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Ah, happy days

“Bill Gates says poverty is decreasing. He couldn’t be more wrong”, writes Jason Hickel, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics.

Prior to colonisation, most people lived in subsistence economies where they enjoyed access to abundant commons – land, water, forests, livestock and robust systems of sharing and reciprocity. They had little if any money, but then they didn’t need it in order to live well – so it makes little sense to claim that they were poor. This way of life was violently destroyed by colonisers who forced people off the land and into European-owned mines, factories and plantations, where they were paid paltry wages for work they never wanted to do in the first place.

The comments give me hope.

34 comments to Ah, happy days

  • Eric

    You have to have a good job in a wealthy country, with high tech medical care and logistics, to even think like that.

  • Fraser Orr

    Anyone who gets too nostalgic about the good old days… my response is two words — dental anesthetic.

    I’d like to see this guy watch half his children die in agony before they turned five and still hear him talk about how great things used to be.

  • Itellyounothing

    This dude should prove how great it is by moving to a subsistence farming career in very developing economy. Lucky he has a job in academia…..

  • bobby b

    Nothing to do with needs or wants or desires. All about envy.

    There’s more inequality when there’s more stuff to have. Or at least it becomes more apparent.

    Again, we go to Ms. Thatcher:

    “He’d rather the poor were poorer, so long as the rich were poorer too.”

  • Clovis Sangrail

    I keep telling my academic colleagues that economists know some really important stuff and they (my colleagues) should stop regarding them (the economists) as third rate applied mathematicians.
    I think I’m going to stop doing that.

    “Money’s not important”. Does he even know the basic properties of money?
    To quote any introductory economics text:
    `Money is:
    1) a unit of account;
    2) a store of value;
    3) a medium of exchange’.

    Ignoring the first property, (2) is absolutely vital to someone living in a subsistence economy subject to changeable crop-growing weather and other disruptions.
    The idea that (3) is unimportant to someone is one that only could be advanced by a closet (or otherwise) totalitarian, elitist b@stard of the sort most likely to be found in academia, who believes that the collective should decide exactly what you should get and the liberty to trade for other things should be unavailable.

  • bloke in spain

    You may have highlighted a very significant article, here. We may be witnessing peak Guardian. The indistinct shape seen sinking beneath the waves a disconsolate & thoroughly jumped shark

  • George Atkisson

    Whatever happened to “Nasty, Brutish, and Short”? Ah, yes. Hobbes is presumably no longer covered in modern academia. He was, after all, a white European male writing over 500 years ago, and must therefore be disregarded as a white supremacist oppressor.

  • Henry Cybulski

    “they enjoyed access to abundant commons…” Some even enjoyed access to abundant slavery, abundant tribal warfare, abundant human sacrifice, abundant cannibalism, abundant rape and pillaging.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Hasn’t he read Steven Pinker’s book on the general decline in violence over the centuries, as in The Better Angels of Our Nature? Oh wait, Prof. Pinker is some sort of neo-liberal, fascist or whatever…..

    The Guardian has fallen a long way from its old Manchester liberal origins, that is for sure. What a shower of shite much of its editorial coverage is. At least its football reporting is okay.

  • Rob

    The West’s embryonic Khmer Rouge. Laugh at them now, suffer later.

  • Long ago, lefties despised right-wingers as idiotic simple-lifers hankering for a gone-with-the-wind past. Now they are these people.

    We may be witnessing peak Guardian. (bloke in spain, January 31, 2019 at 8:51 am)

    I, on the other hand, suspect this article is merely a stepping stone from which the PC can go on down to yet wilder depths. Think how much more completely you can deny all value to the British empire when you don’t have to deny or ignore such things as the statistically-marked wealth increases of many a black farmer who became a coffee grower in the first part of the 1900, but can instead equate him to some american indian buying fire-water from the whites. Think of the convenience of not having to deny or ignore the steady year-on-year decline in GDP that afflicted almost every commonwealth African country after independence, but instead see it as a happy return to their nobler past. (I would say nobler-savage past, but as Henry Cybulski remarked on January 31, 2019 at 9:48 am above, the PC may wish to deemphasis the savage part, since there is evidence that the effectiveness with which slavery was suppressed also declined.)

