“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

on markets and choicemaking

I'm rerunning this post, with some changes, from 2005. I want to pick up Heilbroner's critique of the idea of choice by reviewing the controversy between the young Macaulay and James Mill concerning utilitarianism, which, on the surface, pitted Macaulay's conservatism against Mill's radicalism. The subject of Macaulay and utilitarianism is a confused one, as the older Macaulay used Bentham as a template for undertaking the production, ex nihilo, of a code of laws for the British Raj. A topic around which swirls much scholarly conflict.

But on to this post.

I stayed for a couple days in Malinalco in 2004 as the guest of a friend of my friend, M. One day, M. wanted to get some tomatoes and some underpants for her little boy. We walked around the cobbled streets. It was late afternoon. M. wanted to complete our task before the sun went down, because after dark, the pedestrian in Malinalco is prone to attack from the packs of dogs that suddenly seem to materialize out of the shadows. Residents have gates to shut after dark, so they can avoid unwanted canine intrusion.

To get the underwear, we went to a few shops. None of them had the kind M. was looking for. To get the tomatoes, we didn’t go to a shop. We went to the market.

Like every Mexican village, there are some streets in the center of town upon which, every day, venders pitch their stands. Some markets are elaborate, with vendors of Barbie dolls, sunglasses, hats, and computer games pitched next to vendors of cucumbers, watermelons, corn, and tacos. Some are less elaborate. An economist, looking at these structures, might well see materialization of the purest form of market – the one to one relationship between vendor and consumer is such that prices actually reflect real dickering, supply and demand in action.

However, since Karl Polyani’s day, economists have seen something else.
In the Summer, 2004 Social Research, dedicated to Robert Heilbroner, the economist who died last week, there were two articles concerned with Polyani and Heilbroner’s notions of the market. In one of the articles, “Heilbroner and Polanyi, a shared vision”, Robert Dimand notices that the two writers both felt that the key to economic history is not given to us by the neo-classical notion of the natural market. Rather, like Karl Polyani, the market as we know it on the larger, global scale – capitalisme, quoi - can only be understood in the context of its managed overthrow of pre-capitalist exchange systems.

Here are the opening grafs of Dimand’s article:

IN THE OPENING PARAGRAPH OF HIS INTRODUCTION TO A COLLECTION OF debates among Marxist historians and economists over The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism that were initiated by Dobb (1946), Rodney Hilton (1976: 9) recalled that Karl Polanyi (1948) "thought that Dobb had retained from Marx what was bad (the labour theory of value) whilst discarding what he, Polanyi, thought was Marx's "fundamental insight into the historically limited nature of market organisation.'" Beyond condescending praise of Polanyi's review for "a serious attitude to the problems of a Marxist analysis" and passing mention in the next paragraph that R. H. Tawney's review of Dobb "did not raise any of the general theoretical problems which Polanyi hinted at," Hilton (and the other contributors reprinted in the volume) proceeded to ignore Polanyi's challenge as thoroughly as any mainstream neoclassical economist could have done.

In contrast, Robert Heilbroner shared the fundamental insight that Polanyi derived from Marx, and brought it to the attention of millions of readers. Over four decades and in 11 editions of The Making of Economic Society, Heilbroner examined the replacement of socially embedded provisioning by the market as a means of organizing society and production during the Industrial Revolution, while in seven editions of The World Philosophers that spanned nearly half a century he explored the accompanying changes in how economists thought about the economy. In his vision both of how the economy had changed and how economic thought had interacted with these changes, Heilbroner stood shoulder to shoulder with Polanyi.”

One of the things philosophers have learned from Freud and Heidegger is that forgetting is a manufactured act – although the manufacturers may not quite understand their own intentions or the process that went into them. There were two, overlapping forgettings that constituted the ideological foundation of the Cold War in the American sphere. One was the forgetting of how this “replacement of socially embedded provisioning by the market as a means of organizing society and production during the Industrial Revolution” took place. This forgetting foreclosed on both the ravages of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America, and the cost of producing free market economies in the colonial sphere. The terror famines that occurred in Ireland and India under British rule, for instance, were dropped as a subject of discussion, or – in the case of Ireland – sentimentalized. It took Mike Davis’ book, The Victorian Holocaust, to revive interest in a series of famines that, at the turn of the century (circa 1900) in England, were well known to any educated English socialist.

