Opening Anthropology: An interview with Keith Hart (Part 2 of 3)

This interview is part of an ongoing series about open access (OA), publishing, communication, and anthropology.  The first interview in this series was with Jason Baird Jackson (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).  The second interview, with Tom Boellstorff, is here.  The third installment of this OA series is with Keith Hart.(See Part 1  here)

Ryan Anderson: Earlier you referred to OA as “a strategy of resistance to privatization of the commons”.  Can you elaborate on that point?

Keith Hart: I meant that private property is still the great unresolved contradiction of modern society, not least because its ubiquity often makes society invisible. For Rousseau, the invention of private property was the origin of social inequality. The liberal Enlightenment looked to anthropology for the knowledge needed to realize a democratic revolution against the Old Regime. Morgan (followed by Engels) used Rousseau’s framework to make the history of unequal society the main object of a democratic anthropology. More recently, Lévi-Strauss, Wolf and Goody renewed this tradition, each in their own way. Now David Graeber has taken it up again. But the ethnographic turn made this a marginal current in twentieth century anthropology.

I grew up in a working class district of Manchester. The doors of our houses had to be kept open for neighbors to come in and out as they wished. Even inside the house, bedroom and bathroom doors were never closed. Privacy was the opposite of being open to the free flow of solidarity. I thought that spirit had gone forever, but I found it again when I moved to France fifteen years ago. Here the tradition of people occupying the streets (manifestation) is very much alive and the notion of a public sphere that belongs to all is palpable.

In my lectures I refer to the example of a Masai warrior who works as a nightwatchman in Nairobi. He buys a watch with his wages. What could be more personal or private than a wristwatch, attached to your skin? He returns to the village and a friend immediately says “Give me your watch”. He has to give him the watch. Why? The solidarity of age-mates, so vital for the defense of the village’s cattle, is undermined by distinctions based on private property. In our societies, we take private ownership for granted. The institutions that secure it for us are hidden most of the time. Only when we are relieved of our possessions or a contract is broken do we realize that we normally depend on the law; and we complain about the inadequacy of police protection.

Modern economics insists that individual exchange is universal, but the barter myth of money’s origins is based on the assumption of private property. All that is missing from barter is the money. In fact private property law has been invented independently only two or three times, by the Romans, the Chinese and maybe the Aztecs. It was invented by centralized states to secure the property of traders. The Romans made a distinction between rights in persons and rights in things. Ownership was normally based on having made something or using it; and this right was secured by being a member of a particular social group. Traders neither made nor used what they owned, but the state guaranteed their right to the thing against local brigandage, as they would put it.

There has never been a society so committed to private property as the United States and this goes with unusually weak social protection by the state. In the movie Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore asks why American society is so prone to gun violence. He inserts a cartoon at one point to explain that it is because of the history of racism. But the cause is more plausibly an unchecked system of markets based on private property without the social protection of an effective welfare state. This also accounts, in my view, for the apparent anomaly of the US being the most modern society and the most religious. God and guns fill in for the welfare state. Canadians are both secular and less violent. The Europeans are hardly religious at all.

The euro crisis also hinges on privatization. After the Cold War ended, the Europeans decided that the winning side was the free market, forgetting their own long history of formal and informal public institutions shoring up markets. So they introduced a new currency to make a single market, without addressing the gap between North and South or developing fiscal institutions in common. They supposed that markets based on private property would lead them to political union. (The Americans, in contrast, fought a civil war before centralizing their currency.) The basic flaws in all this were hidden by the credit boom, but the financial crisis brought them out with a vengeance.

This is why I spoke of Marx’s early journalism. It underpinned his lifelong attempt to expose and replace an economy founded exclusively on private property. I am suggesting that, if we are distressed by what is going on in the universities today, we need to stand back and address fundamental issues first.

RA: You also highlighted what you call the tension between the maintenance of an intellectual commons and the conservation of ideas as private property.