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Even Marx wrote about the idiocy of rural life.

  • Runcie Balspune

    where they enjoyed access to abundant commons – land, water, forests, livestock and robust systems of sharing and reciprocity.

    There is a reason for this.

    Either they killed off any opposition who threatened to complete with their “abundant resources”, or the natural death rate was high enough to make sure they’d never need more than what was available.

    What does he think happened before European colonization? That they had effective population control and sang kumbaya with neighboring tribes?

  • Sam

    How? How could someone who’s even walked past an institution of learning have these opinions? It’s profoundly depressing.

  • CaptDMO

    Saw the piece and comments.
    Wow! Tough call!
    I’m not sure which is more insufferable….
    A Brit forum on economics (even without the PoliSci)
    or a Yank forum on rights (even without “The Bell Curve”)
    Now I KNOW I’m going to Hell, and will be swarmed by nattering Brazilian psychologists!

  • ns

    Anthropologists, in their rush to being non-judgmental of the peoples they study, have become willfully ignorant of economics and morality. Ritual infanticide for keeping the population down, war to prevent other tribes from using up the ‘abundant commons’, and frequent starvation and disease are just incidents of their circumstances and we mustn’t judge them for it.
    Instead he judges the modern world harshly against a Marxist scale, while using the actual abundance that free markets have given him to do so, like a phone. Or dental anesthesia.
    The socialists are all about sacrifice to achieve their utopia. As long as it’s others who make the sacrifices (or who are sacrificed, per Rob).

  • Zerren Yeoville

    I am reminded of a magazine cartoon from some years ago, featuring two cavemen.

    One says to the other, ‘I just don’t understand it. We eat only organic food, we drink only natural spring water, we breathe only clean fresh air, we get lots and lots of exercise, and yet we mostly die before we’re thirty.’

  • Snorri Godhi

    It took me a few hours after reading this post, to realize that there is something about the myth of the noble savage that should make Guardian readers very uncomfortable.

    Prior to colonisation, most people lived in subsistence economies where they enjoyed access to abundant commons – land, water, forests, livestock and robust systems of sharing and reciprocity.

    That should be:

    Prior to the spread of state-level societies, most people lived in subsistence economies where (IF they lived from hunting & gathering or herding, rather than agriculture) they enjoyed access to abundant commons – land, water, forests, livestock and fragile systems of sharing and reciprocity.

    The main point is that these noble savages were happy, or at least content, without welfare, unemployment insurance, state pensions, the NHS, state schools, departments of grievance studies, feminism, SJWs, the BBC, and the Guardian.

  • Fraser Orr

    @Snorri, that is an excellent argument.

    However, when one is allowed to only look at the facts in support of your case (cavemen had clean air to breathe) and ignore that facts that don’t (cavemen usually died before they turned thirty, often in agony of trivial causes, and most of their children died before they were five years old) then no amount of logic is going to move their thought.

    Last I checked “women’s rights” and “undocumented alien’s rights” were not particularly high on the agenda of the Noble Sioux warriors. Apparently in our society, for a boss to tell his female subordinate that “her hair looks nice today” is utterly intolerable, but for a warrior to pimp out his wife like chattel or take and rape the women of the nearby tribe, yup, that is noble. (Does the latter fall under the category of sharing the abundant commons?)

    I often dine in this little Mexican restaurant that has great food. On the wall they have this picture of a noble Aztec warrior carrying this beautiful maiden in his arms. The implication is the noble warrior protecting the weak. The reality is he was probably carrying her to the top of the zigurat to carve out her still beating heart with a sharpened rock.

  • Fraser Orr

    BTW, I found the cartoon referred to above (from the New Yorker of all places.)


