www.nettime.org
Nettime mailing list archives

Re: <nettime> money is always personal and impersonal
Benjamin Geer on Sat, 10 Feb 2007 01:16:03 +0100 (CET)


[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

Re: <nettime> money is always personal and impersonal


On 08/02/07, Keith Hart <keith {AT} thememorybank.co.uk> wrote:

> Humanity's task
> today is to assume responsibility for life as a whole on this planet
> [...]
> But critics sometimes
> claim that the economists' impersonal approach is irrelevant or even
> harmful to human interests. The economy exists at a number of levels
> and not just those of the person, the family or local groups. The more
> inclusive levels are made possible to a substantial degree by the
> relative impersonality of money and markets. It will not do to replace
> one pole of a dialectical pair with the other. We are today more than
> ever aware of our economic interdependence in a world of markets and
> money that has been unified by a digital revolution in communications.

What you seem to be getting at here is that in order to "assume
responsibility for life as a whole on this planet", we need something
like a world market, rather than a world of small economies based on
"the person, the family or local groups".

I think it's worth questioning that idea.  Can the relatively recent
phenomenon of the world market, involving impersonal trade on the
scale currently practised, be made sustainable in terms of energy
consumption and environmental impact?  Although the task of assuming
responsibility for life as a whole on the planet arguably requires
some kind of global political interaction, why should it require much
global economic interaction?

> The
> sociologists, anthropologists and alternative economists will not get
> far by harping on about how people already impose personal and social
> controls over money and exchange. That is the everyday world as most
> of us know it. We need ways of reaching the parts we don't know and of
> averting the ruin they could bring down on us all.

I think there's more to criticism of the impersonal economy than you
acknowledge here.  There is also the argument that the imposition of
the impersonal economy has destroyed beneficial social relationships,
while failing to provide adequate substitutes.  Pierre Bourdieu gives
examples of the violence of the impersonal economy in an article
called "Making the Economic Habitus: Algerian Workers Revisited",
written in 2000 about his early fieldwork in Algeria in the 1960s.[1]

He, too, compares the modern economy to a religion: "Acquiring the
spirit of calculation required by the modern economy entails a
veritable conversion via the apostasy of the embodied beliefs that
underpin exchange in traditional Kabyle society...."

Echoing Polanyi, he emphasises "the *mismatch" between economic
dispositions fashioned in a precapitalist economy and the economic
cosmos imported and imposed, oftentimes in the most brutal way, by
colonization.  This mismatch forced one to discover that access to the
most elementary economic behaviours (working for a wage, saving,
credit, birth control, etc.) is in no way axiomatic and that the
so-called 'rational' economic agent is the product of quite particular
historical conditions...."

Echoing Mauss, he writes: "In Kabyle society at the end of the
colonial era, exchanges between relatives or neighbours obeyed the
logic of the gift and counter-gift.  People of honour do not sell milk
('Would you believe it?  He sold some milk!'), or butter or cheese, or
yet fruits and vegetables; instead, they 'let the neighbours benefit
too'.  A miller with surplus flour would not think of selling a
foodstuff which is the very basis of the eating regimen.  The same is
true of services, which are governed by strict rules of reciprocity
and non-payment, and also of loans.... Relations reduced to their
purely 'economic' dimension are conceived as *relations of war*, which
can only obtain between strangers.  The site par excellence of
economic warfare is the marketplace, not so much the small market of
the village or tribe, a place where one is still among people one
knows, as the bigger markets of small towns further afield...."

