Some Unasked Questions of Human History

by Hugh M. Lewis


One person's pain may well be another's pleasure.


Some have hailed economics as the most scientific of the social sciences, but those who do so fail to distinguish between capitalist or Marxist version of economics, or between formalist versus substantivist economics. Such science typically has too much of an ideological component-- a self-fulfilling prophecy of "see, I told you so" about it to warrant calling it legitimate science. Underpaid Anthropologists, for the most part, have been far to critical and astute to fall into such a trap, and thus economic anthropology has come to make important contributions to an authentic science of economics in terms of conceptions of reciprocity, redistributive and market economics, in terms of political economy, primitive money and economics, and cultural defined systems of ritual prestation and exchange. In this one area, at least, the real vision and virtuosity of anthropology as an authentic human science becomes clear, and the fallacy of the positivistic presumption of ideologically embedded social sciences become plainly evident by contrast.

But economic anthropology itself has been strongly criticized for failing to address critical questions regarding human economic behavior and its relationship to wider cultural patternings. It often presumes away such questions in its formulation of research and theory--leaving the whole area of human economics to be taken for granted by those more interested in other questions.

The materialist emphasis of political economists have not helped the matter very much--in fact the adoption of an attitude of the "World according to Marx" has served as much to obfuscate some of the more important questions as much has it has helped to enlighten anyone.


It is in regard to these questions that I address the following critique of "the anthropology of human economics."

Political economy has by and large stressed the economics over the politics, and has failed to see either how the policies and processes of bureaucratic encapsulation and administrative colonization and cooption have gone hand-in-hand with capitalist development and underdevelopment of the first, second, third, fourth and fifth worlds. Further, its attempt at a dialectical history of the transition of feudalism to capitalism has failed to implicate the role of militarism, the armaments industry, military imperialism, and the threat and power of violence have played in the establishment of political economic spheres of control in the world. Economic incentives stood behind Hitler's rise to power and march upon the world as much as did political motivations. Also, the role of social relations and the structure of social organization in the determination of historical events and political-economic processes has been largely downplayed as of secondary and derivative importance. 

Servitude and Slavery in the middle ages, and growing class inequalities in Europe have played a major role in the determination of economic and political life. Many wars have been class wars, many markets have been common markets. Also, the role played by the major world religions, Christianity in its many forms, Islam, Buddhism, Shintoism, Hinduism, Judaism, in the promotion and extension of economic and political spheres of interest and influence in the world has remained largely an unadressed question, even though a great deal of historical evidence survives that the role played by merchants and missionaries alike were, if not synonymous, then very complementary.

When we speak of the World Capitalist System, are we implying as well a domestic analogy between the relations between core, semi-periphery and periphery and in global stratification between first, second, third and more worlds in the international system? Are we construing development in its proper perspective, in the sense that classical economists would want us to see it, without taking into account in our economic profit formulas the social costs of development, the underdevelopment of human resources and the underdevelopment of natural resources. Furthermore, are we to regard the entire History of this capitalist world system as beginning with some mysterious transition point between a feudal and a capitalist mode of production somewhere in Europe in the 15th century, or might we regard the entire system as a bit more heterogeneous, and speak instead of many different capitalisms that together have a much longer history than just Europe since the Renaissance. Markets, the flow of capital, trade networks, specialization, have been aspects of human civilization since its inception. Has rational, modern, economizing humankind been all that different from its first progenitors? When can we first locate the economic specialist that was once called a "trader" and that today we gloss with the word businessman.

Our tendency to want to localize traditional humankind in one point in space and time, and our tendency to see the primitive humanity as a wandering, homeless vagrant, tends to prejudice our view of our prehistoric forbearers who may have had, from the very earliest times, quite extensive and well developed trade networks. A prehistoric process of "trans-culturation" that integrated vast regions of the earth. In this regard, the role of coastal and riparian adaptations, and the part such adaptation may have played in stimulating human civilization, has not been thoroughly enough addressed.

