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Animal spirits in the Dreaming and the market: The economic development of caring for country

Geoff Buchanan, Australian National University, 10 November 2009

GEOFF BUCHANAN: First, I’d like to just acknowledge the traditional owners of the country that we’re on today. My name’s Geoff Buchanan and I’m a PhD candidate at CAEPR [Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research]. My topic today is ‘Animal spirits in the market and the Dreaming: the economic development of caring for country’. To start, in his 1958 essay ‘Continuity and change among the Aborigines’, Bill Stanner argued that there’s a sense in which the Dreaming and the market are mutually exclusive. According to Stanner, in the market, the value of anything was continuously redetermined according to human needs across space and time, while in the Dreaming, the value of everything had been determined once and for all in the past.

Echoing Karl Marx, Stanner argued that the things of the market – money, prices, exchange values, saving, the maintenance and building of capital – were among the foremost means of social disintegration and personal demoralisation. However, Stanner’s views were not always quite so dualistic or pessimistic, as I’ll touch on later in the paper.

In this paper, I explore the relationship between the Dreaming and the market, with the view to highlighting some important issues in the contemporary economic development of caring for country. That is, the development of caring for country as a customary-based activity that is increasingly being recognised, valued and remunerated through the state and the market.

I argue that this articulation of customary market and state sectors of the hybrid economy create[s] threats and opportunities through the commoditisation and regulation of caring for country. In particular, this articulation, commoditisation and regulation raise important issues in terms of economic choices, diversity, values, and notions of productive labour.

I want to start this exploration from an economically irrational and anthropo-logical starting point, which is animal spirits. And this is how economists view animal spirits, just so you know [shows image]. [laughter]

So one tenuous connection – I will accept that – that can be drawn between the realms of the Dreaming and the market, and between anthropology and economics, is that each involves a concern with the influence of animal spirits.

In The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, published in 1936, John Maynard Keynes used the term ‘animal spirits’ to explain positive human activities that are more dependent on spontaneous optimism rather than on a mathematical expectation, whether moral, or hedonistic, or economic. For Keynes, most – probably – of our decisions to do something positive can only be taken as a result of animal spirits, of a spontaneous urge to action, rather than inaction, and not as an outcome of a weighted average of quantitative benefits multiplied by quantitative probabilities.

Overall, Keynes saw economic behaviour as a mix of calculation, convention and animal spirits under conditions of uncertainty. Keynes’ animal spirits were subsequently largely ignored by economists and largely excluded from standard economic inquiry, based primarily on assumptions of pure economic motivation or rationality.

In more recent times, this and other of Keynes’ notions have become more popular, particularly in the wake of the global financial crisis – which this book relates to, and they’ve definitely used that opportunity to access the market and get some benefits themselves [refers to image of cover of Animal Spirits by Akerlof and Shiller].

Keynes’ use of animal spirits came from [René] Descartes’ medical writing of the seventeenth century, though the term’s origins have been traced back to the ancient Greek physician Galen in the second century. For both Galen and Descartes, animal spirits played a key role in the movement, or animation, of the human body. For Descartes, this movement may not always be driven by the rational forces of the mind, but also by the emotions or the soul acting independent of reason and potentially to the person’s detriment.

In the context of much of Aboriginal Australia, animal spirits are located in the landscape, and are seen as central to the Dreaming and to the ongoing life of country and its people. [Robert] Tonkinson noted that for the Mardu people, human actions induced animal spirits to produce food, and thus maintain the life of people.

For Keynes, animal spirits induce humans to invest and maintain the life of enterprise. Keynes argued that if the animal spirits are dimmed and the spontaneous optimism falters, leaving us to depend on nothing but mathematical expectation, enterprise will fade and die. Enterprise, which depends on hopes, stretching into the future benefits the community as a whole.

For Mardu people, neglect of animal spirits could similarly cause economic decline for the community as a whole, locally and regionally. For Keynes, long term investment or enterprise prioritised social advantage over individual profit, while short term investment or speculation for quick returns – what Keynes called ‘the fetish of liquidity’ – was more antisocial.

As such, animal spirits play a key role in the moral market economy of Keynesian capitalism. For many traditional owner groups, animal spirits of a different kind play a key part in the domestic moral economy and in the moral ecology of caring for country.

