On religiosity and commercial life

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Chris Gregory. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau4.3.005


On religiosity and commercial life

Toward a critique of cultural economy and posthumanist value theory

Chris GREGORY, Australian National University/ University of Manchester

Revolutionary developments in the social organization of capitalism give birth to revolutionary developments in ideas about the economy and value. Just as the industrial revolution in England in the late eighteenth century saw the emergence of political economy and the labor theory of value, and the age of imperialism in the late nineteenth century saw the emergence of economics and the marginal utility theory of value, so the age of globalization in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has seen the emergence of cultural economy and a new posthumanist theory of value that attributes agency to things. What are the assumptions that inform this new posthuman theory of value? Does it dehumanize anthropology, or does it pave the way for an anthropology of the future based on a radically new ethics of possibility? Whatever, the provocations of cultural economy demand a robust debate.

Keywords: economy, religion, posthumanism, globalization, value

“What is it that makes anthropology possible in the contemporary period?” asks Sarah Green. “What might count as an intervention in anthropological terms?” Green’s questions (see introduction, this special section) invite us to ponder the conventional wisdom that rules in anthropological departments today, to examine where these ideas have come from, and to debate where they could go in the future. This is a big topic, but I limit myself here to globalization theory, and in particular to that branch of it that has developed a multidisciplinary approach to the analysis of the economy and religion. This new school of thought, called cultural economy, challenges our prejudices about mainstream economics. Instead of dismissing mainstream economics outright, as many economic anthropologists are apt to do, cultural economy has rehabilitated an interesting dissident tendency within the mainstream tradition and cloaked it in the language of culture rather than mathematics. Cultural economy conceives of the bond between religiosity and commercial life in a radically new way, one that is informed by a radically new theory of value.

The new cultural economy school has made some important advances in our thinking about the global economy today. It calls for a robust debate about the ethics and politics of the possibilities that confront us and challenges many of the assumptions that inform classical economic anthropology and political economy. Cultural economy is deliberately and provocatively “posthumanist” in that it allows for the agency of things alongside the agency of people. This new theory of value turns classical humanist theories of value upside down. Indeed, it begins by upending Marx’s labor theory of value on the grounds that the new global order that emerged in the 1980s demands such a move.

I very much welcome this challenge, for it is only by means of robust debate that our thinking can move ahead. My paper, then, is a response to the provocations of cultural economy. It is divided into four sections. The first three sections deal with Green’s first question: I look at the historical background to the emergence of cultural economy from its infancy in the 1980s to it full maturity in the 2000s; I then outline the fundamental assumptions of cultural economy as revealed in its critique of mainstream economics and classical economic anthropology, respectively. In the final section I deal with Green’s second question. Here I attempt an evaluation of this new paradigm by noting its advances and its limits in the light of a competing theory; I end with some thoughts about what might count as an intervention in this debate from a humanist’s perspective.

Historical background to the emergence of cultural economy

The 1960s and early 1970s were revolutionary times in the academy. America was at war with Vietnam, and the televised acts of aggression of the world’s leading superpower upon a poor nation radicalized students and divided academic staff, with some marching with students on their demonstrations, others insisting that classes continue. At Sydney University, for example, division led to the creation of two departments of economics and two departments of philosophy; the anthropology department did not divide institutionally but imploded internally amid accusations, denied by the accused, that a large research grant a professor received for research in Northern Thailand was funded by the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) (Flanagan 1971). Universities in the United States and Europe faced similar problems. These turbulent times stimulated much debate about the nature of US imperialism and led to a rehabilitation of Marxist political economy.

Things began to change after April 30, 1975, when a defeated American state made a humiliating retreat from Saigon. By this time the economic consequences of the most expensive war in human history were now being felt. The US government paid for the war by printing money. The dollar, which was backed by gold in Fort Knox and fixed in price at $35 per ounce, was the basis of the international monetary system; but by the mid-1960s, the dollars circulating in the world market began to exceed the gold in Fort Knox. In August 1971, President Nixon had no option but to end the US dollar gold standard system of fixed exchange rates. This turned money into a commodity that could be bought and sold at a profit, a transformation that provided the conditions for a new form of financial capitalism to flourish (Gregory 1997). The era of what we now call “globalization” had begun. This political and economic revolution had profound effects on the world at large and on the academy, where the ruling modes of thought were challenged.

In economics departments, for example, the hegemony of Keynesian economics came to an end. Keynes, Britain’s foremost economist theorist, argues the need for state regulation of markets to ensure economic welfare. He was one of the central figures in the foundation of the postwar Bretton-Woods system of fixed exchange rates. Milton Friedman of Chicago School fame, a prominent critic of Keynesian, had been long arguing for a system of floating exchange rates. For him, free markets, not state regulation, maximize economic welfare. The rise to dominance of the Chicago School provided the theoretical foundations of what is now called “neoliberalism,” the idea that governments should deregulate markets. Such were the policies implemented by Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Reagan in the United States in the 1980s. These policies were adopted by governments in many other parts of the world around the same time and after. Even the so-called socialist countries like Vietnam have begun to adopt then. When I was in Vietnam recently (2014), I saw a new English-language school called “The Wall Street School of English.” When I suggested to my Vietnamese guide that Ho Chi Minh would be rolling in his grave, he replied, “No sir. It is not like that. We Vietnamese say that without Ho Chi Minh we cannot live.” He then smiled and jokingly added, “because his face is on every banknote.” This anecdote could not be a better illustration of the fact that while the United States may have lost the political war in Vietnam, it won the ideological battle on the global economic front.

In anthropology departments, to take another example, the rapid rise of interest in 1960s and 1970s neo Marxist approaches to the relationship between imperialism and anthropology peaked and slowly declined after the war ended. In the 1980s and 1990s and beyond, the new global order stimulated the posing of new questions centering on the relationship between globalization and the agency of things. The fall of Kathleen Gough and the rise of Arjun Appadurai exemplify this transition. Gough was trained in the British social anthropology tradition and her early work focused on classic problems such as kinship and marriage. The Vietnam War radicalized her. She was living in the United States at the time with her husband David Aberle, but they left the country in 1967 to live in Canada because she believed that the proper goals of academic work were undermined by US government military policies. She and her husband were unwilling to allow the grades they gave male students to be used by draft boards as a criterion for conscription for military service in Vietnam. She notes these facts in her classic article “Anthropology and imperialism” (Gough 1968), where she develops her argument that anthropology is a child of Western imperialism. “What,” she asks, “does an anthropologist do who is dependent on a counterrevolutionary government, in an increasingly revolutionary world?” (ibid.: 18). She affirms the answer proposed by other neo-Marxist colleagues: either we choose to confine ourselves to the studying the cultures of small-scale, preindustrial societies or we “embark fully on the studyof modem societies, including modem revolutions. . . . If we take the latter path, which is the one some of us must inevitably follow, we shall have to admit that our subject matter is increasingly the same as that of political scientists, economists, and sociologists” (ibid.).

