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, Keith!

I wasn't much looking forward to having to explain why I'm not indistinguishable from a sociobiologist! Phew. (For what it's worth Gustav very kindly sent a personal note acknowledging he'd misread the original.)

I guess we might collectively wish to ask ourselves why such dynamics often occur in internet forums. We're all to blame I guess. For instance, why did I keep replying to those who mischaracterized my arguments, while waiting so long to reply to Heesun's longer, but more engaged and perceptive post? And why do people behave this way when I'm guessing they would almost certainly not have done in person?



Keith Hart said:
I would like to call this non-exchange to a halt. It is in danger of dissuading others from participating and David has been drawn into defending himself against representations of his work that are frankly absurd. You have had many chances to develop a coherent critique, Gustaf, and I would be grateful if you left us to pursue other angles.

I must remind you that we are pioneering a medium of conversation here and it places considerable demands on our speakers. We may well fail to recruit more of them if they see the treatment David has received here. In a two-hour seminar, speakers from the floor are restrained usually to making one point or question, maybe sometimes two. Here there is no limit to the number of times people can return, but I may have to consider introducing some such rule. What offends me most about some of the criticisms David has had to face is the combination of aggression with lack of understanding. Unless we collectively moderate ourselves more effectively, this kind of behaviour will deter new paper-givers. Show some modesty and self-restraint, please.



Gustaf Redemo said:
I fail to see the difference between the selfish gene and your communistic disposition to share. A
Thanks, Heesun, for the always-interesting reply. You're right of course, when you say that the formal "my pleasure," "no the pleasure is mine!" (or much gusto, el gusto es mio) sort of exchanges are about a denial of exchange, but they are, at the same time, exchanges that are about the ostensible denial of exchange, which makes them strange and complicated.

I'd start by saying that what I was concerned with in the passage about "please" and "thank you" was the creation of a particular style of formality, not formality in general, which to some extent replaced the older hierarchical forms in European languages, especially English, where the thou/thee distinction vanished around the same time "please" and "thank you" came into common use, and which I take to be the language of shops and other such impersonal and market-based or market-friendly institutions. It seems to me that something like this has disseminated everywhere along with the dissemination of shops, offices, and similar institutions, so that virtually all languages in the world have been obliged to replace or supplement whatever respectful forms they already had (and I suspect all languages have had some) with these, modeled on European languages. To take Malagasy, distantly related to Javanese, there used to be - and to some degree still is - an elaborate variety of second person pronouns, at least a dozen, ranging from words used by two women of equal status to express familiarity, to terms used to younger brothers or to males you wish to insult or establish superiority over, to those used only for respected elders of either sex, etc etc... (an interesting proviso is if you are in a sexual relationship with someone you can both use any one you want, indiscriminately, for each other.) This survives, even as the use of different vocabularies when addressing nobles, and especially royals, has almost entirely vanished. But it's quite clear the different sorts of formality are appropriate to different contexts, which are explicitly coded as basically "gasy" or Malagasy or basically "vazaha" or foreign/European/French.

I'm not saying that all formal hierarchical speech codes are the same, and then they get replaced by bourgeois exchange-code; they are all different, and encode different principles, not just hierarchy, in different ways, and this has an effect on the version of bourgeois "please/thank you" formality they come up with as well. For instance, the Malagasy phrase for "I'm sorry" is either aza fady or miala tsiny, which literally means "don't place a taboo" and "lift the guilt/blame" respectively - obviously from a very peculiar local constellation of thought. It is significant though that all languages, whether or not they had an functional equivalent to the European please/thank you/sorry phrases, have one now.
The point about never talking to yourself in formal language is fascinating - it had never occurred to me to think about that! It reminds me of points I made in the manners paper (which I think you've read) about hierarchy always involving setting things apart, and familiarity about at least the potential dissolving of boundaries.

