George Walford: In The Beginning

Genesis set the first people in Paradise, Hesiod spoke of a Golden Age at the beginning of things, and the belief that life used to be better than it is has persisted down to our own time. Anarchists often look back nostalgically to a time before the state appeared.

The ancients had experience of people who followed an earlier way of life. They were called Barbarians, and instead of dancing with the nymphs they swarmed over the walls of Rome to bring what were long known as the Dark Ages. In the 18th Century Arcadia reappeared in the vision of the noble savage living his (little was heard of savage women) free and open life in close communion with nature, but increasing knowledge put a stop to that. The American Indians turned out not to rank at all high in the civilized scale of virtue and these exemplars of the good life were recycled as hindrances to the march of progress.

The foragers (then known as hunters) took their place. Lewis Henry Morgan, an anthropologist, provided Friedrich Engels with much of the material for The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), and now the golden light at the beginning of history radiated from the people who lived by collecting what grew naturally. They, the theory had it, held their goods in common and managed their affairs jointly, with none of the class-division and oppression that ravaged industrial society. Marxism presented them as primitive communists, providing a model (though a restricted one) of the society the modern communists sought to establish. That aura also faded. Morgan had studied the Iroquois, and it turned out that other tribal peoples behaved differently; some of his conclusions proved unsound and Engels’ ideas on primitive communism collapsed with them.

In recent decades the foragers have regained part of their prestige. Anthropologists like Richard Lee, Irven DeVore and Marshall Sahlins, Marxish if not Marxist, have shown with good and plentiful evidence that those thinking like Hobbes, regarding the first way of life as a poor, restricted and degrading affair perched on the verge of extinction, have got it wrong. When such conditions arise they usually come as a result of civilized interference, whether purposeful like the European extermination of the Tasmanians and the American treatment of the Indians, or accidental like the starvation imposed on the Ik when conservationists turned their hunting-grounds into a game reserve. Anthropologists report modern foragers living in a way that many of our own people might envy, with minimal effort and maximal leisure, ample and varied food, an active social life, graphic and dramatic arts and, if not religion or refined spirituality, at least some conception of a supernatural world.

The foraging diet (which in any case varies from region to region, and sometimes from one community to the next) may not meet civilized taste, but by the 1840s Edward John Eyre and Sir Edward Grey had already disposed of the idea that shortages compelled Australian natives to live on food they disliked. Travellers lamenting that these people had sunk to eating grubs, or mimosa gum, spoke from ignorance; enjoyable and nutritious, these ranked among the foods most favoured.[1] In reading the accounts written by people who have lived with foragers a sense of enjoyment comes through, the writers seldom showing much eagerness to return to the armchairs, central heating and air-conditioning of their universities. Foragers go without much that civilized life offers, but feeling no need of it they suffer little deprivation. Lord Raglan noted the tendency for luxuries to become necessities as culture advances, and Marshall Sahlins has phrased the same observation more pungently: “Want not, lack not”; he speaks of the foragers enjoying the original affluent society. [2]

This raises a question: Why did such a satisfying way of life disappear from most of the earth?

Everybody lived by hunting and gathering from the first appearance of the human race until about 8,000 BC, a period of at least forty thousand years and perhaps of two or even three million, depending on how you define humanity. During this time creatures at first hardly distinguishable from animals came to construct the first human communities, to create language that could handle conceptual thinking, and to use fire and tools in a way quite beyond any other species. While doing all this they continued to live by collecting what grew naturally, and although people with special aptitudes might take the lead on particular occasions they had nothing that can sensibly be called a ruler or a government. Then, about ten thousand years ago, most of the old-style communities began to turn into, or to be displaced by, societies which had adopted government and agriculture (I use the term to include herding and horticulture) accompanied or closely followed by oppression, exploitation, organised warfare, institutional religion, slavery, taxes and the first population explosion. Gordon Childe christened the transition the Neolithic Revolution, [3] but in any one location the movement from old methods to reliance upon new seems to have taken much time, sometimes even thousands of years; [4] only by comparison with the immensely longer period of slower change that preceded it can we call such a leisurely shift a revolution. But why did it happen at all?

It can hardly have arisen as a response to changing climate, for cultivation and natural growth require similar conditions. One suggestion sometimes made, that a minority who benefited from the new methods forced them on the others, assumes what it sets out to explain; social divisions and coercive institutions only began to appear as the new system developed; foraging communities employ communal enforcement of the common mode of behaviour, and would-be tyrants get brought back into line, or if necessary eliminated, like other deviants. We cannot say that the people intended all that followed from the transition, for they could hardly have known what they were getting into, but the beginnings of the change cannot have been forced on some people by others since there were no means of doing so. A community making the transition may have gained power to impose it on others but even so, even if the change occurred originally in only one place and spread from there that first change, the greatest single step in social development, still needs accounting for. As knowledge about the foragers’ life increases it comes to seem more and more satisfying, yet something about it made them, gradually and over a long period, give it up in favour of government, agriculture and sedentary living.

