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Re: <nettime> revenge of the concept
Keith Hart on Wed, 22 Jan 2003 17:57:03 +0100 (CET)


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Re: <nettime> revenge of the concept


Brian Holmes' reply to my reply is very much in the spirit of progressive
conversation. It turns out that the differences between us as quite nuanced
(as I already knew), but they can be exaggerated by a language of contrast.

Thus we can agree on this:

>The problem is making the social institutions of reciprocity work for
people, different kinds of people, without destroying their sustaining
environment.<

The constructive question is how to make new social forms that better
conform to a principle of economic democracy. But rejection of the way
society is currently organised can lead to the assimilation of all commerce
to an extreme form of capitalist domination. And hence to a romanticization
of the gift as being somehow outside all that.

>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.<

I organised my recent book, Money in an Unequal World, around the attempt
to distinguish markets from capitalism, basing it on the following
anecdote:

>Not long ago I attended a meeting of old Trotskyites. It was principally a
celebration of an author who was in his nineties. The atmosphere was warm
and mutually supportive. At the end, a man stood up and said "Comrades, tea
is now available. Unfortunately, because we live in a capitalist society,
we will have to charge you 30 pence a cup." I almost wept, for the
confusion between markets and capitalism is as deeply rooted on the left as
it is in right-wing ideology. Markets require money and people with lots of
money exercise disproportionate power in them. Capitalism may be said to be
that variant of market economy in which the owners of big money control,
for example, the right of most people to work for a living. But when a few
friends make a service available to those who choose it and seek to recover
their costs by charging a price below the public norm, that is not
capitalism. The rejection of market civilisation which led to some fairly
disastrous experiments in state socialism was based on this confusion. 

Accordingly, I have built the argument around a fundamental distinction
between "making money with money", the sparsest definition of capitalism,
and "buying and selling with money", the timeless formula for the market.
The first half of the book examines that conjuncture of money and machines
which makes our phase of economic history capitalist. The second half is
devoted to an exploration of money and markets from a humanist point of
view.<

In the book I seek to enrol Mauss in support of this project. He put a lot
of effort into supporting a consumer co-op which actually led to his losing
a lot of money. Obviously he was interested in developing new social forms
of market activity, much as today's adherents of LETS or SEL try to build
their own circuits of market exchange. He knew that gifts could be as
unequal as parent-child relations or, as the Inuit say, that "Gifts make
slaves like whips make dogs". He knew that gift-giving could be highly
individualistic and competitive as well as a way of creating spiritual
solidarity where it did not exist before. To say that many market contracts
have elements of the gift in them is to say that they are not always
impersonal and do contain the possibility of sustaining human relations. It
goes in both directions.

In order to be human, we have to learn to be individually self-reliant and
to belong to others in society. Reconciling those poles can be difficult.
We do it through exchange in various forms. I am sure that many nettimers
have encountered, among the free software people for example, the idea that
any hint of exchange is a sell-out to capitalism. This is not Brian's
position.

>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".<

Amen to that. So let's get on with making the economic forms we need, not
just protesting against them.

Keith Hart

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