Economic Anthropology, Capitalism’s End, and an Ecological Solution

Published online 2 December 2007.

This is a literary essay examining the question: “Why do people do what they do?” in an economic context.  Its starting point is the three-fold explanation given in Wilk and Cliggett’s new text of economic anthropology, Economies and Cultures: people do what they do because 1) of economic self-interest, 2) for the sake of other people, or 3) with moral/ ethical motives in mind.  I use that framework as a starting point to examine what sort of economic motives would be best in light of the ecological crises of the present, and of the advanced state of capitalism and of “capitalist discipline” as it has shaped our society.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

Texts inspiring this essay:

Dryzek, John.  Rational Ecology.  Oxford: Basil Blackwell,

van der Pijl, Kees.  “International Relations and
Capitalist Discipline”.  Phases of Capitalist Development (Albritton et al., Eds.).  London and New York: Routledge, 1998. 1-16.

Wilk, Richard R., and Lisa C. Cleggett.  Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology.  Boulder CO: Westview, 2007.

One of this year’s most intriguing new texts, Richard Wilk and Lisa Cleggett’s Economies and Cultures, is being marketed as an introductory text in economic anthropology.  But it’s clearly more than that, as economic anthropology functions as an important starting-point for reflections upon the human condition.  It has a lot of intriguing short references to other literature, especially in anthropology, and a lot of wide-ranging philosophical arguments.  It’s one of this year’s recommended reads.

Now, the anonymous scholars of Wikipedia have defined economic anthropology as “a scholarly field that attempts to explain human economic behavior using the tools of both economics and anthropology.”  But, rather than stop there, the authors of Economies and Cultures take a broader, more interdisciplinary approach.  One of this book’s most controversial conclusions is its distillation of the social-scientific explanations for human behavior that have been given so far.  It argues that there are basically three types of explanation for human behavior.  They include:

The Self-Interested Model.  “This is the basis for the dominant approach in microeconomics, the part of economics that is concerned with individual behavior,” the authors tell us.  This model, we are told, uses the model of “the self-interested rational individual, or ‘economic man’”.  (42)

The Social Model, which “focuses on the way people form groups and exercise power,” in an approach which the authors label “political economy.” (42)

The Moral Model, which looks at “what people think and believe about the world in order to explain their actions.”  This ostensibly underlies the “cultural economics” approach.  (43)

Now, this schematic offers a set of explanations for why people what they do, and moreover, as the authors of Economics and Cultures point out, serve as individual explanations for why people do what they do.  “I did it for myself” is the self-interest model, “I did it to help others” is the social model, and “I did it because it was right and proper” is the moral model.  (190)

Of course, each of these statements can be used to explain any behavior one wishes to explain.  “I did it for myself can be used to explain helping others, and so on.  But we can nevertheless look for pairings – self-interest propelling microeconomic decisions, social interest propelling political action, and moral interest propelling “gifts” and other expressions of cultural economics.  And if we find such pairings, we can then point to distinct economic ways of life.

So how does this academic schema shake out when it is applied to the real world?  My interpretation of it is that when Wilk and Cleggett explain the research results, what we slowly begin to see is the presence of the 800-pound gorilla in the room: growing, historical capitalism.  And each of the three different approaches can be said to study a different aspect of life under capitalism, per se: the self-interested model tells us what is inscribed on capitalism’s banners, the social model grants us a macro analysis of capitalism, and the cultural (or moral) model discovers what other ways of life exist on the margins of the capitalist system.

