New World of Gain
Europeans, Guaraní, and the Global Origins of Modern Economy
Brian P. Owensby




A LAND OF ABUNDANCE that had provided for all became a place of privation and hardship after the arrival of men from beyond the sea. Before this moment in the early sixteenth century, the Abá (men or people) had lived in a forest world great for its bounty, if at times unforgiving in the destructive fury of its storms, floods, wars, and hurricanes.1 Among the Abá, gifts and their return across open-ended time bound people together. The new men, Iberians mostly, seemed interested in the Guaraní (as the Abá later came to be known) only to advance themselves, either through material exchange or by getting the Abá to serve them. This encounter in the interior of South America transformed both groups. Among the Guaraní, contact introduced novel pressures that proved more enduringly threatening to the Abá way of life than anything they had known. The newcomers, motivated by a still inchoate desire for ganancia (gain, profit, interest), quickly began to act as though the Guaraní were beyond moral consideration, instruments to personal benefit. Although neither Guaraní nor Europeans were in a position to grasp the larger meaning of the moment, their meeting was part of a global sea change in human relations from the sixteenth century forward.

These pages recount what happened when people without experience of individual gain-seeking as a force in everyday life came face to face with men who aimed to benefit at others’ expense. At its most basic, this transformation involved unleashing self-interested material pursuit at the core of human affairs. We tend to take it for granted that human beings behave this way in the sphere of everyday life now known as the economy. Yet, as Karl Polanyi noted in the mid-twentieth century, gain and profit made on exchange had not assumed a dominant role in social life through most of human history.2 Gain, said Polanyi, had stood as one motivation among others—valor, piety, honor, virtue, status, justice, friendship, gift, reciprocity, subsistence—restrained and regulated by a matrix of moral, political, social, religious, cultural, and legal commitments. Markets had long existed, easing the circulation of goods among human communities. But, argued Polanyi, material gain as a mainspring of action had not been widely acknowledged as valid and certainly never before “raised to the level of a justification of action and behavior in everyday life.” Indeed, the ascendance of gain could be compared only to “the most violent outbursts of religious fervor in history.”3 Deep movements began to alter European understandings of social life beginning in the late-medieval period, instituting the buying and selling of labor and land, mediating exchange increasingly through money, and ultimately subjecting livelihood to a general competition among society’s members. The slow eruption of gain into everyday affairs gradually overrode the moral, motivational, and institutional bases of social cohesion, and thrust up a new disposition of power and needs that made personal profit and fear of want into dominant features of human conduct. The result was nothing short of a transformation of life in common, one that strained against prevailing understandings of human relations. In the process, all other notions of human economy sank from view, chief among them what I shall refer to as substantive mutuality: that cluster of ideas, actions, and commitments anchored in gift, reciprocity, and redistribution binding societies across time.4

For Polanyi, gain achieved its apotheosis in human affairs during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with the emergence of industrial, market capitalism, first in England, then in continental Europe, and in the twentieth century, “the whole human world.”5 For all its insight, Polanyi’s argument reflects a Eurocentric understanding of economic history, one fixated on the Industrial Revolution. I contend that a history of gain extends much earlier, to at least the moment of Europe’s expansion beyond the Old World in 1492.

By beginning the story so late, Polanyi could only hint at the profound social and moral transfiguration, the slow-rolling “social catastrophe” that gave rise to the sensibilities, ideas, and institutions we now accept as essential to modern—that is, market—economy. A history that begins with the victory of market society circa 1800 has no way to account for the shock experienced by all those who lived through the moral churn of gain’s emergence as the vital force of economic life. Indeed, the late triumph of the new market order expunged all reference to centuries of moral questioning and fears of what would become of social life if men could act as though their desires answered to nothing beyond individual interests. This questioning was not limited to Europeans. Rather, I propose that gain—the desire and capacity to benefit materially at the expense of others, without concern for reciprocity—and the agitation it occasioned, played out everywhere Europeans encountered non-Europeans from the sixteenth century forward.

