The Solidarity Conundrum

The Solidarity Conundrum

Linsey McGoey (University of Essex)

 Since the morning of July 13, when Alexis Tsipras emerged from 17 hours of negotiations blinking with fatigue, rhetoric surrounding his capitulation has vacillated between praise for his ‘solidarity’ and condemnation of his brutal treatment.

One unnamed European official was quoted saying that Tsipras was ‘beaten like a dog and crucified,’ a sentiment echoed by former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’s claim that the deal amounted to ‘fiscal waterboarding.’ One of the fiercest rebukes of Germany’s harsh stipulations came from Financial Times columnist Wolfgang Munchau. ‘By forcing Alexis Tsipras into a humiliating defeat,‘ he wrote, ‘Greece’s creditors have done a lot more than bring about regime change in Greece or endanger its relations with the eurozone. They have destroyed the eurozone as we know it.’

Others lauded Tsipras’s stoicism and spirt of conciliation: Francois Hollande was quick to praise his ‘courageous choice.’

The seesawing commentary following the momentous deal in July is well-known. What’s less known is that nearly a century earlier Europe’s leading social theorists, riveted and incensed by the terms of the Versailles Treaty, channelled their anger into collaborative discussions that resulted in one of the most influential texts in anthropological theory, Marcel Mauss’s The Gift.

The most famous critic of the Versailles Treaty is, of course, John Maynard Keynes, who argued in 1919 in his The Economic Consequences of the Peace the reparations demanded of Germany were impossible for the nation to meet and certain to fuel explosive resentment. His sharp condemnation of French and British creditors was embraced by surprising bedfellows. Friedrich Hayek, younger than Keynes by 17 years, later recalled that Keynes in the early 1920s was “something of a hero to us Central Europeans” for his attack on the short-sight-sighted, vindictive terms of the treaty.

But surprisingly little has been written about how a group of French theorists interpreted Keynes’s work, and used it to fuel their writings on European solidarity, national self-sacrifice, and the value of gift-giving. The most well-known of these today is Mauss. I draw on Mauss’s writing on national debt in a forthcoming article in Theory, Culture and Society on the ‘economics of abundance.’ In the article, I compare Mauss’s early writing on national debt to a later, iconoclastic idea of Keynes on the need for nations with large trade surpluses to agree to mandatory limits on their excessive wealth through internationally set trade limits. Keynes’s recognition of the dangers of trade surpluses remains underappreciated to this day, despite the efforts of economists who have called attention to his prescience, including James Galbraith and Varoufakis.

What’s also curious is that Mauss’s writing on national debt remains overlooked even as his writing on the power and social value of gift-giving is treated as de rigueur in anthropology undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. Two of the few scholars today to explore this dearth of attention are the anthropologists Grégoire Mallard (2011) and Keith Hart (2014).

Mauss’s short but masterful essay, The Gift, first published in French in 1925, does not focus explicitly on contemporary concerns then dividing Europe: the question of whether war reparations were just or not. But recently, both Mallard and Hart have suggested that it could be seen as an extended allegory: by demonstrating the commonality of gift-giving across different human societies, Mauss sought to underscore the value of debt forgiveness at the national level.

The reason for the lack of understanding of Mauss’s interest in national debt relief stems from the fact that Mauss channelled most of his writing on debt into his economic journalism, and his analyses of gift-giving into his scholarly work – and he endeavoured to keep these two outputs strictly separate from each other. Keith Hart suggests that Mauss’s effort to distinguish his journalism from his academic scholarship compelled his later interpreters to ignore the importance of his economic journalism. Hart points in particular to Mary Douglas, suggesting that Douglas and other anthropologists often ‘ignore [Mauss’s] politics and, worse, to perpetuate in his name that opposition between market contracts and gifts as economic principles that he wrote his famous essay to refute’ (Hart 2014: 34).

Like Hart, Mallard, an anthropologist based in Geneva, has recently suggested that Mauss’s writing on the gift should be understood in the context of his concern over draconian debt repayment terms. In a 1922 article in Le Populaire, Mallard writes, Mauss exhorts France to make a large gift to the Germans, emulating a precedent set by the British government decades earlier in a win over Napoleon’s regime.

