Thursday, February 25, 2016

Revised Cosmologies

            In Cosmologies of Capitalism Marshall Salhins examines historical aspects of capitalism from non-western perspectives to challenge the validity of the notion that Capitalism is by the West, for the West, and of the West. By looking at European commodities exported to peripheral nations as having a sort of “magic” akin to the social value in Marxist theory or the hau as described by Marcel Mauss one can conclude that the demand for such products lies not in their utility but in how the “spirit” of these commodities is perceived in a given culture. For one European goods were not always as desirable as they are today, during the onset of merchant capitalism the Chinese emperors of the Ming dynasty scuffed at the gifts, or tributes as they referred to them, offered by the European traders. The “spirit” of these commodities was barbaric, the world to the emperors was centered around the royal Chinese lands and anything produced beyond the inner rings of the Chinese domain was foreign and inferior. The irony in this lies, for one in the ease of forks compared to chopsticks, but also in the contrast between the British superiority complex and the British demand for a good that fulfills no human necessity. The importance of the latter superseded the former. But what is the “magic” contained in tea?
From the beginning of the British tea industry the “magic” was literal, it was a herbal brew containing none of the toxins found in gin or beer that could increase the productivity of the working class and in turn create more industrial commodities to trade with. In a way this created a perpetual debt cycle that is relatable to todays American trade deficit with China in that the lack of Chinese interest in American goods combines with an American cultural demand for cheap non-essential manufactured goods to create a system where agricultural products and jobs are traded in place of other commodities at a loss.
If the “magic” contained in tea was productivity then what was the “magic” ascribed to western goods when they were traded with peripheral nations? Salhins argues that “the world system is the rational expression of cultural logics,” which I interpret to mean that the “magic” of each culture determined how they could be exploited. (Salhins, 1988) For the British exploitation was possible because of the cultural logic of tea equating to productivity and wealth, for the periphery these logics are diverse and unique to each culture. For the Hawaiians the belief in one lineage of rule encouraged competition within the ruling classes and a practice of waste, over consumption, and opulence to legitimize one’s status. The “magic” of the commodity was in the power it helped obtain. In other cultures quite the opposite took place, for example in some Native American societies the Potlatch served to delegitimize the power of others by outdoing their massive giveaways. Power was in letting go not hoarding. The commodity held the “magic” to delegitimize in this sense and confused the Europeans working for the Hudson Bay Company that sold them the furs that would simply be given away.

But what “magic” do modern goods traded with the periphery hold? I will use the prominence of Western sports merchandise to make my point. When I view media from peripheral nations one of the most striking cross-cultural visual aspects that I notice is how many children and young men wear soccer jerseys that have seemingly nothing to do with the local culture. In the U.S. one might label a person wearing a jersey of a team to which they have no “real” connection a bandwagon fan. While it is understood that soccer is the most popular spectator sport in the world I still find it intriguing that you see various European soccer teams represented through clothing throughout the periphery. At first glance one might compare this to an American who grew up in a rural area sporting a New York Yankees hat or a Dallas Cowboys jersey but I see this phenomenon as going deeper. How is it that a child growing up in such an environment can grow to love a team that represents the very place that exploits him? What “spirit” lies in the jersey? Some might argue that the magic in the jersey is hope or a dream to one day become part of the team, others might say that the answer lies in social status not unlike consumption habits here in the U.S., but what else could it be? To answer this question I would like to go back to the example of the British tea trade. To put themselves on par with the Chinese the British had to find a commodity to trade that the Chinese respected enough to “play fair” and one of those commodities was tobacco, in other words the “magic” in tobacco was the ability to eliminate losses in the British’s trade with China. So how does this relate to soccer jerseys in the periphery? The “magic” of the soccer jersey is not so much in the hopes and dreams of impoverished children throughout the world but in how sports level the playing field for the periphery. Sports offer a fair chance to make it, you don’t have to be the best capitalist or the smartest entrepreneur, rather all you need is to get noticed. The wearers know that they will never personally make it to a premier league but they support the idea that one can. The British did not consciously smoke tobacco to offset losses from trade; if this were the case then opium too would have played an important social role in British society. Instead the British consumed what they could produce on their own lands that unconsciously elevated them to the status of the Chinese. The children of the periphery consume soccer, which they can produce on their own lands, and elevates some of them to the status of the core nations.

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