Archive for the ‘Economy’ Category.
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. Continue reading ‘The politics, pragmatics and promise of money’ »
“Don’t take this personal, it’s just business”
My essay is about the tension between the impersonal conditions of social life and the persons who inevitably carry it out. This relationship is poorly understood, perhaps never more than now, when the difference between individual citizens and business corporations operating on a scale larger than some countries has become obscured. My starting point is a legendary remark made in a movie by a professional killer to his victim, “Don’t take this personal, it’s just business.” But, according to my favorite American dictionary, a “person” is “a living human being” and what could be more personal than taking his life? Perhaps the hit man is referring to his own attitude, not to the effect. Killing people is a matter of routine for him, a “business”. Why should business be impersonal and, if it is, how can that be reconciled with the person who practices it?
Ideas are impersonal, human life is not. So, at one level, the issue is the relative priority to be accorded to life and ideas. Because the encounter is live and therefore already personal, the hit man has to warn his victim (and perhaps himself) not to take it so. It would seem that the personal and the impersonal are hard to separate in practice. Our language and culture contain the ongoing history of this attempt to separate social life into two distinct spheres. This is the core of capitalism’s moral economy; and gangster movies offer a vicarious opportunity to relive its contradictions.
At the heart of our public culture lies an impenetrable confusion of people, things and ideas. We no longer know how to act or in what context of mutual interdependence. The feminists were right to insist that the personal is political. The political too is often necessarily personal. But, if we relied on persons alone to make society, we would be back to feudalism or its modern equivalent, criminal mafias. There must be impersonal institutions that, at least in principle, work for everyone, regardless of who they are or who they know. We have never been more conscious of ourselves as unique personalities; yet the impersonal engines of society lie far beyond our grasp. What place is there for the humanity of individual persons in the dehumanized social frameworks we live by? This is the hit man’s dilemma and it is ours too. Continue reading ‘The Hit Man’s Dilemma (lite)’ »
This essay started out as an attempt to study the euro from an anthropological point of view; but it has ended up being more about anthropological method and money in general. Even so, a focus on the new European currency leads me to ask how we might study transnational or even global phenomena like this and still call ourselves anthropologists. For when ethnographers are not restricting their research to fieldwork in a particular place, they still tend to be limited in scope to working in one country. Social anthropology was once remarkable for the unity of its object, theory and method; but this disappeared along with “primitive” societies. Anthropologists still cling to “fieldwork-based ethnography” as their professional calling, but the study of money needs more than this. I propose as anthropology’s new object the making of world society, adopting provisionally an eclectic approach to theory and method. Anthropologists must appropriate both common knowledge and that of other specialists, if we are to identify the “historicity” (Foucault, 1973) of our own intellectual practices.
I approach the anthropology of money through four themes:
Money as memory, a meaningful link between persons and communities
Money as idea and object, the rise of virtual economy
Money as ‘heads & tails’, the impersonal expression of states and markets
Money as what people use it for, the potential for economic democracy
Following Marx, I conceive of ‘commoditization’ as a historical dialectic of social abstraction that is closely linked to the rise of money as a universal social principle. If we do things for each other in society, these services have to be separated from what we do for ourselves. This process draws us into ever-widening circles of interdependence based on calculated exchange. The money circuit is becoming detached from production, trade and politics. I ask if the euro is something new or a throwback to older forms. In future people everywhere will issue their own money instruments. Meanwhile, the euro’s movement in history offers a glimpse of where world society is heading. Money is a suitable strategic focus for anthropological study of that society. Continue reading ‘Money and anthropology: object, theory and method’ »
My talk makes a number of points that can only be sketched briefly in twenty minutes.
1. Humanity is caught between national and world society. This is both dangerous and an opportunity for us. Yet much of what has been presented here has assumed that we can safely talk about the United States in isolation from the rest of the world.
2. Everything we have heard today has been impersonal and this will not do. People want to relate impersonal knowledge to their personal lives. And this relationship between the personal and impersonal aspects of social life is being radically changed by the digital revolution in communications, as manifested in the internet.
3. I want to offer a vision of money’s role in our lives that emphasizes its redemptive qualities as perhaps the principal means of mediating our relations with impersonal society in ways that can be personally meaningful.
4. The dominant social form over the last 150 years has been ‘national capitalism’. Any future we contemplate beyond the current crisis must take into account its history which I will present as a story of rise and fall in five stages.
5. Towards the end national capitalism resembled nothing so much an ‘Old Regime’, that arbitrary version of unequal society which was overthrown by the American and French revolutions. More accurately, I would say that the world society constituted by national capitalism as the dominant form manifested an obscene inequality and lawlessness characteristic of the Old Regime.
Continue reading ‘Beyond national capitalism?’ »
I revisited my old college, St. John’s, Cambridge on 24th February 2009 to give a lecture on “International development: a historical perspective from Cambridge” for Cambridge University International Development on the occasion of the University’s 800th anniversary year. What follows consists of a short Introduction, the lecture in 5 parts and audience discussion in 4 parts, the whole lasting about an hour and a half.
In 1996 I gave a not dissimilar lecture in the same place: Clarkson, Cambridge and the international movement for human rights.
In 2006 Brian Holmes, an art critic, activist and social theorist who lives near me in Paris, wrote a wonderful essay on art’s financial futures, ‘The speculative performance’. This stimulated me to reply in a letter which is reproduced below.
Dear Brian, I like your piece on financial speculation very much. The Goldberg example (an Australian artist who performed publicly as a speculator on Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation) reminded me of the UBS trading floor in Chicago, the largest of its kind, buried at the centre of a black skyscraper on Wacker Drive. The trading floor has no outside windows; there is a lot of security stopping you getting near there. No-one can see in, but the traders see out through scores of TV screens on the walls carrying everything from weather reports to newscasts to flickering banks of money numbers. It is a concealed panopticon on the world economy. I felt the power of it all then and wrote about it in ‘Notes on the counter-revolution’. Continue reading ‘The speculative performance: a reply to Brian Holmes’ »
Africa has become poorer in the last half-century, but, from being the most sparsely populated continent around 1900, Africa’s seventh of the world’s population now equals its share of the total land mass; and urbanization there is fast approaching the global average of around 50%. We need to understand this ‘urban revolution’ of unprecedented speed and scale; and specifically to identify how Africa’s urban economies might act as a springboard for economic development in the coming century. The continent is divided into three disparate regions — North, South and Middle (West, Central and East Africa); but a measure of convergence between them is now taking place.
A preoccupation with Africa’s post-colonial failure to ‘develop’ – or to ‘take-off’ — has obscured what really happened there in the twentieth century. The rise of cities has been accompanied by the formation of weak and venal states, locked into dependency on foreign powers and leaving the urban masses largely to their own devices. The latter have generated spontaneous markets to meet their own needs and these have come to be understood as an ‘informal economy’. Whatever its value in bringing to light hitherto invisible economic activities, this concept is largely negative, focusing on whatever is not regulated by state bureaucracy and law. It tells us nothing about the social organization of these practices. In order to understand Africa’s twentieth-century experience – the extraordinary compression of contradictory social developments within a short period — we must first take a long view of the region’s divergence from the general historical trajectory of the Eurasian land mass. Continue reading ‘The political economy of urbanization in contemporary Africa’ »