WeeklyWorker

27.06.2019
George Catlin: ‘White Cloud, head chief of the Iowas’ (c1845)

No future in the past

Jack Conrad concludes his series of articles by questioning both brutish and romantic images of pre-modern society

Almost without exception, greens of every stripe, variety and hue display a half-dreamy, half-sinister fondness for the past - they did things better then.

Feudal greens, such as Edward Goldsmith, imagine England returning to the purported social stability and ecology of contented serfs, loyal vassals, chaste damsels, gallant knights, Christian alms-giving and strong monarchs. Essentially, a dumb repetition of Young England in the 19th century:

Each knew his place - king, peasant, peer or priest -

The greatest owned connection with the least;

From rank to rank the generous feeling ran,

And linked society as man to man.

(Lord Manners, ‘England’s trust’, 1841).1

Feudalism’s incessant warfare, ever shifting lordly coalitions, the inbuilt conflict between landholder and peasant, recurring famines, devastating outbursts of bubonic plague, social explosions, the transmission of communistic ideas through countless heretical religious sects - all that goes forgotten, overlooked or denied. True, 19th-century capitalism is denounced because of urban sprawl, fetid slums, social dislocation and ecological destruction. But equally feudal greens castigate mass migration, the spread of irreligion, the outbreak of strikes and the countervailing power of working class socialism. Humanity must obey nature’s iron laws … which seem to have been fixed some time in the 13th century.

Ecofascism adheres to a not dissimilar agenda. Alike, Britain First, National Action, the National Front and the British National Party want rid of immigration, reds and politically correct liberal guilt. That way, the destruction of so-called traditional industry and traditional farming by cosmopolitan finance capital can be ended. That way, Britain will be made great again.

The Green Party in England and Wales likewise aspires to slay the cosmopolitan dragon. It is the national which is venerated and must be preserved. In the name of sustainability the ideal is small shops, small farms and small-scale industrial production. That way, the country will be made eco-friendly.

Then there are the nature-worshiping deep greens. At least their immediate perspectives are not confined by suffocating national boundaries. Industry, agriculture, science and civilisation itself are all denounced as crimes against Mother Earth. The solution is global. But the final destination is decidedly parochial. Back to Mother Earth’s womb.

Meanwhile, single-issue protests over nuclear power, climate change, waste incineration, new roads, animal experimentation, fracking, etc provide short-lived focal points. But - shying away from the centrality of the working class, sustained party structures, a democratically agreed programme and corresponding political actions, not least fighting elections - any brief moments of media glory are merely the prelude to dissipation, fractious disagreements and therefore quick dispersal. There then follows the inevitable wait in purgatory before the next little rebellion begins.

Dropping out, squatting, heading off from one action to another, volunteering for an international NGO, spending the winter “somewhere warm” to stop forest destruction, all are lauded as admirable life-style choices.2 Hardly practical, though, for the vast majority of the population. Nonetheless, a ‘withdrawalist’ minority go still further. The Guardian’s Mark Boyle boasts of doing without modern gadgets, the national grid, conventional medicines, credit cards and money in his ‘Life without technology’ column.3 Others mimic the ceremonies, trappings and belief-systems of imagined Druids, nomadic Africans or native North Americans. A dippy, mad-cap, entirely unconvincing return to the past. Animals, plants, the rocks themselves, are once again ascribed human qualities and feelings. A new paganism. But entirely fake. Academics in the field write of “fiction, parody and play”.4

With yawning predictably, Earth First! presents itself not as a “formally organised group”, but as an “anti-hierarchical” movement based on the hunter-gather “tribe”. In fact, behind the horizontal facade, two “governing structures” stand and operate: (1) the Circle of Darkness, consisting of 12 individuals; (2) La Manta Mojada, made up of eight advisors to the Circle, who, because they come from “moderate conservative groups”, keep their names secret.5 A deep-green version of Mikhail Bakunin’s hand-picked, invisible and unaccountable, revolutionary “general staff”.6

Some green primitives look back further still. Much further. If only by implication genocidal plans are laid for an escape from “10,000 years of darkness and captivity” (John Zerzan).7 The end goal is the Palaeolithic - maybe even before that. Before language, before symbolic culture. Either way, the past is upheld as a shining example to strive towards. The supposed harmony of prehistoric hominids with their environment is enthusiastically contrasted with capitalism’s inherent short-termism. Whereas capitalism affords nature no value, the life activity of our long-gone ancestors is equated with the lightest of ecological footprints.

