Online Seminar 23 November - 4 December: David Graeber On the moral grounds of economic relations


Everyone has heard of Marcel Mauss's The Gift, some have even read it. But it remains one of the most misunderstood texts in the anthropological canon. This is mainly because gifts are usually thought of as a unitary category opposed to the self-interest on which commerce depends. David Graeber begins by showing that the idea of the gift combines transactions based on diverse sociological principles. In this he is closer to Mauss than are many contemporary interpreters of the essay. But what he takes from Mauss is a vision and method that is counter-intuitive from a modernist perspective. This is that the basic forms of economic life are present in all societies, but are given different emphasis in particular combinations. This means that radical alternatives to capitalism can build on established practices that have been subordinated to money-making, but by no means eliminated.

David rejects the bourgeois assumption that exchange is always the dominant factor in economic life. It is however one of three modes of economic organization that have a claim to being universal in varying degree. The others are communism and hierarchy. By the first he does not mean the pattern associated with socialist states in the twentieth century, but 'everyday communism', from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs, a principle that he claims is synonymous with 'baseline sociality'. Hierarchy often draws on a rhetoric of reciprocity, but its principle is quite the opposite of exchange.

David Graeber is a distinguished economic anthropologist whose Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value (2001) has been seminal and Lost People (2007), on a former slave community in Madagascar, is a unique historical ethnography. His reflections on economy have culminated in a synthesis, Debt: The First 5,000 years (January 2011). But to some extent all this work is a means to a political end. David is a well-known anarchist whose engagement has led to the publication of Direct Action: An Ethnography (2009) and several collections of essays.

David may be something of a revolutionary, but he is also a tremendous scholar with a passion for learning. There is no living anthropologist from whom I have learned as much as from him. I am sure you will too. Please do not hesitate to join in our discussions. On the moral grounds of economic relations: a Maussian approach may be found on the OAC Press main page and a pdf version downloaded, if you prefer.

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Keith, the culture change I described is a common experience among forest-dwelling indigenous groups in my country.

Here's an article on Agta known as "Philippine Pygmies" to the American anthropologists who studied them in 1900's and how deforestation changed their culture and economic way of life.

http://www.culturalsurvival.org/ourpublications/csq/article/basketb...
I think the emphasis on imagination and creation is spot on: it is specifically by focusing on moments of social creativity, the creation of new social relations (which is in a way the most interesting part of The Gift), that we overcome the tired old dichotomies of individual and society, structure and agency, and so forth. I like to think the distinctions I was trying to develop here are helpful in that regard, because they are trying to map out that reserve of basic principles people draw on when they are being creative. It's at moments of greatest innovation, perhaps, when the universal principles are most relevant, because they are your only limits really.

About time: I think Bourdieu's time argument is brilliant but for me, it's about what makes gift _exchange_ different than commodity exchange. This is why I emphasized the importance of eternity in my account of communism (and something similar could be said about hierarchy.) Exchange relations have to be constantly recreated. It's all about the play of time. Communist relations are about people who you assume will always be there (society, the other side of the village), or people you at least treat as if they will always be there (your best friend, your mother). It's about the annihilation of that very time factor Bourdieu emphasizes. I think this is not much observed but crucially important.



Julieta Gaztañaga said:
Reframing my question, this is about how to draw upon the gift(s) -even acknowledging its heterogeneity- in explicative terms when dealing with processual approach to imagination and creation. Yes, this is about action, value, possibilities, imagination. I tend to relate these questions so far: to what extent does the relative autonomy of political work challenge the same definition of politics? To what extent the gift(s) ceases to be -not just one- when breaking it defining totality into moments? Is this just a lack of a proper explanatory dialectics? And so on.
I am perfectly happy to agree that mutual aid in house-building is not communistically organized in this case - that is, that no one is taking part except as repayment for a specific past favor, or in expectation of a future one (the communal ownership or not of the house is irrelevant; I started my essay by saying that) - but what I don't understand is the implied conclusion that this is always true everywhere, since it's easy to multiply examples where it's not. What I would emphasize is that saying "Filipinos' concept of sociality/sociability rests on reciprocity and exchange" is not the same as saying all Filipino practice of sociability can only be understood in this light. It might be that in this case, concept (the way people talk about what they do for each other) and practice (what they actually do for each other) exactly correspond, and no one ever does anything for anyone unless they think they will get some concrete advantage for themselves. I'd be rather surprised, but it's possible. Still, I thought one of the points of my original essay was precisely that people, when asked to reflect on their society in the abstract, will almost invariably fall back on a rhetoric of reciprocity that does not necessarily correspond to the logic of observable practice. That was my starting point.




