Tag Archives: Class

Diamond’s Argument about the Haves and Have-Nots

In earlier postings, we suggested that Diamond gets Yali's question wrong.  Whereas Diamond understands Yali to be asking about "things" -- about Western "goods" -- Yali was actually asking about social equality.  Whereas Diamond thinks Yali envied nifty Western stuff, Yali actually resented the not-so-nifty Western condescension that allowed Europeans to deny PNGuineans fundamental worth.  The misunderstanding matters, we think, as more than an issue of factual error.  That Diamond does not stretch his imagination to understand Yali's cultural views is consistent with the history he presents.  This is a history that he believes happened for reasons that we in the contemporary West already believe in.  It is a history that accords with our view of how the world fundamentally works.  Because such a history conveys the perspectives of the "haves," it not only hinges on the (seemingly) self-evident, it also sustains the self-interested. 

Many of you know the 13,000 years of human history that Diamond sets out in response to Yali's question – and so we won’t repeat it here.  In telling this history, readers learn that Yali's circumstances did not reflect any lack either in his intelligence or in that of other PNGuineans (and, of course, we agree).  Rather, we learn that Yali was poor and relatively powerless in his own domain because his ancestors lacked access to the mineral resources, domesticable animals, and the other advantages that allowed some to conquer others.  He was born, in terms of the luck-of-the-environmental draw, on the wrong side of the great geographical divide.  

Yet neither Yali nor most of the other PNGuineans we have known over our years in PNG would be satisfied with the inexorability of Diamond's luck-of-the-draw sort of answer, with the implications of his "that's-just-the-way things-were (and must-be)" sort of response.  Such an answer would strike them as a perverse justification of colonial forms of inequality, part of a story that denied them moral worth in the past, to say nothing of the future.  However, it is just this sort of answer, just this sort of invocation of historical inevitability, that tends to satisfy those who are already the haves.  In this regard, the ideology inherent in Diamond's reasoning goes well beyond the particulars of the history he presents.  This ideology supports the status quo, the interests of the already powerful.   For them, the inevitable and the inexorable are readily synonymous with the interests of the haves over the have-nots.  

More broadly, the ideology inherent in Diamond's reasoning is one we confront as teachers and scholars dealing primarily with the haves.  Students tell us that their parents encourage them to read Diamond's book, finding it invigorating.  The (former) president of Fred's college urged his faculty to read it.  In fact, he sent copies of Guns, Germs, and Steel to members of the faculty as a model of the kind of book he admired.  All over the United States, we learned, deans and presidents of other pricey institutions applaud the book.  At Cornell, it became assigned reading for all freshmen.  Moreover, many institutions pay Diamond generously to summarize his views in person, generally in packed lecture halls.  And, of course, there is his National Geogoraphic series.    We think such educated haves like the book so well because it resonates so much and so easily with their own concerns -- in effect, because it so readily sustains them.  They come away from the book (or lecture, or TV show) feeling pretty good about themselves -- both enlightened and open-minded.  They come away seeing the world without racial prejudice and having learned some important new facts and connections.  Furthermore, and significantly, they come away comfortably convinced that they have their cargo (unlike Yali and his people) for inevitable and impersonal geographic reasons.  No one is to blame for the fact that some people are, and no doubt will continue to be, the haves and that others are, and will continue to be, the have-nots.  Thus, Diamond's history is not only the delineation of an inexorable and inevitable trajectory.  It is, as well, both retrospective and prospective.  His depiction of the past provides a far from disinterested model for understanding the present and for shaping the future.  This is to say, he presents the world as one in which the have-nots, whether in PNG or elsewhere, must (seemingly) forever deal with the haves under conditions of fundamental disadvantage. 

But, what exactly is wrong with the history that Diamond presents?   Didn't the events Diamond relates really happen?  Must a history necessarily be disqualified because it conveys the perspectives and interests of the victors, of the haves?  Isn't Diamond's view simply informed by hard-headed realism about the way the world works?  

