Keith Hart Interview in Porto Alegre
Transcription of a video interview with Ruben Oliven and Arlei Damo held at UFRGS postgraduate programme in Social Anthropology, Porto Alegre, Brazil on 27 May 2011. To be published in Portuguese in Horizontes Antropologicos 45, January 2015.
Q: This is an interview with Professor Keith Hart who has already been here several years ago. The first question, Keith, is how did you become an anthropologist?
KH: I was a professional student. I never imagined another life than to be an academic. When I was at school the high prestige subjects were Classics (Latin and Greek) and Maths. So I chose them; but when I got to Cambridge, where I was a classicist, mostly translation, I found there were several things about a career in classics that didn’t appeal to me. One was that the research possibilities were very narrow: the idea was to build up the textual tradition and most of the great authors had been dealt with long ago; so if I did any research, it would be on fragments of an obscure 4th century satirist or something like that. The second thing was that Classics was in decline: there were lots of bright boys like me and not many jobs.
This was a time in Britain, the early 60s, when the social sciences were booming. Sociology had not existed before as a proper subject, but suddenly it was taking off. I was an opportunist career academic more than anything. I loved the Classics, but it wasn’t offering me much chance, so I decided to change to social science, probably sociology, but sociology was part of the Economics faculty and, curiously in view of my later interest, economics was a turn off for me. Then I heard that social anthropology was sociology with travel thrown in and I thought that sounded good. But there were two decisive events. I had a rowing coach called Claudio Vita-Finzi who was a geographer from the Turin Jewish aristocracy. He used to spend the winters studying desert erosion in the Mediterranean basin, so he disappeared during the bad weather and went to Lebanon or Sicily to see how the goats were doing it; and then he would come back in the spring to take part in the rowing and all the rest. I thought that was good and maybe social anthropology could give me something like that.
The second thing is that Jack Goody was in my college and we each spent some time together in the college bar. One day he told me he was organizing a seminar on clientship. It was a hot topic that year – Maquet had just published his book on Ruanda. I was only an undergraduate, but I offered to give a paper on Roman clientship. Then I forgot. One day – it was Monday – he said you know you are on this Wednesday. Oh my God! If I was going to write an essay for my classics tutor, I would have to read all the original sources on clientship (Caesar, Cicero, Tacitus etc) and build my argument exclusively from references to these texts. But I didn’t have the time for that; so I went to the library and mugged up on some secondary sources in English like the Cambridge Ancient History. If I had presented an essay based on these sources to my classics tutor, he would have thrown me out. So I was afraid and anxious when I went to this anthropology seminar and gave my talk. People were all over me: they said how wonderful, how erudite, how sophisticated. And I thought these people have no intellectual standards. I now realised I could ask any question I liked in anthropology and go away and do it.
Q: Why did you turn to economic anthropology and what was Goody’s influence?
KH: My main interest as an undergraduate was in religion. I took a particular interest in millenarian movements, cargo cults and that sort of thing. I recall reading in great detail Raymond Firth’s Primitive Polynesian Economy which I found impressive; but my favourite ethnography was by the great Viennese anthropologist, S.F. Nadel, who joined Malinowski and wrote a book on a Nigerian kingdom called A Black Byzantium which was published during the Second World War and I still think it’s the best account of political economy by an anthropologist that I have ever seen. The main influence on me as an undergraduate was Audrey Richards who was Director of the African Studies Centre. She gave a seminar on urbanization and migration in Africa and this shaped my choice of PhD topic.
It’s hard to remember, but in the 1960s the anti-colonial revolution had a major effect on young people in the West. Our heroes were Ho Chi Minh. Fidel Castro, Mao Tse Tung, Kwame Nkrumah. When we burnt American flags outside their embassy, these were the people who inspired us. There was a very real sense that African independence, which had only just occurred, had significance for the whole world, including the politics of the so-called advanced countries. So my research project was conceived of as being in politics. I wanted to see how these rapidly growing cities absorbed migrants and how they incorporated them into the political project of the new nation through voluntary associations, political parties and so on.
But when I got to Ghana to do my research, I found that it was a police state and nobody wanted to talk about politics, least of all to me. So I was in trouble. I couldn’t pursue what I wanted to do. I went to live in a slum area because I wanted to study people from Northern Ghana whom Jack Goody and Meyer Fortes had studied; and I noticed that the street economy was very lively; so I thought I could study that. I could do research on people buying and selling stuff and forget about politics. So I switched. In the process I discovered that I come from Manchester and that Manchester was the home of liberal economics; I saw that I had absorbed an enormous amount of practical wisdom about market economy just by growing up there. I realised that I had a lot of cultural knowledge about economy that I had not been aware of; and this gave me an advantage over these people who had to learn it from scratch. They came to me for money, for jobs and for all kinds of advice. I found myself being drawn into their economy, not just as someone studying it, but as a player in a way. I also had a problem.
