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Capital and community

Capital and community

Ryan Schram


Mills 169 (A26)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Available at http://anthro.rschram.org/1002/4.2

A shopping trip

What makes these two things different?

Marxist analysis is about finding contradictions

  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
  • Never before can we feed so many, and never before have so many people been without food.
  • Everyone in Australia can afford “fast fashion,” but people in Bangladesh work themselves to death for minimal wages.
  • Social systems and the global systems are defined by their contradictions. They contain an ongoing struggle of life and death.


The real value of a commodity comes from the labor that goes into it.

Commodities are “congealed labor” (Marx 1859, Part I).

The fetishism of commodities

Barbara Kruger, Untitled ("I shop therefore I am"),

“A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.”

“[A table is just wood made useful by work.] But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent.” (Marx 1867, vol 1, sect. 4)

Just for men


From our kitchen to yours

Fresh food people

Report from The Sepik River

A trade store in Tambunum village, East Sepik Province, PNG, 1988

Goods on sale in a trade store in Tambunum village, East Sepik Province, PNG, 1988

Mauss and Marx?

Mauss does not equal Marx. Mauss doesn't talk about commodities. Marx does not talk about gifts.

But… There seems to be a parallel between them.

Mauss and Marx

Mauss is interested in demonstrating that solidarity to the group and interdependence of group members is necessary to many kinds of exchanges.

Marx is interested in explaining why capitalist society is tearing itself apart.

Gifts: Exchange of un-alienated labor

Commodities: Exchange that denies the possibility of reciprocity

Beware the eyes of Marx

Marx is a critical thinker. He does not accept that capitalism is the natural result of society reaching toward progress.

What the bourgeoisie call Modernity, he says causes suffering and poverty.

At the same time, Marx is committed to finding the logic of history. He also believes that societies travel the same road, not from tradition to modernity, but from primitive societies, to capitalism, and then to socialism.

Dunn's story complicates and problematizes Marx's own theory of change.

Marx emphasizes how the logic of capital leads to the transformation of social relations.

Dunn emphasizes that for capital to prosper in a global era, a different kind of social relationship, based on a kind of reciprocity, must be present to bring people into the capitalist system.

Capital is hostile to social forces that integrate people in a community, but these two sides also need each other.

Next week we will explore this paradox further.

When a gift system meets a commodity system

When a society organized on the basis of gifts encounters a globalizing capitalist market, many different outcomes are possible.

  • Tension and conflict
  • Efflorescence
  • Transformation

We started with understanding these as separate responses to the confrontation of two different types of system. Next week we will start to think about how these kinds of responses occur in every society.


Kruger, Barbara. 1987. Untitled (“I Shop Therefore I Am”). Photographic silkscreen on vinyl. http://www.art21.org/files/imagecache/full_image/images/kruger-photo-002.jpg.

Marx, Karl. 1859. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/.

Marx, Karl. 1867. Capital, Vol. 1. Moscow: Progress Publishers. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/.

A guide to the unit

1002/4.2.txt · Last modified: 2016/08/16 22:51 by ryans