[Kathryn] Seton and [John] Bradley have defined moral ecology, in the case of Yanyuwa people, as an interactive relationship between people and country that is underpinned by a morality of social and environmental relations. As Tonkinson noted in the case of Mardu people, Yanyuwa identity is also embedded in complex interconnections between human and non human kin. Karl Marx would not approve, as we’ll soon see.

A key concern of my current research is to what extent the commoditisation of caring for country through Commonwealth programs such as Indigenous Protected Areas and Working on Country, and through payment for environmental services, acknowledges, ignores, accommodates, supports or undermines the moral economy and moral ecology of traditional owners.

Karl Marx is a key figure in the theory of the commodity and of commoditisation. Almost 70 years in advance of Keynes, he had incorporated notions of animal spirits and fetishism into economic discourse. In volume one of Kapital [Das Kapital: Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (A Critique of Political Economy)], Marx argues that constant labour of one uniform kind disturbs the intensity and flow of man’s animal spirits, which find recreation and delight in mere change of activity.

According to Descartes, when the soul wants to influence the body, desiring a stroll through the garden, perhaps, it does so by redirecting the animal spirits as they scurry through the pineal gland like so many commuters in Grand Central Station. And no, that’s not a direct quote. [laughter]

More famously, in his discussion of the fetishism of the commodity and its secret, Marx noted – with some literary flair, including an analogy of a table dancing of its own free will – the social life of things, once they have been transformed into commodity form for exchange in a capitalist market. For Marx, this mode of commodity production and exchange created material relations between persons and social relations between things.

Here we find another tenuous link between the Dreaming and the market, both of which Marx seemingly holds in low regard. For Marx, the fantastic form of a social relation between things in the capitalist mode of production was analogous to beliefs in autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race, as in what Marx may have described as the misty realm of the Dreaming.

I won’t go into a critique of Marx’s view of historical development based on linear transition between modes of production, within which pre capitalist societies are seen as being conditioned by a low stage of development, in this paper. What I do want to discuss here, in more detail, relates to Marx’s view expressed in an earlier essay that commoditisation exerts a disintegrating influence upon so called pre capitalist societies. In this sense, Marx and others, including Indigenous and peasant communities themselves, have animated the commodity as a destroyer of culture and society, for example, in [Michael] Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America.

At the beginning of this paper, I quoted an example of such discourse from Stanner, who had argued that the things of the market were among the foremost means of social disintegration and personal demoralisation. However, Stanner was not a slave to dualism or pessimism. While he at times suggested an incommensurability between Aboriginal and European ways, he also argued strongly for what we may now refer to as ‘hybridity’.

This is highlighted in the following passage:

There is no evidence that any Aborigines anywhere in Australia want to revert to their old style as a total way of life. All experience over nearly two centuries suggests that they will, as in the past, continue to opt for varying mixtures of their and our ways and things. In the near future there will be many agonisingly difficult questions to try to answer.

There are no precedent solutions. Perhaps for some matters there will be no solutions at all, and we and the Aborigines will simply have to shoulder the problems as best we can. But it seems a good time to bring the black and the white wisdoms together, not to insist that the black must continue to be white.

Unlike the story of Buridan’s ass – that is, a donkey – who died of starvation because he could not choose between two equidistant bales of hay, Stanner and Aboriginal people themselves have not generally seen the choice as being either black or white, or customary or market. Rather, they could choose and move between the available options according to any combination of calculation, convention or animal spirits, though not necessarily freely.

I don’t know if you’ve seen this diagram before [shows image]. [laughter] For me, [Jon] Altman’s hybrid economy model [presented earlier in the conference] provides a useful and flexible tool for examining these choices and movements. In particular, it provides a tool to observe the social life of people and things as they move between various segments of the hybrid economy.

It provides a tool to observe processes of commoditisation, re-commoditisation, de-commoditisation, and even non-commoditisation. It provides a tool to observe how values and institutions in the market, the state and the customary conflict, co mingle or coexist. And it provides a tool for observing economic diversity and the Indigenisation of modernity.

As stated earlier, a particular concern of my research is the growth of caring for country as a customary-based activity that is increasingly being recognised, valued, and remunerated through the state and the market.

I’m particularly interested in the related processes of the commoditisation of knowledge, wild resources – including the commercial utilisation and commercial culling of both native and feral species – labour power, and of what might be described as land power. To conclude, I’ll briefly discuss just one of these.

