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A Brief History of the System

This is an extract from the Introduction to Darren Allen’s new book 33 Myths of the System. We’ll be publishing a few more extracts over the coming days. The full work is available as a free download here.

Our society resembles the ultimate machine which I once saw in a New York toy shop. It was a metal casket which, when you touched a switch, snapped open to reveal a mechanical hand. Chromed fingers reached out for the lid, pulled it down, and locked it from the inside. It was a box; you expected to be able to take something out of it; yet all it contained was a mechanism for closing the cover.
Ivan Illich

For hundreds of thousands of years, people lived well in peaceful, egalitarian, healthy societies, at the very least in comparison with what followed. We did not work particularly hard and the work itself (if it could be called work; pre-civilised societies don’t make distinctions between work and play), was enjoyable, meaningful and non-alienating. Activity is alienating if it makes you feel a stranger, or alien, to your own better nature, if you are forced to do it for someone else’s profit, for example, or for no good reason, or if you don’t feel ‘at home’ with its results. For most of human history (actually pre-history — properly speaking history begins with civilisation and writing) alienating work and ways of life were unknown; coercion and futility were inconceivable, as were property, religion, law, warfare, much superstition and what we could call ‘mental illness’.

The fear of immediacy, when the senses sharpen to deal with danger in the present, was part of life—because there has always been danger — but fear of tomorrow, the profound and widespread care, anxiety, and worry that modern men and women are burdened with, was unknown. Objectively it is impossible to know all this directly—but then it is impossible to know anything directly through study.

Nevertheless, we can make some reasonably reliable inferences about our pre-historic past, just as we can about the surface of the sun or the outcome of climate change. Anthropologists can objectively assess what early people were like from studying soil, bones, tools and other archaeological remains, all of which indicate how early people lived, how violent they were, how healthy, how socially stratified and even what kind of universe they conceived themselves to be in.Anthropologists can also objectively, albeit approximately, determine the earliest state of mankind by looking at how hunter-gatherers live today.

Nobody believes that foragers today are the same as those who lived twenty-thousand years ago; groups which have had no contact with the modern industrial world or with the pre-modern agricultural world no longer exist to study, but those which, at least until recently, sur-vived relatively independently all shared the attributes listed above. Naturally there is an enormous amount of variation in hunter-gatherer societies — far more than in any other kind of society — but generally the further away from civilisation, in time or space, the more egalitarianism, freedom and well-being, both psychological and social.

There still remains, of course, a vast, impenetrable void at the heart of our objective knowledge of the distant past. We will never know, objectively, how people lived, felt and perceived for the countless dark millennia before civilisation appeared, blindingly over-lit. But if objective knowledge is notoriously limited and unreliable in matters that touch on human nature, where else are we to gain understanding from?

Subjective knowledge is even more unreliable—plain deceptive in fact; it often amounts to little more than wishful thinking and emotional guesswork.That there might be another mode of experience, an awareness of life that is neither objective—based on objects ‘out there’—nor subjective—based on ideas and emotions ‘in here,’ is ruled out by the science, psychology, history, religion and art of the system and, with a language which inevitably reflects its and our concerns, almost impossible to express in ordinary speech.

This panjective mode of experience forms the foundation of the companion volume, 33 Myths of the Ego. For now it is enough to note that there is a way we can penetrate human nature without recourse to either rational analysis or guesswork, but this mode of awareness is not available to either wishful thinkers or hyper-rationalists.

The freedom and happiness of early society doesn’t mean there weren’t prob-lems—pain, frustration, hardship, danger and [increasing] violence—nor does it mean that we should up sticks and return to the trees. It means that what we call ‘progress’ has been, in terms of quality of life, peace of mind, collective joy and so on, a millennial decline.

A few things certainly have improved — technique mostly — but these are almost entirely solutions to problems caused by ‘progress’.This ‘progress’ began around twelve thousand years ago, when a catastrophe oc-curred in human consciousness and, consequently, in human society.

Again, the nature of this catastrophe, or fall, is laid out in the 33 Myths of the Ego; here we shall confine ourselves to the demonstrable effects; social stratification, violence towards women and children, hostility towards nature, warfare, fear of death, superstition, shame, sexual suppression and extreme cultural mediocrity, all of which first appeared at the same time (around 10,000 bc) and in the same place (the Middle East / West Asia) with the beginning of the process we call history, civilisation or the system.

The civilised system began with intense superstition; the belief that ideas—in particular gods and ancestors—were more real than reality. Prior to the superstitious world-view, the universe was intimately experienced as benevolent, alive and mysterious. This life inhered in certain kinds of things—trees, clouds, rivers, animals and so on—as qualities, or characters, which were then integrated into myths. These stories mirrored the psychological experience of people, or of groups of people, in much the same way as dreams do; indirectly, metaphorically and strangely.

With the coming of the superstitious era these living qualities, and the myths by which they were shared, became objectified; which is to say cut off from fluid, contextual experience and integrated into an abstract mythic system, or [proto] religion. They also became saturated with extremely crude emotions; revolving around sex, violence and, the foundation of superstition, existential fear.

Men and women had always been afraid of dangerous things in existence, but now they became fearful of existence itself, which became separated into two spheres; the reassuring, controllable known (the ideas and emotions of the self, ‘me and mine’) and its opposite, a disturbing-terrifying spectrum which ranged from the unknown (foreign people, new situations, etc.) to the unknowable (death, consciousness, nature, etc.).

The existential anxiety of superstition led, via the coercive absurdities of super-stitious shamanism, to the intense abstraction of priests and early [proto] scientists. Prior to 12,000 bc man had thought and reasoned, but now his thoughts began to take on a life of their own, began to seem more real and more important than reality, which now began to be shaped by the structure of thought. It was around this time that a series of interconnected events occurred which were to define the future of the world.

  1. Cereals were domesticated and incorporated into new agricultural societies (in the Middle East).
  2. Related to the rise of the cultivation of cereals, which are, uniquely, easy to tax (‘visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable and rationable’), small, hierarchical and centrally-managed states began to grow in the Middle East, which experienced population explosions.
  3. Larger urban areas and more intensive agriculture led to catastrophic deforesta-tion and even more catastrophic soil erosion, which led to the successive failure of the various states of classical civilisation, and to the climate of the near-east becoming drier and more hostile to human society.
  4. Writing was invented, in Sumer and Egypt, followed by the Phoenician alphabet, the principle use of which, for thousands of years, was bookkeeping; recording taxation and debt.
  5. Work became overwhelmingly unpleasant—intensely specialised, monotonous and managed. Diseases (such as flu, tb, diphtheria, smallpox, plague and typhus) became, through contact with domesticated animals, common. Life span dramatically declined as did height and general health.
  6. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, aggressive male ‘sun gods’ began to ap-pear in the pantheons of the Middle East (in Egypt and then Judea) which were conceived as being the lords or kings of other gods.These events took millennia to unfold, spread and integrate with each other, but by the time we reach the third millennium bc the Bronze-age near-east resembled the modern world in every crucial respect.