There were six secret policemen attached to me because I was quite visible, the only white man in this whole slum area and they were trying to find out what kind of espionage I was involved in. The place was a criminal bad lands that the police could not enter routinely, but every now and then they would invade with trucks, dogs and guns and catch somebody. Afterwards there would be a local enquiry: how did they know? who pointed the finger? And guess who was the prime candidate for police spy. Me. At some point it all began to get too much for me. I was worried that I might be expelled from the country. I went to see the head of the sociology department at the University of Ghana and told him that the police thought I was a CIA agent and could he write me a letter saying that I am not. And he said, How do I know you are not? This is the guy who met me at the airport when I arrived as Jack Goody’s student. He later told me that he had seen my name on a list for deportation…
I decided that I couldn’t live in this place unless I really crossed the line to join the people I lived with on their side of the law. Maybe I have a criminal nature anyway. I was already a professional gambler and had been a member of the Cambridge underworld. This underworld when I was a student was based on food, with corrupt kitchen managers who stole the food from the colleges and sold it to Cypriot restaurateurs; they then made sure that college dinners were so bad that the students, even though they has paid in advance, would prefer to eat in the Cypriot restaurants. There was also an incipient Italian cement and construction mafia, jockeys and tipsters from Newmarket, the main horseracing establishment, and police of course – you always find police in an underworld. I already had all that, so maybe I was pre-adapted to this life as a criminal. So the best field notes I had were from criminal enterprises that I was part of. That was how I became a specialist in economy, through the street economy of Accra which I later turned into the idea of an informal economy. After I returned to England and finished my PhD, I worked for The Economist part-time for three years as a journalist and learned a lot from that.
As for Jack Goody, he was my only teacher as an undergraduate and a graduate. At the time I thought he didn’t teach me anything. In the 60s we all thought we were orphans; we believed that we owed our parents and teachers nothing, even though we were the beneficiaries of their having fought and defeated fascism, they built the welfare state that gave us the education, improved health and all the rest that we were living off, that sustained the prosperity that we took advantage of. And yet we still believed we owed our parents nothing and our teachers even less. I very rarely went to lectures. I didn’t believe these people had anything to teach me and I was sure that Jack Goody had nothing to teach me. I don’t think he ever read anything that I wrote. Audrey Richards was a great gossip and she told me once that Jack had asked her what I was writing my thesis about. He was my thesis supervisor. She told him something and he said I am sure he will do OK. He was too busy writing all his books.
In 1976 he started writing this long list of books about the difference between Africa and Eurasia; the first book was called Production and Reproduction. In it he has a one and a half page Preface in which he says something about his life – how he was in the war and went to North Africa, he was in an Italian prisoner of war camp, escaped into the mountains and was caught, he got interested in anthropology through reading Frazer’s Golden Bough. Then he lays out the three main principles that guide his approach to anthropology. A lot of what he writes about his life and times is somewhat partisan. But there is something different about this Preface, it is very honest; and when I read these three points – I have forgotten for now what they were – I found that I agreed entirely with them, that they were in fact my guiding principles too. It just wasn’t possible that I had invented these three points independently – he must have given them to me! In other words, he taught me, but I wasn’t aware of it.
There is no question, I am pursuing a line that Jack Goody defined, but I was so arrogant and ignorant when he was teaching me that I didn’t acknowledge it and it is only now that I can see it. In fact, next week I am giving the first annual Jack Goody lecture at the Max Planck Institute for social anthropology in Halle, Germany and my title is “Jack Goody’s vision of world history and African development today”. It is a short version of a book I am writing whose theme is that African development should, at least initially, be understood in terms of Jack Goody’s way of approaching Africa’s distinctiveness. He did not address what Africa became in the 20th century, so I see my book as taking Jack Goody’s framework – which is essentially Childe’s notion of the urban revolution that produced all agrarian civilizations except in Subsaharan Africa – to argue that the urban revolution took over Africa in the last century. Now in my old age I write review essays in which I try to acknowledge my master, Jack. But when I was young and callow, I wasn’t willing to do that.
Q: As a result of your research in Ghana, you developed the term, informal sector, which had a life of its own and practically became universal in the social sciences. So how useful do you think this term still is and do you think we can speak of an informal sector as opposed to a formal sector or are they so intertwined that it is difficult to use them separately? Can you say how the informal economy is related to the street economy that you have talked about?
KH: For me, street economy is a casual descriptive term, not a concept. The successor concept for me is the human economy. The informal economy is what people do for themselves and I have now taken that idea as something more inclusive that might help us to think about humanity. Nowadays it is more usual for people to talk of informality than of the informal sector or economy. Informality still has a value, but it is limited. The notion of a sector is deeply misleading. We speak of the agricultural or manufacturing sectors and these tend to be in different places, so to talk of an informal sector implies that is taking place over there.
