Techniques Of Power

Index to posts in this series

Related posts

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

In the second part of The Subject And Power Michel Foucault discusses techniques of power. He focuses on one issue: what exactly happens when power is exerted by one person on another. He describes power as intentional actions of one person to affect the actions of others. He thinks that this involves three types of interaction: power relations, communication, and objective capacities.

  • Power relations are not explicitly defined, but he gives examples: they “… consist of obligatory tasks, of gestures imposed by tradition or apprenticeship, of subdivisions and the more or less obligatory distribution of labor”.
  • Communication sets up the structure of information and understanding between the parties to the power relationship.
  • Objective capacities are the physical actions which one party can impose on a thing, or other person.

These three things are not separate, though the latter two can exist apart from the exertion of power. Communications can be used to convey information, feelings, inchoate ideas and more, without necessarily affecting or intending to affect the actions of others. This post is an example. I have many physical capabilities that have nothing to do with power relations, such as my ability to type.

In a social setting we can see that these three can be combined for the purpose of exerting power, of affecting the actions of others. One obvious way is direct one-on-one interactions. The parent tells the child to put on a coat before going outside. The child probably does so, perhaps because it understands the power of the parent. It may also require physical action, such as putting the coat on the child, or carrying the coat to the car and telling the child to come along.

Alternatively, the parent may say it’s cold out, and we’re leaving for school in five minutes. The child (hopefully) responds by getting its coat and putting it on, gathering backpacks and lunch and standing by the door. This would be a simple example of what Foucault calls a block, a discipline. The power relations between the child and the parent create a situation where the direct application of physical capabilities and communication are unnecessary.

We all follow similar patterns in our lives. An employer has expectations, and employees try to meet them without being bossed around. A school is an institution designed to teach whole blocks of behavior so that the student can emit them as needed for productive activity. An apprentice learns how to carry out complex tasks without supervision or complaint. A grad student learns the behaviors appropriate to college professors. Once learned, there is no need for imposition of control by others. There is still some surveillance, and some testing, but normally the student learns to accept that as part of the production function.

These blocks combine with related blocks to form what Foucault calls disciplines because they condition large parts of our productive lives. At one level, these are mere behaviors, but over time they are internalized; they are so ingrained that they define us in certain parts of our lives, and affect us in all parts of our lives to some extent.

The creation and inculcation of disciplines is an act of power. The people who do this are changing other people’s actions.

The creation of disciplines may or may not involve violence against or consent of the subject, though of course both are possible. Foucault writes:

It is a total structure of actions brought to bear upon possible actions; it incites, it induces, it seduces, it makes easier or more difficult; in the extreme it constrains or forbids absolutely; it is nevertheless always a way of acting upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of action.

Once these disciplines are incorporated by the subject they operate apart from conscious control. The dominant person can change the form of the discipline as they see fit, at least within the boundaries of the relationship, and possibly to a greater extent. Foucault says that the subjects have learned to govern themselves. They have learned how to behave in ways that are useful, or at least acceptable, to the dominant person.

The last point I take from Foucault is this: power can only be exercised over free individuals. The dominant party structures the field of possible actions and the subject chooses from the possibilities left open. But the subject remains free to reject the governance of the dominant. That freedom of “recalcitrance” is crucial to an understanding of power relations. The individual or group of subjects can always reject authority and force a physical confrontation. If not, then the dominant person is an enslaver, a relationship outside power relations, strictly governed by violence.

Discussion

1. There is more in this paper, but it carries me away from the purpose for which I took it up, so I’ll stop here.

2. Again, I note the similarity between Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. Links above.

3. This part of the paper summarizes some of the ideas in Foucault’s book, Discipline And Power.

Conclusion To Series

I read this paper because in The Dawn Of Everything Graeber and Wengrow assert, with some evidence, that much of the decision-making among our ancient ancestor groups was at least partly communal, perhaps even egalitarian. I had the feeling that a good bit of that decision-making was bases on force or violence. I think Foucault would agree. Here’s an enigmatic sentence from the paper:

Is this to say that one must seek the character proper to power relations in the violence which must have been its primitive form, its permanent secret, and its last resource, that which in the final analysis appears as its real nature when it is forced to throw aside its mask and to show itself as it really is?

He doesn’t really answer his own question, but I interpret this to mean he assumes that violence was the original source of power relations. When I started this series I assumed the same thing, that power in even the earliest societies must have ultimately arisen from violence and fear.

After reading this paper I’ve mostly changed my mind. I think it’s possible to imagine different routes to the creation of societies. For example, we can imagine that as our ancestors evolve into fully human creatures, they live in groups that work together for survival. These groups create ways of working and living together. They recognize, whether or not they verbalize it, that their survival depends on these structures.

The structures they create are oriented to survival. As a result, deviations from those structures are not tolerated. As groups become larger, and interact with other groups, structures are modified by consent, but still, deviations from the agreed structures are not tolerated. Changes are very slow in coming, because the desire to survive is so strong. As evidence consider the slow evolution of tool-making.

The importance of structure is internalized by all the members. In larger groups some kind of social mechanism may be needed to reinforce the rules. These people might be proto-kings or proto-priests. Or they might be people of empathy, able to guide towards good outcomes. Thus, different forms of leadership can emerge.

Well, that’s just a projection and there will never be evidence one way or the other. But the fact that I can imagine such a pathway means that I shouldn’t be so quick to reject the pollyanna-ish take offered by Graeber and Wengrow.

And with that, I’ll return to The Dawn Of Everything.

Pastoral Power

Index to posts in this series

Related posts

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

In his paper The Subject And Power, Foucault moves from a focus on individual resistance to power to a focus on the power of the state. There is no transition, but we can draw an inference. The examples he uses are personal and individual, women resisting male oppression, children struggling against the authority of their parents, and sick people struggling against the medical profession. For centuries, oppressed people looked to religion for surcease from their earthly misery. Now, both the dominant and oppressed people appeal to the State to support their positions. Foucault thinks the state can respond to the demands of the oppressed because it has assumed what he calls “pastoral power”.

We first saw the concept of pastoral power in one of my early posts on Foucault, a discussion of a series of his lectures published as Security, Territory and Population. The first part of that post gives a good picture of the pastoral power, and some of its implications.