A couple of examples will suffice to underline the point. David Orton (1934-2011) - a former Maoist and a founder of ‘left-biocentrism’ - advocated “the necessity for an Earth-centred spiritual transformation”, so that human interests are placed in a context of “respect for all other species and using past animistic societies as possible models, from which much can be learnt”.8 In particular, he has the North American native populations in mind.

Likewise, according to ecofeminist Charlene Spretnak,

The roots of green in American culture reach back to our earliest origins. For more than 20,000 years native Americans have maintained a deeply ecological sense of the subtle forces that link humans and nature, always emphasising the need for balance and for reverence toward Mother Earth.9

Essentially, the claim is that native-American religion and its shamans interpreted and resolved problems encountered with the environment. Hence, it was said, animals possess a spirit which has to be respected. If appropriate rituals are observed, they will freely give themselves up to the hunters. However, there existed a paralysing fear of ‘spiritual reprisal’ if rituals were not conscientiously followed. That limited the overall take of animals. Some greens admiringly call this ‘deep stewardship’ - a term dismissed as “arrogance” by the deepest of deep greens.10

Besides native North Americans, praise is lavished on native Hawaiians, Amazonian Amerindians, Australian aborigines and the indigenous peoples of just about every continent, country and region. There is no need to further quote their green admirers. The claim that the ‘noble savage’ lived in near perfect balance with nature and should therefore be considered some kind of model is widespread and well known. It needs no further repetition.

Noble savage

Philosophically, the idea of the ‘noble savage’ has a long history, but surely the most celebrated comes with the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). For him tribal peoples and their society was the “only natural one”.11 There were others, of course, before him who attempted to describe human beings in their ‘natural state’; Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704) being particularly notable, not least because they appear at first glance to represent polar opposites.

The accounts of both Hobbes and Locke rely on discovering - or more accurately, logically making a case for - humanity in its primeval or pristine state. The claim being that this would reveal the human essence: what is fundamental, what is universal and what is unchanging about our species. Suitably informed, the great thinkers could then loftily recommend/announce which form of governance best suited human society. However, though their approaches are similar, as noted above, each man came out with conclusions that seem, at least at first glance, to be diametrically opposed.

In Leviathan (1651) Hobbes declares that humans are naturally selfish - everyday experience told him that. People lie, people cheat, people even kill each other for seemingly trivial reasons. Without the order brought about by the invention of the state and its laws, there is a war of each against each and each against all. Life under natural conditions is therefore “poore, nasty, brutish, and short”.12 An idea given ‘scientific’ credentials nowadays by evolutionary psychologists, such as Harvard professor Steven Pinker: the “logic of violence” pervades human affairs, and humans spent almost their entire time on this planet locked into violent struggle. Invoking Hobbes, Pinker agrees that the “natural state of men, before they entered into society, was a mere war; and that not simply, but a war of all men against all men”.13 Bluntly, for Pinker, the state serves to rein in innate male aggression. As a result of its benevolent role, human societies become increasingly peaceful. Actually the evidence shows exactly the opposite picture. In their African homeland hunter-gatherer societies engaged in no organised violence. They were “warless”.14 It is the decay of egalitarianism, the oppression of women, the emergence of private property, slavery, classes and the state which brings war.

