Drawing on some observations of Keith I want to propose an interesting way to understand capitalist societies. I think that it is a defining feature of capitalism that it is an economy where women and wives cannot be bought. While in non-capitalist societies there are typically ways to legitimately pronounce marriage as an exchange of persons and goods, in capitalist societies implicit indications that such is the case are rendered obscene. Customs of marriage as an exchange survive as traditional vestiges of pre-capitalist realities, not to be taken seriously (in Jewish weddings in Israel, for example, grooms tend to note in the religious marriage contract astronomical figures, such 18 millions, as the payment to the bride's father - of course, in order to empty any monetary meaning of the act, making it into a purely symbolic one).

 

This idea goes against the common tendency to view capitalism as a social reality where everything can be sold and bought. However, this view provides us with one more way to understand capitalism as a social reality, and furthermore, it provides a way to put capitalism in a historical sequence with pre-capitalist societies (history being related here to repression: capitalism carries traces of its pasts not in the form of "traditions" but in the form of a type of social relation that survives only as a disavowed, obscene reality).

 

I don't know if such an idea to define capitalism has already been proposed, but I would very much like to hear your opinions of it.

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I am not I agree with that. Perhaps you could look into the topic of spheres of exchange, or the proliferation of social currencies? You might want to look into some of the work of Vivianne Zelizer on that.

Well, I did not say that in capitalist societies men cannot buy brides. But rather, that in contrast to pre-capitalist socieities this possibility becomes obscene. There are many customs that still imply a sesne of "buying" a bride - think of the American "engagement ring" - but what characterizes specifically the capitalist practices are the ways they both imply and deny the possibility of a transaction being made.

 

 

NIKOS GOUSGOUNIS said:

Your approach of capitalism interpretation is interesting but one factor interpretations use to fail when trying to explain everything from one point of view. And still there are some questions : Is for example the economical system of Saudi Arabia capitalist ? I think it is. Then how the rich manage to buy brides there ? Is this not bothering their petro-capitalism ? What are the means of production there ? In any case there is not the typical primitive asiatic mean of production as described by Marx. 

The topic of spheres of exchange was one of the things that have led me to this idea in the first place. However, in contrast to Zelizer, I do not want to claim that there is still a proliferation of social currencies, as a continuation of past, pre-capitalist tradition, but rather that the unification of currency results in the emergence of an obscene, disavowed type of exchange.

 

Carlos Ferreira said:

I am not I agree with that. Perhaps you could look into the topic of spheres of exchange, or the proliferation of social currencies? You might want to look into some of the work of Vivianne Zelizer on that.

Noam, you might also want to look at the changes in the groups involved in exchanges. For example, as marriage has shifted from arrangement that solidifies alliances between corporate groups to the creation of a (frequently only temporarily) committed couple, the web of wedding gifts has changed, with the role of gift exchange among personal friends of the bride and groom increasing and the generational depth of gift exchange networks shrinking. Along with the personal friends of the bride and groom, parents and siblings and personal friends of the parents may also be included; but more distant clan or lineage members are not. There has also been a shift from exchanges of conventional gifts to personalized gifts in which the taste of giver and recipient have become more important than established symbolism.

 

That said, your proposal that one of the results of what I would be more likely to call market-oriented exchange is to render obscene exchanges that were once seen as perfectly natural is a fascinating and, to me at least, original one. I wonder, too, if Mary Douglas' ideas about taboo might be relevant here. I.e., as boundaries between categories have shifted, things that were once a good fit with prevailing ontologies have became anomalous and, thus, obscene, instead.

John, thank you for the helpful thoughts. Douglas's ideas of taboo may indeed be relevant. However, I have in mind a short comment from her book about consumption: i.e. that money gifts are inappropriate - because they are impersonal - and thus are strictly reserved to the close family circle. Maybe it is a sort of a mirror image of the ideas about taboo. In any case, it might be read somewht differently from Douglas's original intention. It is not simply that money signifies the most impersonal relation. It is at the same time the most intimate one. This allowas us to think of the obscene possibility (involving money with friendship) not as simply cancelled, but as lying at the heart of normalcy.  

John McCreery said:

Noam, you might also want to look at the changes in the groups involved in exchanges. For example, as marriage has shifted from arrangement that solidifies alliances between corporate groups to the creation of a (frequently only temporarily) committed couple, the web of wedding gifts has changed, with the role of gift exchange among personal friends of the bride and groom increasing and the generational depth of gift exchange networks shrinking. Along with the personal friends of the bride and groom, parents and siblings and personal friends of the parents may also be included; but more distant clan or lineage members are not. There has also been a shift from exchanges of conventional gifts to personalized gifts in which the taste of giver and recipient have become more important than established symbolism.

 

That said, your proposal that one of the results of what I would be more likely to call market-oriented exchange is to render obscene exchanges that were once seen as perfectly natural is a fascinating and, to me at least, original one. I wonder, too, if Mary Douglas' ideas about taboo might be relevant here. I.e., as boundaries between categories have shifted, things that were once a good fit with prevailing ontologies have became anomalous and, thus, obscene, instead.

A more general way to make this point is that under capitalism, value is understood as legitimately created by "free" labor, with labor construed as alienable from the person. Trading women under capitalism is suspect for the same reason that slavery is seen as wrong. Both violate a transcendental concept of the person that is (at least on an ideological level) axiomatic to the system.
..Or, to put the point more clearly, if a central idea in capitalism is something like possessive individualism, then that which does the possessing, the person, logically has to stand outside the sphere of exchange-- goods (and services) are supposed to flow between persons, and so the only way to turn a person into a good is by successfully challenging her personhood (this is shown, for example, in the attempt to  justify slavery under capitalism in antebellum America by defining a slave as 3/5 of a person). Although married women were sometimes in earlier eras of capitalism (for example, in nineteenth century Britain) legally subsumed under the identity of their husbands (who exercised power over them in much the same way as parents do over children), they did not cease to be persons, and so could not be sold as goods.

