Liberalism is not 300 years old; it was born 10,000 years ago with the invention of agriculture.by Paul Seabright / May 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
How old is political liberalism? Here is a surprising answer: it is not a few hundred years old, but 10,000 years old. And this answer matters because it affects our ability to see liberalism as capable of addressing some of the deepest anxieties of modern society. Can we live together with those of different cultures? Can we argue instead of fight?
Most accounts of liberalism date its origins to between 500 and 300 years ago. Five hundred years ago, Europeans were discovering the new world and Protestantism was being born. Just over 300 years ago, between 1689 and 1692, John Locke published his Two Treatises of Government and his three Letters on Toleration. In between, much had happened: the English civil war; its European counterpart, the thirty years’ war; and the beginnings of capitalism. Historians have argued about the precise nature of the furnace in which liberalism was forged, but most agree that it is a product of the modern capitalist Christian west.
Here is an alternative story. Liberalism is not about how to live as a western capitalist Protestant. Its roots are to be found not in capitalism but in agriculture, in that remarkable 10,000-year-old revolution that led modern man, independently in many different parts of the world, to give up the hunting and gathering life and to found farms, villages and eventually cities. That change had a radical consequence: human beings had to learn to live and to trade with strangers for the first time. By an intriguing paradox, globalisation began when man became sedentary – for settled communities cannot hope to avoid all contact with outsiders by melting into the forest. Instead they must think systematically about defence, trade, immigration, and the division of labour on more than a local scale. This was a momentous departure: prehistoric man had lived in groups of kin or at least among familiar faces. The habits of mind and the forms of behaviour that farmers had to learn are the foundations of liberalism, and they are what we need to reaffirm today if we are to share the world with strangers without tearing ourselves apart.
Philosophers of liberalism such as Voltaire and Hume were just codifying solutions which had enabled people to deal with strangers for thousands of years. This account of the history of liberalism differs from the orthodox one by stressing the cosmopolitanism of the ancient world. The ability to live among strangers, or at least to trade peacefully with them, was an established fact well before the time of the ancient Greeks. Athens in the 4th century BC was a trading state and, as Peter Hall says in Cities in Civilisation, this was the foundation of its achievements. Athens "gained enormously from the personal and social tensions brought forth by… a movement from a static, conservative, aristocratic landowning society to an urban, trading one open to talent." Neal Ascherson in Black Sea has seen the cosmopolitan cultures of the Black sea region, well before the Athenian empire, as full of lessons for the perplexed multiculturalists we have become 3,000 years later.
Like most political philosophies, liberalism comprises both a vision of the human condition and a set of ideas to live by. There are strong common themes that have been advanced by various liberal writers. First, core values – liberty most obviously, but also, and to varying degrees, equality and pluralism (acceptance of other values). Second, a procedure for moral reasoning – such as the social contract of Locke and Rousseau, or the "veil of ignorance" proposed by Rawls – whose purpose is to undermine the perceived arbitrariness of appeals to tradition or authority. Third, a set of constitutional recommendations to safeguard the common values, such as universal suffrage or a bill of rights. Fourth, a programme for political reform which aims to remove existing threats to the exercise of liberty.
The vision of the human condition embodied in liberalism combines a natural psychology, an account of how human beings think and feel, and a story about why they are often in conflict. The standard history of liberalism takes its natural psychology to be the tabula rasa (empty slate) theory of the human mind, and its account of the social predicament to be modern western capitalism. Since the former has now been scientifically discredited, and the latter seems wedded to a very particular historical time and place, the ability of liberalism to speak to the concerns of today’s world seems – on this view – rather limited. How can it even understand, let alone meet the challenge of other philosophies, from socialism to nationalism to Islamic fundamentalism?
Most historical accounts see the origins of liberalism in capitalism (and what CB Macpherson called "possessive individualism"), in the Reformation and its upholding of the sacredness of the individual conscience, and also in a reaction to the brutality of the religious wars that wracked Europe in the 16th and the 17th centuries. According to this view, capitalism and the Reformation acted as solvents, easing the move from status to contract, from gift to market, from magic to science, from a world of familiars to a world of strangers. They could do this because of the great malleability in human psychology – the tabula rasa – assumed by liberal philosophers. At the same time, modernity posed new problems for mankind that required radically new solutions. It was the job of the prophets of liberalism not only to chart the arrival of modernity but also actively to propose solutions to its discontents. So writers such as Locke, Rousseau, Voltaire and John Stuart Mill were social reformers, putting forward specific solutions to perceived social evils and a framework of thought within which such solutions made sense. Their writings, and the ferment of ideas to which they contributed, had some momentous consequences: the European revolutions of 1789 and 1848; the anti-colonial movements, which began in Latin America in the early 19th century and continued, after a lag, in Africa and Asia in the 20th century; the moves towards free trade by the major European powers, Britain and Germany, in the 19th century; and much more recently, the growing tension between rationalism and cultural relativism.