Mauss comes back to this theme in a somewhat tangential way in The Gift. He doesn’t discuss national debt forgiveness explicitly, but he does talk about the ways that seeming sacrifices on the behalf of a giver tend to reap benefits rather than losses – and he then draws comparison to national economies. Quoting from the Qur’an, Mauss discusses the value of a ‘generous loan’ to Allah:

  1. Fear God with all your might; listen and obey, give alms (sadaqa) in your own interest…
  2. If you make a generous loan to God, he will pay you back double; he will forgive you because he is grateful and long-suffering.

Mauss then makes clear the relevance of this passage for contemporary national economies. If one replaces the ‘concept of alms with that of co-operation, of a task done or a service rendered for others,’ he suggests, ‘You will then have a fairly good idea of the kind of economy that is at present laboriously in gestation. We see it already functioning in certain economic groups, and in the hearts of the masses, who possess, very often better than their leaders, a sense of their own interests, and of the common interest’ (Mauss 1990: 78)

Mallard argues that given the short timespan between Mauss’s articles on debt forgiveness in Le Populaire and the publication of The Gift in 1925, it’s plausible that ‘The Gift be read as a normative justification of the policies of sovereign debt forgiveness that Mauss initially advocated with regard to German reparation and interallied debt’ (2011: 226).

David Graeber (2001) has discussed a similar idea. In his writing on Mauss and debt, Graeber often stresses that Mauss intended The Gift as a defense of the social bonds that could be formed through gift-giving, rather than, as some scholars such as Douglas have suggested, an illumination of the individually self-interested nature of gift-giving.

I think an implication of Hart, Mallard and Graeber’s work might be misguided. Not when it comes to the suggestion that Mauss’s writing on national debt influenced his work on the gift – on this point Mallard and Hart’s work is path-breaking – but in hoping with Mauss that appeals to solidarity can overcome a narrow focus on national self-interest.

At least since Mauss and his uncle, Emile Durkheim, the concept of solidarity has been an important theme within anthropology and sociology – a way for these disciplines to distinguish their concerns from the obsessive focus on self-interest that pervades much work in neoclassical economics. But, increasingly, it seems that through the reluctance to take national and self-interest seriously enough – through our effort to vanquish the myth of homo economicus, self-maximizing man – our disciplines may have adopted a Pollyannish blindness to the reality of how often national self-interest trumps the rhetoric of European solidarity.

In a recent, highly insightful analysis of the whimpering end of Europe’s bailout negotiations over the weekend of July 11, Wolfgang Streeck describes the way that Angela Merkel, in what Streeck views as a brutal but masterful display of political prowess, managed to bully Tsipras into acceding to ‘The European idea’ – characterized as faith in a common currency.

The fact that a common currency is unsustainable for weaker nations, the fact that it is, as Streeck writes, a ‘fundamentally misconceived institution, as it denies weaker countries the possibility of devaluing their currency’ has too long been ignored by well-meaning scholars, ourselves gripped by the dream of a solidarity that transcends national borders. Perhaps such a utopia is one day possible. But until then, our disciplines may need to attend more to a reality that Nietzsche once warned of – that few things are less disinterested than the claim to be so.


Graeber D (2001) Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams. New York: Palgrave.

Hart, K. 2014. “Marcel Mauss’s economic vision, 1920-1925: Anthropology, Journalism and Politics.” Journal of Classical Sociology 14(1): 34-44.

Mauss, M. 1990. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. W.W. Norton, London and New York.

McGoey, L. (forthcoming) “Bataille and the economics of abundance: reassessing gifts, debt and surplus” Theory, Culture and Society.

Mallard, G. 2011. “The Gift revisited: Marcel Mauss on War, Debt and the Politics of Reparation” Sociological Theory 29(4): 225-247.


Linsey McGoey is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Essex. Her book, No Such Thing as a Free Gift: The Gates Foundation and the Price of Philanthropy, is published with Verso in October.

Image: Ggia CC BY-SA 4.0