OURS, NOT THEIRS

While sharing may never have developed in human societies without the assistance of government, the varying form of governance determined how we viewed the practice and our communities

Hand pulling strings

That goes together: property and propriety are two words that hang – in history and in practice – very closely together.

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An interview with Don Kalb

By Jędrzej Burszta

Jędrzej Burszta (JB): Is the concept of sharing universal for human societies?

Don Kalb (DK): There are many anthropologists who make basic distinctions between Western market societies and societies based on sharing rather than individualist acquisition. I don’t believe in this simple polarisation of human societies. Societies have always been – at least for the last 5000 years – organised on a large-scale basis. Market exchanges are basically the norm of human history. Even contacts in large-scale exchanges of capitalist societies are still grounded in small-scale gifts and the redistribution of goods. Basically, it’s politics that, over time, has produced particular capacities for sharing, for making communities. There’s nothing in human kind as such, or in economics, that produces sharing however rational that sharing might be.

In European history, socialism was a political ideology where sharing was embedded as one of the main economic principles, in a different way that it is in capitalism. Is there a difference how sharing is perceived in these two systems?

I am not sure whether we can make such an easy distinction between capitalism and socialism. Of course, in a basic sense, socialism creates a much more sharing-oriented society than capitalism. But there are different capitalisms – compare Greece, Portugal, or Latin American countries. I reject those generalisations, that sort of binary thinking as reality is much more complicated.

Let’s talk about public space. I had the chance to observe socialist societies in Eastern Europe from the mid to late 1970s, arguably at the high point of socialism.

Paradoxically, public space was shared in a much less hierarchical way than in Western Europe, even though Western Europe was much less hierarchal in those days than today. In the countries I visited, people would be sitting and hanging out in groups basically everywhere in cities. Public space was a shared space – its practical functions were encroached on by different forms of horizontal sociality. It was striking for me, and not something you would see anywhere in Western European cities. At the same time, I don’t think it was a specificity of socialism as such, since you had a similar sort of sharing of public space and horizontalisation of public space for instance in the Mediterranean region or countries of the global South.

Where does this difference in sharing public space come from?

Two things are essential here. This is what Lech Wałęsa eloquently called the fish soup versus the aquarium. You can make fish soup when you have an aquarium, but what can you do with an aquarium once you have fish soup? What did he mean with this? In this case, you have a society – for the sake of the argument let us call it a populist society. This is not a liberal society where you have a lot of different changing functions, specific goals for specific functions that must be followed by the people. In socialism neither people nor the state believed in that, and the economy didn’t work like that. Factories were overpopulated, apartments were overpopulated, cities were overpopulated. I’m using these metaphors to give you a sense of how I saw this as a Western person. You see, a lot of it is still a fact in Eastern Europe, even now, in a completely different political and economic situation.

 

YOU MAY READ THE REST OF THE INTERVIEW HERE (page 20-25)

 

Don Kalb – anthropologist, professor of social anthropology at the Central European University and the University of Bergen, specializing in globalization, nationalism, post-socialism, economy and labor history. He is the author of Expanding Class: Power and Everyday Politics in Industrial Communities, The Netherlands, 1850–1950 (1998), as well as numerous articles and co-edited books including on Central and Eastern Europe.

 

Adopted text from Magazyn Miasta / Cities Magazine vol. 1

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