Marcel Mauss’s economic vision, 1920-25

By | June 8, 2009

The First World War was more than a watershed; it was an irreversible fissure in modern European history. The state had acquired undreamt of powers in the course of the war: to mobilize and kill off huge armies, to control production and distribution, to monopolize propaganda; from now on it was a struggle between rival state forms for world domination. The claim of Western societies to lead the rest of humanity in reason and civilization had been mortally wounded by the senseless slaughter of the trenches. Life after the war was quite unlike what had gone before. Marcel Mauss, who admitted to a sense of relief when the war first allowed him to escape from his scholarly burdens, took his time to resume his academic and political activities. The death of Émile Durkheim and numerous colleagues during the war took some adjusting to, while some close friends told him it was now time to grow up. So, to a double life as a professor of the religions of uncivilized peoples in the marginal École pratique des hautes études and as a political activist-cum-dilettante, he now had to add responsibility for the movement launched by his uncle at a time when the sociology project still felt rather precarious.

Yet the years 1920-25 were packed and fruitful. Mauss’s 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 Écrits politiques (Marcel Fournier editor, 1994) were written in this period. He resumed teaching religion at the École pratique and was able to relaunch Année sociologique by the period’s end, contributing to it his most famous essay, on The Gift, “In memoriam: the unpublished work of Durkheim and his collaborators” (see Jane Guyer here) and a vast amount of work as editor and reviewer. 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 (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, after a successor half-volume, the Année sociologique second series ended; his closest friend, Henri Hubert, died in 1927. 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 (pace David Graeber, 2001). Mauss allowed himself one public attempt to bridge them, the concluding chapter of The Gift. Mary Douglas, in her Foreword to the second English edition, is rather dismissive of this chapter. For her, the essay should be seen as a great leap forward in anthropological science, theoretical forerunner of his Manual of Ethnography (Nick Allen editor, 2007) and a suitable launch of his career at the Institute: “his own attempt to use the theory of the gift to underpin social democracy was very weak…really jumping the gun” (1990:xv).

I have to agree that the essay itself does not provide an effective intellectual bridge between the two compartments of Mauss’s life. The Gift approaches the evolution of human exchange as moving through three stages: from a total exchange of services as in moiety systems, through competitive gift-exchange involving political leaders to individual contract, whose illumination (“the non-contractual element in the contract”) was the aim of Durkheim’s Division of Labour in Society (1893), itself the main source for Mauss’s essay. Yet any elaboration of what capitalist markets are really like or even a recapitulation of Durkheim’s main arguments are largely missing here. As a result, the programmatic conclusions float at some remove from the substance of the essay and his successors have been able to suppose that its point really is just to expose the “gift economy” to scholarly view. Mauss himself is responsible for the contrasting interpretations that his essay has generated. Hubert did not spare him at the time: “It is often rather vague…Are you really sure that the development of social insurance can be attached to your ‘human bedrock’, as you say?” (Fournier 2006:244).

So, why then take seriously the relationship between Mauss’s sociology and his politics? (Sylvain Dzimira, Marcel Mauss: savant et politique, 2007). Mauss, while tending to his uncle’s legacy, was making a profound break with the latter’s sociological reductionism in these years, opening himself to psychology and the humanities, while espousing a method of “total social facts” which underpins The Gift and figures prominently in those same conclusions. This was just one of the ways he responded to the war. Another was the shift to studying contemporary politics in his (ultimately abortive) “Nation” project. I have argued elsewhere that Mauss himself can be seen as a “total social fact” in ways that undoubtedly concerned him and might deserve our attention. I do not claim that his work is a seamless whole, just that it might pay to juxtapose his disparate efforts of this extraordinary period as a way of throwing new light on the meaning of his great essay for us today.

