Neomaterialists and Marx

Anthropologist Marvin Harris is described in some biographies and book reviews as a “neomaterialist”: he claims that many cultures’ customs, seemingly explicable only in religious or social terms, actually have a fundamental material cause. For example, middle eastern cultures shun pigs because there are economic reasons why raising swine in desert conditions is inefficient. In effect, Harris appears to claim that cultures have a “subconcious”; a set of REAL reasons why they do what they do, with the relgious or ideological reason being little more than a rationalization.

I was wondering how this compares to the “dialectal materialism” of Marx. The thing about Marxism is that although it claims to be based in materialism, as expounded by Lenin, Mao, etc. it ironically became obsessed with ideology, with claims that how people were indoctrinated could overrule their material condition(!).

The thing is I’m unaware if any of Harris’ works deal with politics, as opposed to customs and mores of society, whereas Marxism became about almost nothing but politics; so I don’t have a basis of direct comparison

Dialectical materialism as espoused by Marx seems to be a bit of a red herring here since it focussed so much on the cut-and-thrust proposition and counter of teh dielectic without really giving enough details on the materialism part (Marx never went anywhere near the question *How do you get a bunch of atoms to think? although atoms had admittedly not been discovered then).

Indeed “materialism” is rather an old-fashioned term these days, since clearly more than just “material” exists: energy, arrangements of spacetime, fundamental forces - these additional physical entities have given rise to the term physicalism. Thoughts and concepts, if they exist at all, simply supervene on the physical.

And this is where this fellow Harris comes in. I’ve not heard the term ‘neomaterialists’, but the physicalist view is that all customs are physical in origin. Some are merely less random and more ‘reasonable’ than others. The tribe who shuns pigs because of the pig-filled nightmare experienced by the tribal shaman caused by neuronal misfires associated with eating funny mushrooms is no less physical than reasons of desert hygeine, only more ‘abstract’ or ‘removed’ from immediate reality

Well of course in the extended sense that human behavior is dependent on peoples’ brains, which are material objects subject to the laws of physics, everything people do could be said to be “materialist”. But that’s not where Harris is coming from.

Another way of summing up his position might be “no culture will ever maintain customs that in the long run hurt their survival and prosperity”. I was interested in the analogies, if any, between Harris’ theories and the tenants of Marxism that hold that the form of society is based on that society’s system of material production (feudalism vs. capitalist industrialism vs. communism).

Maybe “economist” rather than “materialist” would be a better term, since the latter has a more formal meaning in philosophy.

Lots of societies do things that hurt their survival and prosperity – remember the Spanish Inquisition? Of course, no society can keep that up indefinitely without self-destructing. And sometimes, societies self-destruct. What happened to the Maya civilization?