KH: We still think of private property as belonging to living persons and oppose private and public spheres on that basis. But what makes property private is holding exclusive rights against the world. Abstract entities like governments and corporations, as well as individuals, can thus hold private property. We are understandably confused by this, especially since the corporations’ rise to public power rests on collapsing the difference between real and artificial persons in economic law. This constitutes a major obstacle not only to the practice of democracy, but also to thinking about it. Sadly, it has become commonplace for intellectuals to obscure the distinction between living persons and abstractions, as well as between persons, things and ideas.

Private property has not only evolved from individual ownership to predominately  corporate forms, but its main point of reference has also shifted from “real” to “intellectual” property, that is from material objects to ideas. This is partly because the digital revolution in communications has led to the economic preponderance of information services whose reproduction and transmission is often costless or nearly so. A similar sleight of hand is at work here as in the claim to corporate personhood. If I steal your cow, its loss is material, since only one of us can benefit from its milk. But if I copy a CD or DVD, I am denying no-one access to it. Yet corporate lobbyists depend on this misleading analogy to influence courts and legislators to treat duplication of their “property” as “theft” or even “piracy.”

The term “information feudalism” is highly appropriate for our era. Human work was once conceived of as collective physical energy, as so many “hands”. The internet has raised the significance of intangible commodities. Now that production of things is being replaced by information services, labor is increasingly understood as individual creativity, as subjectivity. And it is this shift that has been captured by big money in the claim that “intellectual property” deserves closer regulation in the interest of its owners.

The fight is on to save the commons of human society, culture and ecology from the encroachments of corporate private property. This is no longer just a question of conserving the earth’s natural resources, although it is definitely that too, nor of the deterioration of public services left to the mercies of privatized agencies. Increasingly we buy and sell ideas; and their reproduction is made infinitely easier by digital technologies. So the larger corporations have launched a campaign to assert their exclusive ownership of what until recently was considered shared culture to which all had free and equal access. Across the board, separate battles are being fought over music, movies, literature, software, GMOs, pharmaceuticals, the internet and the universities without any real sense of the common cause that they embody.

RA: In your opinion, is this a conflict that can be resolved?  Is there some sort of middle ground solution here?

KH: Well, we do have to take on the corporations, but my answer is yes, there is a middle ground solution and it is one we are well-placed as anthropologists to make use of. Durkheim believed that individuality was more developed in societies with an advanced division of labor because of their increased interdependence. The problem is that this pervasive individualism makes it harder for us to perceive the work of society in shaping our lives. This is especially so in a regime of private property, where the collective forces underpinning individual ownership are for the most part invisible. His key idea was ‘‘the non-contractual element in the contract’’. In a market transaction, only the buyer and seller appear to be involved; but it rests on an invisible array of institutions — of state law, social customs and shared history — without which it could not take place. How can people be made more aware of the importance of this social glue in their lives?

Some three decades later, Marcel Mauss wrote his famous essay, The Gift, which may be seen as a renewal of his uncle’s mission to make the non-contractual element in the contract visible. But he focused on a range of phenomena that were more prominent in ‘‘archaic’’ societies than our own, systems of competitive gift-exchange. He saw these as an individualized variant of a more general form of obligatory community service (prestation). The principle of giving with the expectation of a return persists in societies dominated by capitalist markets. A cooperative socialist, Mauss worked for an anti-capitalist revolution, but one based on developing the human dimensions of market institutions that existed already. He considered the Bolshevik revolution’s violent repression of markets to have been a disaster.

For Mauss, being human always means reconciling freedom and obligation, individual and collective interests. The ‘‘free gift’’ is not the opposite of self-interested contracts. It is always interested and often a source of inequality. Nor is ‘‘capitalism’’ the whole story when it comes to the modern economy. The gift is the non-contractual element in the contract. By obscuring, marginalizing and even repressing the more humane aspects of markets as well as their intrinsic inequality, bourgeois ideology prevents us from seeing how our current practices might sustain new directions for the economy. Much more sustains the market than the exchange of spot contracts. Most contracts (notably relations of credit and debt) involve deferred payment and thus resemble gifts whose defining characteristic is delayed return. This is to say nothing of the role of institutions like the welfare state in capitalist societies.

