Generative Anthropology Summer Conference 2011, May 19-21

Economism

Economism has always been associated with reductionism—in the case of Marxism with the assumption that all social and cultural practices could be read directly off of the class position of the agents, or a particular moment in the development of the productive forces, disregarding the mediation of politics and ideology and so on. Similar critiques are easy to make and are therefore often made of what is often derisively referred to as “free market fundamentalism”—a decontextualized, one size fits all, academic application of theories that arrogantly ignore local conditions like bribery networks—and so on. The extension of a single conceptual framework to reality need not empty already active descriptions of their meanings, though—theory can dwell in and enrich the terms already in play and suggest new uses for them. Economic terms, in particular, are economical: there is always scarcity, no matter how much we have, an insight reflecting the mimetic and constitutive nature of desire. Economies are always economies of attention: we exchange signs, like glances in the romantic cliché, and the point of exchanging signs is to sustain joint attention in a human world where the alternative to joint attention is not, ultimately, mutual indifference, but violence. If mutual indifference concerns us, it is because the other’s attentions are not brought within the purview of my own, thereby depriving the world I inhabit of some of resources it needs to keep some space, populated by meaningful objects, in between us.

The problem with economism is when one economy is proposed as the model for all others, as when one analyzes the gift economy or the primitive egalitarian economy in terms developed to account for an advanced market economy—terms like self-interest and calculation. We similarly reduce reality when we assume that, in actuality, the more advanced economy subsumes the others—such reductionisms ultimately prove violent, because the continuing reality of other economies appears as a threat to one’s social order and, perhaps even worse, one’s theoretical model. There are many economies and they supplement and supplant each other in many ways. Aside from the ones I just mentioned, there is the Big Man economy, eventuating in the imperial economy, in which the margins pay tribute to the center which, in turn, paves the way for all sites within the imperial economy to turn toward the center. I think that today’s nation-state inhabits the vocabulary of the imperial economy in its more fully developed, but also decadent, ecumenical form, in which the central power represents a form of universalism in which all margins are invited to join, so long as they render their local economies innocuous. More precisely, the modern nation-state is situated in between the ecumenical economy and the Judaic resentment of that economy, a resentment which reconstructs that ecumenical economy as one under the sovereignty of God and looking forward to world conquest of the spiritual rather than territorial kind.

The Judaic economy is a gift economy internally and a market economy externally. The ecumenical economy involves a gift economy between center and margins, while allowing for the emergence of market relations among the margins—most simply, in such ways as coining money and ensuring the safe and easy passage of merchants. Jewish law enacts within the Jewish community the donation of the world by God to humans, and donation of the torah by God to the Jews, and of Jews to humanity. This last gift is knowledge of our common human descent from a single act of creation, knowledge which ultimately dissolves—not all at once, but potentially from the start—all boundaries to exchange between strangers, the antithesis to the gift economy, which operates among friends and rivals. Nations are powerful, meaningful, resilient and lasting to the extent they mediate in their inner and outer relations to these different economies.

It is clear that we can’t survive without an active and, in a sense, unsurpassable, gift economy. If the world is not simply given before we parcel it out and calculate the value of the rest, all that parceling and calculating is baseless, and reduces to sheer power. Within Lockean theory, the wealthy man deserves his wealth by virtue of having labored, organized the labor of others, showed more shrewdness and determination within a free system in which everyone else had the opportunity to join; in reality, if the wealthy man doesn’t know and show that he has been given more than he deserves and give to others in acknowledgement of that awareness, others will not respect and protect his property—he may as well have stolen it.

