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

57 thoughts on “Marxism, Liquidated

  1. Hi Rex, no angry retorts here. You have in fact touched on the power of the ideological machine within the US and elsewhere in our world – the triumph of neo-liberal capitalism extends not simply to the market place, but to the circles of academic fashion as well.

    But to be fair there never really were those halcyon days of Marxist theoretical domination. IN fact, most actual militants never made the grade to get into the academy in the 1970s and early 80s because they were working as organizers of various sorts. With the linguistic turn mirroring the neo-liberal turn in the 1980s it is not surprising (but, perhaps disappointing) that a book like liquidated is silent on the issue of a theoretical framework that could provide some illumination.

  2. No anger here either, but to say the influence of Marx is gone is to say that the influence of Malinowski is gone. Perhaps Marixst analysis isn’t the master trope in anthropology today, but anthropology as it stands is heavily indebted to it, from Ong to Haraway and back. Historical Materialism: ITS REAL. 🙂

  3. Nabal wrote:

    “…but to say the influence of Marx is gone is to say that the influence of Malinowski is gone.”

    That’s a good point. Despite the shifting sands of the ‘high table’ of anthropological theory, I’d argue that the influence of Marx–let alone critical anthropology–has hardly been liquidated. Just ask the anthropologists (and geographers) who do “political ecology,” for starters. Often, as is the case with many earlier paradigms, the influence is still there even if overt references decrease.

  4. I don’t know about the Anthropology in North America and Europe. In developing countries whose current theoretical staple is Postcolonialism after Postmodernism, social science scholars, anthropologists included, still cling onto Marxism in understanding the sociocultural effects of colonialism in present-day societies and cultures. It seems Postcolonialism is a historicized Marxism that digs exploitation of labor and resources and alienation of classes and peoples, the common old narratives between the colonizers and the colonized.

  5. I think it would be more accurate to say that “theory” is liquidated in anthropology. How many anthropologists claim to be anything? Instead we say that “grand-narratives” are dead and use that as excuse not to have to engage in deep thinking about our own theoretical assumptions. Sure, we still have a few who proudly proclaim their own theoretical inclinations, but more often than not we get… mush.

  6. Hi Rex,

    I think you point to an interesting set of questions. Is the decline in (overt) references to Marx in anthropology due to the fact that it is out of fashion? Or have Marxian analyses reached the limit of their analytical utility given the tremendous transformations that have occurred in what was formerly known as the capitalist mode of production? To these we might add a third possibility: that Marx has become so ingrained in anthropological thinking that he no longer need be explicitly cited. You note, for example, that Ho uses concepts like hegemony and ideology without explicitly invoking Marx (or Gramsci).

    Incidentally, when I read Liquidated, I saw deeper resonances with Weber than Marx . For example, the book documents the introduction of regime of rationalization into the everyday operations of corporate America through the overriding emphasis on increasing “shareholder value.” In fact, what I liked most about the book was how Ho showed that rationalization is not an abstract concept, but a lived reality for Wall Street managers, just as it was first for Calvinists and later for capitalists in Weber’s account.

    Furthermore, this imperative toward rationalization was reflexive, just as it was in Ben Franklin’s young tradesman as described in The Protestant Ethic, although in a much more pernicious way. Indexing corporate performance to the stock market subjected corporate executives to reflexive form of power. Ho writes “If a CEO did not do what was good for the stock price, then he or she was being self-serving and the only way to guard against management self-interest was to tie compensation (via stock options) to the stock market” (128). By tying compensation to apparently objectively measurable performance, corporate executives are located firmly within a reflexive regime which the “market” disciplines those who do not conform to its rationality.

  7. For what it’s worth (perhaps not much, since I am in Japan where we currently have other preoccupations), I’d say Daromir is on the right track. Why, after all, should anthropologists cite Marx? Do physicists cite Newton or biologists cite Mendel—outside of introductory textbooks where they get passing mention before the serious work begins?

    If one were to say of Tett or Ho that their analysis omitted something important to which Marx had directed our attention, that would be one thing. If the crime is to have failed to mention Marx, where does this come from but a sort of ancestor worship from which the discipline needs to free itself?

    Is this anything more than the fetishization of citation in an academic market place where citations are the way we keep score, and if someone like Marx can be forgotten what future is their for us lesser mortals? One understands the anxiety, but…

  8. One of the key problems with Marxism is that it appears so diffuse and incoherent today. Not to mention the number of tedious disputes on ‘what Marx really meant’. To try to apply it in a convincing way would require you to herd many cats. Why bother? The only reason I have some lingering interest is due to my fondness of Brecht.

    If anything is to come of it, there would be a need to rethink, or perhaps simply rediscover, the dialectic.

