Wednesday, 3 April 2013

A review of David Graeber's "Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value"

Graeber, D. (2001) Toward An Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. Palgrave Macmillan.


This is a meandering book that covers a lot more ground than simply what value might be.  Indeed, it reads more like a collection of separate essays each of which has *some* relevance to value rather than a coherent thesis.  A more accurate title might have been "Mauss and an alternative to the Neoliberal view", being at heart concerned with combating the individualistic, "economically rational", market-centric, consumer focussed set of assumptions that pervades much thinking in economics.  On his side is ranged anthropologists and Marx (his view of society rather than his class politics), against him economists and the anthropologists that were influenced by them.  It does succeed in giving a vivid alternative view of how modern society might be, but flounders in its (pre-agent-based-simulation) formulation of a dynamic and co-emergent alternative.  However, it does give many interesting insights into what different societies consider their most valuable aspects/artefacts/rituals/persona. 

His basic position (as far as I can disentangle it) is that:
  • The most important 'product' of most societies are the people it produces
  • Individuals' important actions mostly aim at producing their social structures
  • It is the actions of individuals that are the key rather than any products
  • Value is a socially developed way of comparing important actions
  • Sometimes action is fetishised into objects
  • Each society achieves this in different ways which change over time
It thus implies, but does not say outright, that the 'value' given to things in a market is not truly relevant to what society is (or should be) about. Basically that modern liberal capitalist societies are an aberration - the idea is simply a mistake.  Of course he has an advantage in that what he is criticising is well-worked-put and described, whilst his alternative is only implied: numinous and indistinct.  He (wisely) neither criticises nor praises the other societies he examines, but merely describes and analyses.

Those looking for an alternative, anthropologically-grounded, theory of value will be disappointed.  Beyond what I have just sketched one gets little in the way of conclusions.  What one does get is well-discussed examples of what some other societies consider of greatest value, which is interesting.  However (as in his later book on debt) he passes over the trading/gifting/sharing of more mundane and useful items very quickly with little discussion, concentrating on that with crucial prestige.  The problem with this is that these are most removed from the contingencies and constraints of life, they are the surplus value put into ways of gaining/adjusting reputation or power.  They are the things that are the most culturally specific being constrained by nothing but what its participants accept as normal and right.

Thus the view of value that this book provides ignores (or does not account for) key issues, including:
  • The difference in value when an action does and does not succeed, since in each of these cases the value attributed is its importance and hence is the same according to Graeber's vague formulation
  • That some actions/production of artefacts act to facilitate other actions/production of artefacts (apart from that all significant actions act to produce society and hence the individuals with it - but no distinction between in terms of efficacy or importance in these are made) whilst others are an end in themselves or even are destructive of other actions and artefacts
  • How the production of individuals and society and their survival and prospering relate (and whether this has any leverage upon the meaning of value in that society)

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