We certainly do not deny that certain forms of power had a significant role in effecting the kinds of historical events that Diamond delineates.  Diamond's depiction of the role that guns, germs, and steel played is often plausible.  What we do challenge is his conflation of the necessary with the sufficient.  This is to say, just because guns, germs, and steel were necessary to make certain historical outcomes possible, including those so upsetting to Yali, we do not have to assume that their possession was sufficient to explain these outcomes.  Just because sources of power are available, we cannot conclude that the power will be used for certain ends, or even that it will be used at all.  And, simply because European colonists had the power to pursue their interests at the expense of Yali and other PNGuineans, does not fully explain – or justify –  the ways in which they chose to use this power.  More later…….

2006 AAA Moved to San Jose

A recent press release by the AAA announces that the 2006 meetings, which were originally due to be in San Francisco, have been moved to San Jose.

The bottom line for the AAA leadership was simple: AAA members could not again be subjected to an eleventh hour change that would jeopardize their annual meeting – the signature event on the Association calendar. The labor dispute in San Francisco, now moving into its second year, continues to pose such a threat.

This makes the AAA the fourth academic association to relocate its annual meeting because of the ongoing labor dispute, as Robert O’Brien, a member of the recently appointed AAA Labor Relations Commission pointed out in a recent e-mail:

The American Sociological Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the American Political Science Association moved out of San Fran altogether. The American Educational Research Association is remaining in San Francisco, but has moved all of its events to the Moscone Center, which is not involved in the dispute.

More information on the ongoing strike in San Francisco can be found on the Unite Here! web site.


There’s the old joke about the guy looking for his keys under the lamplight because, even though that’s not where he lost his keys, the light’s better there. I feel that way about studies of I.Q.. When critics, like Howard Gardner, object that such measurements fail to capture important aspects of thought, psychometricians reply that concepts like Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” don’t produce the same kind of “stable” test results they get from I.Q. tests, so they need to keep using I.Q.! It strikes me that what we have here is a concept that has been perpetuated in order to legitimate the continued existence of a discipline, and of a testing regime, rather than because it tells us anything important about the mental abilities of those tested.

I’ve been looking at this issue because four of the top political bloggers (Atrios, De Long, Kevin Drum, and Matt Yglesias) have ganged up on Andrew Sullivan for his recent endorsement of the central tenants of The Bell Curve. As a result of all these posts we get a great list of online articles debunking the book, to which I’ve added a few more and grouped them all here for your reference. The critiques vary in whether or not they accept the notion of I.Q.. Some accept it, but claim it isn’t genetic, others accept a genetic component, but deny that this correlates with race, while others (like Howard Gardner and Stephen Jay Gould) are more critical of the very notions of intelligence that are supposedly being measured in the first place.

  • Thomas Sowell’s American Spectator article, in which he discusses the “the work of James R. Flynn, who found substantial increases in mental test performances from one generation to the next in a number of countries around the world.” Findings which disprove any link between genetics and I.Q. (originally linked in this DeLong post, and metioned in Matt’s post as well.)
  • Nicholas Lemann’s debunking in Slate: “What Herrnstein and Murray used to measure IQ is actually a measure of education as well as intelligence.” (also from Matt.)
  • Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns.” The report by the American Psychological Association which I make fun of above, but which is well worth reading – especially with regard to whether there is any link between intelligence and race. (via Kevin Drum.)
  • Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis 2002 paper, “The Inheritance of Inequality” [PDF] which debunks the notion that social inequality is genetic. (via Brad DeLong, who has a summary of the findings.)
  • Howard Gardner’s critique of The Bell Curve in The American Prospect, in which he elaborates on the limitations of I.Q.
  • Two defenses of I.Q.: One by Linda S. Gottfredson in Scientific American, and another by Christopher F. Chabris in Commentary.
  • Responses by Flynn, Gardner, and others to the article by Chabris.
  • Wikipedia pages on The Bell Curve, Race and Intelligence, IQ, the Flynn Effect, Gould’s book, The Mismeasure of Man, and Howard Gardner’s concept of Multiple Intelligences.

Lisa Rofel’s Other Modernities: Gendered Yearnings in China After Socialism

Lisa Rofel’s Other Moderities has been mentioned a few times in comments on recent posts, so, as it is one of my favorite recent ethnographies, I thought I would post the text of a classroom presentation I gave on the book some years ago. Since this was originally written for a seminar in which my colleagues were assumed to have also read the same material, there may be some gaps where I could count on the rest of the class to understand — for example, there’s some heavy borrowing from Appadurai, which we had read immediately prior to Rofel, but I do not mention him by name here. However, I do not trust myself to make edits all these years later, when the book is not fresh in my mind anymore.

