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Keith Hart: What is to be done?

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
14th November 2012

Three things count in our societies — people, machines and money, in that order. But money buys the machines that control the people. Our political task – and I believe it was Marx’s too – is to reverse that order of priority, not to help people escape from machines and money, but to encourage them to develop themselves through machines and money. To the idea of economic crisis and its antidotes, we must now add that of political revolution. I have argued here that the dynamics of revolution require active consideration in this context. Revolutions give rise to digital contrasts and rightly so, but human societies are built on analogue processes. This is not just an academic debating point. A lot hinges on how humanity responds to the contradictions of the turbulence ahead.

The author revisits his 2010 book, The Human Economy, taking into account recent upheavals.

Excerpted from Keith Hart:

“What makes an economy “human”? First, it privileges people before abstractions. People make and remake their economic lives and that has to be the basis for thinking about economy. Any economics has to be accessible to them as a practical guide to how they manage those lives. But the economy is human in another sense too in that we increasingly confront economic problems and dilemmas as humanity. The future of humanity as a whole is at stake in the economic crises that we face and not just the world seen through the blinkers of national politics and media. So the idea of a human economy points in these two directions: towards what people really do and extending our perspectives to a global level, if possible.

Since publishing the book, I have helped to set up a research program on the human economy at the University of Pretoria in South Africa’s capital. UP was an Afrikaner establishment close to government power in the apartheid period; but South Africa is on the move and has been for more than two decades, so the university wants to refurbish its image and expand in more progressive directions. They have generously funded a program of post-doctoral fellowships drawing initially from the global South (with fellows from Latin America and the Caribbean, South Asia and Southern Africa), but now linking researchers from North and South in a creative dialogue focused on South Africa. Volumes before The Human Economy were largely a Francophone and Latin American venture, so we widened the range of contributors to take in 15 countries, adding authors from Britain, North America and Scandinavia, as well as translating a selection from the Dictionnaire. But it soon became apparent that Asia and Africa – where most of the people live – were still missing from this impressively diverse international project. The series was launched in Brazil and Argentina soon after the millennium and it was always intended to advance collaboration between networks of researchers and activists. The books are a digest of existing knowledge and experience that might help to inform readers who wish to change the world in a progressive direction. Ours too did not offer much guidance for how to carry out active research on the human economy. So the Pretoria program aims to fill these two gaps: first, to enrol Africans and Asians, alongside Latin Americans and Europeans, into studying how to make a better economy; and second, to foster post-doctoral research that would help to inform and refine this program.

The Dictionnaire that Jean-Louis put together came out in the middle of the credit boom (2002, 2006). Very few people saw much prospect for economic and political change at that time. By the time we published The Human Economy in 2010, after the financial crisis had broken, it was clear that the ideas it contained should find a more fertile reception in the new climate of public opinion. At the very least, the absolute hegemony of mainstream economics has been damaged by the crisis. It really isn’t feasible to argue any longer – although many economists still do – that the best guarantee of improved human well-being is to leave markets free of political intervention and social control. Surely no-one believes that any more. Markets were never free, but the dominant ideology provided cover for siphoning wealth to the top; and that is now very much on the political agenda. Even the Financial Times publishes articles saying that we maybe need a new synthesis of anthropology, history and economics to replace the old discipline. So we were pretty sure that our ideas would meet a more favourable audience in this context.

Even so, we distanced ourselves, in the introduction and in our approach to editing the book, from any “revolutionary” eschatology that suggested society had reached the end of something rotten and would soon be launched on something quite new. The idea of a human economy rested on drawing attention to the fact that people do a lot more than might be imagined if we focus only on the dominant economic institutions. Against a singular notion of the economy as “capitalism”, we argued that all societies combine a plurality of economic forms and that several of these are universally distributed across history, even if their combination is strongly coloured by the dominant type of organization in particular times and places. For example, in his famous essay on The Gift (1925), Marcel Mauss tried to show that other economic principles were present in capitalist societies and understanding this would provide a sounder basis for building non-capitalist alternatives than the Bolshevik revolution’s attempt to break with markets and money. Karl Polanyi too, in his various writings, insisted that the human economy throughout history was made up of a number of mechanisms of which the market was only one. We argued therefore that the idea of radical transformation of an economy conceived of monolithically as capitalism into something regarded as its opposite was an inappropriate way to approach economic change. We should pay attention to the full range of what people are doing already and build economic initiatives around giving these a new direction, combination and emphasis, rather than suppose that economic change has to be invented from scratch. Although this might seem to be a gradualist approach to economic improvement, adopting such an approach on awide scale would in fact have revolutionary consequences.

