Academic journal article Capital & Class

The Historical Archaeology of Capitalist Dispossession

Academic journal article Capital & Class

The Historical Archaeology of Capitalist Dispossession

Article excerpt


Archaeology, if it is thought of at all, is typically seen as an esoteric and elite discipline, perhaps tainted by its colonial roots and long history of service to the state, and with little relevance or potential for emancipatory action in the present. And yet Marxist approaches have been strong throughout the history of archaeology (Patterson 2003; McGuire 1992, 2008; Marquardt 1992; Hamilakis and Duke 2008; Saitta 1993; O'Donovan 2002). This is probably related to the fact that archaeology inherently has a material focus through the study of everyday trash, and that the artefacts we find, whatever the context, lend themselves to an emphasis on production through analysis of tools and food remains. Marxist archaeologists have typically been more prevalent (although still a minority) in the subdiscipline of historical archaeology, which deals with the recent past. Historical archaeology has been defined as the archaeology of the capitalist world, although more benign terms such as 'modernism' or 'the modern world' are more common (Leone and Potter 1999; Orser 1996; Paynter 1988; Larkin and McGuire 2009; Wood 2002; Duke and Saitta 1998; Saitta 2007; Mrozowski 2000, 2006). Mark Leone (2010:8) has recently claimed that historical archaeology has yet to develop an adequate set of problems to guide and sustain the discipline. I would argue that this is because historical archaeologists have seldom made capitalism the explicit focus of their research.

My goal in this paper is not to present a philosophical discussion about what a Marxist dialectical internal relational approach is. Most of the papers in this issue do a much better job than I ever could. Instead of covering this same territory, this paper focuses on how I have tried to put dialectics to work in my own archaeological research, which attempts to illuminate capitalism's 'law of motion'. A philosophy of internal relations, with its emphasis on dialectics, social totality and analytical abstraction, provides powerful tools to help archaeologists realise the potential of confronting capitalism (Oilman 1976, 1993, 2003; Sayer 1987). The most valuable aspects of a theory of internal relations for my work have been the ideas of analytical abstraction and social totality: two aspects of the same thing, really. I have tried to apply this by using an internal relational approach to class which requires that we examine the relations actually present in any historic context, instead of assuming a priori that we already know what they are.

Putting dialectics to work requires a very different perspective from that of traditional scholarship. The clearest way to articulate this is to borrow Oilman's metaphor of 'common from goose' studies:

   The law locks up the man or woman
   Who steals a goose from off the common,
   But leaves the greater villain loose
   Who steals the common from the goose.

(Anonymous, 15th century, cited in Oilman 2008: 8)

The metaphor of the goose and the commons helps us think about what real world applications of this relational analytical framework might look like. Oilman (2008: 8) suggests that two opposing kinds of scholarship can be found in most universities today, and certainly this is the case within archaeology. The mainstream or 'common sense' scholarship consists almost entirely of studies that document the theft of the goose. These studies are relatively straightforward: you need only observe and document the theft. In contrast, the harder and rarer studies are those that examine the theft of the common from the goose. This is not as easy to see: the processes often occur over a longer period of time, involve agents who may never have visited the common, and require that we grasp a bigger picture than most 'common sense' perspectives demand. We also need to recognise that the entire structure of capitalist ideology is geared toward making perception of these connections difficult. …

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