Hobbes advocated an absolute monarchy … albeit with sneaky caveats that conceivably left the door ajar for corrective revolutionary action. No wonder he was celebrated as the pre-eminent philosopher by neocons such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby. Hobbes did not claim that his state of nature ever existed. It was the human condition without a sovereign. Thankfully, throughout history, those exercising power imposed the necessary restraints on humanity’s savage impulses. Adam was monarch of all he surveyed. So too was Noah. So too was the USA post-1989-91. At least that is what Donald Rumsfeld and co thought before the Iraqi quagmire showed them the limitations of American power.

For Locke, people in their natural state exist in “a state of perfect freedom”.15 Fundamentally they are interdependent and share a natural right to life, liberty and possessions. However, in Two treatises on government (1689) Locke argues that the state was necessary to prevent the triumph of narrow sectional interest over the common good - an arrangement that has to rest on consent. The state should certainly not behave in an arbitrary manner. If it goes beyond the “law”, that is when “tyranny begins”. The obedience subjects owe to the state can then be legitimately revoked - unlike in the more rigid account of Hobbes. To the degree that the state ceases to stand guard over natural human rights - above all property - “revolutions” find their justification for Locke.16

All in all, Locke provides a sophisticated and open-ended legitimisation of the class compromise cemented between the monarchy, the aristocracy and the upper bourgeoisie by the 1688 glorious revolution. But Locke’s ideas have a significance beyond their particular time and the class interests that produced them. His stress on natural rights proved of particular inspirational value for the next generation of bourgeois radicals. Their impact on the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 is hard to overestimate.

Three things were crucial for the rising bourgeoisie. First, ending the privileging of aristocratic blood over the talent to use money to make money. Secondly, a legal (ie, rule-based, backed by force of arms) defence of accumulated wealth against arbitrary extractions or confiscations by government. Thirdly, defence of that wealth from the men of no property - the levelling people, the mob, the demos. That is what the bourgeoisie means by liberty.

Seen in that light, the ground separating Hobbes and Locke diminishes. It is by no means as wide as it might initially appear. When all is said and done, they defend property from two different angles, advocate two different means to achieve more or less the same end. Whereas Hobbes calculated that the best guarantee for property was the order and continuity provided by the absolutist state, Locke trusted in liberalism and law itself. However, what concerns us is not how to defend private property, but human nature itself. Over to Rousseau.

Rousseau

He provides his fullest account of the natural human being in the Discourse on the origin and foundations of inequality among men (1754). Rousseau disagrees with the classical assumption that human beings were from the beginning social. Eg, Aristotle claims that society and the state “were natural”.17 Rousseau knows that society is an artificial construct.

Like Hobbes and Locke he too tries to discover the true nature of human beings by stripping away all the attributes commonly associated with society and the state. Human nature is equated with what humans are in a pure state of nature.

Rousseau provides an account that within itself contains two distinct arguments. On the one hand, he treats his claims for natural human beings as a metaphor. Opening his Discourse, Rousseau says that it is unlikely that humanity ever existed in the “pure state of nature” … though possibly they “fell back into it from some very extraordinary circumstance”.18 As ‘proof’ he cites biblical revelation and the Genesis story, where God bestows understanding upon Adam. This genuflection before orthodox Christianity is surely a safety device. Blasphemy charges were a real and ever-present danger. Despite Adam, Rousseau says he will treat humanity in the “pure state of nature” - as a hypothesis, merely as a means of presenting his case and furthering the argument.

On the other hand, Rousseau claims that his account is genuinely historical. He cites reports of so-called savage peoples, particularly in the Americas, relayed by explorers, colonists and travellers. Amongst them, their original state, along with the first stirrings which progress humanity from nature to civil society, are, he says, empirically observable.

Rousseau then disagrees with Hobbes. After he had mentally stripped humanity of the attributes of civilisation - laws, state, tools and machines - all that was left in Hobbes’s mind was brutality and constant warfare. Not for Rousseau. Brutality would mean classifying human beings beneath other animals. Mothers - be they human, horse or hound - exhibit the most tender feelings towards their offspring. Animals also show, says Rousseau, empathy for the sufferings of other members of their own species.

