A fieldnote within a footnote on Sahlins’ ‘The Original Affluent Society’


Wäwa tending the fishing net on a day quite like that described below.


‘If economics is the dismal science,’ writes Marshall Sahlins, ‘the study of hunting and gathering economies must be its most advanced branch. Almost universally committed to the proposition that life was hard in the paleolithic, our textbooks compete to convey a sense of impending doom, leaving one to wonder not only how hunters managed to live, but whether, after all, this was living? The specter of starvation stalks the stalker through these pages. His technical incompetence is said to enjoin continuous work just to survive, affording him neither respite nor surplus, hence not even the “leisure” to “build culture.” Even so, for all his efforts, the hunter pulls the lowest grades in thermodynamics-less energy/capita/year than any other mode of production. And in treatises on economic development he is condemned to play the role of bad example: the so-called “subsistence economy.”


Field-notebook, Monday 3rd of December 2007: ‘Yesterday was a day of quietude and rest. We all drove out to [our Mother’s country], where we spent the day fishing and talking story. It was so nice to see the white sand again.


As is usual upon arrival, we [the women] laid out bed-sheets under the Barrukal (‘Paperbark’) and Djomula’ (‘Coastal Casuarina’) trees, down by the water. We gathered dharpa’ (‘tree, wood, stick’) for the fire, which we assembled a stone’s throw from where we were seated, put a large pot of tea on the boil and then lay down to rest – scattered like knuckle-bones in the shade, half waiting for the tide to go out, half talking story about this and that, combing through one another’s hair for djuku (‘louse, small head lice’) with a splint of sharpened bone. Meanwhile, the men and yawirriny’ (‘unmarried, initiated young men’) had set the fishing-net up, just down from where we were seated within view of ourselves and the fire. They preferred to gather farther down by the water to tend the fishing net.


The day moved on. Every half an hour or so we’d hear movement in the water and glimpse a sharp flash of light, reflecting silver in the net. Guthurra, Raŋ and dhuway waded out each time, untangled the fish, and threw it in the ashes of our fire as they walked past. And so the hours passed. We caught more fish than we could eat; just enough to take back and share with those who’d stayed behind down at bottom camp. Come milmitjpa (‘late afternoon just before dusk’) we moved to pack up and return to camp. No one bothered to shower as it wasn’t particularly hot. We sat under the ‘street light’ near the fire, rrambaŋi (‘close, together, level, at one’), drinking tea and sharing ŋarali (‘tobacco, cigarettes’) before we each and the other disappeared from the fire-lit area . . . and everyone went to sleep.


‘The traditional wisdom’, Sahlins goes on, ‘is always refractory. One is forced to oppose it polemically, to phrase the necessary revisions dialectically: in fact this was, when you come to examine it, the original affluent society. Paradoxical, that phrasing leads to another useful and unexpected conclusion. By the common understanding, an affluent society is one in which all the people’s material wants are easily satisfied. To assert that the hunters are affluent is to deny then that the human condition is an ordained tragedy, with man the prisoner at hard labor of a perpetual disparity between his unlimited wants and his insufficient means.

For there are two possible courses to affluence. Wants may be “easily satisfied” either by producing much or desiring little. The familiar conception, the Galbraithean way, 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, at least to the point that “urgent goods” become plentiful. 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.

That, I think, describes the hunters. And it helps explain some of their more curious economic behavior: their “prodigality” for example-the inclination to consume at once all stocks on hand, as if they had it made. Free from market obsessions of scarcity, hunters’ economic propensities may be more consistently predicated on abundance than our own. Destutt de Tracy, “fish-blooded bourgeois doctrinaire” though he might have been, at least compelled Marx’s agreement on the observation that “in poor nations the people are comfortable,” whereas in rich nations “they are generally poor.”‘



Important Post-It End-Note: _______And this is why both State and Federal Governments feel so threatened by Indigenous people living on Country – on Indigenous owned land – in the Northern Territory of Australia____Because they have their own economic base____It has thus been historically ‘difficult’ for the Government to shepherd or coerce Traditional Owners into situations and relations of wage-labour_______They are not easy to ‘proletariatise’ if and while they have their own economic base, and means and mode of production, to put it that way.


The Northern Territory covers an area of approximately 1,349,129 square kilometres (520,902 sq mi)_________ Just over HALF of this (52%) is Indigenous owned land____ That’s a pretty damn big estate_____ It is not a coincidence that successive policy measures designed to erode the property rights (among others) of Indigenous people, have only applied to the Northern Territory______It is not a terribly long bow to draw.




* The extended quotations that bookmark this post are taken from ‘The Original Affluent Society’ – the first chapter in Sahlins’ 1974 classic – Stone Age Economics, Tavistock Publications, London.


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Filed under Thesis/Yolngu related writing

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