Homo sapiens is the only animal that can act as a producer as well as a consumer. Primitive women, gathering sustenance for themselves and their children, observed seeds sprouting and growing into new plants and decided to replicate the process for food. Men, familiar with the ways of herding animals from observations made while hunting, probably domesticated the first livestock. When humans put seeds in the ground or breed animals for food, we act as nature does, as producers.
We also act as consumers. Early humans hunted, cut trees for wood and foraged for food. Contemporary man ravages landscapes, taps subterranean reservoirs of oil, coal and other minerals for his insatiable appetite for energy and goods and has practically sucked the oceans clean of fish. In modern times, Homo sapiens has taken consumption of resources to a whole new level never before seen on the planet, but for most of our history, we produced what we consumed and therefore lived in a sustainable balance with nature. What happened?
In her acclaimed work Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, Maria Mies outlines a historical context for the predatory capitalist system that has enveloped the earth and is killing the planet. While predatory capitalism can be traced back to some of our earliest human origins (1), it is important to note that alternative models with hominids living in balance with the earth have also existed since the dawn of humanity. We are not destined to destroy ourselves and our planet, but in order to change the disastrous course we are currently on, the meek really must inherit the earth.
Most anthropologists concede that the earliest human societal bonds were those between a woman and her child. Like many other primate and mammalian species, early humans lived in matriarchal social units which consisted largely of females and their offspring, while the males of our species spent much of their time hunting game as offerings to females in exchange for sex, or fighting amongst themselves for the privilege (2).
Females lived together in extended families and bore almost the entire responsibility of securing food and caring for their offspring by hunting small game, gathering fruit, leaves and tubers and eventually tilling the soil to grow crops. As men hunted, the technologies they developed included spears, arrows and other weaponry suited to the task. At the same time, women developed tools to aid in planting and gathering, baskets, digging sticks and small hand tools for cleaning hides and chopping. While men honed their skills with weapons, women tilled the earth and provided for their young.
In many cultures across the globe, many of which continue to exist to this day, males eventually assimilated themselves into peaceful family units and a wider community, using their skills with weapons to provide meat and protect their families and communities. Many indigenous cultures including Aboriginal tribes in Australia, Africa, the Americas and Amazonia thrived relatively peacefully following this apparently natural human mode of existence until colonialism subjugated their peoples and cultures in the name of “civilizing” the “savages.”
While most early cultures lead peaceful subsistence existences, in a few instances, human males discovered they could use their expertise with weapons to intimidate and gain dominance over their fellow human beings. In the early days, militarily adept men warded off rivals for women and used their powers of persuasion to subjugate others to do their bidding. From a production standpoint, the dominant male could use the productive capacities of both males and females under his control to accumulate wealth for himself. The powerful accumulated crops, livestock, women and children. Ultimately, the wealth bred more wealth, and power accumulated with the wealth. Eventually, the patriarchs, elevated to power on the labor of others, became kings. The Old Testament is a collection of tales about such men. Through the subjugation of women, slaves and the less powerful, the Old Testament patriarchs Moses, David and Abraham to name a few, accumulated wealth and power under the direction of their God Yahweh.
Yahweh’s followers were not alone in their actions. The ancient world at the time of Jesus was rife with outrageous class divisions with a decadent clergy and elite class indulging their every whim and accumulating obscene private wealth, while average people struggled to survive.
As Judeo Christian culture came to spread its legacy across Western Civilization, the patriarchal economic model of dominance and accumulation spread with it. The feudal economic system sanctioned and supported by the Church evolved out of and replaced the Holy Roman Empire. Kings, Popes, Archbishops, Lords and Viscounts enjoyed extraordinary lives of wealth and privilege made possible by the production of hardworking peasants, indentured labor and surfs.
Flash forward to 1776 and the dawn of capitalism. Follow global history to the current era, and one can make the argument that little has fundamentally changed over the course of the past two millennia when it comes to business as usual. The free market mantra of capitalism is that it spreads prosperity, but in reality it does not and never has. Wherever capitalism makes one group more prosperous, it does so on the backs of subjugated labor.
Initially, European imperialism fueled capitalist growth by appropriating foreign lands, resources and slave labor. With the end of slavery and the rise of industrialization capitalism’s insatiable appetite was fueled by the enclosure of common lands forcing subsistence farmers into urban factories. Contemporarily, globalization provides a new influx of resources to appropriate as corporations make deals with governments of developing nations to appropriate land and resources, once again sending a mass migration of subsistence farmers into the slums and lives of misery in factories. While Americans enjoy $2 sweaters at WalMart, those same sweaters are sewn by a human being in a factory leading a life of desperation. Even in the United States, as labor unions become ineffectual and jobs hemorrhage overseas to more easily subjugated labor pools, everyday citizens work, work and work two and often three jobs just to make ends meet if they are lucky enough to have a job at all. As average people work their menial jobs at WalMart, McDonalds, or in a slaughter house, the corporations they work for pay less than subsistence wages and get richer and richer on the backs of hardworking people.
Today we live in a world where a few people have appropriated the vast majority of the earth’s wealth through the system of capitalism. The world’s 793 billionaires have more wealth than the poorest half of the world’s population combined. 793 individuals have more wealth than 3 billion (3). Predators like billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the Wall Street Investment firm Blackstone Group make billions without producing anything of value to society. The Blackstone Group specializes in private equity investment, which means they buy other companies and trim off everything that can be squeezed out for profit. They sell off assets, layoff workers and strip a company to its bare operational bones. Then, they sell the company and take all the fruits of their pillage and plunder to line their own pockets (4).
Since the dawn of humanity, some human cultures lived in balance with nature and each other by sharing resources equitably and taking from nature only what was necessary for survival and comfort. Other cultures utilized military power to subjugate others and nature to accumulate extraordinary wealth into the hands of a few individuals. The militaristic patriarchal accumulation of wealth, which is expressed contemporarily as global free market capitalism has now spread its contagion across the globe wiping out all other economic models in its wake. The dominance of capitalism does not make it superior. All historic empires that followed the same modality eventually collapsed under their own greed. As the empire now encompasses the globe, the impending collapse will be devastating. But shining meekly in the background is a parallel history that goes largely unnoticed where quiet people go about their lives, sharing resources equitably amongst themselves, living uncomplicated lives in balance with the earth and providing hope for the future.
1- See Marie Mies (New Edition 1998). Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour. New York: Zed Books.
3- See Alan Maas (2010). The Case for Socialism. Chicago, Illinois, Haymarket Books.