Financialization with a human face: On the gift

A gift economy is sometimes put forward as some kind of alternative, or at least a humanizing supplement, to contemporary capitalism, particularly by Christian theologians. Yet anthropological research, going all the way back to Mauss’s classic study, confirms that a gift economy is a debt economy — though normally without precise quantification. Certainly everything is presented as “officially” voluntary, but we maintain the same fiction in our contemporary debt economy insofar as every contract is formally “freely entered into.” Gift economies can easily be deployed to ruin rivals who cannot return the favor, and even enslave them.

What’s more, Christians should be more aware than anyone of the tendency of gift to become debt — all we have to do is read literally one of the most famous and influential texts in the Christian tradition, Cur deus homo. One can perhaps read certain key texts in the Christian tradition as trying to escape the logic of the gift (as I do with Augustine’s De trinitate [PDF]), but the slippage is right there from the very beginning, as Derrida shows in The Gift of Death.

Since Derrida is often evoked in the moralizing appropriations of the gift, it seems fair to point out that Derrida’s goal in Given Time is to demonstrate the rigorous impossibility of the gift — how the gift, when pushed to the extreme, transforms into something else, something no longer recognizable. Think of his standards for the perfect gift: it must be completely gratuituous and completely unconscious, because knowledge of one’s own generosity would also count as a return on one’s investment. Using this concept of the ultra- or arche-gift, I’d venture to say that capitalism occurs between two great “gifts” — the “gift” of primitive accumulation, the pure expenditure of those who don’t even realize they’re giving anything away, and the “gift” of crisis, the pure expenditure of surplus value that one gives precisely to no one.

It is no coincidence that the gift becomes such an important theme precisely under neoliberalism: it holds out the prospect of financialization with a human face.

25 thoughts on “Financialization with a human face: On the gift

  1. A little David Graeber is needed here: “The obvious question: how did one get from there to here? What were the origins of this conception of “self-interest” to begin with, and how did it come to efface almost everything else? Alain Caillé (1994:10–12), one of the founders of an interdisciplinary group that calls itself the Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste dans les Sciences Sociales, or MAUSS, points to the role of Christianity. Roman aristocrats and grandees still kept much of the ethos of magnificent generosity: dedicating public buildings and gardens, vying to host the most spectacular public games. But much Roman largesse was quite obviously meant to wound: a favorite aristocratic habit, for example, was scattering gold and jewels into the crowd so as to be able to revel in the ensuing animalistic melee. Understandably, early Christian theories of the gift developed in reaction to such obnoxious practices. True charity, in Christian doctrine, could not be based on any desire to establish superiority, or gain anyone’s favor, or indeed, from any egoistic motive whatever. To the degree that the giver could be said to have gotten anything out of the deal, it wasn’t a real gift. But this in turn led to endless problems, since it was very difficult to conceive of a gift that did not benefit the giver in any way. At the very least, doing a good deed put one in better standing in the eyes of God and thus aided one’s chance of eternal salvation. In the end, some actually ended up arguing that the only person who can make a purely benevolent act was one who had convinced himself that he was already condemned to hell. From here it’s hardly much of a step to the sort of cynicism discussed in earlier chapters of this book, where any apparent act of generosity is assumed to mask some form of hidden selfishness, and to take pleasure in having done a good deed is seen to somehow undercut it—really two different versions of the same idea.

    “The modern ideal of the gift, then, becomes an impossible mirror of market behavior: an act of pure generosity untrammeled by any thought of personal gain. But as the members of the MAUSS group endlessly insist, this does not mean people no longer give gifts: even in modern, capitalist societies things are constantly changing hands without any immediate return or explicit agreement about a future one. It does not even mean that gifts are no longer important. In fact, they argue, modern society could not function without them. The gift has become the “hidden face of modernity” (Nicolas 1991): “hidden” because one can always produce some reason to say any particular gift (money given to children, wedding presents, donations of blood, dinners for business associates, offering advice to friends or spending hours listening to their tedious problems) are not really gifts at all. So too in social theory. The result, as Godbout puts it, is a science that has “come to speak of social ties without using the words that are associated with them in daily life:
    surrender, forgiveness, renunciation, love, respect, dignity, redemption, salvation, redress, compassion, everything that is at the heart of relationships between people and that is nourished by the gift” (1998:220–21).

    “In the Anglophone world, the MAUSS group has been almost entirely ignored. Those who like to think of themselves as engaged in cutting-edge critical theory have instead come to read Mauss through Jacques Derrida (1991; cf. Gasché 1972, Schrift 1997), who in Donner le Temps examined Mauss’ concept of the gift to discover—surprise!—that gifts, being acts of pure disinterested generosity, are logically impossible.

