November 28, 2022 / by 


Power And Rationality

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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.


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 be added.


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.


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

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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,

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.


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

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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.


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.


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

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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.


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.


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?

A Brief Introduction To The History Of Early Humans

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Chapter 3 of The Dawn Of Everything begins with a history of the human species, starting three million years ago. David Graeber and David Wengrow remind us that we have practically no information about most of this period, a few bones or teeth, a piece of shaped flint, a footprint. There were a number of different forms of ancestral and early humans, but we know little or nothing about them, their origins or their way of living. I focus on three points that recur in the book.

1. The new story of human evolution.

The basic story we all know is that Homo Sapiens emerged from a single site in Africa perhaps 500K years ago and gradually spread out over the continent. About 80K years ago H. Sapiens Sapiesn, our species, started to move out of Africa.

Graeber and Wengrow reject that story. They agree that H. Sapiens emerged as a separate species about 500K years ago. This species included a large number of bpdy types, called morphologies. These groups interbred. From time to time, groups were isolated from each other by environmental changes or migration, sometimes for millenia. Then they reconnected, and interbred. The full panoply of physical characteristics of modern humans did not fully emerge until perhaps 100 to 40 ka (thousands of years before the present).

Here are two papers discussing this: link; and link. The first paper is cited by the authors; it’s very readable. The second is harder. It describes current understanding and areas needing further research. There’s a chart showing the spread of humans out of Africa, and a discussion of the possible admixture of Neanderthal and Denisovan populations which are now extinct. This question is unsettled.

These articles and the book describe a few fossils thought to relate to H. Sapiens, but there aren’t all that many. Here’s a Wikipedia entry on major fossils. This paper describes current thinking about the development of Homo sapiens Sapiens (sometimes called modern humans). The abstract and the first part may be of interest. I just skimmed over the rest.

2. Evidence of early human culture.

We have practically no evidence about human culture before about 100 ka ago. We don’t know much about how H. Sapiens evolved, or exactly when we became an identifiable species. But our authors assert that “as soon as we were human we started doing human things.”. P. 83. They think groups of H. Sapiens moved around and became separated from other groups. They assume that each group decided how to organize itself, considering their environment and the state of their technology. They assume that decisions were made consciously, intentionally, with specific goals in mind. This is what they mean by “doing human things”.

They assume that different groups made different decisions. They simply can’t imagine that all over Africa all the groups made the same choices about hierarchy, ritual, gender relations, child-rearing practices, diet, dress, and so on. Then when they came together, permanently or not, they shared their decisions snd newly acquired knowledge and technology; and, they assume, adopted new ideas.

There is agreement on one point. Until about 300 ka ago, humans used hand tools such as hand axes. Then suddenly all across Africa there was a shift to microliths. These are flakes chipped off stones and shaped for tools and weapons. The flakes are attached to wood and bone by glue and threads, instead of being held in the hand. That’s about all we know with reasonable certainty, until about 80 to 100 ka ago

Starting perhaps 100 ka ago we begin to see hints of the culture of our ancestors. We have worked beads and shells, and decorated clothes, some found in burial sites, others in caves. We do not find cemeteries or common grave sites, but there are some “rich burials”, with purposeful arrangements of corpses and grave goods. We also find remnants of comparatively large structures.

However, the authors say that there is little evidence of the kinds of things one would expect in hierarchal societies. There are no permanent monumental structures. The rich burials seem to be young people, or physically deformed people. There is at least one apparently young woman buried with pelvic and stomach plates. These aren’t the robust individuals we’d expect to see in a hierarchal society.

The authors don’t describe any rituals, which might be evidence of a sort of priestly hierarchy. They don’t believe we have enough evidence to support any particular view of social structures. Instead, they suggest there was a wide range of social practices.

3. Seasonal Changes And Gatherings.

The authors think that our ancestors lived in small bands part of the year and gathered together once a year or so. The say indigenous American groups lived this way, in small bands of hunter-foragers part of the year, and in large groups for hunting migrating animals, or to winter over safely. They describe African cultures that lived this way. Ethnographic studies show that the hierarchical structures of these more recent groups was different in the two settings. The authors think this was likely the case with our prehistoric ancestors.

