Foraging as Zerowork

In “The Original Affluent Society,” which Bookchin has apparently not read, Marshall Sahlins wrote: “A good case can be made that hunters and gatherers work less than we do; and, rather than a continuous travail, the food quest is intermittent, leisure abundant, and there is a greater amount of sleep in the daytime per capita per year than in any other condition of society.”

Citing the then-unpublished results of Richard B. Lee’s fieldwork among the !Kung San (“Bushmen”), Sahlins estimated that the San worked a four-hour day. In their refined, published version, Lee’s figures were even lower, 2.2 to 2.4 hours a day. Such evidence renders ridiculous what Bookchin is still spouting in 1998, the Marxist dogma about “toil and material uncertainties (as well as natural ones)[] that have in the past shackled the human spirit to a nearly exclusive concern for subsistence.” The foraging San were not preoccupied with subsistence. They had no reason to be.

The quantitative data, as startling as they are, only begin to disclose the qualitative difference between primitive and modern work, in respects I summarized in Friendly Fire: “In addition to shorter hours, ‘flextime’ and the more reliable ‘safety net’ afforded by general food sharing, foragers’ work is more satisfying than most modern work. We awaken to the alarm clock; they sleep a lot, night and day. We are sedentary in our buildings in our polluted cities; they move about breathing the fresh air of the open country. We have bosses; they have companions. Our work typically implicates one, or at most a few hyper-specialized skills, if any; theirs combines handwork and brainwork in a versatile variety of activities, exactly as the great utopians called for. Our ‘commute’ is dead time, and unpaid to boot; they cannot even leave the campsite without ‘reading’ the landscape in a potentially productive way.” To which I might add that hunting, in Europe as elsewhere, has always been the “sport of kings” – play, not work – characterized by what Kierkegaard called “the lovable seriousness which belongs essentially to play.” The synthesis of work (production for its own sake) and play (activity for its own sake) is what I have long called, and long called for, the abolition of work. Someone else might phrase the goal differently, as, for instance, “a joyous artfulness in life and work” – as once did Murray Bookchin.

According to an author highly regarded by Bookchin, “the labor of pastoral peoples is so light and simple that it hardly requires the labor of slaves. Consequently we see that for nomadic and pastoral peoples the number of slaves is very limited, if not zero. Things are otherwise with agricultural and settled peoples. Agriculture requires assiduous, painful, heavy labor. The free man of the forests and plains, the hunter as well as the herdsman, takes to agriculture only with great repugnance.” The anarcho-primitivist crazy who wrote these words was Mikhail Bakunin.

It is not just that foragers work much less than the members of agricultural and industrial societies, if by work is meant production. It is not just that they work differently, in more varied and mostly more challenging and satisfying ways. It is not just that they work in cooperation, not in competition. It is not just that they are almost always free of time-discipline, i.e., at any particular time they literally don’t have to do anything. It is not just that they sleep in as late as they like and loaf a lot. In every one of these particulars, forager working life is superior to ours, but more important is what their coincidence implies about the foraging mode of production. At some point, less work plus better work ends up as activity it no longer makes sense to call work at all, although it furnishes the means of life. Foragers are at that point. They don’t work, not if work means forced labor, compulsory production, or the subordination of pleasure to production when these objectives diverge.

Now it is possible to define work in other ways than I do. No one owns the word. But an important revolutionary current, by now rooted mainly in anarchism, is explicitly anti-work in approximately the sense I’ve defined work in several essays, one of them well-known, going back at least fifteen years. There is widespread appreciation among anarchists that the abolition of the state without the abolition of work is as fatally incomplete – and as fated for failure – as the abolition of capitalism without the abolition of the state. In his early anarchist essays, Bookchin seemed (to many of us) to say so too when he condemned needless and stultifying “toil.” I of course prefer my own definitions – to which I have devoted some years of careful thought – and which I like to think identify the essentials of work while still corresponding with common usage. But if somebody else prefers a different terminology, that’s fine, as long as he makes its meaning explicit and refrains from squidlike outgushing of eccentric verbiage to muddle the matter. Words are a means to an end: the expression of meaning. If somebody wants to call what I call “the abolition of work” something else, that’s all right with me, especially if it makes the idea less scary to the timid. But whatever you call it, foragers usually had it. They were zeroworkers.

