Why Study History? Why it Matters to the Yankee Population Who Don’t Bother to Vote


Why bother?

“Why should I care about the past? The past is over. What matters is the present and the future. Besides, the only people in the history books are usually kings, generals, or politicians. I could care less about them. What do they do? Fight wars? Attend Congress? Schmooze? History is about dead people and dead institutions. History has nothing to do with me, my family, or my friends. As for politics, I don’t vote. Why bother? They don’t represent me. Why should I care about their inaugurations, balls, and conferences? Why should I care for any of this? This has nothing to do with my life.”

Whether or not this cynical view of history appears true has a great deal to do with the class location of the individual. People in the middle and upper classes might feel that wars, congresses, and their dates are important because they think we can learn from the past. They might say politicians and generals are more or less expressions of the popular will. “After all,” they might say, “understanding history means knowing how human ideals and values have changed over time.” After all,” they may say, “we surely have come a long way since primitive times in terms of age longevity, medicine, and the power of tools.”

My claim

The purpose of this article is to say that it is perfectly understandable that people who are working class and/or poor think studying history is a waste of time. But in large part that is because mainstream history is an ideological expression of the upper classes. What I hope to do is present an alternative view of history which is:

  •  Bottom up rather than top down,
  •  That is primarily made by working class people,
  •  Process driven, rather than event driven, and
  • Is materialist oriented, with change being driven by population pressure and resource depletion, and class-struggle that that idealist oriented.

This understanding makes working class and poor people, (the people who don’t vote) care about history. If you’d like to see a high-contrast comparison between mainstream history vs a council communist understanding, please see the table at the end.

History from the bottom up

Perhaps it seems reasonable that the study of wars, dates, and the lives of famous men might be irrelevant, not because the past itself is irrelevant, but because our view of the past is partial and skewed. Until recently, history books only described the actions of extraordinary people – kings, generals, heads of state, or scientific or artistic geniuses. This kind of history leaves the mundane life of the average person almost completely out of the picture. The contribution of the majority of people to the shaping of societies constitutes a history that is still in the process of being written. The history of class, ethnic, and gender struggles has surfaced in academia relatively recently and, though incomplete and still largely unknown to the general public, is now unavoidable in serious discussions about the past. While the “people’s historians” offer an alternative view, it is not a monolithic one; they contest among themselves which events should be chosen for description and how those events should be interpreted.

These developments represent an important step forward. However, despite them, most people still fail to see the relevance of history to the present and the future. History seemed to be a subject that already happened. It is the imperfect record of an objective past that has occurred, has impacted us for better or worse, and seems to have vanished, giving us no further opportunity to modify it. Yet, what is missing is that past struggles between classes are like hot molten lava that becomes crystallized in the institutions of the present. In this sense the past is solidified in the present. Also, past struggles can be reinterpreted and reorganized, for better or worse, in terms of our present and future politics. All groups, both in power and struggling for power, reinterpret history in the service of their own cause. If that were not so, there would not be so many different interpretations of the same historical events. History is always political; it has never been the impartial study of objective events for its own sake.

The study of history can be subversive because it can expose the relativity of our most cherished institutions – private property, wage labor, institutionalized leadership, the virtue of acquisitiveness, individualism, and the worship of male deities. History can open up our imaginations by enabling us to learn from the beliefs and practices of early societies and, on the basis of what we have learned, reorganize our future. This subversive approach to history centers on a study of past problems for the purpose of understanding how the previous societies attempted to solve these problems – as well as on the unintended consequences which resulted from chosen solutions. Books by Jared Diamond like Guns Germs and Steel and Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed; and Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind are examples.

Conversely, not knowing about the past leaves us vulnerable to the belief that the current order of things is more or less the way it has always been, and by implication, the way it will always be. It means our social problems today, social solutions, and the consequences which follow have seem to have no link to the past, leaving us robbed of the soil we grew out from.

Here, in summary, are the reasons for studying history I will attempt to show:

  • it is mostly about the average person,
  • it is mostly about the present and future,
  • it is malleable and open to change,
  • it exposes the relativity of our present institutions,
  • it can help us to reorganize our present and future, and
  • it reduces the chances of repeating past mistakes.

