Contemporary research on the anthropology of money and finance

Since the 1980s, anthropologists have once more begun to investigate the specific roles that money can play in different social settings. Research on the everyday uses of money in traditional “exotic” fields, but also at “home”, has vividly exposed the limitations of mainstream economics’ theoretical models. Yet, although these studies usually represent their efforts as a critique of neo-liberalism, the horizon of their investigations is still framed by the ethnographic approach. Because ethnographers are still restricted to a local or regional level, they have little to say about the global context of their particular observations. In the last decade, younger anthropologists have flocked to do fieldwork on finance. They have highlighted the importance of religious and moral ideas for financial models and narratives, and how relations in the workplace are linked to the distributive effects of the financial system. Yet these studies still fall short of engaging with money as a fundamental element in the constitution of world society. Continue reading ‘Contemporary research on the anthropology of money and finance’ »

Money and finance: anthropology’s classical legacy

Sociology and anthropology emerged as modern academic disciplines as part of the attempt to grasp how industrialization was changing the place of Europe and North America in world history.  Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and George Simmel are the classical sources for this enterprise; but we have chosen to highlight the contribution of Durkheim’s nephew and close collaborator, Marcel Mauss. He helped to establish the ethnological tradition in France; but he was also a prolific financial journalist and political commentator. Mauss took the commonplace intuition that money is an important aspect of how people relate to each other further to claim that monetary relations are the foundation of social identity, especially when it comes to extending our social reach beyond what is local and familiar. Our reading synthesizes Mauss’s famous essay on the gift (1990) with a later one on the person (Carrithers, Collins and Lukes 1985).

Karl Polanyi, a Hungarian historian, is next in line after Mauss. It is not clear how directly he drew on Mauss’ work; but he refused to be limited to exotic and historically distant objects of enquiry, at least before becoming an American academic after the Second World War.  Moreover, he went beyond Mauss in investigating monetary relations throughout world history in order to highlight the political plight of his times — the terrible period of world war and economic depression from 1914 to 1945. Polanyi traced these conflicts to the unequal distribution of wealth and asked how this might be redressed.

These two authors’ contributions suggest an analytical framework for assessing the anthropology of money over the last half-century and especially since the 1980s, before we end by outlining our own constructive proposals. Continue reading ‘Money and finance: anthropology’s classical legacy’ »

The anthropology of money and finance: from ethnography to world history

Keith Hart (London School of Economics and University of Pretoria) and Horacio Ortiz (Centre de sociologie de l’innovation, Paris).

This is an essay in the making currently posted in three parts with a separate bibliography. We hope to circulate it widely and invite you to comment and discuss all or bits of it, as you wish. The project reviews developments in the anthropology of money and finance over the last century, listing its achievements, shortcomings and prospects. We are working on it for publication as a literature review that we hope will engage not only students, but also some professionals in the field of money and finance, not only anthropologists, but all who want to understand better the world economy today. Since the 1960s, anthropologists have tended to restrict themselves to niche fields and marginal debates. We hope to to reverse this trend, integrating world history and stressing the importance of money in shaping global society.

Apart from this introductory post, we list the three parts and bibliography as follows:

Part 1  Money and finance: anthropology’s classical legacy

Here we take our departure from the work of Marcel Mauss and Karl Polanyi, both of whom combined openness to ethnographic research with a vision of world history as a whole. Polanyi stimulated a prominent debate in economic anthropology at a time when its subject matter was still largely non-industrial societies.

Part 2  Contemporary research on the anthropology of money and finance

From the 1980s the anthropological study of money and especially ethnographies of finance have taken off, including by sociologists influenced by science and cultural studies. Younger scholars have begun to tackle the financial industry itself. In spite of taking on new objects and directions, they still fall short of meeting the potential that we explore in the first part.

Part 3  Prospects for the anthropology of money and finance

Our constructive proposals for a way forward emphasize the need to extend a narrow ethnographic focus on local professional practices towards a more inclusive perspective on the world economy that is inspired in part by Mauss and Polanyi’s example. Here we present our own version of how anthropologists might engage more effectively with the momentous developments of our own times.

Part 4  The anthropology of money and finance: references Continue reading ‘The anthropology of money and finance: from ethnography to world history’ »

West African political economy: a regional history

The origins of West African political economy

In the course of the twentieth century West Africa went through a revolution consisting of an explosion in population, the rise of huge cities and the political division of the region into nominally independent states. While becoming more closely integrated into the world economy than ever before, the region remains poor when compared with most other parts of the world. If we wish to understand why this is so and what the prospects are for a more prosperous future, it will not do to focus solely on external determinants of economic backwardness. Many of West Africa’s problems have deep-seated causes, while others are the result of quite recent factors. I attempt here to place contemporary political economy within a long-run framework emphasizing the region’s unity and variety. If I devote more than usual attention to the traditional variety of West African societies, it is because they still shape the present strongly, especially if we wish to take into account the many differences between them.

