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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Thanks, David, for your very full and considerate responses. I intend to return to the issue of the non-contractual element of the contract when I get back from Berlin. But I thought I would pitch in a political question here as one way of getting another line going. In any case I know that we both see the world primarily in political terms and I would like to use this opportunity to explore overlaps and differences in what we mean by that. Of course, this is not a private conversation between you and me, but one intended for others to join.

Mauss was a cooperative socialist, much influenced by the English tradition of the Rochdale Pioneers, Keir Hardie and so on. He was a friend of Sidney and Beatrice Webb who played a major role in the formation of the Fabian Society, LSE (yes it was once a progressive institution) and the Labour Party's Clause 4 on nationalization of the means of production. He was active in the French Section of the Workers International (SFIO), wasted his inheritance on a failed Cooperative Bakery and frequently declared himself to be anti-capitalist. He embraced the Webbs' idea of a consumer democracy and referred sometimes to the need for a revolution, even if he actively disapproved of the Bolshevik version. He was far from being hostile to markets as such and this might introduce some distance between himself and those revolutionary tendencies that explicitly reject commerce.

Here is a passage from the introduction to The Human Economy: A Citizen's Guide that I co-wrote:

"Marcel Mauss argued that we must rely on practical experience for information and analysis; in other words, start from the ‘real economic movement’. This is a concept of social change as self-expression, of change which is, in Mauss’s words, "by no means committed to revolutionary or radical alternatives, to brutal choices between two contradictory forms of society", but which "is and will be made by a process of building new groups and institutions alongside and on top of the old ones". Rather than make an abstract appeal to an alternative economy, Mauss showed us a concrete road to ‘other economies’ based on the field of possibilities already open to us."

Is this position, whose premise you surely share at some level, compatible with a program of revolutionary change? I guess I am asking for some further reflection on the meaning of 'revolution' in Mauss's thought and especially yours. I do so because in France, where I live, some fairly rigid positions are marked out on the left between varieties of political recipe for change. I would love to get beyond them and thought you might be able to help. Would we be better off without the word 'revolution' in the first place?
My take is that reciprocity for Levi-Strauss is a cognitive principle that can have perceptual, moral and political aspects. For Mauss reciprocity is social - it is a fact that emerges from how society comes into being and is part of the meaning of society. Both of them drew on Kant for whom reciprocity is the necessary flipside of community: it is a 'primary analogy' which all human beings draw on: you can't have a notion of community without the idea of reciprocation - community implies reciprocation or interaction.

Here is a question though - doesn't hierarchy depend on an in-group communism of sorts? If we think of the boundaries set up around caste or class don't they depend on the maintenance of a kind of communistic mentality of undifferentiation? For example, when Larry Summers says it is OK to dump toxic waste in Africa because Africans are different to us (see Achirri Ishmael's poem blog), then isn't the thinking akin to the communistic one - 'we can share because we are basically the same - the others share their particular sameness too'? So Hierarchy has a communistic element built into it. Only with reciprocity is there a gain to reaching out to people we don't like.

I think what is at issue here is our definition of reciprocity. If "reciprocity" just means that there are two parties both of whom do something to or for the other (one can have a reciprocal exchange of blows after all), then "reciprocity" is just "interaction" or maybe "binary interaction" and I at least can think of no reason why we need to use the expression "reciprocity" at all - "interaction" will do. If it is an exchange of like for like in some way, trading jokes or trading blows, even if they don't balance out, well, then the point about exchange being the quantification of reciprocity, or that reciprocity can be of radically different or incommensurable things, is no longer true. If reciprocity is the exchange of things that are in some way assumed to be equivalent, and tending towards some sort of balancing out, then the point about "exchange being the quantification of reciprocity" is either no longer true, or makes exchange a very specific thing, much more so than we ordinarily consider it, since, exchanging favors or greetings becomes either an idle metaphor, or itself a form of quantification, which strikes me as unwieldy.

