Anthropologist Harry Walker on the Lessons of Amazonian Commons

Sometimes it takes anthropologists to ask the really deep questions and help us imagine another world. That became clear to me after listening to Dr. Harry Walker, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, give the prestigious Malinowski Memorial Lecture in late May. 

Walker has long studied the people of Peruvian-Amazonia, with special attention to “the nature of the self and its relationship to interpersonal and political processes.” His provocative, thoughtful lecture, “Equality Without Equivalence: an anthropology of the common,” is a meditation on the deep clash between our modern, western ideas of liberal equality and private property, and the different modes of being and knowing that are nourished in commons.

The talk essentially juxtaposes Walker's conclusions about aboriginal commons against the context of representative government and market economics, helping to reveal the peculiar ideals of humanity embedded in the liberal polity.  (Thanks, Miguel Vieira, for alerting me to Walker's podcast!)

A bit of background:  Walker is the author of Under a Watchful Eye:  Self, Power and Intimacy in Amazonia, which is described on the author’s website as an exploration of

the pervasive tension in Amazonian societies between a cultural prioritization of individual autonomy and uniqueness, and an equally strong sense that satisfaction and self-realization only come through relations with others. In seeking to understand the inherently shared or ‘accompanied’ nature of human experience, it brings together considerations of child care and socialization, relations with nonhumans, and concepts of power, in order to show how agency and a sense of self emerge through everyday practices involving the cultivation of intimate but asymmetrical relationships of nurturance and dependency.

Walker’s one-hour talk is too long and complex to summarize here, so I will focus on some of his concluding insights. He noted that a central theme of Amazonian commons is the idea of “living well” – to organize one’s life and productive efforts in such a way that it “imbues life with a sense of meaning, purpose and direction.” The point is to strive for “a state of happiness and tranquility,” especially with loved ones.

This goal is necessarily one that must be shared, he said: "One cannot simply be tranquil on one’s own. Like language or a good idea, tranquility is a collective resource isn’t depleted or divided when more people share in it, but actually enhanced.” 

Walker notes that the “corporeal, ecological and affective dimensions” of the commons in Amazonia are all interconnected. Each dimension is the “product and precondition for the processes of production.” Thus, activities to replenish game animals, preserve the climate, and take care of people’s well-being, are all interconnected.

This helps explain why what is being created by commons “is not so much objects or subjects,” said Walker, “so much as social relationships or even subjectivity itself…..More than merely a set of institutional or property rights arrangements, we might see the commons as a kind of social imaginary that is quite unlike the nation-state as imagined community....It works against commensurability, equivalence, reciprocity, and exchange.  It breaks down divisions between natural and artificial, material and immaterial, production and reproduction, and work and life.” 

Walker suggests that while Amazonian commons might be described as “libertarian” – in the sense that they honor the radical individuality of everyone. But it would be misleading to describe them as “egalitarian,” a world that implies that everyone is formally equal as participants in a bounded polity.

“Egalitarian” as an equal distribution of resources is also misleading, Walker said, because that idea “rests on an economics of scarcity,” which the commons rejects through its emphasis on sharing:  “An emphasis on material equality can end up highlighting the ways in which people are at odds with each other rather than as members in a common enterprise,” he said.

How does this work?  “In Amazonia, many of the most desired goods – well-being, say, or companionship or belonging – are not the rival goods” that are studied by economists, which if they are enjoyed by one person can’t be possessed or enjoyed by another.”  Because the culture is focused on “shareable” states of being, attention is shifted “towards the enjoyment of what can be shared rather than what can be privately consumed.”

The logic of the common challenges the ontology of the modern liberal state and economics by rejecting the formalization of rights and essences. Instead, the commons is seen as something that is produced – something that is “open and multifarious, largely external, and grounded in the individual’s material, historical positioning.” In a commons, the actual heterogenity of people is never reduced to “a chain of equivalence.” And because the community is somewhat open, evolving and never fully constituted, the commons “never becomes opposed to individual liberty.”

The premises of Amazonian commons are based on a conception of persons as radical singularities, said Walker – as beings who are “opaque, infinite and ultimately unknowable.”  There is no abstract notion of a “common humanity,” if only because “humanity remains no more than a possibility, a potential, that is perhaps never fully realized.”  And so "humanity" remains open to everyone, including nonhumans, as evidenced by animism. The firm distinctions between subject and object, and human and nonhunman, that characterize western property regimes, do not exist in Amazonian commons. 

"Following from this, it may not be coincidental that western conception of equality coincided with enclosure and the rise of private property," said Walker. “This is not only because private property and the law work hand in and to produce a sense of individual subjects as formally equal. As the ground we share with others -- land, water -- has been privatized and enclosed, it is tempting to speculate that this has produced an internalization and essentialization of the common under the guise of universal humanity.  In other words, if enjoyment of the common as a collectively produced relational good implies a multiplicity of singular differences, its erosion and privatization compels people to find the source their common being elsewhere.”  They posit “equivalents or essences to overcome the ever-widening gap that isolates them from each other.”  Particularity and singularity is lost.

Walker concludes with a strong pitch for the commons as a way forward:  “The ancient western idea of the commons is a quite simple idea that forms the basis of an economics run by neither the state or market.  It’s also an idea that we’ve never needed so urgently,” he said, noting that it is “a powerful concept for connecting many disparate struggles around the world.” He goes further: “The attempt to recover and enlarge the commons, and thwart its capture by capital, is now a virtually a necessary element of any radical political project.”

Quoting Claude Levi-Strauss, Walker notes that anthropology has a crucial role to play in helping to imagine a new world:  “Anthropologists are here to witness that the manner in which we live, the values that we believe in, are not the only possible ones – that other modes of life, other value systems, are permitted and continue to permit, other human communities to find happiness.”

Alas, I found no text on the Web for Walker’s talk, but an official podcast can be heard here. A rich, stimulating presentation!