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.