So, what is this capitalist system to which I refer?  A meaningful definition of capitalism is given in Ellen Meiksins Wood’s basic text The Origin of Capitalism:

Capitalism is a system in which goods and services, down to the most basic necessities of life, are produced for profitable exchange, where even human labor power is a commodity for sale in the market, and where, because all economic actors are dependent on the market, the requirements of competition and profit maximization are the fundamental rules of life. (2)

So a capitalist society is a society in which economic actors are dependent upon markets.  Every once in awhile I read this Internet argument about how capitalism is natural and about how society has “always” been “capitalist.”  For other people, there may be some meaning to this way of talking about economic life, but to me it’s meaningless.  Capitalist society is a specific type of society.  It was not, for instance, feudal society, in which the fundamental unit of production was not the business, producing commodities, but rather the estate.  The feudal system used the surplus produced by the labor of serfs living on estate land.  Capitalism was also not the economic principle of the Roman Empire, in which one’s share of the productive surplus was determined not by “the market” but by one’s social class (or beforehand by conquest) and in which many of the producers were slaves, human “commodities” without rights.  Capitalism is a modern phenomenon, existing more or less since the 16th century and with proto-origins in the merchant societies of Flanders, the Netherlands, Genoa, and Venice, later emerging full-blown in the United Kingdom.

A capitalist society, then, is a society where the market determines the most important features of economic life.  It’s the type of society which exhibits its pride of being capitalist in the “Self-Interested Model” as mentioned in Economies and Cultures.  In short, it’s a society where things, and people, are commodified, where the dynamic economic force is commodification.

Now, what do I mean by “commodification”?  Kees van der Pijl defines this at the beginning of his classic text Transnational Classes and International Relations:

This means that the lives of ever more people are determined by tendentially world-embracing market relations (“the connection of the individual with all”.  Goods produced, services rendered, but also the raw material of nature and human beings as such are thus subjected to an economic discipline which defines and treats them as commodities. (8)

So everything becomes subject to market relations, everything to be bought and sold, or to be prepared for sale.  And this “preparation for sale” is a market relation that van der Pijl calls “capitalist discipline.”  Capitalist discipline, van der Pijl tells us in a long-winded discussion (24-63), is the process of socialization into a capitalist, market society.  Capitalist discipline, then, is the preparation for commodification – if the market is to be paramount, everything has to be prepared for it.  How this is done depends upon the time and place of the market situation.  In the antebellum South, slaves were prepared for market by being hauled around in chains; today people work to adorn their resumes so that they can sell their labor-time more effectively, or they manipulate plant genes so that varieties can be copyrighted, the better to squeeze money out of the farmers who use one’s produced seed.  In all eras, in general, commodification means that raw materials are in some way molded into goods-for-sale.

Now, I like Kees van der Pijl, as his view of capitalist history really explains for me how history turned out as it did.  But Transnational Classes and International Relations can be a long read full of dense vocabulary requiring LOTS of time and energy.  The short version of Kees van der Pijl’s argument about commodification and “capitalist discipline” is given in a short essay in an edited volume: “International Relations and capitalist discipline,” pp. 1-16 of Phases of Capitalist Development, eds. Albritton et al.  I’ll follow it carefully here.  Here, van der Pijl argues:

There are three phases of imposing the discipline of capital.  In each of them, it reaches deeper into the society-nature metabolism, provoking its own forms of resistance. (2)

So as capitalist discipline reorders the world in the form of “the market” more and more, different forms of resistance occur.

First, there is the process of original accumulation, the stamping of the commodity form on social relations including relations of production.


If the market is to rule, the things of the world must first be made into (someone’s) property; they must be conquered or appropriated into a property system.

The second is the capitalist production process, the exploitation of living labor-power, in which the technical labor process, with all that it implies in terms of human autonomy and creativity, has to be subordinated to the process of expanding value, the ‘valorization’ of capital invested.

This means that workers must be trained to sell their work, their “labor power” (to use Marx’s word) for money, by learning the most profitable “technical labor process.”

The third is the process of social reproduction in its entirety, which likewise has been made subject to the requirements of capital accumulation.  This includes the biosphere as well as what we may conveniently call, to distinguish it from work, ‘daily life.’ (11-12)

This means that the world must be made into an object for exploitation by business, and society needs to be transformed into consumer society, so that the manufacture of goods and services can be “sold,” and thus transformed into profit.  Children are to be educated a certain way, so that in later life they may be good workers and consumers.


