So it’s time for the first of my 10½ blog posts detailing the history of the world – essential (?) background reading for my forthcoming effort to lay out the basis for a plausible-ish and sustainable future peasant republic.
Just one further preliminary note on references – I’ve found it too much of a faff trying to mirror the footnotes and references in the full text into each successive blog post, so I’ve just stripped out all the references from the blog posts. You can find a fully referenced version of the entire essay here.
The land that I love is the land that I’m workin’, but it’s hard to love it all the time when your back is a-hurtin’
Old Crow Medicine Show
In the beginning, there was a Miocene ape – the common ancestor of our genus Homo and our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees and gorillas. It bequeathed to us its descendants, so the primatologists suggest, a tendency towards (particularly male, but also female) status ranking. Do we need to go that far back into our evolutionary past in order to understand the nature of status competition in contemporary societies? Perhaps it’s a sociological heresy to say so, but I think the answer is quite possibly yes.
For a long time the direct ancestors of our genus were a rather minor lineage in the great ape family, condemned to life on the margins of the vast African rainforests where their betters reigned supreme. But climate change brought the thinning of the forests, a descent from the trees onto more dangerous ground, and powerful selective pressures to develop our intelligence for self-defence. Suddenly, those dumb fruit-eaters of the remnant rainforest didn’t seem quite so clever after all. In this respect, our evolution exemplifies an important process captured by the Nobel-prize winning scientist and leading theorist of biological and social change, Bob Dylan, in a much-cited research paper4 from the 1960s entitled ‘The times they are a-changin’’:
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’
This, indeed, is a recurrent theme through natural and human history. Perhaps something worth pondering as we reflect on humanity’s past successes and our uncertain future – for the wheel’s still in spin and there’s no telling who that it’s namin’.
Anyway, for a few million years our genus Homo and its ancestors mastered the art of foraging and hunting for food, mostly in Africa but with major forays by relatives like Homo erectus and then the Neanderthals and finally modern Homo sapiens across vast swathes of the globe. Humans were widely, if thinly, spread across the land masses of pretty much the entire planet bar Antarctica by about 11,000 years ago (by this time Homo sapiens was the only surviving species of our genus – more by luck than judgment, according to some paleoanthropologists). This primordial colonisation is arguably still one of humanity’s more impressive achievements. Indeed, there’s a view that most of the really important aspects of human history were pretty much done and dusted by the end of the Ice Age. If below I ignore this large sweep of history in favour of the whizz-bang of the last couple of millennia, it’s not because I necessarily think the latter is more important in any cosmic sense – just more important in terms of helping to think through where we go from here.
There is, however, one aspect of humanity’s long hunter-gatherer prehistory which is perhaps of ongoing importance. The characteristic form of social organisation during this period was the small nomadic band. The evolutionary contradiction here is that it’s in any one member of the band’s interests to exert their apelike dominance over the others, but it’s in the collective interests of the band’s membership not to let that happen – hence, the ubiquity in nomadic hunter-gatherer societies of what anthropologist Christopher Boehm calls ‘reverse dominance hierarchies’ organised against would-be dominants by the majority of their colleagues. So humans have a pretty hard-wired tendency to organise status orders elevating themselves above their fellows using whatever relatively unexpansive status markers are to hand, and also a pretty hard-wired tendency to organise against them and assert some notion of equality. Political systems, I’d suggest, that push too hard at enforcing only one pole of this inequality-equality dyad don’t usually succeed for too long (though often enough for way too long when measured against the individual human lifespan), and they tend to cause a lot of human misery. So maybe it’s best to let people strut their stuff, but then be sure to take them down a peg or two. That, at any rate, explains the general character of human status dynamics from the perspective of evolutionary ecology. If you’d prefer it served up as a philosophy of being, then perhaps I could offer you Nietzsche’s ‘slave revolt in morals’. As a story of human motivation? Max Weber’s ‘Class, status, party’ is the go-to text. But if you’re pushed for time, Dr Seuss’s story The Sneetches pretty much tells you all you need to know. I’m not sure about the happy ending, though. And one long-term aspect of inequality stressed neither in Seuss’s analysis or in my account here is gender. I aim to write about that separately soon.
