Signs of the Economic Apocalypse, 12-26-06
Gold closed at 622.30 dollars an ounce on Friday, up 0.5% from $619.00 at the close of the previous Friday. The dollar closed at 0.7617 euros Friday, down 0.4% from 0.7645 at the close of the week before. The euro closed at 1.3128 dollars compared to $1.3080 for the week. Gold in euros would be 474.02 euros an ounce, up 0.2% from 473.24 euros at the end of the week before. Oil closed at 62.41 dollars a barrel Friday, down 1.6% from $63.43 at the close of the previous week. Oil in euros would be 47.54 euros a barrel, down 2.0% from 48.49 for the week. The gold/oil ratio closed at 9.97, up 2.2% from 9.76 at the end of the week before. In U.S. stocks, the Dow closed at 12,343.22 Friday, down 0.8% from 12,445.52 for the week. The NASDAQ closed at 2,401.18, down 2.3% from 2,457.20 at the close of the previous Friday. In U.S. interest rates, the yield on the ten-year U.S. Treasury note closed at 4.62%, up three basis points from 4.59 for the week.
Since it’s Christmas, what better time to think about the deeper significance of gift exchange? In the weeks leading up to Christmas, a steady stream of reports about retail performance is released and scrutinized for clues on the health of the economy. Any retailer knows how important the gift-giving season is for the whole year’s performance. What is the meaning of all this gift exchange in a neoliberal economy? Are holidays like Christmas mere survivals of archaic practices serving contemporary economic functions in late capitalism, or is there more to the story?
The exchange of gift has always been somewhat difficult, as we will see, for classical economics to understand. See, for example, this piece by James Surowiecki:
The Gift Right Out
Christmas shopping in the U.S. has been a reliable source of anxiety and stress for well over a century. “As soon as the Thanksgiving turkey is eaten, the great question of buying Christmas presents begins to take the terrifying shape it has come to assume in recent years,” the New York Tribune wrote in 1894. But recently millions of Americans, instead of trudging through malls in a desperate quest for the perfect sweater, have switched to buying gift cards. The National Retail Federation expects that Americans will buy close to twenty-five billion dollars’ worth of gift cards this season, up thirty-four per cent from last year, with two-thirds of shoppers intending to buy at least one card; gift cards now rival apparel as the most popular category of present. This is, in part, because of clever corporate marketing: stores like gift cards because they amount to an interest-free loan from customers, and because recipients usually spend more than the amount on the card—a phenomenon that retailers tenderly refer to as “uplifting” spending. But the boom in gift cards is also a rational response to the most important economic fact about Christmas gift giving: most of us just aren’t that good at it.
We all know that bad gifts inflict a cost—just think of the rigid smiles that greet an unwanted floral tie or Josh Rouse CD—but it’s surprising how big that cost can be. Since the early nineteen-nineties, Joel Waldfogel, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania, has been doing a series of studies in which college students are asked to put a value on the presents they receive. Waldfogel’s main finding is that, in general, people spend a lot more on presents than they’re worth to those who receive them, a phenomenon that he calls “the deadweight loss of Christmas.” A deadweight loss is created when you spend eighty dollars to give me a sweater that I would spend only sixty-five dollars to buy myself. Waldfogel estimates that somewhere between ten and eighteen per cent of seasonal spending becomes deadweight loss, which means that billions of dollars a year is now going to waste.
Why aren’t we better at gift giving? A lot of the time, we don’t know the people we’re shopping for all that well. Much of the deadweight loss that Waldfogel found was caused by older people, who may not be attuned to what their young relatives really want, and are therefore more likely to give gifts that recipients value less. More surprisingly, though, we’re also bad at buying for the people we’re closest to. A recent study by the marketing professors Davy Lerouge and Luk Warlop finds that familiarity can actually lead us astray. They ran a series of experiments with long-standing couples in which the partners tried to predict each other’s taste in furniture—a sort of academic version of “The Newlywed Game”—and found that, in general, people did a poor job of it. In making predictions, people tend to rely on what Lerouge and Warlop call “pre-stored beliefs and expectations,” rather than paying close attention to what their partner really liked. People did a good job of predicting their partner’s preferences, in fact, only when they shared those preferences. My idea of what you want, it turns out, has a lot to do with what I want.
