Primitive society is familial. This is the fundamental bond between two people: the mother and child. The mother conceives in her belly. For months she carries another being within her own; and for many months thereafter she is totally consumed by the demands of this waily-poopy- inarticulate- daily- nuisance. Then for many years, she is responsible to it. Regardless of unresolved issues and whatever may arise, had she failed in this - from the earliest womb to the present - none of us would be alive.
And more than milk was passed between them. Harlow's classic research in the 1950's demonstrated that without contact - the warm embrace from the adult - the whole of the infant's life is wrecked. Having neither mother nor surrogate, the experiment bred trembling monkeys who would in no case be upwardly mobile. For the sake of these poor monkeys, we should recall this conclusion: the foundation of all civilizations - be they hominid or humanoid - is familial and the bond that unites it is nothing less than motherly love.
The core of this civilization is female. Mothers were burdened with the task of raising their offspring, while the male - typically - were more aloof. The causal connection between sex and pregnancy was not obvious nor commonly accepted - at least by the guys. (Weber, 1927, p 36) And annoyed by the wailing and poopy smell, they often retired to fraternal lodging and secret societies. Still, they remained within the greater community. Why is this? Some of these retro-active ties to community was mother- son, but as mothers generally die before sons, the lasting tie was brother- sister. Marriage, as a monogomous more-or-less permanent institution for father and mother is a relatively late development in civilized life. Preceding it was the "widespread institution of the "avunculate" in which her mother's brother is the woman's protector and her children inherit from him." (Ibid)
Such backward bonding has economic bearing - to be sure - but its primary impulse is social. According to Karl Polyani, the two principle means of economic transfer in primitive society are reciprocity and redistribution, based upon custom and ceremony. Reciprocity works mainly in regard to the sexual organization of society, that is, family and kinship; redistribution regards all those who are under a common chief and is, therefore, of a territorial character.
Reciprocity is a step removed from the maternal bond. It is not derived from devotion or love as exists at the level of union, but is more in the direction of what we would normally call "community." It is derived from conformity which is profoundly powerful in all hominid groups.
It is an interesting exercise to calculate how much time we spend each day just trying to define ourself to others in a favorable light. We present ourselves within the context of a value system, called "norms". By such comformity we expect to receive something in return - approval, sex, love, a big raise, etc. - or to avoid punishment or loss. Conformity is the external aspect of personality, which in itself is a construct - a conceptual self. Conformity is reciprocal: others are at the same time conforming to you. "Reciprocal relations between individuals are affirmative; they recognize the other's personality, interests and rights. They form a bridge between one ego and another, but they constitute no unity; they are as far from pure selfishness as from a close union." (Mueller-Deham, 1957, pp 3,4)
Secondly, as regards redistribution, one must first acknowledge the extent to which noneconomic aims form the core of the community. The men's societies have already been established. Its secret societies and rites of passage are not economic in the main - again, they may have economic effects if, for example, its ceremonial dances may deliver rain to the crops. Even so, it follows that if a good harvest is produced ceremoniously, its distribution proceeds ceremoniously also.
The ceremonial aspect of distribution reaches an absurd climax in the potlach ceremonies of the natives of Northwest Canada. It began as a way of sharing title to wealth with one's community so to allieviate conflict. But soon the value of the ceremony became more valuable than the wealth itself.
One may be tempted to scorn such displays as particularly primitive; though they are certainly no less rational than the efforts of civilized societies to outproduce stockpiles of expensive weaponry designed for the annihilation of our planet - together with their radioactive residue. Blankets and coins seem comparatively benign.
Moreover, such ceremonies as these formed a very cohesive social and economic unit in which the individual did not fear starvation - lest he himself ignore his own communal obligations - thereby generosity (more than averice ostentation) was produced.
