The politics, pragmatics and promise of money

By | November 21, 2009

Edited extracts from a recorded conversation between Keith Hart and Bill Maurer

Marina Del Rey, August 2007

KH: There are quite profound similarities and differences between us. My version of the dialectic is that, if we want the quite significant differences to remain under control, we have to establish a framework of sameness to start with, because I really think that we’re very different in style. So I would like to start by trying to establish how some of the questions that we’re posing are the same or similar, how we came to invest so much in the study of money as anthropologists.

BM: There is one similarity that struck me in reading all your work in advance of this meeting. Both of us refuse, as you put it, to demonize money. There’s no reason why it can’t be remade anew by us for some other ends. I’ve been very frustrated by the anthropological literature. It often presents a familiar story: capitalism comes to town and then all of a sudden all that is solid melts into air; things fall apart. It’s the end of the world. And we know what happens: the story is written as if we already know the end of it: dispossession, exploitation, wealth will flow up and so on. On the one hand, yes, that’s what happens. But on the other hand, if we say that it is what always happens when there is the kind of monetization or commoditization associated with “capitalism,” then we’re never going to see the unintended effects of it when they are right in front of our noses.

K: I agree with that. It’s also closely linked to the history of the 20th century. That position leads to the abolition of money and markets or their marginalization and to the establishment of forms of control, authority, and organization that I don’t like.

B: Right, the market is a wonderful example of ungoverned space; I believe that is worth something.

K: Also, in terms of method, each of us ranges very widely for examples, inspiration and anecdotes. But each of us, in our different ways, is trying to reform anthropology as a project.

B: Yes, I was struck by the amount of attention you devote to anthropological theory and method, and how money necessitates your reworking of those things. If we really want to contribute to a Kantian philosophical anthropology and to the creation of a new world society, as you suggest we should, we must reformulate the methods, objects, and theories.

K: I’m giving a lecture in Milwaukee in early September, which is going to be my most general formulation of all this. It’s called “Toward a New Human Universal, Rethinking Anthropology for the 21st Century.” I’m coming closer to a kind of philosophical humanism or to anthropology as a strategy that people from many disciplines could contribute to, if they felt like it, than attempt to reform academic anthropology as it has become in our time. In many ways, anthropologists are the least likely to respond to my message given the kind of choices they’ve made. So I am asking what a Kantian anthropology might be if we detached it from being necessarily an academic discipline.

Money and political education

B: You’re much more hopeful on the democratization of money than I am.

K: Oh, I’m not really.

B: Well, you pretend to be.

K: Yes, exactly. It’s a story. People often say to me, why are you so optimistic? And I say I’m not optimistic. I just think that people should be willing to think about possibilities. For example, I have been a fan of alternative currencies since I first heard of LETS and its inventor, Michael Linton, in the mid-80s and even more after I later met him in Manchester; but I have also been impressed by the power of existing paradigms of money that people are caught up in, largely without knowing it. This is a serious obstacle to their widespread acceptance. I think that your discussion of Ithaca HOURS got at that. One of the reasons I wrote the persuasion paper was because I was thinking about LETS. Linton, as an engineer, has brought immense creativity and dynamism to developing systems that are suited to the digital age and are scalable, but I had doubts about his attempts to persuade people that they’re feasible, when we worked together. So I wrote the persuasion paper to argue that Smith and Keynes succeeded to some extent because of their understanding that this was a rhetorical exercise before anything else. The most systematic things that Keynes ever wrote were to gain formal credibility within government and the profession of economics. I have become increasingly interested in community currencies as a form of political education, but then I think of myself as a teacher more than anything else.

There was a time when I was more sanguine about the immediate prospects of a breakthrough with these community currencies, but I now feel that, whatever the chances of their really taking off, they also act as a form of limited political education for those people who are open to them. In my lifetime, these approaches may or may not actually change economic conditions for very many people. It is interesting that so far they have had less success in the poorer parts of the world that need them most. It’s a bit like generic medicine. The world needs these things, but Big Pharma gets in the way. So I find increasingly, although I still write within an optimistic frame, that I actually detach the exercise from any concrete political ambition — all I’m doing is inserting a certain way of thinking into the long human conversation about a better world. I have no idea who’s going to take it up when, how, or what they’ll do with it.

