All My Relatives: The Binary Fractals of the Gift Economy
One of the most successful cons in modern history has people -- intelligent people, educated people -- believing that capitalism is the only "realistic" economic system to support complex, sophisticated cultures. There are intrepid iconoclasts out there, refusing to reify capitalism, but they are typically waved off as fantasy-prone, Marxist, or unemployed. Most westerners sadly accept that the only alternative to capitalism ever attempted was the "failed" Soviet experiment. Thus has future economic discussion been ceded to the realm of western imagination, where one idiosyncratic dys/u/topia after another is proposed only to be dashed. Before we all jump off the utopian pier into rippling delusion, however, let us try quizzing the original premise.
Is capitalism the only system ever to support large-scale, sophisticated cultures?
Hell, no! Gift economies have been doing that splendidly, throughout history.
Around the world, both historically and into the present, gift economies have thrived. In Native North America, they were the right-hand of our constitutional democracies, and still flourish underground. The gift economy of the magnificent Iroquois League supported five nations from the year 1142 on, adding the sixth nation in 1712, and including another sixty or so affiliated nations along the way. The Lahu, or mountain people of southern China, have survived both colonial capitalism and Maoism into the present, their gift-culture battered but intact. The Berber women in Kabylia continue to manage abundance without capitalism in the unforgiving lands of North Africa. The Minangkabau of Sumatra do just fine without capital; indeed, their gift culture weathered the Tsunami of 2005. The Sami ("Laplanders") of Finland are emerging from centuries of oppression, by both Soviets and western Europeans, with their gift economies alive. These name just some of the gift economies extant in the world, and the list does not even scratch the surface of the theoretical work that has been done on the economics of the gift.
Why, then, the steady, determined gaze away from these healthy alternatives, all of them with economic histories longer and more robust than that of capitalism?
Part of the determined oblivion has to do with ignoring the competition, so it will go away. Obviously, the West's Cult of Capitalism -- and it is a faith system -- does not wish to lose converts. The rest of the oblivion has to do with the structure of gift-giving cultures: They are all matriarchies. Indeed, the gift economy is the one, constant characteristic that all matriarchies, worldwide, hold in common. You, the reader, do not know about this, because, in the West, these facts are tabu, forbidden knowledge.
The hatchet job that western patriarchy has done on matriarchy is a masterpiece. As a silencer, fiat worked fine in academia, where, until the last quarter of the twentieth century, anthropology and history flatly forbade matriarchies to exist. No one got a Ph.D. by noting that they did. Marija Gimbutas study groups were banished to a mouldy corner of the gym. The male-run, raiding economies of western Europe were officially billed as The Way It Is and Always Has Been, since the Beginning of Time!
Elsewhere, western law declared women non-persons, while in religion, that companion-in-chief of capitalism, desert monotheism, spent two thousand years blackening the eye of every woman from Eve on, while insisting implausibly that men had birthed everything in sight. That last violation of common sense worked because people had grown accustomed to swallowing at least three impossibilities before breakfast: denial of death ("Jesus lives" -- and so can you!), denial of woman-worth (Adam's rib, Eve's sin, Lillith's non-existence), and denial of compassion (everlasting hellfire, Armageddon).
Clearing away the underbrush for a plain discussion of gift economies requires us first to look away from western culture, a task that most westerners have an awfully hard time managing. Even when they think they are discarding western ideas, they continue Euro-forming the data with energy. This is because the most basic concepts of any birth culture seed themselves so deeply into the consciousness of their members that pulling them into the light for rational evaluation is a time-consuming, emotionally unpleasant, readily sacrified chore.
In a previous article I wrote for Reality Sandwich, I explained the first, serious error that westerners make in looking at, specifically, Native American cultures: the assumption that their own base number of One is the base number of all cultures. It certainly is not. Native American cultures use a base number of Two. Western cultures use linear math; Native American cultures use binary math. In Native American math, the base unit consists of two equal halves, which are immediately replicated (so that the first unit has a twin), resulting in what looks like a base four to users of western linear math. In fact, it is just a binary set.
This accounts for the very common "plus sign" symbol so common to Native American iconography. It connects with the cardinal directions of Breath (Sky) and Blood (Earth). When Breath, they are the Four Winds; when Blood, they become the Four Serpents or the Four Mothers. Just to keep life interesting, Native groups tilt the plus sign ╬ into an X, so that it is the interstices, not the lines, that matter. We are big on in-between spaces. When everything is a middling, nothing can be an outlier. Figure 1, below, shows the standard colors and cardinal conceptions of the Iroquois.
