Thursday, 20 May 2010

Stephen Gudeman

Today Stephen Gudeman gave a talk at Queen Elizabeth House (the Centre for International Development in Oxford). Gudeman is a distinguished economic anthropologist who is well known for his distinction between community (that area of human life in which the base of economic activity is shared) and market (the area of human life in which exchanges are balanced and monetised). In this talk he was drawing on the same ethnographic work among peasant communities of Latin America (Panama and Colombia) which informed that distinction. He was contrasting the native folk-economic theory of vis vita (vital energy) - a kind of "life-force" that pervades and passes between all living things, and is not created or destroyed, but only gathered together or lost - with capitalist theories of wealth. The most interesting part of his talk was at the end when he asked what we could learn from vis vita if we are to develop a new and more sustainable economic system.

Gudeman identified three ways in which vis vita might be a helpful concept for us to pick up on in our present economic difficulties:
  1. It emphasises thrift instead of profit.
  2. It emphasises connections between people (making it a biosocial theory, as opposed to money which is supposed to be purely material).
  3. It emphasises necessities rather than desires/wants.
He suggested three possible solutions, in terms of currency:
  1. Basing a currency on vital energy.
  2. Having a dual currency system, using both money and vital energy.
  3. Developing a vital Energy Added Tax (EAT), in which money is charged for adding energy to a product.
He favoured the third option. The first option would be no good because, I think he said, it would be a limit currency - governments couldn't create new money as it was needed. The second option would be no good because of the potential for arbitrage between the two currencies. I agree with his reasoning on the second option, but I'm not so sure that the first option isn't viable. Surely the idea of a limit currency ties in quite well with sustainability: in my opinion, money is only "created" out of the destruction of nature. Far better to treat it as though it were a finite supply, and work out how best to share it around. The third option on the other hand seems unworkable to me - just another form of taxation. How would it differ substantively from a carbon tax? It just seems like a slightly more comprehensive version. Adding a new tax isn't going to change the whole way we behave economically.

Anyway it's not a subject that I'm an expert on by any means, but it is an extremely important subject and it was good to hear such original ideas. I really like the way that he was using native concepts to critique our own culture, too: more anthropologists should do that!

No comments:

Post a Comment