Locke , Marx and the rest in the end changed the way we think, not the way we live. This may be an age thing, but I feel that I’ve always been engaged in society with some sort of political aspiration. At this stage all I’m interested in is writing, in excavating some part of what I only half know and making it more solid bit by bit and sharing it with people in a form that could enter the conversation. I don’t know how, when, with what consequences.

B: The optimism is part of what is so appealing, because that’s what makes the writing seem so fresh. So few people are willing to give any kind of optimistic proclamation about the future or what we could do now that would make the future better. So, while the optimistic tone of some of your writing may be irritating to some, I think it is irritating in a good way.

K: No, it diminishes the impact of what I say. The currency of politics is power and its means is passion. But if the politician neglects reason he’ll lose his audience. And equally, the means of science is reason, but the best science is still the enthusiast. And so, if I give the impression that I’m stupid by being over-optimistic, then I might turn away people I might otherwise engage.

B: Let’s explore this idea that LETS or other new currency systems are a form of political education for the people who have worked in them. I think there’s something there to think about. What would happen to the analysis of alternative currencies if you imagine them not as things that will replace existing money or will even merely supplement other currencies, but as classrooms or momentary, temporary, autonomous pedagogical exercises. They may then take on some other functions besides money politics, but, you know, political education broadly. A lot of the literature is: Do alternative currencies “work” or not. But asking after their pedagogical function brings forth new questions.

The standard questions are: Do they draw more people in to help them meet their needs? Do they draw more people into the market and thereby erode their own emancipatory potential? Or do they just run out of steam because people don’t like feeling indebted to other people? Right? But no one ever really asks just the basic interview question, “what did you learn from doing this?”

K: Peter North’s Money and Liberation is good on this.

B: North also writes about how people would say that they enjoyed participating in a LETS system at first, but then they sort of didn’t, they didn’t like the feeling of being indebted. Right? They didn’t like to have other things done for them because then they felt like they owed and they didn’t like to feel like they owed. So, trading gradually falls to zero.

K: Well, that’s not a universal phenomenon, but it is one of the psychological problems that have to be overcome. Some LETS schemes also fold because some people acquire unredeemable surpluses, which they will never be able to offload because people drift away. Perhaps this is related to feelings of indebtedness. But the bigger problem is with conceiving of a LETS system as a stand alone operation, like a national currency; and that is why Linton has put so much effort into the technology of coordinating multiple currency systems, for example employing smart cards that can register transactions on up to fifteen currencies at once.

B: Well, this is why people end up with surpluses, too. Because I end up hoarding my credit instead of spending it by asking you to paint my fence. I don’t ask you to paint my fence because I think, oh, I don’t wanna feel like I now owe Keith something ‘cause he painted my fence. So I’ll just hold onto my credits.

K: Getting back to the issue about political education. I spent two years with Michael Linton. Sometimes physically, but mostly on line. I began to feel that he was putting all his energy into developing the best possible system. My role was supposed to be disseminating the results as a writer and this made me focus on the sometimes unacknowledged handicaps that people promoting LETS have to overcome. And one of these handicaps is the absolute dominance of the nation-state as the stand-alone model for forming a society. There is also the deep investment that people have in the notion that money is unchangeable.

I was a professional gambler for a number of years, and I sometimes made the mistake of trying to explain to people how I lived from scientific gambling. But the only story they wanted to know about gambling was that you lose. The only winner is the bookie. And even the way that they gambled was guaranteed to make sure that they lose, so that they would then inevitably have to go back to work and accept the system. And so, it seems to me, that just by entering a currency experiment, as a form of political education, people get to argue about what form the money should take, who should be “in,” what is its relationship with the national currency? What are the pros and cons? Should it be scrip? Should it be something else? But, because these things are usually conceived of as stand alone and local, what happens is some kind of micro nation-state, they end up being like every other similar organization in which a few people put in a lot of time, argue about the minutes, so that the whole thing becomes a kind of parish politics and most people get alienated. And people who entered them with real economic purposes realize in the end that it’s just a kind of show. But Michael Linton has also put a lot of effort into bringing people in through games.

