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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Thanks for launching this fascinating discussion, Noam. Before I get to the key issue of why buying women is obscene, I would say first that "capitalism" is an ideal type which often obscures the plurality of economic mechanisms that make up any real society and second that so-called capitalist societies always incorporate features of those that were already in place, typically through that synthesis of the nation-state and industrial capitalism that I call "national capitalism". But we need some shorthand expressions to get anywhere and I will now talk about the logic of the ideal type. I think we are in basic agreement, but there may be some differences of emphasis.

The moral economy of capitalism is based on the separation of two spheres, the market and home, which represent ideally impersonal and personal social life. The payment of money for labour marks the first and unpaid, especially female labour the second. People are expected to divide themselves daily between public production and private consumption, to submit to impersonal rules outside the home and to express themselves as persons within it. This division has never been actually achieved, but a huge cultural effort goes into generating it. As you say, if money is what defines impersonal relations, it is also intrinsic to intimacy, since the work of the home hinges on allocating and spending it. Nevertheless, the members of capitalist societies believe that the payment of money transforms a relationship. Members of non-capitalist societies (such as those discussed in Parry and Bloch, Money and the Morality of Exchange) do not experience money in this way, but rather make it serve personal and social purposes. The same is true of capitalist societies, as Zelizer points out, but we still have to account for the normative strength of the impersonal money sphere. If all we have is economist's impersonal models, it is worth highlighting what people really do with money, but we still have to understand money's impersonal power under capitalism.

A Ghanaian student once told me how he met an American student at a party and they spent the night together at her place. In the morning he left a banknote on the dressing table. To him it was more useful than flowers or chocolates, but not marked as an inappropriate gift between lovers. Her reaction was to explode, "Do you think I am a prostitute?". Why the fuss? Because money is the epitome of impersonality and sex of personal intimacy. The cultural separation of complementary spheres is challenged at its core by their confusion. Prostitution is obscene. Marriage is analogous. It is obvious that money and economic considerations play a significant part in marriage both at the beginning and throughout. But we get nervous when monetary exchange makes a public appearance in this context.

There is an unpleasant story (courtesy David Graeber in this form) about Winston Churchill, also at a party.

Churchill: [approaching high society lady] Tell me, madam, would you marry me for five million pounds?

Socialite: I suppose I might consider it. Why? Are you proposing?

Churchill: Would you sleep with me for five?

Socialite: [slapping him across face] Honestly! What sort of woman do you think I am?

Churchill: We’ve already established that. Now, we’re merely haggling over the price.

To return to my starting point, economy was once identified with the house and against the market (Aristotle). It is now usually identified with the market and domestic economy makes an appearance mainly through spending money. One emphasizes the inside, the other the outside. We need a notion of economy that combines the two as social reality does already. Money is always personal and impersonal. Its function is to allow us sometimes to make meaningful connection between the everyday world we know well and the vast world out there that we don't.

These are wonderful examples, Keith. But I think they can be read as underlining my point. That is, it is not simply a separation between home and market, personal and impersonal, consumption and production. The sense of obscenity that surfaces when the borders between them are crossed suggest that these categories define each other and interpenetrate one into the other.

 

Don't you think that the young Ghanian is in a sense mistaken? That he does not fully understand money, because he belongs to a reality that is "not yet" fully capitalist? His mistake is interesting because it follows the pattern of the child who cries that the king is naked. That is to say it reveals that which must remain hidden within the correct manner for this manner to function.

Keith Hart said:

Thanks for launching this fascinating discussion, Noam. Before I get to the key issue of why buying women is obscene, I would say first that "capitalism" is an ideal type which often obscures the plurality of economic mechanisms that make up any real society and second that so-called capitalist societies always incorporate features of those that were already in place, typically through that synthesis of the nation-state and industrial capitalism that I call "national capitalism". But we need some shorthand expressions to get anywhere and I will now talk about the logic of the ideal type. I think we are in basic agreement, but there may be some differences of emphasis.