In Lisa Rofel’s words, Other Modernities “addresses the cultural politics of modernity in the late twentieth century. It suggests how modernity is imagined, pursued, and experienced… in those places marked by a deferred relationship to modernity” (3). She offers us an at least introductory definition of modernity the following: “…an imaginary and continuously shifting site of global/local claims, commitments, and knowledge, forged within uneven dialogues about the place of those who move in and out of categories of otherness” (3). As the central project of the book, Rofel presents us with a conception of modernity which is local and particularistic while placing those local forms of meaning in increasingly larger spheres of class, ideology, nation, and global capital, in ways which are, frequently, frustrating in their complexity. In addressing this complexity, I’ve found it useful to adopt a distinction suggested by [a colleague] between Rofel’s presentation of modernity as an academic or theoretical construct, mainly calling on Foucault and Althusser and addressing the modern human condition in the context of global and transnational forces, and modernity as the object of desire for the people whose lives make the subject of Rofel’s ethnographic work. Although this division is wholly artificial — which is part of Rofel’s point — it does have a precedent in the structure of her own (challenging) introduction, in which she moves back and forth from 1st-person descriptions of Hangzhou and its inhabitants to 3rd-person academic inquiry. Artificial as it is, I think that this approach helps to compensate for Rofel’s introduction which, for me at least, was highly confusing in its multiple use of multiple concepts of modernity invoked to account for each other. This is not all Rofel’s fault — the lack of specificity in academic concepts of modernity, which Rofel challenges, has produced a somewhat limited vocabulary.

So for the moment we sidestep the question of modernity as a theoretical position and look at the lives described by Rofel. On this level, modernity becomes the desires of the state and of its subjects, a local imaginary grounded in local conditions even as it looks elsewhere for its inspiration. But Rofel shows that this desire and its inspirations have neither remained constant nor been mobilized in constant fashions over time. Furthermore, the vision of modernity strived for by both Zhenfu workers and the Chinese party/state is necessarily and irrevocably intertwined with constructions of labour, gender, age, social networks, and geographical location. Rather than forming separate and separable parts of local identities, these factors are each constituted in and through the others. For example, Rofel is challenged by the oldest cohort of women workers’ unflinching adherence to the doctrine of their own liberation. How can they remain so convinced of their liberation, she asks, while they recognize the bitterness of their lives, both with regard to their work in the factories as silk workers and their work in their homes as mothers and wives (aside: which is, unfortunately, largely ignored, even rejected as important, by Rofel, who is almost ecstatic about women’s reports of their lack of affection for their children….)? However, as Rofel discovers, for the elder women of the Revolutionary era, the criteria by which Rofel and her fellow Western feminists judge “liberation” were not applicable — unsuited to the particular history of pre-Revolution Chinese industrialization and capitalization, they fail to adequately account for the specific projects of modernization and subject-formation undertaken in the establishment of the Chinese socialist state from the late ’40’s. Although Rofel does not give a lot of background information about pre-socialist China, she does hint at the collapse of traditional sources of income (e.g. the difficulties faced by Yu Shifu following her father’s death and her early entry into the silk factory [64-70]) and the pressure this put on women, especially young and unmarried women, to enter the workforce where, as sexualized (feminized) bodies inhabiting an “outside” space (not contained within the social network of ostensibly responsible parents and relatives) they were subject to disrespect and humiliation. By stressing labour as a foundational element, rather than gender, the Revolution liberated women from the imposed boundaries of “inside” and “outside” work. (Incidentally, note that this concept, used either ethnographically or theoretically, never ignores the presence of “work” in the home, the way Western concepts of “private” and “public” spheres do — partially explaining the lack of affection and the importance of raising children out of “maternal” desire which Rofel so blatantly admires later on, as the invention of “maternality” mystifies the “work” aspect of Western women’s household activities.)

