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Industrial chemistry loves to exploit those states of matter at the boundaries between the solid, liquid, gaseous, and plasma states or between different crystalline or chemical configurations, where, far from equilibrium, only a small change of temperature, light, chemistry, or pressure can produce large results. Those results include metals with useful properties, self-adjusting sunglasses, liquid crystal displays, efficient fuel injection, or highly sensitive measuring devices such as the home pregnancy test. The raw materials of the new technology are plentiful and easy to extract: carbon, sand to make silicon chips, air, water. Biotechnology may one day develop perennial cereal crops that will not need tractors to plough them or even, perhaps, petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. It took a huge expense of coal and oil and iron ore to develop the cybernetic control systems that now require only a few ounces of silicon and a tiny flow of current to maintain, and which are in turn radically diminishing our need for fossil fuels and ores.
Shakespeare's reasoning endorses the tweaking and readaptation of natural processes for human purposes. Those natural processes, however, are but precursors and simpler versions of the much more deeply self-referential and multi-leveled processes we find in the human world. The market is just such a complex system. The market is the drama of concrete human interaction, the theater of the world. Only highly nonlinear, turbulent, and far-from equilibrium processes, as the market is, could produce such complex and individuated entities as human personalities and cultures.
Anthropologists and ethologists are now revealing the elaborate web of short-term and long-term economic exchanges that happen within human and animal families; babies are made human by the exchanges they enter into with their parents and close kin. For Shakespeare economic exchange is the embodiment of human moral relations. Unlike our own cruder ethical systems, resulting from the combined assaults of Puritan iconoclastic highmindedness, Enlightenment reductionism, Romantic moral sentiment, and Marxist paranoia, Shakespeare does not make a strict distinction between personal rights and property rights. For him personal love cannot be divided from the bonds of property and service that embody it. When King Lear demands the unconditional love of his daughters-- that is, a love that is not mediated by reciprocal material relations--his two corrupt daughters Regan and Goneril are quick to offer it, swearing they love him "more than eyesight, space, and liberty;/Beyond what can be valued, rich and rare."
But Cordelia, the good daughter, refuses to offer such love: "I love your majesty/According to my bond, no more nor less.../...Good my lord,/You have begot me, bred me, loved me. I/Return those duties back as are right fit,/Obey you, love you, and most honor you." She goes on to point out that when she marries, half of her love and duty will then be owed to her husband.
Though tactless, Cordelia is expressing a wisdom we should pay attention to. If the world is as 19th-century science suggested it was, a deterministic machine that is running down, then the only ethical kind of love would be one that was purely disinterested, a Kantian dispassionate self-sacrifice that gave the advantage over to the other in the struggle to seize and exploit the diminishing stockpile of order. Only thus could one escape the deterministic motivations embedded in our own nature, which would render every interested decision void of freedom and ethical responsibility. But Shakespeare's world, as we have glanced at it in The Winter's Tale and the sonnets, is one in which human freedom is not the avoidance of natural motivation but the capacity of creative action; the net amount of value naturally increases, and human creativity accelerates that increase. Both the lover and the beloved can prosper.
The "bond" that Cordelia offers is a combination of reproductive, material, and emotional/spiritual exchanges. In As You Like It, Shakespeare defines marriage as a "blessed bond of board and bed," in which three "b" words, blessed (the emotional and spiritual element), board (the material element), and bed (the sexual and reproductive element) are likewise combined in a fourth, the bond of the nuptial contract. Most important for us is the way in which the intangible elements of the contract can be cashed, or in Shakespeare's suggestive word, "redeemed," in material terms.
For Shakespeare, value must be embodied to exist, just as the inscription denoting the sovereignty of the mint and the denomination of the coin must be embodied in the intrinsic value of the specie of which it is made. We do not need to embrace the gold standard to understand that paper or electronic money must likewise be based, though at more removes, upon such backing as a gross national product and the consent of the community to the legitimacy of the minting authority.
In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare correctly implies that the word market is cognate with the word mercy. But how can the market be merciful? Isn't it counterintuitive that mercy--and merci, the French word for thanks--should come from the same linguistic root as mercenary, merchant, mercantile, commerce, and market itself? What does the legendary ruthlessness of the marketplace have to do with the free gifts of compassion? If, using the excellent etymological supplement to the American Heritage Dictionary, we follow the etymology of this root back to its Etruscan origins, we find the same ambiguity all the way down. The Old French merci meant forbearance to someone in one's power; the Late Latin merces meant reward, but also God's gratuitous compassion. The Latin merx meant merchandise, in the sense that merchandise was something under the purview of the god Mercury, patron of commerce. All these words derive from the name of the god Mercury.
