The Human Economy

A forum to discuss the agenda laid out in a new book, The Human Economy: A Citizen's Guide.

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Discussion Forum

Review article of David Graeber's Debt book featuring human economy 2 Replies

I have published this article-length review of Debt: The first 5,000 years as…Continue

Started by Keith Hart. Last reply by Erin B. Taylor Nov 20, 2012.

Conroy on informal economy (continued) 12 Replies

A chance to extend the seminar conversation around John…Continue

Started by Keith Hart. Last reply by John Conroy May 27, 2012.

The human economy in a revolutionary moment 10 Replies

The human economy in a revolutionary moment: political aspects of the economic crisisThis is the edited transcript of an improvised talk for a seminar, “Social movements and the solidarity economy”,…Continue

Started by Keith Hart. Last reply by Oscar González Feb 12, 2012.

Comment Wall

Comment by heesun hwang on February 1, 2011 at 10:37am
Oh, thank you Keith, for posting the link to the lecture. I finally received the book a couple of days ago. Let me read it and watch the video first!
Comment by Erik Bähre on February 1, 2011 at 12:38pm

Dear Keith,


Excellent initiative and I am looking forward to the debates. Let me briefly introduce myself to the participants of the forum. I work at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University. My research takes place in South Africa, mostly in the townships and squattercamps of Cape Town. My main interest is in how people deal with rapid economic changes and how this affects their interdependencies. My PhD study was on financial self-help groups among Xhosa migrants and now I am working on commercial insurances among the poor and lower middle classes. So it is easy to see why I am interested to take part in the debate.

All the best,


Comment by David Marsden on February 1, 2011 at 5:17pm


I listened closely to your presentation at the LSE and I am halfway through reading the Human Economy. I strongly agree with your focus and will be presenting a seminar at SOAS in London tomorrow that echoes many of the themes you touched upon. The seminar in entitled 'W(h)ither Anthropology; Opening up or closing down?' It takes off from the editorial that I wrote for Anthropology Today last October and feeds from a presentation that I gave at the Development Studies Association Annual Conference in London in November last year - to reflect on the demise of the Centre for Development Studies at Swansea. The Anthropology Today editorial can be found here and the DSA contribution can be found here.

Tomorrow's seminar will be from 13-15.00 hrs. on the main campus primarily for masters students in the Anthropology & Development group. Here I will also be advertising the forthcoming initial meeting of the London Anthropology Forum to be held on March 5th. Details of this can be found on the Anthropology Today website here. Anthropology Today have kindly offered to host the web site, and SOAS have kindly offered to host the meeting. The aims of the Forum are to be found on the website.