At the risk of over-generalizing, it seems to me that modernity—or, its most effective propagators—got something terribly wrong here. From the start, the emergent market economy was opposed to the gift economy, including its more specifically moral component, organized around the concept of honor. These more local and differentiated economies were to be extirpated. There may have been very understandable reasons for this approach, at least in practice: those local communities were likely those where practices which, from a citified, market-oriented perspective could only appear abhorrent, were most concentrated—where one found the most unjustifiable forms of inequality, superstition, and so on. I think the larger reason, though, is that, due to the fact that the gift economy had, due to the relatively advanced state of European, Christian social development, been incorporated within a new imperial and ecumenical economy—it was that imperial and ecumenical economy that was both the target and the model for the European secular revolutionaries, and they could only see the still vital (it’s still vital, for that matter) gift economy as a subordinate bulwark of those reactionary forces. Michel Foucault was right to say that the French Revolution took the absolutist monarchy it destroyed as its model, setting up the same kind of center-margin relationship (and De Tocqueville saw it in essentially the same way). (The Anglo countries tried a different, if also flawed, path to modernity, but it seems to me clear which model has had the momentum over the past three quarters of a century.) Indeed, the entire panoply of modern rights is composed of demands made upon the center, in the form of the state, to both protect citizens from each other and to restrain itself. The balance between the acquisition of the power needed to protect us from each other (and, increasingly, ourselves) and self-restraint in the use of that power was always a chimera, and in the meantime we have deprived ourselves of less fantastic and less resentful means of exploring the ways in which we would like to engage, converse, exchange, decide jointly, allow the other to lead, watch each other and be watched, and leave each other alone.

The only way that I can see to begin to restore the givenness of reality is to cease speaking in imperialese and ecumenicalese. Get into the habit of imagining solutions to problems through the clarification of private property rather than increasingly complex citizen-state relations; and of realizing that the state itself can be considered a bit of private property, held through some combination of conquest, delegation and, above all, the economy of the protection racket (which, to be fair, likely do often protect). It is very good to speak in terms of rights, but rights we can trace to a source in agreements we have made and realities we have tacitly accepted. I am suggesting that we learn to speak in ways so as to set in motion the withering away of the state. I completely reject the leftist resentment of most radical libertarians, who hurl charges of imperialism, oppression, atrocities, etc. at the U.S. government (and indirectly its complacent citizens) as readily and recklessly as Noam Chomsky. What I reject is the assumption, again, shared with the left, that the world would be a peaceful and harmonious place without us going around rearranging it to our liking. It’s not enough for Ron Paul to say that our foreign policy has become incoherent and often un-Constitutional and that it’s time for us to withdraw and address our own crises while letting others leave their dependency upon us behind—I might agree with that, if only out of the resentful desire to let the anti-Americans throughout the world get what they say they want. No—the Paulites need to claim that the only reason we have been in so many conflicts is because of our own illicit desire to meddle in the affairs of, dominate and exploit others—we get what we have coming, or, in the leftist vernacular used by Obama’s spiritual advisor, we shouldn’t be surprised if our chickens come home to roost. In the leftist resentment of the Paulites there is obviously a very attractive utopianism, this one based on the U.S. Constitution—the fear, I believe, is that if the world is simply full of evil or even just people with opposing interests, and as the most powerful player in that world we can’t help but be drawn into it, supporting some against others and thereby inciting the enmity of those others; in that case, we will never be able to come home once and for all and restore our constitutional order. If we are the guilty party, the snake in the garden, then restoration is solely in our hands.

But none of that matters very much. No more can sense of our world be made by assuming that the state can serve as a stable center holding us in place at the margins. There is no deliberation among citizens, which is then refined within our governing institutions, issuing in legislation serving clear, if controversial purposes, and putting forth transparent means for doing so. There are, rather, negotiations among the various cannibals of the common wealth—special interests constituted by the regulatory bodies of the state which in turn lobby to turn those regulatory bodies ever so slightly in their favor; a media machinery for spotlighting crises which require yet more state intervention; and citizens confronted with the choice between the promise of greater security now (and the implicit threat of greater insecurity) in exchange for less freedom later. Laws are no longer laws, but palimpsests of calculations by political parties, political donors, bureaucracies and lawyers—laws are designed to keep them all in business, the only business which is good right now. That’s the bureaucratic economy. The rights of citizens entail the ability to attach ourselves to one or another interest and have our complaint embedded in yet another regulatory layer. We could see all this as a deviation from the basic principles of liberal democracy, or a constitutional republic, but these pathologies could also be seen to follow, with great probability, from the reciprocal resentment between state and citizen built into the modern notion of rights.

