The Human Economy and the Government Shutdown

Or … Normalizing Anthropology’s Engagement with the Centers of Power

When you think “Anthropology,” you probably don’t immediately think, “Yes, those are the academic types that get tapped as regular op-ed writers for major newspapers, write engaging books about broadly relevant topics that large audiences want to read, and get access to the corridors of political and corporate power to advise on big, mainstream political and elite media topics like tax policy, effective institutional organization, and international affairs.” More power to Paul Krugman, but anthropologists are like most other academics; the detailed, specialized concepts and observations we scrutinize and discuss are really comfortable for us to deal with, day in, day out … but as we inhabit this specialized world of work and thought, we have a hard time building and maintaining paths of relevance with communities other than those we study. Moreover, the communities we study tend to be on the margins of contemporary economic and political power. I’ve already discussed Keith Hart’s important ethnographic and activist work on the project of humanizing economic networks, something he addresses and references extensively on the website The Memory Bank. He is particular interested in how grass-roots open currency systems can exist alongside national and supranational ones, facilitating inclusion, empowerment, and resilience of individuals and small networks who are constituted by complex lives and identities … and perhaps most importantly, who have economic connections that fray quickly when larger monetary dynamics–inflation or deflation driven by employment cycles, global credit cycles, industrial commodity prices, or national or international politics–suddenly make everything a greater hardship, throwing into tumult any future plans or hopes. Hart’s vision may aim to reach the global scale, but his ethnographic engagement remains not only local, but with better connecting the politically and economically marginal. (Daniel Lende has a nice discussion of this issue at the Neuroanthropology Blog, showing the importance of such seemingly marginal small projects, which can have really high local impact, in growing the relevance of Anthropology.) The marginality of the communities I study is incomparably greater. Not only am I dealing with prehistoric communities, marginal to written history; I’m dealing with groups whose constituents will always be anonymous … and about whom there are legitimate scientific questions about whether they were actually different from us in some fundamental biological ways. And I mainly have just their garbage and the dirt they tracked around to go by. So, like most anthropologists, I have to admit that my research isn’t going to offer direct suggestions about how to humanize contemporary, massive economies all the way to their centers.

Still, anthropologists can offer relevant, constructive ideas for changing the cultural status quo around the centers of power, where big money and mass media tend to distort our interests and how we use dramatic, mythologized or ritualized narratives to resolve our conflicts of interest in emotional but all-too-often shortsighted ways.

Yet, we feel more comfortable staying on the margins.

A movement from which is certainly not without obstacles.

Indeed, when we’re teaching undergraduates or explaining what we do to journalists, we may successfully make a general, unifying point that gives our non-specialist audience pause, really getting them to think, “Wow. I never really understood just how diverse and complex humans are.” But it is usually challenging enough to explain that what we do is worthwhile in some way–one that may be concrete for the marginal communities we study (if we’re lucky enough to study living people) but still pretty abstract for our students or a media audience. It’s an additional challenge to get the argument out there to mainstream media and influential politicians that we can and should identifiy where untapped synergies might be found, say, by increasing the number of local open-currency systems, so that it’s about community empowerment–but among influential voting blocs in economically and politically powerful countries–and not just about Bitcoin as a system for laundering illegal profits or an opportunity for speculative investing by big money.

Taking this relatively untrodden route (and again, Keith Hart and his colleagues have helped to begin blazing the trail) does mean wading into tough but rarely examined areas for debate for anthropologists. Our usual role is to show how complex and diverse the human universe is. Cultural anthropologists do this typically through the art of getting us to marvel at how unique and surprising–despite hints of familiarity–the local is … often seeming to thrive in the face of otherwise rarely acknowledged symbolic and material oppression, violence, and exclusion that constitute complex systems of power, domination, coping, and resistance. Biological anthropologists and anthropological archaeologists are especially good at showing how the pasts we inherit–and which inevitably influence us in ways familiar and hidden–are surprisingly similar or intertwined. And we are most comfortable conveying these lessons either from our liminal (at once powerful and nearly irrelevant) ivory tower home bases or in the field at the margins of power. So how do we work at building thorough connections all the way between the margins and the centers? And in a way that doesn’t fall into old ideological divides (for example, Marxist versus Free-Market Libertarian), isn’t too immediately concerned with otherwise arcane philosophical and historical foundations for our proposals, and really respects the diversity and–above all–the humanity of the stakeholders, engaging them in a shared exploration and appreciation of risk-taking and creativity, both entrepreneurial and artistic, both at small scales and large?

Such a massive task may be best approached through a relevant case, which can help us to focus on key concepts that can get anthropologists of different intellectual stripes to collaborate effectively and suggest something new. So we might as well take our first small steps by going for the big obvious target. In the current American political situation, I know it’s really too late for Barack Obama and John Boehner to get on the same page and call a panel of anthropologists (or any other academic advisors), begging them for a novel, creative, and politically workable way out of the current stand-off over funding the Federal budget, including at least some aspects of the Affordable Care Act, and raising the US Federal debt ceiling. But if anyone’s listening, let’s try to play what may really be Anthropology’s ace in the hole.

