A Life Less Civilized

November 8, 2011

Political Theory

The "Woes" of Foraging Life

Over the course of human history, life has become increasingly complex and specialized. Back in the “cave man” days, life was…well, primitive, and in many ways simpler. The foraging style of society required two main components: food and shelter. There were two types of jobs when it came to getting food: either to hunt animals or to gather plants. Not too shabby. Now, this lifestyle may not have included fancy cars, iPhones, mansions, health care, or fine dining but that does not make it bad. Sure, humans may have not lived as long, and technology was limited to carved stone, but was it really that bad? You see, if us humans had not been exposed to the domestication of plants some 10,000 years ago, things may have stayed much as they had always been. And who knows, maybe we would have been a happier and more equal species today.

Living the American Reality!

But alas, as far as society is concerned, we have been much too overexposed to agriculture, industry, and technology to go back. In the United States, we live in a society dominated by civil and political freedom. Distribution of wealth is unbelievably skewed to the point where the top 10% control 2/3rds of the wealth, while the bottom 90% only control a little over 1/4th. The majority of wealth is owned by an astounding few while the majority of people own little to nothing. All of this has been fostered directly by the freedoms found within civil society. Now does this seem good to you? I am not asking this question in terms of the individual but rather in terms of American society. In terms of the collective, of every person living in the United States, does the distribution of wealth and the social inequality that many experience as a result of it, seem good for all of us? In my opinion, the distribution is anything but equal.

18th century philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that life was best when humans were literally in primitive times. He also believed that it was the foundation of civil society that had created chaos on Earth. Rousseau argued that people should give up all their civil liberties to the community. In many ways, Rousseau saw individuality as a vice, and private property as leading to inequality. His emphasis on everyone in society, really set him apart from earlier theorists. In Rousseau’s, The Basic Political Writings, he wrote on issues resulting from civil society and what he saw as the solution,

“For if some rights remained with private individuals, in the absence of any common superior who could decide between them and the public, each person would eventually claim to be his own judge in all things, since he is on some point his own judge. The state of nature would subsist and the association would necessarily become tyrannical or hollow. Finally, in giving himself to all, each person gives himself to no one.”

Here Rousseau suggests that by giving any civil liberties to “private individuals”, those individuals will want more civil liberties. In this passage, Rousseau illustrates the point of exposure. In other words, he is saying by exposing individuals to certain civil liberties, these individuals will want more civil liberties. In this way, Rousseau acknowledges that the exposure of power to individuals has already happened. Yet, he proposes that to improve life, we must give up all of our rights to the community. Does it not seem a little ironic that Rousseau is arguing that humans, already exposed to individual power, give up that power? If he believes we cannot go back to the heydays of foraging society, what makes him think we can act as if we had never been exposed to civil liberties? In my opinion, since we have already been exposed to individual power it would be hard for us to give up that power.

Give up civil liberties to the community! All people are equal!

Do you think Rousseau’s proposal would ever work in our modern-day society? Why? Furthermore, if you had to choose between living in modern day society or society 10,000 years ago (the domestication of plants), which would you choose and why? Also keep in mind that if you choose society 10,000 years ago, you would not be exposed to luxuries of today’s society and would consider it the norm.


About erfreed3

Sophomore at the University of Michigan. Undecided. I like humanity-based and social science courses. Singer-Songwriter. That is all.

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10 Comments on “A Life Less Civilized”

  1. lmaren Says:

    It is an interesting idea to consider living 10,000 years ago without exposure to modern life. Modern life would be difficult to give up. I think that I would not want to live 10,000 years ago for selfish reasons. However, that is only because I would not want to give up the luxuries of modern life that I am accustomed to. (Even though if I were to theoretically live 10,000 years ago I would not know that such technologies existed.) I also am grateful for the technologies that we have today. The medecine that we have created, the new sources of energy, and other innovative technologies- I would argue- are not entirely created out of greed and make the Earth better. I mean, the year 2011 is a great time to live!

    There are modern examples of people who live in this state that Rousseau describes. The Human Planet, a great BBC documentary, features the un-contacted tribes of Brazil. Via arial footage, you can see these people who do not know that the outside world exists and live in a timeless cocoon. It is an interesting theory that these people are happier than anyone else. Their kinds of worries and concerns are probably small in comparison to modern life, such as ‘is there enough food for the dry season?’ Without asking these people, we could never be able to truly answer if they are happier than us, who live in modern 2011. In a way, I am sure that they are very happy. They have everything that they need or know that they need. They aren’t burdened by a poor economy, taxes, corruption or other burdensome topics. These tribes are plenty happy- and they don’t have any modern technologies or ideas. So, maybe it is true- technology and modern life don’t make us happy.