Does our incompetence at gift giving matter? Many would say no. Waldfogel, after all, measured the value of presents in purely monetary terms—he explicitly told his subjects to ignore sentimental attachments. But sentiment obviously has a tremendous amount to do with how we respond to gifts. A study by the economists Sara Solnick and David Hemenway shows that we value unrequested gifts more than presents we ask for, because we assume that the former show more thought. And we also go to great lengths to demonstrate that a gift is more than a dollar sign: we snip off price tags, clip the prices off book jackets, and ask for gift receipts that hide the cost of the present.
The problem is that, while we say that gift giving is about sentiment, not about money, we act as if the best expressions of sentiment came in expensive packages. Around a hundred and fifty billion dollars is spent on gifts during the holiday season every year; this year, the average American expects to spend close to a thousand dollars on presents. And, much as sentiment counts, we don’t let it stand in the way of getting what we want: according to a survey by the National Retail Federation, forty per cent of America expects to return at least one holiday gift this year, and an American Express survey found that roughly a third of respondents had “re-gifted” presents. If we’re spending all this time and money on gifts, the fact that so much of it is wasted matters.
An economist might suggest that the solution is to abandon the pretense and simply start exchanging small piles of money. The boom in gift cards is a kind of socially tolerable version of this: the cards are somehow more personal than cash, and they’re also not going to be wasted on an unwanted gift. But Waldfogel’s studies also suggest a very different solution: if most of the presents we buy are going to be less valuable in monetary terms than in sentimental ones, then there’s no reason to believe that the more expensive gift is a better gift. In fact, the more we spend at Christmas, the more we waste. We might actually be happier—and we’d certainly be wealthier—if we exchanged small, well-considered gifts rather than haunting the malls. Calculating the deadweight loss of Christmas gifts is a coldhearted project, but it leads to a paradoxically warmhearted conclusion: the fact of giving may be more important than what you give. Start with “Bah, humbug” and you somehow end up with “God bless us, every one.”
You can see that economists have trouble thinking in terms of gift and counter-gift. Indeed, as evidenced by the growth of gift cards, cash gifts, and gift registries, so do members of neoliberal societies. Anthropologists, starting with Marcel Mauss in the 1920s with his Essai sur le don, or in English translation, The Gift: Form and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (New York: Norton, 1967) identified gift exchange as something much more fundamental to society. It was not only a way for goods to circulate in a fashion antithetical, perhaps, to the way indentified in classical economics but also a primary way that social ties are formed and maintained.
Mauss, while looking primarily at primitive and archaic societies, was explicit in his belief that the values of a gift society could be encouraged in the twentieth century. Later we will look at some contemporary work in the Maussian tradition which sees the gift economy as fundamental to even modern, neo-liberal society. They see gift exchange as one of three modes of circulation (market, state and gift). Or, as Alain Caille put it, “goods and services do not circulate only according to market laws or to the redistributive rules of the state… There is a third form of circulation that is as important, in fact more important, than the other two—circulation according to the gift and counter-gift.” (Jacques Godbout with Alain Caille, The World of the Gift, Montreal: McGill – Queen’s University Press, 1998, p. vii)
Two non-conformist economists, Francois Perroux (1963) and Serge Christophe Kolm (1984), have identified three complementary economic systems: the market, ruled by self-interest; government planning, ruled by constraint; and that of the gift. (Godbout, p. 15)
Gifts are inherently paradoxical. At the same time freely given and given under obligation, for both selfless and selfish reasons, how can they be characterized? What is clear is that gift exchange can’t be reduced to classical economic maximization strategies. Ties and bonds between groups and individuals are at stake, not just profit and loss. Here is Mauss:
We have repeatedly pointed out how this economy of gift-exchange fails to conform to the principles of so-called natural economy or utilitarianism. The phenomena in the economic life of the people we have studied… and the survivals of these traditions in societies closer to ours and even in our own custom, are disregarded in the schemes adopted by the few economists who have tried to compare the various forms of economic life.
