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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Human existence: ownership versus community

This is something I woke up chewing on. And I think it's an important understanding of the human condition.

Let's go by parts.

Paleolithic primitive communism

As we know, most of the existence of our species and genus, of humankind, of the very evolution that shaped our being, happened in a hunter-gatherer context that has been called primitive communism because all was (is still in a few cases) shared. Working individually was unproductive and accumulation of wealth impossible. Hence individuals could be only understood within communities and communities were highly dependent on their individual components, whose abilities and knowledge (or potential for them in the case of the young ones) were the most precious assets that could be held, not by any individual but by the community as a whole. The other asset was maybe territory but this was a diffuse collective possession anyhow.

The only individually held property was surely stuff like weapons and tools and decorative objects such as necklaces. And as the economy was totally based on sharing (giving and taking freely as a matter of course) even these minor elements of private property were not important.

Even child care was shared to a great extent, so not even children were from this or that mother (or parents) but belonged fundamentally to the community.

Hence we evolved to have individual adaptative traits that were fit for cooperative work in small tightly knit communities. Communicating powers such as language and gestures, emotions such as love and shame, behaviors such as spontaneous altruism, all evolved for that cooperative purpose. We are natural born communists.

Neolithic and Industrial new orders

Things changed however as the Neolithic Revolution allowed for surplus production, accumulation of some wealth and eventually some specialization in diverse roles like warriors, priests (bureaucrats), specialized artisans and traders. The process was not immediate (early Neolithic sites still show no such distinctions) but took place almost everywhere sooner or later. As result some classes (occasionally converted in hereditary castes), specially warriors and priests, took control over the huge masses of farmers and benefited from their collective surplus in a dynamic that oscillated between symbiosis and parasitism but that really tended to the latter.

For several millennia this "neolithic with aristocratic rule" was the main socio-economic system. Again this changed with the Industrial Revolution, which allowed much more effective economy, generating larger surplus and allowing the development of other classes at the expense of the traditional ones. From the masses of farmers and the less numerous but more qualified artisans, arose the working class, now mostly dedicated to secondary (industrial) and tertiary (transport, services) economy. Farming gradually became a minor, residual, industrialized occupation. From the much smaller group of traders, and absorbing a good deal of the classical upper classes, whose previous accumulation of wealth was recycled into the new system, arose the bourgeoisie. Humankind had arrived to Capitalism.


Both processes of "modernization" are different in many aspects but the economical basis and the psycho-social impact on us is largely similar: we are being deprived from our natural economy and social system and for that the natural community must be destroyed and the individual must be created.

This process has been often detected and sometimes denounced as a common activity of missionaries wherever tightly knit (tribal) communities still exist. The preachers, ideological avant-guard of the new "individualist" order, persuade the locals that they are not just members of a tribe and clan but whole individual beings, with individual souls bound to individual destinies even after death.

The process is of course imperfect because it is not so easy to destroy ethnic identities but, overall and in the long run, it tends to succeed, creating amorphous pseudo-communities of individuals with competing individual interests all under the umbrella of a huge apparatus, both political-legal (state and supra-state alliances) and economical (Capitalism).

Unlike in a natural communist society, such as those that can still be found among some surviving hunter-gatherers, individual property becomes central. It can be said, and this was what really got me thinking this morning, that the individual is defined by his/her property (or lack of it). And society largely qualifies you on such grounds.

Thanks to the virtual codification we call money, property does not need anymore to be just real state or material objects such as a ship or a gold hoard, it can be a bank account or deeds of some sort. But in any case it is property what makes the individual and the main measure of his/her value in our twisted reality.

Of course, there's another element that cannot be easily quantified: personal attributes, such as knowledge, skill, creativity, intelligence, sociability, health, beauty, fertility, etc. They can sometimes be monetized but their essence largely escapes the wealth scale. I'd call these traits personality rather than individuality, because they make what we can call the person, as opposed to the individual and his/her supposedly intrinsic egoism. They cannot be accumulated, they cannot be transfered except by altruistic deeds such as biological reproduction (genes) and social reproduction (memes) and while they can sometimes be used to accumulate wealth to some extent they are not really central to this process but pretty much peripheral and pre-Neolithic/pre-Industrial in nature.