I have been working quite closely for 5 or 6 years now with my friend and colleague at Goldsmiths, David Graeber. He is an anarchist who was prominent from the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. His book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, is a best-seller. His politics inform his economic analysis; and he has always taken an anti-statist and anti-capitalist position, with markets usually subsumed under the concept of capitalism. That is, he sees the future and the means of getting there as being based on the opposite of our capitalist states. The core of his politics is “direct action” which he has practised and written about as ethnography. I have always been centre-left with a liberal streak, but my mentor, the person from whom I have learned most, was the West Indian revolutionary, C.L.R. James and through him I gained a literary interest in the history of revolutions. In our book, Jean-Louis and I argued that people everywhere rely on a wide range of organizations in their economic lives: markets, nation-states, corporations, cities, voluntary associations, families, virtual networks, informal economies, crime and war. We should be looking for a more progressive mix of these things. We can’t afford to turn our backs on the institutions that have helped us make the modern transition to the world society that humanity now lives in. Large-scale bureaucracies co-exist with varieties of popular self-organization and we have to make them work together rather than at cross-purposes, as they often are now. All of these are responses to the challenges posed by the modern world and we need to combine them at a new and more inclusive level.

David and I agree on much of the economics. As anthropologists, we both claim inspiration from Marx and Mauss in departing from mainstream economics. Our theories of money are pretty close. Although he is less explicitly indebted to Polanyi, he too believes that economic life everywhere may be understood as a plural combination of moral principles – sharing or “communism”, reciprocity and hierarchy – which take on a different complexion when organized by dominant social forms. Thus helping each other as equals is essential to capitalist societies, but capitalism is a terrible way of bringing it out effectively. But at the same time he believes that a radical rupture with the norms of capitalist states is necessary if we are to realise out human potential through a new kind of political economy. At first, I saw our positions as being incompatible, but recent political developments now persuade me otherwise.

I would bet that 2011-2012 will turn out to be a revolutionary moment in world history comparable at least with the changes that took place in 1989-1990 and maybe more significant than that. The trigger for such a perception has been the so-called Arab Spring, the revolutions that deposed dictators in Tunisia and Egypt during early 2011. I am an Africanist and I have written about Tunisia online (e.g. thinkafricapress.com/tunisia/elections-2011-economic-democracy-preeminent). Then uprisings followed in Europe (protests in Greece, Los Indignados in Madrid), the student protests and riots in Britain and the student movement in Chile before OWS captured the world’s attention in New York last September. I felt from the beginning that OWS, whatever its consequences for American society and politics and whether or not it could claim some long-term success there, had profound significance for the global movement. It showed that the American monolith was not fixed in stone and that revolts around the world had a counterpart within the US. We live after all in the American Empire and I always thought that the “Arab Spring” should be seen as a revolt against that Empire. Oil has succeeded gold as the world economy’s principal commodity and control of it underlies the dollar’s position as the world’s reserve currency. The Middle East, Israel and oil are so central to American influence in the world – not to mention the wars they have launched against Iraq, Afghanistan and maybe soon Iran from their bases and fleets there – that the sacking of Mubarak had immense significance in and beyond the region. But at first there was no sign that anything was moving in the US. All you had was the Tea Party and a stalemate in Congress.

