Wednesday, January 28, 2009

How widespread Polanyi’s influence is today

A short history of economic anthropology
from The Memory Bank by keith

In The Great Transformation (1944), Polanyi brought a radical critique of modern capitalism to bear on his moment in history. We too must start from the world we live in, if we are to apply the vast, but inchoate intellectual resources of anthropology to a subject that is of vital concern to everyone. Ours is a very different world from when Polanyi so confidently predicted the demise of the market model of economy. Yet the revival of market capitalism and dismantling of state provision since the 1980s furnishes plentiful material for Polanyi’s thesis that the neglect of social interests must eventually generate a political backlash and a retreat from market fundamentalism. In our Introduction, we suggested that the world may now be emerging from the period of neo-liberal hegemony, with obvious potential consequences for the project known as ‘economic anthropology’. The ongoing globalization of capital – its spread to Japan, China, India, Brazil, Russia and elsewhere after centuries of western monopoly – is also bound to affect our understanding of economy. The absolute dominance of market logic, at least in the form devised by neo-liberal economists, may be coming to an end. Then, not only will Polanyi’s ideas receive more favourable attention, as they already have in some quarters, but the urgent need to review the institutional basis of economy may stimulate anthropologists to renewed efforts. [...]

We now recognize Marcel Mauss’s Essai sur le don (1925) as the main source of opposition to Malinowski’s fusion of individualist traditions from Britain and Central Europe. Mauss was greatly enthused by Malinowski’s confirmation that the potlatch of America’s Northwest Coast flourished in Melanesia, but he insisted that money and markets were human universals: only the impersonal variant found in capitalist societies was distinctive. Following Durkheim’s lead in The Division of Labour in Society (1893), Mauss’s attack on economic individualism emphasized the personal, social and spiritual dimensions of exchange in all societies, including ours. His anthropology was wedded to a quite explicit socialist programme; but the essay has given rise to quite divergent interpretations since (Hart 2007). Only much later was The Gift widely acknowledged as Mauss’s chef d’oeuvre; it took two translations and a secondary literature, inspired above all by Lévi-Strauss (1950) and Sahlins (1972), for its radical message to be absorbed into Anglophone economic anthropology (Sigaud 2002). David Graeber’s long chapter on Mauss in Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value (2001) is the most complete treatment in English. Mauss’s example never launched a school of economic anthropology as such in France. [...]

French Marxist anthropology enjoyed cult status during the 1970s. Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar (1970) produced a reading of Capital that divested it of any residual elements of Hegelian philosophy and brought it into line with both structuralist methodology and the most modern ‘scientific’ approaches emanating from America, notably systems theory. The phenomenology of the human subject, the dialectic and indeed history itself were in effect dropped from their scheme. In their place a deep structure of the ideal mode of production was outlined, having three elements – producers, non-producers and means of production – whose variable combination was realized as concrete modes of production (Balibar 1970). Much attention was paid to the relationship between economic, political and ideological levels of the mode of production and to the question of which was dominant and/or determinant in any given case. Althusser abandoned the ideological notion of ‘society’ in favour of ‘social formations’ in which, it was recognized, more than one mode of production were normally combined.

The key figure in bridging Lévi-Straussian structuralism and Marxism, France and the Anglophone world was Maurice Godelier, whose Rationalité et irrationalité en économie (1966) was translated into English in 1972 with a new Introduction. In this work Godelier borrowed explicitly from the structural-functionalism of Parsons (1937) and Radcliffe-Brown (1952). A long review of the formalist-substantivist debate led him also to endorse Polanyi’s ideas, while the whole book attempted to redeem a universal concept of rationality from its abuse in the hands of liberal economists and their sympathizers. Godelier applied this notion of rationality not only to persons but also to systems, thereby setting up a contradiction between structure and agency that he was unable to resolve. This scheme has never been successfully applied to a moving, historical society; but it paved the way to a greater openness to Marxism in the 1970s.