The other great forgetting was about the wars that bubbled up in the capitalist world, finally ending in World War I. In fact, the whole history of the Russian Revolution was systematically distorted by cutting out the crucial facts of the war on the Eastern front – the senseless slaughter of up to two million Russians. Given the shadow of that fact, the bitter Civil War between the Red and White forces could no longer be told as a morality tale in which bad Reds killed wonderfully royalist Whites. Nor could one construct the nice myth of Lenin as the father of the Gulag with quite the straightforward indignation required, if one asks about the capitalist forces in Britain and Germany and France that authored a war that decimated 8 million people. That this slaughter was crowned, in hindsight, as a war in defense of democracy -- when, of course, it was a war in defense of a particular power arrangement among capitalist states, the governing classes of which were agreed on the necessity of perpetuating white power -- was a grim joke.

Polyani and Heilbroner, however, were exceptions to the Cold War rule. They would notice, about those markets, the use of public space, the margins of profit that were not derived from the rational bickering between seller and consumer but often on quite seemingly irrational prejudices on both sides of the buyer/seller divide, indicating different regimes of values. They both questioned the gauge of efficiency in the role of these markets – something M. and I discovered in our odyssey in search of underwear, here.

These issues were Heilbroner’s specialty. In the same issue of Social Research there is an exemplary Heilbroner piece, Economics as Universal Science, which quietly mocks those who, like Gary Becker or certain members of the Chicago School, claim that economics can act as the master-science for studying human behavior (plus, of course, a thrilling dose of sociobiology).

Heilbroner starts off by asking where we locate economies, if they have such modeling force in telling us about human behavior. His own premise goes like this:

“I shall undertake this task by starting from the premise that the continuity of society requires structured ways of assuring social order. These ways range from the routines and habits of daily life to formal institutions of law and order. In referring to this spectrum I shall use the term "sociological" as a portmanteau term that covers the order-bestowing influences of private life, of which incomparably the most important are the pressures of socialization exerted by parents on their offspring--pressures that teach children how to fulfill the roles expected of them in adult life. The second term, "political," I use in the conventional sense of the institutional means by which some group or class within society can enforce its will over other groups or classes. The definition of these terms is less important than my intention to describe a protective canopy of behavior-shaping arrangements, part informal and private, part formal and public, that protects the community from actions that would threaten its continued existence.

“Both the sociological and political elements in this canopy are fundamentally concerned with an aspect of social order and coherence that is usually referred to only obliquely. This aspect is the general state of obedience or acquiescence without which the armature of rights and privileges that defines any social order could be retained only by force and overt repression. With his customary candor, Adam Smith called this necessary aspect of society "subordination": "Civil government," he wrote, "suppose[s] a certain subordination." We shall return many times to this theme, but the challenge it raises should now be clear. It is the disconcerting idea that economics is socialization or
subordination in disguise.”

Heilbroner sees, however, that the ‘imperial” economist, as he calls him, can give two responses to the placement of the socius at the center of society. One is that the socius is actually a network of decisions, and hence of choices. Economics is the science that is going to rationalize that hodge-podge of choices by gauging it according to an optimal model that follows a simple rule: all choices are motivated by the perception of an advantage. It doesn’t matter if the perception is wrong, or distorted, or ignores long term advantages, etc. What matters is the logic of advantage.

The other answer, Heilbroner thinks, is to make economics the study of the division of labor that lies at the heart of the social order. Thus, subordination can again be wrapped into economics.

Heilbroner’s consideration of these options in the light of what Polyani calls the Great Transformation – the emergence of an international, hegemonic capitalist system in the last two hundred some years – is more insightful than the guff one usually gets from economists. Here are two more grafs to chew on:

"Economics thereby takes the economic system to be the living model of capitalism, containing within its categories and conceptions everything that is essential for its comprehension. It is here that economics betrays its fatal limitations as a universal science, and its knavish consequences as an imperial doctrine.

"The first such consequence is that economics itself appears as a neutral rather than a charged explanation system for capitalism. This becomes apparent in many ways. A term of great importance such as "efficiency," for example, is regarded as a quasi-engineering criterion, rather than one whose unspoken purpose is to maximize production as a profit-making--not a purely engineering--endeavor. Similar unnoticed sociopolitical meanings cling to other such terms, including "production" itself, which is counted in the national income accounts only insofar as it results in commodities, not use-values. In much the same fashion, the fundamental unit of the economic system is taken to be the rational maximizing "individual." The economic system is thus conceived as a society of hermits, not as an order of groups and classes.

