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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This is less a question, and more a register of appreciation for David's exceptional paper and the great discussion it's generated. I know precious little about the 'gift' literature in anthropology - a shameful admission - but this has been a wonderful education. David's position - that there's no reason why the logic of the gift should be singular - reminds me somewhat of Don Handelman's argument in Models and Mirrors that ritual (another anthropological staple) doesn't have to conform to the solo organisational dynamic that anthropology so often imagines.

I just wondered, in the light of David's last articulation of his worry about extending the sphere of politics to non-human entities such as ants and moss, etc, as to whether or not this might have been an implicit critique of Latour; certainly, the mention of ants (ANTs) suggested as much - though perhaps my imagination ran away with me!

(I appreciate that this query is peripheral to the issues of the paper. Apologies.)
yeah, I didn't go. If I remember the tickets were pretty expensive.


Keith Hart said:
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.
Yes, it is peripheral, but if you're curious, yeah, I do have a problem with that too. Maurice Bloch, interestingly enough, believes that Latour, and also Thevenot and Boltansky (don't know about Callon), if I remember, are all basically Catholic thinkers - devout believers who have a very specific moral agenda lying behind the theoretical interventions. I wouldn't know but it's an interesting thought. I do think the politics behind much of ANT is kind of dubious - and the idea of treating rocks, moss, germs, ideas, and so on as agents - while actually much less radical than it seems (since they are careful to add only humans can act as truly political agents, assembling alliances between) - is ultimately kind of silly; it's the ultimate apotheosis of the political principle, now become a principle of ontology, the explanation of everything, and like any such one-principle-explains-all theories, ultimately a bit ridiculous. Also the political implications are kind of scary - most obviously in Callon's writings on markets, which are either almost unimaginably ignorant, or intentionally parroting the worst sort of naive "markets develop bottom up" bourgeois ideology.

But yeah, that's a bit of a digression.


Philip Swift said:
This is less a question, and more a register of appreciation for David's exceptional paper and the great discussion it's generated. I know precious little about the 'gift' literature in anthropology - a shameful admission - but this has been a wonderful education. David's position - that there's no reason why the logic of the gift should be singular - reminds me somewhat of Don Handelman's argument in Models and Mirrors that ritual (another anthropological staple) doesn't have to conform to the solo organisational dynamic that anthropology so often imagines.

I just wondered, in the light of David's last articulation of his worry about extending the sphere of politics to non-human entities such as ants and moss, etc, as to whether or not this might have been an implicit critique of Latour; certainly, the mention of ants (ANTs) suggested as much - though perhaps my imagination ran away with me!

(I appreciate that this query is peripheral to the issues of the paper. Apologies.)
Thanks David, for responding to my straying question.

I very much like the project you espouse, by the way, with its political, ethical stress on the possibilities afforded by other ways of living and being. It seems to me that this was (is) always the original, incipient potential of anthropology, even if we often forget it.

Thanks again.
Just checking in to prove that your hyperactive chairman is still here. I spent most of yesterday trying to get out of a snowbound airport and today will be fully engaged in Oslo. Actually it is more to reassure me, since you are all doing fine without me. I am particularly grateful to Jens and Julieta for telling us more about their work which is surely one of the bonuses this kind of discussion has to offer. And to David for his considerate and always sharp responses. Geoff's intervention did provoke a line though ANT about human/non-human interaction that David summed up quite pithily, saving me from the rant that would have come out if I were asked to comment on Latour/Callon, which thankfully I was not. (Latour was trained as a Jesuit by the way). It does seem that we should tackle the relationship between economic and ecological approaches in view of the contest between market and green ideologies for world domination. But perhaps not here.

We have a couple of days left for anything you might have wanted to say, but didn't think it was appropriate. Or if you would like to return to a point made earlier. The thread will be closed on Sunday.
Hi all – late to this seminar but very much enjoying it, and surprisingly also found myself feeling like I had something to contribute… apologies for a bit of "thinking from the hip" here.

John, your mention of “three ways organizations can control their members” reminded me of Harold Barclay’s interpretation in People Without Government of Radcliffe-Brown’s concept of “sanctions” as the label for the manner in which members of a social group react to the behavior of members. I realize that organizational control includes not just reaction, but also preemptive control, or “behavior guidance,” but I think the concept of sanctions can encompass that, what with its ability to offer both positive reinforcement as well as punitive consequences.

