Saturday, October 11, 2008

Panurge - In Praise of Creditors and Debtors

I've been reading about Panurge, a character who speaks in "praise" of debtors and creditors in Book III of Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais. Consequently, I stumbled upon this remarkable essay, "The Housing Market Crisis" by Peter Isakson (posted August 17, 2007). At the outset is Panurge's view:
The economy -- as Panurge (i.e. Rabelais) understood it five centuries ago -- is based on the willingness of people to purchase the useless and, why not, nefarious to keep money (means of payment) circulating and expanding the overall supply. If people only looked after fulfilling their real needs, the economy would appear to stagnate....
After analyzing the "current" housing market crisis (as seen in 2007) in light of these principles, Isakson concludes:
My feeling is that the predicted "clash of civilizations" will not be between regions or religions but rather between human cultures (which still do exist and whose most visible but not unique or even essential glue is often religion) and the globalizing Panurgian culture of debtors and creditors who thrive in a state of mutual dependence obliging them to create the useful and the useless, the good and nefarious. We may in fact have no choice as the price of our purchases continues to mount and the means of payment, constantly increasing, turn out to be permanently and fatally insufficient because with the creation of one type of value (mercantile) other more fundamental values are ignored in the best of cases and destroyed in the worst. Compounding the issue is that thanks to our unshakable belief in the virtue of creation for its own sake, we become unable (or at least unwilling) to measure what is being destroyed. Awareness of this principle and the severe risk it entails could be taken as the common denominator of the ecology and the global protest movement (altermondiste), which has yet to formulate an alternative set of cultural values, focusing primarily on physical conservation or the imaginary return to an undefined and idealistic status quo ante bellum (the war being the industrial-capitalist revolution). Not that it should be held to exercise that responsibility, since it actually belongs to the cultures of the world to do so more or less locally.

The clash I would foresee (but which I’m not predicting as an historical inevitability) is between the globalizing finance-rooted economy on the one hand, and, on the other, the world’s diverse cultures somehow allied with a global protest movement and endowed with a certain persuasive force that will be acquired least through efficient organization and more through the increasingly obvious failures of the Panurgian paradigm as the useless is increasingly revealed to be nefarious.
Intercultural Musings.

We haven't quite gotten to a class of cultures and civilizations -- not yet -- but viewing the current worldwide financial crisis through the lens of Panurge is eye-opening, to say the least. Unlike the more simplistic views of the evils of the market that I've read recently -- such as "The God's Must Be Crazy" and "The Market as God," which seem to focus on the assignment of monetary value to goods and services and the creation of a market for those values, as if abstraction alone is the culprit -- Isakson's (and Panurge's) view of the culture of creditors and debtors that is so complex and interdependent that it is not possible to refine the system of valuation to take into account more than the short-term fluctuations of a certain kind of uniform abstracted value. In other words, it is not simply that we assign monetary values, it is that we lose all control over the way in which is done, what is measured and how, when everything gets sucked up into a vortex of creation and expansion for its own sake on what is now a vast global scale.

Thus, it is not so much that humans have come to worship The Market as a god or idol, it is because it has become, by virtue of its size and complexity, the Creator of the global environment in which we all live, workers, managers, governors, and all those caught between the cogs in the machinery -- or perhaps the more apt metaphor being The Matrix, in which virtually are plugged in and without which few can survive. The dilemma is finding a way for us to gain some control of it, constrain or correct it. Otherwise, it will simply overtake us entirely and the best we will be able to do is occasionally growl and rage at whatever persons, groups, or institutions we decide must take the blame for it all.

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