    “I suppose this is what one would have to conclude, if one believed that there is something that can be called “Western discourse,” and that it is incapable of referring to anything other than itself. But even those of us who believe that anthropology is, in fact, possible often seem to miss the point that Mauss was not dealing primarily with discourses but with moral principles that he felt were to some extent embodied in the practice, if not the high theory, of all societies.

    “True, Mauss emphasizes 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. (This was one reason why he tended to avoid the term “gift” at all when speaking of other societies, preferring to speak of “prestations.”) But—and this is where I think it’s crucial to understand the political context—Mauss was not trying to describe how the logic of the marketplace, with its strict distinctions between persons and things, interest and altruism, freedom and obligation, had become the common sense of modern societies. Above all, he was trying to explain the degree to which it had failed to do so; to explain why so many people—and particularly, so many of the less powerful and privileged
    members of society—found its logic morally repugnant. Why, for example, institutions that insisted on the strict separability of producers and their products offended against common intuitions of justice, the moral
    “bedrock,” as he puts it, of our own—as of any—society. “It appears,” he wrote in his conclusions, that the whole field of industrial and commercial law is in conflict with morality. The economic prejudices of the people and producers derive from their strong desire to pursue the thing they have produced once they realize that they
    have given their labor without sharing in the profits . . . (1925 [1965:64])

    “Here there is undoubtedly an echo of Marx. But Mauss’ theory of alienation derived from very different origins; not from the Hegelian, dialectical tradition Marx employed in his early writings on the subject (which Mauss almost certainly hadn’t read), but rather from that of legal history—in which property is “alienated” when all rights in it are detached from one owner and vested in another. Particularly for the French working classes, which were not far removed from peasant and artisanal backgrounds, there still seemed something profoundly wrong in this. Mauss was trying to understand what that was—just as he was trying to understand why it was that social insurance legislation, “inspired by the principle that the worker gives his life and labor partly to the community, and partly to his bosses” (1925 [1965:65]), and therefore deserved more than a weekly wage, seemed right. His answer, quite different from Marx’s, was that a relation of wage labor was a miserable and impoverished form of contract. Because, as we’ve seen, the elementary form of social contract is, for Mauss, precisely, communism: that is, an open-ended agreement in which each party commits itself to maintaining the life of the other. In wage labor the worker does give of the totality of himself, he “gives his life and labor,” but the cash he receives in return has nothing of the same total quality about it. If one gives one’s life, one’s life
    should at least be guaranteed.” (Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value, pg. 160-62)

  2. The mistake in your first and second sentences is to conflate capitalism with a debt economy. The debt, like the gift, is the concretization of social relations. Money’s role under capitalism is to abstract those relaitons. Both the gift and the debt long predate capitalism; they should not be understood as anything like its opposite.

  3. Mike, for a position that differs from yours, see (a recent text from a thinker mentioned in the post of which this is a spinoff): Maurizio Lazzarato, *The Making of the Indebted Man* (semiotext(e), 2012). He argues that debt is not an actualization of abstraction, nor is it a subsection within the broader capitalist economy, but rather is constitutive of capitalism as such. He draws on Deleuze & Guattari, but perhaps more notably (for present purposes) on Nietzsche’s opposition to Christianity. It is an excellent argument, and fwiw i strongly recommend it to all. Cherrypicking a few indicative remarks…
    – “the origin of calculation, measure, evaluation, comparison, and accounting (all of which are also functions of money) must not be sought in economic exchange or in labor but in debt. Indeed, equivalence and measure are not the products of exchange, but of the calculation of guarantees of debt repayment.” (43)
    – “The particularity of Christianity lies in the fact that it places us not only within a system of debt, but also within a system of ‘interiorized debt.'” (78)
    – “Measure, evaluation, and appraisal all arise from the question of power, before there is any question of economics. The origin of valuation and measure is both religious and political.” (80)

  4. Mike’s point is a good one. Debt has existed for a long time; capitalist “finance” has not. I’m not sure I understand what you are getting at in general, other than that much of popular “gift” theology is annoying. I think it is a long way from being as sinister as you suggest. The relationship of gift and debt is usually taken as a starting place in most of the discussions I’m familiar with, not as some magical end run.

  5. Just FYI, everyone: I’ve read Graeber’s Debt and many of his other writings. I nevertheless find it somehow possible to say what I’m saying in the post. Take that for what it’s worth!

