Jul/Aug 2023  •   Salon

History 2.0

by Thomas J. Hubschman

Photo Art by Michael Dooley

Photo Art by Michael Dooley

We have the notion, taken for granted, that despite its faults, our modern political system is the best human experience has come up with, the hard-won product of an 18th-century movement that freed us from the tyrannical rule of king and church. But the society I live in suffers high levels of depression, drug use (legal and illegal), violence, obesity, suicide, and other pathologies at a rate a so-called primitive society would find unacceptable.

Most of us are wealthy beyond the dreams of even our recent ancestors. We are also deeply unsatisfied. But we accept our miseries as if they were individual pathologies, not the inevitable consequence of our social and political environments. It's as if each of us had a unique disease, the result of personal individual experience rather than caused by pathogens we absorb from the society we live in as readily as from the air we breathe and the water we drink. We identify each pathology (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has more than a thousand such diagnoses) and apply treatment on a case-by-case basis. Even our fiction writers, who used to consider what today we regard as mental illness to be appropriate subject matter for their novels, have ceded that territory to psychiatry. There are no more Dostoevskys or Thoreaus saying out loud, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," and what we are today encouraged to see as maturity—successful coping with the real world, "mental health"—is in fact just "resignation to desperation."

How many of us know someone, maybe the one in our bathroom mirror, who is running hard after the comfortable life a middle-class standard of living is supposed to afford: time to do what we most want to do, time to be the selves we were promised financial security would afford. Only, that prospect keeps receding like the fruit from Tantalus's grasp.... Maybe when we're middle-aged... when the kids have finished college... when our promotion comes through... after we retire...

The four-day work week is still a mirage at a time when we could work much less than that and still maintain a high quality of life. Instead we work harder and longer than medieval serfs without the serfs' social and economic security. And not just those of us who have to hold down two or more "service sector" jobs flipping hamburgers or taking care of the sick and elderly. Our well-educated are also slaves to lifestyles they have no choice but to maintain—white-collar drones who have to come up with tuition for the kids' private schooling (or for costly preparation courses to get them into elite public schools), pay off a mortgage in a neighborhood inhabited by people on their own socio-economic level, buy gas for the SUV and meet the other endless expenses of life in the middle- and upper-middle classes.

Is this the best we can do? Is this what we fought multiple bloody and bloodless revolutions to attain? Is this the best we can manage after 200,000 years as a stand-alone species on the planet, supposedly the best and brightest of billions of years of evolutionary "progress"?

Only in the last couple decades are we learning the history of our kind, actually our so-called pre-history—pre-Socrates, pre-Moses, even pre-Ur, and the other ancient but in the long view quite recent civilizations making up only about 1% of our time on the planet—were more politically creative than our own and freer to boot. Our idea of history is full of architectural colossi, empires, epic poems, writing, philosophy, and most of all, technological advancement. When we dig up an old tomb, we judge its level of achievement by the amount of gold and fine jewelry buried with its dead king and the complexity of its bureaucracy. When we write the narrative of our own civilization, we judge it by the victories of our ancestors real and imagined, whose ideals and persistence won critical wars of empire and revolution. We think especially of our modern republican state, a babe of just a few hundred years, as the result of a long and hard-won liberation from monarchs and popes, humankind's finest moment.

So, why the unhappiness? What went wrong? Why are we so sick and unhappy, so filled with quiet and not-so-quiet desperation?

David Graeber and David Wengrow in The Dawn of Everything maintain that until very recently, the science of anthropology has been not much more than rehashes of Thomas Hobbes's dark view of human nature and Jean Jacques Rousseau's parable of the Nobel Savage (a phrase originally used by scholars in derision). It's been archaeology, something closer to a "hard" science than anthropology, that has opened the historical narrative to a more creative and diverse view than that of hunter-gatherer > farmer > urban industrial human. We have assumed, as we do in the case of biological evolution, progress has been at work throughout our development. We talk about a "birth" of civilization, usually starting in Sumeria and Egypt and reaching a peak in classical Greece, descending into a dark age after the fall of Rome but then reborn and made universal by the European Enlightenment, which gave us our modern liberal democracies.

