Immediate Return vs. Delayed Return Societies


This characterisation is based on an analytical distinction between an ‘immediate-returnhunter-gatherer economy and agricultural, herding or capitalist ‘delayed-return’ economies that is helpful for understanding the differences in approach to resource management and the environment. In delayed-return societies work is invested over extended periods of time before a yield is produced or consumed. This delay between labour investment and consumption results in political inequality because it becomes necessary to establish hierarchical structures of authority to distribute work, yields and control vital assets as labour matures into a yield. The majority of contemporary human societies are based upon delayed-return economies. Efforts by communist states to develop more egalitarian structures inevitably yielded to these fundamental forces, reasserting new types of hierarchies and inequalities to manage the delay between labour and yield. ‘Immediate-return’ hunter-gatherers such as the Yaka are strongly orientated to the present. People like to obtain a direct and immediate return for their labour – eating most of their production on the day they obtain it, as hunters, gatherers and sometimes as day labourers paid in food. They value consumption over accumulation and will share their food with all present on the day they acquire it. Without the authority and power derived from the ability to withhold vital resources, hierarchy has great difficulty establishing itself. Thus societies whose economies are based on immediate returns tend to be egalitarian societies.

About Giorgio Bertini

Research Professor. Founder Director at Learning Change Project - Research on society, culture, art, neuroscience, cognition, critical thinking, intelligence, creativity, autopoiesis, self-organization, rhizomes, complexity, systems, networks, leadership, sustainability, thinkers, futures ++
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