With the benefit of hindsight, it is now clear that historical developments in the 1980s and 1990s compel us to reformulate Gough’s question: What does an anthropologist do who is dependent on a neoliberal government, in an increasingly neoliberal economic world characterized by the proliferation of interethnic and sectarian violence? Appadurai does not critique Gough and nor does he pose this question, but his two books Fear of small numbers: An essay on the geography of anger (2006) and The future as a cultural fact: essays on the global condition (2013) can be read as answers to it. He follows Gough’s second path and creates alliances with political scientists, economists, sociologists, and others to embark on a study of the new modern global order that emerged after the Vietnam War era. He assigns ethnography of the pre-1970s era to the “cabinet of curiosities” (2013: 5). His 2013 book—a collection of essays from 1986 to 2011—focuses on the global unity created by the “spirit” of finance capital, while his 2006 book focuses on the local political division fired by sectarian and ethnic hatred. In this respect he takes up Gough’s challenge to anthropology, but his theoretical approach could not be more different. Out go Marx and Lenin and in come Weber and Knight. This brings with it a new conceptual language and a new theory of value. “Globalization” becomes the key term of the new debate, along with “localization” as its logical complement. “Imperialism” and its logical complements—conqueror/conquered—are rejected as terms of an old, now transcended, debate. Appadurai develops his new theory of value by deliberately and consciously turning Marx upside down.1 He converts Marx’s famous theory of the fetishism of commodities into a methodological principle and argues that it is not labor that gives value to things but things that give value to people. His paradoxical epigram, “the social life of things,” captures the essence of this new theory of value. This theory, first developed in 1986 (Appadurai 1986, reprinted in 2013: ch. 1), attributes agency to things. In a recent development of this argument we are told that this attribution includes intentionality: “Things could usefully be regarded as having not just itineraries, but also intentionalities, projects, and motives independent of their human handlers” (2013: 257, emphasis added). This is tantamount to the argument that inanimate things are animated and is, from a Marxist perspective, a classic example of fetishistic thought of an animistic kind. For Appadurai, on the other hand, it is a fundamental assumption of his analysis, one that deliberately and consciously inverts Marx. If Marx’s labor theory of value is humanist and anthropocentric, then Appadurai’s theory is posthumanist and thing-centric.

Just as Marx’s labor theory of value is a variation other labor theories found in the political economy paradigm, such as those of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, so Appadurai’s theory of nonhuman agency is a variation on others in the posthumanist cultural economy paradigm. Compared to Callon, for example, Appadu-rai’s attribution of intentionality to things represents an extreme position. Callon’s theory, as we shall see below, proposes a collective hybrid model where agency is distributed between humans and nonhumans. What he and others in the cultural economy paradigm share with Appadurai is a multidisciplinary modification and development of certain aspects of mainstream economics.

Cultural economy, for its part, is but one branch of posthumanist thought in general. “Posthumanism,” Wolfe (2010: xv-xvi) notes,

names a historical moment in which the decentering of the human by its imbrication in technical, medical, informatic, and economic networks is increasingly impossible to ignore, a historical development that points towards the necessity of new theoretical paradigms . . . a new mode of thought that comes after the cultural repression and fantasies, the philosophical protocols and evasion, of humanism as a historically specific phenomenon.

The exact specification of this “historical moment” depends upon whether one takes an economic criterion such as the floating of the dollar in 1971, or a political criterion such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Whatever the criterion adopted, there is general agreement that by the 1990s a new global order had arrived requiring a new mode of thinking about the human condition. It is beyond the scope of this essay to consider development in posthumanist thought in general, but a brief mention must be made of Latour because he has done much to set the new agenda.

Latour is a theological thinker who has devoted his life to attacking humanist thought. In a recent book, On the modern cult of the factish gods, he ensnares his would-be humanist opponent, the “critical sociologist,” in a double bind: “No emperor is more exposed in his nakedness than the critical sociologist who sees himself as the only lucid person in an insane asylum” (Latour 2010: 131, fn. 26). Appadurai’s inversion of Marx also captures the neo-Marxist in a double bind. Is the commodity a “very trivial thing, and easily understood,” or “is it a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties”(Marx [1867] 1978: 44)? Which proposition belongs to the lucid scholar? If we allow ourselves to be trapped by this double bind, then critique stops. There is no objective way to identify the lucid scholar: Is it the “lunatic” in charge of the asylum or the inmate? If the paradigms are incommensurable, then we cannot even begin to answer Green’s second question.

Fortunately there are ways out of a double bind. In Zen Buddhism, for example, the Zen Master sometimes uses the double bind to instruct students. He holds a stick over the head of the student and says, “If you say this stick is real, I will strike you with it; if you say it is not real, I will strike you with it; if you say nothing, I will strike you with it.” A student can escape the double bind by reaching up and taking the master’s stick away (Bateson et al. 1956: 254). In like manner, the humanist victim of Latour’s posthuman stick—the insane asylum metaphor—must reach up and take it away. One does this not by ridiculing an opponent but by respectful disagreement. Ultimately, academic debate is about the explanatory adequacy of competing theories. It behoves a critic of the dominant orthodoxy to identify the key assumptions of a dominant paradigm, to locate these ideas historically, and to demonstrate the merits of an alternative approach rather than to condemn it on moral grounds.

This is what Graeber tries to do in his book Toward an anthropological theory of value: The false coin of our dreams (2001). He critically surveys a vast body of literature and develops a novel approach to the theory of value informed by his anarchist political stance, novel because while Marxist-inspired thought is popular within the academy, anarchist-inspired thought is extremely rare. Graeber shows respect to his opponents by taking their ideas seriously, by subjecting their theories to a close reading, and by paying particular attention to their advances. For example, he argues that the real importance of Appadurai’s 1986 essay was the liberating effect it had on other scholars, enabling them to ask new questions about the global flow of objects. On the other hand, he argues that Appadurai’s theory, and that of Bourdieu, are variations on the theoretical “return of economic man” (ibid.: 26-33) in a neoliberal era.

Graeber’s alternative theory of value, it must be said, has received little critical attention. This has nothing to do with the merits of his new theory—of which there are many—but because he was saying things scholars did not want to hear. In the decade that followed the publication of his book, cultural economy took off. It officially came of age in March 2008, when the Journal of Cultural Economy was launched. This was the naming ritual for a paradigm whose conception and birth was decades in the making (Appadurai 1990; du Gay and Pryke 2002). The editor’s introduction to the first issue of the Journal of Cultural Economy gives us some insight into this history.

