Social Change For Human Purposes

Posts on The Dawn Of Everything: Link
Posts on Pierre Bourdieu and Symbolic Violence: link
Posts trying to cope with the absurd state of political discourse: link
Posts on Freedom and Equality. link

The previous three posts on The Dawn Of Everything explore the Indigenous Critique. We saw how the Indigenous Americans perceived the French invaders and how they viewed their own societies, all based on contemporaneous reports by French missionaries, soldiers and merchants. At the end of Chapter 2 David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that these criticisms had a big impact on French readers in the first half of the 18th Century. A number of French writers turned out books like Lahontan’s explicating the Indigenous Critique and expanding on them. That led to a backlash from defenders of French society.

One of those defenders was Turgot, a leading French economist and theorist. In 1750, Trugot published A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind, which laid out an evolutionary theory of human progress, from hunters, to pastoralists, to farmers, to the then current apex of commercial civilization. I read a bit of it; it’s a fascinating account of human progress from the standpoint of French cultural and intellectual superiority. See Chapters 13 and 14.

It’s easy to see how a sense of French superiority could make Turgot’s evolutionary theory the dominant theory of the development of human society. The French and other Europeans were thrilled with the progress of early scientific investigations and a host of new ideas about liberty and government. Turgot’s theory justified French belligerence towards the Indigenous Americans. It put the savages in their place, below the French. It justified the rancid inequalities of the French social structure as unpleasant and regrettable, but necessary if the human race is to achieve its full greatness. Freedom and equality are traded for social progress. And thus we are back to Rousseau’s stages of social development.

The nub of the Indigenous Critique is that the French were not free because they were controlled by their desperate need for money and property, to survive, or to achieve status or something else. The authors say that for Europeans the concept of freedom is tied to private property. It’s oriented towards the freedom to do as one wills with one’s possessions. That kind of freedom necessarily means that people without property are less free. That’s the price of progress.

The authors assert that the earliest humans had other ideas about how to organize their societies. As we will see in future chapters, over the millennia, they set up different social structures, with varying degrees of freedom and equality. They weren’t bound by any artificial principles. They changed back and forth between different social arrangements with the changes of the seasons or for no apparent reason. Research shows that history don’t support the theories of Turgot/Rousseau.

The point of this book is explain how our ancestors actually lived, based on the latest research. How did we get from a varied set of experimental social arrangements the apparently rigid and permanent structurews of today? Why can’t we imagine any future that isn’t more of the same? Graeber and Wengrow want to know how we got stuck in this place where “… [a] very small percentage of [the] population do control the fates of almost everyone else, and they are doing it in an increasingly disastrous fashion.” P. 76.


Turgot and Rousseau propose that there are three or four stages of development that culminate with the apogee of human perfection, French society of their day. Both give credence to the Bible. Turgot’s account begins with Noah’s Flood. Rousseau says that we know from Holy Scripture that the first human received the commandments and his understanding directly from God, raising the question as to whether any human ever lived in a state of nature. Both promptly leave the Bible behind, and move to a discussion of speculative ideas about social and individual human development. For both there is progress over time. Both accounts are basically evolutionary. They describe various successive stages, but with only minimal efforts to explain the transitions. The descriptions don’t relate to different groups of humans. The assume that it’s the same progression everywhere.

This idea of progress took hold as the Industrial Revolution began to change societies. We see it in Hegel’s theory of history, driven by Providence which may or may not mean the Almighty. We see it again in Marxist historiography which teaches that there is an end state of human development, a classless society. We see it again in totalitarianism, at least according to Hannah Arendt. The Origins Of Totalitarianism, p. 461 ff. She writes:

Totalitarian lawfulness, defying legality and pretending to establish the direct reign of justice on earth, executes the law of History or of Nature without translating it into standards of right and wrong for individual behavior. It applies the law directly to mankind without bothering with the behavior of men. The law of Nature or the law of History, if properly executed, is expected to produce mankind as its end product; and this expectation lies behind the claim to global rule of all totalitarian governments. P. 462.

