Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Insufficiency and Lack: Between Production and Consumption in a Longhouse Economy 1909-1996

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Insufficiency and Lack: Between Production and Consumption in a Longhouse Economy 1909-1996

Article excerpt

Marx's opposition between pre-capitalist and capitalist societies is encapsulated in his famous statement that 'production is the aim of man' in ancient societies, whereas 'man is the aim of production' in the industrialized world (1964: 84). With these, and other, rather stark oppositions, he created an image of primitive economic behaviour as the reverse of modern life. While Marx's romantic depiction of 'pre-capitalist' societies was largely a rhetorical device with which to accentuate the tragic evolution of economic formations, his ideas have had a great influence on the way such economies - particularly isolated swidden farmers and hunter-gatherers - are perceived.

While claiming, for example, that economic organization is quite different in small-scale isolated societies we(1) seem unwilling to describe the values which inform their behaviour in terms other than the comparative framework of capitalist culture. Early ethnographies, for example, claimed that the 'only' difference between primitives and capitalists is that kinship was the idiom of production; otherwise, they are likely to be just as profit-motivated and self-centred as ourselves (e.g. Forde & Douglas 1967). Alternatively, primitives are seen as less grasping, more frugal, communal and altruistic. This idealized version is explicit in naive representations of small-scale societies or implicit in sophisticated arguments about the need to deconstruct such representations (e.g. Escobar 1995). Our awareness that we should not inscribe the social or economic practices of these societies with our own cultural discourse about the nature of capitalism (Baudrillard 1975: 75; 1981: 80; Miller 1987: 50; Taussig 1980: 7) coincides with a desire not to relinquish all romantic myths about primitive economic behaviour. This is particularly evident in that most blurred and least empirical realm: happiness and the satisfaction of wants.

Again we return to Marx, who wrote that the

childlike world of the ancients appears to be superior; and this is so, in so far as we seek for closed shape, form and established limitation. The ancients provide a narrow satisfaction, whereas the modern world leaves us unsatisfied, or, where it appears to be satisfied with itself, is vulgar and mean (1964: 85).

While his ideas about the 'vulgar', inauthentic nature of consumption in capitalist societies have recently come under attack, noticeably by Miller (1987) most of us would still like to believe that the primitives were satisfied with less. The reasons for such sentimentality are clear: non-capitalist societies, as Taussig has remarked, 'acquire the burden of having to satisfy our alienated longings for a lost golden age' (1980: 6-9).

The following narrative, which concerns the changing livelihood of a Central Borneo society, demonstrates that it is not necessary to place a grand interpretation - either Romantic or Tragic, depending on one's view of globalization (cf. Marcus & Fischer 1986: 13-14) - on local histories. Longhouse people have not been transformed over the last century from self-sufficient and easily satisfied producers to dependent, perpetually dissatisfied consumers. I demonstrate, rather, that the Kenyah Badeng have always wanted more than their meagre resources allow them to obtain and the resolution of this disparity remains a critical aspect of their economic life. This narrative, then, is concerned with the historical and cultural conditions of replenishment and the important point here is that Badeng economies are not driven by production or consumption, but by the gap between those two realms. The following exegesis also demonstrates that the culture of Badeng economies need not - indeed, cannot - be compared to the archetypes of capitalist culture. Many Badeng, for instance, are equally 'grasping and self-seeking as they are 'altruistic and communal': the possibility of cultural contradiction is not just a condition of urban postmodern life. …

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