To that end, I propose here to examine his journalism in the years, 1920-25, with a view to isolating his views on economy at the time. I will then offer an interpretation of The Gift, particularly as it bears on markets and money, as well as the proposals offered by Mauss there for the management of our societies. The aim is a more integrated account of his economic vision, one that has resonance for our own crisis. We will see. Such an exercise goes to the heart of a persisting translation problem which partly accounts for the diverging traditions of Maussian scholarship that we hope to bring together in this conference. When I want to know what Mauss or his main interpreters meant, I read the originals in French. But his work has been ill-served in the ways it has been made available to the Anglophone world. The two published English translations are seriously defective in some important ways, not necessarily because of the translator’s fault, but because key words like prestation and morale are almost impossible to render in English. My main aim here is to persuade some English-speakers to take up the untranslated body of French scholarship, especially his political writings and subsequent commentary on them. In recent years, Marcel Fournier’s indispensable biography has been published in an abridged English edition (Marcel Mauss: a biography, 2006). Accordingly, I will make exclusive reference here to that edition and to the second English translation of The Gift.

* * * * * * *

England was a big part of Mauss’s story. He won distinction during the war as a translator for British and Australian troops on the front line. He took a good part of his cooperative socialism from English sources: the Rochdale pioneers, the Webbs and their Fabian Society, the Labour Party of Keir Hardie. He admired English anthropologists, such as Rivers, Seligman, Frazer, Malinowski and Marrett; and travelled there often to give lectures, attend conferences and meet friends. Whereas Durkheim had written The Division of Labour in Society against English utilitarianism as personified by Herbert Spencer, Mauss looked to that country’s socialist tradition as a source of inspiration for his own politics. If Paris was in ferment during the immediate post-war period, its avant-garde artists (American as well as French) carrying on the pre-war movement under radically altered circumstances, England too was hardly quiet.

When the war ended, Russia was trying to secure its revolution against all-comers, Germany was in civil war and even Britain had what is today a little-known failed revolution. The soldiers came home, production fell from its war-time level and unemployment rose steeply. In 1919 the three most powerful unions (coal miners, railway workers and dockers who between them controlled the principal energy source as well as internal and external trade) held the first coordinated national strike. The government ordered the army to attack them, but they refused to shoot their own people. The police then refused to do what the army would not. The strikers and their families converged on London without any restriction and held a big demonstration outside the House of Commons. The prime minister, David Lloyd George, called the leaders into his office and said, “Congratulations, gentlemen, you have won the state. But I would remind you that neither I nor any member of this House nor a single civil servant will lift a finger to help you run it.” The Welsh miners’ leader later confessed, “At that moment I knew we had lost”, as indeed they had, since they were used to seeking concessions, but had no plan to seize power. After this lost opportunity, the outcome of the 1926 general strike was a foregone conclusion.

The artistic and literary scene was also in ferment. In 1922, the year that Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts came out, T.S. Eliot published The Waste Land, James Joyce Ulysses and Wittgenstein his Tractatus, while the hit movie of the year was Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, a tale of an Eskimo’s resilience in the face of personal hardship and a harsh environment. The old imperialist story about “our” mission to civilize “them” lay in tatters. Demoralization was everywhere, especially among the intellectuals. So, 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 an international 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 upstaged by comparison, revealed as a shabby and narrow-minded successor to a world we in the West had lost.

Marcel Mauss was excited by all this, but he felt Malinowski had gone too far. The Gift is substantially in dialogue with Argonauts, but typically his most important points are contained in a long footnote. Before examining this aspect of Mauss’s analysis, we need to place it within a context revealed by his political journalism. In particular, Mauss wrote a series of articles in 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 I argue here that they do offer some insight into Mauss’s economic ideas and hence into his arguments in The Gift, both analytical and programmatic.

The financial turmoil that Keynes (The Economic Consequences of the Peace, 1919) 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 seven articles about the exchange rate crisis in Populaire, beginning December 1922; and returned to the issue a year later, eventually producing an article daily for two weeks in March 1924 (Fournier 2006: 209-212; Écrits politiques 1994: 477-504; 571-691; 150 out of 700 pages, over a fifth of the book!).