"This concealment of a social order is most clearly evidenced when we notice the manner in which economics rationalizes functional income distribution. Marx wrote scathingly of Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre, each entitled to receive a reward for the contributions each has made to the social product, but modern economics has forgotten the fetishisms that Marx exposed. Of even greater importance, it has no explanation for, or interest in, the curious fact that the reward paid as net profit, which goes only to owners of capital, gives them only a "residual" claim on output, after all factors, including capital, have been paid their marginal products. In view of the repeated demonstrations of economics that the tendency of the market system is to eliminate such residuals as mere transient imperfections of the system, one must be a sociologist or political theorist to explain why owners of capital seem so eager to protect these dubious claims. Thus the manner in which the market supports the class structure of capitalism is a matter before which economics is silent--indeed, a matter of which it is, in some sense, unaware."

Monday, January 31, 2011

treasure hunting - the archaic economy of tomorrow!

Remark, here, on the double aspect of this transaction, at once modern and archaic. The modern aspect is found in the whole question of value: Pons and his fellow experts in bricabracology are commodifying, instead of monumentalizing, the past. About this aspect, I want to say a lot in this essay. I’m more interested, here, in the archaic aspect – that “merchandise of chance” - implicit in the very activity of treasure seeking in what the economists would call a secondary market. What is premodern here – and what, in fact, was never liquidated in modernity – is a way of thinking about treasure, about gifts, about bargaining, and about value.

I know about treasure from childhood, and from some vague memories of my grandmother, who was, during part of her life at least, very much the antique collector. In fact, one of my strongest childhood memories is reading in a rattan chair from the Philippines that erected itself, like a queen in shabby exile, on her back porch, during hot summer days. Surely I read Treasure Island sitting there.

In childhood, wealth is treasure, from the money saved in piggy banks to digging for imaginary pirate’s loot. I went on expeditions into the ‘woods’ around our neighborhood in suburban Atlanta with my friend Mark, tracing back streams into land that was already surveyed for the next wave of housing, looking for likely caches of Confederate gold.

The connection between the hidden and wealth reveals a mode of thinking about wealth from the point of view not of earning it – not of labor – but of finding it, of cutting the all too mortal tie of work. Yet the utopian, land of cockaigne aspect of things is only one determinant of the treasure myth. Treasures are guarded. Treasures are wealth in their most guarded form from the evil eye of the other. Treasures are about the powerful notion of wealth that has prevailed in agricultural based economies before the world of economic growth – before the world, that is, in which economic growth was expected, even assumed. This was a world ruled over by Nemesis – in which all the things of the world were scarce.

As Balzac explains, the pleasure that Pons took in his objets d’art, or the pleasure taken by the real collectors of Balzac’s acquaintance, or, I daresay, the pleasure taken by my grandmother, was greatly increased by the disparity between the price he (and them) acquired the piece for and its ‘value’. That value, like the value of any commodity, is realized in the market place. But the pleasure is realized in the finding of the treasure, which is materialized in the history of the bargain. Here, the forces engaged have to do with something like the hau of the Maoris, the spirit of the thing mentioned in Mauss’ Essay on the Gift. That spirit is engaged in the contests of ‘prestation’ – of giftgiving – that are at the center of Mauss’ essay. It is also engaged in the fan given to Presidente Marville, a fan bearing a signature by Watteau affirming its authenticity.
Anthropologically, these forces, these exchanges, are not captured within the framework of capitalist rationality.
In “ Treasure-Hunting: A Magical Motif in Law, Folklore, and Mentality, Württemberg, 1606 –1770”, by Johannes Dillinger and Petra Feld, there are a number of accounts of treasure hunting in Europe in the early modern era. One begins with a certain Margaretha Schütterin, the wife of a stonemason in Schwaikheim, who saw a ghost on day in the Winter of 1704. The ghost asked her to help him and 16 other souls (who also, apparently, appeared to her) who had been walking for 240 years by finding a treasure they had deposited in Schütterin’s house, hiding it from rampaging soldiers. They were monks in life, and needed the release in the afterlife which would follow upon Schütterin uncovering the treasure and using it, in part, for charitable works.

