Pushing Beyond the Idea of Symmetry Between Capital and Gift?

Pushing Beyond the Idea of Symmetry Between Capital and Gift?

Man himself must first of all have become calculable, regular, necessary, even in his own image of himself, if he is to be able to stand security for his own future, which is what one who promises does!" Friedrich Nietzsche - Geneology of Morals

It fits quite neatly, the idea of symmetry between gift and capital, calculation and disinterestedness. Bruno Latour and Michel Callon published an intriguing entreaty into the debate between "anti-utilitarians" and the liberal and neoliberal defenders of "utilitarianism" in La revue du MAUSS #9 in 1997, proposing three imperatives to break a fundamental misunderstanding of the similarities and differences between capitalist and pre(or non-)capitalist economic regimes. It would be argued that there is a great opportunity that is not being capitalized upon when we fail to recognize the particular type of operations at play in economics and the discursive fields that set our to define the internalities and externalities of our calculations socially and politically. This which defines the environment of any discussion of gift and capital must be un-blackboxed for the field of philanthropy to advance.

Defining Terms

Capitalism is often blindly spoken of in terms synonymous with market economies. As though the presence of markets were sufficient conditions for there to be capitalism. This becomes an ever increasingly problematic notion the further we speak of their functional definitions.

Following Roger Guesnerie, an economist known mostly for his work on public applied and theoretic economics, the authors Latour and Callon define the market as a "dispositif" of coordination in which agents a) pursue interested goals via economic calculation/tactics of optimization & maximization of value; b) have divergent interests; and c) resolve conflicts of interest in transactions through the calculation of price-points of agreement. Price here is the product of use of data by an agent in the act of economic calculation.

What is fundamental for the idea of a market is thus:

  1. a decentralization of decision
  2. A staging of calculating agents
  3. the use of the staging or the resolution of conflicts & dilemmas of value through transactions measured in prices; and
  4. agents start and end as strangers -- a depersonalization of the transaction.

Market economies however presuppose a prior "formating" of property rights[^1] and the existence of a monetary forms establishing itself as a universal equivalents. The explicit work involved in maintaining, promoting and arranging markets as centers of profit in an economy is what leads us closer to an understanding of capitalism as the scene of the discussion of symmetries and dis-symmetries between gift and capital. It always presupposes a continual formalization, integration, aggregation and coordination of scattered local markets. The presupposes the legal arrangements of agents to increase their calculative and speculative capacities, and to do so in ways allowing for the integration and shaping of the capacities of other agents in the market.

Such a continuous formatting as occurs in a mode of production, circulation and distribution is carried out simultaneously on three levels: at the level of representations, in institutions and at the level of the economic calculations of agents in the system. The work of economists is of primary importance at the level of representation. Institutionally it is the tandem of State institutionalization of parameters of economic legality and the institutional promoters of policy, research, learnings and funding of the growth in socialization of desired social formatting. Individually, as integrated, birthed and oriented in the previous two levels, subjectivities defining types of agencement of value are lived, expanded, challenged and fought for, all within ranges of acceptable expression in the social field.

But capitalism specifically involves the formatting of markets into market economies and not the things occurring under the formatting itself. Latour and Callon are wise to highlight such a point because the formatting says nothing of subjective enactment of such regimes. The actions, reactions, struggles, rejections, betrayals, compromises and mutinies that ultimately shape such social systems are not given. It is thus clear that what comprises economy is much broader than what is normally presented under the rubric of "economics". Economy-as-discipline is defined as the set of activities that contribute to the production of calculating agents. While economy-as-thing is the performative byproduct of economy-of-discipline. The economist and his/her acolytes produce the tools, signs, representations, discourses, institutions and cannons to format social actors to a calculability, to install governmentality and market organization.

Capital's Specifics

How does one make oneself a calculating agent? One needs firstly a list of possible future states of affairs. Secondly, a hierarchy of classes of social states of affairs should be imaged and projected, if only subtly. Thirdly, the types of actions and avenues productive of the states of affair presented as ideal needs to be worked out, published, and believed.

