George Walford: The Enduring Base (57)

Evidence for the persistence of the earlier ideologies comes from the persistence of behaviour-patterns; once established in social practice these show an endurance not always recognised. Although often changing their form of expression they continue to exercise influence even though overlaid, even repressed, by later developments; imperialism, for example, continues while national self-determination spreads, although it takes commercial rather than military and political form. This has long been evident in relations between former imperial powers and their former colonies, and it now comes to the fore as the superpowers draw back from military confrontation. As the Cold War ended

a new “geo-economic” era [began] in which investment capital was rapidly displacing both firepower and diplomatic leverage, the ability to develop desirable new commercial products was displacing military R&D, and market penetration was displacing overseas garrisons and bases. [1]

Slavery, one might think, forms an exception to the rule; it has virtually disappeared. Closer enquiry shows otherwise. Far from having vanished, this pattern of behaviour has been more fully developed, for mechanisation (and still more so automation) now provides the facilities which human beings treated as things could only approximate. Chattel slavery with its cognates – serfdom, villeinage and the like – died out as machinery developed, and the transition demonstrates survival of the fittest. To adapt a phrase of Ike Benjamin’s, the slave served in place of a machine which hadn’t been invented. Machines now make better slaves than slaves ever did.

The progress of capitalism, we are frequently told, has reduced the making and distributing of the things people need to issues of mere self-interest; the warmth, humanity and responsiveness, the life and variety which used to infuse this area of activity have been eliminated. Marx’s reference to the cold cash nexus provides a theme for endless variations. It is a one-sided view; these earlier patterns still survive. More, they make up much of modern life, escaping attention only by their familiarity.

Simon Harrison [2] shows economic competition in its early appearances to have been directed to the provision of dramatic spectacle rather than profit in the modern sense. Like imperialism and slavery this approach seems at first sight to be no longer with us, and the impression is strengthened when Harrison offers as an example the Potlatch; surely nothing like that appears in modern western society? But once more, when we widen the field of view beyond a specific activity to take in a pattern of behaviour, the picture changes. Harrison categorises the Potlatch as ‘a tournament of value,’ ‘a ceremonial exchange cycle,’ and points out how well a modern art auction fits these descriptions.
From this point his argument runs along other lines, but once attention has been drawn to these features of economic behaviour they spring from the background all around us. It has long been a puzzle why people offered two versions of an item, one distinguished by a higher price and a brand name, should often choose the more expensive. (Cosmetics, masculine as well as feminine, provide an outstanding example). When one thinks of them as engaged with their peers in a tournament of value things fall into place.

Many people, some of them among the most prominent in business, devote time and effort to accumulating goods which they cannot possibly consume and often have no desire or intention of consuming. Sometimes they destroy their health in the effort, sometimes their enterprise lands them in jail, and often the result of their lifetime’s striving consists mainly of figures on a balance sheet. If we take economics to be a purely utilitarian activity such behaviour appears hardly sane, and indeed it often gets condemned on that ground. It nevertheless continues, and the concept of a tournament of value [3] goes far to account for it.

The pleasant surroundings commonly provided in supermarkets, department stores and shopping malls obviously have to be paid for by the customers; a bare warehouse offers the most economical method of distribution: “Pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap.” Yet the prevalence of outlets offering some approach to comparative luxury demonstrates a widespread willingness to pay for these comforts, a feeling that a shopping trip should be more than the cheapest way of getting needed supplies. The conditions provided supply what Dr. Johnson might have called ‘the indispensable superfluities’; extras, above the basics, going to build up the living complex from which ‘the market’ as a merely utilitarian exchange process has been abstracted. A visit to the shops is a social occasion now as an expedition to the market (‘a day at the fair’) was in earlier times, and Harrison’s phrase ‘a ceremonial exchange cycle’ hits it off. If we think of buying and selling as no more than an exchange of values we overlook a great part of its role.

[1] Edward N. Luttwak, TLS 22 May.
[2] “Ritual as Intellectual Property,” in MAN Volume 27 No.2, June 1992.
[3] Harrison 1986 in The social life of things (ed.) A. Appadurai. Camb.U.P.

from Ideological Commentary 57, August 1992.