richard barbrook on Sat, 1 Sep 2001 07:06:02 +0200 (CEST)

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Potlatch (was: Re: <nettime> Garcia/Lovink: The GHI of Tactical Media)


Here are some belated comments on a recent posting from Jim Carrico. The
details of his interesting scheme on: <>:

* The potlatch was designed to *prevent* abundance not facilitate it.
Tribal societies were threatened by the accumulation of wealth by their
leaders turning into fixed class divisions. The potlatch hindered this
process by encouraging the giving away (or destroying) of surpluses. Being
good liberals, the English colonialists were - not surprisingly - outraged
by such "irrational" behaviour...

* It is not universally accepted that money regulates the scarcity of
*things*. This may be the academic orthodoxy, but it is debatable whether
this is what is actually happening within capitalist societies (see Adam
Smith and his admirers). What money could be doing is regulating the
division of labour, i.e. the scarcity of *time*. While it is fun to point
out that neo-classical price theory implies that cost of digital
information is zero, this ideology can't explain why the labour used for
making this information often does have a price.

* The token system advocated by seems very much like another
form of money to me. Could it simply be a digital form of LETS scheme?
These can work where the tokens circulate within a smallish group of
people, are not transferable into hard currency and can't be accumulated.
Within a global information society, these limitations seem to be
unenforceable. Wouldn't 'star' musicians (or programmers, writers or
whatever) be paid too many tokens for them to distribute back into a
parallel economy. It is much more likely that they'll want their success
turned into material goods and services from the mainstream economy. Sooner
or later, people would be selling tokens for dollars (or euros, yen, etc.)
- and therefore turning the tokens into another form of money.

* The Situationists popularised potlatch as a political concept because it
showed that societies could flourish without any money (or tokens).
However, social relationships inside tribes were formed between people who
knew each other and were usually related. In contrast, we live in societies
where most of our social relationships are with strangers who we'll never
meet. Money, states, corporations and other impersonal structures have long
seemed to be the only methods of regulating such connections. This is why
the Situationists' potlatch metaphor was dismissed as utopian during the
1960s. Yet, from our experiences on the Net, it is being slowly realised
that giving gifts can also create these impersonal relationships. As long
as we're getting more back in return from others, we don't need payment
from each and every person who appropriates our labour. Tokens are *not*
needed to regulate a hi-tech gift economy. Free gifts can remain free!

* Why does *all* information work need to be paid for? The revival of the
potlatch metaphor reflects an interesting contemporary phenomenon. Like our
tribal ancestors, many people are now using their surplus time in an
"irrational" fashion, i.e. working for free rather than for money. As in
the past, they're not being entirely unselfish. They also hope to gain
respect, admiration and even things in return for their efforts. But what
they're not doing is *directly* buying and selling labour time. A gift is a
gift even when given away for an ulterior motive...

All the best.



Dr. Richard Barbrook
Hypermedia Research Centre
School of Communications and Creative Industries
University of Westminster
Watford Road
Northwick Park


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