Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value

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* Book: Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value. The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. By David Graeber. Palgrave, 2002

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From the publisher:

"Now a widely cited classic, this innovative book is the first comprehensive synthesis of economic, political, and cultural theories of value. David Graeber reexamines a century of anthropological thought about value and exchange, in large measure to find a way out of ongoing quandaries in current social theory, which have become critical at the present moment of ideological collapse in the face of Neoliberalism. Rooted in an engaged, dynamic realism, Graeber argues that projects of cultural comparison are in a sense necessarily revolutionary projects: He attempts to synthesize the best insights of Karl Marx and Marcel Mauss, arguing that these figures represent two extreme, but ultimately complementary, possibilities in the shape such a project might take. Graeber breathes new life into the classic anthropological texts on exchange, value, and economy. He rethinks the cases of Iroquois wampum, Pacific kula exchanges, and the Kwakiutl potlatch within the flow of world historical processes, and recasts value as a model of human meaning-making, which far exceeds rationalist/reductive economist paradigms."



Based on the book notes of Michel Bauwens:

Chapter 1: Three ways of talking about value

This book, described as "the first comprehensive synthesis of economic, political, and cultural theories of value", re-examines a century of anthropological thought on value and exchange.

There are 3 conceptions of value in the social sciences:

   - 1) sociological: what is the ultimate good in human life
   - 2) economic: the degree to which an object is desired, i.e. what people are willing to give up to get it
   - 3) linguistic: meaning difference in a system of language

How are these 3 meanings related ? Theorists who concentrated on only one strand of inquiry usually ran into problems, for example:

Clyde Kluckhohn's value project: The first anthropologist to make it his central theme (1940s, 1950s), redefining the discipline as the comparative study of values. Values were for him "conceptions of the desirable" (in the sense of 'ideals of what people ought to want), and "value orientations", where these ideas plus the assumptions about the nature of the world. But this methodology had trouble to make practical comparisons and was felt to have ended in relative failure. The project had no intellectual successors.

Graeber then shows how ill-equipped the economic theory of the maximizing individual is, to explain the behavior of non-western subjects.

The Formalist-Substantivist debate of the sixties also ended in a deadlock, and is now considered to be 'outdated'.

Details on the Formalism-Substantivism Debate

Formalists look at individuals; Substantivists look at society as a whole.

Both terms are from Polanyi who had shown that the market was definitely the product of the state.

Formalism is the study of the formal laws of behaviour of people in a market. But most historical societies did not have such a market,i.e. had no 'economy', and there a 'substanttive' approach may be needed, one that looks at the actual process a society uses to provide itself with material goods.

Thus were discovered mechanisms such as:

   - redistributive economies
   - ports of trade
   - spheres of exchange
   - spheres of sociability

In conclusion: Formalists look at individuals; Substantivists look at society as a whole.

Graeber next discusses Structuralism as started by the semiology of De Saussure. The latter had said that no meaning or value ould be determined, unless by contrast to the total system of which it was a part (ex: red is not yellow, not brown, ....). The same principle was then applied to objects. It is now thought that if structuralism could account for difference, it could not account for evaluation (and therefore could not be applied to money, which has to take into account 'exact' differences).

Sahlins has done a lot of work to solve this problem, but especially Louis Dumont, whole concept of value derives from his notion of hierarchy. Structuralism discovers binary oppositions, i.e. left vs. right, but fails to notice, one term is always superior to the other, and includes it. For example, giving one's right hand, represents the whole person, including the left hand. Conceptual distinctions contain an element of value, since they are ranked. "All societies were holistic, and thus hierarchical, ranked in a series of more and more inclusive domains. Except the West, because: "each person is being assumed to have a unique individuality, is a value onto themselves, and none can be treated as intrinsically superior". Graeber says that later Dumontian studies tend to see societies as totalities, and thus also in isolation, an apparel which is now rejected, also because it cannot account for change.

Box: What are anthropologists looking for ?

   - For a 19th cy evolutionist: where it stands in a grand historical series, what it tells us about universal history
   - For a functionalist: how a given practice contributes to social stability
   - For a structuralist, to uncover the total system of meaning

All are looking for a logically coherent system, and thus distinct from the economist' focus, on individual action.

Chapter 2: Current directions in exchange theory

Graeber will now focus on the present theories of value.

After the sixties, i.e. the debates between the Formalists and the Substantivists, the seventies saw the polemics between the Structuralists and Marxism.

