Grégoire Mallard. Gift Exchange: The Transnational History of a Political Idea. xi + 293pp., notes, bibl., index. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Is there a more celebrated and contested text in the history of anthropology than Marcel Mauss’s The Gift?[1] Tucked away in the pages of Émile Durkheim’s old Année Sociologique upon its initial publication in 1925, this careful, erudite, even gnomic essay by the doyen of French anthropology contained a thicket of five hundred footnotes so dense they often relegated the main text to a few sentences adorning the top of its hundred-and-fifty-odd pages. Its interest in forms of exchange in “sociétés dites primitives” was predated by the works of Richard Thurnwald and Bronislaw Malinowski, yet unlike these pioneers his writings were not informed by direct ethnographic study.[2] The Gift (hereafter TG, subtitle: “The Form and Sense of Exchange in Archaic Societies”) was instead, in our contemporary academic parlance, something more like a review essay of armchair anthropology.

These were hardly the makings of a modern classic—and indeed Mauss himself appears not to have believed it was a notable departure from his other work.[3] Yet today it is enthroned in the introductory syllabi of anthropology courses across the world. Now in its third English translation (published in 2016), it is not only a founding text of what became economic anthropology, but a landmark example of comparative methodology and attention to what Mauss called the “total social facts” (his emphasis) which “set in motion […] the whole of the society and its institutions.”[4] The text was not merely the starting point for several generations of anthropologists of exchange and economy—Mary Douglas, Maurice Godelier, C. A. Gregory, Stephen Gudeman, Jonathan Parry, Marshall Sahlins, and Marilyn Strathern, to name just a few—but also a touchstone for midcentury luminaries of French social and literary theory even far beyond the outer bounds of ethnography, not simply for Claude Lévi-Strauss but also for Georges Bataille, Jean Baudrillard, Jean Starobinski, Pierre Bourdieu, and even Jacques Derrida.[5]

Henri Hubert (left) and Marcel Mauss (right), undated but before 1915 (Source: Archives familiales Hubert)

What accounts for this remarkable trajectory? Besides its conceptual richness and Durkheimian force of holistic analysis, surely part of TG’s enduring fascination today is the promise of an escape from what Mauss, echoing Marx and Engels in the Manifesto, called the “fixed and icy utilitarian calculation” pervasive in “Western societies that have, very recently, made man into an economic animal.”[6] In our fallen world of near-total commodification, of credit card APRs and Roth IRAs, Mauss opens up a window into parallel worlds in which “there is […] a mix of spiritual bonds between things that are in some way of the soul, and individuals, and groups who treat each other, to some degree, as things.”[7]

Whether one concluded—and here interpretations have historically differed—that Mauss either sought to delineate an alternative “gift economy” to the world of commodities, or instead to demonstrate the extent to which these two logics always interpenetrate, the analytical and indeed normative position of his heirs was typically the same: there is an alternative to homo economicus. This was indeed the conclusion of the Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste en Sciences Sociales and its journal MAUSS (founded in 1981), the Francophone circle of social theorists seeking to explore local pockets of “non-utilitarian” exchange in the interstices of capitalist structures.[8]

After the economic cataclysm of 2008, scores of Occupy activists cracked the thick spine of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011), whose author (inspired by MAUSS) heralded Mauss as the original theorist of the “moral ground of economic relations,” which “allows us to conceive of making new societies where the balance of economic principles is different from our own.”[9] The historian Philip Mirowski has joked about “the urge to shake this shaman’s rattle, this 1925 essay, one more time before venturing forth to do battle with the spreading ectoplasm of bourgeois capitalism.”[10] But while what Mirowski derides as TG’s “radical undecidability” has no doubt generated decades of debate over Mauss’s true intent, it has also enriched successive interpretations and reinterpretations as fertile grounds for new theoretical work, guided above all by TG’s maxim that when it comes to the exchanges of things and relations between people, matters are not always as they appear.