Two further rules common to primitive communities which facilitate reciprocity and redistribution without formal accounting methods are what Polyani calls Symmetry and Centricity. Generalizing again from the Trobriand Islands, each coastal village has as "counterpart in an inland village, so that the important exchange of breadfruits and fish, though disguised as a reciprocal distribution of gifts, and actually disjoint in time, can be organized smoothly. In the Kula trade, too, each individual has his partner on another isle, thus personalizing to a remarkable extent the relationship of reciprocity. " (Ibid, pp 48, 49) Symmetry implies equality - also, harmony and balance. It is an exchange between equals, as contrast with superior-subordination or subjugation by conquest.
Centricity involves the selection of a head tribesman to whom the common catch or harvest is offered up. This headman forms the nucleus of the greater community. This center of economic activity and exchange "which is present to some extent in all human groups, provides a track for the collection, storage, and redistribution of goods and services" (Ibid, p. 49), and is able to fuse the community as well as assure the subsistence of every individual. "And the larger the territory and the more varied the produce, the more will redistribution result in an effective division of labor, since it must help to link up geographically differentiated groups of producers. " (Ibid)
We can further postulate that from this sexual division - from prehistory to the present, like it or not - civilization and domestic economy evolved by women; while men - by their fraternal order - developed tribunals and religious rites. Admission to the fraternity for the male child was itself a religious process in many communities. The men also hunted, domesticated animals, cleared forests and built houses. These duties were best done as a group. Finally - reluctantly perhaps, as submission to their narrowing familial units as with wives and descendents - they became wedded to agriculture and thereby responsible for plowing and grazing animals over large plots of land, while the women remained supreme in the household and garden.
Marriage and paternal obligations ultimately domesticated the men - ostensibly also within the domain of the women. But outside of the household, including the fields and pastures, and fashioning of tools and customs, and particularly in the spectrum of war, men retained control. (Weber, 1927)
Hunting and agriculture require a territory in which to hunt and farm. When tecnology is primitive - as in primitive communities - one group will quickly exhaust its territory and move on. Hence, the nomadic community.
The problem in so doing is that one group will eventually find its way into the territory of another group. Hence, competing pressures for scarce resources. The visited group will feel "invaded" and retaliate. In the beginning we might imagine a clumsy form of intimidation, using the same tools as for hunting. Later a specialized and skilled class of warrior evolved to not only defend one's territory, but to extend it to assume the territory and wealth of one's neighbors . Whenever one community so commits its resources, all other communities must do likewise. So has much of the hominid history been written.
Civilization and invasion thus arise together. The earliest civilization that we can decipher arose in the warm regions of Mesopotania, amidst several wandering Semitic tribes, where the technology of agriculture allowed a settled and stable life. To the north, however, were the nomadic Aryans. "It was inevitable that nomad folk and settled folk would clash. and that the nomads should seem hard barbarians to the settled peoples, and the settled peoples soft and effeminate and very good plunder to the nomad peoples. " (Wells, rev. ed. 1956, p. 130) The conquering warrior would assume the position of authority over the civilized society, acquire language and a taste for the arts from them, but maintain a warrior distinction, the "shame culture" of nobility, whereby in a contest of honor with others of their class, several thousand subjects, their subsistence and culture, would be sacrificed.
With the shift in economy from work to war, the property stucture of the community also shifted from matrilineal to patrilineal. A warrior would hire out his services to the community, through the chieftan, in exchange for the produce of the land rather than the land itself. This could also happen as a process of inheritance - the land being passed to the eldest son, the other sons would have to hire out anyway. Some would go to work making ploughs, for example, for the farmers. Or perhaps, they would make spears. Specialization developed among many lines. But the force that united community at this time was no longer its maternity - but its military.
Chieftans would become lords, and lords, warlords. The families that remained on their farms had to produce a surplus to feed their defenders - and so became peasants; which is a step above having to provide for their conquerors, who would make them slaves. But in either case, their lives were not very happy.
Other descendents of the community cut off from the land but also not cut out to be warriors headed off to market to learn and to apply their skills in crafts or trades. Here, the village community evolved somewhat independently of the countryside. Such communities - as in the cities of today - were conglomerations of communities evolving over time sharing a proximity of location, exchanging knowledge and beliefs as well as commodities. The unifying economy at this time was the guild.
