Monday, January 07, 2008

The good old days ain't what they used to be

What's a curmudgeon to do? The more we slip-slide into an abyss of godless moral decay, the better things get. Even for progressives, who look forward to a better tomorrow, the present leaves little to improve upon:
Progressive ideology relies on the capacity of human beings to live fulfilled lives in a just and co-operative society. That people whose beliefs imply optimism seem to spend most of their time wallowing in pessimism is one reason that leftists sometimes lack personal credibility (another reason being that egalitarians so clearly enjoy being very well-off). But miserable idealists need to make a New Year resolution to look on the bright side. Pessimism is becoming an impediment to progressive politics. It is 50 years since J K Galbraith coined the phrase "private affluence and public squalor"; today, the dichotomy is between private hubris and public pessimism.
And yet. There is a different story to be told about our world. It is a story of unprecedented affluence in the developed world and fast-falling poverty levels in the developing world; of more people in more places enjoying more freedom than ever before. It is a story of healthier lives and longer life expectancy (obesity may be a problem, but it is one that individuals have more chance of solving than rickets or polio). Think of how we thrive in the diversity of modern cities. Think, in our own country, of rivers and beaches cleaner than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. When you read the next report bemoaning falling standards in our schools, remember the overwhelming evidence that average IQs have risen sharply over recent decades. If you think we have less power over our lives, think of the internet, of enhanced rights at work and in law, or remember how it was to be a woman or black or gay 30 years ago.
The old collectivism is dead or dying. Its characteristics - hierarchical, bureaucratic, paternalistic - are no longer suited to the challenges or the mood of the times. The institutions of the new collectivism must be devolved, pluralistic, egalitarian and, most of all, self-actualising.

For all the talk of the decline of social capital, people are doing more stuff together. Twenty-five years ago, with falling audiences, commentators assumed that the cinema and live football were dead: we would all rather stay in the safety and comfort of our new, hi-tech living rooms. But then the multiplex, the blockbuster, the all-seater stad ium and foreign players showed the problem to be no deeper than the failure to keep up with modern tastes and expectations.

Self-actualisation is the peak of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. There is evidence that more of us are trying to climb that hierarchy. It is in the crowds at book festivals and art galleries, in ever more demanding consumerism with an emphasis on the personal, sensual and adventurous. We want to enjoy ourselves, to be appreciated and to feel we are growing from the experience.

Sound familiar? Taylor is describing Oprah-ism. We're now looking to our political leaders to actualize us. Almost makes you yearn for the bad old days.

But if that didn't convince you of the linear progress of Mankind, a look at the pre-historical record will change your tune:
The first farmers were less healthy than the hunter-gatherers had been in their heyday. Aside from their shorter stature, they had more skeletal wear and tear from the hard work, their teeth rotted more, they were short of protein and vitamins and they caught diseases from domesticated animals: measles from cattle, flu from ducks, plague from rats and worms from using their own excrement as fertiliser.

They also got a bad attack of inequality for the first time. Hunter-gatherers' dependence on sharing each other's hunting and gathering luck makes them remarkably egalitarian. A successful farmer, however, can afford to buy the labour of others, and that makes him more successful still, until eventually—especially in an irrigated river valley, where he controls the water—he can become an emperor imposing his despotic whim upon subjects. Friedrich Engels was probably right to identify agriculture with a loss of political innocence.

Agriculture also stands accused of exacerbating sexual inequality. In many peasant farming communities, men make women do much of the hard work. Among hunter-gathering folk, men usually bring fewer calories than women, and have a tiresome tendency to prefer catching big and infrequent prey so they can show off, rather than small and frequent catches that do not rot before they are eaten. But the men do at least contribute.

Recently, though, anthropologists have subtly revised the view that the invention of agriculture was a fall from grace. They have found the serpent in hunter-gatherer Eden, the savage in the noble savage. Maybe it was not an 80,000-year camping holiday after all.

In 2006 two Indian fishermen, in a drunken sleep aboard their little boat, drifted over the reef and fetched up on the shore of North Sentinel Island. They were promptly killed by the inhabitants. Their bodies are still there: the helicopter that went to collect them was driven away by a hail of arrows and spears. The Sentinelese do not welcome trespassers. Only very occasionally have they been lured down to the beach of their tiny island home by gifts of coconuts and only once or twice have they taken these gifts without sending a shower of arrows in return.

Several archaeologists and anthropologists now argue that violence was much more pervasive in hunter-gatherer society than in more recent eras. From the
!Kung in the Kalahari to the Inuit in the Arctic and the aborigines in Australia, two-thirds of modern hunter-gatherers are in a state of almost constant tribal warfare, and nearly 90% go to war at least once a year. War is a big word for dawn raids, skirmishes and lots of posturing, but death rates are high—usually around 25-30% of adult males die from homicide. The warfare death rate of 0.5% of the population per year that Lawrence Keeley of the University of Illinois calculates as typical of hunter-gatherer societies would equate to 2 billion people dying during the 20th century.

At first, anthropologists were inclined to think this a modern pathology. But it is increasingly looking as if it is the natural state. Richard Wrangham of Harvard University says that chimpanzees and human beings are the only animals in which males engage in co-operative and systematic homicidal raids. The death rate is similar in the two species. Steven LeBlanc, also of Harvard, says Rousseauian wishful thinking has led academics to overlook evidence of constant violence.

Not so many women as men die in warfare, it is true. But that is because they are often the object of the fighting. To be abducted as a sexual prize was almost certainly a common female fate in hunter-gatherer society. Forget the Garden of Eden; think Mad Max.

Constant warfare was necessary to keep population density down to one person per square mile. Farmers can live at 100 times that density. Hunter-gatherers may have been so lithe and healthy because the weak were dead. The invention of agriculture and the advent of settled society merely swapped high mortality for high morbidity, allowing people some relief from chronic warfare so they could at least grind out an existence, rather than being ground out of existence altogether.

Notice a close parallel with the industrial revolution. When rural peasants swapped their hovels for the textile mills of Lancashire, did it feel like an improvement? The Dickensian view is that factories replaced a rural idyll with urban misery, poverty, pollution and illness. Factories were indeed miserable and the urban poor were overworked and underfed. But they had flocked to take the jobs in factories often to get away from the cold, muddy, starving rural hell of their birth.

Eighteenth-century rural England was a place where people starved each spring as the winter stores ran out, where in bad years and poor districts long hours of agricultural labour—if it could be got—barely paid enough to keep body and soul together, and a place where the “putting-out” system of textile manufacture at home drove workers harder for lower pay than even the factories would. (Ask Zambians today why they take ill-paid jobs in Chinese-managed mines, or Vietnamese why they sew shirts in multinational-owned factories.) The industrial revolution caused a population explosion because it enabled more babies to survive—malnourished, perhaps, but at least alive.
What's more, the famously “affluent society” of hunter-gatherers, with plenty of time to gossip by the fire between hunts and gathers, turns out to be a bit of a myth, or at least an artefact of modern life. The measurements of time spent getting food by the !Kung omitted food-processing time and travel time, partly because the anthropologists gave their subjects lifts in their vehicles and lent them metal knives to process food.

In 100 years people will look back at us and cringe at how difficult a time we had self actualizing ourselves("you mean they had to do it all by themselves?") I'm sure they will have found a higher level on the hierarchy of needs by then.


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