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.

David Greaeber on avantgardism, prophecy and so-called “immaterial labor”

Excerpts from “The sadness of post-workerism“.


“We might ask: what does the moment of Futurism, Dada, Constructivism and the rest, and French ’68 thought, have in common? Actually quite a lot. Each corresponded to a moment of revolution: to adopt Immanuel Wallerstein’s terminology, the world revolution of 1917 in one case, and the world revolution of 1968 in the other. Each witnessed an explosion of creativity in which a longstanding European artistic or intellectual Grand Tradition effectively reached the limits of its radical possibilities. That is to say, they marked the last moment at which it was possible to plausibly claim that breaking all the rules—whether violating artistic conventions, or shattering philosophical assumptions—was itself, necessarily, a subversive political act as well. /…/
All that remained for the Surrealists was to connect a few remaining dots, and the heroic moment was over. One could still do political art, of course, and one could still defy convention. But it became effectively impossible to claim that by doing one you were necessarily doing the other, and increasingly difficult to even try to do both at the same time. It was possible, certainly, to continue in the Avant Garde tradition without claiming one’s work had political implications (as did anyone from Jackson Pollock to Andy Warhol), it was possible to do straight-out political art (like, say, Diego Rivera); one could even (like the Situationists) continue as a revolutionary in the Avant Garde tradition but stop making art, but that pretty much exhausted the remaining possibilities.

What happened to Continental philosophy after May ’68 is quite similar. /…/ The heroic moment was over. What’s more, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the premise that heroic acts of epistemological subversion were revolutionary or even particularly subversive in any other sense. In fact their effects seemed if anything depoliticizing. Just as purely formal avant garde experiment proved perfectly well suited to grace the homes of conservative bankers, and Surrealist montage to become the language of the advertising industry, so did poststructural theory quickly prove the perfect philosophy for self-satisfied liberal academics with no political engagement at all.
If nothing else this would explain the obsessive-compulsive quality of the constant return to such heroic moments. It is, ultimately, a subtle form of conservatism—or, perhaps one should say conservative radicalism, if such were possible—a nostalgia for the days when it was possible to put on a tin-foil suit, shout nonsense verse, and watch staid bourgeois audiences turn into outraged lynch mobs; to strike a blow against Cartesian Dualism and feel that by doing so, one has thereby struck a blow for oppressed people everywhere.


Consider Negri’s contribution to the conference. He begins by arguing that each change in the development of the productive forces since the 1840s corresponds to a change in the dominant style of high art: /…/
The changes in the material infrastructure—of industry—are thus reflected in the ideological superstructure. The resulting analysis is revealing no doubt, even fun if one is into that sort of thing, but it sidesteps the obvious fact that the production of art is an industry, and one connected to capital, marketing, and design in any number of (historically shifting) ways. One need not ask who is buying these things, who is funding the institutions, where do artists live, how else are their techniques being employed. By defining art as belonging to the immaterial domain, it’s materialities, or even its entanglement in other abstractions (like money) need not be addressed.
This is not perhaps the place for a prolonged analysis, but a few notes on what’s called “the art world” might seem to be in order. It is a common perception, not untrue, that at least since the ‘20s the art world has been in a kind of permanent institutionalized crisis. One could even say that what we call “the art world” has become the ongoing management of this crisis.
I am really not trying to be cynical. Actually I think the dilemma to some degree flows from the very nature of politics.
Politics is that dimension of social life in which things really do become true if enough people believe them. The problem is that in order to play the game effectively, one can never acknowledge its essence.
In this sense politics is very similar to magic, /…/ something that works because people believe that it works; but also, that only works because people do not believe it works only because people believe it works.
Yet the same bankers and traders who produce these complex financial instruments also like to surround themselves with artists, people who are always busy making things—a kind of imaginary proletariat assembled by finance capital, producing unique products out of for the most part very inexpensive materials, objects said financiers can baptize, consecrate, through money and thus turn into art, thus displaying its ability to transform the basest of materials into objects worth far, far more than gold.
The original, romantic conception of the artist—and hence, the very idea of art in the modern sense—arose around the time of industrial revolution. Probably this is no coincidence. As Godbout and Caille have pointed out, there is a certain complementarity. Industrialism was all about the mass production of physical objects, but the producers themselves were invisible, anonymous—about them one knew nothing. Art was about the production of unique physical objects, and their value was seen as emerging directly from the equally unique genius of their individual producers— about whom one knew everything. /…/ What’s more, the market value of their work is dependent on the perception that it was
produced in the pursuit of something other than market value.
For two hundred years at least, artists and those drawn to them have created enclaves where it has been possible to experiment with forms of work, exchange, and production radically different from those promoted by capital. /…/
The fact that all this is made possible by money percolating downwards from finance capital does not make such spaces “ultimately” a product of capitalism any more than the fact a privately owned factory uses state-supplied and regulated utilities and postal services, relies on police to protect its property and courts to enforce its contracts, makes the cars they turn out “ultimately” products of socialism.
Total systems don’t really exist, they’re just stories we tell ourselves, and the fact that capital is dominant now does not mean that it will always be.
Now, this is hardly a detailed analysis of value formation in the art world. It is only the crudest preliminary sketch. But it’s already a thousand times more concrete than anything yet produced by theorists of immaterial labor.


