Caricatures of Consciousness, Caricatures of History
This is an accompanying essay to The Truish and Actual History of the World.
Has there ever been a society that was genuinely egalitarian? which functioned effectively without using up its top-soil, denuding its forests or emptying its rivers? which lived in peace with its neighbours? which which allowed children to meaningfully participate in common life — and even consulted them on matters of importance? Has there ever been a society of people who were spontaneous, cheerful and conscious? Has there ever been a society which was fair, free and, perhaps above all, enjoyable? The answer is not just yes, but that this has been the norm. There were problems of course, hardships and drama — but life was good1. So what happened?
There was a moment, at the very beginning of what we ordinarily call history, when self first overwhelmed conscious experience, created the degraded forms of superstition and shamanism that we often associate with ‘primitive people’, and that went on to create the sick, repressive, violent and unpleasant experience we ordinarily call civilisation. Before this, men and women lived long, healthy lives (mentally and physically), free of warfare, free of alienation, free of elite or gendered domination and free of the nightmare we call ‘work’. It may not have been perfection, but children were not tortured, ignored or coerced, money (and barter) were unnecessary, sex was not a harrowing form of psychic vampyrism and death was not feared. In short men and women were sensitive, spontaneous and, despite difficulties and deprivations, happy in a way that is, socially at least, almost unimaginable today.
There is overwhelming factual evidence that all this was so, not just from careful study of pre-historic graves, skeletons, middens (refuse heaps), cave art and so on, but also from the evidence of perceptive anthropologists who have lived with remote hunter-gatherer societies (R.B. Lee, Stanley Diamond, W.J. Perry, Elman Service, E. Douglas Turnball, Daniel Everett, E. Richard Sorenson, etc.). These accounts however, although highly instructive, are also, as is widely recognised, problematic. Even the lightest brush with civilisation (i.e. the conditions through which anthropologists are able to reach such people in the first place) radically changes the character and the quality of life of hunter-gatherers who have, further, often already been pushed to marginal habitats by violent, distrustful and more ‘civilised’ agriculturalists.
Although it is reasonable to extrapolate from the historical deterioration (sickness, violence and inequality) of hunter-gatherer societies, and to assume, or at least accept the probability, that the further back one moves from uncivilisation the less sickness, violence and inequality in and among humans one is likely to find; ultimately the only indisputable proof that early people were (to a significant degree) free, sensitive, innately selfless, radically generous and happy, cannot — like anything else worth talking about — come through ‘objective’ scientific evidence. Using science to study man is, ultimately, the same as using a microscope to study consciousness — all you are ever going to find are facts.
What, after all, is under discussion when we ask ourselves what early people were like, is what people can be like, which means the nature of consciousness; which, ultimately, means the nature of my consciousness. If a scientist seeks to explore the conscious experience that primal people have of reality (or children, for that matter, or animals), without, first of all, exploring his own consciousness, he is ignoring the only evidence of conscious experience he can possibly have direct access to.
Investigating consciousness directly gives most scientists the willies — and they would certainly scoff at the idea that any ‘proof’ could be obtained in this way — because it means experiencing one’s own consciousness of life, without the attenuating and impoverishing influence of professionally-managed dependencies (i.e. grants), without a distorted, indirect (market or media-mediated) relationship with one’s fellows, without demeaning, alienating work, without being dominated by thought, without focusing exclusively on facts, evidence, ideas and objects and even without ‘subjective’ guesswork, sentimental hope, mystical beliefs and imagination. Ultimately it is only through direct conscious experience that one can understand one’s own essential humanity and, by extension, humanity as revealed in pre-history: but archaeologists, historians and journalists are as afraid of this as any other professional, priest or addict.
Self-knowledge (or its lack) is the foundation upon which all academic, political, social, religious, philosophical and scientific debate rests, regardless of how well or poorly informed the disputants. Discuss human nature for long enough with a psychologist, or the limits of science with a scientist, or the nature of God with a monotheist and you’ll eventually find disagreements do not rest on objective evidence (or subjective ‘faith’) but on how your family, your culture and your own experiences have shaped your perception, on how powerful your ego is and on how narrow your awareness is.
Evidence must be honoured, but, in the end, if we agree about the nature of pre-conquest humans (or about nature or God or art or love or anything of importance) it is not because we have both studied every one of the countless hunter-gatherers that existed up to the modern age; which is close to impossible, nor because we have any significant objective evidence on the nature of hunter-gatherers, or of their innumerable cultures, more than ten thousand years ago; because we never will. If we agree about what it really means to be human, or what we have in common, it is because we are friends, that’s all.
