Inspiring Alter-politics. Anthropology and Critical Political Thinking

Panel presentation, Panel Inspiring alter-politics: anthropology and critical political thinking (Panel W121), Conference of the European Association of Social Anthropologists, EASA2012: Uncertainty and disquiet Nanterre University, France, 10/07/2012   13/07/2012


Riccardo Ciavolella (CNRS/EHESS) 
, Steano Boni (University of Modena)

Chair and discussant

Keith Hart, Emeritus, Goldsmith College

Short Abstract

This panel inquires into how political anthropology inspires radical political thinking. Since the founding influences on Marxism and Anarchism, what is the nexus between anthropological studies on the “politics of others” with contemporary political theories and practices?

Long Abstract

This panel inquires into how political anthropology can inspire radical political thinking. This issue dates back to the influence of “primitive societies” on Marxism and anarchism. This dialogue continued with the use of “primitive economies” to criticise capitalism and with “acephalous societies” inspiring critiques of the modern State, particularly with the Clastres-Deleuze’s idea of a “desiring” refusal of encoding forces of modernity. Historical experiences studied by anthropologists have become “heterotopias”, epitomizing examples of possible alternatives.

Nowadays, this inspiring influence of anthropology is renewed in imagining alternatives to neoliberal globalization. Several of the issues raised by studies concerning forms of subaltern resistance, peasants’ mobilisations, indigenous movements and agencies of discriminated subjectivities are also evoked, in theory and practice, by some of the different tendencies within contemporary social movements (neo-primordialism, ecology, post-development and degrowth, post-anarchism and multitude perspectives).

We call for papers on this particular nexus between anthropological studies and critical political thinking both in the past and in the present. We strongly encourage contributions with ethnographic examples, as well as more theoretical papers. But we would like contributors to address the critical points raised by this nexus:

1. How to make “other” political experiences meaningful for “our” time and space, or how to avoid the “illusion of an exotic answer to a historical question” (Augé)

2. How to imagine the political articulation and efficacy of localised and dispersed subjectivities

3. How to think the issue of representation in the organisation of political action (post-anarchist vs. gramscian perspectives).

Participants’ Papers


Today, we are going to discuss some intriguing papers, which engage anthropology in a larger discussion about politics and critical political thinking. First of all, we would like to thank the speakers for being here and especially Professor emeritus Keith Hart, from Goldsmiths College, to accept to act as chair and to share the role of discussant with Stefano and myself. Before skipping to the first paper, please let me introduce the rational of the panel;  and explain why and how Stefano and myself we had the idea of talking about anthropology and critical political thinking and the role of this link in inspiring what we call “alter-politics”. I also hope to rapidly touch on the different papers and present them according to the general theme of the panel and our call.

As you all know, contemporary anthropology is one of the social sciences active in criticizing neoliberal globalisation and grasping political and social movements and struggles for emancipation in the global civil society. To do that, anthropologists are often engaging their ethnographic researches and their theoretical considerations into a broader discussion with critical political thinking. By this, we mean both the social theories elaborated by scholars in the field of political philosophy, political economy, social history, postcolonial studies and so on, and the concrete practices and ideas of engaged activists and social movements. We could even talk of a circularity of inspirations between anthropology, social theory and social movements. An example of this circularity will be given by Ulrich Ufer’s paper today. He is going to present an ethnography of urban social movements in Hambourg whose activists directly take inspirations from the ideas of social theorist Henri Lefebvre. As a little digression, we are happy to remind Lefebvre here today as he was a professor and a leading figure during the 1968 cultural revolution in Nanterre University.