In his lecture of February 8, 1978, Foucault takes up the issue of “pastoral power”. He says that the idea that one could govern men has its origins in the Mediterranean East, Assyria, Egypt, the Levant, and Israel, where it applies both to the government of souls by religious leaders and to the government of societies by secular rulers, both claiming the authority of the Almighty. The model for pastoral power is the New Testament figure of the Good Shepherd. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” John 10:11.

Most people are familiar with this set of ideas about governance, as it is common in religious groups, and in secular governments as well. It is fundamentally beneficent .…

In the paper, Foucault points out that the pastoral power is directed at the individual, specifically at the spiritual salvation of the individual. The pastor will do anything to insure salvation for each member of the flock, including self-sacrifice. Foucault says that the pastor can only succeed by knowing everything about the individual. Thus, the power is individualizing, as well as totalizing.

The ecclesiastical form of pastorate doesn’t have the same power it did 300 years ago, but the form has shifted to the secular power. In theory, at least, the goal of the secular pastorate is to insure human flourishing, in the language we use today. The state may not be willing or able to sacrifice itself to secure human flourishing, but it does demand the right to total knowledge, or something close in practice.

Foucault thinks the modern state should be seen from its birth in the late 1700s

… as a very sophisticated structure, in which individuals can be integrated, under one condition: that this individuality would be shaped in a new form and submitted to a set of very specific patterns.

Over time, all of the institutions of society are reorganized to include the forms of pastoral power, the police, private institutions (professional associations, corporations, foundations, universities), the family, and even to some extent the economy. At least in theory, they all take responsibility for creating conditions suitable for individual flourishing. Foucault writes

…the multiplication of the aims and agents of pastoral power focused the development of knowledge of man around two roles: one, globalizing and quantitative, concerning the population; the other, analytical, concerning the individual.

Foucault’s concern is that the totalizing State has the power to tie people to specific identities, which bind and limit people, and which can be used to restrict fundamental freedoms. Foucault asks what kind of human develops in this setting. What are we? Not what am I, as Descartes asks, but what is the nature of humans in this setting. This is the conclusion of this section of the paper:

The conclusion would be that the political, ethical, social, philosophical problem of our days is not to try to liberate the individual from the state and from the state’s institutions but to liberate us both from the state and from the type of individualization which is linked to the state. We have to promote new forms of subjectivity through the refusal of this kind of individuality which has been imposed on us for several centuries.

Discussion

1. The concluding statement takes us back to the project laid out in The Dawn Of Everything: how did we get stuck in this place? What other forms of society have existed in the past that might shed light on new possibilities? As we will see there is a connection between the priestly/pastoral power and the mammoth increase in organized wheat cultivation in the Nile Delta beginning around 4500 BCE. See p. 404 et seq. The connection also extends to the origins of a kind of state power.

Roughly the story is that the priests started teaching that dead kings required offerings of wheat beer and leavened bread in order to cross over to the afterlife. Gradually everyone wanted the same food and drink for the journey of their own beloved dead. The increased demand for wheat led to more intensive agricultural practices and to the cultivation of less arable land. That required different social organization. Poorer people went into debt to get these essentials, and that led to a more complex economy.

All this was in furtherance of a religious belief, a belief that was only, if vividly, imaginary. I’ll come back to this in discussing Chapter 10.

2. Foucault doesn’t use the term “human flourishing”, but that’s what we call it now. One question we might ask is are there ranges of human flourishing that we can’t perceive because we are so wrapped up in the totalizing power of the pastorate as instated in our contemporary capitalist society? To start with an easier form of this question, consider the movies. Currently we are swamped with superheroes, and our screens are dominated by chiseled bodies and preposterous plots. I’m a bit worried that this does affect our collective imagination.

3. Not everyone loves the idea of a pastoral government, Some people don’t want to help others. Some really hate the idea that, in Lincoln’s formulation (not Jefferson’s), all men are created equal. Some believe government should not take care of people because that’s the role of religion and charity as it was in some early Christian societies. All of these people resist the current vision of the pastoral power of the state.

These and others have worked assiduously to persuade people that state exercise of pastoral power is illegitimate. That’s one way to read the political history of the US since the Reagan Administration. The pendulum has been swinging away from pastoral power to power based on strict market discipline. Maybe some of the other events we’ve seen lately are signs of people pushing back against what they perceive as illegitimate state exercise of pastoral power.

  • Chinese anger over zero-Covid policies
  • The uprising against the morality police in Iran
  • The rise of authoritarians like Victor Orban supported by the very rich
  • Our barely functioning politics coupled with judicial overreach working together to limit the power of the federal government to help people flourish

Power And Rationality

Posts in this series
Index And Introduction To The Subject And Power By Michel Foucault

Foucault begins his essay The Subject and Power by telling us that his project is understanding how human beings are made subjects. By this he means both a) objects for others to study, and b) objects for domination and exploitation. We generally study things, including human beings, through methods which “try to give themselves the status of science”; or by dividing things into groups and studying the groups; or by dividing ourselves into parts and studying those parts in ourselves or others.

Foucault describes three of the ways in which people are enmeshed in relations with each other: relations of production, relations of signification (communication), and power relations. He says that economics gives us tools to consider the first, and linguistics and semiotics give us tools to understand the second, but he couldn’t find any similar academic-type disciplines useful in considering power relations. Legal models point us to the proper uses of power, and other considerations point to the role of the state, but these are only small parts of power relations. That awareness pointed him to study of power relations in a broader context.

So, Foucault’s overall project is to create a theory, a systematic way of thinking about power relations. To create a theory, we have to objectify the thing to be studied. That requires conceptualization, through critical thinking. He says he has to check his thinking constantly.

1. He says the conceptualization should not be founded on a theory of the object. That is, we don’t start with a theory of the object. Instead we start with a description of the object in the context in which it exists, and the history of how it came to be. We have to recognize that that history influences our thinking in a deep way. It can make it very hard to see the thing objectively. This ties back to the point I made in the first post in this series: the importance of Foucault’s methods.

2. We must examine the kind of reality we are considering. Power is a matter of lived experience, not of abstract theory. Its manifestations are a central problem of our time. Our recent history includes two “pathological forms” of power relations: fascism and Stalinism. Neither was new. They both used existing techniques of power, existing mechanisms and devices. Despite their internal madness there was a kind of rationality.