Modernity in the desires of these women, then, is immediately tangible, even as it turns to imagined futures in its attempted realization — that is, it deals with the particular hardships or “bitterness”-es experienced by particular people at particular times and places. Although State policies may slavishly admire and imitate Western or Soviet models of modernity, Rofel shows that in the implementation of these policies by individual subjects there exists a space of interpretation and misrecognition (on which, more momentarily) which alters and can even challenge the conceptions of the State. For the cohort of women closely identified with the Cultural Revolution, the elaboration of this space became a primary concern, even as they became disillusioned with the promises and practices of that time — consider, for example, Xiao Bao, the shift leader who protested her lack of promotion to an office job by setting up her own office on the shop floor. Given authority over the women of her shop, Xiao Bao exercises that authority by not exercising it, subverting the very power which she exercises. Although it is unclear for how long she can continue to non-exercise her authority, in the meantime, she has constructed around herself (or rather, around her desk) a space of non-participation in the imagined modernity of the state, instead enacting her own contradictory desires in that space.

Rofel’s analysis of this act of subversion owes a lot to her understanding of an undertheorized (in fact, virtually ignored) aspect of Althusser’s concept of “interpellation”. Rofel mentions Althusser earlier in her discussion of the construction of Liberation-era female subjectivities and, for those unfamiliar with the concept, I’ll rehearse the main points of Althusser’s theory. In his article “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, Althusser is concerned with the way a State (in his conception, Western States, despite the fact that he describes Stalinist Communism almost to the letter…) creates appropriate subjects. On the one hand, he notes, there are Repressive State Apparatuses, such as the military, the police, mental institutions, and so on, which serve to impose certain behaviours and exclude others. The use of such apparatuses is costly, however, both in resources and in the potential threat of resistance. Ideally, then, domination is achieved through the creation of self-regulated subjects, accomplished though the Ideological Apparatuses of education, vocation, religion, and so on. The goal is the production of subjects who “recognize” themselves in terms of the state ideology. Althusser uses the metaphorical illustration of a police officer hailing a man in the street—yelling out “You, there!” into the crowd of pedestrians. The man who turns — who recognizes the hail as meant for him — immediately admits his guilt and takes on himself the identity of the criminal (note that it is not necessary for the police officer to know anything about the hailed man’s guilt — it is the act of recognition which makes him guilty, rather than any previous knowledge on the part of the officer). In this sense he becomes subject to the domination of the legal apparatus. But, as well, in his recognition, he acts — he turns. In becoming subjected (relative to domination), he also becomes a subject (relative to agency). Rofel discusses the agency of the Liberation-era cohort in terms of their recognition of and identification with the ideology of the early Socialist State, from which their agency as women and as labour is derived. But Althusser hints at something else: in a one-phrase, parenthetical aside, he mentions “misrecognition”, a mention which is never followed up, leaving it entirely open to interpretation (ironic, that). Misrecognition would imply the construction of subjectivity at odds with the structure within which it resides. In their various challenges and subversions of State policy, the workers Rofel describe enact such a subjectivity — not necessarily consciously resisting State domination (although there is an element of that at times, too) but in subjecting the official significations to personal and positional interpretations which produce other modernities than originally intended.

The history related by Rofel is one of unfinished State projects of modernity. Each of the cohorts described corresponds to an incomplete modernization project: the original optimism of Socialist progress, cut short apparently by the disasters of the Great Leap Forward (which Rofel leaves perturbingly unclear) and the breaking off of relations with the Soviet Union, the hoped-for but unrealized perpetual revolution of the Cultural Revolution, cut short by the death of Mao Zedong and the overthrow of the Gang of Four, and the present (re-)introduction of Free Market Capitalism, as unfinished in China as elsewhere. In the wake of each of these projects was left a body of subjects formed and informed by the future modernity imagined and imaged by the State in each period, and by the local interpretations of those modernities. Rather than an undifferentiated Modern toward which the Chinese people as a whole are converging, Rofel shows the multiplication of modernities at every turn, with their concomitant genderizations, class-ifications, and localizations.

