On the giving and receiving of gifts

By what principles can you organise social relations? In particular, how shall we remunerate people for their personal roles within our society? The book Parecon: Life After Capitalism favours remunerating people for efforts to produce a socially valued product. Now, I agree with this norm in many contexts. But I think there are contexts in which it breaks down and needs to be superseded by another principle.

In Parecon: LAC one such context is already identified – if somebody is unable to work due to some factor outside of their control (an illness, say) then the principle of compassion takes over – this person receives a share in the social product without having to put into it – because they can’t. I wonder if there are other contexts in which the usual parecon norm should be superseded by something else.

I’m thinking here about certain kinds of creative work – those which aren’t “useful” in the sense of feeding people, maintaining infrastructure, enjoying popularity etc. It’s easy to asses the social value of something “useful” and therefore reward people’s efforts towards it – “useful” is fairly objective. But what about something not “useful” in that objective sense?

What’s the use of a Beethoven symphony? Or Einstein’s theory of General Relativity? Perhaps Beethoven was popular, Einstein was understood. Is that the point though? Was that where the value of what they did lay? What if Beethoven had been unpopular in his lifetime, Einstein misunderstood in his? Could a parecon council have then remunerated each for producing a socially valued product? I guess not. Perhaps another superseding principle is needed in such cases – a kind of compassion practiced towards people of real genius?

I’ll consider theoretical science here rather than art, as it’s what I know better. If you want art considered instead, read this. What about it then? Isn’t science always “useful”? Only “useful”? Perhaps you want to say that General Relativity has helped with calculating the timings of GPS communication signals. Okay, but that is wholly missing the point of it, I feel. People that think science is merely “useful” don’t understand what it truly is, in my view. “We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself” is how Carl Sagan put it. Richard Feynman put it like this in his set of lectures The Meaning Of It All:

Yet science is still not thoroughly appreciated. To give an example, I read Faraday’s Chemical History of a Candle, a set of six Christmas lectures for children. The point of Faraday’s lectures was that no matter what you look at, if you look at it closely enough, you are involved in the entire universe. And so he got, by looking at every feature of the candle, into combustion, chemistry, etc. But the introduction of the book, in describing Faraday’s life and some of his discoveries, explained that he had discovered that the amount of electricity necessary to perform electrolysis of chemical substances is proportional to the number of atoms which are separated divided by the valence. It further explained that the principles he discovered are used today in chrome plating and the anodic coloring of aluminum, as well as in dozens of other industrial applications. I do not like that statement.

Here is what Faraday said about his own discovery: “The atoms of matter are in some ways endowed or associated with electrical powers, to which they owe their most striking qualities, amongst them their mutual chemical affinity.” He had discovered that the thing that determined how the atoms went together, the thing that determined the combinations of iron and oxygen which make iron oxide is that some of them are electrically plus and some of them are electrically minus, and they attract each other in definite proportions. He also discovered that electricity comes in units, in atoms. Both were important discoveries, but most exciting was that this was one of the most dramatic moments in the history of science, one of those rare moments when two great fields come together and are unified. He suddenly found that two apparently different things were different aspects of the same thing. Electricity was being studied, and chemistry was being studied. Suddenly they were two aspects of the same thing—chemical changes with the results of electrical forces. And they are still understood that way. So to say merely that the principles are used in chrome plating is inexcusable.

To say merely that General Relativity has been “useful” for GPS satellites is inexcusable. So, how are we to say what is to be remunerated, when it comes to theoretical physics, say? What is its social value? I think this is a question for posterity alone. Only the balance of infinite time can weigh the worth of Faraday’s or Einstein’s gifts to humanity with any degree of accuracy. How could any democratic council do so?

General Relativity – what is its social value?

That is why I think revolutionary creative work needs to operate under another principle entirely, one superseding remuneration for socially valuable output – because nobody can say what this is when it comes to that work. It’s up to the infinite future to say. Also, to the extent that the gifted tailor their gifts towards “utility” – meaning what is popularly acceptable or socially demanded – they pervert and squander them, because as Oscar Wilde put it (about art, but the same applies to science I think) :

“A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is [with science: from the fact that nature is what she is]. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or a dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered as an artist.”