OK, so that’s capitalist discipline in a nutshell.  For the most part it’s the dominant force in our society, though there are indeed counter-forces which soften its impacts.  But with that third stage of capitalist discipline, with the penetration of capitalist discipline into everything, the fundamental operation of the whole system itself runs into big trouble.  Van der Pijl again:

With the deepening of capitalist discipline to include the natural foundations of humanity’s existence and the most intimate aspects of social life (including the reproductive ones), the capacity of the biosphere and daily life to renew themselves according to their own requirements and rhythms is prejudiced.  (11-12)

Capitalist discipline, as it envelops the world, thus ends up making it harder and harder to live.  You thus have an “’exhaustion’ of the capacity of society and nature to support capitalist discipline,” (12), a quality noted by Teresa Brennan in her works.  Capitalism is really too fast for the natural rhythms of the biosphere.

Does anyone here besides myself see this “exhaustion” coming?  People are overworked, underpaid; the future of the system itself is compromised by abrupt climate change; credit schemes are collapsing; oceans are being catastrophically overfished; Africa is disintegrating.  In light of this; we ought to be concerned, largely, with alternatives to capitalist discipline, ways in which we can all live without being vulnerable to “the market.”

So let’s return to the three-fold model of decision-making presented in Wilk and Cleggett’s Economies and Cultures:

The Self-Interested Model, corresponding to microeconomics
The Social Model, corresponding to political economy
The Moral Model, corresponding to cultural economics (especially of actions like gifts). (41-42)

As I said above, each of these models helps us explain how the economy works.  The Self-Interested Model explains how markets work (as they relentlessly take over the world), the Social Model critiques the economy from a political perspective (pretty much what we do here at DKos), and the Moral Model helps understand what’s left.  So what will help us save the Earth?

Interestingly enough, there is already a discussion of “decision-making systems” in which each “decision-making system” is evaluated for its ability to help us save the Earth.  John Dryzek’s Rational Ecology suggests that some form of “ecological rationality” could ideally guide people toward an ecologically sustainable society.  Dryzek, however, is a political philosopher, and so he looks at “decision-making systems” in terms of procedures rather than overarching reasons to act.

Dryzek’s list of procedures, then, is largely borrowed from political philosophy.  After discussing “ecological reason,” he looks at markets, administered systems, polyarchy, law, moral persuasion, and the “international anarchy” as decision-making systems that might contain some form of “ecological rationality.”  None of these options looks good to Dryzek, and so he looks to “innovations” to try to imagine new ways of solving environmental problems.

What Dryzek comes up with are: “practical reason,” the possibility that people could argue “pedagogically” (201) toward a rational course of action that all could agree with, and “radical decentralization,” the idea that local responsibility would be more responsive to ecological catastrophe than distant, centralized power.  Dryzek’s suggestions seem eminently reasonable, yet we have to ask whether “practical reason” could actually be put in charge of a decision-making process about the environment.  People do not destroy the environment because they are unreasonable; they destroy the environment because they are caught up in other decision-making systems which do not reward environmentally-rational behavior.  Coal miners, for instance, remove mountaintops because doing so is equated with “making a living” microeconomically, not because they are irrational.

Dryzek’s idea that new decision-making systems will have to be invented has a sort of echo in Wilk and Cliggett’s book.  In one passage on p. 120, the authors of Economies and Cultures contrast social theorists and moral theorists:

For the social theorist, communication and ritual are tools invented by human beings to make social life easier, and they ultimately made larger and more complicated social groups possible.  For the moral theorist, humans are symbolizing animals first, and with this capacity they invent social life and groups that serve their needs.

If humankind is to get out of its current environmental dilemma, the human race will have to invent a new way of social life, and it will have to clear the ground so that microeconomic reasoning, or “capitalist discipline” if you will, does not reign supreme.  This is what I mean by “going off of the capitalist standard” in all of the comments I’ve made in that direction.  It’s a response to the seriousness of the crises, environmental and social, which imperil our present era.  In Wilk and Cleggett’s terms: we will need to develop a Social Model to restrain the Self-Interest Model while the Moral Model works on a solution.


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