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Friday, August 21, 2009

Mauss can be seen as a “total social fact”

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

The First World War was more than a watershed; it was an irreversible fissure in modern European history. The state had acquired undreamt of powers in the course of the war: to mobilize and kill off huge armies, to control production and distribution, to monopolize propaganda; from now on it was a struggle between rival state forms for world domination. The claim of Western societies to lead the rest of humanity in reason and civilization had been mortally wounded by the senseless slaughter of the trenches. Life after the war was quite unlike what had gone before. Marcel Mauss, who admitted to a sense of relief when the war first allowed him to escape from his scholarly burdens, took his time to resume his academic and political activities. The death of Émile Durkheim and numerous colleagues during the war took some adjusting to, while some close friends told him it was now time to grow up. So, to a double life as a professor of the religions of uncivilized peoples in the marginal École pratique des hautes études and as a political activist-cum-dilettante, he now had to add responsibility for the movement launched by his uncle at a time when the sociology project still felt rather precarious.

Yet the years 1920-25 were packed and fruitful. Mauss’s political party and the Left in general had a real shot at winning power in France and did so in 1924. Two-thirds of his Écrits politiques (Marcel Fournier editor, 1994) were written in this period. He resumed teaching religion at the École pratique and was able to relaunch Année sociologique by the period’s end, contributing to it his most famous essay, on The Gift, “In memoriam: the unpublished work of Durkheim and his collaborators” (see Jane Guyer here) and a vast amount of work as editor and reviewer. He suffered some reverses at this time, including a serious illness, but remained optimistic for both political and intellectual regeneration on a social scale that was increasingly international in scope. He began serious work on a book dealing with the main political currents of the day, nationalism and socialism. His interest in the American “potlatch” was expanded by the publication of Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), confirming his belief that competitive gift-exchange was endemic in Melanesia and Polynesia, as well as elsewhere. And the Institut d’ethnologie was formed in 1925 with Rivet, Lévy-Bruhl and Mauss himself in charge.

In the late 1920s, things began to unravel on all fronts. Mauss’s personal standing as a savant grew inexorably; but his party suffered political reverses, its newspaper and journal folded, the cooperative movement foundered and, after a successor half-volume, the Année sociologique second series ended; his closest friend, Henri Hubert, died in 1927. The years 1920-25 stand apart for the energy and fulfillment they brought. Mauss himself kept a sort of Chinese wall between his academic and political interests; so it is not so surprising that the two have been kept apart, especially in the Anglophone world, where his political writings are virtually unknown (pace David Graeber, 2001). Mauss allowed himself one public attempt to bridge them, the concluding chapter of The Gift. Mary Douglas, in her Foreword to the second English edition, is rather dismissive of this chapter. For her, the essay should be seen as a great leap forward in anthropological science, theoretical forerunner of his Manual of Ethnography (Nick Allen editor, 2007) and a suitable launch of his career at the Institute: “his own attempt to use the theory of the gift to underpin social democracy was very weak…really jumping the gun” (1990:xv).

I have to agree that the essay itself does not provide an effective intellectual bridge between the two compartments of Mauss’s life. The Gift approaches the evolution of human exchange as moving through three stages: from a total exchange of services as in moiety systems, through competitive gift-exchange involving political leaders to individual contract, whose illumination (“the non-contractual element in the contract”) was the aim of Durkheim’s Division of Labour in Society (1893), itself the main source for Mauss’s essay. Yet any elaboration of what capitalist markets are really like or even a recapitulation of Durkheim’s main arguments are largely missing here. As a result, the programmatic conclusions float at some remove from the substance of the essay and his successors have been able to suppose that its point really is just to expose the “gift economy” to scholarly view. Mauss himself is responsible for the contrasting interpretations that his essay has generated. Hubert did not spare him at the time: “It is often rather vague…Are you really sure that the development of social insurance can be attached to your ‘human bedrock’, as you say?” (Fournier 2006:244).

So, why then take seriously the relationship between Mauss’s sociology and his politics? (Sylvain Dzimira, Marcel Mauss: savant et politique, 2007). Mauss, while tending to his uncle’s legacy, was making a profound break with the latter’s sociological reductionism in these years, opening himself to psychology and the humanities, while espousing a method of “total social facts” which underpins The Gift and figures prominently in those same conclusions. This was just one of the ways he responded to the war. Another was the shift to studying contemporary politics in his (ultimately abortive) “Nation” project. I have argued elsewhere that Mauss himself can be seen as a “total social fact” in ways that undoubtedly concerned him and might deserve our attention. I do not claim that his work is a seamless whole, just that it might pay to juxtapose his disparate efforts of this extraordinary period as a way of throwing new light on the meaning of his great essay for us today.

To that end, I propose here to examine his journalism in the years, 1920-25, with a view to isolating his views on economy at the time. I will then offer an interpretation of The Gift, particularly as it bears on markets and money, as well as the proposals offered by Mauss there for the management of our societies. The aim is a more integrated account of his economic vision, one that has resonance for our own crisis. We will see. Such an exercise goes to the heart of a persisting translation problem which partly accounts for the diverging traditions of Maussian scholarship that we hope to bring together in this conference.


Professor Amartya Sen has written a remarkable book, The Idea of Justice. Set the record right
Professor Sen: You have just written what could be the most important treatise in political philosophy of the first decade of this century. Please do us a favour and do yourself one. Do not praise the Left and confer on “adharmic anyayis” the respectability they do not deserve. - Jaithirth Rao Tags : jaithirthrao, column Posted: Friday, Aug 21, 2009. The writer divides his time between Mumbai, Lonavla and Bangalore

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