An Economy of Caring and Sharing


The following is an excerpt from Future Primal: How Our Wilderness Origins Show Us the Way Forward, recently published by New World Library.  


In a land where food is seasonal and the hunter can come back from days of hunting either empty-handed or with an eland bull that can feed the band for a week, an ethos of sharing is a survival necessity. But the value goes deeper. Without the market pressure to compete, relationships and social life can be enjoyed for their own sake, as ends in themselves. Lorna Marshall noted the intense sociability of Bushmen, and how separation and loneliness are the most unendurable of hardships, almost deathlike. People are unself-conscious about demanding signs that they are cared for. Lorna quotes a long monologue from a woman talking in her presence but mostly to herself:

"I am sick. That is why I don't go out for plant foods. I want my mother [meaning Lorna] to give me some and she does not give me any. I am lying down sick. I am starving. If my mother...[meaning her own birth mother] were here she would give some plant foods. She is not here. So I am starving....[Lorna and Laurence] do not favor me. They do not give me food. Only mielie-meal (corn meal). That is what I am living on. Why does not [Lorna] give me some fat? My ankle is sore. If she gave me fat, my ankle would be better and I could go out for plant foods....[Laurence] wants me to go to the mangetti trees. I do not think I shall be able. He wants me to go to the mangetti trees. That place is far. That is what I say. The place is far. The people who stay there are not people who favor others. Not sympathetic. They do not give food."12

Children are socialized from an early age on the importance of giving and generosity. The stingy are "bags without openings." The idea of eating alone and not sharing is shocking. "Only lions do that, not people." Those who have some conspicuous wealth are badgered to give until it hurts. Lorna Marshall noted another case where a woman visitor from another band who felt she had not received a sufficiently generous share of hunted meat went into a sort of trance, "saying over and over for perhaps half an hour...[in the hunter's presence]...that he had not given her as much meat as was her due. It was not said like an accusation. It was said as though he were not there. I had the eerie feeling that I was present in someone else's dream. [The hunter] did not argue or oppose her. He continued doing whatever he was doing and let her go on."13

Such ways of talking are also important in reducing conflict and tension by getting things out in the open without confrontation, keeping everyone in touch with what others are thinking and feeling, preventing pressure from building until it bursts out in aggression.

The pressure to share, and the begging and pestering, can be particularly irritating to visitors who arrive in their 4x4s bursting with luxuries. Elizabeth Marshall gives a graphic measure of the distance between the two societies by comparing their respective inventories.

"We had tents, cots, sleeping bags, folding chairs and tables, maps, a compass, cameras, film, recording equipment, reference books, notebooks, pens, ink, pencils, disinfectants, antivenin kits for snakebites, brandy, cases of canned foods, boxes of dry foods, dishes, cooking pots, frying pans, knives, forks, spoons, cigarettes, matches, spare tires, auto parts, inner tubes, tire patches, jacks, toolboxes, winches, motor oil, drums of gasoline, drums of water, bars of yellow soap, towels, washcloths, toothpaste, toothbrushes, coats, sweaters, pants, boots, sneakers, shirts, underwear, socks, reading glasses, safety pins, scissors, a sewing kit, binoculars, bullets, a rifle. The Ju/wasi had sticks, skins, eggshells, grass."14

Comparing the two, we can feel our sense of self-sufficiency buckling under the weight of our possessions. Part of our self-consciousness about this is no doubt due to the starkness of so much next to so little, but part is no doubt due to our sense of vulnerability should we also be obliged to live naked in the bush with nothing but sticks, skins, eggshells, grass, and our skill. Despite their material poverty, Bushmen show a restraint when eating and sharing food that Lorna found touching.

