The Myth of Primitive Communism

Juhoansi02In my new article at FEE, “The Myth of Primitive Communism,” I argue that hunter-gatherers like the Ju/’hoansi share food with each other, not because they are selfless communists, but because favors and obligations are their most valuable commodities.

Please take a look. I’d be very interested in my fellow Notewriters’ erudite responses.

Why Don’t Tribes Transition to Market Defense?

Ongka, a “big man” of the Kawelka tribe. Image from

Watch almost any anthropological film about a newly discovered “isolated tribe,” and you’re likely to see at least one “tribesman” wearing a t-shirt.

People in bands and tribes and chiefdoms — who have since time immemorial handled most of their economic transactions for food, clothing, and shelter through traditional economies of gift exchange and family sharing — eagerly become buyers and sellers for products on the global market as soon as they get the chance.

They grow coffee beans or trap furs, and they use the money to buy firearms, machetes, cell phones, and jean shorts. In other words, they jump right in to the market. And usually, the tendrils of global trade have arrived way before the anthropologists and their film crews.

But people in the same bands, tribes, or chiefdoms seem to hang on to their family and gift-based economies for political, military, and legal services.

They do not jump to create or hire market solutions (mercenaries, defense corporations), and they instead eventually transform — by hook or by crook — into a state or into a people subjugated by a state.

Why does this happen? Why do we get states for defense and markets for everything else?

Let me back up and explain my terms:

In the examples I’m familiar with, humans use one of four main methods to organize law enforcement and military protection:

1. Kin-based. Your extended family (a “band,” “clan,” or a “lineage”) and maybe an alliance of intermarried and neighbouring extended families (a “tribe” or a “village”), protects you. You are technically free to leave the family or the village, but that could leave you without protection unless you are marrying into a new one.

Examples: Cree, Tahltan, Ju/‘hoansi

2. Prestige-based. A famous leader (a “big man” or “chief”) and his warriors protect you in return for material gifts and social deference. You can pull your support from the leader — more easily if he’s just an informal “big man” and less easily if he’s a formal “chief.” And there are usually other nearby leaders or aspiring leaders who would happily accept your patronage.

Examples: Yanomamo, Kawelka, Trobriander

Systems #1 and #2 are often blended together, as in the Trobriander case, where each man’s connections to the chief are determined partly by family relatedness and partly by gift exchange.

3. State-based. A compulsory ruler (a “king” or “president”) and his warriors protect you in return for taxes and/or labor. You are never free to pull your support, although you are sometimes free to leave through emigration.

Examples: Aztec Empire, Canada, People’s Republic of China

4. Market-based. A private enterprise (a “defense contractor”) protects you in return for money. You are free to pull your support and choose another contractor, or go without.

Example: Detroit’s Threat Management Center

Now, we could also sketch out the same 4 methods for the basic kinds of economic exchange people do for food, shelter, and all the other goods and services in life besides defense. People can give and receive the things they want and need through #1 family networks, #2 prestige-oriented gift exchange, #3 state redistribution, and #4 markets.

What I see throughout the world in the last 500 years is that as globalisation advances, people in all or almost all cultures eagerly take their systems of food, shelter, etc. out of systems #1 and #2 and go into system #4. In other words, people in bands, tribes, and chiefdoms all over the world desperately want the metal tools, firearms, t-shirts, cell-phones, and everything else that the market offers, and so they find ways to sell goods or services and thus money that lets them buy that stuff.

For instance, hunter-gatherers who once collected food to share with their family now collect furs to sell internationally, or instead serve as bush guides to wealthy tourists from foreign cultures.

But people almost never eagerly or rapidly take their law and defense systems out of kin and prestige and into markets.

Instead, they tend to hang on to kin or prestige-based methods of law enforcement and warfare until they (a) get conquered by a state or (b) organize themselves as a state (whether to fend off would-be conquerors or to become conquerors themselves).

So in highland Papua New Guinea for instance, the Dani and the Kawelka were happy to grow coffee beans and other crops to put on the market by the 1970s. But they didn’t start hiring mercenaries for defense. Instead, they stuck to their big men and their tribes until their military organizations were absorbed into state militaries or turned into paramilitary movements aiming to create or seize control of a state.

Markets became the center of food production. States became the center of defense production.

Later on, after states have arrived as military organizations, sometimes they start expanding and controlling parts of the economics of food, shelter, education, etc., through compulsory redistribution.

Conversely, shifts to market-based defense seem to occur after a society has already had state-based defense — like in Moresnet or Kowloon (PDF). And the market organizations arise when, for some reason, the state-based defense system relaxes or collapses.

Why does this bifurcated trend keep happening?

Why do people in these societies transition into markets for most goods and services but states for law and war?

Do state-based militaries and police forces simply outcompete (or outfight) market ones?

Am I missing major counterexamples, or even misunderstanding my own examples?