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The Unconditional Share

The Unconditional Share is a title reminiscent of Georges Bataille’s seminal The Accursed Share (1949), a text known for its radical anti-utilitarian thrust, placing the drive to spend, rather than accumulate or maximize, at the heart of its conception of a general human economy. Our purpose with this intertextual flirt is less to draw our focus on Bataille than hint at the irreducible dimension of unconditionality one finds built into social bonds and to plead for a more comprehensive social science, including in economic matters. We know how weary Marcel Mauss was of the Collège de Sociologie (in which Bataille played a leading role), even if the latter claimed Durkheim and Mauss as his main sources of inspiration [1]. Still, for the Mauss who inspired the gift paradigm developed within the pages of the Revue du MAUSS, while the gift cannot be reduced to a pure form of gratuitous, unconditional spending, it does contain an irreducible element of unconditionality. Similarly, a gift can only become effective if it goes beyond the realm of the useful. What is this part – or share – of unconditionality? And, concomitantly, how does taking this unconditional share into account inform what we mean by “anti-utilitarian”?

This third issue of the MAUSS International threads some of the answers that we wish to bring to these questions. The following contributions delineate in turn the role that the MAUSS International intends to play in the global academic field. Above all, to be a place where studies and reflections relating to Marcel Mauss and the field of the gift intersect. This field is expanding at a dizzying pace, as can be seen from the bibliography of publications in English since the turn of the century that we published in the last issue, and which is now complemented by a bibliography of texts in German [2]. Another objective is to make some of the content published in the French Revue du MAUSS available in English. In addition, we also aim to publish texts of a general theoretical scope, or with ethical and political implications, which do not explicitly fall within the combined framework of Maussian and gift studies (not to mention the fact that the field of anti-utilitarianism is immense). Those who have read our first two issues will notice that we have significantly reduced the size of the present one in order to allow for readers to go through the issue in one go. This third issue is divided into two parts, the first devoted to Mauss and the gift, and the second to the question of utility.

There is no need to present the articles in this issue in detail. Each one, with its abstract, is perfectly self-explanatory. Let us however say a few words to offer an initial overview and suggest how we believe these contributions complement each other in a way that builds an argument of its own.


We open this issue with a remarkable article by Carlo Ginzburg that was published in French in 2010 in the journal Annales following a symposium devoted to the renowned historian Marc Bloch. This text is curiously hardly ever mentioned in the literature devoted to Mauss and the gift, in spite of its importance on the subject. Is it because it had not yet been translated into English? Or is it because it was written by a historian; and that historians, even when they rate amongst the most renowned in the world, are not supposed to deal with a subject that a priori concerns anthropologists or sociologists? As we shall see, the discussion also concerns philosophers. How is it that the theme of the struggle for recognition through the gift, so central to the Essay on the Gift, is so close to that developed by Alexandre Kojève (Bataille’s first inspiration) in his reading of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit? The answer might be surprisingly simple. As Ginzburg shows, Kojève read Hegel through Mauss’ spectacles. But where did Mauss himself draw his inspiration from? Through what lenses did he view the potlatch (especially) and the kula? Ginzburg’s convincing argument is that Mauss read the latter through the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and in particular the Émile. For Ginzburg, it was in Rousseau that Mauss discovered the importance of the desire for recognition and the idea that it can only be achieved through a paradoxical combination of obligation and freedom. Consider the famous phrase from the Social Contract: “They will be forced to be free.” In the same way, the Maussian gift forces human subjects to be free and spontaneous.

Arpad Szakolczai, for his part, offers an original and intriguing reading of Mauss. The author places the latter alongside Weber amongst the authors who are misunderstood or partly marginalised (especially Mauss, who is excluded from the sociological canon) because they do not subscribe to the idea that modernity in general, and science and technology in particular, are necessarily moving towards an ever-brighter future. For this to happen, Weber had to break with the neo-Kantianism dominant in Germany, particularly that of Rickert. Mauss, for his part, had to distance himself from Durkheim while presenting himself as his heir and successor. Szakolczai fleshes out his argument in a close discussion of Mauss’ major texts on magic and prayer as well as, more briefly, his critical writings on bolshevism.

This issue would not be complete without the reproduction of one of Alvin Gouldner’s three famous articles that defined the parameters for many discussions on the gift. The first of these texts, “Reciprocity and Autonomy in Functionalist Theory”, introduced the dimensions of anarchy and autonomy into systems theory, while the second, “The Norm of Reciprocity”, considered the act of giving within the limits of reciprocity and equivalence. The third of this series, entitled “Something for Nothing” and which we reproduce here, opens the way for thinking about generosity independently of equivalence and therefore beyond the useful. In the following article, Philippe Chanial builds on Gouldner to assemble many elements of what we call the “gift paradigm”. Depending on whether social relations involve more or less reciprocity and more or less generosity, we find ourselves in regimes of either social exchange or utilitarian exchange, reciprocal giving or revenge, grace or predation, solicitude or exploitation, authority or domination. Echoing Judith Butler, Joan Tronto, and Jürgen Habermas, Chanial points out that “the gift paradigm gambles on the existence of a normativity immanent to inter-human relations that finds its epitome in the total social phenomenon that is the gift”.

