Could Sahlins's Affluent Society thesis be deployed to disprove Polanyi's Disembedded Economy thesis?

Polanyi characterizes the shift to market capitalism by arguing that individuals act upon more maximizing strategies in which they are driven by profit-based gains rather than the subsistence strategies of feudal England. Based upon this, he highlights how the market creates a sense of scarcity as a way of sanctioning workers to meet particular arbitrary demands predicated upon consumptive needs, which are determined by an unstable market.

Reflecting upon this, Sahlins argues that hunter-gathering communities are the original affluent society because of their accumulation strategies, which allow for increased material gain that is immediate, yet their work patterns allow them to spend less time seeking out these materials. With that being said, many have questioned Sahlins's original premise, accusing him of a failure to seriously grapple with the scarce resources many hunter-gatherers must face.

Sahlins is usually grouped as being in line with Polanyi and his substantivist school of economic anthropology, but could Sahlins be also acting against this school through noting that hunter-gatherers are maximizing agents, a trait that Polanyi does not ascribe to so-called romanticized 'primitive' societies?

Any ideas?

(I've posted this here as well as in my blog at the suggestion of Keith - I wanted to generate some more conversation here since it seems easier to navigation and this topic is suited for discussion!)

:)

Tags: marshall, sahlins

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Sorry, Chelsea, I did not suggest you should post the same item as a blog and as a Forum discussion. I said that it was confusing for you to reply to a comment on your blog post as a personal comment on someone's page rather than on the blog post itself. You will have to choose here. I happen to think this is better conceived of as a blog post. But the Forum is languishing at present, so it's a borderline decision. Take a look at the guidelines for posting material under About in the top menu. Then decide which and stick with it. I am of course delighted that you wish to engage us in this way.

Oh I'm sorry Keith, I completely misinterpreted what you were saying. I was trying to understand your point about the post, but yeah, I am still unsure of how the OAC platform works. It's a little new to me still, so that's why I posted it incorrectly! My apologies. I am not sure how to delete this discussion if I wanted to, but it would be nice to receive some feedback on this idea because it's something I've been thinking about a lot!

Keith Hart said:

Sorry, Chelsea, I did not suggest you should post the same item as a blog and as a Forum discussion. I said that it was confusing for you to reply to a comment on your blog post as a personal comment on someone's page rather than on the blog post itself. You will have to choose here. I happen to think this is better conceived of as a blog post. But the Forum is languishing at present, so it's a borderline decision. Take a look at the guidelines for posting material under About in the top menu. Then decide which and stick with it. I am of course delighted that you wish to engage us in this way.

I'm not so good at economic anthropology and I myself are grappling with the same issues, but perhaps Appadurai's concern on social exchange may shed light? Power dynamics are important in determining whatever it is that humans do and in this case the 'original affluent society' (although have their own power dynamics at work) have a less strict sense of power controls that may afflict how they conduct exchange and economy. Another explanation I could think of is maybe we are losing the premise of the issue, which is that of perception. Hunter-gatherers do grapple with issues of scant resources but the way they view such issues for eg Australian Aboriginal beliefs of not hunting more than one actually needs whereas in the other case where Polanyi was looking at a world that was steadily industrializing their perceptions concerning what is scant and what is enough are definitely more different than that of hunter-gatherers. Anyway my two cents :D

It is definitely a good question. Determining the impetus for any change in subsistence methodology and or social complexity is always a prominent question. In the case you describe I think questions such as these could be directed to specific geographical locations in specific time periods. Although I do like the idea of "Anthropological Models" and I think they still do have a place in the field of Anthropology.

That said, it is probable that some hunter gather societies were considered affluent (from our perspective anyway) simply because they presumably worked less hours per day than your average modern day capitalist. This is probably due to the fact that the hunter gatherer societies were basically craft specialists in mainly one domain-that of collecting the basic necessities for survival-food/water/weapons/medicines etc. They generally weren't required to provide labor to build monumental architecture , or pay large tributes, or taxes. So perhaps Sahlins has something there.

 

I think what Polanyi is getting at sounds more like the difference between an egalitarian society and a society of social inequality in which a small group control wealth/power and  it allows them to make subordinate the larger majority of the population. I would say people are often driven to achieve higher levels of power and status by somehow creating a difference between themselves and the rest of society. They could "create" a religion based on fear of reprisal by the spirit pantheon for non participation. Then by controlling the access to supernatural paraphernalia and rituals, they could become the ruling elite. Once any kind of control has been established the ruling elite becomes more or less a Feudal/Imperial power. Tribe, Chiefdom, Nation State...they all are similar in that the ruling elite uses the people to make sure the ruling elite remain powerful and prosperous.

 

So if Polanyi means the people that became the ruling elite acted upon "maximizing strategies", "driven by profit based gains" then yes. But as for the common folk, they genrally follow and become subservient to systems.

 

I agree with him in the sense that scarcity is often a construct used to manipulate the common person into purchasing something that they believe will increase the socio-economic difference between themselves and those around them- but while a new Mercedes may make you feel and look affluent, that is not always the case.

 

I believe the modern Capitalist Nation State is merely a factionalized Feudal Kingdom. Each CEO, and large business owner basically have their own feudal kingdom. That "Kingdom" is under “control”, (and I use the term loosely) of the Nation State and because of the standing army-  the “Feudal Lords” needn't worry about invasion. The only maximizing strategy these guys use is relegating their workers to a level of "affluence" equal to that of  a serf or peasant from England in the 1600"s.

