At home in Durban, September 2013, first interview
In September 2103, Alice Sala and Gregoire Mayor, from the University of Neuchatel, Switzerland and on behalf of the multimedia French-language journal ethnographiques.org came to South Africa to film a conference organized by the Human Economy Programme at the University of Pretoria. Afterwards they joined Keith Hart in Durban for three filmed interviews of which this is the first. The second was in conversation with his friend Vishnu Padayachee at a restaurant and the third was at Ike’s Bookshop. This first session is divided into two parts: on Durban’s significance and on literary and personal influences. Publication of edited video versions of these interviews is still work in progress.
Alice Sala: First of all thank you very much for accepting to give these interviews for ethnographiques.org. Maybe I should say that this is not exactly an interview but more of a self-portrait, an intellectual and personal portrait. So in the next three days we are going to wander around your life, and try to get through the different ideas, approaches and major contributions you have made to anthropology.
Thank you especially for inviting us to Durban. This city will have a particular place in the interview because, as you explained to us, you re-invent yourself in every place you have been living, and this is the place where you are staying now, which apparently pulls together different aspects of your life.
I would first like to mention different elements that I think have been important in your life and that I’ve come across in your writing, because I guess they will come up in different ways during the next three days.
The first thing that comes to my mind is definitely economic anthropology. That’s one of the major fields you have been into, but I should say from what I’ve been reading, you have a wide range of interests. These go from education and transmission to the next generation, to development, and political economy, as well as history, art, poetry, literature and, for sure, gambling and games.
As I understand all these interests, they may join in one of them somehow, which is: anthropology’s place in society, which is a way to ask ourselves “What can I do ?” or “What are we actually doing with our life on this planet?”
I guess you ask this question in “Manchester in my Mind” when you discuss your social origins and your initial migration to Cambridge, then the long journey you made from Manchester and Cambridge to West Africa, the USA, the Caribbean, and back to Cambridge. And now to Paris, Pretoria and Durban. This question has been following you all long: “What am I doing, what am I supposed to do? What can I do?” An example of this question came up in your Ghana fieldwork where you tried to engage with what people actually do. But also when you shifted to the macro side of the problem by joining the development industry, or when you were writing for “The Economist”. At the same time you were building a bridge between economists and anthropologists, by learning how to write like an economist in a language you call economese. Later we see it in the enthusiasm with which you embraced the Internet and the new opportunities it opens up. Finally, what you are doing today with the Human Economy Programme.
These are all different ways to ask that same question, and to try to act on it. What I can see in all this is an anthropologist who never gives up. for whom personal engagement with building a better world, even if it sounds a bit naïve expressed like this, is important. In any case, you have always been doing it. So, over the next three days, in discussing your career and personal life, I would like to bring out this active dimension. I’m impressed that you can be so aware of our predicament and still so positive and active.
Part 1 Durban
Alice: I guess we can start with Durban, as a place that pulls together different moments and aspects that have been important in your life! What does Durban mean to you!
Keith Hart: Everywhere I have stayed, including Durban, takes its meaning from the other places that I have been. The first thing is that I want to be in the world as a whole and this means being selective obviously, but I want to be able to go wherever I want. I don’t want to be stuck in one place. This is one of the main things I have always being frightened of: that some company would own me and I can’t move because I depend on an income from them, in the way that my father did. The society I feel I am part of is global and my attitude to it is that I must always retain the freedom to move. If I don’t like where I am — which is often the case — my first response is to complain and if that doesn’t work I move. In order to move I had to have qualities and assets that will enable me to move.
Since I was a teenager I was attracted to India, but in fact I ended up working in the North Atlantic, going to West Africa, traveling to the United States, the Caribbean and so on. So I became a specialist in the society that created Atlantic slavery, you could say “The North Atlantic societies” that include Africa, the New World and Europe. I had a chance once to make a connection to Durban, through my friend Vishnu Padayachee when I was the director of the African Studies Centre at Cambridge University; he was a visiting research associate. We met and hit it off immediately. I saw, through him, the possibility of retaining my interest in Africa but also possibly opening up to India again. Because Durban is the biggest Indian city outside India, with a million people who were brought here as indentured labourers in the 19th century and have lived here ever since. So this was a chance not to choose between Africa and India but to find them both together here. I came here in 1997 for the first time, which was also the year when I left Cambridge to go to Paris. So France and South Africa came into my life together. The first time I had ever been to South Africa was also the time when I moved to France, so these two places are very much linked for me.
Previously, I spent a lot of time moving between Britain, North America and the Caribbean. As I have said, I want to live in the world as a whole, but I also don’t want any part of it to own me. I found it increasingly difficult to live in my own country, which we can explore if you want, and the obvious alternative was North America. I have always felt that I am in some sense American. I feel my spirit is American. Americans have a music that moves — road music, it’s going somewhere. In some sense I too feel that I am going somewhere and I am not stuck in one place. It’s obvious, if you compare Britain and the United States, which is the old society and which is the new one, and I found myself moving between them. Sometimes I would feel oppressed or stifled by Britain and when I went to America I could open up: they encourage you there, they say: “Come on big boy show us your stuff”, whereas in England they say: “You can’t do that, you are not big enough to do that”. So I felt I was being held back in England and released in the States, but also England was more comfortable, people look after you more than they would in the States. The freedom I got from being in the States could easily become vulnerability, just being on my own in that vast country. I was attracted to the newness of what was new and possible in the United States but sometimes I felt exposed and vulnerable and was glad to go back to England where people knew me better and could care for me. That’s the model, living in two places, which have complementary positive and negative features.
When I moved to France I simultaneously opened up South Africa as a new place to explore, and France and South Africa repeat the old/new model of Britain and the United States, but in a very unusual way. France of course is not my home country and although it’s an old capitalist society, in all the time I have spent there, now 16 years, it feels kind of fresh and strange to me. I compare myself sometimes with exiled black writers like Richard Wright or Jimmy Baldwin — someone who is taking refuge from his unequal society at home in a place that allows him to write and supports him, but which he really isn’t part of in any integrated way. That’s how I experience France; whereas South Africa is the old British Empire. It’s a new society, South Africa is only a century old, it was founded in 1910, so it’s an incredibly new society, it’s growing and developing all the time, it obviously has many problems but one problem it doesn’t have is that people feel stuck in old patterns they can’t get out of, which one often feels in Europe. But it’s also familiar to me here; when I live in Paris, my wife has to do most of the tasks like hiring the plumber, dealing with the tax people … because it’s all very strange to me, I can’t do that kind of thing and my French isn’t good enough. I don’t understand that style of dealing with people, but here I do, it may be Africans, Indians or British, but I really know most of the infrastructure of what works. And also I can get things like this [points to a glass], you might think it looks like lemonade but it’s ginger beer, it’s old English soul food. So I find a lot about this place deeply reassuring.
