May 26th, 2012

David Graeher, Debt: the first 5,000 years, chapter 5:

I will provide a rough-and-ready way to map out the main moral principles on which economic relations scan be founded, all of which occur in any human society, and which I will call communism, hierarchy, and exchange.

Yours truly, here, July 2009:

The ancestral communist mode of production survives within both capitalism and socialism like mitochondria within an eukaryotic cell.

Graeber’s endorsement of my threefold way is not exactly a ticket to academic respectability. It’s not that Graeber is Velikovsky-crazy, it’s that he’s careless. (I once bought some Nordic walking sticks in Switzerland of the Leki brand. They came endorsed by Reinhold Messner, who had taken them on several of his 8,000m solo climbs in the Himalayas: an extreme climbing genius counting very gramme of his kit. That was worth knowing, crazy or not.) However, Graeber shot himself in one foot with his marvellous description of the origins of Apple:

… founded by (mostly Republican) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other’s garages

He shot the other foot with his theory that the one-sided US seigniorage that comes from issuing a reserve currency (not a fiction, this) is a form of tribute maintained by fear, in turn made credible by military adventures like the Gulf wars. This would come as news to the US’ largest creditor, the government of China.

For academic work, you should really go back to Graeber’s sources. However, this is a blog, and I’ll cite Graeber’s book because it’s a genuinely original attack on economic orthodoxy from the unexpected angle of anthropology, and taps a wealth of interesting research on human societies from ancient Mesopotamian temple complexes to Australian aborigines.

So we agree on a threefold classification of types of economic organisation, simultaneously present in many societies including our own (Graeber’s “all” is a needless stretch):

  • Graeber: communism, hierarchy, exchange
  • Me: communism, socialism, capitalism.

Our differences on the latter two are superficial. It’s possible to imagine a Walrasian village exchange economy without money and concentrations of capital, but Graeber himself shows that this is an economists’ myth. Actual exchange or market economies have money, debt, and wealthy intermediaries. My use of “socialism” to describe say the hierarchical internal workings of General Motors is provocative, since I think we may as well retire the term from its appropriation by the obsolete Soviet-style command economy and use it for something more durable, but tastes differ.

On communism, our takes are genuinely different. Both are, I now think, mistaken.

Where did I go wrong? In identifying the operating principle of communism with gift exchange.
Graeber has convinced me that gift exchange is something narrower and more stylised. The expectation of reciprocity is very clear and specific. Often the gifts are particular types of durable luxury goods, blankets or baskets or something; compare the bronze vessels and slave girls that Homer’s heroes compete for, not spears or grain or wine. So I need something better.
Graeber however goes much wronger here:

I will define communism here as any human relationship that operates on the principles of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.”

I showed,  to my own satisfaction anyway, that Marx’s famous slogan describes not a feasible programme but a contradiction – “the fundamental contradiction of welfare economics”: for needs are mismatched to talents (needs are roughly equal, talents very unequal), and you cannot optimise both at once.

Second, needs and wants aren’t the same thing. The classic Marxist response to the divergence is that consumer wants are artificially heightened by capitalist entrepreneurs through advertising. (Marxists may be the only true believers in advertising left, along with the admen themselves. The actual paymasters like P& G are in their own eyes just defending market share.) The account fails to account for a lot of data points: the terrible history of alcoholism among native Americans and Australian aborigines, contemporary drug abuse everywhere, and the recent increase in the size of American houses, none of them driven by advertising; I think the same holds for mobile phones, which are advertised but not very heavily. Contrast the static markets in heavily advertised laundry soaps and cars.

The divergence creates a problem for communism. If you let people have what they want (however conditioned or free this choice may be), you are going to end up with a lot of obesity, drunkenness, and McMansions. Feasible, but scarcely Utopia. Alternatively you have to second-guess wants and dial back to “real” needs, which requires a second-guesser in authority, which brings you back to command allocation and socialism. So for now we’ll have to go with wants.

Here goes on my second try. The operating principle of primitive and embedded communism is sharing.

Andrey Rublev, icon of the Trinity, detail

Sharing is multiform, along several dimensions. In fact, thinking about it calls for a careful anthropological analysis of the many contexts and dynamics in in which goods and services are shared. Pending this, we can still make a few commonsense distinctions.