The alternative history that I shall outline takes a different view of the salient facts of human psychology. The human capacity for language makes us effectively unique in the animal kingdom. But humans are also unique in another way: we are the only species to have developed a complex division of labour between individuals who are not close genetic relatives. Economists of the 18th century were fond of drawing parallels between human societies and colonies of social insects such as ants and bees. But those parallels with human societies can be misleading: all the worker ants in a colony, like all the worker bees in a hive, are related. Modern evolutionary biology has shown us that for a division of labour to evolve between close genetic relatives is not very surprising. For it to evolve among genetically unrelated individuals would be very surprising, since individuals with genes favouring dispositions to co-operate would help others who had no such dispositions and thus get nothing in return. Sure enough, it has never evolved in any species in nature other than man. Some species practise a small degree of co-operation between unrelated individuals over very precise tasks. But these rudiments bear as much relation to the human division of labour between relatives, non-relatives and complete strangers, as the hunting calls of chimpanzees do to the human languages spoken all over the globe.
Indeed, not only is co-operation rare among unrelated individuals in other species, but violence is common, especially between unrelated males. Some of the most striking instances of co-operation in animals take place in order for one group to inflict lethal violence upon another. Among chimpanzees, related males regularly co-operate in unprovoked attacks against members of other troops, even when these attacks yield no food or other resources.
The division of labour among humans who are not related has evolved mainly within the last 10,000 years, far too short a time for the genetic capacities of mankind to have evolved in any significant way. Those capacities must have developed after the time of our common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos, 6m years ago. They enabled human beings to construct the social rules and habits that would constrain their violent instincts enough to make society possible on a larger, more formal scale. But these capabilities did not evolve because of their value in making the modern division of labour possible. Quite the contrary – modern society is an opportunistic experiment, founded on a human psychology which had already evolved before human beings ever had to deal with strangers in any systematic way.
Our ancestors of 20,000 years ago have left no novels or diaries, but it is a good bet that when they moved across the plains of Eurasia they did so cautiously, in small bands, taking care not to expose themselves to those strangers they might occasionally hear or see in the distance. Their brains had evolved under selective pressures favouring caution and mistrust, since opportunistic murder and organised warfare were almost certainly as common among early humans as they are among chimpanzees. Those brains would have been almost indistinguishable from our brains today. Yet any one of us may step nonchalantly out of the door of a suburban house and disappear into a city of ten million strangers, every one of whom is as much our biological rival as the strangers our ancestors justly feared 200 centuries ago.
Remarkably, trust in non-relatives has become an established fact of social life. When I go into a shop, a person who has never seen me before will hand over goods in exchange for a scribble on a piece of paper. When there is a knock on the door I allow into my home a man I have never met, wearing the uniform of a local store. Why? What makes trusting strangers a reasonable instead of a suicidal thing to do?
It is not enough to show that societies in which people can trust one another reap the benefits of peace and prosperity on a scale unimaginable to our ancestors. They do, but trust would soon unravel if individuals could enjoy the benefits of other people’s co-operative behaviour while making no contribution of their own. Making mistakes about the trustworthiness of others is not just costly but dangerous. If we trust others it is because we have created structures of social life in which such judgements of trust make sense. And, the structures work – usually – because they do not run against the grain of our natural dispositions but build on them.
Two characteristics have proved important to our evolution: a capacity for rational calculation of the costs and benefits of co-operation, and a tendency for reciprocity – the willingness to repay kindness with kindness and betrayal with revenge. Both are necessary to co-operation. People given to calculation without reciprocity would be too opportunistic, so nobody would trust them. People given to reciprocity without calculation would be too easily exploited by others. It seems likely that natural selection favoured the evolution of a balance between these two dispositions in our ancestors.
Modern society is built on institutions that persuade us to treat strangers as though they were honorary friends. The capacity for abstract thought is required to see how strangers who do not share your language or religion may nevertheless behave in crucial respects just like you.