Those who accept that humanity was once trustworthy are those who have experience of their own pre-selfish nature, and who know it can be trusted. Those who deny that humanity was once trustworthy, who refuse to look at the evidence or who distort it to fit their negative image of man and woman, are those who have been trained to ignore and debase their own selfless consciousness; who have learnt, at home, at school and at work, that their spontaneity, creativity, love and honesty are threats; that only the self-informed-self is real. In only being such a self, they only see such a self. Then, upon impeccable factual evidence, they discover that the universe is a violent game which must be won, that the opposite sex are on the opposite team and that the tender mysteries of unconditional love simply do not exist. Finally, from this dreadful experience, they grasp a philosophy which justifies the isolated ego; which justifies misery, ambition, fear and pride; which justifies class power, or priestly power, or royal power, or institutional power; and which justifies the means by which this power is obtained.
And what is the justification? It is that people cannot be trusted. They are lower-caste, or they are sinners, or they are women, or they are barbarians and devils, or they are genetic-machines, or they are ‘mentally ill,’ or they are communists, or they are common-sorts — it doesn’t matter, and neither does the ideological form such demonising and demeaning takes, for the bottom line is, as ever, the same. Business as usual.
Business, in this sense, began with the ‘ego explosion’ of the late palaeolithic era, around ten thousand years ago. Before this there was no coercive power2 and no subjugation of women or of children. In ‘pre-conquest’ societies (meaning those untouched by superstition, agriculture and uncivilisation), decisions are arrived at communally and often implicitly, without need for strenuous overt debate. There may be leaders, but, critically, they have no power to force others to obey. They achieve their status through their sensitivity, intelligence and experience, not through inheritance, charisma or class-membership — and when a fitter leader for a task is required, he or she comes forward to call the shots. If people obey (a word which once meant listen) it is because it is more efficient to do so. If they don’t, it is because they don’t want to. Submission is not involved.
The desire to reach a permanent, unearned or coercive position of power was and is thwarted at the earliest and subtlest stages imaginable in hunter-gatherer societies3, which have a range of social and cultural practices designed to plug the source of such a desire4; namely the self-informed self. Independence is cherished, but self-assertion is punished.5
This approach to social governance has been used for hundreds of thousands of years. It is, with regional variation, common to all free hunter-gatherer groups across the globe — yet we have no word for it. It is anarchic, communist and democratic, in that there are no autocratic leaders, everyone must agree on group decisions, property is held in common, there is no state and no class. Yet leaders do appear (and fine ones), decisions are rarely arrived at through voting (or even through much discussion) and there is no market (rather a ‘gift-economy’,). Most importantly of all though, unlike the political systems we are familiar with, intelligence is not rooted in the rational-emotional self, which is considered at best a useful tool and at worst a betrayer of the wisdom required to see clearly and to make apt decisions. Intelligence is grounded in consciousness, context and, from here, action.
This ‘system’, I suggest, is Omnarchism — rule by all, by context or by consciousness.
The truth of pre-history is rejected automatically by ego, which, when faced with radical difference, begins by caricaturing and ends by co-opting it. This is not a stratagem of self-defence, but the inherent behaviour of self. It is an abstracting, caricaturing and coopting machine. In its place this activity is a useful tool, but if self is all I am, I cannot perceive the nuance, ambiguity, sacrifice or sublimity of selflessness. This applies to nature, to great works of art, to noble political initiative, interesting periods of history, religion or just to another person. Everything ego touches turns to cliché. When faced with a reality beyond its ken, it converts it into something it knows, then either debases it (caricature) or exalts it (co-opt).
In the case of pre-history — in a hundred thousand years of human experience which cover the entire globe and countless cultures and languages — ego sees nothing but the primitive, uncivilised eking out of life, permanent combat against nature ‘red in tooth and claw’, all against all and, in essence, people just like, only worse. Or it sees a crude, undifferentiated idea of paradise, which it bolts onto a new-age ideology in whichever way helps it to advance its cause. The latter, sentimental, idoliser is then accurately mocked by the former, cynical, iconoclast and the truth of paradise is once again lost to the perpetual war of opposames that fills egoic discourse6.