First, it works differently under scarcity or plenty.

Andrew the fisherman has a lucky catch, more than the band can eat. Before refrigeration, fish can’t be stored. You’d expect the fish to be shared ad lib: everybody can help themselves. There’s a diffuse expectation of reciprocity – next time Peter has a good catch, he will share it with Andrew and his family. There’s no cost to Andrew, so the obligation created by the sharing is not very strong.

Moving along a scale, Andrew (OK, his great-x-2000-grandfather) kills a hippo, at great risk to himself. The hippo meat can likewise not be stored and in aggregate it’s more than the band can eat. But the cuts are not equal; leg meat is better than liver. We’d expect here the “help yourself” principle to be modulated by an order of priority: the hunter himself, his spouse and children, and higher status members of the group go first. But everybody eats their fill, even the pre-domesticated dogs hanging back away from the fire.

Now move to scarcity. There are not many fish, or the prey is a small gazelle. The method of allocation becomes important; in a dearth, lives may depend on it. The general idea of sharing in a group is that “everybody gets some”, but there are many ways of getting there:

  • rough equality by taking turns
  • strict equality by one divider
  • pecking order by status (with in turn many ways of determining status)
  • pecking order by context (hunter, hunter’s kin, order of arrival, etc)
  • dynamic negotiation.

The last may need explanation. In a group of intimate friends or a family, the sharing can become a sort of game of generosity : “you have the leg” – “no, you first”. And in larger, normally more formal settings, the rules may be upset by the arrival of an outsider who does not fit into them. Some sharing is done by fixed rules, some is more spontaneous, though never I suspect entirely so.

How does my rough sharing typology relate to Marx’s slogan? The various modes balance needs and contributions in different ways, with a bias towards needs, in some cases the disregard of abilities, and the introduction of extraneous notions of status. They do not fulfil the two criteria simultaneously, illustrating my impossibility theorem. [Update] And with this correction, I think I can rescue the threefold typology, however you label it, and the hypothesis that the three modes of allocation often coexist, as in our society, and indeed are complementary. [/update]

Two parting thoughts.
Sharing, with a background expectation of reciprocity, may be a more efficient way of allocation on the small scale and for perishables than private property and trade. It avoids the high transactions costs and the noise than prevents actual markets from clearing, and builds the social capital of trust. Supermarkets donate unsold food near its time expiry to charities for sharing with the homeless: there’s an efficiency to this that conventional economic definitions don’t catch.

The extreme case of sharing is the self-sacrificial gift, from mother to child or friend to friend, when the cost to the giver is very high, maybe life itself. Heroic sharing may be rare, but it sheds some of its moral glamour on to the more mundane kinds. We teach our children to share their toys, partly because sharing may save their lives some day.

Sharing is also at the core of the baffling Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Here’s a theological commentary on the lovely Rublev image from the Orthodox website where I found it:

Another detail that we can observe in Rublev’s icon is the v-shaped sign on the hand of the middle figure—symbolizing the divine-human nature of the incarnate Son—pointing towards a cup entailing what appears to be a miniature lamb. It is in that gesture that the link between the immanent (God in himself) and economic (God for us) Trinity is provided. God’s kenotic (self-emptying) ekstasis (Gr. “to stand outside oneself”)—his determination to be “God with us” in election, creation, redemption, and glorification—finds its ultimate elaboration in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

If you find yourself stuck in a dinner-table argument between a Chicago economist and a structuralist anthropologist on the true meaning of economics, I recommend bringing them to a halt with something like this:

Of course, you do realize that the theological meaning of economics, far older than either of yours, is to frame the kenotic ekstasis of the Godhead in the eschatological ordering, or economy, of the creation.

20 Responses to “Communism as sharing”

  1. chris y says:

    I showed, to my own satisfaction anyway, that Marx’s famous slogan describes not a feasible programme but a contradiction

    As did Marx, who spent two or three paragraphs of the Critiques of the Gotha Programme explaining how this slogan, which was Lassalle’s and nothing to do with Marx, was inanely Utopian and essentially meaningless in any immediately plausible real world.