B: Existing games or ones that –

K: No. Developing games that teach people what they can do. He has something called LETSplay where people trade in a mixture of community currency and national money. He was the first to bring my attention to Second Life and all these other online worlds. He is also entering into a lot of forums now, with people like Dee Hock who invented Visa and others who are working on the Identity Commons initiative.

Everything that we’ve said today points to a sense we have that the world is more malleable and thought is more malleable than most of the pros are willing to accept. And that we have to find ways of bringing them together that’s more effective.

B: What really emerged for me most forcefully in your more recent pieces is this effort to do philosophical anthropology. You write about amplifying ethnography to speak to world society. I link that up directly into the work of money. This is where the work of persuasion comes in too. This probably brings us to the pragmatic work of language and money in making that society.

K: What struck me about your work was the recognition that it was all one thing somehow. That the story, the analysis, the money, the society, whatever — in the end we’re working out a very limited number of paradigms. And what you have clearly defined yourself by is the need to break up a particularly rigid version of these paradigms. This brings us to the issue of pragmatism.

Pragmatics of Money

K: So tell me what you think about pragmatics.

B: What do I think about pragmatics? Well, first of all, it’s always important to remember the distinction between Bourdieu’s practice theory and pragmatics. Bourdieu’s theory of practice is still aiming to help us get a more adequate representation of reality. This involves my whole issue going back to Mark Shell of the relationship between money and many of our standard analytical procedures or vocabularies, which derive from the attempt to weld words together with things. When I think about pragmatics, in contrast, I think about the American tradition. Peirce, James, Dewey, Holmes. There, the question isn’t so much, can knowledge be devised to gain an adequate representation of the world, but rather, can knowledge help us approach or approximate a target to get something done that we’re trying to do. And it doesn’t really matter if it’s true or not. It just matters if it works.

K: Yes.

B: For me it was a huge breakthrough to realize that I could think about money in those terms. That I didn’t need to solve the problem of money’s representational failure or adequacy, which is what so many money people have talked about. Just about everyone who writes on money has worried about this problem even if only a little bit. You don’t worry about it at all. It’s refreshing.

K: This is one of the reasons I like Kant, for example in relation to mathematics. One version of mathematics says that the number system we have in some way represents the world. So, if we meet aliens from the same universe, they would end up coming with the same number system because it reflects the same physical reality that we all share.

Now, Kant says that science grew out of cooking, you know, metals and fermentation, and really it’s a series of recipes. The recipes either do the job or they don’t, but they do within a range of accuracy. So we’ve developed a system of numbers that helps us to manage the world within the degrees of error that we’re prepared to accept or not. For that reason, our number system is likely to be local and there’s no reason at all why aliens should have the same system of numbers we do at all.

I have a way of cooking curries which is based on two axes. One is from hot to cold and the other is fruity to musty. And I combine these axes into a kind of color continuum from gray through brown and yellow to red. I mix a kind of curry powder to try and produce the effect I want. It works incredibly well. I also have the same attitude to theory, which is that all theories are good for something. The thing is that their protagonists usually think they’re good for a lot more –

B: For everything.

K: They claim a lot more for it. And the task is really to find out what they’re good for in combination with other theories that fill the gaps. Kant’s anthropology from a pragmatic point of view is saying, what do we need to know about humanity as a whole that will enable us to live as world citizens? In his method, he makes it clear that thinking about world society has to be anchored in something much more immediate. He’s also aware that a lot of what he’s doing is out of reach during his own time. I mean he knows that the world is in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars and it’s forming coalitions of states and shutting people down in all kinds of ways, but he still feels that it’s possible to imagine what we might be.

B: This is the impetus of the American pragmatists after the Civil War. Menand’s book describes this beautifully.

K: I loved that book.

B: Especially his discussion of the connections between American pragmatism and American anthropology. And it links up with the money stuff. I am drawn again and again back to the greenbacker/bullionist debate after the Civil War. I would like to write it not as a tale from the history of representation, which is how it’s often done, but as one of the history of the resolution, or temporary resolution of the pragmatic problem of the money supply. This may be more like the way an economist would tell the tale. I don’t necessarily want to tell it as an economist would, but I do want to put the brakes on the kind of culturalist semiotic thinking that takes over when we think about money’s substance, you know, paper versus gold versus whatever.

