Marxian anthropology. A conversation with Sharryn Kasmir. Anthropology, class and social movements
by Maria Vasile*
We met Sharryn Kasmir at the end of August, in the context of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences’ (IUAES) Inter-Congress world solidarities organized in Poznan, Poland.
Sharryn is Professor of Anthropology at Hofstra University (New York). Her recent publications center on the anthropology of labour and on uneven and combined development as a theoretical framework for Marxist anthropology. She has conducted fieldwork among industrial workers in the Basque region of Spain and in the southern US. She is currently part of the project Frontlines of Value: Class and Social Transformation in 21st Century Capitalism within which she conducts research on a deindustrialised city in the rustbelt. In this interview she tells us about solidarity within US social movements, but also about the concept of class and its evolutions. At the same time, she provides us with interesting insights on how anthropology can help in the analysis of contemporary capitalism’s many facets.
Solidarity and alliances within the Left
The theme of this year Inter-Congress is solidarity. How did you approach this concept in your latest research?
My latest research, which is part of the Frontlines of Value project, headed by Don Kalb at Bergen University, is taking place in a deindustrialized city in Pennsylvania, in the United States. This is a city that is surrounded by a rural county, where the city has traditionally been a supporter of democratic presidential candidates and the county voted heavily for Donald Trump in 2016 elections and continues to be socially and politically conservative. In the aftermath of 2016 elections, three groups in the area have become very active along the lines of developing relationship with each other that cross the kinds of divisions that are longstanding in the United States on the Left. So divisions of race, ethnicity, national origin. Divisions of class, and in this regard I mean middle class versus working class or poor, issues and concerns of gender politics, and what I was talking about in the conference, but it’s just one piece of it, is the divide between urban and rural/ suburban settings. In this county you can see very clearly that the political divide maps on urban versus rural divides.
In this context I am studying three different activists’ groups, each of them are local or county branches of national-based organizations but one is a no-profit organization funded privately by grants and donations, one is just a volunteer membership-based organization where nobody is a paid worker; and the other one is a mix. So the form of the group is also very much representative of the US Left: it is a very heterogeneous Left on lots of fronts including the format of the organizations. So the groups that I am studying, which are activists groups in this area, are making very concerted efforts to form alliances and unify at different scales: city scale, county scale, national, to engage in political activism and pursue campaigns that are broad and that extend beyond their constituencies. So I am very impressed with their work and I have been doing research with them.
How do these movements create alliances? Do they compromise or manage to have a larger, collective vision?
That is an interesting question: sometimes it is compromise and sometimes it doesn’t work and they have fights. And sometimes the contradictions between an emancipatory and reformist [approach] force them to think bigger and more globally about what capitalism is and what it does to all of us and what it would take to really make change. So I think that there are always these different moments in political organizing of defeats, fights, compromises and larger visions. And I see all of these things happening all the time. So, for example, one group is the electoral group, the Indivisible Berks, one group in the Sunrise Movement Berks and then the third group is called Make the Road Reading and that is a latinx community-based group to secure power in working class and poor majority latinx communities. And Reading (Pennsylvania), the city I am studying, is a majority latinx city: 70% latinx people: from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Mexico, and to a lesser extend other central and southern American countries.
What these alliances require people at the local level to do is to rearticulate, just as one example, immigration as a climate change issue. We know immigration has a lot of causes and we know that immigration comes from US intervention in central America (the long history of that), we know that it’s an economic issue, we know it’s political having to do with gangs and drug violence, we know all this. But it is also climate change related, and sort of more longer term global views on immigration takes into account climate refugees. The fact that these three groups want to create a power base in the area and want to be in conversation with each other forces them regularly to think through these issues and to present to their constituency, who might be very focused on climate issues, “no we also have to think of immigration, it’s part of our agenda”. And this is what I mean with emancipatory moments of “now we really have to think bigger, we cannot just be in our issue and our constituency”. And that comes through praxis, it comes through these alliances and solidarities. We also know, people who have been activists their own life know, that solidarity is very hard work and part of the panel we had here [the Inter-Congress] was called “the solidarity of labour and the labour of solidarity” and that was meant to indicate that it requires constant tending, work, effort and that is part of what I am looking at: what does it mean the labour of solidarity? In some ways writing about it anthropologically is boring (“then we went to this meeting, then this issue came up, and then there was this fight”), but that’s what it takes, even if you don’t have to write about it in all that detail. That’s what solidarity means on a daily, monthly, yearly level.
Anthropology, class and social movements
What do you think are the contributions of anthropological research to debates among these groups or in the broader debate on how to create alliances in the Left?
I think that the people I am studying are very sophisticated, both politically and theoretically. I think that Left activists in the last years had to really confront the limitations of their worldviews, the limitations of their campaigns. So there is not something they need to hear from me, although it is always useful to be in debate. But one of the things that I am finding while talking with people in these movements is that they don’t know the history of their area. So, for example, they have a set of social divisions: racial, spatial and they take those as they exist. But it is very useful also to see how these were created over time in this area.
So one think I did not tell you about this city is that in the 1920s it was one of these socialist cities, as we had internationally. There were many throughout the world and there were several socialist cities in the United States. Reading was a socialist city in the 1920s and then in three separates elections, one throughout the 1940s. And this was a time when municipal politics really was powerful, transformative: the municipality was a place where socialist parties could really make change. What we look at also is how the socialists were able to move across and organize across the county, and the spatial divisions that now characterize political and social life in this area were not in effect during the socialist period. They had very clear connections between workers in the city and workers in the country. Not just politically, not just socially, but also there were physical infrastructures and trains to move across that space. And so it is very useful for the people that are now political organizing against those divides to understand how they were created, and in fact how their infrastructures of roads and lack of public transportation is part of the division between city and country that now plagues them.
