George Walford: Primitive Private Enterprise

Few professionals like having amateurs trespass on their territory, and L.S.Mair, an anthropologist, sets about one group of intruders. In her paper entitled The Growth of Economic Individualism in African Society [1] she mounts a strong attack on people advancing ideas, about the attitudes to property appearing in peasant communities, which do not agree with the evidence. ‘The theory of primitive communism has been found not to square with the facts of any known primitive society.” This does not mean, however, that theorising on the subject has been brought into line with the anthropological evidence. Although serious thinkers no longer believe in primitive communism, some of them still hold to the idea that African attitudes towards property differ in some fundamental way from our own. Although ‘communism’ in this connection has more or less gone, ‘communalism’ and ‘collectivism’ persist.

Mair shows the absence of justification for these conceptions, and by doing so helps to clarify the way economic systems have developed. Studying the change from peasant production to advanced capitalism, she does not find individualism and competition appearing as replacements for collectivism and co-operation; they have been prevalent from the beginning, adapting themselves to changing circumstances but remaining substantially unchanged.

Like anthropologists generally, Mair shares the scientists’ dislike of broad generalizations. Her objection to the theory of primitive communism arises largely from the tendency, which she claims to have discerned, to dump primitive economies in this category rather than make a proper anthropological study of the differences between them. Her own article relies mainly on her studies of the Ganda, a predominantly agricultural African tribe, and although this relatively narrow focus provides empirical support for her argument, it also raises a difficulty. Why should she or we expect other peoples to behave like the Ganda? While rejecting ‘primitive communism’ she seems to be accepting the general rule proposed by Marxism, that a certain social structure, and a certain set of mental attitudes, regularly accompany a certain productive system. Although IC goes along with this (while not accepting the theory of a causal link), it would have been reassuring to have her own demonstration of the connection.

Mair draws attention to the difference between the roles played by property in peasant societies on the one hand and among ourselves on the other. (I follow her in using ‘peasant societies’ to mean the pre-mechanization ones). In our culture an almost unlimited variety of material goods makes possible, along with wide scope for accumulation, a hierarchy of types of possession, each of them marking a distinct status on the part of their owner. At one end, a superior hi fi system may be the peak of desire, at the other, one of the peerages that are almost openly offered for sale. Possession predominates over display, or liberality in distribution, and as a result the abilities required for gathering wealth come into prominence, whether the industry, thrift, foresight and skill in bargaining named by Mair or the rapacity, cunning and unscrupulousness proposed by more critical or more cynical minds. Competition becomes a matter more of acquisition than of rivalry in munificence, but this does not affect the main theme, for: ‘both forms of competition are equally individualistic.’

Among the Ganda, too, wealth was ‘always’ an object of ambition, but there the ability of property to move, grow, and exert pressure came under restriction. Finally, all land belonged to the king; although the occupants enjoyed de facto ownership subject to performance of certain duties, they did not have the right to sell, or to exchange the use of surplus land for any other commodity. This kept them from gaining wealth by the exercise of rights over land; they could attain to riches or superior status only by becoming chiefs, entitled to a share in taxes imposed by the king. An ambitious Ganda had to work himself (in this article Mair says little about women) into the good graces of his local ruler and obedience, loyalty, flattery, wise counsel and success in war provided the main ways of doing this. Once appointed, a chief came under pressure to maintain or increase his following, for the peasants were free to transfer allegiance, and it was for the opportunities it afforded of liberality to followers that wealth was mainly valued. Extensive possessions did not offer the same opportunities of pleasure to their owners as among ourselves, and a difference of income-level did not bring a corresponding difference in the type of possessions held. Although cattle were owned almost entirely by the wealthy, the main difference was simply that the rich had more, a greater abundance of everyday necessities. All societies place limits on the satisfactions obtainable from possession of property, but this constitutes a defence of individuality, preventing its elimination by the total victory of one competitor, rather than the predominance of collectivism or communality.

Although, as we have noted, Mair does not show these restrictions to be characteristic of peasant societies generally, saying only that she would expect wider research to confirm her own results, yet they do seem to be widespread if not panhuman. They appeared, for example, in European feudalism; there, as among the Ganda, money was not of much use except for keeping retainers.

This difference between Gandian practices and our own does not, Mair argues, mean that the Ganda (or other peasants) gather wealth only to give it away: ‘Does the value set on generous giving really mean that the giver is not interested in acquiring and possessing the goods that he distributes? Surely the whole system that I have described, with its emphasis on the rewards in kind that virtue can earn, its distinction between the standards of lavishness of rich and poor, proves the very contrary.’ In this she seems to have the right of it; the use of wealth to increase status and gather greater political support is much closer to our own procedures (especially when one looks at American electoral practices) than to that disregard for private possessions the reformers so often ascribe to our forebears. The difference, between peasant societies and our own, lies in our wider opportunities for the display of individualism through possessions, rather than in the appearance of a type of behaviour not formerly present.

This finds confirmation in something Mair does not mention: the way the peasants treated their natural environment. The people who believe them to have been less competitive than ourselves also believe them to have retained the practice said (mistakenly) to have been displayed by the foragers, of living in harmony with nature. They envisage the peasants, with their hand-tools, as meeting nature on even terms where mechanized industry rides over it rough-shod. Yet it was the peasants and their predecessors who destroyed the primal forests of Europe and exterminated most of the large European mammals. In other parts of the world, where nature was bigger and tougher (or humanity less numerous and weaker), they behaved in the same way if with less destructive results; in New Zealand the Maoris had exterminated most of their flightless birds before the Europeans arrived, and native Americans building a canoe would burn down large tracts of forest to get the right timber, leaving most of the wood to rot. In their dealings with nature, as well as among themselves, the members of peasant communities acted, and still act, less like members of a community than like individuals pursuing their own interests.

Collectivism and mutual dependence appear in sophisticated societies rather than simple ones, for these features depend upon division of labour, and although this does appear in peasant communities it attains high development only much later. Any member of a peasant community would have a good chance of surviving alone under natural conditions, where a computer-operator or nuclear physicist would be helpless.

1. Included in her book Studies in Applied Anthropology Athlone Press, University of London, 195

from Ideological Commentary 63, February 1994.