My preference then is rather to see reciprocity as the moral principle that in certain circumstance, each side should give as good as they get, in some sense, however vague or abstract, that justice is a matter of balancing out. Hence the famous scales as a symbol of justice. An eye for an eye. Do unto others. Almost all expressions of abstract justice tend to rely on the language of reciprocity.
"If reciprocity is the exchange of things that are in some way assumed to be equivalent, and tending towards some sort of balancing out, then the point about "exchange being the quantification of reciprocity" is either no longer true, or makes exchange a very specific thing, much more so than we ordinarily consider it, since, exchanging favors or greetings becomes either an idle metaphor, or itself a form of quantification, which strikes me as unwieldy."

Indeed, in Philippine experience, reciprocity is separate from exchange. The former is unquantifiable, abstract, and continuous-- oftentimes, never-ending.

I remember this good example from my economic anthropology class years ago:

A good doctor saves a brilliant lawyer's life; thus the lawyer is eternally indebted to the doctor. If the doctor encounters a malpractice lawsuit, the lawyer is expected to help to reciprocate the act of the doctor that saved his life before. What are received or given in this scenario are irrelevant but the acts of giving and receiving. If the doctor wins his case, the give-and-take relationship does not end there. The relationship will be passed on to the children and the grandchildren of both individuals. The doctor will probably send a broiled pig (lechon) to the lawyer's house, and later, the lawyer will give the doctor a book or offer his time to write the doctor's last will. It is not the material gift or the exact service but the act that is being reciprocated.

Exchange, again in Philippine experience, is quantifiable, formally or informally contracted and agreed upon, and short-term. A doctor and a lawyer, for example, have an arrangement that the former will help the latter with his hypertension, and in return, the lawyer will help the doctor with his legal case. Such transactional relationship is brief, impersonal, and professional. It balances and cancels out payment-and-debt and benefactor-and-beneficiary relationships.

On incomplete contract where gift is given to establish relationship:

I went to a Korean-owned laundromat months ago. It was my first time to go there because my chef coat got stained. I thought it needed an extraordinary laundry machine. The owner assured me that he could do the job. The next day when I picked it up, the hint of the stain was still visible. The owner said, "You don't have to pay this because you can still see the stain." He offered his laundry service to me as a "gift" because the "contract" was incomplete. From then on, I have become his loyal client.

On Mauss' idea that there is no free gift:

I agree,but his explanation seems incomplete. The logic of Testart's beggar example can easily refute it. To support Mauss' argument in relation to Testart's critique, the biosociality of the concept of gift should be dealt with so reciprocal altruism would be relevant. One can see reciprocal altruism among Vietnam war veterans begging on American streets and by California freeways and the people who give them money, food, and even jobs. They have with them signs written on cardboards that say," Feel good, help the homeless," "Give food for karma," or "Unload the weight in your pocket." There is a biosocial explanation why people help, donate, and give. It can be to relieve stress or lessen guilt, besides the psychospiritual belief that the divine is watching, and will give graces to kind givers. Giving, to some, can be therapeutic. Even the sign, "I won't lie; it's for beer," makes people laugh, enjoy their street experience, and give their spare change. "Will work for food" is also reciprocally altruistic.



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It seems that David has gone missing. Wednesday was a big student demo in London and he was certainly in that. Maybe he got locked up or injured. Or more likely he got caught up in the sit-ins that followed. The authorities are getting worried. In the meantime, there is nothing to stop us carrying on our conversation and I will if no-one else wants to.
No, no, here I am! Sorry, Keith. I was at the demo Wednesday, and was kettled all day so I couldn't post (I was also attacked by Sky News goons at one point - I mean, literally, a lot of lecturers get attacked by the press for supporting demonstrators, but I got attacked physically!) - but anyway I had a slight flu already before being effectively detained with 5000 people on a freezing block at Whitehall and then I had to spend yesterday being an external examiner and catching up on everything. But I am back now. I'll post some replies before I have to run off to Bristol to do a lecture at an occupied university.



