Reviews of the Book review by T. Nicholas, June 10, 2010

Would have made an incredible essay

But as a 300+ page book? Doesn’t work so well.

Keith Hart clearly has a breath-taking grasp of history, economics, and anthropology/sociology. His book takes us on a tour from pre-historic times, through the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and most recently, the communications revolution. Along the way he breaks down the complex relationship between markets and states, looks at various economic perspectives and their relevance or inadequacy in the face of actually existing economic practice, and shows how ‘third world’ citizens create ‘informal economies’ to re-personalize the market on their own terms.

HIS DIAGNOSIS: we are citizens of a fundamentally agricultural society which has stumbled headfirst into a machine revolution, the radical effects of which we have not yet adapted to, resulting in unprecedented levels of global inequality, repression, and atrocity at the same time as those fortunate of us to live in democratic, post-industrial nations have enjoyed unprecedented quality of life improvements.

HIS SOLUTION: in the wake of the decline of state-capitalism, those in search of economic equality should look beyond the institution of the state, quit conflating capitalism with markets, and begin to think about how to build markets from the ground up, by and for the people that use them, as an instrument for economic democracy. The internet, he claims, with its potentials for the re-personalization of money, can help in this regard.

HIS PROBLEM: he repeats himself too much. In the following section, I will detail the central issue I have with the book, which is that it is too repetitive. Repetition is the book’s primary flaw. Had this book been condensed into an hour long lecture or a 15 page paper, it would have likely been incredible. Then much of the repetition would have been eliminated. But instead Hart is longwinded, repeating the same points in every single chapter. Every section of the text begins with an introduction and ends with a summary that recount the same few general points we’ve already read a hundred times by the end. This is not to mention the ‘recommend reading’ passages which simply repeat every book mentioned in the main text accompanied by descriptions which are themselves largely repetitions. The level of repetition is just far too high. More than probably any book I’ve ever read, Money in an Unequal World is downright maddening in how often it repeats itself. Each chapter, though ostensibly about different topics, recaps the same information again and again. Were the level of repetition lower, I might be able to recommend this book, but as it is, there is simply too much repetition. In summary, this book is frustratingly repetitive. (Get it?)

Another extremely grating habit is Hart’s constantly blathering about the book’s construction, genesis, and purpose, as if what we were reading was the proposal for the book rather than the book itself. Part of all this is no doubt due to Hart’s insistence on maintaining a personal, non-academic style. While I appreciate his attempts to foreground his own subjectivity, that’s no excuse for what ultimately just amounts to sheer laziness on his part. Largely, many of the book’s problems stem from a run-of-the-mill carelessness that could have been fixed very simply with the help of a half-decent editor.

Take this passage for example, on page 125:
“The main imperative of management was to control subordinates; and this ethos stretched back to the production lines as well as outwards to an anonymous market of consumers whose tastes were manipulated by public advertising.”

And now, on page 205:
“The main imperative of management was to control subordinates; and this ethos stretched back to the production lines as well as outwards to an anonymous market of consumers whose tastes were there to be manipulated.”


In between endlessly rehashing his few main points, Hart goes off on marginally related tangents – historical surveys, summaries of other thinkers’ ideas, personal anecdotes, and descriptions of his own anthropological fieldwork. Some of these were interesting and educational (he especially has a knack for giving clear, brief snapshots of others’ intellectual careers). But few of them were necessary. And of course, as expected, all of them were both repetitive within themselves and repeated, in summary and reference, throughout the book.

Then we reach the massively disappointing conclusion, in which Hart does little or nothing to expand on the central theme of the book, the one thing he’s been building up to the entire time: how the internet can be used in conjunction with markets and re-personalized money to create economic equality without the state. The answer, essentially, amounts to “I don’t know how, exactly, but it seems like our best bet.” This vagueness would be completely appropriate for a short paper on the topic, but for a 300+ page book throughout which we’ve been promised, every two dozen pages or so, “I will expand more on this issue in the final chapter,” it made me want to pull my hair out and throw the book against the wall.

