Since these Chronicles often refer favorably to the market exchange system and less so to cultural phenomena hostile to it, people sometimes wonder what relevance the modern market might have to a hypothesis concerning the origin of language and culture. Why should a theory of human origin be concerned with defending our political economy against its cultural assailants?
The beginning of the answer is that the interactions that define us as human are best understood as processes of exchange. In scenic terms, speech (which may of course be gestural) is an exchange of information on the periphery of the circle; ritual sacrifice is an exchange between the sacred center and the profane periphery. We must trace the tension between the modern market and its culture back to its originary roots in order to understand the apparent paradox that, although this tension has always existed, it is only with the emergence of the first social order overtly based on economic rather than ritual exchange that it is expressed as overt hostility.
Meaning or significance is created in the center of the scene; subsequently, meaningful representations and objects are exchanged on the periphery. The attachment of sacred meaningfulness to objects of economic value maintains peace in the community while permitting the consumption of these objects. Meaningfulness adds nothing directly to our material satisfaction; it can only have arisen as a means to prevent conflict–the originary hypothesis.
In the originary scene, the tension between the creation of meaning at the center (“culture”) and its circulation on the periphery (“exchange”) emerges as that between the designation of the central object by a sign and its distribution to the participants. At the first moment, the object is whole and the sign is shared by all. The community adds meaning to the object through–in exchange for–the deferral of its members’ appetitive satisfaction. In the second, this satisfaction is obtained, but at the cost of destroying the object that was the source of meaning. Significance remains attached to the sign, but it is no longer reinforced by the presence of the object of desire; it is at this point that we may truly speak of the sacred or of God as possessing a Being transcending that of worldly objects. The process of economic exchange, which emerges here in at least virtual form, occupies a moment intermediate between the two others, in which the portions of the victim have been distributed but not yet consumed. At this moment, they are exchangeable with each other, or, in other terms, they are of equal value.
In order to create these portions of equal value, the original object that is the source of value has been destroyed. Inherent in this process is tension, in the sense of potential instability, between (1) expressing the significance of the object and (2) apportioning the object. If the second phase is carried out too soon, the object will not have had time to generate meaning and the value of its parts will therefore be lacking; if it is carried out too late, the meaning itself will have been dissipated and the desires of the group focused elsewhere. “Culture” is the force that would retain the object whole at the center and “exchange,” the force that would apportion it among the members of the group. At the origin, these two moments would be participated in equally by all members of the community, but, as society becomes more complex, the two functions would come to be divided among different individuals and castes, each of which would have reason to limit the powers of the other.
How does the tension between culture and exchange generate historical change? On one side, the exchange system tends to evolve in the direction of productive efficiency, helped along by wars that select the more efficient among competing societies. The Marxist model of social evolution through the organization of production is exclusively concerned with this process. What Marx calls “class conflict”–significantly enough, in all but the final, all-important “proletarian” vs “bourgeois” case–is the struggle for power by rival groups involved in this process–in modern Europe, typically the landed nobility and the bourgeoisie. Research in this area, however complex, is not conceptually problematic.
But on the other side, ritual and esthetic culture, far from being a mere “superstructure” of the economic process, is the original locus of the valuation of goods and services. In all societies prior to the Industrial Revolution, the regeneration of meaning at the ritual center of society had priority over exchange at the periphery as the means of deferring mimetic violence. The paradox that Karl Polanyi confronted in his historical genealogy of the free market is that, although the latter is a minimal structure that one would expect to occur spontaneously whenever exchange is not otherwise constrained, it originated only once in history, in early modern Western Europe. However obvious it may appear to us that value is constituted in the exchange process itself by the interaction of supply and demand, in all premodern societies, value is established not at the periphery, in the process of exchange, but at the center–at first purely ritual, then, in hierarchical societies, at the same time ritual and political. Modern market society is a historical aberration. But its qualitative superiority, political as well as economic, over earlier social systems suggests that its technique of recycling resentment through the exchange system is truer to the ethical potential of the originary scene than the traditional practice of periodically “purging” that resentment via ritual/esthetic culture.
As we laugh at the tenured Marxists who still speak of “late capitalism,” we should avoid the symmetrical fatuity of speaking of the “mature market system.” Barring catastrophe, the shift of emphasis from center to periphery and from culture to exchange that took place around 1800 will last until the end of human society as we know it; in that context, two hundred years are hardly enough time to permit talk of maturity. Except perhaps for Moore’s law that predicts the doubling of microchip speed every 18 months, there are no steady states at any level of the market system. Yet since we have now begun a new millennium, I beg the reader’s indulgence in predicting the course of the system’s evolution in the near term.
The early years of the market system were dominated by the opposition of Right and Left inherited from the French Revolution. The failed revolutions of 1848 marked the passage of the “liberal” bourgeoisie from the Left to the Right side of the spectrum, generating a postromantic or premodernist culture that prepared the cultural and political revolutions of the twentieth century.
We know the horrors unleashed by the various socialisms that these revolutions ushered in. Following their demise, the political arena today appears to be increasingly configured by a de facto alliance of the antimarket forces of Right and Left against the market-oriented center, as exemplified by the farcical reenactment of the Hitler-Stalin pact in the recent embrace between Pat Buchanan and Leonora Fulani. The traditional Right-Left opposition survives in reduced form between neo-liberals and neo-conservatives that differ far more in their constituencies than their policies. While this narrowed debate fine-tunes the liberal-democratic system, the antimarket opposition increasingly reverts to sacrificial religious modes. The liberal center has become so dominant a force that it brings together the opposition from both sides.
The space left unoccupied in today’s ideological debate is that of what might be called the protomarket, consisting of those societies that have not acquired the human capital to compete in a global economy. Not long ago, these societies put their faith in nebulous ethnic “socialisms.” Today, their resentment against the West can be channeled neither into a clear-cut oppositional policy, however illusory, nor into economic production. Despite the obvious virtues of the market system, there is still no clear answer to the question of what system works best in “developing” nations. What seems probable, however, is that despite the efforts of cultural nationalists, the popular culture of the West will increasingly articulate the resentments of their populations. Hence it seems probable that the successful negotiation of the rocky road to “globalization” will take place first in the cultural domain. Integration into the market system will begin with the adoption of the Western mode of alienation from its own market system. We may have to endure a lot of rap music before it is accomplished.
The surplus-free exchange system of primitive society derives directly from the egalitarian exchange of signs and portions in the originary scene. This system endured perhaps hundreds of thousands of years. But it was ultimately unstable because it could not survive the production of an economic surplus. The hierarchical societies that followed subordinated the distribution of this surplus to the necessities of the cultural order rather than to economic rationality or even the defense of “class interests.” The modern exchange system is the first to emancipate exchange from sacred authority; the political order has the last word, but only in enforcing exceptions to the general rule of free exchange.
Why do we need an originary hypothesis to understand these developments? Because without one, we can explain the universal human intuition of moral reciprocity that drives the whole process only by the concept of “natural law,” which is about as useful as Molière’s dormitive virtue of opium. Democracy’s open political debate permits us to tolerate great differences in material wealth; the reciprocity of words has always been more fundamental than the reciprocity of things. A cat may look at a king, but because a human being can speak to him, the king eventually gives way to an elected president. One of the highest priorities of any GA research program should be to study the evolution of political, economic, and cultural institutions in terms of the originary dichotomy between central meaning and peripheral exchange.