Saturday, May 21, 2022

Primitive communism: Marx’s idea that societies were naturally egalitarian and communal before farming is widely influential and quite wrong (plus Ruth Benedict on property rights)

By Manvir Singh. He is an anthropologist and postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse. Excerpts:

"It was on that first trip that [anthropologist Kim] Hill saw the Aché share their meat. A man returning from a hunt dropped an animal in the middle of camp. Another person, the butcher, prepared piles for each family. A third person distributed. ‘At the time, it seemed kind of logical to me,’ Hill said. The scene reminded him of a family barbecue where everyone gets a plate.

Yet the more he lived among the Aché, the more astonishing food-sharing seemed. Men were forbidden from eating meat they’d acquired. Their wives and children received no more than anyone else. When he later built detailed genealogies, he discovered that, contrary to his expectations, bandmates were often unrelated. Most importantly, food-sharing didn’t just happen on special days. It was a daily occurrence, a psychological and economic centrepiece of Aché society.

What he started to see, in other words, was ‘almost pure economic communalism – and I really didn’t think that was possible.’"

"In 1985, he started working with another group, the Hiwi of Venezuela. He didn’t expect dramatic differences from the Aché. The Hiwi, too, were hunter-gatherers."

"Then, there was food-sharing. In the primitive communism of the Aché, hunters had little control over distributions: they couldn’t favour their families, and food flowed according to need. None of these applied to the Hiwi. When meat came into a Hiwi village, the hunter’s family kept a larger batch for themselves, distributing shares to a measly three of 36 other families. In other words, as Hill and his colleagues wrote in 2000 in the journal Human Ecology, ‘most Hiwi families receive nothing when a food resource is brought into the village.’

By exercising control over distributions, hunters convert meat into relationships

Hiwi sharing tells us something important about primitive communism: hunter-gatherers are diverse. Most have been less communistic than the Aché. When we survey forager societies, for instance, we find that hunters in many communities enjoyed special rights. They kept trophies. They consumed organs and marrow before sharing. They received the tastiest parts and exclusive rights to a killed animal’s offspring.

The most important privilege hunters enjoyed was selecting who gets meat. Selective sharing is powerful. It extends a bond between giver and recipient that the giver can pull on when they are in need. Refusing to share, meanwhile, is a rejection of friendship, an expression of ill will. When the anthropologist Richard Lee lived among the Kalahari !Kung, he noticed that a hunter named N!eisi once ignored his sister’s husband while passing out warthog meat. When asked why, N!eisi replied harshly: ‘This one I want to eat with my friends.’ N!eisi’s brother-in-law took the hint and, three days later, left camp with his wives and children. By exercising control over distributions, hunters convert meat into relationships.

To own something, we say, means excluding others from enjoying its benefits. I own an apple when I can eat it and you cannot. You own a toothbrush when you can use it and I cannot. Hunters’ special privileges shifted property rights along a continuum from fully public to fully private. The more benefits they could monopolise – from trophies to organs to social capital – the more they could be said to own their meat.

Compared with the Aché, many mobile, band-living foragers lay closer to the private end of the property continuum. Agta hunters in the Philippines set aside meat to trade with farmers. Meat brought in by a solitary Efe hunter in Central Africa was ‘entirely his to allocate’. And among the Sirionó, an Amazonian people who speak a language closely related to the Aché, people could do little about food-hoarding ‘except to go out and look for their own’. Aché sharing might embody primitive communism. Yet, Hill admits, ‘the Aché are probably the extreme case.’

Hunters’ privileges are inconvenient for narratives about primitive communism. More damning, however, is a starker, simpler fact. All hunter-gatherers had private property, even the Aché.

Individual Aché owned bows, arrows, axes and cooking implements. Women owned the fruit they collected. Even meat became private property as it was handed out. Hill explained: ‘If I set my armadillo leg on [a fern leaf] and went out for a minute to take a pee in the forest and came back and somebody took it? Yeah, that was stealing.’

Some proponents of primitive communism concede that foragers owned small trinkets but insist they didn’t own wild resources. But this too is mistaken. Shoshone families owned eagle nests. Bearlake Athabaskans owned beaver dens and fishing sites. Especially common is the ownership of trees. When an Andaman Islander man stumbled upon a tree suitable for making canoes, he told his group mates about it. From then, it was his and his alone. Similar rules existed among the Deg Hit’an of Alaska, the Northern Paiute of the Great Basin, and the Enlhet of the arid Paraguayan plains. In fact, by one economist ’s estimate, more than 70 per cent of hunter-gatherer societies recognised private ownership over land or trees.