K: The demon of mimesis or representation is something I never had to slay for some reason. I don’t know why.

B: That’s British social anthropology. It’s remarkably free of all that “culture and symbol” stuff that Americans have to deal with all the time.

K: I’ve never had to deal with that. I never thought it was anything else than us making stuff up.

B: In my Annual Review piece I try to kind of do some brush clearing. There is a lot of work in anthropology about money but it’s rarely by people who actually study money. Instead, it’s done by people who want to talk about money as a side interest to their main concern. So someone is studying socially responsible investing somewhere. Efforts to create micro credit somewhere else. And often people will just throw out a few one-liners about how we all understand that money is just like language. I want to stop and say, well, no. We don’t all understand that. What do you mean by language? Is language just a system of representation? That’s how you’re treating it. But language also is a series of speech acts. It does work. It doesn’t just represent things.

I like your phrase about can there be a grammar of uses for money.

Money, Payment, Personal Credit and Rank

B: There are a couple of things we haven’t talked about yet. One comes out of the idea of money as personal credit. I like to think about the relationship between money as personal credit and money as unit of account. In a sense, they are the same thing, because the money as personal credit is a way of accounting for it. And money as unit of account then gets us into that discussion about states, Geoff Ingham and all that, which I’m not that interested in. This recalls the classic functions of money as means of exchange, store of value, measure of value, method of payment, and unit of account.

The one I’ve been interested in lately — not so much for rethinking money, but as a way of taking stock of what’s out there in the world that we tend not to see or pay enough attention to — is money as a means of payment not tied to markets or exchange in markets. This comes out in Jane Guyer’s work as well. She has a few lines in Marginal Gains about fines, fees, penalties and those sorts of things, payments that are an important part of exchanges, but strictly speaking to one side of them.

K: She also talks about it in relation to oil prices, as well.

B: Right, oil prices and taxes. I’m interested in taxes and things like that as well. Or the relationship between taxes and fees. Taxes are often talked about as fees for use, fees for service…

K: Or your Islamic mortgages, rent, markup… I have a great anecdote. I was at Yale for a number of years and I did a sort of amateur ethnography of the economics department there. I used to go to the seminars that they gave and I was very interested in how they oscillated between abstraction and conversation. There were two registers. One consisted of indifference curves and quadratic equations that they stuck on the board. And the other was kind of a barbershop economese when they talked in a vulgar way evoking the common man. I discovered there was a marker between these registers, which was “story,” the invocation of the word story. So the guy is doing this abstract analysis, and usually some quite senior professor says, the story you’re trying to tell us is… and then he would shift into barbershop vulgarity. Anyway, I went to one seminar I had seen advertised and the only people there were a few very senior guys – Tobin, Brainard, Arthur Okun who visiting — and a couple of graduate students who probably made the same mistake I did. They were talking about price in microeconomic theory and Okun suddenly said, “Forget about economics. Price is always costs plus a markup and the mark up is usually a convention.”

B: That’s amazing. Payment is interesting to me too because much of the work in anthropology and elsewhere in finance focuses on exchange and global flows. But when I think about the tax haven economies in the Caribbean, so much of that is not about exchange. It’s about parking money and hiding it and trying to avoid payment. Massive sums are moved around the world all the time, not for the purpose of exchanging anything at all, but for simply paying and avoiding paying.

K: I’ve learned a bit about private banking because my wife is from Geneva. It’s a mafia and they say, We don’t care who you are or how you got the money. You can leave it with us and most of it will be there whenever you want it. But in the meantime, we’ll take our cut. Don’t even talk about interest on the savings or any of that. You pay us to keep your money in secret and for it to be there, most of it, whenever you want it. That’s all they do.