Mesopotamia, for example, was a place of widespread misery, constant warfare, ludicrous superstition, mediocre art, useful science, wasteful over-production, artificial scarcity, massive inequality (the ‘original 1%’) exploitation of society and nature, over-population, coercive rites, capital investment, standardisation, division of labour, time-pressure, usury and debt-peonage, taxation, prostitution, ill-health, wretched toil, iniquitous hierarchy, alienation, specialist professionals, slavery, devastating deforestation, soil erosion, repression of minorities, violent subjugation of women, children and outsiders, and rank insanity. This is what we call ‘the birth of civilisation’, an extraordinarily unpleasant state of affairs which everyone else on earth—the people known as barbarians—were desperate to avoid.It is possible to chart the spread of this civilisation by following the parallel spread of myths which represent or justify the new state of affairs.

These take the form of a fall from a pre-agricultural garden paradise, or age of gold, into a desacralised, sinful universe of constant toil, presided over by a male sun god (Zeus, Jahweh, In-dra, Marduk, etc.) who vanquishes a dark and mysterious female or feminine ‘devil’, usually symbolised by a snake (Typhon, Satan, Vritra, Tiamet, etc.). This Big Boss in the Sky conquered the mythos of the earth as civilised warriors and priests conquered and subjugated the freer and far more peaceful populations of Africa, Asia and Europe.The next stage in the immiseration of mankind comprised two complemen-tary-yet-antagonistic processes; the rise of Judea — the first society to recognise one ‘true’ God — and the rise of Greece—the first rational society, and one of the first in which scepticism of divinity appeared. These two events seem to be, at first glance, quite contrary, but the myths and philosophies of the ancient Greek thinkers, and those of the psychopathic old man who ruled over Judea were, in all important points, identical.

Jahweh and his Patriarchs, Plato, Aristotle and most of the writers celebrated by classical Greek and Jewish society, hated women, nature, foreigners and ordinary people, and declared that the real world—the earth that is—was devoid of the living mystery which earlier ‘backwards’ people had worshipped. Greek and Jewish myths are both comprised of psychotic child-men rampaging their way around the world, raping and murdering on the flimsiest of pretexts. We call these stories ‘classics’. Greek and Jewish societies also had a veritable obsession with law, which overtook regal—and usually despotic—whim as the means by which society, and by extension, the entire scientific universe, was to be governed.

It was through this intensely abstracted reality of the Greeks and the Jews—an abstract rational system, an abstract deity in a distant abstract heaven and an abstract, utterly impersonal, law to which all are equally sub-mitted—that what we understand as ‘science,’ was able to overtake, and then deride, superstition; and what we call ‘democracy’ supplanted monarchy. That one nightmare had been supplanted by another, essentially identical, was as difficult to perceive then as it is now.

The dismal universe of the Greeks and Jews, conceived in both cases as one of cheerless labour and exclusion from paradise, was founded on the power of severing reality from the primary technique of systemic abstraction. This went hand-in-hand with the creation or development of three secondary techniques of control, exchange and communication which revolutionised the way people related to each other and to the universe. The first technique was usurious debt, first invented by Mesopotamian kings and priests in the third millennium bc to impoverish and enslave their people, but en-thusiastically taken up by almost every ‘civilisation’ which followed.

So deeply had debt ingrained itself into the fabric of society that the religions of the Middle East began to reposition reality itself as a debtor-creditor relationship; the debtors, or sinners, being us and the creditor being the Bank of God, managed here on earth by his professional servants; accountants, managers and priests.

The second technology of control, invented by the Greeks, was money — an im-personal, indestructible, abstraction which rendered people, objects and, eventually, the entire universe as a collection of homogeneous quantities; things which could be bought and sold. It was thanks to the attitude that money engendered that Greek philosophers began to view the entire universe as a composite of discrete, rationally-apprehended particles (aka ‘atoms’) and ideas (or ‘platonic forms’), chief among them, the tragic atom — cut-off, isolated, alone — we call ‘man’.

The third revolutionary and coercive technology of civilisation, was alphabetic literacy, first developed by the Phoenicians but perfected and worshipped by the Greeks and Jews. This technique, for all its potential use and beauty, stimulated a dis-astrous change in consciousness amongst those who had access to it, who began to see inspiration not as a direct experience or mysterious flow, but as a function of memory; meaning not as an inherent quality, but as a series of words; and society not as some-thing which man has direct contextual access to, but as something which comes to him through the reading mind.

Again — as would be the case with every epochal technology which followed — almost nobody saw that the powers being gained were at the expense of faculties withering; in this case, of sensate inspiration, contextual awareness and the ineffable music of speech.These three techniques had three combined effects. Firstly they radically enhanced the separation of the individual from his or her context; as money-power requires no relationship to sustain it. Secondly, they intensified the isolated and isolating power of individual possession; as my things are no longer tied by tradition, or reciprocity to others. And thirdly, they created a belief, in all who came under the grip of debt, literacy and money, that reality is, ultimately, a mind-knowable, possessable, thing.

And so, by the time Greece ceded power to Rome (which, with the adoption of Christianity, fused Graeco-Judaism into one empire), all the basic components of a brutally subordinating mechanical civilisation were in place; intense social stratification, hostility towards the unknown, an abstract image of the universe which was taken to be real and a sense that money, mind, language and the cosmos are all similarly struc-tured—and equally significant—entities. All the consequences of such foundational attitudes were also in place; namely law and crime, armed forces and war, spectacle and boredom, religion and scientism, widespread suffering, loneliness, alienation, insanity and ecological ruin.

These components, in various forms and combinations, continued to govern the affairs of men and women for the next thousand years in Europe, Asia, large parts of Africa and, eventually, in South America.

Sometimes civilisations fell, such as Rome; an event greeted by relief and an im-provement in quality of life for ordinary people. Sometimes they were kept in check, such as Japan’s long history of successful independence, and less uncivilised social systems could then reassert themselves.

These systems, which we normally call feudal, although encouraging exploitation — sometimes extreme suffering — represented an overall improvement in the lives of ordinary people. The European medieval peasant, for example, was self-sufficient, had abundant access to common land, did non-alienating labour to an extremely high standard, and very often at an exceedingly leisurely pace, had a colossal number of holidays and had reasonably healthy social relations with his fellows, even those outside of his class. Subservience to the clock was unknown outside of monasteries, death was viewed as a lifelong companion rather than a time-obsessed ‘reaper’, madness was rarely a pretext for exclusion and even gender relations, despite many horrendous exceptions, were reasonably egalitarian.

