Given the various forms of public anguish about the ‘cost of living crisis’, I thought it would be a good time to do another three-part ‘special’ focussing on the nature of how we live our lives – both today, and in the distant past – to objectively question the basis of this ‘modern’ lifestyle.

The first book is Marshall Sahlins’‘Stone Age Economics’ – published fifty years ago in 1972.

‘Stone Age Economics’:

First hardback edition, 1972. ISBN 9780-2020-1098-4.

First paperback edition, 1972. ISBN 9780-2020-1099-1.

Routledge revised paperback edition, 2017. ISBN 9781-1387-0261-5.

Free PDF of first edition, via Libcom.

Free text/PDF/epub of first edition, via Internet Archive.

Beginning with a presentation in 1966, ‘Notes on The Original Affluent Society’, what Sahlins challenged was the historic prejudice which dismissed the rights and value of ‘undeveloped’ societies and their ‘state of nature’ (I will not use the word, ‘primitive’, in this context as that is even more politically loaded).

Marshall Sahlins

Marshall Sahlins
27thDecember 1930 –
5th April 2021)

Credit: Elkziz, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The idea of ‘undeveloped’ societies lacking economic legitimacy, and therefore supremacy over their lands and resources, had been evolved by figures such as Hobbes and Locke in the Seventeenth Century; and was the basis of the justification which permitted the expropriation of land, and the enslavement of peoples, in Africa and the Americas under early European imperial expansion.

As Sahlins says:

“The familiar conception… makes assumptions peculiarly appropriate to market economies: that man’s wants are great, not to say infinite, whereas his means are limited, although improvable: thus, the gap between means and ends can be narrowed by industrial productivity… But there is also a Zen road to affluence, departing from premises somewhat different from our own: that human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate. Adopting the Zen strategy, a people can enjoy an unparalleled material plenty with a low standard of living.”

1974 mass market paperback edition

Sahlins’ revolutionary approach was to look upon the state of these peoples not as ‘lesser’, or ‘undeveloped’, but as ‘affluent’; because they enjoyed something which people in the modern era, with all their material wealth, did not have – true economic freedom.

Sahlins’ work explores the way economic exchange in undeveloped societies was given value by directly creating their needs, rather than extracting ‘surplus value’ from the control of property and the means of manufacture for a market. It prefigured recent activism by peasant movements around the world, as well as providing evidence to support Nineteenth Century theorists such as Proudhon.

As Sahlins notes, families in ancient societies were not ‘self-sufficient’ – as defined by more recent hyper-individualist or libertarian models of ‘autarky’. They worked collectively to obtains their needs. And the objectives of that process were broadly reciprocal, with the goal of supporting all, rather than framed as a race for individual accumulation.

Man the Hunter

‘Man the Hunter’, Richard Borshay & Irvine DeVore, 1969 (ISBN‎ 9780-2023-3032-7). This book contains Sahlins’ original paper, ‘Notes on The Original Affluent Society’.

As Sahlins says:

“As an economic rule, there is no class of landless paupers in primitive society… and not a systematic condition of the economic organisation. The producers’ hold on their own economic means rules out the most compelling history has known: exclusive control of such means by some few, rendering dependent the many others.”

The modern concept of ‘progress’ arose as the antithesis to defining undeveloped societies as having ‘no value’. ‘Progress’ was given its own self-justifying logic by the Industrial Revolution; and became a driving social fetish during the rise of the Consumer Society.

Sahlins turned ‘progress’ on its head: Firstly, in a society with minimal needs, the organised ‘scarcity’ of industrial society and its inequalities does not exist. Secondly, where the ‘means of production’ are practical skills, and the resources to utilise those skills are abundant and shared, free of property rights, it creates a completely different set of economic relationships in society; based on the social value of transaction rather than the material value of the goods created.

Routledge 2004

2004 Routledge paperback edition

As Sahlins says:

“On a very broad view of cultural evolution… It is a question of the distribution of energy, skill, and intelligence… In the primitive relation of man to tool, the balance of these is in favour of man; with the inception of a ‘machine age’ the balance swings definitively in favour of the tool.”

In undeveloped societies then, people did not work to buy consumer goods to express their freedom. People worked a few hours a day to obtain their basic needs for food and materials, and the rest of the time they made social goods that expressed their individual creativity – such as art, crafts, or music.

Many criticisms of Sahlins are based upon his application of economic theory. But there are deep political motivations at work here too. Sahlins does not hold back an inferred criticism of the comparative material inequalities of modern society.

Routledge 2017

2017 Routledge paperback edition

For example, in Medieval England, though people were ‘poor’ there was no general sense of ‘destitution’. That did not arise until the privatisation of common land between the Seventeenth and Nineteenth Century; the resultant movement of rural populations into the first urban centres; and with it the enactment of ‘The Poor Laws’ to control these destitute populations.

Economic vested interests may find reasons to pick fault with Sahlins’ observations; but those criticisms did not invalidate the broad historic patterns which Sahlins work documents.

In any case, Sahlins’ conclusions did not propose a clear answer:

“I propose no definitive solution to the mystery… But I do have one such primitive theory of value… that rates are set by social tact, notably by the diplomacy of economic good measure appropriate to a confrontation between comparative strangers… At the same time, the guiding principle of ‘generosity’ should give the agreed rate some semblance of the equilibrium.”

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Though criticised and improved upon by many works since, ‘Stone Age Economics’ still stands as a notable work: By examining the lives of ancient peoples it questions the Western paradigm of ‘economic progress’ because, in terms of the individual, things may not have improved so radically after all. And in terms of the present-day ecological crisis, it challenges modernity to define precisely “what has progress done for us”. Fifty years after its publication, it still deserves to be read so that we might gain that profound realisation too.

Teaser photo credit: A Kali’na hunter with a woman gatherer. Scanned from Na’na Kali’na: Une histoire des Kali’na en Guyane. Author Pierre Barrère. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kalina_hunter_gatherer.jpg