Marcel Mauss and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon: a note on the ‘archaic’ or ‘voluntary’ social contract.



‘The subject is clear,’ writes Marcel Mauss in his introduction to The Gift. ‘In Scandinavian civilisation, and in a good number of others, exchanges and contracts take place in the form of gifts; in theory these are voluntary, in reality they are given and reciprocated obligatorily.


The present monograph is a fragment of more extensive studies’ he goes on. ‘For years our attention has been concentrated on both the organisation of contractual law and the system of total economic services operating between the various sections or subgroups that make up so-called primitive societies, as well as those we might characterise as archaic. . . .


We shall thus achieve a dual purpose. On the one hand, we shall arrive at conclusions of a somewhat archaeological kind concerning the nature of human transaction in societies around us, or that have immediately preceded our own. We shall describe the phenomena of exchange and contract in those societies that are not, as has been claimed, devoid of economic markets – since the market is a human phenomenon that, in our view, is not foreign to any known society – but whose system of exchange is different from ours. In these societies we shall see the market as it existed before the institution of traders and before their main invention – money proper. We shall see how it functioned both before the discovery of forms of contract and sale that may be said to be modern, and also before money, minted and inscribed. We shall see the morality and the organisation that operate in such transactions.’


What makes these systems of exchange relations ‘different from ours,’ I suggest, is the fact that they are characterised by and comprised of non-alienated relations, a fact that tends to get lost amidst Mauss’ focus on the the gift as some mysterious, material form. This material-ist focus has been reproduced in Neo-Maussian models of gift vs commodity as well.


Anyhow, what I want to point out is the fact that The Gift makes a lot more sense if one focuses on non-alienated social relationships as the constant factor or variable.


Mauss’ archaic compact or archaic contract gains a great deal of explanatory force if one considers it in terms of Pierre Joseph Proudhon’s theory of the social contract.


Proudhon is the only classic Social Contract theorist to have proposed a voluntary, non-alienated form of the social contact.


Toward this ‘pointing out’ end, the following excerpt is taken from Proudhon’s ‘Fourth Study’ in General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century (1851).† It gives a sense of how Proudhon approaches and characterises the social contract.


‘What really is the Social Contract? An agreement of the citizen with the government? No, that would mean but the continuation of the same idea. The social contract is an agreement of man with man; an agreement from which must result what we call society. In this, the notion of commutative justice, first brought forward by the primitive fact of exchange, and defined by the Roman law, is substituted for that of distributive justice, dismissed without appeal by republican criticism. Translate these words, contract, commutative justice, which are the language of the law, into the language of business, and you have Commerce, that is to say, in its highest significance, the act by which man and man declare themselves essentially producers, and abdicate all pretension to govern each other.


Commutative justice, the reign of contract, the industrial or economic system, such are the different synonyms for the idea which by its accession must do away with the old systems of distributive justice, the reign of law, or in more concrete terms, feudal, governmental, or military rule. The future hope of humanity lies in this substitution.


But before this revolution of doctrine can be formulated, before it can be comprehended, before it can take possession of the peoples who alone can put it into practice, what fruitless debates! what weary inactivity of ideas! what a time for agitators and sophists! From the controversy of Jurieu with Bossuet, to the publication of Rousseau’s Social Contract almost a century elapsed; and when the latter appeared, it was not to assert the idea, but to stifle it.


Rousseau, whose authority has ruled us for almost a century, understood nothing of the social contract. To him, most of all, must be ascribed the great relapse of ’93, expiated already by fifty-seven years of fruitless disorder, and which certain minds more ardent than wise wish us still to regard as a sacred tradition.


The idea of contract excludes that of government: M. Ledru-Rollin, who is a lawyer, and whose attention I call to this point, ought to know it. What characterizes the contract is agreement for equal exchange; and it is by virtue of this agreement that liberty and well being increase; while by the establishment of authority, both of these necessarily diminish. This will be evident if we reflect that contract is the act whereby two or several individuals agree to organize among themselves, for a definite purpose and time, that industrial power which we have called exchange; and in consequence have obligated themselves to each other, and reciprocally guaranteed a certain amount of services, products, advantages, duties, &c., which they are in a position to obtain and give to each other; recognizing that they are otherwise perfectly independent, whether for consumption or production.