  • Snorri Godhi

    Fraser: not sure how to interpret your comment, but it seems to me that you have misunderstood mine — no doubt because i have been misleading about what i think of noble savages.

    Actually, there are 2 different interpretations of my comment which i find acceptable:

    1. Verbal ju-jitsu: “Let’s assume for the sake of argument that people were happy before the rise of state-level societies — or even up to European expansion: they were happy without welfare, …, and the Guardian.”

    2. But it’s not all ju-jitsu: i do believe that people were happier and healthier before the spread of agriculture, than between the spread of agriculture and the continuous economic expansion of the last millennium. Hunter-gatherers, as well as herders, might have died violent deaths more often, but at least those were quick deaths, unlike those from the diseases which agriculturalists had to endure.

    You mentioned dental anesthetics. The teeth of hunters+gatherers were subjected to less wear+tear than those of people eating grains; not to mention the damage from lingering sugars in the mouth.

    As for the Aztecs, they lived in a state-level society, so they were nothing like savages, noble or not. (Just to be clear: that is meant as a disparaging comment on the Aztecs.)

  • Paul Marks

    The fact that James Hickel is an academic at a leading university shows what is wrong with the modern intellectual elite.

    The average man knows that one must have reserves of food for winter (and that farming, or dealing with farmers, is the way to get those reserves), but the intellectual does not know this. The intellectual thinks one can just get by on what one can hunt and gather in January – he (or she) has no idea how difficult that is, or how only a few people can do it. So that you have to KILL people who enter the hunting grounds (or die of starvation).

    And if the hunting fails in an area you control (and it can fail – for many reasons) one needs to invade the hunting grounds of other tribes – and KILL them to take those bunting grounds. And all to maintain the existence of a few people never progressing to any higher stage of life.

    Hunting and gathering man be a excellent way of adding to a (primitive) farming diet (which can be unhealthy on its own – at least till MIXED farming develops rather than just dependence on a few crops) – but it is very bad for a society to JUST exist on hunting and gathering.

    And look at the choice we are offered here – between, in the pink corner Bill Gates, with his welfare “liberalism”, and (in the blood red corner) James Hickell – who wants to exterminate civilisation itself.

    So much for me being too gloomy – for when a person argues for a hunter-gather lifestyle (no farming – no mining, nothing but hunting and gathering) that person is arguing for the extermination of civilisation and the extermination of about 99% of all humans on this Earth.

    If the left are demanding the extermination of 99% of the population of this Earth, and that is what James Hickell is, in effect, arguing for – then the left are indeed the genocidal enemies of civilisation that I have long said they were.

    And the “moderate” leads into the extremist.

    The policies of Bill Gates, ever more Welfare State spending and Credit Bubble finance, lead to economic collapse (although that is not the intention of Mr Gates) – and then after “liberalism” has done its work in undermining society (undermining the culture as well as the economy – societal decline), there stands James Hickell and people like him, sharpening their sacrificial knives, and eager to feast on the flesh of humans.

    In order to get the population down to what is “sustainable for the environment” (an environment for hunter gathering) of course.

  • Fraser Orr

    @snorri, ah sorry if I misunderstood you, however, now you have explained a bit more I could not agree with you at all. People who lived in agricultural societies were much better off than pre agricultural societies. (As to whether they were “happier” I don’t know if you can judge, that is a very hard thing to know or understand.) The purpose of agriculture was to allow people to stay in one place and consequently invest capital in that place. So they could build better shelters, secure their food supply and build a more stable society.

    (Among other things it allowed the use of money to provide liquidity to their assets and allowing specialization such as blacksmiths, traders, the beginnings of early medicine, teachers and so forth.)

    Hunter gatherers were itinerant, had not permanent structures, no place to store accumulated wealth, and utterly subject to the caprice of weather, nature and the discovery of animals. And they also died slow lingering deaths. Sure sometimes the died instantly in combat, or falling off a cliff or something like that. However, a far more common form of death would be a broken limb or a scratch leading to an infection and a slow lingering painful death. Or starvation or hypothermia.