Meanwhile, the surrounding territories became consolidated by warring factions. A successful military power will either leave its lords and assembly in place and merely extract tribute in turn from the peasantry; or it will establish a colony to dominate natives, or slaves, or their own labor, remitting taxation to the homeland.
Through conquest and inheritence, then, society is stratified and community lost.
Spiritual ceremonies and relations formed the basis of the primitive community - and this is still the case within cloisters. With the empire, however, arose the empirical church, which translated spiritual traditions into an hierarchical authority appropriate for its age. The Church preached subjugation to the empire of Rome or colonies of Spain. Spirituality became elitist. The "lillies of the valley" do not feed a family, nor are they acceptable for taxes. For those of us who must live within the realm of society, there is confession.
With the enclosures of feudal lands into private properties and a great infusion of precious metals as money, the Church was "reformed" and the individual "liberated." Farmers were "liberated" from their land and familial obligations, and were forced to sell their labor for wages, pay for their land with rents, and acquire their product with prices.
In the next step, humanity is liberated from religious principles altogether. The autocephalous unit - the individual, or "ego" - orients himself to his situation in terms of rational self-interest. Rationality, on the one hand, obliterates the reliance on custom and tradition and, on the other, places reliance on competition and compromise. Society is imputed on the basis of these inherently conflicting self-interests; which is to say, humanity is liberated from itself.
Without the legitimacy of symmetry and reciprocity, or the equality of redistribution, the modern state requires other means for social cohesion. The state is organized bureacratically which, says Weber is "the most rational known means of carrying out imperative control over human beings" (Weber, 1947; p 337).
Groups are defined by boundaries, limited by social cohesion. Within a city or a classroom, such groups form subgroups - e.g., cliques or associations - which have their own inner and outer dimensions. Each group has its own common bond - actual or perceptual - as in a common set of beliefs, mutual interest or objective. Within these limits we find today remnants of primitive society, - i.e., community. In the family, within religious cloisters, neighborhoods, small work organizations and clubs, the values of reciprocity and retribution are paramount.
To understand this clearly, consider how you would feel if your brother or spouse or parent were to try to take unfair advantage of you in an exchange. Most of us would be appalled by this. Outside of this relation, however, you would expect to be treated and to treat another unfairly - as in the sale of a used car. Not only do we expect economic exploitation, but we respect it - as in "he's a real wheeler-dealer" - if we own stock, we demand it from our corporation, i.e., maximize profit - the "bottom line."
It is from this distinction - of inclusion and exclusion - that much of our problems stem. Violence, pollution, rape and harrassment - these all stem from drawing our boundaries too tight. By focusing on private profits, we often ignore the social costs. What is good for myself today, although harmful to others, may ultimately be harmful for everybody. As I approach highway construction which restricts traffic to one lane, for example, I can either fall in line early or speed around and take cuts up front. As I force my way ahead of others, I cause other vehicles to brake, causing more delays for everyone and producing a potential hazard. Had I filed in line early, traffic would have slowed but proceeded safely and smoothly. One person's profit very often has social costs.
From primitive to the present time, the community, family, clan or nation has evolved in size and structure, expressed in multifareous designs and dynamics. But whatever conlict may arise - whatever power struggle or use of position within the structure - the underlying aim of all civilization and society is to provide humanity a way of living and functioning together. Although this may be the why of it, the how has varied widely and often conflicts with that underlying aim.
