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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.

Discussion

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 Origins Of European Thought On Inequality

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In Chapter 2 of The Dawn Of Everything David Graeber and David Wengrow describe the context in which the standard history of societal development was developed. The story is usually traced to a 1754 essay by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind. The essay was entered into “… a national essay competition on the question: ‘what is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?’” P. 28. How did we get to this question in France, a country where the very idea of inequality threatened the entire social order?

The authors give a short intellectual history of Europe. In the Dark Ages the continent was cut off from global trade and global intellectual discourse. In the Middle Ages, Arab scholars re-introduced Aristotle to Europe. Gradually other Greek and Roman writers were recovered and studied. European scholars, mostly clerics, began to construct an intellectual tradition.

As an aside, the Europeans don’t seem to have gotten the full benefit of the scholarship of Arab and other thinkers, which was quite advanced by that time. They weren’t bound to those traditions as dogma, but were able to read and study them fairly neutrally. European clerical scholars mostly tried to adapt the ancients into a more principled Christianity. It’s not even slightly surprising that their early thinking reinforced existing social structures. As an example, consider the divine right of kings. See the correction at the end of this post.

Back to the text. There is nothing about equality in the entire pre-Renaissance system of thought.

Ranks and hierarchies were assumed to have existed from the very beginning. Even in the Garden of Eden, as the thirteenth-century philosopher Thomas Aquinas observed, Adam clearly outranked Eve. ‘Social equality’ – and therefore, its opposite, inequality – simply did not exist as a concept. A recent survey of medieval literature by two Italian scholars in fact finds no evidence that the Latin terms aequalitas or inaequalitas or their English, French, Spanish, German and Italian cognates were used to describe social relations at all before the time of Columbus. P. 32.

The first discussions of equality arose in the development of the theory of Natural Rights. This theory evolved to justify the European domination of the people they found when they invaded the Americas and other lands beginning in 1492. Natural Right theory tries to identify the rights which inhere in people just because they are human beings, and even though they are living in a state of nature, completely unaware of Christianity. They concluded that you could invade as long as you didn’t treat them too badly, whatever that means.

Natural Rights discourse moves early societies away from the Garden of Eden story, opening the way to secular theories. European thinkers proposed ideas about what the original people might have been like. One common conception was that societies in the state of nature were free and equal. In contrast, we get Thomas Hobbes who argued that in the state of nature there was a war of all against all, only salvaged by the arrival of the powerful state.* The authors then describe some aspects of the term equality. For example, the Christian religion teaches a form of equality. All of us are equal in relationship to the Almighty. There is nothing much about freedom in the discourse of that time.

What we’re going to suggest is that American intellectuals – we are using the term ‘American’ as it was used at the time, to refer to indigenous inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere; and ‘intellectual’ to refer to anyone in the habit of arguing about abstract ideas – actually played a role in this conceptual revolution. P. 35.

From the beginning of the French invasion of North America, missionaries, soldiers, and travelers lived among the Americans. They learned eaah other’s languages, and talked about everything humans talk about. Of course that didn’t stop the rape, torture and murder. Many of these Europeans wrote reports and books, and gave lectures, on what they heard. As a result we have first-hand knowledge of the way the Americans perceived the French as well as the way the French perceived the Americans. That story fills out the Chapter. I’ll take up some of these fascinating dialogs in my next post. In the meantime, here are a pair of quotes that give a good taste of the Indigenous Critique of the invaders.

1.

Father Pierre Biard, for example, was a former theology professor assigned in 1608 to evangelize the Algonkian-speaking Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia, who had lived for some time next to a French fort. Biard did not think much of the Mi’kmaq, but reported that the feeling was mutual: ‘They consider themselves better than the French: “For,” they say, “you are always fighting and quarrelling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbour.” They are saying these and like things continually.’ What seemed to irritate Biard the most was that the Mi’kmaq would constantly assert that they were, as a result, ‘richer’ than the French. The French had more material possessions, the Mi’kmaq conceded; but they had other, greater assets: ease, comfort and time. P. 38-9, fn omitted.

2.

[One writer] was surprised and impressed by his hosts’ eloquence and powers of reasoned argument, skills honed by near-daily public discussions of communal affairs; his hosts, in contrast, when they did get to see a group of Frenchmen gathered together, often remarked on the way they seemed to be constantly scrambling over each other and cutting each other off in conversation, employing weak arguments, and overall (or so the subtext seemed to be) not showing themselves to be particularly bright. People who tried to grab the stage, denying others the means to present their arguments, were acting in much the same way as those who grabbed the material means of subsistence and refused to share it; it is hard to avoid the impression that Americans saw the French as existing in a kind of Hobbesian state of ‘war of all against all’. P. 39.

Discussion

1. Why have I never heard about these fascinating discussions between the Americans and the European invaders? I had a pretty good education and I’m reasonably well read, and I never knew about it, did not know there were contemporaneous records, and didn’t realize that those records were commonly discussed among French bourgeoise.

2. What did the other peoples of the Americas, Africa, India, and China think of the invader? Are there similar records? These people have been muted, turned into something less than humans to use Arendt’s phrase. They spoke for themselves, but we of today don’t know them, their thinking, their understanding of their lives and the world. We are weakened by this loss.

3. This disappearance of whole cultures is genuine violence towards the people and cultures wrecked by the invading Europeans. But it’s also symbolic violence towards broader publics. Our discourse, our ability to understand the way things are or could be, is robbed of a deeply needed range of alternatives. We are herded into channels of thought chosen by those who know what others thought and who for reasons of their own bury not just the bodies but the thinking of our fellow human beings.

