World Society as an Old Regime

In C. Shore and S. Nugent eds Elite Cultures: anthropological perspectives, Routledge, London, 2002

I present my argument in two sections, corresponding to self and society, subject and object. In the first I will report on my personal journey as an ethnographer of the global elite concerned with development in the 1970s; while in the second, on the basis of further reflection, I suggest that contemporary world society might be thought of as being polarised between a rich elite and the mass of poor people. This leads me to conclude that humanity has failed to consolidate the advances in science and democracy which launched the modern age; and I ask why, after two centuries of the machine revolution, our world still resembles the old regime of agrarian civilisation. For whatever anthropologists may contribute to the study of elite cultures in the plural, I believe it is our duty to show the way towards grasping the human condition as a whole.

An ethnography of the development elite in the 1970s

When I finished writing my doctoral thesis in 1969, I felt that I understood Accra’s street economy as well as the people who participated in it. [2] But, like them, I had no explanation for the great events which had shaken Ghana’s political economy a decade after independence: the collapse of the cocoa price, the ensuing scarcity of goods, the army coup which overthrew Nkrumah. I had discovered an elective affinity in fieldwork with the lawless trade of Accra’s slums. My method had been less to record the existing economic practices of Nima’s inhabitants than to participate in them and challenge them, as an entrepreneur in my own right. I had been surprised by how easy it was for me to make money and how difficult to get rid of it. By the end of a stay lasting over two years, I had become a local big man, redistributing the profits of criminal enterprise through handouts, jobs and parties. I was ignorant of the history which might help me to account for this situation. Ghanaians wore cloth from my home town, Manchester, but I had little idea how it came about or what it meant.

Accordingly, I set out to learn more about the history of colonialism and of its successor, ‘development’. More than anything, I wanted to enter the world of states and international agencies. So I joined an academic consultancy organisation at the University of East Anglia. Before long my conversations with development economists paid off and I was able to transform my Accra ethnography into a means of entering the debates of the day about urban unemployment in the Third World. I was helped in this by picking up ‘economese’ (how to sound like an economist without any formal training), through writing reports on West Africa for the Economist Intelligence Unit. These exchanges spawned the idea of an ‘informal sector/economy’ whose inter-disciplinary success as a concept is still a source of wonder to me (Hart 1973, 1992).

An initial foray into development consultancy as a ‘manpower expert’ in the Caribbean was followed by two heady excursions into the high politics of development: a mission in 1972-73 to write the development programme for Papua New Guinea’s forthcoming independence (UNDP 1973) and an enquiry into Hong Kong’s labour situation in 1976 (Turner et al 1980). By the end of the 70s, when I was able to convert a report for USAID on West African agriculture into a monograph on the region’s political economy, I knew I had made good progress towards understanding the history of large-scale structures and processes. I did this by converting to Marxism and reading a lot; but also by carrying out a sort of ethnography into the elite circles who were responsible for development policy at that time.

One day Bert Turner, Professor of Industrial Economics at Cambridge, phoned me up at Yale: ‘I need someone who can sound off about Third World cities at a moment’s notice’, he told me, ‘and I thought of you’. The story that emerged is one I acquired by hearsay, but it went roughly as follows. James Callaghan’s Labour government was under pressure from the parliamentary left and the unions to do something about Hong Kong. It was held to be scandalous that a Victorian capitalist colony could be allowed to exploit cheap Asian labour under a socialist government. Callaghan responded by promising a commission of enquiry into Hong Kong labour along the lines of the Donovan report on British labour relations a few years earlier. The Foreign Office then hit the roof. Britain maintained the fiction, for the benefit of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), that Hong Kong was not a colonial state, but a municipal authority. A parliamentary enquiry would send entirely the wrong message. The idea was dropped and in its place a low-key academic enquiry was proposed, unpublicised and even secret, whose report might be delayed long enough for the heat to go out of the parliamentary issue. In any case, the report would not recommend substantial reform. Bert Turner and I were the academic enquiry. I did spend a few minutes considering the ethical and political dilemmas involved. But the chance of a month in Hong Kong overcame my doubts. Always the intrepid ethnographer!