For belief in the narrative to be taken to scale, to become a mass phenomena, a legitimacy of action needs to become established. The calculating agent must be equipped with necessary tools, she must be able to develop a competency in possible actions, to anticipate possible consequences and thus, establish a list of preferences orienting her thought. The same type of tools necessary equally at the level of State apparatuses, meeting the same standards of semiotic efficiency. Tools, as Norton Wise studied in his work The Value of Precision & Exactitude refers to both material tools such as computing and measuring machines, but equally methodologies, metrics, skill-sets, modes of evaluation etc. Not just measures, but measuring measures --not just any particular propositional truths, but the means to assess, create and measure ever new ones in a given state of affairs.

The economist has the explicit role of propagating measuring measures needed for the cultivation of calculating agents. It is a type of formatting that operates by reproducing everywhere the conception of interiorities (internalities) of exchange
relations. What a calculating agent calculates are everywhere internalities. What we call "externalities" are calculations-to-come of that which is put off or ignored from a calculation covered in the formatting of an internality. An internality expresses a clean transaction, no mess, no remainder, nothing further to be settled. There is something about gift transactions and non-capitalist exchange that is never completely settled. We as interlocutors are bound both temporally and territorially to return and to remember.

The formatting of internalities allows us to perceive being done with a transaction. To de-finir it. The bargaining ends when the transaction ends. One needs internalities so that we can call it quits. Formatting is constantly needed to keep externalities at bay. When the transaction ends you have no further claim over your exchangee. Your bargaining is done. The advent of contractual relations made recourse to remedy possible, but so that formatting might be finite, ones profit must not be disposed to endless dispute. Economization is the replacing of the costly tangledness of indefinite social relations with finite, internatlity-focused, economic relations. This internalization presupposes legal arrangements (e.g. a settling of property rights) and market availability of resources necessary for the linking of individual interests with those of the collective.

Anti-Utilitarianism - What is at Stake?

If one defines liberalism as the ideology underpinning free market capitalism, Latour and Callon consider anti-utilitarianism not so much it's opposite as the opposite side of the same coin. While Marx is noted for developing a theory of productive forces that makes use of the advances in calculation to shift means and ownership of production the authors oddly state that he sough to "put an end to [..] calculations", this putting Mauss and Marx on this same anti-utilitarian side of the coin in their thinking. I point this out as a preface for something that will be of greater importance shortly.

But what is at stake for them? It is the resounding belief that it's never simply and issue of opposing internalities to externalities. One must take both, along with the labor of formatting in to account. To critique the presence of calculation and calculating agents is to mistake the effect for the cause, the waffle, for the waffle-maker. The idea of a "bad guy" putting all the strings of misery and fortune is a projection and attacking such a projection would change nothing. The reality of what occurs and how it occurs is as shown above, much more complex. There is never an agent acting in exclusion of a apparatuses/laboratories of agencement. There is never internalities in exclusion of the prior process of formatting (e.g primative accumulation) or externalities.

There is in fact a parallel to the political scapegoating of the economic bad guy found in the anthropological contrast of the early theorists of gift-economies. It is the painting of a contrast of interested and disinterestedness between archaic and capitalist societies, a formatting contrasted by a naturalness. The moral equivalent that makes its way into political and social discourse is the persona of the altruistic self-sacrificing hero, with zero interestedness, and disinterest in the calculations that would overtake his/her compatriots.

But both the gift and the sell (the transactions of capital) require and exist only insofar as there's been a formatting and determination of what will be calculated. Both pre-capitalist exchange and capitalism state "you shall not calculate". The difference between the two are in what off the table for discussion. The economy of the gift isn't formulated with a goal of disinterestedness --which is more a necessary pretense-- but rather the ever incomplete transaction, an inscription of debt and alliance. Capitalism on the contrary says: calculate internalities so that you can call it quits and dismiss all other association as externalities (positive or negative) that should not be taken into account. On the one side, strategies of entanglement, on the other, strategies of disentanglement.

