“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”
—Jack Kerouac, On The Road
The history books of our schools tell magnificent stories of the conquests and struggles of national heroes—the narratives of the necessities of progress. We learn of the great state building projects from the ancient eras to the present, and with reluctance the washed out realities of human mistakes along the way. What most tend to walk away with is the pride of certainty in the necessities of building states to justify the world of today, a sense of the absolute and inherent movement of history towards the world we live in today. We know that history was written in blood and the victors write the annals. Despite knowing that centers of power shift, disentangling from their entanglements, re-entangling into new centers over time, we are still taught, and many hold fast the belief with great fervor, that borders are absolute and unchanging permanence, that the world is filled with completed and totalized boundaries in the 21st century. And that’s all she wrote. We’ve reached the end of history. Shows over folks. Turn off the lights, pack up your belongings and head home to settle down for the long long night of the rest of human existence. But, unfortunately, it’s not quite so. Borders in the contemporary world are still just as fresh, new, and permeable as they have always been. Borders are still just as unstable as they have always been, just as states are still unstable as they have always been even given their more totalized manifestations over the last few decades. In part 1 of this series, I set out to deconstruct the ontological immediacy of what exactly a border is, in this part it would be best to move forward by considering the historical context of humans in relation to borders, groups, states and our movements betwixt and between.
Modern humans (Homo Sapiens) first began to emerge onto the animal scene around 250,000 years ago, which is about 3.25 million years after some hairy tree swinging apes found themselves with a lot less trees to swing about and decided that their feet would do the walkin’ and for all we know their mouths hadn’t quite done much talkin’. And for a long while after this group of wile hominids left the trees for the grassy savanna, different versions of Homo (that’s Latin for “human being”, get your mind out of the gutter!) kept walking and walking and walking, all over the place, weather and mountains permitting. As far as contemporary common knowledge seems to believe today, for some reason, a lot of the places these early humans walked were apparently really damn scary. But, there is always at least one motley fool amongst us who decides, “Ya know what? That scary thing ain’t so scary!” So, about 3.3 million years ago, as best our evidence has shown, prehistoric Homo picked up some sticks and made them pointy and gathered some rocks and made them sharpy. Assumably, these crazy apes did this so they could point them and poke them at scary things, things that probably weren’t so scary when they found out that they could cook them with fire and eat them. It’s pretty safe to assume that early modern man was already firing up the barby to grill up some meats, and most likely adding to their arsenal of sharp and pointy things, some swinging flamey sticks. According to contemporary anthropological evidence, some Homos were already using fire about 400,000 years ago during the time that our distant cousins, Homo Erectus, were walking the block. And so, for a long time humans kept on pointing and poking scary things with their pokey poles, stabbing them with their sharpy rocks, and burning them with their flamey sticks, while making sure to take some time to relax by picking nuts, fruits, tubers, and berries; just walking and walking around where ever they damn well pleased.
Now at this point the attentive reader might begin to wonder, why the hell was every thing so scary and why the hell do these hairy apes keep poking with their pointy sticks and sharpy rocks? Maybe, it’s just human nature… Well, we don’t know actually if things were so scary and as far as we know there is no definitive account of the turmoils of prehistoric hunter-gatherer’s inner psyche. When looking at early cave paintings what we see are the developments of abstract thinking, symbolic representations through art, an advancing knowledge of astronomy, and an intimate relationship with the world around them. By this point in human history it’s most likely that human’s had developed more advanced language technology and were doing a lot of talking and walking in a world without borders. We could backwardly project notions of flight or fight response, but this doesn’t mean that the prehistoric world was one of a constant epic struggle for human survival. As we see from watching animal documentaries predators aren’t always in a vicious attack mode. We laugh when we see a fat-belly-to-the-sky big cat lounging and rolling around like an innocent house kitty. How many times have you seen a group of chimps out in the jungle just napping around and playing and being silly, all lackadaisical like and without a care? We also know that animals can be domesticated, even predators such as wolves, which happened around 15,000 years ago. Farm animal domestication didn’t come until later, around 10,000 years ago, when early farmers made friends with some goats.
There is no need to assume that the survival of prehistoric humans was a never ending struggle of wondering through a desert in great hunger hoping that they would just so happen to stumble upon some grub—a life always teetering on the precipice of starvation. It’s most likely that even prehistoric humans had an intimate knowledge of plant food sources and herd movements through the seasons. Recently, some anthropologists have proposed that early humans would gather meat sources by following predator packs and waiting until the predators had their fill and scampered off to scavenge the remains of a freshly killed carcass. Although there were with out a doubt many great dangers in the world, we can’t say if the experience of early humans was always so scary as Hollywood would like us to believe, and, despite the dangers, these strange species we call Homo have been kicking it around the world for thousands upon thousands of millennia.