We have to limit our rationality to the boundaries given by experience. One possibility is the use of reason. This was the goal of the Enlightenment, to use reason to solve problems, material problems, social problems, and even psychiatric problems. It might make sense to consider the rationality of various subparts of society, as Foucault has done, with sexuality, crime, madness and more.

But Foucault has a very specific idea for studying power:

//It consists of taking the forms of resistance against different forms of power as a starting point.//

This is a smart move, because we do not directly consider an unknown object called power, which we haven’t even defined yet. To do this Foucault will look at ways of identifying resistance, the history of that resistance, its motivations and its goals. The hope is that in the process of considering resistance, we can get a clearer picture of the thing resisted, as if we were defining it by its boundaries.

For example, to find out what our society means by sanity, perhaps we should investigate what is happening in the field of insanity.

And what we mean by legality in the field of illegality.

And, in order to understand what power relations are about, perhaps we should investigate the forms of resistance and attempts made to dissociate these relations.

Here’s my example. We have an enormous code of laws, regulations and procedures. We say we are a government of laws, not men, and that the rules and procedures define legality. But in the real world, we can understand legality better by looking at the parts of that legal structure that we actually enforce, the people we hold accountable and the way we enforce it against different people.

Discussion

1. We generally think of the Enlightenment as leading us to the scientific method, the foundation of all our sciences today. A key element of the scientific method is that we understand things in the context of a paradigm, as we saw in Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, for example here. The paradigm predicts an outcome so we check to see if that’s what happens. If not it’s possible we have reached the limits of validity of the paradigm.

Foucault is forced to start from the beginning with the theory of power because in his view there are no acceptable existing theoretical frameworks. He needs a method for studying things without a paradigm.

2. But his argument has a broader implication. He writes:

… [S]ince Kant, the role of philosophy is to prevent reason from going beyond the limits of what is given in experience; but from the same moment-that is, since the development of the modern state and the political management of society-the role of philosophy is also to keep watch over the excessive powers of political rationality ….

We saw this idea in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins Of Totalitarianism. Both the Nazis and the Communists carried their theories from their more or less empirical beginnings in Darwin and Marx to murderous extremes, but in an inexorably logical way. Here’s my discussion:

The last chapter of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism is devoted to discussion of the totalitarian regime, which comes when the totalitarian movement has taken power. Arendt says that totalitarian movements don’t offer a specific program for government. Instead, they propose to operate under a “scientific” program. For the Nazis, this was the law of nature with its eternal progress towards perfection, which Arendt thinks arises from a corrupted form of Darwinism. For the Communists it was the laws of history as supposedly discovered by Marx. Once in power, the totalitarian regime becomes an instrument for the will of the leader, who in turn is an instrument for imposing and acting out those laws.

Earlier in the book, Arendt discusses one of the reasons people found this irresistible. She points to their loneliness, their alienation, their rootlessness, their irrelevance, their impotence:

That thought processes characterized by strict self-evident logicality, from which apparently there is no escape, have some connection with loneliness was once noticed by [Martin] Luther …. A lonely man, says Luther, “always deduces one thing from the other and thinks everything to the worst.” The famous extremism of totalitarian movements, far from having anything to do with true radicalism, consists indeed in this “thinking everything to the worst,” in this deducing process which always arrives at the worst possible conclusions. P.477-8.

Foucault’s discussion of rationality is similar to the idea expressed by Oliver Wendell Holmes quoted and sourced here:

… the whole outline of the law is the resultant of a conflict at every point between logic and good sense — the one striving to work fiction out to consistent results, the other restraining and at last overcoming that effort when the results are too manifestly unjust.

I think this is a pretty good description of the political problem we face today. The Democrats at bottom are trying to work with reality, sometimes aware of the limits of theory and sometimes willing to learn from experience. The Republicans at bottom are only interested in their truth: a vile and corrupt form of neoliberal capitalism. They intend to follow this “truth” to the ends of rationality regardless of the consequences in the real world.

And it finds a receptive audience in the mass of alienated people who make up the Trumpian base,

Index And Introduction To The Subject And Power By Michel Foucault

Index to posts in this series
Power And Rationality
Resistance To Power
Techniques Of Power

Introduction

In this series I will discuss The Subject And Power by Michel Foucault, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 4. (1982), pp. 777-795. The motivation is my general sense that The Dawn Of Everything has a pollyannaish take on decision-making in the societies they describe. They think our ancestors were made decisions communally, as if by a town meeting in Old New England. I think that’s wrong in a fundamental way.

I think it’s true, as David Graeber and David Wengrow say in a section heading, that as soon as we were humans we started doing human things. P. 83. One of the things humans do is try to influence the actions of others. Foucault calls that an exercise of power. In this sense, power is central to all human social activity.

Graeber and Wengrow are trying to understand how we got stuck in this current nearly universal set of social relationships. I won’t try to define that set, but one of the central characteristics is that the preferences of a very small number of people are enforced on the rest of us. Normal people know that we have critical problems, and that we generally know how to solve them. That tiny number of people don’t want us to carry out the solutions because it will reduce their wealth, and their control over their wealth. Their wealth translates into power in our stuck social structure, and problems aren’t being solved.

I don’t think we can find the answer in The Dawn Of Everything. That’s not to devalue the book. I think it performs a valuable service by painting a different picture of the development of human societies, and thus enables us to imagine a different future. Surely that’s reason enough to study the book.

Foucault gives us tools to examine the power relations that underlie our social development right up to today. Maybe that will help us figure out how to implement a better future.

Foucault’s Methodology

At the beginning of the essay, Foucault explains his project.

My objective, instead, has been to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects.

He’s not talking about a history in the high school sense of a sequence of events and ideas, dated, arranged, and conveying an implicit sense of linear progress. He isn’t talking about the history of the Civil War as a series of battles, or speeches of leaders.

Foucault’s history project begins with his idea of the archaeology of ideas, and moves to a genealogy of ideas. My source for this is an essay by Gary Guttig and Johanna Oksala, “Michel Foucault”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.),

Conceptual frameworks aren’t facts, like the dates of the Civil War. The notion of ourselves as subjects is a construct, a framework, a formulation of a perspective and much more. The words we use when we think are themselves imprecise. Consider connotation. As an example, defenders might use a word like scofflaw to describe Donald Trump’s misappropriation of government documents. I might use the word thief, possibly with adjectives. The connotation of the former is trivial offense. The connotation of the latter is condemning. Word choices frame our discourse on every subject, and to a large extent govern the range of our thinking.

