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Letters to the Editor

Letter from Lawrence E. Moore on historical archaeology

Leone's [SAA Bulletin 13(5):3] provocative comments regarding historical archaeology and the archaeology of capitalism are much appreciated. He outlined his vision of capitalism and acknowledged that the marxist perspective occupies only a corner of the discipline. With brevity in mind, I reply to his views on the changing nature of capitalism, his definition of it, and the issue of objectification.

Leone believes that people, who are either politically conservative or neutral, find his perspective unacceptable because it "assumes change within capitalism, assumes that change is based on conflict, and that conflict stems from exploitation." And, maybe some feel this way. Several other reasons are likely as well. First, being a counter cultural view, marxism has no credibility in American society. Second, it is a negative view of life that contradicts Leone's claim that it is comprehensive. By assuming that all change is due to conflict, he denies any possibility that change occurs through agreement. Public archaeology, at least, needs to be positive and inspirational, not gloomy culture critique.

Finally, marxism just does not work. It offers a diachronic model of life that has not really changed since Marx presented it. It was not accurate for mid-19th century life then and it does not describe society today. Marx misunderstood his topic because he avoided as much of it as possible in his daily life. Similarly, marxists do not understand their enemy. The place to begin is Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich. There, they will find that accumulating wealth is a spiritual and intellectual process that need not be seen as crass.

Contrary to Leone's suggestion, American economists do accept that capitalism has changed. Heilbroner (Twenty-First Century Capitalism) notes that today's economy is very different than it was a hundred years ago. His Keynesian perspective appears to avoid discussing change because it is a synchronic model akin to Anthropology's functionalist ones. Other scholars do provide diachronic views of capitalism. Peter Drucker's book Post-Capitalist Society is the best explication of our knowledge-based society and information economy. To him, America left capitalism behind in the first quarter of this century, particularly after the gold standard was abandoned. Nobody could have predicted that the knowledge-based society would follow capitalism, and, clearly, Marx had it wrong.

Basically, Leone's definition of capitalism will not help archaeologists. To him, it is a set of social relations comprised of three parts. The first is that a "landless work force is created whose only way to make a living is selling its labor." This statement is somewhat true as it brings to mind the evil company towns and sweat shops of a previous era. While these working conditions exist they do not represent the majority of labor conditions within capitalism. In the 19th century the American Homestead Act allowed thousands to own land. Eventually there arose the "American Dream" wherein everyone could own a home. Under capitalism, a larger percentage of a society's workers become home and land owners. More importantly, people have the choice of whether or not they want to be owners or renters. As for the selling of one's labor, it is better to choose your employer than be indentured.

The second part is that "land and other means of earning a living are privately owned." This statement does not describe the situation. Within capitalism land and "other means" are owned both privately and publicly. In a publicly held company ownership is shared by many people and even other companies. Stock markets exist to buy and sell shares of ownership and any person or entity can participate in the market. Privately held companies can be corporations, partnerships, or sole proprietorships. Another version of public ownership is represented by the assets controlled by governments. In some places, like Montana, governments control two-thirds of the state's lands. Finally, private ownership of land is not absolute as governments can limit the use of property through zoning or even take it, with good cause. For the marxists, the sole proprietor concept above is anomalous as the manager and laborer can be the same person. Furthermore, sole proprietors are the backbone of any capitalist economy, constituting the largest group of businesses.

Leone's third social relation of capitalism is important: "continuous technological change and expansion of markets is needed to ensure profits." Economists refer to continuous change in technology and other areas as "creative destruction"; it leads to fads, fashions, and the obsolescence of products. This process exists in non-capitalist societies as well but perhaps capitalists have perfected it. Rapid cultural change is the key trait of the Modern Period and is present in communist, capitalist, and knowledge-based societies.

Another trait that Leone believes to be characteristic of capitalism is that human labor is objectified, treated as a thing, and used to make a profit. Marxists often decry objectification, believing it to be a dehumanizing process. Critical theorists, such as Leone, also argue that archaeologists need to be self-reflective. They can't have both because the cognitive ability to be self-aware, sapient, entails objectification. Without this ability homo sapiens is poorly defined. On a positive note, this use of objectification frees people from the burden of being over identified with their occupation. People are more than what they do for a living, which is what the marxists presume.

Overall, Leone reaffirms Daniel Bell's 1952 observation that Marxian Socialism in the United States is "in but not of the world" (1967, Marxian Socialism in the United States, Princeton, reprint, p. 5). Archaeologists interested in studying capitalism will do better by following some other perspective or by being eclectic as Matthew Johnson has done in An Archaeology of Capitalism (Blackwell, 1996).

Lawrence E. Moore
Heritage Resources Branch
Fairfax County, Virginia

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