I used the words “gifts to humanity” earlier quite deliberately. In a “gift economy”, of the sort anthropologists describe, the principle of social organisation is, roughly speaking:

From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.

In his book Debt the First 5000 Years, social anthropologist David Graeber introduces the above principle in the fifth chapter of his book, terming it “communism”. He says that:

“All of us act like communists a good deal of the time. None of us acts like a communist consistently. “Communist society” – in the sense of a society organised exclusively on that single principle – could never exist. But all social systems, even economic systems like capitalism, have always been built on top of a bedrock of actually-existing communism …

Almost everybody follows this principle if they collaborating on some common project. If someone fixing a broken water pipe says, “Hand me the wrench” his co-worker will not, generally speaking, say “And what do I get out of it?” – even if they are working for Exxon Mobil, Burger King or Goldman Sachs.”

The book is great! Think about reading it 🙂

In small-scale egalitarian communities, networks of mutual aid can develop that practice the above “from each… to each…” principle to a remarkable extent. In such a “gift economy” person A’s “needs” might be satisfied by requesting person B’s “abilities”, in the knowledge that a similar favor might be asked of person A by person B in future. One couldn’t, as David Graeber says above, organise an entire society on that basis. But within that entire society (economically organised under parecon principles perhaps?) there could be pockets that are largely operating in this way.

I think perhaps any sub-economy trading in and producing revolutionary creative ideas should be organised as a gift economy within a wider participatory economy. (I should remark in passing that I find the idea of “intellectual property” ridiculous – anyone thinking you can or should try to “own” an idea, with a view to turn it into profit, has perhaps never had one of very much value, or doesn’t understand very clearly how ideas work and where they come from. I think ideas belong with “the commons”, they are part of a collective human spirit. Parecon doesn’t make this mistake though – property, presumably including the intellectual sort, is “owned” in common – by no-one and by everyone).

If somebody happens to receive a precious gift from nature – say the all-consuming compulsion to reveal a part of that nature to society – then society at large should set them up in the capacity to perfect their gift. If instead it ties them to producing something “socially useful” – something society currently wants – then society will squander their gift, because what they are trying to give society is something that it ultimately needs. The new social need they exist to satisfy is something challenging and genuinely revolutionary. It is not wanted though, because its need  is not yet apparent. Its need will only be apparent after being weighed in the balance of infinite time.

The irony is that parecon might create a post-revolutionary economy in which truly revolutionary work becomes difficult or impossible. This is exactly the problem that the theoretical physicist Shevek has in Ursula Le Guin’s wonderful novel The Dispossessed. He wanted to give his world Anarres a gift, the General Temporal Theory. But Anarres did not want his gift (despite needing it) –  it didn’t understand and hence could not evaluate it. And so Shevek is not able to give his gift to Anarres. He has to go elsewhere, to the authoritarian planet of Urras. I would worry that if parecon can’t make exceptions for those like Shevek it will be repeating one of the most awful crimes of the present system – its squandering of human potential. It is galling to consider the wasting of human gifts under the social system we presently endure. Let us not repeat this in a revolutionary new social system. Even at the price of a few free-loaders and layabouts – “nuchnibs” in Le Guin’s novel.

As individuals we don’t always know what is best for us and the same is true of societies. I make this not as an argument for authoritarianism – no Philosopher King can or should be empowered to say what society needs in its stead – but as an argument for the communistic principle of the “gift economy” to be applied to the few who are gifted (or cursed, some might say!) with the capacity to produce revolutionary creative work. For these gifted few – a Faraday, an Einstein, or a Shevek – we must give them a home on our world. For them: From each, to each. From society to them: we should have the capacity to provide for their basic needs. From them to society:  they might then manage to give society “useless” and priceless gifts.