Graeber is referring to the first (French) marxist anthropologists, such as Claude Meillasoux, and Maurice Godelier.

They criticized both Formalists and Substantivists, for focusing on distribution and exchange, forgetting production. This 'mode of production' approach, worked well in societies WITH a state. Though 'pure' approaches tended to be on capitalism (including the natives' relation to it), it had broader, though hidden influence. It would also morph into various critical theory approaches.

In the eighties, the attention turned from production (seventies) to consumption. If there is anything that unites post-structuralists, it is their refusal of totalities. Reality consists of different fields with different games which do not form a overall structure. Both societies and individuals are fragments. Bourdieu has gone the furthest to reconcile structuralism and theories of human action. His notion of habitus, i.e. symbolic systems that can be absorbed and reproduced without the awareness of the individual, "is justly famous". Bourdieu re-interpreted the gift economy of Mauss by saying that traditional societies 'are not yet aware' of the economy, and the disguise the fact. They are in bad faith and a gift is in fact an exchange. Symbolic capital is also an economic good.

Why would Bourdieu, a critical theorist, 'economize everything' , to rational self-interest ? To Graeber, by seeing everything as a field of power and domination, the academic left seriously undercut itself and the belief in alternatives!!

Appadurai, in a seminal 1986 essay (Commodities and the Politics of Value, in: The Social Life of Things), followed G. Simmel ("Philosophy of Money") in discussing 'regimes of value', denying commodities were a purely capitalist phenomenom. She denies that value derived from labour, seeing it dependent solely on exchange, i.e. individual desire (what is one willing to give up for something).

Hence commodities existed in all societies, not just capitalist ones. Appadurai argued one could focus on the 'life history' of any object, and see how it moved in and out of different 'regimes of value'. Appadurai rejected the distinction between gifts and commodities, all were things. Instead he focused on a 'politics of value', centered on elites bent on limiting consumption, and social forces intent on expanding it. This approach started a trend of glorifying consumption as 'creative self-expression'. But it did liberate scholars to examine the cultural contexts of things.

An opposite direction was taken by Annette Weiner's writings on "inalienable possessions". Gifts always keep a trace of the giver, and the giver never forgets some gifts. Such objects accumulate a history.

- "In any given society, one should be able to map the continuum of objects, ranked according to their ability to accumulate history (p. 34)

Such objects would gain from circulation. But some objects are so valuable that they cannot be given away, for example for their mythical origin. (f.e. the Crown Jewels in England). They have transcendent or 'absolute' value. Their value is measured in the fear of loss. Their preservation, an achievement, is an image of eternity.

Marylin Strathern, studying Melanesia, asked herself, what would a social theory look like, if 'relationships' came first (and not individuals or society). Marxists had critiqued the Maussian stress on the gift, because it puts the spotlight on the gift, the moment of exchange, leaving in the shadows all that comes before, such as production. It stresses the 'men' as gift givers, forgetting the women who raised them. This argument, by Josephides, was criticized by Strathern as western-centric. Marxists imply that individuals who produce objects should have a right to determine their meaning. But that is not how other societies saw it. They saw objects as the outcome of relationships. Melanesians do not see an individual core, but see that we are who we are as perceived by others.

Graeber also references Christopher Gregory, and his 1992, 'Gifts and Commodities', in which he writes: "gift economies tend to personify objects; commodity economies .. tend to treat human beings .. like objects." p. 36).

Gregory had argued: objects in a gift economy have no exchange value, hence no value at all. Instead, they are ranked, they cannot be compared exactly, as objects can only be traded 'within their rank'.

But value is possible in a gift economy!

   - 1) value implies comparison, according to a ratio (money, etc ..)
   - 2) objects can be ranked (Gregory)
   - 3) there is a third relation of comparison, argues Strathern, i.e. 'between an entity and its source of origin: value is 'meaningful difference'

People make one part of our potential visible. And 'making visible' is 'giving value'. Thus, Melanesian wives raise pigs as their commitment to the marriage, while men give it away as a sign of the importance of a relationship with other men. The value is derived and changes through relationship. It is inappropriate to analyse their situation in our own terms, as exploitation of women by men. Contrary to Gregory, Strathern argues that value is indeed possible in a gift economy.

Nancy Munn, wo studied the Gawa, showed how giving creates obligations and hence 'enhances control over intersubjective spacetime'. For her, value springs from action. It is one's potential becoming concrete and recognized by others, culi]minating in 'fame': one's name is important even to those we have never met. One invests one's time in those things we consider most meaningful. This is the common core of value, going beyond the gift/commodity distinction. Her theory resembles a labor theory of value, but generalizes it to any action.