Hong Kong was going through the long boom which allowed it to make the transition to prosperity in the 1980s. We discovered that one reason for this was the gap between local and global inflation rates. The latter was running at 15% in 1976, whereas Hong Kong’s domestic rate was only 1%. Most of this was attributable to rent, since everything else (water, food, clothing, in short general wage goods) was supplied by the PRC at prices consistent with its own internal market. Almost all Hong Kong’s production was for export and employers could distribute the inflation bonus between profits and wages at will. As it happened, the riots surrounding the Cultural Revolution in the late 60s were still fresh in the memory and they handed out wage increases freely in order to avert what they imagined could be union subversion under the direction of Beijing. So a communist state and a Labour government colluded in creating the conditions for one of the world’s most successful capitalist economies.

This made it relatively easy to write a report saying that Hong Kong’s workers needed no help from the British government. But I was given another task. Hong Kong’s labour market was supposed to be as free as anywhere in the world. Indeed Milton Friedman made a television documentary around that time highlighting Hong Kong as a leading example of the free market in practice. Employers told us that any attempt to rig wages would be thwarted by the extraordinary mobility of workers who could shop around between factories in the same high-rise buildings during their lunch hour, ready to exploit minor differences of pay at the drop of a hat. I didn’t believe it; but the evidence was hard to find. We were supposed to be operating underground; but everyone knew who we were. My colleague preferred a confrontational approach which was easily rebuffed by the British businessmen and Chinese officials. I preferred stealth.

In exchange for lunch and flattery, I offered my services to businessmen seeking advice on whether to send their daughters to Oxbridge or the Ivy League. But my main hope for inside information was the Personnel Manager of the second biggest firm in Hong Kong. We met for drinks at his golf-club. I was then invited for dinner and a game of bridge. This was obviously the cultural test. If I passed, I might be treated to some confidences. I am a good bridge player; but in the middle of the game, my host said, ‘Didn’t you say you were a classicist once, Keith? I like to read the Oxford Book of Greek Verse before bed. Let me show you my favourite poem.’ I couldn’t believe that he was going to test my competence in Greek, 14 years after I gave it up. But he was. My heart sank when he picked out a passage from Pindar, the most obscure of Greek poets. When I looked at the passage he had singled out, I suddenly knew that he was a bluffer too, capable only of reading schoolboy Greek. The passage was very simple to translate and I congratulated him on the profundity of his choice.

After the game, my friend asked me to stay behind for a brandy and immediately said, ‘I believe you would like to know how the labour market works here.’ In short order he revealed that the top dozen firms met every Wednesday lunchtime and filled in a huge questionnaire, agreeing between them the wage level for every job in Hong Kong. This was then passed on to the government’s labour office which published it as one of their own surveys of going wage rates. And everyone else negotiated in relation to these published government findings. He told me also that the Shanghainese cotton spinners met in a tea house every Tuesday afternoon for the same purpose. I later used this information in my report to the FCO to undermine Hong Kong’s laisser faire capitalist image. But, by then, as predicted, the heat had gone out of the Hong Kong question in British politics. I offer this example, warts and all, as a way of asking what anthropologists are prepared to give up in order to be temporarily assimilated in ‘the flower of society’.

The other example is more conventional. I was recruited to a team, commissioned by the World Bank acting as executive agency for UNDP (United Nations Development Program), to draw up a development programme for Papua New Guinea on the eve of independence. It was headed by Mike Faber, a general economist, and the other three members were an agricultural economist, an economist mainly responsible for mining and me with a wide remit in employment, education, health, social policy and local government. We spent three months in Australia and PNG during mid-1972, wrote a preliminary report and returned in 1973 for discussions with the newly elected Pangu party government of Michael Somare. The second time around we were reduced to two since the agriculture and mining experts had dropped out, possibly fearing that their consultancy careers would be wrecked by what one of them described as the lunacy advocated by Faber and Hart.

