Should a Post-Work World be Modeled on Hunter Gatherers?

They probably had great dogs, to be fair.

They probably had great dogs, to be fair.

A lot of anti-work folks like using various statistics about hunter gatherer societies or medieval societies that relied on a lot less “work” to function. But considering work itself and what it means is an important starting point because based on my experience with work-related studies, many studies use different (mutually-exclusive) definitions.

For instance, I’ve defined work as,

The constrained performance of some skill (cognitive, emotional, physical etc.) in return for substituting your own ends with an economic reward, or in the ultimate hope of receiving some such reward.

And while that definition is still one I stand by it crucially depends on what kinds of constraints we count, what sort of ends you have and at what point a reward stops and starts becoming “economic”. All of these things are in turn reliant on people’s conception of their own internal state and how society deals with those internal emotions.

Someone might see the local postman and decide that they can’t possibly be happy because of how long and how frequently they do what they do. But the postman, internally, may really value giving people their mail, likes their paycheck and enjoys driving around the neighborhood and potentially interacting with people they know.

So does that count as work?

If the postman is happy, likes their pay and enjoys much of what they do anyways outside of the payment (driving, potential social interaction, keeping people informed) then I don’t think so. Their enjoyment of these different activities within this job would be there anyways so the desire is separate from the fact that they get paid and indeed may need it.

I’m not saying this is a common situation for postal workers, so much as trying to take a commonly recognized job in modern society and explaining that even in that situation, defining “work” can be tricky.

Another point relevant here is that a definition of work should consider people’s autonomy, but it should also consider their happiness. If we are all free to do whatever we want but miserable while having this freedom, are we meaningfully free?

This is an age-old question but I tend to take the position that happiness is an integral part of autonomy. If we have a society where people are free but very unhappy with this freedom then something is likely wrong with the sort of freedom that they have. Perhaps they have many negative freedoms but not enough positive freedoms.

That is to say, perhaps they have plenty of freedoms when it comes to people directly interfering with their lives, e.g. they are safe from violence, theft, etc. But they don’t have a similar freedom to be creative and take full advantage of the opportunities they have in spite of their relatively peaceful existence.

I’d argue that both of these sorts of freedoms are important for a flourishing society, which is ultimately what I want, not just a free one. And that’s part of why I get nervous when anti-work advocates overly romanticize hunter gatherer societies. Because, sure, they likely worked less, met their basic needs well and under some definitions they even flourished but all of this (like the definition of work) depends on how we understand our needs.

Our needs are not a static thing and cannot be reduced to just being able to eat, have some time to ourselves, time to socialized and so on. We all have different needs and some are very different than others. For example, living in a tight-knit society for me would likely be undesirable because I desire a lot of personal space from others at times.

I was reading an article entitled  Would a Work-Fee World Be So Bad? by Ilana E. Strauss which is what got me thinking about how anti-work folks talk about primitive societies:

Work-free societies are more than just a thought experiment—they’ve existed throughout human history. Consider hunter-gatherers, who have no bosses, paychecks, or eight-hour workdays. Ten thousand years ago, all humans were hunter-gatherers, and some still are.Daniel Everett, an anthropologist at Bentley University, in Massachusetts, studied a group of hunter-gathers in the Amazon called the Pirahã for years.

According to Everett, while some might consider hunting and gathering work, hunter-gatherers don’t. “They think of it as fun,” he says. “They don’t have a concept of work the way we do.” “It’s a pretty laid-back life most of the time,” Everett says. He described a typical day for the Pirahã: A man might get up, spend a few hours canoeing and fishing, have a barbecue, go for a swim, bring fish back to his family, and play until the evening. Such subsistence living is surely not without its own set of worries, but the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins argued in a 1968 essay that hunter-gathers belonged to “the original affluent society,” seeing as they only “worked” a few hours a day;

Everett estimates that Pirahã adults on average work about 20 hours a week (not to mention without bosses peering over their shoulders). Meanwhile, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average employed American with children works about nine hours a day.

Here too we can see the problems with defining work for other people.

If I had to go hunt for my food, I’d definitely think of it a form of work or think about it as something I’d rather not do, at least. But this would be tricky given my definition of work principally depends on some sort of economic work.

