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.

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Comment by Detlev Krige on February 11, 2011 at 11:53am

Dear Keith, thank you for the invite and starting this discussion. Let me introduce myself: A South African, I am currently teaching anthropology at the University of Pretoria. My doctoral research was on the popular economies of Soweto and Black Johannesburg: specifically, the relationship between society, economy and state as explored ethnographically through neighbourhood-level money lenders, saving and credit clubs, illegal daily lotteries and consumption practices in the context of growing inequality, financialisation of the economy and the formalisation of informal finance.


I have not yet read The Human Economy book, but managed to download the LSE podcast the other day (at 4am in the morning, as my cellular service provider recently started handing out limited yet free bandwith between 12 and 5am in the morning – during ‘normal hours’, I pay around R3.30 or Euro 0.3 per megabyte, and any large download comes at a hefty price). Keith, and Erik, will know how expensive bandwith in South Africa is.


This morning, driving from Johannesburg to Pretoria, I listened to the LSE podcast. Several things struck me about it, but I will limit my comments to one thing. Along my journey to Pretoria, on a newly expanded highway, I passed several new toll gates that have been built by the large construction companies that won the tender to ‘upgrade’ the highway. These toll gates have been fitted with hi-tec cameras that will record the license plates (and registration numbers) of all vehicles that pass through it. At the end of each month, motorists who made use of these roads will receive bills in the post (my own journey costs will increase by around R1100 per month). Those who register with the roads agency and buy new e-tag number plates will receive some discount. It is amazing how the technological developments and innovations in this country – of which there are many – are inevitably directed at increasing the effectiveness of extracting monies from citizens and incorporating these into global flows of monies, and rarely the opposite (such as virtual LETS). The interesting thing about the announcements of the costs relating to the tolls last week has been the public response. With the protests in Egypt on everybody’s mind, callers to talk radio stations and letter writers have been predicting uprisings and riots in the context of rising food prices, rising petrol prices, newspapers stories about wasting of public monies and elite rent-seeking etc. It has been a long time since there has been such a loud public debate about our economy’s relationship to the world economy. In this context, I believe, a debate on the Human Economy will be most welcome.


Lastly, one thing which struck me about your LSE talk is how it builds on some of the ideas expressed by Polanyi in The Great Transformation. I am currently re-reading this classic, after a rather shallow encounter with it a few years ago. In particular, I like Polanyi’s take on the emergence of high finance as an incredible complex institution but one which was human made – which by implication means that it can be unmade, or remade. Also, Polanyi’s emphasis on the universality of the principles according to which past and present economies have been organised – but with various combinations and institutional variations – clearly also informs the HE’s emphasis on bringing to the fore the popular economic practices and institutions which already exists. I would love to hear more about other’s take on Polanyi, and the relevance of his ideas to our collaboration around the Human Economy.

Comment by Keith Hart on February 9, 2011 at 6:01pm

OK, Stacy. Perhaps some people here don't know that you are the OAC Book Reviews editor or where to find them and discuss them.

I could arrange for a copy to be sent to a potential reviewer or maybe such a person already has one. Mallika obviously has and one question might be whether her review posted under the lecture might be developed for that purpose.

Since she posted it, no-one has commented on it or anything else for that matter. I wonder if you stayed long enough to see it, Stacy.


Comment by Stacy A A Hope on February 8, 2011 at 11:40pm
Keith, thank you for this amazing contribution. Although I have not had the time to really look at the forums and listen to your podcast as yet, I would like to suggest having your book reviewed (I can't believe that we have not discussed this). This may fuel the discussions further.
Comment by Mallika Shakya on February 5, 2011 at 7:01pm


You are right, trading across borders changes class dimension substantially. In most exporting industries, labour's threat to go on strike is preempted by exhaustive frameworks on the legalities, charities and branding based on labour rules and standards. The rhetoric of standards, productivity and profit now dominate industrial relations leaving aside very little room for class action.


You encourage global solidarity and I cannot agree more. What comes to mind is Manchester textile workers' support for Gandhi's swadeshi cloth movement which sent their jobs away. I wonder if a reverse would be true for today's multinationals. Day in and day out, MNEs desert countries to take up better deals elsewhere, leaving behind devastated factory ecosystems that include not only labour but also local owners and supply chain actors. Can they cross class lines to form solidarity, first among themselves, and then with others cross-border? I agree with Keith that the idea of proletariat class is rather sterile and that the 21st century world thinking needs some revision.

Comment by John McCreery on February 4, 2011 at 4:48am
Mallika, linking your concerns to mine, I note that it is very important to keep an eye on the relation of the businesses that employ union members to transnational corporations. So long as the business is local and the owner's capital is tied up in local assets, a union's threat to go on strike is a powerful weapon. If, however, the business is dependent on export sales to a multinational partner with suppliers in other countries, the union's position is much weaker. The union may have to consider alliances with unions in other countries, bearing in mind that their members' interests may not coincide with those of the Nepali union. This is one reason why that old slogan, "Workers of the world unite" and the global labor solidarity it envisions remain important goals for progressive thinkers and activists.
Comment by Mallika Shakya on February 4, 2011 at 4:39am

I am learning a lot from OAC and would love to hear more about your Gandhi project!


You asked about Nepal.  May I start by sharing with the group an encouraging development that the Constituent Assembly finally elected a left-left government today, on the 17th attempt, whole seven months after the previous Prime Minister resigned! This should end the deadlock in writing the new constitution and army merger among others. Fingers x.


For the trade union movement, which has been at the frontier of the ongoing political change, this development should be seen as the rise of new pragmatism over blind old ideology.  Like in South Africa, Nepali trade union is beginning to call shots in national politics.  Its strengthening wasn’t the work of a visionary leader;  the failure of development made it inevitable, although ironically, its trajectory resembled the one you just described.


I think Chakrabarty deals with the reverse of class formation: A situation where the proletariat class movement fails to deliver. He seemed to argue that pure proletarianism could be actually quite elite (or bhadralok) in its criticism and denial of the caste/ethnic solidarity. But when proletariat movements prove insufficient – they often do in cases of wholesale market failure, as in his study of the declining jute industry of the West Bengal and I would talk about my work on the collapsing garment industry of Nepal – people have not other choice but to revert to old identities and solidarities, however primordial they are perceived.


Sorry for the Nepal diatribe .. would love to hear about other experiences from elsewhere... I must read Marsden essay. More after I've read it.

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.
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 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 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...


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