We arrived in Australia just when a quarter century of Liberal/ Country party rule was expected to give way to Gough Whitlam’s Labour party. The Ministry of External Territories (covering PNG) had been a Country party fiefdom. But, with the help of the Commonwealth Treasury, we found that PNG was a redistributive device for siphoning A$500 millions a year from taxpayers to three Australian interest groups: trading oligopolies (the usual story), civil servants (who enjoyed extraordinary conditions and pay), and farmers (who dumped subsidised rice and dairy products in PNG, hence the interest of the Country party). I early on formed the opinion that what was needed was a Nyerere-style rural socialist government aiming at self-sufficiency and thereby meeting the needs for both national autonomy and lower rates of Australian subsidy.

We soon ran into opposition. The chief World Bank representative was a career officer who had an annual season ticket with Pan-Am to carry his golf clubs into the first-class cabin, so that he experienced minimal delay on his way to the watering holes of the local elite. He believed in the World Bank’s mission to maximise the profits of multi-national firms regardless of the returns to local populations. What we proposed in the way of grassroots development linked to an emphasis on the income of nationals he considered to be a ãracistä deviation from orthodoxy. Our proposal to renegotiate the terms of the Bougainville copper mine (incidentally the largest gold mine in the world) upset everyone: the colonial administrators who had arranged a notorious give-away, the operators (a subsidiary of Rio Tinto Zinc), the World Bank who believed a contract was a contract, the Department of External Territories and so on. In this climate of confrontation, the team found itself reduced to two.

Things improved on our return, however. The winning party in the country’s first elections had used our preliminary report to campaign on ‘Eight points of development’ drawn largely from our report. When Faber and I met the cabinet, the prime minister said, ‘Gentlemen, before you came, we only knew of one model for development. Now we know there are at least two.’ At which point, the World Bank official and the head of the colonial government’s planning office leapt in to claim that they had been in substantial agreement with us all along and hoped that the new government would give them the business of implementing the development programme.

The main lesson I gained from this experience concerned the fragmentation and disunity of bureaucracies which often seem quite intimidating from the outside. In this case, although the principals in the mainstream institutions were ready to defend the status quo, others anticipated taking their place as a result of the Australian election and were prepared to support us. This was particularly true of officials from the Commonwealth Treasury who, it transpired, were the source of our appointment in the first place. Although it was hard going at times, it was possible to run with an idea through the bureaucracy and win. Generally consultants legitimise decisions taken already; but sometimes an opportunity arises to make a difference, however small.

I was still in my 20s at the time, as I had been when I embarked on life as a criminal entrepreneur in Accra’s slums. On both occasions I was struck by the unequal social power I wielded as a young western ignoramus on the fringes of colonial independence. But both types of ethnographic fieldwork surely demonstrate how much the conditions of research are affected by the roles we assume in relation to the societies we study. I doubt if we tell our students enough about how the positions they occupy within the host society will affect the outcome of their research far more than a theoretical approach adopted in the insularity of the classroom. If we are serious about studying elites, this problem will become even more apparent. For going down the social spectrum, as well as allowing us to assume the mantle of populism, has masked political processes which are far more evident when anthropologists aspire to penetrate life at the top.

World society divided between a rich elite and the poor masses

For some time now, I have been aware that, to all appearances, I belong to the world’s ruling class: white, middle-aged, middle-class men, the men in suits or just ‘the suits’. The existence of this term means that we recognise the polarising tendencies of our world in terms of social categories. I would go further. The world as a whole is now in much the same situation as were the advanced centres of agrarian civilisation before the modern revolutions which thought they had swept them away. It is hard for us to grasp that 300 years of political struggle and economic development have left world society in an analogous condition to that of the ancien régime in France during the 1750s, when Rousseau (1984) wrote his famous discourse on inequality. But how else can one describe a world in which a socially exclusive minority holds so much power over an impoverished mass whose powerlessness is now measured by how little money they have to spend? Who would have believed that the latest wave of mechanical invention would grant one man disposal of $60 billions and potential control of the global information industry, while billions of people lack material essentials, never mind the means of getting wired?