Keith Hart said:
It seems that David has gone missing. Wednesday was a big student demo in London and he was certainly in that. Maybe he got locked up or injured. Or more likely he got caught up in the sit-ins that followed. The authorities are getting worried. In the meantime, there is nothing to stop us carrying on our conversation and I will if no-one else wants to.
Glad to hear it wasn't life-threatening, although storm-troopers from the TV news is original. If you are in a rush, we can put the revolution thread on hold. I wanted to thank you for the extremely rich comment on gifts and contracts, some of which I reproduce below. I could go on about that for a long while and maybe will, even if it turns out only to be of esoteric interest to you and me. But for now I will make space for renewed exchange between you and the rest.


David Graeber said:
Oh and as for the contract...
Mauss seems to have been trying to demonstrate that, rather than the original contract being a Hobbesian social contract required to create the force of the state which could then serve to enforce all other contracts, made necessary by our self-interested, aggrandizing natures, the original contract was a gift relation, basically, an agreement not to act in self-interested, aggrandizing ways that would require state enforcement. However, this essentially means, no contract at all in the contemporary sense of the term - just obligation. In that sense, Sahlins is right I think that Mauss was taking up the Hobbesian problem.

Myself, I wonder if any of this really works. I'd be willing to be convinced. But it strikes me that contracts, in our familiar Roman law sense at least, are kind of intrinsically - they always imply actors who cannot be trusted to act on good faith, and therefore, which require some sort of means of external enforcement. That's the non-contractual - in the sense of, not agreed to by the two parties - element.

...a contract is what you only need to insist on when dealing with people you can’t trust. This is why everything has to be set out in writing and made legally enforceable, which means, that either party can appeal to lawyers, courts and judges, and ultimately, orders backed up with the full powers of prisons and police. It’s also why the parties to the contract are able to specify everything exactly in the first place: in relations based on trust, love, and mutual devotion, everything is always much more flexible. Legally, one peculiar result is that, most contracts not only involve money, they have to involve money so as to establish it’s that kind of arrangement; contracts are not legally binding unless some money changes hands. Gifts for instance have no legal standing.
Sorry I didn't attend to this one earlier.
Just a couple remarks:

Gustaf Redemo said:
I read the piece today and I thought it to be interesting. Thought provoking is a good word to describe it. I must admit that I disliked the way communism was used. It is mostly out of ideological grounds.

David defines it as follows: 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.

I wouldn't call the spontaneous help one gives somebody as communistic act. In another context one could call it good citizen, good Christian, good Muslim what ever. A good Nazi would maybe be to far to go. I see a problem to use that term since it has too much ideological weight and to many dark associations, to me and to many more. I would have prefered the other terms.

Well, I was being intentionally provocative, but the point is not to say that people who called themselves Communists, in the sense of members of a Communist Party, were particularly more communist than anyone else - actually in many ways, I think they tended to be distinctly less so. I am trying to radically reframe the way we think about these things. Here I'm actually following Mauss, who wanted to ask (among other things) why anti-capitalist ideas have the appeal they do in the first place. If we are all simply bourgeois subjects constructed by the totalizing capitalist system then why does so much of it seem wrong to us? Why did the idea of communism ever sound like it would make sense? The answer: because we actually live our lives this way much of the time already. I think it's important to make this point because there is a huge and constant ideological offensive the other way. I see it all the time, even on the most basic, elementary level. A few days ago I observed a friend of mine talking to her twelve-year-old, who felt that equal sharing out of responsibilities by abilities and needs when it came to - I don't remember, walking the dog or something - seemed the best way to approach something in her family (I forget what). She immediately said, with decisive authority, "no, that would be communism, and we can't have communism because communism doesn't work." So people do make the connection all the time. I therefore feel it is extremely important to point out that, no, actually, communism in this sense does work, even if state-directed marketless command economies didn't work as well as they claimed (or, work well enough to compete with capitalist super-powers anyway) - and again, they weren't particularly communist in my sense anyway, or even in their own, since they all claimed communism was some distant future utopia. In fact practical "from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs" arrangements work so well that corporations have to let people organize themselves on this basis in work teams all the time, or people revert to it in an emergency, again, because even if they are ideologically opposed to the idea, it's the only thing that really works.

