George Walford: Work in Progress

(The following is part of an attempt to relate the major ideologies to particular stages of social development. It concerns the ancient hunter-gatherer communities; the nature of these is difficult to grasp, both from the lack of direct and indisputable evidence and from their lack of definite structure. This preliminary and tentative draft is presented here in the hope of eliciting some useful comments.)

The earliest society was very different from the compact, highly organised nation state with its close relations to other such units. It possessed neither centralisation nor political structure nor economic hierarchy, and can almost be called unorganised. It was loose, fluid, consisting of families who came together when it suited them to do so but were likely to spend much of the year living separately from one another, and it can hardly be said to have had relations with other such communities; rather did it encounter them casually and incidentally. It did not possess the organisation, systematic procedures and self-restraint needed for the production of food, clothing and shelter but obtained its livelihood in accordance with its general tendency to follow the course easiest at the moment, by collecting what grew naturally. Because of this it is usually known as “hunter-gatherer” society and I shall use that term, although I shall shortly need to question some of its implications.

Hunter-gatherer communities are still to be found among the Australian aborigines, the Kalahari Bushmen, the Eskimo, the pygmies of the Ituri rainforest, in the Amazonian jungles and elsewhere. It is unlikely that any of these communities are still in their original condition or were so when first studied, for all have been exposed to contact, direct or indirect, with other types of society. Eskimo verbal history tells of contact with the Norse and even the Australian aborigines, whose society is sometimes regarded as the most primitive now in existence, are known to have been in touch with the lands to the north of the continent. The Eskimo who still live by hunting and fishing now hunt with rifles and use motorised sledges, and “unspoiled primitives” are likely to use old petrol tins for cooking; one photograph of a pygmy encampment in Turnbull’s The Forest People shows a folding chair. At a minimum, all societies described in anthropological literature have been in contact with anthropologists. The hunter-gatherer way of life belongs to the paleolithic, and the only truly paleolithic people to survive into modern times were the Tasmanians, exterminated by Europeans before they had been studied. But, although we cannot safely assume them to be in their primeval state, these societies still exhibit features which justify placing them together in a group distinct from others. They do not produce their own means of subsistence and – more directly relevant to our concerns here – they do not possess a system of government.

There has probably never been a society in which no production at all was undertaken. The encouragement of natural growth by irrigation is widespread among hunter-gatherers, many of them scratch the ground to plant something, and the Australian bush landscape is largely an artifact, the result of repeated burning-off of undergrowth over many centuries. There are no human beings known to anthropology, history or archaeology who do not make something, and indeed even animals do this; most birds make nests, one species of wasp uses a pebble to tamp down the sand over its eggs, and chimpanzees not only use tools but sometimes make them. But these activities are marginal; hunter-gatherers depend for their livelihood upon collection, not production.

There has probably never been, either, a society in which some members did not exercise influence, even authority, over others. Among the hunter-gatherers skilled hunters and old people enjoy greater respect than the ignorant young, and according to the activity of the time one or another person will take the lead. But these things do not amount to a system of government. These societies are not divided into rulers and ruled; more generally, they do not exhibit the institutionalised distinction between upper and lower found in so many forms in more sophisticated societies. There are not only no rulers and no subjects but also no rich and no poor, no officers or rankers, no military or civilians, no aristocrats or plebeians, no employers, no workers, no slaves or slave-holders and if, as among the North American Indians, a captive may sometimes be held in an inferior status, there is still no lower (or upper) class. Hunter-gatherers all live (subject to personal and biological differences) in the same way, they are not subjected to a socially-established hierarchy. Their communities are not states, and they do not possess established economic or political structure. This form of society is not stratified.

Whether hunter-gatherers can be said to possess religion or not depends upon the sense in which that elastic term is used. When any definite beliefs in what we would regard as the area of religion are ascribed to one of these peoples they are usually totemic, and totemism exhibits little feeling of divinity; the week, the day of the week, a verandah, a copper bracelet have all served as totems. The myths in which totemism is formulated often tell of meetings between humans and totem animals, and a striking feature of these encounters is their casual quality. There is no suggestion of majesty on the one side or of awe on the other, and frequently nothing that can be called dignity or respect. Human and totem meet on equal terms, the totem sometimes asking for considerate treatment. Totemism is linked with taboo but the prohibitions imposed, unlike religious sanctions, carry no sense that disobedience will incur punishment by some supernatural power; they appear as pragmatic, the rule against eating this animal, or entering that enclosure, standing on the same level as the rules against jumping off cliffs or teasing crocodiles.