With all his digressions and re-hashing, Hart winds up making the juiciest material a secondary aside. His most interesting idea – that money and language are both means of communication that bridge the personal and the social by translating the real world into abstractions; that money and language are both forms of social memory; and that the communications revolution and the internet in particular emphasize these connections by reducing both money and language to the same basic substance of binary code, and in doing so pave the way for a radical reconsideration of what money is and how it is created – is sadly the part of the book that is least developed. The incredibly important (in my view) and underrepresented perspective that markets can be democratic and non-exploitative is unfortunately ill served by the poor writing and editing job. And on top of all this, the fact that the book was written 10 years ago means that many of its points have become less relevant in light of subsequent economic and technological developments.

In the spirit of Hart himself, I’ll end this review with a list of suggested further reading. Only in this case, these are all things I recommend checking out INSTEAD of reading Hart’s book:

– A lot of the book is spent covering the economic ideas of classic social scientists such as Mauss, Durkheim, Malinowski and Weber. Though I haven’t read it in full, Hart’s own (co-written) ‘Economic Anthropology’ appears to be a far more cohesive introduction to these ideas.

– There are many books now available on the topic of ‘local,’ ‘community,’ ‘alternative,’ or ‘complementary’ currencies (to name just a few: ‘Money’ by Thomas Greco, ‘No More Throw Away People’ by Edgar Cahn, ‘The Future of Money’ by Bernard Lietaer) and lots of info to be found online. The ones Hart mentions: various Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS), Ithaca hours, time dollars, JAK Members Bank. Some he doesn’t: WIR Bank, Freigeld. The recently introduced Bitcoin seems to be exactly the sort of thing Hart is talking about – a completely decentralized online currency that’s been receiving a good deal of attention.

– Whether he’s aware of it or not (it seems he’s not), Hart’s conception of an informal, democratic market economy in opposition to state-capitalism has a very long tradition behind it. Called ‘Mutualism,’ the idea was first proposed by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, then developed further and put into practice by American individualists such as Josiah Warren, William B. Greene, and Benjamin Tucker, and whose most outspoken contemporary representative is Kevin Carson. A few of Carson’s writings could serve more or less as a wholesale substitute for Hart’s book. I’d recommend starting with his essay ‘The Iron Fist Behind the Invisible Hand,’ which details the historical relationship between the state and capitalism. If that piques your interest, check out his book ‘Studies in Mutualist Political Economy,’ which is both a historical overview of Mutualist theory and practice, and a reworking of Mutualist economics in accordance with contemporary economic ideas. His latest, ‘Homebrew Industrial Revolution,’ brings the technological element into the mix, and like Money in an Unequal World, combines economic/technological history with a discussion of alternative currencies and the internet.

“Keith Hart’s book is terrific. Ours is a complacent age, and it is a pleasure to find someone thinking hard about society and its most important institution, which is money. Keith Hart writes clearly and with astonishing good humour. He believes that the virtues of money can be preserved and the injustices of money abolished. I’m not sure about that, but I am sure it is worth investigating.”

James Buchan, novelist and author of Frozen Desire: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Money

“This book is that rare thing, a genuinely revolutionary and radical way of rethinking money and society.”

Andrew Marr, former editor of The Independent and author of The Day That Britain Died, also a major BBC television series

“Keith Hart, who developed the concept of the informal economy and first perceived third world migration as the formation of translocal societies, now offers you markets without capitalism, money without exploitation and exchange without inequality, all on the basis of the internet as world community. Well, you gotta read that.”

Marshall Sahlins, Charles F. Grey Professor of Anthropology Emeritus, University of Chicago

“The more I think about the book, the more important it becomes. Why? Because anthropology is in such a mess. Tell me who in anthropology is dealing with real current economic processes? So this work is critical because it could bring the subject back on track again.”

Don Robotham, Professor of Anthropology,City University of New York

Review in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Hart has written an exemplary book which has the timely effect of reminding anthropologists of some increasingly neglected tenets about why Anthropology should be an important discipline. It reflects the level of ambition that ought to be intrinsic to a subject that sets itself the task of carrying out the comparative study of humanity. For Hart the advantage of such studies is that they allow us to envisage other worlds and consider how humanity can come to be at home in such worlds.Hart’s breadth of vision takes in a much wider sweep of history
than is usual. On the one hand he looks backwards to our roots (and for much
of humanity a continued immersion) within agrarian systems. These continue
to influence and constrain us through institutions whose earlier purposes
and origins we tend to forget. Much of the book is devoted to historical research
on the development of capitalism which here is not some catchall term but
a series of diverse alignments of economic and wider practices. But the primary
focus of the book is on the future and the sense that recent developments
in communications, most especially the Internet, have demonstrated that formations
we took as established are being shifted with surprising rapidity and so the
consideration of prior diversity ought to be the foundation for a self-conscious
appraisal of some possible futures.

