“The great economic revolutions are monetary in nature” (Mauss)

Keith Hart Open Anthropology Cooperative

For Marcel Mauss, the years 1920-25 were packed and fruitful. His political party and the Left in general had a real shot at winning power in France and did so in 1924. Two-thirds of his occasional political pieces (Écrits politiques) were written in this period. He was able to relaunch his group’s journal, Année sociologique, by the period’s end, contributing to it his most famous essay, on The Gift. He suffered some reverses at this time, including a serious illness, but remained optimistic for both political and intellectual regeneration on a social scale that was increasingly international in scope.

He began serious work on a book dealing with the main political currents of the day, nationalism and socialism. His interest in the American “potlatch” was expanded by the publication of Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific in 1922, confirming his belief that competitive gift-exchange was endemic in Melanesia and Polynesia, as well as elsewhere. And the Institut d’ethnologie was formed in 1925 with Rivet, Lévy-Bruhl and Mauss himself in charge.

In the late 1920s, things began to unravel on all fronts. Mauss’s personal standing as a savant grew inexorably; but his party suffered political reverses, its newspaper and journal folded, the cooperative movement foundered and the Année sociologique could not continue. Mussolini’s version of the “nationalization of socialism” must have raised doubts about Mauss’s own political programme. His closest friend, Henri Hubert, died in 1927, compounding Mauss’s loss of family and colleagues during the war.

The years 1920-25 stand apart for the energy and fulfillment they brought. Mauss himself kept a sort of Chinese wall between his academic and political interests; so it is not so surprising that the two have been kept apart, especially in the Anglophone world, where his political writings are virtually unknown. He allowed himself one public attempt to bridge them, the concluding chapter of The Gift. Even so, the essay itself does not provide an effective intellectual link between the two compartments of Mauss’s life.

When Malinowski produced his account of native adventurers in the Western Pacific, latter-day heirs to the archaic tradition of noble heroes, his story found a receptive audience. The kula ring of the Trobriand Islanders and their Melanesian neighbours provided an allegory of the world economy. Here was a civilization spread across many small islands, each incapable of providing a decent livelihood by itself, that relied on foreign trade mediated by the exchange of precious ornaments. There were no states, money or capitalists and, instead of buying cheap and selling dear, the trade was sustained by an ethic of generosity. Homo economicus was not only absent, but revealed as a shabby and narrow-minded successor to a world the West had lost.

Marcel Mauss was excited by all this, but he felt Malinowski had gone too far. One of his key modifications to Émile Durkheim’s legacy was to conceive of society as a historical project of humanity whose limits were extended to become ever more inclusive. The point of The Gift is that society cannot be taken for granted as a pre-existent form. It must be made and remade, sometimes from scratch. How do we behave on a first date or on a diplomatic mission? We make gifts. Heroic gift-exchange is designed to push the limits of society outwards. It is ‘liberal’ in a similar sense to the ‘free market’, except that generosity powers the exchange, self-interested for sure, but not in the way postulated by economists.

Malinowski’s account of the kula ring is the contested origin for Mauss’s discussion. “The whole intertribal kula is merely the extreme case…of a more general system. This takes the tribe itself, in its entirety, out of the narrow sphere of its physical boundaries and even of its interests and rights.” No society is ever economically self-sufficient, least of all these Melanesian islands. So to the need for establishing local limits on social action must always be added the means of extending a community’s reach abroad. This is why markets and money in some form are universal, and why any attempt to abolish them must end in catastrophe.

For this reason Mauss argued, against Malinowski in a long footnote, that the kula valuables were money, if not the impersonal kind with which we are familiar. His famous essay needs to be juxtaposed to his political journalism of the same period and in particular to a series of articles he wrote for his party’s newspaper, Populaire, on the exchange rate crisis of 1922-24. These have generally been treated as being lightweight, even boring, unconnected to his academic work; but they do offer insight into his economic ideas and hence into his arguments in The Gift, both analytical and programmatic.

The financial turmoil that Keynes predicted would be the consequence of the Versailles treaty was soon realized. The stability of the franc was a matter of acute public concern, since it was taken to be a measure of France’s international standing; and political panic when the franc dropped was commonplace. The Left blamed it all on a few rich families. Mauss wrote about the exchange rate crisis from December 1922 and returned to the issue a year later. Taken together, these articles constitute 150 out of the 700 pages assembled in Écrits politiques.

