Stone Age Economics

Marshall Sahlins (1974)

MarshallSahlins StoneAgeEconomics “The market-industrial system institutes scarcity, in a manner completely unparalleled and to a degree nowhere else approximated.” – Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics.

One quickly comes to suspect a double entendre underlies Marshall Sahlins’ title, ‘Stone Age Economics’. Yes, his collection of six essays tackle fascinating aspects of Economic Systems in Stone Age (and other ‘primitive’) societies. But more deeply, Sahlins’ title belies a criticism of modern-day economics as a discipline. He holds that Economics, as practised by today’s card-carrying academic economists, is unable to adequately account for material flow of goods outside of the domain of Western Culture. Economics is primitive and underdeveloped – it is ‘still in the Stone Age’.

As an anthropologist, we might expect Sahlins to approach material transactions as phenomena subsumed in the wider province of culture and society. Transactions – which he places on a continuum from gifts through barter to theft – are not ends in themselves (compare: exchange as a mechanism towards maximising individual utility), but rather means to a more … holistic end: cementing bonds, stabilising groups, etc. Economists, Sahlins charges, do the opposite: for them, “cultural order is subsumed in practical rationality […] the cultural conditions only coming into the account in the traduced form of personal satisfaction.” What Sahlins means is that ‘cultural quirks’ are incorporated into the Economist’s epistemology by a sleight of hand: Melanesian chiefs derive individual utility x from giving stuff away, etc. etc. This is the so-called substantivism vs. formalism debate, which the likes of Nash also waded into.

In my view, Sahlins is probably right in saying that economists would tend to merely ‘exogenise’ cultural facets that are the anthropologist’s bread and butter, and that from this perspective modern Economics has inculcated a certain Western ethnocentrism: “The only way [theories of culture on the one hand and of the self-interested homo economicus on the other] can be brought together under the description of rational action is to translate the cultural conditions into so many desires and preferences of the self-satisfying subject”, i.e., as “subjective dispositions of the rational actors”. To this extent, I empathise with the substantivist camp. Moreover, there is an interesting self-reinforcing mechanical side to all this: market transactions tend to individuate, and individuation provides the market’s ‘centripetal force’.

Sahlins argues, on the basis of a wide diversity of ethnographic evidence, that many paleolithic peoples were “comparatively free from material pressures” (in the words of Lorna Marshall) and enjoyed a kind of “affluence without abundance”, where “people’s wants are generally easily satisfied”. Much of the evidence to the contrary comes from studies of surviving hunting cultures, whom Sahlins argues are not representative because they “represent the paleolithic disenfranchised, occupying marginal haunts untypical of the mode of production [sic] […] places so beyond the range of the main centers of cultural advance as to be allowed some respite from the planetary march of cultural evolution, because they were characteristically poor beyond the interest and competence of more advanced economies.”

Why would ‘paleolithic wants’ have been so easily satisfied? One can buy Sahlin’s argument that highly mobile lifestyles would “rapidly depreciate the satisfactions of property”, but what about more sedentary folk such as those living in the Pacific Northwest or Northern California?

I surmise that Sahlin’s answer would be something like this: a household’s accumulation of wealth would have been highly destabilising to intra-group relations, and thus cultural practices evolved to curb hoarding, thereby inculcating a state of material equality. Wealthy chiefs gave away lots of stuff and threw lavish parties. Members of more efficient domestic units (households) worked less hard than their less efficient neighbours, thus balancing productivities. There is something fishy about this reasoning, though, as it suggests that the desire for individual accumulation was (is) there all along. Is or isn’t personal accumulation a Western idiosyncrasy that is somehow contaminating other cultures!? (What I think far more likely, is that accumulation (and inequality) are more prevalent in larger and/or more stationary groups. But seeing as this is not Sahlin’s argument, I will leave it aside for the time being).

So it seems that Sahlins calls for a broadening of Economics’ theoretical framework. Towards this end, Sahlins disappoints. Indeed, in chapters dealing with the prices of tribal trade goods, he makes ample reference to the economist’s workhorse concepts of ‘demand’ and supply’ when asking why the real prices of goods increase with geographic- and kinship distance. The question gets turned on its head: in the absence of microeconomic foundations, why (and how) are these concepts still operative at all? Criticising orthodox economics for its inability to account for patterns of material flow amongst non-Western cultures seems valuable. But positing an alternate theoretical framework that matches economics’ self-consistency but broadens its explanatory power to encompass wider cultures would be more valuable still.

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