I work in the tourist industry. This means we have to always believe the guest is always right. Sometimes this leads to conflicts. I have had a few of those. Especially with internet there is a tendency for some to misunderstand what they have booked and paid for. It sometimes comes to a discussion. We give gifts, say a breakfast, to please them, to take away the bad feelings that occurred in the discussion. How are one to intepret this gift according to the three points you discuss?

Oh to me that's just exchange. I think commercial relations tend to reduce everything to an exchange and the little gift given to someone with a complaint is a way of symbolically wiping out a perceived debit with a credit. That's all.
Well, my quick response would be:

The Filipino notion of inherited gifts of gratitude is interesting but otherwise you seem to be simply pointing out the difference between what's usually called gift exchange (the unquantified/unquantifiable exchange of favors, etc) and commodity exchange (where you can calculate exactly what's equivalent to what and cancel it all out). Incidentally, I didn't say treating someone to dinner because they gave one a ride is "interaction." What I said was that if you define reciprocity as any back-and-forth where there's no at least tacit principle of equivalence, an idea that what's given and received on each side could balance out, then it becomes indistinguishable from interaction. A moment's thought reveals that if someone is repaying dinner with a ride, this implies that a dinner and a ride are in some sense equivalents. They might not be exactly quantifiable equivalents. But they are considered equivalent in a broad ballpark sense. Since as I noted above, if you went up to someone and said "thanks for dinner, here, have this toothpick" - that would be an insult, and if you said "thanks for dinner, here, have this Rolls Royce and my estate in Surrey..." Well, you get the idea. This is why gift economies, as Munn or Gregory for instance detail, often tend to have elaborate systems of ranked _types_ of valuable, even if they don't have money (a system which can establish proportional values, how many X equal one Y, rather than just as in a rank system, saying As are better than Bs which are better than Cs, but Ds fall into the same category as As so are all roughly equal).




M Izabel said:
"If reciprocity is the exchange of things that are in some way assumed to be equivalent, and tending towards some sort of balancing out, then the point about "exchange being the quantification of reciprocity" is either no longer true, or makes exchange a very specific thing, much more so than we ordinarily consider it, since, exchanging favors or greetings becomes either an idle metaphor, or itself a form of quantification, which strikes me as unwieldy."

Indeed, in Philippine experience, reciprocity is separate from exchange. The former is unquantifiable, abstract, and continuous-- oftentimes, never-ending.

I remember this good example from my economic anthropology class years ago:

A good doctor saves a brilliant lawyer's life; thus the lawyer is eternally indebted to the doctor. If the doctor encounters a malpractice lawsuit, the lawyer is expected to help to reciprocate the act of the doctor that saved his life before. What are received or given in this scenario are irrelevant but the acts of giving and receiving. If the doctor wins his case, the give-and-take relationship does not end there. The relationship will be passed on to the children and the grandchildren of both individuals. The doctor will probably send a broiled pig (lechon) to the lawyer's house, and later, the lawyer will give the doctor a book or offer his time to write the doctor's last will. It is not the material gift or the exact service but the act that is being reciprocated.

Exchange, again in Philippine experience, is quantifiable, formally or informally contracted and agreed upon, and short-term. A doctor and a lawyer, for example, have an arrangement that the former will help the latter with his hypertension, and in return, the lawyer will help the doctor with his legal case. Such transactional relationship is brief, impersonal, and professional. It balances and cancels out payment-and-debt and benefactor-and-beneficiary relationships.

