Absolutist Economies

A partial summary of David Graeber on markets and money, with some additions: Markets are created and maintained by sovereigns. Money is used first of all for internal bureaucratic accounting in the ancient empires. Money is then used to pay soldiers in the imperial army, and markets are created in order to enable soldiers to spend that money. The accepted currency is whatever is accepted by the sovereign for the payment of taxes. Debt is monetized (beyond the gift economy) when standardized payments for injuries are necessary in order to prevent violence—the sovereign as judge establishes standardized penalties and settlements. In other words, the introduction of money into the sovereign order coincides with a system of hostage taking overseen by the sovereign: human beings are exchanged in one way or another. Money and markets therefore accelerate that system, abstracting individuals from their social relations, enhancing the power of the sovereign, while generating new power bases that might destabilize power. It further makes sense to assume that the origin of technology is the military: the organization of large masses of men is the model both for mass labor and the technology that eliminates that labor, originating in Lewis Mumford’s “megamachine.”

What sustains the value of any currency, in that case, is the stability and reliability of the sovereign issuing and approving it. Rather than labor or subjective desire, currency reflects the “value” of sovereign security. If the sovereign will accept a certain amount of money to settle your tax bill, and maintains an orderly circulation of money, the value of money will reflect that. Sovereign security itself, though, is determined by the oscillation between the abstraction of individuals and the hierarchically ordered pyramid of power articulated by the sovereign: the acceleration of abstraction destabilizes money, the ordering of power stabilizes it. The problem for an absolutist order is to re-embed individuals in ordered hierarchies, which is to say “de-abstract” them. The liberal argument is that the abstraction of individuals (the “free market” or “economic freedom”) has been necessary for the massive increase of wealth and technological development over the past several centuries, and I think there is some truth to that.

Let’s say I’m ruling over 1,000 people. They are all ordered hierarchically, with well-defined roles and obligations—landowners, farmers, soldiers, craftsmen, teachers, fathers and mothers, etc. They live within the kind of reciprocal, pre-money, system of credit described by Graeber. The shoemaker makes shoes for everyone because he knows the farmer is growing food for everyone, the teacher teaches everyone’s children, and so on. Marriages are arranged through families, children tend to enter their parents’ professions. The sovereign and his appointed officials intervene in any disagreements that threaten to get out of control. Now, one day I tell them all: you are all free individuals. You have only those obligations you choose to have, only those reciprocities you have contracted for, you can enter any line of work you want, sell your products and labor for whatever price you want, etc. Whatever land, homes and tools you have right now you will receive a property deed for. Whatever happens to you is because of what you did or failed to do.

After the initial shock and confusion, what’s going to happen? A large number, let’s say 250, will very quickly lose everything they have and fall into debt, destitution and criminality. Let’s say another 400 will hang on indefinitely, maintaining some property and the ability to become good enough at something to gain employment and have families, while never quite freeing themselves from the fear of falling into the “underclass.” Another 200 will become useful to the elites within the state or the new private economy, as managers, merchants and bosses of various kinds. That leaves us with 150. 100 of them become “elites,” on boards of directors, high up in the state bureaucracy, running institutions like banks, schools, and prisons. But the remaining 50—they will do great things, for good and for evil. For them, the revelation that they are free individuals, for whom everything is possible, who are limited only by the breadth of their imagination, etc., will be an inspiration to invent, explore, innovate and create. They will be the source of economic dynamism, abstracting themselves and everyone else ever more thoroughly, and generating new forms of technology out of all the newly possible configurations. Yes, they will depend upon the state, creating subsidized technology for the military and turning spin-offs of that technology to commercial uses—but not just anyone could do that. They will create everything that the elites will divide up among the others, and the pressure from all the newly abstract individuals and their recognized class interests will give the top 50 and the elites the incentive and models for including enough individuals in the economy to maintain enough stability to keep the process growing—especially if doing so gives the social order a founder’s advantage over other communities now forced to play according to the same rules. There will be some hope for societies based on divided power as long as that top 5% or so, and some means of distributing the benefits of their activities to a substantial majority, are not completely shut down. Political arguments and struggles will focus on whether the “freedom” of that top 50+100 is beneficial to the other 850, and will be fueled by struggles between the 100 (the 50 will, for the most part, be disgusted by power struggles, but may show some surprisingly sharp elbows on occasion).

There may be sovereigns willing to sacrifice that economic dynamism for restored order, and no other sovereign genuinely interested in getting their own house in order should be concerned with or interfere with that decision. I want to think about those sovereigns who would like to combine secure power with continual wealth creation. For one thing, taking that approach will give us more to say about the strategies and results of wealth creation and technological development in the societies we hope to transform. Now, that markets are created by, and maintained for the benefit of, states, only “taints” markets for anarchists and leftists, but not at all for absolutists. Nor does this dependence of markets upon states mean that markets don’t operate in certain ways that we can identify, and that rulers can try to improve. If I tell 5 subordinates to get some job done, part of getting that job done will involve studying the reality of the situations, the necessary means for accomplishing the task, the best way of acquiring those means, the various possible ways of dividing up the task, and of cooperating in various ways. Clearly at every point along the way there are choices to be made and those choices depend upon elements to be brought under control, and therefore as yet under the control of something else. These things can’t be done in an unlimited number of ways. So, we could speak about something like “laws” within the limits determined by sovereignty, and we should try and understand those laws.

