I was rereading David Graeber’s Debt over the weekend. The intervening two years, since our book event, have not caused it to be the case that Graeber doesn’t owe Henry an apology, after all. But the life of the mind goes on. We do not freeze intellectual accounts due to outstanding personal debts. That is to say, the free market of ideas is baseline communist, in Graeber’s sense. If I have a bright idea, I do not expect to be paid back, by those who receive it, in the form of two half-insights – or 100 comments, each containing but a grote’s worth of thought; none of that. (I expect intellectual credit, of course.)
My bright idea for the day is that I have no idea what the difference is between reciprocity and baseline communism.
Let me back up and remind you a bit about what Graeber says. (I’m going to be a bit loose about this, first, because I have Debt on audiobook and can’t be bothered to chase down exact quotes this morning by playing an mp3 back and forth. Second, I’m not concerned to pin Graeber on this point. It’s an interesting question. I want the answer and don’t care whose it is. If someone thinks I’m unfair to Graeber, say so in comments and I will try to make payment on all valid claims.) He says there are three ‘systems’ or ‘principles’: communism, exchange and hierarchy. These are all operative at once, to varying degrees. That is, take any actually existing society and find all three at work.
The principles (as Chris notes in his introduction to our book event) have a tendency to morph into each other, at least apparently. Combine that with their perennial co-presence and you have room for confusion.
Graeber mocks those who insist on casting everything in terms of reciprocity, just because there is always some way to stretch the idiom of exchange to cover all. That seems right. (Per my previous post on the subject, I agree that the tendency to see ‘markets in everything’ is a bit of a mental disease.) Even so, Graeber seems to bend over too far in the other direction.
For starters, his defining formula for baseline communism – ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’ – is appealing in large part (not exclusively!) because it construes the logic of communism as strict reciprocity. The formula articulates units of account according to which everyone puts in, and gets out, not just approximately but exactly the same. Thus baseline communism is, by Graeber’s own terms, not just an exchange system but a strict exchange system.
Speaking of which: Graeber construes reciprocity narrowly, by way of emphasizing that not everything is it. I see his point, but the result is that consistency requires him to regard things like the Golden Rule – do unto others as you would have them do to you – as iffy cases. The Golden Rule is too subjunctive to guarantee actually equal exchange results, after all. “We are not really dealing with reciprocity here or at best only with reciprocity in the broadest sense” (Chapter 6). The ‘here’ here refers to commons and things every member of the community can call upon others to provide. But it would also seem to cover observances of the Golden Rule.
You scratch my back I’ll scratch yours. Actual scratches you could scratch down in a ledger. That’s proper reciprocity. For Graeber. And money-for-goods, of course. Precise credit accounts.
The exception that proves the rule are gift societies (economies) in which this notion of precise ledger-keeping would be absurd. There is an aversion to cash. Everyone is constantly maintaining sociality by giving apples and later getting oranges, etc. But this concerted determination to thwart any decisive keeping, hence clearing, of accounts amounts to an implicit concession that exchanges are the sorts of things that can be cleared. We don’t want them to be because we want society to be knit together. Hence we constantly work to keep accounts uncleared.
To repeat: exchange can be squared, so the two parties can walk away. Reciprocity is exchange. The Golden Rule cannot be squared away, for all time. Ergo, the Golden Rule isn’t reciprocity.
But, of course, the Golden Rule is supposed to be a paradigm expression of an ethic of reciprocity, not some strained, ‘broadest sense’ borderline case. So if you rule it out, or push it aside, then mock people for their “peculiar ideological blinkers”, seeing reciprocity where there is baseline communism, it’s fair to say that you’ve engaged in some bait-and-switch.
On the other hand, there is something to the thought that the Golden Rule really is communistic in spirit. That is, you make people into good, sociable communists, as opposed to market-minded reciprocalistas, by preaching the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule is a way of weaning people off reciprocity by giving them a kind of placebo. It feels like you are still exchanging, even though you are actually not. You are now a good communist.
I think this might be what Graeber would say. It’s what consistency requires him to say, I think. But obviously he wouldn’t want to admit that the Marxist slogan is pure exchange. (He says the bright line that tells you when you are dealing with baseline communism, in egalitarian societies, is that keeping accounts concerning x is not merely not done but would be offensive. But if this were right, then the Marxist slogan should be deeply offensive to communists. But it isn’t.)
Going over it again. ‘From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’ is strict exchange, ergo not communism, insofar as a units of account are specified, squaring of accounts mandated. Debits and credits must tally and cancel (otherwise presumably some sort of sanction will be in order. Someone will owe a very literal ‘debt to society’.) The Golden Rule is communism, not reciprocity, because of the absence of these strict (Marxist) requirements for markets in everything, with payment in the two-sided coinage of ability/need.
