#1

What is Debt? – An Interview with Economic Anthropologist David Graeber

David Graeber currently holds the position of Reader in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths University London. Prior to this he was an associate professor of anthropology at Yale University. He is the author of ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’ which is available from Amazon.

Interview conducted by Philip Pilkington, a journalist and writer based in Dublin, Ireland.

Philip Pilkington: Let’s begin. Most economists claim that money was invented to replace the barter system. But you’ve found something quite different, am I correct?

David Graeber: Yes there’s a standard story we’re all taught, a ‘once upon a time’ — it’s a fairy tale.

It really deserves no other introduction: according to this theory all transactions were by barter. “Tell you what, I’ll give you twenty chickens for that cow.” Or three arrow-heads for that beaver pelt or what-have-you. This created inconveniences, because maybe your neighbor doesn’t need chickens right now, so you have to invent money.

The story goes back at least to Adam Smith and in its own way it’s the founding myth of economics. Now, I’m an anthropologist and we anthropologists have long known this is a myth simply because if there were places where everyday transactions took the form of: “I’ll give you twenty chickens for that cow,” we’d have found one or two by now. After all people have been looking since 1776, when the Wealth of Nations first came out. But if you think about it for just a second, it’s hardly surprising that we haven’t found anything.

Think about what they’re saying here – basically: that a bunch of Neolithic farmers in a village somewhere, or Native Americans or whatever, will be engaging in transactions only through the spot trade. So, if your neighbor doesn’t have what you want right now, no big deal. Obviously what would really happen, and this is what anthropologists observe when neighbors do engage in something like exchange with each other, if you want your neighbor’s cow, you’d say, “wow, nice cow” and he’d say “you like it? Take it!” – and now you owe him one. Quite often people don’t even engage in exchange at all – if they were real Iroquois or other Native Americans, for example, all such things would probably be allocated by women’s councils.

So the real question is not how does barter generate some sort of medium of exchange, that then becomes money, but rather, how does that broad sense of ‘I owe you one’ turn into a precise system of measurement – that is: money as a unit of account?

By the time the curtain goes up on the historical record in ancient Mesopotamia, around 3200 BC, it’s already happened. There’s an elaborate system of money of account and complex credit systems. (Money as medium of exchange or as a standardized circulating units of gold, silver, bronze or whatever, only comes much later.)

So really, rather than the standard story – first there’s barter, then money, then finally credit comes out of that – if anything its precisely the other way around. Credit and debt comes first, then coinage emerges thousands of years later and then, when you do find “I’ll give you twenty chickens for that cow” type of barter systems, it’s usually when there used to be cash markets, but for some reason – as in Russia, for example, in 1998 – the currency collapses or disappears.

PP: You say that by the time historical records start to be written in the Mesopotamia around 3200 BC a complex financial architecture is already in place. At the same time is society divided into classes of debtors and creditors? If not then when does this occur? And do you see this as the most fundamental class division in human history?

DG: Well historically, there seem to have been two possibilities.

One is what you found in Egypt: a strong centralized state and administration extracting taxes from everyone else. For most of Egyptian history they never developed the habit of lending money at interest. Presumably, they didn’t have to.

Mesopotamia was different because the state emerged unevenly and incompletely. At first there were giant bureaucratic temples, then also palace complexes, but they weren’t exactly governments and they didn’t extract direct taxes – these were considered appropriate only for conquered populations. Rather they were huge industrial complexes with their own land, flocks and factories. This is where money begins as a unit of account; it’s used for allocating resources within these complexes.

Interest-bearing loans, in turn, probably originated in deals between the administrators and merchants who carried, say, the woollen goods produced in temple factories (which in the very earliest period were at least partly charitable enterprises, homes for orphans, refugees or disabled people for instance) and traded them to faraway lands for metal, timber, or lapis lazuli. The first markets form on the fringes of these complexes and appear to operate largely on credit, using the temples’ units of account. But this gave the merchants and temple administrators and other well-off types the opportunity to make consumer loans to farmers, and then, if say the harvest was bad, everybody would start falling into debt-traps.

This was the great social evil of antiquity – families would have to start pawning off their flocks, fields and before long, their wives and children would be taken off into debt peonage. Often people would start abandoning the cities entirely, joining semi-nomadic bands, threatening to come back in force and overturn the existing order entirely. Rulers would regularly conclude the only way to prevent complete social breakdown was to declare a clean slate or ‘washing of the tablets,’ they’d cancel all consumer debt and just start over. In fact, the first recorded word for ‘freedom’ in any human language is the Sumerian amargi, a word for debt-freedom, and by extension freedom more generally, which literally means ‘return to mother,’ since when they declared a clean slate, all the debt peons would get to go home.

PP: You have noted in the book that debt is a moral concept long before it becomes an economic concept. You’ve also noted that it is a very ambivalent moral concept insofar as it can be both positive and negative. Could you please talk about this a little? Which aspect is more prominent?

DG: Well it tends to pivot radically back and forth.

One could tell the history like this: eventually the Egyptian approach (taxes) and Mesopotamian approach (usury) fuse together, people have to borrow to pay their taxes and debt becomes institutionalized.

Taxes are also key to creating the first markets that operate on cash, since coinage seems to be invented or at least widely popularized to pay soldiers – more or less simultaneously in China, India, and the Mediterranean, where governments find the easiest way to provision the troops is to issue them standard-issue bits of gold or silver and then demand everyone else in the kingdom give them one of those coins back again. Thus we find that the language of debt and the language of morality start to merge.

