As a discipline that studies human physical and cultural remains, from ancient ancestors to modern humans, anthropology expands what counts as “history.” This anthropological timeline helps us see that corporate culture is not the only way society can be organized. We need to draw on this deeper look into the human past to learn how to manage the increasingly evident limits on our natural resources. One lesson in sustainability can come from how human beings survived for 99 percent of our history. Foraging people are often called hunter-gatherers, though women’s “gathering” contributed 70 percent of human diets. Human beings adapted and thrived not because of our propensity for competition and violence but because of our cooperation: until very recently, we had evolved into egalitarian beings.
The idea of holism was first trotted out via old-school “functionalist” thinking—that cultural systems have an internal logic and that even the most remote and seemingly disconnected aspect of society exists to fulfill a purpose. …
In the service of humanity’s liberation, understanding the interconnectedness of our systems of inequality, our gender identity formation, our ideas of “race,” our family structures, and our religious beliefs and practices can be essential to unmasking the inhumanity of our global economic system, and show how contemporary neoliberal capitalism influences our daily life.
What is this system? As is usually taught, capitalism is an economic system. Adam Smith is credited as its primary architect, in Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, the same year that rebellious white colonists declared independence from England. The cornerstone of capitalism is capital, wealth as investment. It is a system of production based on market exchange: in addition to depending on a currency to establish a common way to value commodities, labor is also a market exchange—as a worker, I sell my labor power, for which my boss pays me. What distinguishes capitalism from its predecessor mercantilism is the belief in free exchange. No one can compel me to work; instead I receive wages for my labor. What Smith called the “invisible hand” of the marketplace—competition—establishes fair prices for commodities and labor, and as such competition should be unfettered from government interference. In theory.
Even the most cursory glance at capitalism as practiced today shows that the system does not practice what its bible preaches. Governments intervene all the time, subsidizing certain industries, protecting and supporting them, establishing borders, policing who (or what) can enter a country. And left to its own devices, capitalism tends to evolve away from competition, where many companies vie for your business, into monopolies, where one or two giant companies absorb the rest and control the market. Rather than services or companies being owned by the state, the capitalist elites who run these companies in many real ways have come to own the state. The 1873 U.S. Supreme Court Slaughter-House Cases gave corporations the status of “persons,” and they gained citizenship rights granted to formerly enslaved people under the Fourteenth Amendment. These Fourteenth Amendment rights were solidified in the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision: faceless corporations now have an unlimited ability to support candidates for office. And they do. Government officials who are bought know whom they have to pay back. In addition to billions of dollars in direct government support, corporations score perks such as lower taxes, endless loopholes around other laws, decreased regulation, protection from foreign competition, and the unfettered ability to create tax havens and park their capital overseas.
In other words, capitalism is rigged.
An anthropological imagination helps us take the first step to:
- Believe in the interconnectedness of specific local struggle for justice, and to see the underlying root causes of oppression, to defend our shared humanity.
- Understand that capitalism is not just an economic system; it’s also a political and moral system.
- Imagine alternative ways of organizing human society.
- See how out of sync global capitalism is with humanity’s several-million-year history.
- Understand that as a very recent addition within humanity’s life span, global capitalism was built on Indigenous genocide, settler colonialism, and slavery, supported by patriarchy. And as such, capitalism and white supremacy have an intimate relationship.
- Identify particular struggles as confronting local manifestations of this global system.
- See that specificities—people’s lives, experiences, analyses, and activism—are essential. We need to start from the bottom up, unraveling the loose threads where we are.