This financial journalism is notable on several counts. Mauss sets out in alarmist fashion, but soon settles down into a voice of reason, seeking to steer a pragmatic course of stabilization in the national interest. Being able to take a position on the economy was vital to political engagement: “Every socialist is obliged to have a few notions about political economy, or economic sociology as we now say”. The problems were both urgent and complex. More striking still is the tone Mauss adopts when discussing what we would call “the markets”, as if he were himself an expert player. After studying the price curves, exchange rates and money supply since the end of the war, he makes the “bold assertion, which militants and scientists must venture only very scrupulously” that “the dollar will float between 20 and 25 francs, but will not go much higher than that”. The dollar exchange rate had been 11 francs in 1921.

Mauss concluded that panic in the markets, not fiduciary inflation, was the cause of exchange rate depreciation. Storms were brewing from every direction: “These are human phenomena at work: collective psychology, imponderables, beliefs, credulity, confidence, all swirling about”. Another striking feature of these articles is personal attacks. Mauss insisted on pointing the finger at real persons, especially right-wing political leaders such as Clemenceau, rather than indulge the convenient abstractions beloved by left-wing conspiracy theorists.

An unpublished paper, “A means of overhauling society: the manipulation of currencies”, provides a link between these reflections on national political economy and The Gift. Here Mauss claims, following his colleague, François Simiand and anticipating Maynard Keynes, that the great economic revolutions are “monetary in nature” and that the manipulation of currencies and credit could be a “method of social revolution…without pain or suffering”. Mauss wished to give an economic content to juridical socialism. “It suffices to create new monetary methods within the firmest, the narrowest bounds of prudence. It will then suffice to manage them with the most cautious rules of economics to make them bear fruit among the new entitled beneficiaries. And that is revolution. In this way the common people of different nations would be allowed to know how they can have control over themselves—without the use of words, formulas or myths”.

About Keith Hart

Keith Hart is an anthropologist who lives in Paris, where he has recently entered a number of collaborations with French intellectuals. He is Professor of Anthropology Emeritus at Goldsmiths, University of London and Honorary Professor in both the School of Development Studies, University of Kwazulu-Natal, Durban and the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Pretoria. He started out studying classical languages and literature and went on to explore Atlantic society from the point of view of Africans in West Africa, North America, the Caribbean, Britain, France and South Africa. Now he contemplates the Indian Ocean from a beach flat in Durban, South Africa. Keith has taught in ten universities on both sides of the Atlantic, for the longest time in Cambridge, where he was Director of the African Studies Centre. He has worked as a consultant, journalist, publisher and gambler. He contributed the concept of the informal economy to development studies and has published widely on economic anthropology, especially about money. His life is now defined by the poles of solitary writing and world travel. In this he is sustained by his family and by the virtual social network in his laptop.
This entry was posted in Financial crisis. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “The great economic revolutions are monetary in nature” (Mauss)

  1. jasonbairdjackson says:

    (Beyond The Gift) does the full Mauss corpus speak specifically to the material culture (=objects) that get circulated in systems such as Potlatch and Kula? I always teach The Gift when I can (less now that I am in a folklore department), including in my material culture courses, but I have wondered about (but not yet explored) the less prominent works (such as you have been discussing in these essays) for what they might offer to this question. The most classic stuff is fully a part of the material culture studies tradition (The Gift and Body Techniques), but I have wondered if there is more waiting there beyond the well trod paths.

  2. Keith Hart says:

    The Institute of Durkheimian Studies at Oxford has been much more systematic than I in bringing Mauss’s occasional ethnological writings to public view. I don’t know if the answer to your question will be found there, but here are two references in English.

    The Manual of Ethnography (edited by Nick Allen, Berghahn, 2007) is Marcel Mauss’s longest work. He gave lectures at the Institute of Ethnology in Paris between the wars which included an ‘Introduction to descriptive ethnography intended for travellers, administrators and missionaries’ in the French colonies. Student enrolments were sometimes a hundred or more. One of his students, Denise Paulme, compiled notes on these lectures (their content varied from year to year). Mauss is said to have looked over her draft during the German occupation. But, like most things that he published, this Manual was incomplete when it came out in 1947, shortly before his death. I do recall that he has some interesting things to say there about primitive money, but I haven’t checked recently.

    Nathan Schlanger has edited for the same series Marcel Mauss. Techniques, Technology and Civilisation (2006), which contains Mauss’s essay ‘Techniques of the body’ and much else, some of which overlaps with the Manual. He published only two major articles in the 30s and 40s, this and the one on the person.

    He always preferred speaking to writing and this led his uncle sometimes to accuse him of being a waster. He was a great teacher, but less impressive in his research publications. His method of delivering lectures was one of improvisation based on notes. He relied on a terrific memory fueled by the large number of reviews he wrote for the Année Sociologique before the war. Eventually, his memory too gave way.

Leave a Reply