In Sanskrit, Hebrew, Aramaic, ‘debt,’ ‘guilt,’ and ‘sin’ are actually the same word. Much of the language of the great religious movements – reckoning, redemption, karmic accounting and the like – are drawn from the language of ancient finance. But that language is always found wanting and inadequate and twisted around into something completely different. It’s as if the great prophets and religious teachers had no choice but to start with that kind of language because it’s the language that existed at the time, but they only adopted it so as to turn it into its opposite: as a way of saying debts are not sacred, but forgiveness of debt, or the ability to wipe out debt, or to realize that debts aren’t real – these are the acts that are truly sacred.

How did this happen? Well, remember I said that the big question in the origins of money is how a sense of obligation – an ‘I owe you one’ – turns into something that can be precisely quantified? Well, the answer seems to be: when there is a potential for violence. If you give someone a pig and they give you a few chickens back you might think they’re a cheapskate, and mock them, but you’re unlikely to come up with a mathematical formula for exactly how cheap you think they are. If someone pokes out your eye in a fight, or kills your brother, that’s when you start saying, “traditional compensation is exactly twenty-seven heifers of the finest quality and if they’re not of the finest quality, this means war!”

Money, in the sense of exact equivalents, seems to emerge from situations like that, but also, war and plunder, the disposal of loot, slavery. In early Medieval Ireland, for example, slave-girls were the highest denomination of currency. And you could specify the exact value of everything in a typical house even though very few of those items were available for sale anywhere because they were used to pay fines or damages if someone broke them.

But once you understand that taxes and money largely begin with war it becomes easier to see what really happened. After all, every Mafiosi understands this. If you want to take a relation of violent extortion, sheer power, and turn it into something moral, and most of all, make it seem like the victims are to blame, you turn it into a relation of debt. “You owe me, but I’ll cut you a break for now…” Most human beings in history have probably been told this by their debtors. And the crucial thing is: what possible reply can you make but, “wait a minute, who owes what to who here?” And of course for thousands of years, that’s what the victims have said, but the moment you do, you are using the rulers’ language, you’re admitting that debt and morality really are the same thing. That’s the situation the religious thinkers were stuck with, so they started with the language of debt, and then they tried to turn it around and make it into something else.

PP: You’d be forgiven for thinking this was all very Nietzschean. In his ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’ the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously argued that all morality was founded upon the extraction of debt under the threat of violence. The sense of obligation instilled in the debtor was, for Nietzsche, the origin of civilisation itself. You’ve been studying how morality and debt intertwine in great detail. How does Nietzsche’s argument look after over 100 years? And which do you see as primal: morality or debt?

DG: Well, to be honest, I’ve never been sure if Nietzsche was really serious in that passage or whether the whole argument is a way of annoying his bourgeois audience; a way of pointing out that if you start from existing bourgeois premises about human nature you logically end up in just the place that would make most of that audience most uncomfortable.

In fact, Nietzsche begins his argument from exactly the same place as Adam Smith: human beings are rational. But rational here means calculation, exchange and hence, trucking and bartering; buying and selling is then the first expression of human thought and is prior to any sort of social relations.

But then he reveals exactly why Adam Smith had to pretend that Neolithic villagers would be making transactions through the spot trade. Because if we have no prior moral relations with each other, and morality just emerges from exchange, then ongoing social relations between two people will only exist if the exchange is incomplete – if someone hasn’t paid up.

But in that case, one of the parties is a criminal, a deadbeat and justice would have to begin with the vindictive punishment of such deadbeats. Thus he says all those law codes where it says ‘twenty heifers for a gouged-out eye’ – really, originally, it was the other way around. If you owe someone twenty heifers and don’t pay they gouge out your eye. Morality begins with Shylock’s pound of flesh.

Needless to say there’s zero evidence for any of this – Nietzsche just completely made it up. The question is whether even he believed it. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I prefer to think he didn’t.

Anyway it only makes sense if you assume those premises; that all human interaction is exchange, and therefore, all ongoing relations are debts. This flies in the face of everything we actually know or experience of human life. But once you start thinking that the market is the model for all human behavior, that’s where you end up with.

If however you ditch the whole myth of barter, and start with a community where people do have prior moral relations, and then ask, how do those moral relations come to be framed as ‘debts’ – that is, as something precisely quantified, impersonal, and therefore, transferrable – well, that’s an entirely different question. In that case, yes, you do have to start with the role of violence.

PP: Interesting. Perhaps this is a good place to ask you about how you conceive your work on debt in relation to the great French anthropologist Marcel Mauss’ classic work on gift exchange.

DG: Oh, in my own way I think of myself as working very much in the Maussian tradition. Mauss was one of the first anthropologists to ask: well, all right, if not barter, then what? What do people who don’t use money actually do when things change hands? Anthropologists had documented an endless variety of such economic systems, but hadn’t really worked out common principles. What Mauss noticed was that in almost all of them, everyone pretended as if they were just giving one another gifts and then they fervently denied they expected anything back. But in actual fact everyone understood there were implicit rules and recipients would feel compelled to make some sort of return.

What fascinated Mauss was that this seemed to be universally true, even today. If I take a free-market economist out to dinner he’ll feel like he should return the favor and take me out to dinner later. He might even think that he is something of chump if he doesn’t and this even if his theory tells him he just got something for nothing and should be happy about it. Why is that? What is this force that compels me to want to return a gift?

This is an important argument, and it shows there is always a certain morality underlying what we call economic life. But it strikes me that if you focus too much on just that one aspect of Mauss’ argument you end up reducing everything to exchange again, with the proviso that some people are pretending they aren’t doing that.

Mauss didn’t really think of everything in terms of exchange; this becomes clear if you read his other writings besides ‘The Gift’. Mauss insisted there were lots of different principles at play besides reciprocity in any society – including our own.

For example, take hierarchy. Gifts given to inferiors or superiors don’t have to be repaid at all. If another professor takes our economist out to dinner, sure, he’ll feel that he should reciprocate; but if an eager grad student does, he’ll probably figure just accepting the invitation is favor enough; and if George Soros buys him dinner, then great, he did get something for nothing after all. In explicitly unequal relations, if you give somebody something, far from doing you a favor back, they’re more likely to expect you to do it again.