Mauss introduced three new elements to his uncle’s original approach. First, he abandoned Durkheim’s sociological reductionism, seeking rather to identify social phenomena in their totality, a dynamic assemblage of persons, networks, groups, things and ideas more readily revealed through ethnography than by specialist disciplines. Archaic gift-exchange brings together individuals and communities, law and economy, magic and religion, art and technology. Mauss advocated an economic movement from below for contemporary societies, aiming at consumer democracy through a combination of cooperatives, mutual insurance and professional associations. The generosity of the archaic gift does not point to a non-market alternative, but rather to the humanity inherent in markets that remains to be liberated by such a modern movement.

Second, Durkheim oversimplified the contrast between primitive and modern societies. Against his uncle’s implicit evolutionism, Mauss held that all economies were plural in practice; indeed, the basic human economic arrangements co-exist in any society, a position later associated with Polanyi and revived by Graeber. It is counter-productive to imagine economic change as the radical replacement of one set of institutions by another. Third, Mauss had an inclusive vision of human history with the boundaries of local societies being pushed ever outwards. Both gift-exchange and markets extend society by taking members out of their locally grounded system of rights and interests to engage with foreigners. Markets and money in some form are universal, since no society can be self-sufficient. Where Malinowski opposed the Trobriand kula to money and markets, Mauss saw a parallel with the free market, at least with the invisible infrastructure of human expansiveness and trust that he believed made markets possible.

Mauss’s counter-intuitive idea that gifts and markets share a common human substance soon gave way to the old notion that they are each other’s opposite, now reified as ‘‘gift economy’’ versus ‘‘market economy’’, the very contrast that he wrote his essay to refute. He rejected brutal contrasts of this kind and that makes him an ideal starting-point in any search for a middle-ground between extremes of right and left.


In the final segment of this interview, we will bring these discussions about property, privatization, and the commons back to the issue of OA and the academy.  To be continued… (Part 3 is here)

*Keith Hart lives in Paris with his family and co-directs the Human Economy research program at the University of Pretoria, South Africa ( He is Professor of Anthropology Emeritus at Goldsmiths, University of London and has taught in a dozen universities on both sides of the Atlantic, for the longest time at Cambridge where he was Director of the African Studies Centre. He has published widely in economic anthropology, especially about money. Website: Email: Facebook and Twitter: johnkeithhart.


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

15 thoughts on “Opening Anthropology: An interview with Keith Hart (Part 2 of 3)

  1. Would just like to propose (to Dr. Hart) that the following two propositions are not opposed or mutually-exclusive, especially when one keeps in mind the slave-origins of the post-colony known as the United States of America, where slaves were considered property and *not* people (and hence the 3/5 compromise): “In the movie Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore asks why American society is so prone to gun violence. He inserts a cartoon at one point to explain that it is because of the history of racism. But the cause is more plausibly an unchecked system of markets based on private property without the social protection of an effective welfare state.”

  2. Sorry for the double-posting but I am going to elaborate on my previous comment because I can see the possibility of some not quite getting how, concretely, the two propositions above (Michael Moore’s on racism and Keith Hart’s on property and markets are not seperate or opposing, are co-constitutive, and are particularly inextricable in the US example). I think we need to understand and be willing to acknowledge this connection in our anthropological conceptualizations and discussions of the commons, especially in relation to the question of public education (including the/public university).

    Friday’s Sandy Hook tragedy presents an opportunity to see/understand the Moore/Hart connection, especially for anyone who has watched US television news coverage on the major networks (including cable news channels), as the question of whether this will finally be the tragedy which results in a major change in gun control laws is being raised. As a person who grew up a couple towns over from Newtown and is black/not white, I have had a hard time not noticing the race/class subtext of the news coverage: multiple statements about how one doesn’t expect violence in a town like this. Had the shooting happened 25 miles away in (an impoverished section of) New Haven or Bridgeport, there would be less surprise (and perhaps a different reaction even if twenty elementary school children had been killed). (Of course the definition of violence being used should also be unpacked as it is clearly not meant to reference structural violence.) No one comes out and says it, but the descriptions of what kind of town Newtown is (or was)–idyllic, safe, a great place to raise kids, “everyone is happy here”–are predicated on its whiteness and (history of) residential segregation; are predicated on not having a lot, or ‘too many’, people with my phenotype and/or racial ascription (as is the case with places like New Haven and Bridgeport.

