The return of the peasant: or the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 1. Origins

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


1. Origins

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
Rapidly fadin’
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.

36 thoughts on “The return of the peasant: or the history of the world in 10½ blog posts. 1. Origins

  1. Not just more hands to sword hilts, but more and better weapons, fighting techniques and so forth – resulting from time spent on developing such technologies… time provided by the opportunity of fewer hands required in the daily provision of the common weal.

    Thanks for the reference to Pierre Clastres – had never heard of him. I do wonder, however, has he or any other anthropologist/sociologist ever pondered whether a link might be established between habitat type and societal organization within and around it? What I’m wondering is whether the more easily survived habitats tend to have more sophisticated societal schemes while more harsh environments allow for simpler organizations to continue over time. Compare for instance an Artic habitat settled by either Intuits or some of the 20 reindeer herder groups: to the settlements at or near 40 degrees North latitude.

    Without being an anthropologist I would still be of the opinion that one aspect of the trade-off for living the simpler life in the face of environmental extreme is that such a cushy habitat would require more defense and as such the arms races we’ve witnessed.

    • Hmmm, an intuition suggests I have misspelled Inuit… my apologies. One might wonder though if Inuit intuition is somehow superior to others… and perhaps we’ve been misspelling their name all along.

    • There is definitely anthropological work, specifically in “ecological anthroplogy” that looks at that sort of thing. How the environment affects cultural development and vice versa.

      I think your hypothesis is probably correct, at least in general. Even in non-agricultural groups you find division of labor if the environment is abundant enough. The fisheries of the pacific northwest were, once upon a time, insanely productive, and as a result rather complex and more organized potluck cultures developed there.

      • Thanks for that, Tony. ‘Potlatch’, I think – kind of the opposite of a potluck! I’m a bit sceptical about the strength of the correlation in general between ecological abundance and social divisions of labour, but I don’t doubt there’s something in it. I believe you also get negative correlations – eg. stone tools being made mainly by specialists in regions where the raw materials are scarce.

        • Chris, I think I was displeased with how you had described potlatch in the MegaDocument. I will wait for it to come around again before I pick nits, or larger bugs.

          • I’m not quite sure what you’re referring to – maybe the idea that the Boasian notion of potlatch as destructive competitive feasting is a colonial artefact? If so, fair enough – I just couldn’t resist invoking the contrast…

  2. Seriously impressed by the scope of this history Chris, and the amount of research that’s gone into it. I’ve not read it all yet, and may limit myself to the bite-sized serial version from now on. I have some comments, but it goes without saying that I won’t be saying much about all the many elements that I find enlightening , fascinating, and generally agree with. Criticism’s much more fun, and I hope constructive…

    I think it’s important to start the story in deep prehistory, as you’ve done, but I’m not sure about some of the ways you’ve used the period, particularly as regards the evolutionary development of ‘tendencies’. In the first place, status ranking is something that you see in other animals as well, we just do it in more complicated big-brained ways, so you’ve probably got to go further back than even the genus homo if you want to find some kind of biological rationale for it. Likewise the individual vs collective duality which you set up to explain the archetypal political balancing act; packs, herds etc must rely on basically similar dynamics, even if the experience of it in the animal kingdom is so much harder for us to understand. As such, I’m not sure how much mileage there is in a kind of evolutionary origin story for human politics, which I think is what you’re providing here. This footnote struck me as particularly cheeky:

    ‘There’s a wider issue here about the extent to which we externalise our political imaginaries onto the natural world and then justify the former in relation to the ‘facts’ of the latter … Here, I’m making a more modest claim about the evolutionary grounding of the tendency towards inequality, without specific political implications.’

    Are you sure? It reads to me like you’re setting up the basis for what you understand human politics to be at its root, which is a pretty big implication (!) and then seeking it out in the development of early hominids.