But all this looks very different from within an absolutist rather than anarchist ontology. Let’s say the task is to build an outhouse, and we need bricks in order to do so. We need, then, to buy 200 bricks. From whom? From a range of brick sellers—let’s say 3. Those 3 (not 10, not 1) brick sellers exist because they have been more efficient in moving volumes of bricks than other sellers, and also because they have followed the rules set by the government for selling bricks better than others, and quite likely because they have cultivated patrons within the state which helps them to write, follow and where necessary skirt the rules. And also because there are enough people doing enough building who need a steady supply of bricks. It also means that if the building industry slackens, the state might step in and carry out some “internal improvements” to help the brick business through the rough patch. What absolutist ontology adds to this is that all this depends upon a certain “amount” of order, and therefore hierarchy, which can be qualified if not precisely quantified. It should not be taken for granted that the owner of the brick business applies for a permit, has it approved, has that approval acted upon (it’s not ignored, for example, by some lower level bureaucrat), that this owner orders a certain amount of bricks to be sent out and his employee carries out the order (and if the employee doesn’t, the employer will be able to fire that employee and count on hiring someone who will), that the employee tasked with receiving the bricks does not abscond with them and sell them on the black market, etc. The real source of value is a well ordered system, and a well ordered system is absolutist. We should be able to find a way of calculating economic value in terms of the relative dominance of anarchist vs. absolutist ontologies within a given social order. Think of all the forms of disorder that would make it impossible to obtain or rely on permits, to assume the honesty of employees and of employers, of the stability of a government that won’t on a dime start agitating for workers or subsidizing their defiance, or cede ground to various illegal and semi-legal enterprises that have their own patrons within a divided government. (Of course, many of these forms of disorder were previously forms of order, within some kind of honor system. Order being brought into these systems which at some point produce scapegoating crises—the origin of power struggles within the state—undermining the sacral mode of kingship they depend upon is what creates the possibility of economic calculation in the first place—that is, economic calculation depends upon deferring the convergence upon the central figure.)

If the state always creates and sustains markets, starting first of all with meeting the needs of the state (provisioning its soldiers, etc.), an observation confirmed by the rise of the East Asian “tigers” (S. Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong) which not only had authoritarian rule but deep involvement in the production needs of the US Cold War military economy, then we can think about those enterprises most directly associated with the state as the epicenter of innovation. Here, the state is the customer, and here is where we can see the defects of divided power most forcefully in the kind of cronyism that accompanies, for example, military contracting in a democratic society. With the state a single-minded, discerning customer, which it must be given a sovereign whose mind must always be on his own survival, we can expect a heightened focus on accomplishment and qualifications—this part of the economy would create an aristocracy of both management and labor. The graduates of the best schools and the most accomplished military men would gravitate toward these industries. More distant from the center, in successive concentric circles, would be other industries, working with spin offs from military technology (as has always been the case to a great extent), with less urgency and with less demanding tasks. Not everyone will be a top tier engineer or scientist. It should be possible to synthesize the production of consumer goods with respected and meaningful work for most of the population.

Buckminster Fuller asserted that it was worth it to provide free education to 1,000 children because one of those children will end up invented something that pays for the education of the other 999. Massive investment focused on generating singularities will in the end take care of the masses as well. Of course, investment might be focused more precisely on those segments of the population most like to be the source of singularities, but this kind of decision will itself be a marker of the wealth and risk-aversion of the center. Under conditions of extreme scarcity, investment might be focused on those communities likely to produce one singularity out of 400 students, and those where you could reasonably expect only 1 out of 1,500 would be left aside. Gradually, the sovereign could reach further afield in the search for singularities, and also widen the scope of what is to be considered a singularity, which is to say open up more fields. At first the 1/400 communities might be both bulwarks against and mentors to the 1/800 communities, which in turn would play this dual role for the 1/1,000 community, and so on. Securing rule would look towards privileging the mentor role over the bulwark function. Everyone is ultimately oriented toward the center, but in a way that makes convergence upon the center unthinkable. Resentments are contained so as to apply only to those directly above, and are framed as requests for a further shift toward mentoring. Limited competition between regions in attempts to move up the hierarchy would allow for the expression and containment of resentments.

In this way, the articulation of centering and de-convergence, which I have posited as the logic of post-sacral kingship sovereignty, can be turned into an economic concept, a measurable proportion between singularity and the recirculation of the products of singularity into the production of further singularities. We could define singularity in terms of both monopolization and models of “centered ordinality.” How singular an innovation is (and, therefore, ultimately, how singular the innovator) depends, first, upon how long the implementation can maintain a monopoly position, first of all for the sovereign himself, as prime customer; and, second, whether it models a form of social relation that is both center-oriented and productive of hierarchy. For example, in a recent interview, David Gelernter, who invented an early version of what eventually became Twitter, argues that the Internet “should be structured like a recursive net, so that you’re encouraged to return to what you were looking at. Instead, the way it is, if you click you’ll probably never go back.” This addition would make Google a more singular invention, requiring more complex algorithms that account for items that initiated inquiries, were at the center of networks, rather than just the number of clicks. Google would create more value because it would encourage the development of more structured minds, in part by providing access (indirectly) to the results of more structured minds, which means more singularities, and so on. Other technologies could similarly be judged on how they directly organize workers and consumers, and indirectly structure communities—every technology models and is modeled on a mode of human interaction, and human interaction is the ultimate source and measure of wealth.


Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a Reply