Capitalism’s Last Frontier#16 Crusoe’s Family

So far we have been looking at the proto-economy. Those features of economic relations that are not reliant on exchange.

Classical economics postulated such an economy, often though examples with the figure of Robinson Crusoe, an isolated individual allocating their time between different production possibilities. In this economy without money trade or prices, the introduction of Man Friday is used to illustrate the possibilities of trade.

This was always a useful logical exercise to determine just what aspects of economics are foundational, and do not depend on interpersonal exchange or even a way of producing, Austrian economics uses it today. But it is a dangerous approach because humans would have soon died out were they all isolated individuals on desert islands. It is the evolutionary social dynamics which matter not the mythical methodological individual.

The fundamental aspect of the proto economy and all economies that follows are:

  1. The need to secure reproduction of humankind;
  2. The need to secure the water and energy resources (from food) to secure survival;
  3. The need to secure and sustain the local environment providing food resources.

If any social group can secure these they will have secured their social reproduction.  Their society will have survived until the next generation.

Note this survival can only be assessed ex-post, and this ‘need’ does not depend on volition to survive, only that survival occurs.  These rules apply equally to all animals, they are systemic requirements.  It is an underlying rule of social evolution.  Humankind through culture and language can assess what are those factors essential to survival in any ecological context and transmit them.  Reflexive assessment of environment and not only how to adapt to it but how to adapt that environment.  Not only to accept and transmit the culture and society of parents, but the ability to add to it and alter it where needed.

These rules are part of the underlying rules of evolution of which Darwinian Evolution is just one special case, that where the transmission mechanism of traits is genetic, in society the transmission mechanism is culture, learning, and language.

This approach roots population ecology as the foundation of social science.  This is to be counter-posed to the enlightenment and modernist view of stadial evolution and ‘progress’ of society through a single monolinear fixed series of stages, through to ‘civilisation’ that all societies have gone through.  This concept of course has deep roots and was shared equally by Adam Smith, Hegal and Karl Marx; what today we would called the traditional concept of sociocultural evolution.

By contrast the notion of social evolution we are considering has been termed  Neoevolutionism, or cultural ecology, in particular in the work of Leslie White and in particular Julian Steward (Steward, Julian H. Theory of Culture Change. University of Illinois Press).

This tradition rejects the stadial 18th/19th century notion of progress, the focus is instead on the Darwinian notion of “adaptation”. All societies have to adapt to their environment to secure survival. Steward for example argues that different adaptations could be studied through the examination of the specific resources a society exploited, and how a society exploits these resources through technology and the organization of labour.

Different environments will require differing adaptations. As a resource base or technology changed, so too would a culture. In other words, the driving force is not the inner logic of culture, but rather in terms of a changing relationship with a changing environment.  Change is seen as multilinear not monolinear, and with no fixed predetermined outcome.  Decline can occur as well as rise of societies.

Note the centrality of resources.  Resources prior to property, a resource must exist and provide a productive service to humans before any conception of ownership or sharing can arise.  The concept of property is not a necessary conception for economic relationships, but is contingent on certain social structures.  Similarly we must be very careful of the common conceptions of economic being the study of the use of ‘scarce’ resources and ‘unlimited needs’.  Scarcity only has meaning when resources and population are pressured, it is not a natural fact but a symptom of lack of adaptation of a society to its environment. Needs arise from this relationship not prior to it.

Failure to fully grasp these relationships has led to the poor treatment of pre-capitalist societies by political economy in general and modern economics in particular. We read backwards from modern economic man to the past, we make Crusoe think and act like a capitalist.  Crusoe rather was a member of a family and a tribe, lived in a village and rarely on a desert island, there was no Friday (though there were villages and tribes of Fridays elsewhere), Crusoe had children, half of Crusoes were women.

Through this approach we can consider the real behaviour of societies before the institution of property, money, the state, trade or exchange, we can also trace the development of these social structures using the tools of ecology and of political economy stripped to its ecological and social foundations.

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