As Lygia Sigaud’s exhaustive archaeology has demonstrated, from the 1950s through to at least the 1990s, the hegemonic interpretation of TG was that it “amounts to a theory of exchange whose primary feature is the identification of the gift with the spirit of the donor.”[11] This was not the standard reception of the text by Mauss’s interwar contemporaries, but rather the novel reading of his self-appointed heir, Claude Lévi-Strauss. The latter’s 1950 introduction to a posthumous collection of Mauss’s work identified TG as his “capital” text and “masterpiece.” It was, Lévi-Strauss continued, a turning point in the “evolution of science” that operated at the level of the structural totality: the “total social fact”—note the omission of Mauss’s plural—in order to uncover the fundamental principle of “reciprocity.” Yet this theory, which opened up “a new era for the social sciences” lacked an ontological grounding, which had fallen to him, Lévi-Strauss, to locate in the fundamental structures of the unconscious mind, as he had just done in The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949).[12] This telescoping of TG down to a theory of exchange, cemented by the Lévi-Straussian close reading of the essay by Marshall Sahlins, focused attention to the twelve-page Maori section, to the exclusion of all else, and in particular the now famous spiritual notion of hau.[13] In the decades that followed TG was effectively “Maori-ised,” as Sigaud puts it, in its anthropological reception.[14]

By the turn of the millennium, however, Sigaud and other anthropologists like Jane Guyer and Keith Hart began to sound a note of skepticism towards this received wisdom. If, as Sahlins put it, in TG “the Maori hau is raised to the status of a general explanation,” why was this section only a small portion of the text?[15] What about the great significance attached to the analysis of the potlach in the American Northwest? And if Mauss intended to uncover a nonwestern form of gift economy, what to make of his emphasis on law, and especially his discussion of Roman, German, and Celtic legal traditions? Moreover, as Guyer pointed out, the fact that TG was published in the first Année Sociologique after World War I, which included a memorial to the journal’s many collaborators slaughtered in the conflict, suggested that Mauss also had something to say to his contemporaries.[16]

Masthead of the first post-WWI edition of L’Année Sociologique (1923-1924), which featured “Le don”

It is this post-World War I context that sociolegal anthropologist Grégoire Mallard stresses in Gift Exchange: The Transnational History of a Political Idea (2019). Beginning from this point of origin, Mallard argues, not only reframes the conceptual moves of The Gift, but reveals a distinctive and decades-long genealogy of Maussian ideas in Francophone legal, colonial, and international thought. A professor at the Geneva-based Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies—a hub for international legal and economic research founded in the efflorescence of post-WWI internationalism that also established the League of Nations—Mallard’s interests in TG are rather distinct from the would-be heirs of Mauss: his focus is not the local but the international; not economics but law; not goods but bonds.

Yet as Mallard deftly shows, such questions were never far from Mauss’s mind in the 1920s, and were in fact central to his analysis of the question of gift exchange. If, as Mallard suggests, we start from “the assumption that Mauss’s political and anthropological writings were intrinsically connected” (5), TG is wholly reframed, for Mauss’s principal preoccupation at the time of writing was international debt, international relations, and international finance in the aftermath of World War I and the Versailles Treaty. Thus the global investigations of TG sought to build a model “to understand heterogeneous systems of international trade and finance which intersect across multiple sovereignties […] in which contracting parties follow self-interested as well as disinterested motivations” (8).

This political focus echoes Harry Liebersohn’s The Return of the Gift (2011), in which the problematic of “the gift” emerged in Enlightenment political theory out of British colonial administrators-turned-amateur-ethnologists’ reflections on “good government” through gift-based patronage.[17] The rejection of this practice by utilitarian theorists as the vestige of an “old order” obscured its persistence on the ground through the nineteenth century, until it became an object of direct fieldwork study by Franz Boas, Thurnwald, and Malinowski. Yet as both Liebersohn and Mallard show, it fell to Mauss to gather together this work and return to the gift as an object of political reflection.

A committed Bourdieusian, Mallard situates Mauss within the academic and political fields of interwar France. Mauss was a leading member of the Dreyfusard generation (as a French Jew himself), and a founding figure in the socialist Section française de l’Internationale ouvrière (SFIO, French Section of the Workers’ International) of Jean Jaurès, closely connected to its reformist-minded “solidarist” wing, represented by the likes of Léon Blum and Albert Thomas. Famously the nephew of Émile Durkheim, he was a mainstay of the intellectual circle around the Année Sociologique—including the sociologists Robert Hertz, François Simiand, the archaeologist Henri Hubert, and the Indologist Sylvain Lévi—but also close friends with influential figures in French finance, notably the bankers Max Lazard and David David-Weill. Seen within this Parisian milieu, TG appears as a contribution to a lively and ongoing debate about the bases for solidarity, from the local level (e.g., through worker cooperatives) up to the international (e.g., through multilateral cooperation to achieve a lasting peace).