Medieval men and women were also, particularly in the later middle-ages, an inspiring, heretical and anarchic pain in the feudal arse. There was, of course, sickness, warfare and the psychological miseries of religion, especially towards the end of the period when something like hell descended on the feudal world in Western Europe, but exploitation such as was prac-ticed before, in Imperial Rome say, or after, in Victorian England, was relatively low; poverty, the kind that, for example, modern Indians are familiar with, was relatively rare and radical rebellion, the kind that twentieth century Spanish anarchists and European hippies could only dream of, was relatively common.

All this was to change. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries a new form of the system arose; capitalism. In all essential aspects capitalism was a continuation and refinement of the civilised project that was conceived at the dawn of superstition, first made manifest in Mesopotamia and Egypt—the first societies to operate as if the people who comprise it were components of a mechanism—and then developed by Judea, Greece, Rome, China, the Abbasids, the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Spanish, the Dutch the British and the us. With each successive civilisation the social-machine was refined and improved. The organisation of classical armies, the growth and regi-mented management of city-states, the repressive institutionalisation and time-keeping of medieval monasteries, the banking systems of the renaissance; each new technique of social control added to the means by which an autonomous, mechanical, and then digital, governing system could be constructed.

From the seventeenth century onwards every step taken by the elites of Europe (particularly the new class of businessmen and technicians) was towards the creation of this self-regulating system. The industrial revolution, the management of a ‘free’ industrial workforce, the hyper-rationalisation of experience, the conversion of time into money, the proliferation and evolution of schools, workhouses, hospitals, factories, banks, armies and the modern nation state, along with their coercive techniques of surveillance and control (imposing common, standard, uniform names, measurements, currencies, religions, legal systems, urban layouts and so on) were and continue to be to this one end, the manufacture of a mechanical world. By the end of the nineteenth century it had become clear that the creation of a ‘perfect’ global system was going to lead to the total annihilation of society in short order, and so measures were taken to, firstly, protect the labour force against its onslaught and, secondly, to appease the many revolutionary movements which had sprung up in an attempt to resist their horrific fate.

The series of reforms that spanned the century between 1860 and 1960 succeeded in improving life for many, but with the deep foundations of the system ignored, and the common ground beneath those completely unperceived, the juggernaut of civilisa-tion rolled on, untroubled and undiminished—indeed in many ways strengthened by reform — until what few brakes men and women had managed to install were, at the end of the twentieth century, ‘rolled back,’ so that the system could finish its business; the amalgamation of the people, ideas, emotions, techniques, tools, objects, behaviours and ‘natural resources’ (i.e. natural life) which comprise civilisation into a single, monolithic and entirely self-directing mechanism.

Until the end of the capitalist phase of civilised progress, which lasted from approximately 1600 to 1900, the various elements of the system were more or less in-tegrated with nature, human nature and the culture that humans in groups naturally create. The advent of capitalism saw land, labour, energy and time commodified and assimilated with all the other components of civilisation into a multitude of rational-sci-entific-technological processes the sole purpose of which was the production of more output (profit, production, efficiency, etc.).

These processes, by externalising or ignoring anything not relevant to the task at hand, inevitably distorted, degraded or destroyed everything they came into contact with. Cotton mills produced more cheap cotton, while devastating local communities, schools produced more compliant workers while terminally corrupting their initiative and sensitivity, farms produced more food while stripping the soil of nutrients and eliminating the wild, gadgets produced more ‘saved time’ while multiplying the work required to build them, and so on. Every technologi-cal innovation since has solved one set of isolated problems while producing multiple sets of new problems for which more technical processes are developed to solve. Much fanfare accompanies each new solution—plastic, nuclear fission, high-speed travel, ge-netic engineering, the internet—or each new prospective solution—smart drugs, virtual reality, cybernetics, nanotechnology, nuclear fusion—while the disastrous pollution, boredom, sickness and madness which they cause are excused, ignored or exploited as new possibilities for technological progress.

By the close of the capitalist era the technical approach to life had separated itself from human culture and dominated material life on earth. Over the course of the twentieth century this dominance would spread to every aspect of human and natural experience; for the technical approach was not just restricted to the construction of powerful machines, the harnessing of new forms of energy, the refinement of methods ofontrol or the manufacture of merchandise, but was applied to the full range of natural and human life; indeed it had to be applied to everything because anything which is independent to rational restructuring, impedes or threatens output. Technical develop-ment of one aspect of the system, in one place, demands concomitant development in those aspects that supply its inputs and relieve its outputs.

A high-tech factory cannot be developed unless there are high-tech supplies, arriving at high-tech speeds and processed by high-tech employees. These employees are no longer allowed to discover their own style of work, train themselves or live the kind of life they want to, but must be entirely integrated into scientific techniques of programming proven to produce the most speed, power, efficiency, accuracy or whatever the desired output happens to be. The same pressures are applied to literally every human endeavour. Whether you are a sportsman, a potter, a programmer, a singer, a road-sweeper or a police-officer, you are not permitted to go at your own pace, to work out for yourself how to work, to create from your own experience or inspiration, to do as you please, when you please or, God-help you, to wonder why you are working as you do, to what end. Independence of thought, action or even feeling is not an option, considering the distant or long-term effects of your activity is not an option, any practice or reality which cannot be assimi-lated to techniques of maximum control, productivity and efficiency is not an option.

This is one reason why it is useless to reform, refuse or even to attempt to under-stand independent aspects of the system, in isolation from the whole. Politics, com-munication, transport, medicine, economics, academia, housing, food, entertainment, management and all work are integrated into a single system of interlocking processes. It is ultimately meaningless to speculate on how the internet has changed human life, or analyse the influence of ‘Big Pharma,’ or attempt to diagnose the problems with ‘our education system;’ just as it is ultimately futile to reform prisons, or ban plastic bags, or sign petitions; just as it is ultimately useless to oppose the domination of energy companies, medical professionals or state bureaucracy over human life by powering your house with a wood-stove, self-medicating or deleting your Facebook account and tearing up your passport.

This isn’t to say that it is meaningless, useless and futile to investigate or try to solve or circumvent these problems at all. We are, after all, about to look at thirty-three aspects of the system, each addressed individually. What is mean-ingless, useless and futile is to tackle these aspects without reference to the system as a whole into which each element is inextricably integrated; and those who defend the system understand this. They know, or they unconsciously intuit, that the system is best served by focusing on its isolated elements, which they spend their lives doing.

Such people we normally call ‘specialists.’ The system more or less forces everyone to become a specialist, to treat separate parts of the universe as objects for technical manipulation. The teacher, for example, must separate the child from his home, his society, his natural milieu and the extraordinary complexity and subtlety of his own life and character, apply fixed inputs to the child’s attention (the various books, tests and projects of the syllabus, augmented by whatever games, trips and ‘experiences’ the school or teacher can add, either officially or pro bono) in order to obtain a desired output; namely integration into the system. Doctors work in the same way, as do scientists, lawyers, social workers, politicians, managers, designers, plumbers, farmers, kitchen porters… everyone.