And so, human’s kept kicking it the nomad way with modest technological advancements until about 10,000 years ago with the birth of agriculture during the Neolithic Revolution. Agriculture was a world tilling technological advancement which set the foundations for the digital world of bordered nation states which we live in today. Yet, this revolution to the world order took time to grow and develop and most human populations stuck to their hunter-gatherer ways for a few thousand more years. All in all, it was roughly a 6000 year period between the onset of more explicit sedentary agricultural techniques and the emergence of centralized city states in the Mesopotamian alluvium. The earliest farmers who took up the sedentary lifestyle did not completely abandon their hunting and gathering methods. It is believed that the first groups to settle in the drainage basin of the Tigris and Euphrates flowing into the Persian Gulf did not initially begin to farm by planting, but exploited natural growing plants and selectively harvested the wild grasses. It’s important to keep in mind that although in the present day we see that these regions are arid and desertified, evidence shows that 15,000 years ago this region was a diverse and luscious biome.
For several millennium, sedentary humans most likely practiced mixed methods of food gathering including fishing, hunting, harvesting, planting, while not strictly sticking to the lands where they kept their settlements. These early settlers were actually still roaming through several different biospheres for a large variety of different kinds of foods. It is believed that these early pre-state people were wanting for nothing and had far more diversity in their diet than most contemporary people have today—in a word, they ate pretty damn good out of the natural abundance from multiple biospheres they found around themselves. The ability to move across multiple ecosystems also ensured that the early settlers had little concerns for food insecurity (and much the same could be said for those groups that decided to stay nomadic and keep wondering). Without the limitations of contemporary national borders, in times of harsh weather or catastrophe, if people felt pressures on their food sources they always had the option to get up and move to new lands with greater food security.
When it comes to the development of more recognizable forms of farming during these thousands of years before the formation of states, the primary farming technique was not as we would recognize today as fix plots of land. The earliest forms of agriculture were much more in the lines of swiddening and shifting cultivation, a practice of burning the space in one area to prepare for planting, and after a year or two of crop harvests rotating to new plots of land to allow the previous plots to rest and revitalize for a long period of time in order to restore the soil and environment. Another common practice was polyculture which was a method of growing multiple plant varieties in the same area which helped to increase crop stability and security. Even given the onset of early farming settlements, the options for ways of living in the epoch overturn of the first agricultural revolution were not simply just the two “extremes” of settling or nomadically wandering. Some peoples chose a third way in between and took to herding and moving around with the grazing domesticated meats which offered much more than just protein. Lets also not forget that we also see the development of early forms of trade during this period where hunters, gathers, herders, and settlers all had things to offer in return for things they needed and wanted.
It may come as surprise to some in the 21st century, but these prehistoric traditions of shifting cultivation, hunter-gathering, and nomadic herding are not archaic modes of being far removed from the 21st century, and we would be amiss to think of them as backwards, barbaric, and primitive. A mix of various techniques and sources for food insured food security and reduced the risks of survival. In the current age, and for the last couple hundred years, mass-agro stationary monocrops (the current modern methods of large scale farming) have actually increased the risks of crop failures and the potential for food insecurity. Crops now are much more susceptible to diseases and insect epidemics than before; soil erosion and degradation can lead to desertification, depletion of nutrients, mudslides, and flooding. Furthermore, besides increasing food security these traditions of subsistence express something very real to the reality of human existence, that we hairy big brained apes have always been animals of movement in a world of movement.
To give a charitable estimate, history began about 6000 years ago when the first agricultural revolution was in full swing and people began to gather together into larger settlements. The scope of this work is not to explore the meaning of history, but if we were to ponder such a question, it might do us well to think about history in terms of technology and records keeping—a project of developing societies through the interactive relationship between humans and events. We don’t really see the beginnings of states until about 4000 BCE when more complex civilization developed in the Sumer city states of Mesopotamia on account of the region’s increasing population and agricultural surpluses. Around this period, farming settlements also began to appear as well in the Indus Valley, the Nile River Delta, and the coasts of Peru and it wasn’t until a thousand years later (circa 3000 BCE) that what we would call civilization came to fruition in these other regions of the world.
