Foraging as the Good Life

By the catchall phrase “the good life” I refer to various further features of foraging society which are significant for what I can only refer to, vaguely at the outset, as the quality of life. Necessarily, interpretation and value judgments enter into the assessment of this dimension even more openly than in the assessment of the first three, but just as necessarily there is no avoiding them. Viable anarcho-communist societies naturally interest anarchists, but if hunter-gatherers enjoy little more than the freedom to suffer, and equality in poverty, their example is not very encouraging. If that is all that anarchy offers, anarchism has no appeal except to the fanatic few. Abundance and good health, for instance, may not be supreme values, but values they are. If they are too lacking for too long, the widest liberty, equality and fraternity lose their savor. But for foragers, the price of liberty, equality and fraternity is not nearly so high.

When Marshall Sahlins characterized hunter-gatherers as the original affluent society, he meant to make several points. One I have already dealt with: relatively short working time. The other, which has always attracted more attention, is the contention that foragers typically enjoy a food supply not only abundant but reliable. They do not work very much because they have no need to work any longer or harder in order to have all that they want to consume. They do not store much food or for long, partly for lack of the requisite technology, but fundamentally because of their confidence that they can always go out and get some more. Instead of the desperate preoccupation with survival which Bookchin attributes to them, the foragers’ attitude toward the quest for subsistence, is, as Sahlins says, one of “nonchalance.”

The world of the foragers is not, any more than ours is, absolutely secure. Such words as “paradise” and “edenic” are never used by anthropologists and not often used, and then usually metaphorically, by anarcho-primitivists. It is their critics, above all Bookchin, who put these words in their mouths, compounding the deception by putting these nonexistent quotations in quotation marks – a Bookchin abuse I targeted in Anarchy after Leftism but which the Director Emeritus now indulges in more recklessly than ever. Like Bookchin, but unlike a fine wine, it has not improved with age.

As everyone acknowledges – Watson and I included – although abundance is the norm among contemporary hunter-gatherers, they may go hungry occasionally. There’s a two-month period of the year, for instance, in which San food intake declines. That does not validate the Hobbesian view, which is exactly the opposite: that for foragers, hunger is the norm and satiety the exception. Lee and demographer Nancy Howell measured a 1% to 2% loss in San body weight during the low point, “far short of [the] 4 to 6.5 percent average loss observed among agriculturalists.”And although saying so incenses the easily irked Director, it is obviously relevant to the primitive-affluence thesis that in prehistoric times, foragers had all the world’s habitats to enjoy, not just the marginal wastes to which contemporary foragers are relegated by civilized techno-violence. It is reasonable to infer that when foragers had the whole world to themselves, they enjoyed even greater ease and affluence, the material base of their successful anarchy. I daresay that more Americans than foragers will go to sleep hungry tonight.

Just as he fudged the figures for San working time, the Director goes on to misrepresent the figures on their caloric intake, although this time without bothering to cite any of them. He claims – citing only himself – that “Richard Lee’s own data on the caloric intake of ‘affluent’ foragers have been significantly challenged by Wilmsen and his associates. . . . Lee himself has revised his views on this score since the 1960s.” The identical passage appears in SALA. Between 1969 and 1979, Lee did revise his estimates of San forager caloric uptake: upward, from 2,140 kilocalories to 2,355 kilocalories, as noted by Wilmsen himself! I had already drawn attention to the revision in Friendly Fire as had Watson in Beyond Bookchin. And far from “sharply challenging” Lee’s estimates, Wilmsen agreed with them: “considering the margin of error inherent in calorie counting, either figure is in good agreement with my estimate of 2,294 kilocalories/person/day for foraging Zhu in July 1975.” As of 1960, over half the world’s people consumed less than 2250 calories a day, less than the San did; the civilized people of China, India and Indonesia consumed much less than that. Bookchin’s blunders are so basic that they cannot have been committed in good faith unless by someone whose intellectual capacities are gravely impaired.

