I wrote in my last piece (see below) that ecological thinking based itself on a view of humanity as a species, a species inter-relating with other species. I pointed out that this thinking would play a part in the break-up of the UK regime. My question now is: can our understanding of human origins shed light on the specific underlying shifts, movements and crises we are aware of in our contemporary world? Especially here in the UK and in the USA the signs of fragmentation are provoking a kind of rage of reaction and it might appear that the forces of radical patriarchy are strengthened through this chaos. They are manifesting themselves in an extreme form but this may be impelled by despair deriving from a deep sense of loss. In the midst of a tense exchange about the story of women in human evolution and the revolution, the brilliant anthropologist, Camilla Power, exclaimed in an email to me: “How can we use our past to help us reach that: we have the bodies, hearts and minds today that made that revolution before. Care of children taught us how to do it!” Exploited and oppressed but constantly moving like a very deep dance the human truths that our bodies feel exact more vivid forms of listening and touching and community. The deeper the crisis, the deeper into the past we have to go.
Much of what I am describing here has been described far better by others who know more and have thought more deeply. I want to find a connection between what I have learnt from radical anthropologists like Camilla, other thinkers and writers and my own observation of what is happening around me.
Darwin’s work of discovering the developmental determinants of species underlies ecological thinking. The formation of the new species of hominids, homo sapiens, was due to particular adaptations relating to selected characteristics. These manifested themselves in distinctive genetic changes. The erect posture of the immediately preceding species of hominids enabled their occupation of increasingly diverse terrains which gave a wider scope of food sources. Collective organisation and communication abilities were related to larger brain in successive hominid species. The trade-off between larger brain-size, thus the heavier, larger head, and the erect posture was complex. The birth canal of the human female was compromised by the erect posture so the size of the head needed to be accommodated by ‘early’ birth. The human (homo sapiens) baby was born into a state of physical, emotional and social dependence. This engaged with the social and collective skills associated with larger brain size. Our species needed to be social. The reproductory and child care processes were extended. It involved protection against the most significant competitors, big cats. In order to build group solidarity it was necessary to isolate and disempower ‘alpha male’ selfish individualism. We needed to counter the behaviour that led to the largest male being able to make immediate sex for meat exchanges and to be destructively disposed towards offspring from other fathers. These were the basic material narratives that selected for a high degree of social collaboration. The development of the larynx giving the ability to make complex sounds, the shape of the human (homo sapiens) eye with the unique mobility of the iris against a white background gave an enhanced ability to communicate. Human females’ collaborative ability to control the rhythm of the availability of sex was connected to human males developing co-operative strategies in hunting, thus enabling social sharing of food. The work carried out by coalitions of human females ensured that caring processes were at the centre of early human activity and this was enabled by the link between human biology and the cyclical movement of the moon, establishing a social rhythm of sex and hunting. The development of intersubjectivity and of language both propelled and were outcomes of this new species development. This specific aspect of early human development is outlined in the work of the renowned primatologist, Sarah Hrdy in Mothers and Others: the Evolutionary Development of Mutual Understanding. The other part of this story is to be found in the work of the Radical Anthropology Group but particularly in Blood Relations: Menstrual Synchrony and the Origins of Culture by Chris Knight, a colleague of Camilla Power who I quoted above. This social form of organisation was successful and enabled the spread of the new species from the Rift Valley of Africa 200,000 years ago to populate the entire earth. The last significant land mass that was colonised by our species was Aotearoa (New Zealand) settled by Polynesian people from 1280-1350.
At the centre of developments in the sciences of primatology, social biology and anthropology in the past 70 years is the work of a growing number of women social and life scientists. The influence of this new perspective is described in Chris Knight’s book. A good recent example of this work is Human Origins, Contributions from Social Anthropology edited by Camilla Power, Morna Finnegan and Hillary Callan. The idea that human females were responsible for the origin of culture and society is not surprising when looked at from an evolutionary point of view. But what difference does it make to how we look at our current situation and the social forms which we inhabit? Arguments are made that it was human males and their collective organisation of hunting that played the leading role in these developments and even that war played this role. This affirms a view that male dominance is natural. What is surprising is what happened 12,000 years ago when our female-oriented species was transformed into a male-dominated hierarchically-organised creature disposed exploitatively towards the natural resources with which it was surrounded. This transformation is complex, developing unevenly and gradually and some human groups exist where this transformation is incomplete.
