21st Century Kropotkin I: Indigenous Living May Be Obsolete, Research Time, 04/07/2014

Peter Kropotkin tells a story throughout Mutual Aid about the evolution of human society as an adaptation, the latest iteration of a long line of social phenotypes. The human models of sociality are especially interesting because we can transform them so quickly. Much of ant organization, to take an example close to my philosophical and literary heart, has changed little over the millions of years these beautiful insects have lived on Earth.

Kropotkin, however, traces several different forms of communal and consensual organization among the human race throughout its history in Europe and northern Asia alone. The oldest cultures of humanity, which he takes to survive in the indigenous peoples of our species, all practice communal forms of life: ownership of land and the resources to farm are conceived as common, and it is only the products of individual or familial agricultural toil that belong to that family. 

Even here, care for the misfortunate is taken as read; Kropotkin describes examples from indigenous groups all over the world of how, if a destitute person asks for alms, a person is obligated to take him in for days to feed and clothe him. If a member of the community finds himself ruined, the richest donate some of their livestock to get him back on his feet.

Charity in the contemporary Western world is notoriously slim. Such nefarious examples as the grandchildren of Wal-Mart creator Sam Walton don’t even donate anything substantial of their fortune to their own charitable organizations, and what little they do is largely to avoid paying taxes. During times of economic recession, charitable giving among the general population shrinks considerably. Our civilization has so many financial pressures, including barely manageable debt burdens that are casually accepted as an ordinary part of life. The lifestyle of the rural indigenous makes communal living easier: there is so much less to spend your wealth on.

Can a vision of a human society express an ideal of the
perfect political system and be at all human?
Life as a communal peasant certainly seems easier as Kropotkin’s pen describes. These communities are smaller, simpler, more kind, and gentler. I worry, however, about the orientalism that Kropotkin could be articulating when he praises these indigenous groups. He seems to describe the societies of Amazonia, indigenous Australia, Siberia, and the Berber Kabyle people of Algeria in idealistic terms, as if they had perfected society in their communal practices. After all, idealization accomplishes just the same as demonization in annihilating the human singularity of a people under an idealistic group identity.

The problem seems to be laid off by Kropotkin’s anthropological focus on the peasants of northern Europe in describing their own communal social frameworks. But the problem of idealization remains in his work. Mutual Aid is, as I’ve said for the last while, a strange book. Not only is it a work of evolutionary theory that becomes an anthropological history, it is an anthropological history that also serves as a political argument for anarchism, advocating that we live in self-organizing autonomous communities. I’m still wrapping my head around what precisely the implications, problems, and benefits of such an amorphous approach to philosophical writing can be.

The political nature of the book, while I find myself in great sympathy with it, expresses a vision of the communal lifestyle that may not be possible in our heavily industrialized world. In the world of the peasants and indigenous peoples that Kropotkin describes, every man is capable of building his own house and maintaining all the systems that keep the village alive and thriving. We no longer live in that world. If Kropotkin's vision of the anarchistic ideal for society is drawn from examples of the medieval or older past and non-industrial indigenous peoples, then the very technology I'm using to spread these thoughts and ideas would not be possible in the society he wanted to build.


  1. I have to say I'm not convinced by your headline here. In fact, I disagree quite strongly. Though an anarchist ideal is just that, an ideal, that doesn't mean we can't be or aren't working for parts of it. Even today, there are a lot of examples of people taking the best artefacts of modernity and blending them with both ancient traditions and progressive values.

    I just recently saw a show about a family of indigenous Alaskans in the Copper River Valley who live in a modern house with electricity and everything, yet who still gather, store and prepare food the same way their ancestors did and who come together as a community to share and swap resources. That same show also looked at Native Americans on the Alaskan coast who superficially seems to have completely "assimilated" to modernity, yet the community still operates via very traditional customs, such as hunters paying tribute to the land and thanking it for its sacrifice and considering kills to be for the entire village, not just the hunter or his family.

    For these people, holding onto their indigenous values is of paramount importance, because it not only defines who they are as cultures, but demonstrate a way of life that's older, healthier, and just overall better.

    There are even examples in the industrialized West of people pushing back against modernity, such as families in Portland, Oregon who live entirely off-the-grid subsistence lifestyles, yet who still live in housing developments and have access to the Internet. Then there's the Earthship project (http://earthship.com/), which I'm an incredibly strong supporter of, which looks to radically reconceptualize the way community building and architecture works, again without abandoning the things we come to expect growing up in modernity.

    Endeavours like this explicitly prove how we can build a more sustainable and ethical way of living without sacrificing tradition or the conveniences of the industrialized West. All it takes is more people to realise they're not bound by the Master Narrative of heteronormative, capitalist, reproductive futurist hegemony. And this is all just one tentative step: I'm sure there exist even more progressive and radical ideas that we could be experimenting with if people started to actually consider them possibilities.

    1. Thank you, JM. It's just what I think the post needed. I think I've been surrounded by a few too many politically pessimistic voices and some disappointing situations at my work to take a more hopeful view of things. As well, just engaging with this particular text put me in mind of its important omissions. I can't even say it's an omission, really, just an effect of having been written in the 1890s. You've helped assuage my initial doubts about how well these ideals can emerge in our own era. It's one of the exact things this blog is for.