A world comprised entirely of such rational specialists inevitably leads to nobody knowing what the effects of their actions are or taking responsibility for them.

They aren’t trained to do so, and if they do step beyond their allotted roles, they inevitably tread on the toes of someone [else] whose entire life depends on the power they exert over their specialised task. This results in the generation of a near infinite quantity of stupid jobs, created to manage microscopic details or protect specialised power, without the interference of anyone who might know what they are doing.The system is not, nor can ever be, ruled by men and women who know what they are doing, who perceive the context or who are prepared to put non-systemic ends above the system’s proliferation of means.

In this sense, the system is entirely auton-omous and self-directed; its prime directive being the only one which an autonomous machine can conceive of; grow, expand, reproduce. Never die. Men and women own or manage various parts of the system, but the only actions which the system allows them to take are those which promote its ceaseless growth. Likewise only those who instinctively promote these actions, who have been accustomed to the systemic way of life since childhood, are promoted into positions where they can ‘freely’ make the right decisions. The system automatically creates filters to remove ‘trouble-makers’ from the path to positions of influence.

If someone who is kindly, well-meaning or intelligent ever gains power, he finds himself completely impotent before the system, which will either do everything it can to expel his useless presence, or just allow him to bash his head against a brick wall until his supporters are disappointed and abandon him.

The pre-modern phase of the system was characterised, then, by the abstracted commodification of space, time and energy. Surveyors divided up the land, clocks divided up the day and the state divided up the people, and all three were put on the market, where they were integrated into ever more sophisticated technologies of production (or manufacture) and techniques of reproduction (or ‘service’) which we normally call capitalism.

This pre-modern phase then evolved, in the first half of the twentieth century, into the modern or postmodern system we are familiar with, which seeks to commodify knowledge (or data), debt (via the process called financialisation, whereby the commodified future is manipulated and traded at hyper-speed), perception and emotion (through the virtualisation of all kinds of social interaction), matter (artificial materials, copyrighted molecules, proprietary genes, etc.) and new forms of hyper-energy (petrochemical and nuclear power); in short, the removal of every barrier between the system and the last recesses of reality.

Ultimately even our own conscious experience of our own bodies were to be incorporated (or privatised) into the world-mechanism and forced to conform to its rhythms and laws. Another notable feature of the post-capitalist world is that it increasingly takes on features of other forms of the system, such as feudalism, socialism and fascism.

Financialisation has led to enormous amounts of money sloshing around the higher levels of the system which, in turn, has led to, effectively, a feudal network of favours, kickbacks and sinecures; means to keep friends, family and other allies well remunerated while, effectively, doing nothing: Large corporations have long depended on government support via military spending, tax-breaks, tax-credits, favourable legislation, state-spon-sored r&d and bailouts during depressions and recessions; which is, effectively, a form of state-sponsored socialism for the rich.

And the system frequently demands extreme forms of authoritarianism which, particularly under duress, are indistinguishable from fascism and totalitarianism.The term ‘capitalism’ might, therefore, be useful shorthand, but it is far from accurate. The ‘capitalism’ of today is radically different to the one dissected by Marx, which is why some of his key predictions did not come to pass. He had no idea that the entire world, up to and including the psyche of everyone in it. would become a ‘means of production,’ nor that, consequently, the working-class would become almost completely subdued and domesticated.

This is partly why today’s capitalism is now frequently referred to as late-stage, or sometimes neo-liberal. But if we accept that these terms refer to the latest and greatest stage of a project which has been ongoing for at least ten millennia—if we are to understand the entire process—we need a term which encompasses it.

Although, as we shall see, it is also problematic, there is no tool better suited to the task than the system, a term which simultaneously refers to civi-lisation in toto, and the prevailing, encompassing, hyper-sophisticated, post-capitalist world-order we find ourselves in today.


  1. Elena Garcia says

    I have to agree with this author’s analysis. The key factor is profit.
    The development of a surplus that could be accumulated was the key point where it all changed from sanity to the roots of our present self-destructive insanity:

    “Cereals were domesticated and incorporated into new agricultural societies (in the Middle East).
    Related to the rise of the cultivation of cereals, which are, uniquely, easy to tax (‘visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable and rationable’), small, hierarchical and centrally-managed states began to grow in the Middle East, which experienced population explosions.”

    Once the development of cereals allowed storable, taxable surplus, suddenly there was something to be accumulated and a means for a few to live without work and accumulate wealth. Not enough for all to do this, just enough for an elite to do so.

    Wealth could then be envied, have wars fought over it and religions developed to justify the relocation of it from one pocket to another, religious hierarchies who then created religions to entrench and justify their accumulation of wealth, and everything went downhill from there.

    Cereals also required people to stay put and work rather than be nomadic. It’s hard for the nomadic to accumulate obscene wealth, because it’s hard to make it portable. You’ve got to keep a population to harvest it too, as the new elite are not going to do the hard yakker. Slaves, serfs, indentured workers… all started here.

    And of course if you have wealth, you have to leave it to someone and inheritance becomes a factor. Which means you have to make a way to control women so you know their child is definitely from your seed. Along with controlling the child so it does what you want it to.

    Methods of control become important- from marriage/ownership of women to control their reproduction, to religion and gods who will punish you if you don’t obey, to education systems to teach you to obey. And nowadays of course to the media who interpret the world for you so you will act in a predictable and controllable way, whether it be patriotic outrage that sends you off to die in a war over who controls the oil and gas someone else is making a profit over, or to teaching divisions so we don’t see that everyone is basically the same and still being ripped off by a ever-more-wealthy elite, and that if we want to change this we’d do better to work together than fight among ourselves. Divide and rule.

    Now we have got to the point where there is enough wealth for all to live in comfort- so much so that farmers are paid not to produce food, and elaborate industries developed to encourage us to buy and build products that break within 3 years so we have to continue to buy.. Automation is leading to a world where the hard yakker will be done by machines. We are at the key point of change.

    It is up to us to take the control out of the hands of the obscenely rich and redistribute the wealth to all and eliminate poverty. There is enough for us all.
    Experiments with universal basic income for all have shown that people still choose to work even if they are given enough to live on. It just liberates their creativity and ingenuity and gives them time to look after their communities, enabling volunteerism.

  2. Thank you for writing this book…which I will have to take the time to read in full later.
    I have to say, I am a little dismayed by many of the negative comments I’m finding here while glossing through the comments! Any attempt to try to give a brief history and synopsis of the human condition from prehistory to the present is going to have to assume the reader is at least somewhat familiar with background information on these subjects.
    Starting with your notes on hunter/gatherer origins, I’m not an anthropologist, but I have found this one of my subjects of interest because it just seems obvious that what is ‘natural’ in human behaviour should be closer to how we lived in that long prehistoric period, and the more we can learn about their lives and the last undisturbed hunter/gatherers should tell us how we should live today…as best we can!