Here’s another example. When I was a kid, we looked at the night sky and saw a lot of stars. That gives one idea of the size of the universe. Suddenly ti turned out that practically all those stars are galaxies, and that there are billions more not visible to the naked eye. That gives me a completely different understanding of the scale of the universe.

Here’s how Guttig and Oksala put it:

The key idea of the archaeological method is that systems of thought and knowledge (epistemes or discursive formations, in Foucault’s terminology) are governed by rules, beyond those of grammar and logic, that operate beneath the consciousness of individual subjects and define a system of conceptual possibilities that determines the boundaries of thought in a given domain and period.

I think this is close to Pierre Bourdieu’s concept, habitus, which I discuss in detail here. This describes the cultural knowledge and expectations that guide our everyday interactions, it is the set of preconceptions we use to get along in the world. It is a form of knowledge of the world. We rarely question this knowledge because it almost always works. We use it because it makes our world predictable. In the usual course we’d be hard-pressed to state any part of it clearly.

Foucault thinks that because so much of our thinking lies below our conscious control, we can study these frameworks without considering any particular person. Our conceptual frameworks are universals, generally shared across our society. Foucault doesn’t take the perspective of any particular person. Instead, he looks at many different sources of information, not least of which is relevant social structures. As an example, Foucault wrote a book titled History of Madness. He discusses theories of madness and the languange people used to talk about it. He also examines the ways people dealt with people considered crazy, the institutions people set up to deal with them, and the treatments. This history reveals the changes in society’s perception of madness versus sanity over several centuries.

But histories don’t explain why conceptual frameworks change. For that Foucault turned to genealogies. These are efforts to explain how change happens in the discursive formations societies use to deal with madness, sexuality, and more. His work demonstrates that there is no orderly progress toward some progressive goal, just typical human evolution, some good, some bad, some impossible to evaluate.

Discussion

1. This essay is more difficult than I thought on first reading. I hope this background provides some context for the ideas we’ll be examining. Specifically, we’ll be looking at relations of power. Foucault writes about changes over the past two or three centuries, but I assume that power relations played the same roles throughout human history. I might be wrong, but it seems plausible.

2. Graeber and Wengrow show that human societies did not evolve out of an organized plan to proceed to a brilliant future. They think social evolution is the result of the actions of a lot people trying to cope, dominate, control, adapt, invent, share, take, and all the other things people do. This leads them to believe that we can change things to suit our desires and make life better for all of us. But how can you think that without considering the role of power relations?

Women Led The Move To Farming

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

In Chapter 6 of The Dawn Of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow describe the gradual move of Neolithic people to farming, and explore its relation to egalitarianism. The usual story is that our ancestors were roughly egalitarian from the beginning to the Neolithic era 10 to 12,000 years ago. Then we discovered farming, took it up wholesale in what is called the Agricultural Revolution, and almost immediately men took over and excluded women from significant participation in governance. The story has a ring of the Garden of Eden story, in which the sudden possession of knowledge is the end of a golden age.

This story is wrong in almost every detail. Obviously it’s wrong because we have practically no information about social organization among people before the Neolithic. The authors think it’s likely that there were many different forms of social organization, including those which operated differently in different seasons and for specific purposes.

Another issue lies in the definition of farming. We have a single word for this, but all the evidence is that there are gradations of cultivation of plants and animals for human purposes. Foragers certainly observed the plants that kept them alive. It’s easy to imagine that they protected plants that produced fruits and vegetables they liked, and took steps to help them grow. They may have cleared out space for them, pruned them back, and maybe even carried water to them in dry periods. Simple observation and a bit of work would improve the yield and made their lives easier.

In the early Neolithic, beginning perhaps 10-12000 years ago a more organized way of farming developed in the Fertile Crescent. Here’s a useful map identifying some of the sites mentioned by the authors. The authors divide this area into the lowlands towards the South and the uplands and high steppes towards the North and East.

By GFDL, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

The Lowlands

The Lowlands include a lot of marshy muddy areas near rivers and lakes and artesian springs. Lowlands People used mud and clay for building. This created a use for straw, which comes from the stalks of various wild grasses, including wheat, barley and rye. These grew wild in the Uplands. The Lowlands peoples traded shells and other goods from the South for the wild grasses. This gave them both straw and a new source of food, from the seeds.

Lowlands people foraged and hunted, and kept domesticated sheep and goats. They were adept at flood retreat farming. In the spring the rivers, lakes and marshes overflow, and lay down layers of fertile and wet alluvial soil. People just threw seeds on the new soils and crops would grow quickly with minimal labor. There’s no need to till, weed, or water.

Flood retreat farming doesn’t rely on ownership of property, because the fertile areas change from year to year. It also doesn’t require a lot of centralized organization, merely some rules for sharing the crops. Then, over time, people gradually figured out how to domesticate the grasses to produce more of the edible seeds.

The authors point out the gendered assumptions behind the standard story: the idea that it was men who led the move to farming, because farming is hard work, too hard for the ladies. There are other weird reasons based on Genesis and endemic patriarchy.

Consciously or not, it is the contributions of women that get written out of such accounts. Harvesting wild plants and turning them into food, medicine and complex structures like baskets or clothing is almost everywhere a female activity, and may be gendered female even when practised by men. This is not quite an anthropological universal, but it’s about as close to one as you are ever likely to get. P. 237.

In the Lowlands, women were deeply involved with flood retreat farming and other aspects of economic life, and these contributions were recognized in the artifiacts discovered in recent escavation. One example is Çatalhöyük, a town on the above map. It was founded around 7400 BCE and was occupied for about 1500 years, with a population of about 5000. There are no monumental structures or other buildings typical of hierarchical societies. There are a whole lot of small clay figurines of women. These used to be interpreted as goddesses, but that was mostly because of weird projections of Victorian scientists. The authors think they honor the role of women, including old women, in the society.

The authors think that Lowlands men hunted wild beasts particularly in the colder months, and the women ran the forager/planting economy which ran most of the year. This is similar to other societies in which seasonal changes brought social change. The visual arts support the idea that women played a central, if separate, role in economic matters as well as leadership. The authors call it as ‘gynarchy’, or ‘gynaecocracy’. P. 218.