Anyway yes there is a play on exchange and communistic denial of exchange in many of these polite forms, even of the modern European variety, which perhaps bears more reflection. It reminds me a bit of the ambivalent status of debt in so many world religions, which I also explore in the debt book of which this argument forms one chapter. Almost invariably, they begin by framing sin or guilt or the human relation to the divine in terms of debt, in other words, as an exchange, but then proceed in such a way to show that it really can't be. (Rather like in Plato's Republic morality is first defined this way, as simply a matter of paying one's debts, and quickly moves on to showing it can't really be that.) So in the Brahmanas for instance there's the fourfold debt to gods, parents, sages, and other humans, which we are all born with - we must repay the first through sacrifice and ultimately death, which can be imagined as interest payments followed by the principle, but the others all show that's not the case, because they are not at all like cash debts. You pay your debt to your parents by having children, you pay your debt to those who created wisdom by becoming wise, you pay your debt to all those humans, even strangers, who've help you in ways you often can't even know by extending hospitality to strangers. In each case you become the thing you "owe" rather than return something to them. Obviously you can't become a god, but if the gods are cosmic forces, you could say (and later philosophers working in that intellectual tradition did say) what you are really doing in sacrificial or other ritual is recognizing that you are _not_ actually separate from the cosmos, which you would have to be to imagine you could be equal parties to a contract, which is what debt implies, but joined in a situation of ultimate non-dualism.

Similarly in Christianity, debt and sin are the same word, so in the Lord's prayer you actually say (in the original Aramaic) "Lord, forgive us our debts just as we forgive those who owe us money" - which is really saying, well, we don't forgive others who owe us money, so why should God forgive us? (Compare the parable of the ungrateful servant which makes the same point.) The solution here is redemption through universal debt cancellation, as was in fact the custom in ancient Mesopotamia and Israel, translated into a universal washing away of sins through divine forgiveness. in either case, though, the point is that it is first proposed that we see morality in terms of exchange, but then, in doing so, show that it cannot be that. I wonder if there might be some curious internal tension like that working in many forms of etiquette.




heesun hwang said:

David, thanks for your discussion. I think it was exactly the case for a Korean saying "Dream-reading is better than the dream itself." When reading up the discussion, I also remembered the article "Debt: The First 5000 Years", which I suppose is fully-developed in the Debt book.
And I also think that the asymmetry is inherent in all 'articulated' productions, for any (material) production is also based on 'cooperation' (in the sense of 'mechanics' not of 'harmonious relationship') that always exceed the form of formal contract. In fact Marx (I'm sorry to refer to the same author again; I think my knowledge is too limited) suggested that 'communistic' relationship in David's term should be "organized" in order for capitalistic way of production to be in action in his discussion on 'cooperation'. But I have a feeling that your focus on Marx in your Value book was more on the labor theory of value, on which a different perspective could suggest a little different interpretation. I wonder if it is relevant to your focus on morality.

I personally find two points in the discussion so far interesting; 1) whether a general theory on gift is possible despite the vast cultural differences, 2) whether reciprocity is after all self-interested. One example might be relevant in this context, though I think there’s a serious danger of off-tracking from the original essay. If this is not relevant to current discussion, please just forget about this one.

My example comes from a small provisional sociolinguistic analysis, which is relevant to the role of "thank you" in exchange morality given in David’s essay. A couple of ways to reply back when a speaker gets a greeting for his or her courtesy (such as 'thank you') might be;
English: "It is my pleasure." or, "You are welcome."
Korean: "(I) have done nothing." or, "Your saying so is (very) unusual."
Some English equivalents for the Korean expressions might be "It's not a big deal." and "You don't have to thank me for that." The former is an informal expression whereas the degree of formality, intimacy, and respectfulness in the Korean equivalent are calibrated by using honorific forms, self-lowering expressions (such as 'nothing'), and other linguistic elements like postposition or inflection in the same basic structure. And in the latter case, unlike the former, omission of the subject part is obligatory.