    The poor guy must be revolving in his grave at how he’s got saddled with it in the popular imagination.

    • James Wimberley says:

      Thanks for the correction, I’ll look into it. But if Marx condemned it, how come generations of communists cited it approvingly? Graeber isn’t one himself but apparently an old-style anarchist.

      • NickT says:

        “if Marx condemned it, how come generations of communists cited it approvingly”

        I have Jesus on line one. He wants to talk to you about some fellows running these Crusade thingummies. Also, something about an .. Inquisition?

  2. MobiusKlein says:

    To contradict you, I see plenty of advertizing for cell-phones – droid, razor, etc.

    • James Wimberley says:

      Yes, but look at the ratio between the routine advertising spend and the income elasticity of demand (off the charts). People queue in Apple stores for the latest gadget without any advertising. The also-rans advertise to boost market share – “we’re as good as Apple”. I don’t think you can make the want-creation story work for the advertising, though it is more plausible for the gadgets themselves: we never needed camera phones before, now we do.

      • Ebenezer Scrooge says:

        Advertising is a subset of “marketing.” Apple is a genius at marketing. Of course marketing creates wants–that’s why the objects of commercial emulation are so insanely wealthy. Or to rephrase it in econobabble: preferences are at least partially endogenous.

        The problem with either wants-needs or endogenous-exogenous preferences isn’t that the distinctions aren’t false. They’re both true, and both useful over a limited zone. The problem is that they are slippery, and we don’t have a neutral fulcrum to divide either one of them. They’re not clean antinomies.

  3. marcel says:

    Minor point: Crooked Timber had an interesting symposium on the book about 3 months that Graeber subsequently responded to. Some of his response was amazingly ill tempered, but he did address “the stupid apple thing” there, writing,

    “The endlessly cited Apple quote was not supposed to be about Apple. Actually it was about a whole of series of other tiny start-ups created by people who’d dropped out of IBM, Apple, and similar behemoths. (Of them it’s perfectly true.) The passage got horribly garbled at some point into something incoherent, I still can’t completely figure out how, was patched back together by the copyeditor into something that made logical sense but was obviously factually wrong. I should have caught it at the proofreading stage but I didn’t. I did catch it when the book first came out, tried to get the publisher to take it out, and have been continually trying since July. All to no avail. I have absolutely no idea why a book can go through eight editions and it’s impossible to pull out a couple lines of obviously incorrect text but they just keep telling me, no, I have to wait until July. Allow me to reassure the reader: You have absolutely no idea how frustrating this is, especially as the stupid line has been held out, reproduced, sent around in every conceivable way to suggest that nothing else in the book is likely to be factually accurate To which all I can reply is: well, notice how this is the only quote in the book that happens with. That one sentence gets repeated a thousand times. No other one does. That’s because it’s the only sentence flagrantly wrong like that. In fact, I’ve communicated with, or read reviews by, scholars of Greece, Mesopotamia, and Islam, Medievalists, Africanists, historians of Buddhism, and a wide variety of economists, etc, etc, and none have noticed any glaring errors—in fact, the most frequent reaction is that it’s remarkable that someone who is not an area specialist actually more or less gets it right (remember, these are scholars often loathe to admit even their own colleagues in the field get it more or less right.) The book is pretty meticulously researched and has stood up to scholarly review. The problem is I haven’t been able to get the one idiotic garbled sentence out despite my utmost endeavors. But it will be. They promise. Soon.”

    Trivial point: “Second, needs and wants aren’t the same thing.” I think the great 20th C philosopher and poet Robert A. Zimmerman was getting at much this point when he made the distinction between Ruthie and the debutante in his discussion about Mobile and Memphis. As he put it,

    And I say, “Aw come on now
    You know you know about my debutante”
    And she says, “Your debutante just knows what you need
    But I know what you want”

    • James Wimberley says:

      Like I said, Graeber is careless: a serious fault in an an academic writer. It’s a book for heaven’s sake, not a blog post. He also stands by the tribute nonsense. But we need him, warts and all.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I showed, to my own satisfaction anyway, that Marx’s famous slogan describes not a feasible programme but a contradiction – “the fundamental contradiction of welfare economics”: for needs are mismatched to talents (needs are roughly equal, talents very unequal), and you cannot optimise both at once.
    Neither this sentence nor the linked essay make any sense. Who is trying optimise needs or talents? What does that even mean?