The idea that there is a single law applicable to everyone is present in US Christian Nationalism, sometimes called Christian Dominionism. This is from Wikipedia:

An example of dominionism in reformed theology is Christian reconstructionism, which originated with the teachings of R. J. Rushdoony in the 1960s and 1970s. Rushdoony’s theology focuses on theonomy (the rule of the Law of God), a belief that all of society should be ordered according to the laws that governed the Israelites in the Old Testament. His system is strongly Calvinistic, emphasizing the sovereignty of God over human freedom and action, and denying the operation of charismatic gifts in the present day (cessationism); both of these aspects are in direct opposition to Kingdom Now theology (see below). Fn omitted.

The idea that there is one ineluctable Law governing the human future has a long history, much longer than this short description. We’ve seen the horrifying results of that belief. Graeber and Wengrow give us a history that has no place for that misbegotten idea. That is a huge contribution.

35 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Turgot’s argument would have been familiar to believers in the divine right of kings and Robber Baron era social Darwinism. Its essence is incorporated in the defunct but familiar graphic of supposed human evolution that troubled the late Stephen Jay Gould: the line of silhouetted figures morphing from bent primate to fully erect homo sapiens.

    Gould worked hard to offer more accurate analogies that incorporated the very thing these ladders of progress eliminated: contingency. Evolution is not an arrow of directed progress, but a bush of full girth and many branches, few of which reach the contemporary outer edge of its growth. The reality is that if, played back, its shape and fullness would not replicate, but would diverge in startling ways, and do so each time it was played back. Or, as Dr. Strange might put it, the lone outcome among fourteen million that would lead to the defeat of Thanos.

    Gould was fighting entrenched history, religion, and culture that exhorted the dominance of contemporary man – and the god made in his image – as the only possible and correct outcome. Gould mocked that fallacy by comparing it to the common argument made by lottery winners, which claims, after the fact, that their win is the only true and possible outcome from among millions of alternatives. It’s a comforting fallacy that has enriched elites, churches, state lottery operators, and owners of sports betting empires. It keeps us from having to recognize and stare into the abyss.

    Other older, non-western cultures see richness in and celebrate that reality and that diversity.

    • timbo says:

      Coincidentally, EoH, I just finished reading Gould’s “The Flamingo’s Smile”, where his thoughts on whether or not there is repeatability in life’s evolution, etc are discussed, etc. (At the moment, I’m looking for something more current that goes deeper into current theories of causes behind mass extinction events… aside from the “recent” iridium layer deposition event from 65 million years ago, there seems to be several older extinction events here on Earth that seem to correlate to rapid changes in the selenium load within the Earth’s biome…but that’s as far as I’ve got so far.)

      Ed, keep up these essays—there is so much more to know besides the social theories of historically dominant cultures.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Gould was a skilled and enthusiastic essayist, which made the technical aspects of his thought accessible to a general audience. Contingency was a frequent topic. Sadly, he died twenty years ago this May.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        An observation by Gould applicable to the topic of Ed’s essay, concerning the human brain’s adaptability:

        Its flexibility “permits us to be aggressive or peaceful, dominant or submissive, spiteful or generous… Violence, sexism, and general nastiness are biological since they represent one subset of a possible range of behaviors. But peacefulness, equality, and kindness are just as biological—and we may see their influence increase if we can create social structures that permit them to flourish.”

    • Ed Walker says:

      The bush metaphor works for social structures. Our current structure seems well-chosen if the goal of society is production of stuff at any cost. It doesn’t really offer much choice for people who don’t care about stuff, or just want enough to have a life filled with friends, family, and leisure time for other interests.

      It’s like someone was pruning the bush to get this shape.

  2. kbrown934 says:

    Ed, I was thrilled to see you were going to write about this book. I had it on my libby hold list and it arrived to me after your second installment. I am loving that the indigenous philosophy made it back to Europe and spread. I am saddened that the First Nations of the western Hemisphere did not have adequate iron and gunpowder to hold off the invading Europeans. What a different world it might have been. This is one of my favorite pipe dreams. I am 31% into this book and planning a paper copy purchase for rereading. The loss of David Graeber prior to completion of their trilogy is a great loss. I am loooking forward to the rest of your commentary. Please keep up the good work.

    • Tawalamildi says:

      “I am saddened that the First Nations of the western Hemisphere did not have adequate iron and gunpowder to hold off the invading Europeans.”

      Might I also add- immunity to European diseases?

