Monday, July 4, 2011

The Economy

Taking anthropology to economics is always a difficult task; the two disciplines appear to have immense difficulty in communicating, understanding and empathizing with one another. That being said, this may well be due to the fact that, to my mind at least, there is something inherently and majorly wrong with the very idea of economic anthropology: the very fact that this academic subsection exists in the first place.

It seems to me that one of the first findings of ethnographic and anthropological endeavour was that 'The Economy' does not exist; or rather, it is merely a collective form of subjectivity, an expression of social relations. Malinowski, Durkhiem and Mauss, to provide three traditional examples, all express how 'The Economy' is nothing more than a superficial expression of deeper underlying human activity. Marx certainly pulls no punches in showing how 'The Economy' is nothing more than the persona of human sociability. And yet, anthropologists insist in setting it aside from the rest of their work, giving us the economic anthropology of this and that place or group; constructing a 'third sector', 'plural economy' or 'informal economy' — in essence reaffirming the existence of an entity to be named 'The Economy', working within its frame work rather than expanding and exploring the spaces in-between.

Further, it produces a separatistic polycentrism, similar to that of the historical uses of the culture concept, the collective or the ethnographic present. The idea of one or multiple economies seeks to delimit human action; assign it to a specific spatio-temporal location or conceptual territory. For a man such as Foucault, this would certainly be seen as an act of individualisation and normalisation. 'The Economy', as a concept and term, has become a means of producing a taxonomy of human action; a taxonomy which is enforced upon reality rather than being empirically derivative.

Such a notion equally implies a collective unity of the Hobbesian variety, a general will or covenant of mankind; it suggests that all those who act within the economy do so according to some overarching and unifying totality which controls, or rather affects, their actions. The recent work conducted by many of the Autonomists has shown us the dangers of such a notion of unity and its potential implications. This issue returns to the Hobbes verses Spinoza, collective verses multitude, dilemma; the idea of a group of individuals unified by one common goal against the idea of a multitude of singularities, affective, intertwined and never to be in total unity. 'The Economy' works on the assumption of a unity of individuals, a collective, a general will. To my mind such a unity is already problematic and any concept which makes use of it as its foundation requires readressal.

There is certainly something quite specific about human interactions which involve exchange. However, I feel the anthropological view of human exchange has become tainted by the green tinted glasses of western capitalism. I feel it is time to try our hardest to remove these frames, smash them, and look deeper for another perspective-- one which has potentially already been provided by some of the earliest ethnographers and social theorists.

There are few historians that make anthropologists weak at the knees quite like Karl Polanyi and E.P Thompson; and admittedly both of these individuals would be defined as economic historians. However in their works — as with those of the early anthropologists and ethnographers — one of the central messages is that what 'The Economy' appears to be doing is not in isolation and is in fact simply part of a wider series of affective and causal relations. Both their works demonstrate how in order to understand modes of societal individuation and collective action one cannot exclusively consider a conceptually delimited area such as 'The Economy', for it is not an entity in its own right.

Of course anthropology is a holistic discipline and as such must examine all areas of human existence, but as a holistic discipline should it not examine all at once rather than performing an academic division of labour which produces 'economic anthropologists of Africa' and 'political anthropologists of Europe'? To my mind, through this sub-division of labour anthropology is producing an exaggerated economic, cultural, political polycentrism — a engendering of ethnocentrism — an arborescent system in which each point is only definable in relational reciprocity to another or to its unifying pure totality.

There is a danger in the notion of 'The Economy', and the utilitarian rational action theory which goes with it, that it may become a reified objective totality; predicative of reality rather than derivative. It is devoid of any falsifiability and may act as a referential axis to explain all human action, a totality enforced upon case studies in order than they fit preordained conceptual models. It is this inherent attribute of economic action which allows Derrida to de-construct the notion of gift giving. 'The Economy' may become to social theory what Oedipus became to psycho-analysis.

If recent events have taught us anything, it's that the so-called 'Economy' relies upon a paradox of performativity — even the stock traders, investment bankers and centralised banking institutions don't really know how it works, what it is or in what manner to go about controlling it. Surely, if it wasn't clear before, it is even clearer now that this idea of 'The Economy' is nothing more than an expression of collective modes of subjectivity and subjectification which remain under-studied and not fully understood.

Of course I am not suggesting that anthropology should simply ignore those human relations which involve exchange or money; as a holistic discipline it cannot make such massive oversights. Rather, what I am trying to suggest is some form of new approach, one which would expel both the term economy from the anthropological lexicon and the idea from its conceptual framework. Such an approach, I envision, would perceive action which currently becomes tagged as 'economic' as an extension of larger, more interwoven and affective modes of collective subjectivity rather than somehow separated into an alternate academic, ethnographic domain. I don't see the development of such an approach as easy, or even achievable by one person, but it is certainly not impossible and maybe, just maybe, it could produce fruitful results; results which go beyond the taxonomy of exaggerated polycentrism.

Toby Austin Locke


Anonymous said...

I am in complete agreement with what I take to be your emphasis on promoting a more nuanced -- and, for the most part, more ontologically faithful -- notion of what most refer to as "the economy." However, much anthropological work effectively does this. I think the problem is instead, the task of making something slippery sink in as concrete. We expect a workable concept to describe what is ineffable; not chaos.

Furthermore, it seems that acting out of step with economic logic is the norm among people -- and not many seem too concerned about this; hence our seemingly never-ending economic crises. In this sense, the common people already understand that the economy is not some closed system. Instead, open systems are the norm. Description is thus easier than causal inference.

Arabica Robusta said...

Polanyi's "disembedding" of the economy should be problematized, in particular because scholars such as Carrier and Miller (in "Virtualism") have used his ideas to posit that the abstract ideas of neoliberalism colonize actually existing capitalism through institutional frameworks but also (implicitly) through abstract ideas that somehow implant in corporate actions as well. This is different, I think, from your argument that "this idea of 'The Economy' is nothing more than an expression of collective modes of subjectivity..."

T Austin Locke said...

Thank you both for you comments.

I think our anonymous commenter makes a strong point in saying, if I have read correctly, 'the economy' manifests a desire to construct a workable concept to explain chaos. And is equally correct in saying that much anthropological work does seek to provided an ontologically faithful representation of economic action; however, I feel there is still a lot of anthropological and ethnographic work which does not successfully escape the limits of economic theory meaning the findings of research are often understood within its terms. This is of course not saying this is the case for all work.

When considering how people act in accordance with economic rules I consider it appropriate to say that all that exists are exceptions to said rules. Here I feel we become presented with something of a double bind. On the one hand the singularity of each actant is acknowledged demonstrating an acceptance that exceptions to rules constitutes 'the norm'; but equally there is a continued attempt, in theory and practice, to categories and classify actants and actions in economic terms. In short what is accepted as an open system becomes defined on the basis of a perceived closed system.

I have not read Carrier and Miller's 'Virtualism' but will add it to my to do list. As such I don't feel I am in the best position to respond to Arabica's comment. I can, however, agree the Polanyi's work requires critical reanalysis. If what you are saying is that the abstract concepts of neoliberalism hold an affective relationship with pre-existing capitalist institutional frameworks and corporate actants then I would certainly agree and suggest that this is not incommensurable with my argument as these affects and 'colonizations' are invariably subject to subjective mediation.