On incomplete contract where gift is given to establish relationship:

I went to a Korean-owned laundromat months ago. It was my first time to go there because my chef coat got stained. I thought it needed an extraordinary laundry machine. The owner assured me that he could do the job. The next day when I picked it up, the hint of the stain was still visible. The owner said, "You don't have to pay this because you can still see the stain." He offered his laundry service to me as a "gift" because the "contract" was incomplete. From then on, I have become his loyal client.

On Mauss' idea that there is no free gift:

I agree,but his explanation seems incomplete. The logic of Testart's beggar example can easily refute it. To support Mauss' argument in relation to Testart's critique, the biosociality of the concept of gift should be dealt with so reciprocal altruism would be relevant. One can see reciprocal altruism among Vietnam war veterans begging on American streets and by California freeways and the people who give them money, food, and even jobs. They have with them signs written on cardboards that say," Feel good, help the homeless," "Give food for karma," or "Unload the weight in your pocket." There is a biosocial explanation why people help, donate, and give. It can be to relieve stress or lessen guilt, besides the psychospiritual belief that the divine is watching, and will give graces to kind givers. Giving, to some, can be therapeutic. Even the sign, "I won't lie; it's for beer," makes people laugh, enjoy their street experience, and give their spare change. "Will work for food" is also reciprocally altruistic.



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Yes, precisely. That's why I speak of "baseline communism" as a kind of ground state. You need some minimal level f it to engage in any relation that isn't of absolute hostility. Exchange too. That is why in a souk, before a major purchase, you often have to share tea and create mock-hospitality before you get down to mock-combat when you start bargaining. But exchange relations can be canceled out, whereas hierarchy is assumed, like communism, to be permanent, and thus has stronger affinities. One reason egalitarian communism has such dangers of slipping into hierarchy if people don't create constant safeguards.



Huon Wardle said:

Here is a question though - doesn't hierarchy depend on an in-group communism of sorts? If we think of the boundaries set up around caste or class don't they depend on the maintenance of a kind of communistic mentality of undifferentiation? For example, when Larry Summers says it is OK to dump toxic waste in Africa because Africans are different to us (see Achirri Ishmael's poem blog), then isn't the thinking akin to the communistic one - 'we can share because we are basically the same - the others share their particular sameness too'? So Hierarchy has a communistic element built into it. Only with reciprocity is there a gain to reaching out to people we don't like.

well - several responses here
first, any argument about "the origins of the idea of contract" is going to be at best a thought experiment, at worst, absurd and hopefully outmoded evolutionism. I assume that none of us are, nowadays, treating the evolutionist elements in Mauss as literally true, but rather, as ways of getting at ideas and connections we might not have thought of otherwise. Such as the relation of gift and contract considered over time.

second, yes, every language and culture has its own modalities of gift exchange and these are endlessly different but I always assumed the point of anthropology was that difference can only be understood on the basis of underlying structural similiarities of _some_ sort - that these underlying structural similarities are what make us all fellow humans - and that thus the study of difference and similarity are the same thing. Hence the importance of emphasizing that all these possibilities are simultaneously present, the question is how they're weighted, combined, nuanced, and articulated.

third, I'm a bit hesitant about generalizing about "the gift" in any way because "the gift" is a negative category - it's basically any transfer of something considered an economic good that isn't framed on an expressly commercial logic. There is absolutely no reason to assume that all non-commercial transactions should have any traits in common, aside from being transactions (and even that is tricky to define) - and indeed, my argument is that they need not. I do think that many of the most interesting gifts slip around between the three principles, partake of all of them to varying degrees, etc - they play off the ambiguities. This is one of the things that makes the lit on "the gift" so rich and interesting. But it's still very deceptive in assuming there's a single object.



Gustaf Redemo said:
I must admit I found the essay fairly difficult. There are so many threads to consider. I read parts of it again to try to be able to work with the argumentation. But it goes of in so many directions it is complicated to find somewhere to start.

