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.