When I wrote my original article on the topic, I was in a development outfit at the University of East Anglia around 1970, a time when the Americans began to lose the Vietnam War, undermining the international monetary system, and then in 1971 the dollar went off gold. This was when the confident American idea that poor countries could get rich by becoming modern like them was clearly in ruins. People were flooding into Third World cities, but it wasn’t obvious what there was for them to do there – jobs conceived of as formal employment accounted for very few people. The other side in the Cold War was beginning to win the argument with left-wing and revolutionary ideologies coming out of Latin America and the Middle East – dependency theory, underdevelopment, world systems theory etc. So it was a time of great uncertainty, especially in the West’s development machine.
The question they asked was what are all these people up to and they feared revolution. Remember this was still the post-war Keynesian consensus when ruling elites believed that they could absorb discontent by providing citizens with jobs, housing, health and transport as public services – that was the model. It was a top down approach that relied on state dominance of the economy. So if ‘we’ can’t deliver the jobs to all these people, what will they do to us? Throughout history, it has been known that peasants can be more easily controlled than urban mobs, because they are scattered. They can be beaten up by a few guys with horses and guns or even sticks. But what happens when the city mob decides to take its destiny in its own hands? Some even came up with a policy of forced repatriation of urban migrants back to the countryside.
The general opinion was that city-dwellers were suffering from mass unemployment. The image of the unemployment problem that they had in their head came from the 1930s, with broken men thrown out of factory work, standing huddled on street corners and saying buddy will you spare me a dime. The same fear of revolution that led to the New Deal then was present now, but it was global and concentrated in Third World cities. I absorbed all this and I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t know why. But I had spent two and a half years in Accra and eventually I realised why it was wrong: the people were not unemployed, they were working – often in an irregular way and not for very much, but working nevertheless. The problem was that development could only be launched from the top by the state. I held that people were doing all sorts of things that were not recognized or regulated by the state. So we have to find out what they are doing and introduce these facts into the argument about policy.
This was the source for my contribution and I came up with the idea of a distinction between formal and informal income opportunities. The most remarkable thing about informality is that it is not regular. When I first came into the slums, I used to ask people how much do you spend on meat a week? I had this idea that everybody has a budget, but they would say What? My pay is pathetic, I spend it in the first few days and then I bum off my friends and family or I go without food. I realised that my own expectation was that people control their economic lives in a very regular way and this wasn’t how these people were living. They wanted regularity, a staple income they could rely on, but they knew that such sources were not enough and they had to go out and find the rest in a more irregular way. I just wanted to point to a contrast between rationalised regular economy controlled to some extent and the rest. Everyone combined formal and informal elements in their economic activities.
The idea was stolen by some people from the conference at Sussex in 1971 where I delivered my paper. The conference organizers were leading international development economists and they went off to Kenya to work with the International Labour Office the next year and produced a book in which they announced that the problem of development was going to be solved by the informal sector. They introduced the notion of an informal sector. They were saying broadly what I had said, that people are doing more than you think, they are not just unemployed and things are not as bad as you imagine because people have extra money. They thought that if we can encourage the informal sector, maybe there won’t be a revolution in the Third World. At the same time they announced they were cancelling the book of the conference that my paper would have been published in.
This caused a scandal. A lot of people had been at the conference, they knew that it was my idea and these others made no reference to me in their book. So people started to write papers saying that Keith Hart invented the informal sector. Perhaps if I hadn’t been plagiarised, my authorship would have disappeared from history. But the fact that these people ripped me off established a cultural model in which anyone writing about this stuff had to include in the first paragraph the line that Keith Hart invented the informal economy.
To answer your question about what I think about it now, it did serve a purpose – it pointed to activities that were not being taken into account; it played a part in the long shift from state-dominated approaches to market-driven policies, looking more at what people were doing in informal commerce and less at state-organized economy. But the last 30 years of neoliberal deregulation have meant that the informal economy has become something else – it has taken over the world economy. The neoliberal agenda is to take the state out of the economy. So if I was dealing with a few people operating in the cracks of a heavily regulated economy, deregulation has meant that the banks and the big corporations are now acting in openly criminal ways, finance has moved offshore, the trade in armaments, drugs and pirated cultural commodities is huge and people who used to have secure jobs with pensions and holidays have been casualised, turned into contract workers with no rights.
So the informal economy, in the sense of activities that avoid state regulation, has expanded tremendously. It includes phenomena that are really quite different. People now say that African national economies are 70-90% informal. If almost the whole economy informal, I don’t think “informal” is a good word for it. In recent years I have come to feel that we need to put more effort into looking at the positive social forces that are organizing activities in what we call the informal economy. These principles are kinship, religion, ethnicity, criminal organization, locality and they are quite easy to see. If the state is absent, some other power has to move in to fill the gap. There are only limited forms of that power – families, gangs, churches, neighbourhoods and so on. The informal economy had a point once, but faced with what the world economy has become, it is too vague and inclusive to be helpful any more.