We are left with a version of the history of capitalism somewhat more complicated and confused than either the good Marxists or the faithful capitalists would have us believe.

To recurperate our anthropological perspective of human economics, we must distinguish in the first place between what has conventionally become known as economic anthropology and an limited application of the anthropology of knowledge that we might call the anthropology of human economics. Sidestepping the debates and theoretical issues of the former field, I wish to focus instead on some of the implications and insights of the latter alternative.

First we need to address a basic paradigm of the anthropology of economics.

All or most human behavior has an economic component or entailment. Human economics can be defined as the dynamic relations between humans and resources and is an important measure of human adaptation to an environment. In this regard we must consider as much the distribution of humans to economic resources as the distribution of such resources to humans. In other words, economics concerns and is the measure of the relationship between humankind and its environment.

Economic exchange is human exchange of resources, and has been a fundamental mechanism of acculturative and trans-culturative integration of human reality. Such exchange can be part of other cultural processes, and can itself be the center for the elaboration of other cultural processes. Exchange can accompany war parties or missionaries, and exchange itself can be elaborately, ritualistically formalized. In other words, all human economic exchange is inextricably cultural and constructed exchange. It is one of the fundamental ways in which humankind realizes and makes its world.

All exchange, whatever its form or function, is always also symbolic exchange. The symbolic aspects of any kind of economic transaction cannot be discounted or ignored in our economic formulas, as such exchanges and things exchanged become the principle symbolic vehicles for the expression and communication of power, prestige, status, and other human emotions, feeling and beliefs.

Because it is both cultural and symbolic, all economic exchange is always culturally defined and contextualized. Different cultural orientations will define economic values, resources and their significances different. French fur traders may have given the Mandan beads, trinkets and baubles in exchange for the favors of their daughters, but the Mandan were secretly gaining from the Fur Traders the spiritual source of their power. Which point of view is the most rational and which makes the most sense?

In this respect we can refer to cultural economy as part and parcel of the life ways and traditional orientations of different culture groupings, and to "trans-cultural economy" as the dynamic regional integration of different cultural economies--and we have always probably always had such a perspective of a dual economy in which we distinguish between local interests and involvements and globally oriented involvements. Can we necessarily say today that the global marketplace is necessarily more predominant over the local economic context than it was 10,000 years ago? Might we not neglect to see that in the absolute impoverishment of three fifths of the worlds population, that the poor have economically adopted to their local environments in ways fundamentally oblivious to the gaze of the Western Economist bent upon achievement motivation, profit incentive and resource acquisition.

The conception of cultural and trans-cultural economy invites consideration of the interrelationship between the economic component of human culture and its many other facets. Economic motives become but one, rather efficacious element in the complex calculus of socio-cultural value and performance. At few points in human history can we clearly separate what is pure economic behavior from other forms of interest and involvement. This brings up the point of the rise of increasing role differentiation and specialization, or sub-cultural compartmentalization in more complex societies, such that we can legitimately speak today of full-time professionals involved in banking, finance, insurance, business management, sales, marketing, advertisement, stock-market brokerage, economic analysis, education, etc, where several thousand years ago a hunter may have also been a part-time trader, shaman, raconteur, teacher, warrior, politician. But even today, given the need for cross-cutting integration of life in a complex, overspecialized world, can we still distinguish all that clearly between the personal economic activities of the individual caught up in webs and economies of exchange and the professional role of economic specialists, and can we clearly distinguish between pure achievement motivation versus power or social or other forms of motivation.

Human economics has always been and always will remain a vital component of human cultural integration of reality. Our economic involvement is as basic to our behavior and being as is our language and other forms of symbolic communication. In fact, as much as economics involves the human exchange of resources, it can be deemed to be an intrinsic component of the transmission of culture itself--intrinsic both to the processes of culturation and trans-culturation. Because all transmission is a form of economic exchange of cultural value, we can more clearly see how such transmission is traditionally constrained and negotiated. The openness of such transmission sets up the possibility for both reciprocal evenness and unevenness of exchange, dependency and dominance which can over the long run result in marked asymmetry in the the distribution of humans to resources and resources to humans.

