David Graeber on Marcel Mauss and the politics of the gift

David Graeber: Toward An Anthropological Theory of Value. The False Coin of Our Own Dreams (2001)

Marshall Sahlins (1972) once suggested that the problem Mauss is ultimately tackling goes back to Thomas Hobbes: how do you create peace between people who have no immediate reason not to kill each other?


What Mauss is arguing, however, is that the first agreements that could be described as economic contracts were agreements not to act in accord with one’s economic self-interest, since if one is simply speaking of material gain, then obviously it is in the interest of the giver to demand an immediate return, and even more obviously, in the interest of the recipient to simply take the goods and keep them, rather than waiting for a discrete interval and making a dramatic counter-gift.
At the same time, though, Sahlins was surely right: the ghost of Hobbes does linger over his account. Mauss repeatedly emphasizes that on the most primitive level (one that seems to exist entirely in his imagination), there is no alternative between giving everything, and all-out war. /…/ It has often been noted that when something resembling barter does occur in stateless societies it is almost always between strangers, people who would otherwise be enemies. Rather than there being some fundamental contradiction between relations of violence and economic self-interest (as Spencer argued, and just about any modern neoliberal would automatically assume) the two are really just variations of the same thing: both reflect the way one acts with people towards whose fate one is indifferent. The moment one makes peace with others, one has to maintain at least the pretense that one is taking some consideration of their interests as well as one’s own. Hence, as Mauss notes, within gift economies, even in cases where one really is simply interested in obtaining material goods, one has to pretend otherwise. /…/
Why do people feel obliged to return gifts? His answer is famous: objects are seen to partake of something of the personality of the giver. It was to this effect that he introduced the testimony of a Maori sage named Tamati Ranapiri, the famous passage about the hau or ‘spirit’ of the gift—according to Mauss’ interpretation, that part of the donor’s soul that becomes, as it were, entangled in the gift, and that, through its wish to return home, compels the recipient to make a return.”


Few anthropologists nowadays seem to be aware of the fact that Mauss was, throughout his life, a committed socialist. /…/
The early 1920s, and particularly the period around 1923 and 1924 when Mauss was actually writing “The Gift”, was also one of his most intense periods of political engagement. These were also the years immediately following the Russian revolution, which had caused the SFIO to split apart into communist and socialist parties. Mauss himself had always favored a vision of socialism created from the bottom up, through cooperativization and union action aimed at the ultimate abolition of the wage system. He argued that both communists and social democrats were equally guilty of “fetishizing politics” and the role of the state; rather, he saw the role of the state as being largely limited to providing a legal framework within which workers could more easily take control over their industries /…/ He was, from the start, an enthusiastic supporter of the revolution, but highly suspicious of the Bolsheviks. /…/ If there was one common theme to his objections, it was his disgust at the Bolsheviks’ cold-blooded utilitarianism (“their cynical notion that ‘the end justifies the means'”, he later wrote, “made them seem mediocre even amongst politicians”.)


What Mauss was doing, in effect, was trying to understand the appeal of Marxist ideas with minimal reference to the works of Marx. Here is another point that is often overlooked. Marx’s work was not, in fact, all that well known in France in the early part of the century. /…/ When “Marxist theory” was invoked, it was usually assumed to consist of some kind of simplistic, mechanical determinism. Mauss knew better than that; he was familiar with the subtlety of Capital; but he was probably not aware that he was addressing many of the same questions as Marx did in his early writings.


Most of the usual complaints leveled by Marxist scholars about the weaknesses of the essay are true enough: Mauss doesn’t even talk about production in preindustrial societies, he has no sense of the reproduction of social systems as wholes, he lacks a theory of value. But one could also treat Mauss’ approach to alienation as providing a useful corrective to some of the more common blind spots of Marxian anthropology. By seeing alienation as something that can happen every time an object changes hands, for example, Mauss reminds us that just as socialization does not end at age twelve or eighteen, the creation of objects does not end on the factory floor — things are continually being maintained, altered, and above all, vested in new meanings, even as they are often repeatedly detached and alienated again. More daringly, Mauss appears to be suggesting that a certain degree of subject/object reversal—in certain contexts, at certain levels—might act not as a mystification and tool of exploitation, but as a normal aspect of creative processes that may not be nearly so dangerous as its opposite, the reduction of all social relations to any sort of objective calculus.


The modern ideal of the gift, then, becomes an impossible mirror of market behavior: an act of pure generosity untrammeled by any thought of personal gain. But as the members of the MAUSS group endlessly insist, this does not mean people no longer give gifts: even in modern, capitalist societies things are constantly changing hands without any immediate return or explicit agreement about a future one. It does not even mean that gifts are no longer important. In fact, they argue, modern society could not function without them. The gift has become the ‘hidden face of modernity’ /…/
In the Anglophone world, the MAUSS group has been almost entirely ignored. Those who like to think of themselves as engaged in cutting-edge critical theory have instead come to read Mauss through Jacques Derrida, who in Donner le Temps examined Mauss concept of the gift to discover — surprise! — that gifts, being acts of pure disinterested generosity, are logically impossible. I suppose this is what one would have to conclude, if one believed that there is something that can be called “Western discourse”, and that it is incapable of referring to anything other than itself.


To give a gift is to transfer something without any immediate return, or guarantee that there will ever be one. This is the definition adopted by the MAUSS group (e.g., Godbout and Caillé 1998), and it seems about as good a general definition as we’re going to get. It also makes it clear that the term can apply to an enormous variety of transactions, and that the term “gift economy” can apply to any not organized on market principles.


At this point, finally, we can think once again about the political and moral implications of Mauss’ work. Let me begin with a warning. There is a great danger of oversimplification here, particularly of romanticizing “the gift” as a humanizing counterweight to the impersonality and social isolation of modern capitalist society. There are times when things can work quite the other way around. Let me take another familiar example: the custom of bringing a bottle of wine or somesuch if invited to a friend’s for dinner. It is a common practice, for example, among American academics. In America, though, it is also common for young people of middle-class background to move, from the time they first begin to live independently of their parents in college, from relatively communal living arrangements to increasing social isolation. In an undergraduate dorm, people walk in and out of each other’s rooms fairly casually; often a residential hall is not unlike a village with everybody keeping track of everybody else’s business. College apartments are more private, but it is usually no big deal if friends drop by without warning or preparation. The process of moving into conventional, bourgeois existence is gradual, and it is above all a matter of establishing the sacred quality of the domestic threshold, which increasingly cannot be crossed without preparations and ceremony. The gift of wine, if you really think about it, is part of the ritualization process that makes spontaneity more difficult. It is as much a bar to sociality as an expression of it.


Mauss’ definition /…/ would present us with the possibility that the specter of communism might lurk not only within families and friendships but within the very organization of corporate capitalism itself, or pretty much any situation in which people are united in a common task, and inputs and outputs therefore organized only by the actors’ capacities and requirements rather than by any balancing of accounts.
Without a critical perspective as well, such a gesture is just as meaningless as the habit of seeing “capitalism” everywhere. Even if this is a kind of communism, it remains lodged within larger structures that are anything but egalitarian. But as Mauss also emphasized, it is the presence of such practices and institutions that make it possible for people within the society to see those larger structures as unjust.


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