The Isfyd, Market Capitalism, and the Uberwelt

written by John Urquhart, general secretary of Harmony Party UK

Two arms and hands mingle in a rainbow of light.
“People for the most part pass by the loveliest things in life without paying attention.”
― Rosa Luxemburg

Labour is a natural part of the human process.

This may seem startlingly obvious, but just about everything humans do is labour. Preparing your meal? Labour. Talking to your neighbour so that they know about the package that you couldn’t take delivery of because you feared your puppy would chew through the box while you were out at work? Also labour! Listening to your friend cry about their relationship? Even that is labour – emotional labour.

But we don’t put a monetary value on all labour. Somehow, listening to your friend isn’t as valuable as, say, data entry. Data entry, somehow, earns you money every hour you do it.

Some people of course try to claim that relationships are inherently transactional and in some ways, they’re right. But in all the ways that count they are absolutely wrong. Relationships are not built on transactions. They are built on mutual gifting.

Good relationships, especially, are, as we all well know, built on trust. The way we show trust is by gifting: this might be material, or it might be emotional. We might “go out on a limb” for a friend; we might just get them something that reminds us of them as a more literal gift. We might just give them a piece of great advice from our favourite philosopher.

This trust is integral to the gifting; it underpins it. Gifting cannot, in fact, ever happen unless we can trust that people will also be generous to us; if we cannot trust the generosity of others, we must hoard, for our own safety. This is probably self-evident.

But why is this relevant to labour?

Principally because we clearly do not live in one economy. We live in three.

There is the most visible economy, the one we call the economy, and that one is in fact built on a lack of trust: instead of gifting, we transact, where there is very little trust, except that weakly conferred by rules, regulations, and structure. That weak trust is enough to enable the transactional systems of capitalism.

But it is underpinned by something else entirely: the gift economy. The gift economy is actually, I argue, much more vital than the surface economy. This isfyd (being the Welsh for underworld) is not transactional: instead, people trust each other because interpersonal connections, because of familial bond, because of communal intersectionality. This trust means they do not need to wait for contracts, laws, rules, and regulations to say that it is safe to act: they can simply act.

This economy underpins everything. It is the human relationships – packed with gift-based labour – that actually make everything happen in the more visible, more well-known economy.

And it is this that makes the wage system absolutely irrational (as it is irrational even besides this), because there, these three economies finally intersect: especially through the medium of collective bargaining. Together, groups of people can, in the short to mid term, gift each other labour to ensure that all of them experience gains in the longer term. This isn’t transactional, because there is never any guarantee of success; it instead requires trust.

And, ultimately, this is why capitalism fears syndicalism. Capitalism, if we personify it, may as well know that it is a low-trust system, and low-trust systems can never stand against high-trust systems. This is why even capitalism has its own, secret, subsurface high-trust system: that utilised by the wealthy.

In this, people are correct when they say “socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor” – because the wealthy effectively live in a gift economy, an uberwelt, where people gift them things in exchange for the hope of future labour. This isn’t exactly socialism still of course – but it is a gift economy, and gift economics and socialism are very tightly related things. People get this right at least.

But: because that trust is given, so too frequently is the labour that is hoped for in return (even if it is quite non-specifically hoped for), else the trust would evaporate, and so would the gifts. The rich, perhaps surprisingly in some ways, know the value of paying it forward; it is actually what makes them rich in the first place. What else is cronyism if not a gift economy?

So then really we have three economies: the isfyd, capitalism, and the uberwelt (German, meaning “overworld”). The underpinning gift system that makes human relationships function drives all, a mighty engine yoked into slavery for the system of market capitalism which liberally claims the credit; and the wealthy live in a system of perpetual gifting they would deny the rest of us.

We should, all said and done, simply cut out the middle entirely – and end the slavery of human compassion to a machine which has almost none.