The respect for property rights is clearest when someone violates them. To appreciate this, consider the Mbuti, one of the short-statured (‘pygmy’) hunter-gatherers of Central Africa.

The Ute of Colorado whipped thieves. The Ainu of Japan sliced their earlobes off

Much of what we know about Mbuti society comes from Colin Turnbull, a British-American anthropologist who stayed with them in the late 1950s."

"his writings still undermine claims of primitive communism. He described a society in which theft was prohibited, and where even the most desperate members suffered for violating property rights.

Take, for instance, Pepei, a Mbuti man who in 1958 was 19 years old and still unmarried. Unlike most bachelors, who slept next to the fire, Pepei lived in a hut with his younger brother. But instead of collecting building materials, he swiped them. He snuck around at night, plucking a leaf from this hut and a sapling from that. He also filched food. He was an orphan after all, and a bachelor, so he had few people to help him prepare meals. When food mysteriously disappeared, Pepei always claimed to have seen a dog snatch it.

‘Nobody really minded Pepei’s stealing,’ wrote Turnbull, ‘because he was a born comic and a great storyteller. But he had gone too far in stealing from old Sau.’

Old Sau was a skinny, feisty widow. She lived a couple of huts down from Pepei, and one night caught him skulking around in her hut. As he lifted the lid of a pot, she smacked him with a pestle, grabbed his arm, twisted it behind his back, and shoved him into the open.

Justice was brutal. Men ran out and held Pepei, while youths broke off thorny branches and thrashed him. Eventually Pepei broke away and ran into the forest crying. After 24 hours, he returned to camp and went straight to his hut unseen. ‘His hut was between mine and Sau’s,’ wrote Turnbull, ‘and I heard him come in, and I heard him crying softly because even his brother wouldn’t speak to him.’

Other foragers punished stealing, too. The Ute of Colorado whipped thieves. The Ainu of Japan sliced their earlobes off. For the Yaghan of Tierra del Fuego, accusing someone of robbery was a ‘deadly insult’. Lorna Marshall, who spent years living with the Kalahari !Kung, reported that a man was once killed for taking honey. Through violence towards offenders, foragers reified private property.

Is primitive communism another seductive but incorrect anthropological myth? On the one hand, no hunter-gatherer society lacked private property. And although they all shared food, most balanced sharing with special rights. On the other hand, living in a society like the Aché’s was a masterclass in reallocation. It’s hard to imagine farmers engaging in need-based redistribution on that scale.

Whatever we call it, the sharing economy that Hill observed with the Aché does not reflect some lost Edenic goodness. Rather, it sprang from a simpler source: interdependence. Aché families relied on each other for survival. We share with you today so that you can share with us next week, or when we get sick, or when we are pregnant. Hill once saw a man fall from a tree and break his hip. ‘He couldn’t walk for three months, and in those three months, he produced zero food,’ Hill said. ‘And you would think that he would have starved to death and his family would have starved to death. But, of course, nothing happened like that, because everybody provisioned him the whole time.’

This is partly about reciprocity. But it’s also about something deeper. When people are locked in networks of interdependence, they become invested in each other’s welfare. If I rely on three other families to keep me alive and get me food when I cannot, then not only do I want to maintain bonds with them – I also want them to be healthy and strong and capable.

Interdependence might seem enviable. Yet it begets a cruelty often overlooked in talk about primitive communism. When a person goes from a lifeline to a long-term burden, reasons to keep them alive can vanish. In their book Aché Life History (1996), Hill and the anthropologist Ana Magdalena Hurtado listed many Aché people who were killed, abandoned or buried alive: widows, sick people, a blind woman, an infant born too soon, a boy with a paralysed hand, a child who was ‘funny looking’, a girl with bad haemorrhoids. Such opportunism suffuses all social interactions. But it is acute for foragers living at the edge of subsistence, for whom cooperation is essential and wasted efforts can be fatal.

Once that need to survive dissipated, even friends could become disposable

Consider, for example, how the Aché treated orphans. ‘We really hate orphans,’ said an Aché person in 1978. Another Aché person was recorded after seeing jaguar tracks:

    Don’t cry now. Are you crying because you want your mother to die? Do you want to be buried with your dead mother? Do you want to be thrown in the grave with your mother and stepped on until your excrement comes out? Your mother is going to die if you keep crying. When you are an orphan nobody will ever take care of you again.

The Aché had among the highest infanticide and child homicide rates ever reported. Of children born in the forest, 14 per cent of boys and 23 per cent of girls were killed before the age of 10, nearly all of them orphans. An infant who lost their mother during the first year of life was always killed.