 

Polanyi's Capitalist system works perhaps more by innovation while Sahlins' hunter gatherers might be based more on intensification of existing resource acquisition methodologies. Both of their theories are, "maximizing strategies", but I think Sahlins is probably correct in that many Hunter Gatherer groups were the original affluent societies, because of lack of surplus, and also many prestige goods had not been invented yet and this restricts conspicuous consumption- which is something that makes people "feel", (or appear) affluent. Perhaps this should be a cognitive question. Did the average hunter Gatherer "believe" themselves to be affluent and live an "affluent" lifestyle- or does the average Nation State mid level management worker "believe" they are more affluent as determined by ease of living, stress levels, access to resources, and ability to find a new niche and or location to live should they lose their job.

Thanks for the great reply, Klaus! I really appreciate it. Very interesting reply as well and I like the idea you put forth about the modern Capitalist Nation State as factionalized Feudal Kingdom. I like that you are interested in looking at this from a cognitive approach as well and I think that would've been a great insight in Sahlins's work. The cognitive approach would've allowed his readers to better understand the perspective that hunters and gatherers he studied were coming from - getting a better idea of the value that they ascribe to their lifestyle choices.

Klaus Rominger said:

It is definitely a good question. Determining the impetus for any change in subsistence methodology and or social complexity is always a prominent question. In the case you describe I think questions such as these could be directed to specific geographical locations in specific time periods. Although I do like the idea of "Anthropological Models" and I think they still do have a place in the field of Anthropology.

That said, it is probable that some hunter gather societies were considered affluent (from our perspective anyway) simply because they presumably worked less hours per day than your average modern day capitalist. This is probably due to the fact that the hunter gatherer societies were basically craft specialists in mainly one domain-that of collecting the basic necessities for survival-food/water/weapons/medicines etc. They generally weren't required to provide labor to build monumental architecture , or pay large tributes, or taxes. So perhaps Sahlins has something there.

 

I think what Polanyi is getting at sounds more like the difference between an egalitarian society and a society of social inequality in which a small group control wealth/power and  it allows them to make subordinate the larger majority of the population. I would say people are often driven to achieve higher levels of power and status by somehow creating a difference between themselves and the rest of society. They could "create" a religion based on fear of reprisal by the spirit pantheon for non participation. Then by controlling the access to supernatural paraphernalia and rituals, they could become the ruling elite. Once any kind of control has been established the ruling elite becomes more or less a Feudal/Imperial power. Tribe, Chiefdom, Nation State...they all are similar in that the ruling elite uses the people to make sure the ruling elite remain powerful and prosperous.

 

So if Polanyi means the people that became the ruling elite acted upon "maximizing strategies", "driven by profit based gains" then yes. But as for the common folk, they genrally follow and become subservient to systems.

 

I agree with him in the sense that scarcity is often a construct used to manipulate the common person into purchasing something that they believe will increase the socio-economic difference between themselves and those around them- but while a new Mercedes may make you feel and look affluent, that is not always the case.

 

I believe the modern Capitalist Nation State is merely a factionalized Feudal Kingdom. Each CEO, and large business owner basically have their own feudal kingdom. That "Kingdom" is under “control”, (and I use the term loosely) of the Nation State and because of the standing army-  the “Feudal Lords” needn't worry about invasion. The only maximizing strategy these guys use is relegating their workers to a level of "affluence" equal to that of  a serf or peasant from England in the 1600"s.

 

Polanyi's Capitalist system works perhaps more by innovation while Sahlins' hunter gatherers might be based more on intensification of existing resource acquisition methodologies. Both of their theories are, "maximizing strategies", but I think Sahlins is probably correct in that many Hunter Gatherer groups were the original affluent societies, because of lack of surplus, and also many prestige goods had not been invented yet and this restricts conspicuous consumption- which is something that makes people "feel", (or appear) affluent. Perhaps this should be a cognitive question. Did the average hunter Gatherer "believe" themselves to be affluent and live an "affluent" lifestyle- or does the average Nation State mid level management worker "believe" they are more affluent as determined by ease of living, stress levels, access to resources, and ability to find a new niche and or location to live should they lose their job.

Really interesting. I think their concerns are just on an entirely different level altogether, as you are suggesting I think, and therefore, it's kind of hard to analyze them as directly related in some senses. I wonder if some of the work of Tim Ingold could inform this debate (in terms of perception among Hunter-Gatherers). Definitely something for me to keep in mind. Thank you for replying!

Liyana Tassim said:

I'm not so good at economic anthropology and I myself are grappling with the same issues, but perhaps Appadurai's concern on social exchange may shed light? Power dynamics are important in determining whatever it is that humans do and in this case the 'original affluent society' (although have their own power dynamics at work) have a less strict sense of power controls that may afflict how they conduct exchange and economy. Another explanation I could think of is maybe we are losing the premise of the issue, which is that of perception. Hunter-gatherers do grapple with issues of scant resources but the way they view such issues for eg Australian Aboriginal beliefs of not hunting more than one actually needs whereas in the other case where Polanyi was looking at a world that was steadily industrializing their perceptions concerning what is scant and what is enough are definitely more different than that of hunter-gatherers. Anyway my two cents :D

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