Realising Eurasia: Civilization and Moral Economy in the 21st Century

Locating REALEURASIA in social, economic and historical anthropology
Chris Hann

My background is in “old school” British social anthropology. I am old enough to remember an era when social facts, power relations and institutions were more important terms in our disciplinary vocabulary than ontology, and at least some of my teachers were interested in the larger picture of human history as well as the details of their ethnography. I have retained a basic commitment toward comparison and empirical analysis akin to what is practiced in other social sciences. This does not have to be set up in opposition to the idealist-hermeneutic orientation which has traditionally dominated in North American cultural anthropology and nowadays prevails around the world. Anthropologists can – and should – do both; but the current fad for ontology is indicative of how far the pendulum has swung recently.

Within social anthropology I have specialized in matters pertaining to economy (partly a consequence of the fact that I studied economics as an undergraduate, switching to anthropology only as a graduate student). Whereas cultural anthropologists tend to dissolve the economy into the “culture as a whole”, I prefer the intermediate position of Karl Polanyi’s substantivist school (Polanyi 1944, 1957). Economy can be a useful analytic category, but we need to begin by recognizing two distinct senses in modern usage. The universalist or formalist sense of utility maximizing, or economizing in conditions of scarcity, is less interesting than the substantivist sense in which the human economy is everywhere a matter of meeting needs in particular environments. This invitation to a relativist approach is qualified in Polanyi’s work by a number of ideal types, such as the “forms of integration” he introduced to enable generalization and comparison (Hann 2014a).

Our word for economy dates back to the Ancient Greeks, when it referred to good management of an estate or household. The Aristotelian take emphasized self-sufficiency as opposed to markets. Economic phenomena were subordinate to the political, the economy was embedded in the society. According to Polanyi, this only changed with the emergence of market society in Great Britain in the 19th century, when the old political economy was replaced by a neoclassical synthesis, including an emphasis on marginal utility. A sympathetic reconstruction of Polanyi’s substantivism requires extending the concept of embeddedness to all “forms of integration”, including modern economies dominated by markets. No matter how global and apparently anonymous, these are always shaped by political, social and cultural constraints and mediated by human agency (Hann and Hart 2009, 2011). It is necessary to contextualise the “market principle” (similarly “the profit motive” and Max Weber’s notion of “instrumental rationality”) in order to investigate how universal dispositions play out among real actors in different conjunctures. The best scholars of the German Historical School such as Weber and Karl Bücher in effect reconciled formalist and substantivist approaches in exactly this way (Spittler 2008).

The theoretical debates launched by Polanyi drew on a classic essay by Marcel Mauss (1990) and concentrated on exchange: trade, markets and money. In the sphere of production, marginalist models of household activity exemplified by Chayanov (1966) were challenged by a Western Marxist paradigm, which reached the peak of its influence in the 1970s. In recent decades, cultural approaches have been more prominent (for overviews paying close attention to Weber and to the “moral” dimensions of cultural economy, see Billig 2000; Wilk and Cliggett 2007). Stephen Gudeman (2008) has modified his earlier insistence on “local models” by postulating a universal dialectic between market, the realm of Zweckrationalität par excellence, and community or “base,” understood as the ultimate source of value(s). Labour and production have been relatively neglected in recent years, but the obverse of this neglect has been a rich stream of studies of consumption and valuation (Graeber 2001; Werner and Bell 2004).

The importance of the socio-cultural context for family businesses is exemplified in the studies of Marcus (1992) and Yanagisako (2002) for dynastic families in the US and more modest scales of entrepreneurship in Italy respectively. Anthropologists have paid close attention to discourses of “family values” and their relationship to household practices. They have deconstructed the concepts of family and household and questioned their utility for comparative analysis. It is sometimes suggested that terms such as entrepreneurship and “family firm” are Orientalist concepts that obscure inequalities and actual household dynamics (see Creed 2000 for an overview).

