Tag Archives: political economy

The Anthropology of Freedom, Part 2

She is Freedom
She is Freedom

For philosophers, sociologists and historians, freedom is a concept exquisitely defined and heroically distinguished. There are the familiar distinctions like positive and negative liberty (Isaiah Berlin), there is the long tradition of thinking freedom togther with sovereignty, government and arbitrary power (sp. the newly reinvigorated “civic republican” tradition from Machiavelli to Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit); there is the question of free will and determinism (a core Kantian Antimony that generates both moral philosophy and philosophy of science debates seemingly without end); there is the question of freedom and the mind (the problem of the “contented slave” or the problem Boas raised in arguing that freedom is only subjective); the question of coersion, of autonomy, of equality and of the relationship to liberalism and economic organization. Within each of these domains one can find more and less refined discussions (amongst philosophers and political theorists primarily) oriented towards the refinement of both descriptive and normative presentations of freedom as a concept and as a political ideal. And then there is Sartre.

As I mentioned in the first post, anthropologists have been nearly silent on the problem, while philosophers, political theorists and historians have not. There are shelves and shelves of books in my library with titles like A Theory of Freedom, Dimensions of Freedom, Freedom and Rights, Liberalism and Freedom, Political Freedom, etc. There are readers and edited volumes and special issues of journals to beat the band. In history there is Orlando Patterson and Eric Foner, and a 15 volume series called The Making of Modern Freedom that includes books on Freedom from the medieval era to the present, and includes books on China, Asia, Africa, slavery, migration and fiscal crises (!).

If anthropologists find the concept of freedom distasteful, how then do they organize their concern with things and issues related to what political philosophers or historians approach via freedom? What concepts stand in, challenge or reframe that of freedom? Here is a long list (which could no doubt be longer):

agency, authority, bare life, biopower, biopolitics, citizenship, civil society, colonialism, consent, contract, development, domination, empire, exclusion, governance, governmentality, human rights, humanitarianism, interests, interest theory, in/justice, kingship, neoliberalism, obligation, oppression, precarity, resistance, secularism/secularity, security, social control, sovereignty, suffering, territoriality and violence.

Note that this list concerns terms also familiar to North Atlantic political philosophy, which is to say, this is not a list of “indigenous” or ethnographically derived concepts of/related to freedom. That would constitute yet another distinct question (and a separate post, to follow).

Most of the concepts in that list are closer to the empirical than the theoretical, and I suspect this is why they are preferred to manifestly abstract ideal like freedom. Humanitarianism for instance, has seen a wealth of great work over the last couple of decades for the concrete reason that it is a practice, a domain of law, a set of international economic imperatives as a well as an ideal. Precarity nicely captures a particular economic condition and the effects that has on well-being, etc.

Perhaps most central to the anthropologist’s suspicion around freedom is its inherently individualist bent. Continue reading

Netroots, America, and Progressivism

Honestly, I did not know what a “progressive” really was until working the videocamera for Free Speech TV at the 2011 Netroots Nation conference in Minneapolis lat month. I thought a progressive was just another name for a Democrat or a liberal. I was wrong.

It is corny to admit it but what I discovered was a worldview and mode of political action that aligned with my own belief system as a person and an anthropologist. The core concept of progressivism is progress–that culture changes through time because of the actions of vision-driven groups and individuals. Now, how much agency individuals actually have to enact cultural change is a hotly debated topic in both political and academic circles but few disagree that “a small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has” as it was that activist anthropologist, Margaret Mead, who said that most famous of hummus container quotes.

Progressive philosophy is aligned with the base theory of cultural anthropology, that is: culture is not a static or conservative thing that we need to stabilize at some nostalgic and unrealistic moment but rather a dynamic process. Progressives want to direct that process towards a more inclusive future. Progressives are not hung-up on retaining or reverting to an antique sense of ethnic, gendered, or national purity. They don’t romanticize some false sense of the securities of 1950s Americana. However, as I will describe below, The American Dream as a concept was a focal point for progressives at Netroots Nation this year. Continue reading

I Got Remixed by a Palestinian Hip-Hop Activist

A while back I wrote an incendiary post Remix Culture is a Myth that got me accused of elitism and other signs of unhipness. Stepping off of a tweet by Andrew Keen (“remix is a myth. … Barely anyone is remixing…”), I claimed remix culture receives way more academic attention than it’s small examples deserved. Biella Coleman and others correctly reminded me that it isn’t its quantity or quality but its challenge to legal institutions and liberal philosophy, as well as novel modes of production within and maybe beyond capitalism that make remix important. They convinced me of these points but I am still reeling from a new experience that added another perspective to my understanding of the impact of remix culture. My footage just got remixed by a Palestinian activist. 