The moral economy of capitalism is based on the separation of two spheres, the market and home, which represent ideally impersonal and personal social life. The payment of money for labour marks the first and unpaid, especially female labour the second. People are expected to divide themselves daily between public production and private consumption, to submit to impersonal rules outside the home and to express themselves as persons within it. This division has never been actually achieved, but a huge cultural effort goes into generating it. As you say, if money is what defines impersonal relations, it is also intrinsic to intimacy, since the work of the home hinges on allocating and spending it. Nevertheless, the members of capitalist societies believe that the payment of money transforms a relationship. Members of non-capitalist societies (such as those discussed in Parry and Bloch, Money and the Morality of Exchange) do not experience money in this way, but rather make it serve personal and social purposes. The same is true of capitalist societies, as Zelizer points out, but we still have to account for the normative strength of the impersonal money sphere. If all we have is economist's impersonal models, it is worth highlighting what people really do with money, but we still have to understand money's impersonal power under capitalism.

A Ghanaian student once told me how he met an American student at a party and they spent the night together at her place. In the morning he left a banknote on the dressing table. To him it was more useful than flowers or chocolates, but not marked as an inappropriate gift between lovers. Her reaction was to explode, "Do you think I am a prostitute?". Why the fuss? Because money is the epitome of impersonality and sex of personal intimacy. The cultural separation of complementary spheres is challenged at its core by their confusion. Prostitution is obscene. Marriage is analogous. It is obvious that money and economic considerations play a significant part in marriage both at the beginning and throughout. But we get nervous when monetary exchange makes a public appearance in this context.

There is an unpleasant story (courtesy David Graeber in this form) about Winston Churchill, also at a party.

Churchill: [approaching high society lady] Tell me, madam, would you marry me for five million pounds?

Socialite: I suppose I might consider it. Why? Are you proposing?

Churchill: Would you sleep with me for five?

Socialite: [slapping him across face] Honestly! What sort of woman do you think I am?

Churchill: We’ve already established that. Now, we’re merely haggling over the price.

To return to my starting point, economy was once identified with the house and against the market (Aristotle). It is now usually identified with the market and domestic economy makes an appearance mainly through spending money. One emphasizes the inside, the other the outside. We need a notion of economy that combines the two as social reality does already. Money is always personal and impersonal. Its function is to allow us sometimes to make meaningful connection between the everyday world we know well and the vast world out there that we don't.

This is getting really interesting, Noam. We are now in the deep waters of method. It would be hard to find an anthropologist from the last 100 years who would say in public that an African adult was mistaken and childlike in their cultural assumptions. I have just come off recording a talk for BBC radio 3 on the origins of money (it comes out on Monday 13th at 2245 UK time) and the producers were sure that African cows and Melanesian shells were "primitive money", examples of where the real modern stuff came from. But this is not to deny your point, only to highlight its originality in the context of an anthropological forum.

I do think we agree completely that in capitalist societies crossing the boundary between what money is supposed to be and what it is not is obscene and that "these categories define each other and interpenetrate one into the other".The issue is to identity the status of such an observation. Is money just one idea whose destiny is revealed by capitalism? What do we do with variation between so-called capitalist societies, never mind those that have not yet become one? In my talk, I suggested that African and Melanesian approaches to the economy might help us to think about non-capitalist alternatives, which is a fairly old justification for comparative social anthropology, going back to the 19th century. Is there only one evolutionary path?

I would like to hear more in this respect, not to rubbish it from the safety of a PC cultural relativism, but to learn about what seems to be a Hegelian method. We are so used to multiplying counter-examples that your approach is refreshing, at least to me. It reminds me of Simmel at his best. For example, not all capitalist societies get into a moral panic over prostitution, even some protestant ones. Take the Dutch who put their cathedral in Amsterdam's red light district as a direct affront to Calvin's puritanical line on sex. Do examples of this kind bear on the question of money and obscenity which so often focus on consigning women to the domestic sphere? When more people work for money from home, how might this affect the categories? Are they not shifting and, if so, what does this tell us about the future of money?