War, he further reasoned, necessitates language, pre-planning, jealousy and notions of property. Citing “the wise” Locke, Rousseau says: “There can be no injury, where there is no property.”19 Natural humanity did not possess any of these above-mentioned features, reckons Rousseau. Language, jealousy and property come not directly from nature: they develop historically. Once again in contradistinction to Hobbes, Rousseau describes natural humanity as gentle, compassionate and yet without the foresight needed to worry about what the future will bring. As for language, all they had by way of communication was the “cry of nature”: grunts, screams and gestures.

Not that Rousseau fails to differentiate natural human beings from other animals. Humans have free will and the capacity to progress. So in their natural condition they are animal-like, but show inklings that eventually lead towards civilised society. First, there is the patriarchal family and married love, then the hunting band and cooperation, then villages and commerce … finally, after many thousands of years, there comes enlightened freedom. Once the circumstances arise that trigger reason, humanity begins to slowly grope towards its destiny. In this process Rousseau gives pride of place to the smelting of iron and the cultivation of grain. There is a sting in the tail. Together iron and grain “civilised men, and ruined humanity”.20 With civilisation (industry and agriculture) there arises inequality and egotism, the division of labour and property, social classes and war.

Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ is one of those widely misunderstood phrases. It surely rates alongside Marx’s humorous put-down of Paul Lafargue, his son-in-law - if what Lafargue was saying was Marxism, then he was no Marxist: “ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi je ne suis pas Marxiste”.21 Lafargue and other socialists in France had in the name of ‘Marxism’ been peddling a particularly vulgar form of materialism, which posited various opportunist short cuts to socialism. Out of such “I am no Marxist” scraps various Marxologists have created a whole system, whereby the use of the term ‘Marxist’ becomes unMarxist.22

Rousseau conceived humanity as being naturally good: the ‘noble savage’ is free from the vices that plague civil society. However - and this needs emphasising - Rousseau is not advocating a return to nature (a viewpoint attributed to him by others, including contemporaries such as Voltaire). Human beings in the state of nature are amoral. They are childlike, neither virtuous nor vicious. Humans develop civilisation stage by stage ... thereby they can proceed from “no moral relations” to becoming a “moral being” - a theme elaborated in The social contract (1762).

Nevertheless, according to Rousseau, during the first stages of civilisation those who had most - and most to lose - supposedly offered a deal to protect everyone. The state. It allowed the powerful to keep their riches, but the rest had to be fooled into accepting unfreedom. Rousseau imaginatively pictures the scene:

All ran headlong to their chains, in hopes of securing their liberty; for they had just wit enough to perceive the advantages of political institutions, without experience enough to enable them to foresee the dangers. The most capable of foreseeing the dangers were the very persons who expected to benefit by them; and even the most prudent judged it not inexpedient to sacrifice one part of their freedom to ensure the rest; as a wounded man has his arm cut off to save the rest of his body.23

Rousseau outlined a new, just, social contract. An abstract one. His benign “small state” reflects the general will and plays a vital role in securing “liberty and equality”.24 However, capitalist exchange continues unaffected, as does the master-servant relationship. He also - conveniently, haughtily, misguidedly - elevates the educator above society. Rousseau’s social contract is therefore in the final analysis revolutionary-conservative. Certainly lacking is a viable social agent for change. Rousseau’s approach reflects the frustrations, contradictions and limitations of his own social position: well-connected with those above, who considered him their social inferior; isolated from those below, whom he considered his social inferiors.