Economists are everywhere formatting and formulating internalities, rarifying, making calculable, adding up transactions, saying "look at what we can calculate". Anthropologists, in their perspective however are running behind them saying "but look here", making the invisible visible, reminding those of too narrow a perspective what they've excluded, reminding them of what we humans are capable. The difference in these two roles, like the difference between capitalist and pre-capitalist regimes, are decisive not cannot be exaggerated. Our tendency is to fall for a type of exoticism or moral grandstanding when the reality is that neither are in any sense more natural or primary than the other. Both play a role in regulating the "calculable".

Latour & Callon provide examples of the charitability and profit in the contemporary philanthropy industry, their hybrid appearance in the formatting investments of the Corsican country side as well as in Malinkiwski's research on the Kula ring. All of this to frame the perspective that what is at stake in the question of capitalism is neither a zero-sum game nor degrees of deterritorialization achieved by it. In a capitalist regime it's not so much the exchange of equivalents but the incommensurability between the multitude of externalities and this exchange of equivalents (the creation and continual reproduction of internalities) that matters. The calculation and the difference between internal and external, between what's being taken into account and what's being ignored is what matters. Presented differently, it is all a matter of debts, and the strategic framing of debt or absence of debt.

These Perceptions Matter

Part of what Latour & Callon want to teach us is that these differences in understanding/perceiving both what capital and gift are and who we humans are that participate in them affect how we in fact go about them. The liberal capitalist operates with a false understanding of the so called naturalness of there's associative severances and disownings of debt. There is equal blindness to the construction of associations and global and local levels that grease the global the wheels of its legitimations. They will thus participate in all sorts of inhumane activity on the basis of a natural and proper "right" to do so. And on the other hand refer to the institutions of its own creation to justify actions and frameworks of actions themselves justified on false perceptions of their own naturalness.

There is an opposite blindness that often comes from self-defined enemies of "capitalism" --those that take this term at liberalism's word which expresses itself as a belief in this abstract Thing as something ahistoric, inhuman and aterritorial. They attack both relations of exchange and the markets (local and global) which enable them.

One could compare this all to how Lacan frames the distinction between the subject of enunciation from the subject of the statement. There is always the truth as the liberal subject or his sworn enemy presents it to himself in statements and an enunciative truth that always escapes awareness and which represents their unconscious and the condition of their being.

Part of the solution they present is the deconstruction or reconceptualization of the word capitalism as a form of orientalism or exoticism. It is not a local deformation of an "natural" anthropology but a difference in treatment and privileging of what gets calculated/alienated and how. Considering it as something alien or a decadent fall from primordial grace actually reinforces an obfuscation of what it is and how it works as a mode of living and organizing/controlling living. This obfuscations leads us to believe in a false alternative of accepting either "universal laws" of liberalism or an anti-capitalism premised upon an exoticized notion of the formatting operations and selective associative mechanisms of capitalism, which leads us to look upon the world market and abhor it as though we are were participants in nor affected by it. This leads to their first suggestion: nothing in your actions, thoughts or research should further the unification of capitalism or the idea of it existing as the only mechanism of its own development.

Secondly, they suggest a "passionate attention" to the performative dimension of economics which should replace vain denunciation of its scientific or descriptive limits. Economy must be seen as the surface and not some foundation of social operation or exchange.

Finally, capitalism should be reframed as the calculation of a set + its complement (the concomitant externalities). For every presentation, one should ask: how is one to consider both the set and its complement such as to take charge of the externalities?

Reframing each of these imperatives in terms of what they signify for regimes of the gift, one might say: 1) nothing in your actions, thoughts or research should further the orientalization of gift economies or "charitable" industries as though existing outside of their own formatting regimes; 2) passionate attention should be payed to the performative dimension of social-tie creating, association overflow generative practices, replacing vain denunciations of the limits of disinterestedness/altruism or the superficial nature of many acts of gift; and finally 3) regimes of gift should be reframed as connection + its complement (calculation); for every presentation, one should ask: how is one to consider both the connection and its complement such as to take charge of what is created by both the connection and the calculation involved?

