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Toward An Anthropological Theory of Value

The False Coin of Our Own Dreams

by David Graeber

Last tended to March 15, 2021

Like any good academic, Graeber opens with a definition of terms.
What do we mean by "value"?

We use the word "value" in three ways:

  • The 'values' of a good and desirable human life (as in, what are you personal values?)
  • 'Value' in the economic sense of how much things cost and how much we will give up to acquire them
  • 'Value' in the Linguistics sense of Ferdinand de Saussure

The main assumption we make about the word is that it refers to the desirable. Not simply what people want, but what they ought to want. A kind of criteria against which we judge our desires.

"Values, then, are ideas if not necessarily about the meaning of life, then at least about what one could justifiably want from it"


Economists and Value

Graeber spends a good deal of time discussing how economists think about "value," and their understanding of human motivations. He has a lot of beef with economics, and doesn't hide his contempt for their worldview.

In the eyes of Graeber, the discipline "has the advantage of joining an extremely simple model of human nature with extremely complicated mathematical formulae that non-specialists can rarely understand, much less criticise"

It's fairly convenient to stuff your notions of how humans behave into a simple formula. Makes coming to sweeping conclusions much easier.

The Economics view of Homo Economicus argues all individuals have a fairly clear notion of what they want from life, and are trying to maximise those desires (output) with minimal effort (input).

Society, then, would simply a collection of these automated optimisers.

Applying Western Economics to Non-Western Cultures

Since the beginning of modern Anthropology – around the time of Bronislaw Malinowski and Franz Boas – people have been trying to force theories of Western microeconomics onto non-Western societies.

In Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Malinowski pointed out that in the Trobriand Islands "work is not carried out on the principle of the least effort. On the contrary, much time and energy is spent on wholly unnecessary effort, that is, from a utilitarian point of view" (60)

Trobriand people would pour energy into making their yam garden the most tidy and attractive of the whole village - "The whole point of gardening was to show off how much effort a man could sink into it." In an economic view of the world, this would be 'wasted effort'

"Economics and anthropology were created with almost entirely opposite purposes in mind" (7)

"Economics, then, is about predicting individual behaviour; anthropology, about understanding collective differences" (8)

Economics is all about prediction, and tends to only study the behaviour of people who are within arm's reach of the economists – students, people on the street outside their academic buildings, people who live in their cities - mostly WEIRD People.

The discipline puts significant effort into defining the situation it wishes to describe, and has no qualms about it.

On the other hand, Cultural Anthropology "has always been most interested in the action of those people who are least influenced by the practical or theoretical world in which the analyst moves and operates" (7)

Economics and Gift Economies

Economics has always struggled to understand gifts and Gift Economies.

The Kula Ring of the Trobriand Islands and the Potlatch ceremonies of the Kwakiutl show people "vying to see who could give the most away," rather than maximise/minimise their Homo Economicus self-interests.

Economics has occasionally tried to square the circle of gifts by saying people give their to maximise their own social standing and sense of self-worth. The "warm fuzzies" they get by anonymously donating large sums to others. If you are intent on finding something people are trying to maximise, you'll always find one.


On Marcel Mauss & The Gift

Marcel Mauss's The Gift is a necessary foundation for any discussion of Gift Economies and social contracts. The text explores the central question why do people with strong reason to compete or kill one another, instead get along and form alliances.

"Gift-giving is a perfect example of this sort of thing: because it is a purely voluntary act that nonetheless creates a sense of obligation." 153

Economists like to tell fantasy stories about barter economies - "an imaginary story about the history of humans and money. In every economics textbook they claim that first we had barter, then money developed, and finally credits and debits."

But "The standard economic-history version has little to do with anything we observe when we examine how economic life is actually conducted, in real communities and marketplaces" 22"

"In reality we find everyone indebted to everyone else in a whole variety of ways, and most transactions take place without using currency."


Mauss wanted to understanding why we feel obliged to return gifts. He concluded that the objects we are given "are seen to partake of something of the personality of the giver". 154

Mauss described it through the idea of the Maori idea of hau - the "spirit of the gift" where the giver's 'soul', or some kind of personal quality, is entangled with the gift object that wishes to return home to its owner. Thus compelling the receiver to make a return.

This interpretation of Maori hau ended up being strongly criticised as a misunderstanding and vast oversimplification of the true cultural meaning. The debate over it kind of misses the point.

The underlying spirit of the idea shows up in other Gift Economies like the Kula Ring. That the motivation to reciprocate lives inside the gift itself. And points to larger questions about the relationship between persons and things.

Not unrelated to the Marxism notion of alienation of goods. The creator is so far removed from the receiver, the spirit of the person in the object is made invisible.

Marcel Mauss's whole essay calls into question our modern economic assumption of 'self-interest' - aka. the desire to accumulate objects that 'belong' to us. His theory challenges elements of economics and social science that "do not adequately represent the common sense even of people in our own society."

For historical context, we should note Mauss was a committed believer in Socialism. He was writing between 1920-1925 in France.

Mauss was "less interested in understanding the dynamics of capitalism than in trying to understand - and create - something that might stand outside it." 163


Over time, the reciprocity of a Gift Economy can turn competitive as dominant personalities end up trying to one-up each other by giving more objects in more elaborate ceremonies and performance. It turns into an aggressive gifting fight to show political dominance.

The classic example of this is the Potlatch - "the whole point here is not to accumulate possessions but rather to express one's utter contempt for material possessions by giving as much as possible away" 160

In modern Capitalism, we try to put gifts on an idealistic pedestal of pure generosity. We think of them as a mechanism to 'balance out' all our self-interested accumulation of market commodities. We balk at the idea that a gift might involve personal gain or political manoeuvre. This misses the entire point of the gift.

There is no such thing as a free gift

"Gifts, being acts of pure disinterested generosity, are logically impossible" 161

Gifts run rampant through the market Capitalist system, and intertwine with market and barter exchanges along the way. "modern society could not function without them" 161

When you frequent small-holder shops regularly, they begin to show appreciation in small ways. Perhaps they offer a free coffee on the fourth visit, or add an extra few apples to your box. A small gift alongside a market exchange. You now feel more compelled to frequent this shop, since they gave you something. You are positively in debt to them.

These market-gift hybrids include "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." 161 We more often speak about these as "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"

"By seeing alienation as something that can happen every time an object changes hands, for example, Marcel Mauss reminds us that just as socialization does not end at age twelve or eighteen, the creation of objects does not end on the factory floor - things are continually being maintained, altered, and above all, vested in new meanings, even as they are often repeatedly detached and alienated again" 163

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Maggie Appleton © 2021