One way to interpret the Korean expressions is to argue that this is an annulment of 'exchange', rather than an exchange moral. In the first case, as the speaker has done 'nothing', it from the beginning doesn't need to be stated. (As for an English reference, Derrida’s discussion in Given Time might be useful, though I personally have a slightly different opinion with the author.) In the latter case, the speaker sounds like saying "We don't need to keep the account as if we were strangers to each other. It’s just how things should be handled between you and me." I suppose this well appeal to the common sense of Koreans, and this is exactly what ‘communistic gift’ looks like. But does this describe a sort of ongoing reciprocal relationship between the two? In one perspective, it might be interpreted so. But I have a feeling that it is a more complicated matter, for ‘reciprocity’ is not the only dimension involved in this situation. I think the analysis needs to be extended further; maybe the perception on 'the self' and ‘the other’ itself on which the description ‘reciprocation’ makes sense needs to be discussed.
(etc)
On phatic communication where an expression uttered does not transfer information but completes social interaction.

Malinowski (1923) "The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages"

Jakobson (1960) "Closing Statements: Linguistics and Poetics"
I will make one more effort to get David to talk about the contemporary political relevance of this paper. Perhaps there has been a degree of compartmentalization between this seminar and the events discussed here. So let's try some triangualtion with this:

Tagged as: anarchist anarchistbookfair2010 bookfair culture cuts guy_debord left richard_barbrook workers_struggles

Does the word 'Revolution' has any meaning anymore? Is there any point to political writing? and was the last British election actually a coup d'état by the civil service?

This and other questions are put to Dr. Richard Barbrook, winner of the 2008 Marshall McLuhan Prize for 'Outstanding Book in the Field of Media Ecology' and a University of Westminster lecturer.

He begins by discussing Guy Debord's 'The Game of War', as a way to think about politics, and maybe a way of improving how we practice politics better.


You don't have to see the video of the interview to get the idea.
From Miller, John H. and Scott E. Page (2007) Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introducton to Computational Models of Social Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 5

Using traditional tools, social scientists have often been constained to model systems in odd ways. Thus, existing models focus on fairly static, homogeneous situations composed of either very few or infinitely many agents (each of whom is either extremely inept or remarkably prescient) that must confront a world in which time and space matter little. Of course, such simplicity in science is a virtue, as long as the simplifications are the right ones. Yet, it seems as though the world we wish to know lies somewhere in between these extremes.

With this perspective in mind, I turn to Graeber's statement that, "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 also take note of the the "hand me the wrench" example of how communism in this everyday sense tends to occur when people collaborate on common projects.

I also observe, however, that "abilities" and "needs" are terms with broad senses. The notion of collaboration on common projects also needs exploring. In the case of the pipe repair and the wrench, things seem straightforward. The ability combines a resource, the wrench, and being able to hand it to the person who needs it. The need is for a tool that has a straightforward instrumental relationship to the task at hand. But are things always so simple?

Consider for the sake of argument a parent and child. The distribution of needs and abilities is, at least while the child is young, highly asymmetrical. An element of hierarchy is inherent in this asymmetry.

I think, too, of project teams, in which members with different abilities work together to achieve some common objective. Here, one half of the principle is satisfied: "from each according to their abilities" is satisfied; only, however, if no freeloading is permitted. "To each according to their needs" gives way, at least over time, ideally speaking, to something more along the lines of "To each according to her contribution." Again, hierarchy is present from the start.

Here, too, we must think of scale effects. If the project is small, the people involved are few in number, and their skills overlap, everyday communism is easy. But in larger projects where a sharper division of labor appears, the fact that its scope is limited is easily verified.

And these are only a few first thoughts about how the unequal distribution of abilities and needs, scale and other quantitative factors operating over different dimensions of space and time might affect how we think of everyday communism's role in familiar even in everyday life.