    It strikes me that you’re using evolution as a kind of engine of history here, in a way that you probably won’t be using it to discuss the last two millennia or so, once all the ‘tendencies’ have been established. The problem with hard-wired tendencies is that it is difficult to explain all those bits of history where they don’t seem to be having much of an effect, in which case they’re probably not actually hard-wired.

    I can see the benefit of discussing what might be called the ‘capacities’ of the human mental apparatus, but such a discussion had to remain at a very general level, and mental capacities don”t by themselves explain the unfolding of history. I think that by seeing them as evolutionary results of early hominid development you’re foregrounding something that was actually already part of the background structure, and obscuring the messiness and contingency of early hominid life, which unfortunately we can otherwise know so little about.

    I’m more sympathetic to the way you explain foraging and agricultural communities according to their methods of organising labour, which allows them more agency than the environmental selection of evolution (there, I’ve said the A-word, I’ll try not to do it again). There’s of course a danger that focusing on that lense through which to view history will minimise the importance of less ‘practical’, more affective forces (which, as you say, can often be written off as Romance), but it’s a crucial perspective if you’re to identify historical peasants and make insightful comparisons to our own times.

    I took a of away from this post (including lots of references to chase up!), and I’m looking forward to the next one. I’ll have to try not to sneak a preview in the meantime…

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    Clem – I’d generally agree with you about a division of labour spurring better weapons and fighting technologies, but not always. Counter-examples spring to mind like the Mongol empire, or perhaps the Swiss pikemen. In relation to habitat and social complexity, I guess I’d say that one line of anthropological analysis would concur – eg. the oft-mentioned idea that the resource-rich salmon cultures of the North American northwest produced highly stratified societies despite being foragers and not farmers. Another line of analysis might question the framing of the issue – eg. Marshall Sahlins’s ‘The original affluent society’, which would suggest that ‘harsh’ environments start to look less harsh when you see them through the eyes of a skilled forager who’s not trying to amass a large surplus, or Levi-Strauss’s ‘The Savage Mind’ which argues there are different kinds of complexity, such as the mind-bendingly complex world of kin-reckoning and mythology inhabited by Australian aborigines, despite an apparently rudimentary technology (albeit one that still enables them to thrive in an apparently harsh environment).

    Andrew – yes, no worries about going almost straight in for the criticisms, a tendency I share (but thanks for the praise…). Just on a point of fact, I do actually go back further than the genus Homo as a starting point – following Boehm, to the common ancestor of Homo (plus other hominid genera) and the chimps & gorillas. But in relation to more distantly-related animal packs and herds, I’d note that they tend to exhibit invariant forms of group organisation and hierarchy or non-hierarchy within the species, whereas the interesting thing about humans is that we’re basically social animals but we don’t entirely have to be, and we exhibit both status-ranking and egalitarian forms of behaviour. I don’t know if these traits are necessarily unique to humans (and incipiently to other great apes), but I think they require a positive explanation, and I found Boehm’s a fairly plausible one which I think is appropriately located in the great ape and subsequently the Homo lineage. In relation to my ‘cheeky’ footnote, well I did think about this a bit and I’d admit to some ambiguities here of the kind you identify. However, I guess I do think of the equality-inequality dyad as an engine of history which I suspect is ‘hard-wired’, but I agree with you that this only holds at a very general level which can’t explain the course of historical events in detail – so if we want to talk about the fall of the Roman empire or the emergence of capitalism, it’s the wrong explanatory focus. What I have in my sights in that footnote is arguments of the form ‘inequality is natural, so the government shouldn’t implement anti-poverty programmes’, which I think are nakedly ideological projections of politics onto biology. However, if human sociality was rigorously and invariantly hierarchical or rigorously and invariantly egalitarian, then I think our history would have been different – and it seems legitimate to me to seek biological explanations for the fact that it’s neither. I’m open to other interpretations, but I’m wary of the entirely dismissive approach sometimes taken by social scientists towards biological accounts of human sociality, which tend to take the form ‘hierarchy is a social construct which is used to justify power’. This is entirely true, but it doesn’t engage with the level of biological possibility for the potency of those social constructs.