  6. What does financialization with a human face look like? It just seems like a huge stretch. You make some points which are more or less true, but it’s not at all clear that they are connected. I think it’s a fair rejoinder to the Derridean arguments that what he takes as his starting point is not actually what anyone has ever meant by gift nor what gift has ever been in practice. The anthropologists seem to grasp this fairly clearly, and usually are the people making the argument.

  7. What do I say that implies that contemporary capitalism is the only or first form of debt economy? Doesn’t my first paragraph imply just the opposite — namely that both gift and debt economies pre-existed capitalism? Wouldn’t my reference to anthropology, which usually focuses on “pre-modern” societies, confirm that?

  8. allow me to propose that financialization with a human face looks like the redemptively hopeful (or hopefully redemptive) smile on the face that has, as Lazzarato notes w/r/t Christianity in my comment above, “interiorized debt.”

  9. I agree with Mike.

    The problem with the whole post is that it sees capitalism as a debt economy; probably due to the fact that the argument is based on Derridas ontology and theologies developed in economies with no value-form or capital.

    Lazzarato is very weak when it comes to understanding debt, better read Robert Kurz for example, even if that would make the whole “theological” problem done away with. Occam’s razor.

    And it seems very strange to say that the people who were (and are) subjected to primitive accumulation are “those who don’t even realize they’re giving anything away”….

  10. People subjected to primitive accumulation are precisely NOT “giving” anything — hence fulfilling Derrida’s hyperbolic concept of the gift in a hyperbolic way. And the fact that Derrida’s extreme formulation of the gift is not recognizable is a feature, not a bug — he’s purposefully pushing the logic of the gift to the breaking point, just as he does for all the ethical concepts he treats in his late work.

  11. Wait, doesn’t Graeber show that archaic economies do have a value-form? Maybe I’m missing something… though this thread seems pretty derailed to me. As if Occam’s razor gets rid of theological forms…

  12. Hill’s busily psychologizing, and meanwhile I’ve gotten a ton of “objections” that make no sense. Mike’s comment has been held up as particularly insightful, when it’s based on an obvious misunderstanding of my first paragraph. I know I wasn’t as clear as I could have been, but maybe you all could try meeting me halfway here instead of wasting everyone’s time with your little insta-responses.

  13. Also, something “with a human face” usually denotes a softer, more flexible version of that thing more attentive to individual needs. See: “socialism with a human face,” which is the Ur-reference for the phrase. I assume that everyone actually understands the reference, though — but for whatever reason, they just want to piss me off.

  14. Think of his standards for the perfect gift: it must be completely gratuituous and completely unconscious, because knowledge of one’s own generosity would also count as a return on one’s investment.

    I plead a bit of confusion on this point. Would it, necessarily, cound as a return on one’s investment? I certainly see how it could; how even steps taken precisely to avoid that kind of thing could end up redounding to one’s psychic benefit: I set up some institution to make gifts to unknown people in unknown ways using unknown quantities of my resources—how wonderful I must be! So—to that extent—it seems plausible that it would be at least extremely difficult if not (why not?) outright impossible to gin up a form of gift-like exchange that was immune in all cases to giving the giver some kind of gratifying return. But that doesn’t mean that in every particular case in fact the giver receives a gratifying return from the knowledge of his own generosity (or anything else)—does it?

  15. I’m sure that I’m not, but at least my knowledge that I’m not makes me better than the many awful people who lack self-knowledge.

  16. Apologies in advance for the length of this:

    Firstly, gift and contractual debt *are* distinguishable in a number of ways. The distinction isn’t as with Derrida that the Gift (in the anthropological tradition at least, vs. certain more protestant/modern traditions) has no return. As I think you’re aware, Mauss’s specific point is that the Gift creates an obligation for return (to give, receive and reciprocate is the Maussian triad… and this obviously contrasts with certain modern assumptions about Gift). The distinction between the Gift and either instantaneous contractual commodity exchanges or contractual debt obligations is that the latter are based on strict equivalence, legal formalism, and an impersonal mechanism (they are usually mediated by money, for instance). Archaic Gift is, by contrast, personal, not strictly symmetrical, and is not embedded in legal formalisms.

