Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Engaging with the historical sweep of Polanyi’s great war-time oeuvre

How widespread Polanyi’s influence is today
A short history of economic anthropology from The Memory Bank by keith
In The Great Transformation (1944), Polanyi brought a radical critique of modern capitalism to bear on his moment in history... Conclusions: the next stage

Anthropologists aim to discover the principles animating economic organization at every level from the most particular to the universal. The purpose of economic anthropology, when still known as ‘the economics of primitive man’, was to test the claim that a world economic order must be founded on capitalist principles. The search was on for alternatives that might support a more just economy, whether liberal, socialist, anarchist or communist. Hence the interest in origins and evolution, since society was understood to be in movement and had not yet reached its final form. Anthropology was the most inclusive way of thinking about economic formation; only secondarily was it a critique of capitalist inequality.

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.

We have identified here three stages in the development of economic anthropology. In the first, up to and including the Second World War, ethnographers sought to engage the more general propositions of neo-classical economics with their particular findings about “primitive societies”. They failed, mainly because they misunderstood the economists’ epistemological premises. In the second stage, coinciding roughly with the West’s experiment in social democracy at the height of the Cold War, anthropologists argued among themselves about whether or not special theories and methods were needed to study their preserve, tribal and peasant economies, thereby opening the way for Marxists to exercise a temporary dominance, but again mainly referring to the traditional objects of ethnography.

The third stage of neo-liberal globalization, which may or may not be concluding in our day, has seen anthropologists open themselves up to the full range of human economic organization, studied from a variety of perspectives. So far, they have only rarely addressed world economy as such, preferring in the main to stick with the tradition of ethnographic observation (Gregory and Altman 1989). The time is ripe for anthropologists to take the extra step of addressing the world economy as a whole as well as its parts; and engaging with the historical sweep of Polanyi’s great war-time oeuvre might be one means to that end.

The issue remains whether or not capitalist economy rests on human principles of universal validity. This argument about sameness and difference plagued post-war economic anthropology, much as it plagued nationalist discourse in 19th century Germany. Anthropologists can be proud of our discipline’s commitment to joining the people where they live in order to find out what they think and do. But fieldwork-based ethnography needs to be integrated once more with the perspective on world history that it overthrew. 7:47 PM 6:36 PM

Friday, January 23, 2009

The social cannot be adequately thought without taking into account non-human actors

The Ontic Principle’s Tangled Beard
from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects

I will, however, say that one of the things I’m trying to accomplish at the level of social and political theory is, following Latour, the introduction of non-human actors into social networks. In my view, a good deal of social and political thought suffers from flawed assumptions at the level of social ontology. The field gets restricted to human beings, discourses, signifiers, language, ideas, norms, etc., and the non-human is set aside and treated as something outside of or other than the social. Following Latour, my thesis would be that the inhuman is an actor in the social as well, and that the social cannot be adequately thought without taking into account non-human actors.

I learned of a good example non-human actors play in social assemblages or networks as an undergrad in a course entitled Nature, Technology, and Culture. There the professor discussed a city where the bridges between the North and South side were built too low for the public buses to pass through. This simple fact contributed a major difference in both income distribution and cultural distribution in the city, as those who were from the South side of the city could not readily travel to the North side of the city where many of the jobs were. In addition, this difference, the bridge, had both catalytic and de-catalytic effects in the sorts of human networks formed. By virtue of this lack of ready transportion between the North and South sides, networks among humans became restricted to these particular regions, leading these networks to become self-reinforcing of particular relationships. In this example, the simple height of the bridge would be a non-human actor within the social assemblage. It will be objected that the bridges were built by human hands, that they would not exist without humans, and this would be true. However, the key point is that the difference introduced by the height of the bridges was not– as far as we know –intended to produce this difference.

Similarly, we have completely inhuman actors that play a significant role in processes of social assembly. Thus, for example, what role does the disappearance of Lake Chad, an inhuman entity, play in the process of assembly for human relations in Africa? Lake Chad is an inhuman actor that certainly plays a significant role in how life is organized among people in this region. Through the role of this actor, people are led to relate to the land differently, each other differently, occupations differently, and perhaps even their cultural beliefs differently. As a result of the way in which this lake acts, all sorts of translations must take place among the people in this vicinity.

