Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: gift (page 1 of 1)


When, in August 1860, John Ruskin published an essay in Cornhill Magazine – an essay that would later become the first chapter of his book Unto This Last — readers were appalled by his argument that all workmen in a given profession should be paid the same, no matter whether they do their work well or badly. When he published Unto This Last, he said “it is a matter of regret to me that the most startling of all statements in them, – that respecting the necessity of the organization of labour, with fixed wages, – should have found its way into the first essay; it being quite one of the least important, though by no means the least certain, of the positions to be defended.”

But this insistence on the insignificance of his “startling” statement is belied by the title that he chose for the book. “Unto this last” is a line uttered by Jesus in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, in which the owner of the vineyard pays the people the workers who arrive at the end of the day the same that he pays those who worked all day long. This is of course a parable of the Kingdom, because all of Jesus’s parables are: the simplest point is that those who arrive late in the narrative of God’s redemptive work in the world, e.g. the Gentiles who hear Jesus’s message as opposed to the Jews who have been a part of this covenant history for hundreds and hundreds of years, are welcome to the same reward of eternal life that the old-timers are. It is not, most interpreters agree, a story about the principles of political economy. But nothing could be more characteristic of Ruskin’s thought that his belief that it is a principle of political economy, indeed the key principle of political economy, which is why he titles his book as he does.

Right from the beginning of Unto This Last Ruskin insists upon one governing point: that in thinking of political economy it is impermissible to treat human beings as what we today might call rational actors, people who simply maximize their own economic well-being, even when that comes at the expense of others. Or especially when it comes at the expense of others.

Disputant after disputant vainly strives to show that the interests of the masters are, or are not, antagonistic to those of the men: none of the pleaders ever seeming to remember that it does not absolutely or always follow that the persons must he antagonistic because their interests are. If there is only a crust of bread in the house, and mother and children are starving, their interests are not the same. If the mother eats it, the children want it; if the children eat it, the mother must go hungry to her work. Yet it does not necessarily follow that there will be “antagonism” between them, that they will fight for the crust, and that the mother, being strongest, will get it, and eat it. Neither, in any other case, whatever the relations of the persons may be, can it be assumed for certain that, because their interests are diverse, they must necessarily regard each other with hostility, and use violence or cunning to obtain the advantage.

For Ruskin, human beings are never purely economic (in our usual sense of that term) in their motives and actions, but are always actuated in considerable part by their affections. Another way to put this is to say that Ruskin thinks that political economy needs to take the gift economy into account as well as the market economy, and his bizarre (or apparently bizarre) plan for paying workers is a natural outgrowth of this emphasis.

More on all this in due course.

managers and givers

I have written frequently on this blog about what I call metaphysical capitalism, and that orientation to the world takes several forms:

  1. Understanding human relationships in purely contractual terms: e.g., consent becomes the only criterion of sexual ethics.
  2. Believing that my happiness can be purchased in the marketplace, and further that a just society purchases my happiness for me (e.g. by paying for my sex-reassignment surgery or my MFA).  
  3. Conceiving of conflict as a matter to be resolved by appealing to The Authorities: as someone once said (extended searching hasn’t recovered the source), a disturbingly large number of people treat almost every conflict, at work or at play or on social media, as an excuse to Convince Management to Take Their Side — to take their side by getting some offending person fired, or banned from YouTube, silenced, excluded. This view is capitalist in a distinctively modern sense, because it assumes massive corporate bureaucracy as an immutable given, like what we used to call “a force of nature” before we decided that nature is not given but rather plastic and moldable according to our will. 

Each of these forms of metaphysical capitalism is a way of giving up — giving up on meaningful structural change to our social order, giving up on imagining an alternative to technocracy, giving up on thinking of my self as something other than a commodity (even if it’s a commodity I claim to own). It’s agreeing — probably unconsciously, unthinkingly — not just to live under the corporate constitution but to see that constitution as the only Power enabling our flourishing.

We typically don’t see it, but this is Lucifer as new management

Lately I’ve been re-reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which clearly describes the radical difference between the market economy and the gift economy, but struggles to articulate a way to escape the former and embrace the latter. The spread of the market economy into every area of life is exactly what I mean when I talk about metaphysical capitalism, and Hyde sees this spread arising from, made necessary by, bad faith: “Out of bad faith comes a longing for control, for the law and the police. Bad faith suspects that the gift will not come back, that things won’t work out, that there is a scarcity so great in the world that it will devour whatever gifts appear. In bad faith the circle is broken.” 

Again and again in this book Hyde makes three points.

  1. A gift is not a gift unless it circulates. 
  2. Circulation requires more than two people. “The gift moves in a circle, and two people do not make much of a circle. Two points establish a line, but a circle lies in a plane and needs at least three points.”
  3. The one who wishes to engage in the gift economy must give without expectation of return — must give in the knowledge that those who receive it will only be able, or willing, to do so in the terms of the market economy. The recipient, that is, may simply keep the gift rather than passing it on, thus failing to maintain the necessary circulation.

The implications of this argument are multiple. Here I just want to note one that Hyde acknowledges and one he does not. He sees the connection with a topic I have sometimes explored here and hope to explore further: anarchism. “There are many connections between anarchist theory and gift exchange as an economy – both assume that man is generous, or at least cooperative, ‘in nature’; both shun centralized power; both are best fitted to small groups and loose federations; both rely on contracts of the heart over codified contract, and so on…. Anarchism and gift exchange share the assumption that it is not when a part of the self is inhibited and restrained, but when a part of the self is given away, that community appears.” 

The second implication is theological: This is my body, given for you. The death of Jesus Christ on the cross is offered, is graciously given — see John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift — to those who may not receive it at all, or who may receive it greedily, in hopes of keeping it as their own, their Precious, not forwarding the gift into circulation, not allowing community to appear. Again search is not helping, but I think it’s John Milbank who writes somewhere of “the tragic risk of kenosis,” the tragic risk of God’s self-emptying for people who neither deserve nor especially want that gift. (It would be seriously wrong to think that “He came unto his own, and his own received him not” is a statement only or even primarily about Israelites.) 

One of the things I love most about the structure of the modern Eucharistic rite is the way it enables, and calls our attention to, this circulation of gifts. We begin with the Liturgy of the Word: we hear Scripture read and preached, we make our profession of faith, we confess our sins against God and our neighbor, we exchange the Peace with one another; and then, in gratitude for this our reconciliation, we bring our gifts to the altar. (“All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”) But that just leads to the Liturgy of the Table, at which the ultimate Gift is celebrated and received: the Gift of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. No matter what we try to give back, God always gives more, and more, and more. My cup runneth over. So those financial gifts we offered go out into a needy community, and we ourselves, at the end of the service, ask God to “Send us out into the world in peace, to love and serve You with gladness and singleness of heart.” It’s not a line, it’s a circle. 

Well. These are high thoughts. But what I am trying to do is connect these theological and social ideas with certain quotidian practices — for instance, writing blog posts. There are two major reasons why I am writing about these matters on my blog. One is that the blog format allows for ideas to be developed tentatively, to be returned to, to be revised and expanded. But the other reason is that blogging at its best can be a form of participation in a gift economy: I’m not asking you to pay anything for what I write here, and if you find that it has any value, you may easily share the URLs with others. It ain’t much, but it’s what I got. And who knows, maybe circulation will add to its currently quite limited value.