Intriguing ground has opened over recent years as [a] result of multidisciplinary efforts to unsettle the partitioning off of the “economy” and the “economic” from those working outside the discipline of economics. It is now increasingly clear that economists are just one of a multitude of agents involved in “preparing and repairing” markets as well as being generally active in many areas associated with economic life: organisations, markets, economies. These three are not pre-formed objects: they are given shape and meaning by a host of socio-cultural-technical practices that aid what has been called the “performation” or performative action of economics. (Bennett, McFall, and Pryke 2008: 1)

The following paragraph gives us insight into the theoretical orientation of this multidisciplinary team.

Perhaps most important of all have been those developments across actor-network theory, feminist cyborg theory, assemblage theory, Foucauldian and Deleuzian conceptions of the machinic, and posthumanist theory which have disputed the validity of the separations which placed nature on one side of a dividing line and the economy, the social and culture on the other side as, although different, all equally non-natural. (Bennett, McFall, and Pryke 2008: 2)

Needless to say, this new paradigm is a broad church that contains a great variety of people (and animated things) with varying points of view. Like any academic paradigm, it is united more by what it opposes than what it proposes, but two key themes stand out, both inspired by Weber and Knight. The first concerns the role of nonhuman agency in market calculation in an age of radical uncertainty. One of the paradoxes of the mainstream tradition of economic thought, Callon (1998: 1) correctly notes, is how little attention it gives to the market, the central institution that forms the basis of commercial life. Mainstream economists pay lip service to Adam Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand” of the market, but few have bothered to investigate its functioning; Callon sets out to do just this. The second theme concerns the role of religion in the life of the financial trader in the modern post-1971 global era. Wherein lies the “spirit” of contemporary finance capitalism? This is Appadurai’s principal question.

Before we critically examine these theories, it is necessary to update Graeber’s critique in the light of developments after his book was published in 2001. Cultural economy does involve the “return of economic man” of mainstream economics but in a radically new guise. Mainstream economics has many subdivisions, and recent developments in cultural economy enable us to grasp the finer points of cultural economy’s critique of one of these subdivisions.

Cultural economy’s critique of mainstream economics

Cultural economy is founded on the work of Frank H. Knight and his student Edward Chamberlin. From the perspective of classical economic anthropology—by which I mean that lineage of thought from Malinowksi via Polanyi to Sahlins dealing with the question of gift exchange and reciprocity—this rehabilitation of Knight appears, at first sight, as the rehash of the old formalist/substantivist debate and the “return of economic man.” Knight immortalized himself in the annals of economic anthropology by arguing that the “principles of economy are known intuitively; it is not possible to discriminate the economic character of behavior by sense observation; and the anthropologist, sociologist, or historian seeking to discover or validate economic laws by inductive investigation has embarked on a ‘wild goose chase’” (1941: 254). This rather extreme position was the origin of an unproductive debate about methods, with the substantivists arguing that the homo economicus of mainstream economics was a formalist’s fiction and that economic anthropology must be grounded empirically in Malinowskian-inspired ethnography and Polanyian-inspired economic history. But if we dig a little deeper, it becomes apparent that cultural economy is not a rehash of an old debate about methods but a paradigm shift that proposes a new theory of value. Cultural economy does not deny the importance of ethnography and economic history and it is not a simple-minded rehabilitation of mainstream economics. It distinguishes the theories of Knight from those of his most famous student, Milton Friedman, and critically develops the former by rejecting the latter.

Mainstream economics is united in its opposition to the labor theory of value but divided when it comes to the finer points of the marginal utility theory of value it proposes. This theory has its origins in the late nineteenth century, and while it has undergone significant internal developments over the past hundred years, it is still the dominant orthodoxy today. In this respect the history of the marginal utility theory of value is similar to the history of the labor theory of value. Just as the theories of Adam Smith (1723-90), David Ricardo (1772-1823), and Karl Marx (1818-83) represent significant turning points in the history of the labor theory of value, in like manner the theories of Jevons (1835-82), Knight (1885-1972), Keynes (1883-1946), and Friedman (1912-2006) represent significant turning points in mainstream economics. Approaches to the question of value enable us to define dominant competing paradigms—nineteenth-century classic political economy in the former case, twentieth-century neoclassical economics in the latter—but leave open the question of the nature of differences within a paradigm.

It is relatively easy to identify a new paradigm because, as Pearce and Maynard note, “conceptual changes show up as changes in language” (1973: x). A labor theory of value, by definition, is production-centric, and this perspective informs the language used. Thus terms like commodity, use-value, exchange-value, and surplus-value define the terms of debate in the political economy paradigm; a central question for them was the principles that govern the distribution of income between the productive classes in the form of wages, profits, and rent. The utility theory of value is consumption-centric. Thus the marginal utilities of consumption goods define the terms of a new debate about individual choice. The paradigm shift that Jevons ([1871] 1970) and others effected in the 1870s gave birth to this rational economic individual who maximizes utility subject to income constraints. Strictly speaking, it is incorrect to call this rational individual “economic man” because the theory abstracts from gender and postulates a transhistorical and transcultural being. Knight is correct: someone trying to track down this abstract rational individual using the methods of anthropology, history, or human geography is embarked on a wild goose chase. An abstraction, by definition, is not a concrete person situated in time and place.

Cultural economy represents a paradigm shift because it is market-centric rather than production-centric or consumption-centric. Appadurai, pioneer that he was, struggled to formulate the new terms of this new debate,2 and his many neolo-gisms—ethnoscapes, financescapes, and the like (1996: 33)—are evidence of this. Callon’s theoretical language, by contrast, is much more rigorous and precise (see, e.g., Callon 1998, 2005). Being a relative latecomer3 to cultural economy, Callon is fully aware of the theoretical implications of the shift from a consumption-centric approach to a market-centric approach and develops the new conceptual framework with close attention to logical and terminological detail. The problem, as he formulates it, is to understand the market calculation done by agents who are cal-culative using goods that are calculable in exchanges that are calculated; this calculation is not done by rational individuals but by a network of calculative agencies. These calculative agencies are “posthuman” in the sense that they involve a network of human and nonhuman agents.

So whereas Marx’s labor theory of value privileges the perspective of the industrial working class, and neoclassical economics privileges the perspective of the rational individual consumer, cultural economy privileges the market perspective of the network of human and nonhuman agents. Cultural economy is a constructive critique of neoclassical economics in that it transcends the problem of rational individual choice to consider the problem of market calculation in a new global order where neoliberal policies have triumphed. It is a negative critique of classical Marxist political economy in that it turns the labor theory of value upside down. Cultural economy argues that value is created by calculative agents of a human and nonhuman kind, not by industrial workers. It draws attention to the undisputed historical fact that nineteenth-century industrial centers like Manchester are no longer at the center of the world economy, their role having been usurped by financial centers in Wall Street and elsewhere. These new financial centers, as cultural economy sees it, create networks of human and nonhuman agents that bind the globe together in ways never seen before in human history.

