Towards a ‘Human Economy’ An Interview with Keith Hart

Keith Hart is an academic with multifaceted interests. He developed the idea of the “informal economy” and is now working on the “human economy”. He has also written on money, the internet, and the European Union. He has an interest in Gandhi as well. This is the text of an interview conducted in his offices at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

A R Vasavi ( is a Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.
Keith Hart ( is International Director of the Human Economy Program at the University of Pretoria (South Africa), and also Centennial Professor of Economic Anthropology at the London School of Economics.
A maverick scholar who was the first to define and identify the “informal economy”, Keith Hart is now developing a perspective on the “human economy”. The term has the potential to go beyond rigid theoretical frameworks on economic practices and provide an interdisciplinary approach to understanding how complex and plural economies are embedded in a variety of societies. Having been trained in the classics (Greek and Latin) at the University of Cambridge, he now rereads Kant for our times and considers subjectivity to be central to human history. A prolific writer, his commentaries on varied topics such as the rise of the internet, the role of land reforms and the future of the European Union complement his seminal volumes on money, the human economy, and the market.
An institution builder, Keith Hart founded the “Open Anthropology Cooperative”, a web-based anthropological discussion forum, set up “Prickly Pear Press” and is currently establishing an international research programme on human economy at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. Hart financed his higher education by betting on horses and is passionately engaged with sports, especially cricket. His work should interest Indian scholars since it seeks to understand diverse economic conditions and practices and highlights the intertwining of economic, sociocultural and political factors. In addition to being International Director of the Human Economy Program at the University of Pretoria (South Africa), Keith Hart is also Centennial Professor of Economic Anthropology at the London School of Economics. He has also taught in universities at Cambridge, Manchester, Yale, Michigan, Chicago, McGill, Northwestern, and Goldsmiths (London).
Hart will be delivering a lecture on Gandhi as a global thinker on 28 January at the South Asian University, New Delhi.
Questions: For one credited with coining the term the “informal economy”, which has now taken many new avatars, what do you think are international trends in the state of the informal economy and what significance does it have for the working classes or the disadvantaged?
KH: There was no awareness of what people without “jobs” actually got up to in the 1970s. The jobless were thought of as being “unemployed”. My work opened up ways of thinking about these hitherto unrecognised activities. And the informal economy was thought initially to be limited to the “urban poor”. It was embraced by the World Bank and the ILO as proof that the plight of the poor was less drastic (and politically dangerous) than had been feared. When structural adjustment policies dismantled government capacity for economic policy in the 1980s, the informal economy was seen as the “free market” incarnate, free because it lacked regulation. In the meantime, it became obvious that the informal economy flourished in industrial societies and that economic actors at all levels were informal to some extent. Neo-liberal policies of deregulation removed many of the legal and administrative constraints on businesses, leading to a convergence between criminal and corporate practices beyond the reach of the state (tax havens, shadow banking, etc). Yet, since the new millennium, the World Bank and organisations like the McKinsey Company have been lobbying for the formalisation of informal operatives, as a way of sharing the tax burden more equitably and reducing the latter’s cost advantages. In my view, the informal economy has taken over the world at all levels, but especially through corporate avoidance of their public responsibilities. The global money circuit has become lawless and national control over economic policy has been emasculated. Under these circumstances, when informality is the norm, I don’t see much value in the concept any more. Its principal beneficiaries are now the advantaged, not the poor and disadvantaged, but that does not stop the rich from complaining about “unfair competition” with the poor.
Q: What do you hope to represent by the idea of a “human economy”? How might it further our understanding of emerging and complex economies?
KH: It is commonplace to represent the dominant market economic form as self-interested individualism for which the antidote is supposed to be solidarity, associations, socialism or social democracy. I hold that all forms of human life must combine self-reliance and belonging to others, the individual and the social, if you like. In contemporary economies social ties may be marginalised, made obscure, even repressed; but they are there and their latent existence should be made more explicit. This is true of the market or capitalist economy, as the great French sociologist Marcel Mauss insisted. So I came up with the term “human economy” in order to emphasise the two-sided nature of alternative economic strategies and to argue that we should not rely on ideological distortions of human economic practice. The economy we aspire to is human in two senses, both anchored in what people really do (as was the informal economy) and also fully human, that is addressing the human predicament as a whole, the interests of the seven billion of us seeking to find ways of living together on this planet. It is also human in resting always on plural institutions, so that we need to learn more about how people combine many forms of associations in their economic lives. Given the national or local straightjacket in which most of us experience the economy, our approach aims to extend consciousness to more inclusive levels.
We believe that grass-roots initiatives and civil society movements alone cannot combat effectively the forces mobilised against them; and must therefore make selective alliances with large-scale bureaucracies, including national, city and regional governments, corporations and international agencies. These kind of alliances are quite common in Latin America, where they go by the name of “popular economy”. There is a long history of capitalist firms backing popular insurgency. The interests of telecommunications companies are not the same as those of the banks, for example. Rather than condemn all capitalist firms as basically the same, we need to ask how the interests of some of them might coincide with those of popular movements.