This divergence is already suggested by Rofel’s simultaneous use of and criticism of Foucault’s analysis of modernity and it’s investment in “biopower”. Rofel pretty consistently uses a Foucauldian definition of modernity which has at it’s core the penetration of State power into the lives of its subjects or, to be more precise, the entanglement of subjects at every level with the apparatuses of the State. For Foucault, one of the primary manifestations of this involvement is in State surveillance of its subjects — the panopticon of state control, constructed through normative discourses of medicine, psychiatry, criminology, sexuality, biology, and so on. Rofel shows in detail the refinements of these methods and their implementations in post-Revolution China, adding to the mix an understanding of the role of labour ideology and the ways that the work of the individual (for lack of a better term) has been used to integrate them into the workings of State power. With each shift in State conceptions of modernity, the forms and uses of bio-power have shifted, culminating in the radical individuation and re-gendering of bodies illustrated by Rofel’s description of the contemporary “family planning” office at Zhenfu. But in her particularistic analysis of the deployment of such power, Rofel challenges Foucault for both his Eurocentrism and his failure to understand the shifting meanings such power could hold at the local level. In effect, she says, Foucault assumes the homogenizing nature of modernity — an assumption which is not upheld by the reality of local situations, but is rather informed by ethnocentric assumptions about the efficacy of European civilization and the converse weakness of non-Western others. As Rofel points out, the heightened awareness of sexuality and the personal pleasure promised in its name — as well as the technology of statistics and display through which sexuality is monitored by the State — have not in fact produced a more efficient work force. Instead, the re-feminized female workers at Zhenfu are well-known as the worst labourers — increased absences, off-hours partying, “uncontrolled” or “inappropriate” pregnancies, and a refusal to construct their subjectivities through labour make the newest cohort of silk workers highly unlikely candidates for carrying China to an approximation of Western wealth. Rofel’s analysis thus widens and supplements Foucault’s, calling for a consideration of the modernities constructed in local subjectivities, rather than one which encompasses and supplants those local configurations.

The one thing that nags at me is Rofel’s’ discussion of hyper-masculinity. Although it all sounds OK to me, she never really gets into a discussion of masculinity per se — although she does note the presence of male workers in the silk factory, and not always in exclusively male spaces. Why this bothers me is this: the hyper-masculinity she refers to seems explicitly oriented towards local conceptions of Western business practices, as well as local conceptions of femininity since the introduction of economic reform. As such, fine. But it fails to account for the more everyday forms of masculinity, as illustrated by local interpretations of weft-threading as women’s work, while warp-threading is exclusively men’s work—or why men in the weaving shop hang their scissors from their ear while women tuck them into the pocket of their apron. These little considerations — the ways in which virtually identical tasks are differentiated — form an underexplored territory of gender in Rofel’s book. While the hyper-masculinity of market trade may represent a desired modernity of the men in the shop, it is not a realized desire, and the opposition of feminine and hyper-masculine leaves out the everyday gendered lives of the real men involved.

What’s wrong with Yali’s Question

I finally watched episode one of the Guns, Germs, and Steel TV show last night. Its all on TiVo, but I’m finding it hard to sit and watch – it is a rather painfully made show. So many shots of Jared Diamond looking scholarly: peering out windows, looking at maps, walking back and forth, etc. Ugh! And do they really need to work the title of his book into every other sentence? I mean, in the first episode they don’t even get up to the invention of guns…

The show is framed by the motif of “Yali’s Question.” Yali is portrayed as some local guy (he looks like a worker) whom JD bumps into on the beach one day and asks him:

Why you white man have so much cargo and we New Guineans have so little?

But Yali isn’t just some guy on the beach. He’s a politician. This isn’t JD’s fault. Here is what he says in the book:

I had already heard about a remarkable local politician named Yali, who was touring the district then.

But I can’t completely absolve JD for this portrayal. I believe there is something fundamentally wrong about the very question he is asking.

The modern U.S. is the richest, most powerful state on earth. It’s crammed with more cargo than most New Guineans could ever imagine. But why? That’s what Yali wanted to know. How did our worlds ever come so different?

By framing the question in this way, the show is forced to portray New Guniea as a land of poor people, and the US as a land of wealth. Although we are told that there are intelligent people from New Guniea, they are portrayed as hunter gatherers, or poor farmers. While the show does show the hubub of urban New Guinea at the end, one would hardly know that there is internet access in the country.

This gets to the fundamental problem I have with JD’s question. While it is interesting and important to ask why technologies developed in some countries as opposed to others, I think it overlooks a fundamental issue: the inequality within countries as well as between them. I assure you that logging industry executives in New Guinea live better than you or I do! Both New Guinea and the United States are far more unequal (by some measures) than is India. Moreover, inequality throughout the world is increasing more rapidly now than every before.