Another notable feature of this brave new world that cultural economy correctly identifies is radical uncertainty. The pre-1971 era of fixed exchange rates introduced a degree of certainty into an otherwise uncertain world. In those days, market traders knew that the exchange rate of dollars for yen would be the same tomorrow as today. As such they could be certain that whatever profit or loss they made was due to the vagaries of the market, not to any changes in the value of money. The post-1971 era of flexible exchange eliminated this certainty and created new avenues for risky investments in speculative currency trading as the prices of national monies fluctuated.

Radical uncertainty of market outcome is, therefore, a central plank of cultural economy, and this is why Knight is so important to it. Knight was a neoclassical economist of the purest marginalist kind, but he differed from other mainstream economists in one significant respect. Whereas the marginalist theories of his colleagues involved unrealistic assumptions about perfect competition and perfect knowledge of the future, he insisted on realistic assumptions about the latter, although he was prepared to make “drastic assumptions” about other matters. This schizoid approach can be found in his classic work Risk, uncertainty, and profit (1921). His method of argumentation here is the classic intuitive ahistorical one of the neoclassical economists that privileges the perspective of the rational individual consumer.

Starting with the individual psychology of valuation and adding new factors step by step, we have now built up a competitive industrial society involving valuation and distribution under the highly simplified conditions necessary to perfect competition. The drastic assumptions made were necessary to show the operation of the forces at work free from all disturbing influences; and impossible as the presuppositions have been, the principles involved have not been falsified or changed, but merely exhibited in purity and isolation. (Knight 1921: III.VII.1)

But at the same time he could argue the following.

Uncertainty is one of the fundamental facts of life. It is as ineradicable from business decisions as from those in any other field. The amount of uncertainty may, however, be reduced in several ways, as we have seen. In the first place, we can increase our knowledge of the future through scientific research and the accumulation and study of the necessary data. To do this involves cost, the expenditure of resources which must be drawn from other uses. Another way is by the clubbing of uncertainties through large-scale organization of various forms. This operation also involves costs, and not merely in the sense of expenditure of resources. There is also to be considered the loss of individual freedom involved in any possible plan of organization, a loss for the great mass of persons affected, though possibly a gain for a few who may secure wider powers and a larger range of action from the concentration of authority. (Knight 1921: III.XII.1)

He draws a sharp distinction between uncertainty and risk.

There is a fundamental distinction between the reward for taking a known risk and that for assuming a risk whose value itself is not known. It is so fundamental, indeed, that, as we shall see, a known risk will not lead to any reward or special payment at all. (Knight 1921: I.II.38)

This is the basis of his theory of profit.

The only “risk” which leads to a profit is a unique uncertainty resulting from an exercise of ultimate responsibility which in its very nature cannot be insured nor capitalized nor salaried. Profit arises out of the inherent, absolute unpredictability of things, out of the sheer brute fact that the results of human activity cannot be anticipated and then only in so far as even a probability calculation in regard to them is impossible and meaningless. The receipt of profit in a particular case may be argued to be the result of superior judgment. But it is judgment of judgment, especially one’s own judgment, and in an individual case there is no way of telling good judgment from good luck, and a succession of cases sufficient to evaluate the judgment or determine its probable value transforms the profit into a wage. (Knight 1921: III.X.33)

He contrasts his theory of profit with others, including Marx’s, and, not surprisingly, finds them wanting.

A special place in the history of theories of profit should be given to the German socialist school, the so-called “scientific” socialists, Rodbertus, Marx, Engels, Lassalle, and their followers. These writers take the English classical treatment of profit in a narrowly literal (one must say wholly uncritical and superficial) sense as including all income accruing to capital, to which they add land. Combining this with an equally blind reading of the labor theory of value which was the starting-point of Smith and Ricardo, they derive a simple classification of income in which all that is not wages is a profit which represents exploitation of the working classes. Capital is equivalent to property, which is to be regarded as mere power over the economic activities of others due to the strategic position of ownership over the implements of labor. It is analogous to a robber baron’s crag, a toll-gate on a natural highway, or a political franchise to exploit. (Knight 1921: I.II.10)

I have quoted liberally from Knight because it his theories of uncertainty and profit that cultural economy adopts and develops, not those of Marx or Keynes, for whom uncertainty was also something to be affirmed rather than denied. Also important to cultural economy are the ideas of Knight’s student Edward Chamberlin on “imperfect competition” (Callon, Meadel, and Rabeharisoa 2002: 200). It suffices to note that what distinguishes Knight and Chamberlin from Friedman and others in the mainstream tradition is a concern for the realism of the assumptions. Knight and Chamberlin were both happy to make “drastic assumptions” in order to understand the principles of economics in their purity but not assumptions that denied the reality of the brute fact of uncertainty and, in Chamberlin’s case, the reality of “imperfect competition.” Friedman, by contrast, held that the “realism of assumptions is irrelevant to the assessment of a scientific theory” (1953: 3). The implication of this extraordinary position meant that economists could develop mathematical models of the economy based on perfect knowledge not only of the past and present, as in Knight’s case, but also of the future. This assumption denies uncertainty and allows for the development of models premised on the belief that the future is predictable and is calculable using probability theory. Assumptions of this kind are the basis of most mainstream economic theories today; they also inform the strategies of many financial traders in the market. Cultural economy has no truck with mainstream economics of this kind. It develops Knight’s concept of uncertainty and rejects totally any idea that the economic future is predictable. Appadurai (2013: 243) not only follows Knight, he goes one step further and denounces uncertainty deniers as magicians whose unscientific practices—for example, predictive economic models based on probability theory—are “in reality no different from the charts of astrologers, psychics, or tarot card operators” (ibid.: 244). The vicious “ethics of probability” of these magicians stands opposed to the virtuous “ethics of possibility” of those informed by Knightian science. Today’s financial players, Appadurai notes,

are able to take advantage of Knight’s work and use their sense of grace (in regard to uncertainty) to animate their manipulation of derivative markets and their risk devices. They too rely on being successful beneficiaries of the power of devices they operate to guarantee returns that are quite disproportionate to the amounts they wage to begin with. . . . What is at stake . . . is the interlinked nature of honor and credit. (2013: 251)

The profit these people earn “actually depends on the capacity to face uncertainty rather than to manage risk. Profit is the reward for facing uncertainty, not for managing risk or even less, as in Weber’s analysis, for methodical business practice” (ibid.: 247, emphasis added). Probability and possibility “have become dangerously confused,” argues Appadurai,4 “opening the door to myriad schemes, scams, and distortions” (ibid.: 244). The future of anthropology as a critical discipline, he concludes, must be an ethics of possibility grounded in Knightian uncertainty.