      • John Colvin says:

        If the Western Hemisphere had been populated say 50,000 years earlier such that there was sufficient time to develop local pathogens (or had brought more variants of Eurasian diseases with them, or if the Norse had spread the same diseases from the Vinland colony in 1100 CE), the European advance into the New World might have looked very different. It is possible that the European colonists might have been the ones who were decimated by diseases to which they had no resistance, rather than the indigenous peoples. There is certainly some element of contingency to the unequal exchange of pathogens.

  3. d4v1d says:

    Now that I have made it to the footnotes, I will add a couple footnotes to Ed Walker’s review.

    The passage that organized my synapses was the one in my linguistics-powered wheelhouse, the link between PIE cognates ‘free’ and ‘friend,’ from a root meaning “loved.’ Interestingly, this meaning in Anglo-Saxon morphed into something more explicitly ‘not in bondage.’ This is like the quiet part suddenly spoken aloud, that you can not love your slaves, captives, hostages, or servants. (Extend that to Washington’s or Silicon Valleys view of everyone outside their bubble, where a ‘single digit millionaire,’ in the words of Peter Thiel, is poor.

    And then, this:

    The more rosy, optimistic narrative – whereby the progress of Western civilization inevitably makes everyone happier, wealthier and more secure – has at least one obvious disadvantage. It fails to explain why that civilization did not simply spread of its own accord; that is, why European powers should have been obliged to spend the last 500 or so years aiming guns at people’s heads in order to force them to adopt it.

    But of those 500 years, something was left out that merits its own book – western / European civilization gets its impetus from the at-will control of fire. When we flip a switch, ‘fire up’ a computer, go wheels up, drive to the store, or discharge a weapon in Kenosha, we are arbitraging the fuels these fires – commoditized as price per gallon, cost per kilowatt hour, a defense contract for F35s. Climate change is here to remind us that Gaia has ultimate control of this force.

    I won’t characterize the work as light reading, but it is engrossing, and revelatory.

  4. Kit Traverse says:

    The Divine Right of Kings and the Great Chain of being are only a short hop, skip and a jump away from social darwinism and Hegelian historicism — despite radically different philosophical bases and orientations to social progress, all just-so stories which serve to ratify what is, since what is is all that could be. You can throw the Anthropic Principle (Intelligent Design) in there as well.

    How do we imagine a way out of this? How do we describe the world without sliding into the fatalism implicit in all these doctrines? Most importantly, how do we imagine a way that transcends them without doing violence to who and what we are?

    • Epicurus says:

      To your last paragraph, each of us is highly conditioned. We would have to break the conditioning for ourselves before we can imagine. It would be something like the conversions/epiphanies in The Matrix.

      • Kit Traverse says:

        This is what I’m afraid of, Epicurus; the Wachowskis had the most progressive intent in the world, but The Matrix has become an allegory for the Ur-reactionary conspiracy theory. Even at best, it’s a gnostic dualism that only allows a mythic enlightened / heroic figure a unique opportunity to transcend it. That makes for a great sci-fi narrative, but leaves little for political philosophers.

        The “low but solid ground” we built this puppy on from Locke and Smith onward, uses self-interest as the (ostensibly) self-correcting engine to drive everything: republican government, scientific achievement, the marketplace. But self-interest is precisely at the heart of the Indigenous Critique.

        This is a conundrum I’ve found no way out of in my 62 years and lifetime as a liberal Democrat. I can’t see Rousseau’s General Will as a viable alternative. But goodness do I try to remain open to suggestions …

        • gmoke says:

          “…the Wachowskis had the most progressive intent in the world, but The Matrix has become an allegory for the Ur-reactionary conspiracy theory.”

          Talk to Orwell about 1984.

          It seems that every warning of political/social disaster can be used as a playbook for creating that political/social disaster. There are too many people who get off on “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever,” as long as they get to wear the boot.

          Strict dualism, probably even gnostic dualism, is called a symptom of an addictive system by Anne Wilson Schaef and others who study addiction. This is one reason why I try to think in terms of Buddhist logic which has six possibilities – yes, no, not yes, not no, neither yes nor no, both yes and no. I’ve found from experience that “don’t understand the question?” and “none of the above” are also useful as possibilities and that makes eight possibilities instead of a simple binary.

