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The “Marx Brothers”:Wallerstein, Chakrabarty, and Appadurai in Conversation

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  1. Introduction
  2. Identifying units of analysis
  3. Internalizing-via-contradiction
  4. Marxist critics like Chakrabarty and Wallerstein
  5. Historians and the labor of abstracting
  6. Rethinking labor and production
  7. Universal aspirations
  8. Conclusion: The end of history (one)
  9. Works cited

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.?[17] 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.?[13] 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. [...]


[...] Wallerstein's distinction between luxury commodities and ?essential? commodities, for example, is an attempt to avoid ?fall[ing] into the trap of identifying every exchange-activity as evidence of the existence of a system.?[8] While it seems feasible to draw the limit of capitalism's embrace somewhere, drawing it along the luxury-necessity line invites critique. Appadurai speaks the most directly to this issue: the degree that a growth in demand for primary luxury goods is critical to the expansion of production of second-order and third-order instruments, then the demand for luxuries has system-wide economic implications?[9] This claim, with a number of ethnographies behind it, would tend to undermine the basis for world-systems based on divisions-of-labor. [...]

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