Comment by Keith Hart on February 2, 2011 at 10:49pm
Thanks to everyone who has broken the ice so far: Heesun, Erik, David, John. I have already laid out plenty and I don't want to take the lead again now. Some others may wish to introduce themsleves and their interest in this topic, comment on the LSE lecture thread or introduce a new discussion. Perhaps you would consider converting your comment and its associated links into a thread, David. the more the merrier. But I hope we can get some flow rather than slump back into the habitual passivity of these groups. I don't know how to do that without taking over. So I will wait and see.
Comment by John McCreery on February 3, 2011 at 8:48am
If I understand Keith correctly he is not asking for acceptance, critique or praise of the ideas that he describes in his LSE lecture on The Human Economy. He is asking for us to do something with them. He is asking us to put them to work.
In that spirit, I would like to suggest that we knowledge workers now face conditions like those which led skilled artisans and, later, assembly line workers to form the trade or labor unions that became the backbone of social democratic politics in the 19th and 20th centuries — but, unlike our predecessors, we lack their most effective weapon, the ability to unite and go on strike.
This idea is not original with me. I first came across it reading The Emerging Democratic Majority (2002) by U.S. Democratic Party pollsters and strategists John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, who drew my attention to data suggesting that middle-class, white collar workers, long stalwart supporters of the Republican Party were turning in growing numbers to we Democrats, instead. Why? In the past, members of this class self-identified with the professional, managerial, and capitalist owner class whose ranks they dreamed of joining. Now they were finding themselves in the same position as the workers who formed the AFL and CIO, held at arms length and treated as interchangeable tools by bosses so rich and powerful that for most any hope of joining their ranks was now an impossible dream. 
Why bring this up here? More and more of what I read online, written by my fellow anthropologists and scholars in other disciplines as well, concerns what is seen as an attack on public education, marked by use of cheap and easily replaceable adjunct faculty to replace tenured professors. I am struck, however, by how parochial most of the response has been, as if academia defined the relevant universe. Why don't all these very smart people recognize that their situation is that of knowledge workers across the board, to anyone, in fact, whose job can be given to someone cheaper, be they robot, living in a low-wage but Net-connected part of the world, or a member of a reserve army of increasingly cheap labor, the unemployed, wherever they call home?
After all, similar conditions affect not only individuals but organizations as well (so long as they depend on larger organizations for work). Just this morning Online Spin, an ad industry e-mail newsletter to which I subscribe (it's free!), carried an article by Cory Treffileti titled, "When did AOR become a four-letter word?"  "AOR" stands for "Agency of Record," and refers to what used to be common practice in the industry, agencies treated as full partners who retained accounts for up to 40 years at a stretch. Now the turnover for Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) is only about 18-24 months, and when the CMO changes so, typically, do all of the agencies a company uses. Agency relationships with clients now typically last only 24-36 months. The "tenure" that AOR used to represent is gone.
All of the people mentioned so far are, of course, much better off than the laborers, often immigrants, who take day labor jobs in construction and other trades in all the developed economies. They, in turn, are better off than those who live in the slums of the world's megacities and scrape a living in what we euphemistically call informal economies or scrape a living from peasant agriculture in the world's agrarian backwaters. 
What we all share, however, is a growing sense of uncertainty, a fear that things are out of control or controlled by forces indifferent to our fates, a feeling of helplessness —not helped at all by the really bad news. The strike that was the strongest weapon of the unions and labor/democratic socialist parties of the 20th century is not as strong a weapon as it was back
Comment by John McCreery on February 3, 2011 at 8:51am

I seem to have exceeded a length limit for comments. Here is how the previous message ends.


What we all share, however, is a growing sense of uncertainty, a fear that things are out of control or controlled by forces indifferent to our fates, a feeling of helplessness —not helped at all by the really bad news. The strike that was the strongest weapon of the unions and labor/democratic socialist parties of the 20th century is not as strong a weapon as it was back then. Now that capital flows freely around the globe, the threat to shut down a plant in one place is countered by the more potent threat of moving the business elsewhere. Thus, while the situation that so many of us share suggests important ground for solidarity, how best to wield solidarity effectively has become an increasingly elusive problem. 
That sounds like a problem to whose solution people trained to dig through complex particulars and relate them to global issues would have a lot to contribute. Keith has carried the ball this far. What will you, dear reader, do to advance this project further?

Comment by Keith Hart on February 3, 2011 at 10:52am

Thanks, John. You are right to hone in on solidarity, its forms and engines, as the key towards getting anywhere with this sort of program. Before I came to live in France 14 years ago, I had given up on experiencing again the solidarity of street life when I was a kid in Manchester. I recall when the gas company started digging with noisy machines before 8am and half a dozen women with figurative rolling pins charged out to confront them, demanding to know what authority they had to do that with OUR street at such an ungodly hour.

I rediscovered it in Paris where manifestation means occupying the streets and public sector strikes command wide popular support. I was drawn to my friend Jean-Louis Laville's work by the notion of economie solidaire. The French own the idea of society and solidarity, just as the English and the Americans own economy. I have long dreamed of writing a book on what I like about Britain, France and America, societies who typically demonise one or both of the others. I sum this up as three notions that I have internalised by living in each country: fairness in Britain, freedom in the US and solidarity in France.