    • James Wimberley says:

      I won’t try to defend the whole earlier post, though if commenter chris y is right, I have Marx on my side. The “optimising both” phrase is too elliptical. I meant, you can’t optimise an allocation of resources while satisfying both goals.

      • Brett Bellmore says:

        “The divergence creates a problem for communism. If you let people have what they want (however conditioned or free this choice may be), you are going to end up with a lot of obesity, drunkenness, and McMansions. Feasible, but scarcely Utopia. Alternatively you have to second-guess wants and dial back to “real” needs, which requires a second-guesser in authority, which brings you back to command allocation and socialism. So for now we’ll have to go with wants.”

        I’d say that needs or wants, the “from each” part has already guaranteed command allocation right from the starting gate.

        And, anyway, how does anyone talk about communism without mentioning mass murder? They seem to be inextricably linked in the real world, for anything larger than an extended family.

        • Ohio Mom says:

          Yeah, like out capitalist uptopia didn’t commit mass murder against Native Americans, and hasn’t enslaved anybody, either, or oppressed various other groups in other ways (e.g., “No Irish Need Apply,” immigration quotas, etc.). Sadly, don’t think our capacity as a species for abusing one another can be linked to any one economic philosophy.

  5. Maynard Handley says:

    Some very nice stuff here, James, which means I feel compelled to make a number of scattered and different observations:

    (a) It’s not even a difference between need vs want; there’s inside all of us a psychological struggle between “want” vs “like”. (Common examples of this are going to all the trouble to get that girl from the bar into bed, at which point you realize it just wasn’t worth the effort; or starting on that third pancake. This gets into the whole business of how much happiness — with measurement problems, how to integrate over time, etc — is generated by my buying A vs doing B.) Dan Gilbert talks about this in great detail and more eloquently than my examples; my point is that there are real problems here which ultimately boil down to “become better educated about yourself”. Economics and a perfect government can’t solve the problem of “I love Catherine, but Catherine loves Michael”, but I think that in the absence of self-knowledge (which most people don’t have), it can’t even solve the problem of optimizing for what I like rather than for what I want.

    (b) “Who is trying optimise needs or talents? What does that even mean?”
    If my optimal abilities (at least in my opinion) are dancing, then I will spend all my time dancing for your pleasure. If we all decide that our talents are in similar fields —you’re great at painting, he’s great at studying literature — but no-one feels their optimal talents lie in the fields of agriculture and animal husbandry, well, we have a problem…

    (c) I think probably a better example of a product that has taken off with pretty much zero advertising is Facebook.
    The distinction between “informative” advertising and “pusher” advertising is, in general difficult. When *I* look at Byte Magazine (play along and let’s pretend it’s twenty years ago when computer magazines full of ads still existed) I see a large collection of products each listing their specs — almost a catalog. When I look at Vogue, I see pretty dresses that are trying to gull foolish women who don’t need them into buying them. But I suspect the reverse is just as true when someone who care about fashion a lot, and PCs not a whit, looks at these two magazines.
    I’m not saying the distinction is moot, but I do think it’s sufficiently flawed that there is probably a better way to look at the issue that doesn’t so immediately run into contradiction.

    (d) There’s a grave danger in projecting back our food preferences today into the past. My understanding is that among real hunter gatherers (of which there may well be zero nowadays — maybe those guys in the Andaman Islands and a few in the Amazon) the prized cuts are the fatty organs, kidney first. Which suggests that liver would be high up on the list of desirable parts, not low down as you make it. Even today, Chinese, for example, prefer the dark meat of chicken over light, as of course opposed to the US.

    (e) Those were all minor issues. This is the serious one:

    I think the larger point here is that what we are after is a science of human co-ordination — how do we get large numbers of humans to work together (and to avoid working against each other) to achieve certain ends. To some extent the three modalities you offer up are successively more complicated ways of solving the problem. More complicated solutions become necessary as we engage in more specialized behavior.

