Riches Without Wealth

Listener 24 November, 1979, republished in The Listener Bedside Book, No 3 (1999) p.182-183.

Keywords: History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy; Maori;

Raymond Firth’s study of the pre-European Maori economy, The Economics of the New Zealand Maori, is half a century old. In 1929 Firth, a young New Zealand economics graduate, decided to pursue economic anthropology, and undertook a doctorate, supervised by Bronislaw Malinkowski, at the University of London. Today, at 80, Firth is one of the grand old men of anthropology , with honorary doctorates from seven prestigious universities.

The book still holds a fascination for today’s economist. How was it that traditional Maori society coped with work, production, possession and exchange without the economic institutions (wages, prices, money) that we assume as standard? Fifty years of further research may have modified, elaborated and even corrected Firth’s analysis, but his basic conclusions still stand.

Rather than the accumulation of wealth, traditional Maori society operated on the basis of the accumulation of mana (prestige and community respect). By working well the Maori added to his or her mana, and to the mana of his whanau (family group). Labour was regarded as an honourable activity-even a chief was expected to muck in. To this day, the ohu (work group) remains a powerful force in Maoridom.

In many ways, traditional Maori society was richer than our modern society. It did not have as many physical possessions as we do-but then, they were not in the same demand. Anyway, concepts of ownership were different from today.

The ownership of land was more complex, causing some of the saddest episodes in the history between the Maori and European races.. We should think of the Maori holding land in a community trust, which gave the individual the right to work it but not to dispose of it. But even this interpretation obscures the emotional significance of the land. A Maori’s land enhanced his mana and gave him his turangawaewae (a sense of self in community).

While the Maori was involved in exchange he did not actually barter, buy or sell. Instead, food, ornaments (and other exchangeables) were given by one group to another. Typically there would be no immediate payment for the gift. But a principle of reciprocation placed an obligation on the recipients to make utu at some later date. Such ‘repayment’ was expected to be of a higher value than the original gift.

Such exchanges were not enforced, but if the utu was not met then the recipient would lose mana. More practically, future opportunities for exchange would be lost.

Firth argues that ‘magical’ elements like tapu (sacredness) and rahui (prohibition) frequently had a common-sense economic foundation. They were used to protect the environment from undue economic exploitation, and to underline to the community the significance of production processes.

It is not difficult to recognise some of the economics of the pre-European Maori in our modern life. Our economic dealings within family, friendships, the community and the work group often involve concepts like mana, ohu, utu and even tapu and rahui. Perhaps we do not do it as well.

Only part of this is learnt from the Maori; some of these aspects are remnants of the pre-industrial, pre-commercial time in Western Europe.

I would not choose to live in those older societies. Modern life offers me too many things, unknown to my ancestors. Nor would I argue that the ancient Maori was inherently morally superior to us today. But as a New Zealander I count myself lucky to have within my community a reminder that it is possible to organise economic life on principles other than the greedy acquisition of wealth. I would be even luckier if we were to manage to develop a lifestyle where these alternative values playa more prominent part.