Or take communistic relations – and I define this, following Mauss actually, as any ones where people interact on the basis of ‘from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs’. In these relations people do not rely on reciprocity, for example, when trying to solve a problem, even inside a capitalist firm. (As I always say, if somebody working for Exxon says, “hand me the screwdriver,” the other guy doesn’t say, “yeah and what do I get for it?”) Communism is in a way the basis of all social relations – in that if the need is great enough (I’m drowning) or the cost small enough (can I have a light?) everyone will be expected to act that way.

Anyway that’s one thing I got from Mauss. There are always going to be lots of different sorts of principles at play simultaneously in any social or economic system – which is why we can never really boil these things down to a science. Economics tries to, but it does it by ignoring everything except exchange.

PP: Let’s move onto economic theory then. Economics has some pretty specific theories about what money is. There’s the mainstream approach that we discussed briefly above; this is the commodity theory of money in which specific commodities come to serve as a medium of exchange to replace crude barter economies. But there’s also alternative theories that are becoming increasingly popular at the moment. One is the Circuitist theory of money in which all money is seen as a debt incurred by some economic agent. The other – which actually integrates the Circuitist approach – is the Chartalist theory of money in which all money is seen as a medium of exchange issued by the Sovereign and backed by the enforcement of tax claims. Maybe you could say something about these theories?

DG: One of my inspirations for ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’ was Keith Hart’s essay ‘Two Sides of the Coin’. In that essay Hart points out that not only do different schools of economics have different theories on the nature of money, but there is also reason to believe that both are right. Money has, for most of its history, been a strange hybrid entity that takes on aspects of both commodity (object) and credit (social relation.) What I think I’ve managed to add to that is the historical realization that while money has always been both, it swings back and forth – there are periods where credit is primary, and everyone adopts more or less Chartalist theories of money and others where cash tends to predominate and commodity theories of money instead come to the fore. We tend to forget that in, say, the Middle Ages, from France to China, Chartalism was just common sense: money was just a social convention; in practice, it was whatever the king was willing to accept in taxes.

PP: You say that history swings between periods of commodity money and periods of virtual money. Do you not think that we’ve reached a point in history where due to technological and cultural evolution we may have seen the end of commodity money forever?

DG: Well, the cycles are getting a bit tighter as time goes by. But I think we’ll still have to wait at least 400 years to really find out. It is possible that this era is coming to an end but what I’m more concerned with now is the period of transition.

The last time we saw a broad shift from commodity money to credit money it wasn’t a very pretty sight. To name a few we had the fall of the Roman Empire, the Kali Age in India and the breakdown of the Han dynasty… There was a lot of death, catastrophe and mayhem. The final outcome was in many ways profoundly libratory for the bulk of those who lived through it – chattel slavery, for example, was largely eliminated from the great civilizations. This was a remarkable historical achievement. The decline of cities actually meant most people worked far less. But still, one does rather hope the dislocation won’t be quite so epic in its scale this time around. Especially since the actual means of destruction are so much greater this time around.

PP: Which do you see as playing a more important role in human history: money or debt?

DG: Well, it depends on your definitions. If you define money in the broadest sense, as any unit of account whereby you can say 10 of these are worth 7 of those, then you can’t have debt without money. Debt is just a promise that can be quantified by means of money (and therefore, becomes impersonal, and therefore, transferable.) But if you are asking which has been the more important form of money, credit or coin, then probably I would have to say credit.

PP: Let’s move on to some of the real world problems facing the world today. We know that in many Western countries over the past few years households have been running up enormous debts, from credit card debts to mortgages (the latter of which were one of the root causes of the recent financial crisis). Some economists are saying that economic growth since the Clinton era was essentially run on an unsustainable inflating of household debt. From an historical perspective what do you make of this phenomenon?

DG: From an historical perspective, it’s pretty ominous. One could go further than the Clinton era, actually – a case could be made that we are seeing now is the same crisis we were facing in the 70s; it’s just that we managed to fend it off for 30 or 35 years through all these elaborate credit arrangements (and of course, the super-exploitation of the global South, through the ‘Third World Debt Crisis’.)

As I said Eurasian history, taken in its broadest contours, shifts back and forth between periods dominated by virtual credit money and those dominated by actual coin and bullion. The credit systems of the ancient Near East give way to the great slave-holding empires of the Classical world in Europe, India, and China, which used coinage to pay their troops. In the Middle Ages the empires go and so does the coinage – the gold and silver is mostly locked up in temples and monasteries – and the world reverts to credit. Then after 1492 or so you have the return world empires again; and gold and silver currency together with slavery, for that matter.

What’s been happening since Nixon went off the gold standard in 1971 has just been another turn of the wheel – though of course it never happens the same way twice. However, in one sense, I think we’ve been going about things backwards. In the past, periods dominated by virtual credit money have also been periods where there have been social protections for debtors. Once you recognize that money is just a social construct, a credit, an IOU, then first of all what is to stop people from generating it endlessly? And how do you prevent the poor from falling into debt traps and becoming effectively enslaved to the rich? That’s why you had Mesopotamian clean slates, Biblical Jubilees, Medieval laws against usury in both Christianity and Islam and so on and so forth.

Since antiquity the worst-case scenario that everyone felt would lead to total social breakdown was a major debt crisis; ordinary people would become so indebted to the top one or two percent of the population that they would start selling family members into slavery, or eventually, even themselves.

Well, what happened this time around? Instead of creating some sort of overarching institution to protect debtors, they create these grandiose, world-scale institutions like the IMF or S&P to protect creditors. They essentially declare (in defiance of all traditional economic logic) that no debtor should ever be allowed to default. Needless to say the result is catastrophic. We are experiencing something that to me, at least, looks exactly like what the ancients were most afraid of: a population of debtors skating at the edge of disaster.