Let us, for a moment, counterpose the vision of human origins articulated by contemporary radical anthropology with the vision given in Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. This extraordinarily influential book was published two years after the execution of Charles I in London in 1649. This event during the English Revolution was of crucial symbolic and political importance and Hobbes’ thinking was fundamental to the subsequent restoration of the monarchy and the eventual settlement of 1688-89 which I believe is the foundation moment of the regime that is beginning to break up. Hobbes describes the state of nature as a war of all against all where the intercession of the sovereign, the embodiment of reason presents essential unity. The book encompasses descriptions of the make-up of the individual, how in each of us we wrestle to attain our better nature through processes that he connects with money accounts or rationality, and about how the commonwealth resembles an artificial man that is above nature and forms itself through a kind of contract. He bases his argument on deep consideration about the the senses and the external objects of the world, where contrary to Aristotle, he asserts an empiricism that diminishes knowledge as an interaction between material agents and emphasises the immediate responses of the senses to external stimulus and the separation of the subject from the object. Nature is the objective and increasingly measurable reality that lies outside us and can be conquered epistemologically by reason. The justification for the authority of the sovereign state derives from an assumption that the animal in us, the natural beast, is bad and must be struggled against through the construction of a sovereign power and submission to it. I shall describe in a future piece why Christianity offered such a profoundly stabilising ideology to empire. At the start of this Christian narrative we find man and woman in a natural state into which evil is introduced by the woman. This state of sin is only redeemed for humanity with the advent of Christ who combines, like the kings for whom he was a progenitor, man and god.
Murray Bookchin in Ecology of Freedom and elsewhere describes this initial period of human existence as the organic society and its break up as being signalled by the development of humans distinguishing themselves from the circumambient natural world and dominating it and the synchronous development of exploitation of humans by humans. These ideas have been influential on the work of Abdallah Ocalan, a leading member of the PKK, whose voluminous Manifesto for a Democratic Civilisation, written while in a Turkish prison, explores the specific impacts of the beginning of hierarchical society in the fertile crescent where the Kurdish people have their home. He urgently asserts that the first intra-group oppression practiced by humans was the exploitation of women. This oppression sets the precedence for other forms of slavery. Alongside his reexamination of the origins of society and of human oppression, Ocalan and his movement have criticised the central role of the nation-state in the liberation of the Kurdish people. This is an extraordinary and inspirational example of how re-thinking human origins has played a part in structuring a strategy of resilience for sectors of the Kurdish people, especially those in Turkey and Northern Syria. The strategy is based on the liberation of/by women, ecological sustainable development and participatory democracy. This last principle is based on calling into question the role of representation, of representative forms, in the functioning of democracy. The full global implications of the political inventiveness of the Kurdish people have yet to be realised. The Kurdish revolution as it is conceived by Ocalan is an attempt to confront the historical consequences of the development of patriarchy.
So what do we imagine happened during this transformation of human society, the male ‘take over’, and what are the consequences for subsequent human history? By the way I’ve written a play, THE STORY OF GO, about this event. It was given a reading in an event co-hosted by the Radical Anthropology Group. There’s brief description here. There were important ecological factors, such as the end of the Last Glacial Period and the changes in herding patterns that determined the movements of the big game that the human populations had come to rely on. Correspondingly there was the success of human population growth which meant that certain stocks of hunted animals had been reduced by over-hunting, transgressing the critical point in a population when predation prevents replenishment of stocks. Population growth also meant that the major competitive pressure was other human groups, thus creating conflicts between them. There may have been other factors such as knowledge of terrain and its biomass potential that derived from inter-generational observation, also knowledge of herding patterns could have led to herd control and intervention in breeding that was the basis of animal husbandry, the movement towards settling land and cultivation may have derived from observation of river systems and exploitation of tidal movements in adjoining land. A number of books give accounts of the break up of the egalitarian society, for example, The Creation of Inequality: How our prehistoric ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery and Empire by Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus.