The Uplands

The people of the Uplands, mostly in what is now Central and Southeastern Turkey, relied on foraging and some management of wild crops, and the same domesticated animals as the Lowlands people. But the overall culture was very different. They used stone, not mud and clay, and built monumental structures with violent images carved in relief. Here is a description of the imagery at Göbekli Tepe, which is on the map.

Carved on these stone pillars is an imagery dominated by wild and venomous animals; scavengers and predators, almost exclusively sexed male. On a limestone pillar a lion rears up in high relief, teeth gnashing, claws outstretched, penis and scrotum on show. Elsewhere lurks a malevolent boar, its male sex also displayed. The most often repeated images depict raptors taking human heads. One remarkable sculpture, resembling a totem pole, comprises superimposed pairings of victims and predators: disembodied skulls and sharp-eyed birds of prey. Elsewhere, flesh-eating birds and other carnivores are shown grasping, tossing about or otherwise playing with their catch of human crania …. P. 242.

There is a lengthy discussion of the treatment of human skulls, a practice followed in the Lowlands as well, but very differently. This site shows some of the materials excavated in this region, including the characteristic T-shaped carved megaliths. Wikipedia has several interesting pics here.

There is no reason to think Uplands women did any less work, including foraging, farming, textile-weaving and basketry, than Lowlands women. But the visual culture ignores them almost completely, and the authors seem to think Uplands women were excluded from governance entirely.

Schismatogenesis

The people of these two regions, Uplands and Lowlands, were trading partners, so they knew about each other’s cultures. They had roughly the same kinds of foraging, cultivation, and herding techniques. But their visual culture shows vast difference. The Uplands were as the authors put it “predatory male” and the Lowlands were roughly egalitarian, treating women’s concerns equivalent to men’s. The authors think these cultural differences are the result of schismatogenesis, discussed in the previous post.

The differences between Uplands and Lowlands cultures show that the rise of farming didn’t lead to creation of gender differences, or hierarchical structures. This is another way the the traditional story is wrong.

Marija Gimbutas

This brings us to the work of Marija Gimbutas, an expert on the pre-history of Eastern Europe starting in the 1960s.

Gimbutas was largely concerned with trying to understand the broad contours of a cultural tradition she referred to as ‘Old Europe’, a world of settled Neolithic villages centring on the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean (but also extending further north), in which, as Gimbutas saw it, men and women were equally valued, and differences of wealth and status were sharply circumscribed. Old Europe, by her estimation, endured from roughly 7000 BC to 3500 BC – which is, again, quite a respectable period of time. She believed these societies to be essentially peaceful, and argued that they shared a common pantheon under the tutelage of a supreme goddess, whose cult is attested in many hundreds of female figurines – some depicted with masks – found in Neolithic settlements, from the Middle East to the Balkans. P. 216, fn omitted.

Old Europe was destroyed by cattle-herding invaders from the East. By the 1990s Gimbutas’ ideas had fallen into disrepute because they were adopted by Wiccans, pagans and other disfavored groups. The criticism came from men, not from women anthropologists or feminist scholars. Recent studies in population genetic supports Gimbutas’ theory. The treatment of Gimbutas parallels the erasure of the work done by Neolithic farming women.

A Slight Change of Subject

I’ll be taking up a side reading for this series, an essay by Michel Foucault, The Subject and Power, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 4. (Summer, 1982), pp. 777-795. It’s 20 pages long, not too difficult, but it will help flesh out some of Graeber and Wengrow’s ideas about group decision-making by our ancestors. There’s a discussion of the key ideas in a series of short podcasts by Greg Sadler on Apple Podcasts .

Cultural Differentiation In Non-Agricultural Societies

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

Chapter 5 of The Dawn Of Everything By David Graeber and David Wengrow examines cultural differentiation between the peoples of Northern California and the peoples of the Pacific Northwest (the “PNW”) in the centuries before the arrival of White people. They argue that societies define themselves by opposition to other nearby societies. This they call schismatogenesis, a term I discuss here. They use the term culture areas to describe areas where inhabitants share a similar culture.

Cultural differentiation is the process by which the culture of a group of people evolves over time to be less like their neighbors. For example, the people of Northern California did not adopt agriculture, even though they were aware of the practice through contacts with nearby people who grew maize, squash and beans. They themselves grew tobacco and a few other crops, and the lands they occupied would easily have supported the practice. Similarly, they did not adopt a fishing life, as their neighbors to the north did. This process extends to things that have obvious utility. One group of Alaskans refused to adopt Inuit kayaks, while the Inuit refused to adopt their neighbor’s snowshoe technology.

The authors do not offer an explicit definition of culture, but generally it means such things as “… characteristic customs, aesthetic styles, ways of obtaining and preparing food, and forms of social organization.” P. 171. It also includes concepts of the sacred, and moral structures including ideas about how humans should live.

The dividing line between the Northern Californians and the PNW is approximately at the Klamath River which flows from southern Oregon through northern California out to the Pacific. The authors prefer to think of the Californians nearest to this border as living in a shatter zone, where the two main culture areas meet. This area evolved its own culture, radically different from its neighbors to the North and somewhat different from its neighbors to the South and East.

The cultural differences between these two groups are profound, perhaps in part because they evolved over several thousand years. The PNWs lived on salmon and other fish. They were experts at wood carving; their totem poles and war canoes are magnificent. They were boastful and status-hungry. The staple foods of Northern Californians were tree products, nuts and acorns. They were hard-working, self-reliant and abstemious. They were obsessed with money. Their decorations were primarily textiles and basketry. The differences go on and on.

One central difference is that the PNW raided other tribes for slaves who were put to work so that chiefs and nobles were able to live indolently. The Northern Californians rejected slavery, presumably because they believed in self-sufficiency, and living off the sweat of other people would be an affront to their honor.

The authors attribute this to intentional choices by each group. We are not people who keep slaves says one group. We are not people who work like dogs to make porridge says the other.

The authors say that cultural differentiation is a dominant theme in the history of human societies:

Ever since Mesolithic times, the broad tendency has been for human beings to further subdivide, coming up with endless new ways to distinguish themselves from their neighbours. P. 166.

The authors believe that we do this differentiation intentionally; that we think about the ways we are not like others, and that we emphasize and expand on those differences. Over time this leads to vastly different cultures. The effects are both significant, as slave-holding, and seemingly trivial, as the use of chopsticks instead of forks.