The key thing seems to be that, sanctions are usually perceived as something that happens “after the fact,” but effective sanctions should be known by all as possibilities before anyone actually does anything. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m not sure if it would be considered outdated, but I find Barclay’s categorization instructive: he posits three kinds of sanctions available to societies, which I’ll define slightly more generally than he does: “diffuse” which are both available and applicable to all members (things like gossip, arguing, ostracism), “legal” which are perceived as available only to a few, and “religious” which seem best described as “perceived sanctions that are beyond the powers of humans, but sometimes may be influenced by them,” and seem to relate to a perception of uncertain connection between human behavior and unexplained things that happen. (That last one’s certainly a difficult one to nail down.)

It strikes me that the ways in which “organizations control members” are generally always legal – or I could say, hierarchical, and formal. Meaning, the methods of “coercion, compensation or appeal to shared values” are usually grounded in the formal structure of the organization, or at least in the structure of its legitimacy in relation to the society in which it exists.

Or rather, the ways that social groups self-manage seem most commonly based on hierarchical assumptions – but need they be?

David’s written of the way that egalitarian groups need methods of guarding against slipping away from egalitarianism (I think, the same that our hierarchical groups have many ways of guarding against slipping towards egalitarianism).

David, I feel this relates to your moral categories of transactions, not just in the sense that all are present as possibilities at all times, but in the sense that, while there are many ways that groups of people self-manage (really resisting the framework of “police themselves”), all self-management seems to me to have a moral dimension that relates to time, and perceptions of the temporality of existing and potential relations, similarly to your categories.

I guess what I’m toying with here is the way that time plays into any human conception of “what is moral” – we know that there is behavior, and that it has a consequence, and that we as human can present consequences to each other, which then affect each others’ behavior according to the possibilities we’re aware of all around us. It makes sense that the perception of the permanence of a relationship would severely affect our sense of consequences – if I don’t expect to have to deal with you tomorrow, the consequences you present won’t matter much to me.

You might lend me a hammer today, but if I steal from your best friend tonight, you’re not likely to lend me a hammer tomorrow – but if I feel I’m not going to see you again, it might not matter much to me.

One of the side effects of globalization has been, for the middle and upper classes at least, a breaking down of these sorts of relationships. “You’ll always be my mother” becomes “I now live on the other side of the globe and don’t have to interact with you at all.”

Sort of like, part of the moral dimension of economic relations is always the risk, or possibility, of purpose-driven unbalanced behavior as a means of influencing or sanctioning others…

Apologies for the digression. David, what I’d really like is to hear any thoughts you might have on group self-management, and how you see your work on the moral dimension of economic relations relating to the safeguarding of egalitarian modes of existence. It seems to me that one of the only ways for egalitarian social groups to guard against slipping to hierarchy is to work constantly to keep all participants aware of the alternate possibilities and their social meanings. (To some extent, this seems to be the main reason the right in the USA has so long held up the bogeymen of Communism and Socialism – as actual bogeymen representing to people the dangers of alternative possibilities. And it’s then striking that it’s usually the left, in my experience, that holds up the straw bogeyman of “slipping into anarchism…”)




John McCreery said:
David, I find myself wondering how your categories relate to those deployed by Amitai Etzioni in his explanations of organizational behavior and by Amartya Sen in his analysis of social inequality. Etzioni suggests that organizations have three options available for controlling their members' behavior: coercion, compensation or appeal to shared values; Joseph Nye has proposed a similar scheme for international relations, involving military, economic, and what he calls soft power, the attractiveness of the image that a nation presents when it presents itself as a model for others to follow. In _inequality Reconsidered_, Sen argues that there are two notions of fairness abroad in the world. For one, embodied in democratic politics, the units of fairness are human individuals and, thus, for some to have more than others is deemed unfair. For the other, embodied in corporate governance, the units of fairness are units of ownership. Thus, for example, at a shareholders meeting, those who own more shares hasve a greater say in how the corporation is run.