This was not an early instance of market ideology as we would today understand it. A new world of gain burgeoned in Paraguay (and elsewhere) through the transformation that allowed European men to suppose they could turn whole groups of people to individual advantage, regardless of the harm they might do. This can be seen with special clarity in places like Paraguay, where social, legal, and moral precepts that constrained acquisitive urges in the Old World did not to apply with full force in the New. In the Guaraní, European settlers encountered people toward whom they could act with freedom, even license, compared to how they might treat ordinary folk back home, who were still sheltered by an increasingly tattered set of norms and reciprocities in quotidian life. In Paraguay, settlers were not bound by customary inhibitions that precluded self-interested competition regarding the basic elements of community life—food, shelter, labor, land. Within Europe, according to Polanyi, only traders were able to suspend these constraints, and then only in their dealings with other traders outside given communities. In short, places like Paraguay were central to the process by which gain and its possibilities took root in the European imagination. Of course, Indigenous people had their own norms and customs, their own moral frameworks and ideas of society, grounded in what Polanyi called “the social nature of human agency and the interdependence of our collective existence.”6 The Guaraní referred to aguĭyeí—the life of good and healthy interactions among those who lived together. Polanyi argued broadly that economic gain and, ultimately, market relations could come to dominate human affairs only by displacing such ideas as primary axes of life in common, though he never pointed to a concrete historical moment when gain and reciprocity collided.

This book brings such a juncture into focus to consider anew what it has meant for gain to play out at the hub of human collective life. The irony of gain is that while its role has been acknowledged as the driving motive in market economies, it has rarely been raised as a topic of historical inquiry unto itself. It is treated, instead, as a background condition requiring no special attention. Within the conceptual frame of Western thinking, the pursuit of gain has been accepted as the thing human beings do and are expected to do in situations defined as economic—the impulse that is always already present among “modern” humans. In fact, this understanding is the outcome of a historical process, at once practical, intellectual, ideological, and moral. Where European political theories had looked askance at gain through the seventeenth century, and moral discourse had treated it as synonymous with greed and avarice, by the nineteenth century it came to be broadly understood among Europeans as a matter of “irresistible human nature” and even necessity in matters of everyday material life.7 In consequence, it has been uncommon to consider substantive mutuality on its own terms in historical accounts of the emergence of modern economies, other than to proclaim its demise. By looking to the encounter between Guaraní and Europeans through the prism of differing understandings of exchange, I seek new historical perspectives on the actions, ideas, volitions, and motivations that underlie our social and economic lives. I do so in the hope that we might see unabashed gain-seeking from the viewpoint of those who experienced it as strange and unsettling, so that the familiar and taken-for-granted might come to seem strange and unsettling once again as a matter of broad human concern.

In 1524, when a small band of Europeans first arrived where the rivers Pillkumayu and Ysry Paraguaí joined, encounters with the native Guaraní were tense but not hostile. Relations were mediated chiefly by barter: European goods such as mirrors, beads, knives, and hatchets for food and information. The newcomers professed their interest in finding a kingdom of gold and silver high in the Andes. An alliance of convenience followed in which the clutch of Europeans and thousands of Guaraní trekked west to the foothills of the Incan empire, returning months later, the former with silver and copper trinkets, the latter with captives. By 1525, the Europeans had left and did not reappear for another decade. In 1537, two hundred newcomers paddled upriver, putting in at the site of first contact with the Guaraní over a decade earlier. They founded the city of Asunción that same year. As before, relations were initially conducted through direct exchange. Over time, an unstable mesh of barter, gift, reciprocity, plunder, and currency developed between the Europeans and Indigenous people. Realizing that no great wealth was to be had from these lands, the interlopers turned to the only obvious resource available for exploitation—native people themselves. The Guaraní responded by attempting to draw settlers into a novel interethnic arrangement, offering daughters, sisters, and nieces in the expectation or hope that the outsiders would accept the status and, crucially, the obligations of brothers-in-law. Settlers were more than happy to take women in gift. But they broadly refused to reciprocate or link their fates to native social arrangements, except as convenience or necessity might dictate.

As the number of foreigners grew over the following decades, royal officials began to worry that Indigenous people might be wiped out by overuse. Royal edicts and local ordinances aiming to address this threat were stymied by settlers’ insistence that their liberty and material prospects depended on their ability to realize personal benefit from the Guaraní—little enough, many complained. When by the early seventeenth century, law proved incapable of reining in abuses, many Guaraní sought common cause with Jesuit missionaries, who sought to convert them to Christianity. By blending Guaraní ideas of reciprocity and Jesuit notions of the common good, Native people and European priests gave rise to the storied Paraguay missions, places of relative peace and security for hundreds of thousands of Guaraní during a century and a half. In the late eighteenth century, this mission world was laid waste by reforms aiming to force all Indigenous people into a competitive social order at the heart of which lay the pursuit of gain and submission to the goad of want. In a final irony, just as it was collapsing, the mission world became a topic of fascination and a point of anxious moral reflection in European debates over the role of economy in social life. In these disputes, champions of transactional commodity exchange succeeded in relegating reciprocity to the silence of permanent “primitive” status in the grand unfolding of commercial civilization.

