David Graeber, "Marcel Mauss—Give it Away"

hydrarchist writes

"Marcel Mauss: Give It Away"

David Graeber

you noticed how there aren't any new French intellectuals any more? There
was a veritable flood in the late '70s and early '80s: Derrida, Foucault,
Baudrillard, Kristeva, Lyotard, de Certeau ... but there has been almost
no one since. Trendy academics and intellectual hipsters have been forced
to endlessly recycle theories now 20 or 30 years old, or turn to countries
like Italy or even Slovenia for dazzling meta-theory.

French anthropologist Marcel Mauss studied "gift economies"
like those of the Kwakiutl of British Columbia. His conclusions were

There are a lot of reasons for this. One has to do with politics in France
itself, where there has been a concerted effort on the part of media elites
to replace real intellectuals with American-style empty-headed pundits.
Still, they have not been completely successful. More important, French
intellectual life has become much more politically engaged. In the U.S.
press, there has been a near blackout on cultural news from France since
the great strike movement of 1995, when France was the first nation to
definitively reject the "American model" for the economy, and refused
to begin dismantling its welfare state. In the American press, France
immediately became the silly country, vainly trying to duck the tide of

Of course this in itself is hardly going to faze the sort of Americans
who read Deleuze and Guattari. What American academics expect from France
is an intellectual high, the ability to feel one is participating in wild,
radical ideas — demonstrating the inherent violence within Western conceptions
of truth or humanity, that sort of thing — but in ways that do not imply
any program of political action; or, usually, any responsibility to act
at all. It's easy to see how a class of people who are considered almost
entirely irrelevant both by political elites and by 99 percent of the
general population might feel this way. In other words, while the U.S.
media represent France as silly, U.S. academics seek out those French
thinkers who seem to fit the bill.

As a result, some of the most interesting scholars in France today you
never hear about at all. One such is a group of intellectuals who go by
the rather unwieldy name of Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste dans les Sciences
Sociales, or MAUSS, and who have dedicated themselves to a systematic
attack on the philosophical underpinnings of economic theory. The group
take their inspiration from the great early-20th century French sociologist
Marcel Mauss, whose most famous work, The Gift (1925), was perhaps the
most magnificent refutation of the assumptions behind economic theory
ever written. At a time when "the free market" is being rammed down everyone's
throat as both a natural and inevitable product of human nature, Mauss'
work — which demonstrated not only that most non-Western societies did
not work on anything resembling market principles, but that neither do
most modern Westerners — is more relevant than ever. While Francophile
American scholars seem unable to come up with much of anything to say
about the rise of global neoliberalism, the MAUSS group is attacking its
very foundations.

A word
of background. Marcel Mauss was born in 1872 to an Orthodox Jewish family
in Vosges. His uncle, Émile Durkheim, is considered the founder of modern
sociology. Durkheim surrounded himself with a circle of brilliant young
acolytes, among whom Mauss was appointed to study religion. The circle,
however, was shattered by World I; many died in the trenches, including
Durkheim's son, and Durkheim himself died of grief shortly thereafter.
Mauss was left to pick up the pieces.

By all accounts, though, Mauss was never taken completely seriously in
his role of heir apparent; a man of extraordinary erudition (he knew at
least a dozen languages, including Sanskrit, Maori and classical Arabic),
he still, somehow, lacked the gravity expected of a grand professeur.
A former amateur boxer, he was a burly man with a playful, rather silly
manner, the sort of person always juggling a dozen brilliant ideas rather
than building great philosophical systems. He spent his life working on
at least five different books (on prayer, on nationalism, on the origins
of money, etc.), none of which he ever finished. Still, he succeeded in
training a new generation of sociologists and inventing French anthropology
more or less single-handedly, as well as in publishing a series of extraordinarily
innovative essays, just about each one of which has generated an entirely
new body of social theory all by itself.

Mauss was also a revolutionary socialist. From his student days on he
was a regular contributor to the left press, and remained most of his
life an active member of the French cooperative movement. He founded and
for many years helped run a consumer co-op in Paris; and was often sent
on missions to make contact with the movement in other countries (for
which purpose he spent time in Russia after the revolution). Mauss was
not a Marxist, though. His socialism was more in the tradition of Robert
Owen or Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: He considered Communists and Social Democrats
to be equally misguided in believing that society could be transformed
primarily through government action. Rather, the role of government, he
felt, was to provide the legal framework for a socialism that had to be
built from the ground up, by creating alternative institutions.

The Russian revolution thus left him profoundly ambivalent. While exhilarated
by prospects of a genuine socialist experiment, he was outraged by the
Bolsheviks' systematic use of terror, their suppression of democratic
institutions, and most of all by their "cynical doctrine that the end
justifies the means," which, Mauss concluded, was really just the amoral,
rational calculus of the marketplace, slightly transposed.