The Dimensions of Society

Describing historical events without referring to the types of society they occur in is like an artist drawing the human figure in motion with no understanding of how the skeleton or the muscles of the body interact, to create certain possibilities and constraints to movement. History can only occur through the construction of relatively stable socio-cultural systems. A natural catastrophe in a hunting-and-gathering society will not have the same impact as it will in an industrial capitalist society. It is impossible to make sense of ecological crises, inventions, and famines without a prior understanding of the type of social structure they are impacting. World history occurs in concrete social systems – hunting and gathering societies, simple and complex horticultural villages, nomadic herding societies, and agricultural states in addition to industrial capitalist societies. There are qualitative differences between bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and state societies. Yet all societies have to adapt to their ecological settings and develop systems for producing and reproducing their existence across generations.

Anthropologist Marvin Harris (1977, 1979, 1988) has divided all social systems into three subsystems – the social infrastructure, structure, and superstructure. These subsystems enable human beings to reproduce their existence. To begin with, the ecological setting frames the conditions under which societies are built. Whether people find themselves in steppes, deserts, jungles, or plains affects the kind of soils, plants, and animals that are available as resources as well as the climate and topography. All these factors affect how hard people work and how well they eat. Additionally, the size of the population interacts with the ecological setting to determine whether people will migrate or stay in the same place.

Activities in the social infrastructure involve the most immediate necessities in food production – whether people will hunt, gather, fish or plant. Once all of this is established, people must discover the process of how they can work most efficiently, in order to gain the most yield with the least amount of effort. To do this an elementary division of labor is established which includes designing tools, devising ways of harnessing energy, and determining the length of the workday.

Producing goods, however, is only the beginning. There must be methods of determining out who gets what, when, where and how. Thus, a primary aspect of the second dimension of a society – its structure – is its economy, or system for circulating the exchange of goods and services once they are produced. Further, the economy involves decisions about how much gets produced. In societies with rank and stratified social relations, the asymmetrical ratio of distribution is justified by status, prestige, and the ownership or non-ownership of property.

The second major department within the social structure is a society’s politics. Politics in its original sense means the “policy” governing society in two senses: projecting the future direction of the society and maintaining and regulating the existing social institutions – that is, sustaining order. The establishment of social policy is rarely a smooth process. Especially in rank and stratified societies, different subgroups within society cooperate, compete, and struggle for political power. The political and the economic systems are interrelated, and both concern the public world.

As the saying goes, “man does not live by bread alone.” People in all societies seek meaning about what they are doing. Meaning-making systems include science, art, law, and sacred systems – which, according to Harris, more often than not serve to justify in people’s minds what they are already practicing in their work. These meaning-making systems can also inspire people to look beyond the mundane necessities of working, eating, and breeding. This dimension is called the society’s superstructure and is often simply referred to as its “culture.”

For our purposes, the most important part of Harris’ description is his claim about how these three subsystems interact over time. When most of us are taught about world history we are presented with a picture that presupposes that social change proceeds from the top down, moving from the social superstructure and descending to the structure and infrastructure. This is an “idealist” presentation of history, in that it assumes the social world changes because of extraordinary ideas, knowledge systems, or morals.

Harris argues that this is wrong. Social evolution is rarely determined by people’s values and ideas – whether they be sacred or scientific. In fact, in nearly every instance social change begins with a crisis of population pressure and resource depletion. If the crisis is bad enough and the society doesn’t become fragmented (people abandoning it or joining other societies), people will by trial and error develop new technologies and economic-political systems that temporarily relieve the crisis. The superstructure is usually the most conservative dimension of society and the last to change. In Harris’s model, the social infrastructure and structure are like the arms of a galaxy whirling very quickly. The superstructure is like the galactic core, whose rate of movement is slower. Harris backs up his claim with evidence that hunting-gathering, horticultural, and agricultural societies all change from the bottom up. Harris is a materialist. I am convinced that tangible, biophysical, and technological-economic processes determine beliefs, knowledge systems, and values far more often than the reverse.

This linear description of the movement from infrastructure to structure to superstructure does not mean that the superstructure is powerless and doesn’t have any influence. It just means its influence is comparatively weak. In reality, all three dimensions are interpenetrating. But the dynamics are not equally weighted. Lastly, this description is not meant to suggest that in practice people in societies first build the infrastructure, then the structure, and finally the superstructure. All three subsystems are built co-extensively in time. But as they are building all three subsystems, each subsystem is not affecting people’s material life equally. The infrastructure and structure of society are impacting and determining people’s lives more forcefully.