Q: Among your many professional activities as an anthropologist, professor, journalist and development expert, you also claim to be a professional gambler. What is the world of gambling for you and why should an anthropologist study it?
KH: I don’t think any anthropologist has an obligation to study anything. If some anthropologists want to study gambling, good for them – I’m not going to tell to do so. I study gambling because I am a gambler. I am an economic anthropologist because I want to protect my family in a world that could ruin us all. At the moment I am an FX trader because the value of money is being destroyed everywhere — except in Brazil (ironic in the context of later currency developments). Gold hasn’t increased in value since the Second World War; it has maintained exactly the same real value over 70 years or so, but the actual currencies have been devalued drastically. So I manipulate the small income and assets that I have in order to try to prevent the erosion of my family’s economic base. I have never wanted to make money, but I don’t want to lose it.
When I was 12 years old, I took stock of my situation. My dad used to come home from work every day and complain to his wife, our mother that he knew his job better than his bosses, but his bosses told him what to do, against his better judgment. So things didn’t work properly and he was overlooked for promotion in favour of others who kissed up to the bosses. We got it every day and I thought I don’t want anything like that, I don’t want to be a proletarian working for a big bureaucracy, I want to have some control over my life. I was already embarked on one path – passing examinations in order to enter the free professions, of which the only one I knew personally was school, so I wanted to continue school indefinitely. I imagined – although this is no longer the case — that as an academic I would have some control over my working life, but they have managed to take that away in the last forty years.
The point of passing exams was to get to Cambridge which was a remote and very frightening prospect. But what would happen if I don’t pass the exams? What was I going to do? I might have to end up in a job like my dad’s and I didn’t want that. So I had to find a way of making money without working for it. The only thing I could think of was betting on the horses. So I got hold of my grandmother’s Daily Express which had some famous tipsters in it and I kept a little book where I recorded paper bets for three years, because I didn’t have any money. I learned a lot about horse-racing and betting and by the end I was making a regular profit on paper. By 15 I had some money from delivering newspapers and embezzling my school expenses, dodging bus fares and not buying a proper lunch. So now I could bet with cash and when I was 17 I started working in factories during the school holidays.
But what turned it round was when I went to Cambridge University and I got my grant in advance, so suddenly I had capital. Now I could bet in a different way with a fund and I began to experiment with statistical methods of gambling. By now I had six years of continuous knowledge about the horses in my head. By the time I had perfected my statistical method, I could predict making 8-8.5% on turnover. I never took any money from my parents, I never had a wage job as an undergraduate, I took holidays for two months in the Aegean. I would guess that betting roughly doubled my income.
Q: One of your concerns has to do with how money should be approached in a less alienated society. What is your take on money and society? I know it is a broad question…
KH: We could start from the fact that academics don’t like money because they don’t have enough of it. And they resent the fact that people who do have money exercise more influence over the world than they do. So, following in the tradition of priestly castes in many civilizations, modern intellectuals tend to subscribe to the view that money is the root of all evil. I know that in our world money is used to exploit people, that people who don’t deserve it get rich and that all sorts of bad things get done using money. But I also believe that money has some redemptive qualities that we ought to be paying more attention to. There are things we can do with money that are not just for personal enrichment and could be put to the work of economic improvement more generally.
I was very much influenced by my grandmother, the person I have loved most in my life. My father’s mother lived across the street from us; she was a kind of emancipated serf, her family had worked for generations on the estates of landlords South of Manchester. For her money was a way of escaping from feudalism into the slums of Manchester. She was extremely suspicious of the gift. She knew that they had worked for almost nothing on these estates and then the landlord would come around at Christmas and give them a chicken and that was supposed to make it alright. She refused to have spectacles on the National Health Service because it was a gift; and she would not use the free library. She used to say, If you can’t pay, don’t go. She was a working class conservative who hated socialism because she believed it reintroduced feudalism by creating new classes of donors and recipients which replicated in some way the old landlord-peasant relationship. Money is an equaliser. Another of her expressions was my money is as good as anyone else’s.
My family never talks about the depression years: my grandfather was gassed in the First World War, he had a good trade as an upholsterer, but he never worked between the wars and they had four kids. Who knows how they got through, but she must have been taking in washing or something. Her unmarried sister no doubt gave her some of her wages. My dad had to get work in a factory at the age of 14. It must have been very hard. So my grandmother was not worshipping money as they would in the United Church of the Kingdom of God. She was saying that being in the money economy of working class Manchester with some opportunity to generate your own income and spend it was a hell of a lot better than any economy she had known before.
All of this is to say that in a deep way I absorbed from my upbringing the idea that markets and money are liberating when compared with the Old Regime, unequal society. It’s something that’s a deep part of Manchester’s history and of people’s experience of emancipation from traditional inequality through industry and commerce. Although I was a child of the post-war British welfare state and I was always a socialist or social democrat and ultimately a Marxist, I believe like Marx that any more just society of the future has to be built on what money has made possible in this world. Marx argued vigorously, against the Social Ricardians, Robert Owen, Proudhon and a lot of other lefties at the time that a complex society depends on money; and we should not try to build a society against it or without it.