M Izabel said:
Sorry, I will double post.

The community spirit called "bayanihan"-- literally, it means heroic cooperation--is the concept that glues Philippine society together. The image below is an example of "bayanihan."


Is it communistic? At first glance, it can be, but not really. The house is not communally owned. The people are not random people who help because they can and they want. The truth is that some of these people join in because their efforts are exchanged with food, drinks, or even money, while others reciprocate because the owner of the house helped them when they moved, built or destroyed their houses before. Filipinos' concept of sociality/sociability rests on reciprocity and exchange. That reciprocity is cooperation and exchange, conflict is another story.
Yes, but what you are talking about is what I started by calling "mythic communism", an idea things were once all shared in common, and that there was some kind of fall (into "society" which means property, division, hierarchy), and that someday this ideal prelapsarian state will return again. You still seem to be curiously unable to think outside it, which would explain why, despite my starting the essay by saying that I consider that to be a myth, a fairy-tale, an illusion as you say, and noting that I am not talking about communal property either first and foremost but about something quite different, you simply ignore that and argue with someone else who is making the same old arguments that I've already said I disagree with, but who you insist on treating as if it were me.

It's slightly disconcerting. But anyway, if you really believe that all human society is necessarily capitalistic, well, okay, but there's not much to further discuss. Our terms are so far apart there's little room for dialogue and we'll end up just burning up space.

Have to run to a rally; then I'll write a proper response to Heesun's excellent contribution.




M Izabel said:
That "communism makes society possible" is a beautiful idea. I used "beautiful" because "communism" is an illusory concept. It only sees the surface and does not go beneath it. How can communism be a foundation for sociability when it is actually a reduction of class to an individual? The emergence of society is the birth of social constructs such as territory, property ownership, division of labor, production. It cannot be communism that brings forth capitalism. The very idea of society is capitalistic. It has a sense of exclusivity, alienation, or hierarchy.


Thanks for your responses, David. My post on communism was my attempt to put your lofty generalization of "(everyday) communism" in several perspectives. The "communism" you define as “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” and see everyday is not always communistic. You can exclude property ownership. Let's focus on ability to give and receive. Having a party where invitees bring dishes they prepare sounds communistic, but there are other reasons why one opts to bring fried chicken. Maybe they agree beforehand what to bring. Such agreement is an indication of division of labor. Even the passing of a hammer between two carpenters can be capitalistic. Efficiency increasing output and maximizing labor is related to wage, bonus, or reward.

I may sound like a devil's advocate here, but my intent is to create holes in your argument to extend the possibility and scope of your interesting ideas. As I said before, gift is not an easy thing to generalize. The concept of value alone is impossible to define generally and totally. So, it should be expected that we should not come from the same idea.
My apology to you, David, if the following ideas are not yours. Maybe I have misread your paper.


"I define communism as any human relationship that operates on the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” I could have used a more neutral term like “solidarity,” “mutual aid,” “conviviality”, or even, “help” instead (Graeber 2010).

Prompted by Mauss, I suggest that we jettison the old-fashioned assumption that “communism” is basically about property relations, reflecting a time long ago when all things were held in common and the messianic possibility of restoring the community of property—what might be called “mythic communism”—but instead see it simply as a principle immanent in everyday life. Whenever action proceeds “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”—even if it is between two people—we are in the presence of “everyday communism”. Almost everyone behaves this way when collaborating on a common project. If someone fixing a broken water pipe says “hand me the wrench”, their co-worker will not usually say “and what do I get for it?”, even if they are working for Exxon-Mobil, Burger King or Royal Bank of Scotland. The reason is efficiency (ironic, given the conventional wisdom that “communism just doesn’t work”): if you want to get something done, allocating tasks by ability, and giving people what they need to do the job, is the most effective way to go about it. It’s one of the scandals of capitalism that most firms, internally, operate in a communistic way."

Thanks, Keith, for letting me participate boisterously. Please blame my enthusiasm, again, on my youth and my tendency to play the role of a provocateur.


