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<nettime> revenge of the concept
Keith Hart on Tue, 21 Jan 2003 18:29:46 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> revenge of the concept

On Brian Holmes, Marcel Mauss and economic anthropology

>[For Polanyi] The result of market-governed exchange was to wreck the
patterns of reciprocity that had made it possible for society to reproduce
itself over time.<

>Behind these discussions one occasionally catches a glimpse of an
not Polanyi, but a figure of even greater importance: Marcel Mauss, author
of the famous essay on The Gift.<

Brian Holmes' lecture makes a coherent case for networked forms of art and
political resistance based on economic practices opposed in principle to
capitalist markets. He legitimately invokes the work of Karl Polanyi in
support of an anti-market economics, but he does not point out that Polanyi
looked to the planning structures of socialist states to implement
redistribution as an alternative to the market. The idea that Marcel Mauss
was interested in promoting something called 'the gift economy', just
because he wrote an essay on The Gift, is a fallacy shared by many
anthropologists and political activists alike. He and Polanyi agreed that
the attempt to separate the self-regulated market from social life was
disastrous, but Mauss wanted the inherently social character of markets to
be more explicitly recognized and he believed that the gift was an inferior
economic mechanism since it had sustained unequal society throughout
history, including state socialism.

Mauss is universally acknowledged to be the founder of economic
anthropology and he did it with one essay of less than a hundred pages, The
Gift, published in the mid-1920s. Anthropologists today, when they address
the economy, invariably draw on his distinction between two forms,
gift-exchange and the market, embodied in the gift and the commodity
respectively. The vast majority of them do so in a spirit of rejecting
capitalist economy, finding rather in the ethnography of exotic cultures
(which used to be called 'primitive') a romantic antidote to the crass
commercialism of their own societies. At the same time, by drawing a line
between "gift economies" and those dominated by buying and selling, these
anthropologists demarcate a zone of exclusive professional expertise,
beyond the reach of economists and other social scientists. Political
activists who wish to carve out an anti-capitalist economic domain using
the net are fundamentally similar.Mauss is consistently paraded as the
authority for this move. Yet his intentions were in many ways the opposite
of this, even if he may have prepared the ground for such a contrast
through his own separation of anthropology and politics.

Marcel Mauss led a double life. On the one hand, he was the faithful
collaborator of his uncle, Emile Durkheim, founder of the new discipline of
sociology at the turn of the century. Mauss took on the task of developing
ethnology in France as part of the wider sociological enterprise. But he
was also passionately engaged in the politics of his day. There are stories
of him hiding from his uncle when he passed Marcel talking politics with
his friends in sidewalk cafés. For a long time, academics knew Mauss only
by the small number of brilliant essays that he bequeathed to the
discipline. This exiguous output was usually explained by the myth that, as
well as being hi-jacked for his uncle's enterprises, he selflessly
organized and published the work of his comrades who were killed in the
first world war. But the publication of his political writings in 1997
(Ecrits politiques, edited by Marcel Fournier) reveals that he was a
pamphleteer far more than an ethnologist.

Of the book's 800 pages, almost two-thirds consist of short pieces written
between 1920 and 1925, from the aftermath of the first world war and the
Russian revolution to the publication of  the Essai sur le don. In these
pages Mauss is revealed as a socialist of the co-operative labour
persuasion, with affinities to movements in Britain, Germany, Switzerland
and Scandinavia. He was strongly anti-Bolshevik, but this opposition has
its roots in the split between the Marxists and the others in the last
decades of the 19th century. Roughly speaking, the co-operative socialists
believed in self-organization from below, like the anarchists and to some
extent the liberals. They believed in the unity of collective and
individual interests, as in the co-operative movement, where combination in
the market went with private property. They were against the state and for
the market. It is not surprising then that Mauss viewed the statist,
anti-market policies of the Bolsheviks with some distaste.

