Sunday, March 15, 2009

Gifts and Debt

Man presents a cut of meat to a youth with a hoop. Athenian red-figure vase, ca. 460 BCE
The capitalist economy is a nexus of structures and activities. The success of capitalism is in part due to the fact that it is based on cultural expressions of real aspects of the human social animal. Humans are capable of acting in ways that allow the increasing universalisation of capitalism in both physical and social space. Globalisation sees capitalism expanding in geophysical spatial terms. At the same time more parts of human existence that were formerly social become mediated by commodity exchange. Humans are capable of relating to each other, through the profit motive, in ways which encourage the maximisation of greed and accumulation. Indeed, they are capable of using violence and coercion to replicate this social order.

However, this state of affairs has not always existed in its present form and it does not always have to exist. Anthropology shows us definitively the true breadth of possible social relations [4]. By taking a survey of human societies, we see that they can vary from the extremely authoritarian and violent to the exceptionally egalitarian and peaceful.

Libertarians can recast society in a form that promotes a truly cooperative and non-combative mode of existence but this must exist with in the confines of the space of possible social relations. Any recasting of society that hopes to avoid the failures, combative anti-egalitarian, and authoritarian aspects of current society must understand both how these relationships come about, how they perpetuate themselves and how new social relationships can be formed in a way capable of sufficient homeostasis or internal stability to serve as an alternative.

This essay does not attempt a survey of the totality of social relations and their basis, and ignores important external constraints on society related to self-reproduction. It is rather a brief exposition of some cultural institutions and social relations and their relationship to the organisation of society and the economy that have existed in the past or exist now and how they are related to human psychology.

What is risk

All human activities which have a goal, either a processual goal or final goal state, contain an element of risk due to the impossibility of perfect prediction. Some events are more predictable than others and hence have lower risk than others if the goal is related to the prediction of the event or behaviour occurring. For instance, the prediction that an apple falls when one drops it has less risk then whether it will rain today.

In essence risk is a means of thinking about prediction and the extent to which prediction is reliable. It is concerned both with time and behaviour.

The methodology of human risk assessment in inter-personal relationships is ad hoc. It relies on dispositions and tendencies. In contrast probability theory provides detailed descriptions of risk. However, even this later science presupposes a detailed understanding of the system which in practice is often not possible.

What is trust

Trust is a social relation that involves time displacement. It is a notion that some activity will be sustained or enacted in the future. Due to the predictive nature of trust, it involves risk.

There are at least two conceptual stages of trust. In the first stage we have decided to accept an unknown amount of risk in order to determine the reliability of a social relation that has been entered. All trust starts initially with an uncertainty in even the risk involved. In the second stage, we are relating to a history of behaviours. Based on these behaviours we can evaluate the risk of future events.

Trust as a social relation is often built through the taking of risks. It can be entered into deliberately or accidentally.

Trust can be manufactured deliberately through a coordinated ritual that involves risk for both parties. This helps to create bonds in a situation in which both parties stand to lose from direct defection from cooperation. Objectively this ritual might seem absurd, as outside of the situation of risk neither party would have the same constraints which would ensure further social solidarity. However trust once developed between humans is often less brittle than the immediate circumstances in which it developed.

The webs of trust that develop in a community through the knowledge of reliability, or low risk in the acceptance of responsibilities generate webs of trust. Social groups are often developed.

The initial stage of trust can also be built and entered into verbally. When one utters that they "trust" someone to carry something out, they are making a transference. This act generates a potential social obligation not just from the direct recipient to the utterer, but also to anyone else within earshot.

The transmission of gossip[5] is also useful in providing social bonds. It propagates both risk itself and a knowledge of risk within a community. This creates interpersonal dependencies due to norms of reciprocity. If someone's secret is deliberately revealed outside of the group then one might be subject to similar retributive acts. Those who reveal secrets or who don't reveal secrets can also be determined through this ritual.

Trust is fundamental in the generation of coherent behaviour in groups. Without trust, the conduits for communication are too slow and tentative to generate effective tactical associations. One can see this concretely in the speed and precision with which action can take place after trust is developed between team mates in football or between veteran direct action activists.

Groups seeking to behave coherently would do well to think of the sociological origin of trust and the fact that it is developed organically and inter-personally. The emergent behaviours of the collective of a group are to some extent dictated by the culture of trust.

What are gifts

Gifts are a mechanism by which people enter into a relationship around a commodity [1]. This relationship is not the exchange relationship that sorrounds commodities and is the dominant mechanism for obtaining commodities in modern society. The gift was, prior to capitalism, perahps the most common mechanism by which economies functioned.

