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Marx Anthropological Theory

Anthropology ResearchThis paper will take a look at the relationship between Marxist theories of anthropology and their applicability to the current economic malaise, sparked by the worldwide economic crisis that began in 2008. Roseberry (1997) forms the theoretical bedrock for our appropriation of anthropological Marxism, the tenets of which we will use to construct an anthropological analysis of the global economic malaise that has stricken such a wide swath of global economic activity in the last four years.

The 2008 financial crisis has affected the lives of nearly every person connected to the global economy. It would be a difficult work of journalism, or otherwise, a thought experiment indeed to conceive of the kind of people who might feel better off from the events of 2008, whose negative effects continue to be felt to this day, especially in Europe. But no small consequences of followed within the United States as well. Many students at university are wondering intensely about the kind of jobs that might await them at graduation. This, in particular, is what interests myself, personally, in this event. The following represents an attempt at a Marxian (and not Marxist!) analysis of the events that led to the 2008 crisis and its aftermath.

In the news media we find startling news that even in China, once a red hot economic growth prospect with a seemingly inexhaustible slack to continue its rapid pace of modernization and investment-export driven economic growth, university graduates face an uncertain job market, according to Shen (2012). From the perspective of the economic climate of just a few years ago, one would wonder just how such a set of circumstances is possible. What is more, in China, is that its export driven growth has perhaps even hit a barrier, albeit momentarily. The result for China is that fully 16 percent of the urban young in the country are unemployed. This not only represents trouble for those already struggling to find work, but bodes ill for those students who will soon be graduating into the job market themselves.

Anthropology gives us a nice set of critical tools to distance ourselves from the dominant viewpoints of the crisis that so often find their way into the media. Economists of all stripes have their own specific focus when analyzing the crisis; economic indicators and a set of narrow economic precedents that do not represent the whole of human history very well with the exception of the twentieth century. This narrow field of view is perhaps a result of economist’s confidence in the importance of empirical data; accurate data of economic activity and macroeconomic data from the feudal ages are, of course, notoriously difficult to come by.

This sort of enforced lack of perspective in economic thinking, combined with the predominance of economic thinking in the bourgeois mainstream is something that has stood out to me since I was fascinated with the almost holy reverence that interest rate changes garnered in newspapers around the time I first started reading them in my teenage years. A desire to both understand and to transcend this viewpoint is something that I have carried with me through my university years. This paper itself represents just such an opportunity; combining the epochal-Hegelian insights that Marx turned into a historical materialism, with the sort of historicist analysis of specific economic phenomena seems like a promising way to explore a new perspective, albeit one that is founded in a decidedly older intellectual tradition.

Roseberry (1997) focuses on a number of critical aspects of Marx’s thinking in relation to anthropological theory. The author focuses on three primary notions in the work of Marx: historical materialism, Marx’s analysis of Capitalism, and Marx’s historical and political surveys. We shall briefly review these sections in turn.

Marx focused on the philosophical economic category of labor in the context of the new industrialized Capitalism that he saw develop so quickly through his lifetime. Marx categorized what he termed the bourgeois class of producers, and this class opposed the class that it employed for labor, the proletariat. This tension between bourgeoisie and proletariat is in an important way the foundation of Marx’s project. What is more, Marx saw this situation between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as only one of numerous stages of production carrying back through human history. The major bone of contention between classes since the beginning of social economic relations had been, for Marx, appropriation of resources and property relations, according to Roseberry (1997).

Marx’s anthropological view was embedded in the fact that he saw mankind as exerting its force on and acting on nature (Roseberry, 1997; 27). Marx turned the idea of the social on its head, by conceiving of it as a material (ibid.). The way that the social was conceptualized, for Marx, as material, was due to a focus on the physical transformative effects of the social relations that people entered into. Indeed, people’s economic, cultural, and social behavior was not merely due to a need for subsistence, although that surely was and is an essential component, but also a mode for the reproduction of a whole way of life (ibid.).

The ways of life that people seek to reproduce are for Marx perceptible through time, in the sense that the modes of human existence change through time. As such, these existences are empirical and historical; and they represent for Marx the sum product of human activity down the years (ibid.). Marx and his partner Friedrich Engels reduced the problems that were encountered in the history of philosophy to a series of issue with the evolution of forms of ownership in human societies (ibid.). Marx saw that labor employed creatively led to an historically specific transformation of material conditions that were, ultimately the result of an ‘ensemble of social relations’ (ibid.).

The recommendations crafted from Marx and Engels included a raft of ‘historical and practical’ tenets to improve the methods of production and material conditions resultant from social relations for humanity. What this means specifically is that the ‘proper’ ways of doing things were nonexistent for Marx; what was important was the way that people responded in concert with the material conditions of their particular historicity. Marx focused both on the particular forms of labor and their possibilities for transformation within the local times they existed. There was also a focus on the long term, ‘epochal’ thinking for which Marx is famous. This consisted of a conception for the movement of the modes of production between distinct forms of labor and appropriation (ibid.).

Though Marx in The German Ideology did conceive of elements of our thinking such as ‘nature’ to themselves have historicity, that is, a component of existence which was indexed to a specific moment in history, Roseberry claims that Marx did not go far enough in light of recent anthropological findings on the similar historicity of social units such as the tribe and the family (ibid. 29). One of the chief postulates of The German Ideology is the proposed importance of imagination, narrative, and conceptual schemes in forming the way that people construct the material environment (ibid. 29). A concomitant of this arrangement is the claim that imagination, narrative, and man ‘as he is in the flesh’—that is, so-called real individuals—are inseparable in any philosophical or anthropological analysis (ibid. 30).