  9. The commenters above have already made most of the points I would have tried to make; while I don’t want to “naturalize” the state of theory I get the feeling that a lot of what was really prescient and useful in Marx has become more or less subsumed into “basic social theory”, and a lot of what people don’t talk about much anymore — like a distinct proletarian-industrial class with interests that transcend place and time — got tossed because they didn’t fit the data.

    I have a relevant question though that someone might be able to answer. What does “Marxian” mean? Is it synonymous with Marxist? Or is it meant to indicate something like what I outlined in the first paragraph — that the social theory is Marx-inspired but not necessarily oriented towards a “Marxist” program of proletarian revolution?

  10. Ugh, I wish I could edit comments; the grammar in my first drafts is always lamentable.

  11. My guess would be that a Marxist is kind of a cross between a communist and somebody who aims to study capitalism in a scientific way. You can’t really have one without the other to be a Marxist. But there are communists today, like Badiou (no fondness there for me), who do not use Marx that much. Similarly you can place Marx into a broader group of people who wanted to use science to understand capitalism and the contemporary world around them.

  12. Thanks for these good comments all.

    I think that Daromir (whose work I like btw! Thanks for chiming in) is right in pointing out Ho’s concern with what she calls ‘particularization’ — the old anthropological impulse to want to see, empirically, on the ground, what is behind social processes that others might consider to be abstract. She hooks this issue on to a Tsing-style (among others) critique of globalization, but its an old impulse.

    People have pointed out that Marxism itself has grown so diffuse as an analytical tradition that it simply lacks coherence anymore. I’m sympathetic to this claim. But in my opinion this is a reason to return to the central claims of the field, which are still relevant today: a concern with power and exploitation as they manifest themselves in the economic sphere, a focus on praxis — engagement with the world — as a central aspect of human activity, and a refusal to separate scholarship from the political life of the scholar.

    Some have claimed that capital today is simply too changed to make Marx relevant but I’m not sure I’d buy that — as Ho herself points out, it was the rise of joint stock companies that stimulated Smith and (later) Marx to write as they did. Also, I’m not sure you can claim much of the discourse of globalization and ‘flows’ is mere puffery AND claim life has changed radically from Marx’s time (not that I think anyone did make this claim).

    One thing I definitely don’t agree with is the idea that anthropology is a broken version of biology or physics and that if something is done or not done by biologists then clearly we should or shouldn’t do it. First, I think it’s a shame physicists don’t think about Newton — they could certainly take a lesson from him on style. Why ought we emulate their historical forgetfullness as if it were a good thing?

    Second, comparing Marx and Newton is unfair — the time-depths for physics and anthropology are too different. Try taking a biologist who was a contemporary of Marx and run the example again: Biologists never talk about Darwin so why should anthropologists…. oh wait….

  13. Rex:

    I was surprised to hear reports of the death of Marxism in anthropology, since I read a good bit of critical medical anthropology, where the perspective is very much alive and kicking. It informs Paul Farmer’s anthropological work, which is widely read in medical anthropology, as well as influential work by Merrill Singer and others. (Nancy Scheper-Hughes is perhaps more widely read outside of medical anthropology, and one of the criticisms of her work (esp. for example, Death Without Weeping) is that it is a fairly naïve form of materialism of the sort that many people associate with Marx, but which Marx himself critiqued in his theses on Feuerbach.) The Society for Medical Anthropology still makes an annual award for work in critical medical anthropology, most of which is rooted in these issues of power and class, historical and dialectical materialism, etc.

    My second response to your post was to wonder, along with other posters here, if some of the broader principles of Marxist approaches to political economy have not simply been incorporated into our standard toolkit. I think of work by the Comaroffs, much of which is an especially sophisticated refinement of political economy without needing to refer explicitly to Marx, for example. And, of course, anthropological critiques of neoliberal political economic movements around the world.

  14. I agree with the sentiment that Marx is widely diffused and diffuse in anthropology today, but I don’t think his seeming neglect can be accounted for by the relatively happy proposition that his lessons are too well learned. And, I agree that Marx is more or less off the high table — at least on some kind of discipline-wide level — though he is much more widely cited (let’s not get ahead of of ourselves and say ‘read’) in a number of prominent sub-directions, such as postcolonial/subaltern studies and medical anthropology, and by a number of prominent individuals (Philippe Bourgois comes to mind).

    But if we want to ask why he isn’t cited, the simple answer is that he isn’t taught. I’d like to ask: how many of you have ever been asked to read past the first chapter of volume one of Capital? Anyone? I can tell you that during my undergraduate years at Chicago and my current PhD years at Penn not once has Capital been taught in the anthropology departments (it has been taught in other departments, and very enthusiastically received). And I’ve since run several successful reading groups to read the book straight through and have had participation from graduate students in history, history of science, English, German, and comparative literature, but despite fairly pleading I’ve never been able to get an anthropologist to join the group.