Toby Austin Locke said:
I found faint parallels with David's use of this term and Derrida's idea of deconstruction, (which im still getting my head round so might haven't got this wrong.)

Wow, I want to know more about that!
And no, you didn't miss the point at all - sounds like you got it more or less precisely.
Hello David (and everyone else)

Thank you for stepping up for this great initiative, and for an engaging paper.
I want to say that I was looking forward to this seminar in part because I have really enjoyed your book on value (Graeber 2001 – I list references below), and your paper did not disappoint me. I point this out because I am nevertheless going to be a bit polemical. My comment and questions is not really ‘on’ your paper, as much as they extend from your paper:

I think you make a convincing case for working towards more complex understandings of the “logic” of gift exchange. However, this is not particularly novel. Afred Gell (1992) and Jonathan Parry (1986) for example, have similarly questioned a straightforward logic of the gift. One thing this makes me wonder about, is why so much attention is still being devoted by anthropologists specializing in exchange, to the subtleties of Mauss and the gift, compared to subtleties of other approaches to exchange that might also have been overlooked or poorly interpreted. After all ‘logics’ are only part of the story. To paraphrase a section title in your book on value, where you point this out yourself (2001:46), I am sitting wondering “why so little action”? It seems to me that some approaches commonly brushed aside as ‘transactionalist’ or ‘formalist’ are more ripe for a revisit for overlooked subtleties, than suggested by the continued massive attention to Mauss.
It is a widespread conventional wisdom that these approaches all rest on assumptions of non-socialized, maximizing individuals, and basically slip economics into anthropology through the back door. I stress that I am very sympathetic to the intent of such critiques, but I sometimes find them poorly founded. As an example, they often seem to rest in part on the simple mistake of confounding two senses of the notion of an individual, what Kapferer (1988:12) has distinguished as ‘the individual as culturally or ideologically valued’, on the one hand, and on the other ‘the individual as an empirical unit’ (the latter can indeed be socialized in whatever way, but seems indispensable from a phenomenological point of view) What is worse, I have met surprisingly few who have actually read much of what they critique in this regard.
What these approaches above all had to offer was a dynamic perspective on social life, which fundamentally seems lacking in Maussian approaches, and which Bourdieu is often credited for introducing to the debates on exchange (in terms of time), even though Bourdieu (for one) does seem rather economistic, as you also point out in your book (2001:29). Some of the earlier so-called transactionalists, such as Fredrik Barth, seems a great deal subtler than he is commonly portrayed, especially in his more recent work, which few care to read because their image of the man is what they have been told in a bunch of text books on the basis of what he wrote back in the 1950s and 1960s. His more recent work on cultural complexity (e.g. Barth 1993) seems to have at least some resonance with the more complex logics you present in this paper.

So I guess my questions are:
- why so much focus on Mauss, relative to action?
- is the latter not an inevitable step, if we want to talk of transformation, which seems to be one of your wider objectives?
- What is your view on the merit of revisiting transactionlist and similar process-oriented approaches to this end?

REFERENCES:
- Barth, F. 1993: Balinese Worlds (U. Chicago Press)
- Gell, A. 1992: Inter-tribal commodity barter and reproductive gift-exchange in old Melanesia, In C. Humphrey and S. Hugh-Jones (eds), Barter, Exchange and Value (Cambridge U. Press; 142-168)
- Graeber, D. 2001: Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value (Palgrave)
- Kapferer, B. 1988: Legends of People, Myths of State (Smithsonian)
- Parry, J. 1986: The Gift, the Indian Gift, and the ‘Indian Gift’, In Man 21(3):453-473
Thanks for checking in and it's very nice to know you liked the value book. I didn't find that particularly polemical.

