Anthropologists of the Second “Gilded Age”

If you happen to have paid attention to financial news in international newspapers in recent weeks, you may have noticed that the world is in the midst of a new “Gilded Age”—not since the turn of the 20th century and the age of the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, and the Vanderbilts has global wealth been so concentrated among the ultra-rich.

Vast and increasing socioeconomic inequalities increasingly look like a global condition.

Coming from Norway—a society that, in the course of its 20th century history, has been marked by what the late Norwegian anthropologist Marianne Gullestad characterized as “egalitarian individualism”—the omnipresence of visual expressions of stark socioeconomic inequality constituted the greatest “culture shock” I experienced as an anthropologist working in the townships and informal settlements of post-apartheid Cape Town in South Africa in 2000–05. At the University of Cape Town’s campus, I found it incredibly hard to come to terms with the fact that privileged white students arrived on campus in the most luxurious Porsches, while black students and students of color arrived in cramped, hazardous, and cheap minibus taxis every morning. There was on my part a marked cognitive dissonance in living and working in townships and informal settlements, cityscapes of exclusion and marginalization dominated by black South Africans and South Africans of color, nestled alongside the first-world luxuries and comforts of leafy, white residential areas in the suburbs. The South African-based photographer and anthropologist Johnny Miller’s visualizes the stark contrasts between rich and poor neighborhoods from the air in South Africa and other postcolonial countries, including Brazil and India.


Township, Cape Town, South Africa, 2005. N. Adams

This is why John R. and Jean Comaroff’s idea that the conditions of the post-colonial South may be seen as something of a laboratory of future conditions in the North may not be as far off as we like to think.

In the global media imaginaries, my native Norway is still by and large represented as somehow mysteriously detached from the global condition of increasing socioeconomic inequalities under neoliberalism, and as a haven of socioeconomic equality. I am here leaving aside the terminological questions relating to the usefulness of the very term “neoliberalism,” which also in anthropological hands all too easily turns into an imprecise all-purpose term of opprobrium for anything and everything one does not like in the world in which one finds oneself.Following Wendy Brown, I conceive of neoliberalism as “a loose and shifting signifier” that operates as “an order of normative reason that, when it becomes ascendant, takes shape as a governing rationality extending a specific formulation of economic values, practices and metrics to every dimension of human life.” Neoliberal rationality, in Brown’s terms, “disseminates the model of the market to all domains and activities—even where money is not an issue—and configures human beings exhaustively as market actors, always, only and everywhere as homo oeconomicus.” For those of us working within academia, the effects of neoliberal rationality are increasingly experienced in the form of corporatization, bureaucratization, and the forceful drive towards measuring the meaning and value of all that we do through publication metrics and our individual ability to attract funding and attention.

Returning to Scandinavia, it is as if international news media is unable to think of Scandinavia as anything but a paragon of societal and individual virtue, a virtuousness increasingly underwritten by corporate marketing of “Scandinavianess” directed at privileged frequent travelers, in spite of the fault-lines of Scandinavian societies indicated by the rise of the populist and far-right in Scandinavia in recent years.

But as the anthropological editors of a fine recent volume that explores the much-touted Scandinavian egalitarianism past and present note in their introduction, the “culture of neoliberalism” has influenced “governance and policy, public institutions and ideological sensitivity” throughout Scandinavia since the 1980s. And even if the rise in socioeconomic inequality in Norway in recent decades has been nowhere nearly as dramatic as in the United States, it has increased substantially and continues to do so. Child poverty in particular is increasingly racialized: Children of parents of immigrant and/or minority backgrounds in Norway are much more likely than other Norwegian children to grow up in comparative poverty. There is a paradox in all of this. Nation-wide surveys rather consistently indicate that a majority of Norwegians are opposed to growing socio-economic inequality. Yet, substantial parts of the electorate offer their support for political parties committed to serving the interests of the ultra-rich in Norway with extensive cuts in the inheritance taxes of Norway’s corporate billionaires. From the Norwegian case—where populist right-wingers who came into power in since 2013 and in 2017 returned to power—we should learn that capital is endlessly adaptive, and that right-wing populism has the potential of being a useful instrument for neoliberalism. by providing a recipe of ultra-nationalism for the poor and corporate tax cuts for the rich.

Across Europe, we seem to be witnessing a gradual withering away of social democracy under the twinned pressures of neoliberal globalization and the rise of right-wing populism. I am not convinced that anthropologists can by and large be said to have noticed the importance of the new right’s “metapolitics,” and its central concern with changing the nature of intellectual and political debates though a, by all accounts, quite successful “culturalization of politics.” 

In the mercifully very short Norwegian parliamentary election debate in August and September this year, the success of this very “culturalization of politics” was plain for everyone to see: For the umpteenth time since 1987, the communication advisors of the populist right-wingers of the Progress Party in government since 2013 managed to persuasively cast this election as being about immigration and Muslims—even when new asylum applications to Norway were down to an historically low trickle, courtesy of Norway and other European countries’ refusal to accept any semblance of a shared responsibility for a global refugee situation which has not been worse since World War II.

When the “Paradise Papers” revealed that a thousand Norwegians had stashed away billions in tax havens, it elicited no comment whatsoever in Norwegian government circles, where it is well known that among the Norwegian corporate billionaires involved there are any number of people who fund government election campaigns and the assorted think tanks supportive of the government. The Norwegian government would rather we talk about the cost of immigration to Norway than the cost of tax evasion in Norway. And it does through its army of agenda-setting communication advisers its best to ensure precisely that.
For all of our talk about how vast socioeconomic inequality erodes civic trust and solidarity, and endangers democracy, paradoxically few practical actions seem to come out of this talk, and the increase in socioeconomic inequality continues apace.

“The anthropology of unequal society” to which Keith Hart refers in a recent edited volume does of course have a long tradition in anthropology. While our methodologies and class positionalities may limit our ability to access and explore the social worlds of the corporate elites who yield such an outsized influence on politics and society in the second “Gilded Age,” economic anthropology is ideally suited to explore the social lives of those faced with the human consequences of our starkly unequal societies, whether North or South. The work of fine anthropological scholars such as Christine Walley is one such starting point.
The constructive and interdisciplinary engagement with the seminal work of Thomas Piketty on the part of a number of prominent anthropologists is another.

Sindre Bangstad is a Norwegian social anthropologist and an associate researcher at KIFO (Institute For Church, Religion And Worldview Research) in Oslo, Norway. His latest book is Anthropology Of Our Times: An Edited Anthology in Public Anthropology (Palgrave MacMillan, 2017).

Cite as: Bangstad, Sindre. 2017. “Anthropologists of the Second ‘Gilded Age.'” Anthropology News website, November 14, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.688


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