Human Nature

How Hunter-Gatherers May Hold the Key to our Economic Future

We need to rethink our relationships with the workplace.

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By James Suzman

This Canaan is no promised land. But understanding the long the history of its impoverished Ju/’hoan Bushman residents may help us to map a path to the economic promised land, in which no-one need work more than 15 hours per week that John Maynard Keynes famously predicted would be realised within our lifetimes.

Canaan is a sprawling squatter settlement on the outskirts of Gobabis, a small town that services Namibia’s vast Kalahari cattle ranches. It is now home to around 4000 people. More than half of them are Ju/’hoansi, the most famous of the Kalahari’s hunting and gathering “Bushmen” peoples.

I began working in the Kalahari in 1991. Since then I have lived and worked among almost all of southern Africa’s San “Bushmen” peoples from the war ravaged !Kung and Kxoe as they dodged bullets during the last brutal phases of the Angolan civil war to the G/wikhoe forcibly removed from Botswana’s vast Central Kalahari Game Reserve in 1997.

But it is only in Canaan that I have ever felt any sense of real helplessness. And this is not just because whenever I visit the predatory gangsters who lord over Gobabis’ underbelly throng vulture-like round my truck and eyeball the cameras, camping equipment, GPS’s, tools and other treasures packed into the back. Nor is it because perennial hunger and despair in Canaan find their expression in distended bellies, wounds that never seem to heal or the deep wet tubercolutic coughs that seem to hang in the air long after the sound has past—this happens in many other places too. Rather it is because Canaan is so obviously the product of a series of technological, social and economic forces that emanate from beyond Kalahari, forces that its Ju/’hoansi residents are powerless to affect even if, ironically, understanding how their parents and grandparents made a living as hunter-gatherers may well help us to manage them.

A century ago the Ju/’hoansi were undisputed masters of this desert land. But then white farmers and colonial police arrived with their horses, guns, water-pumps, barbed-wire and cattle. They soon crushed what little resistance the Ju/’hoansi offered and claimed this land for themselves. They also quickly learnt that farming in the Kalahari Desert was labour intensive. So they formed commandos to capture “wild Bushmen”, held the Ju/’hoansi’s children hostage to ensure their parents’ obedience and meted out regular beatings to teach them the “virtues of hard work”. Deprived of their traditional lands and regarded as “childlike-like creatures of the bush”, Ju/’hoansi soon became dependent on the farmers for a place to stay and food to eat.

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When Namibia gained its independence from South Africa in 1990 technological advances meant that the farms were more productive and less dependent on labour than they had ever been before. And with a new government demanding that farmers provide proper pay and housing for their workers, they reduced their workforces to the bare minimum leaving many Ju/’hoansi and their dependents little option but to descend on squatter settlements like Canaan.

What happened on the Omaheke farms echoes broader trends transforming workplaces across the globe. Agriculture, manufacturing and, ever more, the services sector have been transformed by automation and, now, computerisation. And as a slew of recent reports make clear this trend is likely to accelerate.

For those not plagued by visions of a Terminator-style dystopia or in thrall to Jetson-like fantasies of hyper-modern convenience the most pressing challenge raised automation is the question of what people will do if there is not enough work to go around.

The same question also irked John Maynard Keynes when in the winter of 1929 he was contemplating the ruins of his personal fortune. Global stock markets had imploded and the Great Depression was slowly throttling the life out of the Euro-American economy. To remind himself of the ephemeral nature of the crisis, he penned an optimistic essay entitled “The Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”. In it he argued that within a century technical innovation and increases in productivity would usher in a golden era of leisure that would liberate us from the tyranny of the clock, and enable us to thrive on the basis of working no more than fifteen hours per week. Besides war, natural disasters and acts of God the only significant obstacle he saw to this Utopia being achieved was what he believed was our instinct to strive for more, to work and to create new wealth.

“We have been expressly evolved by nature — with all our impulses and deepest instincts –for the purpose of solving the economic problem”, he lamented. “I think with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades”.

By “mankinds’ traditional purpose” Keynes was referring to our urge to work and produce and by the “economic problem”, Keynes was referring to the axiom of economics the “problem of scarcity” which holds that we work to bridge the gap between our infinite wants and limited means.

But Keynes believed economics to be a rational science and people, on the whole, to be capable of making rational choices when presented with them. So he took the view that, save a few “purposeful money makers”, we would recognise the economic Utopia for what it was , slow down and “be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes”.