This is a time when many intellectuals have seen almost an
end of history with the hegemony of what Hart calls virtual capitalism where
money mainly makes money bolstered by a rigid system of sovereign states that
both secured the stability of and took their authority from their control
over monetary systems. By contrast, from the perspective of Hart’s longue
duree these – but also much of what was becoming associated with them such
as wage labour, or the separation of work from the domestic – represent a
relatively short period of ascendancy which has already irretrievably broken
down. Hart is genuinely excited by these shifting sands that might leave other
academics queasy. When the Euro is in the middle of three years of virtual
existence without a currency, and Internet trading is both global and extremely
difficult to capture within national systems of taxation, Hart sees an opportunity
to consider the liberatory possibilities in both markets and money that have
been hidden by state hegemony.Central to Hart re-imagining of the world is money itself.
Characteristically he celebrates rather than tries to reduce the plurality
of theories of money, while excavating the ideological stance behind several
such theories. He uses his primary sources of Locke and Keynes, both of whom
appear in unusually clear and forceful guise here, to demonstrate the centrality
of money itself to the wider formations of society and states. But his own
approach, given in his title, is a subtle rendition of money as the trace
of memory of social interactions, a conception at the other end of the spectrum
from simplistic groundings in mere currency. This is a vision of money as
a communicative media that fits well with the rise of information itself as
the core to the modern economy. With the break up of money as the central
foundation for states, he envisages in a rather utopian final chapter a re-subjectified use of personalised money whose precedent lies both in the emergence of smallscale systems of community exchange but also in the potential of the largescale plastic and digitised monies that are developing today. Think person
cards on analogy with store cards.

The book is written in an engaging fast paced style, full
of unusual and provocative interpretations that stir up stale and sedimented
portraits. For example, the Mauss that Hart draws out as concerned with the
libertarian potential of the market bears almost no relation to the conventional
anthropological caricature. He also manages the difficult trick of understanding
figures such as Locke and Polanyi within their particular historical circumstance
and yet thereby enhancing rather than reducing their contemporary relevance.
Hart gives anthropology its due and that of itself is sobering.
Comparative case-studies help relativise our perspective on money and markets,
while simple dualisms of embedded others and disembedded capitalism are attacked.
But within an interdisciplinary work that uses disciplines intermittently
for their contribution to the arguments of the whole, anthropological examples
have to jostle for their appropriate slots amidst historical, philosophical
and many other sources of discussion. This is not stated as such but one can
sense the author’s frustration that the dominance of highly parochial studies
open only to debates within the discipline, prevents him from giving anthropological work the prominence he would have aspired to as a contribution to his struggle with the central dialectical tensions of the modern world.

A surprise for me is the constant emphasis on money itself, without any mention of the consumption of that which is purchased with money as the primary candidate and agency for re-subjectifying the economy. Also I am probably not alone in rejecting the central ethos of liberalism that underlines this book and seeing the decline of bureaucratic taxation and the rise of personalised systems of exchange as more likely to extend rather than lesson social and financial inequality. But this is one of those cases where whether one agrees with the arguments or not is rather less important than whether Hart helps one envisage possible causes, consequences and connections one had not previously imagined or considered.. On those criteria The Memory Bank is an immensely rewarding and significant volume.

