Archive for the ‘Human economy’ Category.

The human economy: a strategy in the struggle for happiness

An earlier essay, ‘Manifesto for a human economy‘, deals explicitly with the object, theory and methods of a human economy approach. Here I examine some of the precedents for such an approach in the history of modern revolutions.

‘Human economy’ is one way of taking forward the great conversation about making a better world. Here I will mention a few individuals who have helped me to find my own voice in this conversation, all of them participants in the revolutions that made the modern world.  I focus on two historical sequences – the Western liberal revolutions of the 17th to 19th centuries and the anti-colonial revolutions which displaced European empire in the 20th. The American Revolution was both liberal and anti-colonial. A similar combination undermined the Soviet Empire two decades ago and now fuels resistance to the American Empire in North Africa and the Middle East today. After three decades of neoliberal globalization, we are entering a new phase of the struggle for a world fit for all people to live in. Emergent world society is the new human universal – not an idea, but the fact of our shared occupation of the planet crying out for new principles of association. So the context for a human economy approach is this unfinished attempt to remove unequal society, a process that has often been shaped by war and revolution. Continue reading ‘The human economy: a strategy in the struggle for happiness’ »

Money in the making of a human economy: beyond national capitalism


  1. LETS and me
  2. The euro crisis
  3. The collapse of national capitalism
  4. A human economy approach
  5. Harnessing bureaucracy to grassroots democracy


LETS and me

All my life money has been an obsession. I have always been keener to understand it than to have a lot of it. When I was 5, I was bewildered by the relationship between rationing coupons and pocket money (Hart 2000:176). When I was 12, I took up betting on the horses. Gambling saw me through university (Hart 2013). I even became an entrepreneur in the slums of a West African city as part of my doctoral fieldwork. I put together a small real estate fortune during the 70s and then lost it when I was divorced. So, when I was asked to give a public lecture to my fellow anthropologists in the mid-80s, it was not surprising that I hit upon the topic of money. I brought plenty of personal experience to my subject, none of which showed in my official presentation. I called this ‘Heads or tails?’, referring to the two sides of a coin, one representing money as an aspect of political society, the other its value as a commodity in exchange. My argument was that both sides, state and market, were indispensable to money, but for much of the 20th century we had been subjected to ruinous swings between theories emphasizing one side to the exclusion of the other. The lecture was published in Man (Hart 1986). Continue reading ‘Money in the making of a human economy: beyond national capitalism’ »

Manifesto for a human economy

Ronald Coase won a Nobel prize in economics for inventing the idea of transaction costs in his famous paper “The nature of the firm” (1937). He has just announced his desire, with Ning Wang, to found a new journal called “Man and the economy”. Their manifesto, “Saving economics from the economists”, was published in the Harvard Business Review for December 2012. Coase argues there that “The degree to which economics is isolated from the ordinary business of life is extraordinary and unfortunate…In the 20th century, economists could afford to write exclusively for one another. At the same time, the field experienced a paradigm shift, gradually identifying itself as a theoretical approach of economization and giving up the real-world economy as its subject matter. This separation of economics from the working economy has severely damaged both the business community and the academic discipline. “.

He continues, “Economics thus becomes a convenient instrument the state uses to manage the economy, rather than a tool the public turns to for enlightenment about how the economy operates. But because it is no longer firmly grounded in systematic empirical investigation of the working of the economy, it is hardly up to the task….The reduction of economics to price theory is troubling enough. It is suicidal for the field to slide into a hard science of choice, ignoring the influences of society, history, culture, and politics on the working of the economy. It is time to reengage the severely impoverished field of economics with the economy. Market economies springing up in China, India, Africa, and elsewhere herald unprecedented opportunities for economists to study how the market economy gains its resilience in societies with cultural, institutional, and organizational diversities (sic). But knowledge will come only if economics can be reoriented to the study of man as he is and the economic system as it actually exists.”

This plea echoes a movement of economics students a decade ago, calling itself “post-autistic economics”, which later took the form of the real-world economics review. In addition, the legions of heterodox economists multiply and an interdisciplinary World Economics Association, formed in 2011, soon acquired over 10,000 members. So there is plenty of resistance within the profession to an economics whose dominant model is one of rational choice in “free” markets. From Coase’s summary and these other developments we may infer several priorities: to reconnect the study of the economy to the real world; to make its findings more accessible to the public; and to place economic analysis within a framework that embraces humanity as a whole, the world we live in. A century ago, Alfred Marshall defined economics as “both a study of wealth and a branch of the study of man” in his synthesis of the marginalist revolution, Principles of Economics (1890). Marshall was Keynes’ teacher at Cambridge, a cooperative socialist who also developed a Hegelian theory of the welfare state.