The humanist has no quarrel with Appadurai’s argument that theorists who deny uncertainty are like black magicians whose thoughts and actions in today’s world are morally questionable. Only a cursory knowledge of the Enron affair or the collapse of Lehman Brothers is necessary to see the merits of it. The assumption of perfect knowledge of the future is a theological one, and people such as Friedman are rightly termed high priests of the free market. But it should be noted that it is not Friedman’s thoughts on the free market that concerns cultural economy; it is actions of policy makers and traders in the market that are the problem. Those who act on the basis of conceptual models that deny uncertainty are the black magicians whom Appadurai calls to account. The religious spirit of market calculation that Appadurai’s ethics of possibility tries to capture is something else again. To understand this it is necessary to consider cultural economy’s critique of classical economic anthropology.

Cultural economy’s critique of classical economic anthropology

The history of economic anthropology in the twentieth century can be read as a long struggle to bury the homo economicus of mainstream economics (Hann and Hart 2011). Paradoxically, cultural economy has succeeded in doing this not by opposing the idea homo economicus but by modifying and developing it. In the process it has buried classical economic anthropology under a new posthuman theory of value.

The long struggle to bury homo economicus begins with Malinowski.

Another notion which must be exploded, once and for ever, is that of the Primitive Economic Man of some current economic text books. This fanciful, dummy creature, who has been very tenacious of existence in popular and semi-popular economic literature, and whose shadow haunts even the minds of competent anthropologists, blighting their outlook with a pre conceived idea, is an imaginary, primitive man, or savage, prompted in all his actions by a rationalistic conception of self-interest, and achieving his aims directly and with the minimum of effort. Even one well established instance should show how preposterous is this assumption that man, and especially man on a low level of culture, should be actuated by pure economic motives of enlightened self-interest. The primitive Trobriander furnishes us with such an instance, contradicting this fallacious theory. He works prompted by motives of a highly complex, social and traditional nature, and towards aims which are certainly not directed towards the satisfaction of present wants, or to the direct achievement of utilitarian purposes. (Malinowski [1922] 1961: 60)

Different variations of this argument can be found in the work of Polanyi, Sahlins, and others working in what used to be called the “tribal economy” tradition of economic anthropology. The neo-Marxist revolution in the 1960s continued this line of critique by drawing attention to the coevality of tribal, peasant, and capitalist economies and posing the question of the articulation of these modes of production in the new era of capitalist imperialism. Cultural economy, for its part, changed the terms of debate: out went the language of gifts and commodities and imperialism, in came the language of calculable goods and the new problem of understanding market calculation in an era of globalization. This involved turning the old fiction of homo economicus into a new reality. Callon led this revolution.

Whether we choose to enhance the economic theory of the agent or denounce it, in both cases we formulate the same critique: homo economicus is pure fiction. This introduction, as well as the entire book in fact, maintains the contrary. Yes, homo economicus really does exist. Of course, he exists in the form of many species and his lineage is multiple and ramified. . . . He is formatted, framed and equipped with prostheses which help him in his calculations and which are, for the most part, produced by economics. Suddenly new horizons open up to anthropology. It is not a matter of giving a soul back to a dehumanized agent, nor of rejecting the very idea of his existence. The objective may be to explore the diversity of calculative agencies forms and distributions, and hence of organized markets. The market is no longer that cold, implacable and impersonal monster which imposes its laws and procedures while extending them ever further. It is a many-sided, diversified, evolving device which the social sciences as well as actors themselves contribute to reconfigure. (Callon 1998: 51)

Homo economicus is reborn in the plural with a new name, calculative agencies, in a new theoretical home, cultural economy, where the future is uncertain and global financial markets rule. “Calculative agencies,” we are told elsewhere (Callon and Muniesa 2005: 1236),

are not human individuals but collective hybrids, “centres of calculation.” . . . These agencies are equipped with instruments; calculation does not take place only in human minds, but is distributed among humans and non-humans. . . . Calculative agencies, along with calculable goods and calculated exchanges, constitute the three elements that define concrete markets as organized collective devices that calculate compromises on the values of goods.

Callon’s careful and precise use of the language of “goods” betrays the kinship links this theory has with the mainstream economics tradition; but by relocating the value-creating work of this agent from the sphere of consumption to the market, he transforms homo economicus completely. Three key innovations must be noted:

  • the individual economic agent, homo economicus, is replaced by a network of posthuman calculative agencies;
  • rational choice theory is replaced by market calculation done by agents who are calculative, with goods that are calculable in exchanges that are calculated;
  • certainty of market outcome is replaced by radical uncertainty.

Callon’s extensive writings on the theory of calculable goods are a logically rigorous reformulation of Appadurai’s (1986: 3) early thesis that it is the social life of things in the sphere of exchange that creates value. Things, he notes, referring favorably to Appadurai’s “apt expression, are goods with a career” (Callon, Meadel, and Rabeharisoa 2002: 199). Callon and his collaborators develop this idea by revisiting Chamberlin’s 1946 theory of value, which they find essential to their argument (ibid.: 200). This argument is complex and technical and beyond the scope of this paper to develop. Of more interest are the theoretical implications of the theory of calculable goods for understanding cultural economy’s critique of the theory of gift and the gift/commodity distinction more generally.

The beginning of this critique is found in Appadurai’s 1986 essay where he notes that the “exaggeration and reification of the contrast between gift and commodity in anthropological writing has many sources” (1986: 11). His critique was explicitly addressed to those of us in the neo-Marxist tradition—Taussig and I are named as examples—who sought to develop the classical tradition of tribal economy by situating the gift in the historical context of colonialism. His counterargument was that “in trying to make sense of what is distinctive about commodity exchange, it does not make sense to distinguish it sharply either from barter on the one hand, or from the exchange of gifts on the other” (ibid.: 13).

Callon develops this argument further using the language of calculable goods and the idea of uncertainty. From this theoretical standpoint a gift presents itself as a form of noncalculative agency and poses the problem of how a theory of calculative agency can explain its apparent opposite. Callon (1998) answers this paradox by developing Bourdieu’s ([1972] 1977: 8-15) analysis of gifts and uncertainty. “There is nothing in human nature, there are no sectors or activity, which impose exclusively or successively, either disinterested or calculative actions,” declares Callon (1998: 14-15). The formatting of relationships between selfishness and altruism, market transaction or love relationship, “will orientate the agent towards calculativeness or disinterestedness.” The emergence of calculative agency depends on the time frame: “The shorter the interval, the more the gift will be experienced as calculative.” “To put it bluntly,” he adds (ibid.), “there is as much artificiality in the altruistic gift, in the interpersonal relationship (based on trust, for instance) as in the striving to maximize profits. Both forms of agency imply huge investments, especially material. Neither of the two is more human or anthropologically correct than the other.”