Figure 1. The Breath and Blood of the Cardinal Directions
Figure 1, The Two-by-Four of the Cardinal Directions, shows the traditional, tilted concept of the Twinned Direction of the Sky (E↔W) and Split Sky (N↔S). White (E↔S) wampum and purple (N↔W) wampum are referenced by the background colors. Figure created by Barbara Mann.
Translating all of this into an economic system requires something beyond basic math, however. Human interaction is much more involved than simplistic linear probabilities suggest, which is usually what westerners try to slap over economics as predictors.
Yes, diagrams of probabilities look complex at first blush (see Figure 2), but they are really just accreted, either-or propositions, following the standard Manichean list of choices: good or bad, light or dark, yes or no, up or down, as though such a list really covered all possibilities. Worse, we are assured that none of the previous outcomes affect future outcomes. I remember arguing in my college math class the improbability of the first decision not affecting the second, whereas my professor categorically refused to accept my proposition, replying that it represented fuzzy thinking. It was not fuzzy thinking, however, but just Native American thinking.
What is needed to describe gift economies is a complex form of representation that takes into account interactive binaries as mass in motion. This is because, in the world of the gift economy, everything influences the outcome of everything else, a primary implication of the Native American commonplace reference to "All My Relatives." Nothing Native is a free-standing, once-and-for-all, over-and-done-with proposition, as each transaction is represented as being in exchange economics. Instead, there is a constant motion, in which every action is implicated in every other action.
I have seen this idea represented in spider-web format, which is not bad for a two-dimensional impression of what All My Relatives are doing. The underlying mechanism of this spider-web image is fractal geometry, which offers representations much more complex and fitting than a two-dimensional spider web. The idea of fractals is a set of images, repeating endlessly, each repetition, no matter how large or small, a perfect replica of the original impetus.
Figure 2. Standard Probability Chart
In Figure 2, the line is our happy simplist, walking cheerfully along, until confronted with a yes-no proposition. Each answer follows its own potential direction, with more yes-no choices at intervals. The circles represent the nodes where the either-or choices live. I always wondered what happened at the nodes, whether our happy simplist breaks at the nodes into two dimensionsal selves of simultaneous experience. My math professor was of no help in answering this. Figure created, however clumsily, by Barbara Mann.
At this point, the limitations of paper, not to mention my own inadequacies in computer graphics, prevent any three-dimensional, let alone, moving mass of imagery, but the reader should try to imagine just that. Neither do fractals have to go binary, but the most convincing ones do. The limitation of fractal representations is that each is a perfectly measured increment, so that the only distinction is in the largeness or smallness of any given detail. The irregular regularities, such as compose nature, do not come through. Nevertheless, the basic idea does get across. See, for instance, Figure 3., below, which is a nice fractal vision of the nearly seventy groups (the six nations plus the sixty-some affiliated nations) of the Iroquois League. Notice the plus sign ╬ rotated into an X, with the fractal repetitions mimicking chaos. The figure even includes the light-dark contrast so common to League conceptions, for instance, white and "black" (blue purple) wampum.
Figure 3. A Binary Fractal
In Figure 3, notice the plus sign ╬ rotated into an X, with the fractal repetitions mimicking chaos. This image is courtesy of Mark Dow.
Gift economics start with the Mother, herself the initial gift of the cosmos. She gives to her child, who remains attached, setting up the prototype of gifting. Traditional gift economies focus on communities, not individuals, though, while needs are defined both materially and spiritually. The idea is to jump into a self-replicating process that is already in motion. The size of the gift is immaterial, since the process, itself, is repeated. Any gift expresses a need. Thus, all of our prayers give thanks, without asking for anything, yet the output of energy in the gift of thanks creates a vacuum that sucks in new energy, the two halves completing one repetition (which, naturally, needs a twin). Since the action is no good unless communal, gifting happens multiply, among All My Relatives, human and non-human alike. Energy is constantly in motion, so that no one can hoard, constipating the works.
Gift economics tend to confuse and surprise westerners, who keep trying to interpret them in terms of their One-base culture with its exchange-based economics. The sheer idea of giving away one's goods and energy as a means of replenishing one's store of goods and energy seems counter-intuitive to Europeans, who give only on pain of death or, maybe, on threat of IRS audit. Consequently, extensions of gifting, such as gambling, just look bizarre to Europeans.
In fact, gambling is an honorable expression of gift economics, and one that makes full use of fractals to replicate chaos, the sacred action. Gambling only appears "immoral" to westerners because they saddle it with the consequences of their own exchange economy in its most brutal form, and then blame the loser, of course. In a gift culture, however, where it is not possible to "lose everything," gambling becomes what it essentially is, an act of fractal spirituality, i.e., the making of the heavy medicine of chaos. The energy that compulsive gamblers so love is spread over the whole community, which then mutually enjoys it, as well as any goods involved.