So here, the sort of work might be closer to what Andre Gorz’s calls “domestic labor”,

…work done not with a view to exchange but in order to achieve a result of which one is, directly, the principal beneficiary.

Gorz includes, as examples, “food preparation” which is more or less what hunting is (except perhaps a bit more adventurous than what Gorz originally had in mind).

As such, hunting is surely a type of work but the sort of work it is tends to be the kind that our lack of pleasure is mitigated by sharing in this work. This is part of why hunter and gatherers would tend to hunt in groups, because the hunt for an individual is a lot harsher than if you are traveling in a group and even today animals do the same thing.

All of that being said, I don’t think hunter gatherer societies are “work free”.

They certainly had less work in the industrial or economic-ends sense that Gorz, Danaher and myself have all discussed but that isn’t the only sort of work. A lot of activity in these tribes are survival based and while that isn’t the same thing as being socially or economically constrained, it doesn’t seem like such a better alternative to me. In addition, the time it took them to hunt and prepare their food when considered a form of work doesn’t make it much less work-free than ours.

It’s also worth considering what people’s needs are and the idea that our needs should be constrained to some specific list of them, to me, seems like our capacity to flourish becomes intrinsically limited.

So while it’s likely the case that hunter gatherers did flourish in some contexts, this capacity to flourish is limited by the lack of advanced tools (like technology). Though it’s worth noting that despite a lack of technology, it’s been reported that modern day hunter gatherers tend to live around (on average) to be 72 years old, which was surprising to me.

Given the pros and cons I’ve tried to balance here, I think that it’s entirely possible for people in a post-work world to live like hunter gatherer societies if they would want to. But overall I think it’s a design for a society that limits our ability to engage with each other and develop better and longer lives.

Technology gives many people who would otherwise die in infancy due to disease, complications of birth or other factors a chance to not only live but live a normal life. And this same technology can then assist them to keep living far past their infancy, with “low-functioning” autistic children who have low-verbal skills (sometimes) a good example.

These children can now communicate through things like iPads and better express that while they may not be able to speak as loudly as everyone else can, they are still a functioning individual with needs and feelings. And whatever you may think about Apple or iPads more generally, it can’t be denied (at least not easily) that these technologies are greatly expanding the capacities and lives of these children.

And I’m not interested so much as a “think of the children!” argument (though children should be thought of more seriously in society, but that’s a separate issue) as a “think of all of the disabled people your ideal societies will kill” because the bottom line is that hunter gatherer societies aren’t going to be kind to people who can’t keep up.

We can talk about community, mutual aid and erasing the present day “narcissism” (whatever that means) that exists in today’s society but I think we should also talk about the downsides of tribes. For example, in-group bias which can lead to favourtism, nepotism and (down the line) violent conflict instead of peaceful resolution. This isn’t some sort of inevitability but I think it’s something that can be created through close ties that have no mitigating factors.

One of those mitigating factors is (wait for it) money.

When communities decide they don’t want money anymore then they make things become much more reputation based. And again, this is a problem from an anti-work position that takes ableism seriously. Because who else would benefit the most from a system where your reputation is what matters the most? It’s likely to be the whitest, most male, most well-spoken and able-bodied person(s) in your community.

In this way, these sorts of “democratic” processes tend to leave out the people who need to be involved the most because the whole thing requires constant communication with many people in high-pressure social situations. And I’m not just talking about folks on the autism spectrum but even people with anxiety disorders would be another relevant group of people. And you could argue that these things would be radically minimized or altogether gotten rid of in a utopia but there will always things to be anxious about and situations you’ll want to avoid for this reason or that.

None of this is to say we can’t learn anything from primitive societies or that all of their benefits are overblown and none of this is to say that anti-work folks couldn’t start their own communities that are based on hunter gatherers. If people are confident that these ideas will work in modern settings or that certain ideas they had would work really well, I’m all for social experimentation within autonomous communities. I think people should be able to figure out what works best for their local settings so long as those preferences don’t perpetuate aggression or oppression.

Overall, I have a very neutral-negative feeling about anti-work people liking primitivist or “anti-civ” thought and would prefer us to embrace transhumanist ideas instead. Not because I think hunter gatherers got everything wrong and technology is always right but because I think technology is the new spear that we can use to further our capacities of flourishing with.


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  1. Pingback: Autopilot, by Andrew Smart (Chapter 1) - Abolish Work

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