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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Re. your comment:

"Capitalism is founded not upon labor and production (though perhaps on specific modes of labor relations and modes of production). Indeed, labor and production predate capitalism. What is perhaps unique to capitalism is the culture of consumption and the social arrangements of purchasing (capital/revenue flow) that are its lifeblood. Capitalism could not work without a consuming, purchasing population base."

what is key about capitalism, for Marx, and for a host of other analysts, is not labour and production as such, but a particular kind of labour (commodified labour) and a particular kind of production (production for exchange). I am unclear on the point about consumption. Obviously any socio-economic arrangement involves circulation and consumption of some sort. What do you mean by 'culture of consumption'?

 

 


Joel M. Wright said:

On June 10, Noam wrote:

 

“The Ghanaian 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.”

 

Do you have specific information from which you can draw this conclusion? By the way, are we talking about a Ghanaian man or woman? Please excuse if I am blatantly missing something here! Also, I’m not clear why you are asserting that the Ghanaian student is, at heart, “not yet” embedded in capitalism. That claim seems to suggest a simplifying either/or scenario in which the more detailed intricacies of the social, economic and cultural arrangements of the present are obscured. Here, I’m not sure I fully agree with you and Keith, concerning your approach to historicity.

 

The “not yet” approach seems to suggest that there is only one direction, or two alternatives (yes and no). We can, with sound logic, say not yet (and it’s implied positive), of course. However, what happens if there are conditions which apply to the Ghanaian student that overlap with the positive, yet also with the negative (the “not yet”)? Further, what if one of these hypothetical conditions is the fruition of this person’s life, or the endpoint condition in which he or she ends life? Perhaps “is” or “is not” would be more empirically sound as historical delimiters, less loaded with an evolutionary schema?

 

On June 6, Keith wrote:

 

“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.”

 

On June 6, Nikos wrote:

 

“I just find this distiction between market= production paid with money and home= consumption of goods by spending the money aquired , as very generalised even for the western ethical model. “

 

Regarding Noam’s original discussion point, perhaps the relevant point is not selves as subjects, but rather selves as objects. How is it that we view self and person in capitalism? Beside the questions of how self and person is acted upon within capitalism (how it is a subject), maybe we should be asking what the background assumptions are that order selfhood and personhood within capitalism to begin with. After all, action upon a thing cannot be divorced from understandings of what that thing is in the first place. I would like to suggest as well that, contrary to Steve’s approach, and perhaps in line with Keith’s, maybe we should be looking at the self as consumer and purchaser, rather than as laborer.

 

Also, perhaps approaching this topic from the direction of exchange and gift-giving can lead to misleading discourse.

 

Of course, exploring the economics of capitalism is unavoidable. However, what must be broached here are considerations of the cultural knowledge of selfhood and personhood, as they relate to the discursive formations of capitalism.

 

It is my contention that personhood is composed of at least these elements in capitalist societies:

 

1. personhood is atomized – it forms a discrete and separable entity in its own rights (and manifest in the customer, not the worker).

 

2. personhood involves option – in order for capitalism to work, the person must be free to choose; choice and option are fundamental principles of personhood (again, manifested in the customer).

 

3. personhood involves rights – because a person is separable from larger social formations, and because personhood involves option and choice as inalienable qualities within capitalism, freedom is a paramount and foundational ideal.

 

The outright commoditization of human beings violates these basic principles, that a person is inalienably separable, and that the separable person is marked by choice and freedom. At its foundation, on a cultural-ideological level, ownership of a person is thusly at odds with the basic precepts of capitalism.

 

Capitalism is founded not upon labor and production (though perhaps on specific modes of labor relations and modes of production). Indeed, labor and production predate capitalism. What is perhaps unique to capitalism is the culture of consumption and the social arrangements of purchasing (capital/revenue flow) that are its lifeblood. Capitalism could not work without a consuming, purchasing population base.

 

As a result, the stark commoditization of personhood may be ideologically inimical to the hegemonic workings of capitalism. Put more simply, the more people who are possessions, the fewer people there are with choice. The fewer people with choice, the fewer potential customers there are out there.

(See below) I took that to mean the sort of consumption that we typically find in capitalist societies, for instance, buying things to own privately, buying things cheap to sell on for a profit or buying things cheaply then more things to replace them and throwing the old stuff out or buying things because they have a brand. Because there is consumption doesn't make it a culture, it's how things are consumed that indicates a culture.

 

This could shed light on the discussion on historicity too, perhaps? An example I know better is the emerging economy around eco-building. There are parties here (in Wales) who are engaging with cob plaster- which is basically just horse manure and mud, with optional lime. This is as part of a "cutting edge" eco-building project, "the first eco-hamlet" in Britain (and that is how it is branded). A resident pointed out to me, as he showed me a nice new-agey book about eco-building, that when some of their neighbours, old Welsh farmers, came to look around the place, they were surprised that it was "just" daub, something they were more than familiar with, and which had been outstripped decades ago by "modern" building methods.