A little over a month ago I uploaded 24 minutes of raw footage of the Palestine/Israel Wall I shot in 2009. This is footage for a documentary I am making about divided cities. I’ve finished the sections on Nicosia, Cyprus and Belfast, North Ireland and I’ve finished shooting but not editing this story on East Jerusalem. Unedited and with its natural sounds I thought it was gritty and evocative enough to stand alone on YouTube. I uploaded it and titled it “Palestine Apartheid Wall Raw Footage.” Last week I got a YouTube message from user WHW680 who kindly informed me that he remixed my footage into the French pro-independent Palestine hip-hop video “the Wall of Zionist Racist Freedom for Palestine.” Shocked and honored I watched the video.

Artistically, WHW680 doesn’t use the shots I would; he doesn’t get the projection ratios right; I wouldn’t quite be so intense with the title; and he cuts the edits too early or too late, making the viewing experience choppy. I am being intentionally superficial here for a reason, as I am trying to express the first round of mental dissonance experienced when remixed. As a cinematographer it is an enlightening if challenging ordeal. It gets deeper, too, when your work is not only remixed in a way that challenges your technical and artistic vision but is used politically in surprising ways.

The footage was used to make a music video for the track “Palestine” by Le Ministère des Affaires Populaires, a popular Arab-French hip-hip group in Paris, off of “Les Bronzés Font du Ch’ti” described as “an album that sounds like a call to rebellion, insurrection and disobedience but also solidarity.” They tour Palestine, including Gaza. The music is fantastic, mixing breaks, good flows, meaningful lyrics, and longing violins. Obviously I can get behind the activism of a liberated Palestine but becoming a tool for propaganda, despite my agreement with it, without my vocal consent, is a creatively dissonant experience.

Political semiotic engineering for the right causes I can dig, but agency denying actions are experienced as a type of cognitive violation nonetheless. The quintessential sign of this is the final few second of the video. After the footage ends and while the music still lingers, the words “Freedom, Return, and Equality,” and “Free Palestine-Boycott Israel,” and www.bdsmovement.net circle a Palestinian flag. This final frame essentially brands this video for the BDS Movement, a civil rights organization focused on “boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights.”

This isn’t “my” footage anymore, WHW680 generously cites me in the description, but the semiotic potential of the footage previously shot by me is mobilized for the BDS Movement. The aesthetic and the political fold into each other in remix activities in which preceding agencies, my own as cameraman, is incorporated or replaced by the technical agencies of the French remixer, WHW680, and reformulated into the political vision of the pro-Palestinian BDS Movement. Which is all good, but it gives me a new look at remix culture.

This experience has forced me to eat some of my words. Remix culture isn’t a myth. I agree with my earlier detractors who stated that it isn’t about the volume of the activity nor the impact of this remixed song or that music video. I would add something more. Being remixed is personally transformative for those being reformatted by values and practices beyond their control. Not only does remix challenge jurisprudence and liberalism, and present new modes of knowledge production, it also modifies the subjective constitution of agency in artistic and political social sphere.

Regarding Japan Part 2: Affective Loops and Toxic Tastings

Eleven weeks have passed since the earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan.  Although bodies are still being found amidst the wreckage, the rest of the world has long since moved on.   The media waves of shock, horror, heroism, heartbreak, and heart-warm continue to push and pull us through a relentless series of events: from Libya to Tuscaloosa, Kate and William to Bin Laden, Donald Trump to Strauss-Kahn.

The affective loop is dizzying as it moves us between distant places and local homes, political upheavals and natural disasters, raging storms and individual stories, the serious and the absurd. Unable to catch my breath between blows or steady myself according to some sense of scale, I feel like so much has happened since the tsunami struck. And yet, I don’t know what to make of any of it.  Are we just bracing ourselves for the next thing?

In an April article entitled “The Half-life of Disaster” Brian Massumi discusses how this media cycle leads us into a perpetual state of foreboding that brings together natural, economic and political threat perception in a configuration that fuels what Naomi Klein termed “disaster capitalism”. The horror is never resolved or replaced; rather, it is archived, infinitely accessible over the Internet.  Cast into the web of other events, the unendurable tragedy of a particular event dissipates, or as Massumi says, “it decays”.  In today’s catastrophic mediashpere, observes Massumi, the half-life of disaster is at most two weeks. Continue reading

Academic Choice Theory

Regular readers might recall that I have an interest in critiques of economics by economists. So I was very happy to learn of “Academic Choice Theory,” a brilliant tongue-in-cheek application of the principles of Rational Choice Theory to the economics profession by Yves Smith, author of ECONned: How Unenlightened Self Interest Undermined Democracy and Corrupted Capitalism. It is written in the form of a letter by a deceased academic to an admiring fan:

Isn’t it offensive to assume that economists, for motives of personal gain, shade their theoretical allegiances in the directions preferred by powerful interest groups?

