Monthly Archives: February 2012

One, Two, Three, Many Modernities

According to Jacques Godbout, in his The World of the Gift, the distinctive form taken by the gift in the modern world is the gift to strangers—everything from philanthropies to blood and organ donations. The specifically modern gift, in other words, to quote the title of a bad movie, based on a good idea, from several years back, pays it “forward” instead of “back.” Rather than reciprocate directly, modern giving prefers acknowledging a gift by giving to someone else with the same needs or potential as that gift enabled one to realize in oneself. This helps avoid the competitive gift giving and compulsory reciprocations which leads the traditional gift economy into the debacle resulting in the seizure of power of the Big Man, who imposes an asymmetrical gift economy on everyone. And giving it forward may also provide the basis for supplanting the modern state behind which, however free and democratic the guise, the contours of the Big Man imposing not only his rule but his inevitability remain visible.

The modernity which has actually become dominant, and led in turn to the romantic and victimary reactions of postmodernism is the one which deployed the emergent market model of early modernity against the gift economy. The best way to bury the gift economy is to insist upon self-origination—anything in the past which has determined what one is now must be some gift demanding repayment; if we are all originators of ourselves, including the past we choose to acknowledge, then there are no gifts from the past—no one has paid forward to us. There are just nagging importunities and unjust exactions demanded by hysterical ghosts, and we must summon up the courage to reject those claims, and accept only those obligations we, like players on the market, have explicitly and voluntarily agreed to.

But history is no more than the gifts we accept from those who have come before—if we reject some it is because we have accepted others. The reason why we need to ground ourselves in some kind of gift economy stretching back in time is suggested by Hermann Lotze’s observation, cited by Walter Benjamin in his “Theses on History,” that “One of the most remarkable characteristics of human nature is, alongside so much selfishness in specific instances, the freedom from envy which the present displays toward the future.” I think this is absolutely true, and while it applies to the present’s attitude toward the past as well, it is especially remarkable in our attitude to the future, which we have every reason to believe will have be better than the present. We simply don’t share the same scene as other time periods, are incapable of desiring the same objects—we can therefore love those who came before and those who will come after unreservedly. We can also, therefore, accept the gifts from the past freely and give freely to those to come after us. And, finally, this gifting relationship across time periods is, as Benjamin goes on to say, an index which refers us to redemption: it is this continuum creating by the gift that enables us to stand back while everyone else is rushing towards the present object of desire and exemplify a possibility not immediately visible.

We could, much more modestly, see modernity as simply the condition in which our relations with strangers outweigh our relations with kin, friends and confederates. The market relation comes to the fore under such conditions, and helps to create them in the first place, because the exchange of commodities for money is ideally suited to maintain the relations between strangers. Modernity in this case would also mean many things we like to associate with it—an openness to the new, to differences, a pleasure in anonymity and privacy, and so on. But modernity in this sense would also allow for acknowledging the gifts we accept and pay forward to some of those strangers, gifts that often circulate centrifugally from more traditional gifts circulating among family and friends—like the use of family wealth to establish charitable foundations. The market and economy could then proceed in concordance with one another, each enriching the other. As soon as we find a way to displace the imperial/ecumenical Big State, which increasingly demands all gifts flow to and from it.

Property and Pedagogy

We can concentrate all the modern, liberal freedoms and rights into the right to own property: that is, the granting of exclusive use to that which cannot be used without depriving others of its use. If you have the right to property, you can obviously say whatever you like on your property, and others can listen to what you have to say on theirs. The same goes for worship. If you have property, you can exchange parts or products of that property with the parts and products others offer from their own property. Needless to say, you can possess firearms on your property, if you genuinely have a right to it. And property owners can invite others to assemble on each others’ property all they like, along with pooling their resources to buy or rent more property for larger assemblies.

I’m leaving out the rights specifically granted against the state (to a jury trial, against unreasonable search and seizure, self-incrimination, etc.) because I am determined to think property outside of the state, so as to look forward to the possibility of a libertarian order (the way there is through what I go back and forth between calling a “marginalist” and an “exodian” politics). If one does so, one also discovers that the supposedly natural rights to speech and religion become redundant and meaningless, even unnecessary causes of conflict—if I can refuse to allow anyone I choose onto my property, I can obviously refuse to let someone speak there, which means that the right to free speech has no one obliged to defend it.

Who, for that matter, defends property rights, if we can no longer count on the state to do that either? On the one hand, each property owner defends his own property; but without any shared respect for one another’s property, reified in recognized legal titles, this would just be Hobbes’s war of all against all. The real answer must be that the various property owners respect one another’s property and have recourse to agreed upon judicial or other mediating institutions in settling disputes. These institutions, along with the private security and insurance companies individuals would surely hire would simply be other uses of property, services offered on the market.

We would, though, have to account for the possibility that someone might surrender one’s right to the acknowledgement of one’s property rights on the part of other owners. This seems to me highly problematic. Let’s take an extreme case: someone who tortures his children, keeps slaves, murders kidnap victims, etc., on his property. Of course, we can easily say that he is violating their property rights, with the body being the most unshareable thing around and therefore the most basic form of property—fine, then: we have impeccable theoretical language with which to condemn in no uncertain terms such doings. Still: who, exactly, enters the house, saves the victims, and renders the perpetrator harmless? And on what grounds? Who has the “right”? (I am now, I suppose, introducing the neo-conservative snake into the libertarian garden.)