    It is obvious to anyone that the modern world is so vast, so complicated, that each of us knows only the most minuscule part of it. No matter how talented we are, we know only a fraction of the science and technology necessary to create the devices we use, only a fraction of the biology that heals us and feeds us, only a fraction of the skills that entertain and amuse us. So, for the modern world to work, vast amounts of co-ordination are necessary, and for the modern world to work well, this co-ordination needs to work well.

    This should go without saying, but it needs to be said because there is a substantial cohort of powerful people in the United States who seem to honestly believe that we can run the world we have, with all the interaction we have, using the co-ordination mechanisms of 1776 and not a damn thing more.

    A full theory of co-ordination would go way beyond what economics does today precisely because there is a lot more to co-ordination than just money. There are obviously the ideas that economists have tried (some of them, more or less honestly) to incorporate — asymmetric information, externalities.
    But there’s also a whole world that economics pretends doesn’t exist — the fact of negative co-ordination, or people actively working against each other. This may be hidden (politics in the work place, employees working way less hard than they are capable of because they feel they have been treated badly and owe the company nothing), or it may be very visible — the original Luddites, Nigerians blowing up oil pipelines.
    There’s also the whole world of non-monetary reasons people co-operate — religion, patriotism, and similar ideas. Most people working in the sciences are clearly not doing it for the money. Even within the sciences, there are now a whole set of ideological motivations for why individuals do some work and not others, generally along the lines of “I KNOW that xyz is true, and when I prove it my peers will worship me”, but sometimes along the lines of “Even if it kills, I damn-well will prove that Dr Abc is an idiot and a fraud”.

    If we are ever to kill economics as it is practiced today (and at least some of us think this is necessary if society is not to destroy itself) I don’t think the answer is to simply try to abolish economics. That’s a sort of no-nothing attitude that has unfortunate ramifications, and which ignores such truth as does exist in current economics.
    I think the answer, rather, is an end-run around the field — the construction of a rigorous science of human co-ordination which, ultimately, can subsume economics, but shorn of all the nonsense that it carries today precisely because it’s a field neither based on real humans, nor based on the real issue (co-ordination in ALL its forms).

    • James Wimberley says:

      You nail why Graeber’s book, for all its faults, is important. We need an economics that takes people’s actual behaviour and psychology seriously. One way of getting at this is by the careful observation of contemporaries, including controlled experiments, which Kahneman and others have begun. Another is through history and anthropology, drawing on the huge pile of data on the variety of solutions humans have adopted and still adopt to the problem of allocating and moving around resources.

      You are also right that humans are both better and worse than homo economicus: mi-ange, mi-bète, wrote Pascal. Hunter-gatherers do more sharing than us, but are much more violent.

  6. NickT says:

    “durable luxury goods, blankets or baskets or something; compare the bronze vessels and slave girls that Homer’s heroes compete for”

    The prizes at the funeral games for Patroclus (Iliad XXIII) to which, I believe, James Wimberley is referring, include a lump of pig iron sufficient to last a long time for making weapons and chariot wheels, and iron is also the prize for an aborted archery contest. It might also be pointed out that slave-girls could be expected to be economically productive as e.g. weavers – and, in fact, the woman offered as a prize at the funeral games of Patroclus is explicitly stated to “understand many tasks” – and to have a specific exchange value of four oxen. Generally speaking, non-Classicists tend to assume that Homer is less economically savvy than was in fact the case.

    • Maynard Handley says:

      Oh come on Nick. This is like claiming that the reason gold medals are prized at the Olympics is because they lead to lucrative endorsement deals. Yes, of course they do sometimes lead to such deals, and yes, there are some people for whom that is the sole value of the gold medal; but to assume this represents the majority view is to completely miss the point.
      Likewise for, eg, military medals.

      • NickT says:

        Not at all, Maynard. Homer makes it quite explicit – if you are willing to take his words as worth something in this debate. Since you apparently haven’t read the relevant passage, here is the (slightly archaic, but readily available online) Murray translation:

        “But Achilles stayed the folk even where they were, and made them to sit in a wide gathering; and from his ships brought forth prizes; cauldrons and tripods and horses and mules and strong oxen and fair-girdled women and grey iron.