  2. chadmach Says:

    Well of course had I been living 10,000 years ago, I would be totally okay with living that way because I would not be able to think of any other way of living. But if we were to switch to that life style it would be impossible for most, if not all, people in modern society to give up their property and call them only possessions. We have grown up this way, learning about things belonging to other people and to shift that thinking to just considering things as being possessed by others would not work.
    At the same time, I think that the time we are in may be a great time to going back to a time before property. We would not have to worry about taxes, or the mortgage and maybe not even theft.
    Even if I knew about modern technologies and customs, I think I may still actually be happier. Like above I would maybe not have to worry about paying taxes or leaving my laptop out in the library. We would be respective and understanding of peoples possessions and not label them as property.

  3. mjgeis Says:

    I agree with you that it seems overly idealistic on Rousseau’s part to honestly be suggesting that we give up civil liberties to which we have already grown accustomed. However, if we hadn’t been exposed to these technologies, I don’t see any problem with reverting back to the lifestyle of 10,000 years ago. We wouldn’t even know what we are missing; it’s the same as saying that humans right now don’t know what cell phones will be like in fifty years. We can’t be disappointed to not have them if we don’t really know what they are/when we are going to get them.

    I think that the primitive model of society would be an overall happier society. We immediately rid ourselves of that problem where the top 1% of wealthy people keeping shitting on the bottom 90% of poorer people, which would probably increase everyone’s general happiness. This would be a world in which Occupy Wall Street is completely unneeded, in which there is no high unemployment rate, in which the worst thing you have to worry about is being run over by a mammoth (which our professor demonstrated how to avoid). It might not be as nice for each individual person, but at the primitive level, society would be far better off than it is today.

  4. srbarron Says:

    Similar to those above, I too agree that it would be difficult to give up life as we know it and especially our civil liberties. We are accustomed to the rights declared in the Constitution, yet modern woes have already caused us to give up some of our rights in return for safety. Following 9/11, when terrorist alerts were high, airport security heightened and the policies for TSA rules and regulations were changed. These simple rights like being able to walk through security shortly before your flight with your shoes still on, no longer exist. However, we have grown accustomed to the new policy and accept it in order to maintain safety and a smooth airport process.

    Thus, in aligning this example with Rousseau, we have given up some basic civil liberties to the government and TSA, who then in turn take the liberty to put in place even more policies. It would be difficult to go back to the previous policies of airport security. It also seems like Americans generally accept the government’s ability to create new policies and have more rights over it’s citizens if in return, the community is benefiting.

  5. Karsten Smolinski Says:

    I would never exchange living here in modern times for the life of a primitive man, because I really don’t buy in to the idea that it was better. Simpler? Yes. Less worry? Hell no. When was the last time you had to worry about starving to death? Freezing to death? Being murdered in your sleep by wild animals? Having all your teeth rot and fall out of your mouth? Yeah, sounds awesome.

    Rousseau’s version of primitive man simply isn’t accurate. The idea that primitive man was a mostly solitary creature completely contradicts all modern scientific evidence. The idea that we were once ignorant of the idea of property also seems unlikely. Even animals such as orangutans, deer, dogs and fish express basic ideas of property. Male orangutans are territorial and will act hostilely towards other males entering their territory. Male deer fight over the right to a mate. Ever seen a dog that suddenly gets angry when other dogs pick up its favorite chew toy? Or what about the Siamese fighting fish that kill each other over territorial claims?

    Rousseau also doesn’t consider natural inequalities. In primitive times resources were scarce. Those most naturally suited to survival did just that, sometimes by killing the weak out of self-interest. I’m not saying man isn’t empathetic, because he in fact is, its just that when resources are scarce it becomes you or him. There wasn’t much room for charity.

    This is why the modern world is great. For the first time, through the power of modern technology and an abundance of resources, mankind has the opportunity to fully recognize his empathetic nature. Sure, there’s killing and torture and repression, but this has been going on in human civilization for a long time. What’s new is the amount of giving going on at a global scale. When a massive tsunami struck the Indian Ocean the entire world responded with aid. Thousands of Americans every year volunteer to leave their normal comforts behind and work in third world countries. The richest man in the world (Bill Gates) is also the biggest philanthropist in the world. I wouldn’t consider exchanging the knowledge that makes this possible for the supposed “bliss of ignorance” for a second.