It's interesting, I think you mainly answer your own question. Why Mauss? Because if one doesn't take pains to first get some sense of the full range of potential motivations immanent in any given situation, but simply leaps straight into talking about action, one will almost inevitably end up with some variation (however much modified or watered down) of economism - as do most of the authors you cite. The tell-tale word "exchange" already suggests this - I am not developing a theory of exchange here, but even more, of transactions that are not exchange. (It's also not primarily a critique of the gift; or, does so largely in order to do something else.) As you probably remember from the value book, in comparing the Marxian imperative to the Maussian, it struck me that the latter was helpful in that, in seeing all social possibilities as simultaneously present, and therefore existing institution as potentially being modifiable to be consistent with a more just social order, it avoided the dangers of falling into fatalistic cynicism typical of so much critical social theory. Of course it runs a parallel danger of leading to extreme naivete. But that's my basic answer. Whatever the flaws in Mauss' particular arguments, which tend to be scattershot, disorganized, and inconsistent, he does always insist on that inner complexity of motivations, logics, moralities, that almost no one else seems to embrace.



Jens Kjaerulff said:
Hello David (and everyone else)

Thank you for stepping up for this great initiative, and for an engaging paper.
I want to say that I was looking forward to this seminar in part because I have really enjoyed your book on value (Graeber 2001 – I list references below), and your paper did not disappoint me. I point this out because I am nevertheless going to be a bit polemical. My comment and questions is not really ‘on’ your paper, as much as they extend from your paper:

I think you make a convincing case for working towards more complex understandings of the “logic” of gift exchange. However, this is not particularly novel. Afred Gell (1992) and Jonathan Parry (1986) for example, have similarly questioned a straightforward logic of the gift. One thing this makes me wonder about, is why so much attention is still being devoted by anthropologists specializing in exchange, to the subtleties of Mauss and the gift, compared to subtleties of other approaches to exchange that might also have been overlooked or poorly interpreted. After all ‘logics’ are only part of the story. To paraphrase a section title in your book on value, where you point this out yourself (2001:46), I am sitting wondering “why so little action”? It seems to me that some approaches commonly brushed aside as ‘transactionalist’ or ‘formalist’ are more ripe for a revisit for overlooked subtleties, than suggested by the continued massive attention to Mauss.
It is a widespread conventional wisdom that these approaches all rest on assumptions of non-socialized, maximizing individuals, and basically slip economics into anthropology through the back door. I stress that I am very sympathetic to the intent of such critiques, but I sometimes find them poorly founded. As an example, they often seem to rest in part on the simple mistake of confounding two senses of the notion of an individual, what Kapferer (1988:12) has distinguished as ‘the individual as culturally or ideologically valued’, on the one hand, and on the other ‘the individual as an empirical unit’ (the latter can indeed be socialized in whatever way, but seems indispensable from a phenomenological point of view) What is worse, I have met surprisingly few who have actually read much of what they critique in this regard.
What these approaches above all had to offer was a dynamic perspective on social life, which fundamentally seems lacking in Maussian approaches, and which Bourdieu is often credited for introducing to the debates on exchange (in terms of time), even though Bourdieu (for one) does seem rather economistic, as you also point out in your book (2001:29). Some of the earlier so-called transactionalists, such as Fredrik Barth, seems a great deal subtler than he is commonly portrayed, especially in his more recent work, which few care to read because their image of the man is what they have been told in a bunch of text books on the basis of what he wrote back in the 1950s and 1960s. His more recent work on cultural complexity (e.g. Barth 1993) seems to have at least some resonance with the more complex logics you present in this paper.

So I guess my questions are:
- why so much focus on Mauss, relative to action?
- is the latter not an inevitable step, if we want to talk of transformation, which seems to be one of your wider objectives?
- What is your view on the merit of revisiting transactionlist and similar process-oriented approaches to this end?

REFERENCES:
- Barth, F. 1993: Balinese Worlds (U. Chicago Press)
- Gell, A. 1992: Inter-tribal commodity barter and reproductive gift-exchange in old Melanesia, In C. Humphrey and S. Hugh-Jones (eds), Barter, Exchange and Value (Cambridge U. Press; 142-168)
- Graeber, D. 2001: Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value (Palgrave)
- Kapferer, B. 1988: Legends of People, Myths of State (Smithsonian)
- Parry, J. 1986: The Gift, the Indian Gift, and the ‘Indian Gift’, In Man 21(3):453-473


Jens Kjaerulff said:
So I guess my questions are:
- why so much focus on Mauss, relative to action?
- is the latter not an inevitable step, if we want to talk of transformation, which seems to be one of your wider objectives?
- What is your view on the merit of revisiting transactionlist and similar process-oriented approaches to this end?

