Sunday, October 5, 2014


From Beverly Hills Stories

Pride more compassionate than the lost generosities*

- Any adventures today? What do you do all day anyway?
- Make the rounds between market, library, school. Walk, read, think about things. Write stories. Today I sold my bike.
- How much?
- 50 dollars, to a guy at Whole Foods Market. With the cash handed over at the bank and settled in my debit card account I went on Ebay, found and bought the cheapest computer, 55 dollars including 2 day shipping.
- A new computer?
- That'd be nice. A seven year old IBM, Lenovo, that is.The name changed when IBM sold off their personal computer business.
- If corporations can't monopolize a market they aren't interested. What's happening with that woman from Sweden, the one who emailed you after 25 years, the one you were in love with?
- She thought she might share a place with me somewhere in the South of France, or Santa Cruz, she'd heard good things about Santa Cruz, but I have no money so that's out. Could be that's the extent of the overture, of the re-acquaintance.
- No surprise, right?
- Right. I bought the same model computer, not coincidentally, my wife had.    
- You still miss her.
- I do. I don't miss living with her, I miss her.**
- What's the difference?
- First I want to answer your other question.
- Which guy at Whole Foods bought your bike? The guy with the yellow beard who rides around with a pyramid on his bike clearing the air of cosmic rays?
- No.
- The little lawyer couple of cheapskates who clip coupons and debate the best prices in town for soap and stuff?
- Not them.
- The man who wears a new suit and shoes everyday and sits in the corner greeting everyone with "It's All Good"?
- No. I'm not going to tell you.
- That market cafe has to be the weirdest place in Beverly Hills.
- They've a lot of competition. So, what I did today. Today many of the characters at the market and a few others I've also told you about made a reappearance. I met the guy who asks for money outside Rite-Aid Drug Store, claims he takes in 2 dollars an hour which he then spends on a big can of beer. An eight hour day nets him 4 beers. He was sitting on the newspaper vending machine outside Whole Foods, his feet bare, kicking his heels against the vending box window. He said the boots I was wearing didn't look comfortable. I assured him they were. Today he said he was asking for money to buy shoes.
- For the cost of three beers you could buy shoes.
- No! Where?
- At the second hand shop on Robertson.
- I don't believe it.
- The boots I'm wearing cost 6 dollars.
- I don't buy second hand shoes. I have standards!
Right before the beer drinker with standards I met the Starbucks guy, the one with the new Mercedes Benz who takes the same plastic cup around to different Starbucks and asks for free refills. Hasn't paid for coffee in months. I asked him, didn't he mind they thought he was crazy?
- What did he say?
- He asked me why I thought he seemed crazy.
- You won't pay for coffee.
- I'm on a tight budget. Have million dollar deals in the works but no ready cash.
- And you're wearing a 1 dollar watch.
- How do you know? Oh yeah, you used to deal in watches. I actually called the company in China that makes it to see if I could import it. Do you think it would be a good business?
- Forget it. The retail trade is monopolized. No one will buy from you other than one or two family businesses which will pay 10 dollars for ten watches.
- They cost more than a dollar. Not much more, I admit.
- Monopoly again.
- It's everywhere. In the afternoon I met the watchmaker who'd just arrived from Switzerland. After 2 years of watchmaking school in Zurich he had the urge to travel, fulfill his dream of coming to the U.S. Before watchmaking school he was a kitchen worker in 5 star hotels, spending his evenings at other 5 stars hotel bars and waiting for wealthy women among the clientele to fall in love with him.
- Did they really fall in love with him?
- I guess. The job he was promised by a Beverly Hills watch boutique was no longer available and he was hanging out at the Beverly Canon Gardens. He cried when I gave him the book I was reading, "The Gift".
- What's the book about?
