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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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