Archeology, though, aided by a form of laser radar, and the fresh eye of a new breed of scholars like Graeber and Wengrow, have literally turned up civilizations throughout the world that were more democratic than ancient Athens or contemporary America, had higher standards of living than either of those, and flourished in many places on the planet, sometimes not far from autocratic warrior societies like the more recent Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and American ones. But these more recent, well-curated cultures are our template for what the very word "civilization" means: centralized, top-down government making possible the bureaucracies and armies supposedly necessary to sustain large populations. What we found when we dug up those older civilizations (and we only started doing so in an intelligent way in the 19th century) were kings buried in fine regalia, usually accompanied by wives, slaves, and flunkies sacrificed to assure the monarch's comfort in the next world.

Like the archeologists in Jorge Luis Borges's story "Tlon, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius" who live in a world where the ideal is real and vice versa, in those early digs we found what we were looking for—earlier versions of ourselves. Everything else was pre- or proto-something-or-other. And if the city-state we did uncover lacked writing, we discounted its more remarkable achievements, such as government by popular assembly, clean, well-designed living quarters, and plenty of nourishing food, not to mention art as rich as anything in our own cultures. Those were societies predating the Egyptian, Sumerian, and other dynasties of Afro-Asia by many thousands of years. Some were still flourishing when Cortez conquered Tenochtitlan, itself a more advanced city than anything in Europe at the time, though we remember it chiefly for its pyramids of human skulls.

In other words, it looks as if for tens of thousands of years, humankind led a rich, creative life full of political experimentation, trying out and sometimes maintaining for hundreds of years city-state republics, while a few miles away other people lived in top-down slave-owning societies with most of the wealth accumulated by a few. There were meat- and fish-eating polities and vegetarian ones, sybarites and puritans, women-run and male-warrior, all going on at the same time. And no neat division of their history into hunter-gatherer, farmer, urbanite. The hunters also farmed (largely a female activity because it was mostly they who could do the math to figure out the best way to make use of alluvial soil and calculate the turn of the seasons), cities that emptied out to follow the migrating herds seasonally, then returned to feast and live urban lives sometimes with a different political structure for each season. Up in the hills, meanwhile, male-dominated warrior societies duked it out to determine who got to run things—the prototype for our own electoral system of choosing among a small field of candidates, usually just two, a bloodless (usually) contest based on personal charisma and a state monopoly on violence (enforceable law).

Sounds like a hippie anarchist fantasy? It does, only the archeological evidence is pouring in to confirm such places not only existed but did so in high numbers wherever human beings gathered on the planet. It's beginning to look as if our idea of human progress is based on just one version of those political experiments, while many others were taking place for tens of thousands of years, maybe more, before we got "stuck" in the one we have been living in for the past few millennia. We assume today's is the most advanced kind of polity possible, mostly because it is so well-documented in our secular and religious scripture.

We should not forget that even at the time the American constitution was being written, "democracy" was still a pejorative term meaning not government of free people but mob rule. It had no more positive cachet than the word "communism" does for most Americans today. Democracy was something practiced by so-called savages or failed states. Yet it was those very savages who first gave Europeans the notions of freedom and universal rights with which they revolutionized continental and then American politics. In the Wendak Huron society in today's Canada, no one recognized any fixed authority over anyone else, women formed its governing backbone and enjoyed a sexual freedom our own women still have not achieved. No one went hungry or without shelter, and members were free to stay or move to another society if they so chose. Children were not physically punished, were spoiled by European standards, and yet grew up to be good citizens. And the Wendaks could hold their own in close argument against the most persistent attempts of Jesuit missionaries to make them see the sinful folly of their ways.

We know all this to be more than embroidered myth because it was well document by Europeans who found those aspects of indigenous Americans' culture abhorrent. The notion of equality, never mind of inequality, didn't exist in Europe. It was the voyages of discovery in the 16th century that introduced such concepts into the continent, and even at the time of the American constitution, the enlightened men of the day were not willing to allow for the kind of freedom the Huron and many other American societies enjoyed.

