Thursday, December 22, 2011

Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Commercial Economies and Human Connections

I’m in the midst of switching my 16 month old son from the daycare he’s been in since he was 12 weeks old to another that currently makes more sense for him and my family’s life. There are many reasons for this that are unimportant to this blog. Despite those many good reasons, the decision had me tangled up in guilt. When I originally called the owner of the daycare, I hemmed and hawed before making the call. I felt like I was making a break-up call to a romantic partner rather than ending a commercial relationship. I felt guilty because the caregivers have spent a lot of time with my son, developed attachments and he’s surely developed attachments to them. But, as I’ve reminded myself repeatedly, I’m paying them, so I have every right to remove him without any emotional baggage.

Sidetrack Into Kinds of Economies
As I thought about my reaction to this break-up call, I was reminded of passages from David Graeber’s book, Debt. In one chapter, he outlines the differences between “human economies” and “commercial economies.” Commercial economies being the ones that most Americans are familiar with--we spend money to buy things. Human economies, on the other hand, are based on rearranging social relationships--payment of debts for perceived wrongs, marriage gifts, socially competitive gifting, etc. Or, in Graeber’s words:

by making a distinction between commercial economies and what I call “human economies”--that is, those where money acts primarily as social currency to create maintain, or sever relationships between people rather than to purchase things [Graeber 2011:158]

Throughout the chapter where the above quote was taken from, Graeber examines how institutions of slavery take actual human beings out of human economies and put them into commercial ones:

To make a human being an object of exchange...requires first of all ripping her from her context; that is, tearing her away from that web of relations that makes her the unique conflux of relations that she is [Graeber 2011:159]

So then, human economies have different means and ends. Exchanging objects and currency is a means to modify social relationships between humans. Human connections and relationships are what matter. While in commercial economies, means and ends are more closely bound up--we exchange things and services to get things and services (I know I’m simplifying here by neglecting how exchange is a constituent activity in generating and exercising social power, but that’s waaaay beyond the scope of this post).

Commercial Economies and Human Connections
What does this possibly have to do with my son and his daycare? Graeber is talking slavery--one of the most grisly human institutions--while I”m talking about my son and his babysitters. I’ll quickly admit that I’m stretching things a bit here, but what’s a blog (at least this one) for if not to explore random ideas and connections.

While my son has not become an object of exchange, the services required for his care are. The social connections between my child and the adults that surround him much of the day are based on commercial relations.

Childcare is clearly nothing new for human beings, or non-human primates, or mammals, or many other animals for that matter. In fact, the long period of dependency of young humans on mothers and fathers is a foundational aspect of the human experience. And, in the vast majority of societal examples, childcare is provided by parents, other kin and surrounding community members. That’s simply made the most sense in most contexts throughout human histories.

But, it’s different for my and many other contemporary families. Both my spouse’s and my specific biographies, shaped by and combined with a society based on neolocal residence determined by industry and markets has created a situation where we live far from any other kin. Subsequently, we have to enter into a commercial economy in order to make our own living but also to adequately provide for our child’s physical, social and emotional development.

At an abstract level, I am very critical of a society that creates such a context where one of the most fundamental human relationships--child to kin--must be replaced by one--child to service employee--that’s predicated on a paycheck. From this general perspective, buying childcare seems a perversion of some basic humanity.

However, when faced with the situation that inspired this post (ending my son’s current daycare), I wish the relationship were more fully a commercial one, devoid of personal and human connections. My reticence to make that phone call was because human connections were made, despite the initial, commercial basis of the relationship. I really want to celebrate those parts of our world, such as this, where human relationships still really matter, but some part of me detests it. That part of me understands and can easily navigate a world that is based on the impersonal exchange of things without consideration of the human at the other end of that exchange. I don’t like this part of me, but honest reflection clearly shows it.

I was born into and shaped by a social context where this commercial relationships “make sense” and are completely intuitive. Even though my anthropologically-informed self clearly sees the very troubling ramifications of worlds based on commercial economies (like slavery mentioned above, or the inhumane levels of inequality that characterize the modern scene), I was constructed by that world and my gut reactions of how I and other should live in that world often still jibe with it.

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

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