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<nettime> revenge of the concept
Keith Hart on Sun, 26 Jan 2003 05:52:31 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> revenge of the concept


Ken Wark writes:

>Keith is right to insist that we re-evaluated liberalism. The liberals
were in favor of commodity exchange and against the state. But there is a
wrinkle. They were opposed to a state that was in partnership with a
previous stage of monopoly over the commodity system -- the  agrarian
landlord class. Ironically, it is the opponents of 'neo-liberalism' ( a
badly chosen name) who best embody this aspect of the liberal program.
The vectoralization of commodity exchange seems to me the missing object of
analysis. <

Ken refers to a previous conversation between us on this list more than to
the substance of my present exchange with Brian. I hope that I have more
than one idea. On this occasion, I was questioning the value of deriving
current political possibilities for a networked gift economy from Mauss's
essay, The Gift. I did that by trying to place his actual text within the
political history of when it was written. I realise that such a move may be
unfashionable, especially on this list. After reading the long and
interesting exchange on hip hop and especially Paul D Miller's final
'provocative' riff invoking Ibo muslims, Hegel and Kant, I realise that any
appeal to historical truth may fall on deaf ears here. But I do think that,
if we want to understand the political task involved in confronting
capitalism today, it would pay to try to place our times within the history
of the last two centuries at least. To some extent, Brian made this
necessary when he claimed that Polanyi's analysis of how the 19th century's
'self-regulating market' unravelled in the early 20th has some contemporary
relevance for us. Now Ken explicitly contrasts 'vectoralization' today with
an earlier struggle to displace feudalism. I agree that we need to be
clearer about what is old and what new in our situation. But I prefer here
to stick to Mauss.

In his great synthesis of modern sociology, The Structure of Social Action,
published in 1937, Talcott Parsons began as follows: "Spencer is dead. But
who killed him and how? This is the problem" He found the main culprits to
be Durkheim, Weber, Marshall and Pareto. These men had effectively
demolished the intellectual credibility of the economic individualism
associated with Herbert Spencer and his Social Darwinist followers. But not
for ever, since it was revived in the 1980s under the stimulus of Thatcher
("There is no such thing as society") and Reagan. This made the welfare
state consensus of the 1930s to 1970s itself seem in retrospect to be
aberrant. 

When Marcel Mauss was active, it was the liberals who romanticized the
gift, insisting that altruistic communalism might work in 'primitive'
societies, but the selfish individualism of markets was the only way to
evolutionary progress. He wanted to show, in contrast, that all societies
and human beings everywhere must combine individual and collective
interests. They do so by means of exchange institutions, traditionally more
often through the gift than markets; nowadays more the other way round. As
a co-operative socialist and definitely not a liberal, he advocated the
development of voluntary, self-organised collective action within the
market economy, as a way of modifying its capitalist character. This
brought him up against the Marxists and especially those sympathetic to the
Bolshevik revolution with its strongly anti-market policies. And this was
where all of Parsons' killers were located, between the extremes of Social
Darwinism and Stalinism. There is room for a wide range of options there,
which they demonstrated individually and together.

In case my line seems to be mere antiquarianism, I should say that a
leading Japanese philosopher, Kojin Karatani, has mined similar territory
in establishing his New Association Movement (NAM). He even claims that
Marx was a co-operative socialist before the Marxists took him over ("Je ne
suis pas marxiste"). He believes in reuniting production and consumption
within the actually existing market economy. He prefers to attack
capitalism through Gandhiesque consumer boycotts rather than through
strikes and to develop non-capitalist alternatives such as local exchange
systems (LETS) using community currencies. None of this has much to do with
the gift nor is it liberalism. It is anti-capitalist and anti-nationalist,
but not anti-market as such. The immediate target is the tottering
political economy of Japanese state capitalism. The political strategy is
global and local. I would argue that there are strong affintities here with
Mauss's analysis and practice.

Back to Brian and Ken. It does seem to me that there may be possibilities
today for new forms of production and exchange that require us to
distinguish between an earlier phase of the struggle against capitalism and
now, in the aftermath of the digital revolution. I would like to pursue
those possibilities in conversation here. I want us to get beyond the naive
assimilation of markets to capitalism, since it does seem to me that in any
future version of civilisation most people will want to carry out their
necessary daily transactions with the minimum of fuss and that will
normally involve buying and selling with money. But that does not rule out
innovative practices based on giving and sharing.

Keith Hart

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