Sedentism and nomadism through the alt-right lens

I was asked on Twitter to comment on this ‘alt-right’ piece on sedentism and nomadism by Charles Jansen. I can see why. It traverses some of the territory covered in my book North, from an almost polar opposite angle. I want to get some initial reactions down here, roughly addressing some of the issues it raises, to the extent that I can without doing further research.

The first thing to be said is that the cartoon nature of its polarised thinking — basically, sedentary people = good, nomads = bad — immediately made me wonder how far towards cartoonish (in the other direction) I’d let myself slip in North. What I hope is that by framing that book with personal experiences which have partly structured my perspective, and by emphasising the creative, narrative nature of this (and all) attempts at history, any real insights in it can be allowed to breathe. Jansen’s few insights, by contrast, are suffocated by literalism and bile. Also, despite the upheavals of modernity, we’re steeped in sedentary thinking, and the prejudices of millennia of antagonism with nomads. It seems clear that some judicious cynicism against sedentism can be useful to gain a more balanced view. Jansen’s remit is to simply draw on those capacious reservoirs of prejudice in fractious desperation.

The second thing to be said up-front is that Jansen’s work is shot through with enough simple-minded bigotry as to make it tempting to not engage with it at all. Mention of ‘the current wave of “rape-u-gees”‘ makes it clear how the author’s mind and heart work. If your life is plenty busy, by all means ignore. Life is short, and engaging with bigots who may well prove to be beyond reasoned argument should be low on your list. However, I’m a decadent metropolitan freelance type with time to waste, so I’m going to gird myself and dive in.

Running through this piece is a dyadic fault, two issues which mutually reinforce and compound their problematic effects. On the one hand is a rough essentialism, the feel of which is evident in the italicisation of nomadic and sedentary throughout. Talk of how the past ‘leaves an indelible print on a people’s culture and character’ is standard traditionalist fare, binding spiritual, cultural, and genetic inheritances together into a reassuring whole. On the other hand is a shallow understanding of history and anthropology — again, pretty standard fare for the territory we’re in. Each of these aspects of the piece bolsters the other: essentialism encourages a lack of appreciation for the complexities of history, and vice versa. It might be said that if you perceive an essence to an entity, your view of its history isn’t deep enough.

Now, that’s clearly an extreme view, and I’m not necessarily anti-essentialist. We’re finite beings, and provisional points of reference are handy. Even across the vast sweep of the whole of human history, there are useful generalisations and narrative threads to help us orientate ourselves. The fault in essentialism here is the old one of mistaking the map for the territory — all the more serious if your map doesn’t even abstract the territory very well.

A major problem is that Jansen fails to distinguish clearly between nomadic foraging, or hunting and gathering — which, at various levels of complexity, has by a long stretch dominated human history, accounting for over 90% of our 200,000 years — and nomadic pastoralism. The latter is what most people (including Jansen, it seems) think of when they think of nomads — camel-riding Bedouin, for example. For Jansen, the most jaundiced sedentary view of them — basically, thieving no-good parasites — is the truth. When he says that ‘an abundant historical record backs up this common perception’, well, it’s hard to know what to say really. He’s right that nomads have been over-romanticised. But it’s not surprising that someone who fails to grasp the idea of bias in people’s accounts of Others also has trouble with the idea that demonisation and romanticisation are another dyad, locked together in a mutual distortion of reality. When ‘common perception’ supports his prejudice, it’s a positive thing, but then: ‘contrary to popular belief, nomads are often neither “free” nor egalitarian.’ Suddenly he’s punching air, lost in a false debate. He’s as mixed up as common perceptions are, since egalitarianism has indeed never been a common feature of nomadic pastoralists — but it is common among nomadic hunter-gatherers. No mention of the ‘indelible print’ this common heritage may have left on us all.

I confess my own research has focused on hunter-gatherers, and I know less about pastoralists. My sense is that while there may be some lines to be drawn connecting these different forms of nomadism, for the most part it’s more accurate to see the antagonism between nomadic pastoralists and sedentary farmers as an intra-agricultural dynamic. And the important thing to grasp about pastoralists and sedentary cultures — in contrast to nomadic foragers — is that genuine rootlessness is more a feature of both pastoralists and the ‘sedentary’ than it is of hunter-gatherers. This counter-intuitive fact is described in Hugh Brody’s superb book, The Other Side of Eden: Hunter-Gatherers, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World. Jansen rightly roots discussion of the sedentist versus (pastoralist) nomad dynamic in the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. But he fails to notice that it is Cain, the farmer, after murdering Abel but before founding the first city, who is condemned to wander. Brody comments:

Being willing to go to unknown and harsh places, in defiance of aboriginal resentment; taking part in colonial wars of conquest and ‘pacification’; accepting the relentless need to remake, with Herculean efforts, a land of forest or marsh or rocks or sand into a patchwork of pasture and fields; knowing little comfort and no respite from hard physical work; setting pleasure at the far end, the distant terminus, of a journey of hardship; making the endurance of this hardship a religious achievement — here are characteristics and abilities that have secured the family farm its place in almost every kind of climate and landscape. These are the qualities that define what Europeans (and other expansionist agricultural cultures) see as the signs and successes of civilisation.1

Of course many of these self-mortifying ‘heroic’ qualities will be lauded by the political right (whether or not they’re eating pizza in their parents’ basement). But the important point is that when we take in the big picture of history, the idealised image of the cosy, stable family farm is a deceptive mask for the marauding nature of sedentism, always hungry for new lands as agriculture depletes the soil, always with one eye on Lebensraum as the tribe swells thanks to the cheap calories of cultivated foods (pizza again!).

Nomadic foragers need to carry everything with them, including babies, so they have to travel light and space births apart. Infanticide is not unknown in order to keep numbers down, a useful fact to keep in mind as a guard against romanticism. But while they are very mobile, forager bands usually roam within a intimately-known region. They are superficially rootless, but actually they are rooted in the land to an astonishing degree. Sedentists are superficially settled, but to some extent their agricultural imperatives — with the domestic / wild and livestock / vermin dynamics — alienate them from nature. And sedentary cultures are more prone to relocating in alien regions. Linguists have determined that words for the cardinal directions — north, east, south, west — were probably lacking in the remote past.2 Such sky-based orientation only came into its own for cultures used to venturing far enough afield that they no longer recognised any earthly landmarks.

That’s not to say that foragers never venture far. The planet was colonised from Europe to Australia and the Americas before agriculture arose. The migration out of Africa to Australasia occurred at rates of up to four kilometres per year.3 This makes the idea of occasional ‘pushes’ due to a tribe splitting under social tensions feasible. Or perhaps some people just kept going. It’s likely that coastlines formed the major vector for the forager’s aptitude for earthly orientation to facilitate exploration of new territory.

So, this hunter-gatherer nomadism is a vast omission from Jansen’s narrative, and his essentialism is hard to sustain when it’s included. He wavers on the edge of awareness in one comment where he says that in the US, ‘Red Indians have turned into alcoholics, while others just passively wait for their monthly welfare check. Forcing them to abandon their nomadic lifestyle led them into degeneracy, a rather tragic outcome given the fact that their nomadism was more linked to hunting and scavenging than stealing from strangers.’ But Jansen is too mired in his narrative about ‘thieving gypsies’ to notice that aboriginal hunters usually became alcoholic because they were uprooted from the land they were intimate with (even though some were nomadic). And they were uprooted by marauding sedentists, who were searching for a new — albeit historically temporary — home. (It may be best if no one points out to white supremacists fired up by Jansen’s ideas that their beloved ‘Aryan’ blood is rooted in migratory pastoralism.)

The European colonial project which formed the modern globalised world is the elephant in the room for the contemporary racist, anti-global right. It’s a complex phenomenon, of course, and you can be sure that every aspect which could conceivably be rallied in apologetics is seized upon and inflated. The fact of slavery as an indigenous African phenomenon, and — of course — Jewish involvement in the Atlantic slave trade are typical come-backs in this context. Such historical facts are important, but while racists claim to rally them in the name of balance, their desperately unbalanced emphasis on them and their strange implicit belief that ‘two wrongs make a right’ merely underlines the denial at work in this childish ‘whataboutery’.

All of us today are locked in a struggle with the fallout from the rootless, expansive, plundering greed of white European sedentists. That’s not the only root of our problems, but it’s such a significant one that racist screeds such as Jansen’s, claiming that the main root of our problems is light-fingered nomads, can only be taken as delusion, misdirection, or a confused and bitter mixture of the two.

Rootless capital is indeed a worthy target of cutting analysis and social rage. But we get nowhere useful by yoking it to simple-minded antisemitic conspiracy theories and essentialist stories about nomadic thievery. Again, global capital developed to a significant extent as an instrument of European colonial power. If you can’t come to terms with the paradoxical rootlessness of the sedentist, you’re lost in this territory.

Jansen ends with a kind of concession to his essentialised nomads. ‘As we need to navigate the increasingly chaotic world of the future, Nomadism, as an idea rather than an option, may have much to teach us.’ The image the article leads with is from the latest Mad Max film.

But the historical dynamics that have brought us the chaos of globalism, environmental degradation, rapacious consumption, and energy fragility, are predominantly the dynamics of agriculture and industry, dynamics emerging from sedentary civilisation.

There’s no ‘way back’ to our low-impact nomadic past — it seems clear we have to push through, and evolve new forms of low-impact sedentism. Or, better still, hybrids and combinations of sedentism and nomadism that best serve the majority.

But first we should get our history straight, and see our fantasies in the light of truth.

The world of Mad Max is not the result of nomadism. He’s the terminal sedentist.