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’.