How we used to be

You may remember the vague speculation in my earlier Cutty Sark post about community being traditionally much more important to human beings than competition, and therefore being something we always reach back to even though contemporary society has more or less destroyed it. Well, as luck would have it I was beginning the somewhat daunting task of reading Chris Harman’s free e-book “A People’s History of the World” (all 728 pages of it) and discovered that he covered some of the same ground.

In the prologue (yes, OK, I’m a slow reader), he points out that things have not always been as they are (“greed, gross inequalities between rich and poor, racist and national chauvinist prejudice, barbarous practices and horrific wars”). He quotes anthropologist Richard Lee:

It is the long experience of egalitarian sharing that has moulded our past. Despite our seeming adaptation to life in hierarchical societies, and despite the rather dismal track record of human rights in many parts of the world, there are signs that humankind retains a deeprooted sense of egalitarianism, a deep-rooted commitment to the norm of reciprocity, a deep-rooted…sense of community.

Sometimes I need a little perspective. It’s so easy to believe that things will always be this way and have always been this way. I find it a constant struggle to remember that, as Harman says in answering Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis and similar idiocies,

It would be remarkable indeed if a way of running things that has existed for less than 0.5 percent of our species’ lifespan were to endure for the rest of it—unless that lifespan is going to be very short indeed.

I hope I get to read the remaining 690-odd pages of his book before our species’ lifespan runs out. I hate it when the ending is spoilt.

4
Leave a Reply

avatar
4 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
1 Followers
 
Most popular comment
Hottest comment thread
2 Comment authors
PutriMarxism 2007: Day Three (Saturday) | Andrew BlackmanLeftAlignEugenie Recent comment authors
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Eugenie
Guest

In “Western” society you would surely have to go a long way back to find those days when there was no “greed, gross inequalities between rich and poor, racist and national chauvinist prejudice, barbarous practices and horrific wars”. There have been, and there still are I’m sure, egalitarian societies… but those societies are not in the “West” and have not been for a long, long time. “There are signs that humankind retains a deep-rooted sense of egalitarianism, a deep-rooted commitment to the norm of reciprocity, a deep-rooted…sense of community.” Yeah, I’d like to see these signs! May be I’m overly… Read more »

LeftAlign
Guest

Yeah, should have made it clearer that the book was talking about early societies, definitely a long way back. I do still think, however, that there are signs of our roots even in modern society, some of which I’ve mentioned in recent posts (although since I now know you studied anthropology, I feel a little embarrassed about my ill-informed musings!). Here are a few more ‘signs’ I can think of. You are correct that we in the West are relentlessly taught to be competitive, not egalitarian. Yet despite all that, there are millions of people who choose to be nurses,… Read more »

trackback

[…] forced to live in, not hard-wired into our souls. This is something I’ve speculated about in previous posts, but it was nice to have a slightly more informed opinion on the […]

Putri
Guest

Although I lack a solid background in History, I will try to prneest a hypothesis. Criticism is welcome.In order to begin to understand Fascism, one must view it in its historical context. Thanks to the Enlightenment (or maybe not!), in Europe the idea of God had been eroded and discredited. Therefore, divine right monarchy lost its legitimacy, and once a political system loses its legitimacy, changes happen. The emergent egalitarianism thus became an attractive alternative. The error was assuming that destroying formal power would lead to a scenario in which everyone has equal actual power.The French and Polish monarchies were… Read more »