Scale the world down, scale up the self, bridge the gap

On the one side a puny self; on the other a vast unknowable universe. How to bridge the gap? This is an existential question that goes far beyond the claims of a minor twentieth century academic discipline. But it is one that anthropologists might address, if we wanted to.

Traditionally religion performed this task and, as long as society’s rulers acknowledged its role, there was a tangible bridge between men of power and the masses. A fraudulent one perhaps, but civilizations were built on it. For over a century now, this link has been broken in the societies with most influence on world history. Rather, science now rules and social science has replaced the humanities — truth of universal significance was sought through the exercise of personal judgment on particular cases, backed by scholarship and rigorous thought.

Kant’s Copernican revolution in metaphysics consisted in this (but we could just as easily attribute the movement to Michel de Montaigne): “Hitherto we have made our knowledge conform to the world of objects, but perhaps the objects should conform to our knowledge”. Great literature was always the main vehicle for this approach, but also history, the arts, ethnography, philosophy, case law, rhetoric.

There is a common method that exceeds the limits of academic inquiry. We need to scale the world down and scale up the self so that they can meet somewhere with the prospect of meaningful connection. That is the problem and anthropologists could throw light on the great variety of ways that people have tried to solve it. The classic means is prayer. Religion sustains a binding link between something deeply personal and subjective inside each of us and the impersonal world out there. I can talk to God, privately or collectively in public. Marcel Mauss made prayer the topic of his unfinished PhD thesis because “speech is the unity of thought and action”. Many people in our world still bridge the gap this way.

The main way we have attempted to reconfigure self and world in the last two centuries of industrial capitalism was through the consumption of fiction: novels, plays, movies. Here the world is reduced in scale to a stage, paperback or screen, allowing individual members of the audience to enter it on any subjective terms they wish. Who do you identify with — Pierre or Andre? Does Natasha deserve their love…or yours? Sophocles and Shakespeare stand out as social thinkers because their medium effectively bridged the gap between human personality and an impersonal world. But modern novelists and movie makers are not far behind.

Global communications are in transition between the age of mass media and one where ideas large and small can be expressed by anyone through the new universal media. The main event of the last century was the anti-colonial revolution, stimulated by world war, whereby people coerced into world society by European imperialism before fought to establish an independent relationship to it. I study the intellectuals of this movement, of whom the greatest was M.K. Gandhi. Gandhi made a career from developing methods of bridging the gap (his autobiography, The Story of my Experiments with Truth, is the best source). His appeal to the West is that he forged a combination of East and West congenial to us — the Victorian romantics (Thoreau, Ruskin, Tolstoy) and Buddhist economics (Ajit Dasgupta, Gandhi’s Economic Thought) — which is why the Hindus killed him.

Gandhi held that the purpose of a civilization is to enable its members, whereas the modern state disables its citizens, making us patients, students, taxpayers, prisoners. His anthropology (philosophical humanism) held that we are all unique personalities who participate together in our common humanity. The question is, how to span the gap? We do so normally by emphasizing divisions of race, class, nationality, religion, gender, time and place which mediate the poles. He, like Rousseau and others, asked what size and type of social units were most conducive to enabling citizens within a common framework of belonging. And he came up with the village as being most suitable for Indians at that time, since most of them lived there and found a measure of dignity as members of an agrarian civilization. Nehru had other ideas.

Two examples from his life. When he went to London to study the law, he couldn’t find anything he wanted to eat. He joined the Vegetarian Society, got on the committee and, two years later, there were a dozen vegetarian restaurants in London. He developed his political methods during two decades in South Africa, In the mid-1920s a large strike broke out in Ahmedabad, an Indian industrial city. Gandhi made his way there and sat down on a street corner. Within a few days the whole strike hinged on him. He didn’t just do this himself. He knew that if the masses were to fight for self-rule, each of them would have to learn how to do the same. He made teaching followers his main task. This is scaling the world down and scaling the self up, so that the two can meet in a meaningful connection.

There is a pathological variant of this theme, one that is anti-democratic in spirit and effect. This is when the world is reduced to the mental scope of a single intellectual who alone claims to understand its meaning. Its academic prototype is the 19th century German professor of philology who comes to dominate his field by the sheer weight of his mastery. He learns forty languages, sees off all-comers and in the end gets to write the dictionary, with all his subjective preferences presented as objective knowledge. The fathers of contemporary structuralism all qualify — Levi-Strauss (the egotism of Tristes Tropiques), Chomsky (his own doppelganger as linguist and troublemaker), Althusser (who murdered his wife and admitted to have only read Capital Volume 1). Compare Latour’s method with Rousseau’s or Gandhi’s and you will see how spurious his claim to be a democrat is. He opposes intellectual elites by downgrading human intelligence and then monopolizing it. He even represents liberating the molecules at Pasteur’s expense as a democratic move.

Then there are the great scientists who light up the world with an equation like E = MC2. Stephen Hawking dreamed of finding a theory of everything. The pedagogical message in all of these examples is “Do what I do and you could be a recognized master in forty years’ time.” When, as now, most graduate students are surplus to requirements, this is not an appealing option.

