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Re: <nettime> revenge of the concept
Brian Holmes on Wed, 22 Jan 2003 13:46:53 +0100 (CET)


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Re: <nettime> revenge of the concept


Keith Hart says that my text

>  ...legitimately invokes the work of Karl Polanyi in
>support of an anti-market economics, but he does not point out that Polanyi
>looked to the planning structures of socialist states to implement
>redistribution as an alternative to the market.

True enough - I'm mainly interested in Polanyi's analysis of how things
fall apart, as there are signs of very similar processes right now. As for
Mauss:

>He and Polanyi agreed that
>the attempt to separate the self-regulated market from social life was
>disastrous, but Mauss wanted the inherently social character of markets to
>be more explicitly recognized...

Now that's interesting! And it would mean changing the markets. If Polanyi
says that self-regulating markets are a "fiction" it's because in the real
world of contemporary Western civilization they obviously do not work on
an egalitarian basis, they favor concentrated capital which increasingly
sets the hidden rules to favor more concentration. That's why neoliberal
state capitalism is not a contradiction in terms: cf. the WTO, the main
developments in IP law, etc. Today's version of the state is about
security and markets regulated in the favor of big corps, with
"laissez-faire" and "self-regulation" ideology as the fig-leaf.

Keith likens me to exoticizing anthropologists:

>... by drawing a line
>between "gift economies" and those dominated by buying and selling, these
>anthropologists demarcate a zone of exclusive professional expertise,
>beyond the reach of economists and other social scientists. Political
>activists who wish to carve out an anti-capitalist economic domain using
>the net are fundamentally similar.

There might be substance to this critique, but it's also true that I
contrast,not so much gift economies and the market, as self-organized
cooperative production and what I call "the flexible personality" - a name
for the way that contemporary trends in labor organization and management
tend to structure our entire culture.

Where I think the whole argument suffers from a lack of precision on both
sides is that I'm not fundamentally against money (i'm not against a
symbolic language of exchange), but I'm against the exorbitant kind of
rents now being extracted by speculative capital.  When I talk about
"domination," that's part of what I mean. By the same token (sorry,
die-hard anarchists) I'm not metaphysically against every kind of
institution (even those integrated to "the state"), and Mauss wasn't
either, far from it! But neoliberal state capitalism is bad news and
getting worse. The problem is making the social institutions of
reciprocity work for people, different kinds of people, without destroying
their sustaining environment.

>  Mauss is revealed as a socialist of the co-operative labour
>persuasion, with affinities to movements in Britain, Germany, Switzerland
>and Scandinavia... Roughly speaking, the co-operative socialists
>believed in self-organization from below, like the anarchists and to some
>extent the liberals. They believed in the unity of collective and
>individual interests, as in the co-operative movement, where combination in
>the market went with private property. They were against the state and for
>the market.

I suspect that the last sentence is a simplification (I'll read up to find
out). But the preceding part, on self-organization from below, is very
close to what I talked about in my lecture. And now comes the most
interesting part, about the difference betwen market and gift reciprocity:

>The main
>difference between the two forms lay in the timing of the return, which in
>the case of the gift was delayed and in the market contract simultaneous.
>Because givers in all cultures are superior to receivers, that gap between
>the gift and its return was a source of inequality, even as it sustained a
>spiritual and personalized version of society; whereas participants to a
>contract walk away free and equal, if alienated and alone.

Tell the people working for today's interim agencies, or at your local
supermarket, that they can walk away free and equal from their contract
with their employer! Free and equal to starve or obey, I guess. And don't
even bother to ask the people who are producing for the supermarkets, not
in France at least: they are fantastically exploited, forced under
oligopolistic conditions to sell on the very edge of survivability. As for
the difference in time: an exchange at your local outdoor vegatable market
is instantaneous. But the finance economy of today, with all its forms of
credit-money, is actually based on the deferral of reciprocity: you get
your profit (or loss)  later, with a delay. The possibility of waiting for
your profit is one of the defining characteristics of the speculator. So
money can be involved in a delay, with serious inequalities resulting.

The lesson I'm drawing from this interesting criticism is that the
arguments aren't precise enough, or situated enough. For instance, the
kind of potlatch I have discussed at the counter-globalization
demonstrations definitely happens, and it is definitely made to make one
side look strong and the other weak - but the side that's supposed to look
weak is the side of domination! They are supposed to be seriously
embarrassed by all this collaborative labor manifesting itself in public,
_outside_ the coercive kind of market-and-firm relations that they so
loudly promote.

>The main point, however, following Emile Durkheim's De la division du
>travail social (1893), was that even or especially in capitalist economies,
>society is indispensable to the interplay of individual interests. The
>market is an advance over gift-exchange and the unequal institutions of
>pre-industrial society, but social interests have to be mobilized more
>explicitly in order to mitigate the greater scope for economic inequality
>that capitalism generates.

Yup, that's basically what Polanyi thought: he was concerned with the 
specific conditions of "freedom in a complex society."

In the end, you have to chose the fictions you're going to live by, the
traditions you're going to keep or invent and those you're going to get
rid of. That's politics, and if the metaphysical condemnation of markets
"as such" is certainly uninteresting, still the attempt to shift some of
the emphasis from the kinds of really-existing markets and contractual
relations that we have now is totally legitimate. The Benkler paper that I
quote shows one of the directions for alternative organizations of human
activity. In a society which is obsessed by really-existing supermarkets,
labor markets, capital markets, etc., I think the comparison between this
cooperative form of organization and a "gift economy" is useful,
suggestive: it points exactly toward the need to consider "total social
facts," i.e.  reciprocal relations extending to a _whole society_, and not
just to the "included" individuals. In fact, I think that's why Mauss
wrote his most famous book!

But anyway, this kind of exchange is clearly interesting and certainly not
part of a market or a potlatch, it's just a reciprocal exchange. As for
David Graeber, whom Keith mentions, I certainly want to read him, and I
for one would like to get entirely away from the exoticizing business.
What I don't want to do is abandon the distinction between reciprocal
exchanges of human speech, and the totalizing form of exploitation and
accumulation-for-accumulation's-sake that's currently being passed off as
the universal, abstract language of "self-regulating markets".

All the best, Brian





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