This critique not only dissolves the distinction between gifts and commodities, it also dissolves the tribe/peasant/capitalism trichotomy of socioeconomic types that formed the basis of 1960s and 1970s neo-Marxism. Posthumanists critique what they call “Kapitalism” (with a capital K), the simple-minded and unresearched image that anthropologists have of the economy of the West (Callon 2005). Their counterargument is that the global world of today is an extremely complicated, historically evolving, network of human and nonhuman agents whose social and religious interactions demand long-term research of an ethnographic, geographical, and historical kind before it can be understood; in short, that fieldwork in “Wall Street” is needed before one can pontificate about it. One word, globalization, has replaced the old trichotomy of tribe, peasant, and capitalist and with it the problem of violent imperialist conquest. For the posthumanist, “the market is a process in which calculative agencies oppose one another, without resorting to physical violence, to reach an acceptable compromise in the form of a contract and/ or price” (Callon 1998: 3). This image of a peaceful moral economy of the postmodern market could not be more different from the image of the vicious moral economy of the premodern market of classical Marxism with its “rebellions of the belly” (Thompson 1971: 77).

Toward a critique of cultural economy’s theory of value

This brief account of cultural economy is hardly an adequate exposition of a complex theoretical development that has been decades in the making, that is still evolving, and that involves contributions from scholars from many disciplines; but cultural economy is, to repeat, a broad church united more by what it opposes that what it proposes. I have tried to identify these unifying themes through my examination of cultural economy’s critique of mainstream economics and classical economic anthropology. To recapitulate: risk, uncertainty, and nonhuman agency are the key assumptions that form the basis of a new posthuman theory of value. This is a rehabilitation of the theory of goods of mainstream economics but not a “return to economic man” as the supreme valuer. Cultural economy moves the valuer from the sphere of consumption to the marketplace and reconceptualizes the valuer in the plural as a network of human and nonhuman agents. This is not a return to formalist economics. Cultural economy accepts Knight’s theory of uncertainty but not his ahistorical methods. Herein lies the challenge of posthumanism for classical economic anthropology: cultural economy proposes a new theory of value grounded historically in the new global order that emerged after the Vietnam War, one that recognizes the dominance of finance capital in this order. This brings me to Green’s second question: What might count as an intervention in this debate? Do we work within the paradigm to advance it or do we challenge its fundamental assumptions and critique it from without? Or, to put it another way, does Appadu-rai’s “ethics of possibility” define the future of anthropology?

Cultural economy’s great achievement is to acknowledge the historical changes in the world economy and polity, and to realize that these changes call for a fundamental rethink in our approach to anthropology. The now extensive literature on the ethnography of finance is a product of these new developments. Scholars in other disciplines have also made significant contributions to this literature in the areas of economic history, economic sociology, accounting, and so on. This material has provided us with fascinating new data on the relationship between uncertainty and profit and the role of new financial products in linking the two. I choose just two examples to illustrate this empirical point before getting to the more controversial theoretical issues.

The first is Miyazaki’s (2013) ethnography of Japanese financial market professionals in Tokyo, which explores, in the classic Malinowskian tradition, the meaning of “profit” from the “native point of view” of traders. Traders define four ideal trading types, three axes of difference, and one simple strategy. The latter is “buy cheap, sell dear,” and three axes of difference employed are time, place, and knowledge. The Speculator, the first ideal type, hopes to make a profit by exploiting temporal differences in prices: when he trades “long,” he buys cheap today and sells dear tomorrow; when he trades “short,” he sells dear today and buys cheap tomorrow. The Hedger, the second ideal type, also exploits temporal differences in prices, but, risk-averse character that he is, minimizes loses by counterbalancing his trades just like the gambler who has an each-way bet on a horse. The Arbitrager, the third ideal type, exploits geographical differences in prices: he buys cheap here and sells dear there. This type of trade is virtually riskless, but one has to be quick off the mark to exploit the profit-making opportunity when it arises. Miyazaki’s traders, whose technology lagged behind those in Wall Street, were unsuccessful in realizing these riskless profits. The final ideal type, the Insider Trader, is based on differences in knowledge: near-certain profit can be made by buying cheap from the ignorant and selling dear to those who know the real market price of a financial asset. The legality, ethics, and morality of these different types of financial profit making have varied across nation and over historical time as regulators react to crises and political pressure to change existing laws. The rules of the state, then, are the first reality check on these ideal types. The second complication arises from the fact that the three axes of difference—time, place, and knowledge—are inextricably bound up together. The reality is a synthetic merging of the four ideal types. For example, one might buy cheap here and now in the hope of selling dear there and tomorrow by exploiting someone whose knowledge of the market is limited. The key word here is “hope,” because the trader is faced with the brute fact of uncertainty. Building on the theories and praxis of George Soros, one of the most successful financial traders of the current era, Miyazaki develops an ethnographically informed theory of the financial trader as a “thinking subject” rather than a “decision maker.” Miyazaki does not refer to Knight’s theory of uncertainty and profit, but the distinction between the profits of the Arbitrager, on the one hand, and those of the Hedger and the Speculator, on the other, illustrate Knight’s argument of the significance of the difference between known risks and unknown risks. The profits of the Insider Trader are something else again. Legally, they should not be part of the game, but the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) gives us pause for thought about the morality and significance of such traders: Is insider trading the exception or part of business as usual?

A second example is Millo’s (2007) historical geography of the origins of index-based derivatives. If the bride was the “supreme gift” in the tribal economy paradigm, then the derivative is the supreme “calculable good” for the cultural economy paradigm. The derivative is the ultimate abstraction, a financial product that exists only as a mathematical formula in the future. Derivatives have uncertain future prices, and even those that are otherwise identical will have different future prices, a difference which means that profits (and losses) can be made by buying cheap and selling dear. Millo’s short but enlightening article reveals how these radically new financial forms arose in the post-1971 era. These new financial products have a complexity that is quite literally beyond human comprehension; they are created by mathematicians using supercomputers and the most advanced statistical techniques. If Marx found the nineteenth-century industrial commodity to be “a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” ([1867] 1978: 44), then he would marvel at the hyperfetishism of this twenty-first-century financial commodity.

Many other examples could be used to illustrate the important empirical advances that historians and ethnographers in the cultural economy paradigm have made to our concrete understanding of the present global order, but I now turn to the new theory of value that defines the cultural economy paradigm. This is a much more problematic area, and I restrict myself to a consideration of the work of just two key theorists, Callon and Appadurai. The theory of market calculation these scholars advance is, among other things, a new theory of profit that takes the novel perspective of a posthuman agent. This new theory transcends nineteenth- and twentieth-century debates about theories of profit and the spirit that animates it. For Marx, the industrial wage-laborer was the value producer; profit was a measure of the exploitation of the surplus labor of the working class. Weber, by contrast, found the “seed-bed of capitalistic economy” to lie within the people of the Calvinistic diaspora ([1930] 2001: 10): it was they who sought profit rationally and systematically; it was they who had succeeded in eliminating magic as a means to salvation. The course of twentieth-century debates in mainstream economics have been shaped by the debates between the Friedmanites and the Keynesians, the former basing their theories of value on the agency of an individual decision maker and the necessity of his/her freedom, the latter on the necessity of the role of the government regulator to ensure long-term wealth and prosperity.

