have to turn back to Eric Wolf in 1982.
Go back to something written in 1982? Is Antrosio crazy? Actually, no, he’s not. I think he’s onto something. One question Antrosio asks is why Wolf’s work is not more influential today. Maybe it was the ironic title? Maybe it was the Marxian framework? Was it the organization of the book? Antrosio brings up one factor that’s pretty interesting:
Not long after Europe and the People Without History, the Writing Culture (1988) volume took a quite different tack from Eric Wolf’s vision. Anthropology seemed to be turning both elsewhere and inward upon itself, as the Sidney Mintz and Eric Wolf Reply to Michael Taussig (1989) illustrates.
After the publication of Writing Culture, US anthropology did indeed veer off in another direction. That book took us down a more reflexive road, one that has legions of detractors and defenders. Personally, I think plenty of good came from the so-called postmodern turn in anthropology. But maybe there is good reason to revisit Europe, retrace our steps a bit, and see what Wolf’s vision of anthropology offers us today. A good idea. Definitely check out the rest of Antrosio’s post–it’s worth it.
Now onto Keith Hart. His post about the importance (and some of the shortcomings) of Karl Polanyi’s work is a good read for any of you economically-minded anthropologists out there. Much of Hart’s post focuses on Polanyi’s book The Great Transformation. Some might scoff at the idea of putting so much stock in book that was written back in 1944, but Hart makes it clear why his work still matters today. I remember one of my colleagues in graduate school told me a story about a conference she attended. During her presentation, a person in the audience was completely dismissive of the fact that she referenced Polanyi’s work. It was “too old” and outdated, according to this person, to be of any import today. Wrong. This is just the kind of “intellectual deforestation” that rankled Eric Wolf. Hart’s close look at Polanyi is a good reminder of just how important it is to study the ideas of those who came before us. He introduces his post with this:
I am a fully paid-up member of the Karl Polanyi fan club. In the past few years I have published, with my collaborators, a collection of essays on the significance of The Great Transformation for understanding our times (Blanc 2011, Holmes 2012) and have made him a canonical figure for my versions of economic anthropology, the human economy and the history of money. I have also published two short biographical articles on him. I have contributed in this way to the recent outpouring of new work on Polanyi to which this book is a significant addition. I am a believer, but some believers also have doubts. I still have reservations about a Polanyian strategy for achieving economic democracy and these are linked to his historical vision of “market society”. Theories are good for some things and not for others and, in my view, the plural economy would be best served by a plural approach to theory and politics. But first let me summarise what I most value personally in what I have learned from Polanyi.
Much of the post breaks down some of the dominant debates about “the market” and whether or not it is the epitome of all evil (as some seem to argue) or humanity’s unfettered force of salvation. Hart writes:
The last two centuries have seen a strident debate between capitalist and socialist camps insisting that markets are either good or bad for society. The latter draws implicitly on the pre-industrial apologists for landed rule whose line was, broadly speaking, Aristotle’s. Karl Marx himself considered money to be indispensable to any complex economy and was radically opposed to the state in any form. However, many of his followers, when they did not try to outlaw markets and money altogether, preferred to return them to the marginal position they occupied under agrarian civilization and were less hostile to the state, pre-industrial society’s enduring legacy for our world. Polanyi falls within this anti-market camp since he acknowledged Aristotle as his master and considered “the self-regulating market’s” contradictions to have been the principal cause of the twentieth-century’s horrors.
A less apocalyptic version of socialism in the tradition of Saint-Simon acknowledges the social damage done by unfettered markets (what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction”), but would not wish to do away with the wealth they produce. Indeed the leading capitalist societies at one stage all signed up for the idea that states should try to contain the inequality and ameliorate the social misery generated by markets. The BRICS are entering this stage now. The emphasis has shifted over time between reliance on states and on markets for managing national economy, between social and liberal democracy of various colours. The general economic breakdown of the 1930s turned a large number of American economists away from celebrating the logic of markets towards contemplating their repair. This “institutional economics” persists as the notion that markets need self-conscious social intervention, if they are to serve the public interest. John Maynard Keynes produced the most impressive synthesis of liberalism and social democracy in the last century. Much recent writing on Polanyi would place him within this tendency rather than as a card-carrying anti-marketeer. He did recognize a role for the market and lined up with those who sought institutional means to correct capitalism’s ills.
While Hart draws a great deal from Polanyi’s work, he also takes great pains to remind his readers (here and elsewhere) to keep an open mind about the positive aspects of markets, rather than assuming that the market is some massive, singular blog of capitalistic destruction. Specifically regarding the work of Polanyi, he writes:
It is odd that Polanyi sometimes reduces the structures of national capitalism to an apolitical “self-regulating market.” For his analysis of money, markets and the liberal state was intensely political, as was his preference for social planning over the market. His wartime polemic, reproducing something of his opponents’ abstractions, was more a critique of liberal economics than a critical account of actually existing capitalism.
That’s something to keep in mind when reading Polanyi’s work–and some of the various responses to that work over the years. Read the rest.