Foraging as Egalitarian Communism

This is the one aspect of forager society which Bookchin even now accepts and approves of. The revisionists have not gone very far in dispelling this conception, to which both Marx and Kropotkin subscribed: they have just identified a few more exceptions to the general rule of equality and food-sharing. Usually, as I pointed out in Anarchy after Leftism, it is the sedentary hunter-gatherers who may (but often do not) develop some social stratification, as did the Northwest Coast Indians with permanent villages adjoining salmon runs in which property rights were recognized. Their anarchy is a borderline case. It’s not impossible, however – just extremely rare – for even nomadic hunter-gatherers to distribute wealth unequally or assert ownership rights to the means of production. A 19th century example is the Tutchone, a nomadic Athapaskan Indian people in the Yukon. Despite their general poverty, they allocated food resources unequally and even maintained a form of domestic slavery, allegedly without borrowing these practices from other stratified societies. In SALA, Bookchin cited another example, the Yuqui. But that’s just “the ‘not-so-in-Bongobongoland’ style of argument.” If forager egalitarianism is not universal, it almost is, and every other form of society departs from equality to the extent of its greater complexity.

To seriously challenge the thesis of forager egalitarianism, the revisionists would have to reveal inequality among the many foraging peoples among whom ethnographers have hitherto found equality. So far as I know, the only revisionist to make such a claim is Edwin Wilmsen in Land Filled with Flies. His provocative example is, improbably, the San. Wilmsen asserts that “meat sharing – the putative sine qua non of San egalitarianism – is thoroughly controlled to meet the political ends of the distributors.” There are several difficulties here. The distributor of meat (the owner of the arrow which killed the animal) has no political ends, for the San are anarchists. What he does have is expectations to satisfy which are determined mainly by kinship. To infer inequality from this is a non sequitur, for few if any San are entirely without family and friends at a campsite. If in fact they are without family or friends, they should be, and soon would be, on their way to somewhere else more hospitable. San principles of food-sharing priorities do not mathematically guarantee absolute distributive equality, but in practice they approximate it.

However, even arguments at this modest level of sophistication are unnecessary to dispose of Wilmsen’s example – for that’s all it is: a single “anecdote” (his word) about a San who complained of receiving no meat from a household in which she had no relatives. These San were not foragers, they were pastoralists who hunt, part-time, from horseback, and partly with rifles.

Wilmsen’s claim for class distinctions among foraging San is his “most contentious,” overstated, and least accepted proposition. Several anthropologists, even Wilmsen’s main target Richard B. Lee, credit Wilmsen with placing more emphasis on the historical dimension of San studies, but they contest the findings of his fieldwork, which commenced only in 1973, as “so at odds with previous works that it is impossible to reconcile one’s prior knowledge of the Kalahari with what Wilmsen presents.” Even a fellow revisionist like Thomas Headland, in a review which Bookchin cites approvingly, concludes that “one can be generally convinced by Wilmsen’s [historical] account of outside influence in the Kalahari desert while being troubled by his complete rejection of earlier portraits of the !Kung.” Wilmsen’s embrace of history (and archeology) at the expense of ethnography looks like sour grapes. He arrived in the field too late to study viable San foragers, as Lee, Howell, Tanaka and others had done, and so he rummaged the archives to prove that there’d never been any such foragers, only the same impoverished underclass he found in the 1970’s.

Still another of Wilmsen’s reviewers notes that “page after page denounces Richard Lee and a host of other ethnographers with unnecessary stings, while some other pages rely on the findings of these very scholars.” Murray Bookchin is right to recognize in Wilmsen a kindred spirit, another lawyer trapped in the body of a scholar, except that Bookchin isn’t even a scholar. “Scholarship,” according to one of Bookchin’s rare scholarly reviewers, “is not his point, or his achievement,” and his “method is to ransack world history – more or less at random” for examples that seem to support his position. Bookchin relies on Wilmsen in exactly the opportunistic way Wilmsen relies on Lee “and a host of other ethnographers,” grabbing whatever sounds like support for an advocacy position, and never mind what it really means or the context or the rest of the story. When lawyers pillage history this way, historians refer to the result contemptuously as “law-office history.” Bookchin writes law-office history, law-office anthropology, and law-office philosophy, which is to say, pseudo-history, pseudo-anthropology, and pseudo-philosophy.