I have spent a long time studying money, especially in the last 25 years, and I have been posing the question what it is that it does for us, as opposed to the more conventional question of what it does to us that we don’t like, because we don’t have enough of it or some other people have too much of it. I believe that money is a medium that allows us to span a very wide range from things that we know very well in our everyday lives to larger, invisible and remote processes to which we are subject, but know very little about and would like to influence them. If you have some money, you can do almost anything with it. In our experience of money, it is to some extent universal and infinite in its range of use. At the same time, if you use money to buy something, it becomes something that closes off possibility and makes it finite. If I have some money that can be used for anything and I decide to buy a pair of trousers with some of it, the payment of the money is what makes that transaction final – and of course the money goes. Yet as long as there is some money, the possibility remains that I could do anything with it.
So the first thing about money is that it schools us in moving between this range of infinite and finite possibility. I also believe that money is one of the principal ways that we communicate and remember. It is a means of communication and memory like language. The two most important things we can count are money and time. We must use the infrastructures of calculation and organization that both of these carry in themselves. We take it for granted that time has been made more universal in its application and organization in our world than money; but money has that same capacity also; and money and time are, in a deep and complicated way, connected. I cannot imagine a civilization that would not depend on money and time taken to a high level of sophistication in order to meet people’s needs. It’s just that the system of money that we have and the way we organize our time through work and leisure is deeply unsatisfying for many people. My only point as an anthropologist is that I would like to play a part in making these things work for us instead of against us. So I say that there are socially redemptive features of money that as anthropologists we could help to make more explicit.
Q: You have mentioned the human economy. Could you tell us some more about that, about the possibilities for changing the world through cooperative networks, for example?
KH: Yes, economia solidaria and things like that. I think that science is a reactionary project because it takes the world as it is and builds its generalisations and practice on the notion that the way the world is doesn’t change in significant ways. I also believe that democracy and science are the twin pillars of modern civilization. We need societies in which people have more control over the things that matter to them and we need to know more about the world in order to make them work. So science and democracy are the inspirations for my work, but I also know that certain versions of science are very conservative in that they aim only to reflect the world as it is and not to change it fundamentally.
I have said that I entered anthropology at a time when African societies had just won their independence from colonial empire; so that when I went to Ghana in the 1960s, no-one imagined that the job of a social scientist was to observe how things were and leave it at that. Everybody was part of a project that conceived of the possibility of making a better world in which the people who had suffered the most from a very unequal imperialist system would find their own relationship to a more just world society. I find it really hard to get this message across now. I don’t know about Brazil, but what I call the pomo generation resists this message. I get young anthropologists arguing seriously that our job as ethnographers is to show what people are doing, to report the natives’ point of view and that’s it. When I ask them isn’t there something that makes you angry about this world? Isn’t there anything you would like to change? they look at me with some distaste, as if this stuff is so…old, as if they wanted to say do you think you are still living in the 60s?
To me it is unbearable to imagine that the world will remain the way it is. I can’t live without hope of playing some part in helping it become a better place. My methodological inspiration is Jean-Jacques Rousseau and indeed the philosophers of the liberal enlightenment who again in our world get a bad press. They are supposed to be racist, reactionary, western male intellectuals. In my view, they approached their world, the Old Regime, as something unsustainable and unjustifiable and they had to find the intellectual and practical means of a democratic revolution. Their job was to inform it and help make it happen. Everything that Rousseau touched assumed that there was no point in just discovering how existing society works because you want to change it. It might be of some interest to know how it got to be that way and how we might then make it something else. So all his work is concerned with the actual world in which we live and the possible world that we might make. This idea of making new possibilities out of the actual circumstances in which we live is becoming more and more remote from contemporary intellectual life. Just to remind you, in the 1760s, with The Social Contract, Emile, New Heloise and his Confessions, Rousseau revolutionised the way we think about politics, education, sexuality and the self. For each of his books he developed a different genre of writing, somewhere between factual reporting and imaginative fiction – a novel, a political tract about how to build a democratic society, an allegory, autobiography as it had never been practised before.
In my own work, I want to explore the relationship between the possible and the actual and I am willing to try different genres of writing as ways of approaching these questions. Although I believe that anthropology’s contribution in the last century has without any doubt been founded on fieldwork-based ethnography, I also believe that excessive reliance on this method is deeply reactionary and presents us from addressing these questions about how the world is changing and how anthropology might inform improvements in it.