In the case of gifts between humans, what is more important: the gift that was actually made, or the gift that could have been made and perhaps should have been made? Jacob Copeman and Dwaipayan Banerjee ask this question in an original and almost disturbing way. In their perspective, the gift that we receive carries an allusion to all that is not given yet might and could potentially be given. There is therefore something like a “shadow of the gift” that haunts the gift. For these authors, this shadow gift, this virtual, subterranean gift, is capable of playing a vital part in fuelling social criticism.

Shifting the focus, Frank Adloff raises a fundamental question: can sociology still confine itself to dealing only with relations between humans? His comprehensive overview of the authors who are decisively challenging the division between humans and other living beings (“non-humans”) shows that this epistemological choice is no longer tenable. If we assume, as we do at the MAUSS, that the gift acts as the operator par excellence of alliances, then we need to develop a multi-species theory of the gift and recognize non-human beings as

– potential and effective – donors and donees; and thus as – potential and effective – subjects of alliances between human and non-humans. For Adloff, this means rethinking the notion of symbiosis through the adoption of a perspective that could be labelled “methodological animism”.


The initial drive behind the MAUSS was its opposition to all forms of reduction to (market) economics (i.e., economicism) and resistance to the surrender of sociology to the assumptions of neoclassical economics that began in the 1970s. This surrender was manifest in sociology’s explicit move towards methodological individualism and the adoption of rational choice theory (RAT). In France, the supremacy of the utilitarian model was not only celebrated in the works of Raymond Boudon, the French equivalent to James Coleman, and Michel Crozier, the French version of Herbert Simon. It also snuck in through some of the critiques of utilitarianism. For example, it was under the influence of no other than Gary Becker that Pierre Bourdieu conceived and presented his sociology as “a general economy of practice”.

When the nascent MAUSS declared itself to be “anti-utilitarian”, it was mostly out of intuition, since its founders had little knowledge about “utilitarianism”, as was massively the case in France and the francophone world at the time. At the outset, anti-utilitarianism simply meant the pursuit of Durkheim and Mauss’ opposition to individualist political philosophies and, more specifically, to Herbert Spencer’s sociology. Gradually, as MAUSSians began to take interest in the history and content of utilitarianism (which included publishing for the first time in French translation a certain number of important texts from the utilitarian tradition), the conclusion that emerged was that the roots of contemporary economicism were to be found in the legacies of utilitarianism. Or, to be more precise, of a certain utilitarianism. For the discussion is significantly complicated by the fact that utilitarianism has many facets, which can sometimes be diametrically opposed, and that its history is far from linear. To help exemplify, let us consider how for many sociologists (in the wake of Talcott Parsons, for instance) or economists (in the wake of Joseph Schumpeter, for instance), utilitarianism is a doctrine that seeks both to explain and to regulate the social world by positing that it is made up solely of individuals seeking to maximize their individual interests more or less rationally. For many English-writing political and moral philosophers, on the other hand (for instance John Rawls), it is a doctrine that posits that individual interests must be subordinated to the happiness of the greatest number. A champion of radical egoism for some, utilitarianism appears as the herald of altruism for others. Incidentally, utilitarianism can be seen as radically individualistic or radically holistic, depending on how you read it. But whose reading? Which authors? Which of these can be labelled as specifically and exemplarily utilitarian? Jeremy Bentham? John Stuart Mill? John Harsanyi? Peter Singer? Others?

Alain Caillé summarizes these reflections in a debate with two philosophers specialising in the history of ideas, Christian Lazzeri and Jean-Pierre Cléro. He argues in passing that utilitarianism was already present in the legalistic philosophers of ancient China and in a certain reading of Plato [3]. Interestingly, a similar, somewhat heterodox view can be found in Alvin Gouldner’s Enter Plato. Classical Greece and the Origins of Social Theory (1965), which preceded his famed The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. In addition, a distinction emerges between utilitarianism largo sensu (what Caillé calls the “axiomatic of self-interest”) and utilitarianism stricto sensu (the explicit philosophical doctrine). Asked to comment on this discussion between Caillé, Cléro, and Lazzeri, Peter Wagner stresses the tautological dimension of the very notion of utility. He cleverly argues that Enlightenment discourse is of two types. The first, inspired by individualism and utilitarianism, asserts that what is good will spontaneously result from the free confrontation of individual interests. The second is that good can only come about through deliberate collective action. Regretting the triumph of the former option, he concludes by writing that: “The importance of the MAUSSian or anti-utilitarian approach resides in the need to keep showing that [its] assumptions fare conceptually on shaky ground and have not proven their utility, if I may say so, as guidance for understanding past experiences and envisioning actions leading towards a better future.”