Flour mills are an example of what was lost in the conversion to a
market economy: "each mill was tied, through the interplay of the
exchange of services and the back-and-forth of relationships and
alliances, to a stable clientele, treated with special respect, rather
like guests, and the miller levied a share (a tithe) of the grain he
had handled in exchange for the service rendered. With the decline of
agriculture... use of traditional watermills decreased... and
motorized mills took their place, sweeping away as if by magic the
whole system of conventions that governed the play of collective
solidarity in the case of traditional milling.  Thus, for instance,
tradition dictated that any load of grain not brought to the mill on
the back of a beast of burden be ground for nothing and before any
others.  For it could only be the small stock of a pauper, gathered by
gleaning, or the gifts of the 'Aid, the tithe levied on the crops...
in any case a quantity too small to be reduced by another tenth and
too urgently needed for its milling to be delayed.  With the motorized
mill, generally acquired by saving (rather than being merely a
customary object that one inherits), and perceived and treated as a
mere means of production (in the strict economic sense), comes the
logic of investment and the calculation of costs and profits.... The
user of the motorized mill, however poor, becomes a customer and the
miller behaves toward him like a businessman concerned to get a return
on his investment."

Returning to the metaphor of religion, he says: "To bring home to
readers who, like our economists and sociologists of the economy, move
like fish in water in the so-called rational economy, that the word
'conversion' is not too strong, and to provoke in them the conversion
of the whole mindset that is necessary to break with the universe of
deeply embodied presuppositions which make us perceive the economic
conducts current in our own economic world as self-evident, natural
and necessary, and therefore rational, I would need to be able to
evoke here the long series of often infinitesimal experiences which
made me *feel* in sensible and concrete fashion the contingent and
arbitrary character of these ordinary behaviours that we perform every
day in the ordinary course of our economic practices and that we
experience as the most natural things in the world.... I remember
vividly spending long hours questioning a Kabyle peasant who was
trying to explain to me a traditional form of the loan of livestock,
because it had not occurred to me that, contrary to all 'economic'
reason, the lender could feel obligated to the borrower on the grounds
that the latter was looking after an animal that in any case would
have to be fed.  I also remember the mass of anecdotal observations
and statistical data that I had to accumulate before I understood the
implicit philosophy of labour, based on the equivalency of labour and
its remuneration in money, that I was engaging in my spontaneous
interpretation of this world, and which was preventing me from fully
understanding certain behaviours or the astonished reactions of my
informants...: the utter outrage at the behaviour of the stonemason,
back from a long sojourn in France, who asked that his wage be
supplemented by the sum corresponding to the monetary value of the
meal traditionally offered upon completing the building of a house,
which, in an unprecedented breach of propriety, he had declined to
attend...."

He compares what was gained in this transformation with what was lost:
"The principle of the overturning of the vision of the world in late
colonial Algeria was nothing other than the acquisition of the *spirit
of calculation*, which one should be careful not to confuse with the
universal capacity to calculate.  To subject all the behaviours of
existence to calculating reason, as demanded by the economy, is to
break with the logic of *philia*, of which Aristotle spoke, that is,
the logic of good faith, trust and equity which is supposed to govern
relations between kin and which is founded on the repression, or
rather the denegation, of calculation.  To refuse to calculate in
exchanges with one's 'nearest and dearest' is to refuse to obey the
principle of economy as propensity and capacity to economize or
minimize expenditure (of effort, 'pains', then labour, time, money,
etc.) in favour of giving without counting, a refusal which can in the
long run foster the atrophy of calculating dispositions.  It means
refusing to leave a world in which the family, and the exchanges of
which it must be the site, provided the model for all exchanges,
including those that we regard as 'economic', for a world in which the
economy, henceforth constituted as such, with its own principles,
those of calculation, profit, etc., claims to become the principle of
all practices and all exchanges, including those within the family, to
the great scandal of this Kabyle father whose son had asked him for a
wage.  It is this overturning of the table of values which gave rise
to the economy as we know it...."

> For example, amazon.com keeps a record
> of every book bought from them and they make recommendations for new
> purchases on this basis. This is similar to the small bookseller who
> reserves a book for a favorite customer, but now it all takes place
> anonymously at distance. Some firms are already moving towards a
> system known as Customer Relations Maintenance (CRM) based on data
> banks that know no limit in scope.

To me it seems very doubtful that such systems, which are based on the
'spirit of calculation', can ever compensate for the loss of real
solidarity based on familiarity and trust, i.e. on the refusal of
calculation.

Ben

[1] Ethnography, Vol. 1, No. 1, 17-41 (2000),
http://eth.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/1/1/17


#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} bbs.thing.net