26/03/06

Too engaged anthropology? The Lumpenproletariat on the US-Mexican Border

"The most important information, which we can get out of this study, is how and what kind of action one can take."

How much should anthropologists get involved in changing the lives of their informants? Johannes Wilm didn't limit his research to presenting his findings about the daily life in in Douglas, an US-mexican border town. In his conclusion of his book On the Margins: US Americans in a bordertown to Mexico, he considers several forms for action.

The challenge: More than half of the 14000 inhabitants in Douglas are unemployed, 53% of the under 18 years old are officially living under the poverty line. The main source of income for the town: Smuggling of people and drugs. He proposes among others:

Constantly high unemployment figures can tell us, that an organization of the lumpenproletariat is neccessary in the planning of a world revolution or some more localized struggle for a democratic and economically just society.

It becomes obvious that Wilm works within a Marxist framework. He is an peace and media activist and has been socialized through the globalisation from below movement.

People in bordertowns are especially skilled, he found:

Also, in a border town, knowledge is spread according to a much more heterogeneous pattern, and a group of people cooperating across the various barriers will therefore be likely to build up a great amount of knowledge of how to circumvent the power apparatus of either of the involved states. Just for this, in the planning of a cross-national or global change, towns like Douglas should not be ignored.

In bordertowns, we find more ethnic diversity than in other areas. This might be a hinder? Wilm denies:

While ethnic diversity often has been seen as a hinder to organisation, it seems that combined with unemployment, its force is not as negative. In cases where people are forced to live close together and each person only has access to a part of the things seen as desirable (...), it even integrates rather than segregates.

The inhabitants with Mexican background are often "the better Americans":

And while lots of Hispanics with strong personal ties to Mexico in Douglas seem to believe in the "American way of life", it is Anglos that are the first ones to actively break out of the hegemonic space once they have the chance. (...) It is Anglos that represent resistance and not Hispanics.

He quotes an Hispanic father who has returned from the war in Iraq:

"Seen to many dead children", he explains, while he almost seems to start to cry. However, he finds time commenting on the amount of Anglos in the military. "I guess white people don't like serving their country that much" as he puts it.

Generally, he found, that ethnicity / race or class don't play a role in the daily life in Douglas. That's due to the economic crisis in his view:

Even though Douglas has had a history of segregation based on ethnicity, the complete lack of any kind of job for vast proportions of the population, and consequently the prevalence of the lumpenproletariat, has also done away with the ethnic model of stratification. None of my Anglo informants are in any position of power due to their ethnic background.

(...)

Had I been in Douglas during the good days of American capitalism, while Phelps Dodge still was there, they would have been strictly segregated according to race in the earlier period, or according to income layer in the latter period. Keoki, Art and Tim, all with somewhat more of an intellectual background also find themselves in this classless society in which everyone is part of the lumpenproletariat.

While I agree that advocacy is one of anthropologists' jobs, we should, I think, be cautious about presenting final solutions as he does when he describes the problems connected with organizing people:

(...) A fourth problem (...), the amount of Marxist or anarchist literature read by the members of the lumpenproletariat seems quite low, and is often replaced by the Bible, Adam Smith or, in the case of the cultural elite, various critics who are looking at single issues. This means that agitation has to start from the very beginning.
(...) What has to be done, is to develop a generic psychologic strategy to win over people with background from "serving the nation".

>> more information on the book

>> download the whole book (pdf, 30 MB )

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