Thursday, September 27, 2012

"The locus of ownership having nothing to do with it"

In his book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, first published in 1982 (original subtitle: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property), Lewis Hyde tucks away in a passing footnote the following:
Capitalism is the ideology that asks that we remove surplus wealth from circulation and lay it aside to produce more wealth. To move away from capitalism is not to change the form of ownership from the few to the many, but to cease turning so much surplus into capital, that is, to treat most increase as gift. It is quite possible to have the state own everything and still convert all gifts to capital, as Stalin demonstrated. When he decided in favor of the "production mode"—an intensive investment in capital goods—he acted as a capitalist, the locus of ownership having nothing to do with it.
I absolutely love that Hyde manages in a throwaway line to offer a better definition of capitalism than appears most anywhere else.

The book overall is an interesting read, part anthropological survey, part philosophical investigation of art, among other things. The passage quoted above comes from chapter two (“"The Bones of the Dead"), in which he discusses the circulation of gifts in certain cultures, and comes after his re-capitulation of one of the points from the first chapter ("one man’s gift must not be another man’s capital") and a corollary:
the increase that comes of gift exchange must remain a gift and not be kept as if it were the return on private capital. Saint Ambrose of Milan states it directly in a commentary on Deuteronomy: "God has excluded in general all increase of capital." Such is the ethic of a gift society.
Anyway, returning to the definition of capitalism. The focus on surplus value as opposed to who owns the means of production is, to me, crucial. I've been reading lately some of the essays/rants by the blogger Jehu at Re: The People. Admittedly, I haven't read all that many of them (there's a lot there), my attention span being rather limited of late, but I've especially appreciated his insistence on the importance of surplus value, and by necessary extension, the length of the working day (this leads him to be incredibly harsh on academic Marxists, including David Harvey, who readers will know that I admire; on this point, at least, Jehu seems to me to have an excellent point), and his focus on the "fascist State" as capitalist. But as capitalist in the sense described by Hyde: the state is a capitalist. Not the spurious focus on Capitalism in this or that country, which drives me nuts, and, as mentioned, leads to stupid questions about whether slavery is or isn't capitalist, which is but one reason I've been driven somewhat away from Marxism (though not Marx), and towards world-systems analysis, a la Wallerstein.

1 comment:

Ethan Robinson said...

The reference to Deuteronomy reminds me that in my currently-stalled slow read-through of the Bible I was very surprised at how, uh, "progressive" the end of Leviticus is: forbidding the private ownership of land, at least on any permanent basis, and requiring the erasure of all economic stratification every fifty years, among other things. It made me really irritated about the tendency mainstream queers have to respond to citations of Leviticus from anti-queer religious groups with "but you wear blended fabrics and eat shellfish," or whatever, when the really telling inconsistency would be the pointed ignoring of the anti-capital (if you will forgive this ahistorical usage) sections towards the end.

But of course "both" sides pointedly ignore those passages.

Embarrassing: my need to slowly puzzle out the difference between "gift" and "capital," as relevant to the passage you quote.