    If that is not just a quirk of my experience, then the answer to the question “why is Marx not read today” shouldn’t be answered with respect to today, rather, it should be answered with respect to our teachers’ generation: “why did Marx come to seem not worth teaching to those trained in the 1980s and 90s?”

    Would anyone like to venture an answer to that?

    All I know, from oral lore, is that there was a prominent Marxism in anthropology in the 1970s and surviving into the 1980s. Off the top of the dome: There was a strong Althusserian current looking at modes of production; there was real interest in world systems theory; there was even a small interest in post-Althusserian state theory; and finally and importantly there was Sydney Mintz, Eric Wolf, and the younger William Roseberry.

    What happened to this? I have no idea, but here are some ideas, in no order. Althusserianism got supplanted by subaltern studies’ theoretical mix which became gradually less and less Marxist; world systems theory got folded into ‘globalization studies’; state theory entirely disappeared form anthropology aside from that one Abrams article. What about our more indigenous strain? The latter two were old, and their influence waned; the younger died. Some kind of reaction against Marxism proceeded in the ferment around Writing Culture, but I don’t understand exactly how and what; there was the odious attack on Wolf and Mintz by Taussig (anyone know the story there?) in 1989. The seating at the ‘high table’ of Marcus, Rabinow, and Fischer — none of whom make any real use of Marx that I know of — ensured a generation of well-placed students who also had no use for Marx. What else belongs here? None of that is sufficient.

    Then there is a broad change in disciplinary pedagogy that makes it almost impossible to read big books or really know theoretical systems or lineages of thought, in favor of de-historicized wordmongering, an eclecticism celebrated as a liberated pragmatism. (Kerim, I’m with you on the mush.) While that’s a much bigger and perhaps less directly relevant story, I think it pretty much ensures that Marx will never be well-taught again.

  15. I think Adam Leeds identifies some of the problems, and I am glad that he distinguishes “Marx” from reading and citing Marx.

    On teaching Marx: I’ve tried. Doesn’t work. A couple of sections, on commodity fetishism for example, are useful, the labor theory of value perhaps, but Marx was not writing for us, and we have a lot of trouble extrapolating his issues into operational guides for doing anthropology. I always recommend (1) read secondary sources to find out what Marx was on about (we read the first section of Capital in Systems at Chicago in the early 70s, and struggled – secondary sources are much more accessible), and (2) read some current anthropologists who have used Marxist concepts or frameworks – I’ve used Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism successfully, and a quick flurry of Marvin Harris, some of the critical medical anthropology, etc., to give students a sense of what use Marx is today.

    I agree that High Table theory these days has a distinctly different reading list, but our graduate survey of theory still stresses that the issues Marx raised, Durkheim picked up, and Weber tried to resolve through a synthesis or materialism and idealism (or ‘culturalism’) are important ways of understanding where we are and how we got here.

  16. “But if we want to ask why he isn’t cited, the simple answer is that he isn’t taught. I’d like to ask: how many of you have ever been asked to read past the first chapter of volume one of Capital? Anyone?”

    In Anthropology departments, specially in the West, where Postmodernism and its current interpretations are still influential, (re)introducing Marxism, of course, will not make sense. The difference between the two lies on historicity, which Postmodernism disregards. In developing countries, Postmodernism and Marxism are easily combined by nationalist scholars to come up with their own postcolonial permutations. I don’t think the West, the pioneer of colonialism long ago, can meaningfully practice, without becoming apologists, Postcolonialism that considers the historicity of what Marxism can offer important.

  17. This is a valuable discussion. I can think of a variety of factors that are involved in this dynamic (which fits with a number of theoretical frameworks with deep histories). I may find time to comment more broadly, but this mornings news item in IHE relates to this particular case. See; “The Would-Be Provost Who Quoted Marx” by Scott Jaschik in the March 18, 2011 issue of Inside Higher Education.

  18. I agree with Kerim that generally no one is ‘anything’ (theoretically-speaking) anymore in anthropology, that we’ve mostly given up theory for what I have long called ‘ethnographism’ (cf. Marxism), and that in fact this generally accounts for the decline in attention anthropologists receive across the academy. There are glimmers here and there of a return to theory (especially in the broadly comparative perspectives offer by Latour, Strathern, and others {though note also that Strathern herself doesn’t see what she does as ‘theory’}; and especially in the anthropology of religion).

    I haven’t read Karen’s book yet though so I can’t comment on it!

  19. One book I find helpful for this discussion is Marxism Against Postmodernism in Educational Theory (2002) edited by Dave Hill et al.

    One can easily see the differences between the liberatory education of the Marxist Jawaharlal Nehru University of India, for example, and the capitalistic education of the Ivy League universities that still have postmodern curricula, which Paglia has decried as “a form of child abuse”.