That’s the general issue. The other question you raised was about the human economy and its relationship to progressive economic initiatives like cooperatives. Humanity is facing enormous danger because we developed quite effective ways of increasing our presence on the planet. In the last 200 years our population has increased from 1 bn to 7 bn people; the proportion living in cities has gone from 1 in 40 to a half in that time and the amount of energy we produce and consume has been growing at the rate of 3% a year. In order to cope with this extraordinary leap from the countryside to the city and towards an increasingly integrated world society, we had to develop social forms to manage this transition – cities, nation-states, corporations, empires, whatever. The nation-state form has been incredibly powerful and durable, even if it is historically recent. Our times are marked by a situation in which the world economy, money and markets, have escaped from national controls, but thinking and politics haven’t. I am not saying that national society will disappear, but it is the case that nation-states can’t deal adequately with some of the problems that humanity as a whole faces and we haven’t yet developed social means of dealing with these global questions.
Anthropology, of all the social disciplines, has built into its history the widest aspiration to understand the human predicament as a whole. But the ethnographic revolution and the cultural relativism of the 20th century have undermined our capacity to engage at that level. I look to 18th and 19th century precedents for anthropological writing – more 18th than 19th – for ways of building on the ethnographic revolution, which I endorse. We have to go and live with people wherever they are and find out what they are thinking and doing and make sure that this enters into what is said for them or done to them. But we also have to tackle the problems that humanity is facing, so for me the human economy idea is similar to the informal economy: we focus not on intellectual abstractions, models, charts and equations, but on what people are really doing – that is the starting point. But we also have to expand our intellectual and political reach beyond the local, national or regional levels with which we as anthropologists are more comfortable.
There are social movements out there, coming out of organizations like the World Social Forum that began here in Porto Alegre in 2001, which at first were anti-global, but more recently the term alter-globalization has taken hold, based on the idea that we have to face the world and its problems, but not in the way that the established powers do. I am now a fellow-traveller of this movement. There is a big intellectual and political divide within it between those who believe that we should be organizing a radical alternative to the dominant capitalist form and those who want to build piecemeal on initiatives that people have already started, which need not be capitalist in organization or principle. I tend to follow the second line.
So the human economy is a focus on what people are doing in their own interests that might help us to conceive of and realise a more just and plural economy; but also at some level it has to involve humanity as a whole. That is the most difficult thing, because we lack good intellectual prescriptions for how to think about the world as a whole or what to do about it. The greens, the environmentalists almost have the field to themselves, but they scare people with stories about climate change, seas rising and running out of food, water and energy. If the human predicament is talked about at all today, it is in green terms. I don’t mind that, but I believe that the real problems are social and political. An anthropological programme of work that addresses how we can make society more inclusive while retaining our local and national roots – that’s the kind of anthropology I want to make a contribution to. The idea of a human economy fits into that.
I also believe that we need to know a lot more about what people have been doing to help themselves at the local and regional level, community currencies, solidarity economy, cooperatives and notions like the popular economy which was developed in Latin America. It attempts to cut across some of the received categories by creating alliances of small farmers, urban informal workers, unions and progressive governments. The book I have just co-edited, The Human Economy: A Citizen’s Guide (2010), is an attempt to bring together thinking about and practical evidence of a wide range of initiatives that people have introduced. Many anthropologists prefer local and low-level approaches to speculation about world-historical processes. It is still possible to do progressive work in this way, by simply showing what people are capable of and how they do it. But it is even better if it is allied to and shaped by a more inclusive vision.
Q: What are currently working on?
KH: I am producing a lot of essays on money – finance in the global economic crisis, the euro, our times as a moment in the history of money, the end of national monopoly currencies and the absence of viable replacements as yet. I am working on a book called Africa: the coming revolution which in a way summarises the 40 years I have had to think about my own original fieldwork in Ghana. It’s about what happened to Africa in the 20th century, given the extraordinary explosion of population and cities compared with what Africa was before. It looks forward to the coming decades and lays out a vision of African economic development. I actually believe that Africa will be a major player in the world economy during this century. Almost 40% of the world’s population are forecast to be living in Africa by 2100, roughly the same as Asia which currently outnumbers Africa by 4 to 1. People have not yet come to terms with what that means, including most Africans.
When I was growing up, my mother used to say eat your greens because the starving Chinese peasants have nothing to eat. Between the wars, the most poverty-stricken, violent and disorganized place in the world was China and 80 years later it is being touted as the likely successor to the United States as global leader. Things change faster than we think. Africa has every chance of becoming a major power just by virtue of the size of its population and fast-growing economy. And also its minerals – but what I am interested in is what all these people who live in Africa’s cities will do for the world economy, now that they are there. Taking things out of the ground and selling them as raw materials to the rest of the world is not enough.
The fastest growing and most significant market in the world economy today is for cultural commodities – entertainment, sports, education, media, information services. The US’s three principal exports are movies, music and software, which is why they are so keen on intellectual property. We are moving from an industrial economy, which was concerned with extracting, processing and circulating things, to an economy that will revert to what it was originally in which the bulk of it consists of what people do for each other, services. Telling stories and singing songs and people performing to the best of their ability as a spectacle are the future of the economy, as well as our insatiable desire to improve our knowledge of the world in order to cope with it better. So if you ask what these new African urban populations are going to sell to the world, it is obviously their culture.