    As I recollect from several decades ago, most paleoanthropologists of the 60’s and 70’s were re-assessing their thinking about human nature…specifically, are humans naturally aggressive, savage, warlike chimps or more peaceful, friendly bonobos who avoid conflict.
    What I think has happened since the 80’s is that we are deluged with an onslaught of neoliberal propaganda which has tried to re-imagine everything in politics, economics, history and philosophy to bring back the “man the savage” interpretation of human nature, because this one serves the interests of hierarchical business elites who need to justify their own extravagant wealth as deserved rewards, and explain how and why wars have become more frequent and deadly in modern times.

    So in comes the pseudoscience of Evolutionary Psychology with their luminaries like Stephen Pinker – who knows nothing about any anthropology studies himself, but knows where to find those scientists who are most inclined to publish the research that suits his purposes of justifying libertarian politics and capitalism.

    The best rebuttal to these common, often repeated tropes that I found is “War, Peace and Human Nature” a lengthy and unfortunately expensive 700 page analysis written and edited by Douglas Fry…and takes apart Pinker’s evidence piece by piece in one long chapter in the book, likely because Pinker’s book:”The Better Angels of our Nature” was still new at the time, and Pinker was all over TV, radio and print talking about his version of history using rules of game theory to explain how principles of globalized capitalism was making up better and more peaceful as opposed to our savage past. And, of course Pinker had to reinvent the past to produce his rosy picture of our future…which is looking less rosy every day now!

    So, when I see a comment about this being a ‘naive Marxist interpretation of human nature’ I’m baffled how anyone who reads stuff on this site can be totally ignorant about Marxism — especially that Marx’s influencer was his partner – Frederick Engels, who was in turn inspired by the research of one of the world’s original anthropologists – American lawyer – Lewis Henry Morgan. Sure, the “noble savage” may have been equally a trope as much as the reverse Hobbesian view of nature, but it was closer to the truth and human nature may be variable, but the truth is closer to being that selfishness and violence are in themselves adaptations for living and dealing with modern capitalistic societies, where almost all of our relationships and everything we do is monetized and either raises or lowers our social status.

    • Fair dinkum says

      Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid is worth reading as well.

  3. question says

    Why “33 Myths of the System” and “33 Myths of the Ego”?

    Why this number?

  4. MichaelK says

    I don’t want to appear too grumpy and harsh at this time of year; but, it’s surely telling that one has to go back 10,000 years to find a passable human… ‘utopia’ when we weren’t the sullied and flawed creatures we’ve become. I don’t think one can dismiss the last few thousand years of ‘civilisation’ as a mere ‘mistake’ or a system imposed by an all powerful elite and their self-serving system of exploitation and oppresseion. Perhaps we’ve just nowhere near as ‘good’ as people like to think we are? Clearly, civilisation has its attractions and benefits compared to other socio-economic systems, which don’t provide us with what we desire and dream of.

    Germaine Greer, old-style feminist, once remarked that Australia was an environmental disaster, seen from a longer perspective and the longterm carrying capacity of Australia was probably only about 50,000 humans. What is it today, twenty million? It seems, perhaps unfortunately, that a ‘return’ to the lower, pre-civilisation figure, isn’t going to happen… ‘easily.’

  5. David Horsman says

    This appears (on first scan) to be a great article despite a number of falsehoods. For example:

    “For most of human history (actually pre-history — properly speaking history begins with civilisation and writing) alienating work and ways of life were unknown; coercion and futility were inconceivable, as were property, religion, law, warfare, much superstition and what we could call ‘mental illness’.”

    That is absolutely absurd, false and a form of historical romanticism that flies in the face of both rational expectations and evidence.

    Perhaps a little rationality is a good thing.

    Why would someone read further? I will but good grief! What about those bashed in skulls at multiple site? NA FN slavery and warfare?

    Don’t start a book length argument with that sort of magical unicorn assertions. Okay? Hope that helps.

    • Robbobbobin says

      “That is absolutely absurd, false and a form of historical romanticism that flies in the face of both rational expectations and evidence.”

      It is, more or less, “early” Marx, which is that part of Marx’s intellectual development that “scientific” (sic) Marxists in the tradition of his “scientific” (but otherwise extraordinarily penetrating and valuable as well as rigorously scientific) middle period prefer skip over, except where he needed its covert idealism (anathema) to construct a pre-Popperian falsifiable hypothesis on which to base “scientific” predictions of the “arc of history” underlying the inevitability of universal socialism, and thence universal communism as the ultimate state of economic development. It’s also that part of Jewish idealism (everything in the now lost garden was both hunky and dory but a return is assured) that he dragged along behind him, willy-nilly, by virtue of his humanity and ethnicity. If a return to the ideal is not mandated by objective historical forces then the abyss is ever present, rationality is a stab in the dark and God may yet again rise from to threaten enlightenment.

      “God is great. Oh no he isn’t. Oh yes he is. Oh no he isn’t. Oh yes he is – look behind you.” Compare: “Experience is a light shone upon the path already trodden.” Anyway, who needs sourceable inscription when we have the Akashic record?

    • I’m the author. Those ‘bashed in skulls’ you mention, along with all evidence of violence, are clustered towards the end of the Palaeolithic / beginning of the Neolithic period. Before around 10,000 BC there is (with one or two debatable exceptions) no evidence for warfare. See Fry, et al. Otterbein, Thorpe, etc, etc, etc. Property, religion, slavery and mental illness were also all demonstrably ‘inventions’ of civilisation. Evidence is overwhelming. Some references in the book (no footnotes published in OffG), many more elsewhere in my work. I suggest a close reading of Zerzan, Perlman, Graeber, Sahlins, Fry, Scott, etc. Even nutters like Harari and Diamond agree that ‘agriculture’ (such as they conceive it — although see James C. Scott for a more nuanced understanding) was a colossal mistake.

      • Antonym says

        Before 10,000 BC there is little evidence of any human group behaviour, as the evidence is mostly destroyed by time & nature, apart from limited archaeology done. Also things like “mental illness” do not leave physical traces contrary to broken sculls.

        This “ancient Paradise” view of early Humanity is pure wishful thinking, with Capitalism inserted as the Biblical snake.

  6. Narrative says

    We now read more and know more.
    But what function enlightened men and women serve in the grand scheme of things?

    Presumably, we collectively should be able to know better how to govern our affairs. Alas, despite thousands of years of learning, we’re nowhere near any fair and and equitable system.

    The West preaches Justice and Democracy to the rest of the world but it is ruled by unaccountable blood thirsty cabals who are continually commuting heinous crimes against fellow humans.

    • Robbobbobin says

      “Alas, despite thousands of years of learning, we’re nowhere near any fair and and equitable system.”

