In Paris in the fall of 1968, the mass student protests and worker strikes known as the May uprisings were a fresh memory. That year, under the editorship of Jean-Paul Sartre in his most radical phase, the influential journal of engaged literature Les Temps Modernes published well-known leftists like Simone de Beauvoir, Leroi Jones (later Amiri Baraka), Jean-Luc Godard, Fidel Castro, Carlos Fuentes, and James Forman. The moment seemed to demand that all serious people focus on the dystopian here and now, as defined by the American war on Vietnam and the uprisings in Newark, Detroit, and Watts, or the utopian future promised on Parisian barricades.
Amid the revolutionary fervor, the October 1968 issue of Les Temps Modernes ran a seemingly arcane essay on hunter-gatherers in the remote deserts of Australia and southwest Africa by the American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins. And yet, despite the esoteric topic, “La Première Société d’Abondance”—once reissued in expanded form as “The Original Affluent Society,” centerpiece of his 1972 volume Stone Age Economics—would go on to have what may well be a greater impact than anything else the journal put out that year.
Today—50 years after its publication in English, and just a year since Sahlins himself died—we may ask: why did “Original Affluent Society” have such an impact, and how has it fared since?
At the time, Sahlins’s catchy writing made it easy to take in, and to misread. In the ’60s, readers beyond the academy (wrongly) saw in it a romantic portrait of carefree prehistoric antecedents to the hippies.1
But viewed in a longer intellectual perspective, the essay marked a seismic transition in anthropological thought from the positivistic goal of seeking the laws governing social organization and development to the radically pluralistic, politically alert, and meaning-oriented style still dominant today. Above all, it did so in order to launch an all-out assault on the self-satisfaction and economic rationalism of the West.
Sahlins’s principal argument was simple but counterintuitive: before being driven into marginal environments by colonial powers, hunter-gatherers, or foragers, were not engaged in a desperate struggle for meager survival. Quite the contrary, they satisfied their needs with far less work than people in agricultural and industrial societies, leaving them more time to use as they wished. Hunters, he quipped, keep bankers’ hours. Refusing to maximize, many were “more concerned with games of chance than with chances of game.”2 The so-called Neolithic Revolution, rather than improving life, imposed a harsher work regime and set in motion the long history of growing inequality (a claim recently revived by James C. Scott in Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States ).
Moreover, foragers had other options. The contemporary Hadza of Tanzania, who had long been surrounded by farmers, knew they had alternatives and rejected them. To Sahlins, this showed that foragers are not simply examples of human diversity or victimhood but something more profound: they demonstrated that societies make real choices. Culture, a way of living oriented around a distinctive set of values, manifests a fundamental principle of collective self-determination.
Drawing on two rather limited quantitative studies of the time use and energy consumption of small groups in the Kalahari and Australia’s Arnhem Land, supplemented with quotations from 19th-century travelers, the essay’s evidence is hardly overwhelming. Sahlins admits as much, asserting that “the traditional wisdom is always refractory. One is forced to oppose it polemically.” But the point is not so much the empirical validity of the data—the real interest for most readers, after all, is not in foragers either today or in the Paleolithic—but rather its conceptual challenge to contemporary economic life and bourgeois individualism. The empirical served a philosophical and political project, a thought experiment and stimulus to the imagination of possibilities.
With its title’s nod toward The Affluent Society (1958), economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s famously skeptical portrait of America’s postwar prosperity and inequality, and dripping with New Left contempt for consumerism, “The Original Affluent Society” brought this critical perspective to bear on the contemporary world. It did so through the classic anthropological move of showing that radical alternatives to the readers’ lives really exist. If the capitalist world seeks wealth through ever greater material production to meet infinitely expansive desires, foraging societies follow “the Zen road to affluence”: not by getting more, but by wanting less. If it seems that foragers have been left behind by “progress,” this is due only to the ethnocentric self-congratulation of the West. Rather than accumulate material goods, these societies are guided by other values: leisure, mobility, and above all, freedom.
Sahlins (who died in 2021, having just completed his 19th book3) brought an unorthodox perspective to bear on economic life. Still in his 30s, he had just finished a two-year stint in the famous anthropological Laboratoire of Claude Lévi-Strauss. This Parisian burnishing notwithstanding, Sahlins was unmistakably a product of the urban Midwest. The son of leftist Jewish immigrants, raised in Chicago and educated at the University of Michigan (BA 1951 and MA 1952) before breezing through graduate school at Columbia in two years and returning to Ann Arbor to teach, he was brash, competitive, and funny. As he told me many years later, the French simply didn’t know what to make of him. Spinning off puns and bons mots in the seminar, even twitting the Master himself, he gave them a performance the likes of which they had never seen in such a rarified academic setting.
In friendly rivalry with his older brother, Bernard, founding director of the famous improv theater Second City (spawning ground for the comics who shaped Saturday Night Live), Sahlins wrote with one eye on the intellectual pantheon, another on the audience in the gallery. Or perhaps better put, given his fanatical devotion to Chicago’s Cubs, the crowd in the bleachers. It’s easy to imagine readers’ resistance to his most serious ideas weakened in the face of his sheer quotability. Few have his gift for combining serious political outrage with an ebullient sense of humor. Even the best-known episode in his long lifetime of political activism, his invention of the “teach-in” against the Vietnam War at Michigan in 1965, was something of a pragmatic pun.
