Thursday, October 27, 2011

Thought Experiment on Remaking Economies

Update 11/2/11: Because I'm either prescient or ignorant (much more likely), I just ran across an article describing the incipient development of an alternative currency system within the OWS movement.

the Alternative Currencies Working Group at OWS is putting out for consideration by the General Assembly a software-enabled gift currency called PermaBank, that's premise is "to develop and deploy a set of technologies that align 'financial services' with the principles of permaculture." PermaBank would enable individuals and groups "to post their wish/requests and gifts/offers and indicate whether they've been completed." It would also use paper money and credit cards (on a local credit union).

It seems the currency will formalize and organize an economy that has already spontaneously sprouted, enhancing "the efficiency of the gifting culture that currently exists within Liberty Plaza."

The article also mentions a few other local alternative currencies and institutions that advocate them.

Original Post:

Over the past couple of weeks, inspired by Occupy Wall Street and Florida Governor Rick Scott’s critique of anthropology, a couple of the blogs (Living Anthropologically and Neuroanthropology ) that I regularly read have been exploring potential, anthropologically-grounded ways toward a more equitable economy and society. Those posts got me thinking about how to operationalize anthropological ideas for the purpose of social change. This post is an exercise in that kind of thought.

Alf Hornborg’s Take on the Tiv and Compartmentalizing Economies
While I didn’t come up with anything myself, I was reminded of an article that I regularly use in my cultural anthropology course, Alf Hornborg’s “Learning from the Tiv: Why a Sustainable Economy Would have to be “Multicentric.” It’s a short, concise read so I definitely refer those interested to this source, but I’ll try to summarize his main points. I think he offers an intriguing, ambitious and anthropologically-generated partial solution to the many problems facing contemporary global society.

Hornborg, himself inspired by Paul Bohannan’s work with the Tiv, examines how the world economy could be remade into a more environmentally sustainable one. One of the reasons I like using this article in class is because it’s an example of a kind of “reverse-development.” Rather than exporting Western ideas and practices to the the non-Western world, it’s a potential improvement for the Western world that originates elsewhere. In this way, I try to demonstrate that anthropology is not just an examination of exotic practices, but a stockpile of a diversity of cultural beliefs and behaviors that may have relevance in the contemporary world.

Specifically, Hornborg sees the Tiv’s multicentric economy as one that could potentially provide a template for change in national and global economies. Among the Tiv, exchange was separated into three relatively distinct spheres, and the transfer of items across those boundaries was “morally charged” (Hornborg 207:63). According to Bohannan, the Tiv credited this system largely with their traditional subsistence wealth. However, with the introduction by the colonial administration of general-purpose money and taxation, which required payment in that currency, destroyed the multicentric economy and ended much of the Tiv’s subsistence security. In Hornborg’s words, “the moral semiotics of money--in other words, how exchange is culturally conceived--can have very significant material implications” (2007:64). In this case, it contributed to the Tiv’s impoverishment.

Hornborg sees general-purpose money as critical to the Tiv’s social transformation because it creates the image of equity and fairness, while masking the very real unequal transfers of human and material resources. Hornborg puts it well in the following quote:

Neolilberal economic theory is a reflection of the logic of general-purpose money. General-purpose money is in itself basically an idea about the generalized interchangeability of all things  [2007:64].

Despite the fact that all things are not equal.

How specifically does general-purpose money obscure inquality? Hornborg then provides a 19th-century example of the basic inequity of exchange in labor and resources between Britain and its colonies.

in 1850, by exchanging, on the world market, £1,000 pounds worth of cotton textiles for £1,000 pounds worth of raw cotton from its colonies, Britain in fact traded 4,092 hours of British labor for 32,619 hours of overseas labor, and the use of less than a hectare of British land for the use of 58.6 hectares of land overseas [2007:64].

How does general-purpose money’s concealment of resources threaten environmental sustainability?

The simple logic of general-purpose money tends to accelerate the processes of resource extraction and consumption by rewarding the transformation of resources into commodities with ever more resources to transform [Hornborg 2007:65]

General-purpose money means anything and everything can be processed and consumed by a market economy.