    When I lived in small-town CT it was made explicitly clear to me, on multiple occasions, that ‘nice’ towns like the one I lived in, with ‘good’ public schools, were ‘nice’ and ‘good’ because/to the extent that they did not have ‘too many’ families that looked like mine and didn’t have too many “scummy Puerto Ricans from Waterbury”. (The comments I make about white privilege, everyday practices of white supremacy, structural racism, and white racial formations are largely in relation to growing up in a town like Newtown and seeing how whiteness is produced, socialized, taken for granted. Based on a kind of participant-observation, right?)

    In places like Newtown one is raised to believe that danger and violence will come from outside, ‘over there’, ‘those people’. One has guns, in part, to protect oneself from ‘those people’ (i.e. people who look like me and are thus not automatically seen as from small-town CT even when we are). And discussions about protecting oneself from ‘those people’ are not seperate from investments (both economic and affective-emotional) in private property (i.e. property values, strict zoning laws). As I wrote via email after reflecting upon my first response to this interview with Keith Hart:
    The link to private property was something I was already thinking about and connecting the proverbial dots
    on, especially amidst repeated MSNBC references to houses from the colonial period
    dotting the Newtown landscape. The colonial past was never far from my consciousness
    growing up in small town CT, among the salt box houses and colonial-era town centers;
    even as I understood from an early age how important both private property and keeping
    the town white went hand-in-hand with seeing those small CT towns as ‘safe’ with ‘good’
    public schools, in a state where public education was dependent on property taxes and was
    thus vastly unequal across the state, along the predictable urban/not-urban residential divide.

    Hope this concretizes and clarifies my first comment, and makes clearer how Michael Moore’s and Keith Hart’s statements relate, both historically and in the present. Keith Hart’s statement doesn’t displace Moore’s as an explanation for gun violence in the US. It is not ‘more plausible’ since the two causes are imbricated.

    I know people will be disturbed, even angered by what I’ve written, perhaps label me ‘insensitive’ (as well as ‘angry’), but I think we need to be honest about the Moore/Hart connection when talking about the commons in general and the attenuated welfare state (public education included) in the US.

    And to state what shouldn’t need to be stated: I see the Sandy Hook shooting as a tragedy, period. Addressing the racial subtext of the news coverage and the racism implicated in lax US gun policy is not insensitive to the victims and their families, just a call for more empathy for all such that we might get things like better public education for all and better gun control laws in the US.

  3. This is very interesting stuff indeed – fantastic content, and it’s great to revisit Mauss like this.

    But there’s something I take issue with:

    Durkheim’s sociological reductionism

    Durkheim wasn’t a sociological reductionist. He was a sociologist non-reductionist. He didn’t believe that social facts reduced to individuals or their mental states, making his position one of sociological holism, the direct opposite of sociological reductionism. There seems to be a common misconception that ‘reductionism’ means ‘simplistic theory’, which isn’t what it means.

  4. Thanks, Al. I am not using “reductionist” as a put down. But Wikipedia’s first definition is “an approach to understanding the nature of complex things by reducing them to the interactions of their parts, or to simpler or more fundamental things”. Early Durkheim was keen to establish a realm of distinctly sociological facts and this involved taking complex phenomena and showing their social aspect. He took the most personal form of killing, suicide, and showed that in aggregate it has a social explanation. The essay he wrote with Mauss on primitive classification is perhaps his most reductionist work, since he set out to reduce the categories of understanding to social morphology. (When asked what his role in this was, Marcel shrugged and said “I provided the examples”).

    I use the term to contrast Division of Labour, Rules of the Sociological Method and Suicide with Durkheim’s last work on religion which I take to be almost neo-Kantian in its concern with the relationship between social forces and individual subjectivity. But I recognize that this is not gospel, not yet.

  5. @Keith: hope I will be getting a response too as I am sincerely interested in hearing what you have to say.

