At the Sci-Fi Economics Lab we are always on the lookout for tools to broaden the scope of our economic thinking. Neoclassical economics has been so successful that it has become difficult to see the world in any other way. For this reason, I have long been drawn to scholarly work that takes on economic problems from a different intellectual background. In the past ten years it has been mostly biology for me; but, starting about five years ago, I have been drawn more and more to anthropology.
Economic anthropology is fascinating to an economist. Anthropologists use familiar terms (production, exchange, trade), but their approach to these phenomena could not be more different from that of economists. The latter look for abstraction: first, make a minimal set of assumptions on human nature, just enough to enable the emergence of a coherent mathematical model of these collective phenomena. Next, discard the phenomena altogether and study, instead, the model.
Antropologists are different. They are constantly drawing in aspects of these phenomena that resist to abstraction, and that most economists would consider unimportant. For example, upon learning that an indigenous population exchanges certain objects considered valuable – for example weapons, or cloaks – they ask questions like: do these objects have names, or are they equivalent to each other? Do they carry religious or mythical connotations? Are they supposed to be metaphors for something else, for example a spear might be alluding to the bones of a god, or a mythical ancestor?
In sum, anthropologists tend to be context people. As they study a phenomenon, they are intensely aware of what actually goes on in the background. For this reason, they have often been invoked to help out economic analysis where “the model” could not be depended upon to work reliably, and where concrete results mattered. Historically this has meant two areas: development economics and economic policy making. In development economics, the first name that comes to mind is that Albert O. Hirschman, one of the heroes of my student days. He was an economist, not an anthropologist, but his attention to “what lies outside the model” is reminiscent of the anrthopologist’s gaze.
In policy making, I have placed James Scott into my personal pantheon for his magnificent Seeing like a state. This piece of work has influenced profoundly the way I look at economic policy, and inspired possibly my grimmest lecture, The Black Briefing. In more recent times I have followed the star of the recently deceased David Graeber. Graeber specialized in theories of value: his Debt: the first 5,000 years provides a much-needed long-term history of money. Debt is exactly the kind of book contemporary economists are incapable of writing, because it requires viewing their paradigm as the product of its own time and ideology, instead of considering it as a natural law.
At the moment I am reading a precursor book to Debt, called Toward An Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. In typical Graeber style, it meanders across the subject, taking frequent detours to explore interesting thoughts and nuggets of the evidence to the side of the main argument. One of these asides is dedicated to French social scientist Marcel Mauss. I knew next to nothing about Mauss, but he turns out to be a natural candidate as forerunner of the Sci-Fi Economics Lab. In what follows, quotes are from An Anthropological Theory of Value.
He was social science royalty: his mentor and uncle was Emile Durkheim. Naturally, he was part of an intellectual climate where French scholars, including Durkheim himself, worked on a systematic critique of a British school of thought descended from Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes exerted a powerful influence of the thinking of those times (and of our own) with the notion that
given human beings’ endlessly acquisitive propensities, a state of nature could only have been a “war of all against all”; society proper could only begin when everyone agreed to create some overarching political power.
In this intellectual climate, it made sense to study contracts. Hobbes himself called “social contract” the act whereby people sacrifice their “natural” agency to exert violence on one another, and confer it to a collective entity: the state, the Leviathan. Mauss addresses the issue in his most famous piece of work, called Essai sur le don. In it, he came up with the signature move of economic anthropology, the same one that Graeber himself uses in Debt: look at historical records and observe that they contradict the story told by theorists.
He also notes that, contrary to the speculations of the likes of Hobbes, or Adam Smith, or modern economists, the first voluntary, contractual relations were not between individuals but between social groups: “clans, tribes, and families” (3). Neither were they essentially political, or for that matter economic, in nature; rather, they were, as he puts it, “total,” bringing together domains we would differentiate as “religious, legal, moral and economic.”
Anthropology comes into it because, at this time, anthropologists can still observe “live” non-capitalist societies. If pursuing self-interest (Hobbes) through “truck and barter” (Smith) is a natural attribute of humans, we should observe it in action in any human society. And, Mauss points out, they don’t. Furthermore, the concepts themselves used by these theorists are far from universal, and do not necessarily make sense outside of the culture that has generated them.
Mauss did wish to argue that it is only with the market that it is even possible to imagine a pure self-interest—a concept that, he remarked, could not even be translated into Greek, or Latin, or Sanskrit, or classical Arabic—and that the modern ideal of the pure selfless gift is simply an impossible mirror image of this notion.
But Mauss is a great ancestor for the Sci-Fi Economics Lab also in another sense: he seems to have consciously worked to construct the theoretical foundation of radically different, utopian economic systems. His biography confirms that he was a committed (though, in his own words, “irreligious”) socialists, very active in the French cooperative movement. In the early 1920s, as he was writing Le don, he had become very interested in the reality of post-revolutionary Russia, and specifically in Lenin’s New Economic Policy. It carried a very important lesson:
With the first great attempt to create a modern alternative to capitalism foundering, Mauss apparently decided it was time to bring the results of comparative ethnography—crude and undeveloped though he well knew them to be—to bear, in order to sketch out at least the outlines of what a more viable alternative might be like. He was particularly concerned with the historical significance of the market. One thing the Russian experiment had proved was that it was not going to be possible to simply abolish buying and selling by writ. Lenin had tried. And even though Russia was the least monetarized society in Europe, he had failed. For the foreseeable future, Mauss concluded, we were stuck with a market of some sort or another.
And here comes the money quote (emphasis mine):
Still, there had to be a difference between “the market” as a mere technique for the allocation of certain types of economic good (for instance, between democratically organized cooperatives or professional organizations), and “the market” as it had come to exist in the industrial West, as the basic organizing principle of social life, the ultimate determinant of value. What Mauss set out to do, then, was to try to get at the heart of precisely what it was about the logic of the market that did such violence to ordinary people’s sense of justice and humanity. To understand the popular appeal of socialist parties and social welfare programs, and by examining the ethnographic record, imagine what a society in accord with such popular standards of justice might look like: one in which the market could be relegated to its proper function, as a technique for decentralized decision-making, a kind of popular polling device on the relative appeal of different sorts of consumer goods, and in which an entirely different set of institutions preside over areas of really significant social value.
Graeber then goes on to explain how Mauss is a sort of complement to Marx. The former focuses on critiquing capitalism, the latter seems more interested in what alternatives to capitalism would look like. To do it, he asks hard questions, that – if followed to their ultimate consequences – put the very foundations of modern economics in doubt. I could not imagine a better legacy for the Sci-Fi Economics Lab.
Photo credit: By Société des Amis du Centre d'Études Sociologiques (SACES) - https://medihal.archives-ouvertes.fr/medihal-00541249, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83275119