If there is a concept crucial to our understanding of what and who we are, it is “interest.” This is the sinew in the movable hand. It is emergence’s secret motive. Interest replaces elite control and expert wisdom. In our world, we turn our affairs over to interest, and usually we live with the outcome. (No monarchs or mullahs for us.)
In our world, unlike traditional and hierarchical ones, culture comes from interest, not the other way round. The miracle of social cooperation comes not from shared values or mutual regard. It comes from interest. As Adam Smith put it,
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages (Wealth of Nations  1976:26–7, as quoted in Swedberg, reference below)
For anthropologists, interest is miraculous. It makes things we didn’t think possible, possible. Once a social world gives itself over to interest, one person no longer needs to to like or understand a neighbor. As long as a relative small set of social conventions is satisfied, one person doesn’t have to know or care about the interior life of another.
Indeed, we no longer need even to have what the students of autism call a “theory of mind.” As long as those conventions are satisfied, I don’t need to have any insight into you, nor you into me. We will meet in the marketplace but in this case we are merely mirrors to one another. I am selling something you think you need. You are selling something I think I need.
And now a hundred poppies grow. Now that we are protected from scrutiny, presumption and control of our neighbors, we may engage in any and every act of social invention. We are free to become preps or punks, geeks or goths. We are free to invent Burning Man, Country and Western music, the Antique Roadshow, or Steampunk. In the bracing air of our mutual indifference, we are free to find our own way. Culture is free to wander where it will. And now the anthropologist really has his work cut out for him or her.
Do we understand interest? Or is it a matter of, “what’s to understand?” We may simply assume actors are able and willing to identify their interest, and let it go at that. But everywhere we look, we see the economics paradigm under challenge. People are saying that the new media ushers in a new market, and this is shot through with notions of community, moral value, shared objective, and a good deal of sharing and caring. More and more, capitalism would have us reverse the terms of Smith’s dichotomy and address not “self-love” but our mutual humanity. (And indeed yesterday in the New York Times, David Brooks seemed to be saying that this was the inclination of Britain’s new conservative party.)
This is all very interesting for the anthropologist. And a little exhausting. It turns out our social world is a little like the weather in Ireland. If you don’t like it, that’s ok. Give it a couple of minutes and it will change. But this difference, this eclipse of interest, I mean, would make for lots and lots of differences. If interest is to be displaced, we will be a more humane place, but we may be a dramatically less inventive one. And let’s face it, if there is a truth more certain that the need to transcend the interest model of the economy, it’s that by the looks of things, we are going to need all the inventiveness we can muster.
Sturdy little interest. The little engine that could. It helped build great sprawling social worlds. Western societies in their present form are unimaginable without its constant inventive, relentless press. What happens when it is eclipsed by new economic models?
Brooks, David. 2008. Editorial. New York Times. May 13, 2008. [Sorry, no link. My WiFi connection is down.]
Swedberg, Richard. 2003. Principles of Economic Sociology. Princeton: Princeton University Press. http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s7525.pdf
you would do better to use the term “self-interest” instead of “interest”.
it would help you see where the problems enter into the situation, and
why the human race cannot continue to let itself move in that direction.
I’m not too worried that individual demand will suffer from a lack of self-interest anytime soon. People may wrap their self-interest in an explanation that sounds more romantic, and they may define their self-interest (as they often have throughout history) partly in terms of the ascendancy of their ideas, friends, social identity group, or country, but the game will still be the same for the typical capitalist: Figure out what people are willing to pay more for than it costs to provide, and beat the competition.
I’m more concerned with the use of collective power to rule certain interests invalid and others privileged; to stifle innovation with precautionary phantasms; to enable an endless string of veto players on any private project; to block judgments of value or merit in the name of “fairness;” and the many, many other encroachments that threaten the House that Smith Built.