Mercury is an extremely interesting god in this context: As well as being associated with markets, he was the divine messenger, the god of travel and of thieves, and the psychopomp, that is, the god who conducted the souls of the dead to their final destination, whether Hades or the Elysian Fields. Perhaps we can make sense of him thus: As the spirit of communication and exchange, he is that which allows whole systems of connected feedback to come into being. He is thus the patron of change, since systems can change only to the extent to which they can communicate within themselves and with other systems.
Merchants, the "middlemen" of human exchange and often the carriers of news, information, new science, and socially disruptive ideas and diseases, take Mercury to be their leader. The marketplace is the place where both goods and ideas are exchanged, and thus it bears the god's name. Naturally all the illegitimate and cheating forms of communication and exchange--lying and stealing--are also under his aegis. Mercy is kin to thievery; both are unjust. Naturally, too, Mercury conducts human consciousness--itself the product of the internal communication of self-awareness and the external communication of exchange with other human beings in the marketplace of life--across the greatest threshold of change, from life to death.
When we look at some of Mercury's other attributes and associations, he becomes more interesting still. He gives his name to the metal that is liquid, quicksilver, that cannot be held in one place but runs away. Mercy--the things of Mercury--is essentially liquid, as we have already seen. In alchemy, mercury was one of the two primary opposites, sulphur--a solid--being the other, whose true union through the evolutionary process of alchemical metamorphosis might produce perfect gold. Mercury's planet was the harbinger of the two great diurnal changes, day into night and night into day, and thus the link between the day world and the night world: Again, Mercury is the reconciler of opposites.
Most interesting of all, he is the possessor of the caduceus, the snake-entwined rod, that ancient and modern symbol of life and its transformative powers. This talisman represents the reconciliation of order and stasis (the rod) with chaos and change (the snakes). The rod is solid, and is often the symbol of justice; the snake is associated with liquid, and is the great symbol of transgression. The snake itself symbolizes the polar opposites of death and healing (its venom can kill or cure), and change and immortality (it changes its skin and thus rejuvenates itself). Like the serpent of Eden, it is the breaker of the status quo, the opener of new perspectives, the originator of new levels of being and consciousness. The caduceus as a whole represents the pairing or twinning by which reproduction takes place, and the transfer of information by which the shape of the parent is communicated, replicated, and immortalized. It so happens that the double helix of the two snakes is an exact model of the shape of the DNA molecule. This is not just a coincidence, for the double helix is perhaps the best intuitive diagram of any feedback process, and DNA is the feedback process of feedback processes. Uncannily, in the symbol of the caduceus the ancient icon makers anticipated the modern discovery of the structure of DNA. Kindness, in both the moral sense and the biological sense, emerges from the kinship bonds that DNA creates.
So the mercy of the market is real. Those who in the Marxist tradition persist in seeing the market as impersonal and merciless are comparing it by implication with the intimate world of uncounted cost and unquestioned trust that they believe exists in the family, in a friendship, in a traditional tribal village, or in a nonprofit organization dedicated to some higher voluntary purpose or liberal art. Perhaps the market is less forgiving than such communities, though anthropologists, sociologists, and novelists have charted the often ruthless politics and unyielding cruelty of families, villages, and universities. But communities of this kind are not the alternative to the market, nor has the market shown any sign of putting an end to them--they flourish still as they always did, and their sphere in society is proportionately no smaller in relation to the market than it ever was.
There are only two real alternatives to the market. One is the way that communities actually treat strangers and outsiders, and the way communities traditionally treat each other, when they are not trading with each other or governed by a higher authority: that is, by enslavement, murder, and war. The other is the utopian rule of an abstract justice in which there could be no room for mercy, since any communication or gift or exchange other than the application of the law would amount to corruption and favoritism. As F.A. Hayek argues, the market is the place where one can begin to communicate with strangers, where one can negotiate, where there is time to haggle and latitude for error, where a loan can be prolonged because the lender wants his money back, where defeat does not mean extinction but the opportunity to pull off a better deal another day. It encourages a basic level of civility, and requires of those who would profit by it a preparedness to take risks in trusting others, even if the risk taking is the margin for error in the quantification of risk when one is estimating the interest one should charge on a loan.
The Shakespearean theater was a kind of marketplace; and that market was one of the preconditions for the emergence of democratic politics. In fact we could even say that true democracy is the political expression of the Shakespearean market.