#11: The essential structure of institutions

When the human thing enters the cave and enjoys shelter from the snow, it enters into an institutional relationship. An institution is any ensemble of which at least one of its constituent and constituting things is a human. Whenever the human enters into a relationship with a thing or multiple things, we say it is institutional _because from the plain of immanence it does not simply exist but is also _instituted insofar as the human is the space of the name, of designation. As soon as it enters the cave, it receives some things (in this case, the intensive thing of safety and the extensive thing of a physical cover) from the status quo. But in receiving some things, it necessarily owes some things. In this most simple example, it’s debt to the status quo is nothing other than the simple reciprocation of maintaning the cave. The human cannot take cover from the cave and also physically destroy it. Obviously this has nothing to do with some contract or moral obligation to the universe–we have no reason to believe in such idiotic contrivances–and debt itself is only a rather tardy metaphor. But we see in this most primitive of institutional relationships that, on the formal, logical level that is reality, if the caveman wants to continue to live, by the very definition (and designation) of his life he can do whatever he pleases so long as he does not eliminate from existence that which enables him to live. The institution is the most basic model of a debt relationship and in this particular example it is easy to imagine concrete reality functioning as an original, built-in enforcement agency. Other things equal, if X requires Y to live and Z is that thing which delivers Y, then X owes Z at least enough for Z to continue existing. If, rather than “paying back” Z by respecting its thinghood at least enough for it to continue existing, X “defaults” on the debt owed to Z by using his newfound safety to, say, chisel away at the walls until they collapse, X will be promptly punished by death. The simple institution as a primitive model of debt relations is just as easily understood as blackmail: “You’re cooperation or you’re life,” says the cave!

This pure form of the institution assumed other things were equal, but as soon as we imagine an environment including other variables, it is not long before we are capable of spinning out all of modern economics. Thus, we can now incorporate into our portfolio of discplinary metaphors that of economics. Of course, it will be a long time before that institutional environment which makes possible such a transparent terminology as that of modern economics. This transparency of terminology for understanding institutionalized life could only emerge after life becomes sufficiently institutionalized. Too early in the institutionalization of human life, this vocabulary would have led to revolutionary upheavals against institutionalization as a form of social relation so obviously based on the blackmailing of humans by things. 

If we modify the previous model to include the possibility of an alternative shelter, W, we quickly understand that it would be possible for X to take Y, default on Z, and simply move to another shelter. Of course, our human does not fundamentally escape the debt relation that he has no choice but to enter into with an inanimate thing, it only emancipates itself from one by displacing its investments into another. To anticipate, this is a premonition of a hypothesis advanced by the geographer David Harvey, a hypothesis we will return to much later, that capitalism never solves but only displaces its crises. More radically, existence itself has the structure of precisely such a shell game, as modeled and diagrammed earlier (Figures 1-4). What seems perpetually at stake, ontologically no less than economically, is that every thing that exists at any point in time cannot help but “owe” its existence to some uknowable surplus  at the origin of all proximate, knowable origins.

For the purpose of bringing the basic framework to a satisfactorily working completion, it suffices to observe how within our framework economic terminology blends into that of evolutionary and physical theory. All things borrow from some other thing, invest it into some distribution of other available things, but must by definition pay their debts to that which gives them existence. We could just as well say that highly massive ensembles lend energy to new, smaller things which are_ forced _to pay back the larger ensemble. We could just as well say that paying one’s debts is always naturally selected by any currently existing ensemble or, alternatively, anything which fails to pay its debts to those things that lend it its existence are naturally unfit from an evolutionary perspective.

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Murphy, Justin. 2012. "#11: The essential structure of institutions," https://jmrphy.net/blog/2012/07/30/28368602901/ (December 14, 2018).