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Hello fellow kids, 

And welcome back to what it politics. 

The late David Graeber, who was a wonderful anthropologist, writer and political activist, is going to be publishing a post-humous book co-authored with archaeologist David Wengrow called The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity.  

And based on the preview chapters and essays that they’ve been publishing over the past few years, this book is sure to be an a great read, really stimulating, extremely popular, asking all the right questions – and then coming up with a lot of right answers, but then also a lot of wrong answers, and some right answers but for all the wrong reasons – and those wrong answers and wrong reasons are going to be a really harmful influence on our political movements and our political intelligence in a bunch of ways. 

So In this episode, and the next episode, I’m going to reading from and criticizing those preview chapters and essays that Graeber and Wengrow have been putting out from Dawn of Everything.  And i’m going to highlight the good stuff, and the bad stuff, so that we can learn to avoid all sorts of common mistakes and traps that people often fall into, and so that we can learn all the right answers to the extremely important questions that they’re asking: Where does human dominance hierarchy come from?  And what can we do today to reduce or eliminate it?

And I want to give a lot of credit to Graeber and Wengrow for asking these questions.  Very few anthropologists or political activists do this nowadays and very few have ever done it in such a straighforwardly political way.  

But I also want to really highlight how messed up the answers they’re giving us, and how bad for our political brains they are and use this as a springboard for my mission of reconstructing the basics of political theory, of which anthropological theory is a huge component.  

In part Graeber and Wengrow are making these mistakes, because everyone makes these mistakes because the state of political and athropological theory are deficient like I’ve been talking about.  But on top of that David Graeber had a real bug up his butt about the concept of equality and he spent his career ignoring the anthropology of very egalitarian societies – those societies who live according to the principles of libertarian communism – where the individual is free, yet wealth and power are shared equally – which is extremely weird for a left wing anarchist anthropologist like him to be ingnoring – and it really affected his work in a bad ways as we’ll see and we’ll make some guesses about why he was doing that. 

So next episode, I’m going to be doing a line by line critique of Graeber and Wengrow’s very popular article from 2018 called How to Change the Course of Human History, and at I’ll be citing a few passages from Farewell to the Childhood of Man from 2015 which is basically an earlier version of that article.

But first, in this episode, I’ll be discussing and reading excerpts from an actual chapter of Dawn of Everything which was published in 2019, but only in french under the title of La Sagesse de Kondiaronk, la critique indigène, le mythe du progrès et la naissance de la Gauche and which in English translates to The Wisdom of Kondiaronk, the Indigenous Critique, the Myth of Progress and the Birth of the Left. I read it in french which I’m fluent in, but you can get a pretty good english translation on gargl translate or deepl translate – though the full english book will be out a couple of weeks after this video comes out. 

Graeber and Wengrow’s also published another piece from Dawn of Everything in 2020 before Graeber died called Hidden in Plain Sight, Democracy’s Indigenous Origins in the Americas.  Unlike the other articles, I don’t have much to critique about it, it’s quite exciting – it’s about how the city state of Tlaxcala in central Mexico at the time of the encounter with Cortez was actually democratic, and how historians never mentioned or noticed it’s democratic nature because they couldn’t imagine that such a thing was possible, even though people at the time reported it clearly.  And I think this will be an introduction to their discussion of various potentially eglitarian city states and civilizations like the Indus Valley civilization, and this is the work of David Wengrow, who’s work I’ve just started to get to know a little.  I don’t have the expertise to evaluate it one way or another, but I certainly hope it’s true, and if so, it has really important implications for the future.  I might do a separate episode on Wengrows stuff on egalitarian cities after I do this series.  Interestingly Wengrow is not in denial about egalitarian hunter gatherers the way Graeber is!  

LA SAGESSE DE KONDIAROK – GRAEBER’S THESIS

OK so let’s get into The Wisdom of Kondiaronk, the Indigenous Critique, the Myth of Progress and the Birth of the Left and you can find the original french version of this linked in the show notes, and let the cartoon, begin!

In this chapter – and I don’t know which chapter it is, just that it’s not the first chapter because in the article at some point it says “in the last chapter” – but anyways – in this chapter Graeber points out that many of they key insights and concepts associated with the European enlightenment – ideas of individual liberty and equality, and the rejection of religious dogma and established social hierarchy based on ascribed status – that these ideas were heavily influenced by europeans’ encounters with Native Americans.  This influence came both from observing the American way of life, which flew in the face of the social order which europeans had been taught to believe was natural and ordained by god for hundreds of years – and the influence also came from specific critiques of European society, religion, economy and values made by the Americans.  

Merchants, Jesuit missionaries, soldiers, militarymen and various kinds of settlers, went across the atlantic occean to the new world taking for granted a whole array of rigid social dominance hierarchies, between rich and poor, kings and subjects, lords and serfs, masters and servants, men and women, massive wealth inequalities, and property relationships that kept some people in servile and dependant relationships to others.  