How could it ever be offensive to assume that a person acts rationally in pursuit of maximizing his or her own utility? I’m afraid I don’t understand this question.

Is there a “behavioral” version of Academic Choice theory, in which the basic premises are enriched by the possibility that economists sometimes act irrationally?

Great question. … Studies have shown that many people do act irrationally, but not economists – to the extent possible, their decision-making conforms to the model of Homo economicus.

[Apologies to whomever first sent me the link on Twitter, I wanted to credit them in the post, but can no longer find the original tweet.]

UPDATE: See this post which uses the movie Inside Job to talk about Academic Choice Theory. [Thanks to @illprofessor for the link!]

Late Capitalist Timepass

This post has two purposes. First of all, I wanted to alert everyone to a wonderful new online Anthropology journal called Anthropology of This Century which “publishes reviews of recent works in anthropology and related disciplines, as well as occasional feature articles.” This is as close as I’ve seen to an anthropology focused New York Review of Books (or perhaps I should say London Review of Books, as AOTC is edited by Charles Stafford at LSE).

Secondly, I specifically wanted to link to two articles in the first issue: On Neoliberalism by Sherry Ortner and Timepass And Boredom In Modern India by Chris Fuller.

Ortner’s article starts with a quote from Marshall Sahlins: “Whatever happened to ‘Late Capitalism’? It became neo-liberalism.” Some of our readers may not remember the phrase “Late Capitalism” which gained popularity after Ernst Mandel’s book of that name came out in the late seventies. David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity owes a lot to Mandel. Ortner doesn’t dispute Sahlins, but suggests that there are some reasons why we might want to use a new word: Continue reading

Ethnography is like fishing…(h/t Marcel Mauss and James Ferguson)

I have gotten a couple of comments regarding methods, access, etc. (thanks for the comments!); I will get to those issues later this week. Today I thought I would give a description of the early portion of ethnographic research that Bloomberg’s New York is based on–a narrative of what actually happened, rather than the packaged, fabricated narrative that we as academic professionals spend so much time self-consciously producing.

First a brief backstory: from 1998-2000, I attended urban planning graduate school. Halfway through, I realized I was far more interested in analyzing cities than planning them, especially because (at that point anyway) in NYC “planning” often meant little more than manufacturing windfall profits for developers. So I headed off to the CUNY Graduate Center to work with their flock of urbanists.

Flashing forward to 2003: my dissertation research begins. The idea is for me to investigate the process by which the “business agenda” comes to be. Basically, what I am trying to do here is use ethnography to explore what happens in the gap between the functional requirements of capitalist urbanization (as laid out by Harvey, Castells, Molotch and Logan, etc. etc.) and the construction of an actual elite agenda in a specific historical, cultural, and geographical context. My focus is on the public spaces of development policy formation, such as conferences and other professional meetings, city council hearings, etc., but also on more informal mechanisms. For the latter, I draw on the network of contacts I began developing in graduate school, and I soon find out that the development policy world in NYC is pretty small and interlinked (I had an excel spreadsheet with just a couple of hundred names on it). I begin talking to people, attending those conferences, interviewing, and so on.

As I do so, I quickly realize three things. First, the Bloomberg administration is up to something different than I expect, given the standard shape of neoliberal urban governance in NYC or elsewhere. The administration is engaging in citywide urban planning, moving away from the use of indiscriminate tax subsidies, and perhaps most interestingly pulling a lot of new people into City Hall. Not surprisingly, given the new Mayor’s background in business, this includes several people from finance and other private sector industries. Less expected is the hiring of a number of very well-respected planning and policy professionals to staff the top levels of the Bloomberg administration’s development and planning agencies. Such people had largely been excluded from previous administration in favor of folks drawn from the real estate industry or from the murky world of NYC’s public-private development agencies (which basically amounts to the same thing). Bloomberg’s City Hall is becoming a hotbed corporate and professional technocracy.

Second, the Mayor’s business background (along with that of the other private sector people he was bringing into government) actually seems to matter in substantive ways. Economic development officials are telling the city council about the thorough rebranding campaign underway; city officials are referring to companies as “clients”; City Hall was being physically remodeled along the lines the Mayor had used in his private company, Bloomberg LLP; and perhaps most remarkably, the Mayor is referring to NYC as a “luxury product.” Importing private-sector logic into government is nothing new, in NYC or elsewhere, but now it is being done by people who can (and do!) credibly claim to be running the city like a private company.