And, I might add, if Aristotle were around today, I very much doubt he would think that the distinction between renting yourself or members of your family out to work and selling yourself or members of your family to work was more than a legal nicety. He’d probably conclude that most Americans were, for all intents and purposes, slaves.

PP: You mention that the IMF and S&P are institutions that are mainly geared toward extracting debts for creditors. This seems to have become the case in the European monetary union too. What do you make of the situation in Europe at the moment?

DG: Well, I think this is a prime example of why existing arrangements are clearly untenable. Obviously the ‘whole debt’ cannot be paid. But even when some French banks offered voluntary write-downs for Greece, the others insisted they would treat it as if it were a default anyway. The UK takes the even weirder position that this is true even of debts the government owes to banks that have been nationalized – that is, technically, that they owe to themselves! If that means that disabled pensioners are no longer able to use public transit or youth centers have to be closed down, well that’s simply the ‘reality of the situation,’ as they put it.

These ‘realities’ are being increasingly revealed to simply be ones of power. Clearly any pretence that markets maintain themselves, that debts always have to be honored, went by the boards in 2008. That’s one of the reasons I think you see the beginnings of a reaction in a remarkably similar form to what we saw during the heyday of the ‘Third World debt crisis’ – what got called, rather weirdly, the ‘anti-globalization movement’. This movement called for genuine democracy and actually tried to practice forms of direct, horizontal democracy. In the face of this there was the insidious alliance between financial elites and global bureaucrats (whether the IMF, World Bank, WTO, now EU, or what-have-you).

When thousands of people begin assembling in squares in Greece and Spain calling for real democracy what they are effectively saying is: “Look, in 2008 you let the cat out of the bag. If money really is just a social construct now, a promise, a set of IOUs and even trillions of debts can be made to vanish if sufficiently powerful players demand it then, if democracy is to mean anything, it means that everyone gets to weigh in on the process of how these promises are made and renegotiated.” I find this extraordinarily hopeful.

PP: Broadly speaking how do you see the present debt/financial crisis unravelling? Without asking you to peer into the proverbial crystal-ball – because that’s a silly thing to ask of anyone – how do you see the future unfolding; in the sense of how do you take your bearings right now?

DG: For the long-term future, I’m pretty optimistic. We might have been doing things backwards for the last 40 years, but in terms of 500-year cycles, well, 40 years is nothing. Eventually there will have to be recognition that in a phase of virtual money, safeguards have to be put in place – and not just ones to protect creditors. How many disasters it will take to get there? I can’t say.

But in the meantime there is another question to be asked: once we do these reforms, will the results be something that could even be called ‘capitalism’?

http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/08/what-is-debt-%E2%80%93-an-interview-with-economic-anthropologist-david-graeber.html

David continues the conversation in the comments section of the article

I really want to read this book and i know someone on this board already has it and isnt reading it but he or she should and then write an article about it for the front page

#2
What is debt? Baby don't hurt me... don't hurt me... no more
#3
cross-posting:

that bit in the interview about gift economies really struck me. when tsarism was expanding east into siberia, they encountered a shitload of tribes and whatnot and demanded from each of them a fur tax. however, just demanding a bunch of furs from them (in exchange for THE PROTECTION OF THE HOLIEST SOVEREIGN OF 69TH ROME, THE TSAR) never really worked: the tribes would always either kill the tax official or just run off into the hills, and they had to change the policy.

so instead of just demanding the tax, they phrased it as an exchange of gifts. the tax official would give the the tribe a few iron goods, blankets, guns, things like that, and in exchange the tribe in question would hand over a bunch of furs.

in this way, control over the tribes was maintained. just saying: 'you owe the tsar and must pay!' didnt work, because the tribes werent integrated into the serf-economy-morality system that was prevalent in european russia. instead it had to be a gift exchange, which the tribes were familiar with and understood as being acceptable. there was still trouble and officials still got killed on the regular, but by and large it worked well enough until russian migration displaced the tribes.
#4
And people say magic isn't real

That was a pro read, I wanna get that book now. And finish my anthro degree. Some of the ads on that page are fucking hilarious though. Where Keynes Went Wrong: Why Keynes' Economic Theory Can't Work. If only we had deregulated more, the financial collapse of 2008 never would've happened!
#5

watwatsen posted:
And people say magic isn't real

That was a pro read, I wanna get that book now. And finish my anthro degree. Some of the ads on that page are fucking hilarious though. Where Keynes Went Wrong: Why Keynes' Economic Theory Can't Work. If only we had deregulated more, the financial collapse of 2008 never would've happened!

The comments are full of angry right-libertarians as well

#6
yvves has made comments about how dumb her readership (or at least the commentariat) is before. she personally seems to attribute it to paid plants
#7

babyfinland posted:
David continues the conversation in the comments section of the article

oh weird im glad you mentioned this because when i read it previously i hadn't noticed the comments at all, because for me it explicitly says "no comments"... but then you click on it, and there are comments

#8
def pro-read, thanks for posting it.
#9
David Graeber on Marcel Mauss and theories of gift economy and the "anthropological theory of value"

GIVE IT AWAY
David Graeber

Have you noticed how there aren't any new French intellectuals any more? There was a veritable flood in the late '70s and early '80s: Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard, Kristeva, Lyotard, de Certeau ... but there has been almost no one since. Trendy academics and intellectual hipsters have been forced to endlessly recycle theories now 20 or 30 years old, or turn to countries like Italy or even Slovenia for dazzling meta-theory.

Pioneering French anthropologist Marcel Mauss studied "gift economies" like those of the Kwakiutl of British Columbia. His conclusions were startling.