It is already the case. Nollywood, Nigeria’s film industry, is the second largest in the world after Hollywood, more than Bollywood. It is like Hollywood was in the first decades of the 20th century, when W G Griffith made five movies a week. These guys are making films for $5,000 and sell them on CDs for $1 or $2. It’s in the middle of an impenetrable Lagos slum, so that nobody can get in to regulate it. Do you know why Hollywood is where it is? Because the American film industry was in New Jersey and Thomas Edison’s patents were restricting their development, so they went as far as they could away from there, to LA, and started building a new movie industry with no rules. So when Walt Disney produced his first Mickey Mouse cartoon, he ripped off a Buster Keaton movie without acknowledgment. 100 years later the Disney Corporation is suing a Chinese cartoonist for unlicensed use of their logo. In other words, Hollywood has now become the Edison of the world movie industry and what Hollywood originally was in now in Lagos.
I am not saying that entering a world market for cultural commodities dominated by big corporations and the governments that sing their tune is all that easy; but there has been a huge African diaspora since the Second World War who have wide education and business experience. We know that the world likes African music; African plastic arts have played a creative role in the development of western art in the modernist period. There has been an artistic explosion in Africa – in dance, theatre, literature, film, all the arts. Kinshasa is an incredible place: when you think of the Congo, it is of women being raped and children getting killed in the countryside, but partly because of the war, Kinshasa has become a huge metropolis whose music and film industries are extraordinary and have been for half a century. Johannesburg is the main centre for graphic design in Africa. Cairo is an immense hub for publishing, film-making and education. You simply don’t read about the cultural dynamism of these huge cities. All you read about is misery — famine, war, AIDs and poverty.
I don’t want to write a feel good book – how could I? But I do want to say that there is stuff going on there that has enormous potential. The Asian manufacturers already know that; it’s the West who still want to believe that Africa is a backward and primitive place going nowhere. Their media and intellectuals make no effort to break with this paradigm. But the people who have things to sell know that the fastest growing market in the world is Africa and they had better be in there. The West only talks about China in Africa as if all they want to do is grab ‘our’ minerals, but the main economic dynamic is that they are using cheap African labour to assemble manufactures like cars in Africa, which is the first stage towards the development of local industry. It’s the African market that matters and increasingly Africans will supply their own markets. It is important to ask what the Africans have that the rest of the world might want: agriculture and manufactures are already stitched up, so what are they going to make? It is a very antiquated notion that the economy consists primarily in producing and selling things. The future of the economy is what people want to do with each other at distance. Africans bring to such an economy some really remarkable assets. I want to write about that.
Q: I would like to know about the MAUSS movement in France and the discussion between Florence Weber and Jacques Godbout concerning the gift paradigm. What is your opinion?
KH: I have lived in Paris now for 14 years and there has been a wonderful renaissance in economic sociology there. There is a new collection edited by Philippe Steiner and Francois Vatin called Traité de sociologie économique and it is wonderful. I have no institutional position in France; I have never been asked to hold down a job there. It took me a long time, but I have formed some important alliances with people in this French economic sociology network. The main one of these is Jean-Louis Laville who works at CNAM and is Director of the Polanyi Institute; he has written a lot of books about économie solidaire, associationisme and the third sector. He was my collaborator in this edited book, The Human Economy. I also got to know Alain Caillé and from an early stage we agreed to organize a conference on Mauss together which took place in Cerisy in 2009. It was a large international conference with about 45 people – Ruben was there. It was called Mauss vivant, an attempt to show the continuing relevance of Mauss. I have already indicated that I am quite eclectic in my intellectual inspirations – Marx, Rousseau and so on – but I have become more focused by living in France on Durkheim and Mauss. Out of the classical works of the founders of modern social theory, Durkheim’s last book, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, is the one I find to have the most revolutionary potential now. That book has not yet been absorbed in the way that it should and I believe that I can take it somewhere through my study of money. For me the most creative thing is to look at money as a form of religious life.
Q: So you see the gift much more as a part of Durkheim’s project?
KH: Yes, I believe that Mauss’s essay on the gift is an extension of Durkheim’s first book, The Division of Labour in Society. It was written against the English utilitarian tradition and for me the most important concept in that book is the idea that contractual relations between individuals are supported by what he calls “the non-contractual element in the contract”. This is largely invisible to view and it consists of shared history, institutions, laws and customs. As you know, Durkheim’s aim was to make this invisible support for the market economy visible. I believe that was more or less what Mauss was trying to do too. I don’t think that Mauss conceived of the gift as a principle; he saw it as one form of exchange like market contracts, but for him archaic gift-exchange was a way of making visible aspects of capitalist market economies that would otherwise be invisible. It is not just prestations in the form of Christmas presents and weddings, but key contracts like wages and rent and especially credit and debt relations contain elements that cannot be understood if your only idea of exchange is a spot contract, an immediate exchange for cash. For Mauss the gift is the non-contractual element in the contract and the study of the archaic gift is a way of revealing the potential of markets to be humane and generous, to be based on solidarity. His own political project was to take syndicalism, mutual insurance and cooperatives as a practical means to that end.
