The anthropological study of capitalism is rendered difficult by the inaccessibility of capitalist subjects as informants, the political legacy of Marxist and socialist movements, and the continuing disagreement over the origins and productions of capitalism, among other things. However, there are a great many texts that cover the theoretical ground needed to evaluate the competing claims about political economies under conditions of capitalism. Three such texts are Immanuel Wallerstein's The Rise and Future Demise of the World Capitalist System, Dipesh Chakrabarty's Two Histories of Capital, and Arjun Appadurai's The Social Life of Things. This paper puts these texts in conversation to explore some of the problems encountered when we try to specify the reach of capitalism and commodities around the world.
[...] For example, Appadurai “would suggest that barter is the exchange of objects for one another without reference to money and with maximum feasible reduction of social, cultural, political, or personal transaction costs.” The mention of a transaction cost seems economistic, but in this idiom he suggests that something is lost in translation. A life-world undergoing a transition to capitalism through the work of Historian 1s stands to undergo violence to its historical record, but the extent of this violence depends on the kinds of History 2s in activity and the willingness to barter (i.e. [...]
[...] Capitalism's expansion and reproduction hinges upon the re-inscription and performance of History 1's relations in real-time. But Chakrabarty follows Marx's warning “against understanding of capital that emphasize the historical at the expense of the structural or the philosophical.” This implies, to me, that capitalism as an idea can be understood by people in many, if not all, places and History 1 can be thought a portable, transposable philosophy. If a historian must engage in a concrete labor of abstracting to create commodified labor and value, Chakrabarty leaves us to think about how this labor of abstracting operates across units of analysis, be they life-worlds or commodity ecumenes. [...]
[...] This close reading of Wallerstein, Chakrabarty, and Appadurai gives us a sense of the importance of units of analysis; definitions of capitalism; notions of labor, performance, and productivity; and the work of non- humans, which we should take account of when trying to elaborate anthropology of capitalism. An important strand of thought weaving this set of readings together might be refered to (clumsily) as the philosophical terms of capitalism; more than merely material relations, capitalism is an mobile idea (and an abstract ideal-type) which produces ways to distribute power among people and collectivities despite their differences. [...]
[...] For example, Wallerstein begins by recognizing the problems of “ahistorical model- building,” in which the characteristics of societies in certain places and times are made into generalized ideal-types and used to classify other societies. The trouble with this tactic, he writes, is twofold: it requires endless “epicyclical codas to the models in order to account for ever further deviations from empirical expectations,” and it raises counterproductive questions like stages be skipped?” In this critique Wallerstein delivers a powerful challenge to bourgeois social science in such a way that it appears he is challenging stage-ist views of history as well. [...]
[...] Appadurai shares Wallerstein's attention to the movement of goods and things, but in a way that does not slip into omnipresent capitalism. And in this way, his notion of the “commodity ecumene” allows for a more supple rubric to define boundaries, economies, and units of Marxist analysis. But “life-worlds,” Chakrabarty's units of analysis if I can refer to them as such, present an even more complicated picture of capitalism's history. historian 1 and the labor of abstracting To erect the scaffold for a non-teleological, non-“historicist” framework of capitalism, Chakrabarty calls upon his pair of tools dubbed History 1 and History 2. [...]
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