History may be written by the victors, but the victors haven’t destroyed all the contemporaneous records. I hope there are scholars and volunteers looking for it.

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* Hobbes wrote Leviathan during the bloody and shocking English Civil War, which must have influenced his theory that

//… during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. …

… In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.//

Leviathan, Ch. XIII. I looked this up to see for myself; I haven’t read Leviathan and won’t.
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Correction.
I wrote that it seemed that European scholars did not get the full benefit of global thought when Aristotle was re-introduced by Arab scholars. I should have checked. Of course my education didn’t include anything about the influence of Arab thought on the thinking of Medieval scholars. According to The Internet Encyclopedia Of Philosophy, the brilliant Arab polymath Ibn Sina, known to us as Avicenna, influenced such scholars as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. Ibn Sina’s work on Metaphysics was banned in Paris in 1210. This is just another example of the Euro-centrism of my education, and one more thing I have to relearn.

Introduction And Index To New Series On The Dawn Of Everything

Index
Enough With Hobbes And Rousseau
Symbolic Violence In Politics
The Origins Of European Thought On Inequality
Attitudes Toward Freedom And Equality
The Insights Of Kandiaronk
A Brief Introduction To The History Of Early Modern Humans
The Sophistication Of Forager Societies
Cultural Differentiation In Non-Agricultural Societies
Women Led The Move To Farming

The Dawn Of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow is an effort to evaluate and replace a fundamental set of ideas about human history.

The Authors. David Graeber was an American anthropologist, famous partly because he’s one of the few academics who identify as anarchists. He taught at Yale from 1998 to 2005 but was denied tenure for obscure reasons having nothing to do with his anarchism, I’m sure. He took a position at the London School of Economics where he taught until his untimely death in 2020. Here’s his Wikipedia entry. I’ve read Debt: The First 5,000 Years. He also wrote Bullshit Jobs.

David Wengrow is an archaeologist at the University College of London. Here’s his Wikipedia entry.

The Subject of the Book. Since the mid-18th Century, people have thought that human beings of more than 10,000 years ago lived in egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands, small groups that foraged for nuts and berries, and hunted for small game and fish. Eventually they developed agriculture and stopped their nomadic life-styles. This led to the idea of property, and as populations increased they began to live in small settled groups, then villages, then towns, and then in cities. Hierarchies arose to deal with the ensuing complexities, and bureaucracies and rules enforceable by state violence, and all this led to civilizations as we know them in all their hierarchical splendor. It’s an inevitable process, repeated around the world.

Graeber and Wengrow attribute this story to Rousseau, in an essay entitled Discourse on the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind, written in 1754. and to other Enlightenment thinkers of his day. It’s a pervasive story, one we all learn as if by osmosis. There is no alternative. This book is a first step towards a different origin story, one with much wider potential for human societies.

The authors explain that they set out to write about the origins of inequality, making Rousseau’s essay a good starting point. But they realized that wasn’t a very smart question, and that there are better questions, starting with why is that the question everyone asks, and moving on to other questions, such as:

1. Why are we stuck in a single social structure, repeated with minor variations everywhere?

2. Why are we satisfied with living in a society in which the interests of some people are considered sacrosanct, while the interests of some other people are not entitled to any consideration whatsoever?

3. Why do we claim to be free, when almost all of us are forced to work for and be bossed around by someone who has vast material wealth, or face starvation?

4. Why should economic power be convertible into political power?

5. Why don’t we ask any of these questions?

That last one is mine, of course. We’ll see if there are answers in this book.

Background. I’ve written about several of these questions in other posts. My series on Pierre Bourdieu, index here, explains how the dominant class preserves its status. I describe Elizabeth Anderson’s work on freedom in another series, index here. We’ll see how Graeber and Wengrow compare; they don’t mention either.

Most of the books I’ve discussed at Emptywheel were written by mainstream Western thinkers. They generally work from a common history, and a common understanding of how we should think about our history. This means that the factual, evidentiary, basis of these books is more or less common knowledge. When new information is added to that store, we understand how to approach it, how to evaluate it, and we can usually integrate it into our existing picture.

For example, I have a general grasp of the history of Imperialism in the 19th Century, so when I read that extended chapter in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins Of Totalitarianism, there was information new to me, but it fit nicely into my general picture. Consequently I was able to follow along with Arendt’s thinking on the issue, and how it connected with her theory of the rise of Nazism.

This book isn’t like that at all. I don’t know much at all about the data I’ve encountered so far (I’m on Chapter 3). I knew about Rousseau’s essay generally, but knew nothing of the context. This makes it impossible for me to evaluate any of the data. I don’t know if things are being taken out of context, or how pervasive knowledge of Native American politicians was among French thinker of the Enlightenment. I can’t read all the original works myself, and don’t want to. I don’t know any anthropology, and my knowledge of archaeology is at the Discovery Channel level.

As a result, I can’t really do much more than repeat the evidence given by the authors, which doesn’t seem useful or even sensible. Instead, I’m going to state certain points from Graeber and Wengrow for discussion and give a flavor of the evidence. I’ll let everyone see the detailed backgrounds for themselves. That seems like the best way to spell out their ideas. For myself, I can say that the evidence is fascinating, and totally new to me.

Graeber identified as an anarchist. The book makes room for anarchy as a possible form of social organization, but that’s not the subject matter. The theories laid out here will support many different forms of social organization. The authors just want us to throw off the depressing idea that the only way to structure a society is in terms of property, with protection of property rights by hierarchies and bureaucracies as the only organizing principle. Our ancestors seem to have tried numerous forms of social organization. So can we.
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Featured Image by Ed Dunens via Flickr.