The challenge in telling this tale is to include Europeans and Guaraní on broadly equal terms. Chronicles of conquest, especially in the New World, have long indulged “myths” that have made it easy to overlook the complexities, ambivalences, and contingencies of such encounters.8 Two canards have been especially damaging. The first is that Spaniards’ actions amounted to little more than pillage and plunder and so do not bear on later economic developments rooted in transactional exchanges. In effect, this has tended to exclude from our histories of the modern, global economic system those Europeans who confronted radical human difference and saw opportunity. The second myth is that Native people, once conquered, had few concerns other than bare survival. This has left us with an untextured sense of Indigenous people and their ideas regarding exchange as they confronted an emergent global political economy at the level of everyday life.

A central argument of this book is that the Guaraní’s responses to the novelty of gain in their midst are of a piece with counter-movements among ordinary people who have faced broadly similar pressures elsewhere. With respect to a particular historical moment, E. P. Thompson referred to such movements as manifestations of “moral economy.” Writing in the 1970s, he sought an alternative to facile explanations for what were billed as “riots” during early decades of the Industrial Revolution in England. Specifically, he argued that so-called mobs opposing price hikes and food shortages during the late eighteenth century were defending a “delicate tissue of social norms and reciprocities” that regulated how far profit-taking could be pushed at the expense of those most vulnerable in the emerging nexus of cash, prices, and wages. To the notion that English common folk were reacting “spasmodically,” Thompson claimed that “crowd action” expressed a “legitimizing notion” regarding a “fair price” in the face of the new market economy.9

Moral economy has traveled a tortuous conceptual trajectory. Thompson did not coin the term—it had appeared in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century writings among those, especially religious authors, who continued to question still new economic arrangements. Before this time, there had been no reason to refer to a moral economy, since economy had always been recognized as implicating moral concerns. For Thompson, moral economy was a way of understanding the doings of ordinary folk who resisted the idea that all exchange could be reduced to transactions involving money and commodities.

Since Thompson’s time, moral economy has expressed a deep sense that something has been missing from conventional economic accounts of human motivation and collective life. Anthropologists and political scientists have embraced the concept for precisely this reason—and heatedly contested its usage.10 I hold with those who recognize in moral economy an effort to reconnect social to economic behavior. The concept invites us to focus on the specific relationships different sorts of exchanges create and what ideas regarding society lie behind them, with the understanding that there is “no unbridgeable chasm” between gift-reciprocity and commodity exchange.11 This is what makes it possible to bring Guaraní and Europeans into the same analytical frame, without disadvantaging one or the other. When analysis begins from the “real” economy—read “market economy”—there is little room for alternative conceptions of how people may relate to each other through exchange. Not surprisingly, Thompson worried about moral economy’s plasticity.12 To avoid conceptual erosion, he rooted its meaning in the particular time and place of his research. Yet Thompson himself recognized that what underlay moral economy might as easily be used to think about Trobriand Islanders as English yeomen, suggesting the concept need not remain trapped in the amber of its specificity.13 He went no further than this. His doing so at all indicates that the malleability of the idea has been one of its chief selling points—and one of its perils.

Through moral economy, it is possible to see Spanish plunder as part of a larger emerging pattern of human relations. At the same time, it enables us to peer more deeply into what might otherwise be assumed a simple survival instinct among the Guaraní. By distinguishing the supposed peace of transactional exchanges from the violence of pillage, we have avoided close scrutiny of gain and turned away from considering why modern, competitive economic orders seem to be ones of constant strife and social disequilibrium. By the same token, we have dismissed substantive mutuality by assuming it faded from relevance, except among “primitive” peoples—an erasure that is part of the story told here. In consequence, all notions of reciprocity have, in effect, been swept onto the midden of progressive historical development, pertinent only insofar as overcome by gain-seeking in market regimes.

