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History of Political Economy 32.4 (2000) 1017-1025

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Comment on Pearson’s “Homo Economicus Goes Native”

Keith Hart

World civilization is usually conceived of as an economy these days, and this has allowed economic anthropology to flourish in the last two decades as a postmodern critique of that civilization. There has certainly been a growing theoretical self-awareness, even a degree of openness, to the history of economic ideas. But there has been no attempt to take on the economists, for the good reason that they have moved further than ever from any common ground that the two disciplines might occupy. More seriously, economic anthropologists have remained themselves largely within the ahistorical cultural paradigms of twentieth-century ethnography. In consequence, anthropology’s potential to illuminate our moment in world history has not yet been realized. This is a pity, since the end of the Cold War, the birth of the internet, and the erosion of state power by money markets give plenty of scope for reflection, in the spirit of Hegel’s owl, on the century whose defining moment marks the end of Heath Pearson’s essay.

The issue for anthropology is to discover the principles that might animate economic organization at every level, from the most particular to the universal, but especially the latter, since there are few if any disciplines that take as their remit the study of humanity as a whole. This was in essence Kant’s project, since it was he who coined the word [End Page 1017] anthropology in its modern sense (Kant [1798] 1978), as part of an enquiry into the possible foundations of a universal civil society capable of administering justice equally for all humanity. And it was Kant’s thinking that underlay much of the nineteenth-century German writing summarized so fully by Pearson. Even in the English-speaking world of that time, the purpose of economic anthropology (“the economics of primitive man”) was to test the claim of contemporary capitalism that its principles were those on which a world economic order must ultimately be founded. The search was on for alternatives that might support a more just economy, whether liberal, socialist, anarchist, or communist. This is why there was so much interest in origins and evolution, since it was understood that society was 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 apologias for capitalist inequality.

The First World War put an end to all that, by destroying public faith in the power of reason and by inaugurating a counterrevolution that ensured that capitalism would henceforth be reproduced by highly centralized state bureaucracies. This was also the period of university expansion and the compartmentalization of knowledge as so many impersonal disciplines modeled on the most successful sciences. Anthropology found itself pigeonholed as the study of those parts of humanity that the others could not reach. This would have been enough by itself to break up the nineteenth-century evolutionary project. But the concentration of social power in immense anonymous institutions also discouraged the idea that people could think about making a better world by themselves. Any commitment to anthropology as a constructive economic enterprise of universal intent was replaced by the passive notion that our students and ourselves could only possibly be interested in accumulating an objectified data bank on “other cultures,” largely for the benefit of our own internal discourse. This was the context for anthropology to become fixed in the paradigm of cultural relativism and, by definition, opposed to the universalizing pretensions of economics.

The fundamental issue is whether or not capitalist economy could claim to rest on universal human principles. This means an argument about sameness and difference that has plagued postwar economic anthropology, much as it plagued nationalist discourse in nineteenth- century Germany. The original form taken by this argument was a dispute in the 1890s between Carl Bücher and Eduard Meyer over the [End Page 1018] oikos thesis of Karl Rodbertus published thirty years earlier...


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