Sunday, April 06, 2014

The Gift Beneath the GAA

There's a super article over at Cunning Hired Knaves, a blog that I would recommend as a regular read to you all, on the attempted robbery through privatization of the GAA. Richard makes his point thus:

Let me explain. Contrary to how it gets represented, the GAA isn’t a monolith. It has contradictions and competing tendencies. There are people involved in it who are motivated by power and status and ego and icy cold calculation in the service of market forces. Then you have others who participate in the life of a club or school team or whatever, and give of their time freely because it is part of the essential fabric of broader community life. The former group capitalises on the work of the latter. It is no coincidence that many high-ranking members of the political establishment, including the current Taoiseach, have sought popular legitimacy for their right-wing policies on the basis of their links to the GAA. When bishops used to throw in the ball at GAA matches, it wasn’t just because the Catholic Church was a dominant force in Irish society; it was also because the bishops needed the popular classes to get the impression that they were on their side.

In Irish, the name for the GAA is Cumann L├║thchleas Gael. The first word – Cumann – has the same etymology as ‘common’, ‘community’ – and communism. The Irish for communism is Cumannachas. Now you would need to be away in the head to imagine that the GAA is, on the whole, a communist organisation. I have heard some people describe it as a mass organisation and even a socialist organisation, but never a communist one. However, there is something about the activities that take place on under the aegis of the GAA that is, in fact, communist.

The moral logic of a great deal of its activities is not the moral logic of money, but is rather informed by a sense of basic equality. GAA clubs and matches and training sessions are also focal points that allow communities to exist, and people to interact with each other, with some degree of decency and equality and sense of belonging and maintenance of a social bond. That is not to say that the whole of the GAA operates on this basis. On the contrary: the GAA of the corporate suites at Croke Park and sale of exclusive television rights to Sky is the GAA of the gombeen bourgeoisie, what some people often refer to as the ‘Grab All Association’.
There have been a few comments on Facebook amongst those of us who have shared links to the page about the merits, or otherwise, of supporting practical, mundane, and superficially progressive activities within the structures of organizations such as the GAA, whose ethos has hierarchical and reactionary origins. This is a perennial problem, of course, for the left, with regard to operating within reformist or statist organizations, but the conversation this time round took an interesting turn when people began talking about their own involvement, a turn that arose because so much of GAA activity is voluntary but also highly community based or focused. I'l return to that in a moment, after noting that Richard's observations brought to mind a comment made by David Graeber with regard to the practice of everyday communism:
Consider here the term “communism.” Rarely has a term come to be so utterly reviled. The standard line, which we accept more or less unthinkingly, is that communism means state control of the economy, and this is an impossible utopian dream because history has shown it simply “doesn’t work.” Capitalism, however unpleasant, is thus the only remaining option. But in fact communism really just means any situation where people act according to the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” — which is the way pretty much everyone always act if they are working together to get something done. If two people are fixing a pipe and one says “hand me the wrench,” the other doesn’t say, “and what do I get for it?”(That is, if they actually want it to be fixed.) This is true even if they happen to be employed by Bechtel or Citigroup. They apply principles of communism because it’s the only thing that really works. This is also the reason whole cities or countries revert to some form of rough-and-ready communism in the wake of natural disasters, or economic collapse (one might say, in those circumstances, markets and hierarchical chains of command are luxuries they can’t afford.) The more creativity is required, the more people have to improvise at a given task, the more egalitarian the resulting form of communism is likely to be: that’s why even Republican computer engineers, when trying to innovate new software ideas, tend to form small democratic collectives. It’s only when work becomes standardized and boring — as on production lines — that it becomes possible to impose more authoritarian, even fascistic forms of communism. But the fact is that even private companies are, internally, organized communistically.

