Satisfactions of Life in a Subsistence Economy

17 March 2015

Tuesday


subsistence agriculture

One of the most memorable passages in political philosophy, quoted by many who do not know the source, is Thomas Hobbes’ description of life in a state of nature:

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, CHAPTER XIII OF THE NATURAL CONDITION OF MANKIND AS CONCERNING THEIR FELICITY AND MISERY

For Hobbes, the state of nature was no idyllic peaceable kingdom, but the arena of the war of all against all — a violent vision of anarchy at odds with many subsequent romanticized visions of anarchy.

There has always been an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with civilization that leads to a romantic and idyllic of life without civilization — Freud devoted a famous essay to this, Civilization and its Discontents, and I dedicated a significant portion of my essay “The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight” to what I call the hostile argument against civilization. During the Enlightenment Rousseau was perhaps the most famous critic of civilization who celebrated the state of nature, but not everyone was convinced:

“We were favoured with Sir James Colquhoun’s coach to convey us in the evening to Cameron, the seat of commissary Smollet. Our satisfaction of finding ourselves again in a comfortable carriage was very great. We had a pleasing conviction of the commodiousness of civilization, and heartily laughed at the ravings of those absurd visionaries who have attempted to persuade us of the superior advantages of a state of nature.”

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D: Including a Journal of His Tour to the Hebrides – Vol. 2, NEW YORK: DERBY & JACKSON, 119 NASSAU STREET, 1859, p. 449

From the point of view of indoor plumbing and modern conveniences, we might today look at the condition of Boswell and Johnson as being little raised above the state of nature, but even with all our creature comforts the seductive idea of a simpler life that is better because it is simpler continues to haunt us. The appeal is not universal, but some are so enthralled by the idea that they can only conceive of the good as the destruction of the civilized order that we have built up over the past ten thousand years. I discussed the source of this some time ago in Fear of the Future, in which I argued that, “apocalyptic visions graphically illustrate the overthrow of the industrial city and the order over which it presided… While such images are threatening, they are also liberating. The end of the industrial city and of industrial civilization means the end of wage slavery, the end of the clocks and calendars that control our lives, and the end of lives so radically ordered and densely scheduled that they have ceased to resemble life and appear more like the pathetic delusions of the insane.”

Kenneth Clark added his voice to those who question the pretensions to preferring a state of nature to civilization:

“People sometimes tell me that they prefer barbarism to civilization. I doubt that they have given it a long enough trial… they are bored by civilization; but all the evidence suggests that the boredom of barbarism is infinitely greater. Quite apart from the discomforts and privations, there was no escape from it. Very restricted company, no books, no light after dark, no hope.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, New York, et al.: Harper & Row, 1969, p. 7

A distinction should be made among the detractors of civilization, between those who look upon a violent convulsion in which civilization is brought to an end as a necessary purging of contemporary wickedness, and those who look rather to the peaceable kingdom they believe will follow after the work of the destruction of civilization is completed; these are two very different motives for welcoming the end of civilization.

Those who wish to fight in a cosmic war in order to be part of the grand work of destroying our wicked civilization — whether it be judged wicked for its wealth, its lack of religious piety, its industrialization, its pollution, its tolerance of individuals who where not tolerated in traditional regimes, or any other reason — have a distinct set of motivations from those who want to inhabit the post-apocalyptic peaceable kingdom, and I will not address these former individuals or their motivations at present, as I have dealt with them elsewhere (e.g., in Kierkegaard and Russell on Rigor).

For the rest, for those who look forward to the peaceable kingdom of a post-apocalyptic, post-industrial world in which human beings will live in harmony with nature (not, presumably, the nature of Hobbes, but rather the nature of Rousseau), what satisfactions will they expect to derive from the restoration of a subsistence economy lacking the creature comforts that we today take for granted, like flushing toilets, hot showers, clean clothes, and our choice of foods made available from the entire world?

Looking around the surrounding world of nature, what will natural man — the noble savage — do in order to seek satisfaction? He may attend to his bodily needs, using his mind and his hands to build shelter, sew clothing, hunt or gather food, and perhaps preserve some part of that food for a future time when the supply of food is less certain. When his bodily needs are met, he may choose to amuse himself, making up stories, or singing, perhaps using his mind and hands again to create a musical instrument or a painting or a piece of sculpture.

In short, natural man in search of satisfaction will begin to transform himself into unnatural man, and thus begin the long process of creating civilization. In the midst of the plenitude of nature, natural man draws upon his own resources to go beyond nature. In other words, he creates civilization as a natural response to his desires. This process, iterated over generations, gives us the traditions of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

Recently in David Hume and Scientific Civilization I quoted from an essay by Susanne K. Langer, “Scientific Civilization and Cultural Crisis.” Here is the passage I quoted:

“There is no denying that the spearhead of this ruthless social revolution is something we all… honor and desire: science. Science is the source and the pacemaker of this modern civilization which is sweeping away a whole world of cultural values.”