There is evidence of regular gatherings of large numbers of people from at least 40 ka ago. For example, there is evidence that people gathered in the Perigord Region of Southern France near the confluence of the Vezere and the Dordogne Rivers, where it appears that there were large migrations of reindeer. This would be perhaps 25 to 35 ka ago during the last ice age. Fn. 38, p. 542. There are similar sites in Eurasia and Turkey.


1. Before I read all this I had this idea that people lived in small bands near each other until they moved out of Africa. A moment’s thought would tell me that’s not a realistic plan. If people stayed in a single group, the mutations from interbreeding would pile up until we died out. The story told by Graeber and Wengrow and the other scientists cited here makes a lot more sense.

For one thing, the annual meetings of the small groups would be good opportunities for finding mates outside the small group, insuring against inbreeding. There is evidence of coordination at these meetings. Some seem to be related to migrations of large animals. It would be easier to hunt these in large groups. There is evidence of semi-permanent construction of large buildings. Both of these suggest that people were planning ahead so there would be food and shelter for the gatherings, and were organized in some way for these complex operations.

For much of the year, people lived through foraging and hunting small game. It would be much easier to do this in small units. A large group would eat everything in a given area more quickly, requiring more travel, and more scouting for food. Getting a larger number of people going is a cat-herding exercise. Larger groups require more coordination than smaller groups.

2. I hadn’t thought much about the fossil record. I knew there are large gaps, but somehow I didn’t notice that having several thousand fossils isn’t much to go on. Looking at the more technical papers, I realized that every story about our evolution comes from speculation based on close examination of a relatively small number of fossils. It really makes you think about this passage from the book:

We should be clear: there’s nothing wrong with myths. Likely as not, the tendency to make up stories about the distant past as a way of reflecting on the nature of our species is itself, like art and poetry, one of those distinctly human traits that began to crystallize in deep prehistory. And no doubt some of these stories – for instance, feminist theories that see distinctly human sociability as originating in collective child-rearing practices – can indeed tell us something important about the paths that converged in modern humanity.8 But such insights can only ever be partial because there was no Garden of Eden, and a single Eve never existed. P. 82-3.

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.

Social Change For Human Purposes

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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.

The Insights of Kandiaronk

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Chapter 2 of The Dawn Of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow centers on the Wendat statesman and orator Kandiaronk. Here’s a history of his involvement in the re-establishment and survival of the Wendat, now the Wyandot. Graeber and Wengrow write about his thoughts on French culture based on Curious Dialogues with a Savage of Good Sense Who Has Travelled (1703) by the Baron de la Hontan, now known as Lahontan. There’s a question as to how much of the Dialogues should be attributed to Kandiaronk, and how much is the personal views of Lahontan. The Wyandot site says:

Under the pseudonym “Adario”, the noble savage Kandiaronk was used as a straw man for the safe articulation of the Baron’s radical, politically- dangerous views. In Lahontan’s “A Conference or Dialogue between the Author and Adario, A Noted Man among the Savages”, Adario spoke critically of such European institutions as the French legal system and medical profession, war, the Pope, and the Jesuits. Although some turns of phrase sound Native, and may have been lifted from Kandiaronk’s speeches, Adario’s critical voice of pristine purity spoke with Lahontan’s jaded intellectual accent. It reflects a wealth of embittering experiences the Baron had had with European society in areas of life that had not touched the Wyandot of Michilimakinac.

The authors explain why they think Lahontan was expressing Kandiaronk’s actual views. One factor is that Kandiaronk voices common forms of the Indigenous Critique, of which we get a taste here. Of course, I can’t evaluate this argument.

They focus on Kandiaronk’s view that the greed, poverty, and crime found in French society arise from lust for money and property. By refusing to deal with money and property, the Wendat are able to live in freedom and equality. The authors describe Kandiaronk’s views:

Do you seriously imagine, he says, that I would be happy to live like one of the inhabitants of Paris, to take two hours every morning just to put on my shirt and make-up, to bow and scrape before every obnoxious galoot I meet on the street who happened to have been born with an inheritance? Do you really imagine I could carry a purse full of coins and not immediately hand them over to people who are hungry; that I would carry a sword but not immediately draw it on the first band of thugs I see rounding up the destitute to press them into naval service? P. 55.