Something has slipped, but I’m honestly not sure what. None of the simple examples Graeber likes seem to me to help much. He mentions how silly it would be for one workman to respond to ‘gimme the hammer’ with ‘only if you pass me the wrench’. Co-workers are communists. One also thinks of G. A. Cohen’s fabled camping trip of socialism. Everyone pitches in. Yes, it’s true.
The problem with this, it seems to me, is that, in such cases, whenever we see absence of requirements of reciprocity, we also see hierarchy and other means-ends relationships that complicate the picture. So I’m not really sure where the baseline communism should slot in.
Take the workmen. Suppose two workmen are repairing a car. What really dictates terms here is the requirement that a functional car emerge at the other end. If the two workmen are equally skilled, it makes sense that they hand each other tools freely when doing so is the best way to get the job done. This is dictated by efficiency considerations. Obviously either of them will feel free to say ‘get it yourself, I can’t let go of this right now or oil will get on everything.’ If, on the other hand, there is hierarchy – a mechanic and her apprentice assistant or something – then the ability to ask for tools would be asymmetric. The mechanic is more free to ask, the assistant less free. But again there are efficiency considerations here. The assistant is only competent as a tool-getter, maybe. So the assistant should always get the tool. Another possibility: this really is an exchange relationship, in which the assistant is handing over tools and being paid, in part, in the opportunity to watch and learn.
Also, in any work environment in which someone is constantly asking co-workers/fellow team members for help and never putting in much – due to persistent weakness/inability – the norm is not that everyone else will carry the extra weight forever, like good communists. The expectation is that the incompetent will be fired or shifted to a different position on the team. Families are different from work environments in this way. You can’t be fired from your family. Is only the family communistic in this way? (But is the family not a case of hierarchy?)
Let’s shift to camping. Here ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’ rules, up to a point, as does the Golden Rule. But is the spirit reciprocal or communist? How can we tell? There is something to be said for both, it seems to me. Cohen is very eloquent on the communist/socialist side. Go read him if you want to be convinced camping can be communistic (if it isn’t bloody obviously, which it should be.) But it’s also reciprocal, even market-like. If I am consistently not ‘pulling my weight’ I won’t get invited back for the next trip. That is, I’ll get kicked out of the camping society.
Of course, it might be hurtful to be disinvited in this way. But think why. It wouldn’t be because those doing the kicking-out are violating the camping communist ethic, according to which you aren’t required to ‘pull your weight’ – not unless you can. It would be because it was shaming to know you were thought incapable of pulling your own weight. Insofar as the camping endeavor is felt to be governed by exchange – everyone pulling their weight – it would be shaming to be a kind of moral incompetent, due to camping incompetence.
It’s perfectly acceptable for novices to not pull their weight for a time. But this creates an expectation that they will do better in future; and in the meantime it produces a status inequality, with experienced campers effectively acting as patrons and others as parasites (in the Roman sense: sitters-by around the campfire.) This sort or hierarchy is not socially disagreeable so long as it is temporary and nested within a larger frame of greater social equality. But it is closer to feudalism than communism, I think. Insofar as it is not feudal, because everyone starts as a novice, ergo there is a baseline egalitarianism, it is more exchange-like. You are ‘paying it forward’ by carrying and training tomorrow’s competent campers, as you were carried and trained in your time. (See also: parenthood.)
Compare: you ‘help’ your friend cook, even though she is a gourmet chef and you can’t boil water. This may be perfectly fine; but it will be hierarchical not communistic. She is your teacher or patron or something. It is pleasant for her to enjoy this high status. You get food and training. Something.
One possibility: since you can describe things as Graeber does – i.e. in terms of three principles – or you can reduce it all down to one – i.e. reciprocity, very broadly construed – then these different perspectives are really just notational variants. Say it is one, or say it is three, as you like it. Communism is always exchange, per the Marxist slogan; hierarchy is always exchange, just of an apples-for-oranges (gratitude-for-patronage) sort. Or, alternatively, exchange is a very narrow thing that you only get when accounts can be squared, in principle. Even the Golden Rule isn’t ‘really’ reciprocity.
This doesn’t seem satisfactory. The three do seem to be distinct, so I would like to distinguish them. I’m not sure that there are ONLY three, mind you. I’m just saying that my instinct is not to be reductive down to reciprocity-is-all. But my sense is also that reciprocity is more than Graeber thinks. His hostility to free market economics is slopping over into more generalized refusal to see reciprocity where it, plausibly, exists.
I wrote this post out quickly. Quite likely it is confused. If so, no doubt it will give great pleasure to those who derive pleasure from feigning pain, in the face of intellectual error. I like to give pleasure. I would like to know the answer to my question. Perhaps a bargain can be struck.
What is the difference between baseline communism and reciprocity?
Am I missing something simple?
Should I be reading more from Trivers et al. on reciprocal altruism in primates? Is the game-theoretic superiority of tit-for-tat over communism so great it gives us independent ground for reducing a great deal of apparent baseline communism to reciprocity? Where is kinship in all this? What do you say?