The Politics of Symmetry

We are not to view erroneously either side of the gift / capital equation. We must see both clearly. Which means for Callon & Latour, seeing that the market should be valued for its allowance of calculation, the meeting of divergent interests, the multiplication of transactions, like a highly efficient machine multiplying social use values, decentralizing costly and timely efforts of planning and mobilizing compatible resources. It also allows us to 'call it quits' when needed weeding out the inefficient and ineffective more easily than is often the case when 'quitting' is not valued. By contrast, seeing the gift for what it operates, we can strengthen social ties by manufacturing attachments and making associations proliferate.

Taken together they see the social question as being resolved. That is, it is role of the political to meld the two into one for the benefit of the whole: "We all exist and your existence mingles with our. Don't try to escape, too many ties link us."

The quote at the beginning of this essay comes from the Genealogy of Morals, in particular a section discussing the "paradoxical" nature of the task before man insofar as is an animal with the capacity to make promises but the equally natural and necessary faculty of forgetting, repressing, inhibiting what enters into consciousness. Thus between ones will to remember (the paying of a promise, a virtual debt to oneself) and the act of will, causal connections must be made, necessity must be broken free of the world of contingency: this animal must become calculable. But calculability, and the foresight, premeditation and regulation that it implies has been enabled by a forgetfulness that operates like a gatekeeper of psychic order.

The formula is beautifully repeated by Callon & Latour. There is however something completely unaddressed in it: relations of production. Everywhere we are dealing with products (results and flows produced). Where relations come into play it is only at the level of the relation between gift and capital regimes. The problem seems to have stemmed at the outset when defining the terms of analysis. What is capital? As it is neither simply calculation or exchange, the two terms most used by the pair to describe it. I called out a particular mention of Marx above because it seemed quite odd in its reduction of what he actually wrote, but insofar as that particular issue is not consequential for the discussion here there's no need to go into detail. Here however, as the authors talk about the consequences and "politics" of their presentation of this relation between gift & capital, the issue of Marx cannot be ignored. It's difficult to present oneself as going beyond an author that one hasn't directly addressed/answered.

Marx spent quite a bit of energy in distinguishing and clarifying the mystifying discussion of "capital" so as to bring clarity to how it is distinguished from circulation, labor and exchange.[^2] What defines capital is not the 'making equivalent' of unequal commodities, nor exchange, not calculation, but the act of defining of a relation of difference in mode of co-existence between an abstract class of profitors in production and dependants. In Marx's terms this is the notion of class. The ever growing global and intra-national discrepancies in scales of wealth is not explained nor explainable in terms of calculations/exchanges and externalities, as useful as this framing is for situation the discussion of markets for gift-regimes. This would be to reduce capital to exchanges of commodities for money which is not what creates nor describes capital. As the authors themselves intimate a number of times throughout the article, serious histories and analysis of the reality of what has produced and what continually produces the present must continually be brought to bare on mystifying presentations of economy. To respond to Marx would be to address the antagonism of capital head on or show in which way it is illusory or unnecessary in some way. None of that is done here and the problematic of antagonisms at the heart of dependency/relations & dependency-production is elided despite it being just as much the very center of global and local politics at the time the article was written as it is today.

The role that they envision of a political mediation of the gift / externality relation is nonetheless an important one. One might say of it however, that it awaits a more fundamental address of the relations of power hidden in this flat use of the term "capital" as exchange/calculation.


1 - Tenure and property always involve three terms; or as is said in symbolic logic, the predicate ‘own’ takes three arguments: they can formalized in the proposition ‘A owns B as against C’, as formulated by Brewer and Staves in Early modern conceptions of property (eds) John Brewer and Susan Staves. London and New York: Routledge. Pp. 1–8. This contrasts with the simpler ‘A owns B’, as in popular discourse, where one holds that the relationship between a person and a physical object may be called “owning”’. Rights over things are to be understood as rights between people, thus always presupposing formal legalization (legitimation) of particular relationships of ownership vis-a-vis those with whom there is a co-existence.

2 - Marx, Karl, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus, Penguin. 1973 pp. 192-3, 201.