 

In order not to let  PC sterilize the discussion I should note that the mistake in question has the structure of a "truth in error". Therefore it is not necesarily "inferior" to the correct conduct of the American student. Rather, the Ghanian student highlights something that the American cannot see (i.e. that in some romantic contexts it may be appropriate to give even an explicitly expensive gift, but never the money itself).

However, to turn to the deeper questions of method, I think we should make an important distinction. I think we can use terms such as "not yet" without committing ourselves to a view of one necessary path of grand history. We surely do not want to accept the latter (i.e. to see cows or shells as a necessary step on the way to the dollar or euro). However, disqualifying terms such as "not yet", "already" or "still" would result in disqualifying history itself, in annihilating any real notion of history. It would turn history into nothing more than sequence of isolated moments, that only coincidentally are arranged in that way and not another. Thus, in a sense, refusing to see the African as "not yet" fully immersed in capitalism leads to the very same sort of "political" error: it leads to viewing him "outside" history (as residing in his own "pure", closed culture).

Why is the "not yet" a legitimate term where grand narratives of history are not? Because it relates to a present, synchronous moment: not to history as a narrative but to different types of presence of history (to the manner a thing or a practice still carries some trace of the past, yet already belongs to a different time). In other words, terms such a "not yet" allow us to see different regions as belonging to the same "world system" - to see them as different layers within it, distinguished by their historical relation to it. In the anecdote we are dealing with, it is the money object that carries this presence of history. The Ghanian student is already part of a capitalist system due to the simple fact that he uses modern money, yet for him it is still a sort of a foreign presence.

BTW - I believe that the "not yet" is essential to any real history of money, even in relation to "Western" narratives. Take the example of the dissolution of the gold standard in 1971. In a sense this allegedly sea-change is also a non-event because it was actually not a sharp change between two monetary systems. Prior to 1971 the Dollar has "already" replaced gold, but was "not yet" explicitly acknowledged as such.

I hope this somehow answers your doubts. I still need to work it out a little....

Keith Hart said:

This is getting really interesting, Noam. We are now in the deep waters of method. It would be hard to find an anthropologist from the last 100 years who would say in public that an African adult was mistaken and childlike in their cultural assumptions. I have just come off recording a talk for BBC radio 3 on the origins of money (it comes out on Monday 13th at 2245 UK time) and the producers were sure that African cows and Melanesian shells were "primitive money", examples of where the real modern stuff came from. But this is not to deny your point, only to highlight its originality in the context of an anthropological forum.

I do think we agree completely that in capitalist societies crossing the boundary between what money is supposed to be and what it is not is obscene and that "these categories define each other and interpenetrate one into the other".The issue is to identity the status of such an observation. Is money just one idea whose destiny is revealed by capitalism? What do we do with variation between so-called capitalist societies, never mind those that have not yet become one? In my talk, I suggested that African and Melanesian approaches to the economy might help us to think about non-capitalist alternatives, which is a fairly old justification for comparative social anthropology, going back to the 19th century. Is there only one evolutionary path?

I would like to hear more in this respect, not to rubbish it from the safety of a PC cultural relativism, but to learn about what seems to be a Hegelian method. We are so used to multiplying counter-examples that your approach is refreshing, at least to me. It reminds me of Simmel at his best. For example, not all capitalist societies get into a moral panic over prostitution, even some protestant ones. Take the Dutch who put their cathedral in Amsterdam's red light district as a direct affront to Calvin's puritanical line on sex. Do examples of this kind bear on the question of money and obscenity which so often focus on consigning women to the domestic sphere? When more people work for money from home, how might this affect the categories? Are they not shifting and, if so, what does this tell us about the future of money?

 

Thanks for this important clarification, Noam. I always knew that I was more on your side than on that of the "peoples without history" buffs, but I needed to scratch the itch of difference. What I now see is that your position is very similar to Marx's. His exploration of Victorian capitalism could be and has been interpreted as a western case study (by Godelier, for example), whereas he saw the unfolding events as a turning point in world history to which all the world would soon have to adapt. It was not ethnocentric therefore to deny non-western societies the chance to make their own history. History had already taken that away from them. This really is different from the standard anthropological argument that each place has a culture sui generis.

