Material Girls and Lumpenproletariat


Sometimes I think of myself as a “material girl” but then I remember I’m not young, I’m not a girl and I’m not fond of Marvin Harris. Harris was a material girl, in the sense that he argued, as Madonna said, “we are living in a material world and I am a material girl”. In other words, it all comes down to material culture for Marvin Madonna and Marilyn.

For Madonna, “only boys who save their pennies make my rainy day, ’cause they are living in a material world and I am a material girl”.
The music video for “Material Girl” (left) was inspired byMarilyn Monroe‘s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” (right), from the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

sacred-cowFor Harris, the lyrics might have gone something like this:

“Only cows that pull and poop (and lactate) make my theory sway” (bonus points to any who can decipher that cryptic line).


ON OTHER HAND, Philippe Bourgois is cool, looks cool and has some very good points to make. Maybe his appellation caused this but he seems to be the least bourgois (i.e., in Marxist contexts, “upholding the interests of capitalism; not communist”) Bourgois I can imagine.

I am most impressed by Philippe Bourgois‘ resurrection of the word “Lumpen”. In his Lumpen Abuse: The Human Cost of Righteous Neoliberalism (2011), he states,

This chapter argues for re-framing Marx’s concept of class through a redefinition of the problematic but creative category of “lumpen” to develop a “theory of lumpen abuse under punitive neoliberalism.” To do this, we draw from Foucault’s understanding of subjectivity and biopower, Bourdieu’s concepts of symbolic violence and habitus, and Primo Levi’s insights on the invisibility of Holocaust-like gray areas in routine daily life and we re-define the lumpen as those vulnerable populations for whom biopower (the state-mediated forces and discourses of disciplinary modernity that are normally life- enhancing) has become abusive rather than productive. Our era’s economy, its structures of service provision, and the symbolic violence of individual achievement and free market efficiency condemns increasingly large proportions of the transgressive and unemployed poor to processes of lumpenization, which decimate bodies and amplify suffering. (2011:7)

The term “lumpen” comes from lumpenproletariat (lum·pen·pro·le·tar·i·at) or for the linguistically inclined, /ˈləmpənˌprōləˈte(ə)rēət,ˈlo͝om-/ . It is a noun in Marxist terminology and refers to the lowest of the lower classes. Those poor people that are so unorganized and unpolitical that they are unaware of their victimization. Consequently, they are on no use to Marx’s ideas about revolution and in fact, may be an impediment to it. In grad school, they made us read The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. This is the first and likely last time it will be of use to me!

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  • Brionna Mendoza  On March 17, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    Honestly, I’m struggling to understand this concept a little bit. From what I understand of Harris, underlying all aspects of culture (i.e. religion, gift giving, etc.) is the drive to maintain access to materials, or production factors. So, let’s say that I have a rich, old aunt to whom I send a Christmas card every year. Perhaps in the eyes of some anthropologists, this is a practice arising out of the spirit of the season in which people reach out to loved ones. Harris, however, would view this as my attempt to ensure that I have some sort of access to this beloved aunt’s resources. Is this in the ballpark, maybe? Not really? Someone please help me!
    Regarding the concept of the “lumpenization” of the poor, I’d say that there is some truth in this, especially given the class demonstration from Monday. If one is so poor that he or she must constantly work to maintain the most basic survival, how could that person find time to be fully aware of the widespread, dire situation that his or her full class faces? Furthermore, a person in this situation could not simply quit a job to try to participate in a revolution. If he or she did that, they would be dead within a few days due to starvation. The lumpenproletariat operate on basic survival instincts, leaving little room for consideration of their widen political circumstance.

  • TheAnthroGeek  On March 18, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    RE: Harris, yes, that is correct: A functional analysis looks PRIMARILY at those actions that help maintain resources, etc.
    And good point re: the plight of “the lumpen”

  • Ian Whiting  On March 18, 2015 at 3:48 pm

    I take particular disagreement to the simplicity of Harris’ argument, although it has a certain amount of validity behind it. The implication behind his theory is that all cultural behavior boils down to a need to adapt to the environment. Furthermore, there is the implication that all human cultures seek to expand through exploiting the environment, but risk population crashes. Having skimmed over his 1977 Cannibals and Kings, I found Harris’ explanations of cultural practices to be one-sided. For example, he asserts that the Jewish mitzvah against eating pork comes from the fact that pigs are ill-suited to desert environments and would have competed with the ancient Israelites for food. He then goes on to say that Muslims continued this tradition as they also lived in similar environments. If this is true, then why do European Jews and Muslims continue to follow such dietary laws? How does it also explain the fact that some Christian groups follow these laws, despite living in areas suitable for raising pigs? Similarly, if not eating pork stems from the uncleanly nature of pigs, then why do these groups maintain their laws long after the adoption of food safety laws and regulatory standards which make pork safe to eat? Perhaps at one time these laws had a materialist function, but today they are followed for symbolic reasons. Harris also makes absurd claim that the Aztec people practiced cannibalism due to the fact that their agricultural society lacked sufficient protein sources.

  • Lennin  On March 20, 2015 at 8:43 am

    Harri’s point that all cultural actions boil down to material/social resources is very minimalistic. In doing so he is missing important observations, about culture. To say that materials influence language, just to have access to resources, is limiting. He completely misinterprets cultural actions as if they didn’t have any symbolism to them. For example Harris might say that bring various foods to a grave on Dia De Los Muertos, is just a display of status, or that if somehow enables/maintains access to resources. The point is that Harris might have missed some important observation, because he was so focused on boiling down culture to access to resources and environment.

  • Elizabeth Zepeda  On March 20, 2015 at 10:42 am

    Harris thinks that a new model of anthropology can be to simple terms of economy (materialism). In his point of view all cultural differences are due to economics. He argues that every society should deal with their own problems of reproducing material goods. He agreed with Marx the the mode of production in the material like of a nation determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life.

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