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, and 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)
Graeber wanted to title this book 'The False Coin of Our Own Dreams' but at the publisher's request that became the sub-title under the rather more staid and academic 'Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value'.
Graeber's preference is indicative of his hope for an audience beyond anthropologists. It's clearly written (for the most part), not over-long and balances expositions of theory with some personal insight. I'd say he succeeded in making it accessible to the non-specialist. The book proceeds by considering three common approaches to value and then examines how our experience of value is contextualised by scholars (with a focus on post-structuralist work). Then it gives exposition to Graeber's understanding of value as action and gradually explores this understanding by examining how value is experienced and conceptualised in different cultures. Finally he concludes with the idea that value exists in the potential for creative action; 'the ultimate social reality'. The social aspect is key because ‘structures of relation with others come to be internalized into the fabric of our being', and so the potential for creative power - and hence value - cannot be (significantly) realized, other than through coordination with others.
In reaching such conclusions about the relation of reality to value, the book deals with some arcane material. For example; it details how the Maori's metaphysical concepts of 'mana' and 'tapu' relate to their exchange, politics and society; it considers the how the ancient quarrel between Heraclitus and Parmenides (are things in flux or are they fixed?) echoes through thought and time; and it pays homage to Marc Shell's seminal discussion of the Ring of Gyges and the problems of visibility and invisiblity as they relate to money and value among the Iroquios. You can see why the publisher would have insisted on the more academic title.
However, ultimately I sympathise with Graeber's wish to call it 'The False Coin of Our Own Dreams'. The phrase is inspired by a passage from Mauss and Hubert's 'Mana and Magic' quoted at the start of Graeber's odyssey. Simply put, ‘Our Own Dreams’ are our creative potential, and the ‘False Coin’ is our misattribution of the value of that creative potential onto objects. A version, if you like, of fetishism. But a version that digs deeply into the ontology of value. Philosophical musing from an armchair is all well and good, but what Graeber tries to do is combine this ontology with real world observations from anthropology. He creates a compelling picture of the political, social and economic manifestations of value across time and culture, even if sometimes the link between the ethnography and his ontology of value isn't that easy to pick out..
I very much enjoyed the book. In particular, I found the discussion of the Iroquoian 'Dream Economy' and the Maori's 'mana and tapu' fascinating and thought-provoking. Towards the end, Graeber says that certain objects can act as 'pivots between the imagination and reality' and, maybe for me, this book might be one such object. Although I disagree with Graeber about some quite fundamental issues - the nature of money in particular - reading this book has really made me consider the relation of value to action and pushed me more deeply into the work of philosopher Roy Bhaskar.
I have not actually finished the book yet, but I'm closing in on the last chapter whith this strange title "The False Coin ... ect". What's for sure is that there's nothing false or fishy obout Graeber's narrative. As always it's a joy to read him. I'm not an anthropologist, but then you don't have to be in order to follow his train of thought. Wildly inspirering. You get to feel that your a little bit smarter after having worked your way through this book, which is kind of a nice feeling. Thank you David, I,m a big fan!