These early debates, it must be stressed, did not dispute the role of religiosity in commercial life. Marx, Keynes, and Weber, for example, are agreed that religious thinking plays a role in commercial life, but they find its workings in different places: Weber found it in the Protestant ethics of the entrepreneur; Marx found it in the fetishism of commodities in the sphere of exchange; and Keynes found it in the gold holdings of central banks.5 Callon and Appadurai transcend these debates by defining the valuer as a hybrid network of human and nonhuman calculative agents in a new global era of finance capital. Their perspective is that of a certain class of posthuman financial trader, the one informed by Knightian uncertainty. Appadurai, following Weber, is concerned to understand the “spirit of calculation” that motivates this posthuman agent. Appadurai perceives a “great divide” between Callon and himself. While Callon argues that the best way to understand market devices today is “to account for their performativity as devices,” Appadurai is disposed “to think that there is something akin to a Godel-type problem in inducing the spirit that animates a particular set of mechanisms from within the properties of the device itself” (2013: 234). In a global world where religion and commercial life constitute an indissoluble bond, the debate is about who gets to define God and Good—that is, about fundamental values that inform our thoughts about what is and our actions about what could and should be.

The theories of Callon and Appadurai are two variations on the general theme of posthumanism that has become very popular today. Their focus is the financial market, and the debate between them is internal to the paradigm rather than external to it in the sense that they do not question the fundamental posthuman assumption that informs cultural economy. In other words, they both agree that things have agency, even though they conceive of this agency in different ways. An external critique begins by questioning this posthumanist assumption. Callon’s theory of the hybrid nonhuman and human valuer can be seen as a reformulation of Adam Smith’s notion of the “invisible hand” of the market. Callon gives Smith’s version of the labor theory of value a posthumanist twist, but an alternative interpretation, consistent with Smith’s humanism, is to argue that the invisible hand is an artifact of the well-known principle that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. For example, the behavior of a crowd is greater than the sum of the actions of the individuals who make it up. This is the case even when members of a crowd are empty handed. It is true that when people in a crowd carry devices such as cell phones and guns the crowd behavior may vary; but to say that this is due to the nonhuman agency of the devices is to deny the agency of the people who use them as instruments. The debate about whole and parts, like the debate about guns, can be pushed this way and that, and recent developments in digital technology have enlivened an old debate. This is an important discussion to have, and it is one on which reasonable people may disagree.

But Appadurai’s position raises the debate to another level when he argues that we must attribute intentionality to things. To assume that inanimate objects have a spirit that animates them is quite literally a form of spiritualism. This is an assumption that no humanist, whatever his or her colors, can accept. Appadurai is not alone in making radical posthumanist assumptions of this kind, as suggested by the title of Holbraad’s recent essay Can the thing speak? It is one thing for animal liberationists to question nineteenth- and twentieth-century assumptions about the differences between humans and animals, but quite another for posthumanists to question the distinction between animals and things by attributing animal characteristics to things. For the humanist, these assumptions are part of the problem to be explained in the current era of hypercommodity fetishism, not a solution to it. We again find ourselves at an impasse. The humanist is caught once again in Latour’s double bind. Communications stops.

We can open communication by moving the locus of debate from one about fundamental assumptions to one about the competitive explanatory adequacy of theories that follow from different assumptions. We have seen, for example, that Appadurai uses Knight’s theory of uncertainty to argue that profit is the reward for facing uncertainty. The adequacy of this theory can only be assessed by examining competing theories. There can be no doubt that financial traders receive this reward and that the relative size of any one trader’s reward depends upon his or her success at outsmarting rivals, as Mizayaki’s (2013) ethnography reveals. But who pays the ultimate reward? There are many answers to this question, but I limit myself to a consideration of the one provided by the demonstrators in the Occupy movement, who claim that they are the “99%” who pay the reward to the wolves of Wall Street, the 1%.6 Herein lies a challenge to the theory of value that informs cultural economy because the ethnographers and theorists of the Occupy movement propose a new ethics of possibility for the future of anthropology.

Graeber7 has been a central figure in this movement as activist, ethnographer, and political theorist. His values led him to Wall Street to protest on the streets rather than to study the traders in their offices. His participant observation of the Occupy movement and other similar movements has resulted in two ethnographic studies (Graeber 2009, 2013) and an economic history of debt (Graeber 2011). His actions, as noted above, are informed by an anarchist political philosophy (Graeber 2004). His books, which include an ethnography in the classic tradition (Graeber 2007) among others, postdate his Toward an anthropological theory of value (2001) and constitute an extraordinary one-man assault on the multidisciplinary paradigm that is cultural economy. The politics and ethics of possibility that Graeber proposes could not be more different from that of cultural economy. The crucial difference is that of perspective: Graeber takes that of the 99%, but he is not alone in this venture. This new paradigm of which he is part is in the early stage of its development and, like cultural economy, contains contributors from many disciplines with many different theoretical perspectives (Hart, Laville, and Cattani 2010). The leading theorists of this movement, it seems, tend to find their inspiration in the anarchist rather than Marxist tradition of thought. This, at least, is the case for Graeber and Chomsky. As the latter notes,

The world is now indeed splitting into a plutonomy and a precariat—in the imagery of the Occupy movement, the 1% and the 99%. Not literal numbers, but the right picture. Now, the plutonomy is where the action is and it could continue like this. If it does, the historic reversal that began in the 1970s could become irreversible. That’s where we’re heading. And the Occupy movement is the first real, major, popular reaction that could avert this. But it’s going to be necessary to face the fact that it’s a long, hard struggle. You don’t win victories tomorrow. You have to form the structures that will be sustained, that will go on through hard times and can win major victories. And there are a lot of things that can be done.

(Chomsky 2012: 1)

This radical perspective on the twenty-first-century value question redefines cultural economy’s network of nonhuman and human calculative agents in human terms as the plutonomy and poses the question of the means by which income is redistributed from the precariat to the plutonomy—that is, of how the rich use the institutions and devices of financial capitalism to enrich themselves even further (see, e.g., Standing 2014). Uncertainty and risk loom large in this paradigm too. Knight correctly notes that uncertainty can be reduced, but at a cost. Theorists in this alternative tradition such as Beck note that the plutonomy are able to pay this cost and to reap its benefits. In other words, the profit the plutonomy receive is not from being able to face uncertainty but from being able to reduce it.