Alice: And new at the same time
Keith: New in the sense of hopeful, that this is a society that hasn’t even begun to explore its ultimate identity. Of course it may crash, but I would rather have the chance of looking into a different future; whereas both England and France are rather depressing and depressive societies.
Alice: So we can say that here in South Africa you found some of the freedom the US was giving you and some of the stability UK was giving you?
Keith: Yes, both South Africa and France combine elements that were separated in Britain and the States, exactly as you say, which is to say that this is old and new for me and so is Paris in a different way. Paris is an old society but it’s new to me, while South Africa is a new society, but it’s old to me. In any case these two societies offer me an experience that is much richer than Britain and the US.
Alice: And what about the other places that were part of your life in the North Atlantic Quadrilateral? I am thinking of the Caribbean and West Africa. Do we find some of them in Durban too?
Keith: Well, the three peoples that dominate Durban society are: first Zulus, who are almost a quarter of South Africa’s population, this is their home area, so they dominate the African population. As I have said, a third, or a quarter to a third, is Indian in origin. And this is also the first colony that the British made here by themselves. They pushed the Dutch out of the Cape after the Napoleonic wars, but they also came here, they saw the possibility of reproducing Caribbean sugar plantation society, but they couldn’t get the Africans, the Zulus, to work for them so they had to bring in the Indians for that. So this is a very traditional British colony here. These three populations are not the only people here, but they predominate. I find the mixture of this triptych interesting. The English and their offshoots tend to operate in a dualistic society, just black and white, whereas the French, Spanish and Portuguese have a strong mixed-race middle class between white and black — métise, mulato and assimilado. Durban’s large Indian population prevents the black/white contrast from being as stark as it is elsewhere in South Africa’s cities.
South Africa in general is very much like the United States; I always call South Africa the America of Africa, because they share a brutal form of capitalism with a very strong racist history; and to some extent each society feels that it is separated from its neighbours. South Africa doesn’t really think of itself as being part of the rest of Africa. They feel that their natural links are with London, New York, Bombay… I have written about this with Vishnu Padayachee, that South Africa and the United States to some extent share a 20th century history of highly organized racism. It’s different from slavery. What happened after the civil war in the States, when the Blacks moved into the northern cities, also happened here when the Zulus and the others came to work in the mines, this was what provoked apartheid. The Whites felt that the Blacks left unchecked would take over their cities, so they tried to restrict their right to live in the city. They are similar societies in some ways. Within South Africa, Durban, or so it seems to me, is by far the most mixed city, the least polarised; and this is principally because of the size of the Indian population in the middle. Cape Town also has a large coloured population and it is also divided between British and Afrikaans-speaking Whites.
And of course Durban is a port city, I call it the Marseilles of Africa. A very large port is just round the corner here, I see the ships coming and going all the time, and port cities are always more mixed, more open, more dynamic. It was also traditionally an industrial city. One of the things I don’t like about Paris is that it is a political centre. In the United States for example, I love Chicago because it is not Washington or New York. I like provincial industrial, commercial cities that make their own living without taking it off their political subjects. So I don’t like London and to some extent I don’t like Paris for the same reason, its history of exploiting the French population as a political centre, just as Manchester was and is by London.
When I first came here to see Vishnu, there were many features of this place that I liked and for the first ten years or so, I just visited here; but 5 years ago I had a chance to buy this apartment which is right on the Indian Ocean. This added the dimension that I didn’t choose Durban for, but which I now enjoy more than anything else. I look out of the window, I see the horizon and an infinite expanse of sea and sky. I know that over the other side of the horizon is India with all of its allure for me, I watch the big boats come in and out … that horizon is not just a metaphor. I can sit here and I feel that I’m anchored somehow in this place because there is so much of South Africa and Durban that I share coming from where I do. And the situation opens me up, I am at home and rooted in some way, but I can entertain the most ambitious and inclusive thoughts, while allowing the ocean to stimulate me.
Alice: And what about what is behind your flat?
Keith: There is a long beach and promenade, 7 kilometres. Durban is ranked by Lonely Planet as one of the top ten family beach resorts in the world, it’s very attractive. But the port is right next to my end of the beach and of course ports produce red light districts and the rest… In fact behind me, right here, is a rather run down area, which was once more criminal, more subject to drugs and prostitution than it is now; since the container revolution the number of sailors coming into Durban has been massively reduced. So in fact the strip clubs on Point Road (which ironically has been renamed Mahatma Gandhi Road) have been reduced in 20 years from 9 to 1. And of course the city of Durban wants to develop this area which they are trying to gentrify as best they can, but they have not succeeded completely. So the front is a well-maintained international resort, a surfing centre with many other possibilities; while the back is still a bit run down.
The first time I went to a supermarket at the back, I couldn’t believe it because it was cramped and noisy and vital and I thought, “This is like West Africa, it’s like the slums I worked in in the 1960s”. I didn’t think much more about it, but there was something quite tangibly similar. We had a small daughter and hired a Zulu girl to come and look after her. The first day she came, she said, “Oooh this is a dangerous place — there are so many foreigners here”. Well I don’t understand the African languages they speak around here. All I saw were poor Africans, but she was a Zulu, a local, and she knew there were foreigners. So I then checked out who were the foreigners around here and they were Congolese and Nigerians; of course Nigerian in South Africa stands for criminal immigrants whether justifiably or not. It kind of freaked me out: the beach front in Durban is like a cross between Blackpool and Miami, it has a lot of tall sky scrapers, hotels, it also has piers with people fishing, of the kind I was familiar with in the northwest of England when I was a boy.
These are some of the influences that come together here. When I walk out of the back door, I am revisiting my youth as an ethnographer in the slums of West Africa, I can’t believe it really. And then in addition to that, not far from here is the most important racecourse in South Africa, it has the main race, the Durban July. It’s a beautiful racecourse and when I was a student, even as a schoolboy I took a great interest in horse racing and betting. So I began to think when I came here that I could somehow pull together a patchwork of elements that allowed me to revisit some of the most important parts of my life.
Alice: And how can you bridge Manchester and Durban?
