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Exchange and Gift - Page 38

Sacrifice is the archaic form of exchange. It is a magical exchange, unquantified, irrational. it dominated human relationships, including commercial relationships, until merchant capitalism and its money-the-measure-of-all-things had carved out such a large area in the world of slaves, serfs and burghers that the economy could appear as a particular zone, a domain separated from life. When money appears, the element of exchange in the feudal gift begins to win out. The sacrifice-gift, the potlatch -- that exchange-game of loser-takes-all in which the size of the sacrifice determines the prestige of the giver -- could hardly find a place in a rationalized exchange economy. Forced out of the sectors dominated by economic imperatives, it finds itself reincarnated in values such as hospitality, friendship and love: refuges doomed to disappear as the dictatorship of quantified exchange (market value) colonises everyday life and turns it into a market.

Merchant and industrial capitalism accelerated the quantification of exchange. The feudal gift was rationalized according to the rigorous model of commerce. The game of exchange became a matter of calculation. The playful Roman promise to sacrifice a cock to the gods in exchange for a peaceful voyage remained outside the grasp of commercial measurement because of the disparity of the things that were exchanged. And we can well imagine that the age in which a man like Fourquet could ruin himself in order to shine more brightly in the eyes of his contemporaries produced a poetry which has disappeared from our times, which take as their model of a human relationship the exchange of 35p for an 8oz. steak.

And so sacrifice came to be quantified, rationalized, measured out and quoted on the stock exchange. But what is left of the magic of sacrifice in a world of market values? And what is left of the magic of power, the sacred terror that impels the model employee to tip his hat respectfully to the boss? In a society where the quantity of gadgets and ideologies produced represents the quantity of power consumed, exercised and used up, magical relationships evaporate, leaving hierarchical power exposed to the full blast of opposition. When the last bastion falls, it will be either the end of a world or the end of the world. It's up to us to knock it down before it falls down by itself and drags us all with it.

Rigorously quantified, first by money and then by what you might call 'sociometric units of power', exchange pollutes all our relationships, all our feelings, all our thoughts. Where exchange is dominant, only things are left: a world of thing-men plugged into the organization charts of the computer freaks: the world of reification. But on the other hand it also gives us the chance radically to restructure our styles of life and thought. A rock bottom from which everything can start again.


The feudal mind seemed to conceive the gift as a sort of haughty refusal to exchange, a will to deny interchangeability. This refusal went with their contempt for money and common measurement. Of course, sacrifice excludes pure giving; but there was often so much room for play, humanity and gratuitous gestures that inhumanity, religion and seriousness could pass for accessories to such preoccupations as war, love, friendship, or hospitality.

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