In a kind of pre-echo of recent anthropological blog discussions, Hornborg argues for activism from the discipline:

We are trained as anthropologists and tend to maintain a healthy distance to social engineering, but as stewards of a vast collective memory of global cultural experimentation, it could be argued that we have an obligation to share these alternative ideas and ideologies with nonanthropologists seeking visions of a sustainable world. Like so many other populations over the past few centuries, the Tiv have discovered how their incorporation into a world economy orchestrated by general-purpose money implied loss of local control, inequitable trade relations, and environmental degradation [2007:65].

In light of this basic unfairness perpetuated by current conceptions of money, Hornborg offers an ambitious proposal that uses anthropological knowledge to argue for the breakdown of general-purpose money. Following the Tiv, he advocates the adoption of a “bicentric” economic system, consisting of two major spheres of exchange (local and global) and two associated, distinct, and largely incommensurable currencies. A special-purpose, or local, money could be used for the purchase of the products of local land and local labor, and a more global money to buy products that most people think of when they go to the mall. In this scenario, some connections between consumption and resource use become more visible and activities that seem detrimental to the local environment can be curtailed before it’s too late--making the best of the “not in my backyard” reaction.

I’m both cynical and optimistic about a proposal such as this. I admire the vision of this article in that he does look beyond the bounds of social analysis to praxis that could improve a basic aspect of human existence. But, I’m typical of my generation and cynical that anything positive would ever really work out. I can also understand the reservations of folks like Michael E. Smith who believe that such attempts at “social engineering” run the risk of politicizing anthropology and ultimately threatening its continued existence.

What I’ve Learned from my Students
My students (my recurrent blog foil) tend toward cynicism also, and don’t think such a radical change would work or could even happen. While they can be off base, they can also serve as a proxy for the larger culture as some of their criticisms offer a warning of objections to such far reaching proposals.

One of the more intractable obstacles is that my students view money as a natural resource necessary to navigate the natural forces of a market economy. Even after reading Hornborg’s article, they have a hard time conceiving of an economy without it; it’s essential to life. Because I’m on the David Graeber bandwagon at the moment, his notes to Debt, include this elegant quote from Richard Seaford’s examination of ancient Greek materialism, which parallel conceptions of general-purpose money. Like matter, money can be conceived of as:

A distinct, eternal, impersonal, all-embracing, unlimited, homogeneous, eternally moving, abstract, regulating substance, destination for all things as well as their origin [Seaford 2004:208].

While most of my students wouldn’t put it so poetically, I do find that the idea that money is fundamental to individual autonomy and human exchange. Life without it would represent some kind of reversion to a backwards existence, forever diminishing the world they take for granted. Though, I may be too pessimistic here. The adoption of credit cards and the proliferation of retail "gift cards" in recent decades does show some flexibility as to conceptions of what exactly is money.

Another point they often bring up is that language matters. One of their most common complaints is the language that could be used to describe the special-purpose money. In class discussion, the closest comparison to the special-purpose money is that of “food stamps.” Over the past 30 years, the political right has been so successful in demonizing the term “food stamps” as a marker of sloth and personal failure. Some terminology would need to be developed that distances itself from such negative connotations and emphasizes local control, local independence and local autonomy. At the moment, I can’t think of anything that doesn’t sound silly to my own ear. But, that’s my lack of imagination. The fact that Hornborg’s special-purpose money would be used across society could prevent it becoming associated with a stigmatized segment of the population (and maybe reduce the need for explicit poverty mitigation programs).

Symbolic Heavy Lifting--Making Change Thinkable
Now, I’ll spend a little time exploring how some of these obstacles could be overcome and how such a plan might work--at an abstract level...I’m still unsure what sorts of concrete actions would be useful.  A top-down government push? A ground-up development based in informal economies, farmers' co-ops?   Either way, significant logistical changes would be needed, though the use of digital currencies and electronic exchange could make such changes very possible as "the internet thus opens up the possibility for people to form closed circuits of labour exchange with their own nominal currency" (Hart 2001b).

However, the cultural context of a nation or region would need to be massaged into sympathy with the change. Splitting money and exchange into two types would need to be made thinkable. One of the most daunting, yet doable conceptual tasks would be to change the cultural meanings associated with fairness, individualism and control--the symbolic substance of the economy. Symbols are central to human life, but they are also malleable. If symbolic underpinnings could be changed, the economic behaviors generated might change as well. However, we can’t start with completely new values and worldviews. To be effective, change would have to draw upon, with modification, aspects of existing cultural perspectives.