- In a way it is about monopoly too. Giving and receiving, in its customary form creates a group. A group is enclosed, access to the group is limited to its members. Those outside the group do not benefit from the stability of gift making and receiving. They are under the constant threat of violence. This book the watchmaker cried over receiving from me compares the gift economy to the market economy. Gifts create community, ties of gratitude and obligation, because giving is done without expectation of direct return. Return comes sooner or later because the community is closed and if you stay in, and everyone gives gifts, you'll come in for your share of receiving. In the market economy individuals are isolated from each other both before and after the transaction, and in the transaction itself their interests in the transaction are opposed. The buyer wants to pay the lowest price and get the most, the seller wants to receive the highest price and give the least. The book is a good summary of this argument, first made by anthropologists a century ago, otherwise it's not very good.
- Why not?
- The aforementioned gratitude and obligation. When gifts create community by such mysterious emotions individuals are, in actual fact, tied to the easily visible manners and habits of the community. The mystery comes in because people forget themselves when they make a gift, when they "sacrifice" themselves. The community that results from gift giving is ritualistic. And because it is ritualistic, it is closed.
- Aren't all communities closed?
- No. Remember I told you about William Godwin? The founder of the philosophy of anarchism?*** He said that people should give away everything they couldn't use, but nobody could demand a gift from you. They had to convince you with arguments. Unlike communities of gift giving where people are tied to each other by the mysteries of gratitude and obligation, and while they sacrifice, the real reasons they make gifts, the taboos and mores of their society - go unobserved, gifts ought to be made for a reason.
- What reason?
- For love.
- Which is a mystery.
- Only when it is not really love. Love is based on knowledge. It is the opposite of enclosure. It is an opening up out of the world into all, out towards everything all together. This is not the time to go into this. The idea is that as we don't want to hold onto things for no purpose, giving is no sacrifice. We want to love. To love, we have to know what is good to love.
- How do we know what is good to love?
- Natural predisposition adapted by experience. We learn. We can tell a story of what we did with our gifts. We lose ourselves in love, not in the gift giving. Ok?
- Ok.
- We can love everyone we find some good in, who reveals to us their good. Community is open.  Not so, as I said, community based on gifts of mysterious gratitude and obligation. The habits of the group limit who can give and receive. Such a group is a monopoly.
- That's what you meant about your wife, not missing being with her, but missing her company. You didn't miss being in her group.
- Yes. At the campus yesterday there was a conference on Digital Cash. I'm wearing their T-shirt under my shirt.
- You bought it?
- No. A gift. The two day conference was one short lecture after another, each a summary account of research into the modern business of digital money. What many of the stories had in common was monopoly. For example, the credit card companies Visa and MasterCard had invited one of the speakers to an expert workshop to solve an obvious and ominous security threat..His small company, with a staff of three, was paid millions. A dozen other, much larger companies worked on the problem with him. They came up with several viable solutions.
- To what problem?
- Stores were holding the credit card numbers of each of their customers. Break into an individual's email and you can steal one account number. Break into a large retailer and you can steal millions.
- Like the 70 million cards numbers stolen from Target a few months ago.
- Ways were worked out by the lecturer and his colleagues so stores could process transactions without retaining the card numbers. They all got paid. Yet.the credit card companies decided to take no action. Why? The security expert said he hadn't the slightest idea. At lunch I pressed him. He must know why they decided to do nothing. Off the record now, tell me. Was it because they were a monopoly, and any major change they made meant risk of losing profit, and doing nothing they could safely pass the costs of fraud on to their customers who couldn't take their business elsewhere?
- What did he say?
- He said yes, that was why. Early on he and many others worked on micro-payment technology so individual authors could get paid every time someone on the internet clicked on their texts. No one was interested. The micro-payment technology however soon appeared in a different form: advertisers pay for every single click on their ads and all the profit goes to Google. Another speaker had researched the history of money transfer services. The first, American Express, was started by the former director of Western Union telegraph service. American Express had to send their new travelers checks through the postal service, which took days or weeks, because the monopoly telegraph service was much too expensive even for American Express's wealthy travelers. Then followed a lecture on Pay Pal, the first successful internet money transfer service. They were blocked from the market by the banks that for decades had researched telephone based electronic money transfer. Paypal's only immediate market access was Ebay, a peer to peer auction selling service the credit card companies for a while had declined giving permission to accept their cards.