The Wendaks were not genetically different from us. Nor was there anything about their environments that fundamentally allowed for lifestyles that are beyond possibility for us. Yes, they had more access to land, and in southern latitudes humans had easier access to nourishing food (Thomas Jefferson said the Indians kept their populations low by practicing pharmaceutical abortion). They managed a medley of ways of sustaining themselves in comfort—farming, hunting, gathering, all at the same time or seasonally. And they sustained a high standard of living and self-government in various parts of the world for cities as large as 100,000 souls.

Is it far-fetched to think maybe the social values of the Wendaks made their society so successful by the standards of any modern liberal democracy? Or that those values were the reason for their society's political structure, both—the political system and its underlying values—forming a mutually sustaining loop? Maybe the congeniality of the society determines how well or badly we behave and whether we are content or live lives of quiet or not-so-quiet desperation. We flourish in one kind of polity and suffer in another, not because of how our human nature is inherently inclined, but because we respond differently based on how much freedom we enjoy along with what is expected of us.

The point the authors of The Dawn of Everything want to make is we humans have always been politically creative, experimenting with all kinds of governance, from New England-town-like assemblies on a scale unimaginable to modern political science, to autocratic societies as oppressive as any 20th-century dictator's. There has been no historical progression from primitive to modern, with true equality supposedly possible only in the earliest hunter-gatherer communities of a couple dozen families. Political experimentation has been going on from our very beginnings. And it's gone on all over the world, in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, from the arctic circle to the antipodes.

Statutory law follows moral law. There must be a consensus about what is moral and immoral in order to have an effective functioning legal system. If a society is divided about what constitutes human life, it can, for example, have no general law for when abortion is allowable. And even our current, conservative supreme court punts this issue back to the states, declaring its own incompetence to decide when life begins as an excuse to, in effect, not make a ruling, using words very similar to those of the liberal court in 1973 to avoid doing so.

But consensus must exist on a deep societal level if a nation is to make acceptable law. If the words "United States of America" mean anything, they mean not the land mass the nation claims but the ideals and assumptions it holds about the most basic notions of what a human being is and what rights and freedoms flow from said understanding. The members of the Wendak nation were described and carefully analyzed (if only through deeply prejudiced Christian, i.e., "Western" eyes) as a people who subscribed to values pretty much conforming to what we believe today to be the ideals of the American republic. But are they ideals we actually live by? And if there is a wide gap between the society we inhabit and the one that would exist if it actually embodied those ideals, is it any wonder we live such unsatisfactory lives?

I used to think nations had personalities like individuals, basic identifiable characteristics like generosity, thriftiness, love for law and order, or their opposites. That seems now a simplistic and superficial way of looking at the subject. What seems more likely is societies, whether nation-states or not, are the sum total of assumptions the members don't just take for granted but insist on seeing implemented in the structures of their polities, from the aspirational notions of their national anthems to the laws they make (or decide not to make). They insist upon and expect those rights and freedoms because of who they are, meaning not just in the present generation but out of long tradition.

We like to believe our own American values—who we are—are rooted in and passed down from the people who originally settled the land and then formed a nation based on the political philosophy expressed in our constitution: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (not the words of the actual document but supposedly summing it up), and a list of freedoms from restrictions on personal behavior (unless you were a slave, unpropertied, or a woman). But our national character goes further back than those heady days of the late 18th century. The original settlers were not just religious refugees like the so-called Pilgrims, they were adventurers commissioned by the crowns of Europe to exploit a land already occupied by other peoples. Many of those early immigrants expected to live like lords, doing little work themselves but reaping all the profits of their little fiefdoms. They were so poorly equipped for such an enterprise that at first they starved or survived only because of Native American help or, in at least one case, by eating their own dead.