    The works of Fredrik Jameson can also give light on why Postmodernism is an intellectual construct of late capitalism Marxism is too passe to critique. Neo-Marxists need to expand beyond class struggle if they want to counter the influential and convoluted identity politics of Postmodernists.

  20. I do think these are valuable comments, particularly because of the way they are cross-generational. I wonder if current grad students worry about reading Marx?

    I recognize how ‘diffuse’ Marxism has gotten — but what that means is a sort of generalized politicization, exactly the sort of thing right-wing Real Scientists complain about. In fact any sort of attempt to discuss issues of morality somehow gets branded left-wing Marxism.

    Its depressing to think that people don’t read Marx or find it difficult to read. When I teach Capital I always include chapter X, with all the descriptions of children working 20 hours shifts in factories. I find this orients people to Marx’s main problematic pretty quickly.

    I suppose in many ways this discussion takes us around to issues mooted again and again on Savage Minds: have Anthropologists ever been really interested in ‘theory-building’ what that means, and why we think people in other disciplines do it; why we organize our theory courses historically, and so forth.

    I do think there are groups of work out there that genuinely are interested in making ‘progress’ (if that is the same as constructing generalized theories?): the medical anthropologists for one, and the linguistic anthropologists on the other. I’m not sure how Latour is ‘theoretical’ since his goal — other than rewriting Science In Action over and over again — is so avowedly opposed to doing anything other than reporting other people’s theories. Still…..

  21. Adam Leeds wrote:

    “Then there is a broad change in disciplinary pedagogy that makes it almost impossible to read big books or really know theoretical systems or lineages of thought, in favor of de-historicized wordmongering, an eclecticism celebrated as a liberated pragmatism.”

    I guess this applies in some cases, but definitely not all. Marx has been a critical part of my training from the undergrad to the MA to the current PhD level (at three different schools). This has been both direct (Capital, The German Ideology, etc) and indirect (Steward, Mintz, Wolf, Roseberry, Taussig, Gramsci, David Harvey, etc). So it may not be a part of anthropological pedagogy everywhere, but I would argue that it’s still a foundational part of many programs, despite the trends.

  22. Rex asked:

    “I wonder if current grad students worry about reading Marx?”

    No more than I worry about reading Smith, Ricardo, LH Morgan, Spencer, Durkheim, Weber, or Polanyi (among others). It’s all part of the foundation of social science and critical theory, IMO. I think part of the reaction is of course related to how some folks put Marx’s ideas to use – but then, there are lots of ideas and ways of thinking about the world that have been put to less than wonderful uses (Rationalism anyone? The Enlightenment? Modernization?). Much of the reaction is highly political, but then, considering the cold war politics and how people like Leslie White and Julian Steward had to couch their “materialist” perspectives, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

    It’s an interesting question you bring up though. I guess the underlying question is who/what creates the need to worry? The fans of old Milt Friedman and Ludwig von Mises?

    Marx certainly isn’t THE BIBLE of social theory, in my view at least, but it’s a critical part of the canon, along with numerous others. But then, my use of social theory is less as an ideology to believe in than a tool to employ for particular reasons and analyses.

  23. I do think these are valuable comments, particularly because of the way they are cross-generational. I wonder if current grad students worry about reading Marx?

    If they work in Latin America they do, which I think goes to the fact that your geographic area of study determines to some extent your knowledge of things originating outside of it.

    I would assert that most anthropologists fit into the typology below.

    Those lacking a working knowledge of classical social theory
    Those with a good control of classical social theory

    Those who conceive of anthropology as a way to ground truth classical social theory and/or bring a larger body of data to bear on its claims (ethnographers and ethnologists, not mutually exclusive)
    Wannabe political philosophers

  24. I don’t know why one should expect Marxism in Ho’s work that is obviously about the post-industrial culture of Wall Street dominated by information and finance not by manufacturing and manual labor. Screwed investment bankers were well-paid when they had their jobs. They did not belong to the working class as we know it. There were others jobs waiting for them. They could teach, work as financial consultants, or move to work overseas. They had their Ivy League education to put in their resumes. Now, compare them to the auto workers in Detroit who were laid off after twenty years from the only jobs they knew and had no education to boast. Marxism does not work in all cases of labor and exploitation.

  25. My training didn’t mention Marx ever, neither was it really concerned with past thinkers. You were left to yourself to read them. I initially focused on the post-war neo-evolutionists, as well as the archaeologist Gordon Childe. So indirectly I got a lot of Marxism from that. Marx seemed less relevant to study the structures of ancient states, so I never really bothered.

