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Chapter 14:
Postmodern Political Economy
and Sensibilities
© 2014 Mark Moberg
• Postmodernism (often called poststructuralism in anthropology) is not a
unitary phenomenon, and has permeated the arts, philosophy, architecture,
the social sciences, and even theology. Philosopher Jürgen Habermas
contends that postmodernism breaks with a longstanding cultural and
intellectual consensus arising from the origins of the Enlightenment around
1600. Notwithstanding the differences that characterized anthropological
theory prior to the 1980s, most anthropologists, whether Freudian, Marxist,
ecological, Boasian or evolutionary in orientation, shared the assumption
that science is a privileged way of knowing the world as it is based on
observation and reason. The signature stance of postmodern philosophy
and social science is a profound skepticism toward the claims of science to
generate objective knowledge and to bring about improvements in the
human condition. Accordingly, postmodernist philosophers celebrate
“many voices,” including those of ethnic and sexual minorities, colonized
people, and all others whose perspectives are rarely if ever encountered in
scientific discourse.
© 2014 Mark Moberg
• In his 1989 book The Condition of Postmodernity, Marxist geographer
David Harvey examined the shift from modernity to postmodernity through
a materialist lens. In contrast to Enlightenment assumptions about
knowledge, postmodernists claim that we cannot know the world in ways
that are not tinged by our particular social position, identity or bias.
Associated with this shift in knowledge is a perception that the pace of
social change is increasing, while geographical distance is shrinking (time–
space compression). In addition, national boundaries seem to be
increasingly meaningless as flows of products and people cross borders in
unprecedented numbers. Finally, there is increasing downward mobility, as
former members of a middle class find themselves consigned to insecure,
part-time employment with few or no benefits.
© 2014 Mark Moberg
• According to Marx, capitalism was reorganized during the 1930s along a
“Fordist” mode of regulation. Harvey elaborates on this: increases in
productivity among workers would be met with gradually increasing wages,
ensuring that many factory workers were able to enjoy some of the attributes
of a middle-class standard of living. By the early 1970s, Fordism came under
attack as rising oil prices raised the cost of production. Meanwhile,
innovations in shipping, such as long-distance jet-air cargo and containerized
shipping, made it possible for industries in the developed world to seek out
cheaper sources of labor, to profitably manufacture goods abroad, and then
ship them to markets in developed countries. Another way that
manufacturers sought to offset declining profits was to increase the “turnover
time” in which products were consumed. Increasingly, investment capital
has shifted from durable goods to short-term services (e.g. the entertainment
industry), disposable items, and fashions subject to planned obsolescence. In
these trends we see workers losing whatever precarious foothold they had in
the middle class, as capitalist countries witnessed a massive upward
distribution of wealth. Between 1970 and 2010, the top 1% of households
saw their share of national wealth increase from 6% to 17%, while the value
of the minimum wage declined 40% in real terms. Meanwhile, the
proliferation of “free trade” pacts that eliminated tariffs in developing
countries has resulted in a massive dispossession of small-scale farmers and
wage laborers, many of whom gravitate to the more developed countries.
Hence, the perception of the “Other” in our midst is an accurate reflection of
the increasing ethnic and national mosaic in the developed countries.
© 2014 Mark Moberg
• Accompanying these social and economic dislocations is a subtle sense that
social change—as measured in consumption—is increasing in pace. By
2005, the average American was bombarded with more than 2,000
advertisements each day on television, radio, billboards, and computers, all
to stimulate an already increasing pace of consumption. This sensation is
augmented by quantum advances in telecommunications: while no spot on
earth is more than 24 hours distant by jet travel, satellite communication
and cell phones have compressed our perception of the world into nearsimultaneous images that subvert established barriers of time and space,
cause and effect, and reality and advertisement. In 2001, tens of millions of
people were transfixed while watching the attacks on the World Trade
Center in real time on TV, something that would have been technologically
impossible just two decades earlier.
© 2014 Mark Moberg
• This setting is the kind of environment of uncertainty and flux in which
postmodern epistemologies can flourish. By the time books make it to
print, for example, they are often already out of date. As Harvey
observes: “it is impossible to say anything of solidity and permanence
in the midst of this ephemeral and fragmented world. Everything from
novel writing and philosophizing to the experience of laboring or
making a home has to face the challenge of accelerating turnover time
and the rapid write-off of traditional and historically acquired values.
The temporary contract in everything has become the hallmark of
postmodern living.”
© 2014 Mark Moberg