Third, everybody in the development and policy world is focused on the far west side of Manhattan. Everybody. Nobody wants to talk about the business agenda formation; they want to talk about the Hudson Yards (the plan proposed for the area). The Bloomberg administration is joining NYC2012 (the city’s private Olympic bid organization), the Group of 35 (an elite commission charged with stimulating office development in NYC), the New York Jets, and a number of other planning and development groups in targeting the area to the west of Times Square and Penn Station for redevelopment. And as it turned out, graduate school classmates of mine are involved in the growing conflict over far west side redevelopment in a number of ways–some working for city agencies, others working for community organizations that oppose the plan as currently formulated.

This was a key point in my research; suddenly focusing on the process of business agenda formulation seemed a bit boring, especially since I had a full-scale development battle emerging in front of me! I also had this interesting phenomenon of the ex-CEO mayor actually running the city as a business (rather than just for business), which seemed to have some unpredictable consequences (like a willingness to raise taxes and hire egghead professors and policy professionals and respect their expertise). Finally, I had all these professionals–city planners, professors, public health experts, markets, educational experts, former management consultants, etc.–talking about the new spirit of professionalism and competence in City Hall, and the new excitement about public service that they and their peers were feeling.

Realizing all this, I began to split my research onto two tracks. First, I began investigating the early years of the Bloomberg administration, i.e. late 2001 to mid-2003, using interviews with officials, government documents, transcripts of administration testimony to the city council, and various secondary sources. Second, I threw myself into the conflict over the far west side of Manhattan, attending every community meeting, rally, city council hearing, conference, and official planning meeting I could find, and redirecting my interviewing towards those engaged in the conflict. I’ll write a bit more about the second, more ethnographic of these two tracks next time.

What I am up to

I want to thank Kerim and all the Savage Minds folks for giving me the opportunity to share my work and thoughts. Its an especially nice opportunity for me because my relationship to the mainstream of contemporary anthropology has been, if not vexed exactly, then fraught. Though I received my PhD in anthropology, though I have taught in anthropology departments for the past five years, and though, in the classroom at least, I have become a believer in anthropology’s indispensability to the well-rounded undergraduate, my writing and research has always felt somewhat oblique to the discipline and its central concerns.

That’s because I investigate issues–urban governance and urban political economy in the contemporary United States–that have generally been addressed in interdisciplinary urban studies. However, the way I investigate them–using ethnographic methods and analysis, paying close attention to my informants’ words and to detail and particularity, and by taking seriously the impact of what I will gloss here as “cultural” matters in the context of urban governance–are very “anthropological,” or at least seem so to me.

Adding to this, the people I have for the most part studied–urban planners, city officials, economic development experts, developers and so on–are generally not studied in any real depth by anthropologists or by people in urban studies. Most urban anthropologists (not all, of course) tend to focus on relatively poor, or ethnic, or working class neighborhoods; when my “people” do show up, its usually only when City Hall and developers are trying to perpetrate some kind of nefarious development scheme. In urban studies, the folks I study typically are either subsumed into the application of some larger structuralist theory of urban governance (the urban growth machine, the capitalist urban state, urban neoliberalism, etc.), or (more common now that Marxist thought has been, if not displaced as dominant in critical urban studies, then theoretically hybridized, ethnographized, and made more flexible) incorporated into nicely context-sensitive empirical accounts in a relatively one-dimensional way, as inhabitants of government positions or as avatars of commodification, rather than as three dimensional individuals with class, race, gender, educational, and other biographical/social/cultural characteristics (that is to say, in the manner that anthropologists typically portray their informants).

Urban anthropology and critical urban studies do a lot of things really well–think of how much we know about the dynamics, complexities, and social organization of poor urban neighborhoods, or about why it is that developers so often get what they want from city government–but one thing they aren’t particularly good at is providing well-rounded and robust accounts of the formation, makeup, development, history, and internal tensions of urban elites. I think this is important to do for both analytical and political reasons.

So that’s what I am up to. Hopefully it begins to explain why an anthropologist would do something like study the administration of New York’s ex-billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Ethnogenesis: A Radical Constructionist Case

I just finished James Scott’s 2009 book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, and I thought I’d take a couple of minutes to introduce the book to those not familiar with it. I quite enjoyed his last book, Seeing Like a State, which I wrote about back in 2007, and this book picks up where that book left off. Whereas Seeing Like a State discussed the strategies by which states exert bureaucratic control over unruly populations, The Art of Not Being Governed looks instead at the strategies people adopt to resist centralized state control. [The title of this post comes from one of the chapters in the book.]

His focus is on Southeast Asia, specifically a region he calls “Zomia” which, to quote Martin Lewis:

denotes the mountainous areas of mainland Southeast Asia, along with adjacent parts of India and China, that have historically resisted incorporation into the states centered in the lowland basins of the larger region.


