Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism

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Summary of the Book

In July 1972, while doing research on bird evolution in New Guinea, biologist Jared Diamond strolled along a tropical beach with a local politician named Yali. Yali, who had helped his people prepare for self-government, questioned Diamond about the origins of the people of New Guinea, and about the commodities that Europeans brought to New Guinea such as steel axes, matches, clothing, soft drinks, things that people in New Guinea referred to as "cargo." Then he posed for Diamond they key question: "Why is it," he said, "that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we Black people had so little cargo of our own?".

Yali's question, of course, goes to the heart of the condition of the modern world; how have such inequalities of wealth evolved? Why do some have so much, and others so little? How have a group of societies clustered largely, but not exclusively, in the area of northern Europe, east Asia, and North America, come to politically and economically dominate the societies of the rest of the world?

This book tries to answer Yali's question by taking an anthropological approach to global issues. Our intent is to provide enough background for the reader to begin to better understand global problems, such as population growth, world hunger, environmental destruction, disease, ethnic conflict, rebellion, and social and religious protest. While the approach is anthropological, we will not hesitate to draw from other disciplines --history, sociology, geography, political science, and, economics --when we feel that is necessary to understand first, capitalism, and second, how that culture contributes to the global problems we will discuss.

We can summarize our approach in this book as follows: there has emerged over the past five to six centuries a distinctive culture or way of life dominated by a belief in commodity consumption as the source of well-being. This culture flowered in Western Europe, reached fruition in the United States and spread to encompass much of the rest of the world, creating what some anthropologists, sociologists, and historians call the world system. People disagree on the critical factor in the development of this system, and whether or not it was even historically unique, although most agree on certain basic ideas. Among the most important are the assumptions that the driving force behind the spread of the contemporary world system was industrial and corporate capitalism, and that the spread of the world system is related in some way to the resulting division of the world into wealthy nations and poor nations, or into wealthy core, developed, or industrialized areas, and dependent peripheral, undeveloped, or non-industrialized areas.

The spread of the capitalist world system has been accompanied by the creation of distinctive patterns of social relations, ways of viewing the world, patterns of food production, distinctive diets, patterns of health and disease, relationships to the environment, and so on. However, the spread of this culture has not gone uncontested; there has been resistance that has taken the form of both direct and indirect actions --political, religious, and social protest and revolution. How and why capitalist culture developed along with the reasons why some groups resisted and continue to resist its development will be some of the questions we will pose in the book.

The book is divided into three parts. Part one (chapters one through four) will be devoted to understanding the social and historical origins of capitalism, specifically the social construction of the consumer, the laborer, the capitalist, and the nation-state. The remainder of chapter one will be devoted to an examination of the creation of the consumer in America because the desire, indeed the necessity, of people to consume more and more is what drives the society of perpetual growth, largely defines the relationships between the core and the periphery of the world system, and relates to virtually all of the global problems that we shall discuss in later chapters.

In chapter two we will examine the creation and role of the laborer in capitalism, and the expansion of capitalism into the peripheral areas of the world. In chapter three we will outline the evolution of the organization of capital from around the year 1400 to the present, the ongoing division of the world into poor nations and wealthy nations, the role of the state in these processes, and the historical interaction of capitalist, laborer, and consumer. In chapter four we will take a closer look at the creation of the nation-state, and its role in the creation and maintenance of capitalism.

Part two (chapters five through nine) will take an anthropological perspective on the relationship between the spread of capitalism and various global problems. In chapter five we will examine the much-discussed problem of population growth. As early as 1799 Thomas Malthus predicted that if the rate of population growth continued as it was then, human population would soon outstrip its capacity to feed itself. Malthus predicted disaster; yet today the world produces more than enough food to feed a population of almost six billion and has the capacity to produce even more. Was Malthus wrong, or are others who are alarmed at the present rate of population growth correct in their assessment that overpopulation is responsible for world poverty, hunger, and environmental degradation?

In chapter six we will examine world hunger and poverty, and how it relates to the globalization of capitalism. Each year in the world some five million children die of hunger, and each day from 600,000 to over one billion people--one in every five--go hungry. Overpopulation does not seem to be the only problem--there is more than enough food to feed everyone. Why, then, do thousands of people starve to death every day?

Chapter seven will examine environmental problems. Once again there are dire predictions of environmental disaster, and once again overpopulation is often given as a cause. But other forces seem to be at work; the United States, with a relatively low rate of population growth, is by far the world's greatest contributor to environmental pollution. Clearly our consumption patterns are responsible for much environmental devastation. How and why were these destructive consumption patterns established, and what, if anything, can we do about them?

