Anthropology, as a humanistic enterprise, has always had (except for periods of extreme empiricism/biologism and certain isolated schools) a humanitarian mission since its real inception by Franz Boas. With the rise (and maybe fall) of postmodernism in anthropology, which has been always in the context of how to get cultural relativism and the depiction of other cultures right, the question has become not how to depict other cultures, but how to not get it wrong, and see within ourselves as writers of culture possible sources of bias. However, given the enormous influence of political economy, globalization studies, etc. anthropology has still to ask the question- what about Marx?
Anthropology COULD normatively assign Marx the category of another social theorist of the 19th century, and integrate his theories as just one more theory to study along with Weber and Durkheim. Or, it could (and I believe it already has, based on my experience in anthropology) take Marx seriously. I believe the answer why it should is not only an empirical question that someone like David Harvey or David Graeber could answer with judicious use of anthropological data and explanation of the rise of the neoliberal economic order and why it has influenced every local culture. There are a myriad books on this subject, from Graeber’s Debt: A 5000 year History to Wallerstein’s Introduction to World Systems Analysis- the right anthropologist’s have already done a good job of doing this. They have already analyzed colonialism from the right historical perspective, looked at it from the perspective of the colonized with postcolonialism, applied critical analysis. But what I don’t think they have had done a good job of doing is taking philosophy seriously, or justifying their project on a level of fundamentals, ethics, etc.
At first glance, this statement should appear nonsensical, because why wouldn’t anthropology try to accurately describe the postcolonial neoliberal reality of the 21st century? Haven’t they done enough by appealing to notions of human rights, etc?
The political problems of the 1950s and 1960s still haunts anthropology. During the Cold War and the Red Scare, many anthropologists worked for the government to understand the Communist threat, and many of afraid of being accused of having Marxist leanings. But while good critiques have already been made of the sort of public anthropology that sells their soul to corporations, works with the military in Iraq to understand local culture in order to further American foreign policy objectives, anthropologists remain reticent to unabashedly in writing critique capitalism. Now, I say this knowing that some anthropologists (like Graeber) remain professed and “out” anarchists, and many anthropologist’s writings are geared toward working against the established order of things.
But why Marx? Because anthropology still has a commitment at the end of the day, to Fanon’s “wretched of the earth”. We remain committed to those who lack the voice to speak for themselves, the powerless. And this commitment, which does not exclude the First World as much as the Third World may be its focus, is fundamentally, and this cannot be denied- a spiritual commitment. This is what Marx himself failed to grasp. Why should he care? Why have compassion at all? Why not embrace the individualism of the modern age?
A “rationalist” or “pragmatic” reason may be that one could easily be oneself in the lumpen, in rags, and that as capitalism ravages our planet, we are beginning to personally feel the heat in our middle class dens (literally). But it is something that we have to own up to- that a commitment to the powerless among us is a fundamentally social commitment, a commitment to what philosopher Slavoj Zizek likes to refer to as the commons- our common social and ecological substance. This is why we cannot pretend that at least in this more deep sense (maybe not in the sense of previous incarnations of the idea in political movements of the 20th century) that the study of society and sociality must be socialist in orientation. To ignore the insights of Marx in history, in the fundamental difference between the haves and have nots, the dynamics between labor and capital, is to be blind to the immensity of human suffering on this planet that is structural, and caused by our economic system working for the few, not the many