Another example of such historical caricaturing is the middle-ages, which are routinely presented by progressives as nothing but a time of indentured slavery, grinding poverty, early death and constant misery. The enormous amount of free time medieval peasants enjoyed, their free access to nature and to common land, their non-alienating work, the stupendous expertise of their crafts and so on, are routinely ignored, as are the deleterious effects of the techniques and ideas that the pre-industrial modern ‘renaissance’ brought with it at the close of the medieval period; such as sense-dimming literacy, clock-regulated behaviour, greater distrust of the senses, greater self-conscious awareness of the body, greater restrictions on spontaneity (through the invention of ‘manners’), the creation of childhood, new perceptions of the externality of the natural world, usury and enclosure, greater class separation, consciousness-fragmenting specialisation (of work and of the senses) and new negative conceptions of death and of madness; all of which led to an impoverishment of ordinary people’s experience of reality.7
A critic of the above view might point out how barbaric medieval society could be, which of course is quite true. Nobody is suggesting we should create the conditions by which insane kings, feudal lords and sadistic inquisitions can operate — although for much of the medieval period, which, let us not forget, covers over a thousand years of a vast stretch of the globe — these conditions were absent. The pre-feudal communal towns of common-aid which grew into what may be one of the finest achievements of mankind — the independent medieval city — are routinely ignored by indiscriminate criticisms of the middle-ages.
A more reasonable criticism might be that medieval society only enjoyed the freedoms it did because a) materialist science and abstract measurement did not have such a widespread grip on intellectual life b) pre-modern man had no access to complex technology and c) the market did not regulate human life as it does now and d) usury was a sin. Pre-historic groups, our fair critic might add, were only egalitarian because a) everyone in them knew each other b) property did not exist and hoarding surplus was impossible and c) an irrational (but existentially useful) faith in the benevolence of the universe prevailed over human affairs.
All true — so how about we relax the dominance of scientism over our lives, reduce our dependence on complex technology, put the market into our service, reduce functional human groups to human size, redistribute wealth, outlaw lending money at interest and start putting a little faith in the human story? Let’s see where that gets us, why don’t we? There’s every reason to suppose that we could still keep some of our cherished achievements while returning to a more sensible, sensitive, human way of life.
Not easy of course. For the last last ten thousand years a relentless war has been waged on human nature. The consciousness, generosity and innate sanity of men and women has been beaten out of us, either literally, in the pre-modern period or, these days, psychologically, through the implicit systemic coercion of professionally-managed institutions. Human nature is now buried so deep, under so many layers of fear, violence, sense-dimmed stupidity, class-based blindness, groupthink divisiveness and outright insanity, that it would seem the task is impossible, that there’s just nothing there to work with.
Lies, of course; although you don’t need me to tell you that.
This is an accompanying essay to The Truish and Actual History of the World.
1 See M. Sahlins, The Original Affluent Society (and T. Kaczynski’s important corrective, The Truth about Primitive Life), I.J.N Thorpe, Anthropology, Archaeology, and the Origin of Warfare, D.Fry, War, Peace, and Human Nature, D.Lancy, The Anthropology of Childhood, D.Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years (see also sources on my Peanut History of the World and the ‘anti-declinist’ studies referenced in the ‘Pinker Defence’ section of April’s links.
2 See The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers, C.Boehme Egalitarian Behavior and Reverse Dominance Hierarchy
3 ‘The Utku, like other Eskimo bands, have no formal leaders whose authority transcends that of the separate householders… people tend to look askance at anyone who seems to aspire to tell them what to do.’ Jean Briggs
4 The San bushman, for example, hunt with each other’s arrows, with prestige falling to the owner of the arrow that kills the game; not to he who shot it.
5 Which doesn’t mean there isn’t leadership or even some very loose form of what we would call heirarchy. See W. Scheidel The Great Leveler
6 Some more examples: the sentimental spiritualist seizes on a word like ‘divine’ or ‘spirit’, degrading it, which the cynical scientist accurately mocks, or the sentimental communist seizes on a fantasy of socialism which the capitalist accurately mocks, and so on; all the confusing, annoying, cheesy, sentimental, off-putting, abstract, secondary, quality-denuded or debatable meanings or emotional associations of words which express quality are created in this way.
7 See N. Elias, The Civilising Process, L.Mumford, Technics and Civilisation, I.Illich, In the Mirror of the Past, Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenburg Galaxy, George Woodcock, The Tyranny of the Clock, William Morris, Useful Work v. Useless Toil, Philippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood, Chris Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome and William Chester Jordan, Europe in the High Middle Ages. See also M.Perelman, The Invention of Capitalism for how the state forced peasants out of their none-too onerous medieval lives into the horrors of modern wage-slavery.