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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I agree you are right that there is always a danger of falling in love with one's abstractions and missing out on all the living subtlety of any given ethnographic case. However, any description is a implicit comparison, and any comparison has to be based on some shared terms of comparison, and if you don't make these explicit, you're probably just going to end up reproducing your own culture's folk terms as if they were universal - of which the past tendency to reduce everything to exchange strikes me as a telling example.

To put it in more strategic concerns: there is the question of the relation between ethnography and anthropology (using the latter word in the sense of as a systematic project of cultural comparison). They are inseparable, but does each inform the other? And which is one's ultimate aim in any given context? I do think my terms can be useful for idiographic purposes - as aids to understand a particular cultural universe seen as a value in itself. But even more, perhaps, I think it's useful as an intervention in how we think about - well, you can call it the human condition, if you like - but maybe even better, one can think of it as potentialities. Understanding the range of economic systems that have existed also expands, or at least helps to focus, our conceptions of those that could exist. This is a role others look to anthropologists to fill all the time - since we alone have access to the full range of human political, economic, social experience - but anthropologists often seem extremely reluctant to take up. Still, since no one else can do it, isn't this something of a responsibility for us - not as individuals, I'm not arguing that, but certainly, as a discipline?




Gustaf Redemo said:
As you say the proposals we invent tools for the bricoleur to be able to play around with the world. It is a daunting task to interpret the shadows on the wall.

One can look at the structure and through the structure try to interpret the difference between cultures. As you write: every language and culture has its own modalities of gift exchange and these are endlessly different

As in the pig example Izabel gave this would rather be thought of a vengeance than an honest thank you in Berlin. I would also think that somebody in the business district of Manila, would be less overwhelmed than a farmer. I remember an old colleague of mine whose daughters got strange gifts like goats from their neighbour. It wasn't really appreciated. Especially after all the escapes and the tulips were gone.

To study the underlying structural similarities is good, but it remains a trampoline to be able to jump higher into the sphere of symbols and meaning. As you say: how they're weighted, combined, nuanced, and articulated.

Either/or-thinking is of course intellectually easier, and emphasizing that all these possibilities are simultaneously present can be more rewarding. But can the agility with the tool be kept when one tries to use it for too many tasks?

I read the Gift many years ago. What I liked about it was the psychological aspect Mauss hinted at. I remember discussing it with colleagues of mine, who didn't study anthropology, but immediately grasped that aspect. We discussed for example why the foreign cashier said please when they gave back the change. And Swedish cashier said thank you. The foreign way seemed more logical. Is it in Sweden a way to show that a cashier is hierarchically on a lower level in society?


David Graeber said:
I think it's useful as an intervention in how we think about - well, you can call it the human condition, if you like - but maybe even better, one can think of it as potentialities. Understanding the range of economic systems that have existed also expands, or at least helps to focus, our conceptions of those that could exist. This is a role others look to anthropologists to fill all the time - since we alone have access to the full range of human political, economic, social experience - but anthropologists often seem extremely reluctant to take up. Still, since no one else can do it, isn't this something of a responsibility for us - not as individuals, I'm not arguing that, but certainly, as a discipline?

I couldn't have said it better. It is the main reason why my personal hero is Jean-Jacques Rousseau (for reasons rather different from those that led Levi-Strauss to acknowledge him as his master, namely that we've been going downhill since the neolithic). J-J revolutionized our thinking about politics, education, sexuality and the self in four books published in the 1760s, each of them a new genre suited to its topic. Most of all, he realized that if our aim is to change the world, it is no use only seeking knowledge of what is (and always has been). We need to build connections from the actual to the possible and that overturns the entire methodology of academic anthropology in the 20th century which seems to have been to accumulate a stock of exotic facts that the others could not reach.
Menger's idea of exchange being a non-value given for a value received convinced me before about hierarchy. The more I check how cultures familiar to me conceptualize value, it seems, Aristotle's value for value as exchange seems valid and makes more sense.

Ethnographic example:

Indigenous peoples from the rural areas of the Philippines, during Christmas, go to urban areas to exchange their chicken, rice, fruits with used clothes, kitchen stuff, and gadgets from urban settlers.

At first glance, Menger’s non-value for value seems the rule in the ethnographic example above. If we go beyond the gift and consider how value is defined by both participants, we cannot really tell which is valuable and which is not. The indigenous people and the urban settlers give what they don’t need and receive what they need. I don’t see any unfair or unequal exchange.

