George Walford: The Beginnings

Early societies displayed a narrower range of activities than those we know today, showing their ideological structure to have been less complex. Go back two hundred years and our anarchist, communist and socialist movements dwindle to a few scattered visionaries. Another two hundred, to the 16th Century, science and the political outlook we know as liberalism have almost gone. Continuing backwards in time one function after another vanishes until even government, farming and herding have disappeared. The first people knew nothing of money, monarchs, armies, agriculture, priests, employment, unemployment or taxes.

Homo sapiens sapiens came on the scene some 40,000 years ago and sapiens about a quarter-million years before that, while accepting Homo erectus as human can take the origins of humanity back three or even four million years. [1] Agriculture and government, on the other hand, are only about 10,000 years old. Food-production and administration constitute the essence of what we mean by a society, but for much the greater part of the time since humanity first appeared everybody lived in communities without either of them, and some continued to do so down to modern times. These included the Polar Eskimo, the Australian Aborigines, the Kalahari Bushmen, pygmies living in the Ituri forest of Central Africa, peoples of India, Malaysia, South America and elsewhere, but not many of them, perhaps none at all, are still keeping closely to the original way of life. The Eskimo use guns, snow-mobiles and outboard motors, the Australian Aborigines fight for their land in the law-courts, many of the Kalahari Bushmen are only part-time foragers, living mainly from their employment by the neighbouring Bantu farmers, and in a photograph of an Ituri encampment one pygmy occupies a folding chair, neatly making the point that every community directly studied has been affected by contact with civilisation. [2] Fortunately they retained their distinctive characteristics long enough for these to he recorded, and it is from study of these communities, as well as of the archaeological record, that our knowledge of the way of life of the earliest people is derived.

The peoples directly studied cannot safely be assumed to have been in their original condition. They stand as far in time from the origin of humanity as ourselves and none have remained in isolation; Australia for example, was being visited from Indonesia long before Captain Cook arrived. Direct knowledge of the earliest way of life in its purity is not to be had, but if we accept that human beings evolved out of the animal kingdom then we have to take it that during the long ages from which only a few scattered bones and shaped stones have come down to us they were moving from the condition of humanoids, difficult to distinguish from animals, towards that of the simplest communities known.

The evidence indicates that they lived in small bands, rarely of much over fifty people, but occupying – or at least ranging over – surprisingly large areas. In the American Great Basin the density of population (if ‘density’ be the word) ran at about one person to 15 square miles and, in the central desert, one to 40 square miles. [3] Each band would be in contact with others, its members aware of themselves as members of a tribe and even of a people, and numbers of bands might congregate on occasion, but neither the band nor any larger assembly constituted anything comparable to a state. There was no overriding authority, the structure being of the type known to social anthropologists as segmental, its constituent parts – mainly kinship-groups – standing beside rather than above one another.

Organised very differently from our own societies, they also behaved in a different way towards their natural environment, directly consuming what it provided rather than treating it as a source of raw materials to be adapted to their own requirements. We cannot say that they did not engage in production, for many made digging-sticks (though more for collection than cultivation), and Australian Aborigines were operating a flint-quarry centuries before the Europeans arrived. The fishing tribes of the Northwest Coast of North America built large timber houses with elaborate ornamentation, and made enough besides to indulge in the competitions of destruction known as potlatches. All the collecting peoples to survive into modern times wore some sort of clothing and constructed shelters if not always dwellings, the Eskimo in particular being renowned for the refined technology displayed in their tools, clothes and igloos. One writer suggests that people living without government produced the first cities, agriculture being less a cause than a consequence of these, [4] and the landscape, in prehistoric Australia and parts of the American Great Basin, was to some extent an artifact, produced by repeatedly burning off the undergrowth (though this may not have been intentional). [5]

Members of the early communities produced a great deal but for the most part as individuals meeting their individual needs; they did not depend upon social systems of production. Above all they did not grow their own food. Some of them may have done some irrigation to promote natural growth, or scratched the soil to produce supplements to their diet such as tobacco or onions, but they did not produce the staples on which they relied.

Here we pause for a moment to clarify the way in which ‘production’ is being used. In one sense of the word a hunter can be said to produce meat, but in that sense every action upon the material world produces something, treading on a piece of chalk produces powder and even the most straightforward consumption is also productive – of worn-out clothes and masticated food. The word loses specific meaning, becoming almost a synonym for ‘action.’ There is another sense in which production is distinguished from consumption, a sense in which hunting and gathering is not productive but a part of consumption, belonging to the same category of behaviour as lifting food to the mouth. In this more specific sense food-production began with agriculture, and in this sense the term is used here. But to return to our main theme.