In conclusion:

For Graeber, value theory has balanced continuously from a form of economism (value = individual desire), to 'meaningful difference'. Economism reduces action to exchange, while Saussurian approaches have difficulty with action. Both have trouble accounting for change. But Munn points the way toward an approach that integrates change.

Chapter 3: Value as the importance of actions

"What if one did try to create a theory of value starting from the assumption that what is ultimately being evaluated are not things, but actions ?

Terence Turner is another who has taken up that direction. He belongs to the marginal 'Heraclitean' tradition in Western thought (only change is permanent, fixity is an illusion), who lost out to Parmenides (objects have fixed forms beyond change). Graeber adds that "Parmenides was wrong, but it allowed us to measure things and thus prove that.

Ricoeur once wrote:

   - "all our machines would have been impossible without the logical heroism of Parmenides, denying the entirety of the world of becomig and of praxis in the name of self-identity and significations. 

The alternative is that objects are processes, as defined by their potential, and society as actions, that perspective has always existed as well, most notably in the dialectical tradition of Hegel and Kant. Roy Bhaskar has attempted to continue that tradition, through his 'critical realism'.

His ontology can be summarized as follows:

- 1. ("Transcendental") realism: what has to be the case, to explain what we do experience

- 2. Potentiality, i.e. reality consists not only of

       - I. what we can experience, the EMPIRICAL
       - II. the sum total of all events, the ACTUAL
   - but also of:
       - III. Potentialities

- 3. Freedom is an emergent trait of emergent stratums, none of which can be reduced to each other (physical - chemical - biological - human)

- 4. Open systems: reality is such, but science creates an artificially closed system to achieve predictability

- 5. Tendencies, i.e. a better term than laws, since their interplay is unpredictable

"Reality is what one can never know completely. If an object is real, any description we make of it will necessarily be partial and incomplete." (p. 53)

A theory of action has advantages over materialism, since it can see that superstructural phenomena, such as literature, are just as much material processes, i.e. actions of writing and reading. Passing on to Marx's theory of value, Graeber paraphrases it by saying, "that the value of a given product equals the proportion of society's creative energy that it has put in producing and maintaining it.

Since labor is sold in a capitalist system, Marx thought it could be approximately estimated. But how to apply such a measure to pre-capitalist societies ? The value of Marx is that he introduced self-consciousness (we are imaginative, intentional beings) into his materialism. With some adaptation, Marx could serve to develop a theory of action.

Graeber says there are 2 types of structuralisms:

   - 1) the well-known Saussurean one, seen as equilibrium, where every part contributes to the definition of all the others
   - 2) a Heraclitean one, the structuralism of Jean Piaget, which starts from action and sees structure as the 'coordination of activitiy'. 

Piaget insists that the basis of any system of knowledge is always a set of practices. Structure does not exist prior to action. It is the result of 'reflexive abstraction', so that actors discover the underlying logic of their actions. Any structure depends on the next higher level being constructed. It is an open-ended system as one can always construct a more sophisticated point of view. - "The logical level at which one is operating is always at least one level higher than that which we can explain or understand" (p. 62) = you need to be one level higher to be able to explain what you are doing.

Marketless and stateless societies spend only a minimum of their extractive energies on 'production'. Most of their time goes to a lifelong socialization process. Eric Wolf, a Marxist anthropologist, coined the term the 'kinship mode of production'.

Graeber then reviews 2 studies:

   - one of the Baining in Papua New Guinea, "who lack most of the institutions we normally associate with social structure' and are a kind of egalitarian anarchists (as studied by Jane Fajans)
   - and the second one on the Kayapo of Brazil, studied by Turner, to show how the microstructure of the family is the basis for the macrostructure of society,

Even non-market societies can be said to have an exchange of value.

Turner's study of the Kayapo concludes that the elite men earn the right to participate in chanting ceremonies and this this is the exchange value of the tribe. So what conception of value can encompass this ?