Also, if a fisherman gives clams to a corrupt village mayor after the latter gives the former a scholarship money for his son, I do not see any hierarchical relationship between the two in relation to gift-giving and receiving. Seafood is valuable to the fisherman as money is to the corrupt mayor. Aristotle’s value-for value in exchange, as it seems to me, is right in this one.
Heesun Hwang has posted a long piece in the blog section on Gift, exchange and hierarchy because she felt it was too long to be included here as a comment. It does however refer directly to our discussions and, while encouraging people to read it, I hope it doesn't split our conversation in two.
Gustaf, Aristotle wrote in Nicomachean Ethics (Book 5) translated by W. D. Ross:

"This is why all things that are exchanged must be somehow comparable. It is for this end that money has been introduced, and it becomes in a sense an intermediate; for it measures all things, and therefore the excess and the defect-how many shoes are equal to a house or to a given amount of food. The number of shoes exchanged for a house (or for a given amount of food) must therefore correspond to the ratio of builder to shoemaker. For if this be not so, there will be no exchange and no intercourse."

Another good read/reference:

"Antipeponthos and reciprocity: the concept of equivalent exchange from Aristotle to Turgot" by Nicholas J. Theocarakis

http://www.springerlink.com/content/122931gqu7373236/

I used the Aristotelean concept of equivalent exchange, so we would treat the concept of exchange as a phenomenon in itself separate from reciprocity. Aristotle used "antidosis," "antipoiein," and "antipeponthos", according to existing translations, as reciprocity. His use of antipeponthos whose meaning is, according to Theocarakis, related to "mutually" or "in return" is particularly interesting to me. I don't think Aristotle meant "antipeponthos" to be "(equivalent) exchange." "Mutually" or "in return" is more about the acts of giving and receiving than the values of gifts given and received. It is reciprocity not exchange.

To make Aristotle current, I will go back to the Filipino's concept of reciprocity, "utang na loob," where the value of a gift is not as important as the act of giving. In Tagalog, a major language in the Philippines, there are two words that are important in dealing with the concept of gift: palitan (exchange, trade, or barter) and gantihan (reciprocity, response, revenge). Gift exchanging during Christmas is called "palitan ng regalo' (exchanging of gift). "Gantihan mo siya" means "reciprocate him" or "hurt him back."

Among Filipinos, "palitan" and "gantihan" are two different concepts. Palitan is more on the value and gantihan is more on the act. Palitan is basically the exchange of goods and services value for value according to how they define "value." Gantihan is the reciprocal act done as a response to a previous act. My doctor-and-lawyer example earlier follows this pattern. Another good example is a victim of assault who murdered his assaulter. It is clear that assault or punching is not equal to murder or killing, but among Filipinos, in reciprocity, what matters is the act, which, in this case, is revenge.

Exchange quantifying reciprocity

Utang na loob (debt of gratitude) can be never-ending, but it can also be abruptly stopped or violently ended. The end of debt of gratitude is the end of relationship. The abrupt ending of debt of gratitude due to reciprocity becoming exchange is consistent with the notion that exchange is impersonal, short-term, and chaotic.

Filipinos use the word "sumbat" that means to count, to remind, to enumerate. In my dialect, we use "sukmat." Sumbat or sukmat is an insult. It is the counting and reminding of what is given by a benefactor to a beneficiary. If a benefactor makes sumbat or sukmat, a beneficiary hears insult, loses face, and feels the need to pay. The only way he can have his dignity back is to resort to exchange that will quantify reciprocity and cancel out favor, service, or gift he received. The beneficiary will then ask his benefactor what he wants to cancel out the debt of gratitude and resort to value for value exchange. If the benefactor wants money or live pigs, the debt of gratitude or utang na loob is over. Their relationship is broken too. They become enemies who distance from each other.

We should differentiate exchange from reciprocity, so we would know the difference of a person who donates a car for a tax break from a person who is now well off and who donates money and clothes to the church that used to helped him when he once lived in the streets. Such differentiation can also enlighten us about communal or individual gift-giving and receiving.

Another hint that separates reciprocity from exchange is the existence of unpaid debt of gratitude. Going back to my doctor-lawyer example, if the doctor has no legal problem, there is no meaningful way for the lawyer to reciprocate the doctor's previous medical act that saved his life. If the lawyer dies, his children inherit the debt of gratitude. If the doctor soon follows, his children, according to the unsaid rule, social contract, or cultural ethics, will become beneficiaries of the gift, service, or act that has yet to materialize. There is no clear indication of a consummated exchange in this scenario.

On hierarchy in relation to gift.