Accordingly, Mallard identifies the principle impetus for the reflections of TG in the problem of war debt and reparations. The debt assigned to Germany at Versailles in 1919 was so severe that it immediately provoked a political crisis that convulsed the continent. In 1923, France occupied the Ruhr to punish nonpayment of debts that the Germans considered onerous and illegitimate, leading to further renegotiations that culminated in the Dawes Plan of 1924. Mauss closely followed and commented on these events in Le Populaire, the newspaper of the SFIO; for him, a solidaristic approach to war debt had to account for the need for the German economy to recover before its obligations could be met.[18] By agreeing to debt restructuring and delayed repayment, in other words, the French government had to extend a gesture of generosity before this act could be returned. Within this context The Gift can be seen as a contribution to the debate broached by polemics like John Maynard Keynes’s Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919). Like Keynes, Mauss sought to determine the principles of international solidarity according to which international debts and obligations should be structured. By these lights, TG’s investigations into exchanges between sovereign entities (e.g., different clans of Kwakwaka’wakw) was a way into a central question Mauss poses at the outset: “What is the precept and interest that […] means that the present which has been received must be returned? What force is there in the thing one gives that compels the recipient to return it?”[19] In other words, what force governed the obligation to pay back one’s debts? If France presented Germany with the “gift” of solidaristic debt restructuring, how could it be shown that this gift would be paid back? This, Mallard argues, was the connecting thread between the fieldwork data of the American Northwest, the Pacific Islands, and the investigation of ancient legal traditions.

Courses for the Certificate in Ethnology, Institut d’Ethnologie, Paris (1939-1940) (Source: Bibliothèque centrale, MNHN)

But Mallard does not stop there. His book follows the ideas of TG in Mauss’s later work, firstly in his manuscript The Nation, which went unpublished in his lifetime, and secondly into the French empire and its afterlives. Mauss succeeded in carving out a permanent home for anthropology in France with Paris’s Institute of Ethnology. But he was firmly embedded in the colonial field as well as the metropolitan one, and eager to establish the relevance of this new discipline for the practice of French colonial administration. Strikingly, in later years, this attention to colonial questions led him to “reevaluat[e] his normative and theoretical model of the gift” (86). He attempted to account, as he had not done in TG, for the relations of contractual obligation between societies at different levels of what in The Nation he termed “integration” (or level of development).[20] Thus within the context of the “solidarist”-inspired reform of empire theorized in the interwar period by the likes of Albert Sarraut (French Minister of the Colonies in 1920-4), Mallard argues that the reflections on exchanges between sovereign entities in TG and the key concepts it generated—“prestations,” “generosity,” and “contractual gifts”—were reframed by a generation of his students seeking to investigate empirically the preoccupations of the mission civilisatrice.[21]

As Mallard goes on to show, so close was this connection that in the outbreak of the Algerian war of independence (1954-1962), former Mauss students like anthropologists Germaine Tillion and Jacques Soustelle (the latter of whom served as Governor-General of Algeria in 1955-6) sought to deploy his notion of levels of integration to argue against the desirability of Algerian independence. For them, “ethnological findings demonstrated that no Algerian consciousness united its citizens” and the country “lacked the necessary economic and financial resources for its national autonomy” (122).[22] Rather than cut its losses, these ethnological thinkers urged France to double down on its commitment to Algerian development through constitutional annexation and massive state-led capital investment, which would pay in political dividends: “Let’s give,” wrote Tillion in 1958, “and we shall receive in return” (145).