So yes, I’ve always been interested in payment too. What is so great about the early anthropological part of Keynes’s Treatise on Money, is when he is setting up the distinction between money proper and money of account and he starts talking about the symbiosis between markets and states. In the end states are needed to make money lawful in some objective way and they need their cut for their own finances. I agree. Like Jane I guess — maybe because we come from the same background — I have always been suspicious of the reduction of money transfers to a model of exchange. It is the core of what I don’t like about economics, the assumption that it is all they can talk about. It also lies behind my reluctance to embrace equivalence as the main function of money. In a curious way, it all comes from Radcliffe-Brown who manufactured a set of metaphors to sell his natural science of society. These were taken from the corporate state and a certain idea of market exchange. He insisted that the essence of exchange is equivalence and it isn’t. I grew up in a Manchester slum where the police were on the take and local shopkeepers had to leave bribes on the doorstep overnight. People were being worked over by the cops and by all kinds of scams. I always had a mafia vision of how the economy works, as a sort of taking. I see what the powers do with mobile people, with people in cars in a state like California, with 24-hour parking meters — if you’re on the move and you need to stop, we’re going to get you.

B: This all also goes against the idea of a frictionless market, which is shared by proponents and critics alike, whether the latter realize it or not.

This implies the question of equivalence. I am interested in the homology between anthropology and money in that both seek to make commensurate incommensurate qualities. They both seek to bring into equivalence things that aren’t that at the start. So money allows me through the mechanism of price to convert pigs into apples and anthropology allows me to convert through the mechanism of ethnography New Guinea Highlanders into English people or something, to make that connection.

K: That’s true at one level. Yet, your emphasis on equivalence has never struck me as being as central as you make it. What you really want to talk about is the opposite of that, the long history of the separation between “idea” and “reality” and so on. In the article I wrote for Carrier, I pointed out that Alfred Marshall developed the notion of spheres of exchange. Nadel took him up in Black Byzantium. Marshall rejected the idea that money necessarily reduces cultural difference to an equivalent. I said that, if you ask a Brit how many toilet rolls makes a BMW or how many oranges gets you an education at Eton, they would say these are not equivalent; in other words, even in societies that have been thoroughly commoditized for as long as we care to remember, the operations of money don’t necessarily entail the subversion of notions of cultural rank.

B: Your example is a very British one, of course, introducing relations of rank, so that it isn’t just oranges to education, but oranges to a very particular kind of education that marks one as a person of rank.

K: What Nadel took from Marshall was that there are subsistence goods and values, luxury goods, and goods that express the highest values of society. And that it’s quite difficult to convert across them. It’s not just that people would find it culturally insane to ask how many oranges buys you an Eton education. An East End orange seller would never get his kid into Eton. So mechanisms for maintaining differential rank often subvert the equalizing effects of money. I agree that equivalence is an important issue, but I have never made it central to my own understanding of the operations of money.

B: For me, equivalence really is a way into the issue of quantification and calculation as well since it is a mathematical operation. It helps me think about the work of numbers more clearly.

K: Your treatment of the zero in algebra is clear and powerful. You talk there about King Lear which has been formative for me in a different way through CLR James, who was preoccupied with the play as the culmination of Shakespeare’s concern with the future of the Tudor state.

I’ve been doing statistics all my life, teaching statistics. I’m very interested in similar questions and that’s one reason I responded so positively to your article on ‘uncanny exchanges’. I’ve also been interested in the rise of probability theory, the whole period summarized by Hacking, in scientific modernism and the non-linear mathematics of complexity. I have been impressed by how you were able to make this subject your own in writing, as I don’t think I have. But, as you may have noticed, recently I had this kind of revelation from reading Oswald Spengler.

Spengler treats the zero and what he calls the algebra of the Magian Arabs as secondary to Descartes and the construction of points in abstract space. He sees that as crucial in the transition from classical Greek geometry to modern mathematics.

B: And this is the distinction between magnitude and function.

K: But I am still more or less reduced to giving potted summaries of Spengler. Maybe I am just beginning to incorporate his thinking into how I write myself.

B: Spengler’s notion of magnitude has resonance for me with Jane Guyer’s recent work on different kind of numbers and numeracy in the use of money to demonstrate rank. She has these wonderful examples of the intersection of interval scales of number in ordinal and nominal scales. So adding a ‘dash’ to a volumetric measure when you sell to somebody of higher rank shows how that interval measure can be backed up by a nominal measure of rank.