The move towards the prioritising of production over reproduction, the turn from hunting group to war organisation, the re-emergence of alpha male dominant behaviour, the territorialisation of power and space that arose from crop cultivation and animal husbandry, the creation of surplus and the social dynamics of storage and distribution all shifted the basic structures of human life towards men’s dominance of women. An important factor in this was the ability of men to take women’s power and institutionalise their possession of it. To do this they mimicked the forms of power that women exerted over them. The powerful mysteries of reproduction, the isolation and protection afforded by women to young females moving into adulthood, the first appearance of the menstrual blood, were ritualised and men were excluded. Often in the current life of hunter gatherers this secrecy, exclusion, withholding and protection is the basis for social play. Men copied their exclusion from the menstrual hut in the construction of men’s hut where they also performed rites of passage that involved blood and scarification. There, in these sacred spaces, the warrior leader and the shaman emerged as powerful actors. In recent discoveries at Gobeklitepe, one of the earliest discovered neo-lithic sites dating from 11,700 years ago and situated near the border town of Urfa in Southern Turkey it appears that the dynamic of the process of cultural development reverses a simple mechanical materialist explanation. The creation of ceremonial sites connected to the burial of human remains and to the dramatisation of the border of the world of the dead were laid out in accord with the emerging knowledge of astronomy. The evidence is that these sites which were in continual development that would have required the organisation of, and provision for, large groups of workers and thus it was these sites which preceded the developments in animal husbandry and crop cultivation made necessary by the organisation of their construction. The need to exercise symbolic power drove the organisation of production.
The need for men to exert their control over the symbolic order, to create exclusive sacred spaces connected to power over life and death, was based on territorialisation and secrecy. Knowledge was to be the privilege of the hierarch and be controlled through control of space. The driving energy was men’s exclusion from reproduction. The continual impossibility of dominating women’s bodies drove the cultural project forward. The energies derived from the oppression of women were effectively the energies of human reproduction recathected through men’s domination and control. Men’s power was and is effectively women’s power. The continual social enactment of domination is the very structure of the political institutions that we live in. Men’s power is their power over women. This domination is not an event but rather a continuous process of theft and coercion. It is symbolic and actual and it depends not on women’s weakness but their strength – which at any given moment is their power over men – and this is the basis of their submission and incorporation into the social project dominated by men.
In fact one of the crucial processes that lies at the core of patriarchal cultural appropriation is a process of inversion. The stories and images of the truth of human origins in the work of human female coalitions are re-played so that the basic energies can be incorporated in a re-writing of the story that inverts the basic images and movements. This cultural appropriation through inversion and incorporation retains the source energies of the narratives. Symbolic power was taken from women but my further point is that this is a continuous process. It is in this way that men’s power is only their power over women and this power is women’s power re-cathected through the institutional forms of patriarchy.
The energies that were engaged with as the process of male ‘take over’ started are effectively those which fuel our current social and political institutions. It is in this respect that the story of origins becomes important in terms of our understanding of the basis of our society and how it can change. The presence of the power of the feminine and the story of the preceding organic society whose primary organisational principle was the reproductive activity of human females are seen in cultural manifestations everywhere. Anthropologist are skilled at ‘decoding’ the myths and stories in which the core values of women’s culture are revealed inside the, sometimes scarcely visible, patriarchal carapace. But also in corporeal terms this other world, the world of the body and the collective, is constantly resisting the mental dominance of the male abstract, virtual, oppression. For a wonderful description of how hunter gatherer cultures can help us to contact our collective sensuality particularly in this pandemic see Morna Finnegan’s talk to the Radical Anthropology Group, Touched: Hunter Gatherers and the Anthropology of Power. This is why social change seems so dynamically linked to a return to our real nature.
It is the continuous nature of this cultural project that impelled patriarchy to construct a relationship with eternity and infinity in order to enact the basic assumption of male power. It is almost as if this culture is energised by ever more superior forms of power, as if perhaps this is like the helplessness men encounter when faced by women’s power or beauty, or their mother. Marx describes the cell form of capitalism as a commodity and describes how this object is endowed with a kind of power that he associated with fetishism. Look at Chapter One of Part One of Volume One of Capital He describes a system in which things have power over people. Capitalism is a development of patriarchy and it manifests itself in a typically mystified or disguised form. It presents like an economic system rooted in humanity’s god-given nature. Posing as an economic system it separates itself from the political forms that give it a rational carapace. It ‘dis-embeds’ itself from real social human processes. The developmental movement is continually towards higher and higher degrees of abstraction. The circulation of commodities appears as the circulation of money; money appears as the circulation of quantities, money quantities appear as credit, credit money then appears as digitalised entities, money appears as information.