Marxism

Many rightwing ideologues take an almost puerile delight in making the claim that there exists some unbroken thread joining “Rousseau’s appeal for a return to nature” with the team of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. The Anglo-Austrian guru of so-called free-market capitalism, Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1992), being not the least amongst them.25

True, both Rousseau and Marxism disparage the ‘natural’ claims of property; true, both Rousseau and Marxism maintain that society is the main cause of social ills. Logically that posits social solutions. But neither Marx nor Engels believed in Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’, nor the idea that humanity begins as a tablula rasa. They mocked all such ‘just-so stories’. Marx dismissively called them “Robinsonades”.26

Marx and Engels did write about “human nature” and “species being”. Such phrases, or their near equivalent, pepper their works from the German ideology to Capital (they produced no systematic account). But for Marx and Engels these concepts are not spun out of thin air. Nor are they inherited unchanged from the speculations of their philosophical predecessors. Marx and Engels do not rely on a primordial account of the first humans as being either selfish or altruistic. Rather what is being referred to when they write of human nature is needs, desires, abilities, interrelationships and potentialities.

Like animals, humans are flesh, blood and bone, must regularly drink and consume food; they too have a sex drive and reproduce. In that sense alone, human nature lies outside history. However, the needs, desires, abilities, interrelationships and potentialities of humanity distinguish it from other animals. As humans are conscious beings, there is nothing fixed about their nature. Needs, desires, abilities, interrelationships and potentialities are malleable, can be extended, can become something else. Humans make themselves through practice and they do so within the whole matrix of historically determined circumstances. Each epoch, each social formation has its own particular effect.

History therefore sees the continuous transformation of human nature - something which by definition concerns both human beings themselves and the objects they make and use. Eg, all human beings have a vital requirement to eat food. But there is a huge difference between a little group of Homo erectus hunter-gatherers, huddling around a protective campfire and cooking bits of scavenged meat, and modern city-dwellers lounging in front of their ultra-wide TV screens, eating Zizzi vegan pizzas delivered by an Uber Eats driver.

Human nature is fluid and is realised through society and a transformed nature. Between humanity (itself part of nature, of course) and the objects it fashions there is an internal relationship. This is what Marxism understands by human nature and why human nature involves the relationship between the individual and nature and the individual with society.

Each individual member of the human species is conscious of themselves as a member of the human species and relies upon others for their humanity - therefore humanity is fundamentally sociable. However, private property distorts individual and collective development. It makes humans one-sided. Possession becomes the main goal of life. Once money becomes capital, the human personality is further impoverished. What is innate is subordinated, put into the service of the outward world of accumulation.

The supersession of capital is therefore the “complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities, but it is this emancipation precisely because these senses and attributes have become, subjectively and objectively, human”.27 Marx evocatively remarks that humans under communism become in their practice theoreticians. Correspondingly, the objects of nature are viewed as themselves, not simply as objects to be taken possession of. Egotism gives way to the full richness of the human personality. To become fully individual is therefore to become fully social and vice versa. Marx says that communism, as the positive transcendence of alienation, is the “complete return of man to himself as a social (ie, human) being”. A return which genuinely resolves the “conflict between man and nature and between man and man” and between the individual and society.28

This return is not a matter of going backwards. It is a dialectical return that resembles a spiral - a return on a higher level. That is a crucial distinction. Class bias, intellectual prostitution or sheer stupidity (sometimes they amount to the same thing) has produced a widespread failure to grasp this elementary proposition of Marxism. Hence the doubly ignorant rightwing accusations of Rousseauism - doubly ignorant because Rousseau is himself charged with wanting to go backwards.

Breezily, the same critics of Marxism tell us with the utmost self-assurance that there can only be further progress on capitalist terms. Egotism is accepted as natural (a baseless ideological assumption). More than that, egotism is celebrated as the main motor of wealth generation. By the same measure empty promises are made that third-world poverty will be made history, if only their governments abide by the neoliberal strictures of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank (that or they sell themselves into China’s highly “unequal” Belt and Road Initiative29). With the same baseless assurance, technological solutions are offered for other structural problems, such as crime, pandemics and ecological degradation. The entire package is treated as common sense in the media and thereby trickles down into the brains of the more gullible sections of the population.

