Here I will propose a foundation in support of an anarchistic approach to reconstituting human community. But any effort to understand the possibility of such an enterprise begs a prior philosophical issue: “what does it mean to be human?” and, correlatively, “what does that imply principally about human socio-political arrangements?” Such a philosophical-anthropology is my mission in this and subsequent explorations.
I begin with a confession concerning my own pre-understanding. An individual person always, already finds him or herself thrown into a world, engaged and intertwined with other vital forces there — natural, animal, and human. There is never simply a single ‘lone-ranger’ or stranger, but always a community of persons, other animals, landscapes, and special places, all reciprocally affecting and influencing one another.
Now, in terms of the earliest stirrings of human community, archeological and paleontological research has shown that the Homo genus stretches back some 2,000,000 years, Homo sapiens, 200,000 years, and Homo sapiens sapiens, roughly 40,000 years ago. The evidence we have from ethnographic field research and the archeological record strongly suggests that the worldview of the earliest humans was one of a living, breathing cosmos in which they cooperatively participated. It was not a world of dead objects occupying empty space which they manipulated, but a world alive with powerful, vital forces with which they were engaged collaboratively.
The philosopher, Martin Heidegger, well understood that our more modern scientific conceptions of pure extension and duration — and so our commonsense notions of space, time and object — represented abstractions, transformations of a more primal, overwhelming experience of being. In the Austronesian language family of the Pacific Islanders, for example, this may be what was referred to as mana, a vitality residing in all things and places — animate or inanimate, or rather, a power in which all things naturally participated.
For these Pacific Islanders, there was apparently no such thing as empty space or simple, objective material extension, and such was apparently the case for other pre-urban cultures and hunter-gatherer tribes. Rather, their world seems to have been full of living, active forces lurking everywhere and residing almost anywhere – in the wind, the water, the stone, or the bush. Such an experience of being implicated them in a powerful web of relations — of cooperation, confluence, and consanguinity. This was the basis for what our scientists have quaintly labeled animism and totemism. The implications for social relations and cohesion are immediately evident.
As Marshall Sahlins noted in his work, The Western Illusion of Human Nature,
the individual person is the locus of multiple other selves with whom he or she is joined in mutual relations of being. As members of one another, kinsmen live each other’s lives and die each other’s deaths. One works and acts in terms of relationships, with others in mind, thus on behalf of one’s child, cross-cousin, husband, clansmen, mother’s brother, or other kinsperson. In this regard… neither agency or intentionality is a simple expression of (individual will), inasmuch the being of the other is an internal condition of one’s own activity. (49)
In this light, it is understandable why, for traditional, kinship-based, simple egalitarian societies, sharing and gifting lie at the heart of community. This appears to be one of two defining characteristics among even the earliest of Paleolithic hominid groups. As Morton Fried states in his classic work, The Evolution of Political Society,
The paramount invention that led to human society was sharing because it underlay the division of labor that probably increased early human productivity above the level of competitive species in the same ecological niches. (Fried, 106)
Cultural anthropologist, Elman Service, validates this view in his own work on Primitive Social Organization, “The more primitive the society… the greater the emphasis on sharing; and the more scarce or needed the item, the greater the sociability engendered.” And as social anthropologist, Tim Ingold, confirms, what is important is “that food ‘go around’ rather than that it should ‘last out’. Whatever food is available is distributed so that everyone has a share.” The implications here for socio-political organization is apparent. As Fried summarizes:
Of almost equal importance was the concomitant reduction in the significance of individual dominance in a hierarchical arrangement within the community. In part, the structural possibility for such a hierarchy was undermined by the demands of sharing. [Even] cooperative labor parties, whether for hunting or gathering, [took] place with very little apparent leadership. (Fried, 106)
In short, this was a world that relied upon sharing, reciprocity, and egalitarian relations, not because of some articulable rational principle or abstract moral imperative, but because it was just an essential element of being there — part of the infrastructure of the genus Homo, if you will. Such a sense of participation, and the concomitant impetus to share, itself militated against the development of hierarchy in the earliest hominid communities. And that situation lasted for nearly 2,000,000 years.
There was, accordingly, a profound sense of kinship among various participants in this dance of life — among tribal members, their predators, prey, totem animals, and the geography of the territory. Even with strangers, exchange or reciprocity were cornerstones of tribal behavior. In reality, due to reciprocal inter-tribal relations, one rarely ever encountered a complete stranger. Power inhered in all places and peoples, shared among diverse human and non-human forces. But things changed.
With the beginnings of agriculture, the domestication of animals, and the birth of literacy, suddenly everything began to look and sound different: “the stones fell silent…the trees became mute, other animals dumb.” (David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, 1996, 131) Men were now in charge of crops, animals, storerooms, as well as managing columns of numbers (the first instance of writing) that represented the king’s garrison. And standing armies were now tasked with guarding all the king’s goodies. It was in this moment, that history and hierarchy emerged with terror and teeth already bared. The city came into its own, servitude ensued, and the modern State was born. But there remained a mysterious longing, a not-so-faded memory-trace of a time before hierarchy, before domestication, before historical consciousness, as we find echoed in the archaic Mesopotamian tragedy of Gilgamesh, the presumed king of the Sumerian city, Uruk (See Marvin Bram, The Recovery of the West).
In conclusion, it appears that life in the prehistoric nomadic tribes and early Neolithic villages was profoundly different than that after the birth of hierarchy and the emergence of historical urban culture. Participation, exchange, and reciprocity held sway in those pre-civilized, prehistoric settings — socially, politically, and metaphysically. Yet, this was not participation in our sense of choosing to be involved (or not) with others, but rather as an involuntary given — that is to say, always, already being-outside oneself, being other-than oneself — immersed in a powerful and intentional universe; more than an ego locked up in a bag of skin, magically connected to the world one co-inhabits with diverse forces and other subjectivities.
In the pre-urban clan, the individual lived ecstatically, whether on the hunt, wandering in the territory, or absorbed in the life of one’s fellow clansmen and women. Lucien Levy-Bruhl named this “participation-mystique.”
In the collective representations of primitive mentality, objects can be…something other than themselves… they give forth and they receive mystic powers, virtues, qualities, influences which make themselves felt outside, without ceasing to remain where they are.
Owen Barfield, the twentieth century British philosopher and poet, termed this “original participation,” where our now common-sense distinction between subject and object is blurred, if not yet substantively undeveloped; where one’s engagement or intertwining (Merleau-Ponty) with nature is determinative and over-riding.
It seems, however, that the development of plow-agriculture changed all that. On the heels of large-scale cultivation of the land, and the concomitant rise of historical, urban culture, along came the loss of primal integration within a living environment, forgetfulness of that sense of original participation — an awareness of the power of nature, its influence upon us, and our own attachment to territory — together with the articulation of rigid social and political hierarchies. The question now before us is as follows: “How does a modern, urban person recover that sense of openness, of belonging, of original participation? Is it possible? And how does political anarchy — viz., fundamentally leaderless social arrangements — where the group is guided by a sense of belonging and the earned wisdom of age and experience — fit into the picture?” This is the issue facing us now. (to be continued!)