Modern anthropological reports emphasise the plenty enjoyed by hunter-gatherers. Lee, for example, says that although Bushmen in the Dobe area harvest each year tens of thousands of pounds of Mongomongo nuts, they leave thousands more to rot on the ground. [5] Few studies of foragers, from the Inuit at one end of the earth to the Australian Aborigines at the other, omit to mention their cheerful confidence that more will always be available, if not tomorrow then the next day, or perhaps next week, and their survival shows this faith, on the whole, justified. Such affluence, however, carries a condition, one familiar to everybody who lives in an apple- growing area; in the harvest season you have difficulty giving the things away, while for the rest of the year you have to buy them. In any one area the supply of natural food tends to vary between glut and dearth.

For modern city-dwellers this presents no problem. They have the benefit of sophisticated techniques of preservation and, for fresh foods, access to the world; if the fruit they want does not grow at home it comes in from California, Israel or South Africa; when they go short this is seldom because the food is not in the shops. The foragers, without these facilities, have to use different methods. A good diet, varied and ample, can be had, and usually without great effort, but rarely a continuing sufficiency in any one location. They follow the food, living as nomads for much of the year. This applies even in areas where game abounds, for with regular stalking animals become more wary. [6] Foragers have no way of increasing the supply and (with a few exceptions, such as the Inuit with their built-in cold storage) they do not preserve food; the reports speak regularly of their light-hearted improvidence, consuming whatever they have at hand, leaving tomorrow to look after tomorrow. To survive they have to maintain mobility, following the game and the natural harvest; the traditional life even of the Polar Eskimo consists largely of travel. Pastoral nomads can journey in style, taking the yurt and household goods on their carts, but foragers, having neither vehicles nor domesticated animals, (the Eskimo acquired the dog-sled only recently by historical standards) can afford to own only what they can carry, and the total possessions of a !Kung San of the Kalahari weigh no more than twenty-five pounds. Laurens Van der Post found that the Bushmen owned nothing they could not pack up in a moment and carry a thousand miles. [7] One can readily envisage life without bedding, furniture, carpets, crockery and most other household encumbrances; it may even have its attractions. But what of the children? On level city pavements a mother with even one infant can hardly do the local shopping without a pushchair. How were foragers, having neither wheels, dogs nor horses, to manage more than the most limited numbers of young children on long journeys over rough country?

For hunter-gatherers the conditions of life include reduction of necessary equipment to the minimum, and they have no option but to apply these same terms to people, balancing their value, also, against the difficulty of transporting them. Sahlins records the outcome: “infanticide, senilicide, sexual continence for the duration of the nursing period, etc., practices for which many food-collecting peoples are well known.”[8]

Accounts of hunter-gatherer communities rarely suggest the presence of anything like the large families common among peasants, and the implications of this find confirmation in a more general observation: over the immense span of time during which everybody followed this way of life the population remained sparse. Only with the appearance of government and agriculture, making sedentary life possible, did human beings begin to multiply at all rapidly, and then their numbers rocketed, even the early agricultural societies growing to as much as a thousand times bigger than foraging communities. This rate of increase, once rapid increase became practical, indicates the intensity of the repression foragers had been obliged to exercise, and it seems at least probable that here we have the answer to our problem. After going all the way with the anthropologists who speak of the affluence, comfort and ease enjoyed by the foragers, we have to add that these advantages were obtained at the price of having to do without sex for extended periods, leave their parents to die and kill off many of their children. It makes it easier to understand why they should have been willing to change, but it also forces us to ask whether this is the sort of life anarchists are seeking.

[1] Sahlins M. 1974 Stone Age Economics. London, NY: Routledge 7.
[2] Ibid 1.
[3] Childe V.G. 1936 Man Makes Himself. London: Watts & Co. 80.
[4] Service Elman R. 1975 Origin of the State and Civilization. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. Inc. 16.
[5] Quoted Sahlins 50.
[6] Sahlins 15 footnote.
[7] Quoted Sahlins 12.
[8] Sahlins 34.

Continue reading Angles on Anarchism by George Walford (1991):
Class Politics; an Exhausted Myth | Anarchy Renamed | Why So Few? | Gnostics as Anarchists of Old | The Two-Sided Anarchist | The Higher the Fewer | The Anarchist Police Force | Even Worse | In the Beginning | The Competitive Co-operators | I. Q. Against Anarchism | Anarchism in Series | Friendly Reason | Anarchist Research | Are They Not Anarchists? | The Trouble With Success | Of Governments and Gardens | The Poll Tax Lesson | Healthy Freedoms | The Conventional Artist | Underground Activity | The Cretan Egoist.