Those immigrants eventually prospered, detached themselves from the mother country, and waged a campaign of genocide until they had occupied an entire continent. But the original type endured and assimilated into itself millions of new immigrants, converting them to an ethic amounting to a moral code worthy of any successful criminal organization. Along the way lip service was paid to individual rights, especially property rights, which remained sacrosanct whether the property was land, capital, or human bodies. The social and political ethic remained one of wealth accumulation in the form of individual initiative with little or no legal restraint. Politics and law followed—did not fashion—that ethic. The constitution of 1789 codified it.

There has since been pushback by those who have preferred a nation that lives up to ideals they read into words of the founding documents about equality and freedom. But when the original Constitution, fashioned out of a compromise with institutional slavery, failed, a civil war ensued out of which the original charter was rejected, whatever our pretense otherwise. The remit of today's de facto post-bellum Constitution is wider than ever, though still honored more in words than in practice.

If we think a society that is self-sufficient without extending itself by force beyond its borders, and is self-governing without a central hierarchical authority, is a pipe dream, we have only to look in our own backyard. The people of Appalachia, ranging all the way from Pennsylvania to Georgia, had a political economy similar to the ones that flourished in many parts of the world long before Sumeria or Egypt arose. Until that Appalachian culture was destroyed by timber and mining interests and reduced to the caricature of the "hillbilly"—poor, ignorant and behind the times much like the Native Americans we uprooted and slaughtered—the people of Appalachia maintained a viable, even flourishing alternative way of life to their farming or citified cousins. They had a mixed economy of hunting, gathering, and farming all at the same time. To purchase items they could not easily produce on their own, they raised a patch of rye they turned into whiskey to use as currency to buy manufactured items like shoes, pots, and guns. They lived, in fact, much as our ancestors did 20,000 and 30,000 years ago, including the trading aspect those ancestors conducted over distances daunting even with today's means of transportation.

But our image of Appalachian culture is one of bare-footed pig-ignorance, children ill-clothed and malnourished, women looking decades older than their actual age, their men shiftless addicts to the "white lightening" they produce in illegal stills. But that was not how it was before the establishment of the American republic, before the timber of the Blue Ridge and other forested areas of the Appalachians became coveted by the builders of the new republic, and later by a coal industry that removed those mountain people from land they had inhabited for generations, much as their fellow citizens had removed the native peoples who lived in similar fashion. That mixed economy—gathering of natural foods in the wild, hunting and a bit of farming for personal consumption and trade—was the standard way of living for both small and large societies for millennia deep into human history. The Appalachians probably adopted it from their native-American neighbors.

Though it doesn't usually make it into our textbooks, there is a long history of Europeans captured by native peoples returning to their captors after regaining their freedom because they were happier in those indigenous societies. Benjamin Franklin documents such incidents, and they occurred regularly throughout both North and South America. What attracted runaways to native society was its way of life, free of the stresses of wage labor, tilling the soil or even of managing inherited wealth (rich people also sometimes chose native societies over industrial urban living). You might say those runaways were claiming their birthrights as human beings to the pursuit of their happiness.

If we don't judge a society solely on the basis of its literacy and technology and its ability to impose its will on others, if we strip away some of the assumptions we have about what constitutes the necessities of life and recognize the labor and stress we must endure in order to meet those demands, we civilized people find ourselves in a moral and political no-man's-land. We assume comfort, good health, personal and social satisfaction are achieved only in large cultures governed remotely by elected representatives while the rest of us scramble to put food on the table and a roof over our head. The idea we could find fulfillment by being responsible for each other's basic well-being is either frowned upon by those who believe human nature is innately inclined toward parasitic selfishness or think government agencies should look after the underachievers while the rest of us get on with our individual rat races. The Wendat or Appalachian models of living seem impossible or even undesirable for the kind of modern world we have no choice but to inhabit.