"On several occasions we gave small gifts of corned beef to be shared with a group. The person who received the food from us would take only a mouthful. Once an old man who received the meat first only licked his fingers. The lump of food would be passed from one to another. Each would take a modest bit. The last person often got the most. I found it moving to see so much restraint about taking food among people who are all thin and often hungry....We observed no unmannerly behavior and no cheating and no encroachment about food."15

Perhaps the most elaborate institution for generating an ethos of caring and sharing is !hxaro -- a Bushman system of making, giving, and receiving gifts. The gifts are generally any nonfood item of value, most typically something decorative that becomes a conspicuous symbol of mutual concern and willingness to share in times of need. The system also opens the way for visiting and hospitality and thus the enduring wealth of companionship, caring, and sharing.16

A child may be introduced to !hxaro between the ages of six months and a year. For example, a grandmother would give a bead necklace to the child, then at some point she would cut off the beads, wash them, and put them in the child's hand to give to a relative. She then replaces the necklace and repeats the procedure, whether the child likes it or not, encouraging the child to give the beads to an interested adult, until the child starts to develop a taste for the joy of giving and initiates the !hxaro.

Most adults generally have from twelve to twenty-four !hxaro partners from both sexes and all ages, including relatives and friends from other groups up to several hundred kilometers away. In one study among the Ju/twasi in the 1980s, more than two-thirds of all the possessions in various bands were obtained in this fashion, while the remaining third were either bought or made by the owner and destined to be given away.

The gift is not necessarily sex or status related, nor always valued for its usefulness. Women can give and receive hunting arrows, as men can give and receive a woman's apron. As gifts circulate, they are often repaired, remade, embellished, or marked in some way to personalize the next giving. Store-bought woolen caps might be unraveled and reknitted in different patterns many times as they circulate. Considerable time and effort can be spent on making some of the gifts; elaborate beadwork may take several days of systematic labor. There seems to be little concern over intrinsic value. The nature of the gift is more a function of the resources and ability of the giver and the consideration, time, and effort put into the making.17

The making of gifts itself is intensely social. This is not wage labor, nor does it require time away from family and friends. Rather, it is conducted at a leisurely pace in company, with all the usual talking, joking, and story-telling that mark the sociability of Bushman life. Gifts belong to the receiver, but they are generally held by one person for a few months, but no more than two years, before being passed on to some other partner. It is important that the return gift be delayed. If it was reciprocated immediately, this might imply unwillingness to sustain the !hxaro bond.

In a competitive market economy, relationships can often become a means to enhance one's own material wealth. !Hxaro inverts this by understanding wealth as a resource to develop the symmetrical bonds of friendship.18 It is for this reason that Marshall Sahlins argues (in the spirit of E.?F. Schumacher's "Buddhist economics") that we could regard hunter-gatherers like the San, under reasonable conditions, as "the original affluent society." But theirs is a "Zen affluence" that minimizes material demands and creates a wealth of time and energy to serve a life rich in relationships and mutual care.19

The contrast with our own economy of competitive avarice is stark, as is the contrast with our society's pathological material excess. There are tantalizing signs, however, that a primal ethic resembling !hxaro is reemerging in the West.

There is a rise in grassroots networks based on caring and sharing. These range from more formal co-ops to informal bartering networks, where relationships are given weight as "social capital" and "time dollars," allowing socially useful labor to be exchanged. There are also early signs of a fundamental shift in food production, away from distant oil-intensive factory farms to local small-scale organic gardens. Collectively, such strategies and institutions can help buffer individuals from global market forces, while personalizing economies and helping rebuild face-to-face communities based ?on trust and reciprocity.*

Direct Democracy - "Everyone a Chief"

From the point of view of market-based economies, we tend to assume that a culture of caring and sharing would crush individuality. The opposite seems to be true among the San. The individual stands out sharply in band life -- each is a "big frog in a very small pond," as Guenther puts it. Lorna Marshall described how people sit closely together, often touching, ankles interlocked, chatting endlessly, but this doesn't stop the same individuals from being assertive, argumentative, and fiercely self-interested.