    So all in all it sucked and that is just the men. It was even worse for women, and children — they half of them died before they were five years old. I think a child dying is about the worst thing that can happen to a person.

  • Paul Marks

    Why do people think the American library association have taken the name of Laura Ingalls Wilder off their prize for reading achievements of children?

    Is it really just because Laura Ingalls Wilder was a “racist” because she called savages, savages? No it is deeper than that – the modern “intellectual” looks upon the “Little House On The Prairie” with hatred-and-disgust, and holds that the land should have been left to savage nomads (in 1862, taking advantage of so many men being away in the Civil War, more than 800 civilians were killed in a single campaign of nomad raids in Minnesota – the “Noble Savage” is not noble up close Mr Rousseau).

    And it is nothing to do with race – after all a young Laura Ingalls Wilder would have noticed something odd about a man like Professor Hickell – something wrong with the look in his eyes as he looked as the development of local farms and other business enterprises. And would have been ready to put a bullet in him – if his hand twitched towards a weapon.

    And quite right to.

    People like Laura Ingalls Wilder build nations – people like Professor Hickell destroy nations.

    The threat has not gone away – the savages just wear academic or government clothing now (rather than war paint and feathers). As recently as the Obama regime (only two years ago) the government was starting to claim that any land with water on it was its concern – a direct threat to the property of every farmer, rancher and miner. And that any manufacturing that produced C02 was its concern – which meant that all manufacturing would be under the government.

    Try and run any business without water. And try and run any manufacturing (even making a knife) without emitting C02.

    If everything that that needs water, and everything that produces CO2 is a matter for the government – then everything is a matter for the government. So the young versions of Laura Ingalls Wilder better keep a loaded rifle close to hand. And people need to cooperate with each other – to help each other counter the threat, especially in the very hard times that may be coming.

    The crazy people in the Credit Bubble cities, the university people, are not just going to die in hard times – they are going to come out (even perhaps as far as the hills of East Tennessee or the plains of South Dakota) and they may prove a clear and present danger to farmers, ranchers, miners and so on. A clear and present danger to people who grow food or make goods. But let us hope things do NOT get that bad.

    Perhaps there will just be a string of bankruptcies in the big cities – and the people who control them will peacefully change their ways, and stop chasing out production with their taxes and regulations (and wild spending).

  • Paul Marks

    Snorri – all this is not as remote from you as you might suppose.

    Back in the 1970s a senor manager at KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (I believe you are a man of the Netherlands Sir) was a man by the name of Joe Foss.

    Joe Foss was the “Outdoorman” – had his own television show on hunting and gathering and fishing.

    He also knew a lot about killing people, he never killed a man he did not have to kill, but there are no two ways about it – Joe Foss killed a lot of men. Sometimes it needs to be done.

    He was Governor of South Dakota back in the 1950s (where Laura Ingalls Wilder spent some of her childhood, half a century before) – but he had, in his youth, rather less peaceful jobs.

    If someone like Professor Hinkell are content to starve to death in the wilderness, or even (horror of horrors) get a job – that is fine. But if they start raiding settlements, seeking (for example) the flesh of babies in their cradles (like “Gollum” from “Lord Of The Rings”) then stern measures must be taken.

  • Paul Marks

    Kit Carson, more than any other individual, was responsible for the West being American – rather than Mexican (without him the coordination between various American forces would have been hopeless – and he almost died several times carrying messages).

    Modern academics hate him – because he was a “racist” his wife was Mexican and he got on well with some Indian (sorry “Native American”) tribes – although certainly not with others. And he fought for the Union against the Southern slave owners – but he was a “racist” and once a person is accused of that, they are automatically guilty.