I am not trying here to say that these categories are superior to yours. On the contrary, I see here great opportunities for cross-fertilization and enhancing the relevance of anthropological discussion to policy debates, since Etzioni, Nye and Sen are all highly influential figures in circles in which anthropologists (Keith Hart is an exception) rarely have any impact, regardlessl of the value of our ideas per se.
my pleasure!
okay off to the LSE occupation. Then Goldsmiths. Then Slade...


Philip Swift said:
Thanks David, for responding to my straying question.

I very much like the project you espouse, by the way, with its political, ethical stress on the possibilities afforded by other ways of living and being. It seems to me that this was (is) always the original, incipient potential of anthropology, even if we often forget it.

Thanks again.
Thanks, Adam, and I appreciate your reflections on time and agree it's critical. I would add that there is a difference between treating someone a certain way because you actually will have ongoing relations, and treating them "as if" you would have ongoing relations. Consider the phenomenon of hospitality to strangers, commonly practiced even in (often, especially in) otherwise tumultuous, competitive, potentially violent social environments. There is often an idea that you treat certain people like brothers for a day even though you suspect you might never see them again, not because they will always exist for you, but because strangers will always exist. Thus the Vedic idea of repaying your "debt" to humans by feeding wandering foreigners - one of the earliest, if not earliest, reference I know of to an idea of something like a theory of universal human rights, since a right is just the other side of an obligation, and saying you repay your "debt" (obligation) to humanity as a whole by doing so is quite close to saying all humans (at least those you don't already know, generic humans as it were) have a right to demand something from you.

As for group management I think you are right. Actually I wrote a little about this, in a sort of Clastrian vein, in my Fragments book, on the phenomenon of "imaginary counterpower." At the risk of digression, again, I'll just paste the passage in:

toward a theory of imaginary counterpower
This is what I mean by an alternative ethics, then. Anarchistic societies are no more unaware of human capacities for greed or vainglory than modern Americans are unaware of human capacities for envy, gluttony, or sloth; they would just find them equally unappealing as the basis for their civilization. In fact, they see these phenomena as moral dangers so dire they end up organizing much of their social life around containing them.
If this were a purely theoretical essay I would explain that all this suggests an interesting way of synthesizing theories of value and theories of resistance. For present purposes, suffice it to say that I think Mauss and Clastres have succeeded, somewhat despite themselves, in laying the groundwork for a theory of revolutionary counterpower.
I'm afraid this is a somewhat complicated argument. Let me take it one step at a time.
In typical revolutionary discourse a "counterpower" is a collection of social institutions set in opposition to the state and capital: from self-governing communities to radical labor unions to popular militias. Sometimes it is also referred to as an "anti-power." When such institutions maintain themselves in the face of the state, this is usually referred to as a "dual power" situation. By this definition most of human history is actually characterized by dual power situations, since few historical states had the means to root such institutions out, even assuming that they would have wanted to. But Mauss and Clastres' argument suggests something even more radical. It suggests that counterpower, at least in the most elementary sense, actually exists where the states and markets are not even present; that in such cases, rather than being embodied in popular institutions which pose themselves against the power of lords, or kings, or plutocrats; they are embodied in institutions which ensure such types of person never come about. What it is "counter" to, then, is a potential, a latent aspect, or dialectical possibility if you prefer, within the society itself.
This at least would help explain an otherwise peculiar fact; the way in which it is often particularly the egalitarian societies which are torn by terrible inner tensions, or at least, extreme forms of symbolic violence.
Of course, all societies are to some degree at war with themselves. There are always clashes between interests, factions, classes and the like; also, social systems are always based on the pursuit of different forms of value which pull people in different directions. In egalitarian societies, which tend to place an enormous emphasis on creating and maintaining communal consensus, this often appears to spark a kind of equally elaborate reaction formation, a spectral nightworld inhabited by monsters, witches or other creatures of horror. And it's the most peaceful societies which are also the most haunted, in their imaginative constructions of the cosmos, by constant specters of perennial war. The invisible worlds surrounding them are literally battlegrounds. It's as if the endless labor of achieving consensus masks a constant inner violence—or, it might perhaps be better to say, is in fact the process by which that inner violence is measured and contained—and it is precisely this, and the resulting tangle of moral contradiction, which is the prime font of social creativity. It's not these conflicting principles and contradictory impulses themselves which are the ultimate political reality, then; it's the regulatory process which mediates them.
Some examples might help here:

Case 1: The Piaroa, a highly egalitarian society living along tributaries of the Orinoco which ethnographer Joanna Overing herself describes as anarchists. They place enormous value on individual freedom and autonomy, and are quite self-conscious about the importance of ensuring that no one is ever at another person's orders, or the need to ensure no one gains such control over economic resources that they can use it to constrain others' freedom. Yet they also insist that Piaroa culture itself was the creation of an evil god, a two-headed cannibalistic buffoon. The Piaroa have developed a moral philosophy which defines the human condition as caught between a 'world of the senses,' of wild, pre-social desires, and a 'world of thought'. Growing up involves learning to control and channel in the former through thoughtful consideration for others, and the cultivation of a sense of humor; but this is made infinitely more difficult by the fact that all forms of technical knowledge, however necessary for life are, due to their origins, laced with elements of destructive madness. Similarly, while the Piaroa are famous for their peaceableness—murder is unheard of, the assumption being that anyone who killed another human being would be instantly consumed by pollution and die horribly—they inhabit a cosmos endless invisible war, in which wizards are engaged in fending off the attacks of insane, predatory gods and all deaths are caused by spiritual murder, which have to be avenged by the magical massacre of whole (distant, unknown) communities.
Case 2: The Tiv, another notoriously egalitarian society who make their homes along the Benue River in central Nigeria. Compared to the Piaroa, their domestic life is quite hierarchical: male elders tend to have many wives, and exchange with one another the rights to younger women's fertility; younger men are thus reduced to spending most of their lives chilling their heels as unmarried dependents in their fathers' compounds. In recent centuries the Tiv were never entirely insulated from the raids of slave traders; Tivland was also dotted with local markets; minor wars between clans were occasionally fought, though more often large disputes were mediated in large communal "moots." Still, there were no political institutions larger than the compound; in fact, anything that even began to look like a political institution was considered intrinsically suspect, or more precisely, seen as surrounded by an aura of occult horror. This was, as ethnographer Paul Bohannan succinctly put it, because of what was seen to be the nature of power: “men attain power by consuming the substance of others.” Markets were protected, and market rules enforced by charms which embodied diseases and were said to be powered by human body parts and blood. Enterprising men who managed to patch together some sort of fame, wealth, or clientele were by definition witches. Their hearts were coated by a substance called tsav, which could only be augmented by the eating of human flesh. Most tried to avoid doing so, but a secret society of witches was said to exist which would slip bits of human flesh in their victims' food, thus incurring a "flesh debt" and unnatural cravings that would eventually drive those affected to consume their entire families. This imaginary society of witches seen as the invisible government of the country. Power was thus institutionalized evil, and every generation, a witch-finding movement would arise to expose the culprits, thus, effectively, destroying any emerging structures of authority.
Case 3: Highland Madagascar, where I lived between 1989 and 1991, was a rather different place. The area had been the center of a Malagasy state—the Merina kingdom—since the early nineteenth century, and afterwards endured many years of harsh colonial rule. There was a market economy and, in theory, a central government: during the time I was there, largely dominated by what was called the "Merina bourgeoisie." In fact this government had effectively withdrawn from most of the countryside and rural communities were effectively governing themselves. In many ways these could also be considered anarchistic: most local decisions were made by consensus by informal bodies, leadership was looked on at best with suspicion, it was considered wrong for adults to be giving one another orders, especially on an ongoing basis; this was considered to make even institutions like wage labor inherently morally suspect. Or to be more precise, unmalagasy—this was how the French behaved, or wicked kings and slaveholders long ago. Society was overall remarkably peaceable. Yet once again it was surrounded by invisible warfare; just about everyone had access to dangerous medicine or spirits or was willing to let on they might; the night was haunted by witches who danced naked on tombs and rode men like horses; just about all sickness was due to envy, hatred, and magical attack. What's more, witchcraft bore a strange, ambivalent relation to national identity. While people made rhetorical reference to Malagasy as equal and united "like hairs on a head," ideals of economic equality were rarely, if ever, invoked; however, it was assumed that anyone who became too rich or powerful would be destroyed by witchcraft, and while witchcraft was the definition of evil, it was also seen as peculiarly Malagasy (charms were just charms but evil charms were called "Malagasy charms"). Insofar as rituals of moral solidarity did occur, and the ideal of equality was invoked, it was largely in the course of rituals held to suppress, expel, or destroy those witches who, perversely, were the twisted embodiment and practical enforcement of the egalitarian ethos of the society itself.