In short, my thesis would be that the social is composed not of what is human, but of the inhuman and human alike. Once again, following Latour, this leads to a significant transformation of our understanding of the social. The social is not a distinct substance in opposition to, say, the natural or the psychological. Rather, the social now refers to associations. Following Whitehead, the social will thus refer to any form of association, whether completely inhuman or involving combinations of the human and the inhuman. What will be of interest in a social theory is how these association are made and remade. As Latour dramatically puts it, “the social does not explain but must be explained”…

No groups only group formations. The point that inhuman actors play a significant role in human social formations might appear trite and obvious– and it really should be –but when confronting a world of social and political theory that seems to focus almost entirely on the discursive, the symbolic, and the normative, it is, I think, a tremendously important point to make. So long as these inhuman actors are not included in associations or assemblages, I just don’t see how we can pose the right sort of questions. George Bush states the terrorists are out to get us because they hate our way of life, i.e., culture is to explain it all. There are no small number of theorists who make similar claims in much more elaborate and sophisticated vocabularies. The point is not that culture, language, signs, history, etc., do not make a difference, but that we must also think these differences in their relation to inhuman differences.


Monday, January 12, 2009

This is a fundamental issue of trust and faith which has been shaken

Moneycontrol » News » Udayan's comments
Satyam: A cleverly crafted scam
Published on Wed, Jan 07, 2009 at 13:56 Source: CNBC-TV18 bad apple does not mean that everything in the basket is rotten. Having said that will it shake investor’s confidence?

Absolutely and unequivocally yes, more than anything else that has shaken investor confidence. This is not one crooked stock broker scamming investors by leading them up and getting a line of finance from a bank, it is one of the country’s biggest companies; it is an index stock with a several billion dollar marketcap, it was thought just a few months back as one of the beacons of Indian IT and today the promoters come and said, everything that I shared with you was a complete scam.

Do you think this will have no repercussions? Absolutely not, that would be too simplistic an inference to draw. I am finding it difficult to articulate what one should after looking at the scale and magnitude of this scam which has played out, where the promoter in five pages has just blown the biggest scam going in this country and has submitted himself to the forces of law...

Who do you believe now?
Satyam is a company which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE); this is an index company, quarter after quarter it announces numbers which we take as gospel and we do a lot of analysis, every analyst does on whether margin slipped a bit and wage hikes happened and now you know that none of those numbers existed then who do you believe? Do you believe auditors, who are supposed to be looking at these companies?

This is a fundamental issue of trust and faith which has been shaken. One can forget about the Satyam stock much that we feel very bad about Satyam shareholders that is one company. Here you stand the risk of actually losing your faith and trust in the system, which is supposed to be policing the numbers which you have faith and trust in. What happens to the auditors? This is a company which is not a fly by night small company, it is listed on a global exchange, global investor – they are supposed to be following US GAAP norms etc and quarter after quarter they keep blinkering all their investors and none of us find out till the promoter one fine day decides to confess.

Could there be more companies doing these kind of thing? What are the auditors doing? How will we ever know? You and I cannot be looking at going into and checking the bank accounts of Satyam and what they earned in a particular quarter or not. At some level there has to be an implicit code of faith that we believe what is posted on the walls of the exchange but today we cannot. So what are these people doing – these auditors and tax consultants and even rating agencies, how have they conducted themselves over the last two-three quarters. It is absolutely appalling.

[Raju confesses: Why and how of the Satyam con Since about seven years, we wanted to show more income in the account to avoid others from involving in company affairs and any other possible hostile takeover situation, and hence, manipulated the balance sheet to attract more business and show unavailable amount as available cash in hand.This process continued for the last seven years and margin amount shown got increased much more year after year. Moneycontrol » News » Business]

[Does one bite the hand that feeds it? It’s a time tested phrase that lies at the very heart of the Satyam scam and the systemic flaws that allow such frauds to be carried out, undetected... All independent directors or auditors are not unscrupulous. But there is an obvious conflict. Perhaps these things aren’t spoken about as it is a system that works mostly, with the odd scam here and there. But for my money, a new system needs to be thought about. Else, you’ll simply be hoping that those you trust are not crooked. And that isn’t good enough.

These bodies must get their bread buttered by the people they are trying to protect against fraud. Investors, not company managements or promoters. Is it so difficult to devise a system where auditors and rating agencies are paid by the ‘users’ of the information they dish out? I doubt it. Leaps of faith HT 11 Jan 2009 Udayan Mukherjee is Managing Editor, CNBC TV18]