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The First World War marked a new stage in the convergence between capitalism and highly centralized state bureaucracies. The universities expanded and knowledge was compartmentalized as so many impersonal disciplines modelled on the natural sciences. Anthropology found itself pigeon-holed as the study of those parts of humanity that the others could not reach. The concentration of social power in immense anonymous institutions discouraged people from trying to make a better world by themselves. So, from being at one time a constructive economic enterprise of universal intent, anthropology came to be driven by the passive aim to accumulate an objectified data bank on ‘other cultures’, largely for internal consumption. The profession became fixed in a cultural relativist paradigm, by definition opposed to the universalism of economics. Anthropologists based their intellectual authority on extended sojourns in remote areas and their ability to address the world’s economic trajectory was much impaired as a result.

Get this from a library! Essays on the anthropology of reason. [Paul Rabinow]

Essays on the Anthropology of Reason by Rabinow, Paul

Herskovits included Knight’s review along with his own rejoinder in the second edition of his book (1952). He still argued that ‘comparative economics’ was a project to which the two disciplines should each contribute. He rejected the notion that any science could rely exclusively on deduction and intuition or could be indifferent to facts; and clearly did not feel that he had lost the argument. Nor did anthropologists stop indulging in the practices that Knight complained of. But in the meantime, economics was rapidly remaking itself as a positive science. The organizational demands of the war led to a mathematical revolution in the discipline in the 1940s, led by two Dutchmen, Jan Tinbergen and Tjalling Koopmans (Warsh 2006). The post-war rise of economists to a position of unprecedented intellectual hegemony was fuelled by these econometric methods and by information-processors of increasing sophistication. Knight’s intuitive and normative approach to economic reasoning came to look rather quaint. It was displaced by an aspiration to model the real world; and economists asserted their new mastery of the public sphere with a dazzling repertoire of theorems, charts and numbers.

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In Germany, scholars of diverse disciplinary backgrounds, not content with vague descriptions of material culture, addressed theoretical questions of economic origins and technological determinism with considerable rigour. Gerd Spittler (this volume, forthcoming) approaches these early contributions through a focus on work: was work central to man’s self-realization or did humanity have a natural aversion to toil? The German forerunners of economic anthropology were almost all anti-socialist, but they were nonetheless influenced by Marx. This strong interest may be attributed in part to the dominance of historicist approaches in Germany. Max Weber’s first appointment was in Nationalökonomie, an economic discipline that rejected the universalism of the British political economists.

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Despite our focus on historical change, there are some abiding questions at the intersection of economics and anthropology. Is the economists’ aspiration to place human affairs on a rational footing an agenda worthy of anthropologists’ participation or just a bad dream? Since economics is a product of western civilization – and of the English-speaking peoples in particular – is any claim to universality bound to be ethnocentric? If capitalism is an economic configuration of recent origin, could markets and money be said to be human universals? Can markets be made more effectively democratic, with the unequal voting power of big money somehow neutralized? Can private and public interests be reconciled in economic organization or will the individualism of homo economicus inevitably prevail? Should the economy be isolated as an object of study or is it better to stress how economic relations are embedded in society and culture in general?

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As an academic discipline, anthropology demands a realization of the interconnectedness between human groups, a heightened abstraction of vocabulary and tools with which to articulate these connections, and self reflexive sensitivity to its history.

The Spiral of Life and Consciousness

The twentieth century saw a universal experiment in impersonal society. Humanity was everywhere organized by remote abstractions – states, capitalist markets, science. For most people it was impossible to make a meaningful connection with these anonymous institutions and this was reflected in intellectual disciplines whose structures of thought had no room for human beings in them. Whereas once anthropologists studied stateless peoples for lessons about how to construct better forms of society, scientific ethnography no longer sought to change a world where ordinary citizens felt for the most part disempowered. Of course, people everywhere sought self-expression where they could – in domestic life and informal economic practices. The three most important components of modern economic life – people, machines and money – are not properly addressed by the academic discipline devoted to its study. In Capital, Marx (1867) expressed humanity’s estrangement from the modern economy by making abstract value (money) the principle organizing production, with the industrial revolution (machines) as its instrument and people reduced to the passive anonymity of their labour power. Marx’s intellectual effort was aimed at reversing this order and that remains our priority today.