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The spiritual gift as the basis for the counter-economy

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
17th August 2010


Interesting article within the context of christian theology. Here is the first part which usefully distinguishes three modalities of exchange, how they are interconnected, and how the capital-nation-state can only be overcome if tackled together:

Geoffrey Holsclaw:

“But now the money changers no longer need to be driven from the Temple of God because they have built another, more impressive temple, exchanging grace for credit and the perpetual promise of something new. Indeed, for city and suburban dwellers, for texting crazed teens and overworked office managers, for over-styled moms and trying-not-to-be-too-savvy dads, the only place of worship is now within a mall crowded with devoted followers, practicing their religious exercises. Money has built its own temple, creating an idolatry and ideology with its own power and piety. For Philip Goodchild, a British theologian and philosopher, money does not merely facilitate the exchange of goods, but also “demands and shapes time, attention, and devotion” by replacing all previous social orders with its own values and commands (Buy! Sell! Borrow! Lend!), becoming the new god of our times. Because money promises the world (of goods) but only delivers itself, money rises up as a rival to theology by declaring an alternative faith, a faith in money involving a metaphysics, a politics, an ethics, and a theology. And as we know, one cannot serve two masters.

Within this situation, I want to propose that a principal way we begin to overturn the tables of today’s money changers (the impersonal institutions and mechanisms of global capitalism) is through the Lord’s Table, where Christ himself offers and is offered as a counter circulation to capital. I will lay this out by describing a convergence between the realms of sacramental theology and political economy, represented by the French sacramental theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet and the Japanese philosopher Kojin Karatani.

Symbolic Exchange and Grace

To set the stage for the interaction between the Eucharist and the capitalist nation-state, we must grasp the direction of Chauvet’s sacramental theology by understanding his use of symbolic exchange. Relying on the work of the French sociologists Marcel Mauss and Jean Baudrillard, Chauvet outlines the different levels of value and exchange that are governed by the overarching distinction between value and non-value. Beyond “use,” “exchange,” and “sign” value, all of which occur within the logic of the marketplace in the form either of barter or exchange via money, is the non-value of symbolic exchange. In this exchange, the gift functions outside the logic of the market such that what is being exchanged are not objects, but rather, through the gift of yams, shells, spears, books, or a rose, “the true objects being exchanged are the subjects themselves” in a process of mutual recognition. Because every giving of a gift creates a relationship, it follows that every gift obligates the receiver to give a return-gift, minimally as a thank you, in order to complete the symbolic exchange, otherwise the relationship expressed would descend into that of the marketplace. Therefore, symbolic exchange, as the generation of subjects and the mediation of relationships, can be summarized as the process of gift–reception–return-gift.

For Chauvet, this symbolic exchange within the symbolic order is the proper arena for discussing God’s grace because from the beginning it situates grace within the realm of non-value. The non-value of grace is seen in its graciousness (freely give) and gratuitousness (abundantly give) because it can never become the “object of a calculation, of a price, of haggling” and because grace “can in no way be demanded” and “we can in no way justify” it. Theologically, graciousness and gratuitousness belong not only to the initial gift, but also to the entire process of gift–reception–return-gift, such that “even the return-gift of our human response thus belongs to the theologically Christian concept of ‘grace.’” This return-gift is vital in constituting and verifying a true relationship between God and humanity, and as we will see, for overturning the money changers’ tables.

Modes of Exchange and the Capitalist Nation-State

Now, keeping Chauvet’s theological appropriation of symbolic exchange in mind, I turn to Kojin Karatani’s account of the market economy and its various irreducible, yet interrelated, modes of exchange. Karatani distinguishes these different modes of exchange precisely to show how they combine into the formidable trinity of the capitalist nation-state.

The first mode of exchange consists in the reciprocity of gift and return occurring within agrarian communities. This mode is based on the principles of mutual aid and reciprocal exchange. It is rooted in the functional exchange within families, which is called love, that is extended to the local community according to its own communal rules. This mode of exchange is very similar to, if not synonymous with, Chauvet’s symbolic exchange.

The second mode of exchange, rather than being within a single community, is between several communities and is in the form of robbery and redistribution, or plunder and protection. A feudal lord’s taxation of local communities, for example, represents this type of exchange. This is a mode of exchange because, if a feudal lord hopes to keep plundering a community in the form of extortion or taxation, then he must also protect the community from other plunderers. Also, the feudal lord must restrict the amount of robbery to a level where the peasants can actually survive, and indeed, he needs to make provisions for the agrarian community so that it will survive. These provisions come in the form of a redistribution of funds, in the guise of public works. According to Karatani’s analysis, what initially occurred in the form of plundering transformed into a system of taxation, and the peasant’s compulsion to pay the feudal lord morphed into an obligation or duty in return for the protection and public works the feudal lord provides. With time, what began as extortion became a national tax, and the feudal lord’s personal local armies and local bureaucracy eventually became state functions. This mode of exchange is the basis for the emergence of the state. The matrix of the modern nation-state emerges from a combining of these first two types of exchanges.

The third mode of exchange is commodity exchange between communities via money, ultimately blossoming into capitalism. This commodity exchange is “definitively different from the exchange of plunder/redistribution” and is irreducible to that of reciprocity and return, even though it could not exist without either of them. The exchange of commodities via money occurs through mutual consent established by contract, creating an asymmetrical relationship between commodities and money that privileges money. This asymmetry of money will be discussed, but it is enough to say that money allowed for trade between communities outside of the type of exchange established through the plunder/redistribution by feudal lords, even if the former is dependent on the latter. It is dependent because if the contracts of mutual consent established between parties are to be valid, they must be enforced under threat of violence, a violence only held by feudal lords, and then later by the state. Commodity exchange is also dependent on agrarian communities for the production of the land and the perpetuation of labor through biological reproduction, both of which occur outside the realm of value according to market exchanges.

Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, the emerging monarchies conspired with the merchants to topple local feudal lords, even while they sought to foster national identity, both for the sake of consolidating power for the monarch and creating a homogeneous market for the merchants. Since this point in history, each mode of exchange began mutually reinforcing the others, creating the formidable trinity of the capitalist nation-state, impervious to attack. This makes it relatively impossible to undermine only one aspect of this unholy trinity of capital, nation, and state, for

when individual national economies are threatened by the global market (neoliberalism), they demand the protection (redistribution) of the state and/or bloc economy, at the same time as appealing to national cultural identity. So it is that any counteraction to capital must also be one targeted against the state and nation.

For Karatani, unless we truly understand how the exploitative trinity of the capitalist nation-state was formed and sustained, we will never truly know how it might be decomposed, a decomposition occurring at the site of the circulation of money rather than production of commodities.”

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