If that's the case, though, isn't it odd so many societies for so long—long before we have written records—managed to create such egalitarian polities and make them work? It means our paradigm of democratic governance in ancient Athens (limited though it was to free male citizens) was only a matter of reinventing a political wheel practiced for thousands of years before Solon came along. Since then we seem to have become stuck in just one form of political governance, a polity assuming a state in the form we are accustomed: hierarchical, centrally controlled, heavily bureaucratic and—most important—severely alienating of its individuals from one another, restrictive of real basic freedoms, and devoid of direct personal responsibility for the well-being of its members.

The first crunch for the people of Appalachia came in 1791 when Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton decided to enforce a tax on the production and sale of whiskey on the frontier peoples who were using it as a means of exchange. When the tax was resisted, George Washington stepped in to make clear he would use violence to enforce the law, though it was clearly discriminatory against small producers like the Appalachian people and favorable to the big eastern distillers. Later came the timber rush, followed by the devastation of the habitat by the coal-mining industry, destroying what had amounted to a viable, alternative culture practiced in those mountains for more than two centuries.

The co-op I live in is a set of four high-rise and two brownstone buildings, a mini-society and microcosm of the larger American polity. And on the block where the co-op situated it forms an island of its own. The street is a mix of old and new residents, mostly new and young but with some aging Puerto Ricans, an Afro-Caribbean pastor and a tall building on the corner filled with first- and second-generation Mexican Americans. Only a few residents remain of those who lived in the co-op in 1983 when the buildings, then burned-out shells, were rehabilitated with money from Catholic Charities and offered by the city as affordable housing for teachers, municipal workers, librarians and other low-to-middle income families.

The history of co-ops as an affordable lifestyle for ordinary folk dates back to a time in this city and others across the nation when people were looking for alternative forms to the get-rich-quick-and-the-devil-take-the-hindmost ethos of the 1920s. The communist experiment of the Soviet Union, like the fascist ones in Italy and Nazi Germany, though supported by significant segments of the American population, were more radical than the average person was looking for, especially city dwellers who just wanted a roof over their head and enough food to feed their family.

Co-ops provided such a possibility. The real estate was available; it just wasn't affordable. Many buildings lay empty from abandonment. People fixed them up and moved in, at first illegally but then with city help (an empty building, after all, pays no taxes; an illegally occupied one did once it was legalized). The last time I checked there were 1,200 such projects in New York under municipal aegis as well as numerous other residential projects for working-class and lower-middle-class residents created by unions and other, semi-private organizations.

We may not be one of the self-governed city-states that existed for tens of thousands of years right up to the time of the conquistadors. But a similar dynamic remains: human beings come together for the sake of mutual support and maximum freedom. The DNA of our human species today is not significantly different from what it was 20,000 or even 100,000 years ago. What differs is our social and political environment, not our appetite for self-governance. But that social and political environment forms us as well. We rarely get a chance to start from scratch, and there are fewer and fewer places on the planet where there are spaces available to experiment with creative forms of governance.

The same holds true for the nation itself as well as for the other political structures we live in and under—state, municipal, down to individual neighborhoods and block associations. Our political and social expectations are formed by those social structures more than those structures are formed by our needs, whatever we may believe about our being a government "by the people." In that respect, to the extent we don't actively take a hand in fashioning it to our collective will, we may as well be living in a dictatorship. Thoreau warns us that merely going to the polls every couple years is no better, is actually worse, than not voting if the candidates we vote for are chosen for us. By voting for the least worst of them, we endorse that system.

Yet we pride ourselves on exercising the franchise, wearing "I voted" buttons to proclaim we have done so whether or not we did anything to make sure the candidates represent our best interests. And we continue to give our time and labor to workplaces over which we have no control, can be fired at the will of the employer, accept whatever salary (or "gig" payment) those employers choose to pay us, more and more frequently without health insurance—all the downsides of laboring in a feudal-like economic system, yet priding ourselves on our "freedom" to choose who make the laws reinforcing that system. We rarely have the time or energy to think beyond the social and political situation we are born into, reinforced by our education. Instead of being laboratories for critical thinking and self-development, our universities have become middle-class trade schools providing debt-laden serfs for a feudal plutocracy.