Former Mauss student and Governor-General of Algeria Jacques Soustelle (left) and Charles de Gaulle (right) in Algiers, 1958 (Source: © Jean Mounicq / Roger-Viollet)

It was against such ideas that a young Pierre Bourdieu and his collaborator Abdelmalek Sayad took aim in their ethnographic work in Kabylia in the late 1950s. They sought instead to underline the destruction of customary exchanges and local solidarities in “pre-capitalist” rural Algeria by the violence of French colonialism. Turning TG against Mauss’s former students, Bourdieu and Sayad located the true gift economy not in French colonial generosity but in local Algerian custom, setting the stage for the later work of MAUSS.[23]

Despite this legacy, Mauss’s line of thought was malleable enough to serve as the grounds for rethinking international solidarity in the aftermath of empire. Indeed, it was left to postcolonial thinkers like Algerian jurist Mohammed Bedjaoui, Mallard avers, to “decolonize the gift” (158). Echoing Soustelle’s earlier proposals, France embedded language around “reciprocity of advantages and interests between the two parties” in the Évian Accords of 1962 for Algerian independence, principally to protect French-held assets and the repayment of colonial-era debt owed to the metropole.

In contrast to what post-independence leaders held as the pernicious neocolonial logic of Évian, Bedjaoui drew on the gift to reimagine the legal mechanisms of global solidarity.  Bedjaoui pursued this line of thinking, echoing Mauss’s international solidarism after Versailles, at the UN International Law Commission in the 1960s. He sought to determine principles for the partial repudiation of colonial-era debts rolled over onto postcolonial states, based on the recognition that “the rights of newly independent states and former metropolises,” i.e., between two unequal partners, “could not be symmetrical, or reciprocal” (186). Mallard convincingly argues that this new body of postcolonial legal thought was a significant source for aspirations of the New International Economic Order (NIEO) in the early 1970s. Given the power imbalances between individual states in the postcolonial world order, the authors of the NIEO insisted reciprocity could only be established within a global architecture negotiated between the global North and South acting collectively.[24]

27th Session of the UN International Law Commission in Geneva, May 1975, Mohammed Bedjaoui (Chairman) third from left (Source: UN Photo #178542)

Mallard reflects in his conclusion on the debt crisis that wracked Europe in the 2010s, oddly echoing the one that so alarmed Mauss a century earlier. The possibility of a Greek sovereign default put the whole Eurozone at risk, yet its creditors—now led, in a reversal of dramatis personae, by Germany—at first refused to allow a write-down or even the loosening of crushing austerity measures which sapped the Greek state’s ability to raise revenue for repayment. Mallard suggests a dose of Maussian solidarism—here embodied by the compromise proposals of Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis in 2014-15—could have avoided the tragedy.[25] To this I would add a more abstract lesson. If the fundamental insight of Mauss’s postcolonial heirs was the impossibility of simple reciprocity between unequal partners, we might extend this to the question of exchange as a whole. A century of debate after Mauss has focused on the nature of exchange relations themselves, wherever they may be found: Gifts or commodities? Utilitarian or non-utilitarian? Informal or contractual? Interested or disinterested? Yet this focus has, as a rule, tended to obscure the unequal terrain of power and distribution in which all exchange takes place. This is as true of the potlach as it is of payday loans. As Mauss himself concluded in The Gift after tracing the role of gifts in enhancing the power of the chief, “can we be certain that it is any different amongst us, and that even in our own context wealth is not above all a means of command over men?”[26]

[1] I first wrote this essay before the untimely death of anthropologist David Graeber. His work was a significant reason why I began thinking about these questions in the first place.

[2] Marcel Mauss, “Essai Sur Le Don: Forme et Raison de l’Échange Dans Les Sociétés Archaïques,” L’Année Sociologique 1ère Année (1923): 33.

[3] Lygia Sigaud, “The Vicissitudes of The Gift,” Social Anthropology 10, no. 3 (2002): 343.

[4] Marcel Mauss, The Gift, trans. Jane I. Guyer (Chicago: HAU Books, 2016), 192. Besides the Guyer translation the first two were published in 1954 (Ian Cunnison) and 1990 (W. D. Halls). That the first English edition was only available thirty years after its initial publication goes some way to accounting for the dominance of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s interpretation of TG in the Anglophone world for several decades.

[5] A glance at a selection of titles illustrates the point: C. A. Gregory, Gifts and Commodities (Chicago: HAU Books, 2015 [1982]), Marilyn Strathern, The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); Jacques Derrida, Given Time (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), Jean Starobinski, Largesse (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), Maurice Godelier, The Enigma of the Gift (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). See also the anthology edited by the philosopher Alan Schrift, The Logic of the Gift: Toward an Ethic of Generosity (New York: Routledge, 1997).

[6] Mauss, The Gift, 190. Cf. “The bourgeoisie […] has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’ […] drowned […] in the icy water of egotistical calculation.” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 475.