Aristotle's value for value equalizes the values of a shoemaker's pair of shoes and a doctor's medicine in their exchange relationship. I only see hierarchy happening in an economically homogenous group. When I was a kid, we heard a rumor that Imelda Marcos gave Queen Elizabeth a crown encrusted with precious stones. The Queen supposedly said, "give that to your hungry people." If such interaction happened between Imelda and the Queen, hierarchy was definitely at play. Had it been the Queen of Spain who gave the crown, the Queen of England would have received it. The same pattern holds true among doctors or lawyers. If they give cars, houses, or huge sums of money as gifts, they will accept them without guilt or suspicion. They can afford them. A doctor giving another doctor a sack of potatoes is not only insulting but cheap. If a farmer gives the potatoes, it's acceptable and appreciated. If a farmer gives a doctor a car, such act and gift can be a source of guilt, suspicion, and even conflict. The doctor might say, a la Queen Elizabeth, to the farmer, "Sell that and feed your hungry children."
A fascinating discussion, which, serendipitously, speaks to my growing irritation with a member of the men's chorus to which I belong in Japan, with whom I find myself traveling in the south of Italy. We have agreed to split expenses fifty-fifty, and I have no problem with that as applied to the hotel, train, and rentacar bills. That said, his insistence on immediately paying off, for example, a couple of euros spent on a cup of espresso is driving me crazy. It seems an absolute denial of the casual reciprocity of "My turn, you get the next one" that embodies real friendship for me.

As I think about this, it strikes me that I have no trouble at all understanding this problem in the local terms from the Phillipines to which M. Izabel has introduced us. This observation leads me to David Graeber's vigorous defense of the need for comparative generalization and Keith Hart's noting our difficulties in overcoming the competing claims of comparative analysis and ethnographic detail. That, in turn, leads me back to Maurice Godelier's description of his work as an effort to both to restore to social science it's traditional role as a critique of popular illusions and to improve academic theories that lack ethnographic relevance.
All this is truly enriching. I’m also concerned about issues related with what Heesun’s piece puts as 'the dynamics' rather than 'shifting modalities'.

In general, as for what I understood –only if – I see the importance of going beyond the unity & generalization of the gift. However, when about the gift(s) within particular ethnographical settings, I have troubles in solving questions like: what is the ultimate choice in –stubbornly?- conveying answers through paying attention to the gift(s), and consciously avoiding mere exchange-based explanations? I have political reasons as well but still, that is not the answer.

In brief, working on contemporary politics in Argentina, with ‘Peronistas’, I find difficult to use gift(s) explanations into how they (and not just a vague The State) create political constructs (e.g. public infrastructure, laws, regional integration, ‘federalism’, and so on). The different cases I have been following show that politician’s work –no matter if they are or not in actual office- implies various social relations which, following their perspective, can be divided into two: interpersonal and institutional. In actual social processes both types overlap, function and are established at different scales from local to international settings, and from ephemeral to long term developments. What is important is that these relations are not just the way this politicians choose-use-manage-arrange their agreements and disagreements (i.e. we support –or not- each other’s projects, at the Parliament or at a barbecue) but also an outcome of political imagination and possibilities; being so, they pose the question of the relative autonomy of political practice. This is quite a case when realizing how some of the political constructs were, in first place, thought as impossible (due to time, budget, constitutional arrangements or even party wise), and not just by political opponents but also from their own creators’ perspective. Indeed, I am choosing creation over production.

I discouraged ‘cultural’ explanations for political work (i.e. sure, they are Peronists); and did likewise with a focus on the ‘spurious’ aspects of politics (yet one needs to explain how some manage to imagine, work and get their projects done). On the other hand, drawing on exchange theory this will easily fall into ‘favors’ to ‘votes’, which is easily to argue against: since imply volition, over-rational actions and instrumentalism. Moreover, to suppose a dyadic gift scenario (and a chain of it) would be certainly naïve, and I don’t see the point for generalized exchange, or just saying this is all about power. Following Graeber’s ideas, yes, in political work there are relations of explicit hierarchy, of baseline communism, and of exchange; but they exist within processes, therefore they alter themselves on permanent basis, some gain first place and become almost vanished later, and vice versa.
Notwithstanding, when calling the gift(s) into play I encounter hard to figure its place within creative processes, the dynamic aspect of political work as a way of imagining and creating, only understood with a long term perspective and a wider social approach.

Perhaps this is just too simple and I am missing the point. But I wonder how different is to see the gift(s) within established relations -and contexts for that matter, and even potentially established- than when dealing with creation and imagination (and this exist even in formalized contexts of politics). Should we be contempt by stressing how time plays into this (Bourdieu-like)? The Heraclitus constant motion? Could be related with Sahlins insights, e.g. on diachrony and synchrony; but drawing myself ideas from Gluckman, this is not just about history, but social processes (I am working on this distinction yet).

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.

Julieta Gaztañaga said:
how to draw upon the gift(s) -even acknowledging its heterogeneity- in explicative terms when dealing with processual approach to imagination and creation.

