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Rifkin on Commercial Exchange vs Social Exchange, Part 1

February 12, 2012

Excerpted from The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, by Jeremy Rifkin:

“It’s instructive to note that when anthropologists study the history of exchange, they find that social exchange virtually always precedes commercial exchange.  The Trobriand Islanders engaged in an elaborate social exchange of shells, often canoeing long distances between islands to pass the tokens back and forth as a way of cementing bonds of social trust.  Commercial exchange in the Trobriand Islands was always preceded by social exchange, again confirming the ancient wisdom that cultural capital precedes commercial capital and that commerce is an extension of cultural relations and, therefore, not a primary institution in the affairs of humankind.

The relationship between empathic and commercial bonds is complicated and fragile.  That’s because, as previously mentioned, empathic extension is always a nonconditional gift, freely given, without consideration of reciprocity on behalf of the other, either in the moment or in the future.  While commercial exchange would be impossible without empathic extension first establishing bonds of social trust, its utilitarian, instrumental, and exploitive nature can and often does deplete the social capital that makes its very operations possible.  That’s exactly what’s occurring now in the United States and around the world in the aftermath of the global economic meltdown.”

Continue to Part 2


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