Alain Caillé: “My hope is to see the triumph of virtuous companies that foster the spirit of giving.”


An interview with French sociologist Alain Caillé, who calls for a redefinition of our economic system to free it from the absolute obligation of utility, and bring the spirit of giving into the picture.


Alain Caillé is a French sociologist and professor, and the founder of the MAUSS: the Anti-Utilitarian Movement in Social Sciences. His work makes use of sociological, historical, philosophical, anthropological and economic analyses to criticise the utilitarian model underlying our system, and propose new approaches. In particular, Alain Caillé develops thinking on the idea of giving, and how it fits into our social system and economy. We thus wanted to ask him a few questions about his vision of giving in our modern society, and how it can influence the daily actions of large corporations.

What exactly is the “gift economy”? How is it part of the economy?

I do not really like the phrase “gift economy” because it almost seems like an oxymoron: in people’s minds, “gift” means plain charity, which is completely antithetic to the concept of economy. I prefer to say that we should bring the “spirit of giving” into the economy.


What is the spirit of giving, then?

I define “gift” in the wake of a book written by Marcel Mauss, which for me is one of the most important books on social sciences ever written. Marcel Mauss was the nephew and intellectual heir of Émile Durkheim, who founded modern sociology. He was also the father of French ethnology and anthropology. In 1925, he wrote a book, Essai sur le don (An Essay on Giving), in which he collated a wealth of ethnographic knowledge to show that primitive societies did not rely on the market or on contracts – contrary to modern societies, which are built on the idea of a “social contract”. These societies relied on what Mauss called the “triple obligation”:

the obligation to give, to receive and to return.

But it has to be understood that there was a whole system built on this idea of gifts: it had nothing to do with charity. It was rather a form of war: the aim was to crush your rivals by demonstrating that you were more generous than they were. You could call it a “generosity war”, which had the main virtue of abolishing actual wars. Gift-giving then worked as a political force that transformed enemies into allies.

Another key aspect in understanding Mauss’s definition of the gift is to pinpoint its relationship with interest and disinterestedness. On one side, you have a sociological and economical discourse that believes that a true gift does not exist and that it always acts as a mask to hide the actor’s personal interest. On the other side, you have a religious and philosophical idea of giving as purely disinterested, an act of perfect altruism, which is impossible. To Mauss, giving is always a hybrid version of these visions, somewhere between interest and disinterestedness, obligation and freedom.


What is the place of giving in our economy today, and in particular with large corporations?

What we can absorb from Mauss’ work is that, although it might seem that our modern society is entirely motivated by interest, we actually navigate constantly between two sorts of social relationships. There is what I call primary sociality and secondary sociality. Secondary sociality exists in the world of companies, the administration, the scientific community, etc.

In this sphere, people’s functionality is more important than their personality.

Primary sociality is the world of family, friendship, love, associations, etc. In that sphere, your personality is more important than your functionality.

There are two points to be addressed here. First, primary sociality also works according to the principle of the triple obligation of giving. You are supposed to give presents at Christmas, aren’t you? So it is through gifts that recognition is achieved. Secondly, our representation of the corporate world is broadly inaccurate: a company does not only work through a functional division of tasks.

People also have to take the aims of the company on board, they have to work together and cooperate, and they nourish feelings of friendship or enmity between each other.

So, really, networks of giving and counter-giving develop inside the company.

To go further still, I would say that in the corporate world, people have not only extrinsic motivations (making more money, gaining more power), but also intrinsic ones related to the actual job they are doing and the company they work for: their moral duty, their empathy and the pleasure they take in their work. Here, you have the four pillars of giving defined by Mauss: interest on the one hand, and disinterestedness, obligation and freedom (and creativity) on the other.

Therefore, a good manager is someone who knows how to mobilise these intrinsic motivations, who knows how to encourage people to adhere to the company’s values. To some extent, the more a company produces external social value, for instance by taking action in terms of environmental protection or its social impact, the more economic value is created, ensuring the company’s permanence.


How would you define the ties between the social economy and the spirit of giving we are talking about?

Firstly, I want to stress the fact that even in companies that are utilitarian by definition (because their aim is to make a profit), it cannot work without an element of anti-utilitarianism, without the spirit of giving. That being said, it is crucial that the political power support a wide range of economical approaches, including the social economy.

It is absolutely vital for the survival of our democracy that we achieve a balance between the private world, the public world and the world of associations and NGOs,

which still needs to find its own autonomy between the two others. The main idea is that gift is a political force. Its most modern and elevated form is the spirit of democracy.


Do you believe that the spirit of giving will change our economical paradigm? With the development of the social economy and collaborative consumption, are we at the start of a new economic society? And what will it be like?

So far, and especially since the end of World War II, the adhesion to democracy has relied on the prospect of indefinite growth. Today, we can only acknowledge the fact that this growth is gone, and that it is not coming back. It is still very powerful in developing countries, but it comes at the price of ecological catastrophe, so there is no way that it can go on forever there either.

So now, what do we do to preserve the adherence to democracy without that prospect of infinite growth? The political ideologies we know (socialism, communism, anarchism and liberalism) are not enough to answer that question, because all four have one common presupposition: material goods are rare, and to overcome this scarcity there is no other solution than indefinite growth.

Our main challenge now is to invent a new political philosophy of democracy.

That is why, along with Marc Humbert, Serge Latouche and Patrick Viveret, I call for the advent of “convivialism”.

My hope is to see the triumph of virtuous companies that foster the spirit of giving and intrinsic motivation. I believe that is what Emmanuel Faber wants to do within Danone. These companies have to prevail over the predatory ones. But in order for that to happen, a powerful, global indignation needs to be expressed against the widespread predation we are now experiencing.

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