There are a lot of reasons for this. One has to do with politics in France itself, where there has been a concerted effort on the part of media elites to replace real intellectuals with American-style empty-headed pundits. Still, they have not been completely successful. More important, French intellectual life has become much more politically engaged. In the U.S. press, there has been a near blackout on cultural news from France since the great strike movement of 1995, when France was the first nation to definitively reject the "American model" for the economy, and refused to begin dismantling its welfare state. In the American press, France immediately became the silly country, vainly trying to duck the tide of history.

Of course this in itself is hardly going to faze the sort of Americans who read Deleuze and Guattari. What American academics expect from France is an intellectual high, the ability to feel one is participating in wild, radical ideas - demonstrating the inherent violence within Western conceptions of truth or humanity, that sort of thing - but in ways that do not imply any program of political action; or, usually, any responsibility to act at all. It's easy to see how a class of people who are considered almost entirely irrelevant both by political elites and by 99 percent of the general population might feel this way. In other words, while the U.S. media represent France as silly, U.S. academics seek out those French thinkers who seem to fit the bill.

As a result, some of the most interesting scholars in France today you never hear about at all. One such is a group of intellectuals who go by the rather unwieldy name of Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste dans les Sciences Sociales, or MAUSS, and who have dedicated themselves to a systematic attack on the philosophical underpinnings of economic theory. The group take their inspiration from the great early-20th century French sociologist Marcel Mauss, whose most famous work, The Gift (1925), was perhaps the most magnificent refutation of the assumptions behind economic theory ever written. At a time when "the free market" is being rammed down everyone's throat as both a natural and inevitable product of human nature, Mauss' work - which demonstrated not only that most non-Western societies did not work on anything resembling market principles, but that neither do most modern Westerners - is more relevant than ever. While Francophile American scholars seem unable to come up with much of anything to say about the rise of global neoliberalism, the MAUSS group is attacking its very foundations.

A word of background. Marcel Mauss was born in 1872 to an Orthodox Jewish family in Vosges. His uncle, Émile Durkheim, is considered the founder of modern sociology. Durkheim surrounded himself with a circle of brilliant young acolytes, among whom Mauss was appointed to study religion. The circle, however, was shattered by World I; many died in the trenches, including Durkheim's son, and Durkheim himself died of grief shortly thereafter. Mauss was left to pick up the pieces.

By all accounts, though, Mauss was never taken completely seriously in his role of heir apparent; a man of extraordinary erudition (he knew at least a dozen languages, including Sanskrit, Maori and classical Arabic), he still, somehow, lacked the gravity expected of a grand professeur. A former amateur boxer, he was a burly man with a playful, rather silly manner, the sort of person always juggling a dozen brilliant ideas rather than building great philosophical systems. He spent his life working on at least five different books (on prayer, on nationalism, on the origins of money, etc.), none of which he ever finished. Still, he succeeded in training a new generation of sociologists and inventing French anthropology more or less single-handedly, as well as in publishing a series of extraordinarily innovative essays, just about each one of which has generated an entirely new body of social theory all by itself.

Mauss was also a revolutionary socialist. From his student days on he was a regular contributor to the left press, and remained most of his life an active member of the French cooperative movement. He founded and for many years helped run a consumer co-op in Paris; and was often sent on missions to make contact with the movement in other countries (for which purpose he spent time in Russia after the revolution). Mauss was not a Marxist, though. His socialism was more in the tradition of Robert Owen or Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: He considered Communists and Social Democrats to be equally misguided in believing that society could be transformed primarily through government action. Rather, the role of government, he felt, was to provide the legal framework for a socialism that had to be built from the ground up, by creating alternative institutions.

The Russian revolution thus left him profoundly ambivalent. While exhilarated by prospects of a genuine socialist experiment, he was outraged by the Bolsheviks' systematic use of terror, their suppression of democratic institutions, and most of all by their "cynical doctrine that the end justifies the means," which, Mauss concluded, was really just the amoral, rational calculus of the marketplace, slightly transposed.

Mauss' essay on "the gift" was, more than anything, his response to events in Russia - particularly Lenin's New Economic Policy of 1921, which abandoned earlier attempts to abolish commerce. If the market could not simply be legislated away, even in Russia, probably the least monetarized European society, then clearly, Mauss concluded, revolutionaries were going to have to start thinking a lot more seriously about what this "market" actually was, where it came from, and what a viable alternative to it might actually be like. It was time to bring the results of historical and ethnographic research to bear.

Mauss' conclusions were startling. First of all, almost everything that "economic science" had to say on the subject of economic history turned out to be entirely untrue. The universal assumption of free market enthusiasts, then as now, was that what essentially drives human beings is a desire to maximize their pleasures, comforts and material possessions (their "utility"), and that all significant human interactions can thus be analyzed in market terms. In the beginning, goes the official version, there was barter. People were forced to get what they wanted by directly trading one thing for another. Since this was inconvenient, they eventually invented money as a universal medium of exchange. The invention of further technologies of exchange (credit, banking, stock exchanges) was simply a logical extension.

The problem was, as Mauss was quick to note, there is no reason to believe a society based on barter has ever existed. Instead, what anthropologists were discovering were societies where economic life was based on utterly different principles, and most objects moved back and forth as gifts - and almost everything we would call "economic" behavior was based on a pretense of pure generosity and a refusal to calculate exactly who had given what to whom. Such "gift economies" could on occasion become highly competitive, but when they did it was in exactly the opposite way from our own: Instead of vying to see who could accumulate the most, the winners were the ones who managed to give the most away. In some notorious cases, such as the Kwakiutl of British Columbia, this could lead to dramatic contests of liberality, where ambitious chiefs would try to outdo one another by distributing thousands of silver bracelets, Hudson Bay blankets or Singer sewing machines, and even by destroying wealth - sinking famous heirlooms in the ocean, or setting huge piles of wealth on fire and daring their rivals to do the same.

