Can tribal economies show us what a post-capitalist world looks like?

Bringing together indigenous knowledge, open-source code and community resilience, a gift economy could be an answer to the uncertainty of our economic future.

by Simrit Malhi

In 1931, Lewis Mumford coined the term ‘carboniferous capitalism’ to describe an economic system that was an “alliance of science, capitalism and carbon power” and reorganised social order for ceaseless growth. Now, almost a century later, it has grown into a beast that has devoured resources (oil, coal etc.) that are still ‘in the ground’ but have been factored into future projections with money levied on them.

The reality that ceaseless growth is impossible when based on finite resources or that capitalism and the current climate crisis are linked is now irrefutable. This year, COVID-19 has highlighted the fallacies of capitalism – the growing wealth gap, wage labour, failed healthcare and disorganised food supply chains, among other problems.

But what are the alternatives to our current economic system? And what will it take to get there? Radical economics is scary because we are programmed to equate security with money. Today, the prospect of not having money is perhaps scarier than losing our homes or lack of food, air or water.

But this wasn’t always the case. Even without money humans have created economies that governed their lives and kept communities together. Perhaps looking back at how they worked could help us create a healthy post-capitalist future.

From Indonesia to Canada, tribal communities around the world practised an economy that was cherished and gave power to those who gave away the most. In the Mount Hagen area of Papua New Guinea, there is a highly ritualised system of exchange called Moka that is emblematic of the gift economy. By giving more than what was received, one earns the reputation of a ‘big man’ within the community, while the failure of repayment of debt makes them a ‘rubbish man’.

The father of modern anthropology, Bronisław Malinowski, studied 18 island communities of the Massim archipelago in Papua New Guinea that were held together by the Kula ring. He was baffled by tribe members who would travel hundreds of miles, by canoe, often in dangerous waters, just to gift pieces of jewellery or “what appear to be worthless trinkets” to tribe members on other islands. Through close study, he found that the Kula ring was, in fact, a highly sophisticated system of exchange (or economic system) that was clearly linked to political authority.

Similarly, in his seminal book, The Gift, Lewis Hyde talks about the Potlatch tradition of the indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada. Potlach is a gift-giving feast in which wealth is given away (or ‘destroyed’) to demonstrate the leader’s power; a tradition that is followed to this day.

In a recent documentary, ‘Gift’, inspired by Hyde’s book, Robin McKenna visits a community in Alert Bay, just North of Vancouver Island during Potlach. In the film, in addition to the ceremonial gifts (button blankets or copper plaques), more modern items like packets of salt and pepper, silver and copper bracelets, as well as six thousand dollars worth of all-purpose flour were given away. The leader who had saved the money for the Potlach says, “Wealth is many, many things – not just money. Money burns the cheapest of all of them.”

“Wealth is many, many things – not just money. Money burns the cheapest of all of them.”
© Internet Movie Database

When we give or receive gifts, it quickly becomes clear that it is not the gift that makes one feel good; it is the sentiment that is relayed through them as well as a feeling that one should give back. The bond created through this ‘transaction’ is more important than the gift and can be the building blocks of a community.

In these tribes, the true power a leader holds is goodwill. They have ritualised and worshipped the bond that has tied their community together. A bond that grows as the gift is continuously passed on, gathering value as it moves. Here, wealth is never hoarded, it is simply passed on to those in need. As they say, “You save your food in the stomach of your brother.” In several indigenous tribes in the world, an accumulation of wealth shows poverty and results in a lower status within the community.

But before dismissing this as utopian, hippy nonsense that won’t play out in the ‘real world’, consider this – there are plenty of examples of gift economies at work today. Kickstarter is a great example in that a pledge is made with money before the product exists and can be seen as a gift that indebts the creator to the backer. Or Wikipedia, which is completely run by people who volunteer their time and knowledge for free. In fact, Wikipedia has been depriving the advertising industry of an estimated three billion dollars a year in revenue.

The Internet, in itself, has been revolutionary from a post-capitalist perspective because it is open-source by its very nature. The internet works through the communication between users and servers; the addressing scheme has to be open-source to allow one machine to know how to look for others through TCP/IP. Other prime examples of open-source products are the Apache HTTP Server and internet browsers like Mozilla Firefox and Chromium. Like science, these continuously evolve by allowing one to move further on the back of the work of others.

Charles Eisenstein, in his book “Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition”, provides practical ways in which the ‘spirit of gift’ can be used towards creating a more organic economy. He suggests negative interest on wealth which forces money to keep moving (or it will be taxed); upholding the commons – with water, land or culture being the birth right of all humans; taxing the embodied energy of products and enabling more peer to peer financing (without the need for a third party, say a bank).

“True wealth is to feel at home in the world. It is to feel free to be generous. No matter how much money you have, if you don’t feel the security of belonging and you feel anxiety around money, then you are not actually rich. -Charles Eisenstein

He also champions the rise of local and regional currencies, which could be backed by natural resources, encouraging societies to enrich their ecosystems, for the benefit of all. Some of this is already happening – a few countries have started by instating a green tax and almost all of Europe has negative interest rates now.

Eisenstein writes that the economic system today stokes the personal ego by forcing competition between peers because the system is based on scarcity (due to interest-based debt). “More for you is less for me”. The competition and capitalist dominion over nature are both a symptom and cause of the belief that we are separated from or even above, Nature. Treating nature as a gift that is given to us (we have done nothing to earn it) and understanding we are a part of Nature, changes that equation.

Though we are talking about an economic system, its effects seem to spread out to our social and even, spiritual lives. The current capitalist system is based on something that was once free. Nature, the birth mother of the truest gift economy – is suddenly plundered for pieces of paper. Nature becomes a commodity and our relationships or exchanges become money or value-based (‘networking’). This leaves us lonely, in need of a community without which, we fill up the void with buying more things; hamsters running on a wheel to make somebody else rich.

Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics traces the history of money from ancient gift economies to modern capitalism.

So what can we do to create effective change? Hyde believes just being conscious of the spirit of a gift is enough. It will automatically create gratitude, awareness and respect for the gifts that are given to you – which it is in our nature to then spread. The idea of wealth, or what it means to feel rich, changes under a gift economy.

When I asked Charles what his idea of being wealthy was, he said, “True wealth is to feel at home in the world. It is to feel free to be generous. No matter how much money you have, if you don’t feel the security of belonging and you feel anxiety around money, then you are not actually rich. To have connection, community, meaning, and belonging – that is what it is to be wealthy.”

Share the positive!