    And I would add the follow to my previous comments so as to make clear that they were not ‘idiosyncratic’:
    (Aaron Bady’s reflection on wanting guns to shot black people is certainly relevant here)

    Doesn’t slavery in the US also relate to American ideas of private property in relation to how bodies themselves become thought of as commodities, and in the way that they (or at least some) are seen as needing to be protected by guns (the question of the ideological underpinnings of discourses of ‘protection’ which are used to justify US gun laws and gun culture(s))?

  6. I do appreciate that you are using the term in a novel way, but Durkheim’s explanations seldom consisted of reducing a phenomenon to any of its component parts, which is what reductionism is. His explanations were holist explanations – explaining something in terms of its relationships with other things rather than breaking it down into bits. He didn’t explain things in terms of individuals’ mental states but in terms of ‘the social’, something above and beyond individual humans with properties that don’t derive from them (the inverse of a reductionist view).

    To Durkheim, suicide was part of a complex web of interrelationships that could only be made sense of in relationship to one another; that’s just what a Durkheimian social explanation is. In addition, the term ‘sociological reductionism’ has a definition that goes beyond ‘reductionism’. It refers specifically to approaches to society that attempt to reduce it to component parts, like mental states. That is explicitly what Durkheim didn’t do.

    I do grasp your meaning, of course. But while it may not sound as pithy, it would be more accurate to say that Durkheim prioritised social relationships (or ‘the social’) in explaining human behaviour to an unwarranted degree. That’s not sociological reductionism, at least not in the usual usage of that phrase.

    Either way, a very informative interview, and I actually found the part where you contrasted Mauss with Durkheim very informative. Just a terminological issue, that’s all.

  7. @Al I believe it was Mauss, in his capacity of the Annee Sociologique’s religion specialist who pulled Durkheim to his supreme achievement in EFRL. I actually believe that reductionsim is essential or, as Nietzsche put it, intellectuals simplify. Mauss’s idea of the total social fact, which is the methodological fallout of The Gift, sounds great, but it doesn’t work. In his later writings he fell back on producing lists of things for missionaries to collect in the colonies. I defer to no-one in my admiration for big Emile and his last book is imo the most revolutionary and as yet undiscovered of the classics.

    @DWS I don’t know if you noticed, but the first two parts of this interview attracted almost no discussion on SM, apart from your contributions. Yet the point you addressed was an aside. I was concerned that if I responded the thread would be sidetracked. I actually appreciate what you said. It is not either/or but probably both. I just feel that MM grew up in Flint which has one of the worst racist scenes in the US and he was marked by it. My line is that Americans of all classes and races are extremely vulnerable, for reasons that other advanced societies have put behind them. I want the issue of private property to be privileged because we are lving in an age which puts private property above public interests. I have dedicated my life to studying the African diaspora. My mentor is CLR James. Race matters, really matters. But I was discussing Open Access here. Thanks in any case for your contribution.

  8. @Keith: Thanks for your response, and the entire interview, which I found informative and thought-provoking in its entirety. I seized on the gun reference as positioned against private property so as to make a larger comment about private property and the commons, and to explain that, as you noted, the US being an outlier in its glorification of private property at the expense of the commons and the welfare state is inextricably linked to its slave society origins and the notions of private property which were specific to it as a slave society. After all, it is worth noting that the US is the only ‘advanced industrialized economy’ which had plantation slavery, and this is no small point.

    My comment is not about race per se, though given how uncomfortable these kinds of conversations about racism and racial domination make people/many (white) anthropologists, I can appreciate your not wanting to sidetrack the conversation given the realities of how a black person bringing up structural racism (especially as forthrightly as I do) sends a cold shiver down many a spine and creates a situation in which people often think I am speaking about race for its own sake, as opposed highlighting that it needs to be understood and analyzed as a non-epiphenomenal constituent of the larger conversation.

    I see my comment on guns as inextricably linked to the larger question of private property and open access because I think racial subjectivities and racial status is intimately connected to academic status/prestige and the workings of the neoliberal corporate university (in the US), as well as to questions of US anthropological hegemony (globally). US anthropologists are invested in (US) academic hierarchies (including around publication and access to research, tenure and the annointing of celebrity academics, the politics of citationality, and affective-emotional investments around scholarship as intellect property) for reasons which are inseparable from how US racial formation is related to UC conceptions of private property and our slave society past. (And conceptions both in the relation to conception and the ‘birth of the nation’, and in relation to the concept as idea and ideal.)

