The Great Remembering

As the foundation thinkers of our culture reconstructed the story of human origins, humans appeared in the world with an instinct for civilization but of course no experience. They soon discovered the obvious benefits of communal life, and from there the course of civilization was clear. Farming villages grew into towns, towns grew into cities, cities grew into kingdoms, and so on. All was clear, but all was not smooth, because a key social instrument had yet to be invented, that instrument being law. Ignorant even of the concept of law, the citizens of these early cities and kingdoms were compelled to suffer rime, turmoil, oppression, and injustice. Law was a vitally important enabling invention, on which orderly social development had to wait.

One would expect to find that laws existed long before literacy, but this appears not to have been the case. If laws had been formulated orally in preliterate times, then the earliest writings would surely have been transcriptions of these laws -- but no such laws are found in these writings. In fact, the earliest written code of law, the Code of Hammurabi, dates to only about 2100 B.C.E.

Roughly speaking, this is what the foundation thinkers imagined, and this is what became the received wisdom of our culture, embedded n all social thought -- and in the textbooks used by schoolchildren around the globe, even to the present moment. Needless to say, it's about as close to the truth as the fairy tale that babies are delivered by storks.

Let's have a look at what was really happening in the world 10,000 years ago. Members of Homo sapiens had been moving outward from their African birthplace for more than 100,000 years and had literally reached every corner of the world -- and I don't mean recently. By the time I'm talking about, 10,000 years ago, the Near East, Europe, Asia, Australia, and the New World had all been occupied by modern humans for at least 20,000 years. And far from being empty, the Near East was among the most densely populated areas of the world -- densely populated, that is, by tribal peoples, such as were found everywhere in thee world at that time and such as are found still today where they've been allowed to survive.

So we've made two steps beyond the fairy tale: The founders of our culture didn't live in an empty world, they were a tribal people surrounded by many other tribal peoples -- and none of them were newcomers to he business of culture. These were old, old, old, old, old, old hands at culture, which means that not a single one of them was a stranger to the concept of law. Never once in the whole history of anthropology has a tribal people been found unequipped with a complete set of laws -- complete, that is, for the lifestyle of that particular tribe.

The names of the tribes inhabiting the relevant area at this time will never be known to us. The name of the tribe in which our own quirky approach to life was born is similarly unknown. Since their descendents have come to be called "Takers," because they only take from the earth, (as opposed to "Leavers," who leave the Earth in the same condition that they find it), we'll call them the Tak. They were certainly a tribal people surrounded by other tribal people, who we will call the Ak, the Bak, the Cak, and so on up through the Kak.

Each tribe was defined by its own laws and customs. There is literally no other way to tell them apart. The laws and customs of the Ak are what make them distinguishable as a tribe. The laws and customs of the Bak are what make them distinguishable as a tribe. The laws and customs of the Cak are what make them distinguishable as a tribe. And so on. And the cultural boundaries between tribes are impenetrable. A member of the Bak can't just decide one day to become a member of the Hak; such a thing is quite unthinkable among tribal peoples anywhere in the world.

Probably at this time some of these tribal peoples were agriculturists and some were hunter-gatherers. There's nothing at all unusual about finding the two living side by side. In any case, we know that the Tak (the tribal founders of the "Taker" lifestyle) were agriculturists -- thought there's no reason to suppose that they invented agriculture. Their invention was a new style of agriculture -- the totalitarian style.

But the stupendous innovation of the Tak was not just a new style of agriculture. The Tak had the remarkable and unprecedented idea that everyone should live the way they lived. It's impossible to exaggerate how unusual this made them. I can't name a single other people in history who made it a goal to proselytize their neighbours. Certainly no tribal people in history had evinced any interest in converting neighbours to their way of life -- and I know of no civilized people who evinced such an interest either. For example, the Maya, the Natchez, and the Aztecs had no interest in spreading their lifestyle to the peoples around them, including those they conquered. The Tak were definitely revolutionaries in this regard. By inspiration, persuasion, or aggression, the Tak revolution began to engulf its neighbours, at first the Dak and the Fak.