One of the monks explained that she had been chosen to do this because she had the same horoscope as Christ. Schütterin did what she could, which was to gather money from her friends and family to comply with the various tasks that would free the ghosts and lead to the treasure. This included paying for masses to be read, buying candles, and giving alms. By these means she extracted 912 Gulden out of a local baker, David Fischer.
“When he doubted her assertions, she made him believe that there was a competition between potential creditors. Margaretha Schütterin managed to establish a sort of `investment trust’ of treasure-hunters by promising them profits of up to 100,000 Gulden. The use she allegedly made of the money given to her, i.e. to donate it to pious causes in Catholic churches, could not easily be checked by the creditors. She finally left her husband whom she probably managed to deceive with her ghost story, too, and fled with the money. When Fischer denounced Margaretha SchuÈ tterin after her flight, he was sentenced to a fine of 14 Gulden for unlicensed treasurehunting, although he maintained that she had assured him that the treasure hunt had been permitted by the duke.”


Dillinger and Feld turn here, to explain the obsession with treasure, to George Foster’s work on the limited good – or the zero sum economic attitudes of Mexican peasants. Foster’s paper is a famous and disputed foray into the peasant mentalite. Clearly, he is working in the same vein as Mauss and – though Foster might never have read him – George Bataille, who developed a metaphysics of the abject and the sovereign built on the kind of generosity and madness inscribed in the society of the limited good. This is Foster’s explanation of it.
In this paper I am concerned with the nature of the cognitive orientation of peasants, and with interpreting and relating peasant behavior as described by anthropologists to this orientation. I am also concerned with the implications of this orientation-and related behavior to the problem of the peasant's participation in the economic growth of the country to which he may belong. Specifically, I will outline what I believe to be the dominant theme in the cognitive orientation of classic peasant societies,* show how characteristic peasant behavior seems to flow from this orientation, and attempt to show that this behavior—however incompatible with national economic growth—is not only highly rational in the context of the cognition that determines it, but that for the maintenance of peasant society in its classic form, it is indispensable.4 The kinds of behavior that have been suggested as adversely influencing economic growth are, among many, the "luck" syndrome, a "fatalistic" outlook, inter- and intra-familial quarrels, difficulties in cooperation, extraordinary ritual expenses by poor people and the problems these expenses pose for capital accumulation, and the apparent lack of what the psychologist McClelland (1961) has called "need for Achievement." I will suggest that peasant participation in national development can be hastened not by stimulating a psychological process, the need for achievement, but by creating economic and other opportunities that will encourage the peasant to abandon his traditional and increasingly unrealistic cognitive orientation for a new one that reflects the realities of the modern world.

2. The model of cognitive orientation that seems to me best to account for peasant behavior is the "Image of Limited Good." By "Image of Limited Good" I mean that broad areas of peasant behavior are patterned in such fashion as to suggest that peasants view their social, economic, and natural universes—their total environment—as one in which all of the desired things in life such as land, wealth, health, friendship and love, manliness and honor, respect and status, power and influence, security and safety, exist in finite quantity and are always in short supply, as far as the peasant is concerned. Not only do these and all other "good things" exist in finite and limited quantities, but in addition there is no way directly within peasant power to increase the available quantities. It is as if the obvious fact of land shortage in a densely populated area applied to all other desired things: not enough to go around. "Good," like land, is seen as inherent in nature, there to be divided and re-divided, if necessary, but not to be augmented.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

the modern and the archaic in a sale


Continuing the post I put up yesterday. Get used to this, scattered and few readers of LI!



Sylvaine Pons, the ‘poor cousin’ in Balzac’s Cousin Pons, is first seen as an incredibly ugly, elderly man hurrying one afternoon through the streets of Paris, holding a package that evidently contains something fragile. He is dressed in the style of the 1810s and 20s, in the Paris of the 1840s – a fact that leads Balzac to treat him, and in fact the whole Parisian scene, as something ‘archaeologic’. It is a term that resonates throughout the novel, foriIf Pons is a relic, he is also the man with the passion for relics. He is a treasure hunter. His tragedy unfolds within a triangle of wants: 1.) the want of sex, denied to Pons when he was young on account of his ugliness and his lack of prospects; 2. the want of bibelots, objets d’art, in the pursuit of which Pons has become an expert, chasing down the stray treasures of the ancien regime for almost forty years; and 3) the want of the stomach, the one desire that brings our man down. Pons, as a musician, enjoyed enough of a vogue in the 1820s that he could dine out. And just as his desire for beautiful objects is a compensation for his lack of sexual satisfaction, his desire for good food is fed by a stomach and tongue – organs that Balzac, in the course of the book, treats almost as independent systems of intelligence, another kind of sex – so too he becomes an epicure in his way. It is this that leads him to become, little by little as his vogue wanes, a man who has to plan his way into the houses and to the tables of those rich people who are his ‘cousins’.