Anyway, the relatively egalitarian foraging band lifestyle generally succumbed quite quickly with the emergence of agriculture. Actually, let me complicate that a little. The distinction between foraging and agriculture isn’t as clear-cut as might be supposed, and there was undoubtedly a long prehistory of agriculture-lite habitat manipulation and semi-domestication which formed part of the adaptable toolkits of many foraging peoples stretching far back into the Palaeolithic. But in various parts of the world starting around 10,000 years ago, this take-it-or-leave-it agricultural style gave way to more rigorous crop exploitation – typically of cereals and grain legumes – the so-called agricultural or Neolithic revolution. It generally seems to be thought that the shift from foraging to farming was one of degree not kind, but that this ultimately created a positive feedback loop between population and cultivation intensity. There are plenty of reasons to think that with hindsight this development wasn’t such a great idea, but the fact is that arable agriculture can support vastly more people per acre than foraging – people, moreover, who are invested in specific places because they have to bring the harvest in, and who typically require more finely specified entitlements over land usage. Hence, there are strong affinities between the emergence of agrarian society and the emergence of centralised polities or states.
At this point, ‘history’ begins in the sense that we enter a story of ever-compounding inequality backed by state power. The clan, lineage or ‘big man’ societies often associated with a so-called ‘primitive’ agriculture can organise more people than a nomadic hunting band, and therefore tend to prevail in any conflicts between them – but the kind of political authority they organise is unstable and rarely lasts beyond an individual’s lifetime or the vicissitudes of kin dynamics. However, the agrarian dynamic easily fosters more accumulative regimes of surplus and status extraction which can found hereditary inequality – chieftaincies, aristocracies, kingdoms, empires. It can take a long time for such regimes to emerge out of a primal turn to agriculture but, once they have, secondary versions quickly replicate within their wider geopolitical sphere through a kind of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ ratchet effect. Each successive form can organise ever larger numbers of people which it can direct against its rivals. So it’s not that agrarian societies are ‘better’ than foraging ones in any general sense – it’s just that they’re better at getting more feet on the ground and more hands on sword hilts. Hence the paradoxical dynamic of agrarianism – sedentary peoples prey to ever-spiralling forms of hierarchy, and producing offshoots of their own societies through a cycle of food surplus production and demographic pressure yielding migratory farmer-colonists able to overwhelm less centralised and surplus-oriented societies. Thus was the fate of foraging peoples sealed as early as the Neolithic in much of the Old World, and not a whole lot later in parts of the New. And so at this point foragers largely fade from my story.
I should, however, nod to the thesis of Pierre Clastres that various foraging societies clung on to their lifeways because they had a pretty good idea of what life would be like in an agrarian society under a centralised state, and didn’t much like the sound of it. Other thinkers have also worked along this grain of the non-inferiority of the foraging life – a minority theme in scholarship, I think largely because of the power of contemporary ideologies of progress (see Section 7). Personally, I wish there was a bit more of the former, and a bit less of the latter. The point is not a full-on romanticism, that everything about the old ways was better than the new. It’s that historical change can involve losses as well as gains, and if we can attune ourselves to them, we might ease our future path.
I should probably also mention that agriculture makes possible much more elaborate divisions of specialised labour than is possible in foraging societies, a point that’s related to the rise of centralised states with their political, military and religious specialists, but not entirely reducible to it. Modern economic theory makes much of the division of labour as the foundation of prosperity, but you can have too much of a good thing. However, a problem with societies that have too little in the way of a division of labour – too little in the way of economic exchange – is not so much their lack of prosperity (which has little meaning for such a society) but their lack of political stability. Finding the Goldilocks zone where the division of labour is ‘just right’ strikes me as a major historical problem, which is all the harder to solve in our contemporary society with the availability of cheap and abundant but-with-strings-attached energy. I plan to discuss this more in a future post.