First I think Izabel is correct in the comment: With gift, reciprocity, contract, exchange, or even transaction, it is not easy to come up with generalizing theories due to the fact that every culture has its own notions of giving, receiving, debt, value, ethics, gratitude uniquely expressed in its own language.

I postulate that Mauss was wrong if he tried to prove that the original contract: was a gift relation, basically, an agreement not to act in self-interested, aggrandizing ways that would require state enforcement as Keith writes.

Here I found Huon's statement more fertile: For Mauss reciprocity is social - it is a fact that emerges from how society comes into being and is part of the meaning of society. Both of them drew on Kant for whom reciprocity is the necessary flipside of community: it is a 'primary analogy' which all human beings draw on: you can't have a notion of community without the idea of reciprocation - community implies reciprocation or interaction.

Instead I try to use the terms reciprocity and hierarchy when contemplating the development of taxes in the European history.

In today Western society one pays the taxes automatically. It is money one doesn't even see. During the Medieval days the bailiff came and collected the taxes. One saw what one lost. There goes the lamb. But what did the farmer get in turn? The house wasn't torched down.

In those days the state wasn't much different to the gangs in Belarus (is it a modern phenomenon?). It was more of a monopoly of violence. There wasn't any reciprocity. This also led to revolts, which if they went too far were knocked down upon with lots of blood fertilizing the earth.

The nobility didn't have to pay taxes, but provided soldiers instead... Well I think most of you already know the history of the European countries since they are similar. What I'm trying to get to is the contract in the Hobbesian manner is only half-true, since Leviathan didn't really do his part of the bargain. He just collected taxes to use for his castles and wars. The little man didn't get anything out of it. But through the progression of time the contract got more and more valid.

In the welfare state it is the state which provides the protection and welfare for the needy through the taxes. Although they aren't doing enough of the bargain, thinks some, and use private security firms, private schools, private health care and so on. The hierarchy between the state and the individual has come to a standstill. The question is where to go now?

Here is the thinking of the gift interesting, since the welfare state as an institution, is held in suspicion. You write David:
The logic of hierarchy, then, is the opposite of reciprocity. Whenever the lines of superiority and inferiority are clearly drawn and accepted by all parties and relations involve more than arbitrary force, they will be regulated by a web of habit or custom. Is the welfare state keeping to its promises? No some say and blame it on lack of resources. There is a scapegoat, which is the immigrant. To speak with Simmel he is the stranger who comes but doesn't necessarily stay. His relation in the society isn't established. He isn't part of the system. He is a potential free rider.

Here I come to think of Thoreau who said I don't believe in the war against Mexico. I won't pay that tax. In the highly impersonal society we live in now we don't have that choice. We can't decide to go to prison. We don't have any moral freedom when we give. I don't support the war in Afghanistan. Well says the state: I don't care.

What has happened to the gift? It is on the personal interactive level of exchange and communism. It is part of friendship and creation of and keeping a relationship. This I think is universal. It is part of the innate herd mentality of the human being. What is amazing is how sophisticatedly developed it is in every culture.
David Graeber said:

Oh and as for the contract...
Mauss seems to have been trying to demonstrate that, rather than the original contract being a Hobbesian social contract required to create the force of the state which could then serve to enforce all other contracts, made necessary by our self-interested, aggrandizing natures, the original contract was a gift relation, basically, an agreement not to act in self-interested, aggrandizing ways that would require state enforcement. However, this essentially means, no contract at all in the contemporary sense of the term - just obligation. In that sense, Sahlins is right I think that Mauss was taking up the Hobbesian problem.

Myself, I wonder if any of this really works. I'd be willing to be convinced. But it strikes me that contracts, in our familiar Roman law sense at least, are kind of intrinsically - they always imply actors who cannot be trusted to act on good faith, and therefore, which require some sort of means of external enforcement. That's the non-contractual - in the sense of, not agreed to by the two parties - element.

