A Tribal Games

When anthropologists first wrote about the institution of potlatch, they caused astonishment, even bemusement. Potlatch was a bizarre form of social interaction in a number of primitive communities around the Pacific, which continued into the early 20th century. Perhaps the best example was provided by the Indian tribes on the American north-west coast. According to Ruth Benedict, in her 1934 classic Patterns of Culture, much interesting detail had been recorded about “the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island”. 

In her words, their motivations “centred around the will to superiority”. Superiority could be established most notably by the accumulation of “nobility titles”. Individuals could pass on such titles — acquired by marriage, during initiation rites and so on — down the generations, so that some especially great families had titles that went back to “the origin of the world”. The purpose of accumulating nobility titles was “to shame rivals”. Like other peoples, the Kwakiutl wanted to win, even if their definition of winning might seem — at first glance — a little peculiar to us.

Even odder, again at first glance, was the Kwakiutl stratagem for maintaining superiority at the potlatch ceremonies. Top-ranking individuals, were expected to demonstrate their superiority by what Benedict described as “conspicuous waste”. Either they gave away goods to others on an enormous scale or they engaged in wanton destruction. The more generous the donation of gifts, and the more extensive and uninhibited the destruction, the more a member of the Kwakiutl tribe demonstrated his superiority. Someone stripped of his wealth acquired unparalleled prestige.

As potlatch is difficult to reconcile with the copybook maxims of neoclassical economics, why am I mentioning it in this column? The answer is that London has recently hosted the 2012 Olympics at phenomenal expense. The whole shebang cost over £11 billion, with the vast bulk of that, about £9 billion, coming from government. No immediate cash return is expected from that £9 billion. It is unlikely that the new stadiums and other facilities will again be used as intensively as in August 2012. 

Effectively, we the British have given up about £9 billion in order that our capital city should be the venue for a gigantic spectacle. The deliberate intention is that there should be many more viewers, and hence more beneficiaries, in other countries than there are in our own. The spectacle has come and gone, and in that sense the money is “down the drain”. It can never be repeated in exactly the same way, although the British government could bid for other big international sporting events and spend billions of pounds on those as well. As with potlatch, what we are doing seems economically irrational, even mad. Why do we want to chuck money at foreigners in quite this way?

Newspaper headlines tell us why. By common consent (or at any rate by agreement between the Sun and the BBC), London’s opening ceremony was the best ever, a tribute to the organisers and indeed to Britain at large. 

The facilities have been outstanding, the media coverage impressive and the sunshine perfect. The Olympics have given us the British an opportunity to show off to the rest of the world, to demonstrate our superiority (in terms of organisation, ostentation and the weather) over lesser breeds in other lands. Conspicuous waste has enhanced our prestige. 

Perhaps visiting anthropologists would describe us as crazy. But haven’t they noticed how happy we are? Like the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island, we are exhilarated by the awarding of nobility titles. We even participate in various forms of ritualised public frenzy — flag-waving, car-horn tooting and such like — when representatives of our tribe win medals. Records of this medal winning are maintained, going back many generations, and our performance is compared favourably with that at other potlatches . . . sorry, other Olympics, such as the previous two in London in 1908 and 1948. Superiority in league tables is achieved by receiving the highest number of nobility titles/medals over a series of potlatches/Olympics. 

What was Benedict’s overall verdict on the north-west American Indians in Patterns of Culture? They are “a vigorous and overbearing people” who have “a culture of no common order”. More generally, “sharply differentiated from that of the surrounding tribes”, this culture has a zest “which it is difficult to match among other peoples”. The Daily Mail could not have put it better. 

And let us be clear: Britain’s triumph in the 2012 Olympics is a tribute to the wisdom and foresight of its tribal leaders, particularly John Major, Tony Blair and Boris Johnson, while Gordon Brown had always planned the gold haul as a smart way of replenishing our international reserves. 

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