The notion of value exists in these societies. Very great surpluses, even by European standards, are amassed; they are expended often at pure loss with tremendous extravagance and without a trace of mercenariness; among things exchanged are tokens of wealth, a kind of money. All this very rich economy is nevertheless imbued with religious elements; money still has its magical power and is linked to clan and individual. Diverse economic activities—for example, the market—are impregnated with ritual and myth; they retain a ceremonial character, obligatory and efficacious; they have their own ritual and etiquette…
On the contrary, it is something other than utility which makes goods circulate in these multifarious and fairly enlightened societies. Clans, age groups and sexes, in view of the many relationships ensuing from contacts between them, are in a state of perpetual economic effervescence which has little about it that is materialistic; it is much less prosaic than our sale and purchase, hire of services and speculations. (Mauss, The Gift, pp. 69-70)
…Let us test now the notion to which we have opposed the ideas of the gift and disinterestedness; that of interest and the individual pursuit of utility. This agrees no better with previous theories. If similar motives animate Trobriand and American chiefs and Andaman clasn and once animated generous Hindu or Germanic noblemen in their giving and spending, they are not to be found in the cold reasoning of the business man, banker or capitalist. In those earlier civilizations one had interests but they differed from those of our time. There, if one hoards, it is only to spend later on, to put people under obligations and to win followers. Exchanges are made as well, but only of luxury objects like clothing and ornaments, or feasts and other things that have to be consumed at once. Return is made with interest, but that is done in order to humiliate the original donor or exchange partner and not merely to recompense him for the loss that the lapse of time causes him.
The victory of rationalism and mercantilism was required before the notions of profit and the individual were given currency and raised to the level of principles. One can date roughly—after Mandeville and his Fable des Abeilles—the triumph of the notion of individual interest…
It is only our Western societies that quite recently turned man into an economic animal. But we are not yet all animals of the same species. In both lower and upper classes pure irrational expenditure is in current practice: it is still characteristic of some French noble houses…. (Mauss, pp. 73-4)
Jacques Godbout has taken Mauss’s work and applied it to late twentieth century society. According to Godbout, the gift culture is alive and well in late capitalist society but it offers a challenge to neoliberal thinking:
The modern realist refuses to believe in the existence of the gift because the gift is seen as diametrically opposed to material, egoistic self-interest. A “true” gift can only be disinterested, freely given. And, as such a thing is impossible (“there is no free lunch”), the gift, the genuine gift, is equally impossible, with the result that their seemingly altruistic actions are really to their advantage. On the one hand, as we have said, such denial allows them to conform to the egoistic morality of the time. But, on a deeper level, by denying that their motivations are disinterested, they attest to the reality of the gift. For, as Mary Douglas has shown, the free gift does not exist—except insofar as it is a sign of antisocial behavior—for the gift serves above all to establish relations, and a relationship with no hope of return (from the individual receiving the gift or his substitute), a one-way relationship, disinterested and motiveless, would be no relationship at all. Beyond the abstract ideas of egoism and altruism and the rigid antithesis between a supposedly real moment of radical disinterest, we must think of the gift not as a series of unilateral and discontinuous acts but as an element in a relationship. (Godbout, p. 7)
Neoliberals and economists, however, will counter that,
It is true that there still are occasions set aside for the exchanging of gifts, and opporunities remain to show charity, offer rounds in bars, feel indebted, be “outdone,” or, on the other hand, to free oneself of onerous, symbolic debts through recourse to money and merchandise. But these occasions are few and far between, isolated islands in a sea of utilitarian calculation. This hypothesis of the bare survival, occasional and discontinuous, of the gift, is, however contradicted by our most recent observations. These suggest that we must see the gift as the basis for a system, a system that is nothing less than the social system as a whole. The gift is the embodiment of that system of relationships that is strictly social, in that these relations cannot be reduced to factors of power of economic interest.