      Because we have been stuck with the metaphysical bullshit of the love or wrath of God and/or our fellows – idealism rather than ‘science’, in short – for almost all of that time. Marx took a look at the ‘scientific’ alternative and gave us the only way out of that bind for the politico-economics of our capitalist times, but that was only a century and a half ago, and the intellectual basis for his historical materialism emerged, with the ‘enlightenment’, only twice as long ago as that. Love is not “all you really need”, love is just an essential informing principle. Only three centuries since the beginnings of the emergence of an informing view of the realms of Caeser and God is nothing compared to millennia of cleverly exploited misconstrual and confusion. In the matter of rendering unto Caeser what is Caeser’s and unto God what is God’s we have not yet collectively gotten anywhere near an intelligent, uncombative assessment of even just who is whom and which is which.

  7. BigB says

    So, the Second Cha’an Patriarch (Huike) said to the First Cha’an Patriarch (the Bodhidharma):
    “My mind has no peace. I beg you, pacify it for me”.

    The Bodhidharma replied: “Bring me your mind, and I will totally pacify it for you”.

    “I have been searching for my mind within, but can find no such thing”.

    “There, totally pacified”.

    If we want a counter-history of the present: we need not start with a counter-history of the past.
    It is the wrong time-frame. Only by deep-penetration into the present can we change history.

    History is a story: the socio-psychological story of mind so far. It is a version of the monomyth: the ‘Hero’s Journey’ of socio-anthropological progress. As Joe Cambell might say: this has become a Selfish Monomyth. With the advent of science and maths: the story has become a verified and scientifically justified mythopoiesis …nothing more, nothing less. Relatively recently, it has become even more monomaniacal.

    The systemic story we tell, or have had told: individual and collective; subjective and trans-subjective; is a story of reification and hypostatisation of the Holy Grail of capitalist society – the story of the uber-individuated mind. This is the systemic, institutionalised myth.

    “Show me that mind, and I will totally pacify it”.

    Deep meditative penetration of the moment shows this myth to be an imaginal (a historically justified and substantiated imaginary). The mind separate from phenomena cannot ever be found. We are not separated from anything: we inter-are …save by an age-old systemic story. All conditioned phenomena are ‘Other-dependent’. That is, dependent on all other phenomena. Nothing exists on its own – as uber-individuated – least of all ‘mind’. Everything is reliant on everything else: as a systemic interdependent interbeing. There is no mystery: except the mystification of the old systemic myth. I read from the comments that the current systemic cliches are wearing thin: becoming transparent …that we inter-are is the counter-history of the present. This, as yet, untold story had no beginning: and has no end.

    The only requirement to embody the counter-historic is to stop telling or believing the same old story. Dualism: the individuation of mind is a present-active process that requires constant refreshing of the I-conception. We change history by switching focus from the I-conceptual trans-historic myth to the present experience: the lived existential. No story required. A new counter-historic book begins, and can only ever begin …now.

    The embodied, lived experiential – as a new and unique systemic interdependent interbeing – to follow …presently.

  8. My own sense of the development of the subjective and subject human consciousness and societal structures homes in on a catastrophic past.
    Manufactured and distorted history is our currently asserted ‘prequel’ – the stories that we invoke and re-enact as reinforcement to our sense of continuity and survival in terms of power to define and control. Fight and flight operating the basis of a system of power struggle and hierarchy within a sense of broken or lost communication and identity.

    The catastrophic past was both terra forming and terror forming. The primary Gods of all peoples of Antiquity became what we now regard as planets. Because the planets are no longer configured in any of the terms that were then associated with thunderbolts of plasma discharge event, none of the mythic record is understood or accepted as relating to past human experience. Nor the cultural underpinnings of such archetype that our supposedly rational minds are built upon, embody and re-enact.

    The nature of dissociation is a denial and displacement of a split mind or personality construct.
    All the king’s horses and all the king’s men. Couldn’t put Humpty together again. To the contrary this is a basis upon which separation, or denial of relational being runs as the necessary predicate for a private minded agenda to operate as a matrix of entanglement in division under the intent and attempt of rule – through the lens of personal power. Persona is a masking of that which is denied awareness by facing away from and refusing to accept.

    The fear of the reliving of separation trauma (that are kept hidden by dictate of a narrative continuity and control) operates as an ultimately defended concealment. Mind generates its own concealment by coercive assertion (lie) and pretence (denial) as a systemic substitution for true relation. For the feared and hated is projected away from an intolerable sense of personal conflict as the perception and basis for attack on falsely flagged proxies or scapegoats.

    The mind that runs the protection racket, is the system of denial and displacement from true relation. The need and nature of having identified in the lie (by reacting as if it is true), is in inducing others to support and reinforce it – because it has no innate support in our being.

    Being inducted into a societal ‘lie’, or mythic narrative given power over direct knowing or natural relation, works the sacrifice of life to ideas and systems that are of the fear of death and loss, presenting in forms of power or protection against greater evils that are already active at an ‘subconscious’ level and can be kept out of awareness by complying and conforming to the reactive dictate of a personal ‘identity’ or strategy of survival relative to un-owned and un-faced fear.

    The function of conflict works an attempt to prevail against a feared outcome, or toward a ‘loved’ outcome. But such a love is private fantasy symbol and substitution for relational being. There is no more than fleeting fulfilment in fantasy – that drives the attempt to have it agains and sets up the system of addictive manipulation.

    I write to the freedom of the desire to know.
    The defence and taboo against knowing anything true, is the ego or system of definition, prediction and control that induces us to accept it as our own thinking. Indeed it is a self-closing box – but seeing this in act – within our own thought – is to open a perspective from outside the box.

    The virtual nature of modelled or imaged ‘reality’ is our capacity and inclination to identify in it rather than look at it. In this sense we ‘become’ a mask and fear the ‘nothingness’ beneath the mask – or indeed the exposure of the feared and hateful that identifies us as the target for the dump of hate that has to be forever reenacted to maintain the disowning of our own conflicted self.

    The denied self must by its nature as you, seek reintegration, and acceptance. In meeting denial it identifies in deprivation, scarcity and grievance – and SELF HATE!

    Regardless any understandings of how it is that hate came to replace love – and not least as the mask of a manipulative ‘love’, the undoing of a fearful and hateful system is its disinvestment and release to a freedom of realignment in living presence.

    When structure is worshipped over that which truly informs, we make a hollow shell – and from a sense of lack, fill it with evils that are then ‘lidded’ over in fear they leak and cause harm.
    But this ‘lid’ is also the release valve of personally and socially justified anger that builds and erupts in discharge events of polarised forces seeking equilibrium.

    Management of war, sickness, and debt is the nature of a world where “Everything is BACKWARDS; everything is upside down! Doctors destroy health, Lawyers destroy justice, Universities destroy knowledge, Governments destroy freedom, Major media destroys information, And religions destroy spirituality – (Michael Ellner)

    But to point the finger at the forms or agencies or personifications of a corrupted and corrupting system is to point it away from the only true opportunity for real change. Not that I hold for self hate in self-blame – but for pausing the blame-mind enough to notice its nature and its true cost.