    I think what one can find as useful for Marx, regardless if one is studying ancient states or post-industrial societies, is his dialectical method. It’s one of the alternatives to reductionism, even if in a vulgar form it can itself become used in a reductionist way. I think this is what is really useful in studying the classics, they allow you to (re)consider your basic method of looking at things.

    Btw, I stumbled upon two recent books, Thomas Patterson’s ‘Karl Marx: anthropologist’ and Kevin Anderson’s ‘Marx at the margins’, though these are not written by anthropologists.

  26. Haha. Rex, I think I read your use of “worry” in a different way than you were using it. I was thinking more in terms of what Kerim brought up above, but I *think* you were asking whether or not students take the time or bother to read KM these days. Oh well, mis-communication happens.

  27. Well, I was more referring to people using ethnography as a basic method of inquiry. After all, Marx is very much alive in archaeology, especially in historical archaeology.

  28. I was assigned all of Capital I, parts of II and III, The German Ideology, The 18th Brumaire, and Engels on housing. But I went to the unrated New School. Do kids at Top Schools get stuck on the linen, or the coats? Now I teach the 18th Brumaire and Engels, but someone else in my program covers Capital. Maybe this is partly the Latin America factor — we’re completely outside the rating system, in Mexico. Some first-year students have struggled with the 18th Brumaire because of all the allusions to French history, but with a little faith in the footnotes they grasp the dark humor. I don’t think they find him exasperatingly difficult or irrelevant, or else the idea of the commodity being a relation wouldn’t crop up all by itself in the second year. So maybe the pressures of the well-rated schools and the wish to be invited to high table somehow become a handicap?

  29. (Hope that didn’t seem like an angry retort! Just seconding what a lot of you already said, but as someone halfway outside the anglophone academy. The “uncoolness of grand narratives” that is commonsensical in the States looks even more tied to US political circumstances from here, not that Mexican anthropology doesn’t have its dizzy spells)

  30. @ Adam Leeds: surely state theory made at least a modest comeback with the interest in Schmitt, Frankfurt School, etc in the wake of Agamben? Does anyone keep track of Critical Theory-ish Marxism within Anthro, or count is as Marxism?

  31. @Laura One suspects that the comeback is not only modest but also highly localized. I could be wrong, but isn’t what we are seeing the predictable result of the collapse of grand narratives and failure to agree on a canon—the result being that what students read is entirely dependent on what their teachers read and liked, which is wildly various?

    It seems to me that what we are seeing now is the same sort of phenomenon that was manifest at the undergraduate level when I was teaching at Middlebury College in Vermont back in 1972-76. Students were coming out of high schools that had shifted away from once more or less standard academic curriculum common in the 1960s. Thus, it was no longer possible to assume that everyone going to college had taken basic biology, chemistry and physics, math through trigonometry, and at least a couple of years of a foreign language and had read Macbeth, Julius Caesar and The Mill on the Floss. Neither could one assume a working knowledge of the Bible that resulted from regular attendance at Sunday school (or Torah, if the students were Jewish; the Koran and Buddhist or Hindu scriptures were, of course, totally off the radar).

    Even back then it was possible to observe that the problem was no longer one of opening up the minds of students raised in narrow, parochial frameworks — but rather an imperative need to create a common framework within which students of diverse backgrounds could begin to make connections.

    Anyway, I suspect that the problem is less that Marx isn’t read and more that Marx is only read by a shrinking minority of an audience drawn in a multitude of different directions.

  32. Rex’s original post is an evident expression of a deep frustration, one shared by others, but I think we need to consider the example he chooses a bit more thoroughly. Karen Ho’s book, in my estimation, is a good example of when it is rhetorically useful explicitly not to appeal to Marx for theoretical scaffolding.

    Liquidated has been quite successful at gaining attention and readers beyond the anthropological fold. When was the last time an anthropologist was interviewed by Time Magazine and the Twin City Business Magazine, or whose book was reviewed in the Financial Times, the Guardian, and the National? I found enthusiastic blog posts from a GMAT test prep companies, a professional marketeer, and one blog post titled “What Every Aspiring Investment Banker Needs to Know about Wall Street.” Ho has managed to engage a broad audience, something that we anthropologists are continually worrying over. At the height of the financial crisis, when many were looking for better analysis of the situation, there was one of our own giving interviews and being read. So, beyond the perfectly good question of whether current anthropologists-in-training worry about reading enough Marx, I suggest we also need to ask, in addressing our worry about engaging mainstream publics, When is it best to appeal to Marx?