Thankfully, not all brands of economics and political economy are utilitarian and economistic. In June 2015, the MAUSS organized an international colloquium at Cerisy-la-Salle devoted to the search for non-utilitarian foundations of a general social science. It is striking to note that the economists present at this conference all declared themselves to be anti-utilitarian (which does not mean that they endorsed the gift paradigm). Among them was Robert Boyer, the founder of L’école de la régulation (the “regulation school”), which has been particularly influential in Latin America and, to some extent, in Asia. In his latest book (whose title can be translated as Can a discipline without reflexivity be a science? Epistemology of Economics [4]), he presents a very detailed and overtly critical overview of the current state of the science of economics. Boyer argues the importance of the two following, complementary questions. First, why do economists get it wrong as often as they do? Second, under what conditions could economics become “capable of reconciling the two criteria of science, [that is] the consistency with its foundations and empirical observation”? In the introduction to this book, which we publish here in translation, Boyer stresses the fact that the discipline is now split into multiple sub-specialities that are more concerned with helping private or public agents make decisions than they are with theory. He writes: “Theorists have now become a tiny minority because they are drowned in a sea of applied economics, whose goal is not necessarily scientific.” Hence the need for more thorough epistemological, theoretical (and not only methodological) investigations.

Mutatis mutandis, couldn’t the same thing be said of mainstream sociologists, political scientists, and even anthropologists? If the criterion of science, apart from its adequacy to the facts observed, is the coherence of a discourse with its foundations, its basic axioms, then it is necessary to know how to identify them and ensure that they are solid. This is the question that fuels Paul Dembinski’s contribution, whose complementarity with Boyer’s is striking. The conclusion reached by this economist is simple, and echoes similar social scientific investigations by Marshall Sahlins, David Graeber, Peter Wagner, and so many others: that the foundations of the currently dominant neo-classical brand of economics are shaky. Too simple and one-sided, they stifle the imagination and inhibit proper scientific and political responses to today’s pressing challenges. In short, this is exactly what the British Royal Academy answered to Queen Elizabeth’s question in the wake of the 2008 subprimes-driven financial crisis: if we did not see the crisis coming, it was because of a “lack of imagination”.

As our last academic contribution, the article by Catarina Neves brings this issue full circle by reflecting on which bases an Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) could be justified. In other words, how is it possible to forward “an understanding of justice as reciprocity” and its general aim “of promoting a society where free individuals enjoy the means to pursue their life projects but also contribute to the social surplus in a way that fosters relationships of equality”? This brings us back to the issue of reciprocity raised by Gouldner. Is reciprocity a question of give and take, tit for tat? Or is it a question of generosity? The correct justification for the UBI, Neves argues, lies in the idea of conditional unconditionality that lies at the heart of the gift paradigm. For UBI to function virtuously, those on the receiving end must feel that it is a gift in order for it to generate a feeling of gratitude, indebtedness, and a moral obligation to reciprocate.

We are keen to present a literary passage that we feel resonates with the spirit of the gift, utilitarianism or anti-utilitarianism, as the conclusion to every issue. After presenting our readers with a taste of Dostoyevsky in our Opening Gift and pursuing with an excerpt of Dickens in The Gift in Movement, we call onto Jonathan Swift in our third issue and reproduce a short passage from Gulliver’s fourth voyage, in which he finds himself a prisoner of the utilitarian Houyhnhnms, those wise and peaceful horses (at least when among themselves) who have nothing but horror and contempt for the Yahoos – humans that is. This passage highlights the virtues of the Houyhnhnms, rational beings without passions, in all their ambivalence, and raises the question: is Houyhnhnm society a paradise or a utilitarian hell?

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We wish to thank Camille Liederman for her assistance with copyediting and helping to solve some of the challenging issues related to translations. We also want to thank Sarah Aguilera, from le Bord de l’Eau, for the graphic design of the journal. We, the editors, remain, however, responsible for the final result. We thank our readers for their support and hope you will enjoy the reading unconditionally.


[1] For some insights on the complementarity of Bataille and Mauss, see Mayfair Yang’s extensive piece in the second issue of the MAUSS International.

[2] Both bibliographies will be available on our website and periodically updated, as part of our ongoing project of compilation of gift research across disciplines and languages.

[3] Caillé elaborated on his reading of Plato as a source for Western utilitarianism in Don, intérêt et désintéressement. Bourdieu, Mauss, Platon et quelques autres (La Découverte/MAUSS, 1994). The long history of utilitarianism was also a focus of Caillé, Lazzeri and Senellart’s two edited volumes Histoire raisonnée de la philosophie morale et politique (Flammarion, 2001).

[4]  Une discipline sans réflexivité peut-elle être une science ? Épistémologie de l’économie (Éditions de la Sorbonne, 2021).


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