Economists and their fellow travellers are great at churning out neat little books with titles using the format of [Noun]ification: how [Noun] is [Verb]ing the World, and Why It Matters (And How You Can Use it to Get More Twitter Followers). I hardly ever know enough about the subject matter to tell how much of the contents are weapons-grade bullshit, but they’re often interesting anyway.
According to Tim Harford writing a few months ago, somebody has got hold of a set of ideas from anthropology about hunter-gatherers and sharing, and farmers and hoarding, and is using them as a jumping-off point to comment on contemporary society:
Megan McArdle, in her fascinating forthcoming book The Up Side of Down, observes that modern societies can’t make up their minds whether to adopt the morality of farmers or of hunters. The idea that hard work needs to be rewarded is a farmer’s view of fairness. The claim that “we’re all in this together” is hunter-thinking.
We could, at this point, lay into McArdle for analysing modern society in terms of Just So stories based on fuzzy, under-examined perceptions about How Things Used To Be in the Old Days – a complaint David Graeber makes of economists generally in Debt (n.b. in my impressionistic taxonomy, the single-noun pop-econ titles sit a level above the Nounification ones).
But the trouble is, she has lifted the outline of this from anthropological theory. The authorised version I read about as an archaeology student holds that hunter-gatherer societies are incentivized to share food because the supply is uncertain, and norms of reciprocity will grow up to keep you in gazelle steak when your own sub-group is not doing so hot. In any case, the mobile nature of the lifestyle mitigates against storage – if it ain’t getting eaten now, it will go to waste. Farmers on the other hand are incentivized to hoard, by implication hoard from each other – the farming year is predictable and in return for a given input of time and effort generates (all being well) food at set intervals which can be eked out over however long the producer decides. At the same time sedentism, which is held to accompany farming as a social development, enables storage (and maintenance of the stored crop). Food is power. If you have enough to feed yourself, grand, but if you have enough to start giving it away at times of your own choosing in return for favours, labour, marriage partners and general prestige, so much the better. All this is tied up with the development of nuclear families who are held to be an appropriate unit for agricultural productivity, and ultimately the beginnings of social stratification.
Of course, archaeologists and anthropologists formulated this tool of analysis without ever intending it to be used by a City AM commentator to crowbar open the NHS, but that’s the trouble with wanting to Give Something Back to the other social sciences – and theoretical archaeology regularly beats itself up for its failure to do this* – you don’t get a choice about how your ideas are used. McArdle may have bolted an awkward morality tale onto what was intended as a piece of socio-economic analysis but she hasn’t been constrained by injunctions not to do it. There is a sort of Middle England whiff about a lot of the farming/sedentism stuff I’ve read, as if people are almost slightly relieved to be recognising the roots of nuclear families, social stratification, capitalism and other jolly things. Whatever their own politics, at least it is familiar, and feels like the beginnings of a Big Thing. It’s not really surprising if actual capitalists come along and make free with it.
In fact, I’m failing to come up with an instance of an archaeologist conducting a specific and critical examination of her own politics in the context of the sharing/hoarding dichotomy which might act as a kind of user’s guide to passing economic commentators. Are there any?
* I’m never sure why. The only social science I can think of that freely nicks ideas from other disciplines and then vomits a bunch of hurriedly regurgitated theory back down their beaks is, in fact, economics, and should that be any shy, naive young discipline’s idea of a suitable role model? Really?