Why We Protest

The Occupy Wall Street protests have now gone worldwide. That includes an ongoing demonstration here in Tampa. My family moved here a year and a half ago, and we have embraced this city – and been embraced in turn. This morning my wife spoke with a neighbor, talking about our community association, “This is our community; we get to set the rules we want to live by.”

I sent her many silent kisses as I walked out the door to go teach my class in Biological Anthropology. In a well-used classroom, my students and I discussed how something like these protests is even possible. Leaf cutter ants aren’t out there protesting against “The Man,” I said. That got a minor laugh. But really, I was thinking – this is a topic we have to discuss as students and teachers in a university setting. This is one of the major issues of our time.

Someone did say “Finally!” when I brought it up. Unfortunately I think I might have stupefied them by then making the class about how to do evolutionary analysis, about how to figure out how humans can even do such a thing. It was an exercise in critical thinking informed by science – by the science of evolution and comparative biology and the proposing and testing of ideas.

Still, I wanted to stop and discuss our own local Occupy Tampa protest, in the same way we discussed science, religion, and creationism early in the semester – open and respectful, that wonderful dynamic a class can truly bring. But I confined myself to an object lesson.

In the class we’re moving from studying primates to the earliest hominin fossils, and I wanted to highlight everything that has changed for us over the past six million years. Bipedalism, which I consider one of the most exquisite demonstrations of how evolution has shaped us, does not quite hold the same student interest. But, shh, don’t tell my students that. They might skip class on Thursday….

That’s a long winded introduction to what I really want to write about now. Here is the Tampa video, where the participants clearly articulate why they are there, and that they come from many walks of life, not simply the “alternative” motif that has grabbed hold in many media sources. It was made by Margaret Allsopp and Kiersten Downs.

Greg recently wrote an in-depth post on David Graeber, an anthropologist whose activism and ideas have helped foster the Occupy Wall Street movement. One of my favorite points that Greg repeatedly emphasized is the power of anthropology to drive our imaginations through knowing what is possible. Anthropologists study diversity, and that reveals many other forms to live and to act than the one we are trapped in right now. As Greg wrote:

When apologists for our own current situation offer excuses or tell us that we shouldn’t seek greater justice, equity or governance, because ‘It can’t be any other way but the way it is,’ anthropological research can show that this is not the case. Perhaps few other areas of contemporary life beg for this reality-based imagination more than economic activity.


Yet there is another side of me that is deeply pragmatic. The quick quip would be to say, Oh I have four kids. But I was the youngest of seven. My father died when I was four and my mother, as powerful and formative as her love was, was also an alcoholic during my teenage years. I grew up a pragmatist, forged in the necessity to keep moving forward. To keep doing things.

My mother was one of the most imaginative people I have ever known. It wasn’t enough. It may be a fatal intellectual flaw, but I do want more.

Thankfully we have two good places to find some ideas.

One I admire immensely. Jason Antrosio with his Living Anthropologically blog has embraced the core idea that “The moral optimism of anthropology can change the world.”

Indeed, if anything has challenged my thinking in the controversy over Rick Scott versus Anthropology, it has been a cartoon showing Rick Scott being studied by two anthropologists. Penned by Jeff Parker (complete with cartoon and background idea), the two anthropologists gaze on Florida Gov. Rick and his pronouncements about cutting liberal arts funding, anthropology in particular, and say:

He’s kidding, right? Thousands of us make a career out of studying such primitive thinking.

That notion of primitive is exactly what I have taught against in my Biological Anthropology class, where I confine the notion of “primitive” to traits existing in some prior evolutionary state, not to our judgments about different types of people. It is also a point I’ve made repeatedly in teaching a general Introduction to Anthropology course for many years. Anthropologists don’t hew to the American notion of primitive, where civilization (particularly “us”) are advanced and everything else is primitive.

But Antrosio’s work highlights a third notion, as does Parker’s cartoon. It is also a notion that Margaret Mead embraced, that anthropology can be a light towards the future, against our own misguided, indeed unscientific and uninformed notions. Even more, it can help us inform our strivings towards progress, towards a better place for ourselves and those we love.