Few anthropologists have examined the importance of religion for life-style (Lebensführung) and for the organisation of contemporary family businesses. Many studies of modernisation (e.g. Singer 1972 for India, White 1994 for Turkey) have shown the inadequacy of Western secularisation assumptions. We know that many successful businessmen even within the modern West are attracted to meditative and devotional practices, some of which transcend any particular civilizational tradition. These themes figure in Business School curricula and a new specialization “business anthropology” is already on the horizon. But we still know rather little about how religious beliefs, moral values and practices shape values in general, or how they affect the “performance” of work in family-controlled businesses and the domestic economy in particular.

REALEURASIA will draw together the political, the economic and the religious in a civilizational frame. This was the frame of Max Weber himself, though he did not theorise the concept of civilization and relied on such vague terms as Weltkultur (Arnason 2003). Yet his French contemporaries Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss (see Schlanger 2006) embraced the concept before the First World War, as an essential instrument for characterizing “families of societies” and moving beyond the level of particular bounded cases. This tradition had a limited take-up in North American cultural anthropology (Wolf 1967). However, it died out almost completely in the second half of the 20th century.

The links between religion and economy have been the object of countless studies, in non-orthodox branches of economics as well as in anthropology. It has become a commonplace that a common faith can provide a basis for the trust which is essential to successful commercial practices (Cohen 1969). In principle, any creed can play this role; indeed, secular badges of identity such as the old school tie can function equally well. But the question remains: do the major world religions identified by Weber differ as he thought they did with regard to “this-worldly” economic activity? One hundred years after he developed his sociology of religion, in the wake of his earlier celebrated study of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, can the development of capitalism in the Eurasia of the early 21st century be illuminated by a return to the Weberian Fragestellung?

Recent neo-Weberians in economic anthropology such as Michael Billig (2000) have paid relatively little attention to the religious dimension, whilst those renewing the paradigm with regard to the world religions tend to overlook the economic aspects (e.g. Gellner 2002). One of Weber’s key concepts was the Wirtschaftsethik (Weber 1988 [1920-1]). Focusing not on specific theological teachings but rather on the “practical impulses for action”, the job of the historical sociologist was to explore the differences between the world-religions, while noting internal variation and the fact that different economic ethics need not necessarily result in different forms of economic organisation. REALEURASIA researchers will explore how differences in dogma and organisation affect morals, lifestyle and behaviour a century after Weber’s ruminations in the light of the large literatures he has generated in the meantime, especially in Germany.

Recognition of the centrality of religion and the "moral background" (Abend 2014) to political legitimation and economic embeddedness potentially opens up vast fields of scholarship. Many associate the concept of “moral economy” with Polanyi; some even suppose it to be the coinage of Weber. The misattribution is excusable, but paternity rights must of course be assigned to the historian E.P. Thompson (see Thompson 1991 for this metaphor and a full account). Thompson was interested in tacit social understandings that could not be expressed in economic statistics and calculations but depended rather on “social norms and obligations”, expressed in ideas such as that of “reasonable price”. James Scott (1976) and others showed that this concept, originally put forward to explain the behaviour of urban crowds on the eve of the industrial revolution, can be readily deployed in very different settings and grafted on to the substantivist tradition in economic anthropology.

It is no accident that we owe the concept of moral economy to a remarkable historian of that Protestant island which was prominent in undermining the long-term integument of the moral economy across Eurasia and continues to have a difficult relation to the adjacent European “continent”. Thompson commented wistfully on the irresistible spread of his concept, commending the adaptation of Scott. He would not be surprised by its growing popularity in an epoch of capitalist crisis among radical political economists for whom capitalism is intrinsically immoral, but also among anti-positivist historians of science, anthropologists who stress the values of the domestic domain, and theologians and philosophers who insist that the market, too, depends on a foundation of shared moral convictions (what Polanyi in an early, unpublished manuscript theorised as Sittlichkeit; see Polanyi 1920-22). While liberal philosophers continue to stress the paradoxical claim, central to their tradition, that the selfish action of individuals can, through the market mechanism, be conducive to the collective good, many recent applications of the concept of moral economy have looked at activities outside the market altogether (Fassin and Eideliman 2012).