I pause to reflect and invite reflection.
Thanks again Heesun for sharing your thoughts with all of us. Your sociolinguistic insights reminded me that when I first read David’s paper for this seminar I thought of mate’s etiquette (yerba mate infusion) and how strange it seems to be (say for foreigners who want to try this bitter-taste and highly social custom) the fact that we don’t say ‘thanks’ for each mate that is given to one, but only at the very end, when one doesn’t want to share it anymore. In fact if one says ‘gracias’ to the giver, that one is going to be the very last mate one will get from the mate round.
But this is another story. Here I want to focus on politics, and to thank Keith and David for clarifying, and Keith for encouraging clarification. I will try.

An ultimately aim of mine is to unveil the limitations of conceiving politics as a closed domain with its own repertoires, rules, and actors that would reproduce itself ad infinitum. Indeed, I do have a political interest. For this I followed certain politicians for over ten years, not just focusing on elections, events or specific projects isolated, but into the ongoing processes where their personal aims were created and reshaped within the creation of social relations and institutions.

So here goes an example (very much summarized for obvious reasons).

One of the major public works that took place during the late ’90s in Argentina was “Rosario-Victoria Bridge”; indeed, a viaduct of over 60 km over Parana River. This happened during a decade of raw neoliberalism, where the usual scenario was not public investment but trading everything that once was considered like that. Of course, this project was developed within a leasing system, private companies, and the corresponding IDB credits, and this certainly matched le esprit de l'époque. Same I was told: Why doing research on this? It is obvious this is another example of how capital markets function. What appealed to me was to challenge various assumptions on the matter (i.e. politicians do many thing but certainly they don’t work, neither for public good nor for common good), since the bridge connected two different contexts: the 3rd city of Argentina (over a million people) with a town of 30 thousand; the politicians who promote it belong to the latter.
In this case ‘political work’ was mainly addressed to ‘create interest’. Why? Because only the national government is entailed for decisions regarding this kind of infrastructure. Nevertheless, the ‘political work’ carried by local and provincial politicians was not just oriented to justify a 'public need' into the public arena, but to create a rather personal and personalized interest in it. The story is too long, but let me just say that ended with the formalities of the case –public work bureaucracy- putted on hold, and taking place of rather a highly personalized and exhausting back and forth of creation of personal appealing onto the project, until the (then) President himself would agree to move this project to the top, in detriment of other public works which were already into the political agenda.
The exPresident still refers to the bridge as ‘my bridge’, and for instance, he has been choosing it as a key place for his campaigns after 2003. The provincial politicians agree with this, but they also consider this was an ‘epopeya’ and not a ‘teodicea’ because they ‘worked’ for; they brought and gave their time and energy for the ‘cause’. In this context, the bridge was referred as ‘centenary project of Peronismo’ (sic: Peronismo is not 100 years old, but the project of this physical connection over Parana River does). They all assert the bridge has a name and a surname, and its final concretion challenged the ‘technical and formal’ logic of public work.
At that time I carried the analysis in terms of how social relations create and are created within political processes where things are transformed into another: political work and creation of value. Within the public arena the bridge’s ‘necessity’ was covered both by solving the historical isolation of the area and its population (surrounded by rivers), and in terms of materializing a bi-oceanic integration (the bridge a sort of key infrastructure connecting existing and future roads from the Atlantic to the Pacific): ‘we made a centenary dream possible and we are working toward the future, the globalization’. They actually created both, including new relations (e.g. friendships, reshaped political loyalties) and institutions (e.g. a particular way of dealing with the leasing)