Keith: I have a big television here. I live in France and the French don’t show English soccer. But here, cable TV shows every English football match, up to 6 or 7 a weekend. You could sit here from Saturday morning to Monday night and watch nothing but English football. Of course my team is Manchester United, so I am more connected to English football than to my origin in Manchester itself. I actually grew up in Old Trafford, which is where their ground is. It’s also where Lancashire built a national cricket stadium. I could walk to each of these in 15 minutes. So my connections with Manchester are more ideal than real — my family have all left there and I can’t really identify with what Manchester has become in the last 20 or 30 years. When I grew up there, it was bombed out and depressed. So Manchester has become a totemic association, reduced to my support of Manchester United. When I was in Manchester I couldn’t wait to get out, it really was a terrible place to live in after the war, so there was not much to hold me there that I want to relive. I haven’t thought about it so much since I wrote that essay “Manchester on my mind”. The point is that Manchester formed me as a strong provincial, industrial, commercial city that changed the world through inventing the industrial revolution. When I go to Chicago, I can see that they did the same thing on an even grander scale. What attracts me to places like Milan or Marseille or Durban is that they are like Manchester, although each of course has its own character. So Manchester is something I am looking for wherever I go, it’s why I could never really settle to spend the rest of my live in Paris, because Paris is the opposite of Manchester. If I was living in France and had to pick a city, it would be Marseille, I love Marseille. It’s got the beach, it’s got the fish, it’s got the industries. In fact I call Marseille Manchester on the Med and I call Durban the Marseille of Africa. These cities form a kind of linked set in which Manchester is the source for me. So, of course, yes there is a sense in which living here connects me to Manchester.
Alice: So Durban is opposite to Pretoria somehow?
Keith: Now you have brought up the question of Pretoria. It’s kind of ludicrous, but you could say that in my city network, it’s the Paris of South Africa, but of course it isn’t. I have a job there, I have a colleague, John Sharp, who read the introduction of a book that I was compiling with French and Brazilian colleagues called “The Human Economy: a Citizens’ Guide”(2010) and he said we could run with this here in Pretoria. Pretoria University is the largest residential university in South Africa, it was traditionally an Afrikaner institution but now like most of South Africa it has become more open. They did sponsor our post-doctoral research program there, which in the last three years has taken up a lot more of my time. When I am in Pretoria I am always passing through and I would never dream of living there, but I have to be there to do the job. It has in fact diverted me from spending more time here in Durban, but I see this as temporary. The program there is short term, with a rolling contract of some three years and it could fail at any time, but here is my home.
All the places I have lived form a kind of dynamic set for me where the fundamental contrast is Manchester vs. London. Manchester had the independence to create the industrial revolution but later in the 19th century the political power in London appropriated the wealth of industry and diverted it to making an empire, which simultaneously rewarded non-productive elements in British society, colonial mercantile classes, and undermined the vigour and dynamism of Manchester’s industry. To some extent, it plays the City against the State. So what appeals to me about Durban and Chicago, Marseille etc. is that these are real cities with a sense of their own destiny that has not yet being overridden by national state power. We’ll see, when speaking to Vishnu, that he belongs to a class that is almost medieval, a genuine bourgeoisie. It takes responsibility for the city, knows its own power, does good works and builds museums, but also has a very strong sense of its ability to fend off intrusive political power of which, as you can imagine, there is quite a lot, especially in Zuma’s South Africa, Zuma of course is a Zulu. The Zulus running amok in the city council are not at all bourgeois, but simply reflect national political power, obviously in some kind of contest with the local bourgeoisie.
This was a British city, if you were in the port yesterday you saw the Royal Yacht Club, founded in 1858. But now the Whites are moving out of Durban up the coast to new areas where they can have gated communities with shining buildings, exclusive use of the sea and so on. So Durban is losing white capital and this represents quite a major threat to its future. Also the airport has been relocated from the city into Zululand, 35 km North near the coast being developed by the Whites. So here is a great city, a port city, with an incredible history that is nevertheless struggling for its future; but at the same time it still has an identifiable bourgeoisie and I use bourgeoisie not as the Marxists do, but as a class of citizens who really care about and look after their city. Some Marxists would say this was the wrong class for the job, but as far as I am concerned it is indispensable. The Manchester bourgeoisie was very strong in the 19th century, not only that, they launched many of the deepest political transformations of the 19th century: the free trade movement, the cooperative movement, liberal economics… All this stuff was coming out of Manchester and it was reflected in a particular kind of engaged politics involving the local citizens across classes, but especially a certain class among them.
That’s what I find here! It’s a better answer to the original question about what is the relationship between Manchester and this place, its more specific. The fact is, I am looking for Manchester everywhere and when I find it, as in Chicago, I just fall in love with the place. After London squeezed the life out of Manchester’s industry, the whole project moved to the States. Chicago was not only an industrial city but it organised the agricultural commerce of the whole of the hinterland of the United States, it’s incredible. Look at the buildings, from the 1880s until the 1920s, you can take architectural tours, the buildings are incredible, different styles, art deco and so on. Every great architect in North America felt obliged to build an even better skyscraper. The other thing about Chicago is that it had a big fire and they had to get rid of all the rubbish, so they put it in the lake, and in doing so extended the lake front quite significantly. Previously the railway lines and the roads and the buildings went right against the lake, but now in getting rid of what had been burnt, they created a new space. The mayor said: “We are not going to build on this space”. So in Chicago, which has these incredible buildings, you can actually get a view of the city as you can’t in New York. There you are trapped in the canyons! Frank Lloyd Wright operated in Chicago, so the architecture is incredibly adventurous and beautiful and brave, but a political class encouraged that and supported it, out of a sense of Chicago as a society belonging to itself.
A part of me simply wants to find cities that make their own destiny at every level — aesthetic, economic, political, social — and that is why Chicago is my favourite city in the world. I love the sheer spirit of what they have built there, all that emulation and not only that. My subject is money and these people reinvented money several times, they invented hedging against speculation, you know, and they invented money futures after the dollar went off gold in 1971. Chicago has been the most influential and innovative financial centre in the world for over a century.
Alice: Can we imagine a link between your fascination with cities that take control of their own destiny, maybe against centralized political power and how anthropologists or any single person should try to take control of their own destiny through their actions to produce their economic situation?
Keith: There is a difference between what I have said about cities in my life and individual anthropologists; it’s been implicit so far. Yes, by all means, my aim in life is to find the fullest self-expression I can and to make free associations to combat the obstacles that are put in my way, usually by movement or by combining activities in different places. This desire for personal self-expression and free association depends on having a social structure that is conducive to it. So it’s not just looking for self-determination as an individual. You need to find a place that actually supports you in this goal. This is what Tocqueville found in America in his book on “American Democracy” in 1840, that private interests and free self-expression need public institutions that are compatible with that end. He found this in the early American democracy and later also in France.
