Saturday, August 29, 2009

Evolving Utopia Part 18

Part 18: Ethical Transaction

Let's consider a little parable ("parable" is what nonscientists call a gedankenexperiment).
Able is a shoemaker. He makes a pair of work shoes for himself and appreciates them greatly. He no longer has to worry about stepping on tacks. Then he makes a pair of slippers. Now he can be comfortable in front of the stove in the evening. Then a pair of winter boots, and a pair of sandals for summer. But at that point he has reached the end of his lust for footwear. He faces the workbench with a lack of enthusiasm.

By the time he makes himself a pair of dress pumps for formal wear he is beginning to get considerably less pleasure out of his work. Each pair of shoes he makes after that has less and less worth to him because they are merely adding to his surplus.

On the other hand, Able has only one shirt and it is beginning to show. He has to sit half-naked on wash day till it dries. He no longer wants to go out to formal occasions because his shirt shows spots of glue and is beginning to fray at the collar and cuffs.

Then Bert comes along. Bert is a wandering, shoeless, shirtmaker.

Bert and Abel fall on each other's shoulders. Abel gives Bert a pair of shoes and Bert gives Abel a pair of shirts.

Abel and Bert are both pleased.

The reason that both Abel and Bert are pleased is that both have received a positive benefit.

Each of them has exchanged an item from his surplus, which he values very little, for an item that he needs, and thus values very highly. Both parties to such an exchange benefit greatly in their own terms.

We are going to refer to this kind of transaction again, so it is worth giving it a name. We will call this kind of exchange an "Ethical Transaction".

The Ethical Transaction has the characteristics that:

1. each party to the transaction receives a positive benefit in terms of his or her own value system
2. each party enters into the transaction voluntarily; so the benefit is not simply the service of cessation of coercion

3. each party enters into the transaction knowledgeably and openly so that it is not a hidden form of exploitation

4. the transaction is not merely a cooperative exploitation of third parties (such as future generations),

The Ethical transaction is a beneficial interaction in which neither party is 'one-up' on or 'one-down' to the other or any third parties. The benefit to ethical transactions over and above the particular benefit that one receives from a particular ethical transaction, is that if you are ethical you are not affected by the elitist syndrome and therefore do not have to be alienated from your partner in the transaction, from yourself or from reality.

Being ethical allows you to be sane. But it isn't always possible.

This requirement that all our transactions be ethical is a more subtle requirement than appears at first sight. Let us consider the case of shoemakers Chris and Dale who want to sell in a small rural village in which all the residents are primarily conformist.

In that case we cannot say that either Chris or Dale have their own system by which they will value the shoes they make because, being conformists, they take their value system from the consensus of the other villagers. If there is a shortage of shoes in the village they will value the shoes they make highly no matter how many shoes they have that are surplus to their personal needs. Conversely, if there is a glut of shoes those shoes will have a small value no matter how much effort they entailed.

The buyers are equally constrained. They will value shoes based on the village consensus rather than their personal needs.

Thus the basis requirements for an ethical transaction are not met in a conformist culture.

The best that can be done in a conformist culture is to have all the sellers of a given kind of goods gather at a given place at a given time so that the price is the product of a consensus and not influenced by accidental considerations. In particular, Chris and Dale will both sell their shoes on a public square so that everyone knows what they are asking.

This is a sufficiently important concept in commerce that the economists call the venue for the exchange a "market" and the agreed on exchange value is called the "market value". The value in an ethical transaction the economists would call a "value in use".

If we look at a more densely populated culture, which has to be ideological, and look at transactions involving the fetish of an ideology, we see that it is even less possible to have an ethical transaction.

What exchange value in dollars would be asked for:

The ticket to heaven of a 'true-believer' fundamentalist?
The party card of a pre-glasnost, 'true believer' Marxist?

The corner office of a high-rise bureaucrat?

An obsessed gambler's 'luck' or an obsessed artist's 'talent'?

We think of it as 'natural' that we should exchange money for work and consider the money to be the motivation for work.

But this is as irrelevant as saying that Van Gogh was motivated to paint because his paintings now sell for millions of dollars. Van Gogh got almost nothing in exchange for his paintings. And while a Van Gogh may sell for millions, a reproduction or forgery that can only be told from the original by x-ray and chemical tests (i.e., that looks identical to the original) might be worth nothing.

This shows that the value of the Van Gogh is not in its aesthetic qualities but in its value as a fetish, an example of conspicuous consumption.

The clearest definition of the value of money was made by Nelson Rockefeller, a politician who was also very wealthy, when asked how much was "enough money".

Rockefeller answered "A little more."

There can be no surplus of money in our culture because money is a fetish. The more money the more status, charisma, magic.

Therefore in our society, Western Civilization, it is not possible to achieve an ethical transaction when money is one element of the exchange.

We should note, however, that Western Civilization, as a system in which money is the prime fetish, is not as bad as the societies that preceded it. The worship of money as a status-granting fetish is less of a social problem than the rigid social stratification of the preindustrial societies. Even if one is poor and untalented, if one is desperate enough it is always possible to get money without violence by illegal means, and thus it is always possible to achieve a degree of upward social mobility in a money-valued society.

In a society with a hereditary elite it is only possible to improve one's position by killing a lot of people, as was the case in dynastic struggles in societies with a warrior nobility and popular revolutions like those in France and America.

The potential upward-mobility in a money-based society mitigates to some degree the inherent alienation of social stratification. If the upwardly-mobile are perceived as equal-on-the-average because they obtained their money as a result of sacrifice or risk, there is less alienation on both sides. On the other hand, there is more resentment of "unearned" or inherited money in a money-valued culture.

This use of money as a status-fetish is the reason why crime flourishes even in nominally egalitarian societies. Crime is a way around the barriers to elite status that are created by those who are de facto elite.

It should be noted, however, that once the criminal becomes elite he will be alienated and cause alienation among the non-elite. The 'virtuous criminal' in folklore, like Robin Hood, never uses the money he steals to achieve elite status for himself; he steals in order to be the champion of the non-elite. Typically, a 'Robin Hood' figure is an exemplar of the Warrior Hostility fantasy, in which the elite are regarded as 'the enemy'.

Jesus commented that it is harder for a rich man to be saved, but he did not say it was impossible. One of the good things about money as a basis of status is that it is easier to give away than real estate or inherited position. Unfortunately, if one does give up money to lose the alienation caused by the use of money as a fetish, one gives up the convenience of the money as an exchange mechanism. Luckily, the ubiquity of computers will soon mean that there is no need for the convenience of a universal standard of value, because every commodity, including labor, can be valued in its own terms.

In order to look at what we might use as the basis for a post-industrial social infrastructure we have to see if we can avoid the evils of stratification by operating on the basis of ethical transactions. The method that was used in the Paleolithic was "equality-on-the-average" where the status of the shaman and warchief found compensation in the tactical difficulties inherent in the duties of the role.

We can translate this into a post-industrial economy by using the notion suggested in 1948 by Norbert Wiener (a pioneering mathematician who coined the word "cybernetics"). Wiener said that, in the future, no one would be allowed to work unless they could do something better than a robot or a computer. It may have been in his book The Human Use of Human Beings.

Wiener grew up in an "Old Yankee" academic atmosphere in Cambridge (his father was a professor at Harvard) so he never learned that, in our society, "conspicuous consumption", or the ability to waste resources in a public manner, is a status symbol. This means that the nonfunctional bureaucrats celebrated in comic strips like Dilbert do serve a function:their unproductivity acts as status symbols for their manager or employer.

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