(Since acculturation, many Aché have regretted killing children and infants. In Aché Life History, Hill and Hurtado reported an interview with a man who strangled a 13-year-old girl nearly 20 years earlier. He ‘asked for our forgiveness’, they wrote, ‘and acknowledged that he never should have carried out the task and simply “wasn’t thinking”.’)

Hunter-gatherers shared because they had to. They put food into their bandmates’ stomachs because their survival depended on it. But once that need dissipated, even friends could become disposable.

The popularity of the idea of primitive communism, especially in the face of contradictory evidence, tells us something important about why narratives succeed. Primitive communism may misrepresent forager societies. But it is simple, and it accords with widespread beliefs about the arc of human history. If we assume that societies went from small to big, or from egalitarian to despotic, then it makes sense that they transitioned from property-less harmony to selfish competition, too. Even if the facts of primitive communism are off, the story feels right.

More important than its simplicity and narrative resonance, however, is primitive communism’s political expediency. For anyone hoping to critique existing institutions, primitive communism conveniently casts modern society as a perversion of a more prosocial human nature. Yet this storytelling is counterproductive. By drawing a contrast between an angelic past and our greedy present, primitive communism blinds us to the true determinants of trust, freedom and equity. If we want to build better societies, the way forward is neither to live as hunter-gatherers nor to bang the drum of a make-believe state of nature. Rather, it is to work with humans as they are, warts and all."

Singh's article reminded me of a passage about the Kwakiutl from Ruth Benedict's book "Patterns of Culture." Click here to go to a link that has her entire book online. It indicates that they may have had strong property rights

"The tribes of the North-West Coast had great possessions, and these possessions were strictly owned. They were property in the sense of heirlooms, but heirlooms, with them, were the very basis of society. There were two classes of possessions. The land and sea were owned by a group of relatives in common and passed down to all its members. There were no cultivated fields, but the relationship group owned hunting territories, and even wild-berrying and wild-root territories, and no one could trespass upon the property of the family. The family owned fishing territories just as strictly. A local group often had to go great distances to those strips of the shore where they could dig clams, and the shore near their village might be owned by another lineage. These grounds had been held as property so long that the village-sites had changed, but not the ownership of the clam-beds. Not only the shore, but even deep-sea areas were strict property. For halibut fishing the area belonging to a given family was bounded by sighting along double landmarks. The rivers, also, were divided up into owned sections for the candlefish hauls in the spring, and families came from great distances to fish their own section of the river."

Thursday, May 19, 2022

A Barter Game To Teach The Value Of Money As A Medium Of Exchange (and maybe spontaneous order?)

I created a barter game that I use in class. Each student gets a handout that lists 10 items that they own and ten items they need to get. Every trade has to be one item for one item. The students also get a sheet to record each trade they make. I set the time limit at around 20 minutes and they get extra credit for each item on their want list that they end up getting.

The table at the end of this post first shows the items they each own at the start of the game and then shows the items they need to get. What every player has and needs to get is different. There are only 12 unique players. So if more than 12 students show up, I start giving out player sheets that duplicate some that are already being used. Those students are probably in competition with each other and so may have a harder time than others. But I am not sure how to avoid this since I don't know ahead of time for sure how many students will show up. The game is set up for 12 players and, theoretically, they should all be able to trade for what is on their want list. If I set it up for more players, say 20, and not enough students showed up, then some students will have a hard time finding items on their list since the player sheet that has the items they need will not be in the game.

The link below will take you to a PDF file that has the 12 record sheets for each player. Each one has a table to record all the trades they made. Underneath that on each sheet is a table that shows the 10 items they start with ("Has") and then a list of the 10 items they want. My rules say that every trade is one item for one item (and Vitamins, for example, counts as just one item).
 
BarterRecordSheets.pdf.
 
One issue is how hard to make the game. In the real world, if you had to rely on barter, you would probably have to make several trades before you got what you wanted (like trading good A to get good B, then trade B to get C, and finally trade good C to get good D). So I tried to set things up so that it would be hard to get some goods on your want list (requiring several trades) while others would need fewer trades to get.

For example, using the information from the table below, player #1 could make the following trades

Apple for Blender with player #11
Blender for Belt with player #9
Belt for Bed with player #7
Bed for Baseball with player #5
Baseball for Bag with player #3

Bag is on the want list for player #1. This takes 5 trades, quite alot of work (one issue in setting up these tables is that I have to make sure some of the other goods that each player has or wants can't be used-for example, in the case above, what if player #3 wanted a bottle-then he could trade his bag to player #1 for the bottle and only one trade needs to take place-this would make the game too easy).

In this example, player #1 has to make 5 trades. But the other players only make one trade, getting an item they want from player #1, so the game won't always be that hard. The story above involving player #1 finally getting his bag works for him getting his bottle and checkers. He would make 5 trades with those same five players involving other goods.