We are prevented from seeing this—although it is virtually self-evident—by the way contemporary thought processes associated utilitarianism, on which we all depend, lead us to formulate questions. According to that way of thinking the gift does not exist, either because only a truly disinterested gift would be a genuine gift and it is impossible to be disinterested, or because the authentic gift requires real altruism, which is unattainable since the altruist mustw have some egoistic reason for being an altruist. It is important to recognize that these tautological dichotomies, which force us to think only in terms of the opposition of two terms, create a smoke screen which prevents us from seeing the truth. (Godbout, pp. 13-4)
According to Godbout,
Archaic and traditional societies thought of themselves in the language of the gift, a language that defined their being-in-the-world and their distinctiveness, particularly in terms of primary social bonds (bonds desired for themselves) and refusal to lapse into historicity. It was therefore within the imaginative and sometimes frankly ideological space of the gift that they experienced and understood not only the community of humans and individual equality but also authority, law, hierarchy, exploitation, domination, and power. As modernity defines itself first and foremost by its absolute refusal of tradition, it is not surprising that it thinks it can assert its freedom by ridding itself of a language that seems coextensive with tradition, the language of the gift—and that it reserves its harshest words and most caustic sarcasm to discredit and keep in place anything that advocates generous or noble acts, such as Christian love.
We could discuss at length the historical causes for the development of the market economy and modern bureaucratic nation-states. But there is little doubt that they have much, if not everything, to do with the growing modern horror of closed communities bound together by obligatory gifts that confirm traditional hierarchies. In that sense, the market and the modern bureaucratic state, machines that destroy traditions and particularity, are above all anti-gift devices. (Godbout, p. 17)
The gift is only paradoxical from the point of view of atomized individuality. If we look at it in terms of a network of those seeking to serve self by serving others it makes sense:
How can we provide a theory of a phenomenon that has so many features—free, undecidable, contextual, spontaneous, refusing the subject-object distinction at the heart of modern thought, lacking explicit rules of conduct—that seems incompatible with any formalization? We can make some progress through the idea of the network, an idea that has already been explored in fields of research, such as artificial intelligence (AI), that have also run aground on determinist models. (Godbout, p. 197)
From the point of view of network theory, what, then, is the State and the Market?
The state is a hierarchy, but inclusive, not tangled, without a loop other that the simple minimal loop of feedback. Its channels run one way only, which eliminates certain problems (chance meetings and accidents, gift relationships based on domination, etc.) but at the same time reduces the flexibility of the system. Everything that circulates passes through a centre before moving off in the other direction, each time leaving behind a part of its contents, which mans that what circulates arrives considerably diminished compared to when it started out. The only possibility of return is feedback: in other words, the system only keeps what it wants from the outside. With the strange loop, on the other hand, the outside imposes things on the system. There is a dynamic interaction. The state apparatus makes no strange loop, for nothing may be imposed on it that has not been foreseen—things take a fixed parallel double route: concentration – redistribution. For the state apparatus, where a single individual is concerned the file is memory. For groups of individuals it is rights and the law.
For its part, the market is a tangled network but it is not hierarchical. That is why it also is a simple loop. The market is a boulevard, sometimes a freeway, where circulation is governed by a mechanism that ensures that everywhere, when an object passes by in one direction, an “equivalent” object passes by in the other direction. But on another level it is one-way, as its only goal is to transmit things from producer to consumer, at which point they disappear from the system.
