For those with an interest in moving the global economy in more humane directions, the story of the hour is the Occupy Wall Street movement that has now spread worldwide. Its eruption has spurred a discussion on Anthro-L from which I take the following exchange.


On Thu, Oct 20, 2011 at 6:40 AM, LINDA SCHINKEL <> wrote:

 I believe that many of us these days don't believe that evolving Capitalism forward, in a more humane direction, means we have to give up the good life.  We certainly don't have to all ware the same colored cloths or have stagnant, planned central economies--that would be boring.  We can have more fun and variety--without having to worry if our small business fails or our last paycheck stops we might die for lack of basic medical care. Would you place doing away with multinational corporations as we now know them and financial institutions too big to fail in the reform or revolutionary category? I am interested in your opinion, I really don't care what we call the process, but I do believe these business forms need to go. 

Short answer. Reform.  The question is what changes to make and what ideas should guide those changes.

When I think about these things, I share the premise presented by George Soros in The Open Society: Capitalism is the most successful wealth-generating mechanism in human history. That said, it is driven entirely by private interest. There is nothing in the market per se that ensures social justice. On the contrary, we know that unregulated markets inevitably lead to Pareto distributions of wealth in which we find precisely what we have in the USA today: more and more going to the few at the top of the curve, and a shrinking share to the many at the bottom. 

How should we think of social justice. Here I turn to Amartya Sen, who in  Inequality Reexamined observes that all economic arrangements present themselves as fair. The critical difference is the units in which "fair" is calculated, units of capital (US dollars or stock shares, for example) or human lives. If units of capital is the measure, it is fair that larger stockholders have a bigger say in how organizations are run than those with fewer shares. It is fair that the wealthy control the government.  They literally own more of it. If human lives is the measure, these arrangements are not fair. 

Combining the two arguments creates a foundation for a number of policy recommendations.


  1.  Eliminate corporate personhood. Treating corporations as persons under the law entitles them to the same rights and protections as human beings. These rights and protections can then be invoked to, for example, allow corporate donations to political campaigns. If corporations were not persons, laws restricting their political activity could and should be passed. 
  2. Inheritance taxes should be radically progressive, above 90% above, say, ten million dollars.  Dismantling great fortunes at the death of those who create them is essential for ensuring a fair approximation to equal opportunity. Taxes captured in this way might, for example, go to a fund that provides every child with an investment whose capital will become available to them at age 21. 
  3. Simultaneously, secondary education should be reformed to ensure that no one graduates from high school without a grasp of basic money management, basic accounting principles, the power of compound interest, and how to read basic financial reports (balance sheets, income and cash flow statements).
  4. Draw a line between public and private goods and pursue an ongoing and vigorous debate about what belongs in which category. A good place to start is Robert Kuttner Everything for Sale. We need to think about why that is. Market fundamentalism, which eliminates the distinction between public and private goods,  assumes that consumers are able to make rational decisions. But if you are sick and in deed of urgent care or a child with no control over where she goes to school, there is no rational choice involved. The point is that, while there are goods that plainly belong in one category or the other, health care and education in the public sector, soft drinks and smart phones in the private sector, there is plenty of room for debate. What about cosmetic surgery, for example? 

While supporting these sorts of reforms, I would not, for example, argue for the dismantling of transnational corporations. I would argue, instead, for international regulation enforced by effective global bodies. Why? I see no great advantage in returning to a world of isolated sovereign economies which, in the larger scheme of things, turn out to be either immense gated communities for the relatively wealthy or indefensible slums for those excluded from them. 

I am genuinely concerned about the current state of higher education in relation to economics. But several years ago, I read Robert Reich's Work of Nations which predicts what we are seeing today, a world in which repetitive manual labor is cheap and easily off-shored, personal service wages are depressed by loss of high-paying jobs in the repetitive manual labor sector, and only a few symbolic analysts (knowledge workers) do well in what are becoming increasingly cut-throat winner-take-all markets. More recently, just a few weeks ago, I read an issue of China Daily devoted to the story that advanced and developing economies throughout Asia (examples included Japan, Korea, Vietnam, India, as well as China) face the same problem, a surplus of college graduates for whom there are not enough jobs. Given the similarity to what I see in the States, my nightmare is that the myth of a college education as a pathway to the middle class and upward is increasingly hard to sustain. What its collapse will mean for young people today and generations to come is something I worry about a lot. 

