Stone Age or Old Age? An Unbridgeable Chasm

To support his claim that Hobbesianism has been restored to anthropological orthodoxy, the Director cites one highly controversial book, one review of that book, and a pop science story, none of which is of very recent vintage. It is characteristic of Bookchin’s scrupulously scientific method that he affirms as the new consensus – because it suits his political purposes – the most extreme statement of one polar position (Edwin Wilmsen’s) in what is actually an ongoing unresolved controversy (see Appendix “C”). Make that “controversies”: anthropologists are debating a number of issues involving foragers, issues at least partly and often wholly independent of one another. What most exercises the specialists turns out to be what’s least relevant to anarchists. To say that “the !Kung [San] model of the foraging lifeway – small, nomadic bands – is no longer taken as typical of preagricultural human societies” does not mean much unless the components of “the” model are disaggregated. As of 1992 there were already at least 582 items published relating to the Kalahari foragers – ample evidence of controversy. And yet, insofar as any generalization is possible, even a leading revisionist, Thomas N. Headland, approvingly quoted by the Director, very recently writes that “while we now doubt that prehistoric hunter-gatherers were as affluent as Sahlins, Lee and others first suggested, we do not want to return to the pre-1966 Hobbesian idea that their lives were nasty, brutish and short . . . ” In Anarchy after Leftism I already quoted M.A.P. Renouf, writing in 1991, to the effect that “although the more idealized aspects of the Lee and DeVore model are commonly acknowledged, I think it is fair to say that no fundamental revision of it has been made.”

For present purposes, as in AAL, I am only addressing aspects of forager society of direct relevance to anarchism. Revisionist corrections mostly relate to other issues. It doesn’t matter to anarchists, for instance, if contemporary foragers are “living fossils” who have always lived as they do now, in “pristine” societies. It doesn’t matter that they have histories, including histories of trade and other interactions with agriculturalists and herders. It doesn’t matter if foragers aren’t always and everywhere the benign caretakers of the environment. It doesn’t matter if prehistoric humans were scavengers (not a revisionist thesis, by the way, but rather a quirky Bookchinist thesis). So what does matter to anarchists about these people? In two of my books I specified two crucial points:

“They operate the only known viable stateless societies.”

“And they don’t, except in occasional emergencies, work . . . ”

To these I would now add (or rather, make explicit) two more. The first – courtesy of the Director – is the egalitarian communism of hunter-gatherers:

“There is very much we can learn from preliterate cultures . . . their practices of usufruct and the inequality of equals [?] are of great relevance to an ecological society.”

And finally, a somewhat general, summary contention:

Foragers enjoy a relatively high quality of life, when the blessings of anarchy, leisure, equality and community are considered along with relative good health and longevity.

It is only certain aspects of this last contention (of those of any interest to anarchists) which some revisionist anthropologists would seriously dispute, but even if we had to bid farewell to it, the first three points would still stand.