The most thrilling experience as a student (and people who pursue learning are always in the most fundamental sense students) is to come across an idea, a work of art, or a book that shows a way of seeing the world that you hadn’t previously conceived. It is hard to overemphasis the importance of categorization in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities: the categories we employ and how we organize them allow us to think about the world. Advances occur when someone comes along and convinces us to reject some of our categories, offers new ones – or rearranges the ones we have. Part of Eric R. Wolf’s genius was to bring anthropology into close dialogue with history, politics, political economy, and much else and show how this dialogue enriches each of these disciplines.
Most of us understand the world using categories and assumptions that exhibit ignorance, assumptions and bias that are embarrassing in hindsight. For example: The sciences are autonomous so that one can study anthropology and culture independent of economics and markets or politics and power. Cultural groups – whether so-called “primitive” ones – or nation-states (which falsely purport to contain unified cultures) can be understand independently of other cultural groups. Groups lived in isolation before European colonialization and after that existed as mere passive victims of European dominance.
These are all myths that Wolf dispels.
Europe and the People Without History (1982) is an extended example of how to think of the world without methodological nationalism. Early in the book Wolf writes:
The central assumption of this book is that the world of humankind constitutes a manifold, a totality of interconnected processes, and inquiries that disassemble this totality into bits and then fail to reassemble it falsify reality. Concepts like “nation,” “society,” and “culture” name bits and threaten to turn names into things. Only by understanding these names as bundles of relationships, and by placing them back can into the field from which they were abstracted, can we hope to avoid misleading inferences and increase our share of understanding (4).
To understand reality, we need to realize that many categories that we treat as “things” are in fact processes. This is particular true of concepts such as “nation,” “society,” and “culture” that are constantly reconstructed through interaction with people “within” and “without” (keeping in mind that what is “in” or “out” is always opaque and shifting). The attempt to impose stasis on these concepts is only legitimate if we keep in mind that this is a deliberate distortion that may bring some clarity, but must ultimately be restored to their dynamic role within bundles of relationships.
At the same time, people seeking power are eager to deny how cultures and nations are constituted by their relationships and to turn them into things. Mythological or imaginary conceptions of “who we are” are deployed as weapons and tools to seize power. They necessarily involve a denial of history and of reality (as well as of internal diversity – all cultures and nations are plural and anybody who claims differently is not describing or explaining culture, but rather imposing a view of what s/he wants them to be). As Wolf puts it:
The ability to bestow meanings – to ‘name” things, act, and ideas – is a source of power. Control of communication allows the managers of ideology to lay down the categories through which reality is to be perceived. Conversely, this entails the ability to deny the existence of alternative categories, to assign them to the realm of disorder and chaos, to render them socially and symbolically invisible (388).
A role for intellectuals is to show how these meanings function as a source of power and to remind people how dubious they are. The leaders of nation-states assert an autonomy and independence that belies reality, inhibiting our ability to perceive the world as it is and giving leaders the power to exclude and harm others. Absorption in works such as Europe and the People without History is one of the best antidotes to being deceived by ideology.
Second, Europe and the People without History dispels a too-common myth of the culture or society that supposedly exists apart from economic and political globalization. There is still the tendency to see non-European cultures as pristine and independent of larger economic and political processes (Jared Diamond’s The World until Yesterday is a recent and particularly egregious example of this). Wolf’s exploration of the fur trade (Chapter 6) and slave trade (Chapter 7) shows how colonialization brought Americans and Africans into networks of exchange through their active (if often subordinate) participation and transformed their communities.
(James C. Scott – another great social scientist who regularly crosses disciplinary borders – does something similar in The Art of Not Being Governed. Scott shows how many people living outside of the state, particularly in Southeast Asia, are not pristine cultures that had never been incorporated into nation-states, but rather are composed of people who actively resist conscription, taxation, and forced labor.)
Third, Europe and the People without History is one of the best examples of how to use Marxian ideas non-dogmatically. We cannot understand culture without understanding how people work to transform their world for their benefit – often at the expense of other people. In other words, it is necessary to analyze the mode of production – the forms of work, technology, and social relationships structuring economic activities. To understand today’s world we must understand how incorporation of wage labor into the global markets has transformed us. Global markets on one level create unity, bringing more and more people into the market and under the logic of wage labor. At the same time, it creates diversity, pitting groups against each other and segmenting them at least partly according to their economic functions. This dialectic of unity and diversity is not governed by laws and in each region adapts unpredictability to local conditions. Nonetheless, it is Wolf’s deft use of Marxian ideas that allowed him to write a book that provides genuine insight into six hundred years of history of much of the world.