 

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Addendum:

A while after writing this I put a sort of “potted version” of the above ideas to Michael Albert on the IOPS website. Now I’m not at all convinced that what I wrote makes sense! I think I ought to have read and thought more about the allocation method in parecon (called “participatory planning”) before writing this post – so expect a post on that at some point! Anyway, here are Michael’s replies to my queries:

Me:

Hi Michael, about this:

“If advocates of from each to each said in some cases of consuming and even producing, the norm they favor may make sense and work okay – sure, I would agree – and then we could ask, what are those cases? And for that matter, from each to each advocates could then argue, or not, for why parecon gets some cases wrong.”

I was wondering if you thought what we might call “revolutionary creative work” could fall into that bracket – something that parecon remuneration might get wrong? Am I right in thinking you’re a fan of Ursula le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed? (there were quotes from it in Parecon: LAC). This problem is one of the major themes of that book – Shevek (and his “intellectual nuchnib” musician and playwright friends) have a lot of problems getting their society to support them in the work they do, work which doesn’t have an obvious or immediate social benefit, and is resisted by their society – because truly revolutionary work is challenging of society and hence difficult for it to initially accept or value.

Do you think maybe parecon remuneration could have a similar “blind spot” here? Do you think “from each to each” might better apply to supporting certain sub-sections of the economy – like say composers, playwrights or theoretical physicists? In these exceptional cases, might society make some gift of food and shelter and work materials to these “revolutionary creatives”, in the hope that they could return society something much more valuable, in the long run? Otherwise there might be the danger, as in Le Guin’s book, that “revolutionary creatives” are forced to simply pander to what the workers’ councils seem to want from them, squander their gifts, and revolutionary creative work gets sidelined, and people like Shevek have to go to Urras.

Michael:

David…

> I was wondering if you thought what we might call “revolutionary creative work” could fall into that bracket – something that parecon remuneration might get wrong? Am I right in thinking you’re a fan of Ursula le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed? (there were quotes from it in Parecon: LAC).

Yes, I liked the novel, now many decades old…

> This problem is one of the major themes of that book – Shevek (and his “intellectual nuchnib” musician and playwright friends) have a lot of problems getting their society to support them in the work they do, work which doesn’t have an obvious or immediate social benefit, and is resisted by their society – because truly revolutionary work is challenging of society and hence difficult for it to initially accept or value.

I don’t accept this as remotely likely in a parecon. So, what are we actually talking about? Some people want to work, for their income, on criticizing social relations and proposing alternatives, say. If a participatory society says we simply do not need or want such critical thinking and proposing to happen, so we don’t want institutions that do this type work, and people who get income for it – then, yes, there would be no place to be employed doing this. The population would be saying, it is not socially valued labor – you can do it – but you are doing activity that is like digging ditches and then filling them up…worthless.

Sometimes artists say, that will happen to art – people will say, don’t need it. Or science. Or, journalism, or, very close to that, critical commentary, and so on. There is no reason at all to expect even that our current population, much less the population of a participatory society, would have such shortsighted, and vapid views…

> Do you think maybe parecon remuneration could have a similar “blind spot” here?

No. But here is a case where it arises, in a sense. There is a music production council. You are a worker in it. The council has, via the plan, an apportionment of social product for its work – for its workers. You propose to create music that is so high pitched (or arcane) that your peers say, no, you can’t do that, and take some of the councils available income for workers, for doing it. No one wants that. It would suggest to society that our workers council is a bunch of nitwits – or whatever. So now you are stuck – you have to work in ways your peers, as a group, acknowledge to be socially valued. You can’t do what you want. And you may even be right. Maybe they are all wrong…and your product would turn out, in five years, to be great. You can keep pressing, you can find another workplace, you can try to form one – there are many options.

> Do you think “from each to each” might better apply to supporting certain sub-sections of the economy – like say composers, playwrights or theoretical physicists?

No. If society really feels this is junk activity – like my playing baseball and asking for income for it, or my painting – because society thinks music, plays, and research are junk – then so be it. People will have to do these things voluntarily, also working so they get an income.

