Friends and Bullies: A Simplified History
My “history” has only three dates: the beginning, the great change, and the present.
200,000 BC – origin in paradise. We humans have existed in our present form for about 200,000 years. For most of that time, we were nomadic hunter-gatherers in small tribes. We had few material comforts, but most archaeologists and anthropologists are agreed that we had good social relations, and that may be the main ingredient for human happiness. We were friends, egalitarians, sharing everything of importance. Dominance was not compatible with survival of a hunter-gatherer tribe; anyone who persisted in dominance would soon be exiled. Sharing is still what we teach our kids, still where we turn in crisis, still who we are genetically.
To some degree, all mammals are social animals: Our first experience in life is helplessness, and being cared for by parents or other caretakers who expect nothing in return. No infant would survive without that care. But the dependency lasts longer in humans, because we are born with few instincts; we are as flexible as a computer that has not yet been programmed. We are heavily influenced by culture.
Different human cultures have existed in different times and places on Earth. Indeed, some other primates are capable of cultural change too. Robert Sapolsky made a wonderful 9-minute video (https://youtu.be/A4UMyTnlaMY) about how one tribe of baboons accidentally made a lasting change in its culture, from hierarchy of bullies to horizontal network of friends.
10,000 BC – fall from grace. Starting about 12,000 years ago, human culture changed from friends to bullies, the reverse of Sapolsky’s baboons. How did that happen? Well, the ice age ended, and farming began in several places. Farming made possible – not necessary, but possible – a switch from sharing to hoarding. That economic change has had terrible consequences, which I would broadly classify as alienation, inequality, and externalities.
Alienation. Our workplaces are dictatorships that objectify, exploit, and discard us; that’s why we hate Mondays. Separate property makes separate lives: Your loss is not my loss and might even be my gain. The rich must compete against each other to stay rich; the rest of us must compete against each other just to stay alive. Winners, seeking to justify the system, perpetuate a myth that “competition brings out the best in us,” but that’s false. Empathy is replaced with fear, hate, lies, greed, racism, sexism, wars. Even our games are competitive, though cooperative games are possible.
Dominance and corruption are common; we see them in domestic violence, workplace bullying, killer cops, prison torture, and wars based on lies to make a few rich men richer. Power corrupts the powerful, because they become insulated from and indifferent to everyone else. And power attracts those who are already corrupt: Sociopaths are the best climbers of competitive hierarchies.
Inequality. Cultures and empires have risen and fallen, economic and governmental systems have changed, but through it all we have been ruled by the rich. Wealth has been concentrated in few hands nearly all of the time since separate property began. This has been too consistent to be a result of random chance; in some simple way inequality must be inherent in property itself. I believe this is the explanation:
If we don’t share, we must trade – for labor, food, rent, interest, influence – for everything. Trade may bring profit to both traders, but more to the trader who was already in the stronger bargaining position. Thus trade, even when voluntary and honest, increases inequality. Coercion and deceit can improve one’s bargaining position still further.
The rich claim that they pay according to productivity. Even if that were true, it would be cruel and uncaring: It disregards our needs, which are not proportional to our productivity. But at any rate, the claim is false. Capitalism gives the highest pay, not to those who produce most, but to those who control most. Your boss gets more money than you only because he stands between you and the money.
Money is influence, and so the small wealthy class of bullies ends up ruling. That’s called plutocracy. In recent centuries, it has been disguised as democracy, but the rich get the public policies they want regardless of elections. And without other changes, real democracy wouldn’t be much improvement anyway: Lacking empathy, misled by the corporate press, we can’t vote wisely; 51% trample over 49%.
Externalities. Any trade is negotiated between buyer and seller. Side effects on other parties are outside (external to) their considerations. Thus they may bring great harm to their workers, the community, the ecosystem. The ecosystem is nearing collapse; that would kill us all. But the rich can’t concern themselves with that, because our economic system forces them to compete for the short-term profits that their investors want. Evidently the “efficiency and wisdom of the market” is only a myth.
NOW – extinction or rapture. Modern technology magnifies all we do, wise and unwise. The unwise is about to kill us all by nuclear war or climate apocalypse. To survive we must finally find wisdom, and switch to an entirely different way of life. Like Sapolsky’s baboons, we must turn to friendship and sharing. But that change will bring us more than just survival. Poverty, wars, fear, hate will be replaced with empathy, friendship, love, joy.
Unlike the baboons, our change probably won’t be accidental; it must be conscious and intentional. The first step surely is to get more people talking about it. Pass this essay along if you like it.
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18 July 2022, version 2.04. The leaflet fits on two sides of one page.