- "Here's the list of the most important qualities shared by all such 'concrete media of circulation':

   - 1. They are 'measures of value' to contrast degrees of difference (dominance, beauty, honor, etc ...)
       - a. presence/absence: to have or not to have as a distinction
       - b. ranking
       - c. proportionality
   - 2. They are the 'media of value', i.e. they are concrete, material means by which that value is realized
       - they must be perceptible to a larger audience!"
   - 3. They come to be seen as ends in themselves (not as tools, but as emobodying value themselves)

The last point shows the way towards reconciling social structure and individual desire. Most people pursue social values; and society is the total process through which all activity is coordinated; value is the way actors see their own activity as meaningful in it; it always involves some sort of public recognition and comparison.

Graeber concludes this survey of value vs. 'values' by bringing them together in one scheme that involves both the process of production, circulation, and realization of things (material production), and the sphere of production of people (social production).

In traditional society both are centered on the household. But everywhere the tokens that embody value tend to be fetishized (value is thought to originate in them).

Fajans suggests that we should distinguish clearly the sphere of exchange and that of circulation:

   - "Exchange occurs when property passes from one person to another, circulation occures when  value or valued qualities are transferred."

In a disgression, Graeber notes that cultures characterized by ideals of egalitarianism and individualism, seems to need the 'negative value' embodied in witchcraft, as a counter-image.

In a second disgression on the Marxist theory of ideology, Graeber says that the superstructure theory of ideology does not in fact function in reality, the exploited do not believe these types of justifications. Much more effective are appeals to the extension of values of the domestic sphere.

Postmodern thought has established that empirical closed totalities (a text, a society), do not exist in reality; at the same time, the social sciences have established that any meaning that includes values, arises out of comparison and that such implies 'imaginary totalities'. Imagined total society never corresponds to what real society is, and in today's differentiated world, different imagined totalities may co-exist. The ulitmate stake of politics is the struggle to establish what value is, and the ultimate freedom is to decide what makes life worth living. Politics is about the meaning of life.

The paradox of the postmodern age (80s-90s) is that, at the time when totalities were proclaimed to have ceased to exist, the totalizing World Market in fact triumphed. "An age in which the most gigantic, totalitarian, and all-encompassing system of evaluation known to human history came to be imposed on almost everythng. ... Behind the imaginary of postmodernisn is really nothing but the ideology of the market" (p. 89)

The key to all of this: what kind of regulating mechanism will best ensure that people are free to conceive of value in whatever form they wish ?

Chapter 4: Action and Reflection

Or: Notes towards a theory of wealth and power

- "Whenever one examines the process whereby the value of an object is determined, issues of visibility and invisibility seem to crop up."

Primitive currencies, such as beads, very often were objects of adornment. This stands in contrast with contemporary money, which is not a unique object at all.

Graeber now turns to the literature on power. According to Foucault, feudal power was about visibility, with the powerless being invisible. But this changes in the 18th cy., when invisible bureaucrats start watching and naming the mass of people

Colourful masculine clothes started to be abandoned by 1750. The male's anonymous costumes denoted a capacity for action, while female fashion was a statement on self only. Males were the surveyors and females were the surveyed. Males hide their capacity for action, while women's presence reflect how she should be treated. But everyone has both aspects: a promise of action and being, which reflects acts already taken.

Graeber uses the case of the Imerina in Madagascar, to discuss the politics of visibility and invisibility. Sacrificial objects, used to obtain satisfaction of a desire, were visible, but once their work was done, and this had proven their value, they were then hidden and used as permanent charms.

Thus there are 2 distinct powers which can be observed:

   - 1) the power to act directly on others (as potential for the future)
   - 2) the power to move others to action (by showing one's past ability to do this).

Money is an example of the first, and inspires to acquire objects (which others have wanted); but heirloom jewelry and gift tokens, are a display that say how one wants to be treated. Money as future specificity stands opposed to objeccts rooted in their past.

Chapter 5:Wampun and Social Creativity Among the Iroquois

Wampuns were a kind of beads used for the fur trade with the Iroquois, but internally they were used in a political way. They were matrilineal and matrilocal and saw themselves not as individuals but as eternal names that one would inherit. The transmission or 'resurecction of names' ceremony was done by hanging a wampun collar on the neck of the receiver, who would take over the duties of the deceased, and aim to have his qualities. Women ruled the towns inside the palissades, men were the masters of the forests. Their system combined predatory war with democratic government. Longhouses were ruled by a council of females, villages had both male and female participation, while the federal level was male-dominated, but the women had veto power.

War was about taking prisoners who would either be killed or tortured, or adopted to receive a name of a deceased family member (raiding parties were ordered after a member's death). The Five Nations League was essentially a peace treaty, transacted through wampun gifts, which represented 'words' in the diplomatic dialogue.

