Mali- A gift economy
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All My Relatives: The Binary Fractals of the GIft Economy
Barbara Alice Mann
One of the most successful cons in modern history has people -- intelligent people, educated people -- believing that capitalism is the only "realistic" economic system to support complex, sophisticated cultures. There are intrepid iconoclasts out there, refusing to reify capitalism, but they are typically waved off as fantasy-prone, Marxist, or unemployed. Most westerners sadly accept that the only alternative to capitalism ever attempted was the "failed" Soviet experiment. Thus has future economic discussion been ceded to the realm of western imagination, where one idiosyncratic dys/u/topia after another is proposed only to be dashed. Before we all jump off the utopian pier into rippling delusion, however, let us try quizzing the original premise.
Is capitalism the only system ever to support large-scale, sophisticated cultures?
Hell, no! Gift economies have been doing that splendidly, throughout history.
Around the world, both historically and into the present, gift economies have thrived. In Native North America, they were the right-hand of our constitutional democracies, and still flourish underground. The gift economy of the magnificent Iroquois League supported five nations from the year 1142 on, adding the sixth nation in 1712, and including another sixty or so affiliated nations along the way. The Lahu, or mountain people of southern China, have survived both colonial capitalism and Maoism into the present, their gift-culture battered but intact. The Berber women in Kabylia continue to manage abundance without capitalism in the unforgiving lands of North Africa. The Minangkabau of Sumatra do just fine without capital; indeed, their gift culture weathered the Tsunami of 2005. The Sami ("Laplanders") of Finland are emerging from centuries of oppression, by both Soviets and western Europeans, with their gift economies alive. These name just some of the gift economies extant in the world, and the list does not even scratch the surface of the theoretical work that has been done on the economics of the gift.
Why, then, the steady, determined gaze away from these healthy alternatives, all of them with economic histories longer and more robust than that of capitalism.