Either capitalism, we are told, or a violation of the laws of nature. The dialectical view of history completely passes them by: dismissed as utopian, impossible to understand or more often than not a crazy wish to re-enact Stalin’s gulags, Mao’s great famine and Pol Pot’s killing fields.

Past imperfect

Marxism is a project to return humanity to humanity, yes, but that does not posit or imply a return to the past. Marx-Engels expressed a definite, even a glowing, admiration for many features of primitive - ie, original - communism. But they had no wish to relive humanity’s childhood. That prospect is entirely illusory. As Marx wrote in the first version of Capital (1857-58),

An adult cannot become a child again or he becomes childish. But does not the naivety of the child give him pleasure? … Why should not the historical childhood of humanity, where it attained its most beautiful form, exert an eternal charm as a stage that will never recur?30

In that spirit, Engels, following the anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, says this in his Origin of the family, private property and the state (1884):

The shabbiest police servant in the civilised state has more ‘authority’ than all the organs of gentile society put together; but the most powerful prince and the greatest statesman or commander of civilisation might envy the humblest gentile chief for the unforced and undisputed respect paid to him. The one stands in the midst of society; the other is forced to attempt to represent something outside and above it.31

Original communism knew no standing army or tax-collecting officials, no laws or lawyers, no judges or police, no prisons or prison wardens - the basic apparatus of the modern state. Nevertheless, though lacking these Hobbesian restraints, there was neither disorder nor an unending war of each against all. Society functioned - and functioned perfectly well for many tens of thousands of years. For the vast bulk of humanity’s time on this planet we lived under conditions of plenty, moving on when conditions required, doing relatively little necessary labour - and we did so peacefully and very successfully. It was communist humanity which danced, sang, invented language and fanned out from the African Eden into Asia, Australia, Europe and finally the Americas.

The human revolution happened some 200,000 years ago - a defining social act arguably led by women, albeit supported by male allies; a revolution which involved the overthrow of alpha-male domination by the forces of collective interest and collective solidarity.32

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the individual under original communism did not act without restraint. There were definite boundaries in terms of behaviour, often established through customs and taboos, along with a deeply ingrained moral sense of what is right and what is wrong.

Nor did original communism enjoy ‘natural’ Lockean private property. Land was viewed as no different from the air and sky. Hunting was done by adult males in the group and the kill was handed over to the women of the tribe for cooking and then divided amongst all members. To eat your own kill before it was cooked and divided was taboo. Housing was often shared too - common halls for adult men, with women and children having their own separate quarters. Married couples cohabited only for a couple of weeks in social life’s moon-governed monthly cycle.

Women were certainly respected. Indeed they were central and often played the leading role in ceremonies, marriage arrangements and tribal customs. Similarly, children were, according to the communist ethos, neither thought of as possessions nor taught to be possessive.

Is this an example of worshipping the ‘noble savage’ and wanting to return to the past? Obviously not. Marxists are well aware of the material limitations of original communism. Conditions permitted only the partial development of the individual personality. In fact in terms of potential they were stunted, and that necessarily meant relations between human beings and nature achieved some kind of sustainable balance only through a process - often highly destructive - of trial and error.

Australia’s wise aboriginal ecologists, the Amerindian nature-lovers and all the other native peoples who lived in perfect harmony with their environment are in many ways the creation of the green imagination. Upon examination they turn out to rather more problematic.

Nothing in history remotely compares with capitalism’s plunder of nature. Yet pre-capitalist societies, including communistic tribal peoples, were quite capable of inflicting horrendous damage upon their environments. There was overhunting, fire-stick burning, deforestation, the ruination of the soil … and population collapse. Tribal people often managed to develop sophisticated religious myths, customs and social structures which helped establish a sustainable balance between themselves and the rest of nature. Yet this was often, because of their own previous actions, a much reduced and impoverished nature. It is therefore foolish in the extreme to present tribal peoples as model stewards.