The project of imagining national communities, largely by means of statistical extrapolation, is little more than a century old. Even so, we now accept without question the idea that the Italians and the Spanish have the lowest birth rates in Europe or that Britain has sunk to being the 18th richest country in the world. Since the second world war and the formation of the United Nations, it has become normal to collect statistics on the global population; but thinking about human society as a single entity has not yet taken hold. It is about time that it did. For ours is the moment of the formation of world society in a meaningful sense; and the fragmentation of perspective produced by national consciousness prevents us from imagining the human community as a whole. Numbers are one way of beginning that process.

There are two pressing features of our world: the development of markets, transport and communications since the second world war has led to an unprecedented integration of global society as a single interactive network; and polarisation of rich and poor within national societies has been extended to huge and growing inequalities between continental regions. Becoming closer and more unequal at the same time is an explosive combination, since the normal method for dealing with inequality is to put distance between the classes, not to reduce it.

According to the United Nations Human Development Report (UNDP 1998), the world’s 225 richest men (and they are men) own more than one trillion dollars, the equivalent of the annual income of the world’s 47% poorest people. Three of them have assets worth more than the Gross Domestic Product of the 48 least developed countries. The West spends $37 billions a year on pet food, perfumes and cosmetics (‘let them eat Pedigree Chum’), almost the estimated additional cost of providing basic education, health, nutrition, water and sanitation for those deprived of them. The rate of car ownership in industrial countries is 400 per thousand, 16 in all developing countries. The rich pollute the world fifty times more than the poor; but the latter are more likely to die from the pollution. World consumption has increased six times in the last 20 years; but the richest fifth account for 86% of it.

Even though relative deprivation is striking within nations (Bill Gates owns as much as the annual income of the 106 million least affluent Americans), solutions to the obscene inequality and ecological risks facing world society require us to focus on the global picture first. As a thought experiment, we could conceive of humanity as a unit stratified by wealth, race, age and gender. Women everywhere are struggling with the legacy of patriarchy. The world’s poor, however, are concentrated in what came to be called the Third World and latterly the South, the outcome of western expansion over the last 500 years and particularly of imperialism in the19th century. The ideology sustaining this expansion was racism, the belief that the power of ‘white’ people derived from a biologically founded superiority to the ‘darker races’. Although racism is nowhere officially sanctioned today, it still plays a major part in organising cultural responses to global inequality. Then also the world’s young people are to be found predominantly in the South owing to a lag in the fall of birth rates there. For the age distributions of rich and poor countries are skewed heavily towards the old and young respectively.

There are, as I have said, tremendous inequalities within countries and regions; but it is not difficult to summarise the above description in terms of a two-class model. A rich, mainly white, ageing minority (about 15%, if we take North America, Western Europe and Japan together) is surrounded by a majority (five-sixths of the total) which is on average a lot poorer, darker in colour and especially much younger. Seen in terms of the reproduction of humanity as a whole, we can say that a stagnant western elite is about to be replaced by a hugely proliferating generation of non-westerners from whom it is separated by a tradition of cultural arrogance and by ingrained practices of social exclusion.

The situation is not unlike that found in agrarian civilisations, where small urban elites sought to maintain control over rural masses condemned to drudgery and political impotence. The main difference between the two cases lies in the fact that modern world society is supposed to be organised by an ideology of human freedom and equality. This is the legacy of a democratic revolution, begun in the 17th and 18th centuries, which aimed to install rule by the people in general as the only legitimate form of government. The industrial revolution, which closely followed its political counterpart, implied that humanity might now be released from material as well as social constraints on its development. But the evidence of global inequality today shows that this emancipatory rhetoric is an illusion.

