In the cultures in the New Guinea Highlands with which I am familiar there were no “Chiefs,” no hereditary leaders, no Kings, Queens, Princes, or Princesses, no formally elected leaders, and certainly no Dictators. Leaders, such as they were, were sometimes referred to as “Big Men,” or, more precisely, “Men with a name.”
To become recognized as a man with a name you had to demonstrate superior abilities with respect to leadership. Above all, you had to have the ability to organize people around common goals, to get them to cooperate in carrying out important ritual and political goals that benefitted the group. The most important ritual events had to do with the exchange of pork between groups, usually related to past help in clan and tribal fights, and sometimes help with food when times were tough. These ritual exchanges involved truly large-scale gifts of pork that had to be organized and coordinated with many others. Men who were successful at this, who knew the proper rituals, and who could organize others to cooperate, would become well-known as men with a name. A man would have to convince others to raise and donate pigs to these events, the pork would then be distributed among the guests, speeches were made, and social and political ties between groups would be celebrated. It was through such activities, when successful, that men’s names became known to others both far and wide. It is important to note that the “Big Men,” themselves did not profit in any material way from their ability to organize and conclude these important ritual acts. The large numbers of pigs did not become their personal property, they did not send them off to the Cayman Islands to produce even more pigs for themselves. They profited, so to speak, by accumulating fame, the fame that came by becoming known as Men with a Name, which was a result of their names being prominently displayed and noted through the successful collection, organization, and distribution of pigs on behalf of their clan or tribe. Most men did not attain such renown although they could still be respected as helpful citizens through their cooperation, men who were too lazy or inept to contribute were known as “Rubbish men.” Men with a name did not possess more in the way of material possessions although they often had multiple wives. Multiple wives meant more gardens could be planted and more pigs raised and contributed to the exchanges, but it did not mean more personal wealth in any significant sense. There were no “classes” or “castes,” everyone lived on basically the same level.
Among the tribes of the Northwest Coast of America there were acknowledged heredity leaders who were well known and respected. These leaders were expected to “Potlatch,” that is, to accumulate blankets and other items of wealth in order to give them to other groups, to outdo others, so to speak. These Chiefs would organize their followers, organize the Potlatches, and, if successful, add to the prestige of themselves and their clans. But here, again, they did not personally benefit materially from these activities, they did not make a “profit,” and they did not live life styles markedly or importantly different from anyone else. They did not send their blankets or “Coppers” off to the Cayman Islands or Switzerland to breed and make more blankets and Coppers for their personal use. Their reward, as in the case of New Guinea Big Men, was renown, respect, admiration for their ability to succeed in their affairs and cultures, and to help their groups likewise succeed and be respected.
Even among the most so-called “primitive groups” on earth there were no class or caste distinctions. A man was respected for his ability to hunt and provide game, and to protect his small group from dangers. When a hunter was successful he did not keep his game to himself or his family, he shared it with others in the group. He could become famous as a hunter, perhaps as a healer or shaman, but he did not gain materially from his activities, he did not become wealthy. He did not hoard his game away in freezers and keep it all for himself. If he had tried to do so he would have been mercilessly critized, even hounded out of the group, perhaps in drastic circumstances even killed.
In virtually all aboriginal groups, communities, and societies, as far as I know, at least up to the present time, there has been an ethic of sharing. No individual, whether the dominant male, Big Man, or Chief was allowed to accumulate excessive wealth for his own personal benefit, at least not in any major way. He might have had more eagle feathers, bird-of-paradise plumes, or cedar boxes than others, but never in excess. There were no multi-millionaires and billionaires, never any obscenely wealthy and greedy, nor would such individuals have been allowed. Naked greed seems to be characteristic only of “advanced” societies in which sharing, described mindlessly as socialism, is considered somehow “dirty” and unworthy. I guess there are individuals now who will not be content until they literally possess all the wealth and material goods that exist in the “modern” world. The elite stash their wealth all around the world where it can breed and grow, the middle class (slowly disappearing) just rent more storage units for their accumulated Chinese junk. It’s the American Way!
It is partly to avoid consciousness of greed that we prefer to associate with those who are at least as greedy as we ourselves. Those who consume much less are a reproach.
Charles Horton Cooley