The style of this financial journalism is notable on several counts. Mauss sets out in alarmist fashion, but 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” (27 February 1924). 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” (10 March 1924). The dollar exchange rate had been 11 francs in 1921. He studied fiduciary inflation and concluded that it was not the cause of exchange rate depreciation, blaming rather panic in the markets. Storms were brewing from every direction: “These are human phenomena at work: collective psychology, imponderables, beliefs, credulity, confidence, all swirling about” (29 February 1924). Another striking feature of these articles is personal attacks. Clemenceau was a particular target, but Mauss’s sharpest invective was directed at Lucien Klotz, an “incompetent Jew [and] insignificant personality” whom Clemenceau had put in charge of Finance “perhaps out of Satanism”. He treated Poincaré with more respect, but still insisted on pointing the finger at real persons rather than indulge the convenient abstractions beloved by left-wing conspiracy theorists.

An unpublished paper, “Second general conclusion. A means of overhauling society: the manipulation of currencies” (Fournier 2006: 212 and 390 n.105), provides a link between these reflections on national political economy and both the substantive analysis and programmatic conclusions of The Gift. Here Mauss claims, following Simiand, 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”. He 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”. I will return to this when considering interpretations of The Gift. In the meantime, it should be noted that Mauss was very confident of electoral victory for the Left when he wrote about the exchange rate crisis: “Socialist democracy is on its way…The future is ours…We are living in a great time” (6 May 1924). And his confidence was justified in the following month. In that same month the editors signed a publishing contract for the new series of Année sociologique and the second half of 1924 was spent preparing its publication, along with Mauss’s famous essay on The Gift.

Mauss’s economic vision in these years had much more to it than these questions of exchange. He embraced internationalism and was pleased that his uncle’s notion of the division of labour was now routinely applied to the growing interdependence of nations. He began compiling material for his book on “The Nation” (See Année sociologique, 3rd series, 1953:7-68; extracts in Schlanger 2006: 41-48) with its intended focus on the nationalization of socialism. He wrote critically about the Russian revolution, condemning the Bolsheviks’ use of violence and their destruction of the market economy, with its accumulated reservoir of trust. He supported an “economic movement from below”, based on syndicalism, cooperation and mutual insurance, and shared the Webbs’ vision of a “consumer democracy”. Mauss devoted considerable attention to cooperatives as a fundamental plank of his party politics in the early 20s; but this too waned in the latter part of the decade.

* * * * * * *

The idea of economic progress through specialization was at the core of the British economics founded by Adam Smith. A century later economic individualism was the cornerstone of an evolutionary social theory articulated by Herbert Spencer and popularized as the native ideology of a triumphant western bourgeoisie. Durkheim sought to show that division was a dialectical process of separation and integration, that society became stronger as labour was divided and as the scope for individual action was enhanced. Emphasis on the making of individual contracts obscured the social glue of “the non-contractual element in the contract” that made the economy possible—a combination of law, state, customs, morality, and shared history that it was the sociologist’s task to make more visible. The individual is the result of social development and not, as in Smith’s origin myth, its source.

The Gift is in a direct line of descent from Durkheim’s book, published over three decades before. Mauss summarily eliminates the two utilitarian ideologies that purport to account for the evolution of contracts: “natural economy,” Smith’s idea that individual barter (markets without money) is an expression of human nature; and the notion that primitive communities are altruistic, giving way eventually to our own regrettably selfish, but more efficient individualism. Against the contemporary move to replace markets with communist states, he insists that the complex interplay between individual freedom and social obligation is synonymous with the human condition and that markets and money are universal, if not in their current impersonal form. In this way he fleshes out his uncle’s social agenda, but also questions the accuracy of the latter’s model of mechanical solidarity for stateless societies.

The argument proceeds through five sections of unequal length. The Introduction (7 pages) identifies the essay’s aim to reach “conclusions of a somewhat archaeological kind concerning the nature of human transaction in societies around us or that have immediately preceded our own. We shall describe the phenomena of exchange and contract in those societies that are not, as has been claimed, devoid of economic markets – since the market is a human phenomenon that, in our view, is not foreign to any known society – but whose system of exchange is different from ours.” The market here lacks traders, impersonal money and modern sale contracts; but we can see the morality and organization of such transactions which “still function in our societies, in unchanging fashion and, so to speak, hidden below the surface, and as we believe we have found one of the human foundations on which our societies are built, we shall be able to deduce a few moral conclusions concerning certain problems posed by the crisis in our own law and economic organization. There we shall call a halt” (1990:4).

