The illusion of the precapitalist gift - humanaesfera


What was the precapitalist gift? In what concrete material circumstances did it make sense? Here, we briefly want to show that the precapitalist conditions which made the gift to make sense are not only without return, but are also absolutely undesirable today. In communist society the enjoyment of the productive forces can neither be a gift nor an exchange of commodities.

This text is an addendum to A dissection of the metaphysics of scarcity .


Knowing the past helps us to know that neither capitalist society, nor commodity exchange, nor nuclear family, nor the state is eternal, and that humanity has lived for a longer time in another way. However, some examine the past believing that before capitalist society we lived "naturally" (according to a so-called "natural order") while now we live "artificially". One of the favorite and most exalted themes by those who think this way is the "gift" or "exchange of gifts" (whose best known example is the potlatch), a mode of distribution of products that contrasts with the generalized exchange of commodities that characterizes capitalist society. They go so far as to regard the precapitalist "gift" as the "natural" model for a future society. They believe that "gift" expresses abundance in a supposedly natural social order they want to re-establish, but, as we shall see, in fact it was a mere system of alliances through debt. Here, we briefly want to show that the precapitalist conditions which made the "gift" to make sense are not only without return, but are also absolutely undesirable today.

First of all, as Mauss and Malinowski have shown, the "gift" of tribal societies was a system of indebted coercion, and often a system of brutal domination of some clans over others. 1

In tribal societies where clans were not hierarchized, the "gift" consisted of coercive ties resulting from distrust between tribes always on the verge of war between them (according to Pierre Clastres, it was this state of general war that prevented the emergence of the state, i.e. the emergence of castes 2). The "gift" was the rite of an inverted war, where each side, always extremely distrustful, had to prove its trust in the other clan through the competition of giving more in the future than it received of gifts. The fact of not returning immediately what is received is seen as proof that the other clan was not distrusted, and that the bonds between them will be maintained. But if any side, for any reason, was seen as having a hurry to return or if he returned with less (or even if he thought in advance that the other would think any of these things), this was considered definitive proof of distrust, of breaking ties. And then war is declared. The war was fundamental because if not war is declared, then it forms a relation in which one clan is lowered before another (caste relation). Without war in tribal societies, the gift becomes an "infinite" debt of one clan (which gives less) to another (which gives more), and this will be paid as caste subjection, causing the state to arise (“state” in the precapitalist meaning of a caste dominating others). In anthropology, this is the most classical case of all "gifts", the potlatch, practiced by a society divided into castes in North America. 3

What is evident is that the tribal gift does not seem to serve as a model for us today. The very possibility of "gift" presupposes tribal collective property over objects produced by it privately in relation to another tribal collective property of other objects produced privately in relation to it and vice versa. It presupposes, therefore, the exchange between private properties (precapitalist properties, but in fact collectively private reciprocally), which is a "gift" (alliances through debt) while it is not war and which becomes a market (for example, barter) during the declared war, when each side demanded an immediate return of goods "with an equivalent fair value", because then they did not trust each other at all.

Today, the means of production are materially common on a world scale (nothing, either physically or intellectually, is produced privately), and consequently in the current perspective of a libertarian (ie communist) world, the enjoyment of the productive forces can neither be a "gift" nor an exchange of commodities, but rather an autonomous and gratuitous self-realization brought about by free access to the productive forces common for all, which are the globally interconnected conditions of existence (means of production).

But let us return to precapitalist societies to get a better idea of the concrete conditions where they lived and reproduced their social relations. For every tribe, all other humans were beasts, nonhumans or false humans (and were named in this way), against whom, as we have seen, they were in a state of constant or latent war. In order to mark membership in this supposed tribe of "true humans" (each saw himself as such), who are the strongest and highest, each new generation was subjected to rites of passage as a trial of the "merit" of belonging to their clan to the exclusion of all humanity. These rites literally wrote the marks of belonging in the flesh and soul: mutilations, humiliations, various proofs of resistance to pain, proof that one is not "loose" by assassinating enemies without hesitation, acquiring scars of war, etc. Of course, the new generations were forced to submit because there was no way to meet their needs outside the tribe, unless they desired the solitude of inclement nature, vulnerable to enemy tribes and beasts. And if they came together to create another independent tribe, they would be forced to recreate the same probations of rites of passage and the same violence toward the other tribes. For this does not depend only on the will, but rather on the material conditions of existence, that is, on the human capacity to transform nature, circumstances, to changing, with existing productive forces, the concrete conditions of human relations. The conditions where they find themselves materially compels them to adopt all these coercions, grouping themselves into the social form of tribes.

As we have explained before about the environment when we criticize ecology, criticizing the conditions of existence of precapitalist societies does not mean that we argue that the tribes which still exist today should not exist, nor that those who are attracted to their way of life should "repress themselves". In fact, these tribes, whether we like it or not, are no longer in those old conditions (except, perhaps, some very rare and isolated tribes in South America and Papua New Guinea). And their myths and rites are recreated and modified every generation according to the conditions where they meet and reproduce themselves, whose conditions are today the capitalist society. It is understandable that in this society (capitalist) where the condition for survival is one to submit to the infernal competition of private property with private property, the human beings of these remaining tribes also seek a private property in order to ensure their survival to the exclusion of all humans competing for survival. So they usually tries to make of his past a sign of property to be protected by the state (or, as it happens in some places of Mexico, by his own militias). But, this is certainly not libertarian at all, it has nothing to do with overcoming capitalist society because it is a mere addition of an other private property to the generalized competition that conditions it.

Only if we transform our conditions of existence (which presupposes abolishing the deprivation of these conditions, the private property, on a world scale) in order to overcome the conditions of existence of capitalist society, human beings can emancipate and transform themselves freely, going beyond the constraint of having to assume pre-established roles, functions and identities (ethnicity, race, gender, nation, employment, family, culture, class, etc.), associating themselves according to their desires to freely satisfy their needs and abilities.

humanaesfera, February 2017

[Translated to English by humanaesfera from the original article in Portuguese: ADENDO: A ILUSÃO DA "DÁDIVA" PRÉ-CAPITALISTA]

  • 1. cf. The Gift by Marcel Mauss; Argonauts of the Western Pacific by Bronisław Malinowski; The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi.
  • 2. cf. Society Against the State by Pierre Clastres.
  • 3. A curiosity about the precapitalist "gift" is the story that gave rise to the expression "white elephant". In Siam, the white elephants were very rare, and the care required was so costly that only a mighty king could afford them. That is why they were seen as the greatest sign of wealth and power, which at that time meant wasteful opulence, gift, beneficence. If a king who wanted to overthrow a less powerful ally rather than declare war on him, he presented him with a white elephant. If the ally, to take care of the elephant, loses his wealth, he is ruined and loses power. However, if he, in order not to lose his wealth, does not care for the white elephant, this is seen as serious "disrespect" for the present given, and then the king, claiming to have "reason on his side", can declare war and destroy the former ally. The Trojan is another illustration of the importance of the "gift" in precapitalist societies.