Degrowth and Archaeology Redux

This weekend, I read Nicholas Zorzin’s article “Is archaeology conceivable within the degrowth movement?” in Archaeological Dialogues 28 (2021). The article is a follow up, in many ways, to James Flexner’s article in Archaeological Dialogues 27 (2020) “Degrowth and a sustainable future for archaeology” which I blogged about it here. Both articles are full of food for thought and well worth reading. The responses to the Zorzin article from Flexner, Gabe Moshenska, Sadie Watson, and LuAnn Wurst are also valuable and thought provoking.

Advocates of degrowth argue that capitalism’s emphasis on economic growth has caused a global crisis of sustainability. This crisis is manifest in growing inequality, violent displacements of individuals and groups and, of course, the looming climate catastrophe. Zorzin observes, correctly, in my eyes, that the post-war shift toward neoliberal ideologies, broadly construed, has both accelerated and normalized a view of the world where unlimited growth (fueled, as it were, by petrocapitalism) ensures that the winners and losers in the global competition for wealth have no one to blame but themselves. Or, if the system is out of balance and not perfectly fair in the present, the continued growth of the economic pie makes it only a matter of time before various forces level the playing field to ensure that growth continues unabated. Some of those who reject this optimistic view of post-war capitalism have noted that there is no indication that the system is self-correcting and pushed for deliberate degrowth as a way to create a more equitable society. Obviously there continues to be significant debate over how degrowth would work in practice, or what priorities should emerge to create a society based on principles that do not require continued economic growth.

Zorzin argues for a discipline of archaeology anchored in the ideas of degrowth. He sees the value of degrowth as a form of critique that emancipates the individual from the mindsets that allow neoliberal capitalism to function. The embrace of degrowth within archaeology, Zorzin argues a bit less effectively, might also allow the discipline to move the global needle toward more just and sustainable forms of economic life.

Without getting into the nitty-gritty of Zorzin’s article (and the thoughtful responses), I do wonder what he sees in archaeology that would allow it to be the forerunner to a global embrace of degrowth. In other words, why would he (or Flexner) advocate for degrowth in an archaeological journal and in an academic discipline that emerged in parallel with rise of modern capitalism in the late-19th and early 20th century.

It seems to me, then, that for archaeology to have a meaningful impact on degrowth as a movement more needs to be done demonstrating how either archaeological work on the ground — in the trenches, in the landscape, in the storeroom, at the laptop — produces the kind of convivial practices that form the basis for a discipline insulated from the economic logic of capital. As Zorzin notes, academia and development, the two primary drivers of neoliberal thought in contemporary society push archaeology toward practices that privilege efficiency, for example, and celebrate competition often at the expense of collaboration and reflection. Perhaps slow or convivial practices could play a role in establishing new standards for archaeological work?

I also can’t help but wonder how degrowth could transform the social aspects of archaeological practice which tend to privilege a kind of risk-taking, hyper masculinity, supported performative informality, and have allowed for the dehumanizing harassment of fieldworkers. Whatever one thinks of degrowth as a model for the a more just future, certainly the weakening of the link between archaeology and capitalist models of knowledge making should contribute to the production of a more just discipline.   

I also came to wonder whether there is something about the kind of conclusions and questions that archaeology explores and the notion of degrowth. Zorzin and his respondents do not really consider HOW archaeology as a discipline could produce arguments that support degrowth. This seems like a missed opportunity as it is virtually canonical to argue that historical archaeology, for example, critiques capitalism, colonialism, nationalism, and other 19th and 20th century ideologies in ways that denature these phenomenon and demonstrate that they emerged through the deliberate acts of recognizable agents. In other words, major strands in archaeological research involve the interrogation of the very forms of economic organization that degrowth seeks to reverse. The absence of any real engagement with this kind of disciplinary knowledge strikes me as odd especially as the archaeologists who have studied the development of race or pandemics (for example) have stepped up to show how their work complicates how we understand the contemporary world. In short, if there is a place for degrowth within archaeology, one might imagine it anchored in particular forms both of the organization of archaeological labor and the results of archaeological thinking.

Finally, it’s hard not wonder how the forms of logic that support archaeological thinking are entangled with the logic of capitalism. While I am far from an expert on these things, it seems reasonable to see neoliberalism (in its many complex forms) and capitalism as both the product of the (late?) modern world that produced archaeology. Our commitment to arguments anchored in empirical data, for example, reveal traditions of practice anchored in 19th (and 20th) century science with its emphasis on transparency, rationality, and methodological (almost industrial) rigor. These practices, of course, support competitive critique that many see as defining the best and strongest arguments that will shape the discipline.

This, of course, is a pretty gross simplification, but this and similar simplifications tend to manifest themselves consistently in public view. Appeals to peer review, for example, to establish the authority of an argument and the notion that recent scholarly work supersedes earlier work contributes to a view of the discipline that is driven by competitive practices where the good and the best overwrite the bad and worse. 

(As an aside, those who have rushed to “thank science” for the COVID vaccine could as easily thanked capitalism especially as the benefits of the vaccine seem to follow more closely the winners in the race for capital than the universal claims of science. That a vaccine exists might be thanks to science, but that you’ve received it is thanks to capitalism. It seems to me that disentangling the two requires a kind of mental gymnastics that takes much of the blush away from scientific triumphalism.) 

Not a week goes by when I’m not mildly horrified at some archaeologist professing disciplinary expertise (usually on the basis of various competitive standards) and “dunking on” some person on social media whose standing in the field is either not secure or whose strict adherence to the rules of archaeological knowledge making falls short. While social media is meant for such performative pick-up games (and “dunking” carries with it plenty of performative masculinity from the social logic of the basketball court to the height of a competitive basketball hoop set on he basis of male heights and jumping abilities!), I do often worry that many of the social media hoopers who hang around hoping to dunk on individuals who deviate from the rigorous orthodoxy of archaeological methods do more harm to the future of the archaeological imagination than good.

If Zorzin’s and Flexner’s work in part relies on thinking about the world of archaeology and world through archaeology in new and different ways, one wonders how the continued performance of masculine modernity, capitalistic competition, and (frankly) archaeological arrogance reduces the possibility for escaping the death drive of neoliberal society. Even if one thinks that degrowth is perhaps not the best way forward for contemporary society, it is hard to think that we’re currently on the right track and that the problems facing the contemporary world are fixable by adjusting the current system. The calls to burn it all down, however, are often followed by calls to rebuild on the foundations that remain. In this (admittedly pained) metaphor, it’s hardly surprising that the new ways forward resemble so closely the old ways forward. Degrowth, whatever its flaws, represents a goal that has the potential to shake up how we think about our discipline and society even if our approaches to this end (or any end that privileges justice and sustainability) vary widely.   

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