 

The same thing is given two brands, "cob", "earth plaster"- an eco-build material on one hand, and on the other,  "just" daub, an age old technique, cheap and cheerful, nothing special. The first requires "specialist" eco builders to make, the other one you just slap together. What makes this situation possible is the passage of time and specific marketing. The traditional and modern positions are both encompassed by the farmer's history, and my eco-hamlet resident points out, they're buying back what the old boys always knew. If history is a linear progression then these chaps must be getting pretty confused by now.

 

 

Steve Rosenberg said: (and Elaine edited)

I am unclear on the point about consumption. Obviously any socio-economic arrangement involves circulation and consumption of some sort. What do you mean by 'culture of consumption'?

 

On July 28, 2011, Steve Rosenberg wrote:

 

“what is key about capitalism, for Marx, and for a host of other analysts, is not labour and production as such, but a particular kind of labour (commodified labour) and a particular kind of production (production for exchange). I am unclear on the point about consumption. Obviously any socio-economic arrangement involves circulation and consumption of some sort. What do you mean by 'culture of consumption'?”

 

Marx also wrote about the modes of consumption as well as the modes of production. I admit that I’d have a lot to read before I’m very knowledgeable on what Marx had to say about modes of consumption, but I have read some stuff, both in sociology and anthropology.

 

For me, though, one of the main distinguishing point lies not consumption, per se, but in purchasing. Consumption is not unique to capitalism, as you point out. However, the ubiquity of purchasing is at the very heart of hearts in capitalism; and I’d argue much more so than the ubiquity of certain modes of labor. So, perhaps I should ramble less about cultures of consumption and more about cultures of purchasing.

 

Let’s face it, none of the providers of the things that I consume, including my clothes and my domicile, particularly care whether or not I actually use their stuff. They just want the exchange of money for their goods. Case in point: if I break the lease in my apartment, I get billed for three months rent, even if I’m not living there (and likely somebody else will be, double-paying rent that I’ve already paid).

 

However, people need to be enticed into purchasing more than they really need. Again, it’s the purchasing that the thing in capitalism: the circulation of capital relative to the circulation of commodities. In capitalism, which works on a hyper-circulation of capital to its nth limit, people have to be encouraged to purchase as much as you can get them to purchase. The best way to do that, it turns out, involves cultural and ideological transformations toward the acquisition of material wealth, wealth-based power and prestige and the access to services through wealth.

 

On July 28, 2011, Elaine Ford wrote:

 

“The first requires "specialist" eco builders to make, the other one you just slap together. What makes this situation possible is the passage of time and specific marketing. The traditional and modern positions are both encompassed by the farmer's history, and my eco-hamlet resident points out, they're buying back what the old boys always knew.”

 

This example is really interesting, as it highlights the cultural and ideological transformation of the same old shit into something magically hip. It’s great that there are people innovating for greater ecological soundness, and it’s entertaining that the elderly are shrugging and saying, “we’ve been doing that all along.”

 

Yet in terms of my point concerning the self as a consumer/purchaser in capitalism, there’s something really significant happening. Without people who envision themselves as green and eco-savvy, there would be no market for eco-friendly housing in the first place. So, not only are the ideologies of the self and personhood at stake hear, but we can also see how even something as positive as environmental awareness gets subsumed in dynamics of commoditization. Also, notice how this turns self-conception as an ecologically conscious person into a purchasing and consumption option.

 

Why do we work? Of course, we work for subsistence, above and beyond leisure and creature comforts (which are defined through capitalist modes as well). However, even subsistence is a purchasing activity in capitalism.

I'm glad you found the example interesting Joel, and when you said:

 

Without people who envision themselves as green and eco-savvy, there would be no market for eco-friendly housing in the first place. So, not only are the ideologies of the self and personhood at stake hear, but we can also see how even something as positive as environmental awareness gets subsumed in dynamics of commoditization. Also, notice how this turns self-conception as an ecologically conscious person into a purchasing and consumption option.

 

 I thought it worth mentioning that during fieldwork at an eco-community I realised a middle-ground, which you touch on, and that is those who "envision" themselves a certain way, in this case with a certain ecology. As I saw it, most people who are doing already know that most eco-stuff is DIY, and can't/ shouldn't be commodified in any sort of fetishistic way, (where there's much there's brass though, it's valuable stuff) but the market exists for those who envision/ imagine themselves as eco-savvy, in fact the market depends on this sort of imagining.

Elaine, your eco building example is marvelous, but I think it deserves a careful thought in respect to history. What it eventually illustrates is the directionality of historical time. This eco-technique is of course a repretition of traditional methods, but the point is that it appears as a repetition, that it cannot escape its nature as mimicry - and for that reason, that it cannot really replicate the origin. This is precisely one of those things that exemplify the importance of concepts of historicity.

 

As for the important discussion about consumption. What you show, Joel, in specifying the unique characteristics of capitalist consumption, is that consumption can be seen as essential to capitalism insofar  as it is the sort of consumption that serves the needs of production. Baudrillard formulated this in his book about consumption (to my opinion, his best book ever). But Marx touched this before, when he wrote in the Grundrisse that consumption is the last moment of production. Later on, this thought became embedded in the concept of surplus value.