Between contracting parties there is necessarily for each one a real personal interest; it implies that a man bargains with the aim of securing his liberty and his revenue at the same time, without any possible loss. Between governing and governed, on the contrary, no matter how the system of representation or of delegation of the governmental function is arranged, there is necessarily alienation of a part of the liberty and of the means of the citizen; in return for what advantage we have explained above.


The contract therefore is essentially reciprocal: it imposes no obligation upon the parties, except that which results from their personal promise of reciprocal delivery: it is not subject to any external authority: it alone forms the law between the parties: it awaits their initiative for its execution.


But if such is the contract in its most general acceptation, and in daily practice; what will be the Social Contract, which is relied upon to bind together all the members of a nation into one and the same interest?


The Social Contract is the supreme act by which each citizen pledges to the association his love, his intelligence, his work, his services, his goods, in return for the affection, ideas, labor, products, services and goods of his fellows; the measure of the right of each being determined by the importance of his contributions, and the recovery that can be demanded in proportion to his deliveries.


Thus the social contract should include all citizens, with their interests and relations. — If a single man were excluded from the contract, if a single one of the interests upon which the members of the nation, intelligent, industrious, and sensible beings, are called upon to bargain, were omitted, the contract would be more or less relative or special, it would not be social.


The social contract should increase the well-being and liberty of every citizen. — If any one-sided conditions should slip in; if one part of the citizens should find themselves, by the contract, subordinated and exploited by the others, it would no longer be a contract; it would be a fraud, against which annulment might at any time be invoked justly.


The social contract should be freely discussed, individually accepted, signed with their own hands, by all the participants. If the discussion of it were forbidden, cut short or juggled, if consent were obtained by fraud; if signature were made in blank, by proxy, or without reading the document and the preliminary explanation; or even if, like the military oath, consent were a matter of course and compulsory; the social contract would then be no more than a conspiracy against the liberty and well-being of the most ignorant, the weakest and the most numerous, a systematic spoilation, against which every means of resistance, and even of reprisal, would be a right and a duty.


We may add that the social contract of which we are now speaking has nothing in common with the contract of association by which, as we have shown in a previous study, the contracting party gives up a portion of his liberty, and submits to an annoying, often dangerous, obligation, in the more or less well-founded hope of a benefit. The social contract is of the nature of a contract of exchange: not only does it leave the party free, it adds to his liberty; not only does it leave him all his goods, it adds to his property; it prescribes no labor; it bears only upon exchange: all these being points which are not found in the contract of association, which is even antagonistic to it.


Such should be the social contract, according to the definitions of the law and universal practice. Is it necessary now to say that, out of the multitude of relations which the social pact is called upon to define and regulate, Rousseau saw only the political relations; that is to say, he suppressed the fundamental points of the contract, and dwelt only upon those that are secondary? Is it necessary to say that Rousseau understood and respected not one of these essential, indispensable conditions,—the absolute liberty of the party, his personal, direct part, his signature given with full understanding, and the share of liberty and prosperity which he should experience?


For him, the social contract is neither an act of reciprocity, nor an act of association. Rousseau takes care not to enter into such considerations. It is an act of appointment of arbiters, chosen by the citizens, without any preliminary agreement, for all cases of contest, quarrel, fraud or violence, which can happen in the relations which they may subsequently form among themselves, the said arbiters being clothed with sufficient force to put their decisions into execution, and to collect their salaries.’




† You can find the full text online ~ here.

A final aside: I was flicking through Proudhon’s The evolution of capitalism, the philosophy of misery: System of economical contradictions ([1846] 2012) again this morning, by the by, and I swear it’s like reading an earlier, unedited, yet far more clarified Durkheim (esp as regards the division of labour).

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