History is written through the political prism of the writer. Thus when Rousseau wanted to prove that man in a state of nature was good, free and equal he offered up primitive societies, about which he knew almost nothing, as an example. Hobbes, on the other hand, wanting to prove that man in a state of nature was violent and wicked and needed a king to keep from self-destructing, depicted that sort of primitive society.
Which one was right? They both were, partly. In the earliest condition of mankind, and the one that lasted the longest, bands of related hunter-gatherers did indeed live free and equal and the band did indeed share. Perhaps this free and democratic lifestyle is stuck in our collective unconscious, because we seem to look back on it with longing.
On the other hand, these same bands did not necessarily extend the same kindness to neighboring bands. Neighboring bands might be peaceful trading partners (trading goods and DNA) or they might be enemies, suitable for raiding, killing and enslaving.
So mankind in a state of nature can be generous, fair, nurturing,violent, callous and unjust depending on whether he was dealing with fellow band members or strangers. Have we really changed much in 100,000 years?
Bands grew into tribes, then grew into chiefdoms and voila-we have a ruling class, which fairly quickly formed a “band” at the top that exploited those under them. The top band can get away with this until it gets too greedy. Then it destroys the very society it depends on. Have we really changed that much in 30,000 years?
For example, the Ugweno tribe in Tanzania had passed through band-tribe-chiefdom-greed stages by the time they were colonized by Germany in 1884. The greed of the top band was tolerated until it became intolerable and the peasants revolted. Alarmed by the peasant revolt, the Ugweno leaders called on a neighboring tribe to help put down the revolt.
The neighboring tribe arrived on the scene and decided, to heck with the leader of the Ugweno, they would take over the peasants them selves. The new regime was weak, the original regime was weak and when the Germans arrived, they took over with relative ease. Greedy leaders are still the bane of African stability.
The Ugweno could have avoided this fate if the elites had not been so greedy. They could have done what the ancients in the Levant did (having figured out the danger of compound interest) and periodically cancelled all debts, so that society could start over.
We are quite aware that greed is destroying our societies as we speak. When will that band at the top have enough? Will they ever learn that they must limit their greed or go down in flames? Have they changed much in the past 2,000 years?
Might we look around and see what works? What is fair? I think we might. I think we have changed a little bit in the past 2,000 years. For one thing we could learn from history. We could open our eyes and our minds and look around for solutions.
We have the internet where we can share information all around the world within seconds, like a band sitting around the campfire, trying to decide where we should go tomorrow.
The World until Yesterday by Jared Diamond
Money and Debt by Michael Hudson (video)