Lessons for the future from a disappearing world

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on James Suzman’s "Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen"


Ah! ’Tis the season to be jolly. Jingle bells and jangled nerves.

Forget the spiritual significance of Christmas. That has long since disappeared into the rictus of avarice. Modern society is irretrievably materialistic and consumerist, we are told. 

It was not ever thus. James Suzman, an anthropologist and political economist, argues that the supposedly innate acquisitiveness of human nature — the foundation of economic philosophy of everyone from John Maynard Keynes to Karl Marx — is not the given that we assume it to be. Suzman, who has spent the past 25 years studying and living among the Bushmen, says that their hunter-gatherer existence has a lot to teach the supposedly advanced societies that have supplanted them, destroyed them, and now condescendingly dismiss them.

Suzman runs the think-tank Anthropos, which uses social science to tackle contemporary political and economic problems. An interview with him is a challenging mental cross-country through the millennia of homo sapiens development, leaping from one conceptual stepping stone to another. 

“If we measure the success of a civilisation by its endurance over time, stability and sustainability then Bushmen were the most successful civilisation in all of human history,” Suzman asserts. “Despite now being perhaps the most marginalised community on earth, they thrived for 10,000 generations, comparatively so much longer than the 500 generations that have elapsed since the beginning of agricultural period.”

Their success is even more remarkable given that despite the harsh conditions under which they lived, their hunter-gathering “work” to survive only occupied an estimated 20 hours a week to live a comfortable, albeit Spartan, existence. This was the original “affluent society”, before the arrival of white settlers and Bantu pastoralists upturned the lives of the Bushmen.

Suzman uses the term Bushmen, which became viewed as a pejorative but is now being rehabilitated, to encompass the ancestors of the Xoi of the Cape, the San of the Kalahari, and the Ju’/hoansi of Namibia.  As he writes in his thought provoking new book Affluence Without Abundance, the Bushmen he has encountered over decades of fieldwork don’t much care about what they are called: ““The problem is not how others refer to them but rather how others treat them.”

They have a point. Less than 10% of Bushmen retain any meaningful access to the lands they once occupied or have any substantive rights to land at all. In Botswana and Namibia, dispossession from the vast territories that they once roamed freely continues apace.

Not has post-1994, democratic South Africa been markedly kinder to the Bushmen than was the apartheid era that preceded it. So far, all they have scored is that the motto on SA’s national coat of arms is inscribed in the now extinct Xam language. 

For Suzman, however, it’s not about yearning for an idealised past that can never be recovered, or about a Utopian future that will never be realised. It’s about the lessons the modern world can learn from the heyday of a people whose values – a lack of acquisitiveness and materialism, as well as strong social cohesion – caused them to flourish in an environment of great scarcity. 

“Modern society defines itself by work, hence the panic as jobs disappear to automation. Yet the Bushmen show that the cultural and economic models that we use to analyse work are outdated. 

“The agricultural revolution, 10,000 years back, established the pattern of working beyond immediate necessity to create surpluses, to sustain life in the years of bad harvest. But we’ve now actually solved the problems of economic scarcity and have reached an inflection point. 

“We’ve reached the stage where economic growth comes only through the application of capital and technology, but neither creates jobs. By pursuing the illusion that endless economic growth is going to solve our problems, we are cannibalising our future.

“We need to re-examine our assumptions about human nature. The history of the Bushmen gives us a pretty good insight into how homo sapiens lived for 95 or 98 percent of human history and shows that the axiom that drives modern economic theory – that humans are innately and unchangeably greedy and the economic systems have to develop around the efficient adaptation of that greediness – are simply wrong.” 

There is an ironic modern political dimension, too. Suzman points to the “very powerful narrative” of ancestral lineage and collective land rights, which is driving the debate on land restitution in SA. 

“Effectively you are then inadvertently saying that most of southern Africa, home to 75m people, is the just entitlement of the 100,000 remaining Bushmen. So, rather than continually referring to the past, in order to make justifications for social justice in the presence, we need to be forward looking and find ways of achieving justice with without great social harm to others.”

No matter how unlikely it is that Suzman’s wish will be granted, it’s a seductive Christmas-season sentiment. How wonderful it would be if the Bushmen – relegated to the fringes of society and the targets of casual racist disdain from both blacks and whites – could inspire not only a new economic parameter, but a new political one, too.

* James Suzman’s Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen, is published by Bloomsbury.

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