    I see my comments as being directly relevant to the question of anthropological open access and in conversation with Jason Antrosio’s latest post on sharing anthropology:
    “To what extent does the expanded world of social sharing reproduce, or even exacerbate, existing hierarchies, what Karen Brodkin, Sandra Morgen, and Janis Hutchinson termed Anthropology as White Public Space? Last December I ran a relatively open if low-volume poll to figure out the top or favorite anthropology blogs. Most of the bloggers, especially at the top, were male, and almost all were white. As Virginia Dominguez pointed out in her 2011 presidential address, the anthropology blogosphere has lit up over the science issue, galvanized over open access, but had not a peep about the original AAA report on race and racism, and relative silence on “Anthropology as White Public Space?”

    I guess I didn’t see my comment as being unrelated to the question of Open Access and the (intellectual) commons, or the larger question of to whom (US) anthropology is really open–and why. In writing my gun comments, I was definitely also gesturing to the practices and geographies which produce (US) whiteness and ‘anthropology as white public space’.

    Thanks again for your response.

  9. @DWP I have chosen to work on the cutting edge of the race war and my final employment is in South Africa for that reason. If you insist, I felt that you were more interested in pursuing your own thoughts than engaging with mine. I am not in the slightest afraid of touching the race question. have a look at mu website. But I am old school when it comes to the politics and morality of intellectual exchange. When someone lays out a position in public, the first task of the audience is to engage with its substance, not to enter a long discourse of their own. You might say that @Al also refused to engage me directly. But a third of my interview was devoted to Durkheim and Mauss, so I responded.

  10. @Keith: I think there has been a misunderstanding. My last comment was not saying that *you* were trying to avoid engaging race. I simply pointed that this is a dynamic which often happens in anthropology for the reasons addressed in the Brodkin et al. article.

    Additionally, I was not making my comments so as to not engage your larger argument, but so as to demonstrate how what seemed an aside was actually integral to your larger comments on private property and the commons. I precisely was not interested in derailing the conversation, but underscoring your exegesis of private property’s relationship to the commons. I’m not quite sure how my desire to engage your interview in its entirety was lost, but I am certainly sorry that it did

  11. @ Keith: I have re-read your comments, my comments, and the original interview mtiple times now to try and understand why you think I did not engage the substance of your interview answers and was instead just trying to advance my own ideas. Especially since I explicitly stated that I appreciated the interview in its entirety, I am troubled by the implication that I did not adhere to the politics or *morality* of intellectual exchange. I am perplexed that such a statement was made about my comments since I though it was clear that my comments were not only about the guns reference, but were a response on how where I grew up has affected how I understand private property (in relation to race as well), in the same way that you referenced your childhood in working-class Manchester to contextualize your views.

    There is a heavy dose of pathologization involved in implying that I breached moral expectations, intended or not.

    I really have to wonder what it was about my response that elicited such a response. And I think back to a comment Adonia made a little while back about appreciating my forthrightness. It is really not easy for me to speak forthrightly about race/racism/whiteness. Because people like me are so often marginalized and dismissed for speaking so forthrightly, or self-censor, certain conversations are rarely had. The same silenced around race discussed in the Brodkin et al. occur all the time, over and over. And they get mapped onto gendered expectations for niceness and not being ‘too assertive’ and ‘confrontational’, as well as privileging of academic rank/status/prestige which always already expect certain people to be less knowledgable and more deferential. I understand that these dynamics are largely unconscious, but they are deeply disturbing nonetheless. If there was more space for black women to speak frankly about race/racism/whiteness in anthropology, especially when not seen as academic celebrities to whom to genuflect, I think it would be more clear how directly I was engaging your interview, and not engaged in some kind of intellectual immorality.

  12. @DWP I apologize. I am not saying I was right. That was how I called it at the time. I tried to be straight with you. Sometimes it is possible that people don’t communicate with each other as they would wish. Again I am sorry.

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