Over the past few decades I have come to understand that the gradual transition to a pastoral and agriculturally-based economy, and thus the move to domestication and urbanization, was accompanied by a profound shift in our experience of being in the world, including our self-conception, our relation to other creatures, and our sense of community. On an interpersonal level we can get a sense of this transformation through the eyes of biblical myth in the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis. Here, even the consanguinity of brother to brother is betrayed by the newly competitive economic relations of farmer and shepherd.
On the societal level, this shift was most clearly evidenced by a move away from predominantly kinship-based, egalitarian relations, towards kingship and the articulation of hierarchically-based stratified social structures. Recall, as well, Yaweh of the Old Testament is a jealous god, the King of Kings, the Holiest of Holies, who commands that his people have no other god(s) before Him.
Various scholars have noted in band-egalitarian, pre-civilized hunter-gatherer societies the presence of a mute principle of trust that grounds predation — the relationship obtaining between the nomadic hunter and his animal prey. It has been further argued that this primal condition of trust was constituted by a unique combination of autonomy and dependency between hunter and hunted (Ingold, 2011). Such trust moreover was apparently destroyed with the transition from hunter-gatherer bands to pastoralism, domestication, and finally the civilized hierarchies of the late Neolithic. It was in this context that trust was replaced by the principle of domination… whereby now sedentary populations sought to bring under greater control the forces of nature, other animals, as well as their domesticated fellow citizens.
I would suggest that the feral bonds of kinship and affinity found in band-egalitarian social groups were based precisely upon such primal trust – again constituted on a mutual experience of autonomy and dependency between and among individuals within the band. This is what made basic kinship and affine relations so strong and resilient for so many millennia during human prehistory. But, as Ingold notes:
any qualitative transformation in environmental relations is likely to be manifested similarly both in the relationships that humans extend towards animals and in those that obtain among themselves in society.
If this is the case, it may provide us with a conceptual anchor for understanding our current predicament, and perhaps offer us a way of reconstituting a form of primitive anarchy within our own closely-knit communities; not as pure license to do as one pleases, but as a state of affairs whereby human beings relearn to live in concert, not under the thumb of princes or legislators, but with a trust grounded in a vestigial respect for one another’s natural autonomy and dependency.
It was, I wager, the loss of such primeval trust (in nature, in our prey, and in our fellow men and women) that came to define the world we now inhabit. That ancient move from nomadic hunter-gatherer lifeways to the sedentary life of the shepherd and farmer, and the subsequent birth of civilized hierarchies, turned us away from trust and towards a strategy of domination, along with its basic tools of suppression and subjugation – the construction of social laws and the “discovery” of natural laws.
We have replaced our feral awareness and primal openness to trust with an increasingly objectivizing posture of manipulation and control. And we live now with a form of hyper-domination resulting from the estrangement created by a rationalist separation of mind and body, self and world, an arrangement that fully emerged in the early modern period, evidenced now in the disembodied march of modern scientific and technological innovation. All of this has led to the thoughtless abuse and subsequent destruction of our natural habitat, along with the abnegation of our own physical embodiment in favor of a virtual, almost disembodied life. But this is perhaps understandable in a world where trust is replaced with domination, and estranged anonymity has become the life-blood of everyday existence. Our alienation from the physical world, and our own self-estrangement has become profoundly debilitating in a world racing on a clear and present trajectory toward global collapse.
As pastoralism heralded the end of the sacred game of predation and led to the domestication of wild animals, and agriculture, the domination of the earth’s generative capacity, so the social, political, and religious hierarchies of civilization have guaranteed our own domestication and domination in a world now bereft of trust. It was then and there that kinship gave way to kingship, and kingship, to the erection of legal and other proscriptive systems of social, political, and religious control. Further, it is easy to see how the possibility of trust has become increasingly problematic in a world of cities populated by isolated urban strangers, dominated by the commodification of economic relations and individual acquisitiveness, where the ‘other’ stands to profit personally from my decisions. Global capitalism itself has spelled the end of trust in a world where all economic and political activities have become (by necessity) self-regarding in the extreme.
But where, in a world governed by hierarchy, dominated by princes and presidents, characterized by control and subjugation, can there be any talk of freedom, of trust, of mutual dependency and respect. The world we now inhabit is one constituted not by personal autonomy; rather, it is one managed through restriction, prohibition, proscription, regulation, and legislation. Legislators and kings create the laws that govern; whether acquiesced to by a silent majority or dictated by the high and mighty. And in the civilized world we now inhabit those laws themselves are always paid for by the power of the purse.
This is why power and wealth have typically resided together, in the same hands, after the birth of hierarchy and the sundry institutions of control that continue to service and feed the machine of civil society. But machinations are all it really provides — machinations and the laws that bind us. So this kabuki dance you are currently watching play out in your nation’s capitol over something called the debt limit; this is just another, more contemporary version of that ancient myth demonstrating the same bad-faith, now exercised by billionaire economic shepherds, that we witnessed in the Genesis story between the newly minted sheep rancher and his brother the farmer. It highlights the reasons trust is dead along with autonomy and mutual dependency in the empire. In brief, we have become the sacrificial lamb, people, so that these gods of State may live until the last drop of blood is extracted from us and from mother earth! The only question that remains is: who will pass judgment on the legislators, princes, and kings?