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

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Mauss believed in self-organized market expansion

Whereas Polanyi thought that markets could only serve society if subjected to non-market principles, Mauss believed that human aspirations for social justice could best be achieved through self-organized market expansion and not despite it. This philosophical argument is being played out right now in the argument between Clinton and Obama over healthcare in the United States, where the issue is whether or not the state is indispensable to economic democracy.
You may well ask what sort of order ‘economy’ entails and what its means of social expression are. How, if at all, can keeping a house in order be reconciled with the institutionalization of formal rationality as market economics or state bureaucracy? This should be the focus of a whole research program; but, briefly, the key term is ‘form’ — an idea whose origin lies in the mind. Form is the rule, the invariant in the variable. It is predictable and easily recognized. That is why idealist philosophers from Plato onwards thought the general idea of something was more real than the thing itself. Words are forms, of course. In his Science of Logic, Hegel showed the error of taking the idea for reality. We all know the word ‘house’ and might think there is nothing more to owning one than saying ‘my house’. But before long the roof will leak, the paint will peel and we are forced to acknowledge that the house is a material process that requires attention. The ‘formal sector’ is likewise an idea, a collection of people, things and activities; but we should not mistake the category for the reality it identifies. What makes something ‘formal’ is its conformity with a rule. The idea of an ‘informal economy’ is entailed by the institutional effort to organize society along formal lines. For most of the twentieth century the dominant forms have been those of bureaucracy, particularly of national bureaucracy, since society has become identified to a large extent with nation-states. This identity may now be weakening in the face of the neo-liberal world economy and the digital revolution in communications. In any case, Kant’s dialectic of form and substance is a unity and, as William Blake said before Hegel, General Forms have their vitality in Particulars, and every Particular is a Man.
My chief complaint against economics and much else in contemporary social science is not its emphasis on forms of reason, but their detachment from lived social reality. The ‘informal economy’ was intended to draw attention to what people were really up to beyond the reach of state regulation; but, as the negation of bureaucracy, it offered no clue to the forms of social life through which they organized these activities. These are legion: kinship, friendship, locality, religion, ethnicity, criminal fraternity, labour unions, savings clubs and creative combinations of any or all of these. What they have in common is the need to stabilize the flux of everyday life in reasonably predictable ways; and the tradition of British social anthropology in its classical phase, drawing on comparative jurisprudence to make fine-grained analyses of customary institutions, still has a lot to offer in this regard. It is quite a leap to ask how such a particularistic approach might help us all feel more at home in today’s world, but since I have made that transition in my own development, it is not impossible. What would it take to impose rational order on world economy? Keynes’s example would suggest that national responses to the last great economic crisis (in a word, redistribution) might be transposed to global conditions today. But this would require a new set of political institutions at the global level. Contemporary environmentalism may contain the seeds of a religious revival that could sweep away the neo-liberal consensus. But if this took the form of repudiating markets and money, the consequences could be even worse.
Economic anthropology
It would be wrong to speak of the relationship between economics and anthropology as a dialogue. Economists in the neoclassical tradition have rarely expressed any interest in anthropology and none at all since their discipline became the dominant ideological and practical arm of global capitalism. Anthropologists, on the other hand, have usually felt obliged to address the perspective of mainstream economists, sometimes applying their ideas and methods to exotic societies, more often being critical of the discipline’s claim to be universally valid. Since anthropologists have based their intellectual authority on the fieldwork method, discourse in economic anthropology has generally concerned the interpretation of economic ideas in the light of ethnographic findings. Is the economists’ aspiration to place human affairs on a rational footing an agenda worthy of anthropologists’ participation or just a bad dream? In this lecture I have indicated why economic anthropology might benefit from seeking to integrate house and market, ecology and economy within a humanist vision of our moment in world history. Agreeing on a common label for humanizing study of the economy matters less than identifying clear questions for collaborative inquiry. 6:01 PM

1 comment:

  1. This reference refers to the self-organising properties of the system as a whole and how/why the current powers that be are preventing that--and the potentially devastating results.