Moving out of Africa - the planet’s most humanised continent, which still boasts in comparative terms a rich and relatively robust environment - about 80,000 years ago, humans wrought havoc wherever they went. Animals, unused to and unafraid of us, were slaughtered on a huge scale. Easy meat. Whereas in Africa humans and nature coevolved over a considerable, drawn-out period, once our ancestors crossed over into Asia and from there pushed into the other four habitable continents, they amounted to a highly destructive, alien species.

The first humans reached northern Australia from Timor about 65,000 years ago.33 By the time the whole continent had been colonised from shore to shore it had been thoroughly, negatively transformed. Before human habitation Australia had been home to an astonishing variety of now extinct megafauna. Amongst them were some of the biggest reptilian and mammalian carnivores ever seen. Eg, a marsupial lion, the thylacoleo carnifex, weighed about 160kg and was reputedly the equivalent of the sabre-toothed tiger. The thylacoleo carnifex seems to have specialised in hunting marsupial herbivores, such as the diprotodon, an animal as big as the modern rhinoceros. Another species was the enormous wombat, the phascolonus gigas. There was also a huge bird, commonly called the Thunderbird, which weighed up to 500kg and was possibly a carnivore or at least an over-engineered vegetarian.

Why did these animals become extinct? Some have blamed climate change. But Australia’s climate was relatively mild and wet some 50,000 years ago. So aridity was not the cause. Most experts pinpoint us humans as the culprit. We were responsible for wiping out the megafauna. Of course, there have always been extinctions. But human beings in Australia had an effect similar to an asteroid strike. The extinction rate was speeded up a thousandfold compared with what had gone before.

What went for the megafauna also went for the flora. Australia’s aborigines regularly burnt whole chunks of the landscape. That encouraged new, verdant growth of certain plants. This attracted desired game animals. However, it simultaneously saw general degradation. A whole range of trees and shrubs disappeared entirely. More importantly, given Australia’s thin soils and precarious ecosystem, there was rapid erosion of the topsoil and a resulting desertification throughout the western continental interior.34

In this continent of ghosts the aborigines cleverly learnt to survive by preserving what remained. Hence their extreme social conservatism. Aborigines religiously copied the ways of their ancestors. Consequently there was not much by the way of technological innovation. In fact the aborigines discarded and forgot about the bow and arrow, and replaced it with the boomerang and the throwing spear. But to all intents and purposes, that was about it. Life was circular and customary, not innovative and expansive.

This was the impoverished, but stable, situation encountered by 19th-century British migrants. Into the empty ecological spaces created by the aboriginal entry millennia before, they consciously, or accidentally, introduced rats, foxes, rabbits into the wild (and farmed masses of domestic sheep). All this significantly further degraded the environment. With plenty of vacant niches, and a degraded new equilibrium, the ecosystem was extremely vulnerable to any sudden disturbance.

To get an idea of the way rats, foxes and rabbits have impacted on Australia, take the Serengeti in Africa today. Probably central Australia looked something like that before we humans arrived. Imagine what would happen if rats, foxes or rabbits were introduced into the Serengeti environment today. They would surely quickly perish. Long before they could reproduce, the chances are they would be snapped up as a free meal. Everything tells us that they would be comprehensively outcompeted, such are the imbedded native species, which are without exception better adapted and are packed into the ecosystem. There are no empty spaces.

But remove everything bigger than the wildebeest, get rid of the Serengeti’s jackals, lions, leopards and cheetahs and all of a sudden there would be the niches needed for an explosion in rat, fox and rabbit numbers. That is what happened in Australia - and a similar story can be told for the rest of the world, not least the Americas.

There, the arrival of migrating humans from Asia was accompanied by mass extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna (horses, camels, ground sloths and mammoths, among many others). Scientific studies also show that the mass extinctions and near-extinctions did not finish with the disappearance of the megafauna. Local and regional extinctions, linked in many cases to human activity, continued, albeit at a slower rate.

