So, we had someone come in here the last few days and maintain – with a straight face yet – that civilization equals collectivism. Listen all, the collective farms were the most advanced thing ever on this Earth. No? Not buying it? Sigh. You and your disbelieving ways. What am I doing to do with you? Don’t you know our species has been evolving towards this sort of Earthly paradise, where everyone has everything in common, and nothing is ever made, stolen or even broken in an envious rage?
Well, if you don’t either your school was different from mine in the seventies, or, like me, you sat there and thought cooey. And who is going to replace all humans with ants?
However, at least in my high school it was openly taught. In the past, before agriculture, all societies were communitarian. (Also, matriarchal, but that was the icing on the cake, though the feminists said that’s why they were communitarian because women are all shary and stuff.) Agriculture brought in the idea of private property, and then capitalism – which according to these people started with agriculture back in pre-history, because they define capitalism down to “you have stuff you sell”, brought with it pillage, war, and rape, because capitalism meant women were property and there was sexual jealousy.
Then as civilization came in, piece by piece it started to rebuild that lost, ancient communitarian past, only with more stuff. And eventually in the future, we shall all be like angels, with tons of cool stuff.
I wish I were joking. I also wish you regulars on this blog would stop laughing like hyenas. If you must laugh at other people’s religion, do it politely.
Or not. After all they’re not aware it’s a religion. They think it’s a fact and treat it as such, and teach it as such.
And if you’re sitting there going “It’s a fact” oh, my aching behind, where do I start?
Do I start with the fact that we do know of tribes that were never in fact settled or agricultural, or in any way touched unless we swooped down to do studies, and they’re not living in some sort of earthly paradise with no fighting or jealousy or private property. They are in fact fully human and have all the characteristics of humans – and other apes – who have fighting and jealousy. A lot of them have some private property as well. Oh, yes, sure, some things might be in common, like, since these are usually family groups, the one who hunts distributes his kill to everyone (though even there there are ranks who get the meat first, or the best part, or whatever.) But if you have a particular stone knife you made, it’s yours.
We see this in grave goods, including the women who were buried with special pots that they were good at making. And the men buried with war maces (and sometimes skulls. Yes, some women too, but less frequently.)
Do I start with the oldest epics of mankind? Gilgamesh has violence aplenty and contains nothing that could be described as a functioning communitarian society. The corpses and possessions of ancient hunter-gatherers we’ve found do not in fact seem to imply anything of the sort. The Bible which in some of its stories preserves the oldest stories of mankind does make reference to a garden of Eden, but it only contained two people, and even there things went astray
As for the lost paradise of woman rule, where everything was perfect until men rebelled because, you know, they’re men, and perfect wasn’t good for them (so, it wasn’t perfect?) let’s just say that the fact that Gimbutas confused bull’s heads with uteri cannot be pointed at and mocked enough.
Of course, my distinguished visitor was caught between this belief, and the belief that all ancient humans were “individualistic” and that the progress of civilization can be judged by how communitarian we’ve become. (Rolls eyes so hard they fall off.)
This is why at least twice he seemed to be arguing against himself. These schisms in messianic religions always leave me baffled. Maybe they’re in the middle of a reformation and he’s not thought it through yet?
Anyway, that theory is even more farcical. A single man, with no claws, no fangs, no fur, stands as much chance individually against the elements as a… as a single man standing against the elements. This is why Man Versus Wild is a thing.
Ahah, the distinguished visitor (supposing his reading comprehension will hold up this far) will say. “Then you admit civilization is communism!”
I admit nothing of the sort. I admit that civilization applies only to groups – duh – as does culture, btw, so stop telling me I need to respect the “culture” of someone adopted into another culture at birth. Culture is transmitted by learning not by genes. To maintain otherwise is stupid and racist.
However, how the communities are organized – whether with common property or not (actually was any ancient society – any lasting society—ever organized with communal property? Other than monastic orders, that is? Because to my knowledge in most of these societies, what belonged to “all” actually belonged to the ruler, who was the only one who got to use it.) Whether with private property or not, whether with rape or marriage or sexual jealousy or not, in fact makes no difference to the fact that they’re communities.
So, let me lay it out right here – risky, I know – that according to what we know of today’s hunting gathering societies; the traces of the past; the workings of the human mind; the lives of our closest ape-relatives, there was never a perfect communitarian society of more than three non-related people, unless they were bound by strong religious conviction. (And even those had a designated leader who laid down the law and weren’t PERFECTLY equalitarian.)
In fact, everything we know from the past is that it was red in tooth and flint knife. Yes, family groups (which most human bands were, far back enough in history) could also startlingly show the quality of mercy and look after the crippled and the old and throw massive funerals for deformed babies.
That means only that they were human. Neither the innocents in the garden, nor the horrors of Desmond Morris The Naked Ape. He was wrong at any rate. Other apes kill too. We just figured out how not to kill others every time we want something they have: territory, women or cool possessions.
Maybe that is at the root of what makes us different from out ape brothers. There’s no way to know, of course, because this would be so far back in time that we weren’t even fully human. However, it makes more sense than their story of mythical communism past and senseless fall. And it could have happened this way. It certainly is a story our species has repeated throughout the millennia, and it could be called the very engine of civilization.
We know that chimps and others use tools, but they never seem to progress up the scale of civilization.
Perhaps the difference is that in the dim distant past one of our not quite human ancestors had found a really sharp piece of flint, but hadn’t managed to hunt for it. On the way home, he comes across a member of the same species, not of the same band, who is carrying two rabbits, but who doesn’t seem to have any implement to skin them with.
Instead of using the knife to kill the man and make off with both rabbits, he shows the man the knife, shows him how to use it to skin the rabbits and then, by gestures or sounds (depending on how human they were) he trades the flint shard for a rabbit.
There, my friends, civilization began, allowing men to accumulate wealth without having it stolen until it was destroyed, giving men incentive to work for something (“I must look for more pieces of flint,” proto Og would think “in case I don’t catch anything tomorrow.”) It even in a way started division of labor.
It allowed men to band in communities larger than the band, and not kill everyone not of their blood, and work together and accumulate generational wealth.
Oh, sure, not all was peaceful trade. In those towns there was plenty of the old way of “knock on head, take what you want.”
But by and large – with some truly disgusting back sliding intervals – the movement has been from theft to trade.
There is always the tension between the savage envy (even if cloaked in “that’s not fair” and the brutal force of the state) and the civilized trading between humans.
To the extent trading prevails, there is civilization.