Even though agriculture brought people together into grain settlements and surplus began to centralize authority and power within these spaces, these early states do not account for the rest of the global population. Some projections propose that the global population around the year 3000 BCE was at about 14 million people. These early state centers maybe contained thousands of people at most, and the state centers were highly unstable and often didn’t last too long until they were abandoned. For various reasons, people would often escape the state centers, and maintaining populations within the sphere of state power became a challenge to many rulers. Like people of the thousands of years prior, if conditions were unfavorable, they would just pack up and leave the city. This can give us insight into the mystery of why so many early city states were abandoned virtually over night. In comparison then, only a small fraction of the global population lived within early state projects, a larger portion of the world’s population were still living in settlements and farming outside of state centers, and many more still lived as nomads. Most people were primarily living in collective non-state communities and the dynamics of social organization stayed this way for while longer.
If we do the math then, it’s a bit wild to think that for 99% of our evolutionary existence humanity was living in collective groups outside of the structures of state control. Oh, the humanity! Oh, the chaos! Oh, the impossibility of having non-state social organization without borders!… At least that is what people try to tell us is impossible. And it is true, states went to war and fought for power in vicious bloody battles, but that doesn’t mean that most humans were fighting each other all of the time in vicious bloody battles at the behest of states purely for the sake of more material stuff. It doesn’t mean that our only behavioral inclination as humans is to fight and organize around a central authority dictating our actions to accumulate things. Sure, certain aspects of risk aversion were a factor in drawing people into state centers, but that doesn’t mean that at signs of trouble people stuck around these state centers. This also doesn’t mean that human’s have an innate drive towards mass accumulation of a surplus of goods. That’s the job of the state. And let’s not forget that one of the first and oldest commodities of states was not merely grain surplus (as we are taught and told), but, the primary resource of states was man power (read: slavery to maintain the grain surplus and for primitive accumulation of luxury goods). As stated above, and as other scholars have proposed, if anything, most people were often finding ways to avoid being absorbed into the state centers for want of not being a slave. Early state war campaigns were not purely just for territorial expansion but often were about harvesting the surplus of available bodies to accumulate as slaves. To echo what other scholars have written, such as the political scientist James C. Scott and scholar Owen Lattimore, when we think of walls and borders it’s not so much that walls were built by states to keep the barbarians out, but, more so as a way to keep the people within state spaces and to stop them from escaping back into the wilds. States need the resource of man power, and it does no good to a state ruler if your labor supply is constantly trying to run to the hills to reclaim their autonomy and freedom.
People and animals, for a long time, have primarily lived in collectives working together for the mutual subsistence of the group. For most of the world population now, living in urban and rural centers of state hegemony and control for a few thousand years, it seems more than obvious to them the necessity of state formulation. People tend to take for granted these non-state realities of human existence and ignore the important implications they have for our collective human history. All over the world people now in the 21st century hold strongly to the state narratives of the necessity of state power and it’s divine manifestations. Yet, in the 21st century, in every region of the world, in different forms of organization, we still find examples of people finding ways to collectively order their group in social power relations as a means to counteract the imposed social relations of authoritarian state hierarchy. I’m not the first to make this claim, I don’t take credit for such a thing, but I do claim that humans in varying degrees of social relationships and hierarchy have primarily been, for the past 250,000 years, anarchistic people living outside the rule of a centralized state-building project and organizing themselves and moving about as they see fit. If anything, resistance to the violence and control of state centers is fundamentally woven into the fabric of our social relations and is as old as the dirt from which we grew our first grains. We must understand, that the foundation of human experience is not only our inclination towards movement and migration, but also our thousands of years of resisting oppressive state powers. It is this foundation in which me might now find our footing to push forward into the bleak future that we see before us.
Collectives and commons, humanity’s oldest forms of social organization, have still existed even up to the contemporary age, albeit no longer the primary form of social relationships. We still see examples now, particularly of ethnic minority peoples, where humans still have some forms of collective autonomy and freedom of movement across national borders, e.g. in many parts of Asia. Although, despite the scope of early states as the hegemony of agricultural grain centers, states have been anything but a stabilizing force for communities and groups of people. Even into the last millennium, large chunks of the global population have lived outside the grain cores in the non-state frontiers and wilds despite states’ attempts to absorb these people into their centers of power, which often results in violent divisions between groups of people with a common cultural history. We don’t really see the solidification of state territories and the onset of proto-capitalist production until the 13th century enclosure acts across the European continent. Prior to this time, from about the 8th century CE, most people where living on common lands with collective forms of farming having to pay tribute to the landlords. Collective commons, during the medieval period, remained the primary social organization for people furthest from the state centers of power. Yet still, it wasn’t even until a few hundred years later in the 1600’s where the enclosure acts in Britain really came to a head and went full go in coercing the land away from the peasants.
