The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies

Marcel Mauss

Book cover

I checked “The Gift” out of the library as preparation for reading David Graeber’s “Debt.” I am not an anthropologist but from what I’ve read, Mauss is a significant figure in twentieth century anthropology, and “The Gift” a classic. In it, Mauss describes “gift economies” as observed in Polynesian and Native American (Pacific Northwest) cultures. The iconic example of this is the potlatch (etymological origin of “potluck”), a ceremony in which different clans come together and the chiefs hold a status competition by vying for who can give away the most valuable presents–even sometimes escalating to a competition over the pure waste and destruction of valuable goods. I was very interested to read a detailed account of this, because the phrase “gift economy” tends to evoke (for me at least) a very idealistic image (e.g. people at Burning Man sharing things). In fact, the potlatch culture was extraordinarily competitive and, even more than modern capitalist society, was dominated by the “invidious comparisons” diagnosed by Thorstein Veblen.

Thus, I found it quite dissonant at the end of the book when, after many descriptive chapters, Mauss wrote a section about how we in modern Western society have a lot to learn from this kinder, gentler alternative! It made me wonder whether he had even read everything he had just written. I think it is valuable to understand and consider the wide diversity of alternative economic structures in human society, but to hold up the potlatch as some warm and fuzzy ideal seems pretty laughable.

The first part of the book, while interesting in content, was quite dry and academic; clearly not written for popular consumption. In all, for someone interested in the topic, I would recommend going straight to Graeber’s “Debt” (which is informative and highly readable) and skipping the Mauss.

My Goodreads rating: 2 stars