Then they quote this from the Dialogues:

Kandiaronk: I have spent six years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can’t think of a single way they act that’s not inhuman, and I genuinely think this can only be the case, as long as you stick to your distinctions of ‘mine’ and ‘thine’. I affirm that what you call money is the devil of devils; the tyrant of the French, the source of all evils; the bane of souls and slaughterhouse of the living. To imagine one can live in the country of money and preserve one’s soul is like imagining one could preserve one’s life at the bottom of a lake. Money is the father of luxury, lasciviousness, intrigues, trickery, lies, betrayal, insincerity, – of all the world’s worst behaviour. Fathers sell their children, husbands their wives, wives betray their husbands, brothers kill each other, friends are false, and all because of money. In the light of all this, tell me tell me that we Wendat are not right in refusing to touch, or so much as to look at silver? P. 55.

Kandiaronk explains human qualities valued by the Wendat:

Over and over I have set forth the qualities that we Wendat believe ought to define humanity – wisdom, reason, equity, etc. – and demonstrated that the existence of separate material interests knocks all these on the head. A man motivated by interest cannot be a man of reason. P. 56.

The authors note the views attributed to Kandiaronk about the Wendat are exaggerated. They had laws, they had wealth, there were differences among them, and war was a constant issue. Kandiaronk’s views of the failures of French culture are exaggerated for rhetorical effect and so are the good qualities of the Wendat. But the substance of his criticism is what counts. The Wendat didn’t have punitive laws because there was no realistic way to achieve vast material wealth, or to translate it into the power to boss other people around.

At this point, the authors introduce the concept of schismogenesis. The idea is that people have a tendency to define themselves by contrasting themselves with other people. As an example, I’m a progressive and I’m in favor of taking precautions against Covid-19. A Trumpist might see this and react by saying “if you progressives are in favor of taking precautions, then I’m against it. No vaccines, no masks.” That’s schismogenesis. Perhaps some of the rhetorical exaggeration we get from Kandiaronk is a form of schismatogenesis.

The authors suggest that this might be true of cultures too. If one clan takes slaves, its neighbor might say we don’t take slaves so we’re batter. Over time even small things can add up to major cultural differences. This extension appears frequently through the first few chapters as a possible explanation of cultural differences between neighboring groups.

Of course, people frequently pick up good ideas generated by people they come into contact with. That could lead to convergence, but could also increase the pressure to define differences.


1. The Indigenous Critique has several distinct elements. First, it argues that European cultures create a large class of impoverished people who are despised and left to suffer. Second, it claims that no one is free in European cultures. Everyone is required to bow and scrape before all their superiors in wealth and rank; they squabble with those of their own station; and they kick those below them. Third, society makes and enforces harsh laws to force people to comply with the economic and social structure. Fourth, the Europeans treat their children badly.

Another part of the Indigenous Critique is its rejection of the religion pushed by French missionaries. There’s an extended quote from Lahontan’s Dialogue where Kandiaronk discusses Christianity, concluding with this: “… there are five or six hundred religions, each distinct from the other, of which according to you, the religion of the French, alone, is any good, sainted, or true.” P. 53. This form of religion reinforces the French social structure.

Kandiaronk says the French social system is based on the concept of property and money which gives rise to the evils he criticizes. According to him the Wendat intentionally reject this concept, because it encourages bad behavior, and it only works if there is an entire system of force to control the rapacity it encourages. That system of force is a restraint on the freedom of everyone. The Wendat refuse to accept restrictions on their personal freedom. They refuse to be dominated by anyone.

2. Freedom from domination is one of the three important forms of freedom according to Elizabeth Anderson. I discuss the issue in two posts, here and here. This line of thinking is similar to Kondiaronk’s ideals.

The two posts also may help analyze this question: why do anti-vaxxers say somebody, the government or the liberals or the cultural elites, are trying to dominate them, to take away their freedom? Would Kondiaronk or Anderson agree?

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