    Ste – thanks for that, I’ll take a look.

  4. I’m all for a basic attitude that historical change can involve losses as well as gains. But I thought the evidence that Stephen Pinker shows in “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”, that competition between tribes (I don’t remember whether those were hunter-gatherers) made violent death REALLY common, was quite convincing that that alone would have made a state monopoly on violence a good trade-off against tax, poorer nutrition in cities, and the necessity to swallow one’s desire to take them down a peg or two.

    • Jared Diamond tells an opposite story about the tribes in Papua New Guinea. The cost of violence is so great that warfare has become largely theatre. They arrive for battle, exchange a few arrows and spears, and then go home.

      • That’s not what I remember from Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday. Inter-tribal violence was common and often fatal. As noted by Diamond about tribal New Guinea, “Warfare involves the whole population rather than just a small professional army of adult men: there is intentional killing of “civilian” women and children as well as of male “soldiers.” Villages are burned and pillaged. Military efficiency is low by the standards of modern warfare, as a result of the availability of only short-range weapons, weak leadership, simple plans, lack of group military training, and lack of synchronized firing. However, because warfare is chronic, it has omnipresent consequences for people’s behavior. Finally, absolute death tolls are inevitably low from the small size of the populations involved (compared to the populations of almost all modern nations), but relative death tolls as a proportion of the population involved are high.”

        Diamond’s book contains numerous descriptions about the danger of anyone being a “stranger” in any area outside the control of one’s own people. Group battles may have had their rituals, but the result was more than just theater.

        • Suggest you avoid treating Diamond as a source of dispassionate anthropological interpretation – that’s simply not accurate, as this piece makes painfully clear:


          “Real scientists know better. Jared Diamond has a lot of anecdotes, but very little empirical evidence. The few numbers he does use are suspect, and in any case doing math on numbers does not make it science. Before numbers can count as evidence, as empirical data, as facts, as science, it is crucial to understand the context of those numbers. Numbers usefully summarize what we count as important. Numbers offer glimpses into relationships and processes. But we should not confuse the manipulation of numbers with an understanding of those relationships and processes.

          Brian Ferguson already did a complete empirical revision on the Yanomami evidence 20 years ago. After that work, no reputable scholar should be uncritically citing Napoleon Chagnon for empirical evidence. That this even must be done over again is a farce. Jared Diamond cites only Napoleon Chagnon on the Yanomami. He does not mention Ferguson in his book, nor do we ever hear that there may have been a debate about Yanomami warfare. Somewhat ironically, Ferguson and others cleared this up in the scientific journals years ago, but Jared Diamond gets the scientist label without paying attention to science.”

    • I’m not greatly convinced by Pinker, but it may be true that violent conflict was relatively more common in stateless foraging societies than in agrarian states. However, I wouldn’t necessarily make the assumption that violence was something that ancient peoples were that keen to eliminate – I suspect some implicit modernist assumptions are lurking there. In general, I’d see the emergence of early states less as a kind of Hobbesian social contract and more as the stabilisation of status orders and/or war retinues as ruling aristocracies. Flannery & Marcus’s ‘The Creation of Inequality’ offers something of a counterpoint to Pinker.

      • There have been serious critiques of Pinker *and* Diamond by both anthropologists and political scientists, showing precisely the opposite of the widespread assumption of greater violent conflict in stateless foraging societies. Anthropologists have taken issue in particular with Pinker’s and Diamond’s grievous Hobbesian mischaracterization of tribal or ‘pre-civilized’ peoples (and a ‘war-like’ human nature that has only been tamed by state control, more broadly), while political scientists take them to task for, in many ways, excusing modern Western imperialism.