All of this may seem very exotic. But as Mauss also asked: How alien is it, really? Is there not something odd about the very idea of gift-giving, even in our own society? Why is it that, when one receives a gift from a friend (a drink, a dinner invitation, a compliment), one feels somehow obliged to reciprocate in kind? Why is it that a recipient of generosity often somehow feels reduced if he or she cannot? Are these not examples of universal human feelings, which are somehow discounted in our own society - but in others were the very basis of the economic system? And is it not the existence of these very different impulses and moral standards, even in a capitalist system such as our own, that is the real basis for the appeal of alternative visions and socialist policies? Mauss certainly felt so.

In a lot of ways Mauss' analysis bore a marked resemblance to Marxist theories about alienation and reification being developed by figures like György Lukács around the same time. In gift economies, Mauss argued, exchanges do not have the impersonal qualities of the capitalist marketplace: In fact, even when objects of great value change hands, what really matters is the relations between the people; exchange is about creating friendships, or working out rivalries, or obligations, and only incidentally about moving around valuable goods. As a result everything becomes personally charged, even property: In gift economies, the most famous objects of wealth - heirloom necklaces, weapons, feather cloaks - always seem to develop personalities of their own.

In a market economy it's exactly the other way around. Transactions are seen simply as ways of getting one's hands on useful things; the personal qualities of buyer and seller should ideally be completely irrelevant. As a consequence everything, even people, start being treated as if they were things too. (Consider in this light the expression "goods and services.") The main difference with Marxism, however, is that while Marxists of his day still insisted on a bottom-line economic determinism, Mauss held that in past market-less societies - and by implication, in any truly humane future one - "the economy," in the sense of an autonomous domain of action concerned solely with the creation and distribution of wealth, and which proceeded by its own, impersonal logic, would not even exist.

Mauss was never entirely sure what his practical conclusions were. The Russian experience convinced him that buying and selling could not simply be eliminated in a modern society, at least "in the foreseeable future," but a market ethos could. Work could be co-operatized, effective social security guaranteed and, gradually, a new ethos created whereby the only possible excuse for accumulating wealth was the ability to give it all away. The result: a society whose highest values would be "the joy of giving in public, the delight in generous artistic expenditure, the pleasure of hospitality in the public or private feast."

Some of this may seem awfully naïve from today's perspective, but Mauss' core insights have, if anything, become even more relevant now than they were 75 years ago - now that economic "science" has become, effectively, the revealed religion of the modern age. So it seemed, anyway, to the founders of MAUSS.

The idea for MAUSS was born in 1980. The project is said to have emerged from a conversation over lunch between a French sociologist, Alain Caillé, and a Swiss anthropologist, Gérald Berthoud. They had just sat through several days of an interdisciplinary conference on the subject of gifts, and after reviewing the papers, they came to the shocked realization that it did not seem to have occurred to a single scholar in attendance that a significant motive for giving gifts might be, say, generosity, or genuine concern for another person's welfare. In fact, the scholars at the conference invariably assumed that "gifts" do not really exist: Scratch deep enough behind any human action, and you'll always discover some selfish, calculating strategy. Even more oddly, they assumed that this selfish strategy was always, necessarily, the real truth of the matter; that it was more real somehow than any other motive in which it might be entangled. It was as if to be scientific, to be "objective" meant to be completely cynical. Why?

Caillé ultimately came to blame Christianity. Ancient Rome still preserved something of the older ideal of aristocratic open-handedness: Roman magnates built public gardens and monuments, and vied to sponsor the most magnificent games. But Roman generosity was also quite obviously meant to wound: One favorite habit was scattering gold and jewels before the masses to watch them tussle in the mud to scoop them up. Early Christians, for obvious reasons, developed their notion of charity in direct reaction to such obnoxious practices. True charity was not based on any desire to establish superiority, or favor, or indeed any egoistic motive whatsoever. To the degree that the giver could be said to have gotten anything out of the deal, it wasn't a real gift.

But this in turn led to endless problems, since it was very difficult to conceive of a gift that did not benefit the giver in any way. Even an entirely selfless act would win one points with God. There began the habit of searching every act for the degree to which it could be said to mask some hidden selfishness, and then assuming that this selfishness is what's really important. One sees the same move reproduced so consistently in modern social theory. Economists and Christian theologians agree that if one takes pleasure in an act of generosity, it is somehow less generous. They just disagree on the moral implications. To counteract this very perverse logic, Mauss emphasized the "pleasure" and "joy" of giving: In traditional societies, there was not assumed to be any contradiction between what we would call self-interest (a phrase that, he noted, could not even be translated into most human languages) and concern for others; the whole point of the traditional gift is that it furthers both at the same time.

These, anyway, were the kind of issues that first engaged the small, interdisciplinary group of French and French-speaking scholars (Caillé, Berthoud, Ahmet Insel, Serge Latouche, Pauline Taieb) who were to become MAUSS. Actually, the group itself began as a journal, called Revue du MAUSS - a very small journal, printed sloppily on bad paper - whose authors conceived it as much as an in-joke as a venue for serious scholarship, the flagship journal for a vast international movement that did not then exist. Caillé wrote manifestos; Insel penned fantasies about great international anti-utilitarian conventions of the future. Articles on economics alternated with snatches from Russian novelists. But gradually, the movement did begin to materialize. By the mid-'90s, MAUSS had become an impressive network of scholars - ranging from sociologists and anthropologists to economists, historians and philosophers, from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East - whose ideas had become represented in three different journals and a prominent book series (all in French) backed up by annual conferences.