The “human economy” approach shares all these priorities. Our focus definitely draws inspiration from and seeks to contribute to the tradition of economic thought, but, more explicitly than the currents within economics described above, we are open to other traditions in the humanities and social sciences, notably anthropology, history and development studies. The Human Economy Program at the University of Pretoria has been shaped more directly by another movement of the last decade which now goes by the name of “alter-globalization”. It is the third phase of an international project that originated in the first World Social Forum held in Porto Alegre in 2001. The first phase (2002-2009) was a series of volumes in several languages, produced by a network of researchers and activists in Latin America and France, which aimed to introduce a wide audience to the core themes that might organize alternative approaches to the economy. These books, called Dictionary of the Other Economy, brought together short essays on the history of debate on particular topics and offered some practical applications of concepts relevant to building economic democracy. Taken together they pointed to a new language for addressing common problems of development. Continue reading ‘Manifesto for a human economy’ »

The limits of Karl Polanyi’s anti-market approach in the struggle for economic democracy

I am a fully paid-up member of the Karl Polanyi fan club. In the past few years I have published, with my collaborators, a collection of essays on the significance of The Great Transformation for understanding our times (Blanc 2011, Holmes 2012) and have made him a canonical figure for my versions of economic anthropology, the human economy and the history of money. I have also published two short biographical articles on him. I have contributed in this way to the recent outpouring of new work on Polanyi to which this book is a significant addition. I am a believer, but some believers also have doubts. I still have reservations about a Polanyian strategy for achieving economic democracy and these are linked to his historical vision of “market society”.  Theories are good for some things and not for others and, in my view, the plural economy would be best served by a plural approach to theory and politics. But first let me summarise what I most value personally in what I have learned from Polanyi.

Most anthropologists take their lead from the academic work done by Polanyi and his collaborators at Columbia University after the war. Trade and Market in the Early Empires (1957) established the “substantivist” school of anthropologists and historians who were committed to analysing the economies of “non-industrial” societies. I reject that division of economic anthropology’s subject matter and so did Polanyi when he wrote The Great Transformation (1944). I love his masterpiece for its vivid, erudite and passionate writing. It is truly a work of literature as well as being visionary. I know of few works of any kind with similar power to make such an impact on first-time readers. His discussion of money there is a source of endless inspiration for me and I have recently drawn on a late paper, “Money objects and money uses” (1964), to explain the collapse of the twentieth-century money system. Polanyi, with Georg Simmel, is the key figure for me in helping to explain the current world economic crisis. Polanyi sees money and markets as ways of extending societies beyond their local insularity, thereby introducing a permanent tension between their external and internal dimensions. If nature, humanity and society should not be treated as “fictitious commodities” (land, labour and capital), Polanyi implies that money is the most inclusive means of our social interdependence and must not be bought and sold like a sack of potatoes.

I have never found much use for Polanyi’s typology of modes of transaction as a set. But his vision of human economies as being articulated by a limited number of institutional forms found widely across human history is an essential part of how I think now. So too is his reminder that the social solidarity embodied in associational life is as vital for economic democracy as the interaction of states and markets. The concepts of “solidarity economy”, “plural economy” and “human economy” overlap considerably and find common inspiration in Polanyi’s work, possibly more than any other single author. This undoubtedly accounts for his current popularity at a time when many people around the world are seeking to move beyond the sterile contrast between “revolutionary” and “reformist” approaches to improving the economy.

The core of a “human economy” approach (Hart, Laville and Cattani 2010), in my view, is its emphasis not just on local institutional particulars or its humanism, reflecting what people concretely do, think and want wherever they live, but also on the need for an economic vision to bridge the gap between everyday life and humanity’s widest associations which are inevitably impersonal and lie beyond the actor’s point of view. It is urgently imperative (a “new human universal”) for all humanity to learn how to live together in world society. Polanyi, writing towards the end of what has been described as “the second thirty years war”, epitomises this idea in his masterpiece, where the word “human” crops up repeatedly in the context of economy. The question is how far opposition to large-scale bureaucracies, whether governments or business corporations, along with a preference for initiatives grounded in local social realities, can take us when our aspirations for economic democracy must somehow embrace the movement of the world we live in. And here Polanyi’s theoretical framework shares some deficiencies with other strands of the socialist tradition. Continue reading ‘The limits of Karl Polanyi’s anti-market approach in the struggle for economic democracy’ »

In Rousseau’s footsteps: David Graeber and the anthropology of unequal society

A review of David Graeber Debt: The first 5,000 years (Melville House, New York, 2011, 534 pages)

Debt is everywhere today. What is “sovereign debt” and why must Greece pay up, but not the United States? Who decides that the national debt will be repaid through austerity programmes rather than job-creation schemes? Why do the banks get bailed out, while students and home-owners are forced to repay loans? The very word debt speaks of unequal power; and the world economic crisis since 2008 has exposed this inequality more than any other since the 1930s. David Graeber has written a searching book that aims to place our current concerns within the widest possible framework of anthropology and world history. He starts from a question: why do we feel that we must repay our debts? This is a moral issue, not an economic one. In market logic, the cost of bad loans should be met by creditors as a discipline on their lending practices. But paying back debts is good for the powerful few, whereas the mass of debtors have at times sought and won relief from them.