However, if you view consumption in that way, it puts some doubts in relation with the connection between consumption and choice. What is needed is a concept of forced choice ("you must choose!" as every parents says to the kids in the supermarket). This idea is actually enfolded in the microeconomic framework; it insists that we choose all the time, but it also supposes that we are slaves to our preferences - one cannot act in any way other than maximizing utility.

 

That's exactly right Noam-- for Marx, consumption is analyzed insofar as it forms a necessary part of the logic of production-- in the form, as he puts it, of either 'productive consumption' (consumption which reproduces the means of production, as when labour's consumption enables workers to work another day), or 'consumptive production' (the consumption of raw materials and bodies involved in the business of production). So what he provides, at least in his Capital phase, is a systems analysis of consumption. What he does not have much to say about is the psychology of consumption-- its form or its content (also, recall that for Marx, needs, which determine the content of consumption, are 'discovered' in history, and, as such, can only be described retrospectively-- in that sense they are exogenous to his theory).

Within the Marxist tradition, it was various members of the Frankfurt school, disillusioned with the revolutionary potential of the working class, who first become interested in analysing 'consumer society' from a psychological vantage. They combined Marx with quasi-Freudian analysis (eg. Marcuse's concept of 'desublimation') to theorize consumer behaviour. I would say that Baudrillard is continuous with their work, only combining it with structuralism, and a healthy dose of Thorstein Veblen.

The idea that a normative ideology of rational choice underpins contemporary capitalism is interesting. But note that to push too far down that road leads to an account of capitalism as a performative outcome of that ideology/theory, which, I think, is quite untenable.  What is very interesting about the recent explosion of the new behavioural economics is the degree to which compelling data have been gathered that show that people do not choose rationally, so as to maximize utility. Microeconomics, in fact, does not give a very robust account of how people actually make choices (of course, you may still posit that it sets up a normative pole towards which peoples behaviour tends over time to gravitate).

I would add, based on my recent reading of Graeber's theory of value, that microeconomics also necessitates a consideration of values, albeit in order to reify certain categories so as to make them comparable with others. This sort of reification implies that the situation comprises different choices, when in fact this is arguable. Graeber's example is between eating a chocolate cheesecake, vis a vis the knowledge that people don't think of you as obese. Only in this reductionist manner are these two outcomes presented as a choice- in "real life" many other factors could occur to obscure this apparent choice.

Steve Rosenberg said: (edited)

 Microeconomics, in fact, does not give a very robust account of how people actually make choices (of course, you may still posit that it sets up a normative pole towards which peoples behaviour tends over time to gravitate).

On July 29, 2011, Noam wrote:

 

“This idea is actually enfolded in the microeconomic framework; it insists that we choose all the time, but it also supposes that we are slaves to our preferences - one cannot act in any way other than maximizing utility.”

I think you hit on something interesting in this statement. Choice is at the foundation of capitalism, as a cultural and societal framework, but those choices are indeed enfolded within a certain framework. It seems to me that choice gets framed along two dimensions.

 

First, we may choose the items that we purchase among several different brands; yet what does that choice mean if my Levis and my Wranglers were both made in Mexican sweatshops? On the level of presentation of self and my own personal style, I seem to have choice. On a grander scale, I’m left without much of a choice but to support the rank inequalities within my nation-state and between nation-states.

 

The other dimension of choice involves resistance. It seems to me that countercultures are still framed within the scope of normative culture. For example, there’s a thriving (and young) hippy community living in a city near to where I live. Yet I find that a lot of the persons in this counterculture are able to take their criticism of the mainstream only so far. Then, they’re only repeating what everybody else is saying. Also, take Lady Gaga, or Marilyn Manson, Alice Cooper or David Bowie (I’m sure we might be able to find figures like this going back quite a ways). They seem to push the boundaries, but what they’re really doing is simply back-talking the norm. They’ve not really done anything original; rather, they’ve simply found avenues to the inversion of the mainstream. Their shock value is a function of what is generally accepted as normal, the same normalcy which they tacitly admit to in their glam personas.

 

Maybe the only real alternatives to the mainstream can only be found in different normative socioeconomic arrangements altogether. Perhaps that’s boded in the clash between certain portions of Islam and Western capitalism.

I couldn't agree more, Joel. I have been grappling with exactly the same sort of issue you raise- "back-talking the norm". I wonder if "alternative" simply encompasses "normative", just as Dumont outlined (thanks DG).

I have thoroughly enjoyed this discussion everyone, and I regret not giving enough time to Joel's interjection about personhood, which topic brought me here in the first place. I will probably exit here as I'm away on holiday for a week so I most likely won't be able to check in and I'm not sure if you'll still be going with this when I'm back.

 

Now, I'm not suggesting for a moment that we should listen to her, but I've just seen a clip of a Mrs Thatcher speech from the 1980s where she tells a swindle of bankers (an appropriate collective noun?) that capitalism is: " a system which brings wealth to the many, not just the few". Lucky for her she's not on here....

 

Thought I'd leave you with that one.

 

All the best, Elaine

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