Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Gift stands alone as an intellectual exercise

Marcel Mauss’s economic vision, 1920-25 from The Memory Bank

While The Gift stands alone as an intellectual exercise, when he wrote it Marcel Mauss was intensely active on all fronts at once, academic and political, in what turned out to be the peak years of his engagement with society, the early 1920s. Perhaps it is not essential to read his financial journalism in order to understand his greatest essay, written and published at exactly the same time. But I would argue that they are both indispensable to an effective grasp of the man. Certainly the dynamic understanding that he brought to the exchange rate crisis helps me to grasp why he was at once enthused by and critical of Malinowski’s account of the kula. Does it all add up to a coherent “economic vision”, placing Mauss on a par with Keynes or even Polanyi, with both of whom he has much in common? Perhaps not. But if we ask what relevance he might have to our own times of economic crisis, investigation of his essay in the context of his life and times would surely help us better to understand our own. In that sense, Mauss lives.

A postscript. Gillian Tett, a Financial Times journalist with a PhD in social anthropology from Cambridge, has just published an extraordinary account of the economic crisis that has broken over the last two years, Fool’s Gold: How the bold dream of a small tribe at J.P. Morgan was corrupted by Wall Street greed and unleashed a catastrophe (Free Press, 2009). She tells the story of the specific origin of credit derivatives, their subsequent perversion and the financial disaster that they brought down on all our heads. She warned against the dangers of massive growth in the volume of “credit default swaps” and “collateral debt obligations” long before the crisis broke (and was chastised for doing so). Fool’s Gold is already a best-seller, but it is also, to my mind, the best contribution yet to public education about the economic crisis.

Tett’s account shares some of the qualities of Mauss’s journalism: forward-looking, analytical and personal, with a keen sense of history and a desire to educate the people. The common people of different nations may, thanks to her persistent and imaginative efforts, get to know better “how they can have control over themselves—without the use of words, formulas or myths”. She generously acknowledges her anthropological training, of which Mauss was undoubtedly the leading pioneer in his own country, as having given her the vision and method to see what most other professionals could not. The Année sociologique group shared a sense that intellectual progress was a result of and stimulus to social improvement. I like to think that Gillian Tett’s example shows how the two sides of Mauss’s endeavour, especially as he realized them in those crowded years after the war, might someday be brought together. Conference Mauss vivant, Cerisy, 13-20 June 2009

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