Since the strikes of 1995 and the election of a Socialist government, Mauss' own works have undergone a considerable revival in France, with the publication of a new biography and a collection of his political writings. At the same time, the MAUSS group themselves have become evermore explicitly political. In 1997, Caillé released a broadside called "30 Theses for a New Left," and the MAUSS group have begun dedicating their annual conferences to specific policy issues. Their answer to the endless calls for France to adopt the "American model" and dismantle its welfare state, for example, was to begin promulgating an economic idea originally proposed by American revolutionary Tom Paine: the guaranteed national income. The real way to reform welfare policy is not to begin stripping away social benefits, but to reframe the whole conception of what a state owes its citizens. Let us jettison welfare and unemployment programs, they said. But instead, let us create a system where every French citizen is guaranteed the same starting income (say, $20,000, supplied directly by the government) - and then the rest can be up to them. It is hard to know exactly what to make of the Maussian left, particularly insofar as Mauss is being promoted now, in some quarters, as an alternative to Marx. It would be easy to write them off as simply super-charged social democrats, not really interested in the radical transformation of society. Caillé's "30 Theses," for example, agree with Mauss in conceding the inevitability of some kind of market - but still, like him, look forward to the abolition of capitalism, here defined as the pursuit of financial profit as an end in itself. On another level, though, the Maussian attack on the logic of the market is more profound, and more radical, than anything else now on the intellectual horizon. It is hard to escape the impression that this is precisely why American intellectuals, particularly those who believe themselves to be the most wild-eyed radicals, willing to deconstruct almost any concept except greed or selfishness, simply don't know what to make of the Maussians - why, in fact, their work has been almost completely ignored. http://www.freewords.org/biennial/graeber.html #10 #11 social realities start looking much different indeed when you see that they are arbitrary social constructs instead of evolved laws of nature #12 babyfinland posted: The problem was, as Mauss was quick to note, there is no reason to believe a society based on barter has ever existed. Instead, what anthropologists were discovering were societies where economic life was based on utterly different principles, and most objects moved back and forth as gifts - and almost everything we would call "economic" behavior was based on a pretense of pure generosity and a refusal to calculate exactly who had given what to whom. Such "gift economies" could on occasion become highly competitive, but when they did it was in exactly the opposite way from our own: Instead of vying to see who could accumulate the most, the winners were the ones who managed to give the most away. In some notorious cases, such as the Kwakiutl of British Columbia, this could lead to dramatic contests of liberality, where ambitious chiefs would try to outdo one another by distributing thousands of silver bracelets, Hudson Bay blankets or Singer sewing machines, and even by destroying wealth - sinking famous heirlooms in the ocean, or setting huge piles of wealth on fire and daring their rivals to do the same. Since I've discovered Graeber, I've found this (essential) idea of his pretty fascinating. And, certainly, you begin to notice it all over the place once you begin to engage it. Think even of literature, epic poems, from pre-capitalist eras. What other value is stressed more in Beowulf than the emphasis on gift-giving? You can take the stance of the cynical scholars the MAUSS movement seems to be refuting, and claim that it is merely an economic system of coercion to ensure the king/chieftan has a reliable fighting force when threatened by outside forces, but there does seem to be a lot more than just that motivation involved. #13 yeah, it's hilarious because the other place that ethic is well known is marketing. it's the motivation behind free samples. where it really gets crazy though is customer service type stuff where employees have to act a certain way for the reputation of the store. the customer obviously knows this, but it might increase sales in the aggregate anyways and it's just complete alienation #14 that stuff about mauss is really interesting. anything more to read? #15 The Gift by Mauss, which is actually a really short monograph and maybe Graeber's Toward An Anthropological Theory of Value #16 i remember back in undergrad that a certain professor began seriously confronting me with these theories, gift economies in particular, and it was like shoving an ice pick into my little liberal mind, i resisted heartily #17 it actually owns with Mauss because it's not just reciprocity all by itself. there's all kinds of status and other considerations involved, so it's sort of unconsciously strategic. there's an obligation to give, an obligation to receive, and an obligation to reciprocate. you have to receive something even if you don't want it and then give something back! other reading on this type of thinking that i've just happened to come across: The Gift by Lewis Hyde, which was actually recommended to me by Ted Leo. Hyde argues against Mauss, but in the context of art and creativity. it's kind of a cool idea and he has some interesting analysis of poetry and folktales. you might be interested in it because of your writing. the other is Influence by Robert Cialdini, which is geared towards a kind of business school audience but don't let it put you off because it has a lot of neat social psychology research in it. see his wikipedia article to get an idea oh and also the book the interview in the OP was about owns Edited by dm () #18 it's also a really good antidote to economic theory that i was lucky enough to encounter before i encountered economic theory in the first place (which would make it more like a vaccine in that case i guess). the OP provides a good example: Graeber posted: What fascinated Mauss was that this seemed to be universally true, even today. If I take a free-market economist out to dinner he’ll feel like he should return the favor and take me out to dinner later. He might even think that he is something of chump if he doesn’t and this even if his theory tells him he just got something for nothing and should be happy about it. Why is that? What is this force that compels me to want to return a gift? This is an important argument, and it shows there is always a certain morality underlying what we call economic life. But it strikes me that if you focus too much on just that one aspect of Mauss’ argument you end up reducing everything to exchange again, with the proviso that some people are pretending they aren’t doing that. that is actually not necessarily true. i don't have access to JSTOR (i'm quoting from a book) so if somebody does could attach this or host it or something that would be awesome: "If Homo Economicus Could Choose His Own Utility Function, Would He Want One with a Conscience?" Travelers on interstate highways leave tips for waitresses they will never see again....People walk away from profitable transactions whose terms they believe to be "unfair." so you see that's why economics drives me nuts #19 yeah exactly, it was really interesting just how eager i was to reject it, having been trained in orthodox econ for so long - actually i was a star student, and more than one professor asked me if i'd want to study under him for grad school, so it's really pretty cool how badly i was doing backflips and resisting this paradigm that basically clashed with everything i'd been practicing for years. #20 I have a degree in economics as well. I still tend to think that economists are excellent at designing policy solutions to particular problems. The thing is that each solution is usually in isolation from some corrupt totality, and often the solutions just involve putting more social resources in the area, which isn't that difficult. Economics tends to isolate problems when they come from systemic issues which they can't easily fix. They also take people as they suppose they are rather than saying they are making judgments, but because they "take" society in such a way that it is already skewed in a dramatically unequal way, they are reinforcing existing distributions in a liberal way. Even Ha-Joon Chang, who is probably the leading economist for state-led development, says that real global redistribution of wealth should be off the table and that socialism is an absolute non-starter. But I cling to the Hegelian idea that at a certain point quantity turns into quality and transforms relationships into something new - any given policy might seem better within a market framework, but to achieve even this you need a non-market, non-liberal force that can shift all relationships to a new plane. #21 damn im trying to imagine impper as an excited and idealist liberal economics student and just cant seem to do it #22 Bataille wrote a cool piece on suicide bombing from a gift economy perspective Basically, 9/11 was such a powerful "gift" of war that the US can't "gift" enough war back to reciprocate #23 aerdil posted: damn im trying to imagine impper as an excited and idealist liberal economics student and just cant seem to do it i was actually very cynical, a sort of cynical, superior know-it-all type #24 dm posted: that is actually not necessarily true. i don't have access to JSTOR (i'm quoting from a book) so if somebody does could attach this or host it or something that would be awesome: "If Homo Economicus Could Choose His Own Utility Function, Would He Want One with a Conscience?" #25 i ordered this book from an internet vendor and it either never got delivered or it got stolen from my mail and the worst part is i dont have an anthropological understanding of why i want my money back #26 without having read the thread or anything be graber save a piece asking us to sympathize with us soldiers since they really only want to be like us, after all, making a difference and being a positive force in the world and his comment on one of zizek's LRB articles, i feel like this fad over his recent book is probably another bad sign of things to come #27 graeber is unreliable and will have to be kept under close supervision but this is mostly because he is from the future and we must study him #28 I guess this is pretty cool if you are living a zillion years ago and the total number of commodities that exist is like, sheep, bronze axe, grain, beads, but it seems a little silly to hold up against what we have today. If this replaced a market economy I could write open source mp3 players or whatever for people all day, but I'd just have to sit through sweaters and middlebrow intellectual NYT bestsellers because thats all anyone ever buys me. Basically, most gift-givers are total shit at specializing gifts for others compared to how good vendors are at responding to a specific demand. I don't want to just give away phone books and old sticks of RAM and guitar pedals and whatever else I could do without in hopes of someone being cool enough to bring by a pineapple pizza. When I want I pineapple pizza I want to be able to go and complete that task at will in maybe an hour max. Either maliciously or just naively it'd be real easy for someone to put someone else into a ton of gifting debt that has no use to the recipient. What if your looney hippy cousin works at a chiropractors office and gets you like$500 in sessions (or 50 hours SNLT or w/e the gift world value would be.) That's a big chunk of payback and if it were me, I'd have no use for even an hour of something like that. Or like my buddy the shitty prolific acoustic guitar musician always giving me redundant cards and bugging me about why I didn't ask him to play such-and-such event, why I never comment on his music myspace, etc.