What do the dimensions of human society have to do with history? History is the long-term, irreversible, and accumulating result of the production and reproduction of the three dimensions of society as they evolve from hunter-gatherers, simple and complex horticulture societies, the agricultural states, to herding, to agricultural states to industrial capitalist societies. Historical events do not acquire meaning unless we first know: what kind of society is it? Which social class, race or gender is being affected? At what point in history does it happen? The production and reproduction of society is the foundation of history.   

History is About Collective Human Activity, not Primarily About Events

How humans shape society: cooperation

Like all other animals, we humans must earn a living in the environment to meet our needs. Each species has a specific activity, a “species activity” unique to itself by which adaptation is accomplished (for example, building dams is the species activity of beavers). All animals work – i.e., they expend energy in a focused way over time in order to survive and reproduce. But the overwhelming majority of animals do not deliberately cooperate with other members of their own species, except in caring for their young. They complete all processes of work essentially alone. The simple biological strategy of most other animals is to graze, forage, or chase down prey in solitude.

Considered in isolation, without society or culture, and relying only on physical prowess, a human being is a mediocre competitor compared to other large-bodied mammals. Other animals can run faster, jump higher, and have greater sensory acuity. It is our social strategies that have made us the dominant large-bodied species on this planet, and these social strategies entail cooperation. It is our ability to cooperate with other human beings that gives us the edge over the rest of the animal kingdom. We cooperate by (a) pooling our resources, (b) creating a division of labor, and (c) working to a common end. Cooperation creates a social whole which is more than the sum of its parts.

Human societies emerged as an adaptive strategy of Homo sapiens to compensate for our physiological mediocrity. But society does far more than help us to survive and reproduce. Society is responsible for completing our humanization and expanding it over the course of history.  Cooperation changes human species-activity from work to labor. In laboring, we accept roles. Members of a hunting band agree beforehand that some will join together to frighten the game, while others will wait in ambush. Later, if they have been suc­cessful, they will share the kill with other members of the band who have stayed behind at the campsite. After all, having finished consuming the edible parts of their prey, those members who did not participate in the hunt are expected to engage in other roles, such as sewing the carcass and tanning the leather of the animal.

None of these roles, other than that of waiting in ambush, directly leads to biological satisfaction. In fact, the strategy of frightening the game, taken by itself, would be maladaptive: it would probably diminish the chances of a successful outcome. But as a socio-cultural strategy, frightening the game is effective because others have agreed to be waiting for the game when it falls into their trap. This cooperative strategy, and others like it, are so effective that they have enabled our species to dominate the globe.

Over time, our species has built a network of social institutions around the earth that changes, and is changed by, our biophysical environment. Society becomes akin to what Teilhard de Chardin termed a “noosphere” – a “super-organic” planetary feedback system, a “socio-sphere” nested within the biosphere. It is within this socio-sphere that history takes shape. The dynamics taking place among other animals within the biosphere over time could be called “evolution.” “History” is a unique kind of evolutionary activity that goes with the building of a socio-culture. Without a socio-culture there would be no history. With the few exceptions of those other animals that have some socio-culture, the humans are the only species on earth that produce history. History consists of socio-cultural systems changing over time.

Summing up:

Most Non-human animals                  Human beings

work                                                                labor

little or no cooperation                                  cooperation: social roles

biological evolution                                        socio-cultural evolution

evolution without history                   evolution with history

Individuals are Both the Object and Subject of History

Role-making and role typification

The heart of cooperation is the creation of a division of labor, or role-making. When groups divide up to perform complementary roles, they create an interdependency. By relying on each, the people create synergistic results. They obtain more food per capita with less risk than could any single member working alone. There is no longer a direct relationship between biological needs and biological strategies. The ends may be biological, but the means are socio-cultural.

When a hunting-and-gathering society first begins to divide up the tasks, the people need to discuss what to do: “You go over here and frighten the game; you go here and wait in ambush; you stay back at the camp and prepare for a feast.” But then, after a few practices runs, the group members no longer need to discuss who is going to do what because the roles have been internalized. Each person reciprocally typifies the process in his or her head. (Berger, 1967) The internal dialogue probably goes something like, “Aha, here he or she goes again playing that role. This is my cue to play this role.”