World society today is at base as rotten as the aristocratic regimes which preceded the modern age. Power has been concentrated into forms held against the people, first in the hands of owners of big money (capitalists) and then in a revived and strengthened state apparatus. In the second half of the 19th century, no major thinker envisaged the possibility of imposing state control on the restless energies of industrial/commercial society. Yet in the course of our own century, the rule of elites has been restored: state bureaucracy is absolute; and world society is divided into national fragments. There is no popular government anywhere; and most people have forgotten when they last took an active interest in such a possibility. The confusing part lies in the widespread use of a rhetoric derived from the democratic revolutions to cloak the purposes of those who reserve effective power to themselves. Western states are no more liberal than the Soviet Union was Marxist. At least the old regime of agrarian civilisation called itself what it was. The vast majority of intellectuals are complicit in the lies needed to sustain this latterday revival of the state. Behind a smokescreen of democratic slogans,  the bureaucracy relies on impersonal institutions to maintain grotesquely unfair levels of inequality.

One method for an anthropology of the contemporary human condition would thus be to conceive of world society as a single population divided into rich and poor or, if you like, polarised between a remote elite and the undifferentiated masses. This society is unsustainable, in that most of its members are exposed to conditions of poverty and violence that are humanly unacceptable, while a few enjoy the benefits of wealth in forms that were unimaginable before the industrial revolution. Moreover, a society so cruel and indifferent to the general human interest is heading for ecological disaster. Ours is a corrupt ancien régime which must soon find a new democratic revolution, if human intervention in the life of this planet is not to end in catastrophe.

The form of social organisation underpinning this universal crisis for humanity is state capitalism, the attempt to manage markets and money through nation-states. In whatever guise local elite cultures appear to us, we must first understand the general form before proceeding to analyse its variants. We know that agrarian civilisations ruled the earth for 5,000 years before the machine revolution altered the conditions of human life irreversibly. In 200 years the world’s population has multiplied six times, the proportion living in cities has risen from 1 in 40 to 50% and energy production has grown at twice the rate of the people. This last statistic accounts for the fact that many people now eat more, work less and live longer; but the benefits of mechanisation are distributed most unevenly, with Americans consuming on average 400 times more energy than Ugandans, for example (World Bank 1998). [3] Up to three billion people, mostly Indians, Chinese and Africans, still work in agriculture with their hands; but the other half of humanity lives in the modern city or the urbanised countryside.

It would not be surprising if the latter, especially, held that we are now living in a world which has made a decisive break with the past. And this is indeed the case. Today’s societies everywhere claim to rest on science and democracy, the twin foundations of modernity and the lasting legacy of the 18th century revolutions. This modern religion is similar in many ways to older claims made on behalf of God, and with the same plausibility: if society is omniscient and good, how can there be so much suffering in the world? The obvious answer to this question is that society is not run by and for the people as a whole and, whatever its principles, they are not based on effective knowledge. Perhaps we are less emancipated from the past than we imagine and are further from a desirable future than we hope.

The breakout from agrarian civilisation was led by urban middle-class elements in a few places beginning with the Italian renaissance. This was not the first time: for a thousand years class coalitions based on property in land and money respectively slugged it out for control of Ancient Mediterranean society, before the Romans made the world safe for landed aristocracy. In the modern period, it did seem as if what its detractors call the bourgeois revolution was home and dry when mechanisation was married to capital accumulation. But this was precisely the moment when, fearful of the proletarian monster they had made, the middle classes shrank back and embraced an alliance with the military land-owning class. Society was reconceived as nations whose origins were shrouded in a rural past; and the counter-revolution took off with a vengeance. Marx was right to rely on a feudal metaphor for the new wage-labour system, since everywhere old forms of property and power were harnessed to the task of holding the workers down.