    Only the freedom from, and discernment of, such thinking can open the recognition of the otherwise self-closing box. Mind in truth is open – but the idea it holds can seem to limit it – especially when strongly supported by emotional and physical reinforcement. The human conditioning is experienced as the human condition.

  9. Fair dinkum says

    History has taught us one important thing:
    We’ve learned nothing from history, because we continue to rush towards the precipice.
    The Truth ain’t out there.
    It’s closer than your breath>
    Philosophy with Heart.

  10. The holistic view.. non-com-part-mental-ised.. recommend Alan Watts for further perspective..

  11. This kind of speculative fantasy nonsense is great for entertaining disaffected young nihilists and forcing college students to regurgitate for an exam, but it’s of little use to people who haven’t rationalized their common sense away.

    • Paula C Williams says

      Nothing wrong with a critique of current knowledge for college students.

  12. Michael Cromer says

    For what we are about to receive – Don’t bite too hard as it may be your own tail.

  13. Antonym says

    All patriarchal Sky gods are mentioned except the biggest: Allah – strange!. Islam was and is the most effective suppressive system: permanent physical occupation of lands way beyond Mecca and Medina till today. One aspect are the Islamic taxes. For women is a lots of extra suppression. Where the only ruling kings left over located?
    Western capitalism had to leave its colonies physically under various pressures, no so for Islam. And then there was oil….

    • David Walsh says

      Allah is not the biggest sky god. Yahweh holds that honor. On a global scale Christianity far outstrips Islam in terms of warfare and permanent occupations and massacres and exterminations and suppressions of all kinds all around the world. Even today Western Christians continue to kill far more Muslims than they do us. In recent decades Western Christians have killed millions of Muslims and laid waste to a few Muslim nations.

      • Antonym says

        If you could choose, would you want to be reborn as a Christian, Jewish or Muslim girl?

        • Redge says

          You seem to be an expert on Islam. Care to write an essay?

        • Jen says

          Antonym sounds jealous that he wasn’t born Muslim so that he could do all the nasty things to Muslim women that his tiny little mind imagines all Muslim men do.

          • Fair dinkum says

            No one is ‘born’ Muslim, Jewish, Christian, American or Chinese.
            We are born HUMAN.
            Ignorance is forced upon us.

        • David Eire says

          Definitely Christian; that way I have less chance of being murdered by my father or brother to preserve family honor; and less chance of being killed by sanctions or bombs or invasion by Christians.
          Christian sanctions killed half a million Iraqi children between the two invasions.
          The way I see it Christianity and Islam are in different stages of their development. Yahweh has a few centuries head start on Allah. Comparatively and metaphorically speaking Islam to day is socially and culturally the equivalent of how Christianity was in the late Medieval period.
          The Christian body count far outdoes Islam. No comparison.

          • Jen says

            Unfortunately “honour” killings still occur in nominally Christian countries in the West, though they are often recast as forms of domestic violence or violence against women.

            Anna Momigliano, “Italy’s views on violence against women are finally changing” (November 3, 2016)

            • Antonym says

              “Honour” murders: some even happen amongst Hindus but the vast majority of these killings occur in the most patriarchal ideology around called Islam. Pakistan could be the epicentre, but don’t let facts get in the way of fake pointers

              • Jen says

                In his zeal to blame Islam for violence, brutality, backwardness and whatever other abhorrent behaviour he imagines Muslims capable of, Antonym’s comment says rather more about the state of his mind and imagination than about the reality behind honour killings in various parts of the world.

                Honour killings and similar crimes occur in impoverished communities where collectivist values are strong and collective shame, in the form of family shame or community shame, is a very significant value . Religion may be used to justify such crimes, perhaps in the hope to obtain lenient punishments for individual perpetrators and their accomplices if their cases come to trial, but the main motivation is always to uphold a family’s status or a community’s status.

                It is significant that most Muslim-majority countries are poor and have unstable politics – and in recent decades their schools and universities have been infiltrated by Saudi Wahhabi ideology or Muslim Brotherhood / Salafi ideology – but the root cause of their poverty, their instability and their violence usually turns out to be a legacy of European colonialism and ongoing foreign interference in their politics and economies.

          • Stonky says

            The Christian body count far outdoes Islam. No comparison…

            You seem very confident of your numbers. So what are they?

        • mark says

          I’ll tell you one thing, I certainly wouldn’t want to be reborn as a Palestinian of either gender in the Nazi Kikenreich.

      • Paul Carline says

        Yahweh is not the ‘sky god’ of Christianity. He was always and remains the tribal god of the Jewish people – the one they chose from the seven sons of the Canaanite supreme deity El.

        That many Christians wrongly believe ‘him’ to be also the God of the New Testament is a terrible mistake which has, among other things, allowed the monstrosity of so-called ‘Christian Zionism’ to exist.

        All this was the baleful consequence of the Christian Church taking over the whole of the Old Testament, adding it to the New Testament scriptures, and calling the whole thing “The Bible”.

        The Old Testament contains much that is of interest and relevance to Christians – in particular the multiple prophesies of the coming of the Messiah, and the wisdom that is contained in the Genesis account of creation and the so-called ‘Fall’ – but the “God of Israel” is not the same as the God Christ referred to as his “father who is in heaven”.

        • David Eire says

          You may choose to believe the god of the bible, Yahweh, is not the Christian god but I assure you most Christians of all denominations disagree with you. For me the only value the bible has is anthropological.

      • Paul Carline says

        Those “Western Christians” you refer to are nothing of the kind. They merely come from nominally Christian countries. They do not wage war in the name of Christ – unlike the Islamic jihadis.

        If Britain, the USA, Canada, Australia and the nominally Christian countries in Europe really followed the example and the words of Christ they would never wage war. Christianity is the gospel of peace and forgiveness: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you”.

        Not surprisingly, it is the most difficult religion to follow. As Chesterton noted: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried”.

        • Makropulos says

          The “nominally Christian countries” are in fact the Christian countries. If not, then there are no Christian countries.

          • Stonky says

            The “nominally Christian countries” are in fact the Christian countries. If not, then there are no Christian countries…

            Since there isn’t a country on the planet that even comes close to governing itself in accordance with the teachings of Jesus and the Bible, that’s such an obvious point that it hardly needs making. In contrast, there are quite a lot of countries that govern themselves very much in accordance with the teachings of Mohammed and the Koran.

            It always amuses me that the same people (some on this thread) will argue themselves blue in the face that self-proclaimed “Moslems” doing exactly what they are told to do by the Koran are “not true Moslems”, whereas self-proclaimed “Christians” doing exactly the opposite of what they’re told to do in the Bible are fully representative of Christianity.