Dialectics

K: We share a tendency to take what have often been represented as stages in history or as a dialectal contrast and show how they operate together in a variety of ways.

B: It’s as if they’re both there, but one so-called evolutionary moment comes to the fore and then, at another moment, it gets backgrounded and a different one comes to the fore. To me, it’s that alternating temporal flow that gives you monetary alternatives. They’re not so much opposed to each other as that they are operating out of phase with one another. So in old science fiction movies or Star Trek there would be characters that somehow get thrown into a different time and they’re there but they can’t interact with the other people who are there. But every so often their cycles connect and they have a minute when they can talk to each other, but then they’re in their other temporality again. That’s what these monetary alternatives are like. They’re not so much “other” as on a different temporal cycle.

K: I think what one does change is the dominant model, the ideology. It’s a Maussian idea that, although capitalism pushes an extreme version of impersonality in exchange, this simply disguises or makes less visible the other elements. I also want to go back to Jane Guyer’s book, which I read when it was first submitted. I saw instantly that hers was a vision of ethnography as revealing something that we never saw before, what Raymond Williams calls the realist project to make visible classes that were previously invisible. In my teaching of statistics I have always tried to explain the difference between nominal, ordinal, and continuous variables. She can put them together in complex and manipulative social situations. Readers would see something there that they recognize, but at the same time they understand that they haven’t seen it before.

B: And it’s a brilliant way of showing that money can do rank. Money doesn’t have to be homogenizing and a source of equality for people in the marketplace. They can express through it very fine gradations of social status.

K: This was what Mauss was going on about in that long footnote to The Gift, where he says, in response to Malinowski’s claim that kula valuables are not currency, well, that depends on what you mean by money…

B: Exactly.

K: I got from Mauss the notion that markets and money extend social relations and therefore, the archaic gift is a prototype of pushing out the boundaries of society.

B: There may be a difference between us here, which your emphasis on making world society has got me thinking about. You are interested in how money extends relationships outwards. I’m also interested in how they can get cut off. Jane Guyer uses metaphors like knots. People can also get stuck and it can be productive to focus on how society gets made by drawing distinctions and boundaries. Marilyn Strathern talks about this as well — cutting the network and so on.

K: That’s true. Jane and I have corresponded at length about this. A focus on knots and being stuck reflects a choice of method, which is to see how things cohere at a level nearer the ground. This has to do with some kind of dialectic of freedom and non-freedom. After decades of being locked into a Marxist or social democratic agenda, I have spent most of the last ten years trying to locate my thinking and writing within classical liberalism.

B: I was trained within a political economy framework, and my mentor in graduate school was Jane Collier. She wrote Marriage and Inequality in Classless Societies influenced by Weber and Bourdieu, as well as the structural Marxists. She was asking after other kinds of systems where the Marxist dialectic cannot hold without the modifications made by other feminists, which focused on how difficult it is to force what we call kinship into modes and relations of production. Her work drew me to feminist theory, to thinking about Marilyn’s agenda with the gift, and to feminist political economists like J. K. Gibson Graham.

They have the same kind of concern that Michel Callon has, although they don’t use the same analytical vocabulary — that by describing something as capitalism, we unify phenomena that maybe aren’t as unified as the analytical model would suggest. We give capitalism with a capital C a power to move and act in the world that it didn’t have before our analytical engagement with it. My problem with Marxism has always been that first of all, it stabilizes and solidifies what it sets in motion dialectally; but then second, that there are no surprises.

K: That’s what makes it a kind of secular religion. It’s the sleight of hand on verb tense, which allows scientific socialism to extrapolate from knowledge of history to the future in a reliable way. So the whole point is no surprises. Both of us agree that the greatness of Marxism as a method is that it requires the investigator to place himself in what he’s writing about. Why me, why you? If it is possible for us to do something new, why now?