    But even here it’s important to understand the complexity of Mauss’s analysis. While Gift and contract can be opposed in theory, Mauss’s whole point is that the two are in fact always intertwined in a certain sense (against Derrida, this doesn’t mean the Gift is impossible; that only holds if ‘Gift’ = a purely unilateral gesture without return, which is rather Lutheran and also Kantian, is what’s presupposed by Derrida, and is what Mauss specifically opposes). Archaic Gift has a quasi-contractual, quasi-legal aspect in the obligation to reciprocate; however, modern contract (against the formalist pretensions of utilitarians, neo-classical economists etc.) relies and is in some way parasitic upon a residue of Gift in society. Here Mauss follows Durkheim in pursuing a study of the non-contractual element in contract — that underlying social bond or shared set of social assumptions which is presupposed in every formal contract, and which allows formal contract to function. There is an analogy here to the way in which ‘trust’ in the economy has been spoken of more recently, as one of these non-contractual elements implicit within contract (when a base of trust is too much eroded, economic activity seizes up, even in the most advanced economies).

    Mauss’s theory of Gift is really a theory of social solidarity as such, in the sense; of the underlying ‘glue’ which holds social groups together. For Mauss this is in networks of mutuality and reciprocity which both precede and exceed formal contract and the formalist analysis of utilitarians, neo-classicals, etc. (this doesn’t make the Gift pure or ‘pristine’; the Gift obviously has a darker side which he highlights, but for Mauss such relational patterns are reasonably basic to the way humans behave and to the way social groups are held together). His underlying point, politically, was to challenge the utilitarian/formalist consensus on the nature of exchange in modern economies, and to appeal to a notion of human sociality which is not reducible to merely individual/atomistic elements. These days, the Right (and here we can obviously include the likes of Blair/Clinton etc.) tends to advocate and seek to advance (explicitly or implicitly) the formalist view, making more and more spheres of life subject to the laws of formal commodity/contractual exchange (the market). Often those on the Radical Left, however, in seeing this and rightly opposing it, simply assume the formalist analysis of contractual exchange. What Mauss was doing was saying there’s actually more going in even the most ‘capitalist’ forms of exchange than the formalists admit. This is why he says that ‘homo economicus still lies ahead of us’, and that ‘commodities still have a soul’. This is why he is often now bundled up with people like Karl Polanyi as a figure pursuing a kind of 3rd way (see Hann & Hart’s ‘Economic Anthropology’, for instance). I’m familiar enough with your own work, Adam, that you don’t like 3rd ways, but it’s basically what Mauss’s analysis of Gift leads to, because it problematises the analysis of the market offered by both pro-market Right and anti-market Left. What the Maussian line leads to is a less visceral rejection of market transactions/commodity exchange (compared to those on the Left), but also a political agenda which would seek to strengthen the social/Gift/non-contractual dimension present implicitly within a market society (against the Right). Someone like Geoffrey Hodgson, an institutionalist economist, has precisely advanced this kind of argument in reasonably technical and interesting ways quite recently. And in different ways so has the anthropologist Stephen Gudeman. And I’m sure many others (including members of MAUSS).

    With regard to your post (and I’m aware I’ve rambled somewhat here), the point is (1) Gift-based obligation and contractual debt obligation can be distinguished on one level of analysis, against what you suggested at the top of your piece; but (2) there is nonetheless certainly a relation between the two on a deeper level. However this is only a problem if debt or reciprocal obligation is seen as basically de-humanizing as such (as you *seem* to indicate or imply by suggesting it automatically slides towards financialization), something which is only the case of you advocate or assume a formalist view. Politically, re-invigorating the Gift element in the modern economy would, if one wants to put it this way, ‘re-humanize’ it not by trying to remove the debt/obligation element (which would be the kind of pious Christian line re. Gift, akin to Nygren’s analysis of agape, that you rightly criticise as misguided) but by re-emphasising sociality and solidarity and seeking to strengthen it, over against that which is merely utilitarian and therefore deeply reductive of the way humans behave (according to Mauss’s analysis). In terms of financialization, this would be the opposite of that because financialization is precisely a way of proceeding which undermines the personal and the social, and is on the surface ‘purely’ formal/contractual.

    My criticism of your post, in short, is that you’ve somewhat misrepresented the nature of the Gift = humanization argument. But sorry if none of this makes sense or if it seems irrelevant.

  17. All I know is that when I receive a gift (if even in the form of a note of encouragement) my anxiety rises. I found the episode of the Big Bang Theory when Sheldon gets a gift from Penny hilariously appropriate to this conversation. Anyway, good post.

  18. Perhaps I’m off here, but from my understanding of cultural anthropology, the worst possible thing one can do in gift economies is reciprocate a gift of equivalent value. This is precisely because it stops the accumulation of debts which generate ‘friendship’ or ‘familiarity’. If that’s the case (I can try to pull out references from the deep recesses of my mind), it seems that a gift economy is much worse than a debt economy if only because it’s the debt economy plus an imperative to feel good about it.

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