For many years now, the Director Emeritus has exhibited a personalistic preoccupation with old age. Shortly after he turned 60, Bookchin’s Ecology of Freedom (1982) advanced, among other eccentricities, the thesis that the origin of hierarchy in human society was gerontocracy, domination by the elderly. No anthropologist thought so then and none thinks so now. The only anthropologist to review the book (and surprisingly sympathetically) wrote that the Director’s “emphasis on age stratification as the key to domination is unconvincing and suffers from such a paucity of empirical evidence that it reads at times like a ‘Just-So’ story.” With characteristically well-crafted cruelty, I quoted this comment in Anarchy after Leftism in a context that implied that Bookchin’s belief in gerontocracy – “the original form of hierarchy (and still the best!)” – was wishful thinking. Something approximating gerontocracy does prevail on college campuses (there it’s known as “tenure”) such as those where the Director Emeritus spent the latter half of his adult life – but in few other areas of contemporary society. The Director’s personalistic obsession with age increases as his own does.

In SALA, and now again in its sequel, Bookchin indicts the San (standing in for hunter-gatherers) for their brief life-spans. Unlike in SALA, Bookchin this time provides a source for his claim that the average San lifespan is 30 years – it is Headland’s review of Wilmsen. Headland has done no research on the San and provided no reference to anyone who has. In SALA, Bookchin left the impression that “Wilmsen and his associates” came up with this figure, but Wilmsen does not even refer to San lifespan, much less purport to estimate it based on his own research. This is actually a difficult research problem, because the San don’t know how old they are, and in their own language they can only count to three. The most thorough investigation of San demography was done by Nancy Howell, a member of the Lee/DeVore team, among the Dobe San. Her estimate of life expectancy at birth was 30-35 years. Another study, which I cited in Anarchy after Leftism, produced an estimate of 32 years. For the ¹ Kade San, Tanaka’s estimate was 40 years. By comparison, the life expectancy for ancient Romans and medieval Englishmen was 30 years. Just a century ago, American life expectancy was only 40 years.

Are these statistics appalling? No doubt they are to a sick, scared old man like Bookchin who knows his time is short. Had he died at 40, none of his books would ever have been written. It is embarrassingly obvious that his recent tirades are the outbursts of someone in a desperate hurry to perpetuate an ideological legacy he rightly perceives to be in eclipse. He fears the loss of the only kind of immortality he believes in. But his private terror at the prospect of death and disregard is a personalistic demon. There is more to the quality of life than the quantity of life. How much more is strictly a value judgment. Achilles chose a short life as a hero over a long life as a nobody. Pirates preferred a short and merry life to a longer life of drudgery. Some people, as Zapata put it, would rather die on their feet than live on their knees. And some people can pack a lot of life into a short span. If foragers generally live lives of liberty, conviviality, abundance and ease, it is by no means obvious that their shorter, high-quality lives are inferior to our longer, low-quality lives. Murray Bookchin tells us that it is modern medical technology which is keeping him alive. It would never occur to him that the enemies he defames might not consider this an argument in favor of modern medical technology. Judging from SALA and “Whither Anarchism?” the Director Emeritus is not enjoying his golden years. Nobody else is enjoying his golden years either.

Before anyone else panics over the statistics, let’s consider what they really mean. In Anarchy after Leftism I already pointed out that life expectancy at birth is no measure of how long those who survive infancy can expect to live. In all human populations, including ours, infant mortality is high relative to the mortality of all other age groups except the very old. In this respect, as Nancy Howell concluded, “the !Kung have an age pattern of mortality more or less like everyone else.” The high rate of infant mortality depresses the average lifespan, but real people live, not the average lifespan, but their own lifespans. According to Bookchin, back in the Old Stone Age, “few lived beyond their fiftieth year.” As Nancy Howell discovered, that was not true of the San. Over 17% were over 50; 29% were over 40; 43% were over 30. One San man was approximately 82. According to Tanaka, too, many San live far beyond the age of 40.