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Social Relationships vs Utilitarian Relationships

June 2007

Social Relationships vs Utilitarian Relationships:

In a tribe, purely utilitarian relationships are forbidden! The economic is a subset of the social, and in a land-based tribe, the fundamental social relationship is between the people and the land. But in civilization, the social and the economic are carefully separated. It's uncool to accept money from your family -- you're supposed to "earn" it through a utilitarian deal with strangers. We don't want to chat with the person behind the counter -- we just want our coffee. We love people we don't depend on, and we depend on people we don't love, or even know.

This is what enables a large-scale domination system! Tribes can be repressive, abusive, even ecologically destructive, but they can't be big, or grow past a certain size, because everyone has to know everyone for them to work. And for a tribe to be mean, everyone in it has to be mean. But you can build a global hell-world out of nice people with just one trick: the purely utilitarian relationship. It's the basic chemical bond of Empire. And we can dissolve Empire, one cell at a time, by befriending the people we exchange money with, and building gift economies with our friends and families.

Ran Prieur

I'm still absorbing it, and struggling to fully understand it, but I think there's something there. I know I'd often far prefer to just hand over the money to a robot, and I've recently begun to make an effort to at least smile and make eye contact over the shop counter. The biggest problem, I think, is that it's hard to be friendly and human when neither of you wants to be there in the first place.

Angus commented:

You have been doing some interesting reading lately! Keep 'em coming :)

Tim B commented:

I agree, there's been some really interesting posts, and I've wanted to reply but been "too busy". [Is there an emoticon for irony?] I wonder if part of the problem here is that last sentence. We can't do anything about the shop assistant "wanting to be there" (except perhaps by treating them as people?) but perhaps we can about us not wanting to be there, if we don't really want to buy the thing, why are we there? There's a joy in shopping, much as I hate shopping, when we know the shop keepers (even a little bit) and/or when the product is "interesting". I like shopping for bread at Wild Wheat because they have all sorts of fun breads, I like shopping for meat because the butcher knows me by name... I hate going to the mall, because the goods are all the same, made in sweatshops and sold by robots to lobotomised shoppers.

Matt commented:

[Tim has also responded further to this on his blog, if you're not already a reader.]