How gift(s) enter into all this? On the one hand, for the process conveys many features of transnational companies, capital markets and cross cutting ties with domestic policies affairs, but the bridge is not a commodity; neither this political work implies organized labour force. I thought of modalities of ‘production’; of the work of time –i.e. how commitments are created and reassured-, and accumulation and transformation of different capitals. But I couldn’t grasp these men’s engagement(s) on its full capacity as a process of creation. Furthermore: some of those politicians were not even in political offices, neither gained political influence within the party but the contrary, and many failed into making it for the next elections (i.e. lost the internal elections).
On the other hand, it was when wondering about political work from a ‘motivation’ point of view. It was not enough saying this has to do with the political dynamics of Peronismo, where highly vertical-hierarchical relations coexist with horizontal ones, and the role played by the negotiations-debts among provinces and the national state at that time. Although this politicians related their political work with being Peronistas (‘we do’, unlike other political parties), their work was carried and conceived different than their mere offices, and different from another political work within the party (trabajo político militante). I did a comparative analysis in terms of how social relations are created in each, but now I am thinking of the moral ground of all this.

In any case, an interesting point is that the explanations of this political work were not attached to some rhetoric of reciprocity –often the most common explanation for political aims and actions, and valid for other cases- but the so called ‘political vocation’, as a way to imagine and produce-create beyond actual possibilities and constrainments (the bridge was considered for long time as a ridiculous Pharaonic project, indeed for many valid reasons). I know this may sound naïve when thinking about the process whereby society is recreated in a context of political representation; but still I'd like to question this kind of ‘political work’ so –dramatically- powerful, and how it conveys an ongoing process of creation and a particular construct(ion) at the same time. It makes me wonder of how political power sometimes falls outside its logic.

Well, I hope this poor summary makes some sense. Maybe I am just trapped into a pre-theoretical commitment, i.e. that enquiring about the explanatory power of a concept might lead into better understanding of actual processes.
Either or, this is a great exercise.
Dear All, (in part addressing John McCreery and Heesun Hwang responses to my earlier input where I touched on 'flexible capitalism')

I find that especially with electronic fora, there is truth to the saying that 'less is more'. I realize that what I wrote earlier may have distracted from the core of what I intended as constructive input to the debate when I entered it. It is this:

It seems to me that David's main point, is that different types of transactions exist simultaneously, even in what Mauss called archaic societies. This is why David, in his responses here, repeatedly has pointed to the tensions and ambiguities entailed in this perspective, as something central in his paper.
I think this is a brilliant point to make. I then ask: does this perspective not inherently entail a dimension of action that requires addressing as a consequence, i.e. a temporal and reflexive dimension, that is lacking in Mauss (and many subsequent uses of him), but present in other approaches to transaction? In other words, does David's generous reading of Mauss, in fact entail a need for a more generous reading also of other approaches, even if it requires us to get beyond what Keith yesterday called the 'class action suit' against them in the 1970s?

Maybe it doesn't – I consider David very knowledgeable on this, a view I base in part in my reading of his value book, where he seems to be making a point about action along lines similar to what I try to get at here. Given the points made in the paper we consider, I am above all curious as to his view on this matter.

John and Heesun then, as for my take on Flexible Capitalism:
I am presently writing about flexible capitalism from the perspective of exchange theory, taken broadly, which is why I am interested in this. My own research has centered more narrowly on people variously working from home via the internet (commonly known as 'teleworking'). In this context I have found interesting tensions and ambiguities with regard to the multiple kinds of relationships people participate in (e.g. work and family relations), and I have found that new information technologies are embraced in part to deal with this, e.g. to in fact subvert at least some versions of the kind of exploitation you seem to get at, John. In light of this, and in light of the kind of macro-sociological analyses that dominate this field of research (which in David's terms resonate more with Marx than with Mauss), it is interesting that much telework is in fact embraced informally, and that as such, telework is much more widespread than commonly assumed. This is all I mean by a 'bottom-up' perspective. I intend this to compliment and complicate the more conventional macro-sociological approaches. I am certainly not trying to explain 'flexible capitalism' as such, in market-fundamentalist terms, as merely a phenomenon arising from 'consumer-choice', as you seemed to understand it John. I surely did not explain this very well, but I dont think this is the place to expand any further on my own work. If you are interested in knowing more, I refer you to a monograph I have recently published based on this research (see www.internetandchange.com).
Above all, I am interested in David's perspective on what I have raised here, because in presenting my material over the years, I have found the so-called 'class action suit' to be a real problem, and perhaps it takes some kind of Maussian leverage to overcome it...
At the risk of overstaying my welcome, I will try to briefly give another example of the take on flexible capitalism I am trying to pursue. It requires you to follow the link I inserted in my last posting, and look at the front cover of my book.