Of this scientific civilization Langer further observed:

“It is only rather recently that we are realizing what it has destroyed, and also the very grave fact that in its advance it is still destroying many things of undoubted and irreplaceable value — social orders of rank and status built up by a long national or local history, religious faith and its institutions, arts supported by solid and good traditions, ways of life in which people have long felt secure and useful. Such losses are not to be taken lightly.”

It would be an interesting exercise to parse the above quote in detail, as contains so many interesting assumptions, but I will desist for the time being, except to note that the “social orders of rank and status built up by a long national or local history” closely resemble the traditions described alike by Marx and Edmund Burke (and which I discussed in Globalization and Marxism).

For now, I only want to observe that the satisfactions of life in a subsistence economy — really, a subsistence economy for the great mass of humanity, and a luxury economy for the privileged few, since agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations invariably take the form of a mass of peasantry working the land and living hand-to-mouth while elite culture is reserved for the small fraction of the population with the leisure for art and literacy — are precisely those cultural institutions slowly built up over the course of ten thousand years of agricultural civilization, and rudely brought to an end by scientific civilization.

I do not doubt that, given enough time, humanity could be re-acculturated to these institutions, but I suspect that this process would require generations to become effective, and that individuals acculturated in the world today would largely reject these satisfactions of life specific to a subsistence economy — frequent religious festivals, occasional spectacular entertainments (theater, jousts, processions, etc.), etc. — as insufficient compensation for the loss of modern plumbing and the re-imposition of heavy physical labor.

Of course, what I have elsewhere called neo-agriculturalism (in Another Future: The New Agriculturalism) need not necessarily be so technologically rudimentary. I recently considered something like this in Ash Wednesday and Identity Politics, in which I quoted from one of my unpublished manuscripts:

Let us suppose, merely for our private amusement, that human civilization lasts long enough for the pendulum to swing completely, and that our civilization is slowly transformed into its opposite, from its present decadence into renewed, post-modern medievalism. This new epoch of medievalism would be an age with technology superior to our own and a more complete record of the past than we possess. Would these medievals look back upon us as the Golden Age, or upon the Middle Ages as the lost Golden Age? Would they nod while reading the Scholastics and react with horror to the existential excesses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? Would they want to preserve our pagan learning, or would they feel entirely justified in extirpating it? Upon such twists of fate do our efforts enjoy success or come to grief.

Perhaps the satisfactions of life in a subsistence economy might be rendered more acceptable if we could retain some of our creature comforts. But supposing the transition could be made with plumbing intact but our intellectual horizons severely constrained, would this be any better? If the great mass were kept more or less comfortable but deprived of the possibility of expanding their horizons intellectually, and living in a society without expanding intellectual horizons, would this be easier to accept than a straightforward return to idyllic primitivism? This is a question that could only possibly be settled by a social experiment on a civilizational scale. And it suggests another experiment: suppose we preserve the open intellectual horizon but take away the creature comforts — how would this fare as a form of social organization? And of any of these social experiments, we could ask whether they really would restore us to some sense of the presumed satisfactions of a subsistence economy, or whether this has become strictly unimaginable to us.

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One Response to “Satisfactions of Life in a Subsistence Economy”

  1. xcalibur said

    The ideal of the noble savage is attractive, especially when one has spent their life in civilization. The grass is always greener, and it’s easy to overlook all the enormous benefits of civilization in favor of the downsides – like drudgery, war, bureaucracy, social/economic disparity, etc. Returning to a more primitive lifestyle appears to be freedom from all these evils and inconveniences, but it also sacrifices all the tools and luxuries that we depend heavily on. Going camping in the Catskills, like I have, brings the difference between civilized and savage life to the forefront. It’s fun for a weekend or more, but longer than that, and I think most people would quickly run back to the civilized life.

    As for reforming civilization towards an agrarian or other ideal, that brings to mind the Khmer Rouge. It seems that social experiments and revolution result in excessive violence – the Soviet gulag and the French Revolution also come to mind.

    Personally I’ve always felt drawn to nomadic pastoralism. Not hunter-gatherers, but the nomadic lifestyle, living off of herd and trading/interacting with settled societies. If I had to live life in the past, I’d want to be a mongol. That lifestyle is physically active without drudgery (unlike farming), plenty of meat and milk in their diet, and of course a sense of freedom. Toynbee considers them to be a tour de force, a culture that rose to a high degree of challenge (the steppe environment) and expends their energy in maintaining that lifestyle; as opposed to settled peoples who have greater abundance and can be more creative.

    In another post you outlined a possible future return of this lifestyle (pastoralism in the rural areas, settled societies concentrated in cities) I wouldn’t mind seeing that develop, although space colonization is the most important.

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