After treating us to the archaeological spectacle of Pons, that afternoon, in the Paris street – digging outward towards his deeper history, and that of the world in which he collects his objects, a world in which there exist real people like Sauvageot (an actual figure, a poor musician “like Pons, without a great fortune as well, [who] proceded in the same manner by the same means with the same love of art, with the same hatred against the illustrious rich who have cabinets made for themselves in competition with the merchants”) – Balzac takes us down to earth, or rather to the real-time moment in which Pons arrives at his destination – his cousin Camusot’s house (now the President Marville) – and presents the woman of the house, the Presidente Marville, with his find: a fan painted by Watteau. Let’s underline the fact that the fan is presented as a gift. And it is an aspect of Marville’s vulgarity that she not only does not recognize the name Watteau, but that she orders Pons’ meal, in his hearing, as a counter-gift – violating the rule that spaces out giftgiving, and making it seem like a return, an exchange.

I am fascinated by the complex economics of the scene. Here is Pons, trying to explain to the inexpressibly stupid Presidente Marville what he has done for her in finding the fan in a place on Rue de Lappe, at a brocanteur’s – which, according to a 1786 dictionary of official terms (Dictionnaire universal de police) is he who traffics in diverse and chance merchandise (“marchandise de hazard”)”:

“"I know all those sharpers," continued Pons, "so I asked him, 'Anything fresh to-day, Daddy Monistrol?'—(for he always lets me look over his lots before the big buyers come)—and at that he began to tell me how Lienard, that did such beautiful work for the Government in the Chapelle de Dreux, had been at the Aulnay sale and rescued the carved panels out of the clutches of the Paris dealers, while their heads were running on china and inlaid furniture.—'I did not do much myself,' he went on, 'but I may make my traveling expenses out of this,' and he showed me a what-not; a marvel! Boucher's designs executed in marquetry, and with such art!—One could have gone down on one's knees before it.—'Look, sir,' he said, 'I have just found this fan in a little drawer; it was locked, I had to force it open. You might tell me where I can sell it'—and with that he brings out this little carved cherry-wood box.—'See,' says he, 'it is the kind of Pompadour that looks like decorated Gothic.'—'Yes,' I told him, 'the box is pretty; the box might suit me; but as for the fan, Monistrol, I have no Mme. Pons to give the old trinket to, and they make very pretty new ones nowadays; you can buy miracles of painting on vellum cheaply enough. There are two thousand painters in Paris, you know.'—And I opened out the fan carelessly, keeping down my admiration, looked indifferently at those two exquisite little pictures, touched off with an ease fit to send you into raptures. I held Mme. de Pompadour's fan in my hand! Watteau had done his utmost for this.—'What do you want for the what-not?'—'Oh! a thousand francs; I have had a bid already.'—I offered him a price for the fan corresponding with the probable expenses of the journey. We looked each other in the eyes, and I saw that I had my man. I put the fan back into the box lest my Auvergnat should begin to look at it, and went into ecstasies over the box; indeed, it is a jewel.—'If I take it,' said I, 'it is for the sake of the box; the box tempts me. As for the what-not, you will get more than a thousand francs for that. Just see how the brass is wrought; it is a model. There is business in it. . . . It has never been copied; it is a unique specimen, made solely for Mme. de Pompadour'—and so on, till my man, all on fire for his what-not, forgets the fan, and lets me have it for a mere trifle, because I have pointed out the beauties of his piece of Riesener's furniture. So here it is; but it needs a great deal of experience to make such a bargain as that. It is a duel, eye to eye; and who has such eyes as a Jew or an Auvergnat?"
The old artist's wonderful pantomime, his vivid, eager way of telling the story of the triumph of his shrewdness over the dealer's ignorance, would have made a subject for a Dutch painter; but it was all thrown away upon the audience. Mother and daughter exchanged cold, contemptuous glances.—"What an oddity!" they seemed to say.
"So it amuses you?" remarked Mme. de Marville. The question sent a cold chill through Pons; he felt a strong desire to slap the Presidente.”
And who among Balzac’s readers, at this point, does not?
Remark, here, on the double aspect of this transaction, at once modern and archaic. The modern aspect is found in the whole question of value: Pons and his fellow experts in bricabracology are commodifying, instead of monumentalizing, the past. About this aspect, I want to say a lot – but let me do this later. I’m more interested, here, in the archaic aspect – that “merchandise of chance” - implicit in the very activity of treasure seeking in what the economists would call a secondary market. What is a treasure?