Reviews of the Book
Amazon.com review by T. Nicholas, June 10, 2010
Would have made an incredible essay
But as a 300+ page book? Doesn’t work so well.
Keith Hart clearly has a breath-taking grasp of history, economics, and anthropology/sociology. His book takes us on a tour from pre-historic times, through the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and most recently, the communications revolution. Along the way he breaks down the complex relationship between markets and states, looks at various economic perspectives and their relevance or inadequacy in the face of actually existing economic practice, and shows how ‘third world’ citizens create ‘informal economies’ to re-personalize the market on their own terms.
HIS DIAGNOSIS: we are citizens of a fundamentally agricultural society which has stumbled headfirst into a machine revolution, the radical effects of which we have not yet adapted to, resulting in unprecedented levels of global inequality, repression, and atrocity at the same time as those fortunate of us to live in democratic, post-industrial nations have enjoyed unprecedented quality of life improvements.
HIS SOLUTION: in the wake of the decline of state-capitalism, those in search of economic equality should look beyond the institution of the state, quit conflating capitalism with markets, and begin to think about how to build markets from the ground up, by and for the people that use them, as an instrument for economic democracy. The internet, he claims, with its potentials for the re-personalization of money, can help in this regard.
HIS PROBLEM: he repeats himself too much. In the following section, I will detail the central issue I have with the book, which is that it is too repetitive. Repetition is the book’s primary flaw. Had this book been condensed into an hour long lecture or a 15 page paper, it would have likely been incredible. Then much of the repetition would have been eliminated. But instead Hart is longwinded, repeating the same points in every single chapter. Every section of the text begins with an introduction and ends with a summary that recount the same few general points we’ve already read a hundred times by the end. This is not to mention the ‘recommend reading’ passages which simply repeat every book mentioned in the main text accompanied by descriptions which are themselves largely repetitions. The level of repetition is just far too high. More than probably any book I’ve ever read, Money in an Unequal World is downright maddening in how often it repeats itself. Each chapter, though ostensibly about different topics, recaps the same information again and again. Were the level of repetition lower, I might be able to recommend this book, but as it is, there is simply too much repetition. In summary, this book is frustratingly repetitive. (Get it?)
Another extremely grating habit is Hart’s constantly blathering about the book’s construction, genesis, and purpose, as if what we were reading was the proposal for the book rather than the book itself. Part of all this is no doubt due to Hart’s insistence on maintaining a personal, non-academic style. While I appreciate his attempts to foreground his own subjectivity, that’s no excuse for what ultimately just amounts to sheer laziness on his part. Largely, many of the book’s problems stem from a run-of-the-mill carelessness that could have been fixed very simply with the help of a half-decent editor.
Take this passage for example, on page 125:
“The main imperative of management was to control subordinates; and this ethos stretched back to the production lines as well as outwards to an anonymous market of consumers whose tastes were manipulated by public advertising.”
And now, on page 205:
“The main imperative of management was to control subordinates; and this ethos stretched back to the production lines as well as outwards to an anonymous market of consumers whose tastes were there to be manipulated.”
DID THIS BOOK EVEN HAVE AN EDITOR?!?!
In between endlessly rehashing his few main points, Hart goes off on marginally related tangents – historical surveys, summaries of other thinkers’ ideas, personal anecdotes, and descriptions of his own anthropological fieldwork. Some of these were interesting and educational (he especially has a knack for giving clear, brief snapshots of others’ intellectual careers). But few of them were necessary. And of course, as expected, all of them were both repetitive within themselves and repeated, in summary and reference, throughout the book.
Then we reach the massively disappointing conclusion, in which Hart does little or nothing to expand on the central theme of the book, the one thing he’s been building up to the entire time: how the internet can be used in conjunction with markets and re-personalized money to create economic equality without the state. The answer, essentially, amounts to “I don’t know how, exactly, but it seems like our best bet.” This vagueness would be completely appropriate for a short paper on the topic, but for a 300+ page book throughout which we’ve been promised, every two dozen pages or so, “I will expand more on this issue in the final chapter,” it made me want to pull my hair out and throw the book against the wall.
