Back in anthropology graduate school, I read (but did not fully understand) Keith Hart’s Heads or Tails? Two Sides of the Coin. Now, over 20 years after that publication–and over 40 years after his first publications–Keith Hart is a force in online anthropology and entrepreneurial innovation to make anthropology relevant. Below is a very small sample of some recent and classic work. For ongoing commentary, I definitely recommend checking out Keith Hart’s Twitter feed and Facebook profile.
Money in the making of world society: lessons from the euro crisis, Keith Hart
The euro crisis pushes Europe’s rulers inexorably along a path of social polarisation, between a corporate bureaucracy and a population rapidly being stripped of the political, legal and economic powers we won after 1945. The whole story is a Greek tragedy in both the ancient and contemporary senses, where even the best intentions can no longer remedy the consequences of past mistakes. Just as it was always a mistake to imagine that a single currency would lead to political union, so too attempts to prevent the crisis from unravelling now persist in trying to fix the euro when the problem is the political union itself. Europe’s rulers have grown so accustomed to hiding behind an economic fiction masquerading as democracy that they have no political solutions. Most politicians are not interested in transnational politics since it means losing some of their power and that is unthinkable. Finance gets national politicians elected and gives them power once they are in office; nothing else intrudes on their complicity. The European Union itself, designed as it was to address global economic problems through a regional federation, will inevitably be sacrificed and the euro with it. The resulting disaster may eventually generate the conditions for a genuine reconfiguration of world power of the sort that occurred after 1945.
The Informal Economy: The Story of an Ethnography Untold, Keith Hart
I knew that I had sacrificed a lot of what I learned through participant observation to make an impact on the policy-makers. People’s lives were subsumed under huge collective abstractions. My latest effort was supposed to place vivid concrete descriptions within a bigger picture than I was capable of imagining when I started out. In that sense, it was the book of my fieldwork long ago, now postponed once more.
The Human Economy, Keith Hart, Jean-Louis Laville and Antonio David Cattani (editors)
The global financial crisis has renewed concern about whether capitalist markets are the best way of organizing economic life. Would it not be better if we were to treat the economy as something made and remade by people themselves, rather than as an impersonal machine? The object of a human economy is the reproduction of human beings and of whatever sustains life in general. Such an economy would express human variety in its local particulars as well as the interests of all humanity. The editors have assembled here a citizen’s guide to building a human economy. This project is not a dream but is part of a collective effort that began a decade ago at the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and has gathered pace ever since.
Open Anthropology Cooperative Profile, Keith Hart
We face an extraordinary moment in history when the old structures are palpably failing. The formation of a global civil society, even a world state, is an urgent task. Anthropology has a distinguished past, but it has an even greater role to play in future, not necessarily as an academic discipline, but perhaps as an interdisiciplinary project: to discover what we need to know about humanity as a whole if we would make a better world. Such a project depends on making full use of the emerging social and technical synthesis entailed in the digital revolution.
The Memory Bank, Keith Hart
The two great memory banks are language and money. Exchange of meanings through language and of objects through money are now converging in a single network of communication, the internet. We must learn how to use this digital revolution to advance the human conversation about a better world. Our political task is to make a world society fit for all humanity.
Heads or Tails? Two Sides of the Coin, Keith Hart
Money has two sides, symbolised as heads and tails, It is the product of social organisation both from the top down (`states’) and from the bottom up (`markets’). It is thus both a token of authority and a commodity with a price. Most economic theories of money focus on one extreme to the exclusion of the other. The current ideological debate between Keynesians and monetarists leads to unnecessarily wide swings in public policy. It is time for anthropologists too to abandon our predilection for polarised argument when making a comparative study of institutions such as money. The article has three main sections. The first locates the problem of money in contemporary economic history, showing how the rise of Eurodollar banking, barter and plastic credit cards is undermining state control of money in the industrial societies. The second traces two influential strands in the history of western monetary theory, linking them to the contrast in nineteenth-century economic thought between English utilitarianism and the German romantic reaction. These strands are brought together in the work of Keynes, whose ideas dominate our century. The third section applies these findings to a reanalysis of Malinowski’s Trobriand ethnography, suggesting that the commodity/token opposition has relevance for the organisation of exchange there. The ethnography of stateless societies adds an essential dimension to our search for effective understanding of the forces shaping the modern world.