The type, pattern and media for the distribution of risks differ systematically from those of the distribution of wealth. That does not exclude risks from often being distributed in a stratified or class-specific way. In this sense there are broad overlapping areas between class and risk society. The history of risk distribution shows that, like wealth, risks adhere to the class pattern, only inversely: wealth accumulates at the top, risks at the bottom. To that extent, risks seem to strengthen, not to abolish, the class society. Poverty attracts an unfortunate abundance of risks. By contrast, the wealthy (in income, power or education) can purchase safety and freedom from risk. (Beck 1992: 35)

This approach privileges the social relationship between people rather than the agency of things. Both approaches locate their analyses in the twenty-first-century financial marketplace, but posthumanists take a different turn when they focus on the harmonious relationship between human and nonhuman calculative agency rather than the antagonistic human relationship between the plutonomy and the precariat.

My intention is not to assess the explanatory adequacy of these competing theories but simply to note that the dominant cultural economy paradigm,8 and the posthumanist theory of value that informs it, has its limits. Humanism is reasserting itself in a new guise with a new theory of value. This is, of course, how it should be. Academic thought has been enriched by the twentieth-century debates between the Marxists and the Weberians, on the one hand, and those between the Keynesians and the Friedmanites, on the other. An alternative approach to the theory of value in the twenty-first century that privileges the perspective of the precariat over the plutonomy is to be welcomed.

By way of conclusion, it should be noted that cultural economy catches us in a double bind of a type for which there is no escape. It has redefined the “ethnographic present” as the new global order, one in which we are all participant observers whether we like it or not. When it comes to understanding the ethnographic present of today’s uncertain world, it must be admitted that we are all in the dark. This is another brute fact of reality. We have no option but to cope with this dilemma. This requires a certain humility but also a vigorous debate about the ethics of different possibilities, because one person’s dream of the future may be another person’s nightmare. The posthumanists of the cultural economy paradigm have done us a favor in moving the debate ahead in the post-Vietnam War period, but the ethics and politics of the possible futures they imagine must not be allowed to go unchallenged, for the notion of what it means to be human is at stake, and no school of thought has a mortgage on this question.


I am grateful to participants at the Anthropological Knots Symposium for helpful comments, and in particular to David Graeber, Sarah Green, Keir Martin, Joel Robbins, and Marilyn Strathern. I have also received helpful comments from Fred Damon, Jane Guyer, Chris Hann, and Keith Hart. An ESRC-funded project on the “Domestic moral economy: An ethnographic study of the Asia-Pacific region” has enabled me to think about the value question in new ways with colleagues at Manchester. Particular mention must be made of Jon Altman, Rodolfo Maggio, Fiona Magowan, Russ Odoni, Rachel Smith, and Karen Sykes. I have also benefited from the comments of anonymous reviewers.


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De la religiosité et de la vie commerciale: Vers une critique de l’économie culturelle et de la théorie de la valeur post-humaniste

Résumé : Les transformations révolutionnaires de l’organisation sociale du capitalisme donnent naissance à des transformations révolutionnaires des idées portant sur l’économie et la valeur. Tout comme la Révolution Industrielle de la fin du 18e siècle en Angleterre, qui donna lieu à l’émergence de l’économie politique et à la théorie de la valeur-travail, et l’ère impérialiste de la fin du 19e siècle, qui vit l’émergence de l’économie et de la théorie de la valeur marginale, la période de mondialisation de la fin du 20e siècle et du début 21e a donné lieu à l’émergence de l’économie culturelle et à une nouvelle théorie post-humaniste de la valeur, qui attribue aux choses une agentivité (agency). Quelles sont les hypothèses qui soutiennent cette théorie de la valeur? Déshumanise-t-elle l’anthropologie, ou pré-pare-t-elle une anthropologie future, fondée sur une éthique du possible radicalement nouvelle? Quoi qu’il en soit, les provocations de l’économie culturelle doivent être soumises à un débat rigoureux.

Chris GREGORY has appointments in anthropology at the Australian National University and the University of Manchester. He has conducted fieldwork in India, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji. His research has focused on the relationship between kinship, economy, and religion. He is the author of Gifts and commodities (1982; second edition, 2015), Observing the economy (with Jon Altman, 1989), Savage money (1997), Lachmi Jagar: Gurumai Sukdai’s story of the Bastar rice goddess (with Harihar Vaishnav, 2003), and numerous articles.

Chris Gregory
School of Archaeology and Anthropology
College of Arts and Sciences
Sir Roland Wilson Building
Australian National University
Canberra ACT 2601


1. “In a word, exchange is not a by-product of the mutual valuation of objects, but its source” (Appadurai 1986: 4).

2. This happened with Jevons too as he struggled to formulate the new terms of the debate of mainstream economics in the 1870s (see Milgate 1987).

3. Callon collaborated with Latour on the development of actor network theory before turning his attention to cultural economy.

4. It is very easy to confuse these two closely related terms. In Australia, shortlisted candidates for a representative football team are divided into “possibles” and “probables” who play each other prior to final selection; confusion reigns among the shortlisted as to which team is the better one to belong to. Appadurai’s usage associates an ethics of probability with predictability of the future using probability theory. He confirms (email dated April 15, 2014) that the second last sentence of his book (2013: 300) contains a typographical error: where he refers to “the ethics of probability” he means “the ethics of possibility,” that is, a world where the future is uncertain.

5. The rationality of a market system that sent South African miners three miles underground to extract gold to be shipped halfway across the world in order to be reburied in vaults three miles underground in places like Fort Knox made no sense to Keynes. “The magical properties, with which Egyptian anciently imbued the yellow metal,” he argues (Keynes 1930: 258-9), “it has never altogether lost.” Elsewhere he notes that if central bank holdings of gold “were to fade into air everything else would continue just as it did before—provided we were not told” (ibid.: 219).

6. Evidence to support this assessment can be in the Final report of the National Commission on the Causes of the Financial and Economic Crisis in the United States (FCIC 2011). When legislative changes made it profitable for banks to securitize loans, they were able to extend new-found credit at superprime rates (i.e., relatively high rates) to subprime borrowers (i.e. those with a problematic credit history). This set off a boom in housing prices. The wealth effect enabled subpr,ime borrowers to refinance their houses and further contribute to the boom in housing prices. When the bust came in 2008, subprime borrowers were the victims. Their lives have been devastated and it will take decades for them to recover. Meanwhile the profits of financial traders have tripled and large bonuses to executives are being paid once again (ibid.: Pt. V).

7. Graeber’s analysis builds on a large body of post-1980s ethnographic, historical, and theoretical work that develops a constructive critique of the classical literature of gifts and commodities. This literature is reviewed in the preface of the second edition of my Gifts and commodities (Gregory 2015).

8. One sign of this dominance is Appadurai’s citations. He is one of the most cited anthropologists in the history of the discipline, as a quick check on Google Scholar can confirm. A search I did in March 2014 showed 15,579 citations for Appadurai’s Modernity at large (1996) and 32,353 for Geertz’s The interpretation of cultures (1973). This gives 877 per year for Appadurai since his book was published and 788 per year for Geertz. Of course, some of these citations are critical of Appadurai’s position.