Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Anthropology of Money

The following passages are a small portion from a fascinating article titled "Notes towards an anthropology of money" by Keith Hart (I don't remember where I found the link, though no doubt it had something to do with Stuart at From Despair to Where?):

Traders are unusual people (Hicks 1969). They own things they neither made nor will use, but still claim the right to the value of their sale. They are willing to give up their goods in return for payment; and their customers then have the right to do what they like with them. This is so commonplace in our world that we think of it as eternal. It is in fact quite rare within the range of known human societies. What gives buyer and seller confidence that they each have exclusive rights to dispose of the commodity? The power of state law reinforces their contract and usually supports the money involved. They may operate as isolated individuals only because of the huge social apparatus backing their exchange.

If trading with money is a special institution, how else have people circulated objects between themselves? In barter two parties exchange goods taken to be equivalent; the timing and the quantities must be right; both sides must have the right to dispose of their goods without involving others; there is a risk of conflict in haggling. How much simpler to persuade you to give up your goods in return for money that you can hold for purchases from others in different times and places. But it is not convincing that such a complicated arrangement as barter would prevail before people thought of inventing money.

Barter is often found where markets using money prices are ineffective, usually because of a shortage of liquidity. [...]

I have been struck by the tenacity with which ordinary people cling to the barter origin myth of money. Can this merely be an example of Keynes' (1936: 383) famous claim that our ideas are nothing more than the echoes of a defunct economists theory? A Sudanese friend once asserted that the original economic system of his country was barter between villages; and then, when pushed, he admitted that these villages had been involved with merchant networks and money for thousands of years. It would be more plausible to locate the origins of exchange in the gift, as Mauss (1990 [1925]) suggested. But this would give priority to a personalised conception of money, seeing markets as a form of symbolic human activity rather than as the circulation of dissociated objects between isolated individuals. The general appeal of the barter origin myth is that it leaves the notion of the private property complex undisturbed.


The contributors to Parry and Bloch (1990) share the view that indigenous societies around the world take modern money in their stride, turning it to their own social purposes rather than being subject to its impersonal logic. The underlying theory is familiar from Durkheim (1965 [1912]). There are two circuits of social life: one, the everyday, is short-term, individuated and materialistic; the other, the social, is long-term, collective and idealised, even spiritual. Market transactions fall into the first category and all societies seek to subordinate them to the conditions of their own reproduction, which is the realm of the second category. For some reason, which they do not investigate, money has acquired in Western economies a social force all of its own, whereas the rest of the world retains the ability to keep it in its place.


Where does the social pressure come from to make markets impersonal? Weber (1981 [1927]) had one answer: rational calculation of profit in enterprises depends on the capitalist’s ability to control product and factor markets, especially that for labour. But human work is not an object separable from the person performing it, so people must be taught to submit to the impersonal disciplines of the workplace. The war to impose this submission has never been completely won (see Parry infra). So, just as money is intrinsic to the home economy, personality remains intrinsic to the workplace, which means that the cultural effort required to keep the two spheres separate, if only at the conceptual level, is huge.

Money in capitalist societies stands for alienation, detachment, impersonal society, the outside; its origins lie beyond our control. Relations marked by the absence of money are the model of personal integration and free association, of what we take to be familiar, the inside. Commodities are goods because we consume them in person, but we find it difficult to embrace money, the means of their exchange, as good because it belongs to a sphere that is indifferent to morality and, in some sense, stays there. The good life, instead of uniting work and home, is restricted to what takes place in the latter.

This institutional dualism, forcing individuals to divide themselves, asks too much of us. People want to integrate division, to make some meaningful connection between themselves as subjects and society as an object. It helps that money, as well as being the means of separating public and domestic life, was always the main bridge between the two. Today money is both the principal source of our vulnerability in society and the main practical symbol allowing each of us to make an impersonal world meaningful. If Durkheim (1965 [1912]) said we worship society and call it God, then money is the God of capitalist society.

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