This dual purpose couldn’t be clearer; but Mauss’s decision to leave out any extended discussion of the morality and economic organization of capitalist societies is one of the main causes for widely divergent interpretations of his work. It is not, as we have seen, that he lacked the capacity for such a discussion; but rather that he chose once more to separate his academic and political writing, save for the semi-detached concluding chapter. Mauss’s key term for the range of archaic contracts he intends to investigate is untranslatable into English and something of a feudal relic in French. Prestation is a service performed out of obligation, something like “community service” as an alternative to imprisonment. Its main use today is as a guarantee to service essential machines when they break down. According to him, the earliest forms of exchange took place between entire social groups and involved the whole range of things people can do for each other, a stage he called the système des prestations totals (Chapter 1, 11 pages). But his main interest is in the “potlatch,” a form of gift-exchange involving aggressive competition between leaders of groups (prestations totales de type agonistique).

This second chapter (28 pages) is the substantive core of the essay and it repays closer study. Its title is important: “The extension of this system [of prestations totales]: liberality, honour and money [monnaie]”, italics added. One of Mauss’s key modifications to his uncle’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. The moiety systems described in the first chapter are going nowhere. But heroic gift-exchange is designed to push the limits of society outwards. They are “liberal” in a similar sense to the “free market”, except that generosity powers the exchange, self-interested for sure, but not in the way associated with homo economicus. 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.” (1990:28). 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.

Malinowski (in Economic Journal, 1921) was adamant that the Trobriand kula valuables were not money in that they did not function as a medium of exchange and standard of value. But, in a long footnote to chapter 2, Mauss holds out for a broader conception: “On this reasoning…there has only been money when precious things…have been really made into currency – namely have been inscribed and impersonalized, and detached from any relationship with any legal entity, whether collective or individual, other than the state that mints them… One only defines in this way a second type of money — our own”. He suggests that primitive valuables are like money in that they “have purchasing power and this power has a figure set on it” (1990: n. 29, 100-102).  He also takes Malinowski to task for reproducing the bourgeois opposition between commercial self-interest and the free gift, a dichotomy that many Anglophone anthropologists have subsequently attributed to Mauss himself (see here).

In The Gift, he acknowledges the validity of criticisms made by historians and others that social scientists tend to abstract too much and proposes instead to address the full complexity of “individuals in their moral, social, mental and above all corporeal and material integrity” (Fournier 2006: 240). Along with his incipient interest in joking relationships, this essay was intended to “…counter the Durkheimian image of a society functioning as a ‘homogenous mass’ with the image of a more complex collectivity, groups and subgroups that overlap, intersect and fuse together” (Fournier 2006: 245). Mauss claims that he has studied archaic societies in their dynamic integrity, not as congealed states to be decomposed into analytical instances of rules pertaining to law, myth, or value and price: “It is by considering the whole entity that we could perceive what is essential, the way everything moves, the living aspect, the fleeting moment when society, or men, become sentimentally aware of themselves and of their situation in relation to others. In this concrete observation of social life lies the means of discovering new facts…Nothing is more urgent or more fruitful than this study of total social facts” (1990: 80).

There follows a chapter (18 pages) on “Survivals of these principles in ancient systems of law and ancient economies”, societies which had trade, money and contract in their modern form. Mauss draws here on his profound knowledge of ancient languages and texts; apart from offering a model of how we could go about doing the same thing now, it need not detain us. His concluding chapter (19 pages) addresses the relevance of all this for contemporary societies. It has three sections: 1. moral conclusions; 2. conclusions for economic sociology and political economy; and 3. conclusions regarding general sociology and morality. The difficult term for us is morale, which refers to moral science, morality, customs and spirit (the way it appears in English).

Mauss’ chief ethical conclusion is that the attempt to create a free market for private contracts is utopian and just as unrealizable as its antithesis, a collective based solely on altruism. Modern capitalism rests on an unsustainable attachment to one of these poles and it will take a social revolution to restore a humane balance. If we were not blinded by ideology, we would recognize that the system of prestations survives in our societies—in weddings and at Christmas, in friendly societies and more bureaucratic forms of insurance, even in wage contracts and the welfare state. With regard to the economy, Mauss who, as we saw, had already claimed that the kula valuables are money, takes Malinowski to task for reproducing in his typology of transactions the ideological opposition between commercial self-interest and the free gift.