Hunter-gatherers do not make the firm distinction between the sacred and the secular found in all civilised societies. To the extent that they can be said to have a conception of relations between a supernatural world and their own it is one which, like their society, exhibits an absence of stratification.

They do not even maintain a firm distinction between the natural world and themselves. Levi-Strauss goes so far as to say the function of totemism is to provide the means, or at least the hope, of transcending the gap between nature and culture, he ascribes totemic prohibitions to a collective affinity with a natural species or a class of phenomena or objects. Boas regards the emphasis upon connection between a social group and a part of the natural world as definitive of totemism.

Among hunter-gatherers there are found customs regulating, for example, the division of the kill and the allocation of activities between the sexes, and anybody who offends against these is likely to meet with objections from those affected. But there is no law, no institutionalised distinction between permissible and forbidden behaviour, and consequently none between good citizens and criminals. Among the Polar Eskimo with whom Peter Freuchen lived two known murderers had to avoid avengers but otherwise would apparently have continued to live their ordinary lives indefinitely had the RCMP not intervened; their own community had developed no institution to deal with them. Among these Eskimo the functional unit is the family; a widow needs to find herself another husband (either polygamy or polyandry may be practised, according to the conditions of the place and time) and old people unable to keep up with the sledge are likely to be left (sometimes at their own request) in a specially-built igloo to die. There is no institutionalised provision for those unable to support themselves but, equally, no institution which prohibits access to whatever can be obtained; society does not dominate either over the behaviour of its members or over the subsistence provided by nature; natural supplies are there for whoever can take them.

It is sometimes asserted that these communities exhibit a primitive form of communism, but if this be taken to mean that they are committed to the principle of common ownership then the statement is misleading. Singer’s History of Technology is explicit: “References to group or band territories must not be taken to imply that food-gathering economies are characterized by a complete communism of resources” (Vol I p. 185). Property rights are sometimes familial rather than personal, but a tendency in this direction is found even in our own society, for all its stress on private ownership; this does not constitute communism, primitive, or otherwise. In times of plenty there may be little emphasis on private rights, but when things get tighter they come into play; among the Bushmen, during the long dry season, marks of ownership will be set on reserve supplies, whether natural or cached. Such tendencies toward common ownership as exist rarely extend beyond the band; entry by one band of Bushmen upon another’s territory is likely to cause fighting. This is far removed from the belief that need justifies possession, regardless of social divisions, that lies at the core of communist and socialist thinking. It would be more accurate to say that the behaviour of hunter-gatherers displays no recognition of any distinction in principle between private and common ownership, that here also they behave with casual expediency, applying one or the other as may be most convenient at the time.

It is perhaps well to stress that by linking totemism with an absence of firm distinctions I am not ascribing any inherent inferiority to totemists. The point here is not what they are capable of doing but what they do, and their tendency is to attribute importance to distinctions, or not, as they find convenient at the moment. The totemic classification used by the Nuer (a society advanced well beyond the hunter-gatherer stage), identifies bees with pythons because of their body-markings, and red ants with cobras because of their colour, but it is not suggested that if threatened by a python or a cobra they respond as if it were a bee or an ant. Many totemic societies easily handle kinship systems that might bewilder a professional genealogist, and there is much in the literature on their various systems of classification. They show themselves well able to handle these complexities when it suits them to do so, but they also show themselves not to be assuming that these distinctions are real, “out there,” and have to be taken account of their tendency is to distinguish, or not, as they find expedient at the time.

If two hunter-gatherer communities come to form one unit they do so without establishing domination of one group by the other. To do this would require an abandonment of easy-going expedience, an acceptance of established differentiation between the two groups, a change in the mode of thought that would entail transformation of the society in other ways also, for example in the way it obtained its livelihood and in its attitude toward totemism. There are societies which do maintain domination of one group by another and we are about to go on to discuss them, but their behaviour differs from that of the unstructured hunter-gatherer communities in other ways also. They obtain their livelihood in a different way, a way consonant with their distinctive mode of thought, and although some in the earlier part of this phase may retain totemism the developing articulation of the new thinking produces a movement away from this toward explicitly religious conceptions.