Now you ask “Do you seek something like that in anthropology?” No I don’t, because anthropology could never actually represent a social organization. It’s a strategy if you like, that some people may see themselves as being part of, as I do. I want to contribute to the renewal and expansion of anthropology as a way of engaging with the world and understanding it and so on. But anthropology is not a religion; it’s like a religion, but it is more weakly institutionalized than most religions. If you are a Christian, you can sign up for a church or buy into a form of social organization and so on. Anthropology has become largely attached to the universities and dominated by them and often as a weak member of these universities. The spirit of anthropology, which is very much my spirit, goes against the corporate bureaucracies that universities have become. Anthropologists are supposed to be free spirits, who break out of the prison of normal life and go wherever they want to bring back news and all sorts of ideas. They don’t really have a discipline in the sense that an economist or a chemist would claim a discipline. In any case anthropology is about everything, everything human beings do, which is everything. So anthropology is never that specialised, its spirit goes against the kind of bureaucratization of the universities. This is becoming more and more contradictory as that tendency establishes its grip over the universities. I can’t look to anthropology to support this, but I can say that anthropology allows me to be freer as an intellectual than almost any other discipline; this was why I became an anthropologist.
I was a classicist and the classics in the early 1960s were regimented and narrow. We would spend our time discussing whether a letter in a 12th century Spanish manuscript was an alpha or an eta. Although the questions were incredibly small, people brought tremendous animus to the discussion, fighting over nothing, in a very negative way, and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life doing this. Then I found out that anthropologists have no intellectual standards and they could study anything, so that joining anthropology allowed me to pursue more or less anything that I wanted. So anthropology in that sense supported my spirit of self-expression and free movement, but it is rather different from the idea of a city providing a framework that touches on many levels of life within which one can feel oneself to be a free citizen. I was talking about the city and how it organizes things and you tried to make it something personal, which I think is right. That forced me to ask if anthropology is a social framework for me to pursue my life goals, and in what way is it similar to or different from the city and democracy that I have kind of built up as an ideal. Anthropology is a deeply individualistic discipline if you compare it with the natural sciences or engineering or medicine, where graduate students have to work in a team, they get very little choice of how they spend their time or which bit they are doing and so on. My feeling with anthropologists, especially PhD students, is that they all feel like they can emulate the greats of the discipline from the beginning. There is no real sense of apprenticeship, you feel you have to master your own conditions of research, which to some extent you do as long as we insist on people travelling to distant places and so on. That individualistic norm is still quite strong in anthropology. I found for example that I prefer to supervise people who are working on topics I know nothing about than to work on a topic that I do know a lot about. Because, in a sense, it gets rid of part of the Oedipal struggle. For example, I had a student once who wanted to study the informal economy of West Africa, but when he came back and started writing up, he immediately felt that I was in a better position to make public what he had found, so there was this tension. But if someone is studying the ecology of the Venezuela Wetlands, the myths of Szechuan peasants or the social history of a 19th century Mormon town in Utah — all of these are my former students — then they are free, they can open up to me, there is no chance that I can rip them off.
It’s not the only consideration, but at Cambridge I found that most students tried to pick topics that their supervisors didn’t know about, for this reason. At LSE they tend to take the topics of their supervisors and there is a stronger sense of patronage and protection, perhaps not the kind of conflict I just described. Thus Rita Astuti goes off to a village in Madagascar supervised by Maurice Bloch who worked there. He then gets her a postdoc and now she is the head of department at the LSE just as her supervisor was. There is more continuity and apprenticeship there, but when we come to talk about my Cambridge teachers, there is less sense of continuity and reproduction between the generations. My main teacher was Jack Goody. There is no Jack Goody School, you would be hard put to think of two or three people who were his students and yet he had dozens of them. Whereas my friend Johnny Parry worked in India all his life, the students that he has produced and nurtured at LSE continue to identify with him. So I think anthropological individualism was much more developed in Cambridge.
Part 2 Literary and personal influences
Alice: In the second part of the interview we can discuss the personalities who influenced you and shaped your work and ideas. I am thinking here not only about people you “really” met, but also philosophers, writers…
Keith: We want to talk about intellectual influences and that includes teachers, people I have known personally and people I have encountered through their writings only. I think I should start by saying that people whose writing has influenced me most were initially not academic writers, but were novelists, playwrights, poets and film-makers. My most passionate engagement is with fiction: plays, novels, movies. And for most of my life I thought of this passion as being separate from my real work. Now I identify two great camps and call one “stories”, the other “analysis”. I always knew that I had to make my living through analysis and that my real passion was for stories. It was only later in life that I was able to think of combining them or even moving from one to the other. I mentioned that I conceived an interest in India from an early age and that came from E.M. Forster’s “Passage to India”. Or I have an affinity with the criminal life of the slum and that came from “Crime and Punishment”, when I was 17 years old and Raskolnikov was my hero.
You might ask how could someone have as a hero a deracinated student who murders an old lady as part of an experiment? I felt I was like him. That is to say that I had no bounds, I was moving into society in a direction I couldn’t anticipate and I had to make it all up. There is a point in the novel when the police detective Porfiry, while talking to Raskolnikov, says: “I was reading a student magazine and I saw a very interesting article by you. I would like to quote a sentence you wrote: anyone who would do something new must be a criminal – do you still believe that?” This is the crux of the novel, because at some level Raskolnikov knows the game is up, but it takes 300 more pages for him to crack and confess, to be broken down. When I read that sentence, I said: “Yeeessss! If you want to do something new, you have to be a criminal”. From my earliest years, 2 or 3 years old, I felt that the rules were designed to keep me down, that the only way I could become me was by breaking the rules. When I was in primary school, I was both the brightest kid in the school and the one who was most frequently punished for breaking the rules. That was partly a way of not being beaten up by the other kids; if I had been both the brightest kid and teacher’s pet, I would never have got home every night. So breaking rules was partly a way of being with the others. But this has always being my outlook and it’s an important aspect of my anthropology. When I went into the field in Accra, I didn’t ask the people to show me their culture, the rules they lived by. No, I wasn’t interested in that, what I wanted was a conversation with them. Someone would come to me and ask:
“Would you lend me some money so that I can setup selling sugar lumps?”
“How much do you need?” I reply.
She says how much, she wanted to buy a box of sugar lumps, sell them, so I say:
“How many lumps will you sell for a penny?”
“Four a penny” She says.
