Interpersonal transactions

29/02/2012 § Leave a comment

Crooked Timber has been hosting an on-line seminar on Debt: the first 5,000 years by David Graebers. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve been enjoying the commentary.

I haven’t seen reference to a work that affected my thinking about participation in the economy. The Triumph of Venus by Jeanne L Schroeder discusses law and economics from a Lacanian viewpoint. The crux of the economic analysis is that individuals want recognition of their person-hood from the other people in their transactions (and here I’m paraphrasing to avoid jargon). Each transaction is a relationship, a personal experience with emotional and psychological echoes.

Debt appears to be about economic relationships that get established and the rules that govern them. One thing that changes from pre-industrial to industrial transactions is the depth of the relationship implied in each transaction. ‘Depth’ seems to mean, the extent to which the relationship is constrained by the past and circumscribes the future.

Daniel Davies says the following in his contribution to the seminar:

Perhaps the fact from the book that will end up resisting the longest against the onslaughts of late nights and Scotch whisky on my ability to recall, is that more or less every urban society in the world has ended up inventing an equivalent phrase to “Please”, and “Thank you”, terms which have the social function of asserting between parties to a commercial transaction that the transaction itself does not embed them in any deeper social relation.

This analysis says that these little words (which we stress when raising our little middle-class post-industrial children) limit the depth of the relation, ensuring that future potentials are not limited by the present contact (or contract).

Another way to think about it is that ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are about interpersonal recognition. They indicate an equality in the relationship. They say, this is not about control. You are free to do as you like, and you have chosen to participate in this transaction. I am also free to do as I like, and I freely participate, too. We both choose this transaction from the universe of transactions. I will tickle your need for recognition, and you will tickle mine. We will come away from this exchange with our autonomous personhood validated.

The strength of a market economy — and perhaps the modern thrill of shopping — may come from this repeated reinforcement and validation. It also suggests that we value not only what we receive from an exchange, but the exchange activity itself.

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