Note how in each case there's a striking contrast between the cosmological content, which is nothing if not tumultuous, and social process, which is all about mediation, arriving at consensus. None of these societies are entirely egalitarian: there are always certain key forms of dominance, at least of men over women, elders over juniors. The nature and intensity of these forms vary enormously: in Piaroa communities the hierarchies were so modest that Overing doubts one can really speak of 'male dominance' at all (despite the fact that communal leaders are invariably male); the Tiv appear to be quite another story. Still, structural inequalities invariably exist, and as a result I think it is fair to say that these anarchies are not only imperfect, they contain with them the seeds of their own destruction. It is hardly a coincidence that when larger, more systematically violent forms of domination do emerge, they draw on precisely these idioms of age and gender to justify themselves.
Still, I think it would be a mistake to see the invisible violence and terror as simply a working out of the "internal contradictions" created by those forms of inequality. One could, perhaps, make the case that most real, tangible violence is. At least, it is a somewhat notorious thing that, in societies where the only notable inequalities are based in gender, the only murders one is likely to observe are men killing each other over women. Similarly, it does seem to be the case, generally speaking, that the more pronounced the differences between male and female roles in a society, the more physically violent it tends to be. But this hardly means that if all inequalities vanished, then everything, even the imagination, would become placid and untroubled. To some degree, I suspect all this turbulence stems from the very nature of the human condition. There would appear to be no society which does not see human life as fundamentally a problem. However much they might differ on what they deem the problem to be, at the very least, the existence of work, sex, and reproduction are seen as fraught with all sorts of quandaries; human desires are always fickle; and then there's the fact that we're all going to die. So there's a lot to be troubled by. None of these dilemmas are going to vanish if we eliminate structural inequalities (much though I think this would radically improve things in just about every other way). Indeed, the fantasy that it might, that the human condition, desire, mortality, can all be somehow resolved seems to be an especially dangerous one, an image of utopia which always seems to lurk somewhere behind the pretentions of Power and the state. Instead, as I've suggested, the spectral violence seems to emerge from the very tensions inherent in the project of maintaining an egalitarian society




Adam Piontek said:
Hi all – late to this seminar but very much enjoying it, and surprisingly also found myself feeling like I had something to contribute… apologies for a bit of "thinking from the hip" here.

....
Apologies for the digression. David, what I’d really like is to hear any thoughts you might have on group self-management, and how you see your work on the moral dimension of economic relations relating to the safeguarding of egalitarian modes of existence. It seems to me that one of the only ways for egalitarian social groups to guard against slipping to hierarchy is to work constantly to keep all participants aware of the alternate possibilities and their social meanings. (To some extent, this seems to be the main reason the right in the USA has so long held up the bogeymen of Communism and Socialism – as actual bogeymen representing to people the dangers of alternative possibilities. And it’s then striking that it’s usually the left, in my experience, that holds up the straw bogeyman of “slipping into anarchism…”)




John McCreery said:
David, I find myself wondering how your categories relate to those deployed by Amitai Etzioni in his explanations of organizational behavior and by Amartya Sen in his analysis of social inequality. Etzioni suggests that organizations have three options available for controlling their members' behavior: coercion, compensation or appeal to shared values; Joseph Nye has proposed a similar scheme for international relations, involving military, economic, and what he calls soft power, the attractiveness of the image that a nation presents when it presents itself as a model for others to follow. In _inequality Reconsidered_, Sen argues that there are two notions of fairness abroad in the world. For one, embodied in democratic politics, the units of fairness are human individuals and, thus, for some to have more than others is deemed unfair. For the other, embodied in corporate governance, the units of fairness are units of ownership. Thus, for example, at a shareholders meeting, those who own more shares hasve a greater say in how the corporation is run.

I am not trying here to say that these categories are superior to yours. On the contrary, I see here great opportunities for cross-fertilization and enhancing the relevance of anthropological discussion to policy debates, since Etzioni, Nye and Sen are all highly influential figures in circles in which anthropologists (Keith Hart is an exception) rarely have any impact, regardlessl of the value of our ideas per se.
Thanks David for a great paper. I enjoy reading all of your work. Thanks Keith for holding the seminar together.

