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CCSU Emeritus haines@histomat. > From: Yasir Yilmaz > Purdue University > > > It all looks intellectually appealing and coherent...but what if I > come from a tradition, community etc. where material well-being and > productivity is not the primal concern of individuals, societies? I am > aware that this sounds utopian, naive and unrealistic to many modern > eyes, but not to me; as well as hundreds of people I met throughout my > life. Yes, we might have difficulty in finding one such society today > since 'substance' is all our eyes see today, but there existed such > societies in history (especially before western-European colonialism > quite efficiently pacified and homogenized thousands of localities and > local identities) whose priority was NOT to improve their material > well-being. Taking material well-being as a universal unit of > measurement is nothing but entering into the realm of Eurocentrism > from the front door, once again. I don't know if it was your intention, but you are raising what is known as the substantivist/formalist issue in economic anthropology. Put simply, a substantivist (like Karl Polanyi) argues that the conceptual framework we employ today to understand an economic system is specific to a capitalist market situation and does not suit pre-modern societies. I don't want to enter into this issue, but only raise it to suggest that whenever we employ a economic term we need to be aware if it suits only the modern era or it is more universal. Scott Cook ("The Anti-Market Mentality Rexamined" in Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, 1969) argues persuasively that there are problems with both positions. I quite agree that many, perhaps even most people, do not have material well-being as their primary goal. Most people I know are to varying degrees poor, but rather than primarily motivated to improve their standard of living they only want to maintain it. If they had a job and lost it, income becomes a primary concern, but only to recover their standard of living. A difference between a substantivist and formalist view is that for the former what is important is satisfaction of needs, and productivity is a means to that end. However, for a formalist, a gain in economic power becomes an end in itself because it ultimate represents the power of the self over others. Marx had a lot of interesting (and amusing) things to say about this. Rhoda Halperin (Economies across Cultures [St.Martin's Press, 1988]) argues that Polanyi was influenced by Marx, but to what extent is an open question. My point is that the issue of material well-being may not be a "primal concern", but simply the necessary condition of life. For most people, it becomes a primal concern only when it no longer supports life in the expected manner. There are some today (and formalism seems to reflect them) who are obsessed with maximizing their income. However, there are dangers in exaggerating the distinction. Many people play the lottery and count on magic to improve their standard of living. However, I suspect most lottery players are relatively poor and stressed by inadequate income. There are conditions today, such as advertising, which aims to stimulate acquisition. There is compulsive spending that addresses one's weak sense of personal value. As frequently argued, a drive to increase income beyond what one is used to is pathological. But it can nevertheless be argued that material well-being is a universal measure. That is, it is the necessary condition for all action. To put it crudely, you cannot act if you do not eat. Eating may not be uppermost in our minds, but that is because we are lucky enough to take it for granted. > I wonder why the Chinese who had the fifteenth century ship technology > of Europeans as early as the twelfth century didn't want to discover > what lied beyond the horizons of the oceans. I wonder why the medieval > Muslim merchants didn't carry guns in their commercial ships until the > Portuguese introduced that habit. This, of course, is a good question. A snap answer is that European conditions were such that in the 16-18th centuries we see the emergence of an entity foundationalism (the identity of something is defined solely by its intrinsic properties) in which society reduces to individuals who see private power as a means to lord it over those who do not have as much power and this is the only way to validate oneself. I do not know why this pathology emerged in Europe rather than elsewhere. I suspect that under feudal conditions in Europe, the aristocracy depended almost entirely on private power and the state had limited useful function. If so, one might argue that the pathology arose from European feudal backwardness. > When it turned out that armed conflict was the only solution to resist > Western expansionism in South Asia in the sixteenth century, natives > simply preferred to abandon their territories rather than fight. Here > is how Anthony Reid interpreted this: > > "...absence of [physical and conceptual] clear safeguards for private > property [at a time of] rapid market development . [and this fact] did > not allow Southeast Asians to develop short term solutions to > alternative routes to sustained economic property." > > This is again a Eurocentric explanation. Here is a question: How do we > know that southeast Asians set "sustainable economic growth" as their > objective? What if that was not a concern, priority, or a goal for > them? I suspect instead that their ambitions were satisfied in a way that did not depend on the war of all against all. For example, the Chinese gentry stood on three legs: commerce, office holding and farming, and the last was ideologically primary. Making money in commerce seems to have been to support the other two legs. Haines Brown