...a contract is what you only need to insist on when dealing with people you can’t trust. This is why everything has to be set out in writing and made legally enforceable, which means, that either party can appeal to lawyers, courts and judges, and ultimately, orders backed up with the full powers of prisons and police. It’s also why the parties to the contract are able to specify everything exactly in the first place: in relations based on trust, love, and mutual devotion, everything is always much more flexible. Legally, one peculiar result is that, most contracts not only involve money, they have to involve money so as to establish it’s that kind of arrangement; contracts are not legally binding unless some money changes hands. Gifts for instance have no legal standing.


To take the last point first, Richard Hyland has written a 700-page book on the law of gifts. It may be a mess and modern law may be generally hostile to gifts, but they do have legal standing. The law of gifts covers the capacity to give, the gift promise, the making and revocation of gifts. Gifts are taken to be gratuitous transfers of property: a donor within his lifetime enriches another without compensation.

It seems to me, David, that you operate with a dualistic approach which draws a line between commercial contracts using money and the rest for which the gift may or may not be a useful metaphor. You have to identify positive features of non-market relations and come up with trust, love, flexibility and the like. You also identify the non-contractual element in contracts with state force. Yet it is my understanding of Mauss that the line between gift-exchange and market is blurred for him and that social custom, trust etc play a significant part in the economic relations involving money and markets.

A relationship of trust is one where someone accepts the risk of another's possible default. It is not one where the outcome is guaranteed. There may be a cultural difference here since I find that many Americans think 'Trust me' means 'Know that I will do you good', whereas for Brits there is always that risk of default. In an article on kinship contract and trust, I once suggested a continuum of words for belief ( something 'held dear') from faith through trust to confidence in which its emotional strength is inversely related to factual knowledge, from blind faith to open-eyed confidence with trust in a vague intermediate zone linked to the idea of friendship.

But one problem with our discourse, as Gustaf and others have implied, is that we are debating metaphysical differences of interpretation whose source is not being made explicit and in ways that defy concrete verification. Thus Huon refers to our discussion here in his Letter from Jamaica for 25-11, where he tries to classify some activities of a friend using terms that appear to form a set in our discourse.

I will make a stab at why I think Mauss's essay is subject to such widely divergent interpretations. He was not anti-market and even wrote as a financial journalist with some sense of familiarity with 'the markets' as an insider. He set out to refute Malinowski's ideological contrast between the generosity of the gift and self-interested commerce as essentially a bourgeois one. He was a socialist and anti-capitalist who thought that markets and money could and did serve the common interest.

A largely American version of that same bourgeois ideology has flourished over the last three decades, prompted, as you suggest, by a Sahlins who, in 'The sociology of primitive exchange', described commercial exchange as 'negative reciprocity', akin to theft. All of this leads to a strong contrast between 'gift economy' and 'market or commodity economy' which was very far from Mauss's intention in his esasay. I think you retain this polar contrast in your analysis and this anti-market bias (with its roots in the work of the substantivists) pushes you towards a dualism that contradicts the overall thrust of your essay here, which endorses pluralism and mixture of ideal types in social practice.

I don't know how we can overcome this metaphysical block to genuine intellectual exchange, get beyond ships passing in the night. But I don't think it will be by refining concepts or producing selective anecdotes. At the very least we need to interrogate the set of relevant terms. I find your triad of concepts very good to think with, but it isn't obvious how they may be mapped onto gift vs market/contract/commodity.
Just a point in brief about the Jamaican friend Keith indicated. I think in his case the description of 'communism' might fit in a certain way if you take his attempts to build a notion of 'good living' (the good life) by embedding positive relationships in a mix of money, credit and 'giving away' activities. It is this embedding during a life-time that starts to look somewhat like 'communism' (though he would find that descriptive quite bizarre). It is important to consider aging and death as aspects of this if we are interested in individuals.

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