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 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 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 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 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 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 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 Alexander Parkinson on February 19, 2011 at 3:06am
I would like to thank fellow contributors for an intellectually stimulating debate from which I have learnt some interesting points and that is, in its very nature, akin to my interests.
I read The Human Economy a couple of months ago when completing a PhD proposal for Manchester University and listened to the lecture on my journey to and from work today. I believe that the book is an incredible achievement in that it brings globally dispersed scholars with a plethora of distinct specialisations together coherently, under an umbrella concept of immense significance. I’d like to talk more about the general prescriptions of the book and position my views in relation to some of the comments here.
As with John’s reading of Keith, I see the The Human Economy as a rallying call for a widespread commitment to a better understanding of our economic lives – hopefully leading to more socially-responsible action. (This is also the case with The Great Transformation Today by Hann & Hart, which, if you haven’t read Detlev, I would strongly recommend). So…what can we do about it? Certainly, pointing to collective forms that are not captured by dominant disciplines, ideologies and institutions etc is essential. I believe that it is also necessary to directly tackle these entities – still building on what is already there but perhaps, more so, on the areas that are most problematic to our cause (of intellectuals and of species alike).
As Detlev’s invocation of Polanyi reminds us, haute finance is (re)made by humans. People do not form part of most financial/economic models but they create them and engage with their abstractions daily. Finance may be an arena for individual experts, but it is an indelibly social arena that shapes, and is shaped by, its participants. This has been shown recently, for example, by Karen Ho, Gillian Tett and Horacio Ortiz. In my view, we need to probe the ‘complex particulars’ of these expert domains. We can then question, for instance, how the notion that Wall Street ‘culture’ contributes to, or even creates, financial bubbles fits into finance’s trend analyses. More concretely, I’ve worked as a stockbroker in Manchester for nearly 4 years at two very different firms and can contrast:
1. A huge Canadian discount broker that seeks to employ people to only push buttons, minimise contact with clients by encouraging them to online trading, and attracts clients only usually interested with short-term share ownership, with…
2. A small Manchester investment ‘house’ whose current partners were there when the stock exchange was an ‘old boys club’, where deals are still hand written, with only human-human telephone dealing and clients that are almost always investing for the long term.
To say that both firms, their employees, and their clients are only “in it for the money” is a huge over-simplification. This example isn’t from Wall Street but it still references the economic lives of tens of thousands of people – and it could be unpacked much further. To give Mallika’s posts a deserved response, stockbroking here is an example of international trading (of shares) where corporations have not yet been able to move their operations abroad – rooted by expertise – although the Canadian firm from my example is edging closer to this! (also....see Threads by J Collins for an example of apparel capital opportunistically seeking out cheap labour)
My question, then, is do you believe that the human economy, as a concept, can extend to the more ‘formal’ expert world of investment and high finance? I believe that it can. Perhaps one way of achieving a fairer distribution of wealth or solidarity is to point to the social nature of the most impersonal aspects of our economy that exist already. At the very least, we can obtain a better understanding of value and maybe hedge against our past pitfalls. The project may be different but the cause is human.
Comment by doreen gordon on February 21, 2011 at 12:08pm

Hello Everyone,

Thanks Keith for the invitation to join this discussion forum, I look forward to participating. Let me briefly introduce myself to the participants. My name is Doreen Gordon, I am Jamaican and I have recently joined the Human Economy Project as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pretoria. I previously worked as a Lecturer at the University of the West Indies, Jamaica after completing my PhD in Anthropology in 2009 at the University of Manchester. 


My doctoral research was on Brazil, looking at the emergence of black middle classes in Salvador, Brazil. In particular, I was interested in the social networks and processes that facilitated/ or hindered their mobility into the middle classes. Thus I looked at the ways in which people organized, within families and communities and also across transnational borders, for improvement in their life conditions and the degrees of integration or segregation they experienced in terms of access to wealth, credit, opportunities and consumption lifestyles. I was really interested in reviving older debates about the relationship between race and capitalism or political economy - debates which had faded into the background in the face of newer theories emphasizing identity. I explicitly sought to ground the participants of my researchin the economic and amterial practicesin which they were embedded. I think that these interests can feed into discussions about the human economy and to other comparative situations that exist in Jamaica and South Africa.


My focus on the middle classes might not be immediately obvious as a theme that can be related to the human economy. However, economic prospects can be fueled by the expansion of a viable middle class (this is happening in Brazil) as the middle classes trigger expansion in the market for housing, cars and other consumer durables. In Brazil, African descendants who had become upwardly mobile played an important strategic role both in reproducing and challenging racial and economic inequalities - thus their potential in contributing to more democratic participation in the economy and society.


I listened to the LSE podcast and one question came immediately to mind (which draws on Alexander's question about extending the concept of human economy to the more formal expert world of investment and high finance)  - is how much do we really know about developments in Economics and in Finance and is there a way to engage these specialists in a wider debate? The promise of the Human Economy project and debates to be open to interdiscipinary and cross-regional analysis should prompt us to engage with and attempt to understand developments in the world of finance and economics, if we would like to be relevant beyond our narrow areas of interest.


I recently attended an informal meeting in Johannesburg with a group of Jamaicans seeking to form a Jamaican-South African association. Addressing the audience of 35 Jamaicans or persons of Jamaican descent was the Director of the Jamaica Diaspora Institute, Professor Neville Ying. He reported that Jamaica receives over $2 billion in remittances from Jamaicans living abroad - showing how this very important aspect of the economy is so very social and so linked to global flows of capital and money coming from Jamaicans living overseas to their family and friends back home.

Comment by david seddon on February 22, 2011 at 6:41am

belatedly I rejoin the community of anthropologists - my interest in this group is theoretical and practical - as a Marxist I am interested in the way in which men and women make history but not under conditions of their own choosing, particularly through collective action. The current 'Arab revolt' is of particular interest, given a lengthy period of working in North Africa and the Middle East (PhD in Morocco) and an interest in popular protest and class struggle - see my book with John Walton, Free Markets and Food Riots, which I am currently updating with Peter Dwyer and Leo Zeilig as 'Global Dissent: popular protest and class struggle on a world scale'

class is all about shared experience - as is gender and ethnic identity etc - but there is a difference between sharing an experience by virtue of being in broadly the same circumstances and sharing it through actual physical-political solidarity, collective action, which does raise consciousness about what is being shared and why.. physical coming together is important, whether in the factory, or the public square and street, or maybe in the new forms of collective interaction (internet, face book, twitter etc) and particularly intervention (eg Avaaz,  Wikileaks etc.)

Was recently in Egypt and am currently in Kathmandu and would love to talk to Mallika particularly about the current potential for democracy movements and the need in Nepal now for collective action to move the 'political process' on...


Comment by Keith Hart on February 22, 2011 at 6:58am
Thank you, Detlev, Alexander, Doreen and David for your wonderful contributions. I am in New York lecturing on the financial crisis and after, while Libyan fighter pilots seek asylum in Malta rather than follow orders to bomb their own people. We are clearly living though an turning point in world history and each of you in your own way points to how this sharpens the purpose that launched this group. This common thread is a great place for us to introduce ourselves, but I would encourage some of you to start further discussions. Just remember that group members do not automatically get email notification of the speical discussions unless they click on the follow icon.


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