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0.3 Cultural Critique & Anti-Capitalism

[last updated January 7, 2011]

Cultural Critique & Anti-Capitalism

FreeSkool button, reads: "What I am questioning here is the deeply embedded assumptions in our culture"

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about anarchism and anthropology intertwined is a button my friend Marya made to promote Hamilton FreeSkool: “What I am questioning here is (sic) the deeply embedded assumptions in our culture.”  Although this has been a central project for both anarchism and anthropology, the latter is often thought of as the study of others, implicated in colonialism, where privileged anthropologists travel elsewhere to objectify and “know” other people. These are certainly valid critiques of traditional anthropology. According to Talal Asad (1973:16-17),

[A]nthropology is also rooted in an unequal power encounter between the West and Third World which goes back to the emergence of bourgeois Europe, an encounter in which colonialism is merely one historical moment.  It is this encounter that gives the West access to cultural and historical information about the societies it has progressively dominated, and thus not only generates a certain kind of universal understanding, but also re-enforces the inequalities in capacity between the European and the non-European worlds (and derivatively, between the Europeanized elites and the ‘traditional’ masses in the Third World).  We are today becoming increasingly aware of the fact that information and understanding produced by bourgeois disciplines like anthropology are acquired and used most readily by those with the greatest capacity for exploitation.  This follows partly from the structure of research, but more especially from the way in which these disciplines objectify their knowledge.  It is because the powerful who support research expect the kind of understanding which will ultimately confirm them in their world that anthropology has not very easily turned to the production of radically subversive forms of understanding.

Asad argues that what made anthropology feasible was the relationship between the dominating (Europe) and the dominated, and that we need to question how these relationships affect anthropology on a practical basis, including the uses to which anthropological knowledge is put as well as theoretical treatments, modes of analysis and claims of political neutrality.  Anthropologists “have also contributed, sometimes indirectly, towards maintaining the structure of power represented by the colonial system” (Asad 1973:17).  However, Asad complicates descriptions of anthropology as simplistically functioning as a handmaiden of colonialism. As Asad (1973:18) writes:

I believe it is a mistake to view social anthropology in the colonial era as primarily an aid to colonial administration, or as the simple reflection of colonial ideology.  I say this not because I subscribe to the anthropological establishment’s comfortable view of itself, but because bourgeois consciousness, of which social anthropology is merely one fragment, has always contained within itself profound contradictions and ambiguities—and therefore the potentials for transcending itself.

Wendy James (1973) has contributed an article to Talal Asad’s edited volume, Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter entitled “The Anthropologist as Reluctant Imperialist.”  James suggests that anthropology inhabited a contradictory place with regards to colonial society: Though anthropologists were dependent on colonial authorities for permission for studies as well as sometimes for material support, anthropologists contributed a source of informed critical comment on colonial society.  She suggests that anthropologists had to keep up appearances of cooperation and that open political dissent was unfeasible.  James argues that radicalism in anthropology is not a coincidence, but rather that it has been significant in terms of the development of the discipline. According to James, “the very existence of social anthropology in the colonial period constituted a source of potential radical criticism of the colonial order itself” (1973:42).   She argues that much anthropological writing had an implicitly radical character, in terms of intellectual and moral defense of the rights and dignity of peoples.  She cites examples with regards to land rights and migrant workers.  She also observes that “the critical questioning of the basis of social life implicit in anthropology has remained at the heart of the subject” (1973:42).

Moving past its role (implicit and explicit) in colonial administration, anthropology has been about learning from ideas and other ways of knowing, and using these experiences and new ways of thinking about the world to question the deeply embedded assumptions within our own society. This has been a large part of several decades of anthropological consideration, and continues to inform contemporary anthropological work. Consistently, anthropologists are trained to analyze all that is taken for granted—to question everything.  Seeing the world anthropologically is much like seeing it as an anarchist: sifting through hegemonic perspectives in an ongoing attempt to bring to light the deeply problematic threads that run throughout our own cultures.

Anarchists are concerned with questioning and challenging taken-for-granted assumptions within our societies as well as envisioning and bringing into being alternatives.  This critique and challenge of what is so often taken-for-granted has resonance with anthropological practice. Marko Zivkovic has observed that anthropologists are defamiliarizers and demystifiers who “delight in showing how what is taken for granted and assumed to be natural is actually constructed and arbitrary” (Zivkovic 2000:61).  Additionally, as Marcus and Fischer (1986:1) write with regards to cultural critique in anthropology:

The other promise of anthropology…has been to serve as a form of cultural critique for ourselves.  In using portraits of other cultural patterns to reflect self-critically on our own ways, anthropology disrupts common sense and makes us reexamine our taken-for-granted assumptions.

As Marcus and Fischer (1986:x) also write, part of the experimental ethnography and writing that came out of 1980s and has since become more common place involves considering:

worthwhile and interesting critiques of our own society; to enlighten us about other human possibilities…to make accessible the normally unexamined assumptions by which we operate and through which we encounter members of other cultures.  Anthropology is not the mindless collection of the exotic, but the use of cultural richness for self-reflection and self-growth.

Ted Baker (2009) argues that “[s]imply knowing that others think and do things that are radically different from our own ways of thinking and doing is enough to ignite the fires of cultural critique”. While cultural critique might not be an explicit purpose in every ethnography, some argue that it has been at least implicit in each (Lassiter 2006).

Many critiques of capitalist society have arisen throughout the process of critiquing our own cultures.  Marxist anthropologist Donald Donham (1999) has suggested that more than any other discipline, anthropology has defined itself against capitalism.  Following this, Ted Baker (2009) has suggested based on traditions of cultural critique, as well as a long history of diverse critiques against capitalist economies and mass liberal societies up to the present, that anthropology itself implicitly embodies an anti-capitalist critique.  Given this, Baker questions what it might mean to make these anti-capitalist critiques explicit rather than implicit.  “What would it mean to practice and theorize an anthropology whose driving force was radical change? Can this be done within the academy?  If not, then what would it look like?  And would it even make sense to call it anthropology?” (Baker, 2009).  I take up some of these questions throughout this thesis, as I explore what incorporating anarchist ethics more explicitly into anthropology might look like.

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