Mauss' essay on "the gift" was, more than anything, his response to events
in Russia — particularly Lenin's New Economic Policy of 1921, which abandoned
earlier attempts to abolish commerce. If the market could not simply be
legislated away, even in Russia, probably the least monetarized European
society, then clearly, Mauss concluded, revolutionaries were going to
have to start thinking a lot more seriously about what this "market" actually
was, where it came from, and what a viable alternative to it might actually
be like. It was time to bring the results of historical and ethnographic
research to bear.

conclusions were startling. First of all, almost everything that "economic
science" had to say on the subject of economic history turned out to be
entirely untrue. The universal assumption of free market enthusiasts,
then as now, was that what essentially drives human beings is a desire
to maximize their pleasures, comforts and material possessions (their
"utility"), and that all significant human interactions can thus be analyzed
in market terms. In the beginning, goes the official version, there was
barter. People were forced to get what they wanted by directly trading
one thing for another. Since this was inconvenient, they eventually invented
money as a universal medium of exchange. The invention of further technologies
of exchange (credit, banking, stock exchanges) was simply a logical extension.

The problem was, as Mauss was quick to note, there is no reason to believe
a society based on barter has ever existed. Instead, what anthropologists
were discovering were societies where economic life was based on utterly
different principles, and most objects moved back and forth as gifts —
and almost everything we would call "economic" behavior was based on a
pretense of pure generosity and a refusal to calculate exactly who had
given what to whom. Such "gift economies" could on occasion become highly
competitive, but when they did it was in exactly the opposite way from
our own: Instead of vying to see who could accumulate the most, the winners
were the ones who managed to give the most away. In some notorious cases,
such as the Kwakiutl of British Columbia, this could lead to dramatic
contests of liberality, where ambitious chiefs would try to outdo one
another by distributing thousands of silver bracelets, Hudson Bay blankets
or Singer sewing machines, and even by destroying wealth — sinking famous
heirlooms in the ocean, or setting huge piles of wealth on fire and daring
their rivals to do the same.

All of this may seem very exotic. But as Mauss also asked: How alien
is it, really? Is there not something odd about the very idea of gift-giving,
even in our own society? Why is it that, when one receives a gift from
a friend (a drink, a dinner invitation, a compliment), one feels somehow
obliged to reciprocate in kind? Why is it that a recipient of generosity
often somehow feels reduced if he or she cannot? Are these not examples
of universal human feelings, which are somehow discounted in our own society
— but in others were the very basis of the economic system? And is it
not the existence of these very different impulses and moral standards,
even in a capitalist system such as our own, that is the real basis for
the appeal of alternative visions and socialist policies? Mauss certainly
felt so.

In a lot of ways Mauss' analysis bore a marked resemblance to Marxist
theories about alienation and reification being developed by figures like
György Lukács around the same time. In gift economies, Mauss argued, exchanges
do not have the impersonal qualities of the capitalist marketplace: In
fact, even when objects of great value change hands, what really matters
is the relations between the people; exchange is about creating friendships,
or working out rivalries, or obligations, and only incidentally about
moving around valuable goods. As a result everything becomes personally
charged, even property: In gift economies, the most famous objects of
wealth — heirloom necklaces, weapons, feather cloaks — always seem to
develop personalities of their own.

In a market economy it's exactly the other way around. Transactions are
seen simply as ways of getting one's hands on useful things; the personal
qualities of buyer and seller should ideally be completely irrelevant.
As a consequence everything, even people, start being treated as if they
were things too. (Consider in this light the expression "goods and services.")
The main difference with Marxism, however, is that while Marxists of his
day still insisted on a bottom-line economic determinism, Mauss held that
in past market-less societies — and by implication, in any truly humane
future one — "the economy," in the sense of an autonomous domain of action
concerned solely with the creation and distribution of wealth, and which
proceeded by its own, impersonal logic, would not even exist.

Mauss was never entirely sure what his practical conclusions were. The
Russian experience convinced him that buying and selling could not simply
be eliminated in a modern society, at least "in the foreseeable future,"
but a market ethos could. Work could be co-operatized, effective social
security guaranteed and, gradually, a new ethos created whereby the only
possible excuse for accumulating wealth was the ability to give it all
away. The result: a society whose highest values would be "the joy of
giving in public, the delight in generous artistic expenditure, the pleasure
of hospitality in the public or private feast."