Q: You note that “the economy is always plural and people’s experience of it across time and space has more in common than the use of contrastive terms like ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’ would suggest”. So, what would be the criteria or framework with which these plural economic structures and practices be understood?
KH: Terms like capitalism and socialism (or the informal economy for that matter) allow people to imagine that they know complex social reality as an expression of a single idea. The same goes for “India”, “China” or “Europe”. Our first intellectual move is thus to refer any analysis to empirical realism, to make sure that what we say is grounded in knowledge of ordinary people’s economic experience. But the second leg of our approach is to try to link that experience to broader conceptions of the human predicaments and this requires extension of ideas and perspectives to a more inclusive level. We don’t look for comparable reductionist ideas, but rather for a neo-Kantian method where the ideas reflect the social realities we wish to identify. These might be as broad or narrow as the situation requires. Max Weber’s method of ideal-type analysis illustrates the potential range of such an approach.
Q: Unlike most anthropological critics of international business corporations, you seem to repose some sort of faith in the abilities of big business to address pressing humanitarian or social issues and you speak of the “humanity of corporations”. Can you elaborate on how this is possible?
KH: I consider that the most significant threat to democracy worldwide lies in the drive of transnational corporations to establish a world society of which they themselves will be the only citizens and the rest of us will live in national bodies of ever-diminishing scope and powers. One key to this threat was the collapse of the difference in law between real and artificial persons in the late 19th century, ensuring that business corporations retained limited liability for debt, but were also able to claim the rights of individual citizens. This has been manifested recently in the US Supreme Court’s refusal to limit their rights as political donors on the grounds of its curtailing their human rights; and there is the current issue being considered of whether they have religious rights. The fact is that businesses have a size, wealth and longevity that allows them to keep returning to the courts before they get the decision they want. So my point is that we should insist on them not being human, as one way of restoring our ability to fight them collectively.
On the other hand, in all the main revolutions of the modern world, popular insurgency has had to be backed by large entities with the wealth and power to win decisive struggles. Thus American and Dutch tea smugglers backed the revolution against the British and their East India Company. Caribbean shippers in Bordeaux and Nantes supported the French revolution crucially in the war of La Vendée. Milan and Turin industrialists backed Garibaldi against the Austrians. Armies need money and most civil society movements don’t have enough of it. Revolutions often involve fighting for decades and I contend that, instead of writing off all capitalist firms, revolutionaries should look to making selective alliances with transnational corporations – not for their human qualities, but for the sake of their inhuman wealth and power.
Q: Your new and forthcoming work is on the economic renaissance of Africa and its possible emergence as a growth centre for the world economy. On what do you base this view ?
KH: In 1900 Europe accounted for 25% of the world’s population, Africa only 7%. By 2100 Europe is forecast to have only 6% of the world’s population, Africa 40% (Asia 42%). Africa already has seven out of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world. The Asian manufacturers know that Africa will be the main source of growth in market demand in the coming century. Africa is the only region whose population is still growing strongly; all the rest are in decline. The continent is about to reap a massive demographic dividend comparable with India’s in the last few decades. It does not take much imagination to predict that the global political economy is heading for a period of turbulence. Africa has the least at stake in the political economy inherited from the last century. The Stalinists used to call this “the law of uneven development”. My work is framed by these assumed parameters and my main question is what political strategies might ensure that Africans secure the potential benefits of the coming decades and increase their influence in councils of world politics and trade. At stake is the possibility of bringing an end to a racialised world society in which Africans occupy the lowest stratum. Of course there is a lot that could still go wrong with that scenario; but I hope that my work may contribute to its realisation.
Q: You’ ve known C L R James personally (having also worked with him) and you have imbibed several ideas from him and other pan-Africanists. What relevance do their ideas continue to have for all post-colonial societies?
KH: Pan-Africanism was the most inclusive political movement in the world during the first half of the 20th century. I have been inspired by the great American writer, W E B Du Bois, and by a number of Caribbean scholars of whom the most important have been James and Fanon. I consider James to be my mentor in that I have learned more from him than anyone. There is a big difference between them and the contemporary postcolonial theorists (many of whom are from India). They sought an African renaissance to which they felt they brought special qualities. The main point of one of these was that, unlike most Africans who started out as speakers of an indigenous language, they grew up speaking English or French which meant that they absorbed what western civilisation had to offer from the inside, as it were. They had no difficulty in recognising the western intellectual canon as a window on what was universal in modern history. But, as black subjects of racist imperialism, they had every reason to see the flaws in western civilisation and they were confident that they could create a more inclusive version capable of advancing human development more effectively than their European predecessors and overlords.