Even so, as the 19th century drew to a close, the issue was in the balance. The world was drawn together by a revolution in transport and communications (steamships, railways, the telegraph). The workers were concentrated in smokestack industries. Could they seize power from the owners and their allies? The issue was settled by the first world war, when governments discovered that they now possessed unprecedented powers of social mobilisation and control. Society was centralised at the top and 20th century state capitalism was inaugurated. Since then, until recently, when another revolution in transport and communications has begun to undermine territorial states, the question was not whether the people would win out or their rulers, but to which form of state people all over the world would be made subordinate. The middle classes abandoned their previous commitment to commerce in order to sup copiously at the trough of national bureaucracy, relying on their university diplomas for a life-time of privilege as experts in social reproduction.

The result is that the middle-class revolution with which the modern age began has stalled, even regressed, first allying itself with landed power and then assuming the form of rule traditional for agrarian civilisation. As I have pointed out, no serious mid-19th century social thinker imagined that industrial/commercial society could be controlled from the top by a remote centralised mechanism. Yet a century later, most of us are conditioned to think that no other form of society is imaginable. The institutions of agrarian civilisation, developed over five millennia with a passive rural workforce in mind, are, in form if not in content, our institutions today: territorial states, landed property, warfare, racism, embattled cities, money as objects, long-distance trade, an emphasis on work, and of course world religions and the family. Consider what happened to all the wealth siphoned off by western industrial states since the second world war, the largest concentrations of money in the history of humanity. It went on subsidising food supplies and armaments, the priorities of the bully through the ages, certainly not those of the modern urban consumers who paid the taxes. No, we have never been modern, as Bruno Latour (1993) says. We are just primitives who stumbled recently into a machine revolution and cannot yet think of what do with it, beyond repeating the inhumanity of a society built unequally on agriculture.

Pierre-Philippe Rey (1973) sought to bring the West African colonial experience of capitalism and the original British case within the scope of a single explanation in Les alliances de classes. He argued that, wherever capitalism developed, the new class was forced into making compromises with the old property-owning classes in ways which made the resulting hybrid something specific to that society. Thus the British industrialists had to make an alliance with the land-owning aristocracy in order for the factory system to flourish at the expense of feudal agriculture. Similarly, in West Africa the indigenous lineage elders made an alliance with the colonial authorities to supply the labour of young men to plantations and mines.

This kind of class alliance is depressingly familiar. It offers an example of the institutional complexity which more abstract economic theories tend to ignore; and which social anthropologists are trained to look for. In Britain, the industrial bourgeoisie was separated from the traditional landed aristocracy by region (North vs. South); but their influence on national government was always limited by its location in London, the home of the mercantile and colonial elite. In the late 19th century, the industrial civilisation of regional cities (led by Manchester’s cosmopolitan liberalism) was undermined by nationalism and financial imperialism based in London. The British economy never recovered from this process of political centralisation. It is not hard to tell a similar story about Rhineland capitalists and Prussian Junkers in Germany. Each national class compromise was historically distinctive and this is why the capitalism of a country (Italy, Japan or wherever) is always different. There is no difficulty in tracing the local roots of elite cultures. It would be sad, however, if this ethnography of difference, like all the other ethnographies of difference which have become our professional stock-in-trade, ended up obscuring the social form which underlies the profound economic inequality of our world.

Humanity is caught between mechanisation and agrarian institutions; and the combination is potentially lethal. Its most striking pathology is the polarisation of rich and poor at every level of society. Nothing less than a world revolution is adequate to redressing such a situation; and it will not succeed without an appropriate explanation for the phenomenon in question.

My first observation is that we are living with the consequences of 5,000 years of agrarian civilisation (Childe’s urban revolution, 1981) which cannot be discarded overnight. Agriculture as a mode of production relies on intensification of labour inputs, making people work harder for less; and the institutions we still live by were formed by small urban elites bent on controlling populations tied to the land. Half of the world’s people are still living under conditions of traditional agriculture which do not afford them the means of participating fully in a capitalist economy driven by machines and money. They can join the rush to the cities or they can produce for the world market. The cities are themselves organised to sustain vast material inequalities between those who enjoy the benefits of machine civilisation and those who are largely excluded from it. And the latter are the majority in regions which have not yet mechanised production.