But North America truly was a new world in more ways than one.  The european immigrants and colonists were shocked to discover that the so called savages that they encountered, lived in societies where these hierarchies either didn’t exist at all, or else they existed in relatively mild forms compared to what they had taken for granted all of their lives.  

And it was a further shock in their encounters, to hear the Americans excoriating and making fun of those hierarchies, ridiculing the europeans mistreatment of eachother, their shameful rules of private property, and money exchange and calling them slaves.  

WHAT IS HIERARCHY

So before we go any further I want to clarify what hierarchy is in a political context.  A hierarchy is a system where people or things are ranked according to some value.  You can rank fruits according to which one tastes better, models according to who you think is more attractive, runners accordings to who is faster, or chess players according to who is the most skilled – hierarchies of competence like Jordan Peenerson talks about.

But when we’re talking about politics we don’t care about any of that stuff.  The word politics, refers to decision making in groups. So when we’re talking about hierarchy or equality in the context of politics, what we’re talking about is hieararchy or equality of decision making power – i.e. dominance hierarchies, where one person or group or class of people dominates another, in the sense of they get to tell them what to do.  

And we’re only interested in other kinds of hierarchies, like hierarchies of competence or of wealth, if and when those hierarchies translate into dominance hierarchy – hierarchy of decision making power.    

So for example we often talk about economic inequality when it comes to politics.  Why?  We don’t care that one person gets to have a lot of toys and rollercoasters and another person has less toys.  The main reason it’s a political issue is because economic inequality translates into decision making inequality.  

The lord tells the serf what to do because the lord owns the land the serf depends on to live.  Your boss tells you what to do and not the other way around because youre boss has money to start a workplace and you need the salary the he has to give you and you don’t have those things.  Your landlord tells you what you can and can’t do in your own home because your landlord inherited a downpayment from his parents and you didn’t.  You and Jeff Bezos both have one vote, but Jeff Bezos can hire an army of lobbyists who work 24-7 to influence how politicians think and what they know, and you can write an email once in awhile and get ignored.  

The other reason economic inequality is a political issue is that in a democratic society – meaning a society where people have a meaningful say in the decisions that affect them, if a majority of people don’t have enough resources to live well, they will likely decide to transfer wealth away from a minority of people who have an emormous amount of resources.  

So – decision making hierarchies serve three main purposes:

  1. they allow for more efficient group cooperation – for example you can’t produce a movie if everyone is just doing whatever they want and making their own calls at every given moment.  
  2. they reduce conflict and arguments – because if there’s a disagreement, the person on top wins in advance – the lighting director wants to use bright blasted lighting, but the director says, no, we want dark grainy lighting – well the director automatically wins – which is one reason hierarchies allow for large group cooperation 
  3. and finally hierarchies allow people on the top of the hierarchy to exploit the people on the bottom, to extract more than their proportional share of the benefits of their labour.  The investors in a film sit on their butts and do nothing except for having money, but they get all the profits from the film and the crew gets nothing.

And we can distinguish between two types of decision-making hierarchies.  organizational, or democratic hierarchies, and dominance hierarchies.  A democratic or organizational hierarchy is where people voluntarily organize into a hierarchy and choose their superiors in order to achieve certain goals, and ultimately the purpose of the hierarchy is to serve all of its members.  Large cooperatives usually have democratic hierarchies.   But a dominance hierarchy is one where the purpose of the hierarchy is to serve the people on top and there is an element of coercion to the hierarchy.  And there’s a spectrum in between. 

And always keep in mind, that whether a hierarchy is necessary for survival, or whether it exists mostly for exploitation, dominance, there is always some kind of justification or at least an excuse.  

In europe at the time of the colonization of North America, the justification was religious.  It’s not that the king was the biggest thug who could conquer the most people.  It’s that he was appointed by God.  There was the great chain of being where every creature from the angels to animals to plants to minerals and dirt were all orginized into a hierarchy.  To defy this hierarchy was like Satan defying God and falling from heaven.  

And today, if we look at workplace hierarchy, it’s not that your boss inherited money from their parents and you didn’t and you’re forced to sign away your free will for 60 hours a week because if you don’t you’ll die –  it’s because your boss is a job creator and innovator and deserves his power, and you’re too lazy or stupid to start your own business, so you “voluntarily” signed a labour contract, so it’s not actually a hierachy at all because you chose to have a job where you have to shit in diapers because you’ll get fired if you take a bathroom breaks!

And when we talk about class in politics, we’re essentially talking about ranks of a political hierarchy, even if though that’s not how people traditionally describe it.  The owner class on top, management in the middle workers on the bottom.  Lords on top, serfs on the bottom.  Officer class on top, enlisted on the bottom.  