Chapter eight will examine another worldwide threat--disease. In the 1960s the World Health Organization set as its goal the complete eradication of disease. We have certainly eliminated many of them. Smallpox, polio, and plague, once took millions of lives, and now are virtually forgotten. Yet new diseases keep threatening our lives--AIDS is the most well known--and others are constantly appearing. Others seem almost beyond solution; malaria still claims more lives each year world-wide than any other disease. How does the way we live influence the emergence and spread of disease, and how does the spread of disease relate to the globalization of capitalist culture?

In chapter nine we will examine the fate of indigenous peoples and the origins of ethnic conflict in the world. The development and spread of capitalism has, in general, not been conducive to the maintenance of diverse cultures. Why has its spread of resulted in the destruction of indigenous peoples and cultures? Furthermore, cultural or ethnic diversity is often assumed to be the cause of ethnic strife. Yet diverse cultures have existed side-by-side for centuries without the kind of violence we find today. Thus we will ask also why in today's world does ethnic diversity seems to often lead to violent conflict?

In part three of the book we will turn to the sometimes rebellious reactions of peoples who have not fared as well as others in the expansion of capitalism. This expansion rarely was uncontested. In chapter ten we will examine the reactions and resistance of peasant farmers to the expansion of capitalism, and to their increased marginalization in a world of large-scale agriculture. Why have peasant farmers often been among the first to protest or rebel against capitalist encroachment?

Chapter eleven will focus on various forms of social protest that has accompanied the development of capitalist culture, from that of laborers resisting their conditions of work, to that of women protesting their place in capitalist cultures, to groups protesting the effects of capitalism on the environment. How has capitalism created conditions in which people feel compelled to protest and resist?

Chapter twelve will focus on religious protest. Religion has long been a vehicle for expressing resistance to social and cultural change. We will need to ask how religion has served as a way to resist or protest the development and spread of capitalist culture?

Finally, in chapter thirteen we  examine another way of conceptualizing global problems and offer some solutions to solve them.

In answering some of these questions we will be making specific assumptions.

First, a central tenet of anthropology is that personal, social, cultural, and historical factors determine the point of view any person might have of a specific phenomenon. No less is true of the members of capitalism who have created the view that we have of global events. Consequently, these views tend to be, to one extent or another, ethnocentric, the describing, evaluating, and judging of events solely from a specific cultural perspective. One of the major purposes of anthropology is to teach how to avoid ethnocentrism and to appreciate the importance of understanding the beliefs and behaviors of others from their own perspective rather than our own, a view anthropologists refer to as cultural relativism. To some extent ethnocentrism is unavoidable and; the job of the person who interprets global events--whether she or he is a journalist, economist, sociologist, or anthropologist--is to make an event comprehensible to those people for whom she or he is writing. Our assumption is that to minimize cultural bias we must recognize the fact that our view of events is partially influenced by our culture, and, for that reason, we must make our own culture an object of analysis.

Second, we are assuming that an understanding of global events requires the recognition that no culture or society today exists independent of what is referred to as the world system, and that each falls within either the core, or the periphery of that system. We are adopting this terminology to refer to different parts of the world to avoid the more value-laden distinctions such as "developed" or "undeveloped," "modern" or "traditional," "First," "Second," or "Third World." World system theorists often include a third category, "semi-periphery," to denote those nation-states or regions that are either moving towards the core, or who have moved out of the core. These distinctions recognize that countries can move from one category to another. For example, the three nation-states which world system theorists consider to have been dominant in the past four centuries--the Dutch, the British, and the Americans--all began as semi-peripheral to the world system.

Third, we assume that global events and actions cannot be adequately understood without a consideration of the events that preceded them; we must look at things historically. For example, we live in a period of human history largely defined by a sequence of events that began some four to five hundred years ago and loosely termed the industrial revolution. Since each of us has lived only during a particular phase of that history, we tend to take it for granted that it has always been like this. Yet the modern-industrial world order is, in historical terms, a very recent event. We are deceived by our biology, by our limited life span, into thinking of 60, 70, or 80 years as a long time, but put into the perspective of human history, it is a fleeting moment. Human beings have for most of their existence lived as bands of gatherers and hunters, only a little bit as agriculturists and farmers, and just more recently as industrialists and wage laborers. Yet the industrial revolution has transformed the world and human societies as no event in history. We cannot understand the events, issues, and problems of today's world without understanding how and why that happened

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