"The sustenance of the family - the female and the children - is the obligation of matrilineal relatives. The male, who provides for his sister, and her family by delivering the finest specimens of his crop, will mainly earn credit due to his good behavior, but will reap little immediate material benefit in exchange; if he is slack, it is first and foremost his reputation that will suffer. ... It is apparent that the economy of garden and household here forms part of the social relations connected with good husbandry and fine citizenship. ..." (Polyani, 1944, pp 47, 48)
Referring to the Trobriand Islanders of Western Melanesia:
"... A substantial part of all the produce of the island is delivered by the village headmen to the chief who keeps it in storage. But as all communal activity centers around the feasts, dances, and other occasions when the islanders entertain one another as well as their neighbors from other islands.... Economically, it is an essential part of the existing system of division of labor, of foreign trading, of taxation for public purposes, of defense provisions. But these functions of an economic system proper are completely absorbed by the intensely vivid experiences which offer superabundant non-economic motivation for every act performed in the frame of the system as a whole." (Ibid, p 48)
"Each potlatch was a challenge to the guests that had to be met by a greater distribution in turn. The culminating feat in the contest was the destruction of valuables. Certain copper discs embodied the acme of prestige ...; one chief could defeat another by throwing the most esteemed disc into the fire. To back up their own chief and save him from shame, each tribe was engaged in accumulating stocks; and minor potlatches were carried out by commoners to celebrate events in their own families; thus great energy was called forth and productive activity kept at stretch. ...The Potlatch system hyper- trophied and the distribution and destruction of wealth became more and more extravagant. The Canadian administration outlawed the Potlatch in the name of proper economic principles, but it took a century to stamp out the practice and reduce the proud tribesmen to getting a mere living in the lower ranks of civilized society." (Robinson, 1971, pp 28, 29)
"Take the case of a tribal society.The individual's economic interest is rarely paramount for the community keeps all its members from starving unless it is itself borne down by catastrophe, in which case interests are again threatened collectively, not individually. The maintenance of social ties, on the other hand, is crucial. First, because by disregarding the accepted code of honor, or generosity, the individual cuts himself off from the community and becomes an outcast; second, because, in the long run, all social obligations are reciprocal, and their fulfillment serves also the individual's give-and-take interests best. Such a situation must exert a continuous pressure on the individual to eliminate economic self-interest from his consciousness .... " (Polyani, 1944, p 46)
"... ever and again we find some leader or some tribe, amidst the disorder of free and independent nomads, powerful enough to force a sort of unity upon its kindred tribes, and then woe betide the nearest civilization. Down pour the united nomads on the unwarlike, unarmed plains, and there ensures a war of conquest. Instead of carrying off the booty, the conquerors settle down on the conquered land, which becomes all booty for them; the villagers and townsmen are reduced to servitude and tribute-paying ... the leaders of the nomads become kings and princes, masters and aristocrats. They too settle down, they lern many of the arts and refinements of the conquered, they cease to be lean and hungry, but for many generations they retain traces of their old nomadic habits, they hunt and indulge in open-air sports, they drive and race chariots, they regard work, especially agricultural work, as the lot of an inferior race and class." (Wells, rev ed. 1956, p. 131)
"The struggle of the growing tendency toward the patriarchate with an older maternal system might be decided according to the established land tenure. Either the soil was allotted in line with economic principles, that is, it was regarded as the work place of the woman, or in line with military principles, in which case it was viewed as the fruit of conquest and a subject for military protection. If the main burden of tillage fell on the woman, the land was inherited by the maternal uncle as guardian of the children. If on the contrary it was viewed as "spear land" the title rested in the military organization; the children were counted as belonging to the father, and a further consequence was the exclusion of the women from rights in the land. The military group sought to maintain the economic basis of military service on the part of its members by keeping the allotment of land as a function of the paternal clan." (Weber, 1927)
"Most often the dominance of one group of families over the rest was rationalized in terms of 'race'. The notion of 'us' and 'the others', connected with rules about whom it is proper to marry, arose wherever peoples of different language and habits were in contact with each other. ... Now superiority became asymmetrical. Better fed, taught to cultivate strength and courage, or devoted to subtle scholarship, the benefi ciaries of the system could feel themselves different beings from the slaves or peasants who supported them, and could expect to be acknowledged as such." (Robinson, 1971, p 50)