The index of Ecrits politiques reveals Mauss's examples to have been drawn,
in rough order, from France, Russia, England, Germany, the United States
and a number of other western countries. There is no exotic ethnography
here -- no South Sea islanders, no potlatch. In The Gift, Mauss largely
contented himself with drawing parallels between the former institutions of
some European peoples and the recent ethnographic discoveries of Malinowski
and Boas. The essay is mainly about gift-exchange as an alternative to
markets and references to contemporary capitalism are few and far between.
This coy style of comparison between here and there or now and then has
allowed subsequent generations of anthropologists and now activists to turn
his purpose upside down.

Mauss's argument is broadly this. The apologists for capitalism, the Social
Darwinists and their ilk, postulate an evolution from primitive to modern
economy in which altruistic communalism gives way to selfish individualism,
epitomized by the gift and market contract respectively. It is unfortunate,
they say; individualism may be morally inferior, but it is more effective.
Look what we have and compare it with their level. Mauss acknowledged that
gift-exchange and markets were different, but he claimed that they were
both instances of a deeper structure of exchange common to all human
societies. The principle of reciprocity, the obligation to return a gift,
is the standard way that humanity seeks to resolve the contradiction
between individual and collective interests. It combines freedom and
necessity, just as he imagined that co-operative socialism should. The main
difference between the two forms lay in the timing of the return, which in
the case of the gift was delayed and in the market contract simultaneous.
Because givers in all cultures are superior to receivers, that gap between
the gift and its return was a source of inequality, even as it sustained a
spiritual and personalized version of society; whereas participants to a
contract walk away free and equal, if alienated and alone.

It follows that Mauss thought markets were a force for greater social
equality. The idea that "my money is as good as yours" and that people walk
away from contracts having established their mutual equality was quite
widespread in the Manchester of my childhood. My grandmother, whose family
was not long emancipated from a feudal estate, refused to join the "free"
library or to accept National Health spectacles, since they smacked of the
gift and charity. She had no intention of going back to the world of
handouts from the lord and master. Today we are more sensitive perhaps to
the fact that people enter the market with huge discrepancies in the amount
of money at their disposal; and we vote for governments pledged to
redressing such inequalities through the power of the state. Mauss was
prescient (as was my grandmother) in recognizing the potential of the
welfare state to reproduce a new class system based on the superiority of
tax donors to the recipients of benefits.

The main point, however, following Emile Durkheim's De la division du
travail social (1893), was that even or especially in capitalist economies,
society is indispensable to the interplay of individual interests. The
market is an advance over gift-exchange and the unequal institutions of
pre-industrial society, but social interests have to be mobilized more
explicitly in order to mitigate the greater scope for economic inequality
that capitalism generates. This message is not made forcefully in the
essay. Mauss allows himself to observe that the gift is still a feature of
our societies. By this he means not just Christmas and weddings, but the
hierarchy built into wage and rental contracts, whereby we give our work
before being paid and pay our money before getting the place to live in. He
also adds some famous remarks about the dangers inherent in the welfare
state. This makes more sense when it is known that his active political
preference was for economic self-organization from below.

And so the bulk of his interpreters today have got Mauss wrong on two
counts, both of which he can be blamed for, but for one more than the
other. They have separated exotic ethnography from the study of the
societies in which they live. And they reject capitalist markets on the
grounds that Mauss attributed to apologists for capitalism, namely that the
gift is a primitive and ethically superior form of exchange to
individualized markets. He made the first likely by conducting his
anthropology and his politics in separate compartments. The second is an
inexcusable error, made possible by his allusive style in writing The Gift.
The one of course reinforces the other and helps us to account for the
curious phenomenon that academic anthropologists today are generally both
alienated from their own societies and know nothing of them as

A recent book brings together Brian's concerns for art and activism with
those of professional anthropologists. David Graeber's Toward An
Anthropological Theory of Value is explicitly motivated by the need to
mobilize networks against neo-liberal capitalism and it finds intellectual
nourishment in that distorted view of Mauss which I have suggested is
common to both the academic and political versions of 'economic
anthropology'. Like the Mauss of The Gift and unlike the Mauss of Ecrits
politiques, Graeber deals mainly in exotic ethnography. This is one
dualism, enshrined in an anti-market ideology, that we would be
well-advised to try to correct. Have we learned nothing from 20th century
experience? At the very least, read Mauss's essay and ask yourself what you
think he is trying to say.

Keith Hart

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