        For the former, have a look at the excellent Living Anthropologically blog, esp.:
        Antrosio, Jason (2013) ‘War, Peace, Human Nature: Converging Evolutionary & Cultural Views’, Living Anthropologically, February 12,

        (the entire book edited by Douglas P. Fry, ‘War, Peace, and Human Nature’, is essential reading here:😉

        Antrosio, Jason (2013) ‘Yanomami Ax Fight: Jared Diamond, Science, Violence & the Facts’, Living Anthropologically,

        Ferguson, Brian (2013) ‘Pinker’s List: Exaggerating Prehistoric War Mortality’, in War, Peace and Human Nature [pdf chapter available at:

        Fry, Douglas P. (2012) ‘Peace in Our Time: Steven Pinker offers a curiously foreshortened account of humanity’s irenic urges’, Bookforum, Dec/Jan []

        Corry, Stephen (2013) ‘Why Steven Pinker, Like Jared Diamond, Is Wrong’, Truthout, 11 June

        For the latter, check out:
        Herman, Edward S. and David Peterson (2012) ‘Reality Denial: Steven Pinker’s Apologetics for Western-Imperial Volence’, ZNet []

        Also, not only Pierre Clastres, but James C. Scott has also brilliantly documented for the case of historical upland Southeast Asia how “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”, in his tour de force, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia ( Granted, while most of the groups documented were not exclusively foragers, but practised swidden agriculture/shifting cultivation as well, the part about clinging onto their lifeways and fleeing centralised agrarian states very much holds.

        • The link to the pdf chapter by Brian Ferguson doesn’t seem to work for me. I will try to get the whole book at the library, but $125 is a little pricey for a purchase.

          I am not an anthropologist, but I have lived and worked in three parts of the Pacific (The Marshalls, Fiji and Hawaii) and am fairly familiar with the history of warfare there. The Marshallese were almost entirely foragers, but they had a history of constant warfare and had specialized canoes that were only used for that purpose. The Marshallese were so fierce that whaling ships avoided the area entirely. They were “pacified” only after conversion to Christianity in the 19th century.

          Fiji and Hawaii combined foraging with horticulture and some agriculture, but warfare was very frequent and bloody in both places. The national museum in Suva, Fiji contains an extensive collection of weapons. I found the variety of different war clubs to be astonishing.

          Similarly blood-curdling weaponry is found in Hawaii collections. Here’s a list of some of them…

          Common Hawaiian Weapons
          ihe spear
          ihe laumeki barbed spear
          ka‘ane strangling cord
          kao lele dart; javelin
          ko‘oko‘o cane used for close-range fencing
          la‘au palau long-handled club
          leiomano shark-toothed slashing tool
          ma‘a sling
          maka lua dagger for gouging eyes
          newa short-handled club
          pahi kaua sword
          pahoa dagger
          pikoi tripping cord
          pololu battle pike

          I may be that the universality of tribal violence has been exaggerated, but I am sure that it was common in many places.

          • Joe, from the piece I linked to earlier:

            “The whole idea that we are able to compare state and non-state societies based on ethnographic data collected in the past two centuries is unsustainable. These are all people who are reacting to state presence in various ways, and might just as well be conceptualized as being on the poor margins of state societies as being independent non-state units.”

            In other words, much of the warfare cataloged by colonialists like Pinker and Diamond was not the result of a ‘pristine’ warlike people – but of various forms of impingement by so-called more ‘developed’ powers upon those peoples, which in many well researched cases, turned out to generate more warlike behaviors.

            This, in fact, is frequently cited as the key learning of 20th century anthropology.

            I don’t believe that any anthropologists argue that humans were peaceful critters – simply that it seems to have required civilization to get them to engage in large scale homicide. Only the data cherry pickers like Pinker (not an anthropologist), who seem clearly to have an agenda, disagree. But of course, they get asked to speak at TED.

