The human economy in a revolutionary moment: political aspects of the economic crisis

This is the edited transcript of an improvised talk for a seminar, “Social movements and the solidarity economy”, organized by Jean-Louis Laville and Geoffrey Pleyers, EHESS, Paris, 2 February 2012.

The link is here.

My main aim is to reflect on an ongoing anthropological and political conversation with David Graeber. This hinges on the (sterile?) contrast between revolutionary and reformist approaches to economic change and the stories we attach to them.

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My website host is going through a denial-of-service attack, so I am uploading the paper as a Word file.

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An image to think with: Jesse Jackson Jr. is describing capitalism. He says, no question about it, the market is the most powerful wealth-generating engine in the world. But if you want a nice car, you need more than an engine. You also need brakes and a steering wheel. And if you want it to get you where you want to go, you need a driver who knows what she's doing, too.

I am trying to imagine how the Hart and Graeber takes on the global economy would change this metaphor. If left=revolution is, "We don't want no cars no more," what is center-left=reform? 

Let the people drive, but the steering wheel and brakes are the government and the laws. Put it this way, would you want to negotiate the meaning of the colour of traffic lights whenever you come to an intersection? Hegel saw the aim of development as something he called ethical life (Sittlichkeit), where people have internalized the laws as their personal customs. Many of us have already reached that point when it comes to traffic lights, but there's an awful lot left to go. The same with money. I can't imagine a workable civilization without it. I don't want to spend my days haggling over my daily bread without a means of payment nor to have to line up for a handout. If distribution is unequal, governments are good for equalizing if they have a genuinely democratic mandate, as they did for three decades after the war. And they can make it tough on cars in cities if we are all choked up with them. Come to think of it, I like instant downloads through a credit card too. And I love landing at a foreign airport and getting local cash out of a hole in the wall. The problem lies with the single issuer of national monopoly currency in an era where money takes the form of multiple instruments issued by a distributed global network of many different types of issuers and there is no government or laws to restrain them. That is why we have an economic crisis and why it will lead in all likelihood to war and revolution before we have another go at making global institutions with rules that bite, as after 1945.

John McCreery said:

An image to think with: Jesse Jackson Jr. is describing capitalism. He says, no question about it, the market is the most powerful wealth-generating engine in the world. But if you want a nice car, you need more than an engine. You also need brakes and a steering wheel. And if you want it to get you where you want to go, you need a driver who knows what she's doing, too.

I am trying to imagine how the Hart and Graeber takes on the global economy would change this metaphor. If left=revolution is, "We don't want no cars no more," what is center-left=reform? 

Thanks for posting this Keith.

Only one mention of "home" (economics) - albeit a good one in the following paragraph:

"The human economy is conceived of as mediating between two paired antinomies – state and market, home and world – which helped to define the twentieth century’s dominant social form, “national capitalism” -- the attempt to manage money, markets and accumulation though central bureaucracy in the name of a cultural community of national citizens. The economic crisis of our time may be understood as the collapse of this system. Rather than oppose the poles of either pair to each other, the aim is to synthesize them through a pragmatic focus on what people really do."

I would be interested in hearing more about the house/market discussion that you take up elsewhere; the "estates, palaces, temples, monasteries" that "extended the range of household economy through engaging with a division of labour sustained by money and markets".


I also wanted to draw people to a great article on the BBC. I'm way out of my depth here and I'm sure I'm a long way behind other members of the OAC on this one but a symbolic mask through different revolutionary movements.... what a great topic!

Did revolutionary masks ever figure in CLR James' work?

As far as I know, masks didn't figure in it for James. But he spent 15 years in the US (1938-1953) operating under a pseudonym "Johnson" and with Raya Dunayesvskaya formed a revolutionary group known as the "Johnson-Forest Tendency". I don't think the FBI had much trouble finding them, but it was the culture of the day to adopt a disguised name.

I am not being defensive, but I would like readers of the paper to keep in mind that it was an improvised speech. As a new topic, I wanted to see what my unconscious mind would dig up, since you can't plan such a speech or step outside its rhythm. So I am interested in discussion of what is in there rather than what is not.

Having said that, you have put your finger on a huge synthetic issue and it is one that I have to nail somehow, if I am to make this human economy idea stick. The Economic Anthropology book (chapter 2) goes into how the idea of economy started out as household management and has become largely synonymous with the market. We suggest there that somehow these poles of home and market have to be reconciled. This is particularly so since the moral economy of capitalism insists on separating market and home as impersonal and personal spheres of paid and unpaid work, a separation that was never realised. Money is instrinsic to home economy and human personality to the work place. So the idea of bringing the two closer together has its roots in existing practice.

But somehow the nation-state has also appropriated the idea of home for itself (Gross Domestic Product) and the world market may be represented as a threat to its stability. Polanyi wrote about the contradiction between external and internal dimensions of national economy. Mauss said that foreign expeditions like kula are necessary since local society is never self-sufficient, but they are dangerous.I needn't rehearse the xenophobic themes. If "the economy" is first and foremost a national one, how do we develop the political means of regulating a market economy that has gone global and is essentially lawless? This is the core of the current world economic crisis and it could plausibly end in war and revolution. Home and market, home and world have been seen as being in conflict as well as interdependent in some sense.

The ethnographic turn in anthropology responded to a nationalism that made the rest of the world invisible or irrelevant and world history was dumped in favour of finding integrated, bounded societies who lived happily outside history. So coming to terms with our moment in history requires a revolution in anthropological practice too.

Nathan Dobson said:


I would be interested in hearing more about the house/market discussion that you take up elsewhere; the "estates, palaces, temples, monasteries" that "extended the range of household economy through engaging with a division of labour sustained by money and markets".


Did revolutionary masks ever figure in CLR James' work?

Interesting piece on money in the Wall Street Journal.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204136404577209241595...

A libertarian you could have an intelligent discussion with.  Is Thiel an ally, an enemy, or something else vis-a-vis the human economy?

Speaking just for myself, I believe that social democracy has to incorporate the best of the liberal tradition. I have a lot of time for Tom Jefferson, for example. So I could talk to this guy, for sure. One side of my argument that my paper doesnt express well is the scope for humanising impersonal institutions.

John McCreery said:

A libertarian you could have an intelligent discussion with.  Is Thiel an ally, an enemy, or something else vis-a-vis the human economy?

Thanks, John. I like the way he writes and I have preordered his book (due to be delivered on Valentine's day!). I do believe that the digital revolution is a force for economic democracy. I wrote about that in The memory bank. The rise of mobile phones makes that even more likely since there is a means of payment built in, as there isn't with the internet, and everyone can carry one in their pocket as they move around. But cash is also a way of making transactions personal, especially if you don't want it to be traceable.

John McCreery said:

Interesting piece on money in the Wall Street Journal.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204136404577209241595...

Thank you for the link, John. Money and its ways are a big arena where the history of the present is being done. That expert appears support the "1%". Some of the reader's comments are interesting and insightful; perhaps more than the author's ideas.

John McCreery said:

Interesting piece on money in the Wall Street Journal.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204136404577209241595...

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