CLR James came from Trinidad and died an old man in the late 1980s. He was saying after 1968 that there were only two world revolutions left – the second Russian revolution and the second American revolution. He wrote a book that I co-edited called American Civilization (1993 [1950]) in which he argued that the contradiction between totalitarian bureaucracy and the struggle to bring democracy into people’s lives was at its strongest in the United States. He always believed that American society must be central to any future world revolution. I am not predicting that the OWS movement will lead directly to mass insurrection in the US. But its cultural example was immediately taken up within the country and across the world; and this reflects the fact that we live in a world unified by the contradictions of American imperial power. I watched Tiananmen Square on TV with James in April 1989. He was 88 years old and died a few weeks later. If you recall, the students were protesting because of an international meeting there to which Gorbachev was invited. The whole world was gripped by the spectacle. He said that the Chinese Communist Party would put down this rebellion easily, but “The Russians will find it hard to hold onto Eastern Europe after this”. The Berlin Wall came down six months later and that was the start of what may or may not turn out to have been the second Russian revolution.

All of this led me to reconsider the perspective we adopted in the Human Economy volume. It now seems that the piecemeal reformist approach to economic change we took there needs to confront the world revolution that we may be living through.

In January 1917, Lenin gave a speech to Swiss socialists in Zurich where he said he did not expect revolution in his lifetime, but he hoped that the younger comrades would be able to fight in one. The Russian revolution got going in March, when the soviets took to the streets; in September, Lenin writes a letter seeking to justify why he called for revolution in September, but had not in July; and by October the revolution was a done deal. You should read Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution: it takes 1300 pages to cover nine months and some events like a pivotal meeting in which the author’s intervention was decisive get 40 pages. We are talking about speed-up here.

The normal pace of talking, writing and publishing that we worked with in our book can’t accommodate this reality. I don’t want to give all this up to join the barricades. I’m an intellectual who wants to train young people to study and work for economic progress, like this seminar. Nevertheless even this more sedate approach has to distinguish between the time frame of revolutionary insurrection and building a more effective economic platform to help people experience a measure of economic democracy in their lives. These piecemeal long-term projects are vital, but the premise of a revolutionary moment puts pressure on that work.

It is thus possible to discern in the Occupy movement and the work of their most visible spokesmen, such as David Graeber, two competing visions of economic change, each with its counterpart in constructions of the idea of a human economy. One is “the world turned upside down”, a complete break with the past which might be envisaged as a return to a simpler and more wholesome way of life before the state and capitalism. The other insists that we can rely on people to be who they are, to find ways to come together and develop their mutual interests without violence or coercion. These two visions are struggling with each other in the politics of this revolutionary moment. That is why we have to think seriously about what revolutionary situations are like. It’s a very different world from one where we plan and build programs that people can live by in the long run. That is why I refer to James’s remarks on Lenin in a speech to students about the Guyanese academic-turned-revolutionary, Walter Rodney (How Europe Underdeveloped Africa), who was blown up by an agent provocateur he trusted. He tells the students that they don’t understand what revolution is and neither did Rodney who lost his life as a result. No competent revolutionary organization should have left its leader unprotected in this way. (James himself was a Trotskyist dodging the bullets of Stalinist assassins while researching The Black Jacobins in Paris during the 1930s).

James quotes from Lenin’s letter of September 1917 where he talks about “insurrection”. It is important to have discriminating vocabulary rather than call everything a revolution. The events of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt were insurrections, not revolutions. Lenin identifies three components of any revolution and the party has nothing to do with any of them. James lists these as “Firstly, there must be a clash, a revolutionary upsurge of the people. Then, secondly, there must be a turning point, when the activity of the advanced ranks is at its height; and thirdly, the enemy must be vacillating.” Lenin is often misrepresented as an advocate of the vanguard party, He himself abandoned all those ideas as soon as he arrived at the Finland station and found the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets in the streets. Until then, he said, I was just another bourgeois politician. Revolutions change people. Lenin also said that insurrection is an art, not a science. At the end of his speech, James recalls a conversation with Trotsky in Mexico in 1938: “But how come, time and again, the revolutionary party – this is the party, not the mass movement — was wrong in its analysis of the situation and Lenin turns out to be right and set it the correct way? How did that happen?” And I expected him to tell me how Lenin knew philosophy, how he knew political analysis, how he knew psychology, or how he knew the revolution. He did not. He said, “Lenin always had his eyes upon the mass of the population, and when he saw the way they were going, he knew that tomorrow this was what was going to happen.” The prophet as anthropologist! And Gabriella Coleman is there in these hackers’ conversation rooms trying to figure out what they are doing.