The centuries-long encounter between Europeans and Guaraní reveals an early moment in the emergence of a globalized economic order from the vantage of a confrontation between different notions of exchange. If it is true that a global economy developed in relation to the violent appropriation of labor and land in Africa and America, which has been called “war capitalism,” it is also true that there was another clash germane to understanding the crystallization of the modern market world—a forgotten (or repressed) dispute over the terms of human sociability.14 While struggles over land, labor, and resources have been central to the broader story of capitalism, there have also been struggles regarding how human beings should behave toward one another and how they should arrange their collective lives. We know much less about the latter than we do the former.

Telling this story demands a vigorous treatment of substantive mutuality in historical accounts of modern economy.15 Its absence has allowed gain to be chalked up to human nature and placed safely beyond inquiry. To correct this omission, gift and reciprocity must be heard to express the intellectual, political, social, cultural, and ethical commitments of concrete historical actors in historical time, in a way that links the intimate to the systemic. There has been some movement on this front. Recent historical scholarship has been more attentive to reciprocity in understanding negotiations between Indigenous people and Europeans in North America.16 Others have called for a reconsideration of gift-reciprocity in broad historical accounts of capitalism as a step to rethinking human sociability on a global scale.17 Historians working on widely separated parts of the world have begun to incorporate local understandings more firmly into histories of capitalism, by paying attention to how communities negotiated their own “autonomy,” by telling “local histories of global capital,” and by showing how “ways of life” long dismissed as “unfit” were viable responses to economic pressures.18 This scholarship looks to a composite history of modern economic relations as a global phenomenon, a panorama of multiple local histories involving “the whole human world,” as Polanyi put it.19

While I accept Thompson’s baseline regarding moral economy as a “pattern of behavior,” I also depart from it in one crucial way: the pattern must be seen to stretch across periods much longer than the convulsive moments Thompson fixed on. This is the only way to regraft gift-reciprocity into our historical accounts of modern economy. Because exchange varies by culture and because regimes of exchange morph as they encounter the duress and temptations of gainful conduct, it is crucial that moral economy encompass deeply considered action over long periods, as well as reactions in the moment. Just as the practice of gain became more firmly entrenched among Europeans over the decades and centuries following initial encounter in the New World, shaped by institutions and politics, substantive mutuality was renewed as an active resource among the Guaraní during nearly three centuries, looking to “relationships and their histories” for judging what might be proper and mutual in social lives upended.20

I freely admit that moral economy cannot be pinned down with precision. Thompson gestured toward a “general theory of moral economy” but backed away from providing one. The reality of exchange in human lives is concrete, not abstract. It connects the everyday texture of material life to the shape of obligation among people and within communities. With this in mind, the conceptual role of moral economy is threefold: First, to help us recognize that conventional accounts regarding the rise of economy have left out too much, especially from the perspective of those who have experienced that rise as cataclysmic over shorter or longer periods. Second, to give a name to movements that have often been treated as isolated phenomena—the resistances and uprisings, the accommodations and innovations that are deemed secondary or irrelevant to the supposedly larger story of global economic development. And third, to allow us to rediscover that all exchange is social and all economy moral, disciplinary dithering and ideological niggling notwithstanding. Moral economy is therefore a term that makes up in nuance and grain what it lacks in rigor. Ideally, it will fade away as we recall that economy is inherently moral, political, and social. To reach such a point, however, we must attend to the rich diversity of particular cases—the one in this book and many others—while looking to a global context.

I have opted for a narrative structure to convey how Guaraní and Europeans confronted each other through different understandings of exchange and its role in human relations. Early modern Paraguay is distinguished by the fact that it was a place where gain, and it louche cousins greed and avarice, were frequently raised in public discourse during the decades after contact. The mission world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries represented an experiment in social organization and a sustained challenge to gain as an organizing principle of collective life. Although broadly linear, the account is one of collisions and contestations, of how deep precepts and practices regarding social life unraveled and were rewoven. The arc of the book is broad, spanning three centuries and bridging scales from the personal to the imperial. I have drawn on archival materials and printed primary sources, including dictionaries of Guaraní and Spanish and a growing corpus of Guaraní documents in translation. I have also leaned on the existing literature of colonial Paraguay and the rich historiography of the missions.21 The conceptual ligatures of the argument are made from the insights of anthropologists, economists, ethnographers, theologians, and philosophers.

