Gift economies suck (except ours)

First off: wow. A few angst-filled posts were all it took for this blog to come back to life with a series of great new posts (by great new members of the blog!) and rich thoughtful comments. Rumours of our death were greatly exaggerated. Congratulations and thanks everyone — be sure to pace yourselves as I hope this will turn into a beautiful glowing marathon of content rather than a brief multicoloured spasm of posts that ends suddenly full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. So: thanks!

Second, feedback on Adam’s recent post on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s typical-but-wrong misunderstanding of the Potlatch concept turned into a wider thread about how people imagine the Potlatch and gift economies.

I am sure that someone out there has written about the long history of this concept, beginning with its practice on the Northwest Coast by First Nations types amongst whom it still flourishes, continuing through early ethnographic reporting by Boas (and Mauss) and others, the disemmination of the idea through books and the display of truly beautiful masks and material culture in museums associated with it, its adoption in Frenchified surrealism/ethnological circles in the Interwar period, the eagerness with which countercultural babyboomer types seized on the concept as the caring-sharing inverse of capitalism, the way it exists in post-boomer subcultures of the Berkeley squat PKD RAW Loompanics variety, and was thus integrated into current internet/hacker antiglobalization adventure travel+social/multi media lifestyles. If they haven’t, they should, since it would be a great reference. Let me know. At any rate the point is just that these days most portrayals of Potlatch: The Concept Part Deux now circulates with an almost haughty disregard for what the event is and was.

Most of these concepts of potlatch are, to be frank, straight out of the Book of Acts, in which caring sharers and sharing carers unite in the name of uniting. In this version of potlatch, ubi caritas et amor, potlatch ibi est. Like the community of saints left behind by Jesus it is imagined as a utopian but fragile community, unable to sustain itself in the face of external pressures and the internal conflicts that come from trying to build a community of the righteous when the only materials to hand are the debased, unregenerate sinners who have populated the planet since Adam’s fall.

To be honest, I’ve always thought the gift/goods distinction has more to do with the national ideologies of newly independent nations as imbibed, processed, and expelled by visiting anthropologists than reality (this is particularly the case with PNG, where a lot of these ideas come from). At any rate, this tendency of the concept of potlatch to serve as a receptacle for standard average European fantasies of utopian communal solidarity doesn’t do justice to places where a large part of people’s lives are lived transacting goods with one another (i.e. ‘gift economies’).

My experience in rural Papua New Guinea, as well as what I’ve read about similar areas has been somewhat different. Egalitarian communities in which people share everything are often less than paradise. In a world in which everyone shares everything with everyone, people often feel a constant sense of surveillance. You can’t have Nice Things unless everyone else has them, and it is often quite depressing to watch food get distributed so that everyone has a bite, but no one more than that. Secrecy becomes a cultural theme, and people begin worrying about witches.

I don’t mean to demonize ‘gift economies’ by inverting their moral valuation, but I do want to emphasize that people who grew up in gift economies don’t mind getting out of them all that much. It can actually be tremendously rewarding to buy a honkin’ big piece of meat from someone who you will never meet again, take it back to your hotel room, and eat the entire thing by yourself, completely alone.

I think most readers of this blog are so used to living lives full of government and cash that they only see the downsides (which I admit are considerable). I think its worth reminding ourselves how nice it is to live in communities where firefighters will come to help you with a phonecall — and without mandatory participation at the fire house.

Of course, many attempts to build technofied or more complex gift economies will be different — Zuckerburg imagines a world where technology scaffolds social networks that would otherwise collapse under their own complexity, while others imagine various softwares that will reduce transaction costs so that specialization and generalized reciprocity can coexist. Obviously, I wish these projects well. At the same time, I feel that they may fall prey to one of the keenest insight of egalitarian gift economies: the keen bullshit detectors and frank evaluation of worth that comes from really, really highly valuing human dignity. A lot of people I’ve met in Papua New Guinea realize that the guy behind the desk making twice the salary of the guy cleaning the toilet is living a lifestyle that is exploitative and just plain wrong. We can tell ourselves that writing a fun iphone app for everyone to use is somehow equivalent to being a garbage man in such a way that a sufficiently complicated technical system could make the two equivalent in some sort of way. But I fear that a lot of the time such a hope is merely a way to mask the reality of continuing and entrenched inequality that exists in complex societies.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

15 thoughts on “Gift economies suck (except ours)

  1. You can’t have Nice Things unless everyone else has them, and it is often quite depressing to watch food get distributed so that everyone has a bite, but no one more than that.

    Thus leading to the truly awkward situation in which the American yells at his co-workers in Puerto Rico that they could not have any of his Fig Newtons because while he has happily shared them for a number of days now he has noticed that rather than bringing their own to also share with him from time to time he has somehow become the designated cookie provider. Or am I making this all about me?

