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<nettime> Rhizome's revenge
Keith Hart on Sun, 26 Jan 2003 18:27:11 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Rhizome's revenge


It had not escaped my notice that, while Brian Holmes and I were engaged in
a semi-private conversation about the forms of exchange ('revenge of the
concept'), the rest of nettime was debating the pros and cons of charging
$5 for access to a website. The issue in both threads was how to judge the
payment of money for a service. That the inmates of western capitalism
generally think there is a huge moral difference attached to money payment
is a cultural fact of some signifcance. The short essay below attempts to
explain why we get so upset about it and most of the world doesn't.

The moral economy of paid and unpaid labour

We appear to think that including money in a transaction makes a huge
difference to its social significance. It is not so in most of the world's
societies, where money is just one among many sources of value. For
example, I was once talking to a Ghanaian student about exchanges between
lovers in his country and he said that it was quite common there for a boy
who has slept with a girl after a party to leave some money as a gift and
token of esteem. Once he had done this with a visiting American student and
the resulting explosion was gigantic -- "Do you imagine that I am a
prostitute?" etc. Where does that moral outrage come from? Why does money
matter so much to us?
        The market rests on a degree of impersonality, breaking the
intimate connection between persons and things and, by emphasizing the
equivalence of the exchange, reducing the need for ongoing social ties
between buyers and sellers. But this anonymous ideal is stretched to its
limit when what is bought and sold is inseparable from persons, namely
human work itself ("labour"). If someone buys a hat, it is not hard to
imagine that the hat ceases to have any connection with the seller. But how
do you persuade a paid worker that his work no longer belongs to him once
it has been bought, that the impersonal rules of the labour market take
over at the expense of his own personality? 
        Buying and selling human beings is an old practice. We call it
slavery. A wage, however, is a pledge, a promise to pay when the work is
done. As long as there are people ready to sell their labour, hiring for
wages is more flexible than slavery and it ties up much less capital, just
whatever it costs for a day's or week's work. The flood of rural-urban
migrants into industrial employment established wage labour as the norm in
19th century Europe. This led to an attempt to separate the spheres in
which paid and unpaid work predominated. The first was ideally objective
and impersonal, specialized and calculated; the second was subjective and
personal, diffuse, based on long-term interdependence. Inevitably, the one
was associated with the payment of money in a public place, the other with
"home"; so that "work" usually meant outside activities and the business of
maintaining families became known as "housework". It is a short step from
this to the idea that the real work of production is supported by domestic
reproduction; that the energies used up in work are restored by leisure at
home, giving rise to a marked oscillation between work and rest (evenings,
weekends and holidays).
        This is how the citizens of modern societies now live. We earn
money when we work and we spend it in our spare time which is focused on
the home. Production and consumption are linked in an endless cycle of
complementary activities. But it is not easy. Work still has a strong
element of compulsion in it. It is necessary, whereas consumption is
notionally a sphere of freedom - we can choose what to spend our money on.
We have to knuckle under to regimes of varying rigidity. And we do so under
the threat of losing our jobs, often for unexplained and anonymous reasons.
Job loss, of course, means a massive reduction in our ability to spend.
Especially at times of crisis, it is difficult to keep the personal and the
impersonal apart; yet our economic culture demands nothing less of us, day
in, day out for most of our adult lives.
        The system of paid and unpaid labour has, of course, been until
recently gendered. The separation of the two was made clearer if men worked
for money outside and women were responsible for the home. Returning from a
hard day at the factory or office, the patriarch beat the kids, ate a meal,
put his feet up and enjoyed free sex before sleep completed the process of
restoring him for the next day's work. This was the moral universe of early
industrial society. It rested on a strong opposition between the money
sphere of buying and selling and the domestic sphere of give-and-take. This
is why money has a sharp cultural resonance for us that it lacks in
societies that have not instituted such a strong polarity between (outside)
work and home. Prostitution is, of course, at the contradictory core of the
modern economic system and its moral defences. What could be more personal
than sex and more impersonal than a money payment? The combination of the
two strikes at the heart of the attempt to separate paid and unpaid spheres
of work, as well as gender divisions. No wonder women sex workers have
often provoked a moral panic. 
        So the modern economy consists of two complementary spheres which
have to be kept separate, despite their interdependence. One of them is a
zone of infinite scope where things and increasingly human creativity are
bought and sold for money, the market. The second is a protected zone of
domestic life where intimate personal relations hold sway, home. The market
is unbounded and, in a sense, unknowable, whereas the bounds of domestic
life are known only too well. The normal link between the two is that some
adults, traditionally men more often than women, go out to work, to "make"
the money on which the household subsists. The economy of the home rests on
spending this money and performing services without payment. The result is
a heightened sense of division between an outside world in which our
humanity feels swamped and a precarious zone of protected personality at
home. This duality is the moral and practical foundation of capitalist
society. It is reflected in the institutional segregation of selling and
buying, production and consumption, income and expenditure, work and home.
        The attempt to construct a market in which commodities are
exchanged instantly and impersonally as alienable private property is
utopian. The idea of civil society in this sense was to grant a measure of
independence for market agents from the arbitrary interventions of
personalised rule. Relations in such a system between owners of property
and workers without property were left obscure, leaving it to Karl Marx to
make their opposed interests brutally clear. All the efforts of economists
