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Work, a story that begins with Homo Herectus

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There are sciences that seem to be daughters of a lesser god. For example: chemistry risks appearing as the Cinderella of physics, given that all its stirring with molecules is based on assumptions of atomic physics, which come pre-packaged from there; maybe those who practice chemistry as a profession will be offended, but in the layman the doubt can be legitimate. Or let’s look at geography: does it have its own specificity or is it just an ancillary discipline? When we leaf through a historical atlas, are we leafing through a book of historical geography or a pure and simple history book depicted on maps? And does economic geography have its own methods or is it just economics illustrated on maps? And economics itself too: is it a real science or do economists base their house of cards on unproven, and perhaps bogus, principles derived from other sciences such as psychology, sociology and anthropology?

Here, the anthropology just mentioned should be a basic discipline, like physics, and be the foundation for all the social sciences; yet we laymen in approaching anthropology risk (at times) the sensation of an impalpable matter. Even a beautiful book like “Tristi tropici” by Claude-Lévy Strauss (by the way, not at all sad, indeed not alien to humor, although sometimes bitter) mixes ethnography, history, philosophy and sociology with happy freedom, but precisely this wealth of stimuli it can leave the doubt that there is no real method behind it. In theory, anthropology should start from ethnography and study the “primitive” populations (ambiguous term, we know) of hunters and gatherers, and indeed take the run-up from paleontology, that is, from the examination of prehistory, and from the natural sciences, to then to generalize, with prudence, what has been learned in the field and to obtain indications on human nature, possibly valid (and verifiable) even in our times. Here, from this point of view, a book that we have found exemplary is the volume “Lavoro” (Il Saggiatore, 378 pages, 36 euros); what is anthropology? Anthropology is exactly that.

For example, the sequence of ethnographic research / paleontology / natural sciences / psychology and sociology of the present applies, applied to the origin of some characteristics of the concept of work as universally understood by humanity.

James Suzman, a South African anthropologist, starts from an ethnographic research on the field that has as its object a tribe of Namibia. Suzman collects the testimony of the old hunters of a Kalahari tribe on how the “hunting for exhaustion” (now in disuse) was practiced until the last 50s. It involves identifying a prey, for example an “eland” antelope, and then attacking it. The eland is much faster than humans, but its body is covered in fur and does not sweat; therefore after a few hundred meters it bursts and stops to rest. By rules this is enough for the prey to escape, for example, from a lion, which in turn has fur, does not sweat and bursts after a short shot; but man is made differently, and defeats the antelope thanks to greater resistance. The eland to escape it makes a series of shots and stops, while the human hunter follows it with a regular run, until the antelope, exhausted, collapses at the umpteenth shot and lets itself be reached and killed.

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This kind of hunting is very tiring even for men, and today it is hardly practiced anymore, because the rifle saves a lot of sweat; but anthropologists, for generations now, have collected endless testimonies on the fact that hunting for exhaustion was widespread, up to a very recent past, throughout Africa. From indirect clues we know almost for sure that it was practiced by our species Sapiens for three hundred thousand years, and for hundreds of thousands of years by our predecessor Herectus, who was already partially carnivorous, like us, but had nothing but roughly hewn stones. , and therefore had no other way of hunting than by exhaustion of the prey. Putting together her direct ethnographic observations and contributions from various disciplines, Suzman realizes this exemplary anthropological reconstruction: the Herectus began their earthly adventure as almost apes, with an upright still uncertain gait and a hairy body unable to sweat, but having made hunting for exhaustion an increasingly important resource for their diet, over the course of several hundreds of thousands of years natural selection has made them become more and more elegant in gait, less and less hairy and more and more capable of sweating, and therefore more and more resistant in the race and more suitable for hunting due to exhaustion; moreover, their increasingly carnivorous diet in a million years has modified their intestines, making it shorter and shorter (the digestion of meat is faster than that of vegetables), and all these characteristics have been accentuated in the three hundred thousand years of Sapiens. Not only that: hunting for exhaustion requires much more programming than for ambush or short chase, so in a million and more years the hunters Herectus and then Sapiens have found a competitive advantage in developing a brain with predictive capabilities, and also suitable for cooperative sociality, up to the development of less and less rudimentary forms of language; citing a large number of authors from various disciplines, Suzman concludes that “hunting in this way may have played an important role in shaping the sociability and social intelligence of the Herectus and Sapiens, as well as reinforcing that perseverance, patience and determination that characterize still our approach to work “. And here is the anthropologist who starts from ethnographic research, paleontology and natural sciences to explain something about humanity today.

