Updated: Jan 6, 2021
By Thomas Neuburger
I often think about the difference between life in our hunter-gatherer tribes and life after humans settled in place to farm, herd flocks and build more permanent dwellings.
There were transitions, of course, between our evolutions, not clean breaks; gradual changes, not step-wise climbs and destructions. The Old Stone Age — the time of true hunter-gatherer life, the time of tribes — became the Middle Stone Age, or Mesolithic, a period of pre-agricultural sedentary (settled-down) life in many regions.
This became by steps the New Stone Age, the Neolithic, marked by agriculture and husbandry, crops and domestic animals — but notably not at first by the force and rule of kings, priests and overlords; by the creation of haves and have-nots, the powerful few and the crawling dependent many; by the mass use of slaves and human fodder to steal the fertile fields of neighboring towns, to build the pyramids, to pile the laps of luxury with the fruit of their work.
Depending on the place, perhaps 5,000 years passed in this blessed middle period — after agriculture and before armies and serfs. And then the social world was fully transformed. One can call this a system of kingdoms and empire; or feudalism, mercantilism, and capitalism; or "communism" (which in 20th Century practice is state capitalism) — but for most of humankind it's all been the same. As the actor Richard Dreyfus once described it, we live in a world where the powerful can rightly say, "I and my kind will have our boot on the neck of you and your kind ... forever."
"Under capitalism, you sell your body for the right to live." The innovation here is "sell." Under capitalism, the latest iteration of systemic inhumanity, one is allowed to sell oneself or die by choice in destitude, whereas before, the "sale" was not a choice. You were simply taken and used.
I'm not sure there was a day since the late Neolithic when this was not the case, not a day when a small minority of our species was not fed and bathed in wealth by the mass of all of the rest, used for their labor, abused for their pleasure, forced by the many into early shallow graves so the few could live in comfort outside deeper ones for a few years longer.
I ponder that in 2021, on the cusp of what may be the beginning of the end of our longest of long paths, as the new year dawns, and the final age as well.
Will we begin our descent soon, with a sudden, market-like collapse that says the old stock prices are never coming back, that tells us our old ways — the big-screen leisured life, the smart-phone social connectedness — are coming visibly to an end?
Will Florida, for example, caught in a massive hurricane, begin, as we watch, a return to worthlessness (if worth is counted in sellable real estate), after which the nation will wake with a shock, knowing that the game of hiding behind bread (what little there is of it) and circuses (sponsored by Exxon, who want you to know they love you) is suddenly and truly over?
Or will we linger a while in this comfortable dream, trapped in the illusion that the wave that rises against us, the one we're ignoring, will never fall because it hasn't yet? Are we hoping the delay will last till only our children are left to suffer its fall?
That last a horrible thought, I know, but it crosses the mind. Is this the generation that would rather save its leisure than save its offspring? It certainly looks that way.
It's pointless to ask what will end our inhumanity. Long-term, almost nothing will, save a beneficent mutation of genes that makes us suddenly bonobos in our kindness, that removes the impulse to dominate and make war; or alternately, a collapse into tribes of fifty or so, hunters again that take care of each other, feed and heal each other, tribes lacking kings and armies because they are simply too small to support them.
But what about a short-term answer, one that can serve the portentous present moment? Can the rich, our now oppressors, be made to stand down? Will the Kochs develop a conscience, and then apply it? Will Jeff Bezos renounce his crown and break his kingdom, his Little Amazon, into local stores that serve communities instead of his Sophoclean hubris, then walk away?
Will Nancy Pelosi discover something inside herself besides the will to sell her power to buy her place? Will someone elected to progressive office decide to disrupt the Party instead of playing along, hoping their gains somehow outweigh their losses, dancing like this until the band decides to leave?
It's been 10,000 years, give or take, since agriculture handed us the ability to form large groups, gave us the surplus to feed tens, then hundreds, then tens of hundreds of thousands in nations and states.
Connected today to the largest group of all, we stand at the edge of the greatest challenge of all. Will we free ourselves at last from the masters of these groups, or submit in a final act of lemming slavery to those who own us, who would rather die unbowed on the mound of their wealth than live in quiet comfort like the classes they despise?
Will we march over the cliff for them, knowing they'll soon follow, or wake to the danger they will not let us face and break ourselves away?
Whatever happens next, whether good or ill, it needs to happen soon or not at all. Even a short delay may be much too long.