The internalization of laboring activities allows old roles to be mastered to the point where they become subconscious. Each person can now anticipate what the others will do. “There she goes again” becomes “there we go again.” The socialization activity initially is consciously undertaken. But once internalized cues kick in, each person engages in roles automatically. This frees up the individual’s conscious mind to deepen existing skills or learn a wider set of roles.

So the more roles we internalize, the more human we become. The more roles can be typed and then formed into social habits, which can be counted on to recur, the more the mind knows its social place in relation to what other humans are doing. In this model, history does not “begin” with writing and civilization, because this would exclude all the laboring and role-making of pre-state societies. History begins with the construction and reproduction of all human societies, starting with hunter-gatherers.

People are objects of history

People are not, however free to build roles from scratch. Throughout our lives we are limited by the tools, institutions, and beliefs that are passed on to us from previous generations. An individual is born into a particular type of society, within a given subgroup of that society, at a particular point in history. Nothing can be done about that. And these constraints define what the person has to work with. As an adult, through one’s goals and actions one not only cooperates with others, but also competes with the goals and actions of others. That encounter is an inseparable part of social life. Furthermore, competition between people is not a democratic “free-for-all.” Since the rise of stratified states five thousand years ago, most people have little or no political or economic power at their disposal to enable them to compete with the real powerholders in society. In all these ways, people are the objects of history.

Subjective possibilities

At the same time, while individuals are in one sense subservient to forces which are much more powerful than themselves, the institutions and social tools of previous generations contain the raw materials necessary to overcome these constraints. Each person still has responsibility for what is made of his or her circumstances. Through learning language, and through learning to take on roles, we are training ourselves to become weavers, not simply yarn to be woven into what history becomes. As adults, the quality of what we bring to our work, the morals, and beliefs we hold dear, and the way we raise our children are all aspects of being a human subject.

Individuals then, are both objects and subjects of society, both products and co-producers of society. What is more, the process of being a product and co-producer is going on all the time.

Externalization, objectification, internalization

The process of being a subject and object of history has nicely been broken down by Berger (1967) to include three moments: externalization, objectification, and internalization. For example, every day a person goes to work, her labor, along with everyone else’s labor, literally produces society for another day. Every morning a person wakes up, she is “pregnant” with the power of reproducing society for another day. As people express their subjectivity and creativity on the job, society is reproduced. We are each pregnant with a little part of the birthing process of society for that day. The fact that this externalization potential stands behind both society and history can easily be seen if there is a natural disaster or a general strike. Society comes to a halt. It can only resume its normal rhythms through the concrete cooperative action of people. As long as people withhold their laboring activity, social reproduction is temporarily halted. So, on the one hand, society is a human product, and we are the producer of it.

On the other hand, both the process of creation on the job and the goods and services which result from our joint actions of role-taking produce synergetic results. The outcomes and consequences of the consumption of these goods and services by others are beyond the power of any individual to control. Our actions are objectified in the substance of what gets produced. However much we “externalized” ourselves by laboring, the outcome of what people actually do with the goods and services produced confronts these producers as something new, as both more than and less than we bargained for. Externalization is the process of making something. Objectification is the product made, along with other people’s reaction to it.

Last, there is the stage of internalization. It is here that the person digests the difference between what was intended in the process of externalizing their social being and what actually happened to the product (objectification). This internalization is an evaluation of the results in the service of future cycles, beginning with externalization. This cycle repeats itself over the course of history.

A theatrical example of externalization, objectification, internalization

Let’s take a concrete example. Suppose you are an actress and along with others in your theater company you’ve been rehearsing for a play for weeks. Every day that you go to rehearsal, you are externalizing your being as you shape the form of this social activity (putting on plays). On opening night and all the subsequent performances, your performance is objectified. It is now subject to feedback from the world—as gauged by the number of tickets sold, as well as by audience response, critical reviews, and wages. When the play is over the actors and actresses internalize the outcome. They take in and evaluate the feedback and make judgments about future plays.

When we objectify and internalize, we are a product of society. When we externalize ourselves, we are co-producers of society. History is the result of the process of externalization, objectification, and internalization of societies over time and across space around the world. In sum, externalization is the process of laboring, objectification is the outcome of the laboring, and internalization is the evaluation of laboring, or the discrepancy between externalization (what was produced) and objectification (how it was received).