I did a quick calculation:
“You could still make a profit if you sell them for 5 a penny, and maybe you could sell more than the competition”
“Yeah! But then the other women would beat me up”
Instead of asking: “Tell me how you run your sugar lumps business” I engaging with them interactively: “What if you did this instead” and so on. So this is my attitude to society. And my own improbable journey through the world is based on the idea that I can’t pay much attention to what they tell me that I should do. For example in 1970s Britain, there was a rule you could only take 300 pounds in currency out of the country. I have never forgotten that, and now when I get off a plane anywhere in the world, I bring out my plastic, stick it into an ATM, get money out and say: “Fuck you Harold Wilson”. This was why I was able to adapt to live in the slum and why I invented the informal economy. The informal economy is what people do outside the rules. That is its definition.
So anyway, I think the greatest social thinker of all time is Shakespeare and his method, of human drama, using the play form, is perfect! I was a great fan, as a teenager, of American dramatists like Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neil, Tennessee Williams, not to mention the movies, Hitchcock, all his stuff. Probably the single most dramatic cultural event of my teenage years was going to see “Psycho” at the age of 17. It absolutely scared the life out of me! I spent the next 20 years trying to figure out how he did it, how did he make me so scared? It was only much later that I realised how he did it. He had a music score by Bernard Hermann and he built up the tension visually, so you had Martin Balsam going up the stairs ready for the guy to come out and stab him. We all know it’s going to happen, the music comes in fractionally before the visual image … so you are on the edge and then …bam bam bam bam… and the knife comes after it and you get hit twice in quick succession. It’s absolutely petrifying.
I also ran my college film society. So I’ve always taken my inspiration, certainly more when I was young, from writers of fiction and I was never able to link that to what I actually did as a classicist or an anthropologist, it was always another world. I was a mathematician, when I was a teenager; I was a linguist. Even as an anthropologist you have to produce articles for general readers of a certain kind, yet I never linked them up. Now I can afford to explore the creative links. That’s all just background to the intellectual influences. I prefer to talk about the writers first and then maybe the teachers.
I already knew quite a lot of classical philosophy, history and literature, but not much of anything else. So when I converted to anthropology, as an undergraduate, I was very impressed by the Durkheim School. But after I did my PhD and in the course of doing it I was interested in development, migration, entrepreneurship, all that kind of stuff, and clearly it drew me into Weber’s problematic, the source for the main theoretical approach of the day which was called modernization. After my PhD I got drawn into development economics, which was mostly Keynesian around that time, 1970. But one day I gave a talk at Manchester and a Marxist economist said to me: “Why are you giving us all this neo-Keynesian crap? What is wrong with Marx?” I didn’t really know Marx at that time. I was a bit humiliated. I had tried to read Marx before but without much success. And he said: “I suppose you don’t even know Adam Smith”. This was around the time when I published my well-known article on the informal economy and I was working for “The Economist” part-time. I learnt economese, which is how to sound like an economist with no background in the subject. Also writing for “The Economist” teaches you how to sound like you know everything, that’s what economese is like. I did this because I wanted to influence the development process and the economists were in charge of it. I knew that there was a linguistic problem and I had to speak to them in a way they could assimilate. I had to go to them, they were not going to come to me! That’s something a lot of anthropologists don’t get, or they don’t spend time on. But what I learnt quickly was that I could earn a living quite easily peddling anthropology to economists and economics to anthropologists. If I would settle for just being a broker, I could have made a living for the rest of my life without getting anywhere, just telling anthropologists what the economists know and the economists what anthropologists know … and so on. But I wanted to join them up somehow. So while I am basically moving into development as a consultant and as a writer with development economists, “The Economist” and all this stuff, I suddenly got shocked by that seminar comment into really making an effort with Marxism and that became my dominant influence for the next 10-15 years. You could tell I was a Marxist then since, when I occasionally organized my books, the Marxist section on my shelf was the longest. The 1970s were its heyday in academia –New Left Books was publishing all those people like Colletti and Poulantzas.… I devoured the Marxist historians such as Hobsbawm and Thompson. So I joined the Marxist faith for quite a while.
Then I went to the Caribbean and for some reason I picked up Hegel. I can’t remember why, but I know I had a rather passionate and short-lived exchange with Hegel. Of course he got dialectics from Kant. Then I got into Kant and Rousseau and the regular enlightenment more generally. After I left Cambridge to go to Paris and started writing a book on money, I got into John Locke, whose work triggered off the enlightenment and by then I knew what had being happening. I had gone from Durkheim to Weber and Marx, then to Hegel, Kant, Rousseau and Locke. I was tracing my journey back to the origin of modern social theory in reverse historical sequence. I decided that I wasn’t going to take the extra step to Hobbes, probably because Marshall Sahlins has done Hobbes and never found anything else after that.
We often contrast “The West” or Euro-America with Melanesia, Amazonia, “The Rest” or whatever and yet my experience of western social thought, philosophy, economics and the rest was that they were much more plural than most anthropologists imagine. I gave a Malinowski lecture in the 80s where I said it was a shame that Malinowski chose to pitch his Kula analysis against a straw man like Homo Economicus, as if all of economics were just one thing, when in fact there are many strands. According to this article, ”Heads or tails? Two sides of the coin”, money is always made by political and economic factors coming together; that the concept of society built into theories of money could be the nation, state or community. There is a huge variety of social constructions within Western thought. I needed to communicate this somehow, while holding the view that people who stick with one theoretical approach tend to overestimate its strength and value. Once I had completed this reconstruction of modern Western social theory, I was able to be eclectic, I could pick and choose from my range of knowledge for ideas and approaches that were suitable for the questions that I was asking in a particular case. I didn’t have to be bound to one approach for everything. Although I am talking about the people who shaped my ideas, I think I have always been an empiricist or realist perhaps, more than an idealist or a theoretician. I find it easier to approach a question through the facts of the case and then I form the idea that might shape it. That’s why I took up the issue of informal economy. At that time, everyone believed that a country’s economy was defined by the state; but I said, “There are a lot of things people are doing that are not defined by the state”. And at that time if you were an economist, you were either a Marxist or a Keynesian. There were no liberal economists then, no influential people pushing the market, not in 1970. Although interested in the history of ideas, I don’t usually approach objects of research and writing from the ideas but from the facts of the case that I encounter.
We have to confront the world as it is, even if it’s really nasty. We have to have the courage to see it as it is. People who approach the world through ideas have already made some kind of commitment to see it as it is not. They are protected by their preconceived ideas from seeing the world as it is. Although it’s a dialectic moving backwards and forwards, the thing that drives both the informal economy and the human economy is the belief that we have to start with people’s lives and how they encounter the world in the everyday. I am a classicist; I read old books because I know which writers have been proven to be good. I know the people who made a big difference to how we think, Aristotle, Rousseau. I was once teaching at at Yale and my graduate students wanted to discuss contemporary anthropology in a theory class, Chicago vs Columbia. Chicago stands for a kind of cultural anthropology, Columbia was more evolutionist, even Marxist: later Marshall Sahlins on the one hand and Marvin Harris on the other. I am not schizophrenic, I might be a maniac but not that. One day in the shower a voice spoke to me and it said: “Why read Marvin Harris if you haven’t read Immanuel Kant?”. I took that voice seriously, stopped reading contemporary anthropology and started reading Kant. As a classicist, the great advantage of reading old stuff over new is that you don’t know which new stuff is good, so you might be wasting your time, indeed you are wasting your time most often. That’s another reason why I go into intellectual history.