You have added a powerful perspective to our conversation, Julieta. Thank you. I feel certain that there is a political motive for your ethnography of the Peronistas. But your comment deals mainly with the problem of explanation and whether the theory of gifts helps. I understand well your concern with how things get done in politics. But I am left unsure about the purpose of the explanation that you seek. What would you do with a satisfactory explanation? In a sense this is an unfair question, since we all normally fail to account for our own political purposes, not least Marcel Mauss in his classic essay! But the clarity of your example forces the issue into the open from where it was lurking before.

David believes that his approach is useful for an anthropology whose object is alternative political possibilities. It seems that Heesun tends in that direction too. But maybe we need to be clearer about the role of ethnography (or comparison for that matter) in such a project. It would help to have an example or two of how gifts enter into the social processes you reflect on. My fear is that we hang our concretely inspired discourses on 'gift' and 'exchange' in a way similar to how kinship was once used to prove that a discourse was distinctively anthropological. So that even when we admit that the term has no core meaning, we keep returning to it, if only in negation. Or perhaps we cling to it because the gift does mean something distinctive, even universal.
Just to put David's argument in an old left context, my attention has been drawn to the other side in the discussion of communism:

The Idea of Communism

An all-star cast of radical intellectuals discuss the continued importance of communism. Do not be afraid, join us, come back! You’ve had your anti-communist fun, and you are pardoned for it—time to get serious once again!—Slavoj Žižek

Responding to Alain Badiou’s ‘communist hypothesis’, the leading political philosophers of the Left convened in London in 2009 to take part in a landmark conference to discuss the perpetual, persistent notion that, in a truly emancipated society, all things should be owned in common. This volume brings together their discussions on the philosophical and political import of the communist idea, highlighting both its continuing significance and the need to reconfigure the concept within a world marked by havoc and crisis.
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.

Even if I treat communism a philosophical concept away from political economy,still it has nothing to do with the evolution of society from family, group, or tribe. Indigenous peoples who are egalitarian forest-dwellers do what Marx (1845) wrote, but I don't think what they have is communism. They don't even have a concept of community, much less society. Why would they have to belong to a community or a society, when they could roam the forest as an individual? Belonging to their kinships composed of blood and ritual relatives is what they have and need.

"In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic."

What attracted me to Communism/Marxism in college was the statement above. I thought of it as a natural politico-economic system, imagining Marx's primitive communism. It seemed to me it was the ideology that governed the economic ways of early hunters and gatherers. I also saw how it worked among forest-dwellers in my country. The thing I could not answer was whether it was really an ideology or a system agreed and thought by them? The more I observed, the more it became obvious that it was neither.

The forest-dwellers produced according to their means and consumed according to their needs due to ecological factors. They had vast resources, so they could hunt or gather anytime, anywhere, and however they wanted. They did not need to produce surplus for future consumption or for others to consume. What they did was sustainable. There was reciprocity in their sustainable production and consumption, besides the reciprocal altruism that was ecological. Those who hunted shared, and those who gathered gave in return.

When logging and electricity reached their forest, the same forest-dwellers quickly adapted to technology and environmental changes. They now needed to produce surplus they could refrigerate and sell to loggers. Since logging was destroying their food sources, like birds, honey, ants' eggs, they had to overproduce, engage in exchange and maximize profit, and resort to territoriality and property-- what surrounded them were theirs. The loggers also introduced money, trade, and paid labor. The forest-dwellers were my people. It was not communism that started the society where I used to physically belong, but reciprocity and exchange.
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.

Thanks for this poetic statement, M and for your very clear contributions to our discussion. Assuming what you say to be broadly speaking true, the speed with which people can adapt to capitalism, always in their own way, is most striking. This was the main ethnographic point of Chris Gregory's Gifts and Commodities, the ease with which the citizens of Papua New Guinea combined capitalist trade and wage labour with traditional exchange. Mauss was likewise, I think, looking for some principles of exchange and obligation that underlie both gift and market. The thing is he didnt use the word reciprocity for that. Thurnwald and Malinowski first developed the notion and it later became the centrepiece of Levi-Strauss's anthropology. Even if we use the word, it depends on whether the emphasis is on justice, as David and Aristotle insist, or on something more mechanical as the economists and game theorists think. What I take from David's essay is a willingness to place reciprocity within a set of concepts rather than claim its exclusive universality. I actually don't think it is a universal, except in agricultural and early industrial societies, but that is a whole other story.


M Izabel said:
When logging and electricity reached their forest, the same forest-dwellers quickly adapted to technology and environmental changes. They now needed to produce surplus they could refrigerate and sell to loggers. Since logging was destroying their food sources, like birds, honey, ants' eggs, they had to overproduce, engage in exchange and maximize profit, and resort to territoriality and property-- what surrounded them were theirs. The loggers also introduced money, trade, and paid labor. The forest-dwellers were my people. It was not communism that started the society where I used to physically belong, but reciprocity and exchange.

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