Equality is the unquestionable, unexaminable Sumuum Bonum and absolute endpoint goal for the contemporary Left. James Suzman, in an essay in Aeon, lauds the “fierce egalitarianism” of the Stone Age Hunter-Gatherer Ju/â€™hoansi Bushmen, and identifies the key principle that makes their society what it is: Envy!
[R]esearch conducted among the Ju/â€™hoansi in the 1950s and â€™60s when they could still hunt and gather freely turned established views of social evolution on their head. Up until then, it was widely believed that hunter-gatherers endured a near-constant battle against starvation, and that it was only with the advent of agriculture that we began to free ourselves from the capricious tyranny of nature. When in 1964 a young Canadian anthropologist, Richard Borshay Lee, conducted a series of simple economic input/output analyses of the Ju/â€™hoansi as they went about their daily lives, he revealed that not only did they make a good living from hunting and gathering, but that they were also well-nourished and content. Most remarkably, his research revealed that the Ju/â€™hoansi managed this on the basis of little more than 15 hoursâ€™ work per week. On the strength of this finding, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins in Stone Age Economics (1972) renamed hunter-gatherers â€˜the original affluent societyâ€™.
If a society is judged by its endurance, then this was the most successful society in human history
This research also revealed that the Ju/â€™hoansi were able to make a good living from a sparse environment because they cared little for private property and, above all, were â€˜fiercely egalitarianâ€™, as Lee put it. It showed that the Ju/â€™hoansi had no formalised leadership institutions, no formal hierarchies; men and women enjoyed equal decision-making powers; children played largely noncompetitive games in mixed age groups; and the elderly, while treated with great affection, were not afforded any special status or privileges. This research also demonstrated how the Ju/â€™hoansiâ€™s â€˜fierce egalitarianismâ€™ underwrote their affluence. For it was their egalitarianism that ensured that no-one bothered accumulating wealth and simultaneously enabled limited resources to flow organically through communities, helping to ensure that even in times of episodic scarcity everyone got more or less enough.
There is no question that this dynamic was very effective. If a society is judged by its endurance over time, then this was almost certainly the most successful society in human history â€“ and by a considerable margin. New genomic analyses suggest that the Ju/â€™hoansi and their ancestors lived continuously in southern Africa from soon after modern H sapiens settled there, most likely around 200,000 years ago. Recent archaeological finds across southern Africa also indicate that key elements of the Ju/â€™hoansiâ€™s material culture extend back at least 70,000 years and possibly long before. As importantly, genome mutation-rate analyses suggest that the broader population group from which the Ju/â€™hoansi descended, the Khoisan, were not only the largest population of H sapiens, but also did not suffer population declines to the same extent as other populations over the past 100,000 years.
Taken in tandem with the fact that other well-documented hunting and gathering societies, from the Mbendjele BaYaka of Congo to the Agta in the Philippines (whose most recent common ancestor with the Ju/â€™hoansi was around 150,000 years ago), were similarly egalitarian, this suggests that the Ju/â€™hoansiâ€™s direct ancestors were almost certainly â€˜fiercely egalitarianâ€™ too.
Ju/â€™hoansi egalitarianism was not born of the ideological dogmatism that we associate with 20th-century Marxism or the starry-eyed idealism of New Age â€˜communalismâ€™. There was no manifesto of â€˜primitive communismâ€™. Rather, it was the organic outcome of interactions between people acting explicitly in their own self-interest in a highly individualistic society. This was because, among foraging Ju/â€™hoansi, self-interest was always policed by its shadow, envy â€“ which, in turn, ensured that everyone always got a fair share, and that those with the natural charisma and authority to â€˜leadâ€™ exercised it with great circumspection. This was best exemplified in the customary â€˜insultingâ€™ of the hunterâ€™s meat.
Skilled Ju/â€™hoansi hunters needed a thick skin. For while a particularly spectacular kill was always cause for celebration, the hunter responsible was insulted rather than flattered. Regardless of the size or condition of the carcass, those due a share of the meat would complain that the kill was trifling, that it was barely worth the effort of carrying it back to camp, or that there wouldnâ€™t be enough meat to go round. For his part, the hunter was expected to be almost apologetic when he presented the carcass.
Of course, everyone knew the difference between a scrawny kill and a good one but continued to pass insults even while they were busy filling their bellies. Hunters rarely took the insults to heart, and those dishing them out often did so through broad grins. This was a performance in which everyone played well-rehearsed roles. But it was also a performance with a clear purpose, as beneath the light-hearted insults lay a sharp and potentially vicious edge.
More than any other food, meat was capable of making the Ju/â€™hoansi forget their customary good manners, so it required extra diligence in distribution. It also meant that there was a risk that particularly skilled and energetic hunters might begin to consider others to be in their debt, so fracturing the delicate egalitarian balance that sustained band (or small kin-group) life. The insults ensured that individual hunters took care not to be so successful that they stood out or, worse still, began to imagine themselves to be more important than others.
There you have the essence of what Leftism stands for and has to offer: Envy and Stone Age equality.