Work, Capitalism, Barter, and the Non-Monetary Economy

One of the things that is most different here from other parts of the world is that people have not fully bought into the necessity and normality of money and work — the basic capitalist system.  This is why it is so hard to get people to work for us; they simply don’t really believe that working for someone else makes a whit of sense.  They don’t buy into the idea that they must absolutely work, and make money.  They don’t buy into the two-life system of work vs personal life; for them there is one life, your life.  For them, the norm is still simply living as you.

I heard from a guest the other day about a book (The Empire of Cotton) about the beginnings of industrialization in Europe, and how it took 200 years to convince people that work in factories made sense.  The factories needed the labor, but people just didn’t get it.  Life was one thing and one thing only, all of a piece — farming, eating what you grew, trading with neighbors, visiting with neighbors.  And this echoed very much the challenge I have always found here in finding employees.  People simply aren’t desperate for work; they own their own homes and are happy to eat very simply; they don’t travel, they don’t go to the cinema, they don’t go to ski resorts; their idea of a great time is to sit at home or have a picnic with friends.  Maybe go to a hot spring.  They are masters of enjoyment, and enjoyment really doesn’t cost much money, and what is necessary (food and housing) can be paid for in 6 weeks per year of caterpillar fungus digging.  So the desperate search for a job, and relief when one finds one, that is the norm in modern America (have to pay my rent!  Have to pay my health insurance!  Have to buy food! Have to have some spending money for fun!) just doesn’t exist.

Apparently another thing that had to be changed before people agreed to work in factories was the idea that *not working* was better than working.  Work, now, in the west is a glorious thing that gives you self-worth.  Here, you have self-worth anyway.

The questions that seems worth asking, as the powers-that-be try (understandably) to draw people into the commercial system (sell your yaks for meat; fewer people on the land; get an education and a job in town, pay taxes, contribute to the GDP), are: which system is better for people, and why does the idea of this change make me sad?

One possibility: the idea of self-worth based simply on being is deeply satisfying.  It’s a self-worth that cannot be threatened.  There is no way it can be lost. (Or at least no passive way; I’ve seen people thrown into crisis over having killed someone, in self-defense.)  Once, many years ago, I remember discussing this question with Djarga.  We had been discussing horses; I was questioning him about how things work here, as a journalist or researcher might:  how many horses did he have, and how many were ridable or might be ridable in the future? He had several horses that were not ridable, nor ever would be.  So I said, “So what’s the point of those horses?  Why keep them around if they are not useful?  They have to eat, right?”  Djarga, who at that time did little work within the family, got irritated and replied, “I don’t work either; I sit around and drink tea.  Am I useless?  Do I deserve to eat?”

I realize now that this is a reaction to a common Chinese way of viewing things; you should get rid of (kill) animals that aren’t useful to you.  But Tibetans hold fast to the idea that all living things have a inherent right to existence, to live out their lives in their natural way.  “Would you like to be killed?  No?  Then don’t kill anything.”  This logic applies to the smallest insect — “Do you think he wants to die?  Does he run away from you when you try to catch him?  Doesn’t that prove he is afraid and doesn’t want to die?”

But what a thing!  To not feel a need to prove oneself with fancy clothes, better experiences, more education, more achievements!  Of course, it is not this complete, and people do compete with horses, motorcycles, and cars, but in comparison to the insecurity of America, there is an impressive and true solidity of self.  I tend to think it is born of embeddedness in community, a sense of place and neededness within the family and clan.

Another issue about work is this: when people work for me here, I always have the feeling they are doing me a favor, rather than the other way around, though of course I pay them, and unusually well.  But I think the reason they stay is that they feel they are helping, that they are useful.  They have re-entered, or never left, the system of reciprocity.  And the thing about the system of reciprocity is that it is not so clear as the system of money-for-labor — and more positive. A person does something for an unknown reward at an unknown time — but it is sure the reward will come.  I wonder if there is something in the capitalist system of buying labor the way one buys goods that is deeply unsatisfying, because it doesn’t base itself on the way we feel as human beings.

What is different about the reciprocal system?  For one — agency.  People have a choice how much to give, according to how they feel that day, how much they like the person they are dealing with, and how much they think that person might be able to help them in the future.  Perhaps this show us another factor: complexity.  We humans are complex creatures capable of dealing with complex decisions and equations — perhaps the system of money-for-labor is just too simplified to satisfy our complex brains.  Perhaps that is why people working for other people in this society very often try to find ways to make money on the side, undermining the work of the establishment they work for, as when workers at a hostel lie to guests, trying to get them to visit the hostels of their friends.  People just cannot seem to accept a simple job, and keep obsessively trying to increase their earnings, monetary or otherwise, from it.

From my side, I find my workers do best if they feel they are giving something, either to me or to the guests, particularly if I did not ask they to do it.  This is because, in the system they know best, this is what gets the best results.  So it is a funny dialectic between trying to figure out how to pay them enough to keep them, but not allowing that payment to be the the main reason for their working — and on the other side of the equation asking for certain work but not making it too clear or defined, so that part of their work is still a gift, something they thought of themselves and we never asked for.

This is the kind of situation where Tenzin Nyima goes with a guest to pick up my motorbike, which he cannot start on the side of the road, where Rekho cleans behind the stove without being asked, where they come up with an outdoor refrigerator for vegetables.  It is saying “Morning!” in English, and feeding the cats and teasing Kipper the dog.  It is the agency of a person to go their own way and help in the ways they choose.

But the march of progress marches on…. The government works hard to draw the country together, to draw people into the modern world.  I just keep wondering: is there a place for the old way?  Is there a place for nomadism, tight communities, and living from what you grow yourself, or trade with neighbors? It is exactly the thing that appeals much to many people in the West, who are realizing the limitations of wealth in producing happiness.

In the end, we shall see: Tibetans are choosing their own way forward through social media, new transportation options, smart phones, and urbanization.  Of course, there are ways in which they have little choice, but for many day-to-day decisions, they do have choice.  Simply put, they remain the vast majority of the population here and the fashions and trends they choose to follow shape the world they live in (and me too).

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