Although it is a contentious argument, economist Amartya Sen argues that inequality within countries can be more important than inequality between countries. I’ve collected a bunch of writings about this question on my wiki, and there was some lively discussion about it in response to this earlier Savage Minds post. But the main point Sen makes is that people in societies that are objectively poorer, but less unequal live longer than people who are objectively wealthier, but at the bottom rungs of a more unequal society. It doesn’t help to have more cargo if you can’t afford the dental work necessary to meet new standards of beauty. (Read this post about a US woman who couldn’t get promoted because of her teeth.)

Yes, it is interesting to know the environmental constraints societies have struggled against over the course of history, but it is a mistake to see this as an explanation of contemporary inequality.

To take a recent example, Nigeria (environmentally blessed with some of the largest oil reserves outside of the Middle East) used to be one of the richest countries in the world. Corruption, aided by Western banks who provided the means of funneling the majority of the nation’s GDP into private bank accounts, and deep cultural divisions between North and South, destroyed that wealth. Yet there are still many, many, millionaires and billionaires in Nigeria, and their collective wealth would be enough to give them plenty of “cargo” …

So, no offense to Yali, but his question should be:

Why is cargo distributed so unequally both within and between our societies?

Once you frame the question that way, environmental factors seem rather incidental.

UPDATE: Brad DeLong, points out that I overstated my case with the Nigeria example. However, I still think my overall argument still stands. The comparative wealth of Nigeria is less important for my point than the inequitable distribution of that wealth within Nigeria.

I would also add that the poor farming conditions DeLong speaks of are partially a result of the oil economy:

During the oil boom, Nigeria’s small family farms became marginalized. Women and children largely ran the farms as men sought work in the cities’ industrial-development schemes, which were heavily subsidized by petroleum wealth.

UPDATE: My discussion with Professor DeLong continues in the comments section of this post – which also has links to discussion on other sites.

Don’t book that ticket!

I know all of you were ready to run out and buy tickets for the 2006 AAA meeting in San Francisco, but you’d better hold off. In a recently released report from outgoing AAA President, Liz Brumfiel, the AAA makes clear their intentions to seek an alternative venue. The thinking is sound enough, better relocate now than avoid difficulty later, but I’m not sure it solves the problem, and I wish the AAA instead sought to maximize its leverage in favor of the workers.

It sure looks like 2006 will be a key year in the battle for worker’s rights in San Francisco:

President-Elect Alan Goodman summarized the current and anticipated status of hotel management-labor conflict, based on conversations that Labor Relations Commission members Paul Durrenberger, Alan Goodman, and Rob O’Brien have had with UNITE-HERE (UH) representatives Neal Kwatra and Matthew Walker. Paul Nuti, AAA Director of External, International and Government Relations also participated in these conversations.

Goodman stated that the union regards San Francisco as “ground zero” in its struggle with the hotel/restaurant industry. Historically, the industry has been atomized, but its recent transformation from locally owned and controlled employers to a more consolidated, globalized structure has created a need for a “national-level relationship” between labor and hotel groups. This is necessary in order for labor to secure better terms on issues such as health care, safety, workers compensation costs, health insurance, and worker productivity.

Labor contracts will have expired in several major markets (New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, Detroit, Monterrey and Hawaii) during 2005-2006. The union cannot provide any assurance to the AAA that the dispute in San Francisco will be resolved in advance of November 2006. Management shows no willingness to settle the dispute in the near term. The stakes for the union are particularly high in San Francisco where, according to the union, the hotel companies are making lots of money and the unions are among the healthiest, best organized, and strongest in the country. UH Local 2 is a “linchpin” of the UH national strategy. One-third of the San Francisco Hilton’s cash flow comes from academic/professional groups like the AAA. Hilton has stated recently that its recent weak performance in San Francisco is a result of the labor action. Walker expressed appreciation for the AAA’s engagement and support in the labor dispute.

Goodman said that he had every reason to believe that the current labor action will still be in effect in 2006. So, it is important to begin examining options for the 2006 Annual Meeting.

Brumfel’s argument is that while new language in the contract might allow the AAA to avoid financial liability for relocating in the event of a strike (the American Studies Association has such a clause in their contracts), this would not address the financial and organizational burden of having to relocate. While true, it also reduces the leverage that the AAA might have to influence such contract negotiations by effectively pulling out early. Nor will it necessarily solve the problem. It is entirely possible that workers at the new location will strike in solidarity with the SF workers in 2006, or that the location will be subject to a boycott.