Some of this may seem awfully naïve from today's perspective, but Mauss'
core insights have, if anything, become even more relevant now than they
were 75 years ago — now that economic "science" has become, effectively,
the revealed religion of the modern age. So it seemed, anyway, to the
founders of MAUSS.

idea for MAUSS was born in 1980. The project is said to have emerged from
a conversation over lunch between a French sociologist, Alain Caillé,
and a Swiss anthropologist, Gérald Berthoud. They had just sat through
several days of an interdisciplinary conference on the subject of gifts,
and after reviewing the papers, they came to the shocked realization that
it did not seem to have occurred to a single scholar in attendance that
a significant motive for giving gifts might be, say, generosity, or genuine
concern for another person's welfare. In fact, the scholars at the conference
invariably assumed that "gifts" do not really exist: Scratch deep enough
behind any human action, and you'll always discover some selfish, calculating
strategy. Even more oddly, they assumed that this selfish strategy was
always, necessarily, the real truth of the matter; that it was more real
somehow than any other motive in which it might be entangled. It was as
if to be scientific, to be "objective" meant to be completely cynical.

Caillé ultimately came to blame Christianity. Ancient Rome still preserved
something of the older ideal of aristocratic open-handedness: Roman magnates
built public gardens and monuments, and vied to sponsor the most magnificent
games. But Roman generosity was also quite obviously meant to wound: One
favorite habit was scattering gold and jewels before the masses to watch
them tussle in the mud to scoop them up. Early Christians, for obvious
reasons, developed their notion of charity in direct reaction to such
obnoxious practices. True charity was not based on any desire to establish
superiority, or favor, or indeed any egoistic motive whatsoever. To the
degree that the giver could be said to have gotten anything out of the
deal, it wasn't a real gift.

But this in turn led to endless problems, since it was very difficult
to conceive of a gift that did not benefit the giver in any way. Even
an entirely selfless act would win one points with God. There began the
habit of searching every act for the degree to which it could be said
to mask some hidden selfishness, and then assuming that this selfishness
is what's really important. One sees the same move reproduced so consistently
in modern social theory. Economists and Christian theologians agree that
if one takes pleasure in an act of generosity, it is somehow less generous.
They just disagree on the moral implications. To counteract this very
perverse logic, Mauss emphasized the "pleasure" and "joy" of giving: In
traditional societies, there was not assumed to be any contradiction between
what we would call self-interest (a phrase that, he noted, could not even
be translated into most human languages) and concern for others; the whole
point of the traditional gift is that it furthers both at the same time.

These, anyway, were the kind of issues that first engaged the small,
interdisciplinary group of French and French-speaking scholars (Caillé,
Berthoud, Ahmet Insel, Serge Latouche, Pauline Taieb) who were to become
MAUSS. Actually, the group itself began as a journal, called Revue du
MAUSS — a very small journal, printed sloppily on bad paper — whose authors
conceived it as much as an in-joke as a venue for serious scholarship,
the flagship journal for a vast international movement that did not then
exist. Caillé wrote manifestos; Insel penned fantasies about great international
anti-utilitarian conventions of the future. Articles on economics alternated
with snatches from Russian novelists. But gradually, the movement did
begin to materialize. By the mid-'90s, MAUSS had become an impressive
network of scholars — ranging from sociologists and anthropologists to
economists, historians and philosophers, from Europe, North Africa and
the Middle East — whose ideas had become represented in three different
journals and a prominent book series (all in French) backed up by annual

the strikes of 1995 and the election of a Socialist government, Mauss'
own works have undergone a considerable revival in France, with the publication
of a new biography and a collection of his political writings. At the
same time, the MAUSS group themselves have become evermore explicitly
political. In 1997, Caillé released a broadside called "30 Theses for
a New Left," and the MAUSS group have begun dedicating their annual conferences
to specific policy issues. Their answer to the endless calls for France
to adopt the "American model" and dismantle its welfare state, for example,
was to begin promulgating an economic idea originally proposed by American
revolutionary Tom Paine: the guaranteed national income. The real way
to reform welfare policy is not to begin stripping away social benefits,
but to reframe the whole conception of what a state owes its citizens.
Let us jettison welfare and unemployment programs, they said. But instead,
let us create a system where every French citizen is guaranteed the same
starting income (say, $20,000, supplied directly by the government) —
and then the rest can be up to them.

It is hard to know exactly what to make of the Maussian left, particularly
insofar as Mauss is being promoted now, in some quarters, as an alternative
to Marx. It would be easy to write them off as simply super-charged social
democrats, not really interested in the radical transformation of society.
Caillé's "30 Theses," for example, agree with Mauss in conceding the inevitability
of some kind of market - but still, like him, look forward to the abolition
of capitalism, here defined as the pursuit of financial profit as an end
in itself. On another level, though, the Maussian attack on the logic
of the market is more profound, and more radical, than anything else now
on the intellectual horizon. It is hard to escape the impression that
this is precisely why American intellectuals, particularly those who believe
themselves to be the most wild-eyed radicals, willing to deconstruct almost
any concept except greed or selfishness, simply don't know what to make
of the Maussians — why, in fact, their work has been almost completely

David Graeber is a professor
of anthropology at Yale University.