The last section of Chapter 5 lays out three conclusions.

a) The authors recognize that there isn’t just one cause for cultural differentiation. Economic constraints encourage or even necessitate certain choices. Language structures might play a role. But also, human agency (“the preferred term, currently, for what used to be called ‘free will’” p. 206) plays a part. In a book primarily about human freedom, it seems reasonable to give human agency a bigger role than others might suggest.

b)

Slavery, we’ve argued, became commonplace on the Northwest Coast largely because an ambitious aristocracy found itself unable to reduce its free subjects to a dependable workforce. The ensuing violence seems to have spread until those in what we’ve been calling the ‘shatter zone’ of northern California gradually found themselves obliged to create institutions capable of insulating them from it, or at least its worst extremes. A schismogenetic process ensued, whereby coastal peoples came to define themselves increasingly against each other. P. 207.

Then they draw the broader conclusion that slavery is a perversion of domestic life, the opposite of care, nurture and love that characterizes the home.

c) They say that hierarchy and equality emerge simultaneously. The Northern Californians practiced a form of equality where status was solely the outcome of living in a certain way. The PNW had a hierarchy based on treasures and hereditary titles. The two groupings emerged together.

Discussion

It does seem that people want to find markers to distinguish themselves from other people and at the same time connect themselves to their group more tightly. This is a plausible explanation for the Alaskan groups who refused to adopt kayaks and snowshoes despite their utility. Maybe we can see it in the anti-vaxxers who risk a sickening disease and even death rather than separate themselves in any way from their political comrades. The need for connection overwhelms the rational consideration of the evidence, maybe?

Maybe we can see it in the Protestant Reformation. In Northern Europe the religious revolution begun by Martin Luther was a way for people to separate themselves from the corruption and greed of the institutional Catholic Church which was increasingly obvious and oppressive. The schismatics claimed to be returning to true Christianity.

At the same time, elites saw the utility in using the fervor of rejection of the Temporal Power of the Vatican as a way to strengthen their own positions as the leaders of rising nation-states.

The authors use language that suggests something like town meetings to make decisions about adopting cultural changes. But it seems likely to me that a good bit of this kind of separation is driven by the preferences of elites. For example, Northern Californian elites show themselves through their accumulation of wealth by individuals. At death, wealth was destroyed, not passed to the next generation. These elites argue against slavery, and encourage others to work hard themselves, to be self-sufficient like the elites. This would provide a psychological boost to these elites and justify their choices.

On the other side, the PNW elites are identified by their hereditary wealth and titles, their prowess at war, and their their largesse in the potlatch. They use their own status and the glory of war to encourage the behaviors that benefit them materially.

I’m surprised that the authors don’t identify the elites as a major driver in this kind of differentiation. We’ll see this more clearly in future chapters.

The Sophistication Of Forager Societies

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

Chapter 4 of The Dawn Of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow dispels myths about hunter-gatherer societies, the normal state for humans until the last few thousand years. The standard image is that these were small bands who roamed about looking for nuts and berries and killing small game. They were egalitarian in the sense that wealth and power were shared among all the mature members of the group. Then they discovered farming and began to develop civilization, hierarchies and bureaucracies.

Evidence of Sophistication

The authors have a more interesting story. For most of human history humans were foragers, hunter-gatherers. But they weren’t all roaming around. They lived in coastal plains, along rivers, and in fertile woodlands, mostly settled, but moving about from time to time. We don’t have any direct evidence of their lives or social structures, but we can speculate based on tools and other archaeological evidence.

We do know that they were travelers. There is evidence that some of them covered great distances at least once in a while to gather stones, shells, different foods. We also know they gathered together in relatively large numbers once or twice a year to build immense structures for unknown reasons. They transported huge stones over great distances,and moved enormous amounts of dirt in what had to be a coordinated effort That implies a lot more organization and planning than the simple-minded myth suggests.

One example I’ve actually seen is the Carnac Alignments, near Carnac in Brittany. Large stones were transported from far away and arranged in neat lines in increasing heights over about two kilometers from North to South. At the South end there is a circle of stones about 50 feet in diameter, each about 20 feet high, close together. Here’s a blog post by my fellow traveler with lots of pictures and description. There are similar sites all across Europe. No one has a clue why our ancestors thought doing this was a good idea.

Forager societies built enormous earthworks at sites around the world. One of the largest is at Poverty Point, Louisiana. There are a number of very large mounds, the significance of which is unclear. The authors think the construction relied on sophisticated geometrical knowledge. There are somewhat similar mound sites in Ohio.

Hunter-Gatherer Egalitarianism

The authors think we can gain insight into these early cultures by looking at ethnographic studies dating back to the earliest European newcomers, as well as studies of African, Australian and other forager societies that persisted into the 20th C.

The usual story about forager societies is that they are egalitarian in most respects. One theory is the simple idea that there is no property so everyone is equal. This ties neatly into the rest of the standard story of the evolution that Brought human beings to the present. Before farming was invented, it was very difficult to create the kinds of surpluses of material goods and food considered necessary for a complex society.

That doesn’t explain how our ancestors journeyed across the US Southeast to build those enormous mounds at Poverty Point. They must have been able to feed themselves, even without organized farming. Similarly, how did the Carnac culture get the food and shelter needed for the transport and construction of their site? Obviously there was enough food and material for shelter during travel and construction and return travel.

There was also some kind of organization sufficient to keep the construction going. It may not have been run by authoritarians. Perhaps it was consensual, or short-term hierarchies were created. We don’t know. But it’s a lot more than we attribute to forager societies in the usual telling.

Another idea about egalitarianism is that people insisted on personal autonomy.

What matters to Montagnais-Naskapi women, for instance, is not so much whether men and women are seen to be of equal status but whether women are, individually or collectively, able to live their lives and make their own decisions without male interference. P. 130.

This is egalitarian in the sense of personal liberty, personal freedom. It begins with the freedom from other people bossing one around.

Most people today also believe they live in free societies (indeed, they often insist that, politically at least, this is what is most important about their societies), but the freedoms which form the moral basis of a nation like the United States are, largely, formal freedoms. American citizens have the right to travel wherever they like – provided, of course, they have the money for transport and accommodation. They are from ever having to obey the arbitrary orders of superiors – unless, of course, they have to get a job. In this sense, it is almost possible to say the Wendat had play chiefs and real freedoms, while most of us today have to make do with real chiefs and play freedoms. P. 130-1; fn omitted.