The contribution of anthropology in the general discussion of critical political thinking is topical. On a macro level, anthropology participates in the critique of capitalist political economy and modern political philosophy. This is an issue that has always gone with the discipline, since even the founding fathers of Marxism or anarchism found inspiration in the forming anthropological imagination on “primitive societies”. For economic anthropology, the critical potential of the discipline takes a new breath today with the current transformation and crisis of our societies and of financial capitalism, as Professor Keith Hart has extensively shown in his work. As the Comaroffs put it, present-day “Capitalism” seems to be a typical anthropological object as it presents itself as an occult force, with the commodification of lives and the growing dependence of global subjects to anonymous and distant powers. At the same time, anthropology has always shown the embeddedness of economy into social relations, an idea which proves to be still quite useful for contrasting the contemporary neoliberal ideology.

From a more ethnographic point of view, neoliberal governmentality and global capitalism demand to anthropologists to investigate into their consequences and into the ways they shape contemporary subjectivities. An example was to be given by Nurhaizatul Jamil, but we recently knew that she could not come to Paris. She wanted to show how systems and transnational flows of neoliberal capital influence and imbricate with processes of ethical subject formation, relying on the case of gendered micro-practices in Islamic religious institutions in Singapore.

As regards political anthropology, radical scholars are eager to bring to light people’s reactions and agency, by presenting in-depth ethnographic analysis of different forms of political struggle and activism, their coping strategies, the emergence of social movements, the disruption of subaltern groups into the political arena, and the confrontation of local and marginalised communities or silent subjectivities with global forces or State discrimination.

On these issues, anthropology has shown to be well-equipped to meet the needs for engaged social theorists and activists who have been, in the last two decades, constantly trying to imagine other possibilities and alternatives to capitalism by saying – just to quote the World Social Forum slogan – another world is possible. So, here we come to the idea of “alter-politics”.

For a long time, many social theorists have considered ethnographic and anthropological literature as a rich source of examples about “primitive economies” or “acephalous societies” which served to inspiring critiques of and alternatives to capitalism and the modern State. It is then a pity for us that a panel contributor, Nikolaos Gkimpiritis, from the University of Leuven, could not come to give his intriguing paper on that. It was about the French-Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis and the way he drew on the anthropological imagination for his critique of the “pseudo-rationality of capitalism” and his theory of autonomy as a political project.

A topical moment of this dialogue between anthropology and critical political thinking is probably Clastres’ work on nomadic indigenous “societies against the state”. This had a dramatic influence on Deleuze and Guattari and all the post-structuralist analysis of power, with the idea of an immanent and “desiring” refusal of modernity, power and social hierarchy. Historical experiences studied by anthropologists have become “heterotopias”, epitomizing examples of possible alternatives.

At the time of Clastres, other anthropologists deeply criticized his work and its use in political philosophy as a form of exoticizing the Other and of localizing freedom and emancipation outside modernity. Marc Augé, for example, called this a “pretext-ethnology” or the “illusion of an exotic answer to a historical question”. This exoticism is still present in ideologies and theories of social movements activists. The paper by Elena Apostoli, for example, will show how Italian no global activists reproduce an exotic imaginary of peasant and indigenous political organisation while going to make “activist tourism” in Chiapas, Mexico, whose 1994 insurgency has largely inspired the no global movement for the following decade.

Nevertheless, something has changed since Clastres’ writings of the 1970s. With globalisation, the “topographies of power”, as James Ferguson calls them, are different. Rather than remaining an exotic fantasy, the alternative experience of other peoples become more and more significant in an integrated planet as social movements and local communities in different parts of the world increasingly perceive themselves as living the same situation, under the same conditions, logics and dynamics imposed by capitalist globalisation: as anyone here knows, in 2011 and 2012, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Indignants Movement, the Arab spring and other social struggles in the world were explicitly interconnected and reciprocally influenced.

Liliana Suarez and her colleagues are presenting a paper today that goes even further: by relying on the case of the Spanish Revolution, they assume that “an anthropological perspective could contribute to getting over a false dichotomy between the politics of the “other” and “our” politics”. Interestingly, Marc Morell from Barcelona, who unfortunately can not participate to the panel, had proposed a paper that was called “the “other” at home”, also about Spain, relying on the recent Indignants movement.