- I didn't know any of this.
- Monopoly is everywhere, and not only in business. Let's go over it again. Monopolies appear in relations between people in the form of class. A group of people with their particular rituals, habits and taboos call forth in each other feelings of gratitude and obligation. A sort of "honor among thieves" creates a gift economy among class members, while a market economy, clash of interests, operates between classes. Within a class there is a gift economy. Between classes is a sort of war, or as it is called, market economy, war expressed in the exchange of possessions. Everyone within a class is, to some extent at least, a beneficiary of gift economy. A member of a rich family very seldom ends up like the tens of thousands in L.A. sleeping on the street.**** The Starbucks guy making himself a gift of Starbucks coffee is seen by Starbucks employees as rich, which he is. He is silently tolerated by the Starbucks employees who represent the interests and intentions of the wealthy management class, and they don't have to worry the exception will encourage poor people, who know very well how classes are treated differently, to play the same trick. The most interesting lecture at Digital Cash was on the food stamps program, now digitalized. Working with special debit cards (EBT, Electronic Benefit Transfer) the digitalized program allows complete supervision of its recipients and control over what could be bought and where it could be bought, compared to unemployment benefits, also digitalized, that in California are given as an unhindered direct deposit to private bank account. Unemployment benefits are often ten times as much as a typical monthly food stamps benefit, as the boyfriend of the conference organizer told me who received this electronic benefit transfer himself, being an often unemployed artist in the film industry. Gifts, gratitude and obligation account for the attraction of the idea of the market state, the continuous mystical flow of money. Within the group, an individual with the right background can temporarily be a cul de sac for money, but a gift will take care of the problem. Someone however from outside the group, a welfare or food stamp recipient, is thought to be permanently out of the loop. Gifts to that kind of person are money thrown out the window. Thus the supervision, suspicion, and contempt inherent in the food stamps program but absent from unemployment benefits. I was telling the newly graduated watchmaker these stories of the UCLA conference at the Luvalle commons cafe, not far from where the lectures had be held. He'd asked if he could come along with me to my usual places. In the square down from the cafe, in front of the Law School, a party was going on. Alumni get together for the School Of Public Affairs, a couple of students told us. We went along by, and within seconds a security guard ran across the grass to position himself before us on the walkway:
- You can't pass here.
- This is a public square in a public university.
- You must have a wristband. Private party.
- In a public square in a public university. Move aside.
- No. Go back.
- What authority do you have for giving that order?
- Not your business. I'm telling you: go back.
- I won't. Now what? Are you going to push me back? I'll defend myself against your push.
- Then I will fall to the ground, say you assaulted me.
- Fine. Let's skip preliminaries, just lay yourself down and we'll get on with it. Call your boss.
- No.
- Your boss's coming.
- What's the problem here?
- This rented symbol of violence is blocking our passage. Tell him to move aside.
- Step aside.
"I'm shocked," the watchmaker said to me as we strolled past the guard who, obedient to command of authority, had moved aside. "I thought things like that happened only in movies. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself. I thought it was comedy, exaggeration of American life." All too real, I answered. And the outcome was fortunate, not to be relied on. Confrontations with power don't usually end well.
- No excuse to be afraid.
- I'm with you there. Last week they blocked off this square to hold a wedding party, complete with jazz band and private security on every corner. The privatization of public places in public universities is a modern version of the enclosure movement in England that peaked from 1760 to 1832 and completely the destroyed the medieval peasant community. Traditional rights to mow or graze on "open fields" were revoked. Once enclosed, the use of land was restricted to the owner, and it ceased to be land for commons. Enclosure was accomplished by buying the grounds or by passing laws forcing enclosure.