Chapter 1 sets a baseline for Guaraní and European social understandings prior to contact in the sixteenth century. For the Guaraní, I draw on the vibrant anthropological and ethnohistorical literature of Amerindian peoples that has emerged in recent decades to ground robust ideas of gift, reciprocity, and conviviality. For Spaniards, I look to the centrality of “friendship” in social life and its concrete manifestation in gift giving and reciprocal practices, even as these norms were beginning to be strained by the pull of transactional conduct. Chapter 2 narrates the meeting of Guaraní and Iberians against the backdrop of early material exchanges, the shock of Spaniards’ instrumental and exploitative impulses, especially with regard to women, and Guaraní efforts to respond on their own terms. I contend that this initial period of encounter opened the Guaraní and settlers to the perils and possibilities of a new world of gain. Chapter 3 examines efforts within Spanish officialdom to mobilize royal justice to protect Indigenous people from ongoing devastation. According to Spanish theology and law, human beings were ordained to life together, so Spaniards and Guaraní should form part of a shared social order. And yet by the end of the sixteenth century, law, the instrument for ensuring this outcome, was buckling under the weight of settlers’ excesses. Chapter 4 argues that this legal project had foundered by the early seventeenth century. Its failure led many among the Guaraní to cultivate a relationship with Jesuit missionaries seeking to convert them, as a way of escaping settlers’ unrelenting demands for Guaraní labor. Chapter 5 contends that the Guaraní entered into a grand pact with the Spanish monarchy, brokered by Jesuit missionaries. Between the mid-seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries, this alliance gave rise to the mission world as a concrete manifestation of Guaraní substantive mutuality and Jesuit notions of charity and the common good. The idea was that such an alliance might accomplish what the law could not: to insulate the Guaraní from settlers and to rebalance lives disrupted by unchecked gain. Chapter 6 chronicles two events that strained this pact: a settler rebellion in the 1730s and the Guaraní war of the 1750s, which resulted directly from the Spanish monarchy’s growing concern with commerce as a tool of sovereignty and inter-imperial competition. Chapter 7 recounts the collapse of the mission world after expulsion of the Jesuits from Paraguay in 1767 and the introduction of reforms aiming to force mission residents into a competitive economy. Chapter 8 considers European debates regarding an emergent market order in which the mission world figured prominently as a point of moral reflection. It was here that substantive mutuality faded in the face of arguments regarding the ineluctability of competitive gain-seeking in human affairs. A concluding chapter amplifies and extends some of the book’s key themes.

Because deletion of the Guaraní from historical time is part of the narrative arc of this book, it is crucial to reckon with deep, rarely acknowledged assumptions regarding what it is to do history, in the modern, Western sense. Constantin Fasolt has argued that history, as a way of thinking about human time, relies on the strong notion that human beings are “free and independent agents, with the ability to shape their fate” beyond the “thoughtless repetition of custom.”22 By supposing that human actions have made the past, historical practice summons a sense of “control . . . over the world of self and society” in the present, which frees human beings to make the future.23 This is why historical thinking cannot vigorously acknowledge outcomes purportedly given by tradition (custom), religion (providence), or science (nature). Were it so, humans could not be said to have acted, only to have been acted upon or to have blundered through time. And if this were true in the past, there would be no warrant to assume they can do any differently in the present with respect to the future. Put another way, Western historicizing, as a regime of knowledge, has sought above all to ensure that the future remain open to a specific conception of human agency. Its central purpose is to insist, counterintuitively, that the past does not, finally, fetter the intentional shaping of the future. Historical agency, thus, is a (quite particular) solution to the predicament of how those born into the flow of time to circumstances not of their choosing can nevertheless be said to chart their own paths. There is nothing wrong with this, so long as we are clear about what historians are up to. The problem comes when history assumes an objective stance that subordinates other ways of thinking about human time to this vision.

For the Guaraní, the dilemma is acute. Like Indigenous people across the New World—and enslaved Africans with them, as well as so many others around the globe—the Guaraní were thrust into a historical trajectory premised on the rupture of their world. Whatever may have been their notions of human temporality before the encounter with Europeans in the sixteenth century, nothing could have prepared them for the existential levies they bore afterwards. To see them as historical actors in the conventional sense is to imagine that even after contact with the outsiders, they had some measure of “control over the world of self and society” and were “free and independent agents, with the ability to shape their fate.” This does not seem quite right, given the constraints under which they have had to puzzle out their collective existence. Yet, to deny them agency would mean one of two things. Either they would be written out of historical time, where, from the Western perspective, human meaning is made and the future is worked out. Or their entire presence would be reduced to having been acted upon by others. Either way, their historical role would always be diminished compared to European historical actors.

