Culture

The Myth of Primitive Communism

Mike Reid

All my students starved to death. Again.

Here’s what they learned the hard way: generosity today can be a way of saving for tomorrow.

They were survivors of a plane crash on a desert island. They knew they’d be trapped there for months and that the only food would be the large but elusive fish in the sea.

When one of my students managed to catch a fish, he ate as much as he could, then stored the rest for himself under some rocks near the beach.

Other students, less successful as fishermen, starved to death promptly.

I like to play this little starvation game to disabuse my students of their romantic notions about communist noble savages in the African wilderness.

Soon, the initially successful fisherman found himself alone on the island. With no refrigeration, the food he’d stashed rotted away. And when he ventured out fishing again, he was unlucky and got stung by a deadly jellyfish.

With no one left to take care of him, he, too, perished.

Every year, I play this game with my students. We use a big square of desks to represent our island, pennies to represent fast-decaying fish fillets, and dice to randomize the fishers’ success or failure. (If a student decides not to fish, he has no chance to catch food but also no chance of encountering the dreaded jellyfish.)

“Primitive Communists”

We play this game while studying the famous Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers. Until the colonial encroachments of the 20th century, most Ju/’hoansi lived in small, nomadic groups in the Kalahari desert, the men hunting with bows and arrows and the women collecting nuts, berries, and roots with digging sticks and carrier sashes.

Every year, in the discussions that follow our brief reading on this culture, my students remark with amazement that whenever a Ju/’hoan man or woman finds food, he or she shares it widely with the community.

This behavior seems to be an important part of why Richard B. Lee, the most prominent anthropologist in the study of the Ju/’hoansi, describes them as “primitive communists” in the Marxian sense. And many of my students each year seem to get the idea that the Ju/’hoansi share their food so freely with each other because they are in some way more charitable, more natural, or otherwise more moral than us.

Sometimes, a student remarks, “That’s like socialism, right?”

So I like to play this little starvation game to disabuse my students of their romantic notions about communist noble savages in the African wilderness.

What, I ask, would happen if a bunch of greedy, selfish people like us found themselves in the same economic situation the Ju/’hoansi face?

The Economic Constraints of Foraging Life

Nomadic foragers like the Ju/’hoansi have unreliable “incomes” in terms of the food they find from day to day and week to week.

They are often masterful trackers and foragers. But, no matter how competent you are, when you pursue a giraffe on foot with a bow and arrow, sometimes the giraffe gets away.

Furthermore, it’s difficult for nomadic foragers to store food or other forms of material wealth. In fact, the Ju/’hoansi are even less inclined to store food than many other nomadic foragers. Perhaps this is because, while they can dry meat to last a couple of months, they also know a sudden rainstorm could ruin their savings. And because they travel repeatedly over the year to new water holes and food sources, as Lee says, “it would be sheer folly to amass more goods than can be carried along when the group moves.”

So if one were to ask a Ju/’hoan man in the morning what he’s going to eat that night, he could honestly respond, “I don’t know; I haven’t caught it yet.”

Cultural Heritage and Human Survival

Every year, in the game with my students, one of two things happens:

  1. Successful fishermen imitate the Ju/’hoansi. They give away their excess food freely, starting with their friends or closest neighbors at the game table.
  2. The students starve to death en masse.

My students tend to go into this game with an idealistic view of the Ju/’hoansi as selfless, altruistic people.

They tend to finish the game realizing that, even if you were the greediest, most selfish nomadic forager in the world, your best move would still be to share food with your neighbors.

Since nomadic foragers have a difficult time storing physical capital, especially food, their response all around the world, in culture after culture, is to promptly turn it into human capital by giving it to friends, relatives, and neighbors.

Like my students, Ju/’hoansi men and women are tempted to hoard their own wealth. Indeed, Ju/’hoansi elders often lament that they have given generously all their lives and would now like to keep just a little for themselves.

But the Ju/’hoansi also have a massive corpus of gift-exchange rituals, conversational habits, and even stock jokes that they use to bolster their own patience and to bring hoarders peacefully into line. These behaviors represent the heritage of thousands of years of spontaneous-order cultural development under economic conditions in which short-run greed is tantamount to stupidity.

What makes the Ju/’hoansi seem selfless, or communistic, or morally superior to us is their age-old cultural adaptation to the fact that, for each individual in their situation, the best strategy to save for the future is to share widely in the present.

Culture and Markets

In the very different economic and technological circumstances of the industrialized West, we have our own roundabout methods by which our selfish desires lead to social prosperity. In markets, each of us can still provide best for his or her own future by helping others — especially strangers — for the right price.

Would this same system work for hunter-gatherers?

Even if you were the greediest, most selfish nomadic forager in the world, your best move would still be to share food with your neighbors.

If a group of 19th-century Ju/’hoansi equipped with digging sticks and bows and arrows had tried the ethics of the modern market for themselves, many might have starved to death before they recognized their error and began to recreate a culture more appropriate to their own ecology and technology.

But what works for the Ju/'hoansi would be devastating for us. If we today, in a market society made up largely of strangers, attempted to practice the ethics of profligate sharing and meek humility — or even worse, to enforce such ethics on noncompliant others through government policies — we would drive our whole society into chaos and penury.

The Ju/’hoansi's strategy works only for people in the Ju/’hoansi's situation.

Our own great wealth and our own social order are built on savings and investment — and on using our resources to benefit strangers through market exchange.

Find a Portuguese translation of this article here.

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