yams and pigs

Even on the farm, even in so-called primitive contexts, people need to escape the bonds of family and blood and initiate relations with other people.  And this is just as true when it comes to trade and commerce as with other forms of social human interaction, says Mark Anspach in an interview excerpted below.

Some Americans – New Yorkers for instance – resist the idea of the big box retailer, and Walmart and other stores find not enough love to convince the five boroughs to let them in.  Residents don’t want the fine balance of trade, which includes mom and pops and boutiques and large retailers, being wildly disrupted by a mega retailer.  And they have the money and power to keep them out.

Other Americans are proud of big box retailers like Walmart; they like the car convenient ritual, the low prices and the enormous choice.  They identify big boxes with being American.  Often these Americans don’t have the power and money to influence how their markets function anyway.

Big is anonymous and the bulk of the money and policy that swirls around big boxes in America sets the primal impulse to trade on it’s end.  The base human economic transaction between a buyer and a seller is changed completely because the seller isn’t really in the room, nor really in the town or city, and maybe not even in the state.  Same with the goods, they are mostly in transit in the hold of an airplane or ship somewhere in the middle of a large ocean.  Same with the crafts person who makes the goods, who sits in a fluorescent lit room, one in a long row, somewhere thousands of miles across oceans and sand.

Anspach explains how economists see human trade quite differently than anthropologists.  The economic view is narrow and instrumentalist.  Buyer, seller, pig, yam.  I have pig, you have yam, we print money, we buy each others pigs and yams.

The anthropologist has a much richer view and sees trade as a critical tool for tying together members of a community and avoiding privatism and forming essential bonds with neighbors.  In this view, trade is less about getting the best deal on a farm animal, than establishing a lifelong bond by offering, in trust, your product to your neighbor as a form of gift.

It seems if we believe the economist and his methods of base economic rationality, then we tolerate distance and anonymity in our essential transactions:  the vendor, the craftsman, the product itself are from far away and I have no relationship with each except base utility.  And if we believe the anthropologist, trade enriches the life I share with my neighbor and the goods I produce and services I possess become offerings in the complex relationships I share within my community.

From the interview —

The economists’ myth tells us that exchange fulfills a simple instrumental function. You live in a community that produces yams and I live in a community that raises pigs, so we […] invent a system of equivalence between our products – money – and there you have it. But, as anthropologists have shown us, Marcel Mauss in particular, the main form of exchange in so-called ‘primitive’ societies is the gift, which cannot be reduced to economic rationality.


In “primitive” societies, families may be quite capable of producing what is necessary for their subsistence. And yet, they will still enter into exchanges. Why? For the sake of exchanging—of forging relations with others and participating in the circle of positive reciprocity on which social life is founded. To refuse to exchange, to keep what one has for oneself, amounts to a kind of incestuous indulgence, as Claude Lévi-Strauss observes. He quotes a proverb from New Guinea that makes this point: “Your own mother, your own sister, your own pigs, your own yams, you may not eat. Those of other people, you may eat.” If you eat your own yams, your neighbour is liable to think they’re better than his, and your relationship could turn acrimonious.

Global Markets, Anonymous Victims, Mark Anspach

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