West Africa is the nearest tropical region to Europe, from which it is separated by the Arabic civilizations of North Africa and the Middle East. Much of its peoples’ history depends on this fact; but the origin of the tripartite relationship between the regions bordering on the Northeast Atlantic and Mediterranean seas remains shrouded in mystery. For modern Europeans, the history of West Africa goes back only half a millennium to the time when the Portuguese began to explore an African route to the east round the flanks of Islam. For Arabs, it began in the eleventh century, with the temporary expansion of Almoravid conquerors beyond the Maghreb down the coast toward the Senegal River. They did not stay long. Those who have attempted to conquer West Africa never have. Continue reading ‘West African political economy: a regional history’ »

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’ »

State, region and revolution in African development

Africans wait for emancipation in an unequal world

We live in a racist world. Despite the collapse of European empire and the formal adoption of a façade of international bureaucracy, the vast majority of black Africans are still waiting for meaningful emancipation from their perceived social inferiority. The idea that humanity consists of a racial hierarchy with blacks at the bottom is an old one. But the Caribbean economist, W. Arthur Lewis, argued that the division of the world economy between rich manufacturing exporters and poor raw material exporters became entrenched in the decades before the First World War.[i] That bipolar economic order has been shifting for some time now, largely as a result of the emergence of Asian powers as engines of capitalist growth.

Now there is much talk of economic growth in Africa. In the present decade, 7 out of the 10 fastest-growing economies (as conventionally measured) are African.[ii] In 1900 Africa was the world’s least densely populated and urbanized continent with 7.5% of the total. Today it is double that, with an urban share fast approaching the global average. According to UN projections, Africa will be home to 24% of all the people alive in 2050, 35% in 2100. This is because its annual population growth rate is 2.5% when the rest of the world is ageing. The Asian manufacturing countries already recognize that Africa is the fastest-growing market in the world. This could provide an opportunity for Africans to play a stronger hand in international negotiations. If they succeed in standing up for themselves, it would be a world revolution, the end of the racist world order, no less. Continue reading ‘State, region and revolution in African development’ »

A tale of two currencies: the euro and Argentinian peso compared (2002)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. — Charles Dickens

The euro coins and notes were introduced on 1 January, with mildly euphoric expectations of a new era for Europe. The national currencies of twelve countries, which had been linked together for some time, now ceased to be legal tender, being replaced by what is in effect a federal state currency like the dollar. By contrast, at the other end of the world in Argentina, the crisis of the peso, which is linked to the dollar, provoked a proposal for a parallel currency, the argentino. This lasted no longer than Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, one of five presidents in less than two weeks, who announced it. Then the peso itself was made new, this time at a dollar price 30 percent lower than before.

Both cases are an admission of the failure of national currencies and involve coining new currencies to remedy this. I would like to reflect here on some inadequacies of national currencies and the possibility that their eventual failure can and does open avenues for ordinary citizens to take initiatives in their own hands with community currency systems. Such a topic is worthy of anthropological investigation, which is why I am writing a book about it. Continue reading ‘A tale of two currencies: the euro and Argentinian peso compared (2002)’ »

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’ »

The case for an African customs union

Introduction

I first explain what I mean by saying that the informal economy, a concept I was associated with coining in the early 1970s, has taken over the world, largely as a result of neoliberal deregulation over the last three decades. After a brief account of my own early exposure to West Africa, I turn to the question of how and why Africa has long been a symbol of global inequality. Even after independence, Africans are still waiting from emancipation. Even so Africa’s development prospects in the twenty-first century are brighter than for a long time. In the course of the twentieth century, regional differences in the forms of African political economy converged on the model of agrarian civilization that was once known as the Old Regime. The antidote to the Old Regime is a liberal revolution. Accordingly I next consider the role played by free trade and protection in the revolutions that made modern France, the United States, Italy and Germany, with particular reference to the latter’s Zollverein (customs union) in the nineteenth century. Turning to the Southern African example, which includes the oldest extant customs union in the world, I examine the organization of international trade there. In conclusion I review the prospects for greater integration of trade regimes in Africa. Is an African customs union possible or desirable? How might it come about? Continue reading ‘The case for an African customs union’ »

Responsibility in finance

Is it possible to institute a moral politics, moral law or moral economics that would help most people to humanise the impersonal social forces that govern their lives? This question does not come to us out of nowhere and certainly not just in the circumstances of the recent financial crisis. It concerns the possibility of legitimate government in capitalist states.

The genealogy of this problem begins with Locke and the liberal (bourgeois) revolution of the 18th century Enlightenment culminating in Kant. Locke sought a protected zone for private property free of interference by public agents (of the king). This led to the normative separation of public and private interests which was never actually achieved (as in the establishment of the Bank of England, a private institution, to nationalise the king’s war debts). This confusion was resolved in two ways: by the invention of ulititarian economics (Smith, Bentham) which reduced public outcomes to the interplay of private individual interests or by Kant’s attempt to discover the grounds for a cosmopolitan moral politics. State laws ended at territorial boundaries and geography generated endless cultural variations. So how could humanity make society in the world as a whole? His answer was the categorial imperative. We all want to be good or at least to be seen as being good. Cultures define the good differently, but the desire to be good makes a conversation across them possible. This project is still liberal, nourished by the American and French revolutions, plus the drive to abolish slavery. The liberal legacy emphasises personal responibility for ones actions, especially in common law traditions, where intention is key to legal culpability. Civil law traditions, as in Continental Europe, retain a strong division between law and right, lex and ius, loi et droit.

Continue reading ‘Responsibility in finance’ »