Any return to the old compromises is doomed to failure and any reflection on how to reconcile freedom and equality, which remains the goal of democracy in a complex society, can only make progress by taking into account the reactions of people in society. This is one point of agreement between Mauss and Polanyi; we must rely on practical experience for information and analysis, in other words, start from the ‘real economic movement’, not from a programme of social reform given a veneer of realism. This is a conception of social change as self-expression, of change which ‘is by no means committed to revolutionary or radical alternatives, to brutal choices between two contradictory forms of society’ but which ‘is and will be made by a process of building new groups and institutions alongside and on top of the old ones’ (Mauss). Mauss and Polanyi, in outlining the theoretical foundations of a plural approach to the economy, began a reflection on social change that cannot be satisfied with ritual calls to turn the system upside down. In other words, rather than make an abstract appeal to an alternative economy, they have shown us a concrete road to ‘other economies’ based on the field of possibilities already open to us.”
The task of building a global civil society for the twenty-first century is an urgent one and anthropological visions should play their part in that. In looking for twentieth-century antecedents for such a project, I have taken inspiration from the great intellectuals of the anti-colonial revolution, above all from Frantz Fanon (for his prophetic reflections on the Algerian revolution), CLR James (whom I consider to be my mentor) and Mohandas K Gandhi (whose politics was formed during his 20-year stay in the place I have made my second home, Durban). This movement was driven by the aspiration of peoples forced into the world society by western imperialism to make their own independent relationship to it. These intellectuals did not repudiate the legacy of the Enlightenment, only its perversion by Empire as a system of racial exclusion, a matter in which the classical philosophers were themselves implicated. In the process the anti-colonial intellectuals made the original project more inclusive, more human. And I take my lead from them. [...]
As anthropologists, we can do no better than to renew our engagement with the writings of Marcel Mauss and Karl Polanyi. The two authors could be said to be complementary in several ways. One of Mauss’s key modifications to Durkheim’s legacy was to conceive of society as a historical project of humanity whose limits were extended to become ever more inclusive. The point of The Gift is that society cannot be taken for granted as a pre-existent form. It must be made and remade, sometimes from scratch. How do we behave on a first date or on a diplomatic mission? We make gifts. The moiety systems that he starts with are going nowhere. But heroic gift-exchange is designed to push the limits of society outwards. They are ‘liberal’ in a similar sense to the ‘free market’, except that generosity powers the exchange, self-interested for sure, but not in the way associated with homo economicus. Malinowski’s account of the kula ring is the contested origin for Mauss’s discussion. “The whole intertribal kula is merely the extreme case…of a more general system. This takes the tribe itself, in its entirety, out of the narrow sphere of its physical boundaries and even of its interests and rights.” No society is ever economically self-sufficient, least of all these Melanesian islands. So to the need for establishing local limits on social action must always be added the means of extending a community’s reach abroad. This is why markets and money in some form are universal, and why any attempt to abolish them must end in catastrophe.
Polanyi drew attention to how economic institutions organize and are in turn organized by a plurality of distribution mechanisms that, in the modern world, affect the lives of millions of people who participate in them, without being granted any measure of control. This led him to highlight the inequality created by these institutions, as they swing between the poles of market and state, of society’s external and internal relations. In the current crisis, the immediate reaction is to turn to a variety of government institutions, flipping the coin from tails to heads as it were, instead of insisting that states and the markets have to work together in less one-sided ways than before. To this end, Polanyi’s call for a return to social solidarity, drawing especially on the voluntary reciprocity of associations, reminds us that people in general must be mobilized to contribute their energies to the renewal of society. It is not enough to rely on impersonal states and markets.
Polanyi and Mauss made sure that their more abstract understandings of political economy were grounded in the everyday lives of concrete people, thereby lending to field research the power of general ideas. There has been a recent increase in anthropological research on aspects of capitalism, but anthropologists have largely left the global effects of an unequal distribution of money, the class conflict between rich and poor everywhere, to other branches of the academic division of labour, especially to economists of whatever political persuasion.
The missing link between the everyday and the world at large can be found in the work of these two pioneers. An unblinking focus on distribution at every level from the global to the local reveals how the social consequences of political economy and the way it is understood by those who make it are one and the same social process. The current crisis renders this insight particularly visible, since it challenges contemporary financial ideas, while its tangible distributive effects are felt and feared throughout the world. We are clearly witnessing a power struggle of potentially awesome consequences. Each new political response to the latest economic calamity evokes the spectre of the Great Depression and its bloody aftermath.
The project of economics needs to be rescued from the economists. The mask of neo-liberal ideology has been ripped from the politics of world economy. It is up to us to propose an effective replacement. A new institutional economics could be formed out of anthropology, sociology, economic philosophy and world history. This essay is one contribution to that conversation.