Caution is in order. There is no reason to assume the Guaraní share or shared this conception of human temporal agency. After all, they have mythic and linguistic resources of their own for thinking about their relation to time.24 They could simply refuse to engage history as a form of knowledge (which arguably makes it presumptuous to insert them into an historical account). Then again, the Guaraní of today might choose not to foreclose options. They might accept a superposition of myth and history, or propose some fusion of the two. A history of the epochal change to a novel global social order, with the Guaraní as participants, must face this issue head on.

One avenue for doing so is to think of the freedom to which Western historicizing is oriented as an ontological commitment of its own, a horizon in relation to which history can unfold as a human project. It is what redeems history from being a random walk through time and allows humans to contribute to creating their future. Yet freedom, as a guiding orientation, is problematic because it says so little about what people should use freedom to accomplish and for whose benefit. The answer to this riddle has been the Western idea of progress which, absent some moving spirit or teleological endpoint, only begs the question of progress toward what. By default, the answer has generally involved some notion of expanded abundance and agency for humanity writ large, even as people across the globe have been denied the historical capacity to “shape their own fates” by the very processes that were supposed to emancipate them. As an idea, in other words, progress remains as philosophically thin as it is emotionally resonant.

Is there any possibility of a parallel and distinct temporal horizon among the Guaraní? If not, the Guaraní, when treated as historical actors in historical accounts risk remaining bound to the freedom-progress axis in ways that would seem to ill fit their experience and might even misrepresent their existential possibilities. Here, perhaps, the notion of Land Without Evil, that place of effortless abundance where the joys of mutuality may be had without the burdens of obligation, offers a path.

This idea is one of the most contentious in the scholarship on the Guaraní. Early twentieth-century anthropologists were the first to bring attention to it, linking it to messianic pilgrimages among the Guaraní at times of acute crisis.25 Debate since that time has been vigorous. The term has been thought to denote a myth growing out of the Guaraní’s constant search for new arable lands. Scholars have contested its earlier presence among the Guaraní, claiming that the Land Without Evil was a later cultural invention. Others have argued that it is above all an artifact of Western ethnographic encounters with the Guaraní.26 What seems beyond dispute is that among contemporary Guaraní, the idea is recognized as a kind of cosmological point of reference, an actual or figurative place of plenty for all and peaceful human interactions.27

It is hard to gauge the historical depth of this vision. A seventeenth-century Guaraní-Spanish dictionary by a Jesuit missionary contains the earliest written version of the term. Under the entry for mȃrȃneỹ, meaning “good [negation of bad], whole, incorruptible,” ĭbĭ mȃrȃneỹ is translated as “ground that remains intact, that has not been built on.”28 Given that Guaraní villages moved every few years to open up new clearings in the forest as old fields became exhausted, it has seemed plausible to suppose this could be a point of origin for the mythic meaning of the term. Accounts of two European chroniclers from the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries offer the only known historical references to the idea of a mystical land of ease and plenty. These documents refer tantalizingly to a place of “immortality and eternal rest,” “a beautiful land where all things would come naturally and abundantly, without any difficulty or labor.”29 It is impossible to know with precision what was being referred to. Translation was rudimentary and chroniclers listened only as hard as necessary to find their way to El Dorado, the fabled city of gold that obsessed European adventurers at that time, or to the land of the silver king high in the Andes.

Between such statements and the scholarship of the twentieth century, there is a gulf. As anthropologist Bartomeu Melià has argued, it is unlikely that the idea of Land Without Evil can be teased out of early history so as to reveal a continuous, traceable thread from pre-contact times to the present day.30 Yet, it is worth noting that ethnographers and anthropologists have reported that among contemporary Guaraní the idea of ĭbĭ mȃrȃneỹ (Land Without Evil) as an actual place has remained intact alongside newer ways of considering it. For purposes of this book, the conceptual problem is that debate over its longevity and meaning among the Guaraní has not been settled.31 Moreover, the concept presents an evidentiary dilemma, for it does not figure in the few Guaraní texts available to us or indirectly in texts written by Spaniards.