There are two prerequisites for being human: we must each learn to be self-reliant to a high degree and to belong to others, merging our identities in a bewildering variety of social relationships. Much of modern ideology emphasizes how problematic it is to be both self-interested and mutual. Yet the two sides are often inseparable in practice and some societies, by encouraging private and public interests to coincide, have managed to integrate them more effectively than ours. Human institutions everywhere are founded on the unity of individual and society, freedom and obligation, self-interest and concern for others. The pure types of selfish and generous economic action obscure the complex interplay between our individuality and belonging in subtle ways to others.

The economic movement from below that he advocated in his political journalism—syndicalism, cooperatives, mutual insurance—is a secular version of what can be found in archaic societies. Gift-exchange and the movement for cooperative socialism are all founded on “total social facts”, in the sense that they bring into play the whole of society and all its institutions—legal, economic, religious, and aesthetic. This is the challenge they pose for sociological method and for politics too. Perhaps the value of The Gift may be usefully restricted to its role as a precursor of the mature ethnographic science that anthropology later became. It certainly cannot be read as a charter for contrasting the paired ideal types, “gift economy” and “market (or commodity) economy”. Whatever the differences between prestations and contracts involving purchase and sale, Mauss went out of his way to emphasize that the foundations of human exchange are universal. Capitalism has been built on an unsustainable and extreme version. The presence of other economic mechanisms in our societies has been hidden from view and marginalized by the dominant form. It is therefore both an intellectual and a political task to show what else there is and to make possible a new moral emphasis in economic life and law.

While The Gift stands alone as an intellectual exercise, when he wrote it Marcel Mauss was intensely active on all fronts at once, academic and political, in what turned out to be the peak years of his engagement with society, the early 1920s. Perhaps it is not essential to read his financial journalism in order to understand his greatest essay, written and published at exactly the same time. But I would argue that they are both indispensable to an effective grasp of the man. Certainly the dynamic understanding that he brought to the exchange rate crisis helps me to grasp why he was at once enthused by and critical of Malinowski’s account of the kula. Does it all add up to a coherent “economic vision”, placing Mauss on a par with Keynes or even Polanyi, with both of whom he has much in common? Perhaps not. But if we ask what relevance he might have to our own times of economic crisis, investigation of his essay in the context of his life and times would surely help us better to understand our own. In that sense, Mauss lives.

A postscript. Gillian Tett, a Financial Times journalist with a PhD in social anthropology from Cambridge, has just published an extraordinary account of the economic crisis that has broken over the last two years, Fool’s Gold: How the bold dream of a small tribe at J.P. Morgan was corrupted by Wall Street greed and unleashed a catastrophe (Free Press, 2009). She tells the story of the specific origin of credit derivatives, their subsequent perversion and the financial disaster that they brought down on all our heads. She warned against the dangers of massive growth in the volume of “credit default swaps” and “collateral debt obligations” long before the crisis broke (and was chastised for doing so). Fool’s Gold is already a best-seller, but it is also, to my mind, the best contribution yet to public education about the economic crisis.

Tett’s account shares some of the qualities of Mauss’s journalism: forward-looking, analytical and personal, with a keen sense of history and a desire to educate the people. The common people of different nations may, thanks to her persistent and imaginative efforts, get to know better “how they can have control over themselves—without the use of words, formulas or myths”. She generously acknowledges her anthropological training, of which Mauss was undoubtedly the leading pioneer in his own country, as having given her the vision and method to see what most other professionals could not. The Année sociologique group shared a sense that intellectual progress was a result of and stimulus to social improvement. I like to think that Gillian Tett’s example shows how the two sides of Mauss’s endeavour, especially as he realized them in those crowded years after the war, might someday be brought together.

Conference Mauss vivant, Cerisy, 13-20 June 2009

Leave a Reply