Saturday, April 2, 2011

Capitalism and Human Relationships – Ancient and Modern

I have been reading Paul Bohannan’s wonderful book Social Anthropology and came across the following, which I paraphrase for continuity:

“All traditional types of economy are based to one degree or another on kinship. As man developed through the stages of hunting and gathering, herding, horticulture, and finally agriculture, he relied on family units and other human associations to accomplish his objectives. Factory industrialism, on the other hand, is associated with the type of society based not on kinship but rather on contract, and usually goes hand in hand with the reduction of the family to the small nuclear group and the pronounced playing down of all other kinship organizations.”

Isn’t this interesting?

Before man became a capitalist, his well being was almost completely dependent on kinship relationships. Men decided early on that operating in a group was more efficient than operating alone, based on the benefits of a division of labor and productivity gains through specialization. From the family standpoint, we see a synergistic unit working together for a common purpose. Grandparents advised their offspring and helped with the care of their children. Parents worked and the fruits of their labor were enjoyed by those who were too old to work. The greater family unit was augmented by other kinship relationships derived from blood relationships or marriage.

Bohannan dates the beginning of factory industrialism to the time of the invention of the steam engine, circa 1760. To him, the steam engine set the stage for modern mass production. My position is that the capitalism of antiquity started the dislocation of the kinship unit long before factory industrialization became a reality.

Capitalism is a economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained chiefly by private individuals or corporations, as contrasted to cooperatively or state-owned means of wealth.

Sounds like what the Greeks, and later the Romans to a greater degree, were doing. They had mines, small factories, shipping companies and other types of businesses we see in the post-modern age. The difference is that with technology at a low level, the impact on society was less significant. Still, the model was operating.

Working in a business forced people to transition away from a kinship dependency, where output is produced and consumed by the same entity. In business, the output is produced by an individual who is recognized and compensated for a specific skill that he alone possesses. The skills of his kin are irrelevant. Now the worker’s compensation leads to the purchase of goods that will be consumed by his nuclear family. This dislocation from kin has a positive effect on productivity (skills match work), but tears apart the relationship between members of the extended family unit.

Fast forward to the present, where the industrial society is in full bloom. Are we now seeing the final destruction of the family unit because both husband and wife have to work to provide for themselves and their children? Without kin available as substitute caregivers, children are being outsourced to day care and sports coaches, who act as parental surrogates, while the nuclear family disintegrates.

We began this post by describing how mankind organized himself in groups because it saw the advantages of doing so. Was this purely out of necessity or are we inherently social beings as some suggest? Social networking is highly criticized today as being “against human behavior” because communications are not face to face. Perhaps we are adapting to a new kind of kinship with its own benefits – the kind that breaks the boundaries of geography.

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