Saturday, October 25, 2008

The End of the Free Market, and the Future of Culture

In the New York Times on Friday (10/24), a really astounding admonition by Alan Greenspan, looking a bit like a drunk on the morning after: "Greenspan admitted that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets" (A1). Although we're supposed to take this as his belated indictment of mortgage-backed securities, I see it as a much more sweeping confession: that, far from describing some objective, underlying reality to which the rest of us non-economists should concede, the "free market" is not some fact of nature circumscribed by Netwonian law, but an amalgam of greedy institutions acting in concert with government to expropriate wealth from the rest of us. Greenspan's contrition should lead us to a cascade of revelations--perhaps austerity measures and free market propaganda foisted onto developing nations weren't such great ideas? Perhaps the derivatives-led interpenetration of global finance isn't the inevitable fate of an evolving 'global economy' after all?

Most of all, Greenspan's belated apology gestures to the need for alternatives, and underlines the paucity of social theorizing over the past 30 years. As Fredric Jameson points out, a whole generation of critics systematically legitimated free market ideologies, if only by omission. Where is the cultural other to the "culture of capitalism"? How much of our anthropological work has been framed by assumptions about the inevitability of globalization? About vectors of development? Even critical work presupposes the (dismal) course of a free market development. What have we ignored in the meantime? And is it too late for anthropology to awaken from its theoretical sleep? When we look around at other anthropological responses(e.g., savage minds), we can see this struggle--not just to critique, but to move in some alternative direction.