Sharing and reciprocity seem to be the first law of Bushman existence, but Marshall also noticed the paradox of an atmosphere of "jealous watchfulness," especially when a kill is being shared. Accusations of unfairness can lead to arguments suddenly flaring up. She went so far as to note that altruism, kindness, sympathy, and generosity are not conspicuously displayed. As Richard Lee discovered, it's considered bad manners for someone to say, "Look at how generous I am!" Perhaps this is because the values of reciprocity, caring, and sharing are so fundamental and so taken for granted that distribution is fine-tuned by the individual expressing need loudly without embarrassment. Guenther notes, as with so many other aspects of Bushman life, we find ourselves affirming one value only to qualify it by affirming the opposite. How does this work?20

Part of the answer lies in different notions of individualism. In the West we have an individualism of competition leading to division of labor, specialization, and hierarchies of wealth and power. Bushmen have an individualism of cooperation leading to an egalitarian democracy that promotes universal access to the full range of humanizing experience - cultivation of the whole person. The Bushman formula is rooted in the economy of hunting and foraging, which provides the most unshakable economic foundation of any society for individual self-sufficiency. Since the division of labor is minimal, virtually all individuals have the basic knowledge, ability, and resources to live directly off the land, gather food, make clothing, and build shelter. Children grow up with a deeply rooted sense of security, surrounded by a caring community and in direct contact with a wilderness environment that supplies everything needed. Because of this independence and security, friendships and marriage, while taken seriously, are free from dire economic sanctions and don't require absolutely binding long-term commitments and dependencies. People feel free and secure enough to speak their minds, often with a directness that is disconcerting to outsiders. Very little energy is spent constructing and maintaining a persona, the carefully cultivated self-image that seems so essential to success in competitive economies.

Childhood is a time of exceptional freedom, spontaneity, and self-indulgence. During the day, groups of children play freely around the huts and roam the surrounding veldt enjoying whatever adventures they please. Since all ages tend to play together, competitiveness is tempered with cooperation. Performance is less a matter of comparison with others than a kind of internal self-evaluation, a process that strengthens self-direction and autonomy.

Modern Western parents are reluctant to let young children play alone in public. How would they feel at the thought of their children wandering around a wilderness populated by poisonous snakes, lions, leopards, and other large animals? But as Standing Bear reminds us, it is rather our crowded cities and towns -- with their traffic, pollution, toxic waste, and human predators -- that pose the greater threat to the health of children.

Writing of his Lakota childhood spent following the bison herds of the Great Plains, he points out, "There were not the dangers that seem to surround childhood of today. I can recall days -- entire days -- when we roamed over the plains, hills, and up and down streams without fear of anything. I do not remember ever hearing of an Indian child being hurt or eaten by a wild animal."21

As in other traditional hunting-gathering societies, child rearing tends to be unstructured and permissive. Bushman children are not pressured into doing chores. Boys, for example, will only go hunting when they feel moved to do so. Children are never disciplined by being beaten. Instead, as one woman put it, "we talk to them a lot." A child will be allowed to scowl back when scolded without being punished into blind obedience. Parents regard this venting of emotion as healthy and warn against beating a child; as one parent explained: "If you beat a child too much, they will become stubborn, and you cannot win that child over again," and then, "It is better to give a child a reward when they do something right, than to beat him/her when doing something wrong."

At puberty the situation changes somewhat when girls begin an initiation into womanhood. The initiation of boys tends to come later and is associated with the first big kill, signifying the ability to feed a family and contribute to the community. But apart from a few taboos relating to menstruation rites and hunting, there are no "adults only" areas and no externally imposed structures. Adults and children intermingle freely around all public activities. All are free to join the healing dances and to listen to the discussions and storytelling; children are free to make their own interpretations. Education takes place continuously, merging invisibly with participation in everyday life.

This freedom continues into adulthood. Each person follows intuition, passion, and home-crafted wisdom in charting the course of his or her own life. Should the group become oppressive or unsatisfying, there is always the real option of getting up, wandering off, and joining another band; individual Bushmen can also live for a time on their own, as hermits, though this is almost unknown. Deeply rooted autonomy sharpens the joys of communal life, making ostracism the greatest punishment.