As we talked about in class today, one derived thing that distinguishes us from ants, and even from chimpanzees, is a synthesis of emotion and value and social convention, coupled with our ability to reflect on the future and to exercise agency towards something better for ourselves. That is our anthropological nature, revealing the possibility of many anthropologies – or ways of being – for ourselves.

I am sounding like Greg again – imagination, imagination, imagination. But that is not what I challenged Jason Antrosio on his most recent post, Anthropology and Occupy Wall Street. I wanted clear statements on what to do, and how anthropologists actually view the economy. I wanted to know what to do about the terrible effects of our extreme inequality. And here is what Jason wrote:

When it comes to getting to “a system that doesn’t have quite so pernicious effects at times,” the answers can be very simple:

-Raise the tax rate for people earning over X amount (1million?) in annual income.
-Close capital gains loopholes so all income gets taxed.
-Limit or tax rapid-fire stock trading.

Listening to the Graeber interview is very instructive, as Graeber speaks of going back to the tax rates under Eisenhower, when some income sources had tax rates as high as 90%. As Graeber points out, that was still capitalism, and the economy was humming.

That resonated with another piece I read today, Tony Greenham’s piece in The Guardian, The global economy is broken. Here’s how to fix it.

The system is broken, here’s how we fix it. Don’t tinker with ringfencing banks. Break them up as the first step to creating an effective local lending infrastructure. This is not pie in the sky. This is what the German banking system looks like. Its local public savings banks have supported small businesses and ordinary people throughout the recession, where big banks run away at the first sign of trouble…

Don’t create new money just to feather-bed bankers and enrich the wealthy. Create new money to create new jobs and new wealth. Use quantitative easing directly to fund the renewal of our infrastructure, to build the new green economy, eradicate fuel poverty, reskill the unemployed and tackle the climate crisis at the same time.

Don’t let people become the slaves of distant creditors. It’s time to talk of a massive relief of debt.

No, Tony, it is time to DO something about making sure things work equally, that the massive relief of debt for banks also gets done for people who have “Small Is Beautiful” debt (i.e., the rest of us at this point). That is what I so like about the Tampa video – the clear articulation of why this protest matters, and where it comes from.

But is that enough? Is the articulation, the values, enough to account for those men and women spending their precious time and energy in a park in Tampa?

The Chronicle of Higher Education published this week Intellectual Roots of Wall St. Protest Lie in Academe.

Occupy Wall Street’s most defining characteristics—its decentralized nature and its intensive process of participatory, consensus-based decision-making—are rooted in other precincts of academe and activism: in the scholarship of anarchism and, specifically, in an ethnography of central Madagascar.

David Graeber, the same person highlighted here, is made into the intellectual hero of this movement. But David Graeber responded on Twitter: “The Chronicle one was bizarre. I was at best an intergenerational conduit like many others.”

I do agree with Graeber – we channel many ideas from past to present as scholars. That is why scholarship and universities matters; otherwise, we lose that heritage, and we resort to our own most primitive and less optimistic tendencies.

But I think Graeber didn’t state the case well enough. He is also the interlocutor for Madagascar and the many other ways people have actually handled their economies. Twitter didn’t quite let that get into 140 characters this time. But we can definitely can imagine other ways – and that is Greg’s reality-based imagination.

But to be honest, the people in downtown Tampa never once mentioned Madagascar. They simply wanted fairness.

So, Chronicle, I respectfully disagree. The intellectual roots of this crisis are much, much deeper. They reside in our very nature – our evolved nature – as humans.

Take those leaf cutter ants I first showed in class today. They do their jobs, slotted into specific economic roles by genetic and epigenetic mechanisms. They might have their superhighway of food production. But in this case, they are all on it, and no one is off to one side, saying, why do the warriors and the queen get such good food?

So, how do we get from there to here? To this diverse group of people protesting in a park in the center of Tampa? There are many ways to analyze such a phenomenon. What I hoped the students got from our discussion today are two basic points.

(1) Our sense of fairness, and the human emphasis on cooperation and reciprocity, is something with deep evolutionary roots, to chimpanzees and capuchins and beyond, and yet uniquely developed in humans so that we can do it in generalized ways. And when the system screws what we know should be general, then we have betrayed our own nature.