What is debt? According to Graeber, it is an obligation with a figure attached and hence debt is inseparable from money. This book devotes a lot of attention to where money comes from and what it does. States and markets each play a role in its creation, but money’s form has fluctuated historically between virtual credit and metal currency. Above all Graeber’s enquiry is framed by our unequal world as a whole. He resists the temptation to offer quick remedies for collective suffering, since this would be inconsistent with the timescale of his argument. Nevertheless, readers are offered a worldview that clearly takes the institutional pillars of our societies to be rotten and deserving of replacement. It is a timely and popular view. Debt: The first 5,000 years is an international best-seller. The German translation recently sold 30,000 copies in the first two weeks. Continue reading ‘In Rousseau’s footsteps: David Graeber and the anthropology of unequal society’ »

Exchange in the human economy

This essay was written in August 2008 for a book that subsequently folded. The timing is important, the month of my retirement from the British academy (but not from university life), a month before the financial crash. I discovered it in my folders just recently and find it to be one of the better expressions of my thinking on the human economy. The owl of Minerva indeed.


In the wake of market fundamentalism

We have lived in the last three decades through an explosion of money, markets and communications and are now beginning to experience the consequences. Whatever else this hectic period of ‘globalization’ brings, it represents a rapid extension of society to a more inclusive level than the twentieth-century norm which identified society with the nation-state. In order to live in the world together, we have to devise new ways of doing things for each other that go beyond our attempts to achieve local self-sufficiency. I call this historical process ‘commoditization’ (Hart 1982), the evolution of methods for making work social, so that it can circulate in the form of commodities. This essay is one such commodity. It does not have to be sold, but it was written with the aim of finding some limited circulation in this form. So far in history commoditization has been closely linked to the extension of society by means of markets and money. But there are other means and they may become more important as a result of the digital revolution in communications — and no doubt other factors. Continue reading ‘Exchange in the human economy’ »

The human economy in a revolutionary moment: political aspects of the economic crisis

Edited transcription of an improvised talk for a seminar, “Social movements and the solidarity economy”, organized by Jean-Louis Laville and Geoffrey Pleyers, EHESS, Paris, 2 February 2012.

I was asked to report on the project I am involved in which has the same name as The Human Economy book; but, given this course’s focus on social movements, I decided that I should try to insert the perspective on economy I have developed into contemporary political processes and events. I have been writing, editing and researching about alternative approaches to the economy for a long time and blogging about politics more recently, but never the two together. In the last year, as a result of the North African revolutions and then the Occupy movement, I have come to see that the economic and political arguments have to be brought much closer together. Taking our lead from this moment in world history, we need to ask how the work that Jean-Louis and I have long been engaged in – on human economy, économie solidaire, social economy – needs to be modified in order to lend support to what has become a serious political movement at the global level. Continue reading ‘The human economy in a revolutionary moment: political aspects of the economic crisis’ »

Did the machines win?

Over on nettime-l, a list for those who once thought “tactical media” was the way forward, the old question of men and machines has been revived with due acknowledgment to Marshall McLuhan. One contributor exclaimed that “of course the machines won” and another said this was “simplistic Luddite rubbish”. This was my response.

I can’t speak for Mark Stahlman, but I don’t imagine that anyone who can write so interestingly would dream of a world without machines. “Machines” should rather be taken as a metaphor for the organized attempt to reduce human beings to working on machines or like machines. Will machines serve people or people serve machines? At some risk of oversimplification, Marx’s project was based on the observation that what matter in our world are people, machines and money. As things stood then and still do, money buys machines and people work on them. The political task is to reverse the order, to put people in charge of machines and money. Marx hoped that machine production might generate the social conditions for this revolution and so do we. Maybe we can dispense with the apparatus of party, classes etc, but that is history. Continue reading ‘Did the machines win?’ »

The Human Economy: Goldsmiths workshop videos

A workshop on The Human Economy was held at Goldmiths London on the afternoon of 26th January 2011. It involved all three editors and several contibuting authors and was organized by Professor Catherine Alexander, who is one of them. The editors each spoke about their own involvement in the international project and their vision for it. Antonio David Cattani spoke first, followed by Jean-Louis Laville and then me (part 1, part 2 and part 3, followed by Q&A part 1 and part 2).

The human economy: an ongoing international project