The second explanation for global inequality lies in capitalism itself. The system of money-making favours those who already have a large capital fund. Left unchecked, the rich will always get richer and the poor will stay poor. Modern capitalism has flourished when linked to machine production. These machines have hitherto been huge, centralised complexes (factories), so that power has gone to those capable of launching enterprises on a large scale, the owners of lots of money (capitalists, banks) and, more recently, states. Mechanisation too, in order to take root, requires cultural and social institutions (science, education, work discipline, finance, property law) which are unevenly spread between and within societies.

A major corollary of the above is the established tendency for labour markets to take on a dualistic character: two streams of workers, one highly paid in jobs using sophisticated machinery, the other performing tasks of little skill for low wages and in poor working conditions, often no better than those prevailing in traditional agriculture. Marx (1970) identified these trends in terms of the concepts of relative and absolute surplus value. Although squeezing profit out of sweat shop workers is a naked form of exploitation, he considered that mechanisation allowed workers to be paid an even smaller share of the value of their production, despite their higher wages. This, after all, was why capitalists invested in machines. The migration streams of Europeans and Asians which ushered in the 20th century world economy entrenched this dualism at the global level (Lewis 1978). Subsequently both national and international institutions were developed to maintain the division in the interests of the rich and powerful. The chief function of these institutions, located in states and associations of states, is to justify inequality and to keep the poor in their place by controlling any movement which might undermine the separation of rich and poor. In a word, apartheid.

There is a cultural explanation too. If, as Max Weber (1981) insisted, it takes a cultural revolution to join the historical development known as capitalism, the means of altering the shape and dynamic of world society would seem to be even more daunting. A society formed by western imperialism and served by an enduring legacy of racism is now governed by international institutions, dominated by the United States, whose chief purpose is to maintain the free flow of money (capital), to the benefit of those who already have lots of it. A world whose most inclusive body is the United Nations has enshrined national consciousness at the core of efforts to co-ordinate world economy. The territorial state and nationalism effectively reinforce indifference to others, leaving the world stage to be ruled by the most powerful, while undermining whatever sense of our common humanity might lead us to want to alleviate the horrors of poverty.

That the world economy in based on inhuman principles is a commonplace. Quite apart from whatever active role states and markets may play in promoting inequality, as impersonal institutions they place economic life on a footing where it is difficult for ordinary human beings to feel meaningfully involved with what is going on, even if they understand it, which is unlikely. Compassion and similar human qualities are unlikely to be influential in economic life when power seems to be concentrated in remote, faceless centres. The normal response to problems is to let ãthemä (the powers that be, les responsables) get on with it. When confronted with the consequences of their own actions, people shrug their shoulders: it is nothing really to do with us. The case for a more human economy is this: that society will only be democratic and fair when people can assume meaningful responsibility for what they do.

Finally, we must turn to the specific developments in world economy of the last two decades, which I summarise as the rise of virtual capitalism. Virtual in two main senses: the shift from material production (agriculture and manufacturing) to information services and the corresponding detachment of the circulation of money from production and trade. This in turn is an aspect of the latest stage of mechanisation, the communications revolution culminating in the 1990s (Hart 2001a). The question is whether the same developments which have led to the recent integration of world society are the cause of its increasing polarisation. The answer, of course, is yes.

Long-distance trade in information services requires a substantial technical infrastructure. The internet has its origins in scientific collaboration between America and Europe during the Cold War. Its main language is English. The countries which led the industrial revolution in its first and second phases are thus well-placed to take the lead in this third wave. Every stage of mechanisation has been initially concentrated in a narrow enclave of world society; and this one is no different. But diffusion of the new techniques has been quite rapid and decentralised. Mobile phones and videotape have brought telecommunications to many parts of the world where the old physical infrastructure was underdeveloped. Already some of the simpler processing tasks have been devolved to where educated labour is cheaper; equally the destruction of old manufacturing industries in the West has often been brutal. But the short conclusion is that many poorer regions appear to be stuck in phases of production which have been marginalised by this latest round of uneven development.