Daniel Miller

Comments |2|

  • Living in a Round Room
    It is difficult to corner a well seasoned academic

    “Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”1

    This exercise, Mr. Hart has so painstakingly explained ,is just going round and round the bush of wealth redistribution in typical academia style were having many letters after your name makes you an expert in how people should live their lives and conduct their business of subsistence and prosperity. The practicality of addressing the perceived “inequalities” of the entire planet is absurd. Mr. Hart over looks the basic reason for our existence and that is to be happy. He sees his vision of the world through his learned eyes and views all others as lacking because they are not seeing things his way. He advocates and aspires to the many already failed attempts to make everyone equal. This is not only arrogant but totally illogical and impracticable. It reminds me of the old folk humorist Robert W (Bob) Murphey who told the story of the want to be “economic democrat” (the Mr. Hart et al name for a socialist) who offered his solutions to the “inequality in economy” this way: “If I was in charge I would take every bit of money, land, stock, bonds, and any other thing of value and put it in one big pile and divide it among every man, woman and child in the country.” Mr. Murphey replied “ Don’t you realize that before long some folks will get up a little earlier and work a little harder and pretty soon we will be right back in the same situation.” The economic democrat said “No Murphey, you don’t understand, I mean divide it up every day.”.
    It should be evident that we are all unique. There is no two that are the same. Our idea of happiness may be the same or more than likely be different. Because people don’t live in a “modern society” and earn their living with their hands doesn’t mean they are unhappy and to be pitied. To them maybe they feel they are ahead of the virtual money economy. Agrarian society has offered and still offers levels of happiness that the modern virtual money world can only imagine. Rupert Sheldrake observed that on his visits to the Indian villages it was refreshing to see so many smiling faces. Then when walking down the streets of London and see none. Happiness is not always in the “modern society” nor a agrarian society.
    Mr. Hart states and believes that “Everyone benefits from redistribution”. By everyone who is he referencing. If people want to donate their means or time to help others in need that is a correct and proper choice; however to take, by expropriation, from one to give to another is immoral and criminal. We recognize crime and its injustice. Those who have had their home broken into by burglars not only loose their valuables but also loose their feeling of security or lose of something sacred. The motivation for all crimes is simple. It is the idea that something can be gained for nothing. In other words very little or no work can gain prosperity. This is an old and lasting false idea and today it is more prevalent than ever in the history of the planet. It seems as if most all are in this “something for nothing” mode. Especially those who care not to work and want to depend on government charity for a living. There are very few who are unable to work and need our help. There are millions who feel it more profitable to receive government assistance than to work. There is a great concern that there are not enough workers to continue to provide for the non workers. In Italy where Parmesan/Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, national treasure of Italy; however a labor intensive to produce. It is produced by foreigner immigrants because the Italians refuse to work. There are many such examples, too numerous to recount here, in the UK which make the Italians look like novices. When it comes to avoiding work a Brit is the quintessential example. This has come about by the very programs Mr. Hart is suggesting for the entire planet. This pseudo charity has taken the self respect from its recipients and has created more poor than it has ever helped. These programs were never intended to help the poor but control the masses. If the government were actually interested in helping people they would go about it in a completely different way. As it is they have created a situation where the bureaucracy controls the people and never helps them because it is a self perpetuating business. If the people were help in the correct way they would soon become independent and self reliant and would not need the governments make believe charity. So the bureaucrats keep giving them just enough to keep them living but not what they need to become independent of the false charity. Moses Maimonides gave the explanation of true charity in the twelfth century this way: (paraphrasing) “The greatest level, above which there is no greater, is to support a fellow by endowing him with a gift or loan, or entering into a partnership with him, or finding employment for him, in order to strengthen his hand until he need no longer be dependent upon others” . . .2
    Reversing this crime of government taking from one to give to another is almost impossible without an all out revolution. It is the Pandora’s box that will bring down governments and societies because it is a two edge sword. On one hand it has created people dependent rather than independent and they are like the suckling pig who will raise the roof to be able to return to mothers teat. On the other it has created non workers which are desperately needed to continue the “modern society”. The non workers/dependent sucklings can not provider for themselves and will revolt or die.
    The current Keynesian economy Mr. Hart refers to as a”Remedy” for all our money ills is in fact the very cause of the stated inequality. Braudel3 believed that almost all capitalist were monopolist and to quote John D. Rockefeller “ competition is a sin.” helps to validate Braudel’s belief. Carlos Slim, said to be the riches man on the planet, got to be extremely wealthy through government intervention into the free market which gave him a way to monopolize the telephone business in Mexico and other countries. Government intervention is always a result of a monopolist miss using the power of the state to crush or fatally injure the competition by bribing the elected law makers who’s job it was, as Mr. Hart quoted Locke’s wise and important reason for government, to effectuate this: “The end of law is… to preserve and enlarge freedom”. Freedom is “…a liberty to dispose and order, as he lists, his person, actions, possessions and his whole property within the allowance of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own.”. Governments have fostered monopolies under the guise of preventing them and miserably failed at securing Locke’s idea. Monopolies in business and the market are important however, these are small potatoes because the most important monopoly is the money monopoly.
    Mr. Hart has well stated the problems with money monopolies and his solution is to create our own money. He searches for a medium of exchange that the entire planet would accept and suggest some form of digital money. He admits that money now days in the world market is computer entries or simply information or as he states memory. The whole world market has accepted this computer Keynesian money and it has been the cause of the continued wealth disparity. His solution has, at its root, the problem of who will be the one to administer the computer money. A computer functions on ones and zeros and most all personal and other computers have the same amount of ones and zeros. So the question arises why don’t I have as much money as everybody else because my computer has as many ones and zeros as everybody else. The cheating of the middle class and the poor by creating money from computer entries without work being done to justify such entries is the heart and cause of the entire wealth disparity situation. It is the central bankers and monopolist who have embraced this form of “something for nothing” which is also an immoral and criminal act.
    When central banks create money it is virtual money or computer money. Money, as Mr. Hart points out, is suppose to be a store of value. How can these computer entries be a store of value for a few and not for everyone? Who is the one who is so intelligent or so corrupt to know exactly what is the value of these computer entries store of value? Money is the aid in creating a market based on the distribution of commodities based on human labor or work and raw material commodities illustrated by the example of wheat changed into bread here:

    In this illustration the cycle of distribution begins with the farmer selling his wheat to the mill. Then he purchases a tractor in the inter circle illustration. The money paid for the tractor came from selling the wheat which the consumer, who was a worker in the tractor factory, bought in the form of bread with his wages that came from the tractor purchase. This illustration over looks the most important question of “where does the wheat come from?”.
    The wheat is sown by the farmer after work to prepare the seed bed was accomplished and after the life of the grain was instilled by God. Without these works the grain would not germinate or be grown and thus no bread for the consumer. Benjamin Franklin explained this economy in his “Positions To Be Examined” written in 17694
    The entire economy, illustrated here, depends on the growing of the wheat and is in essence the true creation of money and wealth. All new wealth comes from the land and human labor/work. Seventy percent from agriculture and the rest from mining. No central bank with all its computer entries can create wealth. Locke’s ideas were based on an age where honest money and wealth creation came through commodities or raw materials produced to a useful state by people. The freedom of exchange or trade is accomplished by honest money satisfying personal happiness through the definition given by Locke of agency or freewill choices.
    Honest money and its value has been arrived at in all corrupt free markets for more than five thousand years by the laws of contracts.
    Contracts (offer, acceptance and consideration) are omnipresent. Example you walk in to a McDonald’s and the menu board makes the offer. Your acceptance is demonstrated by your verbal or computer order. You part with your consideration(money) to the agent who took the order and the contract is complete. Both parties are happy, except they forgot to put your order of chips/fries on the tray and when you sat down to eat you returned to note that the order was not complete which the agent for McDonald’s cheerfully rectifies the deficiency of the contract. The store of value accepted by McDonald’s is one in which they have confidence. If they lose confidence in the computer entry money as not being a store of value they soon will accept something in which they have confidence. If I eat at McDonald’s and feel as if the value of what I received was not in line with the amount of consideration I paid, then I will not eat there again. How do I determine what I ordered and ate was not worth the value of my consideration? This is a very personal decision that no central bank can decide for me. The question then is “what do I want and what am I willing to pay for it or how much can I afford to pay and afterward be happy?” I never eat at McDonald’s voluntarily but only to make other people happy which in turn makes me happy. This whole transaction depends on my personal happiness. In his quest to make the money playing field level, Mr. Hart has talked all around this very important fact without mentioning its importance.
    In the so called Great Depression the Keynesian s like Mr. Hart and the central bankers of the world are under the belief that a lack of liquidity or not enough money was the whole of the problem and if there had only been enough “liquidity” the Depression would have only been a slight recession. The solution was for the government to spend its way out of the problem. So the current crises has seen an enormous amount of “liquidity” put in to prevent another Great Depression. Of course the Keynesian s crow that this is the case and they saved the world with their intervention. Not many will confess that their saving the world is only a speculation and unless the exact circumstances could be repeated without intervention no one can know the truth of their boasting.
    The money of the 1930’s was coin money of gold and silver or redeemable certificates in gold or silver until Roosevelt declared gold illegal in March of 1933. Later Lyndon B. Johnson, not to be out done by his hero, created the “Great Society” intervention fashioned after Roosevelt’s “New Deal” intervention and in 1964 took the last of the silver left in the coin money and redeemable certificates out of circulation. The debasing went unnoticed by the public as a whole. Then Nixon followed by closing the gold window at the Federal Reserve in 1972. The age of fiat computer entry money was inaugurated and free to do its work of ruination by the “something for nothing” criminals.