- History repeating itself.
- You know Robin Hood? Sure, you couldn't help knowing. The legend can be seen as a response to the English enclosure movement. When I was leaving that UCLA Conference on Digital Cash I stopped to talk to a man waiting outside who seemed out of place. Turns out he was from Finland and the CEO of The Robin Hood Asset Management Fund.***** Considering speculative investment a form of robbery, he and his partners, professors of art, philosophy and economy, allow the poor access to the rich man's game of financial speculation. The poor can share in the spoils with a mere 50 dollar minimum investment, payment by internet, of course. Robin Hood Asset Management has opened an office in Santa Cruz and are readying an Initial Public Offering (IPO) in a bid to raise funds for rapid expansion. I left the CEO with my site address and email. Pleased by my stories he wrote right back, passed me on to the director of Robin Hood's American Office, who also expressed liking for my stories. I'm pretty sure nothing will come of the connection.
- Be optimistic.
- Yes, like with the reappeared Swedish old love. Santa Cruz! Did I tell you I wrote two novels about her? Every time I meet someone in real life communication is transferred to the internet where it stays never to reemerge in real life. Everyone disappears in the bottomless pit of the internet, is enclosed within that gift community of infinite flow. Real life is learning how to escape from enclosure and not remain trapped within the group that gift giving creates. Real life. How hard it is to make a start.
- As they say, get out of the box.
- One of the last speakers at the conference studied communities of oppressed minorities in their relation to the internet. He said he hated when internet communities were called "virtual", as in "unreal". They were real, he insisted. For example, a woman with an incapacitating disease confining her to her home was able to practice her former profession of clothing designer in the internet world of Second Life. People called Second Life a game, but how was what this woman did, her creative activity of making clothing, adapted to the constraint of a programmed character, "avatar" animation, how was this "unreal"? Do you know what I answered?
- What?
- She was making art like any other artist. But art, any art, is not real. Good art, the best art, is a tool for reminding us how to get out of the world of things and back into the world of love. It reminds us to love. If this woman's art did that, if it got other players of the game out of the game, didn't keep them enclosed in the virtual world, then I have no problem with saying it is real. Every art, every profession, comes up against the same problem. The digital world is not unique. I was going to tell the obstructive security guard if he needed someone to represent him in his lawsuit against the university and me I had the phone number of a law professor at the law school on the other side of the square. I'd recently had a long conversation with her. I like talking to lawyers. Only yesterday I was at the law conference on Critical Theory And Race, something like that. Being white, according to the explanation a law professor (not the same one) there gave me, was a form of property, like a house or car. I asked the professor, who claimed also to be a philosopher:
- If you don't define property what good is saying race is property too? One confused thing is compared to another.
- By the comparison with material inequality that many actually experience, the mental reality of racial inequality can more easily be imagined.
- Yes, and you lawyers help the poor people, manipulate a wrongheaded at best if not actually insane legal system based on property to their advantage, this one time. Why not actually figure out what property is and figure out what to do about it? What about being real philosophers and revolutionaries?
- Who does that? Do you know?
- Robin Hood.
- Of course.
- A revolutionary if there ever was one.
- And where will I find the real philosopher? The real philosophy?
- Look on the internet, everything ends up there. Good luck getting something back out.

Further Reading:
Something To Look Forward To
The Technology Of Good
The Crowd Of Monopolists
The Search For Evil
How The Internet Can Change The Way The World Does Business
* Rimbaud, "Genie"
** Married To The Business Of Buying
*** Enquiry Concerning Political Justice And Its Influence On Morals And Happiness
**** 'Once you’re in the club, you’ve got a God-given right to stay in the club.' See The Disadvantages Of An Elite Education. (The author of "The Gift" taught writing at Harvard.)
***** The Robin Hood Fund (RHF)