    Anyway Kit Carson was good at many things – he could track better than most, and spoke several languages and so on, and could survive where no other man, of whatever colour, could. Out of Scots-Irish stubbornness – the Ulster-Scots word is “Thran” and it can be self destructive, although it can also mean as “John Wayne’s”, Marion Morrison, character says in “The Searchers” – “they would search till they had enough of searching – we will search and then we will just carry on searching”. But Mr Carson was never very good at reading and writing.

    So when a book was discovered at a camp of Apache (not quite the supermen of leftist mythology – they did not even know that Kit Carson was there till he attacked), Mr Carson had to ask what the book was about – perhaps he should not have asked.

    It was a book about himself – a story about him saving women and children from the “not” savages.

    Trouble was that the book was found near the body of Anne White – who had been tortured for a long time (many days) before she died. It was the last book she had seen – all about how Kit Carson would save people in her position, and he did NOT save her. He did NOT save her baby either – the body of the baby was never found.

    It all stayed with him to the grave.

  • DP

    Dear Miss Solent

    With few exceptions, subsistence farming is a precarious existence. Local famines were common in England due to lack of infrastructure: the twin ox cart could carry at best 2 tons at 2 miles per hour. Roads were often impassable in winter, when robust systems of sharing and reciprocity were most needed.

    It was filthy capitalism that ended the famines with the coming of the canals – the one horse power barge carried 50 to 60 tons at 4 knots, rain or snow, though freezing could be a problem, hence ice breaking barges. Foreign parts were also no stranger to famine, relieved only by the investment of the dastardly British who built roads and railways and imported the trucks and trains to run on them.

    The past is a rosy place if you maintain ignorance at a sufficiently high level.


  • Tim Worstall

    There’s a part of this analysis that drives me to near incoherent rage.

    Of the six graphs – developed by Max Roser of Our World in Data – the first has attracted the most attention by far. It shows that the proportion of people living in poverty has declined from 94% in 1820 to only 10% today. The claim is simple and compelling. And it’s not just Gates who’s grabbed on to it. These figures have been trotted out in the past year by everyone from Steven Pinker to Nick Kristof and much of the rest of the Davos set to argue that the global extension of free-market capitalism has been great for everyone. Pinker and Gates have gone even further, saying we shouldn’t complain about rising inequality when the very forces that deliver such immense wealth to the richest are also eradicating poverty before our very eyes.

    It’s a powerful narrative. And it’s completely wrong.

    You don’t even have to understand the intricacies of the statistics here. You can just go and read Max Roser’s page, the very one being referred to. Where one will find this:

    This poverty measurement is based on the monetary value of a person’s consumption.

    We are measuring what people can consume. We are *not* measuring what they can buy. Nor their wages with which they can buy things. We’re translating the value of what they can consume into a money amount just so that we can do sums.

    Imagine, just to imagine something, that rice costs 20 cents per lb out on that capitalist marketplace. If you can and do consume 5 lbs of rice a day – not all that far off what a peasant might want to consume in order to gain the necessary calories – then the value of your consumption is $1 a day. This is true whether you are a wage slave gaining $1 which you then spend upon rice or a farmer on his own land growing his own crop and eating 5lb of rice a day. Or, even, in a communal farming system with land, crops, perhaps even women, children and penis sheaths all owned in common.

    If you eat 5 lbs of rice a day then the value of your consumption is $1 a day.

    Repeat the exercise for everything you consume in a day. Your hut lasts 5 years, therefore you consume 1/5×365 of that value each day. Your shirt a year, you consume 1/365 of the value of your shirt each day.

    Our $1.90 a day is the *value of your consumption* however it is produced, gained or achieved.

    That communal systems delivered this standard of living without the intervention of money is entirely true. Absolutely any system that survives provides this level of living too. For we’ve rather deliberately set our measure of absolute poverty at this level for good reason. Any significant fall from this level, for any substantial period of time, means everyone dies. This is why we call it “subsistence”.

    This $1.90 is also the modal experience of human life over time. The vast majority of all humans ever have lived at this level. Hunter gatherers, the average peep in the Babylonian, Roman empires, yer Anglo Saxon roaming Thuringia and dreaming of settling in Godalming, this was what history was.