This cover is based on a map from 1782, of one of the villages where I did fieldwork. It shows the outline of the enclosures as they were implemented in this village at the time, i.e. the transition to private property and agrarian capitalism. The reason this map is interesting, is that it shows a type of enclosure design, that was less common. Most commonly enclosures (at least in Denmark) took the shape of a chess board, whereas the design you see here is more like a pizza or a star (the literal translation is 'star-enclosure').

In many historical accounts, the rationale for this division of land is presented as having to do with the efficiency and monetary gain of individualized production. This perspective relies in particular on government documents, and on other documents written by officials who could in fact write at this time (as Polanyi observed, laissez-faire was planned). Indeed the most efficient layout was the chess-board design, which leveled the village, and moved farms out on the fields, each in the center of an individualized plot of land, where the distance between crops, and tools and storage, was shortest.
This leaves questions as to why the pizza design was then sometimes chosen. To figure this out is complicated, simply because written sources from the perspective of those who practiced farming are more limited. But a case can be made, that the pizza design was a compromise, or 'flexible' solution of you will: the village was kept intact this way (as you can see on the map), as were the social relations it helped uphold, which were valued for many reasons (indicated by the few written sources that exist on this), among them as a shield against the dark forces out in the fields, the vicinity of the Church in the village, cooperation in case of fire, etc. In other words, the Pizza design reflects a mode of capitalist production, but one of a peculiarly subverted kind ('communist' in David's terms), that grew from the bottom-up, as it were.
I think this may serve as an illustration of the point that David is trying to make with Mauss, that various kinds of relationships simultaneously coexist, if in a strangely ambiguous fashion. I take it to suggest that 'flexible work' is really not particularly novel. But this argument hinges on incorporating the perspective of farmers, actively involved in reflecting on and shaping these relationships.
I hope this help illuminate where I am coming from, though I should say that this historical perspective is one I did not find space (or skills) to adequately cover in the book, but I hope for a more thorough engagement with it down the road.
The ecological aspect is often lacking in my work, truth to tell; it wasn't fully developed in my value book either. In my debt book (for which this argument was developed) I do take on the notion of "debt to nature" which I find problematic, since it assumes that "nature" is an equal party to an exchange, essentially, i.e., that one can see oneself as on some level the formal equivalent to the entire cosmos (which of course includes oneself), and therefore able to form a contractual relationship with it, which is borderline insane. Hence my interest in the ancient literature on sacrifice, and "debt to the gods" where the language of exchange, contract, and debt is always first proposed, then found wanting. Sacrificial ritual thus becomes recognition of the impossibility of framing a relationship as debt, recognition that one does not stand apart from the cosmos - or at least so can be read. I like this, but there's still the problem that always arises when we talk about placing humans and other aspects of the cosmos, nature, etc, on an equivalent, continuous plane of interaction where "rights" and "agency" or whatever you want to attribute exists equally on all sides, which is, we can self-consciously discuss what it means to do so, but as far as we know, anyway, those we have now constituted as equal parties to a moral process of interaction can't - at least not with us! This is what I always worry about. If you want to extend the political sphere to include ants and moss and whatnot, how will that not lead to devaluing our relations with other humans (i.e., if some racist says he considers people of some group he dislikes no better than animals, I would like a better reply than 'well yes, but animals should be treated better too').

This is a digression I guess but it shows why I've hesitated pursuing this direction, perhaps to the detriment of my theory. Some who have gone there - Bataille, with his "the sun gives without receiving" is the obvious precedent (which then leads to a curious exaltation of Aztec human sacrifice) - have often moved in frightening directions with it. I'd be curious how you think such pitfalls could be avoided because I'd like to believe they can.