I don't think this is a diversion. In fact, you address issues raised by Julieta from another angle. I have just completed a book with Chris Hann Economic Anthropology: History, Ethnography, Critique (it's coming out in February 2011) where we take the issue of methodological individualism seriously, even if we end up coming down on the other side. Chris has more time for this stuff than I do, but even I imbibed Manchester liberalism with my mother's milk.

I think it is useful to trace Barth's transactionalism back to Raymond Firth in the 1930s. They both start from a desire to apply a method derived from neoclassical economics to concrete ethnographic situations. They demonstrate that the vocabulary and style of a utilitarian approach can be made superficially plausible, but, whenever the analysis has to be pushed hard, answers are increasingly drawn from elaborating the institutional context of individual action. The same could be said of anthropologists inspired by new institutional economics, such as Ensminger and Acheson, the latter of whom showed, against his own preferences, that an approach from rational choice could never explain agricultural economy without reference to the ethnographic context.

There are other figures you could refer to who were no more successful. Edmund Leach wrote Pul Eliya (1961) as an exercise in utilitarian explanation, but, according to most judges including me, he lost the argument with Fortes on kinship. Political Systems of Highland Burma (1954) offers a more dualistic approach, combining utilitarianism with a centralizing vision of politics. I always thought this revealed the ambivalence of Leach's class position. He was a fully paid up member of the British ruling class who liked to indulge a democratic populism from time to time. I wouldn't say the same of Bruce Kapferer, your other main example, but there is something of that dualism (when seen over a long enough period) in his work too.

David has admitted that Mauss may be inspiring for some of us, but he is also in many ways intellectually a mess. This actually encourages people to claim him as an ancestor for diametrically opposed views. So it is worthwhile bringing up the tradition that he and his uncle rejected so vigorously. Thank you, Jens.
Thank you both for these replies, which clarify some things for me. On a technical note, I actually did try to correct 'exchange' to 'transaction' when I posted this, but for some reason the change was not saved. The paper's usage of the latter term was in part what inspired the direction of my comment. I acknowledge that (e.g.) Barth's famous 1966 essays on 'Models' were loaded with a vocabulary and style that invited for the kinds of critique that eventuated, but he has responded to and acknowledged some of these critiques, in a rather overlooked essay called 'models reconsidered' (only published in his 'Collected Essays' in 1981). What I get at here is informed more by his later writings, which in my reading reflect more of an inspiration from Weber, and less explicitly an affinity to aspects of the work of Alfred Schutz and some American pragmatists (recall Barth's early training in 1940s Chicago). What you call an 'inner complexity of motivations, logics, moralities' David, is really quite central in this part of Barth's work (and very much accounted for in wider social and cultural terms). But my general point is more that the dynamic 'process' orientation that was the thrust of these approaches (also Firth's), seems to have been sacrificed. I think that is a real shame, also because I dont see that orientation as incompatible with what you highlight with Mauss, whose work after all concerned, well, transactions. For the same reason, I eagerly read from other traditions on exchange/transaction (e.g. Mauss and Marx, and I enjoyed 'Market and Society' when it came out, Keith, I look forward to your next joint project with Chris Hann), and this is why this remains somewhat of a puzzle to me. Frankly, I believe I share your anxieties about 'Manchester liberalism' entirely, which is another reason that the charge of propounding it irks me a bit.
But I got my answers, this was more a further comment ... I think this initiative is brilliant!
Jens, I am sorry that my response irked you, although I thought it would. You are the victim of a class action suit that goes back to my time in Manchester with Bruce in the early 70s. I fully understand that the subtleties of individual positions over time are not easily captured in the reductive classifications that animate telegraphic exchanges such as our traffic here. But I would encourage you to distinguish between transactionalism and utilitarianism. It is also the case that Radcliffe-Brown defined function as the relationship between structure and process and nobody thought of calling his theory dynamic. Let us not ignore Malinowski either who developed a synthesis of Austrian and English individualism. You see the problem when you try in a short post to distinguish late Barth or early Kapferer from the economistic tradition. They may twist and turn in later life to avoid denigration by association, but they will always run up against dinosaurs like me who do not easily forgive what they wrote in the 60s and 70s, since I had to fight it (and a version of myself). I am entirely convinced that you have something constructive to offer our conversation that is not mired in these antediluvian conflicts. So I would encourage you to help us to understand what that might be.

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