I understand now why you felt perfectly at ease asking NYU anthropologists to read a piece by Veblen on women as a commodity. I felt then and said so that, without explanation, this would inflame ethnographers, feminists and a whole lot of others who flourishd in the miserable twentieth century. This was part of your assertion of historicity as a methodological imperative. I am glad that, despite the sound bite nature of these exchanges, we got some way towards clearing up the difference between unilinear evolution and your idea of the synchronicity of world history at this time.

I still think there has to be a decentred approach to historical variation as well as this powerful insistence on taking our world as the object of investigation. Capitalism is not just one thing, but also many things.

I agree with the thought (a reminder almost), which I take to be implicit in what Noam and Keith have said, that underlying the very idea of a variety of anything there must logically lie some thing being manifested in different ways-- and so Noam's project, the venerable one of defining capitalism, is, despite possible nominalist objections, a sound one. Of course, in coming up with a definition, it is unclear whether we are addressing a semantic issue (following the nominalist intiution) or (from a different philosophical point of view), sorting out things in the world. The word 'capitalism' itself (perhaps like all words), has a pretty vague extension, 'fuzzy at the edges', the set of things denoted being connected by something like 'family resemblances', rather than through sharply defined characteristics.

But whether semantic or ontological matters are at stake, the method for defining capitalism seems, at least in the first instance, to be the same: examine the variety of social forms to which the term has been applied, and see what they have in common.

Keith's point about separation of spheres best applies to a particular form of capitalism-- 'high' industrial capitalism, organized around the factory. It does not capture as well the antecedent, 'putting out' system, described by Marx in Cap I, and more recently analyzed by economic historians such as Hans Medick as the 'proto-industrial' period of capitalism. In this system the household was the unit of production and consumption, and all family members contributing labor in the production of commodities. Of course, Marx suggested this was just a phase en route to the factory capitalism of nineteenth century Britain-- and so perhaps can be relegated to a mere stage on the path to full realization of the system. Yet, as historically minded political economists such as Michael Piore, Charles Sabel, and Jonathan Zeitlin have pointed out, first, this element never completely went away under capitalism, and second, the centralized factory system came to dominate capitalism for only quite contingent reasons-- there were, according to this line of investigation, alternative historical paths not taken for reasons other than the internal developmental logic of the system. Moreover, it is not at all clear that the future of capitalism will involve the continuation of the 'classical' factory era separation of spaces of production and consumption. Consider this question: If we take the trend, characteristic of the 'information economy', for work increasingly to be done from home distally via the web, and project it into the future so that the domicile as site of production comes to dominate the economy to the same extent that factory production dominated, say, early twentieth century industrial capitalism, but hold constant all the other elements of the capitalist economy, then would we want to say that capitalism had 'withered away'? I think not. Removing the division of social space into home/consumption and work/production would not be sufficient to dissolve the analytic purchase of the concept of capitalism on a society that retained the wage labor form, money, production for exchange etc. Noam's point about sale of women and the obscene also, it seems to me, fails to offer a general enough definition to of capitalism to cover all the imaginably cases to which we might want to apply the concept. Noam's reasoning, like Keith's, seems to be that it is a sharp separation between market relations and other, more 'social' kinds of relations that defines the system-- but I can well imagine a form of capitalism in which separation of that sort is quite unclear, and in which objects and subjects move quite fluidly into and out of the status of being commodities-- indeed, the process of 'commodification' describes movement in the direction of this kind of 'blurring'.

These kinds of thought experiment perhaps get us a bit closer to what I think is a 'core' definition of capitalism: the elements I would propose, rather uncontroversially, are wage labor, production for market exchange, and perhaps, following Weber and the Frankfurt school, a compulsive ethic to sacrifice ends to the pursuit of means, where (retreating to Marx) means means (more or less) the accumulation of money. Not a novel definition, to be sure. But one that seems pretty robust.



