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Book Reviews: 'The World Until Yesterday' & 'The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame'

Living in the Past

Jared Diamond: The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? Penguin £8.99.

This is another wide-ranging book by Diamond, following Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse. By ‘traditional societies’ here are meant those living in small groups and subsisting by hunting-gathering or agriculture. This covers a spectrum from bands with just a few dozen individuals, through tribes with hundreds of people, to chiefdoms with several thousand people and more complex social organisation. All humans lived in one of these systems till around 11,000 years ago (which, in evolutionary terms, really is ‘yesterday’) and many have done so far more recently.

Traditional societies of course differ, and not just in terms of the size of the group. Thus many such societies have engaged in quite bloody inter-group warfare, but plenty have not, and Diamond argues, ‘All human societies practise both violence and cooperation; which trait appears to predominate depends on the circumstances.’ War may take place over resources such as land (and women). But nobody fights all or even most of the time, whereas we have to co-operate in order to survive. And even those who fight have to co-operate with each other against the enemy.

This theme of co-operation is returned to when discussing childhood and play: ‘Whereas many American games involve keeping score and are about winning and losing, it is rare for hunter-gatherer games to keep score or identify a winner. Instead, games of small-scale societies often involve sharing, to prepare children for adult life that emphasizes sharing and discourages contests.’ This illustrates one of the book’s strengths, its recognition that the way people live now is absolutely not the only possible way.

Diamond does claim, though, that almost all human societies have had religion or ‘something like it’. Religion is claimed to fill various functions, such as providing comfort (‘the heart of a heartless world’, as Marx said), which may explain why, on the whole, poorer countries tend to be more religious than wealthier ones. The US, of course, is an exception to this tendency.

In his epilogue, Diamond makes the point that modern-day hunter-gatherers who encounter Western life-styles are keen to adopt them, as they are understandably attracted by material goods, education, healthcare, longer life-spans, and so on. And some traditional life-styles have advantages and shortcomings which may be two sides of the same coin: nobody is lonely but there is little room for personal privacy.  So earlier social forms were not versions of paradise. But, for instance, traditional societies had few or none of the non-communicable diseases that kill most Westerners today, such as hypertension and heart attacks.



School’s Out

David J. Blacker: The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame. Zero Books £15.99.

Remember Tony Blair and his ‘Education, education, education’? That was how he set out his priorities in 1997, supposedly as a way of improving people’s lives and also making British capitalism more efficient and competitive. But with the recession leading to cuts to education budgets, things have not quite worked out that way.

David Blacker’s title is a nod to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, the view that, as technological progress continues, the proportion of constant capital (machines, buildings, etc) to variable capital (paid out in wages) will rise – see But as it is only labour that produces surplus value and so profit, it follows that the rate of profit (profit as a proportion of total capital) will fall. However, there are so many counteracting forces that this is at most a tendency. One consequence of technological progress, though, is a reduced demand for labour power, including educated labour power. Hence, according to Blacker, not just increases in unemployment and part-time jobs but ‘an abandonment of the ideal of the universal distribution of education’, or ‘the falling rate of learning’.

His book has a mainly US focus but the general points are more widely applicable. One response has been to see education as itself a source of profit, with widespread privatisation. Another has been to transfer much of the cost of higher education to students/workers themselves, by means of loans and debt. US student debt is now well over $1 trillion, and debts pursue many workers throughout their lives, since (unlike with credit cards) education debt is not discharged by personal bankruptcy. But if attending college and being weighed down by debt is an unpleasant prospect, not gaining a degree is even worse, as it can lead at best to a minimum-wage job (‘the fear of McDonalds’).

Blacker classes medical bills together with educational loans as ‘existential debt’, which can haunt people for decades. They should, he suggests, be a focus for protest, part of a campaign for free higher state education. At the same time, though, he argues that educational activism is a waste of time, on the grounds that reforming schools will not usher in serious social and political reforms. It is certainly true that schools and colleges essentially reflect the society around them, and that it is only a revolution in the way society is organised that will lead to proper changes in the function and content of education.