    In the Great Depression the problem was “liquidity” . It was a result of central bank manipulation with lower than normal interest rates and caused the stock market crash which lead to wide spread fear of bank failures so prudent people, not trusting banks, made a personal decision to save their gold coins for what might be a hard time ahead. This was and still is a very normal and reasonable reaction. The “liquidity” then was not in the market but under the proverbial mattress which was called savings before 1933 and then FDR derogatorily calling savings hoarding afterward. People had control of the “liquidity” not the bank, central bank nor the government. Roosevelt and the central planning bank decided , agreeing with Keynes, to change the money by removing the gold and replacing it with fiat called “Federal Reserve notes” and take the economic power away from the people and give it to the money monopoly Federal Reserve who proceeded to create their money the “something for nothing” way.
    In the early years Federal Reserve notes were redeemable in gold or silver and were thus accepted by the people; however a scheme was cooked up to replace the gold coin and redeemable certificates with fiat notes. In other words the old “bait and switch” scam replacing real money with the “something for nothing” money.
    The common universal currency or money that Mr. Hart is searching for was and has for five thousand years been used. It has been suppressed by the computer entry money and only functioned as a medium of exchange because people accepted it. This is no longer the case more and more people will not accept the central bank fiat. A bank may once again become a place to store money. The computer entries will be based on something that can not be produced by a few strokes of the key board. It will be based on a store of value accepted by everyone. No one I have personally interview would, and I feel certain Mr. Hart would be included, when given the choice, would select a one pound computer entry note that people have questionable confidence in, over a one pound gold sovereign. The same gold sovereign that Ian Fleming had James Bond carry on his foreign missions because no matter where he was or what the currency was he could always trade his sovereigns to get what he needed. Gold and silver are the earth wide acceptable money in which people have confidence.
    There is validity in thinking that computer entries based on gold and silver can and will be the future of money. Verification of funds now is an important function of banking. It can be in the future when gold, silver or other precious metal are deposited to an account. Transactions can be exchanged denominated in grams for gold or silver. In contractual agreements, the price paid would be stated in the amount of grams of the precious metal acceptable as consideration. Plastic cards could still be used in the same manner as now only with precious metals on deposit. Credit is a different matter and maybe the Islamic and Old Testament view of interest and loans needs closer consideration. This of course is not the desire of current world market banks because they can not have the same advantage with these rules as with the current fiat computer money. They need “something for nothing” to operate their monopolies.
    When money created by work and represented by a precious metal is the norm then Mr. Hart’s idea of a equality in the economy will exist as best it can. Commodities will be priced at their historical values in relation to gold and silver and poor people producing almost any commodity will be lifted from poverty. There will be a healthy and needed deflation of those things that fiat computer money has over the years inflated beyond reason. This will not come about without a war because the criminals who thrive on “something for nothing” will not give up their power to the people without a fight. Governments are not the peoples friend but their preconceived overlords with the intent to control them and their work. Honest people working the land have been creating wealth since the first contract traded consideration. The dishonest have done their best to down play the importance of commodities and of where wealth comes from because they want to gain the whole world without work. Computer entries where no work is involved will end and honest money is returning.