These early people gathered the fruits, grains, roots, herbs and nuts which grew naturally, and hunted animals but did not domesticate them. (Not even the dog; the earliest known skeleton of a domesticated dog, at Star Carr, dates from around 8,000 B.C., when agriculture was beginning).

When people living in this way first came to the attention of scholars they were known as hunters but later as hunter-gatherers, for with a few exceptions such as the Eskimo they lived more on the roots, nuts, and so forth collected by the women than on the animals hunted by the men. More recently they have increasingly come to be called foragers or collectors. For our purposes these newer terms also carry disadvantages and I shall use ‘the early people,’ ‘the original way of life,’ or some equally vague equivalent until our enquiry turns up a more descriptive title.

Among the first anthropologists to make a serious study of any of the peoples living in this way was Lewis Henry Morgan, whose results were used by Friedrich Engels in his book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Since 1884, when this first appeared, the people known to Marxists as hunter-gatherers have occupied a special place in communist theory as having enjoyed ‘primitive communism,’ thus providing a model, though a restricted one, of the society this movement seeks to establish. Some modern anthropologists support this view [6] but others reject it, sometimes vigorously. One condemns it as ‘superficial’ and ‘misleading’ [7] and another as ‘Victorian pseudo-anthropology.’ [8] Morgan based broad generalisations on studies of the Iroquois, and since Engels wrote increasing knowledge has shown that some of these cannot be maintained, for other peoples behave differently. This revision has been established well enough for at least one organisation claiming to be Marxist to have admitted that Engels’ book ‘does not stand up to anthropological scrutiny.’ [9]

For members of these communities accumulation of possessions was not an object; they owned little more than nomads without domesticated animals could carry, the possessions of a !Kung San of the Kalahari, for example, weighing twenty-five pounds or less. All members of the community enjoyed open access to the territory from which they drew supplies, they were sometimes under an obligation to share their food, and they did not derive power over other people from what they did possess. This does not mean, however, that they followed practices at all close to those advocated by the founders of communism. When several Eskimo joined in pursuit of walrus, the kill did not become the common property of the hunters, let alone of the community, but was divided into individual portions, the hunters’ shares being decided by the order in which their spears had entered the animal. Trees bearing favourite fruits were sometimes privately owned by particular families, communities often tried to exclude outsiders from their territory, and the obligation to share did not extend to all comers, or all in need, or even all members of the community, but was commonly restricted to those from whom reciprocation, either ‘general’ or ‘balanced,’ could be expected.

The nature of their system of ownership begins to appear when we stop thinking of these communities in static isolation and locate them in the developmental sequence. They stood between the animal world, in which ownership (as distinct from physical possession) is hardly an issue, and societies in which ownership was a major preoccupation, people being valued, and even coming to value themselves, according to the amount they owned. They stood between an earlier condition in which nothing was privately owned and a later one in which almost everything was; what they had is best regarded not as any form of communism but rather as undeveloped private ownership.

These peoples could call upon neither law-courts nor police. Anybody claiming anything had to maintain the claim for themselves with little support from the community, for ownership, a legalistic conception, had hardly begun to emerge from the de facto relationship of possession. In economic matters their system (or non-system) was almost wholly individualistic, not more but less collectivistic than those that were to follow.

Similarly with such production as they can be said to have undertaken. They hardly used division of labour except as it was forced upon them by differences of age and sex. Instead of relying upon systems of production, and undertaking the co-operation needed if these were to work, they acted for the most part independently, each making for him- or herself what each required. In obtaining what they needed or wanted they acted, to a greater extent than the members of any later society, as independent individuals.

