This essay is reviewing a text “The original affluent society” in Sahlins Stone age economics. It is a book by Marshall Sahlins, published in 1974, in the field of economic anthropology and still continues to rivet attention 37 years after it was written. It is evident to believe that it is still revolutionary in its findings. Marshall Sahlins is a prominent American anthropologist. The Affluent Society was written to awaken American public opinion from its satisfied adoration of mechanical economic development.
It succeeded in its function beyond all expectation.Moreover, this book review will consist of an overview of the chapter “The original affluent society” and arguments for and against the concept from theorists such as Karl Polanyi, David Kaplan and many others. The chapter opens with an explanation of a particular view on societies as groups of individuals rather than as systems of social relations (cited in O’Laughlin, 1974).
Sahlins shows that hunter and gatherer societies are by nature wealthy because “all the people’s material wants were easily satisfied” (p. 1).Their low standard of living, and respectively few material desires, implies that the basic necessities of hunter-gatherer societies are frequently met. Sahlins compares the hunter-gatherer concept of affluence with the industrialist concept of wealth and concludes that “modern capitalist societies, however richly endowed, dedicate themselves to the proposition of scarcity” (p. 3). People in developed nations work long hours and accumulate large amounts of material goods for the fear of future insufficiency (p. 35).Hunter-gatherers, on the other hand, eat when they have food and move on to more abundant surroundings when food supplies grow insufficient.
Sahlins insists, hunters and gatherers, it turns out, do not normally work very hard in relation to their wants, they mostly enjoy plenty with no great effort (Stirling, 1975). These people are comfortable, peaceable, happy and secure. Sahlins does not suggest that hunter-gatherer societies are more advanced to capitalist ones, but what he seeks to expose is the ethnocentricism inbuilt in many ethnographies of hunter-gatherer cultures.He argues, when looking into a hunter-gatherer society with the partiality of the modern world, the anthropologist might be persuaded to conclude that hunter-gatherers are poor, and consequently, deprived. Sahlins shows that on the contrary, with the use of Richard Lee’s work on ! Kung San and argues that these people practice realistic material security and therefore are not continuously on the border of starvation (Solway, 2006:65). He argues that hunter-gatherers are affluent because they desire so little and because they stand their survival on the idea that environment is naturally productive, plentiful, and yielding.It is a society which is completely free from material pressures (p. 9).
Sahlins considers their level of confidence is suggestive of a generally successful economy. He argues that they have not learned the terror of hunger or of the concern for the future. Their confidence is the creation of centuries of knowledge relying on nature’s providence (Rowley-Conwy, 2001:38ff). For Sahlins, ancient human beings were more affluent than modern ones due to the relative satisfaction with what was supplied by life, and the characteristic abundant and the right to use those possessions.He compares them with the modern human beings who use “the Galbraithean way” as a road to affluence in which they have comparatively limitless wants, and their having to slave towards the achievement of those wants for most of their life.
He discusses the other possible road to affluence, what he calls “the Zen road”, which encourages humans toward restricted and a small number of wants, towards which even the simplest technical means of production can be productively functional (Rowley-Conwy, 2001:39).He stops just short of inviting us to adopt the Zen strategy, in which he argues “people can enjoy an unparalleled material plenty – with a low standard of living” (p. 2). In addition, Sahlins agrees with Marx’s observation that in “poor nations the people are comfortable, whereas in the rich nations they are generally poor” (p. 2). People existing in such societies feel and are confident to feel obliged towards desiring unlimited things provided by the market, and force themselves in to a “sentence of life at hard labour”, that he argues is exclusive.
He explains that we, from the standpoint of having so much ability to create and accomplish, wrongly perceive the hunters to be just as greedy as us, but they without the many tools of achievement that we own, save for a few handmade equipment (p. 4). Sahlins accepts that even many anthropologists have in general viewed the early primitives in a light not as much disposed to what might be a source of our personal envy. Some have considered the hunter-gatherer as an animal rather than human, but the author confronts this common observation as completely misconceived (p.