I particularly like the point you make that everyone has the chance to create new sorts of relationships all the time and that as you say David "it is specifically by focusing on moments of social creativity, the creation of new social relations (which is in a way the most interesting part of The Gift), that we overcome the tired old dichotomies of individual and society, structure and agency, and so forth."

I also like the question of the importance of ethnograhic examples for this creativity and how you have tried to "map out that reserve of basic principles people draw on when they are being creative."

If this sort of creativity is going on all the time in social relations the tendancy is to ask what it is that makes some types of exchange get chosen over others and why and how these are then formalised/normalised/made into law/etc. Activists like those in the New Economics Foundation are busy trying to create organisations that are based on more "moral" ways of doing things; trying to formalise those exchanges and systems of reciprocity that they think are better for the world. Where they often fall short is that they stifle the creativity of their members in the very act of defining what it is they should be doing. As activists though I wonder if we can ever really know what types of "elective affinity" might be around the corner and in this sense if we can ever really know what types of things we should be trying to pursue.
Thanks David - that passage from Fragments was the one I had in mind. And the extension of the idea of relationships to the abstract, such as "strangers will always exist" is great. I suppose in a very real sense, all humans are always related to all other humans elsewhere, and our lot is ultimately shared (unless some group goes and lives on Mars and never speaks to us again).

It's compelling to think that in all situations, acting from a sense of commonality is as possible as a rejection of that sense, but that without strong influences towards the latter, people tend to default to the former. In a world full of strong influences to the latter, it's tantalizing to be thinking of ways to encourage remembrance of the former...



David Graeber said:
Thanks, Adam, and I appreciate your reflections on time and agree it's critical. I would add that there is a difference between treating someone a certain way because you actually will have ongoing relations, and treating them "as if" you would have ongoing relations. Consider the phenomenon of hospitality to strangers, commonly practiced even in (often, especially in) otherwise tumultuous, competitive, potentially violent social environments. There is often an idea that you treat certain people like brothers for a day even though you suspect you might never see them again, not because they will always exist for you, but because strangers will always exist. Thus the Vedic idea of repaying your "debt" to humans by feeding wandering foreigners - one of the earliest, if not earliest, reference I know of to an idea of something like a theory of universal human rights, since a right is just the other side of an obligation, and saying you repay your "debt" (obligation) to humanity as a whole by doing so is quite close to saying all humans (at least those you don't already know, generic humans as it were) have a right to demand something from you.

As for group management I think you are right. Actually I wrote a little about this, in a sort of Clastrian vein, in my Fragments book, on the phenomenon of "imaginary counterpower." At the risk of digression, again, I'll just paste the passage in:

This caught my eye, as a sometimes environmental activist, post-vegetarian, and semi-ex animal rights proponent. It also strikes me as significant in relation to the recently trendy area of "multispecies ethnography," which I find problematic but admit I haven't engaged with enough to productively comment.

For non-living aspects of extra-human interactions, it seems better to me to conceptualize useful things like sunlight not as a gift, but as a resource, like the hammer (or its component materials) in David's popular example. The use of which raises issues of responsibility to other humans. I sometimes like the idea of seeing all that exists as potentially belonging to humans (not in the misguided sense of "dominion over") and thus subject to different levels of economic interactions in terms of debt, obligation, and rights. Not to the environment itself, but to other potential users. The non-superlocal consequences of our actions are thus of concern to all humans. (On a side note, if not "dominion over," than what sense? Perhaps a "shared inheritance?" A side-effect of a broader viewpoint of seeing life as a right of all who possess it, with the facilitation and safeguarding of life as a promise expected of one simply by also being alive? And thus, everything that can potentially facilitate life is "promised to all humans by all humans"? Sounds fruity... but lends itself to the idea that anything that could be maintained and cared for, should be, even if it's not technically "yours.")

I'm not sure what to do about the non-human life dilemma. Perhaps multispecies ethnography will actually illuminate these issues by exploring the range of possibilities of how humans conceptualize their interactions with other species... I do think that it might be possible to acknowledge other creatures as having their own spheres of meaning (however limited) that are incompatible with our own, but as deserving of respectful coexistence. But I don't know what that means when you can't talk about it with them, and some of them might just as soon eat you. Surely, however, animals with "alien" social lives at least have some sort of "right belonging to living beings" to their own lived experience..? Meaning, if not extending the political sphere, or economic sphere, at least extending some sort of meta-ethical sphere of a right to exist and be as they are?