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Of course, the archaic legacy of hunters / gatherers is only one of the elements that created our idea of ​​work as we conceive it today; more recent contributions have come from the transition to agriculture, and then from the transition to the industrial market economy; and in this regard Suzman’s book is full of other interesting and sometimes even amusing perspectives: to give an example, it seems that agriculture was not born for food purposes, but to produce beer, and that only later was it addressed also to food production. Again: at the dawn of the industrial market society, Adam Smith made a mistake in deriving homo oeconomicus from the division of labor: a systematic analysis of the anthropological literature reveals that the cases of specialization of labor among “primitive” populations (with the usual reservation on the term) are infinite, but not even in a single, single case, has the division of labor ever led to the individual exchange of various commodities, to the creation of a market, and even less to monetary circulation, which therefore does not they are by no means psycho-sociological structures inherent in man and on which to base economic theory; in every community of hunters / gatherers studied by anthropology, the products of the specialized labor of single individuals have always been shared and redistributed in a sacred manner. Instead, the invention of the market is very recent, it dates back to a few centuries ago, it is artificial and does not correspond to any innate human structure.

Another glimpse from Suzman’s book: have you ever wondered why in ancient and medieval cities every single economic activity, commercial or handicraft, tended to be concentrated in a single urban place, and only in that? Why were the apothecaries’ route, the cobblers’ route, the blacksmiths’ route, and so on? Let’s immediately eliminate the answers that may seem logical, but are in fact wrong: the concentration of arts and crafts was not imposed by urban planning regulations; nor was it intended to allow customers to compare prices and quality of goods and services; no, it was not the stimulus to competition that created the specialization of roads. If the artisans and traders of every single specialty tended to congregate in the same street it depended on the natural tendency of the like to join with the like. The pharmacist had more interesting things to say to the pharmacist than anyone else, and the same was true for those who tanned skins, or lent money, and so on. Suzman writes: “Contrary to today’s narrative, which portrays the market as a world of competition to the death, for much of the story those in a similar profession usually collaborated, worked together and supported each other.” Not only that, but their sons (who inherited the trade) and their daughters played together, and maybe when they grew up they married each other, and the corporation was cemented with even religious values ​​(and in the extreme case of India it was transformed even in caste). The market already has nothing natural about it, but when it is affirmed it tends to give life to corporations, and not to free competition, which is the least natural there is, and if anything it needs to be imposed and maintained by rules.

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The last few chapters of Suzman’s book are concerned not with the past and present of work but its future, particularly with regard to robotics, which will eliminate jobs at a rate four times that of any technological revolution in the past. Until now, jobs in agriculture and industry have been replaced by jobs in services, but now artificial intelligence also threatens service sector workers, including skilled ones.

In order to save society, a massive public redistribution of wealth might be necessary, perhaps in the form of a true universal income, according to the rules, that is, substantial and extended to everyone; and if working really corresponds to an ancestral need of humanity, developed in a million years of hunting for exhaustion, the perspective of sociologist Domenico De Masi in the book with the ironic (but not too much) title “Working for free, working all”. Or the economists might be right, assuring that the incipient technological revolution is the same as all the others and that the related problems will be solved automatically by the invisible hand of the market. Suzman does not seem to believe it and quotes economist John Kenneth Galbraith, according to whom the economy is “extremely useful as a form of employment for economists”; Galbraith accused almost all of his colleagues of covering with trappings the platitudes that most of the time they say and write. On her own, Suzman discredits economists as a category for not having been able to predict the system crisis (we emphasize: system, not conjuntral) of 2007-2008.

We close with a joke about Galbraith: Suzman writes that Galbraith “from the height of his two meters rarely met someone who could look him straight in the eye”. Well, the author of this article looked Galbraith straight in the eye (but from bottom to top!) During an international meeting of economists, after physically bumping into him. Without this signifying opposition to his ideas.

James Suzman, Work, the Assayer 2021, 378 pages, 36 euros

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