[7] Mauss, The Gift, 75.

[8] In this emphasis on interstices we might see MAUSS as the forerunner of work by J. K. Gibson-Graham or Anna Tsing. See Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996) or Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[9] David Graeber, “On the Moral Grounds of Economic Relations: A Maussian Approach,” Journal of Classical Sociology 14, no. 1 (2014): 65; Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (New York: Melville House, 2011).

[10] Philip Mirowski, “Refusing the Gift,” in The Effortless Economy of Science? (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 383. Though certainly no admirer to hyper-commodified neoliberalism or its apologists in economics departments, Mirowski sought to document what he saw as the theoretical failures of economic anthropology to slay the dragon of the neoclassical economic theory in “Tit for Tat: Concepts of Exchange, Higgling, and Barter in Two Episodes in the History of Economic Anthropology,” History of Political Economy 26, no. S1 (January 1994): 313–42.

[11] Sigaud, “Vicissitudes of The Gift,” 335.

[12] Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Introduction à l’oeuvre de Marcel Mauss,” in Mauss, Sociologie et anthropologie (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1991 [1950]), as cited in Sigaud, “Vicissitudes of The Gift,” 344-8.

[13] Marshall Sahlins, “The Spirit of the Gift,” in Stone Age Economics (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1972), 149-183.

[14] Sigaud, “Vicissitudes of The Gift,” 354.

[15] Sahlins, “Spirit of the Gift,” 150.

[16] Jane I. Guyer, “The True Gift: Thoughts on L’Année Sociologique of 1925,” Journal of Classical Sociology 14, no. 1 (2014): 11–21. See also Keith Hart, “Marcel Mauss: In Pursuit of the Whole,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 49, no. 2 (April 2007): 473–85; Hart, “Marcel Mauss’s Economic Vision, 1920–1925: Anthropology, Politics, Journalism,” Journal of Classical Sociology 14, no. 1 (2014): 34-44.

[17] Harry Liebersohn, The Return of the Gift: European History of a Global Idea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[18] Here Mauss was defending a via media between the intransigence of both the French and German right wing, and the alternative of unilateral debt repudiation declared by the Soviet government in 1918. For his critical assessment of the Soviet experiment see Marcel Mauss, “A Sociological Assessment of Bolshevism, 1924-5,” in The Radical Sociology of Durkheim and Mauss, ed. Mike Gane (London: Routledge, 1992), 164-212.

[19] Mauss, The Gift, 58.

[20] The manuscript has now been published as Marcel Mauss, La Nation, ed. Marcel Fournier and Jean Terrier (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2013).

[21] This reformist turn in French colonial circles, which certainly did not question the fundamentals of empire, is best explored in Alice Conklin, A Mission to Civilize: The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1997).

[22] Soustelle was so attached to French Algeria that he supported the military coup which installed Charles de Gaulle in 1958 and cast his lot with the anti-independence Organisation armée secrete (OAS). He was forced into hiding for these political activities for a decade in 1961, before being amnestied in 1968.

[23] Pierre Bourdieu and Abdelmalek Sayad, Le déracinement: La crise de l’agriculture traditionnelle en Algérie (Paris: Minuit, 1964).

[24] Here Mallard might have engaged further with newer literature on the NIEO, which stresses the ways in which its architects sought to avoid unequal exchange by establishing international structures of solidarity—in particular through the vision of global welfare and redistribution. See for instance Samuel Moyn, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018), 109-118 and passim.

[25] At times this putative symmetry between Mauss and Varoufakis stretches the historical record. Elsewhere Mallard goes so far as to compare 1922, when Mauss both rejected Lenin’s unilateral debt repudiation on the left and feared the German right’s tendency “to associate the payment of reparations with a transnational Jewish plot,” to 2011-14, when, following Varoufakis’s call for compromise over Greek debt instead of unilateral cancellation, “many Greek nationalists and left-wing radicals saw […] proof that he was taking his orders from the Jewish billionaire George Soros” (65). Yet in Varoufakis’s memoir (which Mallard cites) he is clear that the anti-Semitic conspiracies came squarely from the Greek right-wing establishment. See Varoufakis, Adults in the Room: My Battle with the European and American Deep Establishment (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2018), 108.

[26] Mauss, The Gift, 189.

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