The Origin Of Property Rights

At the end of Chapter 4, the authors offer a theory to explain the origin of private property. They say that our ancestors as far back as we know had only one type of property not shared in common: sacred objects and knowledge. These things are set apart from all others. In European culture private property is held against the whole world. No one is allowed to interfere with one’s ownership of private property. In that sense, the authors see a connection to the sacred.

…[W]e take this absolute, sacred quality in private property as a paradigm for all human rights and freedoms. ,,, Just as every man’s home is his castle, so your right not to be killed, tortured or arbitrarily imprisoned rests on the idea that you own your own body, just as you own your chattels and possessions, and legally have the right to exclude others from your land, or house, or car, and so on. P. 159; fn omitted.

Discussion

1. I shortened the discussion of the sacred on the ground that ethnographic data won’t translate back to our distant ancestors. The fact is that I don’t think much of the connection between the sacred and private property.

2. The idea of autonomy seems fairly close to Elizabeth Anderson’s ideas of freedom, which I have discussed in several posts in this series; see also links above.

3. The authors are looking for an explanation of how we got stuck in the present set of hierarchical arrangements dominated by a small number of people.

Ruling classes are simply those who have organized society in such a way that they can extract the lion’s share of that surplus for themselves, whether through tribute, slavery, feudal dues or manipulating ostensibly free-market arrangements. P. 128.

They also observe that a strong sense of personal freedom, of personal autonomy, seems to be the dominant trait of most hunter-gatherer societies. So, another way of defining the “stuck” problem might be ask how we acquiesced to our loss of personal freedom.

I don’t think we can find an answer to the author’s question in their book. I think we need a broader look. I wrote several posts at FireDogLake about Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: here and here. I think these help us get at the problem.

Maybe we’re stuck beause the ruling classes benefit are focused on preventing change that might inconvenience them and have arranged social structures that make that easy for them.

Derrick Bell’s Parable Of Afrolantica

Introduction And Posts In This Series

Chapter 3 of Derrick Bell’s Faces At The Bottom Of The Well tells the parable of Afrolantica. Out in the Atlantic Ocean a new continent suddenly begins to emerge from the water 900 miles off the coast of South Carolina. Months later when it emerges from the boiling waters and steam that surrounded its birth, it is revealed as a land mass the size of the New England States, with mountains, forests, rivers, and meadows; with plants, animals, fish; and with a whole lot of gold and silver. Nations vie for control, but the US gets a head start and tries to put people there. They are immediately sickened by a strange heavy air pressure which they cannot breathe.

It turns out that only American Black people, and not even Black people from other nations, could breathe the air just fine. A group of Black explorers reported:

… they needed neither their space suits nor special breathing equipment. In fact, the party felt exhilarated and euphoric—feelings they explained upon their reluctant return … as unlike any alcohol- or drug-induced sensations of escape. Rather, it was an invigorating experience of heightened self-esteem, of liberation, of waking up. All four agreed that, while exploring what the media were now referring to as “Afrolantica,” they felt free.

Black people begin to think of Afrolantica as the Promised Land. One minister likened it to the story of the Israelites in the land of Egypt. The Israelites, emancipated from Egyptian slavery, wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Black people lived this for hundreds of years. He urged Black people to emigrate to this Promised Land.

The arguments began. Some Black people, Remainers, argued that life in the US wasn’t as bad as the Israelite had it in their 40 years. They said Black people of today were better off than their parents and grandparents. This is our land, they said, and we don’t want to leave.

A pro-emigration group introduced a bill in Congress to give each emigrant $20K to cover expenses and start-up costs, to be repaid if the emigrant returned within 10 years. Opponents attacked it as unconstitutional because it created a race-based benefit without showing a compelling state interest as a justification.

The Remainers argued that things were definitely getting better and it would be dumb to leave just as the dream of equality was in sight. The pro-emigration people, Leavers, pointed out that the dream always favored white people, and was always hedged for Black people.

Each side quoted historical authorities. Leavers cited Abraham Lincoln who backed resettlement of freed Blacks throughout his life. Remainers cited Frederick Douglas who asserted that Black people belonged in America as much as any other immigrant.

Non-Black Americans were troubled by these events. Some saw the new confidence and pride of Blacks as arrogance or “uppity”. Racists were furious. Others were merely envious. Conservatives feared the possibility of another Cuba, a rallying point for third-world peoples who might identify more with Afrolanticans than US capitalists backed by US military and political pressure. The US government worked to undermine the Leavers, seeing them as a threat to world stability. Agents of the government tried to find Black leaders or academics to back up their conspiracy theories about this invented plot, but none were willing to sign on, which was surprising.

Meanwhile, Black people organized to leave. Even Blacks who didn’t want to go supported this movement with money and services. That frightened many white people. Governments and corporations set up barriers. Visas were denied. Threats were made of loss of citizenship. The right to return even to visit relatives. Criminal charges and civil litigation followed.

Black people banded together to fight off these attacks. A large flotilla left on July 4, in search of Black Independence.

But. As they neared Afrolantica, the mists rose, and the island began to sink back into the Atlantic. They watched it disappear. They realized they were not feeling grief or despair, but a deep satisfaction in having accomplished so much together. They spoke of the words of Frederick Douglass:

“We are Americans. We are not aliens. We are a component part of the nation. We have no disposition to renounce our nationality.”

This spirit inspired a huge number of Black people to renewed efforts to achieve their place in their America.

Discussion

1. The image of the pressure Black people feel in America just trying to live their lives, and the freedom they felt in Afrolantica is striking. It’s reflected in the coverage of the confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. The hearings featured the New Racist Stylings of the Republican Party. Ted Cruz brought in posters of a baby playing with blocks to illustrate something he didn’t like about Critical Race Theory, and asked Judge Jackson whether babies are racists. Elie Mystal explains what happened next:

Jackson started to answer. She said, “Senator.” And then she sighed. And then she paused. For a long time. As the silence filled the room, I felt like I could see Jackson make the same calculation nearly every Black person and ancestor has made at some point while living in the New World. It’s the calculation enslaved people made before trying to escape to freedom, or activists made before sitting down at the white lunch counter. But it’s also the calculation a woman makes before responding to the e-mail of the failson who was just promoted ahead of her, or the calculation I make when a white executive comments on my Twitter feed but not my published columns. It’s the calculation when black people try to decide: “Am I gonna risk it all for this?”