            For a very good series on this subject, see John Horgan Cross Check column at SciAmer:


          • Sorry Martin, didn’t mean to inflict rabbit holes on anyone! But glad you found this one worth going down. Thanks to Oz as well for the link to John Horgan’s excellent series.

  5. “Pierre Clastres [suggests] 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.”

    Just a couple of data points in support:

    In his history of the Luddites, Rebels Against the Future, Kirkpatrick Sale suggests they weren’t against technology—in fact they adopted new technology very adroitly—they were just against technology that would make their life worse.

    And my friend JB MacKinnon, while researching The Once and Future World, found similar resistance in fishing communities on the east coast of North America. They resisted steam and diesel boats in favour of sail, foreseeing the damage that would be done to their way of life—as came to pass with the collapse of the cod stocks.

  6. Thanks for the further comments. I’d like to suggest caution in generalising too widely about the character of foraging societies – I’m wary of the claim that all foraging (or stateless) societies are more violent than centralised societies, or that strangers are always treated with hostility by them (which certainly isn’t always the case). No doubt it’s true that people in stateless societies assume a certain burden of violent police & military functions. Then again, ancient centralised states often proceeded by using or threatening extreme exemplary violence to enforce consent (as do modern ones, judging by the likes of Messrs Trump and Kim). Joe’s list of Hawaiian weaponry is certainly blood-curdling, but set it next to a rifle let alone the rest of the modern armoury and I’m not so sure. It’s clearly the case that violence was a commonplace in stateless societies – but more commonplace than in centralised societies? Not necessarily…

    I like Ruben’s examples of the Luddites and the east coast fishermen. Similarly, in ‘On the Great Plains’ Geoff Cunfer discusses the prairie farmers who resisted replacing horses with tractors because they correctly foresaw how the new farming would decimate their rural communities. I’d like to collect further such examples if anyone has any – you wouldn’t think it was too controversial to say that historical change can involve losses as well as gains, but unfortunately too many people seem to have got quite carried away by a quasi-religious and self-congratulatory Panglossian hyper-modernism.

    • The Amish might also serve as an example of a group capable of eschewing modern technologies until such time as they convince themselves there is little longer term harm from adoption. For examples I would point to several of the essays by Gene Logsdon in the anthology:
      Living at Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream (Chelsea Green/2000).

      But before I leave on the table one idyllic aspect of Amish life in America today I would also observe that health care in their society brings up a cautionary tale – not exactly the same as anti-vaxxers… but not far off.

      My view – regardless of whether we look for evidence of war mongering, or peaceful coexistence among some groups of humans in the past or with us today – there are elements of agency we tend to overlook (or ignore) based upon the biases we bring to the search. To walk a mile in the other’s shoes (or moccasins??) sounds like excellent advice and I doubt our modern fascination with instant gratification typically allows sufficient space for taking such a trek.

      Oops, I see I’ve used the A word (agency). Perhaps Andrew could help me appreciate why that is problematic.

      • Sorry Clem – when I studied archaeology the leading lights of the discipline had recently taken on the ‘structure-agency’ debate from the social sciences, and I’m pretty sure I ended up curdling my brain with it a little – hence my fixation above with the extent to which tendencies towards equality and inequality are ‘hard-wired’ or part of the natural structure of the human brain. Still not sure what I think to be honest, but I’d certainly agree with your use of the word..

        I do wonder whether we give some communities too much credit in foreseeing the dangers of centralised agrarian states. People had many reasons for resistance, some of which we would admire, others less so, but I don’t suppose these decisions were always based on an enlightened analysis of the environmental practicalities or implications. After all, the Amish life way has primarily religious foundations, and it’s only recently that their attitude towards technology is starting to look a little prescient.