So what are the implications of all this for the idea of a human economy? Like Jean-Louis, I seem to have spent the last few years producing books. It is a very different enterprise writing for educational purposes in the long run from trying to understand the moment we are living through. The best methodological statement on this I know is by Marx in the introduction to Grundrisse, the notes he compiled from 15 years of reading in the British Museum library which he completed in 1859. We must start, he says, from our concrete moment in world history, whatever that is. We start with the conditions we encounter and study them. Then we build analytical concepts and propositions using the results of what we have studied. Analysis is making sense of what we find out there. Some people — Marx here nodding rather unfairly in my view towards Hegel — think that the task finishes there, with the ideas. Once you have the analysis, you can rest happy, publish your book and get tenure. But the point of the analytical tools we have developed is to insert them back into the moment we are living in; and you can do that in many ways, through writing, propaganda, political parties, controlled experiments, social networking, blogs, whatever. The test of their validity lies in this dialectical process. Only then might we generate an analytically informed and empirically tested account of our moment in history seen as a synthetic whole. He plans to do this in Capital; but actually he never got there. He lists five prospective volumes culminating in a historical account of the world economy as a whole; but he hardly made it to three.

We all, if we are honest and realistic, have to locate ourselves at some point along the path that Marx charted. The core of the human economy project lies in dealing with the two approaches I have mentioned. I find it really fertile to juxtapose my own work with that of David Graeber, taking account of the similarities and differences in ways that change subtly over time. David arrived at the term “human economy” more or less when I did, in the last decade. He uses it to refer to an earlier period of human history, the world we have lost that survives in ethnographic accounts of primitive, exotic peoples, when people were purer than we are, living in a natural state of humanity. It’s an old story, but a powerful one and he tells it well. For him, the human economy is one whose objective is the social reproduction of people. It takes the form in Africa, for example, of cows being exchanged for women in marriage as a source of legitimation for children. This version of the human economy is based on principles diametrically opposed to those of capitalism, the market and the state.

Jean-Louis and I take the view that the human economy exists everywhere in some kind of dialectical tension with the dominant economic institutions of our day. It is not incompatible with money and markets. These can be made to serve human interests and needs, as they always have in varying degree, and they don’t have to take the exploitive form that they currently do in our societies as a source of unequal power and wealth. I for one like ordering books and apps online and don’t want to spend my days haggling over my daily bread without a means of payment or standing in line for a handout. We take our lead from Mauss’s insistence that markets and money rest on what Durkheim called “the non-contractual element in the contract”, a body of customs, laws and history that is obscured, marginalized and repressed by bourgeois ideology, even as it contains the living potential to humanize our economic institutions.

A counterpart to these competing constructions of the human economy may be found in the two visions of revolution I touched on earlier – a digital one that envisages a radical switch to the negation of what we know and an analogue version that expects to mobilize people by building on what they know and do already. A lot hinges on our ability to see a way towards combining these approaches rather than opposing them. I would argue that David and I already do that, each in our own way. The tension between them is to be found in all the current protest movements from Tahrir Square to OWS and Anonymous. We cannot afford to go back to the polarized and often sectarian politics of the twentieth century, when “revolution” and “reform” defined opposite sides in a destructive and partisan conflict. If we were aiming for anything in articulating the human economy idea, it was to get beyond the extremes of state socialism and free enterprise that misleadingly identified the sides in the Cold War. What is the Pentagon after all if not the largest socialist collective in world history?”


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