    Would Liquidated have been taken up as readily and read as widely, or Ho sought as an commentator, if the book presented a Marxist analysis of Wall Street? Is Ho still able to present a coherent and convincing critique of Wall Street without Marx? Is that critique palatable to those who wouldn’t think twice about immediately rejecting anything having to do with, or even invoking the name of, Marx? (For instance, the very graduates of Princeton that Ho writes about, and directly to in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Sept. 23, 2009). Even while we should decry the often thoughtless, confused, or ignorant reactions against anything and all things Marx, we might also benefit by thinking more strategically about how to address a popular audience. Does this mean Marxist anthropologist, anthropology, or theory must go underground, yet again? No. Please write about and take up Marx in whatever productive ways you can (for instance, Kaushik Sunder Rajan’s Biocapital. BTW, I believe he is a student of Michael Fischer). Just don’t feel spurned when your work doesn’t have much uptake beyond a narrow readership.

    Although I agree with Rex that Marx would have provided some extremely useful theoretical resources for Ho’s analysis, and that as anthropologists we feel this lack, at the same time, we are not necessarily the only audience this book was written for.

    (Full disclosure: I am the assistant managing editor at Duke University Press who worked with Karen Ho on the production of Liquidated. The views expressed are my own.)

  33. Well now, just to reiterate: I’m not frustrated — much less _deeply_ frustrated — that Ho doesn’t adressed Marx. My own book spends more time on the bible than Capital. I’m not a frustrated Marxist. I’m just surprised that she didn’t, and I suggested that this indicates something about current trends in anthropology.

    I’m not sure that Ho’s book would be less-read if she cited Marx. Like many ethnographies, the book is a form of vanity literature for the people it describes. As long as those blockquotes from interviews are in there, and those names appear in the index, I suspect it’ll get read. The incredibly fortuitous timing of her work to coincide with the global meltdown obviously helped as well. I reckon that any sufficiently ethnographic work on i-bankers would have received widespread attention given its topic and timing.

    I understand how the employee of a press could be narrowly focused on promoting their product. However, I think there is something fundamentally, deeply wrong about the idea that our major commitments to understanding and interpreting data should be determined based on how well they will sell, rather than the logic and imperatives of our discipline. Why do these pesky biologists keep talking about evolution when it turns off all those church-goers? Why do anthropologists keep on insisting race is not a straightforwardly natural category when the TV teaches us every day that blacks are better athletes than whites? Where we get our scholarly imperatives is complex, and issues of truth and accuracy are complicated. But one place I do not think we should get them is a marketing department.

    Nowhere could this be more clearly seen than in the issue of personal vision. Paul Farmer writes about structural violence because 1) he’s got a huge heart and 2) it makes sense of what happens in Haiti. Indeed, as his work (and Ho’s) indicates, the books that do ‘best’ are the ones where an author pursues their vision, regardless of whether or not it will ‘sell’.

    Public anthropology is about a lot of things — writing well, addressing topics people care about, thinking about audience, actually doing ethnography instead of talking about doing it. But I don’t think its about giving up our discipline in order to make it better known.

  34. Rex, why do you think that failing to study or cite Marx is “giving up our discipline”? After all, Marx is, along with Durkheim and Weber (I’d also include Simmel), part of a broad tradition of European social thought that we share with numerous other disciplines, not a distinctive feature of our own. We might also note that their influence within our discipline is filtered through a number of more recent ancestors, Vic Turner, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Pierre Bourdieu, for example, who simply make use of Marxist ideas without getting bogged down in the pilpul of parsing Marx himself. The latter may be a noble effort in itself; but it is at best a distraction when our goal is to say something new about the peoples who have shared their lives with us.

    Putting aside the marketing issues, what I would like to ask you to provide is an intellectual case for renewing a focus on Marx instead of another ancestor. There are numerous shades hungry for lack of worshippers. Why is this one especially important? Why now? What does he point to that we have not noticed or neglected? What paths has he opened that are not already routinely followed?

  35. In this case, I’m not arguing that we need to have a renewed focus on Marx and I never have made such a case. I was 1) surprised that Ho didn’t engage Marx and 2) I think this indicates something about contemporary anthropological theory. To wit, I think anthropology has lost something important when we forget the history of what, back in the day, used to be called ‘critical anthropology’. I like it when we remember our traditions.

    But regardless of whether its Marx, Simmel (I’ll second that vote btw John), Durkheim, Freud, or anyone else, I think we should discuss them because it makes sense to, not because we’ve decided we will be more widely read if we don’t. That’s all.

  36. Is Ho still able to present a coherent and convincing critique of Wall Street without Marx?

    Saying Marx isn’t in Liquidated is like saying Freud isn’t in Black Swan.

    Why is [Marx] especially important? Why now?

    To me it’s not just Marx but all of our ancestors. To quote Branford Marsalis, “If there is innovation to be gained, it will be achieved through the tradition rather than at the expense of it.”