Didier Fassin seeks to stabilise the concept by emphasising moral subjectivities in the context of a new “anthropology of morality” (Fassin 2012). This is part of a wider current which emphasises actor-focused enquiries into the use of moral terms in “ordinary ethics” (Lambek 2010). The researchers of REALEURASIA will link this emerging literature more directly back to everyday economics than has been the case so far. At the same time they will place research into the “human economy” (Hart, Laville and Cattani 2010) in a civilisational frame which will link the "work ethic" to distinctive values as well as social relations (Heintz 2006). The Wirtschaftsethik is expressed in “thick” moral concepts (Abend 2011), which bind persons not only to their families and employers but to wider communities of citizens and even to anonymous remote publics in other countries. The boundaries of the moral economy are thus broad, but in each case study it will be carefully disaggregated (e.g. by investigating the differences between casual labourers, perhaps employed on a seasonal basis, and employees with more permanent contracts who have been associated with a family business over decades or even generations). We expect to demonstrate that global pressures to rationalise production and distribution have not been accompanied by equivalent convergences in the subjective experience of economic and human social relations, both inside and outside the workplace.

Why the focus on Eurasia? One major source of inspiration, in addition to all the scholars already mentioned, is Jack Goody, who has published a rich body of work initially concerned to contrast Eurasian systems of property devolution and kinship with those he observed as an ethnographer in sub-Saharan Africa, and later to analyse “alternating leadership” between east and west within Eurasia (Goody 2010). It is consistent with Goody’s critique of centuries of Eurocentric scholarship that he prefers to define social anthropology as comparative sociology. He is more interested in a sociological historicising of the emergence of the modern world than in postulating cognitive, cultural or ontological differences between human populations. However, some aspects of Goody’s approach to the civilisations of Eurasia will be considered critically by the REALEURASIA team. In particular, we shall ask whether his emphasis upon “merchant cultures” in the diffusion of goods, ideas and technologies underestimates the political regulation of economic life and the normative level of control exercised through religion-ideology-morality.

Looking ahead

We have an important and exciting agenda ahead of us. We plan to carry out a lot of field research, to combine quantitative with qualitative data, and to arrive at robust generalisations beyond anecdotal vignettes. This will be a comparative project in the substantivist tradition, but we shall remain alert to the contributions of other perspectives and look forward to lively debates concerning their explanatory power. For example, if religious elements appear to distort a pure Taylorist, short-term profit-maximising by entrepreneurs, a “new institutionalist” might explain such patterns in terms of a latent function to sustain a moral and social order. A Marxist might go along with part of this explanation, while seeking to demonstrate that the moral economy, with or without its religious inflections, is really serving a different logic, that of extracting surplus value and capitalist accumulation.

Highly secularised urban labor forces cannot be catapulted back into the moral economies of the preindustrial era. REALEURASIA researchers will nonetheless explore the possibility that the extent of secularisation has been often exaggerated, and that some of the changes underway at present are indicative of a substantive, long-term return of “public religion”, not only in legitimating power holders but as a kind of social glue in the embedding of the economy.

Our project is constructed in such a way as to emphasise the plurality of civilisational traditions in Eurasia over several millennia. We shall pay close attention to the ways in which each of these traditions constructs and valorises its own heritage, in opposition to the norms of a globalised “market society”. But the deepest hypothesis of the project is nonetheless one which posits commonalities: in their different ways and styles, each one of these civilisations was founded on moral principles opposed to an ethic of short-term market maximization, of organizing society in terms of “commodities all the way down” (Fraser 2014). That is why, if the relentless rise (or, better, “race to the bottom”) of global neoliberalism is to be averted, we can do no better than look to the civilisations of Eurasia to find ways to keep “the market” in its place (Hann 2014b).


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