The fight between farmer and forager types (conservatives and progressives)

The fight between farmer and forager types is a fight about work and values and not a physical one. Ever since the agricultural revolution, there have been two types of forces in human societies: a conservative one (farmer types, who love routine, hard work, tradition and value conformism and law and order) and a progressive one (foragers types, who love novelty, are less into hard work and value freedom and individualism). People may be somewhat mixed, but their genetic makeup will most likely pull into one direction depending on what genetic makeup they got to inherit.

The antagonism between farmers and foragers has always been about several bones of contention, like how egalitarian society is. However, one of the most prominent ones is work. Farmers have the ability to do sustained rote work, which foragers do not have (they are typically the people who suffer from burnout first nowadays). Farmers therefore not only represent conservatism, but also productivity, whereas foragers have always been the creative forces in human history, carving out their niches and inventing new methods to make labour easier (necessity is the mother of invention).

Forager types have since been the driving force behind all major social revolutions:

  • Urbanization
  • The social egalitarianism of the Axial Axe
  • The great monotheistic religious revolutions
  • The enlightenment and industrial revolutions

These revolutions typically tried to bring about a more equal society (e.g. religions fostering charity) and easier work for forager types. This may be more obvious for some forager movements than others. Urbanization isn’t an obvious candidate, and yet it was a means to escape drudgery in the fields for forager types. In fact, James Suzman writes in Work, A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots (2021)

Interestingly, the oldest almost-urban settlement discovered so far, Çatalhöyük in Turkey, was probably similarly materially egalitarian too. But it was not like any of the other ancient towns and cities that followed. Its ruins are made up of hundreds of similar-sized domestic dwellings clustered tightly together, almost like cells in a beehive, suggesting no one was measurably richer than anyone else. There were also no obvious public spaces like markets, squares, temples, or plazas and no public thoroughfares, paths, or roads, leaving archaeologists to conclude that people got from one place to the next by scrambling across rooftops and entering their and others’ homes through the ceilings.

Çatalhöyük may not have been the only egalitarian urban settlement. Of course, the egalitarian period only lasted as long as status-oriented farmer types didn’t populate these settlements, as this would have meant the end of an unstratified society as farmers would have worked much more and harder to accumulate material wealth.

John Maynard Keynes […] predicted in 1930 that by the early twenty-first-century capital growth, improving productivity, and technological advances should have brought us to the foothills of an economic “promised land” in which everybody’s basic needs were easily satisfied and where, as a result, nobody worked more than fifteen hours in a week. We passed the productivity and capital growth thresholds Keynes calculated would need to be met to get there some decades ago.

John Maynard Keynes was obviously a forager type. He actually loathed the farmer’s work ethic or greediness (depending on from which side you see it) as it meant an obstacle to his prediction. And an obstacle it was. His affluent 15-hour work-week societies so far can only be found in forager groups — mostly of the past as modern foragers usually live like third-class citizens in the countries where they have survived. His vision was, like Karl Max’s communist vision, an unrealistic utopia. The majority of people in the world are farmer types who are instinctively averse to communism and who will work more if it helps them increase their status.

John Maynard Keynes might have known. The Industrial Revolution brought so many improvements in easing labour. Forager types really worked hard to decrease hard work and farmer types really worked hard to undo all that with their greed. Life for many people became harder, slaving away 15 hours a day (instead of a week). As much as we marvel at the inventions of the Industrial Revolution, as easily we tend to forget the misery it brought to many people:

For many, the industrial revolution of the 19th century and the rise of consumer capitalism brought the promise of greater wealth and freedom of choice in all aspects of life. But this same period also witnessed a dramatic rise in suicide. ( )

I have no doubts that most of those suicides were committed by forager types. Modern foragers like the Intuit, Aborigines and many Native American tribes have the highest suicide rates in the world.

The fight between foragers and farmers goes on today. With robots increasingly doing our work, it is increasingly becoming harder to become rich with hard work. In many companies nowadays creative talent is more highly valued than hard work. A lot of countries are, however, making it increasingly harder for this creative talent to ever reach the workforce. Schools are increasingly demanding more work from their students in order to be competitive in the modern world of work. Inadvertently they are filtering out the creative talents, typically foragers types who are the first to drop out of high school. The most horrifying version of this phenomenon can be seen in farmer Japan, where almost half a million Hikikomori (doubtlessly forager types) have decided to drop out of academic and work life.

Originally published at on April 30, 2021.

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