Keynes was right about improved productivity and technological innovation. They have been transformative, even more so than he imagined. According to Keynes’s reasoning, on the basis of labour productivity improvements alone we should not be working more than 11 hours a week now. But he was wrong about the golden age of leisure. Despite having the means to work much less, many of us now work as long and hard as we did before. Keynes’s grossly underestimated just how hard it would be to readjust “the habits and instincts” of “ordinary” people.

Keynes was also wrong in imagining that a golden age of leisure could only come about through advances in productivity and technology. Convinced that mankind had been on a journey of unrelenting progress since the beginning of history, he saw the 15-hour week as the culmination of hundreds of generations’ collective ingenuity and effort. What he failed to realize was that the fifteen-hour week was a reality for some of the handful of remaining tribes of autonomous hunter-gatherers, and that, in all probability, it was the norm for a significant proportion of the 200 000 year history of modern Homo Sapiens.

But Keynes can be forgiven for this. During his lifetime there was no evidence to suggest that hunter-gatherer life was anything but “nasty, brutish and short”. The idea that hunter-gatherers led an easier life than he did would have seemed too absurd to take seriously.

It was the few Ju/’hoansi that still lived beyond the reach of the white ranchers and hunted and gathered into the 1960s who torpedoed the idea that our hunting and gathering ancestors led lives of unremitting hardship. Anthropologists at the time considered the Ju/’hoansi to be the best living exemplars of how our hunting and gathering ancestors lived and so were chosen as the subjects of the first careful economic input/output studies of a hunting and gathering people. The results of these studies surprised everyone. They showed that despite the harshness of their environment the Ju/’hoansi made a good living on basis of only around 15-17 hours work per week. They spent the rest of their time on household chores, playing games, wooing lovers, crafting gifts, caring for children and telling stories.

Subsequent research showed how the Ju/’hoansi’s relaxed approach to work stemmed from their faith in the providence of their environment and their confidence in their ability to exploit it—Ju/’hoansi made use of well over a hundred plant species and were adept at hunting pretty much anything that was edible. Consequently Ju/’hoansi had an “immediate return economy” which meant they never stored foods and only ever worked to procure enough to meet their short term needs certain that there was always more to be had with a few hours of effort. This research also demonstrated how the Ju/’hoansi’s “fierce egalitarianism” underwrote their affluence by ensuring that resources flowed organically through communities so ensuring that even in the leanest times everyone got more or less enough.

The most compelling thing about this research was that it suggested that “economic problem” was not, as Keyne’s believed “the primary problem of the human race from the beginnings of time”. For where the economic problem holds that we have unlimited wants and limited means, Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers had few wants that were easily satisfied. It was for this reason that Marshall Sahlins, arguably the most influential American social anthropologist of the 20th century, redubbed hunter-gatherers “the original affluent society”.

Unsurprisingly, this simple idea briefly captured the popular imagination: “Imagine a society in which the work week seldom exceeds 19 hours, material wealth is considered a burden, and no one is much richer than anyone else”, gushed Time Magazine in an editorial about the Bushmen in November 1969, “The people are comfortable, peaceable, happy and secure…This Elysian community actually exists.”

But beyond the academy the idea of primitive affluence lost something of its broad appeal in the 1980s. The neo-liberal economic revolution and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe promised the world a new vision of capital driven prosperity that left little room for apparently whimsical alternatives. Starved of mainstream attention, primitive affluence was left to be appropriated in a crude form by “new-age” movements seeking legitimacy for radical alternatives to mainstream culture.

Just as importantly, life for the Bushmen had also changed a great deal by the 1980s. Civil wars, forced relocations and the systematic colonization of large swathes of the Kalahari by white cattle ranchers and pastoralist tribes had transformed this “Elysian community” into an underclass. Anthropologists that ventured to the Kalahari encountered a people traumatized by changes that were beyond their control, often enslaved by their neighbours and alienated from the lands that had nurtured them for thousands of generations. Their plight was too dire and their lives too squalid and bereft of hope for anthropologists to wax lyrically about “primitive affluence”. So they focused instead on the brutality of the Bushmen’s encounter with others, the racism that justified their marginalization and the social and political structures that now looked set to pinion them into perpetual poverty.

And because anthropology tuned into these other aspects of their lives, the idea of “primitive affluence” fell out of favour. Some branded it a romantic myth. Others raised questions about the accuracy of the some of the original data pointing out that hunter-gatherers suffered from occasional hardships, that the 15 hour work week didn’t apply equally to all hunter-gatherer groups and that the likes of Lee ignored time and effort domestic tasks like preparing food and fires.