By adopting a common culture, the Tak, Dak, and Fak have necessarily lost some of the identity that once defined them. The laws and customs of the Tak mean little to the Dak or the Fak. The laws and customs of the Dak mean little to the Tak or the Fak. The laws and customs of the Fak mean little to the Tak or the Dak. Because they now share a common lifestyle, the cultural borders between them weaken. It's not as easy to tell one from another now. Being a Dak or a Fak isn't as important as it once was. Now what's important is that they're allied with the Tak. It should be kept in mind that in this alliance the original laws and customs of the Tak are no more relevant than anyone else's. The Dak and the Fak have not become Tak. They've just largely ceased to be Dak and Fak.

The process continues. The laws and customs of individual tribes continue to fade into irrelevance. By now the Dak and the Fak have virtually lost their tribal identities, and the Hak and the Kak soon will join them. At last the original dozen have been assimilated into a single vast farming collective. Because tribal laws and customs have been reduced to nothing, tribal identities are all but unreadable. It's as easy for one of the Ak to live among the Hak as it is for a Belgian to live in France or for a New Yorker to live in San Francisco.

There is no more law in this farming collective.

The foundation thinkers of our culture imagined that our culture was born in a world empty of law. But our culture was born in a world absolutely full of law, and then proceeded to obliterate it -- quite inadvertently, I'm sure (at least in the beginning). Even the law of the original Tak tribe disappeared, rendered by this process as irrelevant as all the rest.

On the nature of received laws

As time went on, and the vacuum increased in size, it became obvious that some new form of law was needed. Since tribal law had been rendered obsolete, nothing remained now but to begin to invent laws . . .

This is of course a startling idea, the idea that laws could be anything but invented -- but that's exactly the point to be made about tribal laws. Tribal laws are never invented laws, they're always received laws. They're never the work of committees of living individuals, they're always the work of social evolution. They're shaped the way a bird's beak is shaped, or a mole's claw -- by what works. They never reflect a tribe's concern for what's "right" or "good" or "fair," they simply work -- for that particular tribe.

Nothing like invented law, which just spells out crimes and punishments, tribal law is something that works. It works well for all concerned. For tribal people, the law isn't a statute written in a book. It's the very fabric of their lives -- it's what makes them them and what distinguishes them from others -- who have their own ways of handling things which are the best for them. It can't possibly be said too often that there is no one right way for people to live; that's only the delusion of the most murderous and destructive culture that history has ever produced.

The world of the detribalized

The price to be paid for becoming part of the Taker revolution is detribalization -- the loss of tribal laws, customs, and identity. Since the detribalization of the Old World (by which I mean the Near East, the Far East, and Europe) occurred thousands of years before the earliest historical records, it became part of the Great Forgetting, and as such it was invisible to the foundation thinkers of our culture. As they reconstructed it in imagination, the first humans were just proto-urbanites -- farmers without farms, villagers without villages, city dwellers without cities. They couldn't possibly have imagined a whole world of tribal peoples becoming detribalized. When they looked into the past, they saw people setting out to build civilization, being already innately inclined toward civilization. When we look into the past no longer under the influence of the Great Forgetting, we see something very different: people inadvertently (but systematically) obliterating a highly successful lifestyle -- then scurrying like mad to knock together something to replace it with. We've been scurrying ever since, and every year our legislators and political thinkers go back to work at the ceaseless task of trying to knock together something as workable as what we destroyed.

People will sometimes charge me with just being in love with tribalism. They say to me in effect, "If you love it so much, why don't you just go do it and leave the rest of us alone?" Those who understand me in this way totally misunderstand what I'm saying. The tribal lifestyle isn't precious because it's beautiful or lovable or because it's "close to nature." It isn't even precious because it's "the natural way for people to live." To me, this is gibberish. The tribal life is precious because it is tested out. For 3,000,000 years it worked for people. It worked for people the way nests work for birds, the way webs work for spiders, the way burrows work for moles. That doesn't make it lovable, it makes it viable.