Giving someone something is in a sense entering into a social relationship altruistically. There is some degree of personal risk involved, in that the other person may not be able to reciprocate. This risk builds a `social debt` in which the person who recieves it feels both comradery and respect towards the person giving the gift and at least some feeling of obligation of reciprocation.

When a society is heavily involved in the exchange of gifts, as is the case when gift is the main mechanism of commodity circulation, then we end up with a society tightly interwoven and mutually supporting.

In contrast, modern christian charity is profoundly different to the act of giving. While charity is not the same as the exchange of commodities in the market it is very similar since no social relations are produced in the act. In commodity exchange we receive equal value for equal value and the transaction ends. In charity one is given something and the transaction ends. It is a purely material relation between people and no social relation comes as a result.

There may be internal changes to the participants. The individuals who exchange may each feel they have improved their lot. The philanthropist may have assuaged feelings of guilt. Indeed the recipient of charity may have growing feelings of guilt. However, these are internalised and atomic.

It is interesting to speculate if charity arose in conjunction with or as a necessary result of the rise of the market. The major charitable religions do appear to arise around the same time as markets become a dominant form of economics in their regions[3]. The necessity to prevent social instability and the rise of purely mechanical and material relations between people create an interesting reinforcing symbiosis of charity and market.

The notion that the most elevated form of gift must be the one with no social consequences is not actually a response against capitalism, but a response in symbiosis and in support of capitalism.

What is debt

Debt is a notion related to reciprocation [2]. Norms of reciprocity are deeply embedded in the human psyche and exist across cultures. They cover everything from the notions of social responsibility to return a favour when possible, the notion of solidarity to the darker ideas of vengeance and blood debt.

A norm of reciprocity is an enculturated mechanism of determining the appropriate response to some act. Debt is a system of accounting and remembering what acts are socially obliged.

Systems of accounting extend from individual or social human memory of social obligation all the way through to modern double-entry accounting.

Debt in gift economies involves the memories of the participants. Debt is eliminated by acts that successfully compensate. In some societies, such as the Tlingit [2], this gift debt even exists with interest, requiring the receiver to provide an even more lavish gift in the future.

Groups and Social Relations

The various social relations described in this essay are largely based on inter-personal relationships. The size of groups that can be formed from direct social relationships are highly constrained. It is generally considered to be the case that these groups amongst humans can not extend beyond approximately 150 people [5].

Social mechanisms that have provided cooperation in numbers far beyond 150 people have had to use impersonal mechanisms of generating group behaviour. The capitalist mode of production and market exchange allow for vast complexes to be organised. Any replacement of capitalism is going to require that production and distribution can be organised using abstractions and not just direct human relations.

Understanding this we must reevaluate the concept of debt, risk, trust and social relations and relations with an abstract society or symbolic social order.

Gift economies are often raised as a plausible alternative to our current monetary society. Gift societies however require implicit accounting embedded in paired social relations. It can not scale beyond the village. If it is reified in relation to an abstract social order it will become nothing more than a system of debt accounting (though not necessarily monetary).

A more libertarian version of gift might invert the gift process entirely. This inversion would place hope as primary. This would be a society that organises around desire rather than obligation. The accounting system here is a dual form to both gift and money.

The extent to which this is possible as the main paradigm for a society would be related to the capacity of a culture to move from a push psychology to a pull. The demand for labour would be accounted as the labour most hoped for. Instead of an obligation, labour's value becomes a hope.

Marxists have historically noted that commodity exchange becomes a material relation between people. The process of exchange is desocialised entirely. However, while this critique is correct, it seems to suggest that alternatives reassert social relations in the process of commodity relations. This view should be suspect due to the fundamental limitations which social relations among humans individually have in terms of scale. For an advanced productive society with a huge amount of commodity distribution it is simply impossible to coordinate society based on social relations.

The Personal and the Political

There is a question which repeatedly presents itself. A question of whether society can be reshaped through the changing of social relations between individuals or whether a revolution is required to produce a new society.

In fact this dichotomy is entirely false and the two things are but different sides of the same coin. Social revolution is a revolution not just between humans, but between humans and the symbolic social order itself. All of these facets are inter-related and inseparable. Changes taking place within the movement in the furtherance of realizing an alternative society will not work unless the perspective is a broad one of creating society wide change. That means we must be in constant outreach and contact with the broader society. At the same time we need to realise that creating a movement for revolution is only useful if it is a social revolution. The means of creating social revolution is through our own transformation and the transformation of our social relations with each other and with respect to an abstract society. A movement which does not transform itself will simply recreate itself in the image of its origin.

[1] Lawrence C. Becker Reciprocity
[2] Marcel Mauss The Gift
[3] David Graeber Five Thousand Years of Debt
[4] David Graeber Towards an Anarchist Anthropology
[5] Robin Dunbar Why Gossip is Good for You

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