Communism then is already here. The question is how to further democratize it. Capitalism, in turn, is just one possible way of managing communism — and, it has become increasingly clear, rather a disastrous one. Clearly we need to be thinking about a better one: preferably, one that does not quite so systematically set us all at each others’ throats.
When my brother and I were growing up as kids, we played Sunday league football as soon as my dad could get us signed up. From the age of 11 until 17 or so, my teammates and I were chauffeured by dad to matches around Birmingham, and out of season he drove us to mid-week and weekend training. My mom, for her part, would wash our kits, and when my brother and I packed in the Sunday league, my mom and dad carried on (my brother had a go at refereeing too, but what a thankless job that is!). My dad took over a team in Altrincham and my mom used to wash the entire team's strip. She even featured once in the Sunday Mirror, hanging out the strip on the line in our back garden. She got £20 for the photo, if I remember rightly. But that wasn't all she got. She also got enjoyment and satisfaction out of this emotional labour. What's more, she got thanks of the kids and, sometimes, though rarely, of their parents. She also got the thanks of my dad and the knowledge that he was in her debt to the extent that she was helping him out with his hobby.

But of course, this is what people do. This is how communities and relationships operate, whether between spouses, between parents and children, or between neighbours or teammates. A series of reciprocities, of gifts given and received, of pleasures shared, of tasks performed together or singularly for a common end or for individual ends but always in mutual support. Underneath, or alongside, the capitalist economy that sees the impersonal exchange of commodities, there is this gift economy at work, an economy of unspoken but nevertheless real transactions and obligations. Sometimes this gift economy works communistically, wherein equals help one another out and forge bonds of solidarity. On other occasions, this economy is skewed by pre-existing power inequalities that enable some to be more magnanimous than others. This, I think, is where the gift economy comes into contact - and conflict - with the capitalist economy or, if you prefer, with the economy of power. One of the ways, after all, that hierarchies sustain themselves is by making those lower down the hierarchy indebted, not only, or even necessarily financially, but simply by doing favours. Those who have the power in a hierarchy are in a position to grant more favours and to demand, in consequence, more sacrifices, than those who do not.

Pierre Bourdieu's separation of "cultural" and "economic" capital does not do justice to what is going on here, I think, and I note that the Great British Class Survey felt it necessary to include "social capital" alongside "cultural capital" and "economic capital" in its efforts to situate people in class terms. There, too, though, the logic of capital misses the point. The implication of categorizing these social activities as a form of "capital," that is, as a collection of assets to be manipulated and wielded within a social field in the same way that "cultural capital" and "economic capital" are wielded within their fields, is that these social relations operate according to the same kind of logic, a "capitalist" logic of impersonal exchange of commodities. But of course, these social relations and actions are precisely NOT commodities. Commodities are what capitalism would like them to be. On the contrary, social relations take place according to a different logic and within a different kind of economy, namely, a gift economy, in which there are, naturally, reciprocities and exchanges that take place, but these are not impersonal exchanges; they are about establishing bonds between particular people, about friendships and solidarity, the sorts of things that capitalist businesses try to fake when you've shopped with them a few times by suggesting other purchases you might like - as a favour, you understand. They would like to reproduce the solidarity generated by genuine non-economic relations - the affections, the emotional investments, the sense of belonging - but they can only ever manage simulacra. Run out of money and the friendship ends.

Arlie Russell Hochschild has already written on this extensively, and, much to my shame, I have yet to finish The Commercialization of Intimate Life and The Managed Heart, so I don't know whether she or anyone else has developed this idea of conflicting but contemporaneous economies to any great extent. I'm happy for any anthropologists or sociologists out there who've read their Mauss and more to point me in the right direction. I'm little more than an interested layperson and open to illumination and refutation. I'd also be forever in your debt. :-)

addendum: A subject that was touched on in the original FB discussion but not here is the issue of wages for housework and how this would fit in with attempts to commodify social relations. If I remember correctly, there was a debate between Andre Gorz and several critics of his Critique of Economic Reason, in which he discussed the issue, but I can't recall the specifics now, and my copy of the Gorz book is back in Dublin. Damn.

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