The Magic of the Social

No matter how logical and rationally self-aware we think we are, human social lives are filled with magical experiences. In the sense that we manage to act–and often act with conviction–despite facing manifold dilemmas of which we are nevertheless aware. It’s not just that the future is uncertain. It’s that we inevitably face the range of conflicts of interest–socially, between past and future, and between short-term and long-term future concerns. And we magically resolve these dilemmas. We’re so good at this, we don’t even know how heroic and magical we are. This magic has a wholly natural explanation. Suddenly aware that we’re in a kind of zone of indistinction concerning knowledge and understanding about what to do–as in, “I really have no clue what my best interests are” or even “I’m not sure why this is so important to me in the first place, but maybe it really should be … but then again…”–we embrace myths and rituals, perhaps even improvise them, following a compelling story line that brings us from the liminal realm of indecision to the mundane or even profane realm of action. Given that we will not (and simply could not) engineer our biology any time soon to shrink our brains, shorten our lives, and simplify our social capacities, the complexity of conflicts of interest across our lifetimes will constantly draw us–usually without our realizing what has happened–into such states of indistinction and indecision. Even on a daily basis. The key is what we do socially in such circumstances, and how symbolically rich narrative structures can help us to focus on finding common ground and workable solutions to such conflicts, without falling into the symbolic and material violence of exclusion and dehumanization.

Without fully determining the outcome, one way to acknowledge the pervasiveness of conflicts of interest but ritually shape participation in our democratic process toward inclusion involves re-inventing how we use opinion polling data. More specifically, I suggest that we need to reimagine and rework inclusiveness in BOTH the process of political opinion measurement, political discussion, political media coverage, and connections between voters and leaders.

This line of thought emerged for me as I considered recent polling results, which have been in the news in the wake of the current government shutdown (see some interesting examples to the right, from a recent Pew Center study). As it stands, polling as a highly structured, institutionalized social practice has a ritualizing and mythologizing tendency. It’s weird enough to experience being randomly chosen and polled. Our chances of being called to participate in an opinion poll every now and then are high, but with samples around 1000 people statistically standing in (reasonably accurately, it’s worth noting) for tens of millions of “likely voters,” it’s like winning an anti-lottery. You’re feeding the status quo political apparatus but not getting anything in return. Meanwhile, you are fed a series of not necessarily logically ordered questions, and you feel stupid when you answer with your gut that you want your side not to compromise, but a few minutes later say wholeheartedly that you feel that both sides are being unreasonable and should compromise. Then, you hear on the news the next morning how divided the country is politically, and how consternating it is that average American voters are too stupid or unreflective or selfish to give consistent opinions about their political preferences, always seeming to want our cake and eat it, too, without making tough political and personal choices.

So, let’s take a step back, yet again. I do think that opinion polling information is useful, but anthropologically, it is worth pointing out that the practice of polling–for the pollsters and participants–is ritualized, creating for the participants a sense of a mini-departure from the everyday. One that reveals conflicts of interest. The problem is that the process doesn’t help to resolve them. Instead, polls are used to magically produce aggregate statistical details that create entertaining news media stories, themselves mini-departures from the everyday for viewing audiences, further magnifying this sense of being in a zone of political indistinction and indecision. Neverending political deadlock means ongoing news drama. Despite the very serious, consequential fact that the government shutdown IS a failure of democracy, which ideally involves engaged, participant discourse where elected leaders are held accountable for how they decide. In all of this, the only stakeholders who are able to use this set of ritualizating practices to resolve their conflicts of interest are the politicians themselves, who take the aggregate statistics they like and magically produce a rationale for moving on. The entrails have been read after the ritual sacrifice, and the omens are seen as good for staying the course. How do we break this chain of ritualizing and damaging political practices? It would be great to have large poll samples involve focus group discussions, some of which are covered by media, where voters explore together–and find explanations for–their conflicts of interest. And also explore where common ground may be found. Moreover, politicians from opposing parties could also be involved in follow-up focus groups, in which conflicts of interest brought forward by poll participants are further discussed. Otherwise anonymous voters would be drawn into the process, and politicians would be humanized. And we’d all be able to focus ritually on magically producing consensus, using our concentration and smarts at the threshold between the everyday and the sacred, as a joint act of finding an acceptable way forward … and as a way of acknowledging our mutual imperfections and conflicts of interest. This would be genuinely the kind of sacred or magical experience of cleansing and forgiveness that is so lacking in what we take for democratic public discourse, but which so often ends up being ritual spectacle that supports policies that are much more dehumanizing or exclusionary than should be acceptable.