They are sometimes said to have lived in harmony with their environment, but we have no reason to think they practised intentional self-restraint. Unlike the supporters of our ecological movements they were not behaving with thoughtful consideration for the natural world; they used it as their own purposes required and if they committed no irreparable harm this was because they had not the power to do so. One study of the cave paintings, incised tools and rubbish heaps of two Upper Paleolithic sites led to the conclusion that over-hunting of the large game animals had reduced their numbers to an extent that forced reliance upon the more troublesome small game and shellfish. [10] Instead of behaving towards the environment, in the activities which were later to develop into economic systems, as if it and they belonged to the one collectivity, they rather treated it as something they were not obliged to care about, an individual entity separate from themselves

In one sense these peoples were primitive; they stood at the beginning. If tempted to look down on them, however, we need to remember that they established the first human communities, introduced the use of fire, made and used tools in ways the animals do not, and invented language; these may well have been the greatest of human achievements. They deserve our respect for their own accomplishments, they do not need us to ascribe to them systems, or even aspirations, which were to appear only much later. Their economic life was strongly individualistic, and to picture it as predominantly co-operative, let alone communistic, is to render the course of social development incomprehensible. I emphasise that individualism flourished in their economic life; their political activities followed a different course.

Looking only at their economic life makes it difficult to see why they formed communities instead of living permanently as separate individuals or nuclear families. The purpose can hardly have been mutual assistance in obtaining supplies, for increasing population in a given area would usually have made it harder to find sufficient food; they often dispersed for a large part of the year for this reason. Gathering together was a luxury they indulged in as far as supplies permitted; in their political life they exhibited a tendency the reverse of that shown in economic affairs, not individualistic but collectivistic.

It sounds odd to speak of political life among these people, for the term suggests intellectual conflict, debates, theoretical arguments and struggles for power, and these had not yet appeared. These things all presuppose, however, the presence of a unity solid enough to persist in spite of their divisive effects. The fundamental political act was the establishment of a community, and this the early people accomplished. Their communities, in fact, were so well established, the ‘cake of custom’ (to use Bagehot’s phrase) so solid, as hardly to permit the appearance of political or intellectual individuality.

We who live under the restrictions imposed by civilisation tend to think of their absence as freedom, forgetting other limitations. Rousseau’s dream of the noble savage, and Hobbes’ nightmare of primitive life as a war of every one against every one, both take for granted absence of social control over the individual person, and this assumption rests on inadequate information; membership of an early community entailed restrictions, upon behaviour towards one’s fellows, closer than those found in any of the societies that were to develop later. Elman R. Service for example emphasises the power of the social control that operates in small face-to-face societies, speaking of the extreme sensitivity of these people to the feelings of their group. Overt institutions of government are not to be found, but etiquette, custom and socio-psychological sanctions exert even closer control over the behaviour of individual people. In the absence of personal rulers ‘custom is king.’ [11]

All communities, both these relatively simple ones and the more complex ones known as societies, require compliance with certain norms and use sanctions to enforce their demands; without this they would be mere aggregations. In the early communities these standards were seldom or never overtly formulated, and this produces a misleading impression of their absence. Remaining almost entirely implicit as habits, expectations, customs and etiquette, transmitted to the young within the family and by elders to their juniors, rather than in any more public or formal way, they were none the less effective for that. No distinct apparatus, no inspectorate or police force, ensured compliance; instead, the community as a whole performed the task. When the inevitable disagreements arose, requiring a community decision, the early folk held to their non-hierarchical methods, seeking unanimity of opinion rather than accepting the continuing presence of a dissenting minority (not that they would have thought in any such terms), and often using a more or less ritualised contest or duel (among the Eskimo a song-duel) to decide which way the decision should go. Sanctions such as gossip, ridicule and withdrawal usually proved effective against deviants, but as a last resort anybody who persisted in actions that could not be tolerated was likely to be killed, with at least the tacit agreement of the community and usually by close relatives, since that was less likely to start a feud. Among some of the peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America, for example, ‘witches accused of practising black magic were often slain and these killings went unavenged.’ [12]

This tendency to act, in political-intellectual affairs, as a community rather than as separate individuals Walsby terms ‘political collectivism.’ It contrasts with the individualism which these people exhibit in the material-economic field, and when unrestrained it inhibits not only the development of political or intellectual individuality but also the appearance of institutionalised leadership; people threatening to set themselves up as leaders exercising authority get suppressed like other deviants. In his survey of recent anthropological work on the early communities Service says they functioned by influence rather than authority, valued humility, and did not tolerate ‘bossiness.’ (He calls them egalitarian but the term carries an unjustified suggestion of set intent on their part; ‘non-hierarchical,’ although clumsier, seems more appropriate). They might have leaders or headmen, but not in the sense of command usually associated with the word ‘chief’; rather as advisers, co-ordinators, directors or initiators of particular undertakings. These were also likely to be the ones expressing the opinion of the band, such ‘authority’ as they possessed being limited to voicing approval of decisions made by the group as a whole. They had to remain sensitive to the opinions and feelings of other members of the band, falling in with their preferences where they could not get their own accepted by persuasion. [13]

