Potlatch

Fans boggled at last week\’s decision by the grime star Wiley to give away more than 200 new tracks for free online. First, they asked, is it for real? And then, why is he doing this? And finally, where do I even start listening to it all? Wiley\’s absurd generosity will be part of the man\’s legend for years to come – the giveaway is an assertion of his creativity and work rate. It\’s like the potlatch ceremony practised by some Native American cultures. In potlatch, status isn\’t established by possession of goods, it\’s determined by the willingness to give them away.

Seen as sheer waste, potlatch horrified western colonisers and ended up illegal for much of the 20th century.

It isn\’t just the Native Americans of course: it\’s a common theme in Papua New Guinea as well. But the thing which amuses me about these sorts of references is the squeals of delight with which a certain sort of lefty siezes upon the practice.

See, see, we can have a society where worth, value, of a person is not determined by what they own!

To which my response is always, yes, indeed we can. And we\’ve had many variations of society where status, value, worth, is not determined by what a person owns. We\’ve had, just in our own cold and rainy island, societies in which status was determined by how many men you had killed (warriors only, of course, killing women and children didn\’t count), whether you were the first male brat out of a high class vagina or not (difficult to think of aristocracy as being anything other than that), the fervency and narrow mindedness with which you followed the strictures of one preacher or another (various forms of Calvinism etc), to yes, societies where the amount of lucre you had piled up determined status (although that\’s really rather an un-English thing: think of the distaste for \”trade\”).

But the point isn\’t that there was this or that method of measuring status, the point is to recall that every version of every human society has had a method of measuring status.

Human beings really are status seeking beings. The method of ranking it, enforcing it, discovering it, may change, but that there will be a social hierarchy is a given. And that\’s the bit that our squealing lefties seem to forget.

No, this does matter, for the desire for an egalitarian society may be there: there may even be problems that flow from an inegalitarian society. Maybe (not that I think for a moment they are in detail) they\’re right in The Spirit Level*: that social inequity is bad for everyone, cause death and destruction.

However, that does not mean that the logical leap to stating that economic inequity causes all of these things is true. It could be (no, I don\’t assert that it is here, just point to the possibility) that it is the social inequity which causes all of these problems. Even that inequity by birth, by religious faith, by martial valour, causes more such problems than economic inequity…..that martial one most certainly does given the wastage of those the valour is proven upon.

Which is rather why, despite my continued protestations that I am on the left, I don\’t share the common obsession with egalitarianism. Egalitarianism of what?

Simply because we are human beings there is always going to be inequality of status within the society. For that is what we humans do, seek and acquire status.

So if we equalise economic status, will the new status hierarchy produce the same effects again, more of the same effects or fewer? It\’s at this point that we can all start to disagree again: I tend to value the onward and upwards that this strange capitalism/markets hybrid produces along with that economic inequality. Others can differ. But to think that if we managed to eradicate the economic inequality we would therefore eradicate the status inequality, the hierarchy, is simply wrong.

* One of my criticisms of The Spirit Level is that their explanation of why inequality does all the damage they claim it does veers around a lot, between claiming that it\’s economic inequality (which they are using as their measure) which does the damage but through the mechanism of status inequality. But if the above is correct, that status inequality will always be with us whatever the economic, then ironing out the economic inequality isn\’t going to do much good, is it?

7 thoughts on “Potlatch”

  1. I notice many (e.g. Polly) who seek to acquire status by giving away other peoples money- indeed that appears to be the defining characteristic of the left these days.

  2. But to think that if we managed to eradicate the economic inequality we would therefore eradicate the status inequality, the hierarchy, is simply wrong.

    One of my politically-defining moments was when I was watching a Hollywood film. In Enemy at the Gates, one of the characters comments ‘We tried so hard to create a society that was equal, where there’d be nothing to envy your neighbour. But there’s always something to envy.’

    It took me a little while to work through the implications, but it was a chief reason why I gave up material egalitarianism. There are other things, often more important, which we simply cannot equalise nor would we want to: but to equalise one area and not others risks being profoundly unequal.

  3. I notice many (e.g. Polly) who seek to acquire status by giving away other peoples money

    Ah, but it’s not our money, it’s her / the state’s largesse.

  4. those that seek to remove the hierarchy of money fully intend to replace it with another hierarchy with themselves at the top, hence the existance of zill lanes, state dachas etc. In the west this is all for “security” you understand

  5. Potlach isn’t just a giveaway Tim, although it might seem so to our Western eyes. In traditional ‘First Nations’ culture, it was a feast / gift giving / destruction for the sealing of verbal contracts, a trade of influence and popularity. Not to mention the ‘my tribes richer than your tribe’ willy waving.

    All sorts of things happen at Potlach. Hunting and fishing rights granted, marriages and other alliances accepted. Favours traded. Promises made. Oh, and a massive party.

    Potlach was never waste, it was and is marketing. Exactly what Wiley has done.

  6. > So if we equalise economic status, will the new status hierarchy produce the same effects again, more of the same effects or fewer? <

    I can't recall whether it was Shaw or Chesterton who remarked – of people who mocked the idea of economic distributionism by claiming that the previously-rich "clever" people would soon accumulate wealth enough to differentiate themselves again – that trying it out wouldn't be much of a burden to them, then, would it?

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