The notion of immaterial labor can be disposed of fairly quickly. In many way it is transparently absurd. /…/
To some degree this is just a much more sophisticated Leftist version of the rise of the service economy, etc, but there is also a very particular history, which goes back to dilemmas in Italian workerism in the ‘70s and ‘80s. On the one hand, there was a stubborn Leninist assumption—promoted, for instance, by Toni Negri—that it must always be the most “advanced” sector of the proletariat that makes up the revolutionary class. Computer and other information workers were the obvious candidates here. But the same period saw the rise of feminism and the Wages for Housework movement, which put the whole problem of unwaged, domestic labor on the political table in a way that could no longer simply be ignored. The solution was to argue that computer work, and housework were really the same thing. Or, more precisely, were becoming so: since, it was argued, the increase of labor-saving devices meant that housework was becoming less and less a matter of simple drudgery, and more and more itself a matter of managing fashions, tastes and styles.
The result is a genuinely strange concept, combining a kind of frenzied postmodernism, with the most clunky, old-fashioned Marxist material determinism. /…/
The trick only works if you do not, under any circumstances, reinterpret the past in the light of the present. One could after all go back and ask whether it ever really made sense to think of commodities as objects whose value was simply the product of factory labor in the first place. /…/
One could, even, start from the belated recognition of the importance of women’s labor to reimagine Marxist categories in general, to recognize that what we call “domestic” or even “reproductive” labor, the labor of creating people and social relations, has always been the most important form of human endeavor in any society, and that the creation of wheat, socks, and petrochemicals always merely a means to that end, and that—what’s more—most human societies have been perfectly well aware of this.
To take an obvious example: for most of the twentieth century, capitalist offices have been organized according to a gendered division of labor that mirrors the organization of upper-class households: male executives engage in strategic planning while female secretaries were expected to do much of the day-to-day organizational work, along with almost all of the impression-management, communicative and interpretive labor, mostly over the phone. Gradually these traditionally female functions have become digitized and replaced by computers; this creates a dilemma, though, because the interpretive elements of female labor (figuring out how to ensure no one’s ego is bruised, that sort of thing) are precisely those that computers are least capable of performing. Hence the renewed importance of what the post-workerists like to refer to as “affective labor.”
Immaterial labor, we are told, is labor that produces information and culture. In other words it is “immaterial” not because the labor itself is immaterial (how could it be?) but because it produces immaterial things. This idea that different sorts of labor can be sorted into more material, and less material categories according to the nature of their product is the basis for the whole conception that societies consist of a “material base” (the production, again, of wheat, socks and petrochemicals) and “ideological superstructure” (the production of music, culture, laws, religion, essays such as this). This is what’s allowed generations of Marxists to declare that most of what we call “culture” is really just so much fluff, at best a reflex of the really important stuff going on in fields and foundries.