        [262] For swift charioteers first he set forth goodly prizes, a woman to lead away, one skilled in goodly handiwork, and an eared tripod of two and twenty measures for him that should be first; and for the second he appointed a mare of six years, unbroken, with a mule foal in her womb; and for the third he set forth a cauldron untouched of fire, a fair cauldron that held four measures, white even as the first; and for the fourth he appointed two talents of gold; and for the fifth a two-handled urn, yet untouched of fire.”

        Notice that we are for the most part looking at raw materials, working/breeding animals, a productive slave, gold etc – i.e. economically significant/valuable prizes. No laurel wreaths here. Homer was not, as you seem to think, writing about boys with toys, but about fighting men who were extremely interested in material wealth and fought for booty – as the poet makes clear. If you are going to drag in an irrelevant comparison to the modern Olympics, please, make your own bad arguments without implicitly attributing them to me.

    • James Wimberley says:

      Nice rejoinder. I stand corrected, and should not have used the extension. Homer’s warriors are already in transition to a market/exchange economy, even if the struggle for status (expressed in useful as well as useless objects) is their primary drive.
      I don’t think this correction changes what I (or, more to the point, Graeber) wrote about true gift exchange, itself typically a subtle struggle for status. Food, the primary object of necessity, is not apparently counted as proper for gifts.

      • James Wimberley says:

        Correction: they are, at any rate in in the Archaic Iron Age Greece of Homeric composition rather than the legendary Bronze Age of the story, in transition to, or already fully inside, an economy which combines market exchange (eg for metals) and patrimonial (eg for weaving) household production. Production in the large household of a chieftain like Odysseus falls into the category of hierarchical (Graeber) or socialist (me) organisation.

  7. Maynard Handley says:

    Nick, I’m willing to admit that my knowledge of Home is that of a dilettante, not of a serious scholar. But my recollection is that it is FULL of passages talking about how A did this for glory” and “B did this for revenge”. There are precious few passages along the lines of “then Agamemnon spent the night calculating how much the war had already cost, how much loot he expected to pick up, and concluded the operation was still probably in profit”.
    Of course soldiers loot, but the looting is done because it’s a way to pay off accumulated debts, and because the booty is available — it’s not the POINT of the exercise.

    James’ point (which I agree with) is that the point of the whole exercise is ritual and one-upsmanship — I’m rich enough to give away valuable prizes, and *I’m* fast enough to have won first prize in such-and-such a contest. I think you’re too fixated on the idea that the prizes are valuable because they have direct utility; that’s not the point, the point is that they are valuable (Achilles is rich) and they are prizes (the winner is better than everyone else). After all, Achilles could just as well have given first prize is 50 talents of silver, second prize is twenty talents, third prize is five talents. He didn’t do that then, and we (mostly) don’t even do that now. To ignore this point, to not even ask why we bother with goods rather than coins, why we bother with this spectacle, why he has races rather than simply pay out a small bonus to everyone, or payout based on who’s killed how many Trojans since the war began, is to miss the entire thrust of this post and its comments.

    This matters because one of the sicknesses of our age (like every age) is anachronism, an insistence that the past was essentially the same as the present (and therefore the ways of the present are the correct ways for all humanity for all time). This looks silly when Renaissance painters portray Roman legionaries around a crucified Christ wearing the armor of fifteen century Italy, but it’s (IMHO) just as silly to project the obsession of our current times with the economic value of things backwards.
    Of course we have limited knowledge of Bronze Age Greece, but we have plenty of knowledge of Medieval Europe, knowledge which shows us a (to our eyes) reckless and puerile lack of interest in such petty matters as the economic cost of war — what mattered was the glory. Those monarchs who were intelligent enough to keep their states out of wars (and generally to pay off accumulated debts and enrich the lands) generally did not get “the Great” added to their names. An example might be Henry VII of England, who comes across as a very modern man living at the tail end of the Middle Ages, and surrounded by men and a world who thought very differently from him. Compare with Richard the Lionheart who, to my eyes, didn’t do a damn thing useful during his life, but did plenty of soldiering against random foes, apparently to the all-round approval of his peers.

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