The market is a network of freeways that goes off in all directions. It is tangled (Jorion, 1989, 44, 68). Unlike the state, it is decentralized. It “chooses” its path, like a telephone network. It is infinitely extensible in space, but on one plane only. It has no depth, for it is flattened by the quest for equal exchange, for perfect equivalence. It is a surface that can cover the entire planet, thanks to the fact that it also constitutes a network from which one has removed “the hazards of human relationships (Simmel 1987). It is a kind of simple tangling (Hofstadter 1980), a simple connection. What is more, the market has one starting point and one destination, one direction, from the producer to the consumer. Time for the market, its memory, is money. Of its own volition, it only draws on a tiny part of past relationships between people. It sets aside the bond and its personal history. But it is not surprising that Bateson claims that “of all imaginary organisms [dragons, gods …], economic man is the dullest … because his mental processes are all quantitative, and his preferences transitive” (1987, 175). It is this, however, that enables so-called economic man to be universal and to cross cultures.
Compared to the state, the market opens onto an infinite, free space. And we can easily understand that if a member of society is faced with a state apparatus that lacks a democratic loop, the mercantile network can appear to be a liberation, with its countless, seemingly endless paths. But we also understand that humans are soon dissatisfied with the absence of social ties that the market brings in its wake, that they come to feel they have been shrunken by this shallow network, diminished, a bit like a three-dimensional being flattened into two dimensions… (Godbout, pp. 200-1)
Here we see a diabolical facet of neoliberal ideology: that there are only two alternatives, free markets or state tyranny (that was the false choice of the Cold War). Once we accept that, they’ve got us. It is imperative that we always look for the “third man.”
The third choice, the gift, differs from the other two by its multidimensionality:
The gift combines the loop of the market and the hierarchy of the state, which makes it a tangled hierarchy. That is why anything seized from the gift by the state or the market model represents either a vertical section of the gift-giving system, retaining only its hierarchical aspect with its obligations and constraints, or a horizontal section, retaining only the simple, flat network of the market, which is governed by the single law of equivalence, which neutralizes ties and their contextual variability. (Godbout, p. 202)
· For Hofstadter, as for most philosophers, the intelligence of the human species involves one loop in addition to those that animals have, the loop that is responsible for the fact that we know that we know, for the self-awareness that has defined humans since the Greeks.
· For some theorists in modern democracy, the difference between those in primitive societies and ourselves also resides in our having one additional loop, that which endows us with autonomy, something not available in primitive societies.
· For utilitarian liberals, the superiority of the market over the gift also implies an extra loop, the self-knowledge that teaches us that every gift is an unconscious exchange and that the donor is self-interested. On this theory, this is the loop of lucidity that enables us to move away from primitive spontaneity and naivete and accede to rationality—or rather to the consciousness of rationality, since every human is utilitarian, even if they don’t know it or refuse to acknowledge it.
· The gift represents still another level: the awareness that to make the exchange explicit is one level too much, which freezes the exchange and transforms it, making it lose its flexibility by lessening the uncertainty and underdetermination, thus relegating it to a lower level. The mercantile loop, for the gift, rather than being an additional loop, is a perverse loop. To refuse this loop is to create a level superior to it. This is the level of language, of creation, of the vagueness needed to reflect the indetermination and radical incompleteness of these systems and their irreduciblity to determinist systems such as those embodied in the models for bureaucratic apparatus and the market. The gift is a conscious abandonment to the absence of calculation, a spontaneous meta-level that can be described as “behaviour that results from an effect of self-organization” (Jorion 1990, 117). If we follow the rules, we do not know how to give, any more than we know how to speak a language if we have to follow its rules while we are talking. (Godbout, p. 204)
We also discussed in previous installments the divide between primitive and civilized, to use two somewhat discredited terms. We asked if there were only two choices there as well. We wondered if there could be a non-exploitative, anarchist high-tech gift culture. We noted that large-scale exploitation of humans by other humans began with the invention of agriculture, or large scale exploitation of nature by humans. Everything seems to have changed ten thousand years ago. What happened? Why? Are there clues in that break?
To dig a little deeper into the issues of the Neolithic Revolution and our desire for open, creative networks, let’s look at the ideas of Daniel Quinn, a novelist in the anthropological tradition of Marshall Sahlins, who has written with a lot of insight on just what did change ten thousand years ago. Quinn is firmly in the primitivist camp, a position which we will also call into question, but his primitivism is oriented toward the open, emergent evolution of complex systems.