It needn't be this way. Our ancestors, not the revered Greeks and Romans who occupied the shores of the Mediterranean "like frogs around a pond," as Plato put it, but our real ancestors who occupied the planet for tens of thousands of years before recorded history, had better ideas, some of them the very ones to which we officially aspire. In many cases those ideas derived from shared values about direct democratic rule, restraint on economic inequality (Native Americans who acquired excessive wealth were expected to give it away), political and economic parity of the sexes, women's rights, etc. Those values were not handed down from above by written law and guaranteed by force but accepted (or not) by individual men and women as they saw fit. If they didn't like them, they moved elsewhere.

An argument can be made that just such political experiments were taking place in the original 13 colonies before the Constitution of 1789 was imposed on them. State (a word at that time still implying true sovereignty) governance was more democratic than it became after the national Constitution was ratified by wealthy white men, a document whose main purpose was to fashion a contract to serve their own interests. Benjamin Franklin, when he emerged from the sweltering hall where the Constitution was finalized, is quoted as answering the question what kind of document it was, perhaps disingenuously, "A republic, if you can keep it."

But it wasn't a republic for all the people and certainly not a democracy. The people had already been about the business of experimenting with genuine republics in the different states they inhabited. The constitution did not extend those democracies but limited them. State representatives typically served for one year and were more numerous than those provided for in the new federal House of Representatives. That meant they served smaller constituencies and could be elected from among ordinary citizens most of whom were small farmers. The Constitution adopted in 1789 reduced that representation drastically, meaning an election district might encompass thousands of square miles, for which only a rich man could afford to take time off to visit and garner votes. To this day there are entire states in the West with only a handful of seats among them in Congress.

It may be more accurate to think of those 13 former colonies as new individual nations following independence from Britain than as a homogeneous population of former colonists waiting for a federal government to organize them. We tend to emphasize the rift between North and South, ignoring all other political and social differences among those polities and their varied ways of expressing them. Economically, the northern (meaning north of Delaware and Maryland) and southern states were already economically joined at the hip, but they were on track to become very different from one another had the Constitution not bound them together. We'll never know what would actually have happened if they had not formed a federation more obtrusive than the Articles of Confederation under which they had been allied prior to the Constitution.

We are taught to look upon the diversity of those original un-united states of America as dysfunctional, proto-national, unable even to mount a common defense (despite their having just whipped the greatest empire on earth), haggling over interstate tax regimes, anarchic. But another way to see them would be as social laboratories much like the city-republics of 20,000 or 30,000 years ago. It apparently did not require a David Hume or a Thomas Jefferson to think outside the box in those very distant times.

If we are what we eat, we are also creations of the socio-political environment in which we exist, like fish in the ocean as unmindful of their watery atmosphere as we are of our airy one. In a society in which someone's word is sacred such as among the original native American nations, lowering the amount offered in trade for a beaver skin was unacceptable not just because it disadvantaged the seller but because it amounted to broken faith. We on the other hand see the law of supply-and-demand as something akin to a force of nature. We also consider rule by majority the best way to make communal decisions, i.e., the best alternative to violence in a practical world where disagreement abounds. Other societies require consensus and somehow manage to get it without the lights going out or the food markets shutting down.

If we believe ours is the only and best of the universally bad forms of governance possible, we are in effect throwing up our hands and proclaiming ourselves powerless. And that act of resignation becomes self-fulfilling. If we cannot accept the original Constitution was abrogated by the Civil War and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, we will remain trapped by a document that restrains our freedoms as much as it seems to guarantee them. We can do better. But that will require we think beyond the myth of "Western civilization," much as the Humes, Voltaires, and Lessings of the Enlightenment did thanks to the new worlds opened to them by contact with the peoples of the American continents and elsewhere. That experience inspired their imaginations and allowed Europeans to "recover their nerve," as Peter Gay puts it in his books, to stand on their hind legs like free men and women who felt a right to create their own political and social environment, as our ancestors did long before there was an Egypt, a Greece, or a Jerusalem.