Category Archives: economy and society

Where we stand — anthropologists, the economy, and agency

I welcome Fredrik Barth’s call for anthropologists to “document the inequities that are produced and assert our influence in opposition to the destruction of welfare and lives” and “develop the models of culture and economy” that will allow us to ensure no one is excluded from the promising vision of progress (Barth 1996:242).

Barth situates this argument in critiques of economists. He alludes to a “global trend” of marginalization due to policies that tout the free market as a panacea for social problems. Though Barth neglects to provide examples grounded in history, he does point to specific patterns of displacement in South Korea and India, where the populations have been removed and replaced by the establishment of high-rise buildings and the pressures by the World Bank to compel the Egyptian economy in the 1990s to eradicate food subsidies. Urging anthropologists to challenge this general ideology of free-trade and laissez-faire which Barth says is encapsulated in the highly recommended book called Government by the market by Peter Self, he aligns himself with the likes of Yan Hairong, Emanuela Guano, Judy Whitehead and Aradhana Sharma, Philippe Bourgois, and Paul Farmer, among other anthropologists, who have examined the negative effects of market-driven policies.

Such injustice is exemplified in an intriguing yet tragic example presented by Barth, taken from Erik Jansen’s research on the effects of policies and institutions on the fishing industry around Lake Victoria. In the 1960s and 1970s, fishing was a booming industry, marketed to consumers in the lake area. It was also part and parcel of a collaborative effort involving 50,000 fishermen who used 12,000 boats to make money from fishing and women living in surrounding villages engaged in processing and trading. In the 1980s, external businesses and multinational corporations based in Europe entered the local market and set up processing factories near the lake and exported fish to Europe, the Middle East, Japan and the US. New players enter the arena, including absentee boat owners, factory managers, government finance ministries, elite investors, international banks and traders, and “insatiable” foreign consumers. Local poverty has increased and although the fishermen work in smaller numbers, they work longer hours and are far removed from “exercising ‘their role as participants in shaping public policy through market processes'” (Barth 236). Furthermore, the “global” market has displaced the “regional” market, rendering many ex-fishermen and locals suffering from poverty to pick the morsels off of Nile perch skeletons for food.

The detrimental effects of policies relying primarily on market processes animates Barth’s call to anthropologists to analyze the collusion of complex institutions, policies, inequalities and notions of change. He maintains that using “agency” and “resistance” glosses over the “gross emerging inequities of global economies,” leaving them “uncommented and analyzed,” the outcome of “[painting] ourselves into a theoretical corner where all we can do is celebrate rather pathetic cases of symbolic protests” (Barth 239). His emphasis is on making models that counter economic ones — models that show how co-operation and competition among groups and individuals unravel, and trace the changing impact of the fishing industry on the domestic household and family relationships. Barth uses the example of the caught- fish turned money-wage to illustrate the importance of human lives often overlooked by economists. Whereas the caught-fish forced the husband-fisherman to share his earnings with his family, the money-wage allows him to spend his earnings on beer. The ramifications of economic policies on people’s lives are apparent. Ultimately, Barth emphasizes, anthropologists can make a difference by challenging old models by analyzing their outcomes, making new models and theory and recommend policies that take into account the interdependence of lives, social relations and macro-processes of politics and economy.

Max Weber on Capitalism

Weber’s Economy and Society is simply riddled with definitions (or more aptly termed, “ideal-types”) in his exposition of the concepts and types of profit-making. He differentiates between profit-making and profit-making activity. The former is related to activities that seek power of control over goods, and the latter, an extension of the former, is oriented “in part” to profit-making and also conducive to exploitation of market situations. In his usual convoluted fashion,Weber defines economic action is “any peaceful exercise of an actor’s control over resources which is in its main impulse oriented towards economic ends.” He elaborates further on economic action, pulling from ideas presented in The Protestant Ethic, that one cannot look at economic processes without considering the subjective meaning (as distinct from psychic phenomena, he stresses) accorded to economic phenomena. Like Braudel and unlike Marx, Weber insists that not everything is a reflection of material reality and “material life” manifested as meaning, desire, taste, and religion can be examined as partially conditioned by the formation of capitalism and even independent of economic spheres, such as his take on political parties and desire to wield political clout.

Like Marx, Weber alludes to the inequalities and problems of capitalism, which he calls “capital accounting” and refers to the term as the “battle of man with man.” He writes, “the fact that the battle of man against man on the market is an essential condition for the existence of rational money-accounting further” implies that those with wealthy will be the ones determining the outcomes of the economic process. What strikes me as fascinating about Weber’s perspective is the use of “rationality,” which I interpret as the awareness and means to advance one’s position in the economic process (and here, I do not delve into the nuances of “rational techniques” versus “rationality” versus “rational types,” but direct the reader to his vague definition of “rationality” as “a force which promotes the orientation of the economic activity of strata interested in purchase and sale of goods on the market to market situations.”) Capitalistic monopolies is an example profferred by Weber as the most “market-rational” phenomena.

The intriguing part of Weber’s use of “rationality” is that with respect to economic processes, the perfection of “rationality” implies a move away from social relationships and into something like Polanyi’s version of the dis-embedded market. For example, he mentions varying rational techniques which exist as economic action, such as calculation in money. Economic action, for Weber, is by no means homogeneous, as it is imbued with myriad meanings and ideas, such as religious faith, personal loyalty and passions. However, he says, economic action dominated by such affects or ideas tend to be of a “low level of rational calculation.” He remarks that it is quite unusual to engage in rational calculation among family, kin or disciplines, as social relations circumscribe the limits of economically oriented, profit-motivated action. However, he suggests, higher levels of rationality may be correlated with lower levels of social relations, thus pointing to the ways in which capital accounting geared to the market becomes potentially severed from other forms of social life.

Weber’s ideas can be fruitfully situated within the history of German development. As Anthony Giddens points out, Weber had high hopes for German liberalism, and disparaged the ability of the working-class to lead the state. He felt that the only hope for a politically democratic German state rested in the hands of the liberal bourgeoisie. He railed against the possibility of a socialist government and planned economy, which he associated with further bureaucratic repression. Marx, on the other hand, who had been writing nearly 50 years before Weber, was cognizant of the levels of social and economic structure of Germany in comparison to more advanced capitalist Britain and France. His works anticipated a “progressive emancipation” in the form of a revolution by the proletariats against the German bourgeoisie. Germany at the time had 39 competing principalities and the two major states, Prussia and Austria were ruled by the landed aristocracy. Thus, as Giddens explains, the growing bourgeosie constituted a weak class, which entered into conflicts with the working-class but had no access to the government in the early 19th century. The 1848 rebellions placed greater power in the hands of the ruling circles, especially in Prussia and paved the way for a series of compromises made on the part of German liberals. These historical events shaped and influenced the writings of Marx and Weber, which helps us understand the ways in which their ideas dialogue with, build upon and simultaneously contradict each other.