Keith Hart said:

Thanks for this important clarification, Noam. I always knew that I was more on your side than on that of the "peoples without history" buffs, but I needed to scratch the itch of difference. What I now see is that your position is very similar to Marx's. His exploration of Victorian capitalism could be and has been interpreted as a western case study (by Godelier, for example), whereas he saw the unfolding events as a turning point in world history to which all the world would soon have to adapt. It was not ethnocentric therefore to deny non-western societies the chance to make their own history. History had already taken that away from them. This really is different from the standard anthropological argument that each place has a culture sui generis.

I understand now why you felt perfectly at ease asking NYU anthropologists to read a piece by Veblen on women as a commodity. I felt then and said so that, without explanation, this would inflame ethnographers, feminists and a whole lot of others who flourishd in the miserable twentieth century. This was part of your assertion of historicity as a methodological imperative. I am glad that, despite the sound bite nature of these exchanges, we got some way towards clearing up the difference between unilinear evolution and your idea of the synchronicity of world history at this time.

I still think there has to be a decentred approach to historical variation as well as this powerful insistence on taking our world as the object of investigation. Capitalism is not just one thing, but also many things.

Thanks for the rigorous commentary, Steve. After a while, in a discussion like this, it pays to revisit Collingwood and ask "What question is this the answer to?" I agree that one can fall into the trap of chasing definitions for their own sake, if we are not clear why it is important to define capitalism. I think Noam was suggesting that the idea of obscenity in relation to women points to a meaningful window on "capitalism" conceived of as the organizing principle of our moment in world history. But I am nto going back to the beginning of the thread to find out. This is after all a conversation, not scholasticism.

I agree that we need to ask what is the same before immersing ourselves in the endless variety of difference. And if we still believe that "capitalism" is the historical force driving our world, we should say what its core principles are. But we also must show what this move allows us to demonstrate or understand and which social purpose would thereby be advanced.

What I take from Marx is that three things matter in our world -- people, machines and money, in that order. But in practice people are compelled to tend machines whose operation is determined by those who command big money. The question is how to reverse that order and get what we want in a society where machines and money will continue to play a major part (as opposed to the "Stop the world, I want to get off!" tendency).

The price of reducing contemporary history to one idea is that we tend to leave out what it is not. This could be, as Steve says, elements of previous modes of production, of others now being born or just others that were never assimilated to the dominant form. Then the cultural effort to separate production and consumption as market and home with a strong component of traditional gender relations would be seen as characteristic of the early phase of industrial capitalism in some places and not essential to the larger historical process.

Surely what matters is to reinvent Marx's project in terms applicable to our world and the problems of social survival or improvement that it poses. In this respect, Marx himself may offer an inferior approach to world history conceived of as distinct stages succeeding each other: the primitive commune descending into slavery before giving way to feudalism then capitalism in turn to be replaced by socialism or eventually communism. Hegel's method saw the principles dominant in different phases combined in the present with different direction and emphasis -- the family and life on the land, urban commerce or capitalism and the state.

In The Human Economy: A Citizen's Guide, Laville, Cattani and I took from Mauss and Polanyi the notion that some forms of economic life re universal, while others are distinctive to our moment in history, but the political and intellectual task is to recombine their elements with a more effective economic democracy in mind. We advocate this piecemeal approach rather than invoke a revolutionary break with "capitalism" for some unknown alternative.

Yet, I do share the impulse of Noam and Steve, to reinvent Marx in a unifying vision of what drives our moment in world history. Is it impossible to hold these two ideas in ones head at once? I don't know, but I will struggle through the fog of my brain to try. What I am sure of is that the need for political direction make it essential to see the world as a moving whole and to be sensitive to the variety and potential of existing practice.