With all his digressions and re-hashing, Hart winds up making the juiciest material a secondary aside. His most interesting idea – that money and language are both means of communication that bridge the personal and the social by translating the real world into abstractions; that money and language are both forms of social memory; and that the communications revolution and the internet in particular emphasize these connections by reducing both money and language to the same basic substance of binary code, and in doing so pave the way for a radical reconsideration of what money is and how it is created – is sadly the part of the book that is least developed. The incredibly important (in my view) and underrepresented perspective that markets can be democratic and non-exploitative is unfortunately ill served by the poor writing and editing job. And on top of all this, the fact that the book was written 10 years ago means that many of its points have become less relevant in light of subsequent economic and technological developments.
In the spirit of Hart himself, I’ll end this review with a list of suggested further reading. Only in this case, these are all things I recommend checking out INSTEAD of reading Hart’s book:
- A lot of the book is spent covering the economic ideas of classic social scientists such as Mauss, Durkheim, Malinowski and Weber. Though I haven’t read it in full, Hart’s own (co-written) ‘Economic Anthropology’ appears to be a far more cohesive introduction to these ideas.
- There are many books now available on the topic of ‘local,’ ‘community,’ ‘alternative,’ or ‘complementary’ currencies (to name just a few: ‘Money’ by Thomas Greco, ‘No More Throw Away People’ by Edgar Cahn, ‘The Future of Money’ by Bernard Lietaer) and lots of info to be found online. The ones Hart mentions: various Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS), Ithaca hours, time dollars, JAK Members Bank. Some he doesn’t: WIR Bank, Freigeld. The recently introduced Bitcoin seems to be exactly the sort of thing Hart is talking about – a completely decentralized online currency that’s been receiving a good deal of attention.
- Whether he’s aware of it or not (it seems he’s not), Hart’s conception of an informal, democratic market economy in opposition to state-capitalism has a very long tradition behind it. Called ‘Mutualism,’ the idea was first proposed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, then developed further and put into practice by American individualists such as Josiah Warren, William B. Greene, and Benjamin Tucker, and whose most outspoken contemporary representative is Kevin Carson. A few of Carson’s writings could serve more or less as a wholesale substitute for Hart’s book. I’d recommend starting with his essay ‘The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand,’ which details the historical relationship between the state and capitalism. If that piques your interest, check out his book ‘Studies in Mutualist Political Economy,’ which is both a historical overview of Mutualist theory and practice, and a reworking of Mutualist economics in accordance with contemporary economic ideas. His latest, ‘Homebrew Industrial Revolution,’ brings the technological element into the mix, and like Money in an Unequal World, combines economic/technological history with a discussion of alternative currencies and the internet.
“Keith Hart’s book is terrific. Ours is a complacent age, and it is a pleasure to find someone thinking hard about society and its most important institution, which is money. Keith Hart writes clearly and with astonishing good humour. He believes that the virtues of money can be preserved and the injustices of money abolished. I’m not sure about that, but I am sure it is worth investigating.”
James Buchan, novelist and author of Frozen Desire: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Money
“This book is that rare thing, a genuinely revolutionary and radical way of rethinking money and society.”
Andrew Marr, former editor of The Independent and author of The Day That Britain Died, also a major BBC television series
“Keith Hart, who developed the concept of the informal economy and first perceived third world migration as the formation of translocal societies, now offers you markets without capitalism, money without exploitation and exchange without inequality, all on the basis of the internet as world community. Well, you gotta read that.”
Marshall Sahlins, Charles F. Grey Professor of Anthropology Emeritus, University of Chicago
“The more I think about the book, the more important it becomes. Why? Because anthropology is in such a mess. Tell me who in anthropology is dealing with real current economic processes? So this work is critical because it could bring the subject back on track again.”