  37. MT, almost the same question I put to Rex. Why the ancestors? Why now?

    Don’t get me wrong. My B.A. was in philosophy, and I enjoy intellectual history. I also think it’s a good idea for younger generations of scholars to know the history of their fields and where key ideas originated. What bothers me, however, is when debates either (1) devolve into arguments about what the ancestor said, distracting attention from the case at hand or worse (2) end in cookie cutter applications of the ancestor’s ideas instead of seeing in them hints for further development given the new observations the research brings to the table.

    So, in this case at hand, I would rather hear Rex talk about something that Marx said that would deepen Ho’s analysis or offer a different angle on it than worry about the venerated name not appearing in the text.

  38. What bothers me, however, is when debates either (1) devolve into arguments about what the ancestor said, distracting attention from the case at hand or worse (2) end in cookie cutter applications of the ancestor’s ideas instead of seeing in them hints for further development given the new observations the research brings to the table.

    I advocate neither. I’m just trying to say that if there are things that we can do—like but not limited to citing to the origin—to make people aware that some legwork in the library is less labor than reinventing the wheel.

    On your first point, yeah, a little of has its place but a little goes a long way. On your second point, doctrinaires are boorish. But so are poseurs who believe they are coining new concepts when really they are just coining new terms for concepts they are unaware have existed for a century.

  39. @Tim: Isn’t yours the logic of the agent (or perhaps more accurately the studio executive) trying to convince the up-and-coming actor to remain closeted?

    Relevance is nice, but to quote Harrison Ford’s character in K-19, “What good are honors from such people?”

  40. That would be disturbing if marketing departments decided how anthropologists should write their books. Of course, my comment contained absolutely nothing about sales, but rather discussed audience and reach, a perennial concern in our discipline. “Engaging a broad audience” is not a publishing euphemism for $ (at least not at the press I work for). Rex, if you’d like to start a discussion about the everyday decisions a scholarly publisher wrestles with in trying to balance its intellectual mission and bottom line, I’m happy to chime in, but that is a different post.

    What I’m having a hard time understanding is the demand for Marx, the reason that a citation of Marx is necessary, or else Liquidated fails the test of critical anthropology. My experience of reading the book didn’t call forth this reaction (and this is from someone who has read his Marx while a student at the New School).

    Rex, you have been thinking and blogging about the place of theory in anthropology for awhile now, so perhaps you have come to a different conclusion than me on this question. Perhaps this discussion is an extension of the debate of what anthropology is if it isn’t a science: it’s a tradition. If you practice a science, you fail if you are unwilling to break with your falsified ancestors; if you are part of a tradition, you fail by not recognizing where you come from. My questions are similar to John’s: why Marx, why here, why now? Answering this would get us far beyond my more local (or less disciplinary) concerns about writing for publics beyond the home discipline.

    Quick answer to MTBradley: As I said in my earlier comment, no one is asking anyone to closet themselves. And no one here is being censored or work being withheld. If anthropologists genuinely want to gain a large public, it has to think about what is going to appeal and what will repel. My assessment of why this particular book was successful at reaching a broad audience may be completely wrong, but I don’t believe the point about thinking strategically is. If anthropology is a traditional that must, of necessity, recognize its ancestors to be anthropology, then failing to do so to attract a larger audience would entail closeting ourselves. If this isn’t a necessity, then we have more rhetorical room for maneuver.

  41. @Laura
    New School is definitely going to be the exception to the lack of taught Marx. Kids at ‘Top Schools’ often get neither the linen nor the coats, but are simply given section 4 of chapter 1 — repeatedly — as though it were freestanding.

    The Agamben and Schmitt stuff is far from the state theory I had in mind. When I wrote ‘state theory,’ I meant work that tried to relate the economic and the political: starting with the unworkable notion that the state is the expression of the interests of the ruling class, how can we viably relate the two without collapsing the one into the other? Althusser, Poulantzas, Milliband, (early) Laclau, Jessop, etc.

    Agamben et al. is political theory, straight up. Philosophy of sovereignty, whatever he may say about Foucault or Arendt. I’ve yet to see any hay made of it within anthropology that doesn’t rely on willful and massive misinterpretation. Anthropological fascination with it seems so misguided to me: this seems so clearly to be an ideology of sovereignty that we ought to analyze as an object, not that ought to be one of our theories. (Didn’t political anthropology start by asking how do we analyze politics without presuming the state?)

    Critical Theory (in the proper sense, Frankfurt-stylee, not meaning ‘any opinions vaguely left of the Times’) is obviously a dead letter in anthropology if Marx is: can’t read Adorno without Capital. However, I hear William Mazzarella at Chicago does make use of the Frankfurt School, though I have no idea to what effect. And Benjamin is trendy, though of course his is a more complicated case.