            • I love the way you racists attempt to project their bias toward their detractors.
              It is you judging unequally. Your bias. Your disinformation. Your racism.
              Own it.

        • @Paul Carline
          “And Joshua fit the battle of Jericho” whereby he slaughtered every man woman and child and is hailed as a hero still. He should have been tried for crimes against humanity.

      • Makropulos says

        Shhh, David – you are departing from the latest sanctioned game. Islam is the latest designated and indeed manufactured enemy and therefore absolutely evil! Now get behind that machine gun and shoot the bastards!

        • Makropulos says

          By Islam being manufactured, I was referring to the spate of Islamic terrorist attacks that have regularly appeared over the last couple of decades, all featuring alleged actors already known to and often connected with the Western intelligence services.

    • mark says

      And for Jews there was money and usury and corruption and organised criminality.

    • You’re a victim of misinformation guilty of regurgitating it. At best.
      Either way it is racist garbage.

  14. Savorywill says

    This is a deep, reflective essay, basically on the meaning of life and where we have gone astray. I wonder if the author has any suggestions? None was apparent by the time I got to the end. Maybe what is happening with Trump is a kind of chaotic interference in this mechanistic pattern we seem to have fallen into. Trump does seem to operate as a kind of independent cog, not meshing with the forces around him, but somehow resonating with the populace (or at least many of them) in mid-America. I think everyone senses something is wrong but cannot quite put a finger on it. So, maybe ‘throw the bums out of office’ might be a sort French revolution type way of approaching the problems.

    I will have another read of this (I suggest that a bit of editing be done, though, to remove the unnecessary hyphens).

  15. Your definition of capitalism is sloppy. Capitalism began after the enclosures and the industrial revolution. What happened before may have had similarities but also had distinct differences.

    • bevin says

      “Capitalism began after the enclosures and the industrial revolution.”
      Which was it? The Enclosure process gathered momentum in the C15th and was still going strong in the mid C19th.
      What you call the ‘Industrial Revolution’ begins when enclosures are in full swing.
      What you leave out is the importance of long distance trade and colonialism to the transformation of western European society, it is this maritime trade which is the crucial catalyst in English capitalism.
      You might have a better definition of capitalist development but it is unclear what it is. It is also unclear why, in the context of this essay, it is necessary.

      • Yawn. I made a casual remark regarding the article. I wasn’t writing a counter article.
        Pull your head in.

  16. Gary Weglarz says

    A very interesting post. Nice to see this sort of bigger picture view discussed here. Growing up in the U.S. in the 1950’s of first generation Polish immigrants one thing was always clear to me. This “dog eat dog, every man for himself, greed is good,” society made no sense whatsoever to me. Not as a child, not as a working person and not now as a retiree. The obvious lack I felt/feel so acutely in U.S. society is the sense of “connection to each other and to the natural world” around us that characterizes a sense of truly feeling and being “at home in the world.”

    As a clinical social worker I was lucky enough in the last decade of my working life to live and work with several Alaskan Native tribal groups in remote parts of the state of Alaska. Peoples who still maintained traditional language as best they could and who still hunted and fished and harvested to supplement their diets as best they could. Peoples who still tried to maintain their “traditional values and ways” as best they could. Nothing in my experience in American society could prepare me to watch in amazement as 150 Inupiat men, women and children of all ages lined up on ropes and block & tackle and by hand slowly pulled out of the arctic ocean and onto the village beach a 35 to 50 ton bowhead whale. Once on the beach the whaling crews began the process of cutting and preparing the whale to be shared with the various crews, and then over the course of he winter with the entire village on multiple occasions. The whale belonged to “no one,” it was to feed “the village.”

    At one of these times a co-worker of mine noticed a small Inupiat boy looking into the dead whales eye and asked the boy what the whale might say if it were still alive and able to talk. The boy replied that the whale would say – “thank you.” My co-worker knew exactly what the little boy meant. In Inupiat understanding if the village is in balance and people are maintaining right relationship to each other and the natural world, the “whale gives itself to the village” as an offering to sustain the people. The whale and the village are all part of a world in balance and connection. If the whale does not give itself, the village must look inside to see what might be out of balance – it doesn’t build a better harpoon gun or build a faster ship, or kill more whales than it needs one year to save some – it seeks the source of the imbalance.

    There is a vast difference apparent when I consider both the beauty and the practicality of such commonality of “balance” and “connection” in many Native American “traditional myth systems” versus the “Western myth systems” of our vengeful patriarchal Judeo-Christian invisible sky god who deals not in collective good and harmony, but in “individual salvation” or “individual damnation” punished with “eternal suffering.” No wonder we have driven ourselves mad. No wonder we have brought the entire earth to the level of both nuclear and ecological peril we now “collectively” exist as hostages to today.

    My time living and working with Native peoples re-humanized me in ways that are difficult to explain or even fully understand. Oddly, what those experiences most clearly did is remind me that what I felt as a child growing up alienated from the greed and violence of my American society was “real.” I knew as a child in the depth of my being that I am connected to the earth and we are all connected to each other and to all the other creatures and living things around us.

    As the great Native American activist Russell Means put it when comparing Native society to the society of we white American settlers: (“we didn’t get the greed gene”). But I don’t believe our greed and thus our madness came in the form of our “genes” but rather in the form of something perhaps even more powerful, in the form of our “myth systems.” From valuing “individual salvation” over the “common good of the village” came valuing “individual success” over whether the village starves while the wealthy dine in luxury. We have taken our vaunted Western “rationality” and “science” and combined them with our vengeful sky god’s uber-violent persona to create a mega-machine that can and will destroy the planet at the simple push of a button.

    You can perhaps forgive me for preferring what in the West is considered the more “primitive” myth system – the one where the whale “gives itself” to the village, because the village lives in balance and peace with each other the natural world. That is a “sane” myth system to my way of thinking. Our world deeply needs healing, but we do not need to reinvent the wheel here. Our Native brothers and sisters around the globe have much to teach us if we can only drop our sense of superiority – (born of our pride over our mastery of mega-violent machines) – and instead listen. We very much need to collectively embrace a “new myth system” if we are to collectively survive at all. From the Inupiat point of view we are “out of balance.” That so many cannot “see this” is the the result of our minds remaining captive to the old outmoded myth system of dominance. We need myth system adequate to our dire situation. Our answer is not on another planet, it is in the “whale’s eye.” Peace to all.

    • David Horsman says

      I forgive you for not realizing that both cultures are indeed rational (ours to a lesser degree certainly.)

      You are only human after all.

  17. DunGroanin says

    Ah great i thought as i started into this – A traditional xmas lecture for grown ups! Great.

    But the great theme of dawn of civilisation and religion and science on the planet quickly zeroes in on the Greek logicians and ME monotheism and voila we have the modern world! Err.

    Ah well maybe not so grown up then. And without fun illustrative experiments.


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