Humankind is in part defined by its economic behavior. Conceptions of rationality, of finding or fixing proportion, and of justice itself, are rooted in the reciprocities of human relation intrinsic in economic exchange. It makes sense to refer to humankind as Homo economicus as this is the kind of symbolic animal we are. Economy is an intrinsic condition of human reality. Human beings are not social insects. We do not form ant colonies divided between queens and workers and soldiers. We do not instinctually offer up our life for the sake of another or of the whole without some measure or weighing of our positions, of the relative merit or value to be gained or lost. We calculate and negotiate our transactions with reality to the best of our interests and abilities.




It is important in the anthropology of economics to distinguish the historical rise of specific corporate institutional forms and practices which have an economic component and character, and to distinguish these institutional phenomena from the economic behavior of people who may compose these institutions. Slavery in the Southern United States in the pre-Civil War era was a unique institutional form that should be distinguished from the form of slavery practiced among North American Indians prior to European Contact, or during the Roman Empire, or in Southwestern Europe during the middle ages. The Dutch East India company was a specific institutional arrangement which is to be distinguished from the British East India Company. The kind of banking institutions that chartered and financed early explorers or colonists are different from the credit institutions which promoted economic development of the hinterlands of colonial Southeast Asia, or banking and finance institutions of today which promote research and development. Government, whether local, state or national, must be seen as a specific form of institutional arrangement made possible by taxation and a redistributive economy. The Catholic Church, in promoting monogamy and inhibiting the inheritance of land in Medieval Europe, became one of the richest and most powerful institutions in Europe, replete with its own armies, bureaucratic machineries and ideology. Kinship organization and Chieftaincies and early city-states and state empires are all organized around the principle of the exchange and distribution of resources among an institutionally defined community.

We must clearly recognize the historical facticity of human economic institutions, and the economic role of corporate institutional organization in general, in the control, distribution and utilization of resources. Such institution can be seen to be a basic social innovation of cultural groupings, the invention of social organization, which can become culturally sanctioned and integrated in many different ways.

From this standpoint, panhuman reality is replete with instances and functions of institutionalization. We can see that institutions once incorporated, take on a superorganic form and life of their own which is larger than life of any individual. We become actors in roles cast in a larger frame of significance. In this regard, sex stratification, the role and importance of kinship in providing screens of security and resources, can be seen to carry forms of institutional significance that cannot be adequately explained in a phenomenological or existential way, and yet which are inextricably enmeshed in the experiences of its participants.

From the standpoint of the anthropology of knowledge, institutionalization involves the objectification, reification and symbolic legitimization of humanly constructed practices, in relation to the world, on the basis of the human relation to resources. Institutionalization in this sense is fundamentally cultural economic in foundation. Because human beings have an investment in the stability of the status quo, and are enmeshed in its web of interdependencies, the institutional structuration of human society is inherently conservative and resistant to change. Human habits, however acquired, are difficult to change.

The institution of black slavery in the American South no longer exists today, and for most people, the whole idea of such slavery seems abominable and aversive to our tastes, even though today we continue to tolerate and legitimate other forms of human institution which promote a comparable amount of human misery and inequality as did black slavery. The historical facticity of human institutionalization of economic behavior does not preclude the facticity and historicity of our own institutions. Because a great deal is usually invested in an certain kind of institutional arrangement, there is usually some cost to their transformation. Such institutionally defined interests and investments are usually construed and evaluated in terms of their cultural or trans-cultural economics. It took a bloody long war to bring black slavery to an end in the world. What will it take to bring relative economic equality to the World System? 



Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/07/05