Don Robotham, Professor of Anthropology,City University of New York
Review in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
Hart has written an exemplary book which has the timely effect of reminding anthropologists of some increasingly neglected tenets about why Anthropology should be an important discipline. It reflects the level of ambition that ought to be intrinsic to a subject that sets itself the task of carrying out the comparative study of humanity. For Hart the advantage of such studies is that they allow us to envisage other worlds and consider how humanity can come to be at home in such worlds.Hart’s breadth of vision takes in a much wider sweep of history
than is usual. On the one hand he looks backwards to our roots (and for much
of humanity a continued immersion) within agrarian systems. These continue
to influence and constrain us through institutions whose earlier purposes
and origins we tend to forget. Much of the book is devoted to historical research
on the development of capitalism which here is not some catchall term but
a series of diverse alignments of economic and wider practices. But the primary
focus of the book is on the future and the sense that recent developments
in communications, most especially the Internet, have demonstrated that formations
we took as established are being shifted with surprising rapidity and so the
consideration of prior diversity ought to be the foundation for a self-conscious
appraisal of some possible futures.
This is a time when many intellectuals have seen almost an
end of history with the hegemony of what Hart calls virtual capitalism where
money mainly makes money bolstered by a rigid system of sovereign states that
both secured the stability of and took their authority from their control
over monetary systems. By contrast, from the perspective of Hart’s longue
duree these – but also much of what was becoming associated with them such
as wage labour, or the separation of work from the domestic – represent a
relatively short period of ascendancy which has already irretrievably broken
down. Hart is genuinely excited by these shifting sands that might leave other
academics queasy. When the Euro is in the middle of three years of virtual
existence without a currency, and Internet trading is both global and extremely
difficult to capture within national systems of taxation, Hart sees an opportunity
to consider the liberatory possibilities in both markets and money that have
been hidden by state hegemony.Central to Hart re-imagining of the world is money itself.
Characteristically he celebrates rather than tries to reduce the plurality
of theories of money, while excavating the ideological stance behind several
such theories. He uses his primary sources of Locke and Keynes, both of whom
appear in unusually clear and forceful guise here, to demonstrate the centrality
of money itself to the wider formations of society and states. But his own
approach, given in his title, is a subtle rendition of money as the trace
of memory of social interactions, a conception at the other end of the spectrum
from simplistic groundings in mere currency. This is a vision of money as
a communicative media that fits well with the rise of information itself as
the core to the modern economy. With the break up of money as the central
foundation for states, he envisages in a rather utopian final chapter a re-subjectified use of personalised money whose precedent lies both in the emergence of smallscale systems of community exchange but also in the potential of the largescale plastic and digitised monies that are developing today. Think person
cards on analogy with store cards.
The book is written in an engaging fast paced style, full
of unusual and provocative interpretations that stir up stale and sedimented
portraits. For example, the Mauss that Hart draws out as concerned with the
libertarian potential of the market bears almost no relation to the conventional
anthropological caricature. He also manages the difficult trick of understanding
figures such as Locke and Polanyi within their particular historical circumstance
and yet thereby enhancing rather than reducing their contemporary relevance.
Hart gives anthropology its due and that of itself is sobering.
Comparative case-studies help relativise our perspective on money and markets,
while simple dualisms of embedded others and disembedded capitalism are attacked.
But within an interdisciplinary work that uses disciplines intermittently
for their contribution to the arguments of the whole, anthropological examples
have to jostle for their appropriate slots amidst historical, philosophical
and many other sources of discussion. This is not stated as such but one can
sense the author’s frustration that the dominance of highly parochial studies
open only to debates within the discipline, prevents him from giving anthropological work the prominence he would have aspired to as a contribution to his struggle with the central dialectical tensions of the modern world.
A surprise for me is the constant emphasis on money itself, without any mention of the consumption of that which is purchased with money as the primary candidate and agency for re-subjectifying the economy. Also I am probably not alone in rejecting the central ethos of liberalism that underlines this book and seeing the decline of bureaucratic taxation and the rise of personalised systems of exchange as more likely to extend rather than lesson social and financial inequality. But this is one of those cases where whether one agrees with the arguments or not is rather less important than whether Hart helps one envisage possible causes, consequences and connections one had not previously imagined or considered.. On those criteria The Memory Bank is an immensely rewarding and significant volume.