The Flow of Ethnographic Knowledge

B: In my undergraduate anthropology of money class, I give the students an essay topic, which is basically “Marx equals Aristotle plus Locke. Discuss.” This gets to another interesting theme in both your work and mine. I don’t think there is a similarity or difference here. I just think it’s something that we each grabbed a hold of and it’s something that I really want to try to grab hold of more in the future, and that’s the distinction — you put it nicely in one of the papers — between making it and taking it, between making money and taking hold of money as it exists and doing other things with it. You say somewhere that Viviana Zelizer emphasizes taking it, but you’re interested in making it as well. This has been a puzzle for me. I’m very interested in the taking part. I have a collection of monetary objects that people have modified in various ways. To me this kind of activity speaks to the pragmatics of money, not its dialectics.

K: There is on the one hand a supine passivity in the money system where people don’t “do” anything with money. Then there is what you say they do with money, which I see as embracing Zelizer and Bloch and Parry. I don’t see this as simply taking money. All of us – observers and participants – are possibly reacting against the Marxist dupe theory — that capitalism has all the power and the rest of us can’t do anything.

B: Except what we’re “supposed” to do.

K: And I invented the idea of the informal economy as a way to emphasize that people do in fact do things. Even though they’ve got next to nothing, they are not going to sit there and do nothing.

B: It’s also a reaction against the economists who say that money is just neutral.

K: Yes, they all deny human agency in the economy. Anthropologists and many sociologists are very good at showing that people are active in many ways, making conditions that are not simply given to them. I would not describe this as merely taking passively. It is Mauss’s point also. He was saying that there is much more than you think at stake in what people are doing with other, making society, even in capitalist France in the 1920s. The non-contractual element of the contract.

But I don’t merely want to show that anthropologists know that people do things that the economists and Marxists don’t know about because they are invisible or considered to be secondary. When I first started talking about informal economy, the economists said people were just taking in each other’s washing. The economists have phrases for what’s missing — domestic transfers, charity or whatever. I want to take them on on their ground. I spent two and a half years in a slum in Accra and I wrote my thesis. At the end of it, I really think I understood, possibly better than most of them, how they made the street economy. But what I didn’t know was why the world cocoa price collapsed while I was there, why there was an army coup based on the economic recession that resulted. There were all kinds of things that I knew as little about as the people on the street. So I took up development, going to the West Indies and all those other places because I had to do ethnography at another level of society in order to be able to take on people who operated easily there and who could dismiss what people like me found out. Self-organized activity, whatever form it takes, as anthropologists and sociologists study it, has to be the basis for whatever comes next. It’s not that we’re just going to say, oh, by the way, we’ve got a new recipe for you. We have to build on what’s here. What I’m interested in is how we can extend our influence professionally, as well as politically. That’s why I’m so much involved in this problematic of extension — I’m trying to extend the reach of what anthropologists feel comfortable in talking about.

B: You posed a question by email about the extent to which work that is going on, say, in the anthropology of finance gets out there to the people who are doing finance. Some of what we’ve been doing is the standard anthropological trick of saying that what you think is your rational economy we will show you is mystical religion. So you see some of that resonating here and there in the media or in new approaches to economics, where people are motivated in their economic choices by other things besides rationality and self interest. So perhaps anthropology is being heard to some extent. One thing that always surprises me is how many media inquiries I receive about money. Usually they want some cute anthropological nugget to put in their story. About how economists don’t have all the answers and we don’t know what’s going to happen with the world markets, so maybe we should look again at things like religion — belief, fear, all this other supposedly irrational and emotional stuff. And usually it gets psychologized by people who can’t so easily pick up a cultural or social explanation.

But I also think that we need a little less hubris and more humility. Academics take themselves way too seriously and anthropologists probably are the worst offenders because we think that we really know how things really are because of our position “with the people” or “from below,” and sometimes I think we need to just stop a minute and say, well, what are the people really saying? What are they really doing? Instead of forcing them to say what we think they ought to say.

K: It’s also the case that anthropologists have ended up speaking only to each other, like economists. I mean how did that happen? The anthropologists have devised a discourse that makes no impact on anybody else.

B: I am not sure I agree. It may have an impact we are not aware of all the time. Things can have an impact that we don’t know about. That we can’t know about. Especially in a public university like the University of California, where I teach thousands of undergrads, who knows where a little idea I put in their heads will go? I do have to believe it will go somewhere. When that student becomes an investment banker or whatever they end up doing, it has to go somewhere.

