Saturday, September 5, 2009

200. Utopia, Then and Now -- part 5

I'd like to return, at this point, to the passage from Thomas More's Utopia that I quoted a couple posts ago, where the narrator questions the wisdom of a society where everyone is treated equally, due to the danger that all incentive to work would be lost:
"On the contrary," answered I, "it seems to me that men cannot live conveniently where all things are [held in] common: how can there be any plenty, where every man will excuse himself from labor? For as the hope of gain doth not excite him, so the confidence that he has in other men's industry may make him slothful: if people come to be pinched with want, and yet cannot dispose of anything as their own; what can follow upon this but perpetual sedition and bloodshed, especially when the reverence and authority due to magistrates fall to the ground? For I cannot imagine how that can be kept up among those that are in all things equal to one another."
The narrator is, of course, stating one of the basic principles of classical economics, that all humans are ultimately, whether we like to admit it or not, motivated by self-interest, which in turn drives competition, the basis for our "free market economy." This is a view now widely, and uncritically, accepted in the post-Soviet, "free market" driven world of today. Here's one particularly clear statement of what was, until very recently, the accepted wisdom of the day, from a 1995 article by Mark Perry, entitled Why Socialism Failed:
In a capitalist economy, incentives are of the utmost importance. Market prices, the profit-and-loss system of accounting, and private property rights provide an efficient, interrelated system of incentives to guide and direct economic behavior. Capitalism is based on the theory that incentives matter!
Why do incentives matter? Human nature, for one thing: "By failing to emphasize incentives, socialism is a theory inconsistent with human nature and is therefore doomed to fail." For another, the need for maximum efficiency due to the scarcity of resources: "In a world of scarcity it is essential for an economic system to be based on a clear incentive structure to promote economic efficiency." Which leads, inevitably, to competition: "Without competition, centrally planned economies do not have an effective incentive structure to coordinate economic activity." Thus, "Without incentives the results are a spiraling cycle of poverty and misery."

The message appears to have remained more or less the same down through the centuries (Saint Thomas More was beheaded in the 16th): "men cannot live conveniently where all things are [held in] common."

Pay attention, however, to the response:
"I do not wonder," said he, "that it appears so to you, since you have no notion, or at least no right one, of such a constitution: but if you had been in Utopia with me [my emphasis], and had seen their laws and rules, as I did, for the space of five years, in which I lived among them; and during which time I was so delighted with them, that indeed I should never have left them, if it had not been to make the discovery of that new world to the Europeans; you would then confess that you had never seen a people so well constituted as they."
In other words, "yes, your objection does appear reasonable, but you are in fact wrong. Because there is another way, and I have witnessed it." Remarkably, the paragraph quoted above, with only a little tweaking, could have been written by any number of anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, etc., who have lived among the peoples I've been focusing on throughout most of this blog, the Pygmies and Bushmen of Africa. With few exceptions, these remarkable societies have, through most of their history, lived collectively, sharing most of their goods on an equal basis, shunning competition, and yet managing to survive peacefully and harmoniously among themselves, for the most part, with little if any trace of regimentation or coercion, for what now appears to be tens of thousands of years!

Here is what Colin Turnbull had to say about the Mbuti Pygmies:

But the BaMbuti are the real people of the forest. Whereas the other tribes are relatively recent arrivals, the Pygmies have been in the forest for many thousands of years. It is their world, and in return for their affection and trust it supplies them with all their needs. . .

The BaMbuti roam the forest at will, in small isolated bands or hunting groups. They have no fear, because for them there is no danger. For them there is little hardship, so they have no need for belief in evil spirits. For them it is a good world. . . (The Forest People, p. 14).

The Pygmies are no more perfect than any other people, and life, though kind to them, is not without hardships. But there was something about the relationship between these simple, unaffected people and their forest home that was captivating. And when the time came that I had to leave, even though we were camped back near the village, the Pygmies gathered around their fire on the eve of my departure and sang their forest songs for me; and for the first time I heard the voice of the molimo. Then I was sure that I could never rest until I had come out again, free of any obligations to stay in the village, free of any limitations of time, free simply to live and roam the forest with the BaMbuti, its people; and free to let them teach me in their own time what it was that made their life so different from that of other people (p. 23).

They were a people who had found in the forest something that made their life more than just worth living, something that made it, with all its hardships and problems and tragedies, a wonderful thing full of joy and happiness and free of care. (p. 26).
Here's what Louis Sarno had to say about his experiences among the BaAka Pygmies:
I don't think the Bayaka are primitive just because they don't have advanced technology. Their technology is successful for their way of life and they've never fought a war. War to me is barbaric and true primitivism. . .

I think their society is very enlightened in many aspects as compared to our lives. We have these technological accomplishments, but it doesn't really tell us how to live. Life is so needlessly complicated in modern society. It's more simple in the rain forest. The Bayaka don't need psychiatrists. They don't need Prozac.
I've already quoted similarly "Utopian" accounts of Pygmy groups, by Michelle Kisliuk (in spite of herself), and Barry Hewlett. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, in her book The Old Way, writes with glowing admiration of the !Kung Bushmen's "almost obsessive sense of equality and sharing. . . In daily matters, sharing was the way of life. Everybody shared" (p. 108).

If sharing can be a way of life for societies that have flourished for tens of thousands of years, then a need for personal incentives based on competition cannot be grounded in "human nature."

And if life in the Kalahari desert, where Bushmen groups have thrived, also, apparently, for many thousands of years, is marked by extreme scarcity, of both food and water, then Perry's assertion that "In a world of scarcity it is essential for an economic system to be based on a clear incentive structure to promote economic efficiency," cannot be true.

Why is this important? Because, as we now know, it is not only Soviet style socialism that has collapsed, but also the brand of "free market capitalism" so enthusiastically promoted by Perry -- and so many others.

Perry was able to conclude, with some confidence, back in 1995:
Capitalism will play a major role in the global revival of liberty and prosperity because it nurtures the human spirit, inspires human creativity, and promotes the spirit of enterprise. By providing a powerful system of incentives that promote thrift, hard work, and efficiency, capitalism creates wealth.

The main difference between capitalism and socialism is this: Capitalism works. [My emphases.]
This reminds me of those famous words of Gordon Gekko: "Greed is good. Greed is right. Greed works."

As we now know, to our sorrow and grief, Perry was not only wrong about societies "where all things are held in common." He was also wrong about the capitalist "Utopia" he was promoting. "Free market" capitalism does not work. Greed does not work. Despite the continual litany of complaints and rollings of the eyes we've been getting for so long from fashionably revisionist academics, there is something we can learn from those "primitive" hunters and gatherers after all. The only question is: will the message reach us in time?


Office of the Cultural Liaisons said...

Along these lines were the settlements before Jamestown where the people just lived their lives like the natives and vanished to the old world entirely. Even the concept of Democracy was developed out of the contact with the native Americans and not imported from europe as how it is now played out in history books.
Popper takes an interesting approach in his 'Open Society and it Enemies' and judges governments solely on how much personal freedom a citizen has in a culture, despite the framework.

Maju said...

Nice "anarcho-primitivist" review. I can't but share it. :)