All roles and work patterns are not freely constructed from scratch every day. Roles are institutionalized; and customs, habits, and coercion ensure continuity from day to day. But while there may be pre-programmed roles, the enactment of the “play” can only occur through the performance of social roles by living actresses and actors. It is the average person more than the extraordinary one who, for better or worse, makes the drama real on the stage of history.

Production of conflict and order

Finally, the collective activity of reproducing society through externalization, objectification, and internalization over time produces both conflict and order. On the one hand, humanity’s labor reproduces continuity, integration, cohesion, consensus, and predictability from generation to generation. But at the same time, humanity’s labor also produces outcomes that are novel, competitive, conflicted, and that sometimes result in crisis. In reproducing our society, we reproduce traditional institutions of constraint, while also producing possibilities for challenging those institutions.

Qualification: there is a place for extraordinary people

My emphasis on the average individual as a history-shaper does not imply there is no place for extraordinary individuals who also write the scripts of history. But these scientists, artists, and politicians are essentially mental workers who couldn’t have done their work if it weren’t for the everyday work of farmers and “blue-collar” workers who provide the food and construct the buildings, roads, and machines that directly or indirectly make this extraordinary work possible. At the same time, not only are extraordinary individuals the beneficiaries of the work of the lower classes, but the work of privileged groups impacts the average person too. The work of Marconi on the telegraph, for example, changed the communication patterns of the average person dramatically. Extraordinary people are also products and co-producers of the externalization, objectification, and internalization processes.

Summing up dimensions of society, world history and laboring

Let us review the relationship between the socio-cultural dimensions of society, world-history, and laboring. In order for people to meet their needs and desires, they have to earn a living in their environment; therefore, human beings labor. The process of laboring involves a specialization of tasks and the use of tools to devise and take on roles. This laboring process—

  • satisfies needs and desires,
  • humanizes us,
  • breathes life into macro and micro social processes—
  1. a) building and sustaining the social infrastructure, structure, and superstructure of society,
  2. b) catalyzing externalization, objectification, and internalization,
  • Spreading the “sociosphere” in space, around the planet, creating order and continuity as well as novelty and conflict,
  • extends the “sociosphere” in time, shaping a human world-history, and
  • creates unintended consequences in our biophysical environment.

Laboring is the activity that reproduces society and history. Laboring might be defined as the totality of collective human effort, both physical and intellectual, that is expended on the shaping and reshaping of socio-culture over time and across space.

Social amnesia: reification and alienation, legitimation, and ideology

In the last section we discussed role-making and role-taking as the basis of cooperative labor. Following Berger, I argued that role-making arises out of discussion, while role-taking occurs once the initial roles have been mastered: they are acted on subconsciously, becoming habits. The blessing and the curse of role-creating occur when the original roles that were improvised by adults of a given hunting-and-gathering society are transmitted to the next generation—i.e., institutionalized.

The blessing is that the next generation is spared the task of having to invent roles for the first time and work out the bugs. The curse is that since the members of the new generation did not themselves construct these roles; they lack the same active, exploratory relationship to them. The daughters and sons inherit the roles their parents constructed. But since they didn’t participate in shaping those roles, their relationship to these roles is more passive. Over generations, it becomes more difficult to imagine that these roles are malleable. They seem harder to change, or even to imagine as being different than they are. The internalized cue of the next generation might no longer be “there we go again,” but “this is how things are done.”

Rigidification of roles

Our roles humanize us, and at the same time they have the potential to make our minds and bodies passive. We become automatic humans—humanoids. As long as the individual is actively constructing her or his roles, the act of playing out those roles seems tenuous and changeable, almost playful. But once the roles are passed on to the next generation, they become institutionalized and ossified in the body and mind of the individual as well as in society.

The old role-making habits become simple role-taking habits. Roles become crystallized at the macrolevel in historical institutions and are experienced as being beyond the control of the individuals who currently embody them. Institutions appear to have a life of their own and confront the individual as external and coercive things about which nothing can be done. Still, no matter how difficult it may be to imagine, we have far more freedom to shape and change these roles collectively than we usually think, granting that some social circumstances are more difficult to change than others.