In anthropological work, the anthropologist, an outsider to a culture, learns about another culture by participating in it and interviewing informants. In Quinn’s most well-known novel, Ishmael (Daniel Quinn, Ishmael, New York:Bantam, 1995), this role is played by a gorilla, Ishmael, who can speak telepathically. It sounds a bit silly, but the character of the gorilla is well-drawn. The narrator, a disillusioned middle-age person, meets regularly with Ishmael after answering an ad about saving the world.
Ishmael soon convinces the narrator that our society still operates by an overarching myth. The most fundamental parts of our myth arises from the neolithic invention of agriculture. Quinn calls the predominant myth the story of the Takers. The other myth, enacted by most humankind during the last million years or so, was the story of the Leavers.
“…all you have to know is that two fundamentally different stories have been enacted here during the lifetime of man. One began to be enacted here some two or three million years ago by the people we’ve agreed to call Leavers and is still being enacted by them today, as successfully as ever. The other began to be enacted here some ten or twelve thousand years ago by the people we’ve agreed to call Takers, and is apparently about to end in catastrophe.” (Daniel Quinn, Ishmael, New York:Bantam, 1995, p. 41)
Ishmael then asks the narrator to tell his culture’s creation myth and he does, beginning with the Big Bang, continuing with the development and evolution of life on planet Earth and ending with the appearance of Man.
The narrator still doesn’t see that this story is a myth, it’s scientific and factual, after all. so Ishmael tells him another story, similar to the narrator’s except for the fact that it is told by a jellyfish eons ago to an alien anthropologist. The story ends with the “appearance” of jellyfish:
“But finally,” the creature said, turning quite pink with pride as he came to the climax of the story, “but finally jellyfish appeared!”
“What did the jellyfish mean when it said, ‘But finally jellyfish appeared’?”
“It meant… that is what it was all leading up to. This is what the whole ten of fifteen billion years of creation were leading up to: jellyfish.”
“I agree. And why doesn’t your account of creation end with the appearance of jellyfish?”
… “Because there was more to come beyond jellyfish?”
“That’s right. Creation didn’t end with jellyfish. Still to come were the vertebrates and the amphibians and the reptiles and the mammals, and, of course, man.” (Ibid., p. 56)
The implication is clear. The narrator’s story ended with “and finally man appeared.”
“Meaning that there was no more to come. Meaning that creation had come to an end.”
“This is what it was all leading up to.”
… “That seems to be the unspoken assumption.”
“It’s certainly not always unspoken. The religions of your culture aren’t reticient about it. Man is the end product of creation. Man is the creature for whom all the rest was made: this world, this solar system, this galaxy, the universe itself.”
… “Everyone in your culture knows that the world wasn’t created for jellyfish or salmon or iguanas or gorillas. It was created for man.”
… “But what about the rest? Did the entire cosmic process of creation come to an end three million years ago, right here on this little planet, with the appearance of man?”
Did even the planetary process of creation come to an end three million years ago with the appearance of man? Did evolution come to a screeching halt just because man had arrived?”
…“As you tell it, the birth of man was a central event—indeed the central event—in the history of the cosmos itself. From the birth of man on, the rest of the universe ceases to be of interest, ceases to participate in the unfolding drama. For this, earth alone is sufficient; it is the birthplace and home of man, and that’s its meaning. The Takers regard the world as a sort of human life-support system, as a machine designed to produce and sustain human life.”
…“All right. That’s the premise of your story: The world was made for man.” (Ibid., pp. 57-61)
Therefore, according to the Taker myth, humans rule the earth.
“Man’s destiny was to was to conquer and rule the world, and this is what he’s done—almost. He hasn’t quite made it, and it looks as though this may be his undoing. The problem is that man’s conquest of the world has itself devastated the world. And in spite of all the mastery we’ve attained, we don’t have enough mastery to stop devastating the world—or to repair the devastation we’ve already wrought.”