Eg, when American explorers, adventurers and trappers arrived in California during the late 18th and early 19th century, they were amazed by the superabundance of birds, elk, deer, marine mammals and other wildlife. Scouring their books, journals and letters, greens assume that such richness represented California’s natural condition - a product of the ‘noble savage’ and their respectful/reverential attitude towards nature and empathy for its flora and fauna.

A cosy assumption undermined by recent archaeological studies, which show that - far from the native Americans presiding over an ecologically self-sustaining system, in which humanity and nature existed in perfect harmony, because of their deep stewardship of nature - there is another explanation. Eg, from 2,600 to around 500 years ago, some species were hunted to local extinction. Wildlife only returned in superabundance to places like California after European diseases, such as smallpox, malaria and influenza, decimated the Amerindian populations, starting in the 16th century. Around 90% of them died. Hunting pressures thereby diminished considerably. By the mid-19th century, geese and duck were so numerous that they could be killed simply by firing a random shot into the air. Or so the story goes.

Either way, there is no future in the past.


  1. J Manners England’s trust and other poems London 1841, p16.

  2. eco-action.org/go/index.html.

  3. www.theguardian.com/profile/mark-boyle.

  4. See SJ Sutcliffe and CM Cusack (eds) The problem of invented religions Abingdon Oxon 2016.

  5. G Nagtzaam From environmental action to ecoterrorism?: towards a process theory of environmental and animal rights orientated political violence Cheltenham 2017, pp134-35.

  6. See Bakunin’s June 1870 ‘Rebuke to Nechayev’: public-library.uk/ebooks/80/86.pdf.

  7. www.primitivism.com/transition.htm.

  8. Synthesis/Regeneration No37, spring 2005: www.greens.org/s-r/37/37-12.html.

  9. www.context.org/iclib/ic07/spretnak.

  10. A Naess Ecology, community and lifestyle: outline of an ecosophy Cambridge 2001, p183.

  11. J-J Rousseau The social contract Ware 1998, p6.

  12. T Hobbes Leviathan New York NY 2004, p90.

  13. S Pinker The better angels of our nature London 2011 pp32-34.

  14. See RC Kelly Warless societies and the origin of war Ann Arbor MI 2000.

  15. J Locke Two treatises of government London 1821, p189.

  16. Ibid p381.

  17. Aristotle The politics London 1992, p59.

  18. www.constitution.org/jjr/ineq_03.htm.

  19. www.constitution.org/jjr/ineq_04.htm.

  20. Ibid.

  21. F Engels, letter to C Schmidt, in K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 49, New York NY 2001, p7.

  22. Eg, Maximilien Rubel’s essay, ‘The legend of Marx, or “Engels the founder”’ (1970) - see marxmyths.org/maximilien-rubel/article.htm. Doubtless, not wishing to be seen as a swellhead, Marx had no wish to describe himself as a ‘Marxist’ anyway (nor did Lenin describe himself as a Leninist, or Trotsky as a Trotskyist). Opponents did though. And, following them, so did friends. Hence, Engels had no trouble describing himself as a Marxist. In Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosophy he makes the obvious point: “Without him [Marx] the theory would not be by far what it is today. It therefore rightly bears his name” (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 26, London 1990, p382n).

  23. www.constitution.org/jjr/ineq_04.htm.

  24. J-J Rousseau The social contract London 2010, pp41, 46.

  25. FA Hayek The fatal conceit: the errors of socialism London 1988, p153.

  26. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 28, Moscow 1986, p17.

  27. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 3, London 1975, p300.

  28. Ibid p296.

  29. Opinion, ‘China’s belt and road initiative is falling short’ Financial Times July 29 2018.

  30. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 28, Moscow 1986, pp47-48.

  31. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 26, London 1990, p270.

  32. For the seminal work of the revolutionary school of anthropologists who updated Engels, see C Knight Blood relations London 1995.

  33. C Clarkson et al, ‘Human occupation of northern Australia by 65,000 years ago’ Nature July 2017.

  34. See T Flannery The future eaters: an ecological study of history of Australian lands and people Port Melbourne 1994.