Thursday, October 13, 2011

Rick Scott, Free Markets and Pollyanthropology

I’m feeling the normative pressure to write a post addressing Florida Governor, Rick Scott’s recent comments about the value of liberal arts college degrees, particularly those in anthropology. The basic gist of his comment is found in the following quote:

If I’m going to take money from a citizen to put into education then I’m going to take that money to create jobs. ...So I want that money to go to degrees where people can get jobs in this state.
Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.

Anthropology blogs, listserves and Twitter feeds are full of responses to to the governor. Anthropology bloggers have quickly responded with detailed and specific statements of anthropology’s many benefits. To my knowledge, the most comprehensive compilation of responses can be found at Neuroanthropology. The response of anthropologists has largely been heartening to see a nimble and reasoned defense of the discipline. My post here won’t add too much that hasn’t already been said. Many of the posts I’ve read detail pragmatic messages to communicate the practical relevance of anthropology.

While I completely understand and support the need to promote the economic benefits of anthropology, I just wish it wasn’t so (I feel like a “gosh-darnit” might be appropriate here). I know I’m being a bit idealistic, pollyannish and naive, but it doesn’t change the way I wish things were.


More and more, nothing is seen as worthwhile unless it directly contributes positively to some economic measure. Neoliberal economics has been extraordinarily successful in performing an ideological sleight of hand that has elevated free market principles, economic growth and the profit-motive to the level of natural laws. Most of my students seem to operate according to the assumption that humans live in a world shaped by economic forces that exist independently of human beings. Using another metaphor, “the economy” is almost seen as a supernatural force, a sometimes benevolent god that provides jobs and ipods, and a sometimes angry god to whom we must offer sacrifices of societal poverty, unemployment, and lack of access to health care so that it doesn’t bring its giant fist down to crush us (Thanks to the Thermals for that last line). So, if anthropology doesn't directly translate into specific jobs, they it is not a valuable activity.

However, as anthropologists are well aware, “the economy” is a human institution like religion, kinship, gender or any other chapter title of an Anthro 101 textbook. Cross-culturally, all economies don’t look like ours. And since it is a human construction, it could be reengineered to better meet basic human needs (update 10/16/11: Neuroanthropology just posted a discussion on David Graeber's work and activism, which is much more sophisticated and intelligent, but still as similar perspective).

As I’ve thought about the situation, I have begun to see connections to the Occupy Wall Street protests occurring over the past month. In the current recession, or recession-like economic state, I’ve been happy to see critical attention directed at business rather than the Tea Party’s misplaced obsession with “big government.” After all, it wasn’t government regulation that created this situation, it was the uncontrolled metastasizing of profit-making abstractions (derivatives, credit default swaps, etc.) that were at the center of the collapse. While I support the movement, I have been disappointed by the lack of a clear and coherent message that could move progressive policy forward. A better slogan or sound bite is needed.

At a very general level, I see one important contribution of anthropology that overlaps with what could be a message of Occupy Wall Street. An anthropological education (and liberal arts at a larger scale), is still valuable even if it doesn’t directly translate into economic gains. I agree with Jason Antrosio who in light of Governor Scott’s comments, recently stated that, "it is at the undergraduate level that the anthropological message is perhaps the most world-changing."

That’s important to remember about a lot of things. Human endeavours can have value that can’t be measured in dollars. I believe this could be a memorable talking point for Occupy Wall Street as well. All public policy does not need to be predicated on the logic that human activity is best shaped by free market principles and directed toward economic growth and profit making. I think that both anthropology and Occupy Wall Street could be important agents to start that discussion.

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