Geoff Chesshire said:
This is a really fascinating discussion of the various forms and functions of gift, as seen primarily from an economic perspective. The categories of communism, exchange and hierarchy cover a wide range of economic relationships, and I agree that gift is a medium for building and maintaining each of these kinds of relationships. I must admit that I had been disappointed in the past that Mauss almost always refers to gift as a form of exchange. However, David's essay and all of the discussion here has shown me that it was only that I had been so stuck on the term "gift exchange" that I had ignored the wider range of economic relationships that Mauss was describing in terms of gift.

Having got over that hurdle, I find that now I am stuck on the notion of gift discussed primarily as a mode of economic expression. I prefer to consider gift from a broader ecological perspective, which includes but is not limited to the economic perspective. I think this may help to understand the gut-level reaction to the word "communism" that several people have expressed, and which I felt also: How is it that communism is the highest motivation that we can ascribe to gift? How about Lewis Hyde's concept of the gift, which I would summarize as any expression of the creativity of our inalienable, irrepressible, intrinsic life-force? From an ecological perspective, I would extend this concept of gift to any expression of the creativity inherent in all life, not only in human life.

From an ecological perspective, we observe and learn from the complex systems (natural, social, cultural, etc.) in which we find ourselves, hopefully to find our healthy, co-creative niches within them. From a more specifically economic perspective, we then apply what we have learned: we attempt to manage, control and optimize these systems for the benefit of (some) humans. It is understandable then, that from an economic perspective we see gifts primarily as given and received by/from humans to meet human needs/goals/objectives, while we externalize nature's gifts as mere accessible resources. However, often when we engage in exchange, really we are sharing nature's gifts. For example, suppose an apple tree grows on "my" land and a orange tree grows on "your" land; when we economically "exchange" apples and oranges, mostly we are sharing nature's gifts. So it is also with the gifts of human creativity, such as the ideas we are all sharing in this discussion. On the other hand, I would not say the same of productivity, which comes into view more from an economic perspective but not so much from an ecological one.

I would be interested to hear what others think about the relationship between ecological and economic perspectives of gift, and how these might or might not map into the categories under consideration: communism, exchange, hierarchy.
Oh, I wasn't aware you'd been vainly trying. I must have missed some posts! Apologies. By the way there's no link to the text version only the video.



Keith Hart said:
I will make one more effort to get David to talk about the contemporary political relevance of this paper. Perhaps there has been a degree of compartmentalization between this seminar and the events discussed here. So let's try some triangualtion with this:

Tagged as: anarchist anarchistbookfair2010 bookfair culture cuts guy_debord left richard_barbrook workers_struggles

Does the word 'Revolution' has any meaning anymore? Is there any point to political writing? and was the last British election actually a coup d'état by the civil service?

This and other questions are put to Dr. Richard Barbrook, winner of the 2008 Marshall McLuhan Prize for 'Outstanding Book in the Field of Media Ecology' and a University of Westminster lecturer.

He begins by discussing Guy Debord's 'The Game of War', as a way to think about politics, and maybe a way of improving how we practice politics better.


You don't have to see the video of the interview to get the idea.
My answer to your last question would be "yes." I'm a little dubious of Mauss' advocacy of the redistributive feast, potlatch-style, as the salvation of modern capitalism. I'm not sure he really believed it himself to be honest. It doesn't appear anywhere in the rest of his political writings, which are voluminous, but meant for proletarian audiences: there he's an devoted anti-capitalist who believes in creating socialist capital through cooperativism that will gradually displace bourgeois capital. I strongly suspect the political conclusions of "The Gift" are something of an anomaly - Mauss normally strictly separated his political and academic writings, and the one time he mixed them, he assumed he was writing for a bourgeois audience and said things tailored for that audience that he might have felt was appropriate but probably didn't put all that much personal stock in. But this is speculation.