  2. MT, I wonder if the case you describe is a classic example of cross-cultural misunderstanding, i.e., when the rich (by local standards) American thinks he is sharing and being egalitarian and the locals perceive the gesture as a form of patronage, a hierarchical relationship in which the patron is supposed to feed his clients. The American doesn’t know what a patron can ask in return for his cookies, but demanding that his co-workers treat him as an equal is not part of their game.

  3. MT, I wonder if the case you describe is a classic example of cross-cultural misunderstanding, i.e., when the rich (by local standards) American thinks he is sharing and being egalitarian and the locals perceive the gesture as a form of patronage, a hierarchical relationship in which the patron is supposed to feed his clients.

    Oh, God, no. I was subsisting on something like $580 a month and if I recall correctly the per capita yearly income on the island at the time was something like $8,900. And my co-workers knew I was skint. I know enough about patronage in Borinquen to know that synchronic and diachronic studies would be engaging and useful in every way and that a patrón I was not. ☺

  4. John- (this may be getting off topic) – You describe a situation closely linked to problems in cross-cultural communication I have in directing archaeological fieldwork in Mexico. I want to be friends with the workers we hire (mostly campesinos during the agricultural off-season), but I am the patrón and that dictates forms of interaction and behavior. The problem is with U.S. students who are used to an egalitarian ideology and want to be pals with the Mexican workers. So they use the familiar terms of address in Spanaish (tu), which makes the workers think that either the students are being overly familiar (with attractive US female students and young male workers this can lead to various awkward encounters), or else that the students are being hierarchical and dominant (since the familar form is also used by people in a dominant position to show their superiority over people in a lower position).

    Anyway, I’ve figured out a lot of this kind of thing over the years, but I have never seen any papers or written discussions that might help orient unsophisticated US students to the social realities of life and work in Mexico. If such a thing exists (more for the specifics of Mexico or Latin America than for general anthropological cross-cultural understanding), I’d like to know about it.

  5. The articles referenced below are written for a scholarly rather than popular audience and thus may not be what your students need but they are solid treatments of the topic. Perhaps you can upstream the citations.

    Foster, George M. 1961. The dyadic contract: a model for the social structure of a Mexican peasant village. American Anthropologist, n.s. 63, no. 6 (December): 1173–92. doi:10.1525/aa.1961.63.6.02a00020.

    Foster, George M. 1963. The dyadic contract in Tzintzuntzan, II: patron-client relationship. American Anthropologist, n.s. 65, no. 6 (December): 1280–94. doi:10.1525/aa.1963.65.6.02a00040.

    Lauria, Anthony. 1964. “Respeto,” “relajo” and inter-personal relations in Puerto Rico. Anthropological Quarterly 37, no. 2 (April): 53–67. doi:10.2307/3316848.

  6. “the social realities of life and work in Mexico.”
    As opposed to class relations everywhere on earth?

    I’ve been a construction worker with a crew of immigrants, the white guy among latinos.
    I’ve worked as a carpenter/supervisor with an assistant, a 21 year old street kid from the Caribbean, and gang member. We negotiated a friendship based on the knowledge that we both had responsibilities to higher-ups, but also that I had advantages due to education, technical ability and race. But he came to understand that I would not knowingly take advantage of my position [I didn’t proclaim that, I only tried to demonstrate it]. I would very specifically not render him invisible in the presence of others, coworkers, my “equals”, clients etc. who would otherwise be happy to ignore him. I told him if he ever caught me locking him out in that way, he should make that clear to me in no uncertain terms; but not for both our sakes when clients were around. I taught him skills, he told me stories.

    I know a couple, heirs to a large fortune, who’d lived the bohemian life in their 20’s. In their mid 30’s they decided to go back to their roots, and bought a sprawling apartment in midtown and hired a staff of servants. 6 months later they fired them all and hired a new set. They learned the hard way: your servants can’t be your friends. Your friends become offended when you ask them to clean your bathroom.

    On Zuckerberg-
    His fondness for the Potlatch as he imagines it ties into the new billionaire class’s even newer fondness for gift-giving. First power comes from taking, then from giving away. It’s always annoyed me that only conservatives and not liberals were bothered by George Soros, whose intelligence is that of the speculative sociopath, now buying adoration where where he once bought fear. For what it’s worth, I’ve known people who worked with him, and also servants.

    “It can actually be tremendously rewarding to buy a honkin’ big piece of meat from someone who you will never meet again, take it back to your hotel room, and eat the entire thing by yourself, completely alone.”

    That strikes me both as a perfect description of the model -as opposed to the reality- of American ritualized exchange (and all exchange: from academia to wall street is ritual exchange) and therefore as a reaction -a reflex- against imagined collectivism. That is it’s part of the American frontier now suburban imagination of individualism. I realize the language included irony but maybe not enough to cover the depth of the root.