Of other people I haven’t mentioned so far, partly as a result of being in France for the last 15 years, I came back to the Durkheim School, but this time principally through Marcel Mauss, through French left wing economic sociologists I got to know. Polanyi became the significant figure for most of them that Marx had once been. Mauss and Polanyi became very major influences on my more recent work. So it’s not just a one-way trip into the more remote past.
Grégoire: And maybe that still have a kind of conversation. You use Marx and Durkheim and Mauss, Rousseau… you use the concepts, ideas as tools, and you switch from one to another.
Keith: Actually when I am writing, I have real conversations with them, I mean I am on first name terms with them, I call them Jean-Jacques and Immanuel. I don’t know what my standing in history will actually be, I could be small, could be big, but I don’t place myself within a hierarchy of intellectual history at one point or another. So when I tackle people like Marx and Hegel and Kant, it’s important to feel that I am their equal in some sense. I haven’t achieved equality with them, but I don’t want to assume a position of being their inferior. The big problem we all face is that each of us is alone, puny and vulnerable. We are all a small self and the world is huge. So how can little Keithy from Old Trafford imagine that he could make sense of this monstrous world out there? You have to build yourself up and bring the world down to a level that you can engage with meaningfully. Einstein did it brilliantly, E= MC2! It’s fantastic! The whole of the universe reduced to three letters and one number. A theory of everything, just like that! That’s what great scientists do! If they aspire to unlock the secrets of the universe they have to find ways of bringing it down to a level that they can handle in their imagination.
Alice: It’s what religion tries to do too?
Keith: Most people did this scaling up and down before by praying to God. They said “God, my wife has being really bad to me today, what can I do? I need your help” having a conversation with a white bearded person who stands for everything out there, either alone or in collective rituals. Prayer allows you to engage with the universe’s principle of unity in this way and on terms that are unique to you! So yes, religion too, as you said, of course. This is what we have lost; at least those of us who have lost religion have lost that method of self-realization.
Everyone thought modernity was going to kick religion into touch, but 80% of American say they believe in God, not to mention all the others kneeling towards Mecca or whatever. So yes, this is my point, religion gives believers a way of meaningfully connecting the details of their personal lives to some inclusive concept of the world they live in. And I believe that we can still do it, now through fiction — novels, plays, and movies. What these do is they take history, the world, whatever and put it through a narrow frame like a paperback, DVD, stage…and we enter this reduced world on any subjective terms we like. When I read “War on Peace,” I can ask myself who I would rather be, Andre or Pierre, do I fancy Natasha? Or you could even relive the battle of Borodino and decide where you would send your cavalry. There is no limit to your subjective imagination, it’s all private, nobody else knows about it, you are not going to be ashamed or exposed as a fraud, none of this is going to happen. Whatever goes on when you engage with these things, it allows you to deal with the world in a reduced form, often in a stylised form, and you can enter that reduced world without any real constraint.
So that’s why I think that fiction is the modern equivalent of praying to God. Of course, I would think so because it is what I have always being passionately involved in. Now I would say that writing is my religion. Durkheim provides the perfect model for me in “The Elementary forms of the religious life” when he says that we know well our everyday life: you wake up in the morning, make a cup of coffee, find where your keys are’ you go out of the door, you miss the bus, you go to your first lecture … this is what we know. But there is a whole lot else that we don’t know and would like to influence if we could: natural disasters, economic catastrophes, social revolutions, wars … death! Death! We face all kinds of stuff that affect us and may undermine everything we hope and live for. According to him, religion is a way to connect the known of our everyday concrete lives to the great unknowns that threaten us individually and collectively. And for Durkheim the greatest unknown is society, because we don’t understand how we live together, how we belong together. We don’t know if society is out there or in here. And we desperately want to make some kind of connection with it. That’s what religion does!
It is in this sense that writing has become my religion. You start with this existential soup, undigested experience, completely undifferentiated! You have to go into that and bring it out as a writer. So first you bring something out onto the page or screen. Once you get something out, you can share it with others and move back and forth between outside and inside yourself. Any serious writer connects self and world by engaging with this traffic. When I write I have no plan, never had any plan, I just let what I’m writing come out in the writing. But this is just the first stage, then I go back to it, start revising, tinker around with it. I may use something I’ve written before, check sources and facts. When I wrote The Memory Bank, most passages were revised 20-25 times. Immature writers think the big problem is to get the stuff out in the first place. Many organize their lives in such a way that they never get a chance to do more than a first draft. For me this movement back and forth in and out is exactly what Durkheim was writing about, connecting what is intimately inside of each of us to what is out there. We have to establish ritual methods for organizing this movement and that’s what I started off by saying prayer is about.
I have also been very lucky that the last two women I shared my life with read in bed. A lot of academics, because they read for a living, don’t actually enjoy reading in their private lives; and I think I was going that way. Then my partner was reading for pleasure especially at the end of the day. So I did the same. Now I spend a lot more time reading Scandinavian crime fiction, Henning Mankell and the rest.
Returning to Durban, what I didn’t mention is the very first thing Durban meant to me: Gandhi. Gandhi spent 20 years in South Africa of which the first half was mainly in Durban. I have a hundred volumes of Gandhi’s writings. All his effort was concerned with scaling the self up and scaling the world down. There’s an amazing passage in his autobiography about a big strike in Ahmedabad, an industrial city, and he goes there and just sits down on a street corner. In four days the whole strike is about him and this is something he had being preparing all his life for. When he went to learn the law in London, he got to London and found that there wasn’t anything to eat, because he was a vegetarian. So he joined the vegetarian society, got onto the committee and started doing policy documents; by the time he finished his degree there were 20 vegetarian restaurants in London. One person can change the eating habits of a city to suit himself and this is what he tried to teach people. He picked the Indian village as an appropriate vehicle for the anti-colonial revolution because it was organised on a scale where most Indians were not dwarfed, as they are by big cities and modern states.