> In these exceptional cases, might society make some gift of food and shelter and work materials to these “revolutionary creatives”, in the hope that they could return society something much more valuable, in the long run?

Well that is in fact exactly what society would do – but it is not a gift – it is an assessment that these creative people are doing something that needs and should be done, for a host of reasons…

> Otherwise there might be the danger, as in Le Guin’s book, that “revolutionary creatives” are forced to simply pander to what the workers’ councils seem to want from them, squander their gifts, and revolutionary creative work gets sidelined, and people like Shevek have to go to Urras.

There is an incredible level of classism – call it artism, or brilliancism, if you like – in this worry. The poor “uncreatives” – see what I mean – are too neanderthal to recognize the obvious value of art, science, etc. Even in our current society, where most of the population is robbed of confidence and knowledge in many ways, this would not happen. But in a participatory society – with balanced job complexes – so the composers, etc., have incomes like others, conditions like others, and so on – and where others have all the relevant information, honestly, not a chance.

So – what you are seeking – that society recognize the value of science, art, engineering, sports, or whatever and ensure the incomes of worthy practitioners of these, even when their work sometimes doesn’t pan out – is precisely what a parecon would do… very naturally, to everyone’s benefit and no one’s loss.

Me:

“There is an incredible level of classism – call it artism, or brilliancism, if you like – in this worry.”

Okay, I probably deserved that one, the wording RE “creatives” was clumsy. I didn’t mean to imply that I think “ordinary people” can’t appreciate the value of an activity like science or art, I really don’t think that. I just think it’s hard for anyone to objectively evaluate the social worth of a specific piece of art or a scientific research project, say (I’m researching particle physics myself these days and find it pretty hard even to understand what some of my colleagues are doing! I think something like baseball is easier here – do people want to watch you play or not? is fairy objective)

But it’s probably a non-problem after all – people only need to be persuaded of the general value of an activity, not the specific value of its products. I could anticipate somebody genuinely good falling through the cracks from time to time in a parecon (surely no system is perfect?), but there are always other options, like you say – do it in your spare time, proselytize it some more, or perhaps make your own workplace with similarly minded folks (in The Dispossessed Shevek and his friends started the “Syndicate of Initiative” for example – the name suggests they might have suffered from “brilliancism” also 😉 )

So the answer helped, thanks.

Michael:

David,

The public passes judgement, so to speak, in the large, not the details. The latter occurs in the council, or team.

For example, take physics department….your field. It is part of the whole physics community. Society allots resources to physics, inside the community is where the allotment to options within physics are made…then inside units like universities, teams, etc.

Same for the symphony, say – it doesn’t propose we want to work on such and such a piece for next month – and the public says yes or no. Rather the symphony does its thing, internally deciding its activity, approaches, etc. – within the overarching commitments of resources which is what planning arrives at.

Me:

Sounds good! I guess when a lot of people first hear “remuneration for effort at socially valued work” their first reaction might be to worry about how “social value” is going to be measured and by whom. With my example of theoretical physics, it might take decades for the social benefits of some speculative research project to pan out, if indeed they ever do. But you’ve reassured me than this isn’t really a problem in a parecon, since the physics (or whatever…) community will just be encouraging good physics, without seeking to micromanage everyone or solicit approval for every specific project from non-physicists. That’s just applying self-management to physics, I suppose? Thanks 🙂

Michael:

The transition is from banks and political and corporate elites deciding the overarching budgets, in accord with amassing profits and maintaining the conditions of doing so, to the broad population deciding overarching budgets in accord with needs and capacities and full social and ecological implications….and then, more proximately, from local owners or administrators deciding choices within the overarching budget that will lead to its continuation as well as utilize and maintain their own status to the workers in each field deciding proximate choices, again in accord with needs and desires and maintaining the overall support from society…

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~ by freedomthistime on August 1, 2012.

2 Responses to “On the giving and receiving of gifts”

  1. Hi! It’s Zane, ex-IOPS. Thanks for your blogs here. Have you yet written the one articulating the differences between ethics and structures? 😉 Big love and support to you, David!

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