        There may also be an issue around the extent to which minority groups have to adopt a greater level of social conservatism -in effect creating a more defined ‘society’ – in order to continue resisting their centralising agrarian neighbours. I think I have more sympathy with that luddites, who chose to resist within their society rather than breaking away from it, although of course that’s why we don’t now have any luddite ‘communities’ near to lionise…

    • Gandhi and his philosophy of technology – opposing labour-displacing and wealth-concentrating mechanisation for example – comes to mind.
      Replying to a question, “Are you against all machinery?’, he replied:
      “My answer is emphatically, ‘No’. But, I am against its indiscriminate multiplication. I refuse to be dazzled by the seeming triumph of machinery. I am uncompromisingly against all destructive machinery. But simple tools and instruments and such machinery as saves individual labour and lightens the burden of the millions of cottages, I should welcome.”What I object to, is the craze for machinery as such. The craze is for what they call labour-saving machinery. Men go on ‘saving labour’, till thousands are without work and thrown on the open streets to die of starvation. I want to save time and labour, not for a fraction of mankind, but for all; I want the concentration of wealth, not in the hands of few, but in the hands of all. Today machinery merely helps a few to ride on the back of millions. The impetus behind it ail is not the philanthropy to save labour, but greed. It is against this constitution of things that I am fighting with all my might.”

      Gandhian ashrams in India today, as well as other projects that could be called Gandhian (like handloom weaver cooperatives and small-scale organic farmers) still, to varying degrees, apply this, deliberately rejecting mechanisation in favour of things like handlooms and hand spinning, and in practising unmechanised, human/animal-powered organic farming.

      Of course, the oppositions between labour and mechanisation under capitalism are legion. A relevant article from 2014: ‘On American Farms, Skilled Labor Is Fighting It Out Against the Machines’

      • “The economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen wrote:

        …we should cure ourselves of what I have been calling “the circumdrome of the shaving machine”, which is to shave oneself faster so as to have more time to work on a machine that shaves faster so as to have more time to work on a machine that shaves still faster, and so on…”

        • Thank you. I am reminded of G. B. Shaw:
          “Many serious thinkers…have asked whether we really believe that it is an advance in wealth to lose our skill and degrade our workers for the sake of being able to make pins by the ton.”

          “…the capitalist system has produced an almost universal ignorance of how things are made and done, whilst at the same time it has caused them to be made and done on a gigantic scale.”

          Another example of (contemporary) deliberate technology/mechanisation rejection, the lovely degrowth centre on the French coast, Can Decreix:
          Also, No Tech Magazine:

  7. Hey, good start. I think that an understanding of social ape behavior is essential for making sense of current events.

    I am not claiming to know anything about it, but my understanding was that the Hawaiians had a long history of very tightly stratified class structure and finally succeeded in putting together a strict military monarchy shortly before the Europeans showed up. Not such a good example of egalitarian foragers, I’d think.

    Then there is the story about sending the non-primogeniture sons off to have wars with each other to keep the population under control…

    Also (still not claiming to know anything) I think it is well to remember that things change when we Europeans arrive. I can’t help wondering how many of the purported traditional lifeways being observed by people like Jared Diamond are actually prolonged crisis responses. Seems to me that violence is to be expected as a response to invasion, even if the perpetrators might get sloppy about whom to direct it at.


  8. Joe, from the piece I linked to earlier:

    “The whole idea that we are able to compare state and non-state societies based on ethnographic data collected in the past two centuries is unsustainable. These are all people who are reacting to state presence in various ways, and might just as well be conceptualized as being on the poor margins of state societies as being independent non-state units.”

    In other words, much of the warfare cataloged by colonialists like Pinker and Diamond was not the result of a ‘pristine’ warlike people – but of various forms of impingement by so-called more ‘developed’ powers upon those peoples, which in many well researched cases, turned out to generate more warlike behaviors.

    This, in fact, is frequently cited as the key learning of 20th century anthropology.

    I don’t believe that any anthropologists argue that humans were peaceful critters – simply that it seems to have required civilization to get them to engage in large scale homicide. Only the data cherry pickers like Pinker (not an anthropologist), who seem clearly to have an agenda, disagree. But of course, they get asked to speak at TED.