to insist on the autonomy of an abstract market logic cannot disguise the
fact that market relations inevitably have a personal and social component.
This is particularly the case when the commodity being bought and sold is
human creativity.
        Markets and money were until recently minor appendages of
agricultural society, largely external to relations organizing the
performance of work on the land and to the distribution of its product. The
owners of money capital were in turn excluded from political power. Even
though the rulers needed money to fight wars and to buy imported luxuries,
markets remained on the margins of mainstream society. The middle-class
revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries changed all that, by preparing
the way for markets to be accepted at the centre of society, a process
given intellectual weight by Adam Smith in particular. But it was the
industrial revolution and subsequent mechanization that made selling ones
labour for wages the main source of livelihood. Only now did the market,
more especially that for human services, become the principal means of
connecting families to society at large.
        Where does the social pressure come from to make markets
impersonal, at least in theory? Max Weber's answer is as good as any:
rational calculation of profit in enterprises depends on the capitalist's
ability to control the markets for his products and for the "factors of
production", especially labour. It is alright for the squire to have
diffuse personal relations with his peasants, who are in any case going
nowhere; but it will not do to let such considerations interfere with the
running of a factory. The principle is that, once a commodity has been
sold, the buyer is free to do with it what he likes. But, in the case of a
wage contract, the human source of work is not an object separable from the
work that has been bought. Nevertheless, people must be taught to submit to
the impersonal disciplines of the workplace. The struggle to impose formal
criteria of accountancy on people's economic lives has never been
completely won. So, just as money is intrinsic to the home economy,
personality remains intrinsic to the labour market. In consequence of this
overlap in practice, the cultural effort required to keep the two spheres
separate, if only at the conceptual level, is huge.
        The members of societies that have been run on capitalist
principles for some time maintain that the mere act of paying money
transforms a relationship. Money stands for alienation, detachment,
impersonal society, the outside; its origins lie beyond our control.
Relations marked by the absence of money are the model of personal
integration and free association, of what we take to be familiar, the
inside. The issue is essentially a moral one. Commodities are "goods"
because we consume them in person, but we find it difficult to embrace
money, the means of their exchange, as "good" because it belongs to a
sphere which is indifferent to morality and, in some sense, stays there.
The good life, instead of uniting work and home, is restricted to what
takes place in the latter. We live for the weekends and for holidays; the
value of our jobs is to make home life enjoyable. There are those who
commit themselves wholly to work or public life; but this reproduces the
division between paid and unpaid labour, rather than subverting it.
        Either markets are universal and everything is bought and sold, as
some economists insist, or personality is universally acknowledged to be
intrinsic to social relations, as most humanists would argue. But
institutional dualism of the sort I have outlined here, forcing individuals
to divide themselves, asks too much of us. Consequently, not only has the
structure never been fully realized in practice, but it has been breaking
down for some time in the face of people's need to integrate the personal
and impersonal dimensions of their lives. They want to integrate division,
to make some meaningful connection between themselves as subjects and
society as an object. This process has been aided by the fact that money,
as well as being the means of separating public and domestic life, was
always the main bridge between the two. That is why the project of bringing
together the different spheres of exchange into some meaningful unity is
more likely to succeed through developing new approaches to money than by
turning our backs on it.
        Let me spell out why the division between paid and unpaid labour
lies at the core of capitalism's moral economy. At the end of the 20th
century, people have never been more conscious of themselves as unique
personalities seeking full expression of their subjectivity in the world.
Scientific knowledge has lent to that consciousness the promise of
increased collective control over the material conditions that before
placed severe limits on human aspirations. Why then do most people feel so
powerless in the face of the forces governing their co-existence? The
answer is obvious. Society is unknowably large and complex, being driven by
impersonal institutions whose effects can be devastating (war, mass
unemployment), while the actions of individuals are trivial and
meaningless. Between self and society there is an apparently unbridgeable
gap which leaves most of us alienated from the sources of our collective
being, confining our energies and ambitions to the petty projects of
everyday life. It was once the task of religion to fill that gap; and, for
many of the world's dispossessed, it still is. Today money is both a
principal reason for our vulnerability in experiencing society as a remote
external object and a means of connection between the two, a practical
symbol allowing each of us to make an impersonal world meaningful. If
Durkheim said we worship society and call it God, then money is the God of
capitalist society.
        Only in retrospect will the work patterns of the 20th century be
revealed as the bizarre deviations from normal human life that they were.
Men working outside the home for almost all the hours available to them in
order to prove their devotion to their jobs; returning to wives who barely
managed to get out of the house at any time; travelling to city offices
from far suburbs daily in order to put as much distance as possible between
work and home. While well-paid workaholics cling to the few remaining jobs
of a traditional kind, for most young people entering the labour market
today the prospects are rather different. For there has been a revolution
in the organization of production during the last two decades, mainly but
not exclusively in America. This has in turn been shaped by developments in
information technology and money markets, as well of course as by the
emancipation of women since the 1960s. So, if capitalism's moral economy is
still with us, its social and technological foundations are definitely
moving fast.

Keith Hart

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