This brief overview of Marx from an anthropological perspective allows us to take a chance and view the events that led to the 2008 global financial crisis in a new light. One view of the crisis is to see it simply through the prism of economic health; the last five-plus decades have led us to expect gross domestic product growth of a certain level. Now that that growth has vanished, we simply say that the economy is ‘in recession’. Now, there have been of course plenty of fingers wagging, toward the financial industry in particular, with respect to who is to blame for causing the crisis. Marx appropriated by anthropologists allows us to view the elements of the crisis and the period leading to it in terms of the elements laid out above through Roseberry (1997).

In short, the remaining section of the paper will argue that the current master narrative of the 2008 financial crisis could benefit from some Marxian insight. Specifically, Marx allows us to view the crisis in terms both of his epochal thinking, and in terms of his position that history is an ascending succession of shifting relations of production. Historicity also plays a crucial role, and while there is no shortage of positioning the crisis within the psychological context of the collective mentality of economic boom, Marx allows us to take a fresh look at the phenomenon of derivatives that played a key role in the crisis; namely, mortgage-backed securities. What we can gain from a Marxist anthropological perspective is an historicization of mortgage-backed securities as, quite literally, a form of ownership for our time. A form of ownership that has its peculiar quality as being ‘of the time’ we lived in 2008.

Commentators have claimed that an important element in the global financial meltdown of 2008 was a consequence of a huge glut of savings that financed the bad risks being taken with respect to home mortgages in the The West. Now, the West includes both the United States and Europe, who felt the effects of the crisis in domino type fashion only after the fissures had surfaced in the United States lending industry with the collapse of a number of prestigious banks and boutique investment houses. Everyone knows the story behind the mortgage backed securities and the seemingly endless repackaging of debt until home buyers truly had no clue who it was that was financing their mortgage. Many times the bankers who had packaged the loans had no idea, as well.

From the Marxian anthropological perspective that we have tried to construct, the method of ownership that was being attempted above is novel. As an distinct section of economic history, it represents a true attempt at a new arrangement of ownership. Especially when considering the previous few hundred years of western domination in the crucial events of world history, a transfer of ownership of many western assets to Asian ownership represents a true shift indeed.

Another aspect of a Marxian reading of the crisis is related to the new ways that those in finance attempted to transfer ownership on such a large scale. We recall that Marx claimed it was the creative deployment of labor that ultimately resulted in new forms of ownership and appropriation over the course of human history. Well, repackaging debt per se is technically not ‘new’ in the most strict sense of the word. However, one might argue that the initial technological innovations (computers, information systems, the relaxation of restrictions on the movement of global capital, etc.) certainly granted humankind with the opportunity (the goading!) to attempt this kind of transfer of ownership.

Also significant in this respect is a focus on who, exactly, were the people who were transferring ownership to whom. It is well-documented that subprime loans targeted those people with variable rate mortgages who were quite unlikely ever to fulfill the terms of such loans. Both before and after the transfer of these mortgage backed securities, these people never truly achieved any kind of ownership. Marx believed that the proletariat was exploited by the capital-wielding bourgeoisie; though social relations are quite a bit more fluid in the United States and modern Europe than from the perspective of post-feudal Europe of Marx’s day, we might still conclude that those being targeted with subprime mortgages shared financial straits in common, and represented something like the modern analogue to Marx’s proletariat.

The events that led up to the 2008 financial crisis--overlending, the glut of global savings, conspicuous consumption in the West—made possible the ‘great experiment’ that was the attempted mass transfer of ownership in the run up to the crisis. Of course, as banks write-down their debt and attempt to extricate themselves from the circumstances of the post 2008 crisis economy, the losers are the people who tried to get a home they could not really afford who now suffer a black mark on their financial history. As well, the glut of anonymous savers who, probably unknowingly, were investing in these newfangled and eminently risky trading mechanisms are seeing their ‘assets’ devalued and significant portions of their wealth vanish. The global finance and banking industry is suffering from a torrent of mounting legal battles and face much stricter regulations in nearly every corner of globe in which they operate, according to Silver-Greenberg.

As we have seen, the application of Marxian and anthropological paradigms can offer a fresh perspective on the economic and financial circumstances the world now finds itself in. Marx offered vision of world history, borrowed from Hegel, that lends fresh insight to our current macroeconomic trouble. Today it seems as though there is an absolute aversion, at least in popular media outlets, at the kind of social class thinking and historical perspective that Marxian anthropology can lend us in these difficult times. Mainstream economics gives us precious little intellectual clue as to what to make of the financial innovations proffered in the mid 2000s, which both opened the door to new kind of world-organization of ownership and (due mainly to the surplus of power of minute derivatives over any sort of control mechanism humans were able to knowingly employ) and slammed them firmly shut.


Literary Theory. Research Into Marxism. Writing Reference for Students.

Roseberry, W. (1997). Marx and anthropology. Annual review of anthropology, 26(1), 25-46.

Shen, H. (2012, December 10). China graduates struggle to find jobs. MarketWatch.

Silver-Greenberg, J. (2012, December 9). Mortgage crisis presents a new reckoning to banks. New york times.

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