If hunting and gathering were nothing more than a transitional form. intermediate between the herds, flocks, troops and so forth found in the animal kingdom and a truly human society, it could be ignored except by specialists. (NOTE: Some specialists do ignore it anyway; in Social Anthropology in Perspective I. M. Lewis makes only incidental mention of hunter-gatherers; when an example of the “non-state” is required he takes the relatively advanced Nuer, and there are leading anthropologists who, sometimes at least, lump these communities in together with other types of society). But homo sapiens first appeared about a quarter-million years ago, while the first traces of a different type of society go back only some ten thousand years. For over 95 percent of its existence humankind lived in communities which did not operate according to any set of principles but, as nearly as might be, by pure expediency. The hunter-gatherer condition has to be accepted as one of the main phases in the development of society.

The distinctive features of hunter-gatherer society have long been recognised and, on the theory that life determines consciousness, the way in which the means of life are obtained has been distinguished as the fundamental determining factor (hence the name by which this society is known). But although enquiry can establish a connection between the life of a society and its consciousness it can establish no more than that; identification of the one as fundamentally determining and the other as determined is an act of interpretation, governed by the presuppositions of the interpreter. Berthold Brecht has encapsulated the “life determines consciousness” theory in a phrase which Auden has translated as “first grub, then ethics,” but nobody eats simply “grub;” everybody selects a particular sort of grub, and consciousness is involved in the choice. The Eskimo have a taboo against eating caribou and seal on the same day and one tribe of Australian aborigines ate a green caterpillar which the tribes a hundred miles away refused to touch. Among ourselves, people who accept a vegetarian ethic eat different food from those who do not, and the cannibal ethic produces a different diet again. To separate grub from ethics, life from consciousness, is to create a false dichotomy; it is social life that is in question, and that cannot be separated from consciousness.

The theory presents the non-existence of a surplus within hunter-gatherer communities as the factor responsible for the absence of political and intellectual superstructure. It is true that a group which does not maintain itself cannot exist in the absence of a surplus but, equally, a society cannot possess a surplus in the absence of a group that does not maintain itself; without such a group the collection of a surplus would be pointless. “The bigger and more specialised the apparatus of government, the greater the economic surplus needed to maintain it and hence the more extractive and intensive the economy” (I. M. Lewis, Social Anthropology in Perspective Harmondsworth. Penguin Books. 1976). A corollary is that where there is no government there is no need for surplus.

The hunter-gatherers’ way of life has long been driven out to the periphery, it has dome to be associated with the less productive territories often with desert or near-desert conditions. Even so, they are not always scratching at the edge of extinction. Some coastal fishing tribes of the last century obtained in one season a “superabundance” of food, sufficient to last for the rest of the year and the Coahuila Indians are known to have had unused resources in their near-desert region of California. Even now accounts of these societies tend to stress the amount of leisure they afford; given the access to more fertile areas that was enjoyed by the original hunter-gatherers, the regular collection of a surplus, would not seem to have been impracticable for all of them. The reason for the non-existence of a surplus would seem to have been the absence of a superstructure requiring it at least as much as any difficulty in obtaining it.

The suggestion that the presence of government is responsible for the presence of a surplus no more provides a satisfactory explanation than does its contrary; government cannot exist much less grow to be big government, without a surplus. Consciousness affects social life but social life also affects consciousness Consciousness and social life, political superstructure and economic basis are two interacting halves of a whole, namely volitional social behaviour and to say that one of them determines the other is to say that volitional social behaviour determines volitional social behairiour.

I am using Harold Walsby’s theory of systematic ideology, and this indicates that the volitional behaviour, both economic and political, of any society is determined by the assumptions which (usually unknown to themselves) are held by its members. What this means for hunter-gatherer society will appear farther on when we shall have two other forms of society as it were on the table, permitting comparative study.

from Ideological Commentary 20, September 1985.