James believed that racism and capitalism made for an explosive combination. The slave revolution in Haiti took place because they were subject to violent degradation and yet worked in the most advanced sector of capitalism in the world, the sugar plantations that drove British and French development at the time. He drew on this historical analogy to predict in 1938 that Africa would soon throw off the yoke of colonialism. No one else, including most Africans, was then predicting this. I attribute James’s prescience to his vision of and engagement with world revolution in the interwar period. The postcolonial theorists often seem narrower, even nationalist in their outlook, relying on a conceptual opposition between West and non-West which precludes the more inclusive optimism of the Pan-Africanists. The best critics of western imperialism have not been drawn into a zero-sum game between colonial and postcolonial models of civilisation. Their frame of reference was the world. They were global thinkers.
Q:As a reader of Gandhi, what would you draw from him to frame the human economy or configure the new human being?
KH: The main event of the 20th century was the anti-colonial revolution, a process whereby people coerced into world society by western imperialism in the 19th century sought to establish their own relationship to it. To my mind, the leading intellectuals of this movement have the most to teach us today, for the anti-colonial revolution is not over – perhaps in most of Asia, but not at all in Africa. As I have said of the Caribbean Pan-Africanists, what is most striking about them is the globalism of their thinking. In 1900 Europeans controlled 80%-90% of the planet’s inhabited surface, so winning back home territory from colonial domination united them with almost everyone else. No wonder they brought a global perspective to their politics.
I have no doubt that Gandhi was the greatest of these anti-colonial intellectuals. I went to live in Durban because he spent 20 years there (and in Johannesburg). The fact that he came from an Indian Ocean port (Porbandar) shaped his outlook in a cosmopolitan direction. I do not say that I venerate all aspects of his personality. He was a difficult man, especially in his relations with women. But he was the nearest we have seen as a global thinker since Immanuel Kant. Kant’s gravestone speaks of the twin poles of his approach to life: “the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me”, that is someone who reaches out to the furthest levels of experience (the stars, the horizon) yet is anchored by his own history as a moral subject. The key is to be able to span the extremes of human experience, bringing into meaningful interaction the most remote and intimate dimensions of life. Both Kant and Gandhi developed an anthropological vision from which I take much inspiration.
Gandhi insisted that each of us is a unique human personality who also participates in our shared humanity. The trick is to put the two ends into meaningful interaction. Our common human dilemma is this: we live in a world governed by forces over which we exercise no influence, yet we also aspire to developing a distinctive personality. How can this puny self relate to that vast impersonal universe? The answer is that we must scale up the self and scale down the world so that they can have a meaningful relationship. Traditionally prayer performed this function and perhaps novels and movies do the same job for many of us today. But Gandhi made this project the foundation of his practical philosophy and politics. He also brought to the task an unusually wide repertoire of ideas drawn from Victorian romanticism and Buddhist economics. This is one reason why he is considered eccentric by the Hindu mainstream and why he has many followers outside India, especially in the West.
Kant asked four basic questions. What can I know (metaphysics)? What should I do (morals)? What can I hope for (religion)? What is a human being (anthropology)? We live in a time when it seems that one type of human being is available to us, compared with the aftermath of the anti-colonial revolution in the Cold War when several kinds of human being were on offer and in competition with each other. In the human economy project I look to varieties of religious economy for different ways of building humanity. But above all I draw on Gandhi’s example. This is why my next book after the one on African economic development will be on his example as a human economist.
Q: Commenting on the contemporary world, you’ve observed that “It will be a world whose plurality of association, even fragmentation, will resemble feudalism more than the Roman Empire”. What accounts for this? Is this despite the democratisation that mass media and the internet portend?
KH: A century ago, the world was unipolar and divergent in the extreme as a result of western imperialism. Today we are looking at a multipolar world with convergent economic trends (between the North Atlantic societies and the BRICS, for example). Left to its own devices, this world will resemble the 12th century more than any since then. The drive towards self-determination of the transnational corporations may continue to undermine the integrity of nation and regional governments and that would extend the drift towards lawlessness and decentralised power that I referred to in the above quote. But there is nothing preordained about this vision. The question is whether the United States will tolerate its own peaceful displacement from global power, when it has a virtual monopoly of the world’s armaments. I once had a coffee with a US air force colonel from the Pentagon. He opened up with “You Europeans have stolen our moral high ground. The Chinese have stolen our manufactures. All we have left is the weapons. I guess it’s a matter of double or quits.” The world had better get used to asking how the US could respond to its own relative economic decline. The military option could lead to the restoration of Empire. Certainly they bring a lot of cards to that particular table.
Q: In your lectures and talks you often draw on interesting encounters that you have had with a wide variety of people. Can we conclude this interview with a narrative of any one such encounter?
KH: C L R James and I were watching events in Tiananmen Square together on television in April 1989. It was a dramatic moment, when a young man stopped a line of tanks. We felt like we were witnessing world history in real time. He always claimed that there were just two world revolutions left – the second Russian Revolution and the second American Revolution. On this occasion he said “The Chinese will put down this student revolt easily, but the Russians won’t hang onto Eastern Europe after this.” James died of pneumonia two weeks later, aged 88 years. The Berlin Wall came down in November 1989. The strength of his Trotskyist vision was that the world as a whole is transformed by revolutionary activity; but we don’t always know where in particular.
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