In chapter after chapter he lays out his argument, showing how virtually every aspect of Zomia hill society exists as a means of resisting state authority: If states like the flat plains, people move to the hills to avoid the state. If states like cultivating rice because it concentrates much needed manpower where it can easily be tapped, people adopt shifting cultivation for the very same reason. If states employ writing as a way of keeping track of who’s who, people ditch their books and rely upon easily modified oral genealogies instead. If states like organized religion, people engage in heterodox traditions that defy centralized control. And, perhaps most strikingly, if the state wishes to impose a shared ethnic identity upon its subjects, people choose “tribal” identities as a way of avoiding such ethnic ties.

Continue reading

Your own private griot

[Reposted from the SLA Blog.]

In her now classic 1989 paper on language and political economy, Judith Irvine talked about situations where language doesn’t merely index political and economic relations in the way that accent is linked to class in Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” but where speech acts are themselves a form of political and economic economic activity. Her example is that of the Wolof griot “whose traditional profession involves special rhetorical and conversational duties such as persuasive speechmaking on a patron’s behalf, making entertaining conversation, transmitting messagesto the public, and performing the various genres of praise-singing.” She discusses how while not anyone can be a griot — you have to be born into the right caste — it is the “most talented and skillful griots” who “earn high rewards and are sought after by would-be patrons.” Irvine then goes on to discuss not just the verbal skill of the griot, but “cases where a verbal statement is the object of exchange.” It is worth quoting this discussion in full:

Recently there appeared a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine, entitled “Flattery getting someone somewhere” (M. Stevens, 28 July 1986). “You’re looking great, Frank!” says a man in business suit and necktie to another, perhaps older, man with glasses and bow tie. “Thanks, Chuck! Here’s five dollars!” Bow Tie replies, handing over the cash. The joke depends, of course, on the notion that the exchange of compliments for cash should not be done so directly and overtly. We all know that Chuck may indeed flatter Frank with a view to getting a raise, or some other eventual reward; but it is quite improper in American society to recognize the exchange formally, with an immediate payment. A compliment should be acknowledged only with a return compliment, or a minimization, or some other verbal “goods.” If it is to be taken as “sincere,” it is specifically excluded from the realm of material payments.

Some cultural systems do not segregate the economy of compliments from the economy of material transactions and profits, however. It is doubtful, for example, that the cartoon would seem funny to many Senegalese. With a few suitable adjustments for local scene, the transfer it depicts is quite ordinary. There is, in fact, a category of persons-the griots-specializing in flattery of certain kinds, among other verbal arts. The income they gain from these activities is immediate and considerable, often amounting to full-time employment for those whose skills include the fancier genres of eulogy.

I remembered this article because something I read made me wonder about the claim that it is “quite improper in American society to recognize the exchange formally, with an immediate payment.” It was a piece in the Washington Post by sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh entitled “Five myths about prostitution.” The second of these five myths is that “men visit prostitutes for sex.”

Often, they pay them to talk. I’ve been studying high-end sex workers (by which I mean those who earn more than $250 per “session”) in New York, Chicago and Paris for more than a decade, and one of my most startling findings is that many men pay women to not have sex. Well, they pay for sex, but end up chatting or having dinner and never get around to physical contact. Approximately 40 percent of high-end sex worker transactions end up being sex-free. Even at the lower end of the market, about 20 percent of transactions don’t ultimately involve sex.

Figuring out why men pay for sex they don’t have could sustain New York’s therapists for a long time. But the observations of one Big Apple-based sex worker are typical: “Men like it when you listen. . . . I learned this a long time ago. They pay you to listen — and to tell them how great they are.” Indeed, the high-end sex workers I have studied routinely see themselves as acting the part of a counselor or a marriage therapist. They say their job is to feed a man’s need for judgment-free friendship and, at times, to help him repair his broken partnership. Little wonder, then, that so many describe themselves to me as members of the “wellness” industry.

So here we seem to have a situation where Americans do pay to be told how great they are. The difference, of course, is that this activity is illegal, and it is private. While a woman at a Japanese hostess bar may be paid to listen and make complements in a public setting, in the US this activity seems to have been relegated to the private sphere – between the man and his griot.

Gift economies suck (except ours)

First off: wow. A few angst-filled posts were all it took for this blog to come back to life with a series of great new posts (by great new members of the blog!) and rich thoughtful comments. Rumours of our death were greatly exaggerated. Congratulations and thanks everyone — be sure to pace yourselves as I hope this will turn into a beautiful glowing marathon of content rather than a brief multicoloured spasm of posts that ends suddenly full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. So: thanks!

Second, feedback on Adam’s recent post on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s typical-but-wrong misunderstanding of the Potlatch concept turned into a wider thread about how people imagine the Potlatch and gift economies.