What all such conceptions ignore what is to my mind probably the single most powerful, and enduring insight of Marxist theory: that the world does not really consist (as capitalists would encourage us to believe) of a collection of discrete objects, that can then be bought and sold, but of actions and processes. This is what makes it possible for rich and powerful people insist that what they do is somehow more abstract, more ethereal, higher and more spiritual, than everybody else. /…/

One would think that the first aim of a materialist approach would be to explode such pretensions—to point out, for instance, that just as the production of socks and silverware involves a great deal of thinking and imagining, so is the production of laws, poems and prayers an eminently material process. And indeed most contemporary materialists do, in fact, make this point. By bringing in terms like “immaterial labor”, authors like Lazzarato and Negri, bizarrely, seem to want to turn back the theory clock to somewhere around 1935. /…/

Lazzarato for example argues that “the old dichotomy between ‘mental and manual labor,’ or between ‘material labor and immaterial labor,’ risks failing to grasp the new nature of productive activity, which takes the separation on board and transforms it. /…/
Note here that (a) Lazzarato implies that the old manual/mental distinction was appropriate in earlier periods, and (b) what he describes appears to be for all intents and purposes exactly the kind of dialectical motion of encompassment he elsewhere condemns and rejects as way of understanding history (or anything else): an opposition is “transcended”, yet maintained. No doubt Lazzarato would come up with reasons about why what he is arguing is in fact profoundly different and un-dialectical, but for me, this is precisely the aspect of dialectics we might do well to question; a more helpful approach would be to ask how the opposition between manual and mental (etc) is produced.


Negri tends to throw everything, all the specific gestures, exchanges, and transformations into a kind of giant blender called “real subsumption”—whereby since everything is labor, and all forms of labor operate under the logic of capital, there’s rarely much need to parse the differences between one form and another (let alone analyze the actual organization of, say, a collection agency, or the fashion industry, or any particular capitalist supply chain.)
One could argue that revolutionary thought, and critical social theory, both have their origins in prophecy. At the same time, prophecy is clearly a form of politics. /…/
The same could be said of theories of immaterial labor. They’re not really descriptive. For its most ardent proponents, immaterial labor is really important because it’s seen to represent a new form of communism:
Capitalism, which is reduced increasingly to simply realizing the value created by such communistic practices, is thereby reduced to a purely parasitical force, a kind of feudal overlord extracting rent from forms of creativity entirely alien to it. We are already living under communism, if only we come to realize it. This is of course the real role of the prophet: to organize the desires of the multitude, to help these already-existing forms of communism burst out of their increasingly artificial shackles. Beside this epochal task, the concrete analysis of the organization of real-life TV studios or cell phone dealerships seems petty and irrelevant.
In contrast the main body of social theory as we know it today does not trace back to such performative revolutionary gestures, but precisely, from their failure. Sociology sprang from the ruins of the French revolution; Marx’s Capital was written to try to understand the failure of the revolutions of 1848, just as most contemporary French theory emerged from reflections on what went wrong in May ’68.
Certainly this is the role in which Negri, Bifo, and the rest have now been cast. /…/ Their job is to explain why the time we live in is unique, why the processes we see crystallizing around us are unprecedented; different in quality, different in kind, from anything that has ever come before.
Of course, Bifo was explicitly arguing that the Future itself is dead. /…/ We have come to a point where it is impossible to even imagine projecting ourselves forwards in time in any meaningful way, where the only radical gesture left to us is therefore self-mutilation or suicide. /…/
So we are faced with a dilemma. The revolutionary Future appears increasingly implausible to most of us, but neither can we simply get rid of it. As a result, it begins to collapse into the present. Hence, for instance, the insistence that communism is already here, if only we knew how to see it. The Future has become a kind of hidden dimension of reality, an immanent presence
I actually do agree that thinkers like these are useful in helping us conceptualize the historical moment. And not only in the prophetic-political-magical sense of offering descriptions that aim to bring new realities into being. I find the idea of a revolutionary future that is already with us, the notion that in a sense we already live in communism, in its own way quite compelling. The problem is, being prophets, they always have to frame their arguments in apocalyptic terms. Would it not be better to, as I suggested earlier, reexamine the past in the light of the present? Perhaps communism has always been with us. We are just trained not to see it. Perhaps everyday forms of communism are really /…/ the basis for most significant forms of human achievement, even those ordinarily attributed to capitalism.