K: I went to the World Bank last year to give a keynote at a conference on informal economy. And I also did a brown bag lunch on Africa for the Africa section of the World Bank. They got a thousand responses to an email message and they ended up closing down the elevators when I had an audience of 200 people. They were from everywhere: State, Pentagon, IMF. I gave an improvised speech and it was one of best speeches I’ve given in my life, because there’s nothing I like better than dealing with people of this kind. In my view they’re all schiz, that is, every one of them is an idealist and a cynic at the same time. On the one hand they still nurture some sense of making a better world, and so on, and so I play into that. And then they go away and run a motorway through a slum in Nairobi, or whatever they do for a living. And what I’ve noticed is that they indulge me as a kind of court jester because I feed the side of them that doesn’t normally get heard, but when it comes to doing real office politics, they just leave me out. After this last event at the World Bank a guy from the Pentagon called me. He said, you want coffee? So I said, yeah, why not? And he says, well, you know, you Europeans have taken the moral high ground from us, and the Chinese have taken the manufacturing, and all we’ve got left is the weapons. And I kept thinking about this afterwards. Why would he tell somebody like me something like that? And then I thought, well, because I’m going to go around the world telling everyone that these guys in the Pentagon are ready to blow us all up because that’s all they’ve got left. And I said, shit! This is Nixon’s mad dog routine, you know, as long as everybody believes that we’ll do it, that’s even better than having to use the stuff.

I wonder about the intellectual strategies we both use to reach other audiences. It seems to me that’s one difference between us. It’s obvious from your choice of examples in your writings that you have in mind the big story of our times, but you don’t find it necessary to tackle it directly.

B: Not yet. I don’t feel qualified to tackle it directly.

K: Well, you never will be. That’s the point. What I’m trying to do is kind of excavate a de-racialized or de-imperialized world history that would allow us to give an added meaning to our ethnographic knowledge.

3 thoughts on “The politics, pragmatics and promise of money

  1. Pingback: ASA Globalog :: Why don’t more people make their own money?

  2. KingofthePaupers

    “North also writes about how people would say that they enjoyed participating in a LETS system at first, but then they sort of didn’t, they didn’t like the feeling of being indebted. Right? They didn’t like to have other things done for them because then they felt like they owed and they didn’t like to feel like they owed. So, trading gradually falls to zero.”

    Jct: This problem only occurs in systems where someone must go negative before someone else can go positive. It doesn’t happen in Ithaca Hours where everyone starts with a positive. Also, consignment stores where members may drop off goods for sale carry the negative while the members walk out with the positive so this effect again is reduced. Anyway, people who give up because they don’t like owing aren’t in enough financial trouble yet, that’s all.

    “Linton has something called LETSplay”

    Jct: It teaches people how to trade with new chips, not how to run the poker chips.

    “I was a professional gambler for a number of years,”

    Jct: I still am after 35 years and I’m still astounded how people who understand how poker chips work forget the moment you call it money.

  3. Hugh Barnard

    Thanks for this Keith. We met briefly about five years ago. I’ve devoted a lot of my time, since leaving conventional finance in 2003 to deep financial reform. To me, money is ‘only’ technology, either at the level of paper tokens used in Asian food centres and villages, scratched tallies of amounts of grain or all the bank/Wall Street/city computers. However technology isn’t neutral, however much we may repeat that mantra, so the ‘challenge’ is to fashion methods of exchange and value store that serves the planet [that’s where we live, if we destroy it, this discourse is unnecessary] and all of us.

    I’m not particularly interested in exact equality, it’s illusory, I am interested in narrower gaps as in the recent book The Spirit Level. My view is classically scientific, we just have to experiment with alternative and complementary currencies until the ‘right’ fire is lit from the tinder. Of course, the ‘wrong’ fire may be lit, I think bitcoin is probably an example as are the local currencies that are 100% convertible and pegged to the national currency. However, as you have said, somewhere above, all these serve at least as thought experiments and educational exercises. Onwards and upwards, at least that’s what we would hope!

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