But in focusing argument on these particular details they conveniently ignored the central cultural pillar of the argument which was that regardless of many hours the likes of the Ju/’hoansi worked they only worked to satisfy their immediate needs.

The early work on primitive affluence has recently been given new impetus by recent advances in genomics that have enabled us to map in increasingly greater detail the 200,000 year history of our species. These indicate that the northern Kalahari, rather than east Africa, may well have been cradle of modern Homo Sapiens. The data also suggests that this core group of Homo sapiens split into two around 150,000 years ago and while one branch restlessly expanded northwards gradually colonising the rest of the planet, the ancestors of the Bushmen remained where they were, so that by the time modern humans first set foot in South America eleven thousand years ago the Bushmen had remained in the Kalahari for 140 thousand years or more. Taken in tandem with a series of new archaeological finds it also suggested that for at least 70,000 years- and possibly considerably more, the ancestors of modern Bushmen lived in the same places and in a very similar manner to those that were still hunting and gathering midway through the twentieth century. Perhaps most importantly, the data also reveals that if we measure the success of a civilization by its longevity, then the Bushmen were by far the most successful civilization in all of human history. Given that a society’s ability to reproduce over time depends on its ability to feed itself then the key to the Bushmen’s success lay in their economic approach.

When Keynes lamented the “habits and instincts bred into us over countless generations” he invoked a vision of human nature that almost certainly had its origins in the Agricultural Revolution— probably the most important inflexion point in the history our species. For while agriculture was far much more productive than hunting and gathering and enabled periods of rapid population growth it also exposed these rapidly growing populations to a new range of catastrophic risks. These ranged from crop failure induced famines to a series of new and terrifying diseases that migrated from their livestock. As a result where hunter-gatherers like the Ju/’hoansi had an unyielding confidence in the providence of their environments, Neolithic farmers’ lives were fraught with fear of droughts, blights, pests, diseases, famines, and later raids by equally stressed strangers.

The need to mitigate these risks inspired a range of wondrous social and technological innovations from food storage techniques to systems of trade and exchange. It also conveyed a distinct advantage to those that were able to control the production, storage and distribution of resources thus giving rise to the problem of scarcity. At the same time it placed an unprecedented premium on human labour. As any farmer will tell you, how much food you get out of your land depends on how much energy you put into it. The difference now of course is that most of this energy is automated.

With the industrial revolution now having merged into the digital revolution there is a good case to be made to suggest that we have reached an inflexion point in the history of work as important as the agricultural revolution. Most of us in the world’s richest countries enjoy lives of unparalleled material abundance. We are now so well fed by the one percent of us who still work in agriculture that we throw roughly as much food into landfill every year as we consume. And with most of the rest of us working in the ever more amorphous services sector much of the work we do is aimed at keeping wheels of commerce rolling rather than ensuring that our essential needs are met.

This would be fine if we had no reason to worry that our continued preoccupation with growth and keeping everybody endlessly productive risked cannibalising our —and many other—species’ future. It also would be fine if, people like the Ju/’hoansi in Canaan had any realistic prospect of finding work. But with rural unemployment in Namibia sitting at 39.2% this is unlikely in the foreseeable future not least because as by product of increasing productivity and automation is an economy in which capital drives growth more than labour.

Yet most strategies proposed for dealing with problems like climate change and biodiversity loss aim to find more sustainable ways for us to continue to produce, consume and work as much as we do. Likewise most ideas proposed to manage automation’s impact tend focus mainly on the question of how to find replacement work for those nudged out by robots and AI.

But if our working culture is an artefact of the Agricultural Revolution and the economic problem has by and large been solved then we should take comfort from the fact that hunter-gatherers show that even if we are purposive we are more than capable of leading contented lives that are not defined by our economic contributions, that automation provides exactly the opportunity we need to rethink our relationships with the workplace, and in doing so wean us of our dangerous obsession with growth.

This is of course easier said than done as the Ju/’hoansi residents of Canaan know all too well. And if you were to ask those among them that still remember their lives as hunter-gatherers they would remind you that “their primitive affluence” depended on far more than just a willingness to make do with having few needs easily met. It also demanded a society in which people cared little for accumulating wealth and in which everyone played an active role in jealously enforcing their fierce egalitarianism.

2018 February 10

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