Book Review: Green backwoodsman

To End Poverty: The Starvation of the Periphery by the Core by Richard Hunt. Alternative Green, 20 Upper Barr, Cowley Centre 0X4 3UX. 1997. £15.50.


To end poverty we need to know how it began. Because, according to Richard Hunt, poverty is a relatively recent phenomenon unknown to our “primitive” forbears and that by looking at the kind of society in which they lived, we can detect clues that can guide us to that goal.


Early hunter-gatherer groups represented what the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins called the “original affluent society”. Their needs were easily met with little effort, permitting a surfeit of leisure. Wealth was more or less evenly shared on a communistic basis. Anti-social behaviour was minimised because in a small group everyone knew everyone else. Social hierarchies, as such, did not exist although a kind of “peck order” operated based on “respect and influence, not authority”.


Several thousand years ago this universal way of life came to an end although its remnants can still be found in remote corners of the world today. What chain of events brought this about? It is commonly thought that agriculture led to population growth, permanent settlements and the production of food surpluses to support an emerging elite. Hunt argues to the contrary that such developments predated—and necessitated—agriculture. Social hierarchy according to him began with hunter-gatherer society itself with an élite extracting plunder and tribute from the population. This in turn undermined traditional birth control mechanisms for limiting the population to what an area could support through hunting and gathering thus prompting the shift to agriculture. For agriculture was not willingly embraced: it involves more work and this, suggest Hunt, conflicts with the Law of Least Effort governing human actions.


Its an intriguing hypothesis but one that begs more questions than it answers—like what caused an élite to emerge within a hunter-gatherer society to begin with. Possibly, it was the increasing scarcity of game and fruit and it is significant, as Hunt points out, that one of the first areas where cultivation began was Mesopotamia which experienced drastic climate change at the end of the Ice Age when the rain belt moved northwards.


With the institutionalisation of social hierarchy, argues Hunt, the process of impoverishment began. This manifested itself spatially in the relationship between an urban core where power resided and the rural periphery from where food surpluses were extracted. Ancient civilisations didn’t bother much with trade: “They just took the resources by force. But as the periphery receded it became difficult to muster sufficient physical military strength, so they had to resort to trade or blackmail or corruption.” This established a pattern whereby the core rulers “supply arms, via traders, to periphery rulers to suppress their own people and extract crops to sell to the traders for use at the core”. The growth of trade led to the introduction of money which enabled the rulers to switch from forcibly expropriating food surpluses to taxing their subjects to achieve the same end. It also led to the growth of industry in places like medieval Florence and Flanders where high labour costs provided a strong incentive for technological innovation.


It was in Britain, however, once itself a peripheral power, that the Industrial Revolution truly began thanks to a propitious combination of circumstances: mercantile capital from the slave trade, a growing landless population due to agricultural “improvements” and land enclosures, cheap food imports from its colonies. The products of British manufacturing were then exported abroad, decimating the less competitive traditional industries in those peripheral countries, all this being justified in terms of the Theory of Comparative Advantage which required them to specialise in providing the food and raw materials that a core country like Britain needed in return for its manufactures.


And that more-or-less set the scene for the kind of world we have today with an expanded core comprising north America, western Europe and Japan confronting a vast impoverished periphery that is the so-called Third World. Every step, argues Hunt, in this convoluted journey from our primitive past to our precarious present was imposed by an élite on its reluctant subjects—agriculture, trade, wage-labour, industrialisation—and, whenever circumstances undermined the power of the élite to impose its will on others, society has tended to regress, economically and technologically, again, in compliance with the Law of Least Effort.


So where do we go from here if we are to “end poverty”? For Hunt, “since government is the cause of poverty, we must end government”. To achieve that he advocates three main methods: revolution on the periphery, the break-up of political units and cutting taxation (and hence the power of government). Unfortunately for him, it is a hopelessly foredoomed scenario.


By his own admission it flies in the face of capitalism’s globalising tendencies towards closer integration. This leads him (perversely for a “green anarchist”) to support nationalistic movements such as in eastern Europe without appreciating the statist implications this entails. Furthermore, such newly “liberated” countries have not thrown off the yoke of Russian imperialism to escape the clutches of global capitalism: on the contrary they are falling over themselves to invite the multinationals to help “develop” their economies.


The basic flaw in Hunt’s analysis is his obsessive preoccupation with scale. His reasoning seems to be thus: Hunter-gatherer societies were small-scale, therefore they lacked a social hierarchy: they were stateless societies. A state emerged because of the increasing scale of social organisation and that in turn created poverty. Therefore any tendency that appears to bring about a reduction in social scale (from international to national to local) ought to be encouraged for its effect will be the progressive alleviation of poverty. Once we have achieved a society of “autonomous, self-sufficient, armed villages”, poverty will no longer exist, although Hunt does not tell us why they need to be armed or what is to stop some of them forming alliances to conquer and enslave the rest.


Socialists too want a more decentralised society, although the total autarky at the local level he proposes is neither feasible (given today’s level of production and population numbers) nor even desirable. However, while he identifies government as the basic cause of the poverty he documents, we locate it today in an economic system that put the profits of the few before the needs of the many.


And that’s the whole problem with Hunt’s arguments. A society based upon class ownership of the means of production inevitably requires a state to administer it. Without ending the former, you cannot hope to end the latter. Nor, we must add, poverty itself.


Robin Cox