Economics/Class Relations

The Potlatch as an Illustration of the Gift Economy

It’s interesting how the potlatch or the Jewish concept of jubilee are forms of what FOX News fans would probably denounce as “socialism” that are largely cultural rather than political in nature.

By Troy Southgate

Some of you may have heard of the potlatch system, an economic practice that was discovered among the likes of the indigenous Kwakwaka’wakw folk of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and America by the leading French ethnologist, Marcel Mauss (1872-1950). Although the Canadian government made attempts to suppress it in 1884, the potlatch continues to endure. The word itself is taken from the Chinook dialect and means ‘gift,’ or ‘to give away,’ and is used by indigenous communities to convey social power.

In contemporary Western societies, of course, accumulating wealth is itself a sign of prestige and domination, but for the Kwakwaka’wakw people the potlatch method is a ceremonial expression of generosity. Having amassed a sizable amount of crops, animal skins, copper and ornamental artifacts during the Summer months, the richest members of the tribe meet with their neighbours and friends in a numaym, or house-society. This is not based on family lineage, but tribal status, and during the potlatch high-ranking members distribute titles, land rights and goods amongst their fellows. Contrary to the manner in which status is acquired in the West, the fortunes of a tribal family are not dependant upon who has the most resources but the ability of its members to distribute what they have. ‘Gifting’ thus becomes a form of wealth in itself. Competitive altruism, if you will.

Potlatch also takes place among the Heiltsuk, Haida, Nuxalk, Tlingit, Makah, Tsimshian, Nuu-chah-nulth and Coast Salish tribes, too, although each has its own particular method of wealth dispersal. Needless to say, the 1884 ban was enforced to counteract what the mercantile Canadians regarded as “wasteful and unproductive” behaviour, and it was only in 1951 that the ban was repealed. In the Winter 1994 edition of Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, Neal Keating compares potlatch to contemporary rioting and looting, contending that it is necessary to “squander the surplus” and that “twelve-thousand or so people who were arrested [in Los Angeles] for rioting, and especially looting, be made into potlatch chiefs”. This is utter nonsense, of course, and ruins what is otherwise an excellent article. Indeed, whilst the ‘gifting’ tradition of the Kwakwaka’wakw is done both willingly and of one’s own accord, breaking into shops and stealing televisions, computers and playstations is clearly not in the same league.

Far be it for me to express sympathy with capitalist storekeepers, and none shall be forthcoming, but let us not pretend that looting – and I make an exception for those who are starving and need access to foodstuffs – even remotely fulfils the same purpose. Real potlatching, I believe, relates more to bartering than wanton destruction. After all, when G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) said that “exchanging hams for handkerchiefs, or pigs for pianos” can lead to economic freedom, he was not setting a price on the items concerned. The fact that a piano costs more than a pig, for example, does not always matter in the grand scheme of things – particularly if you desperately fancy a pork sandwich or perhaps need to knock out a quick Beethoven symphony to fill a dull afternoon – and the authentic generosity than one finds in the best of human hearts would, I’m sure, always seek to give far beyond what is expected in return.

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