Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Gratuitousness and reciprocity

I didn't know I were a conventional gauchist, in the way George Weigel styles the Pontifical Counsil for Justice and Peace; actually I didn't know I was a gauchist at all; if anything, I have always been rather accused of the opposite, to be quite on the right, and I am surprised to be put in the company of that Council, which I have no doubt is as Weigel thinks, even when he ascribes to it the crucial paragraph 34 and 35 on gift in Benedict's new encyclical.

It just happens that I am totally in line with them, as I already said. I think them fully benedictine (if we have to play Weigel's game of pen marking), and I see in them an outline of that new integral anthropological theory the Pope asks for in paragraph 30 and 31.

Should I say that I have been working on it my whole life? And that it was precisey in the anthropological reality of gift that I found the key to it?

Let's put it this way then: I am no leftist, no liberal if you prefer, actually I wouldn't mind, if I didn't detest labels, to be called a conservative. But I always found myself ill at ease when I heard conservatives, like the otherwise very smart William Buckley jr, to extall free market as primary mark of good society. This made them sound to me less conservative than they claim to be, and more liberal than they like to be. In other words, with such praises conservatism seems to stop to nineteenth century liberalism, in the more continental use of the word.

"Free marked" doesn't exists, it says almost verbatim the encyclical. In my words: it's a fiction by which it is called a given insitutional setting of human action. Very far then from the truth of human affairs which the encyclical wants to recall.

Since I first read the famous Rerum Novarum, I perceived that the point of the social doctrine of the Church was to bring economic theory back to political theory. No "third way" between capitalism and socialism, but a way out of thinking on the model of homo oeconomicus, which imagines a rational animal calculating gains and losses.

Weigel sees its imprint, best exemplified in John Paul's Centesimus Annus, in the three traits of "free economy, democratic polity, vibrant public moral culture". That's fine, but it still needs to be said, on the level of a social and political theory stemming from it to address everybody, how those three things stay together. We would thus have the truth about human affairs: in the intrinsic connection of the three things. Otherwise we would have separately "free economy" as rational calcolus of gains and losses, "democracy" as procedures for the formation of consensus, and "moral culture" hanging in the air, with no public import - as those who oppose Catholic social doctrine claim.

Now, such a theory is what Pope Benedict gives us - of course in the limits allowed by the encyclical format. And he does so by bringing together in the light of Christ imputs coming from anthropology and from classical episteme politike.

Antrhpologists, I mean, social-cultural anthropologists, were never convinced by the model of homo oeconomicus, but their critique was mainly kept within the scope of the primitive socities they used to study, while the model was granted as true for modern socierty.

In 1927 the french socio-ethnologist Marcel Mauss wrote a famous Essey on Gift. Through the witness of some cases, going from Polinesia and Melanesia to anciant India and Rome, he theorized gift exchange as a cultural constant of primitive societies, to draw from it a moral lesson valid also for our industrial society.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, a prince of anthropologists, took over from the lesson of Mauss to understand the meaning of marital exchanges as constituting knship, and by way of it soociety.

But it is to Mary Douglas, reknown British anthropologist whom the queen made Dame, that we have to turn for an extention of thinking encopassing primitive as well as modern society. In the World of Things, she tried to fill a basic lack in econimic teory, due to disinterest for the factor of demand, left over to indiividual choices. Therefore, as the encyclical, she says that there is more in economics than econimic theory sees in it.

Should we say, social factors implying "distributive justice"? To use the classical expression taken over by the encyclical to mean an exchage in which the partners own identity is involved.

Gift exchange is such. This seems to run counter what we are used to think, when we identify the gratuitousness of gift with unilateral giving, excluding reciprocity. If it were so, Weigel woud be right in speaking about it as cloddy sentimentalism. But it is not so, even though so it might appear if one has no knowledge of the cycles of reciprocity of which ethnographic evidence gives witeness.

Gratuitous, I said in a previous post, is what has no reasonn outside of itself: like play. It is not against reciprocity: it rather requires it, as the ordering principle of human relations, that makes for justice.

But there are two different cycles of reciprocity, direct and indirect. The first is the one that we summarize in latin as the do ut des: I give to you, and you give to me. The second is when I give to you, who give to him, who gives to another, who gives still to another, and so on, until what I gave comes back to me. That's why my giving appears on the moment unilateral.

The passages can go to the infinite. Actually the infinite is sensed in each one of them, as that by which I draw all my power to give, shown in my giving all. Here talk of gift becomes, from anthropological, theological. And well fits in a papal encyclical that wants to tell the truth about charity, the very truth manifested in charity.

There is in the chapter on gift an advocacy for the "third sector" of non profit economy, between profit oriented enterprise and government, which Weigel's would definitely ascribe to the Counsil for Justice and Peace. But that is not the originality of it. This is rather in the meaning gratuitousness takes for economic practice, if only we view it in the light of indirect reciprocity. A new economic theory is hinted at, in which actors are not regarded as closed in their calculus of gains and losses, but as capable of taking into consideration the prosperity of the whole economy: the common good.

In the anthrpological and theological truth thus sketched, charity permeates all human affairs, thanks to the faith that nourishes the hope necessary to face the uncertainties of indirect reciprocity.

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