Sunday, July 21, 2013

Are Pre-Modern Societies Socialist?

Many assume that pre-modern society was communistic, like hunter gatherers, and these roots give us a socialist intuition. Larry Arnhart argues this simply isn't true, that hunter-gatherer societies share big game meat, but most everything else is shared communistically only within the nuclear family, other things are more quid-pro-quo.

 This comes up a lot, as Emmanuel Todd writes interesting books about European history, as in his 1990 L’invention de l’Europe. He makes the bold claim that political ideology is the result of three things: family structure, literacy, and godlessness. In the modern age with universal literacy and godlessness, political ideologies are mainly projections of a people’s unconscious premodern family values.

 As my politics are opposite of my two siblings, my family structure clearly explains little, but perhaps that's just because I'm truly exceptional.


Jim Oliver said...

I am glad to see this because I have assumed that even in hunter gatherers where land is common property that tools and clothing, housing were individually owned. This is evidence that I am right. Agriculture is seems would make land ownership the sensible next step.

Mercury said...

Pre-modern societies were certainly tribal which probably looks socialistic from 40,000 feet but that also means they were much more wary of and hostile to outsiders. As EF notes there is always a lot more sharing going on at the nuclear (or even extended) family level and I would add, families were generally much bigger back then. It’s pretty rare these days for someone to live their entire lives in close proximity to a large number of immediate and extended family relatives but that probably described life for most people for almost all of human history. Beyond the family and tribe there wasn’t a lot of “international brotherhood of man” type thinking going on in the pre-modern era.

So, yeah I’d agree that family structure changes have driven the rise of political ideology. The whole impetus behind the social contract was to cede specific authority to the state to avoid endless cycles of family/clan blood feuds. More recently with the decline of the nuclear family, the state has been invited in or has invited itself in to fill the void. For instance, it has long been a given in Europe that grandma’s long term care is the responsibility of the government. And the “Life of Julia” marketing cartoon on Obama’s website is more or less a mass marriage proposal to American females by the federal government (I promise to have and hold you from cradle to grave…). Family structure has driven the popularization of political ideology over the long term but I don’t think that means that a given family structure today inclines an individual to a given political outlook. Very few pre-modern people thought in terms of political ideology which is why the muck racking, political philosophy spouting peasants in Monty Python’s ‘Holy Grail’ movie appear so funny. Now everyone is a political pundit (“You don’t *%$#@!! say!” quoth Falkenblog’s other readers).

“Godlessness” implies a political vacuum of some form too: when the moral and/or corporal authority of “The Church” no longer holds sway over the governance certain types of human behavior the state tends to expand its jurisdiction into those areas too. However, in many such areas the state hasn’t so much replaced religious authority as become the religious authority. The farther you go to the Left (traditionally the more-government-is-better crowd but labels are messy these days) in American politics the more directives you get about what to eat, what you can say, very specific details about how to raise your kids and of course the endless scholasticism surrounding the sins and salvation involved in your relationship to the natural environment. You’ll notice that very serious prohibitions against (what amounts to) blasphemy have recently made a big comeback too. Are we really godless or have we just updated our deities?

Today’s ubiquitous and global instant communication is probably a bigger factor than universal literacy (which is a dubious claim to make today anyway) as a driver of politics but of course this was very much less the case in 1990 when Todd wrote his book.