The true gift of Shiba Inu
A look at the elusive search for homo-oeconomicus and the genuine gift of Shiba Inu by Buterin.
Mainstream economics considers us all rational human beings, i.e. homo oeconomicus, driven by the maximization of utility. Transnational capitalism is based on the dogma of capital accumulation: entrepreneurs must increase profits to invest more and keep growing. Since the beginning of the XXth century, anthropologists have criticized the concept of homo oeconomicus, demonstrating that it is a historically contingent and culturally produced phenomenon and not a "natural" human attitude as classical economics claims. In many cultures, people act not for the mere seeking of self-interest or profit, but they are driven by other emotions that are socially constructed.
In Western societies too, sociologists have been claiming that homo-oeconomicus is a pure product of our culture: Max Weber, for example, perceived the protestant ethics as the spirit of capitalism. More recently two Nobel Prizes in Economics have been awarded to scientists who proved that humans are anything but rational (Daniel Kahnemman, 2002; Richard Thaler, 2017). Homo-oeconomicus seems to be as elusive a species as the sasquatch.
Starting from these critics the French writer, philosopher, and anthropologist, Georges Bataille, states that the activity that best determines human beings is not the production and conservation of goods in a search of a future profit, but the unproductive waste of resources: consumption without profit, mournings, wars, cults, the construction of sumptuary monuments, games, spectacles, arts, sexual activities, waste, luxury. This is what Bataille called, in French, the dépense. In a capitalist society, squandering and unproductive consumption are what comes closest to the experience of the sacred, to what in ancient societies was the role of sacrifice and religion: to bring the human being closer to horror and the sense of death, to immerse oneself in "sweetness" of the poetic and sublime instant. For Bataille la part maudite, the accursed side is what makes money a Dionysiac force, both sacred and violent.
The first example of dépense that ethnology offers to Bataille is the potlatch ceremony. Typical of the American Indians of the Northwest Pacific coast, this particular custom is characterized by the violent destruction of wealth. In every significant moment - or rites of passage - in the life of a man or a woman it was essential to organize a potlatch. The host invites nobles from other villages to show off its prestige and, in the process, acquire more of it. The ceremony consisted of the host distributing its wealth to the invitees or outright destroying it. The allocation of resources to the guests was a gift aimed at restitution to usury (a 100% annual interest was the standard): the invitees had to give back a greater gift than the one received since not returning the gift means remaining subject to the will of the donor. Destruction of wealth was an even greater manifestation of power: the noble was able to throw into the fire as many goods as possible, contemptuous of their value. If the invitees did not burn at least the same valuable things, they proved to be inferior and fell into shame. This practice has been known as aggressive gift-giving.
We recently witnessed something that recalls a potlatch in the world of cryptocurrencies. In May 2021, Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin set fire to 6.7 billion U.S. Dollars, in the form of Shiba Inu meme coins that were sent to his wallet without his consent. Within a few minutes, this massive wealth ended up in an address of many zeros and disappeared. It was not used to invest in a new business or kept for future use. It was simply burned. Wasted. Dépensé. In a world where more than 800,000 people live in extreme poverty, social inequalities are rising, and people do not have access to medical care, it seems an act of extreme arrogance.
In many societies, however, the leader is also the one who is more contemptuous of his wealth, so much as in North-Western cultures, this phenomenon has developed even leading to a violent rivalry between leaders. If we had to interpret the burn of Shiba Inu as a potlatch we would say Vitalik has imposed his superiority towards the creators of the meme coin. As it is possible to depict from his manifesto Liberation Through Radical Decentralization, Vitalik firmly believes in the vast potential of blockchain for society and democracy and as such he does not want to limit it to DeFi and "bubble behaviors". Burning Shiba Inu could be seen as a way to affirm his opposition to speculation. On the other hand, when he burned 90% of the meme coins in his wallet he also donated the 10% to a Covid-rescue center in India. This charitable action set in motion an economic mechanism whereby the supply of money decreases, it inevitably increases the value of the same and therefore the wealth of those who possess it. The Shiba Inu price increased by 40% an hour after Vitalik's destruction.
More than an aggressive gift in the potlatch style, this action recalls Derrida's idea of a genuine gift. To explain the concept, the French philosopher borrows Baudelaire's poem about two friends passing by a beggar on the street. Each of them gives him coins, but in a completely different attitude. The first one seems to make a fool of the homeless guy giving him fake coins, the second friend exalts his charitable gesture and gives him true coins. Derrida points out that it is impossible to both give and to make a good deal: for a gift to be true and genuine it must be a gift without intention or motive. By fulfilling his desire to make good, the "honest" friend has obtained something back from his charitable gesture: the personal gratification for acting in a charitable way. On the contrary, by donating a fake coin the other expects no return. With true giving, there can be no reciprocity, no exchange, and no debt. This is why for Deridda the true gift can only be the one made of fake coins. And what Vitalik made is exactly so: a genuine gift of a meme coin, that has no value from his point of view. A further move that contributes to widening the mystical aura and reverence - an experience of the sacred - towards a cult personality within the crypto-community. And further proof that searching for homo-oeconomicus is futile, as much in the smart-contract-driven, efficient, and rational world of the metaverse as it is in "meatspace".
Written by Camilla Carabini.
Economic anthropologist interested in money, finance, and cooperatives. She works as an independent researcher and she is a board member of Fondazione Finanza Etica in Italy. She is an expert on international cooperative development: before choosing the freelance career she was director of an Ngo engaged in the promotion of social and cooperative enterprises in Africa and Latin America. She has lived, studied, and worked in Argentina, Cape Verde, Colombia, Ghana, Mozambique, Spain, Togo, and the UK. She is @camunz on Twitter..
* La Fausse Monnaie is the 28th poem in the collection Le spleen de Paris by Charles Baudelaire. You can read it in English https://biblioklept.org/2014/09/16/counterfeit-money-charles-baudelaire/ and in French https://short-edition.com/fr/classique/charles-baudelaire/la-fausse-monnaie
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People have a romanticized idea of what anthropologists do. As if they were explorers, some kind of Indiana Jones discovering faraway places. But, they can help you understand money. What can Anthropology tell us about money, and therefore, crypto?