The postdoc program on human economy at Pretoria will host an international workshop later this year, probably late August. We want to make its prime focus the relationship between individual and collective action, call it self-interest and solidarity or self-reliance and belonging (there are plenty of candidates, Rousseau spoke of the two great human motives as self-preservation and compassion). One feature of the leftwing economic sociology I have picked up in France is a much greater willingness to conceive of social democracy in terms of markets and money, as Mauss did and I do. This is one way that the neoliberal era has changed the terrain for mobilising solidarity.

Kojin Karatani, a Japanese philosopher, wrote an interesting book, Transcritique: on Kant and Marx. He suggested there that the strike as a form of political combination was dumb, since it put all the workers in one place where they could easily be attacked (a bit like the Egyptian protesters today). He prefers consumer boycotts, a form developed by Gandhi to resist British rule. As a postive step he recommends community currencies, do-it-yourself money. I must say that I draw inspiration from Gandhi above all and the other anti-colonial intellectuals.

Well, that's enough for me, having said I want to stay out...

Comment by Mallika Shakya on February 3, 2011 at 11:16am


I found it interesting that both in the podcast and the book you pointed out that State was the reference point for the informalism debate of the 1970s whereas today it is a concept that is most often discussed in the context of diminishing states and unreigned markets. John McCreery said similar things about academic tenures. I agree that an alternative thinking is urgently needed and that it must head to action, and as you say, Keith, that both the thought and action must rise above disciplinary and regional hegemonies, not to mention ideological.


What you say about Karatani’s book linking him with Gandhi, Keith, is intriguing. Can market also be the weapon of the poor, or does solidarity take its essence from its sheer physicality?  The successful trade union leaders from Nepal told me ‘when you share days and days of toiling together, you form class.’ This differs sharply from the less successful ones who tried to abide by the state (and possibly the market) definitions of labour, and flunked, pretty much like the bhadraloks of the bygone Kolkata jute industry that subalternist Dipesh Chakravarty talked about.


This actually brings me to Gandhi.  Does he not seem to deploy tools of both market and solidarity? He shunned the markets created by the colonisers (cloth and salt) but in doing so he brought the public to a circle of solidarity where each saw the other, and then a class formation happened, a class that was not strictly economic but one with a common ideology against colonisation.

Comment by Keith Hart on February 3, 2011 at 11:48am

Thanks for the great intervention, Mallika. before getting to Gandhi, I would like to point out that those who evoke Mauss to pose gift against market economy are missing what he was really on about. He belongs to a strand of cooperative socialism going back to the Rochdale pioneers and embodied in people like Keir Hardie, a founder of the modern Labour party. The Webbs, Sidney and Beatrice, who founded LSE and the Fabian Society, belong broadly in this stream too and Mauss was a close friend.


Beatrice Webb in My Apprenticeship writes of discovering the working class civilization of Northern England when a teenager. This was founded on three institutions, each of whom combined individualism and collective solidarity. The chapel was both protestant and a congregation; the union was based on private ownership of tools and combination against employers; the co-op was based on private property and combination as consumers in the market. Marx and Engels got it all wrong by identifying as classes a proletariat with nothing but its labour to sell and a petty bourgeoisie concerned only with small private property. This opposition is a major challnege for us if we want to transcend the sterile oppositions of the 20th century.

So yes you are right, Gandhi didn't buy into the opposition between markets and solidarity either. Incidentally I have just bought all 100 volumes of his life work! I can feel a research project coming up. I would like to read him through the Caribbean's anti-colonial intellectuals, Fanon and James, who have shaped my African work so profoundly. And I would love to hear more about Nepal, Chakravarty etc.

Comment by Keith Hart on February 3, 2011 at 4:26pm
David, Thanks for posting the links. It is a pity that AT allows us to see only the abstract of your editorial. But your essay The end of the line for Development Studies? contains much food for thought here. I also believe that biography/autobiography has a lot more to offer than we have made of them so far. My eye was drawn to the final comment by Chris Gerry, wiriting from Portugal, on the relationship between translation and development. This is a very important issue for an international project like The Human Economy and indeed for anthropology, if we are going to be unidisciplinary about it.


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