This is what Jeneé Osterheldt, writing for the Boston Globe, saw:

Black women are familiar with the weight of white supremacy even when it cloaks itself in a polite veneer.

The GOP repeatedly has said Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings are to be fair and respectful. They tell her how “intelligent” and “articulate” she is, affirming how proud Jackson should be as they look for ways to lay pressure on her in hopes of making her chin reach her neck in shame.

Black people in, say. Kenya don’t feel the pressure Mystal and Osterheldt describe, pressure not mentioned in other coverage. That’s just for American Black people.

2. As with any parable, we have to ignore the parts that don’t match up well with reality. (Do not get me started on the Parable of the Prodigal Son.) Bell ignores the practical difficulties of living in a land with no electricity or other form of power, the problems of capitalism generally and many others not central to his concerns. We should ignore them too if we want to learn anything useful.

Taking the parable at face value, we see one of Bell’s central concerns. He believes that racism is so deeply entrenched in US society that it can not be eradicated. Black people will only make progress by working together. As I noted in my introduction to this series, he believe that the effort has to be the goal, it has to be its own satisfaction and justification.

3. As with any good parable, there are layers of meaning, and different lessons for different people. We might ask White people how they would react to the situation. I’m not at all sure how I’d react.

My first thought was that it would be great for the people who wanted to go, and I’d be delighted to help. Then I thought that I’d feel terrible that so many Black people would want to go. I’d take it too personally, as them saying I have failed to treat them right, even if #NotAllWhitePeople. But that gets really complicated. It isn’t just my fault, and I don’t know what I personally could or should have done differently. How do we even allocate fault in the situations we are born into, and only escape with the help of others? Communities of every nationality and race in our country are dysfunctional. I would gladly support any plausible effort to fix them as best I can, but I have no ideas about what to do.

Maybe Bell is asking us to think about how we get people to work together to solve common problems. Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen in a real Democracy?

Introduction and Index To Faces At The Bottom Of The Well

Derrick Bell was the father of Critical Race Theory. Here’s a helpful overview of his intellectual life by Jelani Cobb. Faces At The Bottom Of The Well is not a book about CRT. It’s a group of essays and short stories fleshing out Bell’s view that racism is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of the lives of white people that ending it is a hopeless project. [Not all white people.] This is the foundation for his work on CRT.

In the Preface he talks about the challenge of writing about racism without leading people to despair. It might be an explanation of his own difficulties in trying to understand and solve what he sees as an intractable problem. He cites Paulo Freire saying

Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of . . . [the individual]; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion.

I confess that for me this kind of quote usually just flies by, sure, sure, move on. It’s that last part that got to me. This isn’t just encouragement for activists. It’s a justification for freedom, by which I mean the kinds of freedom described by Elizabeth Anderson, negative freedom, positive freedom and civic freedom. Bell, an intellectual academic with a long list of scholarly wprks, and a legal activist with a long record, says that he cannot be complete as a human being without freedom.

And it hit me that I can’t either. I’m an old straight well-off white man. I have this freedom, and it’s the foundation for my own sense of myself as a whole person. I know this because lately I’ve frequently felt that my freedom is under attack by a sickening cabal of right-wing and religious fanatics, many of whom are violent. Thinking about it makes me feel off-balance, ill-at-ease, slightly nauseous, to the point where I’m not always able to work at my own projects. I can’t imagine living a whole life like that, as Bell and every Black person in this country does.

Bell quotes Albert Camus for the proposition that we must keep going in the face of certain defeat. Bell’s quote reminds me of one of my formative books, The Myth Of Sisyphus. Sisyphus is condemned by Zeus to roll a rock up a mountain and watch it fall to the bottom again and again for all eternity. Camus ends his essay with this:

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Bell quotes Franz Fanon and Martin Luther King for similar views. This should shame those smarmy Republicans who yammer about color blindness and vote to disenfranchise Black voters (but it won’t):

[King] said those adversaries expected him to harden into a grim and desperate man. But: “They fail, however, to perceive the sense of affirmation generated by the challenge of embracing struggle and surmounting obstacles.

It isn’t just intellectuals who feel this way. Bell tells of Mrs. Biona MacDonald, one of the people he worked with on a desegregation case in Harmony, MS, near the Mississippi Delta, back in the 1960s. He asked how she and the other organizers worked on despite

… intimidation that included blacks losing their jobs, the local banks trying to foreclose on the mortgages of those active in the civil rights movement, and shots fired through their windows late at night.

Mrs. MacDonald looked at me and said slowly, seriously, “I can’t speak for everyone, but as for me, I am an old woman. I lives to harass white folks.”

Bell tells us Mrs. MacDonald doesn’t think or even hope she and her colleagues will win. It’s her resistance that counts.

The nine chapters in this book each talk about racism and resistance. Most read like extended law school exam questions, where the way you discuss your answer is more important as the actual answer. This makes them excellent teaching vehicles, and this book is widely taught in colleges and law schools.

I’m going to start with Chapter 2. In Chapter 1, Bell explains why he doesn’t think laws are much help in fixing racism. It’s brutal read for this old lawyer who truly believed that a decent society would emerge if we just had good laws.

One of Bell’s gifts is his ability to make these issues personal, and not just for Black people. I’m still profoundly angry that the protests against the Viet Nam War failed. Hundreds of thousands died while US elites performed their dance of destruction and then ran away to riches with no shame, no accountability. I can’t say that my small participation in anti-war activities generates the feelings Bell describes, or reduces the anger.

It makes me think about the Black activists of my generation, the people of SNCC, the Black Panthers, the Selma marchers, the men and women at the lunch counters, the sanitation workers of Memphis, and others. I wonder how they feel contemplating their youthful hopes, their goals, their actions, and then remembering the physical beatings, the taunts, radists screaming at their kids, and the government and media attacks on them as people and as groups. Do they feel like Mrs. MacDonald, or Camus or King or Fanon or Bell say: proud that they acted? Did their actions make them whole, and give them strength to last a lifetime? I hope so.

image_print