Neolithic Health in a Capitalist Economy

David Erdal is a management consultant working in Britain. He advises workers on how to take over a company and run it as a cooperative. It’s a booming business. It turns out that the cooperative sector in Britain is bigger than the agriculture sector.

David Erdal has a PhD in evolutionary psychology. In his latest book, Beyond the Corporation: Humanity Working, he promotes cooperatives, describing how and why they succeed because of our Neolithic, hunter-gatherer humanity.

In the book’s final section “Humanity Flourishing” he describes a study he conducted in Northern Italy of three towns. In one, a quarter of businesses are cooperatives. Another, at the other end of the spectrum, had none. The third was in between. The life span in the town with cooperatives is 2½ years greater than the town without. The picture is the same for a wide variety of other so-called quality-of-life indicators Erdal measured.

This isn’t just the point that conditions at work affect your health. Erdal is drawing a direct line between the social relations of production and health.

I was introduced to David Erdal’s work by Bernard Marszalek, co-founder of JASecon (Just, Alternative, Sustainable Economics) in response to our recent show on free play and unschooling with Peter Gray.

Peter Gray, also a PhD evolutionary psychologist, draws a direct connection between the decline in children’s free play in the last half of the 20th Century and the rise of psychopathologies such as depression and narcissism. A surprise for me was that it was not technologies such as television and computers that accounted for the decline of free play—in fact, one study indicates that television watching has declined not increased—but time spent in school, time spent doing homework, and time spent shopping with parents that were the major sink holes for children’s time. What also increased was the amount of play that was controlled by adults: organized sports, lessons for this and that, and so on.

Gray cites research showing how free play develops a child’s interests and sense of competence, ability to make decisions and solve problems, learn how to regulate his or her emotions, make friends and learn to get along with others as equals, and just makes him or her happy. All of which are squashed with the decline in free play.

Gray suggests that the same is true of adults.

The thread that runs through the work of David Erdal and Peter Gray is that their perspective is informed by our understanding of how our Neolithic, hunter-gatherer past shaped who we are as social beings. David Erdal describes three basic characteristics of the hunter-gatherer societies that preceded the rise of agriculture and with it civilization: first, strong rules about sharing; second, a lack of permanent leadership; and third, a strong sense of fairness. All of these emerge in the act of free play promoted by Peter Gray and embodied in the concept of unschooling.

Erdal and Gray are promoting social systems that make sense to our Neolithic biology and psychology: Erdal for workers, Gray for the young. They are not promoting a biological determinism in the way that apologists for laissez faire capitalism attempted to use Darwin to rationalize the misery inflicted on the working class as the natural outcome of survival of the fittest. It is more accurate to say that they promote better social outcomes informed by what I’d call Neolithic health.

Yet the analysis of each man has its limits.

In the case of Peter Gray, he has no adequate explanation for why children’s lives have been so restricted. Perhaps its because he limits himself, not surprisingly, to psychological explanations. What makes sense to me, not surprisingly, is that the decline of free play takes place in the context of a political economy that needs children to become a disciplined working and consuming class—and not just future tense, since children now are a consuming class of their own. What’s missing from Gray’s analysis is something like Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System published over 50 years ago.

Likewise with David Erdal, who in a telling example describes a worker owned company that thrives in a stagnant industry by using the humane environment created by the cooperative to increase productivity and lower costs by laying off workers. For cooperatives, the context is that the individual enterprise might be idyllic, but it is still subject to the laws of motion dominated by capitalist production—laws which are very much not humane.

There’s a further dimension that reconnects in a very direct way with health outcomes: the actual object of production. Would Monsanto be less toxic if it were a worker-owned cooperative? Dow Chemical? Exxon?

But these are only limits. We should be inspired that people are seeking the cooperatives advocated by David Erdal and the unschooling advocated by Peter Gray in growing numbers. Perhaps our Neolithic humanity will prevail after all.