Guardians and Merchants

I’m thinking again about guardians and merchants...and Jane Jacobs. But this time it’s not Death and Life of Great American Cities, it’s the slightly quirky Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics. The title is a mouthful, and what’s between the covers is no easier to chew. I stumbled onto this book in a research ramble motivated by the recession of the early 90’s to understand why architecture, as both cultural product and practice, is such a hapless misfit in contemporary capitalism. The ramble—on closed track with professional driver; do not try this at home—led me to read Lewis Hyde, (The gift: imagination and the erotic life of property, and Trickster Makes this World) Garth Rockcastle, even Jacques Derrida (yikes! Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money) and finally Jane. One of these days I’ll tackle the guy who started the whole gift theory thing, Marcel Mauss.

My copy of Systems of Survival, which I bought brand new in 1992, still shows its price: $22.00 US, $27.50 Canada. The dust jacket is a little smudgy and nicked, the pages marked with pencil and post-its. It is probably no longer worth $22 or $27.50 to either a Usonian or a Canadian...or is it? It also happens to be autographed. I rarely seek autographs on books, but I do have a few, and Jane (why am I calling her by her first name? Perhaps I should be more respectful, but she did sign my book, so we’re close) wasn’t getting any younger when I saw her lecture so I got it while I could. So, what’s it worth now? More? Or, nothing at all because it is worth more to me than to anyone else?

That is the point exactly. By signing it for me, she initiated the transmogrification of this particular book from its life in an exchange economy into a gift economy. This book became different from all the others previously identical to it. It acquired worth, “achieved value,” and shed its market, or “ascribed, value.” Those are Hyde’s words to describe the different ways that we treasure things. Systems is written in the form of a dialogue. Taking on the entire guardian/merchant paradigm, her characters debate the merits of Hyde’s thesis that art is by definition a card-carrying part of the gift economy but come to no real conclusion except that it is, like medicine and agriculture, an anomaly. The battle of over the shape of health care is the apotheosis of this problematic. No money? Sorry, no kidney. Is this in any way acceptable?

We all know intuitively that certain things have a value that can not be sufficiently described by the market. When Teddy Roosevelt drew a line around a chunk of Wyoming, he excised Yellowstone from the box labeled “”real estate” and put it in the box labeled “treasure”…forever. This is the flip side of the tragedy of the commons: the beauty of the commons. Of course, the flora and fauna—charismatic mega- and others—to either side of that line remain indifferent and unmoved by Roosevelt’s line and it is the boundaries between those territories of the guardians and the merchants that are the most contested. Development at the edges of national parks throws reveals the friction in individual profiting from a commonly held treasure. As Hyde says, “one man’s gift must not be another man’s capital.”

A recent article in the Washington Post, “In Bill’s Big Idea: Save the Climate, Share the Wealth” Peter Barnes, founder of Working Assets among other things, is treading that boundary in his proposal for a “cap and dividend” strategy for carbon emissions reduction. He’s quoted in the article: “The trouble is, markets have no appreciation for intrinsic value. They’re blind and dumb and stunningly mindless; they do what they’re programmed to with ruthless aplomb…”

Jane would say: of course they are. Like the joke about the frog and scorpion, it’s in their nature. It is no more viable to nudge all of human activity into the merchant syndrome (money grubbing swine, naming rights sold off for everything, privatization of government functions, mercenary armies) then to guilt everyone into being guardians (self-righteous tree huggers, don’t sell out, non-profits know best, money corrupts). The very phrase “sustainable development” hides the internal contradictions that Jane tries to detangle.

Jane summarizes their characteristics. Merchants: be open to inventiveness and novelty; use initiative and enterprise; be efficient. Guardians: adhere to tradition; dispense largesse; show fortitude. (the complete list is in the book) In its unique city fabric Washington reveals the character of a city shaped by both guardians and merchants. The sharp line between the commercial city and the national landscape is constantly debated, criticized, fiercely protected, and tested. It is the front line in the face off between the guardians and the merchants, but those lines proliferate in battles over open space, historic landmarks, water rights, resource management. But that is how it should be, as long as each side can understand the role the other plays.

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