The best, two-dimensional representation I have found for the gift economy is below as Figure 4. It honors the twinship principal, whereby one consists of its two halves, replicated in mirror image. The overall effect looks haphazard and unsustainable, but the gift keeps on giving, in actions writ large or small. The gift economy is a perpetual motion machine, collapsing only when the known universe collapses, or when Europeans arrive on the continent, with their raiding economy, to gut the gift and still the motion.
Figure 4. The Binary Fractal of the Gift Economy
In Figure 4, The Binary Fractal of the Gift Economy, again, the halves are twinned, with the actions, small and large, endlessly replicated. The colors here are capricious, as supplied by their creator, Mark Dow, and harbor no deep meaning. This image is courtesy of Mark Dow.
I do not know how to reinstate gift economics worldwide; that will take a total do-over of culture, I fear -- but then again, a do-over is what the prophecies are promising. For the record, it is only the Mayas who quote the 2012 date, and it is only Europeans who turn turn the prospect of 2012 into their own doomsday. Among the Iroquois, prophecy gives the date as 2010, and it indicates a process, not a solitary event. This prophecy connects with the original Peacemaker's prophecy from the twelfth century, in which he predicted the coming of The White Panther of Discord, when the children's faces would be ground into the dirt and heads would roll west. Once the invader had taken all the land from the Indians, even ripping off the scalp of Mother Earth for the scalp bounty, then Great Grandmother Turtle, who carries us all on her back, would begin to rock the edges of her carapace, brushing off the annoyances. Finally, she would pitch, rolling over completely in the waves. When she righted herself again as Turtle Island, only the Shining People (indigenous people) would be left, to start again.
 Barbara Alice Mann, Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas (New York: Lang, 2000): 204-37. For more on the League, see Eds. Bruce Elliott Johansen and Barbara Alice Mann, Encyclopedia of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois League) (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000).
 ShanShan Du, "Chopsticks Only Work in Paris:" Gender Unity and Gender Equality among the Lahu of Southwest China (New York: Columbia University, 2002) , especially 97-106.
 Makilam, The Magical Life of Berber Women in Kabylia (New York: Lang, 2007), especially 47-76.
 Peggy Reeves Sanday, Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), especially 79-86.
 Rauna Kuokkanen, "The Logic of the Gift: Reclaiming Indigenous Peoples' Philosophies," The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education 34 (2005): 251-71.
 See, for instance, the anthology, ed. Genevieve Vaughan, Women and the Gift Economy: A Radically Different Worldview Is Possible (Toronto: Inanna Publications and Education, 2007).
 Barbara A. Mann, "Euro-forming the Data," in Bruce E. Johansen, Debating Democracy (Clear Light Publishers, 1998) 160-90.
 Barbara Alice Mann, "Blood and Breath," in Toward 2012: Perspectives on the Next Age, eds. Daniel Pinchbeck and Ken Jordan (New York: Penguin Group, 2008) 97-109. See, also, my scholarly discussion of this issue in Barbara Alice Mann, Native Americans, Archaeologists, and the Mounds (New York: Lang Publishers, 2003) 169-238.
 Fractals were so named by Benoit Mandelbrot, who first published his fractal math as Les objets fractals, forme, hasard et dimension in 1975. The English translation came in 1977 as Fractals: Form, Chance and Dimension (San Francisco: Freeman, 1977).
 The date came from Sganyadaiyoh, ("Handsome Lake") called "The Seneca Prophet," by westerners. Sganyadaiyoh was actually his position title as a lineage chief of the Senecas, even as "Congresswoman, Ninth Congressional District," is the position title of Marcy Kaptur (my Congressional Representative). The 2010 date from the particular Sganyadaiyoh who uttered it in the early nineteenth cenrury was recorded by Arhur Parker, a descendant of his through the male line, which, by the way, is not how the Iroquois count descent. Arthur C. Parker, Red Jacket: Last of the Seneca (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1952) 143.
 Arthur Caswell Parker, "The Constitution of the Five Nations, or the Iroquois Book of the Great Law," New York State Museum Bulletin 184 (April 1916): 103-104. Some say that the allusion to "west" prophesied Removal; others see it as an allusion to the direction of death. Both are right, of course.
 This is a prophecy common to all eastern woodlanders. I have seen it written down from eighteenth-century sources in John Heckewelder, The History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States, The First American Frontier Series (1820; 1876, reprint; New York: Arno Press and The New York Times, 1971) 345.
© Copyright Barbara Alice Mann, 2009.