For me, the first presupposition, something of an intellectual revolution for me, is that nothing done by the state needs to be done by the state—either it doesn’t need to be done at all, or it can be done by a private agency, hired by clients, or run by its stockholders. Social security and health coverage can be turned over to insurance agencies; defense and policing to private security firms, in conjunction with the insurance agencies. Hans Hermann-Hoppe lays all this out pretty well. I, at least, find the task of re-imagining state functions, especially the most entrenched ones, as privatized services, intellectually invigorating. For me, the hardest question has been what will replace the need we have for public displays, on a vast scale, of heroism, tragedy, responsibility or, more generally, representation—the need to see our collective relations to each other acted out in a coherent space, to be more than just strangers to each other. The need to have something we can call “history.” But, it seems to me that the answer here lies in what Jacques Godbout, whose World of the Gift has helped me to draw a lot of my thinking on these issues together, refers to as the “gift to strangers” he finds characteristic of the career of the gift in modernity. The traditional, or archaic, gift, excludes strangers; the market economy connected strangers, which is why the carriers of the market were strangers to all. But in modernity we gift to strangers all the time, through charity, blood and organ donation—even, as George Gilder argued thirty years ago in Wealth and Poverty, entrepreneurialism can be seen as a gift to others, one which one can never assume in advance will be reciprocated. In a post a while back I explored what I called a “politics of redemption,” drawing upon the notion of redeeming, or buying others from slavery. This politics of redemption, in turn, seems to me to overlap the “exodian” politics I have argued for more recently, in which one buys out one’s owner (the state, the ultimate owner of us all) and thereby lays the precedent for buying out others, redeeming them from less free communities. Seeing our social relations as a sum of gifts made to friends circling and encircled by gifts made to strangers generates a world that is given, but that must be accepted by each in his or her own manner. The extraordinary innovation of the modern market, the ability to benefit from exchanges with billions of strangers, need be impaired by this not one bit. Since there is no “logic” behind it, the politics and culture of redemption might leave us with no more History (the desire for which seems to entail a desire for its end), but with lots of little, less brutal, but nevertheless very engaging histories.

Most radically, at least for me, is the acknowledgement that such a world is a fundamentally pedagogical one. Both metaphysics and modernity, it seems to me, are highly suspicious of an originary, constitutive pedagogy, preferring the mania for equality in speech while the overt hierarchy of the pedagogical relationship is confined within institutions dedicated to a narrow understanding of “instruction.” But we are only equal in speech insofar as inequalities rotate—if I show you something now, that might enable you to show me something in turn. There is no act of communication that doesn’t involve such showing, and waiting your turn, and the at least momentary inequality it entails. Pedagogy generates economies of attention: it is the act of directing someone’s attention to what they have been attending from. It can be a tennis coach showing the novice something in his stroke that he wouldn’t have noticed otherwise, attending, as he normally does, from the racquet to the ball; it can be a critical theorist showing a colleague how the concepts they attend from to the portion of reality concerning them at the moment closes out other, potentially more interesting, ways of parceling out reality. Pedagogy is what preserves scarce joint attention as it lapses, takes on more participants, or shades into renewed appropriative desire. It is the gift of the scene itself, a scene the teacher establishes, or carves out of another, shaken, scene—and which the teacher in turn enters, with unknown results (what Freud called “counter-transference” is operative here, as our own tacit ways of knowing, what we attend from, might be exposed as well). Teaching is always a gift to a stranger, even if the teacher and student are close friends, because we are meeting on a yet to be generated scene of joint attention, and on that scene we will become different from what we are. Learning is to incur a debt that can only be paid forward, to other strangers, even if one of those strangers is the teacher himself. The pedagogical relationship points outward to what Charles Sanders Peirce called the “unlimited community,” as each practice learned is mistaken and modified along the way, and our faith that one’s contribution to the world of signs that will support human life indefinitely is as justified as it is unverifiable.

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