Back to the Caves!

Surely, you must think in sober moments, the left (especially the environmental left) doesn’t literally want to take us back to living primitive existence in caves and such? You wouldn’t think so, but then you run into a purportedly serious article that is so mind-numbingly stupid that you wonder if someone is pulling your leg.

Such as an article currently up at Aeon, under the title, “How Equality Slipped Away.” You have to read it (all 3,600 words of it), not to believe it.

The first sign of trouble appears right in the subtitle: “For 97 per cent of human history, all people had about the same power and access to goods. How did inequality ratchet up?” Um, if can be said to have been “equal” for 97 percent of human history, it was because  WE WERE POOR AND MISERABLE LEADING VIOLENCE-FILLED SUBSISTENCE LIVES! And yeah, we stopped doing that around 6,000 or so years ago when, you know, we launched this thing called civilization, that led to things like the rule of law, cities and villages with stable agriculture, fire, the wheel, that kind of stuff. The real acceleration in human material well-being came with the full arrival of market capitalism about 250 years ago.

The author of this lugubrious essay, Kim Sterelny (professor of philosophy at Australian National University, natch), thinks all of this progress was horrible, because it led to inequality. Some samples:

Our particular species of humans has been around for about 300,000 years and, best as we can tell, for about 290,000 of those years we lived materially poorer but much more equal lives. For most of our life as a species, most communities lived as mobile foragers, shifting camps when local resources became scarce, but probably sticking to a regular pattern over a defined territory. . .

Somehow, after 290,000 years of living without anyone having the power to tell us what to do, and with every member of a community having about as much as everyone else, most of us are now subject to command, and with immensely less than a favoured few. Why?

Sterelny points his censorious finger at exactly the key factors that have improved human well-being, especially settled agriculture and property rights (with “control of information” thrown in as a side dish):

Farming and storage make inequality possible, perhaps even likely, because they tend to undermine sharing norms, establish property rights and the coercion of labour, amplify intercommunal violence, and lead to increases in social scale. . .

Storage, however, tends to erode sharing. . . Storage opens the door to coerced labour. Sedentary collectors sometimes keep slaves, but mobile foragers don’t. . .  In many subsistence agricultural communities, when slaves aren’t to be had, much of the work is offloaded to women and children. Storage, and especially storage based on crops, often leads to subsistence economies with less autonomy and more coercion. . . Storage also makes intercommunity violence more likely. . .

Moreover, farming tends to lead to population growth.

These downstream effects of storage and farming set up an engine of inequality, with transegalitarian societies emerging as a dynamic consequence of storage in conflicted environments. Recognition of property rights and inheritance allows wealth inequalities to establish and even grow.

To be sure, Sterenly disclaims the implications of this argument, but in a manner that renders the entire argument even more stupid:

There’s no going back to Pleistocene equality, and I for one wouldn’t embrace the social intimacy and material simplicity of such lives. But we do have new social technologies. China (especially) is showing how those can be used to enhance elite surveillance. Let’s hope they can be reconfigured to support more bottom-up social action, to mitigate some of the effects of imbalances of wealth and power.

There it is: China-envy. It brings to mind Churchill’s line about how capitalism is the unequal sharing of abundance, while socialism is the equal sharing of misery. Some people never will grasp this.

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