The paramount invention that led to human society was sharing…
(Morton Fried, The Evolution of Political Society, 106)
It is of interest to note that members of primitive societies had neither states nor our idea of pre-eminence.”
(Eli Sagan, At the Dawn of Tyranny, 7)
We tend today to obsess over our own cultural, political, and philosophical presuppositions. We presume that our worldview — including how things should work — is (or should be) a universal human conception. Most recently, and especially in the West, we believe this so strongly that we attempt to overlay our worldview, like a template, on the rest of the human community, and expect everything to work according to our taken-for-granted assumptions, no matter how well or ill they might fit. We tend to believe that our point of view, our values, and only our values, are correct… even natural. And we bandy about the concepts of freedom, democracy, individual rights, self-determination, as if the individual person — a relatively modern concept of self as sufficient-unto-itself and independent of the world — is of paramount importance, the measure of all things good and real.
But was such a conception always the case? If not, when did it emerge? Furthermore, we take it for granted that the socio-political construct of the State is a natural organizing principle for human community (“Being-with”). And so we tend to view hierarchy — control over one another (the citizenry) — as an adjunct to some God-given right to exercise control over nature — itself conceived of as wholly separate entity from human existence. These are common presuppositions.
We fail to note that nation states — and hierarchies — did not emerge until rather late in the human story. In fact, history (the story of civilized humanity) and hierarchy emerged simultaneously only about 6,000 years ago, while modern humanity has existed for at least 30,000 years, Homo sapiens, 200,000 years, and the Homo genus, over 2,000,000 years. And all of that pre-history was without States, without formal hierarchies, and without competition for ‘resources’. Indeed, even the big distinction between nature and culture did not emerge until that fateful social transformation which accompanied the development of plow agriculture. And when did the conception of the individual, as the repository of rights and privileges, including the right to the ownership of private property emerge? And what does this all mean about our current predicament, where our State has the right of pre-eminence over all natural resources, and our imperialistic hegemony seeks to extend its control over the entire globe?
Our earliest of forebears lived simply by foraging and hunting. Skill in this regard grew naturally from their engagement within the territory they roamed. There developed a feeling for the land, reflecting a special modality of being-in-the-world — a pre-objective and intuitive dwelling. As Timothy Ingold noted:
In a recent study of reindeer herders and hunters in the Taimyr region of northern Siberia, David Anderson (2000: 116-17) writes that in their relation with animals and… the environment, these people operate with a sentient ecology. (Ingold, The Perception of the Environment, 25)
The world was not an objective fact, not an object out there to be measured, but an Other to be understood, solicited, and engaged. The territory was alive with energy. Martin Heidegger understood this as well; our modern idea of pure extension and duration, and so our commonsense notion of space/time, represented abstractions, transformations, perversions of a more primal and overwhelming experience of being — perhaps what the Pacific Islanders referred to as “mana.” For the Islanders, there was no such thing as empty space or simple, objective material extension, as was the documented case among many other pre-urban tribes and hunter-gatherer societies; their world was filled with living, animate, sentient and powerful subjectivities lurking everywhere and residing almost anywhere – in the wind, the water, the stone, or the bush. We first-worlders call it, condescendingly, animism.
Preliterate humanity seemingly made no distinctions between experiencing the world as living, having a power and motility shared with all sentient beings and even with what we would call inanimate nature. It is for this reason that pre-historic consciousness may be called participatory consciousness according to Owen Barfield (Saving the Appearances); tribal members actually could fuse with their totem animal, for example – intertwining with their environment – because from their perspective there was no substantive difference between them and the totem: they were essentially of one substance or consubstantial.
We must not be confused here. It is not as if they thought like us, only with incorrect judgments; they did not think the way we do at all. It was qualitatively a different mode of perceiving and experiencing all together. They did not see things from a detached objective perspective; indeed, we cannot say that they saw any “things” at all in the sense that we speak of things today in space. Rather they participated things. The way they experienced their world was different naturally from he way we configure the world.
Even within the tribe or clan, the phenomenon of ‘Being-with-the-other’ was not an exploitive, manipulative affair. Not only food and water were shared, but so to were sexual favors (Sex At Dawn) ~ a communal affair, not so possessive as it has become today. The life of the tribe/clan was characterized by such communitas, each participating the lives of one another. And together, participating in the larger dance of life, of being. The tribe itself, understood as a part of, and a participation in, the ‘natural environment.’
As Fried summarizes:
The paramount invention that led to the development of human society was sharing.. 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 hierarchy was undermined by the demands of sharing. (106)
So the issues characterizing and haunting our contemporary scene ~ rabid capitalism, conspicuous consumption, competition for resources, private property (and its protection), a political class, standing armies and warfare (to protect private assets of the state while stealing more), the charge to pre-eminence (imperialism), and manipulation or abuse of the environment (now understood as a mere objects); these issues can only be addressed by relooking at the role of sharing. Again, what Sagan penned in 1985 is wholly relevant today,
We who live in the midst of [a new] cold war — that latest evolution of Western politics — assume that the determination of which state is pre-eminent is an important matter in people’s lives. It is of interest to note that members of primitive societies had neither states nor our idea of pre-eminence. (7)
We desperately need to rethink the nature of community today, and the meaning of the terms ~ communism, socialism, and tribalism. But, I’m afraid it is far too late for that!