The royal decrees of enclosure absorbed the commons into the hands of elite private owners and forced peasants away from taxed subsistence farming towards agricultural wage work. Around the globe during the age of colonization and imperialism enclosure expanded in other state centers up until the 1800’s. It was during this time period as well that The Peace of Westphalia in 1648, after 30 years of war in Europe, defined our early concepts of the modern sovereign nation-state, strengthening the power of states’ rights to demand ownership. Incidentally enough, Westphalia—which solidified state control along with the enclosure acts—happened during the birth of colonization and imperial expansion, a time defined by further mass migrations (forced and freely chosen) of people around the globe connected by trade. Terrible times of terrible state activities, you know, the usual: wars, genocides, and slavery. The colonial period was in essence a moment of forced enclosure on a global scale, a mad race to cut throat and stash up the fruits of a sword’s labor. Nonetheless, the state sword of primitive accumulation couldn’t kill the collective even as it modernized and industrialized into the 20th century—so in response, states further sharpened their sword edges in order to maintain the point at the apples in the throats of the people. But, we know, the people continued to rise up and resist while waving the banners of revolution against the state. People continued to struggle to keep what was being taken away from them (their freedom, autonomy, and collectivity), and came to realize towards the end of the second millennium CE that the struggle was no longer just about protecting and holding onto our autonomy and freedom, but also fighting for a better, freer, more equal, more secure future for everybody. In the struggle and battles of imperial colonialism, humanity sowed the seeds of modernity.
Along with continual migration in the 20th century, modernity gave us a fetish for simplicity, a neurosis for controlling the universal standardization of perfect form, and a pretty bad hangover which we are still pretty damn intoxicated by. Modernity was a wild time in which our technological advancements completely twisted and turned upside down our entire schemes of what it means to human and how humans use the mind to engage with the world. With deeper inquiry we come to find that the definitive boundaries of time, much in the way of spacial borders, aren’t as definitive as we’d like to believe. In light of modernity’s attempt to standardize time for the sake of increasing the efficiency of productivity by playing off of the modern fetish for simplifying things into easily countable units, we find difficulty even in trying to delineate historical periods. There is rarely a moment in history in which we can point to as a distinct threshold of then and now. Historical movements and events often overlap and arch across the eons, where singular points of historical reference can often mislead us towards particular kinds of ideological narratives which work on behalf of those in power in order to maintain their hegemony of control. At the same time, different parts of the world do not move at the same pace of historical development. Nonetheless, at some spot in the last 2-3 hundred years humans came face to face with a liminal technological transition that has dropped us ass over tits right into the 21st century. Many would still love to believe that state building projects were all a continuously even movement of history to solidify something that we could hold onto as an ontological anchor which reassures us that the Absolute is absolutely the way things are, have been and always will be. Yet, in the face of further technological advancements up to the 21st century many are left feeling a hollow sense of loss, that there is something we are losing.
What is it that we feel we have lost? What is that which we feel we are losing even now into the digital spheres of virtual spaces opening up before us? Have we reached some absolute temporal boundary to which we must resign—the dreaded end of history? Are we imprisoned completely within the borders of the world we experience and live through in the 21st century; physical, temporal, and virtual alike?
The narratives of human movement are far from concluded in light of the challenges we face in the contemporary age. Migration in the 20th century flourished wildly in the face of an exponential boom of the global population. Even into the great age of technological modernity people still actively choose to continue to live out their lives as rovers, hunter-gathers, and on the periphery of state spaces. We have seen mass movements of immigrants escaping world wars on a scale the world had never seen before, whole histories of people that dreamed of better days in better lands. The great depression left large masses of people hanging onto the fringes of society and booted from their local realms in which they could no longer find subsistence. Whole artistic traditions were founded upon the mass movement of people and ideas disentangling from their desperate situations only to re-entangle in new spaces, people grasping onto the human ideals of creation as a pathway to building better days of future becomings.
And now we permeate the digital spheres of movement and flow onwards, a world of increasing mass migration because of climate change. New groups of desperate peoples who are no longer able to sustain their existences in the bosom of their homelands are packing up their camps and looking for better opportunities of survival—something we all may have to do in the coming decades. What we are losing now is not just the dreams of modern nation-state projects and identities which people are nostalgically lamenting, our loss is something much more horrible, we are losing the security of a life sustaining planet and with it the possibilities of our very existences. We are now in the doorway of a global paradigm shift and from this point forward, no matter what we do, some new world is coming to be, with or without us. As our ancient prehistoric ancestors knew and understood, what we must not forget, is that human migration and mutual collectivity may be our only chance for survival.
Much of this essay was inspired by the works of political scientist James C. Scott whose writings drew from an extensive body of work across multiple disciplines including anthropology, archeology, biology, history, and political science:
- The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (1976)
- Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998)
- The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (2009)
- Against the Grain: A Deep History of Early States (2017)