Spiralling markets for money in countless derivative forms have injected a new instability into global capitalism. The East Asian bubble of endlessly rising stock markets has burst, wiping out paper assets and devaluing currencies overnight. Mismanagement by the banks has reached colossal proportions. This apotheosis of capital, its effective detachment from what real people do, has made many huge fortunes, often for individuals controlling sums larger than the annual income of a dozen Third World countries. Here is certainly one of the motors of global inequality, money being made with money. Moreover, the money system has now reached a social scale and technical form which make it impossible for states to control it. This may be good news for democrats and anarchists in the long run; but in the meantime Hegel’s recipe for state moderation of capitalism has been subverted, with inevitable results: rampant inequality at all levels and appalling human distress without any apparent remedy.

We are obviously at a turning-point in human affairs. The present situation cannot continue indefinitely. It is no longer self-evident that being inside the virtual economy is a privilege. If the bubble bursts, people sitting on little plots of land in the countryside will count themselves lucky to have missed the bonanza. Development is no longer a linear process describing unequivocal winners and losers in the global economy, advanced and backward producers. The rules of the game are being rewritten so fast and with such uncertain consequences that it is no longer apparent who is best placed to benefit from them. The populations of America, Europe and Japan which have grown passively dependent on the impersonal institutions of state capitalism may be less well-placed than many others to learn patterns of economic activity adapted to a new age. But then the world’s rural and urban poor are unlikely to be able to afford the price of participating in such an economy.

The word elite means the pick or flower of the crop, perhaps even the chosen few. It is a term redolent of an agrarian society run by those who believe themselves to be naturally, socially and spiritually superior to the masses. In other words, a form of society such as the one identified by de Tocqueville (1955) as the old regime, supposedly buried by the French revolution. Contemporary world society has more in common with the old regime of agrarian civilisation than it does with the modernist rhetoric inaugurated by the democratic revolutions. This is not just because of the sheer gap in life-style and prospects between rich and poor; but because the ideology justifying global inequality is still identifiably racist, explaining difference as the expression of innate superiority and inferiority. The European empires have collapsed, but the people have not yet inherited the earth.

The intellectual tradition we know as anthropology should be capable of helping us to understand this anomaly and to remedy it. I have suggested that the methods of ethnography and global generalisation might be adapted to such a task. The term elite is a crude, even reactionary concept, not unlike peasant; but if it helps social anthropologists to focus on the causes of persisting human inequality, it will serve a useful purpose. I have concentrated here on sketching an approach to society conceived of in universal terms. This is in self-conscious contrast to the particulars of 20th century anthropology’s cultural relativism. But the point of having a sense of what humanity faces in common is to help us identify the particular trajectories of individuals and collectivities within it. [4] The global picture does not exist independently of our interactions with it. We alter society whenever we study it; and this is why, in the first part of this paper, I have described ethnography as a form of intervention, one perhaps of little overall consequence, but an active engagement with others nevertheless. In such a world, the universal and the particular need not be opposed and the contradiction between 19th and 20th century versions of anthropology might be overcome.


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[1] Closely based on the keynote address read at the conference. Part 1 is the first public airing of the experiences described there. Part 2 is drawn from my book, Money in an Unequal World (Hart 2001a) and is amplified in another paper (Hart 2001b).

[2] These opening paragraphs draw on an account produced for a volume on African enterprise edited by Stephen Ellis and Yves Fauré (Hart 1995).

[3] In 1995 Americans each consumed 8,000 kgs of oil equivalent, compared with 22 kgs in Uganda.

[4] I have begun to develop this approach with my collaborator, Vishnu Padayachee, in relation to the Indians of Durban, South Africa (Hart and Padayachee 2000).

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