The early organisation of patriarchal culture is enacted in the figures of warrior leader and the shaman/priest/spiritual leader. These figures are the core components of kingship. This political structure is the basis of modern state organisation. Power over life and death – I believe this is what Foucault refers to as the concern of bio-politics – which is the prerogative of the state must be sanctified by an appeal to a higher authority which acts as a ‘basic assumption’ (see the work of Wilfred Bion) in the human group. To achieve this, power must disclose itself as right. Just as physical force and spiritual power must be virtually separated so that they can be brought together as the power of government. This is reconciled in the production of knowledge as secrecy. It admits of a fundamental splitting of human capability.
In Thomas Piketty’s extraordinary study of modern politics Capital and Ideology he examines ideology initially from the point of view of the trifunctional state, the state form that existed in its clearest manifestation in the pre-revolutionary French state. There the basic operation of kingship, of sovereignty, was acted out through the three estates: the nobles, the clergy and the populace. He traces the development of these forms through the revolutionary period as they make their appearance in the modern ‘democratic’ state. He describes the action between the key political parties as being tributes from this earlier state form, the Merchant Right versus the Brahmin Left. The dance ritual of the modern state is a play between the vestiges of the warrior class (the Lords, nobles however constituted, reflected in the Tory Party in the UK, those who assume a god-given right to rule) and the clergy (the intellectual classes, the media, legal systems, the Labour Party in the UK). Piketty, constructing an international model, alludes to the Indian caste system in calling these secularised clergy, the Brahmin. We can see clearly in this organised and ritualised political form the original embodied forces that lay at the origins of patriarchy. This dance between the different aspects of state power keeps the status quo balanced like a gyroscope and the basic energy is the suppression that derives from the constant reduction of women to objects, either as symbolic commodities or as functional providers and generators of labour power.
I believe the corona virus pandemic has sheered the outer casework from this weird machine so we can see the key operations of kingship, patriarchy, racism and look into the core processes of our social lives. These are, unsurprisingly, held together by women, consigned to the roles that are generative and essential, that of caring for human beings. Beside them, behind the veil of justice and democracy, are revealed the heaving pitiful fearful creatures crouching in despair and hope that their outrage and anger will restore their king-like function. I am thinking particularly of the recent mob attack on the Capitol in Washington and the crisis of the regime there as the republican cover is blown off the monarchic core. An immediate cause is a deep discontent at the impoverishment escalated by the financial crash of 2008 and the subsequent bail-out of the bankers and in the foreground is the rage of these ‘real men’ so desperately afraid of weakness. It is the symbolic reenactment of the Civil War of the 1860s that keeps emerging but even deeper in the formation of the US state is the agony of their modification of the structures of kingship that animated the rebellion of 1776. This story moves like a field of force in the undergrowth. There is a deep ambiguity in the very formulations of a constitution made in the name of humanity by slave-owners declaring freedom. Essentially patriarchy is hierarchical and is based on the assumption of superiority. Initially exercised against women. As the ever more complex social forms appeared this exercise manifested itself systematically as the extraction of labour power from the processes of reproduction, ever pressed into yielding product at lower and lower cost. Racism inextricably linked with slavery is driven by labour power extraction and cost reduction employing similar cultural mechanisms of oppression. Can the US regime admit this history without breaking up? This crisis is joined to the one that afflicts the centre of the imperial system from which it appeared to gain its independence.
I believe that the reason why our political structures are ‘double’, as described by Piketty are because they derive from the problematic of patriarchy in its suppression of women: how to exert violent power and justify this right so to do through symbolic power. Vast quantities of intellectual work and social organisational effort were expended to reconcile whether the King or Monarch was above the law or the source of the law. I will describe in further contributions to the CV-19 Impacts series and refer there to the remarkable book by Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies.
It is the continuous character of this drive to exploit reproduction through production that I am attributing to the endless project that patriarchy presents. To call it a take over could be misleading since power is constantly taken. Labour power and human need is constantly exploited. This operates at every scale and level in our society. It is the source of male violence. Its theoretical extension lie in the bases of economics as it is taught and commonly understood. In this discipline we are told that demand is infinite.
During the corona virus we have witnessed the break down of what is called the economy and we are told that public (and individual) health has to be balanced with the health of the economy. The economy is assumed to be a mechanism that is dis-embedded, that has its own divine laws of motion. Really the absurdity of this weird mystical system can only be summoned by saying it is based not on infinite demand but the underlying myth of infinite supply.