A major factor underlying the popularity and potential of the economic development of caring for country is that it doesn’t necessarily require the commoditisation of the land itself for exchange. This addresses to some degree a significant state and market failure with regards to property rights on the Indigenous estate.

Through recognition of the provision of ecosystem services, for example, what is being commoditised, I would argue, is not the land itself, but what could be called ‘land power’. This follows Marx’s distinction between the commoditisation of labour – that is, slavery – as opposed to the commoditisation of labour power – that is, wage labour.

This may be seen to include the labour power of animal spirits in some instances. In the case of Belyuen Aborigines in the Northern Territory, [Elizabeth] Povinelli observed that ‘nature is in some sense the congealed labour of human and mythic creatures’.

There is a sense that in the case of payment for environmental services, rather than being mutually exclusive, the Dreaming and the market are often proving compatible. Perhaps. This is not to deny that considerable differences and tensions may still exist between them, particularly in terms of values and beliefs.

Whether the economic development of caring for country is a case of commodity fetishism, optimism, or pessimism is still open, and outcomes will vary over space and time. In the current economic environment of capitalist market creation in resources such as water, carbon and biodiversity, the animal spirits of the Dreaming and the market appear to becoming increasingly linked. Thank you. [applause]

MAN IN AUDIENCE: It’s always a problem when we try to say what Marx’s great views are on everything, but I would urge you to read [Marx’s] Grundrisse [der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie (Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy)] very carefully about pre-capitalist formations, because it’s a non linear account that he gives there of historic states. And in fact, all states that precede capitalism are in a non linear relationship with each other. And in fact, capitalism, and slavery, and what we can call ‘historic state four’ – which we might also re label ‘communism’, which he doesn’t discuss there – are all in a non linear relationship with each other.

So I think there’s a better reading of Marx about all of that, and the way in which they connect with each other, of course, is the crucial issue. But nevertheless I like your attempt to build that into this argument, I think. But I think there’s a more subtle way in which you can do it.

We can talk about it later, but I think there’s a way to read it that actually may even be a better foundation for the argument that you’re making about animal spirits. Okay, thank you.

MODERATOR: That’s just a comment, not a question.

QUESTION BY IAN: Thanks, Geoff, I enjoyed that. But I did a real double take when you drew an analogy between Keynes’s animal spirits, which I take as kind of spontaneous desires basically, and animal spirits of the Dreaming, in the landscape, which are not exactly spontaneous desires but law. But on the other hand, this is just a rumination you can do what you will with. But in Yolgnu ancestral doctrines, spontaneous desires actually do play a key role, because the Yangle are not rational lawmakers.

You know, in tales about, say, how Emu got to be a ground dweller – and I forget who the other protagonist is, eagle hawk or something – no, jabirus, sorry. Jabiru and Emu – is because of breaking the law because of desires. I mean one of them, I forget which now, ate all the fat of the meat and gave his brother in law non-fat meat, which is a no no of course because meat has to be with good, young fat. So they are driven by desires, interestingly. The law arises out of that, out of, indeed, animal spirits. Well, you can do what you want with that remark. [laughs]

GEOFF BUCHANAN: That is a lot of food for thought, and there’s a lot of reading to do. I can see that. Yes.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: Thanks, Geoff. That was great! I really enjoyed that. And it was something that I found kind of lacking in some of the discussion earlier on this afternoon, when I was thinking … when the subject of resilience came up, it seemed to me that one of the main foundations of resilience is playfulness and, as Ian said, that kind of animal spirit of a fairly autonomous law breaking desire that institutes.

It occurred to me that Roy Wagner’s The Invention of Culture might be useful here, where he sees what’s missing from so called ‘acculturated ex mission camps’, et cetera, is not a lack of culture but a kind of bogged-down, sedimentation of culture. He says that’s what often missing is that innovative spark, that kind of playful trickster figure, because both economies and cultures are sedimented failures of innovation, and any kind of very successful, driven type of imaginative capitalist is kind of well aware of that.

So it was great to see you injecting the irrational, imaginative element into an economy. And as Dorris and Bruce kept repeating, that the economy is a cultural thing; it’s not just a set of rational procedures. Yes, so it was great.

And maybe even with the hybrid model, you can actually use some of the examples of completely different species of animals who are regarded as proper husband and wife for each other in some of those northern Aboriginal cosmologies. Yes, and they stay themselves and their children stay themselves, yet they have this kind of intersection. So you have these kind of literal hybrids.

Date published: 26 July 2010