I think this shows a transformation in the topographies of power of critical political theories. Political alternatives are no more located in cultural difference or in geographically distant realities. The Clastres’ opposition between “here and there” is turned over in an “up and down” opposition. The site for political alternatives is located – here, anywhere and now – in the capacity of social groups to imagine other political possibilities, as rooted in community based solidarity and in the capacity of social subjectivities to change society. If Clastres is still relevant it is because these possibilities are imagined without recurring to the traditional institutional forms of political organisation and representation of modern political philosophy.

Since its first developments, political anthropology has presented itself not only as the study of the political organisation of other peoples, but also as the analysis of politics as embedded in society. Today, anthropologists are able to show the political productivity of local communities, grassroots organisations, subaltern groups in defying power and proposing different forms of politics, based on egalitarian models, consensus, assemblies, direct participation, direct action and self-representation. The majority of papers given today directly address these issues. Stefano’s paper will be very eloquent about that, as it talks about social movements’ egalitarian engagement and their diffuse power in assemblies. Daria Zelenova and Olga Aksyutina’s paper will be about the historical evolution from apartheid to contemporary struggles of grassroots organisations for self-empowerment in South African townships. And Alexander Koensler will show how the Arab spring movement has penetrated in Israel with original forms of popular mobilisation and struggles, inspired by anarchist direct action or new age festivals, trespassing frontiers between the Arab-Bedouin communities of the Negev desert and Jewish-Israeli social movements.

On these issues, the resonance between anthropology, social movements and critical political thinking is more evident than ever. Actually, social theorists influencing contemporary struggles of the global civil society, as for example Toni Negri and the Multitudes studies, stress the importance of thinking of politics of emancipation as embedded in social productivity, by taking inspiration from Spinoza’s notion of immanence against the transcendence of political representation and of modern institutions. The task of anthropology is again topical, especially if we think of the role of an anthropologist such as David Graeber, whom professor Hart knows very well as a colleague in Goldsmiths College. As you know, stemming from his ethnographic experience among peasants in Madagascar in the 1990s, Graeber has become an anthropologist engaged in the Seattle movements and now as a leading figure in the Occupy Wall Street. As Marshall Sahlins has written about him, Graeber succeeds in “making the possibilities of the other peoples’ world the basis for understanding our own”. He amazingly manages to make coherent theoretical and practical agenda of engaged anthropology with: his anthropological critique of debt in history and cultures to defy the moral economy of present-day financial capitalism; his claims for an anarchist anthropology; his professed participation into the Multitudes group’s theorisation; and his activism in the 99% movement around the world.

As Graeber’s work shows, the insistence of critical political thinking today on immanent forms of politics and ways for emancipation probably characterizes our times, where marxism is certainly useful as never before for a critique of neoliberal political economy, but it is dismissed as a political strategy. The paper by Petra Rethmann directly tackles this issue by examining the ideas of civil society movements against capitalism of the post-socialist Russian left, “consisting of a multitude of anarchist, anti-fascist, radical grassroots, Trotzky-ite, innovative Marxist, and social action groups”. Nevertheless, Dan Hirslund’s paper intends to show that a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist vocabulary is still relevant to actual practices of alter-politics in those settings, as the Nepali one he describes, where the socialist revolutionary movements have not been demised as they have in Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Coming to my conclusion and apologising if I was too long, I would like to share a strictly personal consideration. In thinking together with Stefano at this panel, I thought we could receive papers evoking different types of critical political theories than those focusing on immanent forms of mobilisation and political action. In our call, we indicated for example the gramscian perspective. While sharing the project of understanding and support subaltern cultures for emancipation, this perspective would anyway stress the importance of political representation and strategies for taking power or changing society. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the majority of the contributions take the part of immanent forms of organisations which are socially embedded, refusing political representation or even the idea of occupying institutional power in order to change society. Perhaps, this panel echoes the air du temps, the spirit of our times. That is why I am impatient to hear your papers.

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