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 don't think I could do a better wrap-up than Geoff already did. Apart from thanking David and all of you once more, I would like to announce that the next seminar, featuring a paper by Martin Holbraad, will start in mid-January. Phil, Danny and David have given us a trio of seminars to remember. Indeed they have established the series at the centre of our shared life here. I would be glad to hear from any of you who have suggestions for improving its organization, either privately or in a thread I may open in the Forum. Happy holidays and see you in the new year.

I will now close the thread, partly to prevent more attention-seeking off-topic comments being added to what was, for the most part, a focused and cooperative discussion.

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