In this next case, player #1 only has to make three trades

Desk for Drums with player #4
Drums for Folder with player #7
Folder for Fries with player #10

Something similar would happen with the glove and lock.

In this next case, player #1 only has to make two trades

Organ for Phone with player #5
Phone for Plates with player #9

Something similar would happen with the radio and socks.

In the last case, only one trade has to be made. Player #1 trades his turkey to player #2 for his TV. Then players #3 & #4 can make just one trade to get a good. The same is true for the rest of the pairs of players.

So some trades are easy and others harder. Students have to walk around and find people to trade with. It does not take them long to realize that they have to form little groups and discuss what everyone has and wants. Then someone starts saying things like "if you trade me A for my B then you can trade B to get C from this other guy, which is on your list." This happens spontaneously, without me, the teacher, telling them to do this. What at first glance seems like it would be very disorganized or chaotic, ends up going fairly smoothly with quite a bit of cooperation. Often if someone says "I need good A" another student will say "that guy Joe over there has good A" or "you have good C? that woman over there needs it." Again, that is done voluntarily, without any direction from me. So an orderly process emerges without my directing it (I've see scalpers at sporting events try to find other scalpers who might have what you want if they don't).

I do tell them at the beginning that they will often have to make several trades to get what they want, but that is it. Then I just say "start trading" and give them a five minute warning before time is up. I might remind them during the game that if they trade for a good that they now own it and can trade it for something they want.

Once the game is over, I ask them questions such as "how would you like to do something like this every time you go to the store?" No one says yes because they just experienced how hard that would really be. It is much easier getting what you want with money.


1
Apple
Bottle
Checkers
Desk
Glove
Lock
Organ
Radio
Socks
Turkey
2
Backpack
Bread
Cheese
Dog
Guitar
Magazine
Pen
Raisins
Soda
TV
3
Bag
Burger
Chicken
Door
Hammer
Map
Pencil
Rake
Spoons
Umbrella
4
Banana
Cake
Coat
Drums
Hat
Matches
Pepper
Rope
Straws
Vase
5
Baseball
Candles
Coffee
Fish
Honey
Milk
Phone
Rug
Sugar
Violin
6
Basketball
Candy
Comb
Flute
Ice Cream
Mirror
Piano
Ruler
Syrup
Vitamins
7
Bed
Car
Compass
Folder
Iron
Mustard
Pie
Salt
Table
Wagon
8
Beer
Carrot
Computer
Football
Jelly
Napkins
Pillow
Screwdriver
Tape
Wallet
9
Belt
Cat
Corn
Forks
Juice
Newspaper
Plates
Shirt
Tea
Watch
10
Bike
Cereal
Couch
Fries
Ketchup
Notebook
Popcorn
Shoes
Toothbrush
Wine
11
Blender
Chain
Crackers
Frisbee
Knives
Nuts
Printer
Shorts
Towel
Wrench
12
Book
Chair
Cups
Glasses
Light Bulbs
Oranges
Puzzle
Shovel
Trumpet
Yogurt

































1
Bag
Burger
Chicken
Fries
Ketchup
Notebook
Plates
Shirt
Tea
TV
2
Banana
Cake
Coat
Frisbee
Knives
Nuts
Popcorn
Shoes
Toothbrush
Turkey
3
Baseball
Candles
Coffee
Glasses
Light Bulbs
Oranges
Printer
Shorts
Towel
Vase
4
Basketball
Candy
Comb
Desk
Glove
Lock
Puzzle
Shovel
Trumpet
Umbrella
5
Bed
Car
Compass
Dog
Guitar
Magazine
Organ
Radio
Socks
Vitamins
6
Beer
Carrot
Computer
Door
Hammer
Map
Pen
Raisins
Soda
Violin
7
Belt
Cat
Corn
Drums
Hat
Matches
Pencil
Rake
Spoons
Wallet
8
Bike
Cereal
Couch
Fish
Honey
Milk
Pepper
Rope
Straws
Wagon
9
Blender
Chain
Crackers
Flute
Ice Cream
Mirror
Phone
Rug
Sugar
Wine
10
Book
Chair
Cups
Folder
Iron
Mustard
Piano
Ruler
Syrup
Watch
11
Apple
Bottle
Checkers
Football
Jelly
Napkins
Pie
Salt
Table
Yogurt
12
Backpack
Bread
Cheese
Forks
Juice
Newspaper
Pillow
Screwdriver
Tape
Wrench

Mackerel in U. S. prisons.

Snickers bars at the annual Rainbow Gathering.

The perfect draw – when cigarettes became a war camp currency by Fabien Hassan