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.

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There are 4 comments

  1. 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 cynical. It seems to me that we in the “West” are taught – and have been taught for countless generations – to be competitive, not egalitarian. Richer, smarter, faster, thinner, more powerful…

    I’m the least competitive person I know – I prefer to co-operate rather than compete. You’re probably the same, LeftAlign. So, you know, I’ll probably never be “successful”. Thank god for that.

  2. 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, firemen, teachers. There is a massive charity sector, with billions donated every year. Even journalists, as cynical as they usually are, know that they could earn twice as much money for half as much work in any number of other jobs. There are volunteers in every walk of life, there are people who turn up to protests and support causes that do not directly benefit them in any way. And in a crisis, while some people save themselves, an incredibly common reaction is to help others first. I remember a ferry disaster when I was a child, for example, when several people formed human bridges to let other people escape, even though they knew it meant their own death. There are similar stories about September 11 and pretty much every other major tragedy you can think of. I remember that despite extremely hazardous conditions, people were simply pouring into downtown Manhattan after Sep 11 to dig, give blood or help in whatever way they could, some from hundreds of miles away, so many of them that many had to be turned away.

    Yes, of course for every one of these altruistic people, there are many more mindless, greedy, selfish consumers, and this fact depresses me deeply. It may well mean that meaningful change never comes, or at least not until it’s too late. But my point is that, in the face of such a comprehensive attempt to make us all into aggressive individualists, it is quite remarkable that any of us have feelings of egalitarianism and community. The fact that such feelings persist, even against a massive, long-standing effort to eradicate them, suggests to me that they are very deep-rooted.

    In my experience (and I was once a successful corporate banker!), a lot of people who act like aggressive capitalists are at heart no more competitive than you or I. The primary concern of most of the people in my office was to provide for themselves and their families. They were corporate bankers because that was the best way they could do that, but they would have preferred to be doing something very different. As one managing director explained it to me, he sees life as a game. He doesn’t agree with the rules, but as long as those are the rules he will play by them. The only real difference between he and I is that I found it impossible to play by those rules and decided to do whatever minimal things I could to change them. But he is no more competitive than I am, and if the rules of society were different then he – and, I believe, a lot of other people – would behave very differently.

    And one final sign, if you can call it that. In every religion that I know of, heaven or its equivalent is a place of peace and harmony. Or if you prefer more earthly terms, the dream of the most atavistic investment banker is eventually to retire to a place of peace and serenity. If we were truly the greedy individualists that the economists would like us to be, then surely our ultimate wishes would be to end up in a place dominated by free market competition. Heaven would be a place for the survival of the fittest, and the position of God would be up for grabs for anyone hard-nosed enough to work their way to the top.

  3. 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 finished in the late 18th century. The Russian monarchy was over in 1917. Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were abolished in 1918. Something had to fill that void. American capitalism was an alternative in which a lot of power was in the hands of rich industrialists. Russian Bolshevism was using the egalitarian and internationalist rhetoric to expand the Russian Empire beyond what the tsars were capable of. After WWI Europe was traumatized and under ideological siege.A reaction was to be expected, but monarchy was no longer a credible political system. To attain stability, leaders needed to restore order and sovereignty, while under the siege of both internationalist capitalists and internationalist socialists. Thus, Fascism emerged. The formula was no longer God (for God was no longer fashionable), but Nationalism. The goals were harmony, efficiency, strength, and cohesion. Note that Mussolini rose to power in the exact same month the White Army was defeated in Russia. And Italy had “won” WWI, so Fascism was clearly not a result of defeat in WWI, as so many people love to claim, but a reaction against internationalism.If a country depends on foreign corporations for weapons, oil and gas, food, raw materials, machinery, etc, then is that country truly sovereign according to the 19th century definition of sovereignty? I believe that a fear of loss of sovereignty was one of the main catalysts of the reactionary movements of the 1920s and 1930s. I may be wrong, of course.

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