I am sure that someone out there has written about the long history of this concept, beginning with its practice on the Northwest Coast by First Nations types amongst whom it still flourishes, continuing through early ethnographic reporting by Boas (and Mauss) and others, the disemmination of the idea through books and the display of truly beautiful masks and material culture in museums associated with it, its adoption in Frenchified surrealism/ethnological circles in the Interwar period, the eagerness with which countercultural babyboomer types seized on the concept as the caring-sharing inverse of capitalism, the way it exists in post-boomer subcultures of the Berkeley squat PKD RAW Loompanics variety, and was thus integrated into current internet/hacker antiglobalization adventure travel+social/multi media lifestyles. If they haven’t, they should, since it would be a great reference. Let me know. At any rate the point is just that these days most portrayals of Potlatch: The Concept Part Deux now circulates with an almost haughty disregard for what the event is and was.

Most of these concepts of potlatch are, to be frank, straight out of the Book of Acts, in which caring sharers and sharing carers unite in the name of uniting. In this version of potlatch, ubi caritas et amor, potlatch ibi est. Like the community of saints left behind by Jesus it is imagined as a utopian but fragile community, unable to sustain itself in the face of external pressures and the internal conflicts that come from trying to build a community of the righteous when the only materials to hand are the debased, unregenerate sinners who have populated the planet since Adam’s fall.

To be honest, I’ve always thought the gift/goods distinction has more to do with the national ideologies of newly independent nations as imbibed, processed, and expelled by visiting anthropologists than reality (this is particularly the case with PNG, where a lot of these ideas come from). At any rate, this tendency of the concept of potlatch to serve as a receptacle for standard average European fantasies of utopian communal solidarity doesn’t do justice to places where a large part of people’s lives are lived transacting goods with one another (i.e. ‘gift economies’).

My experience in rural Papua New Guinea, as well as what I’ve read about similar areas has been somewhat different. Egalitarian communities in which people share everything are often less than paradise. In a world in which everyone shares everything with everyone, people often feel a constant sense of surveillance. You can’t have Nice Things unless everyone else has them, and it is often quite depressing to watch food get distributed so that everyone has a bite, but no one more than that. Secrecy becomes a cultural theme, and people begin worrying about witches.

I don’t mean to demonize ‘gift economies’ by inverting their moral valuation, but I do want to emphasize that people who grew up in gift economies don’t mind getting out of them all that much. It can actually be tremendously rewarding to buy a honkin’ big piece of meat from someone who you will never meet again, take it back to your hotel room, and eat the entire thing by yourself, completely alone.

I think most readers of this blog are so used to living lives full of government and cash that they only see the downsides (which I admit are considerable). I think its worth reminding ourselves how nice it is to live in communities where firefighters will come to help you with a phonecall — and without mandatory participation at the fire house.

Of course, many attempts to build technofied or more complex gift economies will be different — Zuckerburg imagines a world where technology scaffolds social networks that would otherwise collapse under their own complexity, while others imagine various softwares that will reduce transaction costs so that specialization and generalized reciprocity can coexist. Obviously, I wish these projects well. At the same time, I feel that they may fall prey to one of the keenest insight of egalitarian gift economies: the keen bullshit detectors and frank evaluation of worth that comes from really, really highly valuing human dignity. A lot of people I’ve met in Papua New Guinea realize that the guy behind the desk making twice the salary of the guy cleaning the toilet is living a lifestyle that is exploitative and just plain wrong. We can tell ourselves that writing a fun iphone app for everyone to use is somehow equivalent to being a garbage man in such a way that a sufficiently complicated technical system could make the two equivalent in some sort of way. But I fear that a lot of the time such a hope is merely a way to mask the reality of continuing and entrenched inequality that exists in complex societies.

Ideological Indoctrination in Macroeconomics

Kevin Drum shares this great quote from Mike Konczal, on ideological indoctrination in a graduate level macroeconomic’s class:

speaking as someone who has taken graduate coursework in “continental philosophy”, and been walked through the big hits of structural anthropology, Hegelian marxism and Freudian feminism, that graduate macroeconomics class was by far the most ideologically indoctrinating class I’ve ever seen. By a mile. There was like two weeks where the class just copied equations that said, if you speak math, “unemployment insurance makes people weak and slothful” over and over again.

Indigenes or citizens in Papua New Guinea?

Despite the fact that it is my area of expertise, I do not normally comment on the mining and petroleum scene in Papua New Guinea. Despite having studied the industry for more than a decade, I will never know as much as my ‘informants’ — the people actually living with mines and oil projects. This is particularly true for current affairs, when the ‘real story’ of what happens on the ground is often much different from reports circulated by the press. Nevertheless, I do feel compelled to say something about the shameful events that have recently taken place in country — and the way they are being received by the anthropological community and others.