  42. One possible reason for the discomfiture about seriously revisiting Marx that hasn’t really been touched on here is that the most formidable challenges to capitalism that have been made in the last couple of decades have taken greater inspiration from anarchism than from Marxism; the main proponents of anything resembling “revolutionary struggle” are asking a different set of questions and employing a different forms of political practice. Here I’m just summarising David Graeber’s remarks (principally in his Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology but certainly elsewhere). This is not at all to say that Marx isn’t being used anymore, but rather that the people who are using his work are doing so for somewhat different reasons than those we would comfortably label “Marxists”. Indeed, David Graeber himself gives extensive treatment to Marxist thought, but perhaps in a way that wasn’t considered necessary or relevant by bona-fide Marxists of earlier periods in anthropology.

    Another possible reason is that, when politics gets involved in anthropology nowadays, one is more inclined to find an attempt to radically conflate “theory” and “practice”, rather than come up with brand new theory as such. Here I’m thinking of Juris’ “militant ethnography”, but there are certainly others – Graeber’s “Direct Action: An ethnography”, for example.

    One other idea that seems relevant to me: anthropology has always tended to prefer studying the kind of peoples Marx wasn’t particularly comfortable with, for example peasants. James Scott’s work, for example Domination and the Arts of Resistance or Weapons of the Weak, seems important in this regard. In a way his work is thoroughly indebted to Marxism, but always ends up being so radically different from anything else vaguely Marxian. What do others here think?

    I haven’t read Ho’s book, so forgive me if I’ve missed the point entirely. I’m not even an anthropologist.

  43. Sorry for the late response to these comments — there was a conference in town. For what it’s worth here are my answers to Tim and John’s questions:

    @Tim I’m not sure how switching your argument from “we should only use theories that provide good publicity” to “Marx was wrong, so we might as well use theories that provide good publicity” is really much of an improvement. Furthermore, the idea that anthropologists are ‘closeting’ themselves because they write books that appeal to specialized audiences seems fundamentally misguided. Closeting is when someone denies their true, stigmatized nature in order to win acceptance from the public — if anyone is closeting themselves, it is exactly those authors who give up who they are as anthropologists in order to become ‘public anthropologists’. In this metaphor, the technical literature in anthropology is the inside of a particularly kinky club, while the neat-and-clean ‘acceptable’ public anthropologist is the one who needs to come out. I’m here. I’m a Durkheimian. Get Used To It.

    I do agree, though, that John’s question is a great one although I’ve resisted answering it for two reasons: first, I’m a Durkheimian (get used to it) so my ability to answer from a Marxist perspective is limited. Second, Ho’s theoretical ambitions are actually relatively limited (the ethnographic ones are big enough!) so I feel it might be better to ask not what Marxism can do for Ho, but rather what Ho can do for Marxism.

    How then might Ho’s ethnography articulate with perspectives rooted in Marxism in a way to benefit both her and them? Here are a few ideas:

    The concept of value: _the_ central concept of Ho’s ethnography is shareholder value. Theories of value — what it means, how it is ascribed, how it articulates with regimes of politics and economy — have a long genealogy in anthropology that begins (among other places) with the melding of Marx and Mauss in Chris Gregory’s “Gifts and Commodities”. Authors with Marxist/left positions such as Terry Turner, David Graeber, and Arjun Appadurai (via his journalist father iirc) have worked to develop this field. Where is this literature in Liquidated? Her ethnography could contribute to this theory, and it could explicate her work. If it was mentioned.

    The concepts of hegemony and ideology: In Liquidated Ho claims that the neoliberal culture of i-bankers is spreading down to the population at large. How? And: Why? Are these people efficacious actors or are they mirroring larger trends? Marxist thought in all its form has examined these terms, almost to the point of incoherence — any of the treatments of them would have enriched Ho’s analysis.

    Normative basis of critique: How is clearly critical of the culture of i-bankers. Why? What’s wrong with them? It is never made clear why we should prefer new deal corporatism to their ‘bulemic’ culture of liquidity. Marxist thought connects a theory of human being with a normative politics, indeed it is centrally focused on this connection.

    Objectivity and Analysis: Unlike ‘social studies of finance’ that emerge out of science studies perspectives, Ho refuses to bracket her moral and ontological assumptions regarding the market. Given her partisan – but, to be fair, not rabid! – positioning, why should we find her data convincing? Marxism has struggled with the problem of grounding its view of social relations as both objective and partison in class conflict. Ho never addresses these issues.

    Demystifying globalization: many Marxist inspired authors (Gibson-Graham e.g.) are part of Ho’s movement to ‘particularize’ or demystify globalization.

    In sum, there are plenty of good reasons that Ho might have wanted to use Marxism to add value to her analysis, and vice versa. I am not arguing that it is necessary that she do so, or that she is a bad person for not doing it. I am — as I said in my original post — ‘surprised’ that she did not, not even to explain why she chose not to engage this paradigm.

Comments are closed.