Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Gifts versus Markets

We live in an age of market fundamentalism. That is, live by an assumption that the markets are cure all, and as long as we free everyone's hand to buy and sell at whatever price one chooses, everyone will get the best deal by the magical work of the invisible hand. This doctrine is being pushed everywhere: In an age where the sovereign states live in mortal fear that George Soros may pull their money and bankrupt them overnight if they don't toe the line, markets are made to penetrate every sphere of our life, in education, health care, environment, relationships and even births and deaths. The idea of the markets has become hegemonic, so widespread that one can not see its edges and question its limits; indeed, questioning the merits of the markets is seen as blasphemous and unusual.

However, still the criticisms of markets are emerging. First, that this represents a fairly narrow view of human race, that it is driven by self interest, despite many evidence on the contrary. Human history has been a race between human selfishness and human generosity, and yet one half of it is conveniently forgotten. True, the history of power, and of powerful, is mostly full of extremely selfish people, but if one cares to look, the power play existed only in a narrow corner within the sea of benevolence and loving relationships that formed human societies. Humans gave to one another, protected one another, loved one another - this has been as natural as their competitive nature. So, the natural theory of the markets is only partly true, and the view that human society should be solely governed by market relationships is certainly misplaced and wholly unnatural.

Second, apart from being contrary to human nature, the market view of human nature also undermines the critical responsibilities that each one of us have. By promoting selfishness and maximization of pleasure, it blinds us from our responsibilities to protect nature and the human race in general. The theory of invisible hand creates a culture of disconnect: No one of us feel accountable for the damage we cause to environment and expect the pricing mechanism to take this into account. However, pricing mechanisms don't, and weak states only stand by, creating a situation not unlike the infamous 1964 case of Kitty Genovese, a young woman in the Queens neighbourhood who was chased on the road and stabbed while thirty-eight different witnesses watched, but none of them called the police or did anything because they were all expecting the other persons to act, or some invisible hand to do the job.

This leads the discussion to that inevitable kill-all-discussion question, if there is an alternative to the markets at all. But, we can dismiss that as an irrelevant questions. Human beings invent ideas and systems, and the history of human progress depended on its ability to come up with new ways of doing things. However, while one would put infinite faith in our ability to innovate out of trouble, and usually cite the example of the urban planning conference hosted in New York to discuss the major environmental crisis, in 1898, which seriously considered the health problems created by horse dung and could come up with no solutions, only for the problem to be solved by electric carriages soon thereafter. However, when it comes to questioning the market, which is far nearer to power plays and profiteering motives of the few, the usual response goes in line of brilliant, but pretentious, quip from Churchill, talking about democracy in this case: 'Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried'. Markets are seen as such, the best mechanism invented so far, but we have seen far too many times, latest in the current LIBOR scandal, that what seems fair play is usually a tinkering by those in positions of privilege.

Most importantly, it is important to remember that while markets have been around through centuries, it was never the only system, nor it needed to be. We had other systems guiding other domains of human activities, and these can be as successful as the market system. There is absolutely no reason why we should find the volunteer-driven success of Wikipedia as an aberration: This is in the age-old tradition of gift culture where things changed hands without a specific, material, reciprocation at the same time as is the norm of the market. We don't put a value to the work mothers do, all over the world, to bring up their children, or increasingly more rarely, the children does, in their term, to look after their aging parents. The mantra of today - if something isn't in the market, it gets trivialized - undermines the value of such work, which is possibly much larger than the World's GDP, and indeed insuperably valuable. Indeed, there are limits to the gift culture and the markets can fill the gap, but it is increasingly one or the other, and the aim of the modern marketers and capital-owners is to push market everywhere: That simply does not work.

Consider education, where a predominantly gift-driven culture is being transformed with a market-driven culture. It is not just about how one pays for education, it is fundamentally changing the classroom and even the nature of knowledge. The safe place for developing thinking, which the educational institutions were to be, are being transformed into factory of worker reproduction, the research orientation of great universities are being replaced by result emphasis, and the nature of knowledge, from the result of disinterested inquiry to a product of focused pursuit, has been changed to maintain the current social order, rather than exploring the edges of current thinking and come up with better ones.

Or, for that matter, healthcare, where caring for the sick has been a function of insurance eligibility, and it has become common for people to die without care in the age of abundant healthcare. This is not just about a hospital, or even about the system, but what responsibility we have to one another, and how this is being changed.

The redeeming thing is, however, that the gift culture, contrary to what the market fundamentalists want us to believe, is deeply natural to human beings and therefore refuse to die. President Obama talks about Stephanie Davies in Aurora, who stayed and cared for her friend, Allie Young, wounded and bleeding, amid all the shooting and mayhem all around her. This is being hailed as heroism, in the infinite trick of the media which portrays this as entirely exceptional; however, this is exactly what being human means, this is entirely natural and this is exactly what, each one of us as human beings, should do in a similar situation. Denying this, and accepting a narrow-minded selfishness as the true manifestation of human nature, is a motivated, and plainly wrong, way of interpreting who we are and how we behave. However, this is what the myth of the markets stand on: This is indeed why we need a better system, and we may already have some ideas how we can construct one.





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