          • Kit Traverse says:

            Two cheers for the Gnostics, who solved the Problem of Evil by making the creator of the Universe a two-bit amoral demiurge and the true god occluded. Orwell was a political writer and easily co-opted; The Matrix is the brain-in-a-vat, PK Dick sci-fi tradition. It’s almost like Qanon co-opting Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (which could be done if the Q cult were a little less functionally illiterate ;).

            Problem is, if the New Atheists are right and free will is at best an afterthought, then we’re stuck and political theory is useless; there isn’t even a way to imagine an alternative to being slaves to our limbic systems. The Indigenous Critique gained currency with the 18th-century philosophes thanks to the same Enlightenment values it was challenging (and was seen through the prism of disaffected Frenchmen). But how do you build a system without accounting for and channeling self-interest? The French Revolution flopped …

      • Kit Traverse says:

        To your point, I agree. Free will is not nonexistent but it is overrated and we’re all largely products of our environments to be sure. What autonomy we do have is hardly driven by reason alone, which makes us as a species extremely easy to manipulate.

        So yeah, metaphorically, The Matrix is apt in this sense.

          • Kit Traverse says:

            Totally agree that moral dualism, a manichean worldview with Good pitted against Evil, is seductive to the mentality of addiction. It’s an easy relief to displace our flaws outside ourselves and blame (an) overarching System(s) for all problems.

            During the cold war, a critique of The System used to be a characteristic of the left, with conservatives defending institutions. Corporatism, the MIC, reactionary religion, oppressive social norms, etc. were all systems of domination of the weak by the strong and could be fixed, so we believed by, expanding individual rights. That critique is withering and the analysis is inverting (and perverting). The crusade for individual rights has fused with epistemic nihilism and now the danger of radical relativism comes from populist libertarians (which is moronic and ought to be oxymoronic).

            So when you’re fighting an overarching System (and my linking of Gravity’s Rainbow with Qanon is not entirely facetious; the German V-2 rocket program is revealed on the final pages as an instrument of murderous sexual child abuse), when your own half-understood desires are co-opted and manipulated by forces unseen so that every rational argument becomes an after-the-fact rationalization, how do you step out of it?

            All I’m trying to say here is that Matrix-style metaphors of inhuman systems are unhelpful and lead in the opposite direction of ground truth. Where that ground truth is, I don’t know with anything approaching certitude, but I have an idea of what it isn’t.

      • Kit Traverse says:

        I forget the name of the British comic who said that Facebook was the first government surveillance program that was voluntary.

        It’s like the old saw that Pynchon cited in his intro to a reissue of 1984 that all Big Brother really needed was to get you to watch the TV, instead.

  5. Literay says:

    I am hoping for the definition of the elusive boundary between myself and that which is not myself. Surely there is a self. After all having been on this half illuminated planet for years, I have a very evident self. But … I just cannot seem to find a boundary. Is the biome inhabiting my skin part of me? How about gut biome? When do the molecules of air metamorphose from other to part of me? Am I merely a network of synapses and neurons somehow independently executing within an symbolic structure labeled as my body? D. T. Suzuki, writing about Zen, discusses the idea of being a perfect mirror of one’s surroundings, whereupon achieving such condition the self no longer exists, becoming an indistinguishable part of everything.

    Ok, back to the current discussion. While, from our current perspective, the First Nations’ philosophy recognized a looser boundary between folks and a common destiny, we want to make distinctions with “Western” philosophy and consider whether one is better than another. Fun to speculate. All of these philosophies build from the separation of a “self” from “others”, including the First Nations’.

  6. Stephen Calhoun says:

    The second orders of (purported) natural law converge on teleology. Inevitably there then come the demands for total compliance. For example, we see this underneath the ‘traditionalism’ given in GOP ideology: if everybody is made to comply with the crucial fundamental principles, then, we’ll realize the commensurate and salutary order given by those ‘first’ principles. That this also results in a dystopia is besides the point.

    “Today, we pump a little natural history into children along with a little “art” so that they will forget their animal and ecological nature and the aesthetics of being alive and will grow up to be good businessmen.” (Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature)

    Thanks all, Ed, for this ongoing discussion.

  7. Kit Traverse says:

    I know his data has been criticized and his thesis attacked by some for being too glib, but I read the entire book and at time was quite impressed.

