Saturday, February 13, 2016

The prestige economy

Kevin Simler has written at length about the prestige or social status economy: Social Status: Down the Rabbit Hole, Social Status II: Cults and Loyalty, and Minimum Viable Superorganism. Wearing my economist/social scientist hat, Simler's ideas seem interesting; as a communist, I'm not at all impressed: the social status economy is Older Than Dirt. See, for example, Homer: the Iliad is about nothing but the social status economy. Homer begins the epic thus: "Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles"; Agamemnon has diminished Achilles' prestige, and in his wrath, Achilles extracts a heavy price.

Marx himself argues in The Communist Manifesto that a positive historical material effect of capitalism was to break us from the status economy and allow material self-interest to unleash humanity's productive forces:
The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.

George Orwell too casts a skeptical eye at the pure prestige economy (absent even domination, the darker side of social status that Simler acknowledges). In Politics vs. Literature — An examination of Gulliver's travels, Orwell claims that the prestige economy is at least as stultifying as any tyranny:
In a Society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law. When human beings are governed by ‘thou shalt not’, the individual can practise a certain amount of eccentricity: when they are supposedly governed by ‘love’ or ‘reason’, he is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else.
Having lived in what was close to a pure prestige economy in the Kerista commune, I can personally attest to Orwell's opinion. Another commune member also concurs: in Afterword: What happened to Kerista?, Even Eve writes:
Every ex-Keristan I have talked with remembers numerous instances of going along with the prevailing group sentiment on an issue rather than take a contrary stand, or, worse still, without even bothering to really think the issue through independently. Often the matters were relatively inconsequential, but there were also many which were not that had major effects on the lives and minds of other people. There are memories of this sort about which many of us will probably continue to cringe for years to come . . . times we gave some innocent person a hard time for thinking, saying, or doing something that didn't synch with current Keristan doctrine ... or times we sat by and watched while some of the "heavies" [i.e. those with prestige and social status within the commune] in our tribe verbally abused someone else in the name of honesty, growth, the pursuit of "righteousness" or some other such rationalisation.

It is readily apparent (as Simler frequently admits) that the capitalist system has quite easily commodified the prestige economy, probably its easiest expropriation. If you admire someone, you buy their merchandise to advertise your admiration.

The prestige economy is certainly part of "human nature" that plays a part in politics, and as such deserves study by social scientists; indeed, I imagine that there is already a considerable body of literature on the topic. But the prestige economy is not at all, either directly or indirectly, a revolutionary tool.

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