  6. ymsyed Says:

    I believe that even if we lived in a society like it used to be in the old days, we would eventually succumb to the same problems that Rousseau believes we are dealing with today. For example, Rousseau believed that all humans had self-love and compassion, from which stemmed comparative self-love (or self esteem). Vanity is a natural offshoot of self-esteem. Unfair social hierarchies would still be established, and political and social inequalities would still come to exist regardless. The state of nature simply could not be maintained. For this reason, I believe that choosing to live 10,000 years ago would simply not be worth all the trouble.

  7. bmauto21 Says:

    Rousseau does not want anyone to be specialized because of there wealth. Being a college student there are many similarities to the times of the cave man. Being on a students budget, a college student may scavenge to keep on their budget, like foraging for plants and gathering food. We are basically only supposed to do one thing, study. The goal is to be a part of that top 10% and to get there, a student must go down many roads on their journey just like the nomads of back in the day. A students life is one where you belong to a very specific society. There is no specialization and everyone is working for one goal, which is to become part of that 10% and create a change in the world.
    The problem with Rousseau’s view of the modern world is asking individuals to give up their civil liberties to society. No individual will do this, especially in the top 10%. The fact that this world operates very smoothly, albeit wars, and other depressing matter, makes one think that we are perfect the way we are. Wars and other events have happened all history and the change that Rousseau wants will not cause that to go away. Going through the life of a college student gives you an idea of how Rousseau wants society to act, but once out of college there is a completely new world. People work hard to be where they are and who are we to tell them that sorry, but there is no longer a top 10% but rather treat society as a 100%.

  8. elmatts25 Says:

    I agree that since we are accustomed to living with such civil liberties and that it would be ridiculous and practically impossible to return to the society that Rousseau envisions. Even if we could in some way return to this society, we would inevitably fall prey to Rousseau’s theory of self-improvement and perfectibility. I can’t personally think of a plausible solution to restrict the developmental process from a state of nature to that of a society. In my opinion, it is natural for humans to seek self-improvement. I do not think that self-improvement is simply a modern-day pressure. Experience opens our eyes to new possibilities, positive or negative. If we experience something positive we will remember and try to replicate. Growing and learning is a natural human instinct.
    Furthermore, I don’t find all inequalities to be completely problematic. Admittedly, I do not know enough about the current distribution of wealth and Occupy-Wall St. Movement to consider them non-problematic. I believe that with self-improvement comes hard work and determination. Someone who achieves self-improvement, and maybe even vanity of ownership, should be rewarded and not admonished. I don’t believe that the luxuries that exist in today’s society are problematic. It may be very presumptive of me, but I do not believe that all societal inequalities are problematic.

  9. tylerhoffman1 Says:

    Furthermore, if you had to choose between living in modern day society or society 10,000 years ago (the domestication of plants), which would you choose and why? Also keep in mind that if you choose society 10,000 years ago, you would not be exposed to luxuries of today’s society and would consider it the norm. Judging from your interpretation of Rousseau’s article, which is that Rousseau would want us to give up all of our civil liberties and individual power, I do believe that American could go back to be a socialist system, but may not be too happy about it. Our current president, a socialist (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704293604575342852339887616.html) is using a method typical of european countries, tax-and-spend, to obtain power and individuality from the american people and redistribute wealth. Once you tax and remove more wealth from the wealthy individuals and industries, the government, in theory, will redistribute it to the poorer people and industries. Although some are without doubt happy about his progress, others are unsatisfied. I do not believe that one way can ever be fully integrated in America, the citizens are too used to their freedoms and individual liberties.

  10. briank726 Says:

    The commodities and luxuries that the modern world provide make it much more worth living in than 10,000 years ago. I don’t see a huge flaw in the distribution of wealth in the U.S. Would we rather be forced to be socially equal like Communist Russia? I think that the competition that is present within our nation is beneficial to the overall growth of the nation. And as the nation becomes more wealthy, even the people who are not so well off usually also benefit. I do think that it would be unfair and impossible to make people give up their power. The world is constantly progressing, and people were meant to progress from how they lived 10,000 years ago by developing luxuries, gaining power, etc. It is not possible to simply turn back time and live as if we are less developed than we are. I think that by following Rousseau’s plan, people’s lives would not improve, but instead more burdened by the lost civil liberties. Also, competition would still continue to exist; people will strive to gain more than others. So Rousseau’s plan would not work.

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