The government of Papua New Guinea recently amended the country’s Environment Act to make it illegal to appeal permitting decisions made by the minister. The immediate reason for this change is clear — the national government relies on large, internationally-financed resource developments to fund it budget. The Ramu NiCo mine in Madang province, majority-owned and operated by a Chinese firm, is planning to dispose of tailings by dumping them into the sea — a move that many, many people in Madang oppose. When anti-mining groups got an injunction against the mine, the government responded by making it illegal to oppose their decision to let the mine go ahead.

The issue is actually more general than this. Landowner groups and others who oppose mining and petroleum developments often challenge environmental permitting in order to pressure or halt operations. Mining leases are rarely reviewed and renewal is largely a matter of course, but water use permits (for toilets on site, for instance) more regularly come up for renewal — and miners need toilets. The Ramu case is just one instance of a much broader tactic used by people opposed to mining.

The big picture is that Papua New Guinea is torn — between politicians in Moresby who are want to use mining revenue to enrich and develop the nation, and grassroots Papua New Guineans who don’t see why they should suffer so others can gain the benefits of mining revenue. When Papua New Guinea became independent in 1975, the country inherited the benevolent paternalism and technocratic confidence of its colonizers — the first generation of educated Papua New Guineans were going to lead the country forward and help develop the grassroots in the name of national progress. Now the worm has turned and Papua New Guinea’s leadership seems to see Papua New Guineans as ungrateful and stubborn — after a peaceful protest organized by Transparency International outside parliament, the prime minister called those who participated “satanic and mentally insane”.

In an article I am working on right now, I examine newspaper coverage of these issues in order to understand contemporary transformations of nationalism in Papua New Guinea. My conclusion – which at this rate will not be published until my kids head off to college! — is that Papua New Guinea is torn between two different idioms to express this conflict between grassroots and the political elite. Within the country, the language used is that of the nation: ironically, the nation-making project of the independence period was so successful that many Papua New Guineans now see themselves as uniting against the state in the name of national unity. Externally, however, the language used to describe these conflicts is that of indigeneity. Coverage of recent events by a UN-sponsored website, for instance, describe the problem as one in which “indigenous people lose out on land rights”.

What I do not say in the article — since it is all scholarly and everything — is how incredibly disappointed I am in the government of Papua New Guinea. Democracy is not fun or easy, and the paralysis induced by lawsuits can be a huge pain, but the solution to these problems is not and can never be removing people’s rights to participate in the processes that will affect their lives. This is particularly true in the case of Ramu, where environmental concerns are justified and deeply felt, not simply cynically used as tactics in a political process. Transparency, accountability, and participation are all incredibly stupid and ridiculously ineffective ways to run a government — but we chose them because democracies put people’s rights ahead of convenience or practicality.

Additionally, I am very uncomfortable with labelling this as a conflict featuring ‘indigenous’ people — despite the fact that I know appealing to international forces using the idiom of indigeneity is often yields useful leverage in political contests like the one at Ramu. But in fact Papua New Guineans are indigenous only in the (often oppressive) eco-authentic sense: they are brown, they have ‘exotic’ languages and cultures, and they live in a place full of endangered species of animals. They are not, however, ‘indigenous’ in the much more important political-emancipatory sense: there is (and was) no real settler colonialism in Papua New Guinea, no large scale expropriation of land, and not even an ethnic majority to oppress minority groups. Despite how easy it is for outsiders to shoe horn Papua New Guinea into popular and easy paradigms of indigenous struggle, such a construal of Papua New Guinea’s story does not do the country justice.

Eco-authentic definitions of indigeneity perpetuate stereotypes of Papua New Guinea as savage backward by giving them a positive moral valuation. They obscure from sight the large number of educated Papua New Guineans, and they stigmatize Papua New Guineans’ decisions to take part in urban, cash-based economies as an abandonment of precious indigenous heritage.

Most importantly, however, these idioms tempt Papua New Guineans to give up on their country and its  government. With corruption in the civil servant rampant and elections in Papua New Guinea too-often a mere shadow of genuine democracy (there is video footage of political henchmen unapologetically — and literally — stuffing ballot boxes), it is easy these days for Papua New Guineans to opt out, to declare the government an illegitimate opponent of the grassroots rather than to hold it to account as the voice of the people. Perhaps they do not need the ‘indigenous alternative’s’ help in abandoning any conception of state legitimacy. But I think Papua New Guinea loses something important when it gives up on its dreams of independence and self-government. Even though it may require people to dig deep, I would urge Papua New Guineans not to give up on the light at the end of the tunnel, and to insist that they are citizens, not indigenes, of Papua New Guinea.