But society cannot dispense altogether with some instinctive and uncalculating tendency towards reciprocal behaviour, a tendency to repay kindness with kindness and unkindness with revenge. Even formal systems of justice require the police, the judiciary, and other participants to behave with an eye to more than their narrow self-interest. What such mechanisms can do, however, is to ensure that a little reciprocity goes a long way. Modern social life depends on a large number of arrangements for reinforcing reciprocity with self-interest, so that when we meet and transact with strangers we do not always need to ask ourselves about their intrinsic trustworthiness.
But questions that would seem paranoid in a reasonably stable and well ordered society may be quite reasonable and even essential ones in a poor and violent one. In the history of humanity, reciprocity enabled hunter-gatherer bands to take the first cautious steps towards conducting exchange with strangers. An itinerant trader making the first contact with an isolated band whose only motivation was self-interest would almost certainly have his goods stolen and be lucky to escape with his life.
When human societies adopted agriculture the stakes changed radically. Hunter-gatherer societies could specialise to some extent: even hunting tasks could be divided up. But the greatest innovation came around 10,000 years ago when some members specialised in activities that made no immediate contribution to the band’s food supply – systematic warfare against other humans, and the systematic organisation and transmission of knowledge. The army and the priesthood were born. It is not worth investing in an army if the people whom you fight never hold more than a day or two’s food supply. Once your neighbours grow crops they will hold much larger stocks, and the gains from investing in a specialised soldiery to rob them are very much greater.
So agriculture not only made possible the growth of specialisation within each community, but simultaneously increased the dangers of misplaced trust in members of other communities. It became imperative for all societies to find ways to manage their interactions with strangers, and to extend to strangers the same protection that natural sympathy might make them grant to those whom they already knew. The gradual integration of local cultures of trust into larger regional, national or even global cultures of trust, punctuated though it has been by many reversals, is at the heart of human history. We must not romanticise this process: when I say I can trust a stranger I do not mean that I like him, or care about what happens to him. The point is that I do not need to in order to be able to deal with him. Some people have seen in this fact a chilling, even dehumanising quality of modern societies. But it is precisely their indifference to feeling that makes modern institutions capable of generating trust on a global scale.
Seeing liberalism as a set of ideas that are – at least implicitly – 10,000 rather than merely 300 years old has two great advantages. First, we can see its proper relation to other political ideologies. Socialism is not an alternative to liberalism’s conception of the social predicament – the need to live and exchange with strangers – but rather one proposed means of resolving that predicament. Both socialism and classical liberalism describe a way to live with strangers; they disagree about how much individual enterprise and how much collective action are required for the task. Classical liberalism has frequently been naive about what could be expected from individual enterprise without collective action. Socialism has been naive both about the ease of achieving collective action, and about the dangers of its being abused for militaristic or repressive ends.
Similarly, Islam as a political ideology consists of a set of ideas and values that has proved extremely successful at building cohesion in societies under stress at a crucial period in their history. For several centuries Islamic societies led the world in culture and military strength. Some Islamic centres were models of tolerance and – yes – liberalism that have rarely been equalled since. Islam evolved a response to the challenge of a world populated with strangers, though one that has proved fragile under the stresses of more recent centuries. That fragility is not accidental, though. The fact that Islam rapidly acquired impressive military and political strength within a few years of its foundation meant that – unlike Christianity – it never had to develop a philosophy of compromise with secular authorities and could indulge the ambition of a comprehensive regulation of social life. Its periods of tolerance were therefore the product of vast self-confidence and the absence of internal challenge rather than an ideology that had adapted to the permanent presence of strangers.
The second great advantage of appreciating the true origins of liberalism is that we can appreciate what is valuable in the ideas of the great liberal philosophers without being wedded to their implausible natural psychology. Rousseau’s account of the mind of the noble savage makes no sense from an evolutionary perspective. In one comically patronising passage in Discourse on the Origin of Inequality he wrote that the soul of "the savage man… dwells only in the sensation of its present existence, without any idea of the future, however close that might be, and his projects, as limited as his horizons, hardly extend to the end of the day. Such is, even today, the extent of the foresight of a Caribbean Indian: he sells his cotton bed in the morning, and in the evening comes weeping to buy it back, having failed to foresee that he would need it for the next night." It is hard to see how Caribbean Indians as Rousseau describes them could have survived for a single generation, let alone populated an entire region of the world.