The voluntary nature of Bushman association refutes the ideas of economists, even those of relatively enlightened ones like Robert Heilbronner, who asserts it is only "the pure need for self-preservation...that pushes [primitive] society to the cooperative completion of its daily labors." On the contrary, the hunter-gatherer band knows and honors the value of communal effort, but it cultivates an autonomous self-sufficiency that provides a real freedom of choice. Ironically, it's "the pure need for self-preservation" that compels the rule-bound bureaucrat and the obedient wage earner to conform to the hierarchies of our industrial societies. We are educated to fit into the most extreme division of labor of any civilization, which directly constrains our choices of dress, speech, and behavior. Often, the memberships, affiliations, and personas we create and maintain determine how and whether we prosper in a complex variety of corporate structures, from school and business to church and state. Deviance can jeopardize a livelihood.

Much of the stress of modern life -- the insecurity and anxiety -- seems to be due to this lack of direct control over the conditions for survival. Few of us could feed our families by hunting, gathering, or growing our own food. Even fewer could build and repair a house, computer, car, or phone. We cannot heal sickness, nor can we expect to have unmet needs fulfilled by loudly complaining to our neighbors. Here, rich and poor alike are free to compete for both necessities and luxuries, with no legal or moral limit to the accumulation of wealth, and no obligation to share with or care for one another. When an entire working lifetime can be spent on the production line of a factory, the individual becomes isolated, anxious, and self-absorbed and collapses into a fragile one-dimensionality - personified in the bureaucrat, citizen, or soldier for whom obedience to authority becomes one of the highest virtues.

Here is the paradox: precisely because of the material simplicity of Bushman society, each individual can develop a greater inner wealth, cultivating a whole human life. For the most part, each member of the band participates in all the definitive humanizing activities: producer, provider, teacher, learner, leader, follower, artist, musician, dancer, and healer. Everyone has a direct voice in the ongoing discussions and helps create the consensus that constitutes governance. The archetypal events of a human life cycle -- birth, growth, maturity, and death -- are ubiquitous and public. The full range of human emotions -- love and hate, anger and tenderness, meanness and generosity -- are similarly on public display in the full context of the lives of the protagonists. As with the medicine wheel, the very compact structure of the primal band exposes the individual to a complexity that is a stimulus to growth around the wheel of life.

From the book Future Primal. Copyright © 2013 by Louis G. Herman. Reprinted with permission from New World Library.



* I consider a range of such examples exemplifying future primal principles in chapter 12.

12 Lorna Marshall, The !Kung of Nyae Nyae (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), 293.

13 Ibid., 293–95.

14 Thomas, The Old Way, 62.

15 Marshall, The !Kung, 294.

16 Polly Weissner defines !hxaro as “reciprocal delayed gift making, giving and receiving of any non-food item of value.” In the framework of !hxaro, personal property is defined as a resource “to develop symmetrical bonds of friendship between a variety of individuals.” Polly Weissner, “Risk Reciprocity and Social Influences on !Kung San Economics,” in Politics and History in Band Societies, eds. Eleanor Leacock and Richard Lee (New York: Cambridge University, 1982).

17 Ibid. See also Polly Weissner, “Historical Dimensions of !Kung (Ju/hoan) Hxaro” in
R. Vossen and E. Wilmsen,
Khoisan Studies: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Hamburg: Helmut Buske, 2001).

18 While the archaeological evidence for the antiquity of an !hxaro economy is skimpy, it is not unreasonable to assume that this emerged early on, enhancing the survival advantage for those Homo sapiens who developed a capacity for high levels of communication, cooperation, and bonding. See Alan Barnard and James Woodburn, “Property, Power and Ideology in Hunter-Gatherer Societies: An Introduction,” in Hunters and Gatherers 2: Property, Power and Ideology, eds. Tim Ingold, David Riches, and James Woodburn (New York: Berg, 1988), 22.

19 Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (Chicago: Aldine Atherton, 1972), 1. For the landmark work on “Buddhist economics,” see E.?F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered: 25 Years Later...With Commentaries (Dublin, Ireland: Hartley & Marks Publishers, 1999).

20 Guenther, Tricksters & Trancers, 48.

21 Chief Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1933/1978), 37.