It’s taken for granted in modern society that our wonderful “elites” deliberately divide and conquer the public for their own benefit. No doubt that’s true. But what is less often discussed is that most people do a really good job dividing and conquering themselves without any outside assistance.
One of the main ways in which humans divide themselves is arguments over the exchange of value. This usually takes the form of disagreements about money. Introducing money into a friendship or even a family situation is a very dangerous thing if money has played no role prior to that. I know friendships that have broken up over $20 and families who no longer speak to each other over an ambiguously-worded will.
We have financialised almost everything in modern society and so value disagreement are usually over money. But value also includes concepts like meaning, significance and utility. (Interesting etymological side note, value is from the Latin valere and is related to valour).
One non-monetary way to create value is to be able to say the right thing at the right time. Sounds simple. Yet most people receive no training in delivering this kind of value. In fact, many people are terrified of public speaking because not only can you fail to say the right thing but you may very well end up saying the wrong thing. In that case, you create negative value.
I once attended a work lunch which was a send-off for a colleague who had resigned. The CIO was in attendance. He’d only been at the company for one week. As a result, he didn’t know the person who was leaving. But when the person who was supposed to give the farewell speech got called away at the last minute, the CIO was asked to do the speech in his place.
Imagine being given 5 minutes notice to speak in front of a roomful of people about somebody that you don’t know personally. Most of us would have to fall back to clichés and we’d struggle to sound genuine. But the CIO gave a 10 minute long speech that was not only not cliched, but somehow managed to seem personally relevant to the guy who was leaving the company. It was a very impressive example of saying the right thing at the right time.
Knowing how to say what needs to be said is a skill. For C-level managers, it’s probably the one truly mandatory skill because, even if you have no other skills, you can probably still bullshit your way out of trouble. On the other hand, you might be technically highly skilled, but if you can’t communicate your knowledge in the form others can understand, you won’t win support. Therefore, you can’t trade value. In a world where value was purely objective, these problems would not occur. But we do not live in such a world.
Knowing how to trade value is a skill that most people do not seem to have. They certainly don’t teach it to you in school. In fact, school is part of a default script for value trading. You get good grades and then you get a good job. The job allows you to provide value but providing value is very different from trading value. Trading value requires that you know what you are worth and that’s not something that is taught in school.
I learned some hard lessons in trading value back when I used to be active in the Melbourne indie-music scene. The indie-music scene provides a useful case study for the subject precisely because there is no real money involved. Almost all amateur musicians lose money on the deal. You have to pay for instruments, for rehearsal rooms, for sound engineers etc. Even if you manage to get signed to a record contract with some small label, you’ll probably still be lucky to earn more than what you could make serving burgers at your local McDonalds.
The value that gets traded at the bottom level of the indie-music scene is not money but gigs. Once you’ve formed a band and rehearsed your songs, the next step is to play in front of people. A gig normally requires there to be three bands on the bill. When you organise a gig, you’re not just booking your band but you need to find two others as well.
In organising a gig, you are creating value for those two other bands because you’re saving them the trouble of organising their own gig. If you stay on the scene long enough, the bands that you gave a gig to will offer a gig in return. Whether you realise it or not (most bands do not even realise it), you’re now trading value. It’s only the tiniest little slither of value, but this trade is enough to create “friendships” with the other bands on the scene.
So, it’s all a happy egalitarian world where everybody is comrades-in-arms, right? Well, for the most part, yes it is. It’s a communist utopia as long as everybody remains equal. But that changes when one band starts to succeed.
Let’s call the scene as we’ve just described it – Level 0.
All bands begin at Level 0; 0 being the number of fans your band has. The only people coming to your shows in the beginning are your friends. At the average Level 0 gig, there’s about 20-30 people in the audience all of whom are friends of the 3 bands who are playing the show. Sometimes, if it’s a Wednesday night in the middle of winter and it’s raining, there’ll be 5 people in the audience. In rare cases, there’s nobody except the sound engineer, which can challenge the morale of even the most enthusiastic wanna-be rockstars.
While your band and all the bands you are “friends” with are at Level 0, you happily trade gigs and everybody gets along fine. That changes when one of the bands gets to Level 1.
Level 1 simply means that your band has more than 0 fans. This is usually very obvious because there are people showing up to your gig who you don’t know personally. The only way to get to Level 1 is to have word-of-mouth. Somebody liked your band enough to recommend it to somebody else.
The difference between Level 0 and Level 1 is that, instead of there being 20 people in the audience, there’s now 40 or 50. That might not sound like much. But, on the local indie scene, if you can bring 50 people to a gig, you are ahead of 95% of the other bands. Venue booking agents will notice that fact and they will start to offer you better gigs.
What has happened in the transition from Level o to Level 1 is that you have created more value and you can start trading that value. This might sound like a good problem to have. But most bands, like most people, have no experience in trading value. They now find themselves in a strange position which they don’t know how to deal with.
Perhaps the strangest part is how this changes your relationship with the other bands on the scene, the ones who are supposed to be your “friends”. You might expect that they would be happy to see your band succeeding. In fact, what happens is the little green-eyed monster rears its ugly head.
The underlying problem is that the terms of the value exchange you had with the other bands have changed. Because you are now at Level 1, your gigs are more valuable than they were before. Because they are more valuable, other bands will actively seek to get on the bill. You start getting phone calls and messages from every band you ever played with asking for gigs.
The trouble is that those bands no longer have an equal value gig to trade in return. They can offer you a Level 0 gig, but that’s no longer of value to you. As a Level 1 band, you’re now hoping to trade with the bands who are at Level 2 by bringing your audiences to their shows. You’ll be playing weekend gigs at larger venues with bigger crowds.
What this boils down to is that the perceived egalitarian utopia has gone. Instead, you find that you are actually in a value hierarchy where you are one level higher than the bands who are supposed to be your “friends”. Nobody discusses this openly, but it’s the reality.
Your friendship with the bands at Level 0 was based on a reciprocal and equal trade of value. That equal trade breaks down when you get to Level 1 and this places the friendship under threat. What can you do?
Probably the most common response is to ignore the problem by not replying to all the calls and messages you are now getting. You become “aloof” and “unfriendly” and the bands stuck back at Level 0 begin to resent you for not helping them.
Another option is to try and keep the friendship alive by giving gigs to the bands who call you. This will keep them happy but now you will be the one who gets resentful. You’ll feel that you are being used by the other bands.
Yet another option is to try and acknowledge the value imbalance by telling the other bands you’re doing them a favour. But that just activates all kinds of pride and self-esteem issues. Besides which, it’s not what “friends” do and so will probably end up breaking the friendship anyway.
If not handled properly, and in the overwhelming majority of cases it is not, the imbalance in value exchange inevitably leads to resentment. Friendship turns to enmity. Jealously and envy rear their ugly heads. People start bad mouthing each other. All of this because nobody knows how to re-establish an equilibrium of value exchange. All this even though there’s no money involved and the stakes are, if we’re honest about it, completely trivial.
When you view society through this lens of the difficulties inherent in trading value, you can see how many positions exist simply to facilitate the trade of value. In the music industry, the band manager is one who takes this responsibility on behalf of the band. Outside of music, there’s real estate agents, used car salesmen, bankers, politicians, priests, managers, marriage counsellors, online dating apps, second-hand goods marketplaces, the list goes on and on. All these jobs exist because people are really bad at trading value.