Human beings 10,000 years ago had inherited a psychology that made them intensely suspicious of strangers, and capable of violence towards them, but able to benefit spectacularly from institutional arrangements that made it possible to treat strangers as honorary friends. The ability to abstract from tribal loyalties and grant strangers the same freedoms as were granted to friends; the capacity to be open to new opportunities and choose freely among them; the willingness to communicate with those who do not share our ways of dressing, eating and living, and to share a space with those who do not worship our gods – none of these constitute a purely western capitalist mindset, even if historically it has been western capitalism that has wrung the most economic advantage out of them. Indeed, these ideas are not sufficient to constitute a whole mental outlook of any kind, but without them the great civilisations could not have developed.
Reflection on this history can help us to make sense of some of the dilemmas of present-day liberalism. How much must citizens of modern industrial society concede to alternative cultural outlooks? As much as is needed to trust them, but only as much. What is needed to trust strangers is much less than what is needed to enter fully into their cultural outlook. Toleration does not require that we embrace ideas that differ from our own; it simply means refusing to allow differences over ideas to prevent us from dealing with others in a civilised way.
Such conclusions can yield practical advice. Here are three topical examples. First, in France, where I live, the government has announced a ban on the wearing of Muslim headscarves and other religious symbols in secular state schools. One consequence of this regrettable decision is likely to be that more Muslim families will withdraw their children from secular schools. What a secular education needs to accomplish, on the liberal theory I have outlined, is not to dilute or weaken religious or ethnic identifications, but rather to equip members of one group with the capacity to live and work safely and tolerantly among members of another. Paradoxically, it may be harder to teach young people to negotiate a living space for diverse ethnic and cultural groups if all the markers that identify such groups are suppressed.
A second example: debates over the school curriculum often emphasise the need for transmission of a shared culture. It’s hard to say in what sense a first-generation Somali or Chinese immigrant "shares" the culture of a Geordie, but what a modern education needs to equip them with is not a spurious identification with a common history, but rather a language of communication. English, mathematics, computing skills, the rules of the road, what it means to vote. A common culture in the broader sense is a space to argue, boast and joke over, in school and out of it, with Blackadder, Mel Gibson and Ali G vying with Simon Schama and the National Trust. Culture can embrace many evocative things, but those that must be shared in a liberal society are the simple elements of bourgeois prudence – not the stuff of myth and dreams, about which we had better learn to disagree.
A third example is pertinent to these weeks of anxiety in which we wonder whether the war in Iraq has made the streets of London and Paris, like those of Madrid, a stalking-ground for terrorists. Just as the anxieties provoked by globalisation have been with us for 10,000 years, so terrorism, too, is a modern name for a phenomenon that provokes in us an age-old fear of violent strangers. In fact, the violence of strangers has been slowly and laboriously tamed over the last ten millennia. Notwithstanding the impression given by the world’s news media, the worldwide average risk of death from violence (a little over 1 per cent of deaths from all causes combined) is almost certainly as low now as it has ever been in our history, and even a dramatic upsurge in terrorist violence would not change that. Our ancestors’ violence was tamed not by repression, or by reciprocity alone, but by a subtle and mutually reinforcing mixture of the two, in which bourgeois prudence slowly, and with many reversals, edged aside martial gesture and panache. In the same spirit, our contemporaries’ violence will not be tamed by reciprocity alone – even peace and prosperity in the middle east would not prevent some angry young men and women from succumbing to the temptation of the violent, even suicidal gesture. A heightened vigilance is with us forever in a world in which high explosives can be bought or manufactured for less than the cost of a package holiday. But repression alone will not work either – without a political solution in the middle east there will be none of the networks of law-abiding eyes and ears that, in happier circumstances, restrain the violence to which our adrenaline and testosterone dispose us.
It is the unexpectedness and fragility of the modern liberal achievement that makes it so important to reach a clear understanding of its origins. In the past 10,000 years human beings have had to come to terms with the impact of strangers, but only in the last 200 or so has this impact become a dominant fact of everyday life. Our political and social institutions temper their appeals to the deep emotions, to family and clan loyalty, with just enough abstract reasoning to help modern homo sapiens, the shy murderous ape, emerge from his family bands in the savannah woodland in order to live and work in a world largely populated by strangers. This experiment is still young, and needs all the help it can get.