… “Only one thing can save us. We have to increase our mastery of the world. All this damage has come about through our conquest of the world, but we have to go on conquering it until our rule is absolute. Then, when we’re in complete control, everything will be fine. We’ll have fusion power. No pollution. We’ll turn the rain on and off. We’ll grow a bushel of wheat in a square centimeter. We’ll turn the oceans into farms…”
“And that’s where it stands right now. We have to carry the conquest forward. And carrying it forward is either going to destroy the world or turn it into a paradise—into the paradise it was meant to be under human rule.”
“And if we manage to do this—if we finally manage to make ourselves the absolute rulers of the world—then nothing can stop us. Then we move into the Star Trek era. Man moves out into space to conquer and rule the entire universe. And that may be the ultimate destiny of man: to conquer and rule the entire universe. That’s how wonderful man is.” (pp. 80-1)
The main difference between Takers and Leavers is this: in contrast to Takers, Leavers ,
"…never exterminate their competitors, which is something that never happens in the wild. In the wild, animals will defend their territories and their kills and they will invade their competitors’ territories and preempt their kills. Some species even include competitors among their prey, but they will never hunt competitors down just to make them dead, the way ranchers and farmers do with coyotes and foxes and crows. What they hunt, they eat.” (p. 126)
Takers, on the other hand,
“…systematically destroy their competitors’ food to make room for their own. Nothing like this occurs in the natural community. The rule there is: Take what you need, and leave the rest alone.”
… “Next, the Takers deny their competitors access to food. In the wild, the rule is: You may deny your competitors access to what you’re eating, but you may not deny them access to food in general. In other words, you can say, ‘This gazelle is mine,’ but you can’t say, ‘All gazelles are mine.’”
“Our policy is: Every square foot of this planet belongs to us, so if we put it all under cultivation, then all our competitors are just plain out of luck and will have to become extinct. Our policy is to deny our competitors access to all the food in the world, and that’s something no other species does.” (p. 127-8)
What results is the end of evolution. For Quinn, evolution can only happen when a species put itself in the hands of the gods, so to speak, in other words when it relinquishes the attempt to stop evolution in its own favor. The attempt to control all life for the benefit of one species results in a catastrophic reduction of life, and the variety that life provides and which fuels creativity and evolution. The scheme maps well onto Laura Knight-Kadczyk’s opposition between creativity and entropy. The creativity and entropy distinction came about, interestingly, as a refinement of the Service to Others and Service to Self opposition (STS vs. STO). Which brings us back to the question we started this with: What would an open, STO economy look like?
“‘No species shall make the life of the world its own.’”
… “That’s one expression of the law. Here’s another: ‘The world was not made for any one species.’”
…“The people of your culture cling with fanatical tenacity to the specialness of man. They want desperately to perceive a vast gulf between man and the rest of creation. This mythology of human superiority justifies their doing whatever they please with the world… But in the end this mythology is not deeply satisfying. The Takers are a profoundly lonely people. The world for them is enemy territory, and they live in it like an army of occupation, alienated and isolated by their extraordinary specialness.” (pp. 145-6)
The Fall, then, occurred when humans tried to take the place of “the gods” or those who rule the world and make the decisions about who shall live and who shall die.
“The disaster occurred when, ten thousand years ago, the people of your culture said, “We’re as wise as the gods and can rule the world as well as they.’ When they took into their own hands the power of life and death over the world, their doom was assured.”
“Yes. Because they are not in fact as wise as the gods.”
“The gods ruled the world for billions of years, and it was doing just fine. After just a few thousand years of human rule, the world is at the point of death.”
… “A minute ago, you told me that the Takers will never give up their tyranny over the world, no matter how bad things get. How did they get to be this way?
… “They got to be this way because they’ve always believed that what they were doing was right—and therefore to be done at any cost whatever.
… “They’ve demonstrated it by forcing everyone in the world to do what they do, to live the way they live. Everyone had to be forced to live like the Takers, because the Takers had the one right way.”