(2) Like many other primates, we have a sense of hierarchy, and often live in hierarchical societies. Innately we know how to accept and negotiate such things – being a successful primate absolutely requires that. But we do not accept the need to climb, climb, climb as the main marker of success, the only way to be valuable and to have a successful life. We can only be pushed so far on the hierarchy, on what can be taken from us and given to others for no fair reason. Chimpanzee society does not function on 1% versus the other 99%. Life does not function that way. It’s one memo that I hope gets passed up. Way up.

The intellectual roots of this protest lie in our very evolution, and in Madagascar, and in the feminist movement, and in many other optimistic endeavors. And that is the message of anthropology. There is no one cause. What matters is how we come together as people.

Thanks for reading.

-//-

A few notes.

First, a shout-out to Stephanie Zvan and Almost Diamonds, for what I consider one of the best compliments I have ever received in these years of blogging: “Daniel Lende’s excellent regular coverage of anthropology news seen through a political lens (or is that politics through an anthropological lens).” See, anthros, I am political! Or, as Stephanie might say, a politics informed by science and critical thinking, and by doing things – like simply recognizing people – before that suddenly gets fashionable.

Second, David Graeber provides a great comment over at Zunguzungu:

When I got involved in the Direct Action Network ten years later, I realized that the kind of directly democratic consensus process they were trying to develop was a kind of amateur version of what people in Madagascar already knew how to do, and had been doing for centuries, (3) I also realized that DAN folk were in part trying to develop a process and form of organization which would be the exact opposite of the classic tiny Trotskyite or Maoist group with an intellectual line that everyone has to adhere to, top-down organization, and sectarian mode of argument

Finally, and particularly for my students (after all, it might be on the test!), here are the videos I showed in class today. And the four principles I emphasized going into our discussion:

Biological anthropology and evolutionary analysis will focus on:

-Using a comparative approach
-Understanding derived differences in any particular species, such as humans
-Getting at basic (or primitive) similarities, focusing on what was shared with common ancestors
- Answering the question “why?” through the lens of asking, how do you get from here to there? From that basic trait to this derived state, with a focus on evolutionary history (phylogeny) and on natural and sexual selection.

And here are the clips I used, in the order I showed them:

Leafcutter Ants

Chimpanzee Reciprocity

Chimpanzee Cooperation

Chimpanzee Dominance

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9 Responses to Why We Protest

  1. I can’t imagine why anyone would think you’re not political. What could be more political than requiring people to face a realistic version of human nature?

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  2. Pingback: Anthropology and Occupy Wall Street

  3. Craig says:

    Excellent post, Daniel!

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  4. Pingback: Academia and #OWS: An open thread | Savage Minds

  5. Pingback: Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism--A Four-Field Manifesto

  6. This is a beautiful and moving post and I’m so grateful to be a small part of it. I’ve been working on a post that would hopefully move toward answering your challenges. Would love feedback!

    Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism: A Four-Field Manifesto

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  7. Pingback: Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

  8. muslim ali says:

    I think that the Arab spring had much to do with the renewed hope that people felt in using protest to affect change politically. After all, the Arab spring was so well publicized by the media. I think we Americans as well as others became renewed that protest movements could actually work again. We saw oppressive goverment after government being toppled by a grassroots movement. I think it shocked a lot of us. How could we not think, well if these folks can get rid of long standing tyranical regimes then what could we do here in the U.S. if we really excercised our agency through protest. Anyway, we pride ourselves on being the best at this sort of thing regarding protest and a repressntative democracy of the people , for the people, and by the people.

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  9. Occupy Anthropology says:

    Thanks for this – you’ve connected biological anthropology to the Occupy Movement, no obvious task. I’ve posted this on Occupy Anthropology facebook page; feel free to join and post.

    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Occupy-Anthropology/283238758381653?ref=tn_tnmn

    For thinking about anthropology’s role in understanding, responding to, and contributing to economic inequality. For promoting solidarity among all categories of faculty, practitioners, students and labor within and beyond higher education.

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