With respect to the San, Bookchin fudges the figures about working time in a crude way which is extraordinarily, and blatantly, dishonest even by the relaxed standards of his dotage. He claims that “[Richard B.] Lee has greatly revised the length of the workweek he formerly attributed to the Zhu [sic]; the average workweek for both sexes, he wrote in 1979, is not eighteen but 42.3 hours.” Now I cannot do better than I did in Friendly Fire to refute, in advance, this clumsy lie. Originally, “Lee studied the San equivalent of what is conventionally accounted work in industrial society – hunting and gathering in their case, wage-labor in ours.” In other words, as I discuss in Friendly Fire, “shadow work” – housework – was originally excluded from the comparisons Sahlins made, not only because Lee had yet to measure housework, but also because housework had always been excluded by our economists from what they measure as work because it is unpaid, and anything not measured in money is invisible to economists. This does not, as I wrote in Friendly Fire, invalidate the comparison, although it invites the more expansive comparison which Lee returned to the field to record, and which I summarized as follows: “Upon returning to the field, Lee broadened his definition of work to encompass all ‘those activities that contribute to the direct appropriation of food, water or materials from the environment‘ – adding to subsistence activity tool-making and –fixing and housework (mainly food preparation). These activities didn’t increase the San workload as much as their equivalents in our sort of society increase ours – relatively we fall even f[u]rther behind. Per diem the manufacture and maintenance of tools takes 64 minutes for men, 45 minutes for women.” San women devote 22.4 hours a week to housework, 40.1 hours to all work. American women with full-time jobs devote 40-plus hours a week to them in addition to doing 25-35 hours of housework.

After the deceptive citation to Lee, Bookchin adds, as if to clinch the point: “Irven DeVore, the Harvard anthropologist who shared Lee’s conclusions on [sic] the Bushmen in the 1960s and 1970s, has observed: ‘We were being a bit romantic. . . . Our assumptions and interpretations were much too simple.’’ Nothing in the article by Roger Lewin (quoting DeVore) suggests that DeVore is referring to the data on working time. The article’s only reference to forager working time is to summarize the original Lee/DeVore finding “that the !Kung were able to satisfy their material needs with just a few hours work each day, their effort being divided between male hunting and female gathering of plant foods.” Lewin reports challenges to several aspects of the Lee/DeVore model, but none to the findings on working time.

Lee studied the !Kung San of the Dobe area of the Kalahari. Jiri Tanaka studied another group of San in the ¹ Kade area of the Kalahari in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. His figures on working time, though slightly higher than Lee’s, in general provide independent support for the primitive-zeroworker thesis. The daily average of time away from camp, hunting and gathering, is 4 hours and 39 minutes; this includes breaks, as “the sun’s rays beat down mercilessly on the Kalahari most of the year, [so] the San often stop to rest in the shade during their day’s work . . . ” In-camp chores add about two hours a day. That makes for a workweek of 46 hours and 33 minutes, a bit higher than Lee’s estimate (44.5 hours for men, 40.1 hours for women). Tanaka is Japanese, from a nation of workaholics. It is unlikely he was subject to the counter-cultural influences which Bookchin improbably blames for the primitive-affluence theory. Tanaka did not come to the Kalahari as a believer in that theory: the figure he arrived at “is less than [he] expected.”

So far as I can tell, none of the Director’s cited sources overturns or even qualifies the primitive-zerowork thesis. The Lewin article I have already dealt with. Wilmsen’s polemic Land Filled with Flies is a fierce critique of most aspects of the Lee/DeVore model, but does not address forager working time. Headland’s review of Wilmsen, “Paradise Revised,” after mentioning Lee’s contention that “the Dobe !Kung were able to supply their needs easily by working only two or three hours a day,” goes on to make the point that Lee’s original “calculations of the amount of work the !Kung devoted to subsistence ignored the time spent in preparing food, which turned out to be substantial.” Headland does not say how much time devoted to food preparation he considers substantial, but there is no reason to think that the time that San foragers devote to food preparation (about two hours a day) is much different from the time we devote to it, factoring in shopping and eating out. Whereas the time they devote to direct food acquisition is, as we have seen, far less.

For no apparent reason, the Director fast-forwards (or –backwards) to medieval Europe: “Given the demands of highly labor-intensive farming, what kind of free time, in the twelfth century, did small-scale farmers have? If history is any guide, it was a luxury they rarely enjoyed, even during the agriculturally dormant winters. During the months when farmers were not tilling the land and harvesting its produce, they struggled endlessly to make repairs, tend animals, perform domestic labor, and the like.” The appeal to history is unaccompanied by any reference to what historians actually say about work in medieval Europe. How many weeks of work a year did Englishmen devote to subsistence in 1495? Ten! Marxist that he is, Bookchin should remember that Paul Lafargue in The Right to Be Lazy wrote that 25% of the pre-industrial French peasant’s calendar consisted of work-free Sundays and holidays. But, for peasants as for foragers – although to a lesser degree – simply counting days of work and days of leisure understates the superior quality of low-energy modes of production for the direct producers. “The recreational activities of the Middle Ages,” writes historian Keith Thomas, “recall the old primitive confusion as to where work ended and leisure began.”