This does not imply that it must be set aside.32 Despite continuing debate, few would deny that the Land Without Evil encapsulates a metaphysical orientation to a Guaraní way of being in the world, a thing “real and material in their hope.”33 Speaking of present-day Guaraní, Melià has put it succinctly: “The search for the Land-Without-Evil is nothing else than an element, alongside others, of the system of reciprocity, threatened in many ways, but always sought after as an essential point of definition.”34 This is not the only way to conceptualize the Land Without Evil, though it has the advantage of referring to the world of material relationships rather than exclusively to a religious, mythical, or cosmological realm.35

Approached this way, the phrase might be said to play a role in Guaraní culture akin to that of freedom in Western historicizing. If freedom may be thought of as the condition for progress along an arrow of time toward material and cultural betterment, the Land Without Evil might be thought of as a temporal horizon that conceptualizes social relations as “a history that must be remade every day.”36 The Land Without Evil would thus stand as “the realistic condition of the economy of reciprocity in this world and in the one beyond,” sustained by a collective commitment to “being on the path” toward it.37 Another way to grasp the comparison is to note of Melià’s formulation above that if “freedom” is substituted for “Land-Without-Evil,” and “control over the world of self and society” for “the system of reciprocity,” the statement could ring unobjectionably true to a Western ear.*

In other words, it is possible to acknowledge the contrast between Western and Guaraní ideas regarding the human passage through time without exaggerating differences to the point of mutual unintelligibility. This, in turn, allows them to be permeable to each other. There is no reason to suppose that the Guaraní lacked or lack temporal consciousness—though it may not mean what Western historians suppose. Reciprocity among the Guaraní might be said to be explicitly temporal. It looks back and forward from the moment, positing its own continual renewal “on the path” that seeks to ensure a coherent relationship among people to and through time and space.38 The difficulty with this formulation, from the vantage point of Western historical thinking, is that it smacks too much of the “thoughtless repetition of custom” to qualify as genuine human agency. Linear progress has generally been paired with freedom in Western historicizing for just this reason; without a meaningful idea of advance, human agency can seem almost beside the point. Western historians may nod to past and present efforts to preserve and renew certain ways of being, but these are almost always understood as subordinate to supposedly more assertive forms of action seeking to progress and so create the future. The difference between these two perspectives, thus, is less a matter of the presence or absence of temporality in relation to a horizon of possibility than of distinct orientations regarding an oncoming present. Rather than presume them to be incommensurable, I allow them to commingle without losing their distinctness.

Chapter Note

*With the indicated substitutions, it would read as follows: “The search for freedom is nothing else than an element, alongside others, of the control over the world of self and society, threatened in many ways, but always sought after as an essential point of definition.”


1. Montoya, Tesoro, 7v, 130v. Guaraní myths contain a “cataclysmology” referring especially to floods and fires. See Nimuendajú, Lendas. The term Guaraní refers to various contemporary peoples that (1) share a linguistic family, (2) share elements of culture, (3) share a history of contact with European colonizers, (4) and include groups that over time have been “guaranized” by linguistic and colonial absorption. Chamorro, “Imagens,” 79.

2. Polanyi, Great Transformation, 43.

3. Polanyi, Great Transformation, 31.

4. I draw on Polanyi for this definition and have made it somewhat more precise by looking to Graeber, Anthropological Theory, 219–20. I have not followed Pierre Bourdieu’s pessimistic take on gift-reciprocity, which concedes too much to transactional culture and in effect sees gift through gain. See Dufy and Weber, Más allá, 43–44.

5. Polanyi, Great Transformation, 30.

6. Polanyi, Great Transformation, 46, 127, 258A; Block and Somers, Power, 228.

7. Poley, Devil’s Riches; Sahlins, Western Illusion, 112.

8. Clendinnen, Ambivalent Conquests; Restall, Seven Myths.

9. Thompson, “Moral Economy,” 76–77, 78. He first used the term moral economy in The Making of the English Working Class, 548.

10. Scott, Moral Economy; Booth, “On the Idea”; Arnold, “Rethinking Moral Economy”; Edelman, “Bringing the Moral Economy”; Götz, “‘Moral Economy’”; Palomera and Vetta, “Moral Economy”; Carrier, “Moral Economy”; Adelman, “Introduction.”

11. Bloch and Parry, “Introduction,” 10.

12. Shenk, “‘I Am No Longer Answerable,’” 241–46.

13. Thompson, The Making, 78, 548.

14. Beckert, Empire of Cotton.

15. As I argue in chapter 8, substantive mutuality was largely banished from accounts of modern economy toward the beginning of the nineteenth century, along with references to Indigenous economy. It was another century before anthropologists began to recover gift-reciprocity from that oblivion. See note 20.