This was reflected in his idea of a total social fact – of the interdependence of aesthetic, legal, economic and political dimensions of social life. He wanted an economic movement from below that already existed to be given more prominence and focusing on the sort of relations and principles revealed by the archaic gift was a way of illuminating the possibilities already existing within French capitalist society. I believe he wrote the essay to debunk the idea that there is a gift principle opposed to the market principle. That is bourgeois ideology, that there are on the one hand the constraints imposed by contracts and on the other hand the free gift. Everything in the book is about why this contrast doesn’t work. There is no such thing as a free gift or an altruistic economic form. The gift itself is often coercive, certainly unequal, but it also contains more generous elements.
Given all of this, to return to Florence Weber and her long introduction to the new French edition of Mauss’s essay, I think it can be said that the MAUSS group in insisting on the gift as a political principle have taken it in a direction that is not in the spirit that Mauss himself wrote the book. They do, I think, reify this principle as something separate from the market, whereas Mauss himself wanted to bring out the non-market elements in market relations, along with the interested elements in the gift, to show that together they reveal a generous and inclusive vision of human possibility. To some extent, the MAUSS group could be said to have missed that in favour of articulating a third way between market and state. Some say they are a small sect who keep up a sense of their own importance by ignoring the rest of the world. I thought the point of our conference was dialogue, but it didn’t seem to me that the MAUSS group were up for dialogue at all. I am grateful to Alain, a very significant figure who has contributed a great deal, as indeed has Jacques Godbout, but I think that the politics of the group are too narrow and inwardly focused. They claim Mauss as legitimation for a global minimum wage, but I asked who are you and how are you going to persuade the Americans to accept it? Equally, in her introduction, Florence Weber overstates the point. She was stimulated by the closed politics of the MAUSS group to make a radically oppositional statement, probably at too great length; but if I had to choose between the sides, I would probably go with her.
Q: It’s a bit odd because the book of Caillé and Godbout was translated…
KH: It’s a very good book!
Q: …and many sociologists use it as an anti-utilitarian source for solidarity economy.
KH: Yes, but I don’t think that the gift paradigm is Mauss. He didn’t have a gift paradigm. Solidarity economy can mean a number of things, but for many people it is an alternative way of practising the economy. I have worked for a long time with alternative money, community currencies; and people who enter this field often bring very contrasting ideas and aims to it. Some people want to move as far away as possible from the national capitalist economy; they want to create a closed circuit based on radically opposed principles. But others want their social money to be integrated into normal commercial circuits. The two sides are quite strongly at each other’s throats. I am not suggesting that one is right and the other is wrong, but we do face a choice over how far we organize our economic politics on oppositional principles as against trying to insert ourselves into existing commerce in new ways.
In Anglophone anthropology for the last 30 years, certainly since Chris Gregory wrote Gifts and Commodities (1982), it has become commonplace for people to say that there is a gift economy opposed to the market economy and the market is us, the West, while the gift economy is them, the Melanesians or the Amazonians. Or again you have German internet activists who say they are going to build an online world around the gift. I have heard people in Berlin say that they will not allow any suspicion of exchange to enter into relations that have to be based exclusively on the gift. I know a Korean graduate student in Seoul who lives in a commune founded on the principle that all labour is a gift, where there must be no payment or even a suspicion that you are doing this because you want something from me. Reciprocity is a bad word under these circumstances. These are very extremist views.
Chris Gregory was an economist who worked in Papua New Guinea and he was amazed by the fluency with which local people combined elements of the modern economy with traditional gift-exchange. They would be doing kula while sticking bank notes up their noses and for him what was truly impressive was the ease with which they combined the two economic systems in the present. But then he wrote a book which identified the gift principle with Mauss and the market principle with Marx and people took the conceptual opposition that he presented and ran with that, at the expense of the long ethnographic section of the book which showed that all this stuff was being mixed up. In his next book, Savage Money, he had to include a chapter saying that the conceptual pair in the first book was not intended to be an ethnographic contrast between ways of life and even whole societies.
There are many intermediate positions, but in the end I think that opposing gift and market as principles is misleading. It doesn’t surprise me that many sociologists find it appealing since indoctrination by bourgeois ideology is hard to shift. Let me put it this way, my own intellectual and political development has been based on rejecting it, so I read Mauss as not saying that at all. I am certainly capable of learning from and admiring Caillé and Godbout’s work on the same subject, since it really is a great contribution. Alain and I worked together quite happily for several years and we never fell out. So these distinctions can’t be that important.