Steve's definition is of course a good description of the basic economic structure of capitalism (granted that we know what "economic" means, where it starts and ends, what are its borders etc.... which is part of my point). Yet I still think it is sometimes worthwhile to add one more defining feature which runs in some cotrast or tension with the formal definition. This does not suggest an alternative definition but a different approach to the act of defining - an approach that puts more emphasis on the exception to the rule, or in other terms, defining something through its pathologies.

Let me try to put it in more concrete terms: we tend to see commodification as central to capitalism - i.e. the process whereby more and more things are given to exchange. On this background it is, at first, interesting to note that women are excluded from this process: buying a wife is an obscenity to be avoided at all costs. A first reaction to this might see the family as a sphere which is more resistant to the expantion drive of "the economy" - as a remnant of "traditional" societies. But this is the most interesting part: it is precisely these "traditional" socieities that make the purchase of a wife less problematic. For that reason we should see the obscenity as unique to capitalism - not the family as resistent to "the economy", but a part of the structure of capitalist  family, or as the presence of the economy in the family circle.

The question is how such a "pathological" definition sheds light on the more standard aspects of capitalist economy. On this respect maybe we can follow Freud's idea that to understand the normal we have to look first at the pervert. In parallel, it might prove fruitful to see the obscene purchase of women as present throughout the sphere of consumption as a whole (isn't this the secret of one of the "primordial" advertising gestures: buy the car and you will get the woman). What this view adds is some contrast to the commonplace connection of commodification with calulability: the idea that commodification spreads to gether with an increasing equivalence or equation of all things with each other. Maybe there is something wrong with this idea: marketing and advertising constantly circle around the inacalculable.

And again, I have to say that these are still only initial thoughts - maybe this idea will not prove as fertile as I think.

 

 


Keith Hart said:

Thanks for the rigorous commentary, Steve. After a while, in a discussion like this, it pays to revisit Collingwood and ask "What question is this the answer to?" I agree that one can fall into the trap of chasing definitions for their own sake, if we are not clear why it is important to define capitalism. I think Noam was suggesting that the idea of obscenity in relation to women points to a meaningful window on "capitalism" conceived of as the organizing principle of our moment in world history. But I am nto going back to the beginning of the thread to find out. This is after all a conversation, not scholasticism.

I agree that we need to ask what is the same before immersing ourselves in the endless variety of difference. And if we still believe that "capitalism" is the historical force driving our world, we should say what its core principles are. But we also must show what this move allows us to demonstrate or understand and which social purpose would thereby be advanced.

What I take from Marx is that three things matter in our world -- people, machines and money, in that order. But in practice people are compelled to tend machines whose operation is determined by those who command big money. The question is how to reverse that order and get what we want in a society where machines and money will continue to play a major part (as opposed to the "Stop the world, I want to get off!" tendency).

The price of reducing contemporary history to one idea is that we tend to leave out what it is not. This could be, as Steve says, elements of previous modes of production, of others now being born or just others that were never assimilated to the dominant form. Then the cultural effort to separate production and consumption as market and home with a strong component of traditional gender relations would be seen as characteristic of the early phase of industrial capitalism in some places and not essential to the larger historical process.

Surely what matters is to reinvent Marx's project in terms applicable to our world and the problems of social survival or improvement that it poses. In this respect, Marx himself may offer an inferior approach to world history conceived of as distinct stages succeeding each other: the primitive commune descending into slavery before giving way to feudalism then capitalism in turn to be replaced by socialism or eventually communism. Hegel's method saw the principles dominant in different phases combined in the present with different direction and emphasis -- the family and life on the land, urban commerce or capitalism and the state.

In The Human Economy: A Citizen's Guide, Laville, Cattani and I took from Mauss and Polanyi the notion that some forms of economic life re universal, while others are distinctive to our moment in history, but the political and intellectual task is to recombine their elements with a more effective economic democracy in mind. We advocate this piecemeal approach rather than invoke a revolutionary break with "capitalism" for some unknown alternative.