I have in mind a short comment from her book about consumption: i.e. that money gifts are inappropriate - because they are impersonal - and thus are strictly reserved to the close family circle.

 

This needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Money gifts outside the family circle are common throughout the Far East and customary for those invited to weddings or funerals. The usual rule is that the closer the relationship the higher the amount. Superiors are also expected to be more generous with inferiors. One may note, however, that a proper gift is never naked cash. The money is inserted and delivered in a special envelope appropriate to the occasion, thus muting the cultural logic by which money is used to pay debts and thus to restore social distance. 

 

The customs in question may predate capitalism but seem to co-exist happily with it.

This is interesting: it means, first, that alienation is a part of the notion of person. But moreover, the alienation of the subject is inscribed in this way in the money object (i.e. in what money can and cannot buy).

 

However, the definition I was proposing contains an additional element not captured by the ideological insistense on personhood, namely the "obscene" element that links capitalism to traditional economies: not that in capitalism women are not sold and bought, but that it is present as an obscene possibility which must be avoided, yet keeps being implied.

Steve Rosenberg said:

..Or, to put the point more clearly, if a central idea in capitalism is something like possessive individualism, then that which does the possessing, the person, logically has to stand outside the sphere of exchange-- goods (and services) are supposed to flow between persons, and so the only way to turn a person into a good is by successfully challenging her personhood (this is shown, for example, in the attempt to  justify slavery under capitalism in antebellum America by defining a slave as 3/5 of a person). Although married women were sometimes in earlier eras of capitalism (for example, in nineteenth century Britain) legally subsumed under the identity of their husbands (who exercised power over them in much the same way as parents do over children), they did not cease to be persons, and so could not be sold as goods.
Sure. Money gifts are actually becoming more popular (in some circles in Israel, it is almost mandatory in weddings). However, I like this comment of Douglas not because of its factual accuracy, but because of the strange topology in which it situates money: money as both impersonal and intimate (it is inappropriate to give it as a gift other than in the intimate family circle)

John McCreery said:

I have in mind a short comment from her book about consumption: i.e. that money gifts are inappropriate - because they are impersonal - and thus are strictly reserved to the close family circle.

 

This needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Money gifts outside the family circle are common throughout the Far East and customary for those invited to weddings or funerals. The usual rule is that the closer the relationship the higher the amount. Superiors are also expected to be more generous with inferiors. One may note, however, that a proper gift is never naked cash. The money is inserted and delivered in a special envelope appropriate to the occasion, thus muting the cultural logic by which money is used to pay debts and thus to restore social distance. 

 

The customs in question may predate capitalism but seem to co-exist happily with it.

I'd like to look a bit more at the phenomenology of gift giving. In the Lutheran, mixed Scots-Irish, German family in which I grew up in southern Virginia, USA, in the 1950s and 60s, Christmas, birthday and anniversary gifts were never money. To give money would have signaled that the giver didn't care enough about the recipient to consider their personal tastes and wishes in choosing the gift. But gifts in this sense were clearly distinguished from financial help, e.g., when my parents borrowed the down payment for the place on which I grew up from my maternal grandfather or my parents paid for my college education. Financial favors like these were attributed to "family," i.e., an obligation to help each other out as needed, possibly tempered by whether the recipient was regarded as a good member of the family. Help might be denied to those deemed "bad," i.e. As untrustworthy or likely to waste the money in question. These arrangements were extended outside the family, e.g., in regular donations to the church but not to political candidates.

Fieldwork in Taiwan introduced me to another set of arrangements, in which cash, properly packaged, is a common component on all sorts of ceremonial gifting occasions both inside and outside the family.

Your account touches what I think is the most interesting part in the phenomenology of gift giving in modern socieities, namely the complex relations between money gifts and non-monetary gifts. It is never a simple dichotomy. In many contexts, when money gift is inappropriate, the monetary value of the gift is still important. In this sense money is a sort of a secret principle of gift giving, which is kept at bay, as a threat into which gift giving constantly threatens to collapse (and do collapse from time to time).

 

To follow Steve Rosenberg's reply, we can describe the relation between money and gifts as a parallel to the relation between the abstract economic subject, devoid of any positive social content, and people as social agents connected to a dense social web. As in the case of money and gifts, we see ourselves as individuals with rich personality, different from the "economic subject" that lurks inside us, which at times annuls this rich personality.

 

I think that the interesting point here is the possibility to see notions of the person as inscribed in practices of money.

John McCreery said:

I'd like to look a bit more at the phenomenology of gift giving. In the Lutheran, mixed Scots-Irish, German family in which I grew up in southern Virginia, USA, in the 1950s and 60s, Christmas, birthday and anniversary gifts were never money. To give money would have signaled that the giver didn't care enough about the recipient to consider their personal tastes and wishes in choosing the gift. But gifts in this sense were clearly distinguished from financial help, e.g., when my parents borrowed the down payment for the place on which I grew up from my maternal grandfather or my parents paid for my college education. Financial favors like these were attributed to "family," i.e., an obligation to help each other out as needed, possibly tempered by whether the recipient was regarded as a good member of the family. Help might be denied to those deemed "bad," i.e. As untrustworthy or likely to waste the money in question. These arrangements were extended outside the family, e.g., in regular donations to the church but not to political candidates.

Fieldwork in Taiwan introduced me to another set of arrangements, in which cash, properly packaged, is a common component on all sorts of ceremonial gifting occasions both inside and outside the family.

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