Atavistic Economics

An introduction to the Atavist's general approach to economics, in question and answer format. The dismal science? Only in modern times...


First, the basics: what definition of economics are you using?


By ‘economics,’ we mean the ways in which humans provide for their external needs - most importantly, food, water, and shelter.


What economic system did humans evolve to utilize?


The answer to this is obvious, and uncontested: for the vast majority of our ancestral history, humans provided for themselves by hunting and gathering, and distributed the products of their labor mostly through gifts to members of their closely-knit tribes. Primitive humans practiced what some anthropologists have called 'fierce egalitarianism' - they shared everything, because that was the best way to ensure survival. .


Didn’t that suck?


Not as much as you might think. This hand-to-mouth existence was probably not as poor and desperate as it may sound to modern people, suckled as we are on the never-ending supplies of food-ish products available at our grocery stores. After all, it was humans who supported themselves by hunting and gathering who were so successful that they spread across the entire planet, thriving in different environments because of our species’ great cognitive advantage: our inherent curiosity and problem-solving abilities, which helped us to find sustenance wherever it could be found. Stone-age hunter-gatherers worked much less than we do today, and enjoyed what some anthropologists call 'the first age of affluence.'


What was qualitatively different about stone age economics?


Anxiety. As in, less of it. True, a person born into a hunter-gatherer tribe didn’t know where their next meal would come from, but they didn't need to worry about how they would help produce what they needed to survive: all they needed to do was learn the techniques of their elders and apply themselves, and they would have the ability to help the tribe provide for itself. In the modern west, we describe things in terms of capital- capital being what you need to have in order to produce something. To provide for yourself nowadays, you need capital, either in the form of physical capital (I.e., you need to own machines for production, or factories, or, more basically, you need to own money to invest and make more money) or psychological capital (in the form of education- the knowledge you gain to make yourself more productive and valuable than others). The acquisition of this capital is a tremendous source of anxiety for our teenagers and young adults, for those of us unlucky enough not to have been born into a wealthy family: we break our backs working to get into the best schools, then to learn increasingly-specialized functions in those schools, then in working for corporations whose institutional instinct is to actively try to exploit both their employees and their customers in service of those who already have capital. Our subsistence is dependent on our corporate masters, who can fire us at any time, on the broader economic environment, which 2008 taught us can collapse at any time, and upon the vagaries of fortune: one string of bad luck could rob almost any of us of the ability to provide for ourselves and our families. In the stone-age, on the other hand, the only physical capital that was needed was the fruits of nature. We lived off of the surplus productivity of the natural world. And the only psychological capital we needed was provided for free by our elders, who actively wanted us to succeed because it would help the entire tribe. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? We didn’t evolve to go massively in debt to put ourselves in a position to provide for ourselves. We didn’t evolve to serve disinterested, shadowy, fictional corporations. We evolved to be able to provide for ourselves easily and naturally, without ulcers and sixty-hour work weeks.


What changed?


Agriculture. In certain areas around the globe, humans learned how to grow their own food. People probably first began farming casually, as a supplement to their other sources of food, and only came to depend on agriculture completely out of necessity and desperation. People who were still enjoying the first affluent age had no incentive to devote their lives to the backbreaking labour of farming. But in certain areas, hunting and gathering were producing reduced benefits, either because we had gotten too good at them and had expanded beyond the capacities of our ecosystems to sustain us, or because climactic changes were changing the environment. Agriculture sucked. It was hard, and not much fun, but those who practiced it were able to squeeze more production from the earth than hunter-gatherers. Because of this, their numbers grew. The quality of human lives had fallen, but the quantity of human lives that could be supported rose. And with that population growth, the agriculturists needed more and more land. They put the globe under the plow, squeezing hunter-gatherers out of their territories and going to war with them when they needed to. For a long time, agriculture became the normal, if not natural, economic system that most humans participated in. The capital that was most needed was fertile land, and ‘noble’ land-owning aristocrats ruled their societies. Then, we got even better at producing things, through the innovations of the renaissance and industrial revolution. But the basic problem is the same: the capital we need to be able to produce for ourselves doesn’t come for free, like it used to.


What can we do about it now?


We can’t go back to hunting and gathering. At least, not until society collapses and we’re thrown back into anarchy (half-joking there?). What we can do is collectivize. A federation of people working together can still provide many of its own needs. The easiest way to imagine this is a communal farm, collectively worked and enjoyed by a group of people- communes all around the world follow this model, to more or less success. But, to be honest, not all of us are going to be inspired by that sort of crunchy-granola save-the-world type of thing. The society we’ve grown up in has given us certain tastes and expectations that can’t be met by living off the grid. And, furthermore, any fundamental changes to society aren’t going to happen out on a farm in the middle of nowhere. We have nothing against communes, but we don’t necessarily want to live on them.


Good. I hate bugs!


So let’s imagine an urban tribe. Somewhere around 150 people, with most members working externally in a city or town, but living together and pooling their resources. Let’s say that two thirds of them are able to find decently-satisfying positions in the corporate world; positions that are monetarily rewarding and not completely soul-killing. They are able to bring in the external monetary capital that the tribe needs. Everyone else does work internal to the tribe: cooking, parenting, teaching, cleaning, etcetera. Home-making, in the true sense of the word. That way, individuals are sheltered against the possibility of losing their job- if one member gets fired, he or she will still be able to fall back on the production of the rest of the tribe while they seek a new way to be productive, either within or without the tribe. Community is the best form of insurance. Of course, this model would require a new model of urban community living, and isn’t really a possibility as things stand now. But we can work towards it.


Read more about Atavism here.