October 15, 2008

Europe and the People Without History

Of course the title of Eric Wolf's 1982 masterpiece is meant to be ironic, for the whole book is about the history of those 'people' who at one time or another have been alleged not to have it (history). Specifically, Wolf charts how internal changes within European economies reverberated in the form of the 'mode of production' (defined by Wolf as forces which, by changing how 'labor' relates to 'nature', guide the alignment of social groups) Wolf charts the spread of colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism through a unique kind of economic anthropology which is rooted in structuralist thinking but does not succumb to the more teleologically crude varieties of that theory. In other words, Wolf is concerned with larger processes of economic change--specifically the spread of capitalism and its encounter with kin-ordered modes of production and tributary modes of production--and how they influenced what we would label as culture. Wolf sez that material conditions provide one of the main impetus for cultural change, a sort of stage that constrains the cultural choices open to a given society. He is strongly in debt to a certain interpretation of Marx, which I don't view as a bad thing, and he is trying to integrate Marx's ideas into the field of anthropology, which has frequently been criticized for studying cultures, tribes, and rituals as static entities, frozen in the eternal present due to the ancient unchanging nature of their traditions. Intuitively, we know this not to be true, but often anthropologists write as if each practice they observe has a lineage unaffected by the shock-therapy of 'invasion capitalism' (my term for Europe's conquest and integration of the world).

For me, this is a helpful insight. I have read an abundance of historical studies lately who, no doubt with the best of intentions, read into every action of the subaltern some rebellion against the established system, and tried to show how at every stage 'actors' resisted the 'hegemony' of (insert favored term here for invasive state policies).

Now, I am all for subaltern history, but let us be clear. As me and a friend once discoursed on this topic, she reminded me that the very definition of 'subaltern' involves the submersion of this history. There are some things, because of the nature of European erasure of pre-capitalist modes and traditions, that we will likely never know. Furthermore, I have noticed a tendency to overinvest moments in subaltern history with radical potential with the term 'resistance'. I have a problem with extending this term too far until resistance is virtually indistinguishable from accomodation. And often enough, the unstated goal behind these sorts of attempts is to 'rescue' a group from posterity by showing that they were not mere helpless victims of a given process.

Yet throughout the last 500 years, various social groups had a variety of strategies for dealing with the social and economic facts of their marginalization/ oppression--I would venture to say that most of them involve simply trying to cope and survive. This doesn't mean they were helpless or didn't try to shape the vast changes for their own benefit. Just because you attempt to make the best of a new, unfamiliar situation doesn't change the fundamental fact that most non-European societies were indeed victims of a relentlessly expansive European bourgeios. The changes this class set in motion were much more vast than anyone, including the boureious themselves, could comprehend at the time.

In short, just because people act in autonomous ways in an oppressive system does not mean they are resisting it. Indeed, what has often been neglected lately in the contemporary historical theory I read is a realization of the aforementioned point by Wolf about economic change and its impact on culture. Its no secret that questions of identity, autonomy, and more 'cultural' concerns have supplanted older questions of political economy, class, and labor. Now at this point, maybe you are asking: "so what, Nate? Why does it matter?"

This is why it matters: in going too far to stress the 'autonomy' of actors, historians can potentially neglect important questions about how profoundly capitalism has shaped the way we see the world. It literally has reordered livelihoods, families, cultures, ethnicities, set in motion huge movements of money and people, and basically altered the very structure of human existence on a previously unprecedented global scale. So I think it is necessary to ask ourselves, to what degree has capitalism shaped the alleged 'resistance' of the subaltern; i.e. the very nature and questions put forth by their discourse? Put another way, we need to appreciate the profoundly dislocating influence of capitalism and European expansion before we can look at modes of resistance/accomodation and the character they assume. Peace to Nat P for some insights on this discussion.


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