One thing I would emphasize, if I were trying to be Maussian, which I am here, is that there is a global market system, yes, but it's not total. It's not like everything is reduced to the logic of capital. Maybe ticket give-aways are, but capitalism can only reproduce itself by maintaining or even some might say producing social relations and even social worlds that work by a logic utterly alien to it and I think it's absurd to say that these things only exist for the sake of capitalism, or their only significance is that they help (right now) to reproduce it.

This is rather abstract I confess but I think it's important to emphasize. Alternatives are all around us.


NIKOS GOUSGOUNIS said:
This discussion is bringing a lot of anthropological material related to the gift theory and practice, however I nothing heard about the future of gift exchanges in a new multicultural and non ethnocentric Universe where cosmopolitan attitudes of rich and poor are faced to the globalised economy as motivated mainly by monstruous multinational companies. By this I mean that even if peoples mentalities change in the West regarding the idea of the strict nation-state and tending to a soft and liberal cosmopolitanism, the globalised model of economy much facilitated also by banks , does not permit the expression of free cosmopolitan actions such as gift exchanges and ticket free spectacles starting from artistic ceremonies and festivals and going to athletic shows such as World football Cups or Olympiades. In the contrary all is highly commercialised while art and athletism serve well as pretexts for new profit makers and open incredible new horizons of business. What anthropology has to propose to this new commercialised World system and what could be the possible role of gift exchange among individuals or free ticket offers ( a sort of gift to the audiences) under present circumstances ? If massive gift exchange especially through the western invention of holidays ( by the pretext of the holy days of Xmas etc) is not fitting anymore to the Maussian theory, then what ? Have we to reinvent a new and more efficace theory about gifts based on the moral grounds of economical relations ( as the title of this seminar says) ?
That's an enlightening analysis. I guess the danger in deconstructive readings is that they do start from, and end in, texts. Does it make a difference that Marx isn't the author of the phrase "from each according to their abilities..." and never used it all that systematically - it's actually first attested in writing in Louis Blanc but seems to have been a popular catch-phrase in the French worker's movement, and then broader European workers' movement, of the time, and just been taken up from workers by the movements' intellectual supporters? Maybe it doesn't make much difference.



Toby Austin Locke said:

Let us start by saying that the centred 'conceptual structure' of which he speaks is Marxism in its traditional, textual and logocentric context. This 'conceptual structure', I sure we will all agree, has on some level become part of the contemporary academic hegemony. Discussions of class, property, hierarchy etc.. become framed by the 'conceptual structure' expressed in Marx's critique of capitalism. It is hard to discuss class without relation to 'predicate' information: commodity, wealth, accumulation, proletariat, bourgeoisie etc... as such class becomes defined by the 'predicate' information/ concepts.

Now let us extract from the 'conceptual structure' of Marxism, and the concepts predicate Marxism itself, the idea of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” this becomes what Derrida refereed to in the above passage as “X” or what David refers to as “communism”. The task of the deconstructionist would be to establish a meaning of X which does not necessarily exclude the predicate concepts but potentially acknowledges them. With this newly extracted concept X we are able to find a use for it which extends beyond the previously necessary paradigms that come with Marxism as conceptual apparatus. The extracted concept can be of greater use now both in understanding traditional Marxism as well as developing new angles of thought which are less reliant on academic hegemony.

Nihilistic readings of Derrida and other post-modernists tend to see his activity as counter productive: breaking down useful ideologies into useless individual concepts. This is not how I read Derrida and, I don't believe this is what he intended. He was not trying to destroy our intellectual 'progress' but instead he wished to 'shake up' and challenge the very foundations of the way we think by reducing widely used ideologies to their constituent sections. This is something I feel David achieves very well in this piece, as well as in others. The working defenition of communism given by David escapes some of its reliance on the other concepts of Marxism and provides an excellent method of developing new modes of thought.

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