The nearest the first communities came to possessing an institution of government was what some investigators have called a council of elders; this appeared, for example, among the Aborigines, but without making the claim to a monopoly of force which characterises the state. Glen Barclay describes the aboriginal community as a gerontocracy, adding that the elders resemble grandfathers rather than governors or policemen. [14]

The absence of governmental institutions leads some investigators to regard these communities as early examples of anarchism, but the view carries consequences its supporters seem not to have considered. The period when everybody lived by foraging was succeeded by the world-wide spread of the state, and unless we are going to say this was sent by God, or brought by little green men from Mars, Venus or wherever, we have to accept that it developed out of the first communities. If these were anarchist then it follows that anarchism produced the state.

In these early communities the distinctions between people, and between a person and the group, were not formalised as specific rights and obligations, and this indefiniteness appears also in other fields. Discriminating sharply between the various species of plants which they used, these people tended to lump all others together as of no interest, and although every community studied had at least some apprehension of a supernatural world, none made any clear distinction between the sacred and the secular. In describing Murngin tribal initiation ceremonies Talcott Parsons stresses that the adult man actually becomes a part of the totem, and this does not show that the sacred world has been brought down to the everyday level but that ‘the status of sacred objects and secular social unit have not been differentiated.’ [15] A principal object of initiation ceremonies was to ensure cultural uniformity; in political-intellectual activities the early people sought fusion rather than fission, and to such an extent that they sometimes deified the collectivity. Robert Lowie, in his history of ethnological theory, ping away everything the concrete individual has in common with others, leads towards an individual possessing no features, one which cannot be distinguished from any other and disappears into the collectivity. As abstract principles collectivism and individualism are inextricably interwoven, but our concern lies with the behaviour of concrete societies; here they appear as distinct tendencies, and the distinction has a firm base in that human beings are both material-biological and intellectual-social creatures. They inhabit separate bodies; food, and in most parts of the world clothing and shelter too, must be appropriated to the maintenance of each individual one of them. Intellectual life, on the other hand, cannot be more than partly individualised; to pass on an idea is not to deprive oneself of it, and conceptual thinking entails the use of language, a means of communication created by a community; the individualistic tendencies that appear in later thinking stand on this base. In displaying economic individualism and political collectivism the early communities are complying with the circumstances in which they find themselves, they are ‘doing what comes naturally.’

The peoples, ancient and modern, who followed this way of life lived, for the most part, from hand to mouth. Where supplies were seasonal they maintained the necessary reserves, but wherever they could survive while following immediate impulse they tended to do so. The Polar Eskimo, inhabiting one of the harshest environments on earth, have been repeatedly described as light-hearted and improvident, happily gorging to the last lump of blubber and leaving tomorrow to look after itself, [17] and similar accounts are given of the !Kung and Gikwe Bushmen, living under widely differing conditions at the other end of the earth. [18] They were not purposely enjoying themselves while they could because life is short but doing what comes easiest and following the impulse of the moment. In exhibiting economic individualism and political collectivism they were not moved by any acquaintance with these ponderous polysyllables but following the course of least resistance, and this tendency runs through their life. They did not submit to the self-discipline required for growing their own food but followed the game and the seasons, did not live consistently as either united communities or as separate famines, but followed the practice they found most appropriate to their circumstances of the moment.

The members of these communities valued humility and compliance, neither seeking to impose any personal ideas about the right way to operate a society nor supporting any who might attempt to do so. They did not strive to alter their environment, natural or social, to suit themselves, preferring to adapt their own behaviour to the requirements it imposed. In both the main areas of social activity, the economic-material and the political-intellectual, they chose the immediately convenient route rather than the one offering greater long-term rewards in return for greater effort.

When civilised travellers meet people living in this way the encounter commonly produces complaints of their dishonesty and unreliability. Jonathan Menthol quotes extracts from the diaries of three missionaries to the Yupik people of Alaska between 1891 and 1920; they charge the Yupik with being ‘disgusting, evil-ridden, frivolous, profligate, immoral and unclean.’ [19] Such complaints come of judging one society by the standards of another. These people themselves place no great value on principles, and the tenor of their life runs against making any effort to follow a predetermined course. It is not they but the student who seeks to unify their behaviour and reduce it to a formula. If they can he said to display a consistent overall tendency at all it lies towards doing the immediately convenient thing, towards expediency. They live in accordance with this ideology, and accordingly our term for them will be the Expedient communities, or communities of Expediency.