People will also say to me, "Well, if it was so wonderful, why didn't it last?" The answer is that it did last -- it has lasted right up to the present moment. It continues to work, but the fact that something works doesn't make it invulnerable. Burrows and nests and webs can all be destroyed, but that doesn't change the fact that they work. Tribalism can be destroyed and indeed has largely been destroyed, but that doesn't change the fact that it worked for 3,000,000 years and still works today as well as it ever did.

And the fact that tribalism works doesn't mean that something else can't work.. The trouble is that our particular something else isn't working -- doesn't work and can't work. It bears with it its own seeds of destruction. It's fundamentally unstable. And unfortunately it had to reach global proportions before the nature of its instability could be recognized.

It's important to realize that ours wasn't the only lifestyle experiment going on at this time. Birds experiment with nests -- that's how nests evolved in the first place and how they continue to evolve. We can't know what experiments in human culture were made in the Old World -- they were all obliterated by the Taker experiment -- but we know a lot about experiments that were made elsewhere. What's fascinating about them is that these cultural variants were being tested just the way variants within a species are tested. What worked survived, what didn't work perished, leaving behind its fossilized remains -- irrigation ditches, roads, cities, temples, pyramids. People everywhere were looking for alternatives to the traditional tribal way of making a living -- hunting and gathering. They were looking at full-time agriculture and settlement, but if their particular experiment didn't work, they were prepared to let it go -- and they did so again and again. It used to be considered a great mystery. What became of these ancient builders who carved strange cities out of the jungles and deserts? Were they whisked away into another dimension? No, they just quit. They just went back to something they could count on to work.

What made the Taker experiment different from all of these was its very quirky belief that the Taker way was the way people were meant to live -- people everywhere, forever, no matter what. To the Takers, it didn't matter whether it worked. It didn't matter if people liked it. It didn't matter if people suffered the torments of hell. This was the one right way for people to live. This bizarre notion made it impossible for people to give it up, no matter how badly it worked. If it doesn't work, then you'll just have to suffer.

If it doesn't work, suffer

And suffer they did.

It's not hard to figure out what made people cling to the tribal life -- and makes them cling to it wherever it's still found today. Tribal peoples have their full share of suffering to do, but in the tribal life, no one suffers unless everyone suffers. There's no class or group of people who are expected to do the suffering -- and no class or group of people who are exempt from suffering. If you think this sounds entirely too good to be true, check it out. In the tribal life there are no rulers to speak of; elders or chiefs -- almost always part-time -- exert influence rather than power. There's nothing equivalent to a ruling class -- or to a rich or privileged class. There's nothing equivalent to a working class -- or to a poor or underprivileged class. If this sounds ideal, well, why shouldn't it be, after 3,000,000 years of evolutionary shaping? You're not surprised that natural selection has organized elephants in a way that works well for elephants. Why should you be surprised that natural selection organized people in a way that worked well for people?

And conversely, why should you be surprised that the founders of our culture, having obliterated a lifestyle tested over a period of 3,000,000 years, were unable to instantly slap together a replacement that was just as good? Really, the task was a formidable one. We've been working at it for 10,000 years, ad where are we?

The very first thing to go was the very thing that made tribal life a success: its social, economic, and political egalitarianism. As soon as our revolution began, the process of division began, between rulers and ruled, rich and poor, powerful and powerless, masters and slaves. The suffering class had arrived, and that class (as it would always be) was the masses.

We entered the historical era and the Great Forgetting was complete. The tribal life had been gone for thousands of years. No one in the entire civilized world, East or West, remembered a time when perfectly ordinary people -- the kind of people who now made up the suffering masses -- lived well, and human society was not divided into those who are expected to suffer and those who are exempt from suffering.