GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

April 27, 2010

The Right of the Idiom, continued

Filed under: GA — adam @ 4:21 pm

We could say that De Soto’s argument for formalizing the informal economy (see my discussion in the first installment of “The Right of the Idiom”) is an argument for integrating the gift economy into the money economy. It’s a bit more complex, though: the informal economy is not a pre-capitalist economic order “transcended” by capitalism; rather, it emerges on the margins of capitalism, in particular in the urban areas ruled by what De Soto calls the “bell jar,” or the legal order that applies to and protects only the property of the elites—the masses, in De Soto’s account, abandon the countryside and crowd into the cities as the market economy offers promise of a better life, a promise which is frustrated by the inadequate legal order. But, it might be better to say, as Gans did in his talk at the Ottawa conference last June (see Chronicle #376), that the gift economy is itself rather complex, and continues to exist within a capitalist economy. In that case, not everything need be monetized: even more, while just about anything can be, new gift economies will emerge in the way of each new conquest of capitalist legality.
It seems to me that there are some pretty important political consequences that follow. One devastating vulnerability of classical liberal political theory (that of Locke and his successors) is that it identifies the rights-bearing, property owning individual with the state of nature. We know, of course, that property ownership and the attendant rights are not pre-existing in nature, only to be “baptized” by the social contract. This fiction made what Hannah Arendt called the “right to have rights” excessively abstract and filled with contradictions. Political theory got caught up in endless debates over what, exactly, made human beings worthy of rights: was it reason? Was it productive labor? In that case, what about the rights of children, the disabled, the mentally ill? What about the rights of those whose labor does fit the model of productivity in Western society, as that of the Native Americans or Africans, who could therefore be dispossessed on the grounds that they don’t really “labor”? Moreover, the notion that property exists in a full blown form prior to the existence of government and law creates the sense that the government and the law are ultimately necessary evils, leading to the perpetual libertarian-anarchist fantasy of making them unnecessary—and the complementary fear and hatred of government, no matter how limited.
We could say, instead, that rights are rooted in one’s participation in a gift economy. One’s participation in a gift economy makes one, by definition, capable of entering the money, market economy, because the possibility of converting gifts into commodities is inherent in the juxtaposition of the two economies. In that case, the right to own property is a basic right, but one is not caught in the double bind of withholding such rights from anyone who doesn’t already own property in such a way as would be recognized by the capitalist legal system. Furthermore, everyone is involved in gift economies in some way, even the most disabled individual or a fetus, because any form of human life can be symbolized or represented, and the exchange of representations is the most basic form of the gift economy. Here I would propose a “right of the idiom”: anyone’s way into language and self-representation is distinctive, and in that case presentable in some way as a gift in some formal exchange with others. To put it another way, anyone who speaks can tell a joke, or laugh at one, in a way no one else can; or can be spoken about, and be a source of others’ desires and love—occupy a place in the world of signs, in short. I am not saying that idioms are intrinsically gifts—rather, in a modern society, in which the gift economy and the money economy exist side by side, any idiom could conceivably cross over the boundary and become property, and in that case it must have been (to use a Derridean idiom, it will have been) a gift in the first place. And, of course, if we root rights in the gift economy, on the margins and in the interstices of the market economy, we can also grant the right to remain within the gift economy and refuse entrance into the world of the market.
Rooting rights in the idioms circulating within the gift economy also allows us to address another blind spot of political economy: those pre-marketized relationships (education, family, neighborhood, etc.) and dispositions (loyalty, love, courage…) which must be pre-conditions of the market economy but have no place within economic thought itself. First of all, though, it raises some interesting questions regarding actors or beings also included within discursive or idiomatic circuits: what about animals? The planet? The dead? Future generations? They can all be imagined, and more vividly within a gift than a money economy, and hence can all become bearers of rights. But rights would be more or less metaphorical, more or less enforceable, to the extent that the representation of those rights could conceivably give way to self-representation at some point. So, it is possible imagine calling upon the law to defend the rights of a fetus, or someone in a coma; the rights of future generations can be defended politically, insofar as they will, we hope, come along, but no individual has been delegated responsibility for them; the rights of the dead might, perhaps, be defended culturally, in arguments against abandoning what they tested out and sacrificed for; animals, in a familiar argument, have the right not to suffer more than necessary, because we certainly know they can suffer, and so on. All of this would be endlessly discussed and debated, of course. I believe we could get much more specific in tying idioms to rights: who, for example, can issue binding imperatives upon us? The dead, I think, but not the planet. From whom can we imagine receiving an exclamation or ostensive (say, an exhortation): from future generations, I think, but not the planet, or animals. Who could be included in our prayers, on whose life could we swear an oath? Rights, in originary terms, are a modern mode of sacrality: some possible encroachment upon the existence, movement, well-being or freedom of others from which we forbear. There are many degrees and modes of such forbearance, and the way to understand our obligations to things and to people past and present is to look carefully at how we talk about them.
To return, then, to the economics of the non-marketized elements of life: what an originary political economy would study are the ways in which one or another mode of education or family or communal life, provide avenues back and forth between gift and money economies. A mode of life which provides the necessities of life outside of the market beyond some threshold to be identified would be inimical to a larger society based on rights. The group might have means of representing itself and thereby accessing rights, and individuals representing the group might have means of doing so as well, but their relations to each other would be largely outside of the economy of rights. That might be the way they prefer it, and that is their right. At the same time, though, we would be obliged to defend the rights of any individual within that group who stepped outside of the gift economy into the market, even if it’s a very small step. Gift economies might be very egalitarian but they also might be sites where strict hierarchies (“big men”) flourish; in a certain sense the big man and woman are constitutive of the family. We can defend a wide range of organization within the various gift economies, as long as we develop an agreement as to what would count as that “step” outside of it.
What I hope to contribute next (the blog, and intellectual exchange more generally, is ultimately most at home within the gift economy) is an way of talking about idioms in the way I have suggested above—how can we talk of the commands, the revelations, the prayers and oaths, the promises, and so on, that are formed within the gift economy but prepare us to enter the money economy and bear and respect rights? What kind of politics can help preserve these idiomatic preconditions on rights? And no consistent reader of this blog will be surprised when I suggest that the devastation wrought by victimary discourse lies largely in its assault upon these idioms, and upon gift economies (which interfere with bureaucracy) more generally.

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