Monday, December 19, 2011

Re-defining the rat race

Rats display human-like empathy and will unselfishly go to the aid of a distressed fellow rodent, research has shown. Rats opened a door to free trapped cage-mates. No reward was needed. There was no other reason to take this action, except to terminate the distress of the trapped rats. Rats still prioritised their cage-mates when offered the option of ''freeing'' chocolate chips. They could been lured away by the distraction and have eaten the entire chocolate stash if they wanted to, and they did not.

In 1925 the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss in “The Gift,” argued that contrary to the textbook account of primitive man merrily trading beaver pelts for wampum, no society was ever based on barter. The dominant practice for thousands of years was instead voluntary gift-giving, which created a binding sense of obligation between potentially hostile groups. To give a gift was not an act based on calculation, but on the refusal to calculate. In the societies Mauss studied most closely — the Maori of New Zealand, the Haida of the Pacific Northwest — people rejected the principles of economic self-interest in favor of arrangements where everyone was perpetually indebted to someone else.

David Graeber argues those once-prevalent relationships based on an incalculable sense of duty deteriorated as buying and selling became the basis of society and as money, previously a marker of favors owed, became valuable in its own right. Graeber’s point is that we ended up enslaving ourselves by thinking of ourselves as fully autonomous. As anyone who works a 9-to-5 job knows, the “right” to sell one’s labor hardly feels like privilege. Graeber thinks it’s a mistake when unions ask for higher wages when they should go back to picketing for fewer working hours.

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