I have always tried to widen the historical scope of anthropology, but I never succeeded in teaching world history. The students have no historical background. Ethnography scores every time because they reduce the world to the size of a paperback, as novels do, and students can make sense of Nuer society, using only the materials at hand. We often encounter in contemporary academic life people who represent the world as an implacable and singular entity illuminated by human stories to which they alone has unique access. This is in turn anchored in a life story that no-one else can replicate. I often play this game myself, but I also see the model’s downside. It’s a problem.

Virtuoso reductions of the world to a personal level are most effective when harnessed to the political project of democracy. Shakespeare sold bums on seats by asking how the new Tudor state could resolve the contradiction between public office and personal rule. How can he king also be a man? Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet and Lear were the culmination of his search for answers. We still learn more from these plays than from the political scientists (or anthropologists) of our day.

The escalating power of production has introduced a rift between individuals and society. Scientific modernism – quantum (Planck) and relativity (Einstein) – sought to unify extremes of scale. But this outlook never became common sense or penetrated the social sciences. Recent approaches to complexity use non-linear equations to investigate chaos, order and phase transitions — as when fast-moving water molecules become fixed as ice. Chaos is itself determinate. James Crutchfield, a theorist of complexity,asks “What lies between order and chaos?” He answers “human innovation”. The middle ground is where life and creativity grow. As Vladimir Nabokov puts it in his autobiography, Speak, Memory: “There is, it would seem, in the dimensional scale of the world a kind of delicate meeting place of imagination and knowledge, a point, arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones that is intrinsically artistic”.

This is not just about homo duplex, individual and society, but also the time and space coordinates we locate ourselves in – bridging the big things and the little things that make up our lives. Playwrights, novelists and movie directors bridge the personal and impersonal dimensions of existence. The digital revolution is collapsing this opposition. But western societies are still trapped in the world they made in the nineteenth century.

The collapse of national capitalism is an opportunity for community currencies. But many take their form from an isolated location. A clubby committee acts as a mini-central bank. Large-scale bureaucracies are also necessary for economic democracy. We need to build bridges between local interests and world society. Collaboration between grassroots initiatives and some large-scale bureaucracies is one way to go.

South Africa has pioneered a clearing system for invoices as one solution to the problem of slow payments for the self-employed.  A South-African-born Lebanese entrepreneur, Neville Kerdachi, conceived of the Validation Clearance Bureau. He had been a factor in Durban port, buying cargo invoices discounted against payment delays and the risk of non-payment. The VCB is now a platform linking buyers, sellers and banks. The service recipient puts an invoice into the system acknowledged by the provider. The bank issues up to 80% of its value to the latter. This boosts the provider’s cash flow, enabling purchase of more stock and building cash balances. It speeds up payment by big buyers to small suppliers. They get a cheaper method for handling their invoices. The system could be set up in any country. It has won approval from the Bank of International Settlements and the World Bank.

There are 250,000 Black SMEs in South Africa. This innovation addresses both their needs and those of big corporations like Walmart. Setting up small accounts is always labour-intensive and slow. A contract with one corporation can help finance this. Amazon and iTunes combine blockbuster best-sellers with a million small items (“the long tail”). The latter make up half of Amazon’s total revenues. Small businesses will not prosper just by forming networks with similar organizations. Big firms and governments can also play a part if their interests overlap. Large-scale hi-tech solutions are often beyond the reach of grassroots initiatives. Small operators benefit from linking up with big players. Generally speaking, community currency and organic food movements miss this point.

We must go beyond local institutions. Innovations in money and markets are particularly well-suited to this. The recent explosion of money, markets and communications was and is very dangerous. But it brought us closer to a world society capable of expressing human principles through new social media.  A federation of self-help currencies would be one way forward. But a few scattered activists lack the resources needed for scaling up coordination. Community currencies are defensive. They offer a temporary refuge from the ravages of capitalism and rely on personal trust between members. They hope to oppose “ruthless impersonality”. Some base their currency on time. This increases the gap between their trading circuit and the national economy. Virtual relations at distance and face-to-face interaction are not contradictory, but complement each other.

Proponents of DIY money and their critics often ask if the trading circuits succeed in economic terms. Whatever the outcome, they are a great source of political education. Tahrir Square, Occupy Wall Street and London’s two-million march against the Iraq war did not deliver what they promised. But they changed many people’s political outlook, including mine. Experience of crowds and self-organized networks alter how people see the world. The singularity of national currencies has been slipping for decades. Alternative currencies open their members’ eyes to new possibilities. Despite their organizational weakness, this is the social impact of experiments like community currencies.

Using money teaches us to be more fully human. It connects the extremes of existence. With some money, we can do almost anything; money allows us to imagine universal society. Spending it also anchors us in our most intimate locations. We do this many times a day and this is how money schools us to combine personal and impersonal, finite and infinite, abstract and concrete, analysis and synthesis.

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