As Hornborg’s paper targets ecological sustainability, he offers a number of specific points on how this reworking of an economy could benefit local environments (2007:68). While it’s not the point of his article, I would think that such a bicentric economy would have some democratizing effects on wealth inequality. If something like the local resources Hornborg describes were locked up, dedicated exclusively for local consumption, local communities could organize and operate "without fear that the value of their transactions will somehow be sucked off to an anonymous center of accumulation" (Hart 2001a:301). Ideally, this would keep local populations in control of critical resources like food and fuel and prevent outside individuals and small groups from having inordinate control over them. Perhaps the income/wealth inequality that’s at the heart of Occupy Wall Street protests could be diminished.

I’m not quite sure how such project could get going. Instituting different kinds of money would be a radical shift. As noted earlier, it might require a massive government push to initiate the system. While the government might have to serve as catalyst, once established, the practice of a bicentric economy could achieve the goals outlined in the preceding paragraph through the everyday actions of people in local communities, rather than from a sustained government program (though, it’s likely some agency would need to administer conversions between the two kinds of money, when needed). Maybe (emphasis on maybe), this could alleviate fears of those folks who see all government initiatives as slowly and not so slowly drifting toward corruption and waste. I’m obviously thinking about the Tea Party here. While I agree that much of its agenda is driven by racist and demographic fears, there is a strain based on the libertarian distrust of concentrated power. Those beliefs form a natural overlap with the ideas presented here and much more largely in the Occupy Wall Street protests and in recent anthropological blog discussions. It also maintains an appeal to individual autonomy as decisions about spending both kinds of money would still be made by individuals in specific contexts of exchange. Such ideological alliances should be exploited, when they exist, since total agreement across political lines is unlikely.

I also think the idea of local-money could appeal to the basic value of fairness, that most Americans share. But, in its current form, American fairness has to be dug out of a matrix of other values that may not jibe with Hornborg’s proposal, or with a equitable society. All culture(s) is a web of complicated, reinforcing, but also often conflicting values. American culture definitely values fairness, though, it is often conjoined with those of individual achievement and reward. In class discussions, my students have often bemoaned “unfair” government programs like welfare because such programs are perceived as rewarding laziness and discouraging hard work. However, fairness can also be framed as universal equal access to basic social welfare (freedom from poverty, health care, decent working conditions, education). It's this sort of fairness that is already at the core of the wide spread appeal of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In terms of Hornborg’s proposal, fairness could be articulated as local communities having much more complete control over the use, production and consumption over local resources. “Why should my community (town, city) suffer while some outsider gets rich off of our stuff?” Symbolic support like this could also appeal to preexisting cultural notions of community autonomy and even ownership (though, this would require some transformation of one of our most sacred cultural values--individual private ownership). It would be quite the task, but if the symbolic heavy lifting of disentangling fairness from individual achievement and reward was done, I think we’d be a long way toward creating a more equitable world.

My cynical self thinks such changes would be unlikely as they focus on such a core cultural belief and practice. But, as noted in by David Graeber, between the 16th and 18th Centuries, English folks went from seeing physical money as an almost dirty token for dealing with potentially untrustworthy strangers (2011:329) to an essential ingredient to a moral and well-functioning economy (2011:335). Perhaps a similar fundamental change could occur here.

I can’t think of a specific plan of action to achieve such goals. This post has been a thought exercise to take Hornborg’s intriguing idea and explore ways that it might be accomplished. My cynical self might be correct, but it does seem increasingly important to make anthropology relevant and to use the discipline’s expertise to meaningfully change social patterns that are destructive to human physical and social welfare.

References Cited
Graeber, David
2011 Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Melville House.

Hart, Keith
2001a  Money in an Unequal World. Texere.

2001b Money in an unequal world. Anthropological Theory, 1(3) pp. 307-330.

Hornborg, Alf
2007 Learning from the Tiv: Why a Sustainable Economy Would have to be “Multicentric.” Culture & Agriculture, 29(2) pp. 63-69.

Seaford, Richard
2004 Money and the Early Greek Mind: Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy. Cambridge University Press.

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