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the malthusian afterlife

He came home from the war with a party in his head

One day, in December 1704, Margaretha Schütterin, the wife of a stonemason in Schwaikheim, saw a ghost. The ghost asked her to help him and 16 other souls (who also, apparently, appeared to her) who had been walking for 240 years by finding a treasure they had deposited in Schütterin’s house, hiding it from rampaging soldiers. They were monks in life, and needed the release in the afterlife which would follow upon Schütterin uncovering the treasure and using it, in part, for charitable works.

One of the monks explained that she had been chosen to do this because she had the same horoscope as Christ. Schütterin did what she could, which was to gather money from her friends and family to comply with the various tasks that would free the ghosts and lead to the treasure. This included paying for masses to be read, buying candles, and giving alms. By these means she extracted 912 Gulden out of a local baker, David Fischer.

“When he doubted her assertions, she made him believe that there was a competition between potential creditors. Margaretha Schütterin managed to establish a sort of `investment trust’ of treasure-hunters by promising them profits of up to 100,000 Gulden. The use she allegedly made of the money given to her, i.e. to donate it to pious causes in Catholic churches, could not easily be checked by the creditors. She finally left her husband whom she probably managed to deceive with her ghost story, too, and fled with the money. When Fischer denounced Margaretha SchuÈ tterin after her flight, he was sentenced to a fine of 14 Gulden for unlicensed treasurehunting, although he maintained that she had assured him that the treasure hunt had been permitted by the duke.”

This story is reported in a fascinating article on Treasure Hunting in Wurtemburg by Johannes Dillinger and Petra Feld, Treasure-Hunting: A Magical Motif in Law, Folklore, and Mentality, Württemberg, 1606 –1770 in German History (20:2). Following my theme of superstition as the jagged edge where a proto-capitalist mentality met a pre-capitalist mentality – or, to put it less schematically, where a weak notion of the human limit meets a strong notion of the human limit - I fell in love with Dillinger and Feld’s footwork among the legal archives. It turns out that the kind of magician Lichtenberg laughed out of Gottingen often made side money helping out in hunts for treasure. Dillinger and Feld turn here, to explain the obsession with treasure, to George Foster’s work on the limited good – or the zero sum economic attitudes of Mexican peasants. Luckily for us, George Foster’s major article is up on the web: Peasant Society and the Image of Limited Good*. This article, published in 1968, is, I am starting to recognize, crucial to my Polanyi-ish leanings, which I am following as I uncover the roots of the happiness culture.

I have to quote this bit from the Foster’s article, about which I am so overwhelmed with things I could say that I will just... not, for the nonce:

In this paper I am concerned with the nature of the cognitive orientation of peasants, and with interpreting and relating peasant behavior as described by anthropologists to this orientation. I am also concerned with the implications of this orientation-and related behavior to the problem of the peasant's participation in the economic growth of the country to which he may belong. Specifically, I will outline what I believe to be the dominant theme in the cognitive orientation of classic peasant societies,* show how characteristic peasant behavior seems to flow from this orientation, and attempt to show that this behavior—however incompatible with national economic growth—is not only highly rational in the context of the cognition that determines it, but that for the maintenance of peasant society in its classic form, it is indispensable.4 The kinds of behavior that have been suggested as adversely influencing economic growth are, among many, the "luck" syndrome, a "fatalistic" outlook, inter- and intra-familial quarrels, difficulties in cooperation, extraordinary ritual expenses by poor people and the problems these expenses pose for capital accumulation, and the apparent lack of what the psychologist McClelland (1961) has called "need for Achievement." I will suggest that peasant participation in national development can be hastened not by stimulating a psychological process, the need for achievement, but by creating economic and other opportunities that will encourage the peasant to abandon his traditional and increasingly unrealistic cognitive orientation for a new one that reflects the realities of the modern world.

2. The model of cognitive orientation that seems to me best to account for peasant behavior is the "Image of Limited Good." By "Image of Limited Good" I mean that broad areas of peasant behavior are patterned in such fashion as to suggest that peasants view their social, economic, and natural universes—their total environment—as one in which all of the desired things in life such as land, wealth, health, friendship and love, manliness and honor, respect and status, power and influence, security and safety, exist in finite quantity and are always in short supply, as far as the peasant is concerned. Not only do these and all other "good things" exist in finite and limited quantities, but in addition there is no way directly within peasant power to increase the available quantities. It is as if the obvious fact of land shortage in a densely populated area applied to all other desired things: not enough to go around. "Good," like land, is seen as inherent in nature, there to be divided and re-divided, if necessary, but not to be augmented.


Anonymous said…
"encourage the peasant to abandon his traditional and increasingly unrealistic cognitive orientation for a new one that reflects the realities of the modern world."

I guess we'll see which world view is REALLY the most unrealistic, won't we!!!

I like the argument that the Aborigines (and good ol' Ted K) were right-the REAL wrong turn was made with the adoption of full scale agriculture. :)
Roger Gathmann said…
Brian, have you read Daniel Quinn? That is his idea too. I once went to Houston to interview Mr. Quinn for a magazine, which was a most interesting interview.
Anonymous said…
"cognitive orientation" What does that even mean? How about, the way they think, or something of the sort.

"the REAL wrong turn was made with the adoption of full scale agriculture" Hell no. The wrong turn was made with the violent imposition of tool function on innocent rocks. Biocentrism at its worst.
Anonymous said…
Daniel Quinn? To Google we go. :0

Have to admit....and the Secret Police monitoring your blog will go all a tizzy, I found some of the "Manifesto" disturbingly sensible. Even though as a solitary quite plump, soft handed functionary of the apparat I would have no idea how to survive as a hunter-and-gatherer. :)
Roger Gathmann said…
If you ever met Daniel Quinn, Brian, you'd quickly see that you are ahead of him in the hunter gatherer pecking order by quite a lot. I think Quinn is more concerned with creating a radical estrangement from what is.

But myself, I like agriculture, except that devoted to Brussels sprouts. I'm definitely opposed to the latter.
Anonymous said…
Hell...I eat meat. I own a car (alas) I like recroded music. I like books. I love a lot of things about modern
"civillization." Nature is great and all...but...Some of these anarcho primitivists want us to abandon language and go back to grunting!