Yet, I do share the impulse of Noam and Steve, to reinvent Marx in a unifying vision of what drives our moment in world history. Is it impossible to hold these two ideas in ones head at once? I don't know, but I will struggle through the fog of my brain to try. What I am sure of is that the need for political direction make it essential to see the world as a moving whole and to be sensitive to the variety and potential of existing practice.
And so enters the "gift card". Is it "more intimate", "more impersonal", or both than cash?

Hi All,

 

One thing strikes me about this deifine capitalism thread which is the at times liberal use of the term "person".

 

I am interested in the burgeoning Freeman Movement in the UK, which uses the fact that UK is a common law jursidiction to effectively avoid some of the more bureaucratic legislation which prevails as part of the dominant Capitalist ideology. Briefly (sorry that this intro is a bit wide of topic), a common law jursidiction recognises legal precedent, so people aware of this are able to invoke Magna Carta if necessary.  Freemen I know have used lawful rebellion to write off debt, avoid minor issues in the magistrates' courts and to avoid bureacracy in general (such as the DVLA- Driver and Vehicle licensing authority). The issue which is central to this movement is the idea of the legal person. 

 

Within Capitalism (I use a big C to denote the ideology) a "person" is primarily a legal entity. This type of person may represent a human being, but really it exists only as a name until a real being claims it.  Personhood in Capitalism has to do with an actor opertaing in a bureaucratic and legislative system as a "person", denoted by a name. Persons are used by Capitalist governments as collateral: borrowing power, a "person" is an asset of the governement, in my case, UK PLC.

 

In this way, we can understand that persons can be "traded", or at least, a legal person's potential to be productive is used by governments to speculate with. Understanding what a person is in the context of Capitalism is important when formulating an understanding of whether women can be "bought". I would say that we can (if anyone dared to), because at the invisible and ambiguous level of legal personhood we are a commodity of sorts anyway.

 

Steve picks up on this " I can well imagine a form of capitalism in which separation of that sort is quite unclear, and in which objects and subjects move quite fluidly into and out of the status of being commodities", according to the Freemen we already are! THIS is my feeling, which is that Capitalism's greatest power is its plurality and subsequent ability to mystify relations which are already there. Cf the Ghanaian encounter, money is just one of a multitude of commodities available in a capitalist process, how we perceive them- and whether money, flowers or persons are our currency- very much depends on how we construct our own social worlds.

 

All this stuff about legal personhood doesn't necessarily reflect how humans imagine themselves, at the very least though, we can say that the Freeman movement imagine themselves as not legal persons (in a sense accepting, or encompassing this definition of a "legal person" albeit as something that they are not). However, when talking about Capitalism, we must realise there are processes that already take place in which all "persons" are goods already. Sadly, there is not a lot of material on Freemen (women can be freemen too), but I am following the movement which very much boils down to precision in legal language.

 

Speaking of precision in language-  my cue to be pedantic! I am in favour of capitalisation and non-capitalisation when talking about ideas such as Capitlaism/ capitalism. Then, we can enter a debate about whether under capitalism (which I would loosely define as a social process of the everyday within a market economy) women can be bought or sold, whereas the idea can lurk behind us that under Capitalism (the ideology), all things are basically resources, or have that potential, including persons, so of course women can be bought or sold. By this rationale, and why I tagged this response to Steve, I disagree that persons can stand outside of the sphere of Capitalism at all, persons are an integral commodity for Capitalism- it is only this system which possesses anything at all.

 

(As an aside, perhaps that is why slaves were considered only 3/5 a person- the exact terminology might be important here (as it so often is in matters of law), as 3/5 of a "person" is the respective government acknowledging that they only have a right to speculate with 3/5 of this asset, the other 2/5 being tied up in private ownership?)

 

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.

Hi All,

 

One thing strikes me about this define capitalism thread which is the at times liberal use of the term "person".

 

I am interested in the burgeoning Freeman Movement in the UK, which uses the fact that UK is a common law jursidiction to effectively avoid some of the more bureaucratic legislation which prevails as part of the dominant Capitalist ideology. Briefly (sorry that this intro is a bit wide of topic), a common law jursidiction recognises legal precedent, so people aware of this are able to invoke Magna Carta if necessary.  Freemen I know have used lawful rebellion to write off debt, avoid minor issues in the magistrates' courts and to avoid bureacracy in general (such as the DVLA- Driver and Vehicle licensing authority). The issue which is central to this movement is the idea of the legal person. 