... “Many peoples among the Leavers practiced agriculture, but they were never obsessed by the delusion that what they were doing was right, that everyone in the entire world had to practice agriculture, that every last square yard of the planet had to be devoted to it.” (pp. 166-7)
The statement, “They got to be this way because they’ve always believed that what they were doing was right—and therefore to be done at any cost whatever.… They’ve demonstrated it by forcing everyone in the world to do what they do, to live the way they live,” fits the Cheney administration in this decade in the United States. They are the apotheosis of the Entropic, Service to Self, Taker orientation.
According to Quinn, if the human race adopts the Leaver story as its myth, we can discover that we can play a special role in the evolution of consciousness. The Leaver story is based on the premise that “man belongs to the world” rather than the world belonging to man.
“There is a sort of tendency in evolution, wouldn’t you say? If you start with those ultrasimple critters in the ancient seas and move up step by step to everything we see here now—and beyond—then you have to observe a tendency toward… complexity. And towards self-awareness and intelligence.”
… “That is, all sorts of creatures on this planet appear to be on the verge of attaining that self-awareness and intelligence. So it’s definitely no just humans that the gods are after. We were never meant to be the only players on this stage. Apparently the gods intend this this planet to be filled with creatures that are self-aware and intelligent.”
… “man is the first of all these. He’s the trailblazer, the pathfinder. His destiny is to be the first to learn that creatures like man have a choice: They can try to thwart the gods and perish in the attempt—or they can stand aside and make room for all the rest. But it’s more than that. His destiny is to be the father of them all—I don’t mean by direct descent. By giving all the rest their chance—the whales and the dolphins and the chimps and the racoons—he becomes in some sense their progenitor… Oddly enough, it’s even grander than the destiny the Takers dreamed up for us.” (pp. 241-2)
But back to our original question, what is the answer? How can we avoid the catastrophe? Can we have a high-tech gift culture that lives by the creative principle, or serving self by serving others? Earlier we saw that there was something about hunter-gatherer society that allowed them to live “affluent” lives without exploitation of their fellow human-beings. What can we learn from them. Quinn’s work, along with Mauss’s helps point the way to an answer. Open networks that have the ability to evolve without developing pathological concentrations of power need to be created. Of course they can’t be imposed they would have to grow naturally. Perhaps some of the ideas we saw in David Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, specifically the idea of “engaged withdrawal” from dominant, hierarchical institutions. The pulling away from the mainstream media in the internet age is a good example of the power of this, as is the whole “wiki” movement and open source software development.
We also need to examine an issue brought up by Quinn: are humans completely of organic life or not? According to Quinn, the answer would be ‘yes’ but is that really the case? On one side of the question are lined up primitivists, pagans and radical ecologists. Is the only position on the other side of that question the Taker position? Or can there be a third one?
Tied up with this question is another: Is there only one human race? The best scientific estimates today see around 6% of the human population as irredeemably psychopathic. Esotericists like Boris Mouravieff and Laura Knight-Jadczyk have suggested that the human race is divided equally in two between the Adamics and Pre-Adamics. The Adamics have the possibility of further individual soul development beyond this lifetime, even. According to this scheme, psychopaths are a particularly extreme variant of the pre-Adamics. If we don’t take these issues account in devising utopian scenarios, we will be adding to the problem. Schemes that would work for Adamics would not for pre-Adamics. And, great care needs to be taken to be aware of and contain the damage that can be caused by psychopaths, those among us with no conscience. As Andrew Lobaczewski argued in Political Ponerology, the more our model of human nature is incorrect, the easier it is for psychopaths to undermine society and take it over. So rather than mere philosophical or theological speculation, these questions have to be confronted before we suggest practical solutions.
Networks of individuals, with knowledge of psychopaths, who are willing to submit to shocks to the ego, to having the network help them root out mechanical programs, might be able to enact a gift-economy circulation of goods and services, a high-tech gift economy. Such a thing might make real both Jesus’s Kingdom of Heaven and Marx’s True Communism. But psychopaths must be contained and one’s own inner psychopath or predator must also be rooted out for such a utopia to be enacted.