Although the survey shows that most AAA members who responded to the survey are unwilling to cross a picket line, my personal experience has been that few people made the effort to understand what was at stake in San Francisco, and that most anthropologists saw the move as an inconvenience. It is therefore useful to learn from one organization which decided to go ahead with their meeting in San Francisco last year:

The Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association decided to proceed with its meeting in a hotel that was being struck, and this decision caused deep and bitter division within the association, disputed elections of officers, and the resignation of the APA executive director.

Many anthropologists seem to feel that, because we are a generally progressive lot, we shouldn’t have to suffer for our beliefs, and should even be given special considerations by the unions. I think anthropologists forget that they are members of a very large institution (the AAA) with considerable financial and political clout. At a time when there is an all out cultural war over the control of nearly every cultural institution in American society (see this post I wrote on the New York Historical Society), I believe it is doubly important to take the political role of the AAA seriously and to fight hard to make it a genuinely progressive institution. The current policy of the AAA seems to be to “do no wrong”; but it isn’t enough to simply duck the bullet, the AAA should be taking the lead in defending our institutions from the conservative onslaught. Otherwise we’ll be screening movies on Intelligent Design at the next AAA.

Commodity Fetishism

The New York Times has begun a three part series on “Class in America” with a discussion of income mobility. The big news, that income mobility has declined in recent years, was discussed by Paul Krugman last December in The Nation. It is good to see the Times picking up on this story, but it is disappointing that it conflates class with consumption practices.

Because the cost of consumer goods has been steadily driven down, the average worker today can enjoy all kinds of consumer goods that were not available fifty or a hundred years ago. Liberals (in the classical sense of the word) like this definition because it makes it possible to argue that inequality doesn’t matter. After all, who cares if a few people have gotten super-rich, when the poorest members of our society can afford a CD player, if not an iPod?

In fact, there are a surprising number of people in America who have to choose between putting food on the table and getting the cheapest CD player you can buy in Chinatown. But the argument for the importance of looking at inequality does not depend on such depravation. I wrote the following in my blog last February:

As Nobel Prize winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen argues, it doesn’t matter if the total bundle of goods received by the poorest is getting larger if, at the same time, social inequality is increasing. That is to say, it is harder to function as a poor person in a rich society than in a poor one, even if you have more material possessions. An argument borne out by the fact of lower life expectancies amongst poor and minority populations in industrialized nations when compared with materially poorer populations in developing nations.

Sen’s point is different from that made by Brad DeLong, who conflates power with prestige.

To the extent that goods are valued not for the services they provide by themselves but as indices of exclusivity, it is pointless to produce them for more people because then they become less exclusive and so less valuable.

Exclusivity is not why the underprivileged of the industrialized world live shorter lives than those who can purchase a much smaller bundle of goods and services in the developing world. The difference is power. (What Sen confusingly refers to as “freedom.”) Power means control over your own life. Risk management is one way to talk about such control. Daniel Davies discusses a

project that has been going on since the Thatcher-Reagan years; the attempt to load risks on to the working class which have historically been borne by the owner class

And Peter Gosselin wrote a three part series for the L.A. Times about how this increased burden has affected even comfortably middle class Americans. (Here’s a link to Gosselin on Now.)

Much of the conservative agenda is precisely about shifting the burden of risk on to those members of society who are least able to handle that burden: bankruptcy reform and privatizing social security are two prime examples.

At the heart of Marx’s contribution to social theory is his effort to shift the study of economic behavior from the arena of exchange relations and consumption to the social relations of production, where power relations matter most. At the same time, he showed that the very structure of capitalist exchange serves to obscure the social relations of production:

Since the producers do not come into social contact with each other until they exchange their products, the specific social character of each producer’s labour does not show itself except in the act of exchange.

Marx drew upon contemporary anthropological theory in terming this “commodity fetishism.” Unfortunately, today’s anthropologists seem to be increasingly fetishizing the commodity. There are lots of reasons for this, studies of consumption offer a useful way to explore how local cultures are affected by the processes of globalization. Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia is a wonderful example of such scholarship. Studies of consumption are also popular with students. However, I worry about this growing emphasis on consumption, especially as such studies can obscure the very nature of social inequality which is about much more than what we can consume.