The only suggestion I have is that this is their generation's Vietnam. Being put in harm's way by the draft is no longer a threat that drives thousands of people into the streets and bends the arc of history. But millions, young and old, now face the brutal threat of continuing unemployment. OWS is the leading edge of the response, as groups like SDS (of which I was once briefly a member) were to Vietnam. And this, I suggest, is true, not only in the USA, but in all of the advanced and developing economies. It is no accident that "Occupy X" has spread worldwide. This gives me another reason for rejecting the "take care of our own first" view so popular with the Tea Party. If 2011 is to be this generation's 1968, it, too, will have to be global. And it looks like it already is.

Those are my thoughts. Thanks for helping me get them together.

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Comment by Alice C. Linsley on October 29, 2011 at 10:22pm



I've posted a few thoughts on this. One is here:


Also, a friend of mine who lives in NYC posted this reflection:


Best wishes


Comment by ryan anderson on October 23, 2011 at 8:10pm
"Direct action does have a symbolic impact and it is up to any of us who don't like living in a world as unequal as ours to contribute what we can."

I agree.
Comment by Keith Hart on October 23, 2011 at 6:22pm

My mentor, the old West Indian revolutionary and writer, CLR James, used to talk in the 60s and 70s about the two remaining world revolutions, the second Russian revolution and the second American revolution. My response to events in Tunisia and Egypt in January-February was that this could be the beginning of the second American revolution. After all the Middle East is where the US empire has most at stake and the Soviet Union was brought down initially by Czechs and Germans, not Russians. I believe that the global impact of OWS comes from the realization elsewhere that the empire is weak at home too. This gives a huge boost to protest everywhere and, unusually, provides a direct connection between politics at the core and at the periphery. Tahrir Square comes to Wall Street and all that.

I watched the confrontation in Tianenmen Square on TV with James just before his death. We both knew we were watching something that changed the world. Remember too that Gorbachev was there for an international meeting, which was one reason the students staged their protest then. James said that the Chinese would put down the insurrection very effectively, but the Russians could not hold onto Eastern Europe after this. The Berlin wall fell six months later. That was 1989. Imagine what has happened to the world communications since then. The possibilities for amplifying and sharing personal voices and collective gatherings are now enormous.

That is why I opened up a place to pool links from around the world in the OAC Forum. Anthropology emerged as a modern practice in the 18th century as a tool of the democratic revolution against the Old Regime. It lost its way for a couple of centuries. But perhaps now it will recover that revolutionary spirit. Certainly anthropologists have been in the forefront of this current movement.

David Graeber and I are great friends and colleagues. I used to like his economic anthropology, but could not share his politics. As these events build, I have moved closer to his politics as well. Direct action does have a symbolic impact and it is up to any of us who don't like living in a world as unequal as ours to contribute what we can.

Comment by ryan anderson on October 23, 2011 at 3:33pm

Alice wrote:

"Reform is a good thing in the hands of good people. By "good" I don't mean political correctness or one's ideological preference."

I'm interested to know what you DO mean by "good" Alice. I agree with you that reform can be positive, but that it can't just be about trading one side's ideology for another. So what's your take on OWS?
Comment by ryan anderson on October 23, 2011 at 3:19pm

Thanks for this post, John.  I have been following this all week but not writing too much about it--in fact I have been debating with many folks on non-anthro sites about OWS, which has been interesting.  One thing that I have been paying attention to is how the different political factions have been reacting to OWS, and how media pundits have been taking their sides.  So it's the usual big pundit war--and then those debates get spun all over the place online.  There are some folks calling for common cause between OWS and groups like the Tea Party--Lawrence Lessig is one of them:

I guess what I have been paying to most is how the right is reacting here in the US...for the most part there's a lot of suspicion and outright opposition to OWS, and a lot of dismissive rhetoric. It would seem to me that the libertarian elements of the conservative side would see some common concerns, but that really hasn't happened for the most part. Lots of resistance and partisanship, as usual. And then there are the usual antics by the more polemic pundits. One of the main themes being pushed out there is that OWS is just a bunch of anti-American radicals, etc.

In some ways, it's almost like the two different sides are watching two very different channels on this. Maybe people just see what they want to see.
Comment by Alice C. Linsley on October 23, 2011 at 2:52pm

I'm just not with you on this.  And I'm definitely not with George Soros.


Reform is a good thing in the hands of good people. By "good" I don't mean political correctness or one's ideological preference. 


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