    And all of this ties into Kerim’s “research bleg” for discussions of collaboration vs ethnography, which I would call needs to be seen as less a dichotomy than an ongoing responsibility. Hence my suggestion that he look up Joe McGinniss and Janet Malcolm. Should intellectuals, taking that title as seriously as it’s often imagined, have first loyalty to ritual exchange among their own kind -class, race, profession (the academy-JSTOR)- or should they feel obliged more than others to balance and ironize their native relations with an equally strong set of relations with, students, cab drivers, dish washers, the women who clean up the faculty lounge, as well as in some fields officially designated “informants”?

    2694 characters. A little long maybe.

  7. “That strikes me both as a perfect description of the model -as opposed to the reality- of American ritualized exchange (and all exchange: from academia to wall street is ritual exchange) and therefore as a reaction -a reflex- against imagined collectivism.”…

    Maybe though it’s a fantasy that animates all cultural systems. I’m probably with Levi-Strauss here: ‘eating by oneself’ (or not) is a problem at the cusp of what it means to be ‘social’. I’m probably also, however, with Sartre, and whatever it was he said about ‘l’enfer’…

  8. I’m probably more with LS. Sartre is caught up -by choice not just by default- in the dialectics of modern individualism. Eating by yourself is problematic, but talking to yourself, telling stories, singing songs -to a mirror?- is more so.

    Sartre was a 20th century philosopher who felt the need to write plays, Shakespeare was just a craftsman. Criticism, now science, imagines individuals looking in. The arts, accepting language and culture [other people] as constitutive, describe actors looking out. There is no communication, and no ability to communicate, without others. If hell is other people, then language is hell.

    When I first heard the terms ‘emics’ and ‘etics’ I thought of poemics[sic] and poetics, of poets and critics. Sartre was a critic. For better or worse -and even if I’m a bad one- I’m a poet. My question as always is this: what are the po-emics of criticism? What were they in Elizabethan England, inter-war and post-war France? And what are they now in the US?

  9. “I don’t mean to demonize ‘gift economies’ by inverting their moral valuation, but I do want to emphasize that people who grew up in gift economies don’t mind getting out of them all that much.”

    Yes, I guess the popular tendency is to equate gifts with morality and commodities with immorality. But the contrast is really between a realm of morality (positive and negative) and one of amorality. Gifts are about the evaluation of relationships, and that can have a caring sharing dimension or a competitive/dominance one, all founded on the moralities of obligation. But commodity exchange throws aside relationships rendering them irrelevant by evaluating only things, and so claims to be amoral. Hence capitalism as the dream of the free individual, or the rational actor of economics – the cusp of the social.

    “That strikes me both as a perfect description of the model -as opposed to the reality- of American ritualized exchange”

    Chris Gregory argues that the Gift:Commodity contrast is a model, a logical opposition, and that it serves as a touchstone for empirical comparison. So it seems to me that the Facebook thing is an opportunity to do just that – look at the ways that it resembles or deviates from the classic model, and explore what that means. Gregory’s approach would mean something like comparing both the Potlach and FB to the model rather than to each other (or before comparing to each other).

  10. Tim, very nice. How do you see the difference between potlatch and FB in light. Of the model?

  11. Rex,

    I am not sure I get your point about “cash and government” VS “mandatory participation at the firehouse”.

    Aren’t taxes and other forms of levying by the state already mediated forms of “mandatory participation at the firehouse”, even though not necessarily experienced directly as such ?

    Tangentially, I, for one, would not mind learning about, and practicing, firefighting from time to time. Yes, I would go crazy if the firehouse were to ask me, on the phone, if I have done my firefighting share before coming and rescue me. But this would not be a “gift”.
    Further, my participation to the firehouse could also be mediated through gifts, my gift could have been to the school (and/or the shoe factory), and the school (and/or the shoe factory) could have given to the firefighters and their children, like in A -> B -> C, and then back to A.

    On your last point, if I understand well, I think I agree. Something approaching an attractive and complex “gift economy” social order would not be compatible with outrageous inequalities. But I don’t think the latter is a necessary condition of “complexity”.

    (To make a silly joke, I would add that one do not fight fire with cash and governments. I am not so sure about the converse. )

  12. My wife started getting upset with me last week as I started recalling Mayfair Yang’s essay on the gift economy. Kim Christen says:

    Writing about Aboriginal Australia, Nicholas Peterson has a great concept he calls “demand sharing” that undercuts the more romantic notions of “gift economies and gets at the tensions involved in and the work it takes to maintain these types of systems. It’d do Zuckerberg and the other free webbie types a bit of good to read up on it!

  13. Rex wrote :

    “I think most readers of this blog are so used to living lives full of government and cash that they only see the downsides (which I admit are considerable). I think its worth reminding ourselves how nice it is to live in communities where firefighters will come to help you with a phonecall — and without mandatory participation at the fire house.”

    Now, apparently, that’s not to be taken for granted :

    “Firefighters let home burn to the ground because owner didn’t pay annual $75 fee” :

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