The process of conceptualizing a social institution as a “thing” divorced from cooperative labor is called reification. The transformation of role-playing from an experience of “here we go again” to one of “this is how things are done” as an example of reification. Suppose I am at work and someone new on the job challenges the role I am playing in order to get a particular project done. If I rigidly say, “this is how things are done,” without considering that this particular situation might be unique, I am reifying the social situation. First, I am renouncing my capacity to change the role I am in. Second, I am giving up or projecting my own power to change roles by allowing myself to be enslaved to customs developed by previous workers. Third, these customs appear to me to be out of our control and have a life of their own. “Who am I to change these customs? This is the way things have always been done.” Finally, the customs are not conceived of as having both good and bad qualities that are evolving. Rather, they are understood as static—as all good; or, if we happen to be rebelling against them, as all bad.

Let me define reification more robustly. Reification is a psychological process by which individuals turn social processes and products into things. Social processes and products include roles, language, and institutions. Reification is a kind of amnesia in which humans forget that we are the agents and ends of all social activities. Roles, language, and institutions are means to our ends, not ends in themselves. Reification turns means into ends. From the example above, in its full-blown form, reification can be broken down into four moments:

  • a renunciation of ourselves as the agents or subjects of our creations,
  • a projection of our power out of ourselves onto our creations,
  • a rigidification of our creations into a status which appears beyond our control, and
  • a characterization of our creations as having either all good or all bad qualities.

While reification is a collective illusion, in another sense it is real. On one hand, it presents social reality in a false form. In fact, human collective creativity (labor) stands behind all social processes and products. Reifications are illusions about how society is actually built and sustained over time. But on the other hand, when people act as if society were actually a thing standing above individuals, it gives society a certain kind of reality because people’s actions support that illusion. In other words, when people are mobilized around what we may think is an illusion, the illusion becomes real in the sense that we have to deal with all of the problems that real people add to a situation through actions based on their beliefs.

But is the tendency to reify society the only problem which stands in the way of people becoming more active as social shapers? If people didn’t have all of these collective psychological illusions, would we be free to create any type of society and history we wished?

The difficulty with this formulation is that it makes the problem of why societies tend to resist change only a question of social-psychological forgetfulness, or some sort of collective memory problem. This ignores the economic and political constraints that are real obstacles in changing society.


Another reason, as Marx and Engels pointed out over 170 years ago, is that people become “alienated”—that is, they lose control over the infrastructure, structure, and superstructure of society. With the rise of agricultural states, societies became stratified, with elites using force and coercion (the threat of force) of the state to mobilize alienated castes to labor in all three dimensions of society while extracting a huge surplus of goods and services for themselves. Because they had the backing of a military, they could force the majority to work longer and harder against their will and despite their resistance. Besides surrendering goods and services, the alienated castes paid rent and taxes on land, and had to be available to fight wars and work on state projects. Bertell Ollman defined alienation as loss of control by workers over the process or production; the products of production; the relations between people on the job and relations to themselves.

It is important to keep in mind that alienation is a political and economic process of losing control over our collective-creative species activity—labor. In contrast, reification is a psychological process which can occur in any society, including those that are egalitarian. When people are alienated, they are still shaping history, but they are sleepwalking through it.


But alienation cannot be achieved by state force or coercion alone. Social institutions must be built which justify and support force or coercive power so that the need for armed force is not always immediately present. Legitimation is the set of superstructural institutions and processes used by those in power to induce those in submissive positions to comprehend their submission as being (a) necessary (rather than questionable); (b) socially beneficial to all, including themselves (rather than exploitive); (c) as part of a cosmic order (as opposed to a social arrangement); (d) as inevitable (rather than changeable); and (e) as eternal (rather than historical).


I use the term “Ideology” to mean an integrated system of political and economic ideas that emerges in stratified societies among competing castes or classes to explain and justify each’s struggle for power. Ideology overlaps all meaning-making systems in the superstructure but is not identical with them. For instance, art in a given society can either support the status quo or undermine it. Sacred beliefs can justify the rulership of a king, or they can—through the efforts a cult or sect—threaten the power of the elite. Ideologies have at least six dimensions: they provide knowledge and beliefs about the past, present and future political and economic world; they appeal to emotions; they provide norms and values; they promote goals and plans; they are enacted in rituals; and they have a social base among various sectors of the population.