All of Gandhi’s work is interesting for anthropologists. If you look for his anthropology, he held that every human being is unique and we all belong to the same thing, which is humanity, and the question is how to connect the two extremes. Between these two extremes are all the social divisions and categories of gender, nation, class, race and religion which of course the social sciences have made their special province. So we know a hell of a lot about why people don’t get along with each other; but we don’t know much about how they can somehow come together in more inclusive ways. And that’s what he was trying for, to take the sub-continent out of the British Empire. He needed to mobilize people, but they would fail unless they believed in themselves and their own capacity to achieve great things. He goes to the sea to make salt in Attenborough’s movie “Gandhi” with Ben Kingsley. The British prohibited the Indians from making salt, and he goes all the way to the sea, starts boiling sea water to make salt, then it switches to the Viceroy of India, played by John Gielgud, and they say “Gandhi is boiling salt on the sea shore, what are we going to do about that?”.
This is what I believe anthropology has the potential to do! But unfortunately the anthropologists bought into the social sciences, which means that they now know how to fragment social reality better than to help people to bridge its extremes in this way. We are living in a world that is increasingly interdependent and really is in great danger on several fronts, environmental, economic, political. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we enter another thirty years war. It is vitally necessary for people to connect with this dangerous situation we are all in. But how can they connect with it when the TV tells them every day that the latest idiotic comment by Jacob Zuma is all that really counts? Or that the movement of shares on the Johannesburg stock exchange is how you understand what’s happening in the economy? When the media are so parochial and in bed with the politicians, and all the rest of it?
So this is the inspiration from my human economy program: if people are going to win some degree of self-expression and free association from the expert classes that deny them the chance then it’s not enough just to celebrate the actors’ point of view because the actor often doesn’t know enough about what affects him most. That was Durkheim original mission: sociology is going to teach people how to connect what is inside them with all that stuff outside and how they belong to other people, and what they can do about it, if they want things to be better. At this stage in world history we can’t settle for anything less than making the world a better place to live in. But that doesn’t mean abandoning our concerns with every-day and concrete local affairs; our attempts to deal with the world will have to be grounded in what we do day to day. It’s no good believing in some grand ideology that has nothing to do with your everyday life. It’s a sort of symbolic politics: you are in your office doing your thing and something flashes into your inbox saying “sign this petition” and you say “Oh, what the hell”, boom, send it off. That’s exactly the opposite of what Gandhi was concerned about.
Alice: I can see the link, and I see it as the final link, between the many bridges you have been building all your life, a bridge between the inner self and global humanity, and I can see how you try to build this bridge in your project the Human Economy. On the other hand I can see the HE as the end or the next step after the informal economy. So what was already in the idea and concept of informal economy that was trying to bring together the inner self and the global outside?
Keith: I was 22 years old when I went to Accra. I had never experienced or coped with anything like that before. I think that informal economy is simply a form of empiricism. It’s saying: “The people are not what experts say they are, they are just not doing what they are supposed to do”. My only aim was to reveal what was invisible, to show what people were really doing and to challenge the masters of the universe: “Now that I have shown you this, does that make you think you might have to do something else?” It was really addressed to a class of politicians and development economists, saying: “You people in your air-conditioned hotel rooms and offices, this is what is going on out here”. In a sense, what I felt at the time was that neither the people I worked with nor me understood the great events that were happening. So when I finished my thesis on informal practices I felt I understood the street economy as well as they did, if not better, but I also felt that they and I were equally clueless about why Kwame Nkrumah had been ousted in a coup, why the economy collapsed in that year, why the military did what they did.
I began to explore these questions, partly by working with The Economist, partly through development consultancies with international agencies, and I found that the cocoa price collapsed in the year of the coup because the Ghanaians supplied half the world market, but this time they over-produced and the government still bought all the cocoa, put it all on to the world market and brought the price down to below what they paid the farmers last year for producing less. It was a real mess, but I had no idea about that when I was in Accra. So this notion of connecting real life to the rest is something I have been working on for decades. My first reaction was to say “Well I can’t just go back to the streets”, I have to join the development industry at the level of states and international agencies. When I was 29 I co-wrote the development strategy report for Papua New Guinea’s independence. All of this was a way of scaling up. What I did there as a consultant in the 70s was an ethnography of political life at that level, which I had previously not known about. Then that in itself was not enough; I felt that I needed the perspective of philosophical world history to put some of these things into their place and all of that took decades. By the time I decided to give up on contemporary anthropological theory and read Kant and Rousseau, I had already absorbed a great deal along these lines. I never knew that this was what I was aiming at, to be able to say that Gandhi showed me how to help individual human beings (and myself) meaningfully connect to the predicament of humanity as a whole. That all came later.
I should say also that I was religious from the age of 14 to 18. When I was 12 and was supposed to be confirmed in the church, I said “I am not joining, I don’t believe”. Then I had a conversion experience when I was 14 and became very deeply religious for 4 years. As soon as I went to Cambridge, it just disappeared; but I had that personal experience of religion. Max Weber says that you study what you are or what you are not, and my interest in religion comes from having been religious, not from lacking religion and wondering why the hell do these people believe all that stuff? It makes a huge difference if you have had religious experience and I did in my teenage years. I was working really hard, I was alone, I had no educational support from my family, they didn’t know what I was doing. It was really frightening, there was so much at stake; I needed somebody on my side and it turned out to be God. As soon as I got to where I wanted to go, God disappeared out of the window, it was just like that, an evaporation. After 2 months there I realised I wasn’t religious anymore, didn’t need it. It was the leap from working class Manchester to Cambridge that was so daunting, a task that I had to perform alone, but couldn’t perform alone, so religion helped me to find that support.
The thing about the 1960s when I was a young adult is that Western youths thought that we owed nothing to the previous generation, our parents and teachers; we had to make it up from scratch. We were wrong: our parents fought fascism and then built the welfare state to give us our education; but we still thought we were orphans who actually didn’t have parents and didn’t owe them anything. I was over-educated by the time I arrived at Cambridge, very arrogant, I didn’t think that these old farts had anything to teach me, I never went to lectures. It’s incredible to look back on it! It’s also why we are terrible parents and teachers, my generation. If you don’t believe you actually learnt something from anybody, then you don’t know how to pass it on or you don’t even consider it to be important. So we ruined our children’s lives and basically scrapped the educational system we inherited; and there is nothing left for those who come after us.