During his college and graduate school years, Michigan and Columbia were at the forefront of a self-consciously modernist movement to put anthropology on a proper scientific footing, as this was understood at the time. It drew on Marx’s materialism, Engels’s models of cultural evolution (derived in part from the work of the American proto-anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan), Darwin’s natural selection, cybernetics, information theory, and the rationalism of neoclassical economics to explain everything from kinship systems to religion in terms of their functional utility, for instance, in the ever more efficient harnessing of energy.
Bursting on the scene with a rapid series of publications in his 20s, Sahlins was quickly marked as the brightest hope for the cultural evolutionists. But by the time he came to spend a year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (1963–64), he was growing impatient with the reductionism the prevailing models demanded. In particular, he had become increasingly critical of the Eurocentric, often racist, teleology implicit, and sometimes explicit, in the evolutionary models.
Today we can find in Sahlins’s polemic against infinite needs and relentless consumption a genealogy of environmental destruction.
Accordingly, Sahlins began to sharpen his theoretical tools on the whetstone of structuralism. This seemed to promise an alternative to evolutionism that could put the concept of culture on just as rigorous a basis as linguistics. He proposed that culture could be treated as an autonomous formation operating according to its own principles, not reducible to other needs or causal forces.
As such, culture was the ultimate expression of human freedom—not that of the individual (that would be too bourgeois) but of collectivities over the long term. Any particular culture answered to nothing other than those who created it—neither natural determinants nor a linear history of progress could account for what pathways people chose to follow. Humans invent values for themselves and construct their economic and political systems accordingly. Decades later, Sahlins’s faith that we could find evidence for fundamental principles of human freedom and self-determination in the ethnographic record would have one of its most visible public expressions in the writing of his most famous student, the anarchist David Graeber.
Sahlins’s culturally inflected view of economics was influenced by historians Karl Polanyi and Moses Finley, whom he had come to know at Columbia. Drawing on modern Europe and ancient Greece respectively, and influenced in turn by anthropologists like Marcel Mauss, they had argued against the prevailing view that economics, always and everywhere driven by the rational maximization of utilities, operates by its own rules, apart from other domains of social existence. Instead, economies are inevitably shaped and constrained by historically specific social, cultural, and religious motives.
This theoretical shift mirrored Sahlins’s own intellectual trajectory. If the empirical, philosophical, and political tasks of anthropology converged, it was in the effort to entertain the full range of the possibilities for human flourishing unimagined by those who live under nation-states and capitalist—or, for that matter, socialist—regimes. “The Original Affluent Society” forcefully declared and embodied the break. Henceforth, much of anthropology would take its task to be to charge the imagination to foster ethical, political, and even ontological critique.
In response to postcolonial critiques, Sahlins would come to modify his structuralism, which was never doctrinaire, with a more serious engagement with historical change. The dialectics of structure and history came to be his main scholarly preoccupation after leaving Michigan for the University of Chicago in 1973; his insistence on human creativity, however, remained.
This was the Sahlins I knew best as a student, a decade later. Yet the underlying concerns of “The Original Affluent Society” persisted. In his sweeping 1996 essay, “The Sadness of the Sweetness; or The Native Anthropology of Western Cosmology,” he characterized the history of the West as driven by insatiable wants. At its root is a widening rift between humans and nature, driven by “the limited and suffering individual in need of the object, … [the] philosophical corollary of the transfer of enchantment from nature to capital.”
It is in this light, I think, that we might find the earlier essay useful today. Writing in the ’60s, Sahlins took the most prominent target of critique to be capitalism; today we can also find in his polemic against infinite needs and relentless consumption a genealogy of environmental destruction. As he observed in that earlier moment, the evolution of economy is “appropriating in relation to nature but expropriating in relation to man.” If he emphasized the latter, it is inseparable from the former.
Viewed in today’s context, of course, not every aspect of the essay has aged well. While acknowledging the violence of colonialism, racism, and dispossession, it does not thematize them as heavily as we might today. Rebuking evolutionary anthropologists for treating present-day foragers as “left behind” by progress, it too can succumb to the temptation to use them as proxies for the Paleolithic.
Yet these characteristics should not distract us from appreciating Sahlins’s effort to show that if we want to conjure new possibilities, we need to learn about actually inhabitable worlds. As the disasters of revolution sometimes show, not all utopias are viable. Rather than doomscrolling updates on the latest outrages, we must ask foundational questions, ones that are radical in the word’s original sense of getting to the roots of things.
What Sahlins saw in anthropology was not just a respect for the dignity of the marginalized and dominated peoples of the world, although that was certainly crucial. Only from the perspective afforded by anthropology’s engagement with truly alternative ways of life and visions of human flourishing—ones at the farthest reaches of human invention from those familiar to the metropole—could capitalism and the other peculiarities of the global North be seen in all their specificity. Anything less would simply reproduce, in slightly revised form, the assumptions of scarcity, maximization, and infinite need that fuel our catastrophic consumption of the planet itself.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.
- See Jacqueline Solway, “‘The Original Affluent Society’: Four Decades On,” in The Politics of Egalitarianism: Theory and Practice, edited by Solway (Berghahn, 2006). ↩
- Max Weber had developed similar themes in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Sahlins does not cite him, in part, perhaps, because in the context of the time, he saw Weber primarily as a progenitor of modernization theory, which he would see as Eurocentric triumphalism. ↩
- The New Science of the Enchanted Universe: An Anthropology of Most of Humanity (Princeton, 2022). ↩