    Hickel’s simply ignorant of the basic thing we’re measuring here which isn’t a good start to working out either how it all worked nor what we might do next. And yes, sorry, that enrages me.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Fraser: let’s face it, you don’t have a leg to stand on 🙂
    Evidence* from skeletal remains is pretty clear: people who lived in pre-agricultural societies led longer+healthier lives than people who lived from subsistence agriculture. That is part of the rationale behind the paleolithic diet (which i do not endorse, but it’s certainly better than most modern diets).
    The difference in life expectancy was not great, of course.

    * Here is Jared Diamond on the subject, and here is wikipedia. Note that the average lifespan was a bit longer in the paleolithic than in 1900, taking the world average. In 18th century France, it was even shorter!

    There is less evidence of my claim that hunter-gatherers were also happier, but it should make sense to libertarians that free people are happier than unfree people; and the vast majority of societies living from subsistence agriculture were unfree. Also, healthier people tend to be happier than sick people. Finally, there is the fact that my mood was noticeably improved by replacing carbs with fat.

    The purpose of agriculture was to allow people to stay in one place and consequently invest capital in that place.

    This is mistaken at 2 levels. First, it assumes that there was a conscious decision to switch to agriculture, when in reality the “mode of production” was determined by the physical environment (compare river plains, steppes, hills, islands, etc).
    Second, it neglects the plain fact that any surplus produced by agriculturalists was taken away either by marauders or by the government. (Often, the government was instituted by former marauders.)

    I just cannot understand why, after so much has been said on this site, about how miserable life was before capitalism, some people keep insisting that it used to be even worse. People accept the evidence that life has enormously improved in the last millennium, but refuse to even consider the evidence that it got worse in the neolithic. I could understand this from a statist, but here??

    But Jared Diamond is even more delusional: he presents the evidence (at the link above) that life got worse in the neolithic, but is blind to the evidence that it has got much better since then.

    The most delusional people, of course, are those who believe that life got better in the neolithic and got worse since the beginning of European expansion; but for such people, there is an obvious ideological bias behind their befuddlement.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Somehow, i botched the wikipedia link.
    Here it is.

  • Snorri Godhi

    I addressed Fraser Orr, not Paul Marks, because i see little, if any, bearing to “my” thesis in Paul’s comments.

    I wish to point out to Paul, however, that
    (a) Jason Hickel did not say that hunting+gathering is better than agriculture;
    (b) the notion that Eskimos do not know how to survive the winter because they are not farmers, is preposterous.

  • staghounds

    Has he never walked through a graveyard?

  • Tedd


    For what it’s worth, I learned a small amount about Inuit history during air force arctic survival training, during which it was said that Inuit life expectancy when Europeans first encountered them was longer than life expectancy in Europe, at the time. And it’s difficult to imagine a more challenging environment for hunter-gatherers than the one they lived in. (Though, to be fair, it would be an even more challening environment for an agricultural society!)

  • Snorri Godhi

    Thank you Tedd for the supporting evidence.
    A question comes to mind:

    (…) it was said that Inuit life expectancy when Europeans first encountered them was longer than life expectancy in Europe, at the time.

    But when was that? if it was when the Icelanders met the Inuit in Greenland, the claim is quite believable; if the meeting occurred in (what is now) Canada, then what year (approximately) are we talking about?

    I am reminded of Sir Wilfred Thesiger’s remark (quoting from memory):
    the harder the place, the better the people.
    That might be because, in places where people do not die from starvation or exposure, or being eaten by a polar bear, they die from human violence or contagious disease, or starvation due to overpopulation, crop failure, war, or central planning.
    Also, in harder places, there is less surplus for the government to sponge off.

    Incidentally, i seem to remember that the Eskimos have an exceptionally high IQ — for an ethnic group that has no tradition of writing, towns, or states. More evidence for the benefits of the paleolithic diet!