    What do you all think of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel? I still see it as an excellent counter to ideas of inherent European cultural supremacy.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I read Diamond’s book when it came out, and thought it was plausible, if simple. Graeber and Wengrow don’t like it much, they punch at it regularly in the first few chapters.

      I’ve come to think that there isn’t really an explanation of things, just our best guess based on what we know at the time of the guess. As with Turgot and Rousseau, underlying every explanation there’s a sneaky tendency to see our current situation as the culmination of some inexorable process. I think that’s not right. There isn’t a culmination. Our current situation is just the current way things are as a result of the actions of our predecessors and the way they interacted with each other. Our future is open.

      • Kit Traverse says:

        From what you’ve laid out, Ed, it seems like their theses are at least complimentary. I understand some object to what you might call geographic determinism, but anthropology has been beset, at least historically, by a lot more toxic forms of determinism. Better geography than skull calipers. What do G&W specifically object to about GG&S?

        Most people in the comments are thrashing the telos and you can count me with them. Whether grounded in metaphysics, through the unfolding of history or in biology, there is no preordained idea of where we’re supposed to get to (the “anthropocene” is a bad joke). So I’m certainly with you on the supposed culmination of an inexorable process. No such thing. We’re a blip.

        GG&S won its Pulitzer I suspect as much for its salutary political implications, although I’m sure Dr. Diamond would rather be thought of as a scientist with a duly falsifiable contention. But I’m less concerned right now with where we might be going than I am with avoiding going back to where we’ve been. And that means undermining all support for ethnonationalism.

        If that means anthropology gets yoked into another political program (the diametric opposite of the white supremacism it used to underwrite back in its early days as a pseudoscience), that’s something I think we all should live with.

  8. mospeck says:

    Ed, depression is snorting around every door right now and Todd the writer’s talking reality tv blues anticover reminds me of antiparticles. Learned about these back in 68 watching the old Star Trek where we figured that (like all of Kirk’s babes) these were just another screen writer plot device and could not possibly be real. Take the antielectron, for example, the good old positron. vg that there’s recently previously been a lot less of those than there are electrons, but then it is for some strange reason. Although charge is conserved, baryon number is thought to be not^
    Now here’s the original version for comparison

    ^seems to be due to a slight broken symmetry in the weak force (who ordered that?) But then it looks like it’s the beta decay that Oscar Wilde long back predicted — his contradiction principle for why the U exists in the 1st place. But now if vlad has his way then there will be lots of free roaming positrons flying all about — this because our cheap atomics can make them. And so we will finally get back in the more symmetrical balanced state. But then you could criticize the physics because it’s not the pure thing, not the pure E = M c squared. For that you’d need to put a Kg of antimatter into a mag bottle, and then turn off the field .. and wallah you got the tsar bomba, only half of what big boots Joe Stalin wished for. Because there were tech troubles and he only got the 50 megatons, two times ten power 17 Joules (in honor of the heat engine guy). But he did get lots and lots of free rover positrons so that the local piece of the U did settle back down Thank God to its more natural even balance state between matter and antimatter. Hope I’ve said enough to be banned, Rayne.

  9. d4v1d says:

    The most important teleology the authors deconstruct is that of linear, progressive history, one that has a primitive beginning and proceeds to a glorious end – this is prominent in America’s loudest religion, but it infects the American political and academic imagination, too: ‘the war to end all wars’,’those who fail to learn the lessons of history’, ‘the arc of history’, and infamously, Fukuyama declaring the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet Russia to be ‘the end of history’ are extravagant examples. Instead, with considerable verbosity, they show political configurations to be quantum rather than Newtonian – and history to be patently cyclical. We are doomed to repeat it.

    • Kit Traverse says:

      I don’t think anyone should thrill to the idea of history as cyclical; that’s patently reactionary. The ol’ hard men create good times, good times create weak men, weak men create bad times, bad times create hard men jazz. I think progress is certainly possible, but what we don’t have is a Hegelian God’s eye view of absolute progress. The Indigenous Critique would be unintelligible without the idea of universal political equality (and the natural law idea before it of equality before God), so we understand it in the same value system that it criticizes.

      So yeah, flush toilets are better than not having flush toilets ;)

      • d4v1d says:

        The authors in their conclusion made this case – after demonstrating it throughout the work. (We are only talking about political history and anthropological correlates.)

Comments are closed.