What is also an interesting conversation is that some Marxist concepts that are not part of the daily lexicon of American political life on the Left are very useful. So I had a conversation with one of the reformist groups and I mentioned something about “working class formation”. These are middle class older ladies, white, suburban so not radical although I think that in some ways they are very striking. But one said to me “oh no, no, no this is not the working class, people would be very upset if you would call this working class”. And then she begins to articulate a very kind of Fordist past view of the working class, white men industrial workers “that is not who we are”. And I said “yes but here is how academics are thinking now about working class formation: that was one moment of class formation in one historical period, in one labour regime, and now it is much more fragmented, and we are thinking of class and class formation differently” and I told her how we look at different fragments of working class. And then she say, “ah yes, yes, I guess that is right, that is what we are doing”. So they give me language that I did not have and I give them language they did not have and sometimes that it an useful conversation also for them.
You touched upon class. I wanted to ask you: how do you conceptualise class in your work and how do you create connections between new class formation and new labour regimes?
I think that, firstly, when you look at the decline of Fordist working class or working classes that were constituted in advanced capitalist societies, when you look at their dissolution and the fragmentation of them, you see political processes. It’s not just that capital fled, which it did, and it is not just that there is a spatial relocation of capital such that you have a loss of stable work. It is that, but it is not just that. It is also, and this is what August Carbonella and I wrote in Blood and Fire – Toward a Global Anthropology of Labor , a political process. You look at how working class is defeated through political processes of space and time. We think about that as the “disorganisation”. It is not just the fragmentation, that is passive, it is the disorganisation of the working class.
At the same time we know that these working classes were constituted in historically specific ways and that they did not encompass all sectors of the working class. The Fordist formation didn’t politically enfranchise the entirety of those who were propertyless and who, dependent on the market, were left to secure a livelihood in some way. The non-waged experience of being dependent on the market is particularly interesting as it is also particularly gendered and raced. I always go back to Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch to remark that.
And so working class formation was always a political process, just like it’s disorganisation is political. So I am in a moment in my thinking where I am putting politics at the centre of this as opposed to structural class analysis. I understand that people’s experience of exploitation is different and I understand that there is a difference between exploitation and oppression and domination but I think that there is an intimate relationship between those experiences, and I think that the idea of starting with wagelessness is a better place than the wage. I think it is a better political opening at this moment, it better describes the heterogeneity of capitalism as it has always been lived, it better accounts for social reproduction and women’s reproductive work under capitalism, it better accounts for slavery and its relationship to capital accumulation, it better accounts for all kind of bonded labour experiences. And this is what capitalism has always been. And our focus on the wage, and other things as being marginal, is understandable, because it is a reflection of scholarship of a certain historical moment, but it is time to think differently and broader, and to look at what people in social activist groups are doing, and to listen for the languages of class in those political expressions.
So wagelessness is for you also a space of research?
It should be, yes. In some ways it is yes, in the sense that there are unions in that area [Reading] and they organize industrial working class people, but they are less politically central. I definitely have my eye on them, but I don’t think that they are the arbiters of class and the class experience. I think that nowadays we are looking at a variety of relationships to capital and the state that are being expressed among people from poor people to what in the US we call middle class people; these people are expressing their experiences in relation to capitalism, to the state which I would recognize as having a common class origin, a common class base, a common frame of exploitation, including precariousness or insecurity, including dependence on the market and I think that there is utility in seeing all of those experiences sharing something, as opposed to differentiating people. This helps in redefining class today. While in spirit I would like to say this is the working class, I think we may come back to that word or we will be talking about class formation and we will see how the articulation of that class is.
You define yourself as a Marxist anthropologist, can you explain what does it entail?
I was trained in Marxist anthropology from the time I was an undergraduate, and so for me it even goes back to decades ago and the idea that human beings begun our species existence in hunting gathering, egalitarian societies in which the means of production were shared and that is one of our very clear species capacity: to produce egalitarian societies. Even though I don’t do any research on that, it is very much in the core of my understanding of the human condition, and that comes from anthropology. I spent a lot of time as an undergraduate studying gathering hunting societies and I was very influenced by the Marxist anthropologist Eleanor Leacock in that direction. More recently, and at the core of my research, is the understanding of the capitalist system as a world system and any ethnographic project is a space in time within larger forces of capital accumulation and labour accumulation and you have to always account for that. So to me that’s a Marxist premise, a methodological and theoretical premise of ethnographic work. And I really appreciate ethnographic work that is richly descriptive of different life ways but I find that anthropology can often reify difference and create difference as this natural human expression of culture and I find that you have to account, explain for difference, and you have to account for culture. So those explanations to me don’t come from culture themselves, they come from capitalism and economy and human experience in an uneven, differentiated world.
Do you think that marxist or marxian anthropology is part of marxists debate today?
I think so, I think that it is small but I think that there are locations in which Marxist anthropology is important. CUNY Graduate Center in New York City is one of these places, but there are others. I think it is a critical and important voice we have: Dialectical Anthropology in the United States is a Marxist journal, and Focaal in Europe. So we have some institutional spaces for it and at an international level we have the Marxian Commission of the IUAES, which is important for networking and creating venues for Marxists [anthropologists] to communicate.
*Maria Vasile is currently a PhD candidate at the department of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University, the Netherlands