16. White, Middle Ground; Hämäläinen, Comanche Empire; Mallios, Deadly Politics.

17. Karatani, Structure; Carrier, Gifts.

18. Tutino, Mexican Heartland, 9; Ali, Local History, 10; Sartori, Liberalism; Stoll, Ramp Hollow, xv. The Mexican historiography has made much of “moral economy” in recent decades. See Mora Muro, “Resistencia.”

19. Polanyi, Great Transformation, 31.

20. The project begins with Bronislaw Malinowski (Argonauts, 1922), Marcel Mauss (Gift, 1924), and Polanyi (Great Transformation, 1944). Polanyi was the only one of them who advanced a historical argument. Most of the work since that time has been done by economic anthropologists and sociologists. See P. Clastres, Society; Sahlins, Stone Age Economics; Gudeman, Economics; Gudeman, Anthropology; Graeber, Anthropological Theory; Sahlins, Western Illusion; Zelizer, Economic Lives. Essential work along these lines has been done specifically on the Guaraní. See, e.g., Melià and Temple, El don; Fogel and Scappini, “A través del don.”

21. On the economy and society of the Guaraní and early Paraguay, I have relied on historians Carlos Garavaglia and Florencia Roulet; anthropologists Bartomeu Melià and Dominique Temple, Ramón Fogel and Gloria Scappini, Branislava Sušnik, and Guillermo Wilde; and geographer Jan Kleinpenning. On the Guaraní within and outside the missions, I am indebted to contemporaries such as anthropologists Lia Quarleri and Guillermo Wilde and historians Julia Sarreal, Eduardo Neumann, Shawn Austin, and Norberto Levinton. I confess to having passed over many topics dealt with in greater depth by these and other scholars. I owe an enormous debt to historical linguist Capucine Boidin for her help in reading Guaraní sources, especially A. Montoya’s Tesoro and Lexicon, but crucially LANGAS’s growing corpus of translated (and retro-translated) Guaraní documents. The trope of utopia and dystopia is a bright thread running through the literature on the missions since at least the late eighteenth century. See, e.g., Muratori, Cristianesimo; Peramás, La República de Platón. In the twentieth century, the missions still held this allure. See Graham, Vanished Arcadia; Caraman, Lost Paradise; Neto, Utopia; Garavaglia, “Misiones.”

22. Fasolt, Limits, xvi.

23. Fasolt, Limits, xiv.

24. Chamorro, Teología; Nimuendajú, Lendas.

25. Nimuendajú, Lendas; Métraux, “Migrations”; H. Clastres, Land-Without-Evil.

26. Villar and Combès, “La Tierra”; Noelli, “Curt Nimuendajú”; Melià, “La Tierrasin-mal,”; Chamorro, Teología, 176–86; Barbosa, “‘Terra sem Mal’”; Chamorro, “Imagens,” 99–102; Sušnik, Los aborígenes, 2:10; Shapiro, “From Tupã.” See Melià, “La novedad” for detailed bibliography of the Guaraní between the late 1980s and the early 2000s.

27. Schaden, Aspectos, argues for closer attention to the variants in the myth as understood by different Guaraní subgroups, the Ñandeva, Mbüá, and the Kayová. See also Chamorro, “Imagens.”

28. Montoya, Tesoro, 209v. In offering Guaraní terms, I have adopted the spelling and diacritics in Montoya’s Tesoro, though these can be inconsistent.

29. Gândavo, Tratado, 153; D’Evreux, Voyage, 350.

30. See Pompa, “Profetismo,” 167.

31. Villar and Combès, “La Tierra.”

32. Boidin is right to be cautious of the phrase, especially with regard to the debate over migration. See Boidin, “Teko aguyjei.” To set the idea aside altogether, however, would be to nullify a crucial concept from which insight may yet be wrung. Given epistemological condescension toward Indigenous ideas, I believe scholars have an obligation to bring such ideas to bear in analytical ways.

33. Lacombe, Guaranis, 16.

34. Melià and Temple, El don, 27.

35. Melià’s work has been the tonic to the overeagerness of earlier Western scholars to depict the Land Without Evil in predominantly transcendental terms. Such meanings are present, but the notion of the Land Without Evil as a flight beyond reality ignores a crucial aspect of its power as an idea. Chamorro, “Imagens,” 102.

36. Melià and Temple, El don, 29.

37. Melià and Temple, El don, 32; Chamorro, Teología, 185–86. See Pompa, “Profetismo,” 162.

38. Chamorro, “Imagens.”