Breaking down the market in our heads: abandoning the logic of capital

It was easier, when I was younger, to hold onto a sense of righteousness when I looked out at the world, to see very clearly those elements of society that were fucked up and to cast myself against them. One of the most difficult things about continuing to be a radical as I grow older is realizing the extent to which all of the messed up ways of thinking that I am critical of are also present within me and manifest in interpersonal dynamics in my life as much as they do anywhere else.

An insidious example of this is the way that capitalist logic sets itself up as common sense; how any notion of value becomes linked to cash value and acting pragmatically in the world comes to mean hording or selling what is marketable and treating what is inexpensive and abundant as inconsequential. Even in radical circles the effect of this is pervasive, particularly the extent to which we let ourselves become afraid of scarcity and distrustful of the good faith of our friends and neighbors.

Scarcity versus Abundance

On the one hand a critique of scarcity thinking is very simple; systems of power use the idea of material scarcity to frighten people into accepting their legitimacy. The matter is complicated, however, by the fact that scarcity is real. In climates where the ground freezes in the winter or the land dries up in the summer, there have always been seasonal scarcities. With the spread of globalization and the creation of immense wealth and poverty, those climate imposed scarcities have been joined, and in some cases replaced by economically imposed scarcities. As our mass society alters the world to the point of ecological crisis, the specters of newer and grander scarcities everyday present themselves.

It is important to remember that these modern scarcities have been created by the extension of market logic into the environment itself, each new crisis is used as an excuse to expand the jurisdiction of the market system of value. People have been compelled to sever their connections to the Earth and destroy their awareness of its rhythms. The fear generated from that destruction is used to convince people that they need the system.

Whether we treat undeveloped land, forests and waterways as scarce commodities, or abundant commodities, we cheapen them. When we allow ourselves to talk about ecological forces as resources to be managed or appeal to a cost-benefit analysis of environmental destruction as a way to pass environmental laws and encourage green business practices, the very logic that led to these crises remains unquestioned and utterly shapes our thinking about how to address them. As if by seeing the whole environment as a dwindling commodity to be horded and made valuable through the market, we can somehow save it.

The most stunning success of capitalism has been the way that it has extended the sphere of the market into almost every aspect of our lives, expanding well beyond material reality and getting applied to the way that we conduct our emotional life. Friend, neighbor, and family relationships are commonly mediated by its logic of treating any good will as a scarce commodity. People are scared into thinking that what is scarce includes even our own ability to transform ourselves and each other through love. In this way gifts are turned into debts, kindnesses into credit, and interactions into transactions.

Its not that we consciously live our lives in such a callous manner but that it becomes very easy for this kind of thinking to insinuate itself as pragmatic realism and for the logic of passionately engaging with each other and ourselves to be downplayed as naïve idealism. When we are asked to operate as efficient producers and consumers in so much of our lives it becomes difficult to imagine relating to each other differently.

Nature itself hardly responds to scarcity with calculated efficiency, it often responds with wasteful abundance that is impermanent and indiscriminant. Anyone who has watched rotting fruit drop off a tree and realized that it has been feeding all manner of life for weeks knows this. It is in that kind of joyous wastefulness that beauty and love can blossom and grow. Calculated relationships wither, no matter how strategically beneficial they are, relationships born out of the joyful giving of affection and honest desire for connection thrive and produce fruit in ways that were inconceivable when the seed started sprouting.

Bad Faith versus Community

In the first part of his book, The Gift, Lewis Hyde draws a distinction between a market economy where goods are traded with anyone as commodities and a gift economy where goods and services are given and received between people, creating or signifying connection and allowing excess to flow to those in need within a community. A meal cooked, a creative work, or a market commodity can all be gifts to the extent that they are given and received rather than being bought and sold.

In a gift economy there is no strict accounting, there does not need to be because you are dealing with people that you have a relationship with and the actual material that changes hands is only a part of what is happening; social connections are also strengthened. Gift economies work when good faith is assumed on both sides and come into crisis when the relationships they depend on are strained or forced.

An economy of market exchange operates most efficiently between strangers under the assumption of bad faith. Bad faith is the belief that all parties are involved for their own narrow material gain and, left to their own devices, would be cruelly indifferent to each other. Hyde connects this assumption of bad faith explicitly to a desire for authority and the presumption of scarcity: “Out of bad faith comes a longing for control, for the law and the police. Bad faith suspects that there is a scarcity so great in the world that it will devour whatever gifts appear.” (p. 128)

The assumption of bad faith produces more bad faith and leads to actions and attitudes that warrant continued ingratitude and mistrust. It is an inherent part of the culture of capitalism and as such, can seem impossible to change, but it is something that can be addressed and made less powerful on the scale of our actual lives by people who do not view their relationships as strategic, their emotional energy as scarce or their capacity for creativity and love as limited.

It is not, however, as simple as market logic bad, gift economy good. There are moments when it is useful to be able to interact with a person without being drawn into a relationship with them and a gift economy only works in the context of a relationship that is being created and sustained in good faith. Good faith is not something that can be brought into existence by force of will, it must be built. Trying to define all possible interactions as either gift exchange or commodity exchange quickly becomes confining. Nonetheless, getting rid of capitalism means leaving behind the logic that feeds it, it means learning to shrink the areas of our life that are governed by the market and expand the areas that are buoyed by good faith relationships and fed with gifts. When the sphere of the market shrinks to the point that it is not much more than a process used for negotiating barter with strangers, it becomes something that is no longer capitalism. When the relationship networks expressed through gift exchange grow to the point where people trust the strength of their communities, they render the state obsolete.

In the meantime, figuring out how to live in the presence of scarcity, without allowing fearful thinking to dominate our lives and learning how to exist in broken communities without retreating to an isolated place that views everybody else’s motives with bad faith are difficult emotional things to do. They require creating a culture that does not tolerate market logic; that is infused with the fermented juices of abundant emotional life. The more that we can be honest with ourselves and each other about the ways in which we are affected by ugly systems of power and control, the more likely we are to be able to forge that kind of culture in a lasting and meaningful way. The way forward cannot be found, it must be created by each person through a process of engagement.