There would have to be some combined formal and informal means by which other property owners would, first consider, then discuss, and finally decide, to withdraw their support for that property owner. They might, before forcibly intervening, draw up charges and invite the individual to answer them, proposing a forum for the purpose. Then, finally, they would decide to act—and so inform that individual’s insurer and security agency: it would be made clear to the insurer that this individual was about to become a very bad risk, and to the security agency that it was about to lose some other customers if it insisted on retaining this client, if it was a security agency shared by others in the community; or it was about to be met with overwhelming force by the combined security agencies of those determined upon the “invasion.”

Needless to say, such a system would be open to all kinds of abuses (although I don’t see why more so than any other system)—right now, though, I just want to satisfy myself that we can imagine it. The kind of solution proposed above implies—once we start walking it back to less extreme cases—that the society of property owners can, in principle, judge that another’s misuse of his or her property can endanger the system of property itself, even indirectly (the abuse of one’s child, for example, doesn’t seem to have any impact on others’ property—but it is abhorrent enough to bring the entire principle of autonomy in disrepute, if the will and means can’t be summoned to abolish such a condition). Which uses of property pose such a danger would necessarily become a very common and lively topic of discussion in a libertarian community—much of the “politics” of such a community would be so comprised. Everyone would be acutely aware of the dangers of any precedent.

What follows is that each property owner would have an interest in signaling to the society that he is using his property properly, in putting forth the signs indicating uses that are productive for all. At the same time, each property owner would have to construct those signs, since the meaning of one or another architectural or landscaping “gesture” would change over time. In other words, each property owner would be teaching and learning from all the others how to be a better property owner—each would be trying to control the relevant precedents and create best suited to ensure the recognition one needs. I wouldn’t assume that in a libertarian order each individual would suffer perpetual anxiety concerning the possibility of losing the community’s sanction—such an order couldn’t survive if this question was constantly raised about most of the owners. But it might happen often enough regarding some of them—and it seems to me that such a community, so reliant upon the self-reliance of all its members, would have a very low tolerance for behaviors that strained the norms of the society. (I get the sense that some libertarians—perhaps the College Libertarian variety—believe that libertarianism means you can smoke a joint in the morning, visit a prostitute in the afternoon and go to a casino in the evening, without ever becoming a junkie, a pervert or a gambler. You might do all that, but the effects would be evident in your behavior, and no one would be obliged to give you a job, rent or sell you a home, provide you with security or insurance, or let you on their property.) Everyone would have to be clear about what he thought a “real” property owner was, and how he was embodying that ideal type. Especially since even the surveillance and communication devices we have now, let alone what might be invented in the coming decades, already mean that without the state in between us all, life would be transparent beyond our present imaginings. As David Brin argued more than a decade ago in his Transparent Society, liberty and privacy are parting ways: each of us will have all kinds of ways of attaining information about anyone else, and we will each have strong reasons to attend not only to signs we “give” to others, but those we “give off,” to use Erving Goffman’s terms.

Everyone would also be able to realize that resentment against the system of property, whether it takes the form of hatred towards the biggest property owners, or indignation at the exclusionary norms of associations of property owners, should be pre-empted to the greatest extent possible. Libertarian logic will not head off the rampages of the propertyless once the reach a certain critical mass—only a restored and enlarged gift economy, in its specifically modern form—gifts to strangers, without any possibility of reciprocity—can accomplish that. All kinds of philanthropic activities would be undertaken in a successful libertarian order, and each one would have the stamp of its founder(s) and given a specific meaning, for society at large and its beneficiaries. “Giving back” to a community which has given you something is always a “reading” of that community, a commemoration, a hypothesis about future possibilities—all unilateral acts of pedagogy.
For these reasons, the attitude of each member toward all the others would be fundamentally pedagogical, albeit in a reciprocal way: you teach me something and I teach you something, not only explicitly, much less pedantically, but through every use of my property I make evident to others. Even more, though, since such a society would be in a constant state of innovation, and no one could count on tenure, we would all be going back to school all the time: not necessarily formal schooling (who would care about degrees in such an order—you would just want to know what someone could do), but various kinds of tutoring, mentoring and apprenticeship relations.

Once the state gets out of the way, then, and we are left only with ourselves and fellow owners, we would have to be far more aware of the ways we show each other things all the time—at each encounter, I would say. And showing is the fundamental pedagogical gesture: first of all, showing another the meaning of what lies embedded, unnoticed, in their own practices and habits (best of through some modification in your own attitude that directs the other’s attention back at himself). It seems to me to follow, if I’m not just grossly blinded by my own professional interests here, that a generally pedagogical attitude, one that gets each of us thinking about how others read us, and one that seeks to refer actions to possible consequences in the reactions of others, would, in turn, be conducive to the gradual prioritization of property rights in our public discourse. Teaching and learning—showing, pointing—is the most basic element of any iteration of the originary scene upon which we find ourselves, even if part of a successful lesson is enabling the learner to see that, in the end, he has taught himself and can therefore now teach in turn. So, I much prefer pedagogy to, say, “dialogue” or “communication,” much less “solidarity” or “compassion,” as the proper mode of engagement for free men and women.