While Capital, of course, also tries to grab the personalities and include them in their system somehow, these are nearly impossible to capitalize. I cannot sell you shares of my intelligence, you cannot sell me a fraction of your creativity or your beauty. At most you can rent it as a proletarian (work for a salary, as a physical or intellectual prostitute). However continuous rent of such attributes generally causes them to grow dry because these traits have not evolved for mere selfishness and because the alienation involved in the work process typically corrupts the soul, rending it arid and unproductive.

Luckily for Capital there are many souls to be raped for a few crumbs. Not all are for sale but there's always some, many surely, who are desperate enough to be bribed.

But I'm deviating from the main issue a bit. A necessary deviation maybe anyhow.


The key point I meant to expose in this, somewhat self-evident, essay is how we humans, at least most of us (studies seem to demonstrate that there is a natural born parasitic minority but they are a tiny fraction anyhow), have evolved for sharing, for communism, but that the socio-economical reality we are involved in since birth forces us to become individuals, stimulating our selfishness and deprecating our cooperative skills, which are largely laid waste (or at best recycled in a tainted form within the capitalist production system).

After all, what I'm talking here is of alienation. But surely in a wider sense than Marx did: not just alienation of the worker from his/her product but alienation of the person from his/her community.

Now immersed in what surely is the final crisis of Capitalism, we are forced to search for alternatives and our only valid reference is our own human nature, something that cannot really be altered so easily and something that is, at least to a very large extent, cooperative. Of course I'm talking of Communism. Not the so-called "communism" in the Stalinist systems of Russia and China, which are largely nothing but a state-directed bourgeois revolution, with a more advanced theoretical ideology but with similar practices to right-wing pseudo-socialist systems such as fascism, but something else.

Something else that must be deeply democratic at grassroots level, but democratic not only in the political aspect but also in the economical and communicational ones. There are no models, we have to create it from scratch... and that scratch is our human nature.


Ken said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
manju said...

If your pure communism model is our tribal past that doesn't register much confidence. Even tribal communal life appears to be the result of circumstances than human's actual self.

But again the idea of individual destiny appears to be flawed not because man is a social/communal being but because man is basically sexually reproducing being. If we consider the fundamental drive that ensures the continuity of human life on the earth is the 'desire to reproduce' then man is neither individual nor communal but familial.

Okay, I would think about this familial man later.

Maju said...

"Even tribal communal life appears to be the result of circumstances than human's actual self".

My whole point is that this circumstance has accompanied our evolution since the very origins of humankind (and I'd dare say all the Pan-Homo grouping), what implies that all the attributes we have now for social and communitarian interaction, such as speech, affectivity, altruism... are product of that evolution.

The Capitalist system creates a myth of everyone by him/herself but that's very far from our true evolutionary reality. Maybe it's correct for cats or spiders but certainly not for humans. There are simply not individual humans surviving alone anywhere, however there are indeed parasitic humans living on the work and suffering of others - that's the closest you can get (not any "heroic" individual survival epic but rather a "villanous" individualist deceit predation on others).

"... man is neither individual nor communal but familial".

That is not documented among hunter-gatherers, not even among primitive farmers. A partial exception might be those living in the arctic areas, where large groups are less viable and hence the family or rather small groupings of few families, tend to replace them. But that's a peculiar exception in an extreme context in any case.

However, with the arrival of property of land (or comparable possession such as the ambiguous hereditary lease in feudalism), family and "wealth" inheritance begins to make sense. First it was surely matrilineal (boys inherited from their maternal uncles) in most cases, because determining the father was hard if possible at all, but eventually patriarchy (or at least patrilinearity) took over.