As I’m continuing my reading of Mutual Aid, Kropotkin keeps presenting one great insight after the other. This time it was something which is incredibly obvious but nevertheless something that people don’t take into consideration. The fact that recorded history presents a limited perspective of human existence; a perspective that is always centred around human conflict and competition with one another.
The cause of this is very easy to understand really. Like human memory, history is punctuated around great events, ones that enter into the consciousness of a large amount of people living in a particular area. But unlike an individual human who might consider a wedding or a birth as a generally important event in their lives, in the grander scale such positive events don’t register. What does register quite well however is conflict and disasters. And this is understandably, what the historians of each era write about.
This can be easily seen from even our modern experience. If a historian of a thousand years in the future were to look back into the popular records we’ve kept of our existence, such as newspapers or tv news, they would undoubtedly get the idea that all human life in the 20th and 21st century was one of perpetual crime, wars, disasters, exploitation, struggle etc. Why? Because this is what is newsworthy!
Normal life events are not newsworthy. Mundane facts of existence such as the fact that our lives generally roll in peace and quiet, the common social events such as parties or festivals, the small acts of human kindness like helping grannies pass the street or picking up hitchhikers, all of these are boring. And this is not because they are simple, but because they are so common that everyone of us has experienced them at one point or another. There is no reason to report on them because everyone is aware that they do happen.
On the other hand, not only is the rare disaster reported with glee, but most often than not, it’s exaggerated to make it seem even more interesting. And it is the rarity of such events that makes them more newsworthy. Most of us will very rarely, if at all, experience a murder or other unnatural death situations (ie not diseases) in our living lives and yet, if one watches the news, they would undoubtedly get the impression that unnatural human death is commonplace. In fact, it has been reported and displayed in popular culture so much, that most of us have grown partially blasé to displays of human death without ever having witnessed one!
And this is the fallacy that far too many people make when looking back at recorded human history and seeing trends. They surmise, from the overwhelming majority of conflict depicted within, that humans during ancient times must have been living in a state of perpetual war against all. Greeks against Trojans, Greeks against Persians, Athenians against Spartans, Macedonians against everyone, Romans against Everyone, Catholics against Orthodox, Germans against Romans, Christian against Muslim, Ottoman against European, Scot against Scot, Scot against English, etc etc.
But what defines such recorded events, what made them noteworthy, was exactly the opposite of what the contemporary historical analyst sees in them. They were rare! This is the reason why they were recorded in the first place. It is a great error thus for someone to surmise that humans must have been in a perpetual state of conflict from looking at their recorded history. It is an even greater mistake to define “human nature” from such a flawed analysis and from there to suggest “fixes” such as greater state control or free markets, to a problem that does not exist.
What in truth defines human societies, is exactly what is not mentioned at all or at best mentioned in passing, precisely because of it’s banality. And we see that what is rarely mentioned is human cooperation, solidarity and mutual aid in times of difficulty. It is these unmentioned facts of human life that are the unwritten rule of existence.
- 02.09.09 / 4pm
- Human Nature