Iroquois religion was one of thanksgiving to the universe, and the dialogue aimed to open participants from their contraction. They recognized three creative 'founding moments'.

Chapter 6: Marcel Mauss revisited

Mauss' intention in his celebrated essay on the gift was in fact to uncover the archaic origins of the contract. His central question was: why does the gift, a voluntary act, create the obligation of a return ? It was also a counter-argument to the free market economists who thought the primitive economy was based on barter. He was trying to show that utilitarian self-interest is not the primary motive. Graeber reminds us that Mauss was a committed socialist and a leader of the cooperative movement. He was neither a social-democrat nor communist, which he accused of 'fetishizing politics', and the state. He instead favoured a bottom-up approach. While supporting the Russian Revolution, the authoritarianism of the Bolcheviks left him profoundly disheartened. After its failure became clear, he wanted to understand why the market seems necessary, yet seemed to antagonistic to justice and humanity in its current form.

Discussing 'primitive communism', Mauss insists it was not based on common ownership, but on open-ended obligation (f.e. "if you give a wife to your in-laws, as brother of the girl, you can ask them for any support). There was always some form of personal possession, and where common ownership existed, it was rarely (or never ?) democratically administered. Communism and individualism were therefore not opposed, but there existed, 'systems of total reciprocity' (individuals with obligations to one another). Communism was the elementary form of social contract, "an open-ended agreement in which each party commits itself to maintaining the life of the other" (p. 162).

In traditional societies, one could be rich, but was at the same time expected (or compelled, as in the Greek liturgical system), to return the riches to one's own community. But Roman largesse had a sadistic quality (throwing coins to a crowd to enjoy the fight), which Christianity abhorred. True charity, they said, could not benefit the giver. It is this impossibility which reveals the suspicion of self-interest. This is why liberal theory, which demands a gift to be disinterested, cannot see it occurring, even though, according to Mauss, "it is everywhere as the hidden phase of modernity".

"Mauss insisted that in most of the societies he was examining, there's no point in trying to distinguish between generosity and self-interest. It is we who assume the two should normally be in conflict." (p. 162)

Mauss then goes on toe examine gift and appropriation practices, such as:

   - 1) the exchange of the Kula
   - 2) appropriation amongst the Maori (where noblemen could ask for anything, but had to be prepared to give something of equal value in return)

He looks in particular at the confirmation of the thesis by Mauss, i.e. that an object carries something ('value') of the person it was once attached to.

(Not read: about 30 pages about the Kwatiul potlach; continued reading as of page 217 onwards.)

Conclusions of chapter 6:

After this long exploration and comparison of different gift economy practices, Graeber now comes back to this key question: why do gifts have to be returned?"

Sahlins distinguished between 'general reciprocity' which is open-ended, and 'balanced reciprocity' (gift-countergift). The former creates long-term mutual obligations, the latter only in the short term, as the counter-gift effectively 'cancels' the gift.

- "Balanced reciprocity is not the prevalent form of exchange .. It may tend to towards self-liquidation." (Sahlins 1972 p. 223 , cited p. 220)

This is why Graeber prefers the open vs closed distinction:

   - "open reciprocity keeps no accounts, because it implies a relation of permanent mutual commitment"
   - it becomes closed reciprocity when the balancing of accounts closes the relationship off, or at least maintans the constant possibility of doing so. " (p. 220)

He insists it is a difference of degree, not of kind.

Totally closed gift economies are those that most ressemble market exchange: "it is competitive, individualistic, and can easily slip into something ressembling barter. Mauss focused on this kind rather than the open one, says Graeber: "Gifts have to be repaid when 'communistic' relations are so identified with inequality that not doing so would place the recipient in the position of an inferior. (p. 221)

For example: the patriarchal household where the father gives everything. In such a society accepting a gift is acquiescing to superiority.

Graeber believes that accounting for input and output is more likely to occur in the 'prestige' sphere.

Chapter 7: The problem of the Fetish

Even though most social forms come to be seen as naturalized, every society has forms that it sees as deriving from an agreement (f.e. the Iroquois). An example from his own research in Madagascar, shows that, despite appearances to the contrary, people knew that royal power came from their agreement. Graeber goes on to discuss magic. He defines it as a technique which starts from human intention, despite of its use of the supernatural, and it is always correlated with scepticism as to its reality. People admit it may only work because of its social effects, yet behave as if it really works.