In a recent post on the justice of the property tax, I said that I was not interested so much to discuss that question as something else. That something is the vision of a familiarly ordered society, which suddenly opened itself to me as I pondered the modern property tax and its origins in corvée labor. I happened to read at that time, “coincidentally” – which is to say, synchronistically, or as we would here put it, providentially – an interview with Michael Hudson in which he revealed that recent archeological research seems to indicate that the pyramids and other ancient public works were built, not with coerced or slave labor, but by compensated freemen. Recently translated accounting records from these projects reveal that they enjoyed a high protein diet and vast quantities of beer. Periods of intense construction activity appear to have been coordinated and motivated by great religious festivals, featuring lots of sacrifices and feasting, that would have attracted people from far and wide. Involvement in this labor appears then to have been, not coerced, but voluntarily rendered, and motivated by strong positive emotions, which we might perhaps recognize as echoed in the intense patriotic fervor that prompted our forefathers to sign up in eager millions for the meat grinders of the 20th Century World Wars.
We may take this as an indication that a truly familiar society such as I discussed in the previous post would be radically different in character from the only sort of society any of us have ever known. I have not even begun to count all the ways it would be different; indeed, I feel I barely know how to think about what such a society would be like.
But it seems to me that the familiar society must be still remembered from earlier stages in our own history. I take it as indicative that many of the basic – and basest – terms of the financial arts have also, and more anciently, meanings that express aspects of our relations to each other as familiars rather than as mere strange foreign adversarial arms length counterparties: bond, stock, obligation, credit, debt (doubt), interest, entrepreneur, capital, contract, agreement, estate, duty, custom, fee, corporation, company, partner, proprietor, deal, due, finance, economics, tender, bid, ask, pay, rent, wage, salary – all carry some connotation of the intimate negotiations and mutual obligations of intra-familial life (all urged upon us by emotions of love) and of the felt will to do each other good, bounded by what is right. Only thus, it seems to me, could they carry still any social weight, that motivates us to act so as to meet the terms of our transactions with each other even now in our society of inimical strangers. When we owe a debt or duty, we feel an obligation to repay it. All but the scoundrels and sociopaths among us want to honor our debts. How could this be, unless there were in our abstract bloodless debts and duties still some urgent tincture of our ancient tribal pieties?
Frederick Turner (to whose Shakespeare’s 21st Century Economics I owe that insight about our terms of finance, accounting and economics) has argued that capitalism works better than its alternatives because even today – i.e., even as alienated from its roots, and thus attenuated in its affections – it more closely accords with the basic, inbuilt structure of human relations influencing and expressed in every aspect of our bodily careers: the family, and all its ramifications. That is interesting enough. But what it indicates to me now is that societies in general work well – work at all – only to the extent that in any of their operations they agree with human nature. Obviously, trivially true – how could it be otherwise? – but usually ignored these last 300 years. We keep trying to fix things, when really we should stop; for, our nature left to its own devices generates the familiar society without any top-down interventions or conscious policy deliberations, but rather organically, as arising from it along with our physiology, language, and so forth. Sex and infancy generate the family; from the family, the familiar society follows. The familiar society is then the default social arrangement for human beings. Only as human nature is perverted among men, and by them, do societies defect from that familiar default. To the extent that they do, they do worse than they might, ceteris paribus.
The excessive wickedness of modern finance capitalism, then, is not the effect of the market as such, but rather of its defects as now implemented; and these may be traced at root to our defection from a due recognition of our familiar relations, and our failure to honor our familiar obligations to each other. The general retreat from hierarchy and authority is but a symptom of this defection.
Authority must be understood as deriving from, and fitted to, the order of things – we must see it as ultimately somehow blessed from on high – if we are to recognize it as authoritative in the first place, or give it due credit (those words again). The property tax seems unjust to us because we don’t see how our governors deserve it – they certainly don’t earn it! We feel we owe them none of that loyalty that motivated the laborers who built the pyramids. We feel that we owe them no duty. They are strangers – indeed enemies, most likely.
The modern defection from familiar hierarchy and its duties and obligations and privileges stems in turn from the repudiation of the patrimonial cult, which once served to ground and justify patriarchal authorities at every level. We have no king, who is the minister of the Divine Law, there being under the modern conceit no such thing as Law Divinely ordained; so, we have no subsidiary lords of any sort, no worthy lords anywhere. We are each therefore ultimately alone. Thus all alienated, nothing we render to each other can be felt as just and properly due unless it be compensated formally under an immaculate accounting of costs and benefits. But all our merely creaturely calculations are inveterately maculate; so society is endemically unjust, and everywhere seethes with resentment. Thus is even the sweet and holy marriage bed profaned with considerations of tit for tat, and its proper total donations ruined by adversarial prophylactic deal-making, whether explicit or sub rosa; of which, the pre-nuptial agreement and the divorce are the formal exemplifications.
In a familiar society we would not worry so much about being cheated by our counterparties. It is an extraordinary knave who would defraud his own kith and kin. But where human relations are all contests among alien adversaries, the Marxian analysis that holds them all to be nothing more than relations of domination determined by differentials of power – that, i.e., takes them all to be sorts of robbery – is simply true. It is not gainsayed by such vestiges of mutual respect, friendship, or even loyalty to some higher purpose as may still operate among us. In an unfamiliar society, no sort of transaction can be approached in complete trust.
In the unfamiliar, alienated society, any success generates resentment, and all transactions are somewhat tweaked by suspicion.
But were we able to treat each other honestly as relatives – i.e., without exertion of the will in service of an abstract bloodless ideal of the brotherhood of man – the basic nature of the game we play with each other would change from that of war to that of sport. We would then of course still disagree, as men do. But our disagreements would be as those between brothers inextricably and ontologically linked together, who cannot but play as it were for the same team, and whose fortunes are willy nilly intertwined. We would still compete, as men do. But we would all rejoice together at each other’s greatest feats, as each being of ours, and thus in some sense our own. The whole village joins in the adventures of the high school football team. No one in town feels cheated or shortchanged on account of the young quarterback’s prowess. On the contrary, everyone rejoices in it, and feels his own life thereby enlarged. In the familiar society, all (honest) success generates general satisfaction. When our laird does well, so do we; and vice versa. The honor and glory of him who is of ours is in some degree our own.
Again, a familiar society would not fix everything, or even most things. Life is going to be fraught, no matter how we arrange it. But I believe it would be better than the fundamentally inimical sort of society we have been setting up for the last 500 years or so, at least at the margin. It’s just nicer to be among friendly relatives, than not.
There are all sorts of things that would have to change in order for us to enjoy a familiar society again. Not least, we would need to return to a more settled life, rooted more to a particular place and the people who live there. There is only one way this will happen: people must want it more than they want the vagrancy, loneliness and alienation of our current way of life. But as almost everyone, of every political persuasion, seems to realize, our current way of life is neither very satisfactory, nor sustainable. That’s why people are swayed by different persuasions about how to arrange things so as to promote a way of life that is sustainable, and that is also good. That social reform – i.e., the discourse of politics – is such a hot topic tells us that we are all quite alive to a desperate need for social reform. Things have to change, and they will change. The only questions are how, and at what cost in human suffering.
So we may hope that the reason people want things to change is that they want the sorts of goods that only a familiar society can furnish, and that when push comes to shove they will be willing to suffer the costs of obtaining them.