That said, I'm not sure how I feel about worries of devaluing our relations with other humans. Sometimes I think we overly value ourselves. Sometimes I think, we're just animals with culture. That's usually one of my takeaway points from a work like Sahlins' The Western Illusion of Human Nature, in that culture isn't something that makes us "not animal," it's part of what kind of animal we are, bestowing us certain capacities (such as intergenerational information sharing). I think, the assumption that some are by nature more deserving of humane treatment than others is one of those pernicious hierarchical problems I'd be eager to shed. We're so used to using "in-group recognition" as a shortcut to determine "who deserves humane treatment," but maybe the question isn't best answered that way.

So I suppose one response to a racist who feels some humans are no better than animals would be, "That goes for all of us, buddy, no reason to be inhumane." Not great, but, I don't think there's any getting around that sometimes there's a whole world of assumption-shifting to do with some people's value systems.



David Graeber said:
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.



Thank you, everyone, for this wonderful sharing of ideas over the past two weeks. I would like especially to thank David, who has been so attentive and thoughtful, following up on every comment and question, in addition to being so involved in this week's dramatic political action. I know I have been quiet since my initial post of a few days ago. I had the idea that I was sowing a few seeds, without realizing that perhaps I was casting sparks. Ah well, to turn a phrase, a seed is as good as a spark to a bed of hot coals! It's wonderful to see such passion emerge, and I thank all of you who have followed up on my post.

Reply by heesun hwang on December 2, 2010 at 8:08am:
I really love this place. The discussion going on here is so enriching. For instance, I'd really like to learn more about 'flexible capital' (Jens), a theory of gift that extends toward nonhumans (Geoff), and the topics raised by Julieta and Nikos, and so on.

I shared some of my ideas about this in Keith's "Reciprocity" thread last year, in the forum of the Economic Anthropology group, in which I suggested how we might recognize more values within our systems of values, and their corresponding principles -- more than only three. For example, we have been discussing the triad of solidarity/communism, reciprocity, domination/hierarchy, and corresponding principles such as: "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need", "give as good as you get", the golden rule, etc. I think we might extend these in both directions to recognize values (and respective principles) all the way from coercion ("might makes right") to empathy (the "platinum" rule).

Reply by John McCreery on December 2, 2010 at 3:02pm:
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

Thank you, John, for bringing up complex adaptive systems. I have been influenced also by Buzz Holling's work on resilience in complex systems: Understanding the Complexity of Economic, Ecological, and Social Sy.... What I have learned is that it is important to engage in observation and learning (Logos) from the systems (Oikos) in which we find ourselves. However, when we apply management and control (Nomos) to these systems, e.g., to improve their efficiency or productivity, then we impose stresses that may have unintended consequences potentially resulting in simultaneous cascading failures of these subsystems and the larger and smaller systems connected to them. For this reason, over the past year I have taken a step back from oikos-nomos to think more about oikos-logos. So you see, when I speak of ecology rather than economy, I refer not so much to non-human rather than human life, but instead to learning rather than management.

Reply by David Graeber 1 day ago:
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.

I think Nietzsche understood "will to power" as including the power to create. However, I wonder if Bataille thought of this as the power to destroy. Certainly the sun provides the power for creativity, yet the power of a single match may destroy a forest. I think these pitfalls are due to our focus on the past. I understand this is made explicit in some languages (Aymara, Toba, Malagasy), wherein the past is indicated forward and the future behind. We observe that all that has come into being before is decaying until now (thermodynamics, with or without the help of energy from the sun). It might seem to follow that human creativity, fertility, etc. constitute a kind of debt to the sun. However, if we focus instead on the future, we see not decay, but the emergence of much that does not yet exist, and which becomes possible only with a steady flow of energy. Then it might follow that the sun is inviting us to celebrate and participate in this emergence. I wonder how we can turn ourselves around, though. Failing that, we might do better to let go of linear time (progress) and embrace the cyclical time of nature's rhythms seasons, etc.

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