Ideology limits the ability of any caste or class to see the world with any absolute objectivity. Thus, the way any given group sees the world cannot be completely separated from the political and economic struggles between various stratified groups.

While ideology is a body of ideas, legitimation requires material processes and institutions by which ruling-class ideology is transmitted. Certainly, the lower classes can house ideologies of resistance in their own counter-institutions, but this would not be a legitimizing process, but a “counter-legitimation.”

Social conscious and social unconscious

With state coercion and legitimation in place, most alienated people retreat from public life and from technological, economic, and political decision-making processes. Most people in stratified societies are aware of having needs and desires, possessing a skill, receiving a wage, satisfying a need, raising a family, and believing in deities. In order to satisfy their needs, people are aware that they need to go to work. But most are only dimly aware that their labor has collective, macro-social consequences which go far beyond their personal and domestic agenda.

In the process of working, we also reproduce the institutions of our society, indirectly partici­pate in the reproduction of other societies around the world, and impact our biophysical ecology. And doing this day after day, we are shaping society and history.

People are conscious of:

  • needs/desires
  • biological reproduction (raising a family)
  • choice of labor (this is not very relevant in ancient rank and stratified societies)
  • playing roles as given
  • wages or salaries received
  • satisfaction/dissatisfaction with needs
  • identification with superstructural sacred traditions,

while the following are relegated to the realm of “social amnesia”:

  • the fact that roles are changeable
  • the reification of society
  • alienation from society
  • inadvertent reproduction of local social institutions (externalization, objectification, internalization)
  • reproduction of international societies (through trade)
  • social impact on biophysical ecology

Example of alienation

Suppose I get a cup of coffee from a vending machine on my morning break. That cup of coffee I’m drinking has the labor of thousands of people contained in it—including people on the coffee and sugar plantations, and all the workers who ship and deliver the coffee to our country. That is collective-creative activity. They are shaping world history by their labor. But how can that work be creative? Those people on the sugar and coffee plantations don’t sit down with other people and coordinate their efforts. They just do what they are told. As for creativity, harvesting sugar cane is hardly creative. Furthermore, those people usually don’t give a damn about the rest of the workers who are responsible for getting the coffee to the U.S., nor do they care about who is going to drink it, or the quality of the coffee itself.

What most workers care about is not getting in trouble, not losing their job, increasing their wages, and bettering their working conditions. Whatever creativ­ity they express relates either to finding ways to fuck off on the job or to picking faster (if they are paid piecemeal). Real creativity is expressed negatively in avoiding the requirements on the job; it is expressed positively when they get off work. As Marx said, the majority of human beings feel most human when they are not working and more like animals when they are working.

Of course, the cooperation and creativity of workers on coffee and sugar plantations is limited in scope, given that we live in a stratified society, and they are working-class and have to take orders. Other members of the society—artists, writers, musicians, and architects, for example—are able to exercise much more creativity; while still others—such as entrepreneurs and athletes—tend to be much more competitive than factory or agricultural workers are. But even if all of the people in the system as a whole were competing with each other or being creative to the same degree, the social process instituted by the human species taken as a whole would still have to be considered essentially cooperative and creative. The very fact that a species can harness the fertility of the soil to meet its needs is a major achievement which distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. We coordinate our efforts through occupational special­ization, and the product can ultimately be transported across oceans. That’s an enormous feat, and we would be shortsighted to take it for granted.


People don’t intentionally act to produce society, nevertheless their actions produce it, behind their backs, as it were. All those humans intentionally do is merely to try to satisfy needs and desires. But in order to do this, they have to work at a specific job, receive a wage or a salary, and thereby satisfy their needs. However, in the process, people produce more than they realize. They inherit the tools, institutions, and belief systems of previous generations, which they inadvertently reproduce in the process of satisfying their needs. Whatever the individual’s immediate personal or family needs, his or her work responsibilities demand that more goods and services be produced than are necessary for private consumption. In order for the individual members of the society to get their needs and desires satisfied, a super-personal system of production, decision-making, circulation, and distribution must be set up, maintained, and in some cases, transformed.

