Ernest Becker 10: In debt to the gods, now and then.


Ernest Becker 10: In debt to the gods, now and then.

So, the title of chapter 2 of EFE is: Economics as Expiation and Power. I’m going to have some difficulty summarizing Becker’s thought now because as we go along in this book it seems that Becker is feeling a sort of urgency to get his ideas out and on paper.  He’s less inclined in this chapter and in subsequent ones to elaborate or beat around the bush.  He still uses examples a lot but I tend to leave those out here because they are not necessary to the story; but do they ever help in understanding Becker.  More important, almost every sentence is quotable. So, I say again, there is no substitute for reading Becker himself.  His two most important works in my mind are Denial of Death and Escape from Evil.  His earlier works are fine too, but his later ones summarize or fine-tune his earlier ones, so you might as well stick with DOD or EFE.  EFE cuts to the chase.

OK, back to chapter 2 of EFE.  Following from the first chapter, Becker builds on the idea that primitives bartered with the ‘gods’, the forces that controlled the natural world so as to gain more life and to ensure ‘prosperity’ or continued life in comfort for the future.  What did they have to barter with?  Well, simply, life is the answer.  They bartered life, life in the form of other humans or animal species.  They also offered food to the gods, life-sustaining food (which they often ended up eating themselves, of course).  Sacrifice is a key technic of manufacture in the primitive ritual world. In this chapter Becker introduces Norman O. Brown whose book Life Against Death (1959) was a huge inspiration for Becker.  Brown was a psychoanalyst but not a Freudian at least not the ‘dogmatic Freudian kind.’ (p.26)  Becker writes:

The whole burden of Brown’s argument is to show that economic activity itself, from the dawn of human society to the present time is sacred to the core.  It is not a rational, secular activity designed simply to meet human survival needs.  Or better, it is not only that, never was, never will be.

 Why would primitives drive to create a surplus…as Brown argues they had from the very beginning of society, a practice we carry on with a vengeance to this very day?  Why would primitives strive to make goods that were superfluous to their everyday needs?  Why work harder than is necessary to have enough to eat?  Of course we can argue that primitives put food by for the same reason we do…to preserve it for times when food is scarce.  But that’s not the only reason.

We know that primitives amassed huge piles of food and other goods often only to ceremoniously destroy them, just as we continue to do…And finally we know that historically this creation of useless goods got out of hand and led to the present plight of men – immersed in a horizon of polluting junk, besieged by social injustice and class and race oppression, haves and have-nots, all grasping, fighting, shoving, not knowing how they got into their abysmal condition or what it all means.  Let us now turn to what is probably one of the most vital chapters in man’s self-understanding. [my emphasis]

What was the “economic” activity most characteristic of primitive society?  Gift-giving.  I know, it seems simplistic to suggest such a thing.  Why should gift giving be so important?  We give gifts to each other all the time and we don’t make a big deal out of it…or do we?  We do, actually, sometimes in spectacular ways and sometimes in more subtle ways, but it’s always a big deal.  In fact, as Becker goes on to explain, gift-giving could very well be the basis of modern trade and provided the impetus for the division of society into classes.  ‘Economic’ activity was always and still is a function of expiation.  This is a bit of a long quote and I’ll use it to end this post, but I must let Becker speak his own words here:

How could traders, missionaries, and administrators understand something that often eluded anthropologists themselves: that primitive man did not act out of economic principles, that the process of freely giving and receiving was embedded in a much larger, much more important cosmology, that since the white man had destroyed the old gods and replaced them, he had to give freely just as the gods had done.  Primitive life was openly immersed in debt, in obligation to the invisible powers, the ancestors, the dead souls; the group lived partly by drawing its powers from the non-living.  Unlike us, primitives knew the truth of man’s relation to nature: nature gives freely of its bounty to man – this was the miracle for which to be grateful and beholden and give to the gods of nature in return.  Whatever one received was already a gift, and so to keep things in balance one had to give in return – to one another and, by offerings, to the spirits.  The gods existed in order to receive gifts…primitive man created an economic surplus so that he would have something to give to the gods…

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