Anthro Classics Online: The Impact of Money

It’s been a while since I’ve updated my series of posts about classic anthropology texts which can be downloaded for free online. I started the series with a post about a text by Laura Bohannan, now I turn to the husband, Paul, whose classic “The Impact of Money on an African Subsistance Economy” can be found here [PDF].

This is an easy post to write, as Keith Hart has an article on the anthropology of money which nicely summarizes the article and provides some trenchant critique. I’ve pasted the relevant section after the jump.
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‘Life at the Googleplex’: Corporate Culture, Transparency, and Propaganda

How the hell am I going to get access to study these uber-elite media companies? In my desperation to find ethnographic facts about ‘corporate culture’ at the new media conglomerated behemoths I am viewing these reflexive industrial videos Google and its subsidiary YouTube upload about themselves. What are these things? Part recruitment propaganda to solicit CVs from the world’s top engineers, part PR-campaign to provide proof of its post-China ‘do no evil’ mantra, part braggadocios chest bump and back slap these videos must have some information that can provide evidence for the ‘real’ internal values and dynamics that influence the 20,000 employees and the 100s of millions of networked people that use their digital tools daily.

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But before I begin this bite-sized Youtube videothon I want to query if anthropological tools exist for such research. First, how would an anthropologist contextualize and categorize these videos? Reflexive, check. Industrial, check. Commercial, probably. They are not viewer-created but they have the amateur aesthetic. Textual studies of reflexive and industrial media and websites in anthropology is under-developed. In that historic genre, ‘ethnographic film,’ there were calls for greater reflexivity. And there are ethnographic investigations into the social life of social media. Patricia Lang, danah boyd, Heather Horst, and Mimi Ito can be consulted for this. And I am sure that there are numerous anthropological studies of race/class/gender as exhibited on Youtube. Alexandra Juhasz and Michael Wesch use YouTube as a pedagogical tech. But as far as I am aware, nobody has thought to look at how governments, corporations, and other institutions self-visualize a public persona. Secondly, who has analyzed the particular limitations and possibilities of this new platform for cultural expression? There is more cultural material on YouTube than in anywhere in the world. We must be able to incorporate this data.
<object width=”425″ height=”344″><param name=”movie” value=”http://www.youtube.com/v/VzMPV3YEI_8&hl=en_US&fs=1&”></param><param name=”allowFullScreen” value=”true”></param><param name=”allowscriptaccess” value=”always”></param><embed src=”http://www.youtube.com/v/VzMPV3YEI_8&hl=en_US&fs=1&” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”425″ height=”344″></embed></object>
The first order of analysis would be to use a political economic widget to find out what they hope to get out of this video. Usually, saying something about increasing profit and consumption is enough here. The second order would be to use textual analysis to look for accidental data points. Start with the simple realization that you are seeing into the company, notice the use of space, of the personalization of cubicles, etc. Thirdly, mix these two approaches, political economy and cultural studies, to read the subtle cues and beyond the avowed interview revelations. Pretend you have ethnographic free-reign, knowing that would always be partial even with clearance. As partial and incomplete as these video documents are a conjunctive approach will be necessary. My girlfriend suggested to me that a corporation’s IPO documents are usually remarkably honest and revealing. Also high-tech investment firms/websites such as Techcrunch keep publically available data on acquisitions, investments, and other reflexive materials. Ken Auletta’s book, Googled: The End of the World as we Know It, is incredibly revealing about Google corporate culture but is based on only a few interviews with Page, Brin, and a number with CEO Eric Schmidt. My point is that much can be done with little if the right tools are used.
<object width=”425″ height=”344″><param name=”movie” value=”http://www.youtube.com/v/aOZhbOhEunY&hl=en_US&fs=1&”></param><param name=”allowFullScreen” value=”true”></param><param name=”allowscriptaccess” value=”always”></param><embed src=”http://www.youtube.com/v/aOZhbOhEunY&hl=en_US&fs=1&” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”425″ height=”344″></embed></object>
The take-away nugget is that the internet provides tools and reasons for greater corporate transparency. Some corporations answer these calls to use the web to exhibit their tax records and to incorporate users/viewers/participants into internal and external regimes of governance and profit-generation. Other corporations expose their chain of production and distribution and how it misses layovers in child labor farms or despotic regimes and ecological disasters. This is all quite wonderful. But along with greater awareness and transparency is also greater capacity for manipulation of the veneer of transparency. So we must be vigilant in our textual readings of corporate transparency practices and perceive beyond the public persona to the numerous motives, values, and metrics for success that corporations deploy. We must figure out sophisticated techniques to study these powerful institutions. Textual study of the secondary and third order of values encoded in publically available online documents is one way. Even if new media corporations isn’t your anthropological fetish, it is certain that some strangely useful video about your fieldsite or subject exists on Youtube and you are going to have to explain your justifications for using it in your research.  I invite us to co-develop these tools.