As people become more politically and economically alienated, they become less and less aware of macro-social processes, which become more or less unconscious and over which they have diminishing control. In spite of their alienation, and in spite of the fact that individuals and families are to a large degree “out for themselves,” they nevertheless inadvertently reproduce larger systems and processes—they feed people they will never know, reproduce social institutions they have no power to control, and impact the biophysical environment in ways they do not understand. Part of their activity is conscious, but a much larger part is unconscious. I call the inability to grasp the full implications of cooperative labor, either because of reification or alienation, “social amnesia.”

Until now there has never been a time when human beings as a species have intentionally remade these institutions with the intention of changing history. In order for history to become a conscious process, people would have to overturn and restructure the stratification system, which would allow us collectively to take hold of that system. Then it would be possible to design our future, not just improvise it. We would become conscious history-makers, not just unconscious history-shapers.

The process of history shaping involves three participating dimensions—the individual, society, and the biophysical environment. In the process of trying to satisfy our individual needs, we must engage in mediated social relations. In working together to satisfy needs, we use up natural resources and change the ecological niche we inhabit. As a result, socio-cultural systems accumulate wear-and-tear and undergo periodic crisis. People must decide on new ways of engaging this environment and have to build new forms of social organization to better adapt to these biophysical changes. If successful, they produce new means by which to satisfy individual needs. Individuals then develop new needs, and this results in changed social systems and changed ecological conditions. Changes in both these larger systems in turn provide new vehicles by which old individual needs may be gratified and new needs stimulated or discovered. All of this occurs despite reification and alienation.

History-shaping can be defined as the necessary, recurrent, irreversible, and accumulating process of the collective laboring of the entire human species in the past, present, and future. The table at the end shows the differences between mainstream ideas of history and a process-oriented history of council communism, a type of Marxian theory.

Conclusion: So What’s Next?

So where does an individual who doesn’t give a hoot about history or voting do with all this information? Right now, in Yankeedom, not much. In order to mobilize this cynic we would need a mass socialist political party with clear long-term goals and a transition program of every 3 to 5 years (I’m not talking about Trotsky transition program). The party must have roots in the labor movement (like Labor Notes) and connected to worker cooperatives. It needs socialist political theoreticians and political economists like Michael Hudson, Richard Wolff, Michael Roberts, and Anwar Shaikh. This party does not intend to win elections. Its purpose is to connect, broaden and deepen working class struggles and work these struggles as part of a plan. This was Marx’s vision for a communist party which he wrote about 170 years ago.


Council Communist View Categories of Comparison Mainstream Yankee View
About the past, present and future Temporal dimension About the past
Begins with the upper-Paleolithic hunter-gatherers When does it begin? With writing, in states and cities of the Bronze Age
Primarily mundane events:

working and breeding

What historical events matter? Extraordinary events: wars, congresses, inventions


Primarily made by average women and men laboring Who makes historical events? Made by extraordinary men: kings, generals, politicians


Labor is much larger than a social class.

It is human species activity Labor is the collective human activity which makes society and history possible

What is the place of labor? Labor is about a particular social class (the working class) that has little to do with history
It is inseparable from class, race, and gender struggles What is the place of objectivity? Already given

Universal and impartial

A process of interconnected, evolving events


Relationship between events Discrete unconnected events unless a war or congress
Human societies are the basic units of history Relationship between history and society Different types of human society are rarely considered in explaining historical events
Materialist: population pressure and resource depletion, produce crisis

Technological, economic, political adaptation

Ultimate causes of change Idealist

Extraordinary ideas, beliefs and values

External locus of control:

Improvised by the majority due to reification and alienation


Locus of control in the past Inevitably out of control of the majority

Not smart enough to take control of history


During revolutionary situations working-class people improvise a new society

In council communist society history can be designed

Locus of control in the future? External locus of control Inevitability out of control of the majority

Improvising collective action by workers to keep things from getting worse Human motivation The free will of heroic individuals middle and upper-class individuals
Structured but not pre-determined, irreversible, and accumulating, with periodic crisis Constraint-agency The will-power of competing elites
Workers are both the product and co-producer of history Who produces history? Extraordinary individuals
Improvised evolution Meaning of history Progress




About Bruce Lerro

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his five books: "From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning", "Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World" (co-authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn), "Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present", "Lucifer's Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized", and "The Magickal Enchantment of Materialism: Why Marxists Need Neopaganism". He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia, WA.

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