 

Within Capitalism (I use a big C to denote the ideology) a "person" is primarily a legal entity. This type of person may represent a human being, but really it exists only as a name until a real being claims it.  Personhood in Capitalism has to do with an actor operating in a bureaucratic and legislative system as a "person", denoted by a name. Persons are used by Capitalist governments as collateral: borrowing power, a "person" is an asset of the governement, in my case, UK PLC.

 

In this way, we can understand that persons can be "traded", or at least, a legal person's potential to be productive is owned and used by governments to speculate with. Understanding what a person is in the context of Capitalism is important when formulating an understanding of whether women can be "bought". I would say that we can (if anyone dared to), because at the invisible and ambiguous level of legal personhood we are a commodity of sorts anyway.

 

Steve picks up on this " I can well imagine a form of capitalism in which separation of that sort is quite unclear, and in which objects and subjects move quite fluidly into and out of the status of being commodities", according to the Freemen we already are! THIS is my feeling, which is that Capitalism's greatest power is its plurality and subsequent ability to mystify relations which are already there. Cf the Ghanaian encounter, money is just one of a multitude of commodities available in a capitalist process, how we perceive them- and whether money, flowers or persons are our currency- very much depends on how we construct our own social worlds.

 

All this stuff about legal personhood doesn't necessarily reflect how humans imagine themselves, at the very least though, we can say that the Freeman movement imagine themselves as not legal persons (in a sense accepting, or encompassing this definition of a "legal person" albeit as something that they are not). However, when talking about Capitalism, we must realise there are processes that already take place in which all "persons" are goods already. Presently, there is not a lot of material on Freemen (women can be freemen too), but I am following the movement which very much boils down to precision in legal language.

 

Speaking of precision in language-  my cue to be pedantic! I am in favour of capitalisation and non-capitalisation when talking about ideas such as Capitlaism/ capitalism. Then, we can enter a debate about whether under capitalism (which I would loosely define as a social process of the everyday within a market economy) women can be bought or sold, whereas the idea can lurk behind us that under Capitalism (the ideology), all things are basically resources, or have that potential, including persons, so of course women can be bought or sold. By this rationale, and why I tagged this response to Steve, I disagree that persons can stand outside of the sphere of Capitalism at all, persons are an integral commodity for Capitalism- it is only this system which possesses anything at all.

 

(As an aside, perhaps that is why slaves were considered only 3/5 a person- the exact terminology might be important here (as it so often is in matters of law), as 3/5 of a "person" is the respective government acknowledging that they only have a right to speculate with 3/5 of this asset, the other 2/5 being tied up in private ownership?)

 

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.

 


Elaine Forde said:

One thing strikes me about this define capitalism thread which is the at times liberal use of the term "person".


Thanks very much for this intervention, Elaine. It is important to bring up the common law tradition that the US and Britain share, since these countries also took the lead in subverting it for the sake of creating a corporate plutocracy. I agree that there are political spaces in this tradition that could and should be exploited. I would go further and suggest that our contemporary inability to conceptualize the person in a sharp enough way is perhaps the main handicap we face in the struggle for general emancipation. Moreover, social theory in the last century has played a principal role in confusing us all, especially theory imported from France.

I made my basic case in a short book, The Hitman's Dilemma: Or business personal and impersonal (2005). I posted a summary of this. The point of the book is that our woes stem from the collapse of the distinction between real and artificial persons in law, granting corporations the status of individual citizens with human rights.

You end up with an idealist position on capitalism which allows no dialectical space for the kind of movement that attracts you. No idea can ever define social reality completely. Whatever the idea is not, its negation, is the start of possible resistance to it.

But overall I find your contribution a useful corrective to what was already an idealist trend in this thread.

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