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Should we go back to a simpler way of life?

by PAUL D'AMATO | August 31, 2001 | Page 13

THERE HAVE always been people who, in their rejection of the horrors of the profit system, hark back to a simpler, freer and more egalitarian past.

The most extreme expression of this is the "primitivists," who favor a return to the world as it was before the domestication of plants and animals--in short, a return to the gathering and hunting way of life.

A moment's thought shows that gathering and hunting for food couldn't sustain today's population. Therefore, primitivism is an argument for a planet with substantially fewer people. How such a world could be established today we leave to the reader's morbid imagination.

The primitivists are opposed, for example, to modern medicine. In a world where millions of poor Africans are dying from AIDS and other diseases that modern medicine could either control or eliminate altogether--but refuses to do so because it isn't profitable to cure the illnesses of the poor--this is an obscene position to take.

In the meantime, the "primitivists" use modern technology like the Internet (yes, there's a Web site at in order to spread their technology-hating gospel.

But though most critics of the system might consider primitivism too extreme, many do accept the idea that there's something wrong with technology.

This isn't surprising, given the way that technology is developed, by whom and for what purposes. There's no question that the development of technology has been accompanied by class division and misery.

Alongside life-saving technology, we have nuclear weapons poised to destroy all life on the planet. Labor-saving technology is used not to shorten the workday, but to increase profits by making some people work harder and tossing the rest on the scrap heap.

Frederick Engels pointed out that the inevitable breakup of hunter-gathering, pre-class societies created a world of brutal class rule. "The power of these naturally evolved communities had to be broken, and it was broken," he wrote. "But it was broken by influences which from the outset appear to us as a degradation, a fall from the simple moral grandeur of the old gentile society [a society based on small clans].

"The lowest interests--base greed, brutal sensuality, sordid avarice, selfish plunder of common possessions--usher in the new, civilized society, class society; the most outrageous means--theft, rape, deceit and treachery--undermine and topple the old, classless gentile society. And the new society, during all the 2,500 years of its existence, has never been anything but the development of the small minority at the expense of the exploited and oppressed great majority."

Yet it's precisely new developments in human technology--in particular, the massive increase in human labor productivity caused by capitalism's industrial and technical revolution--that creates the material conditions to transcend class society.

As Engels argues, "It is precisely this industrial revolution which has raised the productive power of human labor to such a high level that--for the first time in the history of humanity--the possibility exists, given a rational division of labor among all, to produce not only enough for the plentiful consumption of all members of society and for an abundant reserve fund, but also to leave each individual sufficient leisure so that what is really worth preserving in historically inherited culture--science, art, human relations--is not only preserved, but converted from a monopoly of the ruling class into the common property of the whole of society, and further developed.

"And here is the decisive point: as soon as the productive power of human labor has developed to this height, every excuse disappears for the existence of a ruling class. Was not the final reason with which class differences were defended always: there must be a class which need not plague itself with the production of its daily subsistence, in order that it may have time to look after the intellectual work of society?

"This talk, which up to now had its great historical justification, has been cut off at the root once and for all by the industrial revolution of the last hundred years. The existence of a ruling class is becoming daily more and more a hindrance to the development of industrial productive power, and equally so to science, art and especially cultural human relations."

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