These people are generally known, among those who bother with such issues at all as hunter-gatherers, foragers or collectors, and all these terms accord primacy to economic life; this has become one of the unexamined clich├ęs of current thinking. Bertold Brecht puts it sharply when saying that grub comes before ethics. [20] The assumption has powerful intuitive appeal but observation and enquiry do not support it. Thoughts, beliefs and ethics are already involved in human eating, there seems to be no society or community which does not impose restrictions upon what may properly be consumed. The Eskimo of the Hudson’s Bay area had a taboo against eating seal and caribou on the same day, [21] one Australian tribe refused to eat a green caterpillar enjoyed by their neighbours, [22] and some tribes have sought opportunities to engage in cannibalism while other people have starved to death because they believed it to be wrong. Human beings, whether individually or in groups, do not put thinking aside when they come to satisfy their material needs. There is no purely economic activity, untouched by thinking, to serve as fundamental determinant of a political-intellectual superstructure.

Political condition and mode of obtaining sustenance are undeniably connected; food-producing societies regularly have institutionalised government with coercive force at its disposal while those which live by collecting are consistently without it. But this does not show the political to be a superstructure based on, and fundamentally determined by, the economic. To live by hunting and gathering precludes the establishment of government but, equally, absence of the organised force that accompanies settled government precludes the constant protection of crops and herds that makes dependence upon food-production feasible. The economic and the political are two parts of a whole, and examination of either reveals the influence of the other; if we are to speak in metaphor they are related not as base and superstructure but rather as two sides of a coin. They can of course be conceptually separated for purposes of study, but the act produces artificial abstractions incapable of independent existence, and if this be forgotten confusion results.

The expedient communities are well worth studying on their own account, but for our enquiry they have a specific importance. Their conduct expresses their assumptions about the way life ought to be lived, and those assumptions have not disappeared; their continuing influence is implied by the behaviour of immense numbers of people today, even in the great cities. These take little interest in the activities of society at large, having their attention mainly confined to the small group, seldom much larger than the hunter- gatherer band of up to about fifty people, with whom they interact as persons. They show little mental independence, accepting the standards of the society into which they happen to have been born and joining in conversations mainly directed to demonstrating the absence of significant intellectual distinctions between the speakers. But they live in separate homes, have separate incomes, and use separate cars when they can. Today as in palaeolithic times, and in London, New York and Moscow as in Central Australia, the polar regions and the Kalahari, the prevailing tendency in political-intellectual life is collectivistic and in economic-material affairs individualistic. The ideology of Expediency, in which these tendencies appear most strongly, is neither obsolete nor becoming so. Political collectivism provides cohesion, enabling society to contain the stresses resulting from developing technology, and economic individualism provides the motive force driving sophisticated productive and distributive systems. The evidence does not indicate that these tendencies, exhibited by the earliest human communities, are likely to disappear in the course of future transformations.

Hobbes made his sour comments before much was known of the expedient communities. Reports from anthropologists living among them show that they often enjoyed lives which many of our own people might well envy, with leisure, ample food, an active social life, music, dancing, ritual and the graphic arts; the investigators often regret having to return to civilisation. The persistence of this ideology does not condemn those holding it to lives of nastiness and brutality.

Through long ages everybody lived the Expedient life, but this does not mean that ideological processes remained static. Each major ideology offers unlimited scope for extension of knowledge and for variation in particular ideas, and the Expedient period covers the immense stretch from the first humanoids to communities with elaborate ritual, complicated kinship systems, complex language and the use of fire. But all these advances took place within limitations imposed by the absence of any substantial attempt to alter the main conditions imposed by either the community or the natural environment. About ten thousand years ago, however, things began to change. Political collectivism and economic individualism began to weaken and their contraries to strengthen, the headless expedient communities to he replaced by structured societies producing their own food. The ideology of Expediency began to be repressed (though not eliminated) by that of Principle.

Continue reading Beyond Politics by George Walford (1990):
Preface | Introduction | Politics as Ideology | The British Political Series | The World Political Series | From Politics to Ideology | Ideology Beyond Politics | The Beginnings | From Village to Empire | After The Empires | The Eidodynamic | The Origins of Ideologies | The Evolution of Ideology | Conclusion | Appendices | Notes & References | Select Bibliography | Index | Synopsis