Claude Meillassoux, Emmanuel Terray and Pierre-Philippe Rey all acknowledged their debt to Althusser, but they sustained a lively debate among themselves over their common ethnographic area, West and Central Africa. All three wrote major field monographs, but Meillassoux’s L’anthropologie économique des Gouro de Côte d’Ivoire (1964) became the locus classicus for discussion. His later synthesis, Femmes, greniers et capitaux (1981), was a more ambitious attempt to compare the means of accumulation in tribal, peasant and capitalist societies. Terray’s (1972) reanalysis of the Gouro ethnography set out a method for classifying the material base of a society in great detail, so that its modes of production may be inferred empirically and concrete particulars incorporated into a materialist analysis. Pierre-Philippe Rey’s monograph on a matrilineal tribe of the French Congo, Colonialisme, néo-colonialisme et transition au capitalisme (1971), was seminal. First, it marked an original contribution to the literature on matriliny, slavery and European penetration of the Congo, whereas many Marxists merely restated what was already known in a new jargon. Second, Rey outlined here his famous idea of a ‘lineage mode of production’ (Rey 1975). Third, he spelled out the issue of ‘articulation of modes of production in a structure of dominance’, showing concretely how colonial capitalism restructured the lineage and petty commodity modes of production for its own ends. [...]

Although the Karl Polanyi Centre for Political Economy continues to flourish as a beacon of trans-disciplinary scholarship that goes against the neo-liberal grain (e.g. McRobbie and Levitt 2000), it is hard to identify a successor to the Polanyi school in economic anthropology. Polanyi’s mantle has passed to historians (Thompson 1991), sociologists (Beckert this volume) and political economists of neo-Keynesian and other persuasions (e.g. Stiglitz 2002; Servet 1999 and this volume) who draw on his work to theorize and critique the ‘Washington consensus’ and globalization in general. The revue du MAUSS school in France (Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste en Sciences Sociales; see Godbout and Caillé 2000) consistently produces excellent critical work in the spirit of the great man himself. Economists such as Bruno Théret (1992, 2007) and Serge Latouche (2004, 2005) enter territory that the English-speaking world tends to reserve to anthropologists and freely draw on their work. The recent publication of a Dictionnaire de l’autre économie (Laville and Cattani 2006) – sixty entries each concerned with an aspect of alternative economics (économie solidaire, micro-credit, social capital, third sector etc) and written by scholars of several disciplines – reveals how widespread Polanyi’s influence is today among those who reject mainstream economic doctrines and policies. [...]

Maurice Godelier, too, has proved that there is life after Marxism by continuing to produce significant work, notably The Enigma of the Gift (1999) and a review of economic anthropology (2000). Since the end of the Cold War, there has been some convergence between the followers of Marx and Polanyi. The convergence between the followers of Marx and Polanyi that he pioneered in the 1960s has gained momentum since the end of the Cold War, particularly in France, where the lines between anthropology and the other social sciences were never drawn firmly, since the time of Durkheim and Mauss (Steiner 2005). Jonathan Friedman has continued to mine world systems theory with fruitful effect (Friedman 1994, Friedman and Chase-Dunn 2005), without locating his work within the trajectory of economic anthropology as such. The same can be said of the Comaroffs’ collection, Millennial Capitalism (Comaroff and Comaroff 2001). [...]

The time is ripe for anthropologists to take the extra step of addressing the world economy as a whole as well as its parts; and engaging with the historical sweep of Polanyi’s great war-time oeuvre might be one means to that end. The issue remains whether or not capitalist economy rests on human principles of universal validity. This argument about sameness and difference plagued post-war economic anthropology, much as it plagued nationalist discourse in 19th century Germany. Anthropologists can be proud of our discipline’s commitment to joining the people where they live in order to find out what they think and do. But fieldwork-based ethnography needs to be integrated once more with the perspective on world history that it overthrew.

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