    For a very good series on this subject, in which Pinker is dismembered for his cherry picking, see John Horgan’s Cross Check column at SciAmer:

    • I did read the articles you and Alex linked to. It seems there is a lot of controversy about levels of violence in paleo and later foraging people. I have some curiosity about this controversy, but not much emotional identification with either side. I certainly hope that people are not intrinsically violent, but the prudent attitude would be to hedge against potential future violence as much as is easily possible.

      The claim by Ferguson that much violence from indigenous tribes is in reaction to the brutal tactics of state sponsored colonizers is not necessarily reassuring, since it is going to be remnants of states that agrarian peasants will be dealing with in the future.

      And I do wonder, in consideration of the claims that pre-modern peoples frequently interacted with each other in mostly peaceful ways, such as tool trade and exchange of women, how it is that places such as New Guinea developed so many completely different languages in such a relatively small area (about 800 distinct languages in the Eastern Highlands)?

      It seems to me that development of a new and separate language would require a considerable amount of linguistic (and therefore physical) separation. I can’t see how that separation could be maintained in the face of extensive and peaceful trade. I can see how violent conflict between adjacent tribal groups would do so, but since I am not a linguist, there may well be other explanations that make more sense.

      • Interesting comment. Like you, I’m not very invested in either side of this argument. It strikes me that to be so invested would suggest a political agenda more to do with the present than the past – clearly so in Pinker’s case, with his ‘things are getting better and better’ future-oriented romanticism, but likewise if you push the ‘violence as colonial artefact’ line of argument too far. For what it’s worth, Flannery and Marcus provide lots of archaeological evidence for extraordinary violence in numerous pre-modern societies that had no contact with European modernity – but for all that, said European modernity would surely be right up there on the podium of violent cultures.

        The John Horgan posts linked by Alex are interesting. His stand against justifying contemporary war and violence on the basis of its innateness strikes me as sound, but it doesn’t dispel a sense I have that there’s a dialectic of abhorrence and glorification of violence that is quite distinctive to modernity, though perhaps not entirely unique.

        I think your point about the future violence in store from declining and remnant states is astute. It’s something I touch on at the end of the essay, and it doesn’t depend on assuming widespread fast future collapse. It’s already happening – consider Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Libya, DRC among others. To which I might add the USA, which seems quite likely to lash out in increasingly irrational ways as its power declines. Certainly from what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think anyone could say that Trump is living up to the hopes of some that his isolationist domestic agenda is reducing global tensions. It seems fairly clear that neither he nor anyone else can ‘make America great again’ through standard economic means, so the other way of trying to impress a restive electorate is to use the remnants of its military might in pissing contests with other powers. It’s not a recipe for a less violent world.

        • If we assume, which most do, that foragers lived in small bands of people, I think it is quite apparent that violence toward other bands couldn’t play such a big role in numbers (could play a big role psychologically though). How many violent deaths could there possibly be in a decade for as band of 20-30 people which moved around and probably didn’t raise so many children? And how many of them would be from conflict with other people? I we do the math, I think the conclusion will be that death by violent conflict with neighbours hardly can be so common.

  9. Thanks for the various additional comments since I last responded – including to Oz for those interesting links. Diamond is a strange and rather contradictory figure (maybe like all of us…) but I like at least the fact that he’s been one of the few mainstream academic types prepared to say that the development of agriculture and ‘civilisation’ isn’t necessarily an advance. But yes I find the numerous critiques of him and Pinker quite persuasive. One thing I’d perhaps note about western modernity is the externalisation of violence that makes it easy to believe in the progress of gentility – Britain, for example, has probably inflicted more violence on people over the last two or three centuries than just about any other state ever, but over much of this period it would have been easy to live somewhere in this country and feel, probably with some justification, that decency and civility were growing.

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