When I converted to anthropology, my only teacher was Jack Goody, he was in the same college, I met him drinking, because usually this was what I did and he did too, quite a lot. Because I was over educated as a classicist, I didn’t have to do any work. So I spent all the time betting on the horses, drinking, playing cards, reading novels and going to movies. That was my life, but most of it was drinking in the college bar where I got to know Jack well. He was my undergraduate teacher, the only one I had, I went to some lectures but didn’t get much out of them and he was also my PhD supervisor. I thought he was a lousy teacher, but then I was predisposed to this judgement. I certainly didn’t think he paid much attention to what I wrote or said. In fact Audrey Richards, an old lady and a bit of a gossip, said to me when I was writing my thesis that Jack had asked her what my thesis was about, and then he said: “Well, I am sure Keith will be alright”. So perhaps I didn’t just make up the the idea that I wasn’t getting much in the way of teaching..
A decade later, however, Jack Goody started his tremendous series of books on the difference between Africa and Eurasia, about which Greg and Sophie have already published a substantial amount on ethnographiques.org. The preface to the first book in the series is a self-conscious account of his own history and priorities. He was captured in the war in North Africa, put in a prison camp in Southern Italy, he escaped and took refuge in the Abruzzi mountains, he was caught again and sent to a stalag in Germany. In the middle of all this he read Frazer’s “Golden Bough” and as very impressed by North Africa’s Islamic civilization. So when he came back, he decided that he wanted to be an anthropologist. He was an English student before that, so he started with an interest in literature and then moved on to anthropology. But in this preface he lays down three principles that organized his work ever since as an anthropologist. So I read the first one and I said “Yeah, I agree with that”, then went to the second and I said “Yeah, yeah, that’s what I think” and then I got to the third and the same… So he must have taught me after all! It was not accidental that the three things he said were the pillar of his work as a scholar were also mine. So I became to realize that I was in some way carrying out Jack Goody’s project.
I dedicated my first ever book I to Jack and to Meyer Fortes. I restudied the Tallensi of West Africa that Fortes has made his own reputation studying. I spent quite a lot of time with Leach and Goody and Fortes. The most impressive of them was Fortes, although in terms of personality he wasn’t that impressive. He was a South African psychologist who was persuaded to switch to social anthropology by Malinowski. But I had a quite difficult relationship with him since he could never get rid of the idea that Jack was using me to undermine him. He told me that a lot later. He once sent me a seven-page handwritten letter in which he said “I always knew you were a Benthamite of hedonistic persuasion”, meaning a utilitarian individualist, “but I never realized that you were so ignorant of piety and the rules of family loyalty”. In other words, I was basically Raskolnikov!! (laughs) So we had a rather difficult relationship. Then, when I was in Chicago in 1983, he sent me a postcard, which had Kings’ College’s Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi on it. On the post card he wrote that he had just read something I’d written on the economy in North Ghana and said “I was wrong Keith. I always thought you were an opportunist and shallow, but you are not. You have made a very serious contribution to the economy of the region; and you are a serious person, even though I doubted it”. Earlier, when he visited Chicago and was asked if anyone else had studied the Tallensi after him, he said “Yes, there was a guy, but he gave it all up to study tourism in the West Indies”. So this card said, “I doubted you and I was wrong, you basically kept to a path that is serious, and you were not just chasing the money by entering the development industry”. And –you won’t believe this, but it’s true — by the time I got the card he was dead! He actually wrote it in hospital and died before I got the card; so it was like a gift from the grave … you know an in nomine patris, filii et spiritus sancti kind of thing.
My first book was on West African agriculture, a historical review of the literature on rural development in the region. I tried to write an ethnographic book based on my slum research and I couldn’t do it. And then USAID, the State department said, “Would you like to write a report so that our field operatives in West Africa can read about and learn from the broader picture?” I did that and then Jack Goody said he could publish it with Cambridge as a monograph is social anthropology, which he did. I said to Meyer Fortes: “Why don’t more anthropologists write literature reviews? I can’t write ethnography, but I find a literature review easy”. And he said, “Anthropologists are like peasants, Keith. They like digging holes, but sometimes they need someone to tell them where to dig, and that’s where you come in”. In fact my doctoral research in Ghana is the only sustained ethnographic work I’ve never done; and everything I have written since has really been a kind of literature review, writing books about books I have read.
I have a mind that can synthesize large amounts of literature, but even though I think I’m a quite good practical ethnographer, I can’t write it up. Maybe the reason I can’t write it up is because I have internalised the experience and I found it difficult to get it out. For example, I did my fieldwork on urban informal economy and I wrote my first book on agriculture, when I wouldn’t recognize a millet stalk if it hit me in the face. I found it easier to write about something I didn’t know about than write about something I did. What I do know about is deeply embedded in me in ways that I then found difficult to get out. So in the book I wrote instead I argue that West Africa cities are not separated from their rural hinterlands. West Africa was not colonized as Southern, Central and East Africa were, since the Whites built the cities there, but in West Africa the Africans built the cities, and they built them in a way that was continuous with their own rural civilization. I was never able to write about development in West Africa as an urban phenomenon because continuity through migration between rural and urban areas was what struck me most. I felt eventually that the basic reason I couldn’t write my urban ethnography was that the social life of the city was not something sui generis. So in the end I wrote about urbanization, but from the point of view of a predominantly agricultural society.
My real aim as an anthropologist is to study religion, it always has been, but I couldn’t study religion directly, so I studied economy instead; after all economy is the religion of capitalist societies. So eventually through economy I would get to religion, but I never did. I always knew the route to get there in the end, but now I don’t think I will: it should be through economics and political economy, then ecology and finally religion. That was the sequence, but I had to go for it in a roundabout way, I couldn’t go straight to it. Similarly, I went out to study urban life, but I couldn’t write about it. So I ended up writing about agriculture instead. A writer has to find a way around to what really matters. You simply can’t write just about the things that engage you directly. So I had to find something, a proxy. In this case economy is a proxy for religion. So, as I said earlier, people pray to God, but now we have lost the habit or at least a lot of people have. For them religion has been dismissed from the organization of the main industrial societies. I think this is a terrible thing. If you ask me what I hope the Human Economy project will become, it would be one of the ways people will seek to establish a new secular religion that will enable them to connect more effectively with the world we are all making. It is an economy because economy at the moment is the strongest way to define the contradictions of how we can do that.
The big event of the 20th century was the anti-colonial revolution. Up to and including the 19th century, peoples were forced into world society by western imperialism; but in the 20th century they sought to establish their own independent relationship to it. The people from whom I draw the most vivid inspiration are the anti-colonial intellectuals Fanon, Gandhi, C.L.R. James. The only one I knew personally is James and that is why he was my mentor.
Alice: Thank you very much… we still have plenty to talk about, CLR James, Rousseau, inequality … part of it will be discussed with Vishnu while going through the different interests you share, mostly on development. And finally we will visit Ike’s bookstore, a perfect place to talk about your mentor CLR James and the future of anthropology.