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By Robert A. Vella

The despondent tribe members huddled around a smoldering campfire.  It was late winter.  Their food supplies had dwindled, usable wood for hunting and cooking was in short supply, and predatory animals lurked around the periphery of their village.  Worst of all, the tribe’s chief and two high-ranking elders had died weeks earlier from an infectious disease unknown to them.

This hypothetical scene is set circa 8,000 BCE, and similar dilemmas undoubtedly confronted hunter-gatherers on countless occasions over the 200 or so millennia of Homo sapiens’ existence on Earth.  Life back then was often brutal, unforgiving, and incredibly short.  People had little time to explore philosophical pursuits such as the merits of democracy or the value of egalitarianism.

Faced with impending doom, the village women organized to rebuild the tribal hierarchy.  Their task would not be easy, for the remaining men were physically weak and emotionally reluctant to assume the arduous duties of leadership.  What could be done?  How do you erect a strong, capable leader from such meager stock?

As is the case for most social mammals, it is up to the females to decide.  Although each species is unique and their rituals for establishing dominance and social hierarchy vary greatly, the end result is pretty much the same.  Whether the arrangement is patriarchal (e.g. humans) or matriarchal (e.g. elephants), individuals’ roles are defined and privileges determined accordingly.  Those at the top receive the highest rewards because they bear the greatest responsibility.

A young warrior stood above the rest.  He was stronger than most, wise beyond his years, and possessed the ability to lead.  The village women rallied around him.  He was praised, encouraged, and soon elevated to prominent status.  His trial towards chiefdom still remained ahead, but a successful conclusion would guarantee acceptance by rival men while giving the tribe renewed hope and direction for a more prosperous future.

Tribal Leader - Political Leader

Fast-forward 10,000 years, through the advent of agriculture, the rise of populous societies, the development of culture, several technological revolutions, and on to today’s complex modern civilization.  We have seen an endless parade of kings, queens, and dictators having countless names and titles.  As the population rose, so did their power.  As their power rose, so did their penchant for abusing that power.  We humans got fed-up with the corruption.  We developed democracy and the rule of law to rein-in abuses of power.  But, those new political systems were inefficient and flawed because it depended upon an evolution in the way human beings organize themselves socially.  Such an evolution did begin, but it could not be sustained.  By the early 20th century, the birth of totalitarianism began to replace it.  In the 21st century, the expanse of totalitarianism continues under euphemistic forms such as corporatism, globalism, technocracy, and theocracy.

This is where all our leaders have gone.  The problem never was with them, it was always with us.

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12 thoughts on “Where have all our Leaders gone? An Existential Crisis 10,000 years in the making

    • Thank you, JoAnn. That’s a lot of work. My only published novel was started in 1997 and not finished until 2012! Perhaps this post might inspire some younger, more capable writer.

  1. Personally, I don’t think life prior to “civilization” was that terrible – no evidence for that, but plenty of evidence that life under civilization has been hell for the majority. I think “democracy” was a kind of utopia dreamed up in Greece of wherever and practised experimentally among those elites. it never touched the masses, and even in the would-be great democracy called the United States of America, slaves were not entitled to benefit from democracy. So let’s just say that true democracies have never existed. They’re utopias and mankind has always existed somewhere between dystopias and benign dictatorships. People wouldn’t need leaders if they cared to empower themselves individually to make their own choices and decisions. When in doubt which way to go, practise compassion and you’ll never go wrong.

    • Excellent observations and perspective. You’re absolutely correct about true democracy having never existed, and your thoughts regarding people’s resistance to self-empowerment is precisely the point of this post.

      Although, I somewhat disagree with your assertion that life before civilization wasn’t terrible. It was certainly shorter, a lot shorter in fact – we have direct archaeological evidence. As far as the quality of life is concerned, widely dispersed hunter-gatherer groups are known to have been subject to constantly changing environmental conditions. That’s why they generally never stayed in one location very long. When times were good, life was probably quite pleasant. When it wasn’t so good, life was undoubtedly stressful and problematic.

      • Back to you on a couple of points. A shorter life does not equate a poorer or less – fulfilling one. For example, mine’s dragging on way past my choice expiration date. OK, so I’m trying not to waste this part doing nothing, but I’d have been quite happy with a shorter, less-dragged out drama. As for earth changes, yes there have been some really harsh periods where people had to learn to survive in tough conditions. Hunter-gatherers were nomads by nature, nothing wrong with that. They didn’t need cities and indoor plumbing… so they folded their skin tents and followed the food supply. Likely that kept them a lot healthier that later happened in close quarters in cities – contagious diseases spread in proximity, not so much in the wilderness. It’s never been easy for man to exist on earth, but how much easier is it for the appallingly large numbers who now die because they have no access to clean water, food or safe space? We have crowded, we have crushed, oppressed, suppressed and exploited and squeezed the lemon until the very pips squeezed: that’s not evolution in my book, that’s rank insanity. I’d go back to squaring it off with the sabre-tooth and the wolves just with the wherewithal people had in the days, and I’ll do better than I’d do in any of man’s major cities. Did I mention, I hate cities? 🙂

      • There are few people as critical of modern civilization as myself and the other authors who’ve contributed to this blog. However, we have all been careful not to succumb to burn-down-the-house impulses which nostalgically imagine an empty lot as some sort of lost utopia. Life is not and never was that simple.

        Science has amassed a great deal of knowledge about our hunter-gatherer ancestry. The archaeological study of skeletal remains and artifacts combined with anthropological studies on culture provide a reasonably clear picture of that long period in human history. It is known, for example, that people back then suffered from numerous diseases, chronic ailments, and traumatic injuries because their bones still reveal those conditions. Average lifespans for hunter-gatherers were much shorter than today for precisely those reasons.

        The constantly-changing environmental conditions which challenged the survival of our hunter-gatherer ancestors were as much anthropogenic (i.e. man-made) as natural (e.g. climate). Tribal groups would exploit and exhaust local resources and be forced to move on. This behavior likely hastened the extinction of mammoths and mastodons in North America. Human nature is today what it has always been regardless of how we socially organize ourselves.

        The biggest problems with modern civilization are: 1) overpopulation, and 2) the concentration of wealth and power. Correcting them requires innovative, forward-thinking in my opinion.

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