Edited by tapespeed ()

#29
its a history not atavist utopian fiction you cretin
#30
Um, sorry, I just don't see how a system of open reciprocity and a denatured concept of ownership really helps the virtual pokemon card trading community. Anyone have something substantive to offer here?
#31

swampman posted:
its a history not atavist utopian fiction you cretin

Alright, I obviously made a mistake in reading the tone here as normative instead of descriptive. No need to be insulting.

#32
i find it insulting that you expect people to believe graeber doesnt know what he's talking about in his book you haven't read because of the implausibility of a scenario you yourself made up. "why the heck hasnt the dominos guy come around? didnt they appreciate all my phonebooks and the coupon for half off a chiropractical session? back to the drawing board mr. famous social anthropologist." im going to approach lazy arguments with derision whether you like it or not tiny fry :weefry:
#33
this total douchebag guitarist i know acts like a douche and he gives things out sometimes.. heh owned david "grabber"
#34
I don't doubt Graeber or his scholarship here at all, nor was I asking anyone else to. All the talk of cycles of history just gave me a mistaken impression about something I didn't see written in the linked articles. I can only make a naive/lazy argument at this point because this bit is all I've read and I don't know any more, but I can only learn more by asking questions. I was assuming that there was a strong normative proposition somewhere with a novel idea (that makes it work and refutes those common objections) that someone could point out to me.

If a child looks at a new bike totally inexperienced with how to use it and says "I won't be able to ride it," do you say they're a cretin? There's no use to have a discussion forum here at all if not to help some people understand things better and give them broader insights. If the answer is just "read the book" this might as well be an Amazon linklist
#35
Yeah, but have you tried reading the book
#36

jools posted:
Yeah, but have you tried reading the book

Not yet, I wasn't aware of it, but I will add it to the queue.

#37

tapespeed posted:
If a child looks at a new bike totally inexperienced with how to use it and says "I won't be able to ride it," do you say they're a cretin? There's no use to have a discussion forum here at all if not to help some people understand things better and give them broader insights. If the answer is just "read the book" this might as well be an Amazon linklist

well see a child would ask a relevant Q like "how do i ride this bike," looks to me like you;'d already formed your opinion about why i wont ever be able to get a credit report for bringing flapjacks around to the experian call center

#38

babyfinland posted:

dm posted:
that is actually not necessarily true. i don't have access to JSTOR (i'm quoting from a book) so if somebody does could attach this or host it or something that would be awesome: "If Homo Economicus Could Choose His Own Utility Function, Would He Want One with a Conscience?"

http://www.mediafire.com/?ba5jdklflfflbgf

thanks!