And finally, when we are talking about hierarchy vs equality we are talking about the political right vs the political left.  Because that’s what left and right refer to.  The right represents the forces in favour of a dominance hierarchy and the left represents the forces in favour of equalizing or eliminating the ranks of a hierarchy.  And that’s ultimately a spectrum between authority on the right and democracy on the left.

And I know that there are a lot of other definitions floating around, and I know that lots of people who think that they are on the right are pro democracy and some people who think they are on the left are pro dictatorship – but too bad for you, you’re in the wrong camp!  Those are the historical definitions, and they are also the only definitions that make any sense and you can go see episodes 5 4 and 3 if you want to understand why.  

EUROPEANS REACT TO AMERICA

So – when people, like the 16th and 17th century europeans immigrants to the americas, who are entrenched in a dominance hierarchy system, and a system of beliefs and values that justifies those hierarchies – when people like that encounter other people who aren’t stuck in that kind of system, like the native americans they were encountering, there are two basic ways of reacting to this.   

The first is to realize – holy shit, i’ve been putting up with this crap all of my life for no reason – fuck this!  And then you rebel in some way against the hierarchy in your society, or you go live with the natives which many people did.  

And we have another example of this in American history – the early suffragettes.  I actually made an episode, number 8 where I talked about how women in north america and europe got the right to vote, and I talked about the status women in Haudenosaunee society where women help most of the important positions of political power, but I only learned the connection between suffragettes and the Haudenosaunee after I recorded the episode.  Many of the early suffragettes were moved to fight for equal rights based on their encounters with Haudenosaunee and Huron women would laugh at them for being subject to their husbands’ authority and who needed permission to do things like buy or sell property or horses.  

So one reaction to encounters like this is to reject the legitimacy of the hierarchy, and the other is to be horrified by the fact that people don’t conform to that hierarchy – and to feel these people who don’t recognize the legitimacy of that hierarchy is a threat to your whole identity and sense of self worth.  And in hierarchical societies, self worth is generally tied in to accepting one’s place in a hierarchy – that’s literally what separate adults from children.  And then you try to crush those people who you see as savages who need correction – much like you as a child needed to be crushed into accepting hierarchy, which then conferred on you the status of an adult and serious person.  Think of the expression, if you’re a socialist after a certain age you have no brain.  

Anyhow, the reaction that you’ll will have will depend on various things like how psychologically and materially invested you are in the hierarchical system you’re a part of.  If you’re at the top of a hierarchy and enjoying all the benefits, you probably will sense the other culture without hiearchy as an existential threat.  You need to crush it, or else your servants or your wife will get ideas about equality.  And you can also be near the bottom of your hierarchy, but still be really psychologically invested in it.  Your whole sense of being a good person is based on all the sacrifices you make on a daily basis, not having sex, obeying your asshole husband or your stupid boss or your master – and then these hippies and savages think they’re entitled to just do what they want and not listen to anyone?   Who do they think they are?  They need to be punished and made to obey!

Like imagine someone who’s gay in a very religious anti gay area – and they gain their sense of being a good person by suppressing their desires.  When someone like that encounters a radical queer freakshow party, they either realize – gee, why am i doing this?   Or they go crazy and want to destroy them, like a lot of weird closeted right wing politicians we read about.  

And to me when you want other people to suffer the oppression you suffer in order to validate your own self oppression – that’s the definition of evil.  

JESUIT RELATIONS

So the europeans encoutering the native americans of course had both of these reactions.  

For some people the encounters contributed to the growing enlightenment ideas about how  much of the hierarchy that europeans were subject to were not necessary and not just, and that they should be overthrown.  But to other people, the Native American ways of life were perceived of as a threat to the social order that needed to be crushed.  

So Graeber and Wengrow quote some of the reactions of Jesuit missionaries to the people they encountered which are telling.  Graeber points out that the Jesuits saw liberty as a low, animal quality.  

First there’s Pere Lejeune who did his missionary work among the Montagnais Naskapi people in what’s now Quebec who were an extremely egalitarian hunting and gathering people, who I’ve talked about before – and I might have even given this same quote in one of my epsiodes, it’s often cited, from 1642:

And then he cites a famous quote by Pere Lejeune who did his missionary work among the Montagnais Naskapi people in what’s now Quebec who at the time were extremely egalitarian hunter gatherers:

They imagine that they ought by right of birth, to enjoy the liberty of wild ass colts, rendering no homage to any one whomsoever, except when they like. They have reproached me a hundred times because we fear our Captains, while they laugh at and make sport of theirs. All the authority of their chief is in his tongue’s end; for he is powerful in so far as he is eloquent; and, even if he kills himself talking and haranguing, he will not be obeyed unless he pleases the Savages…

LeJeune continues beyond the passage the Graeber and Wengrow quote:

“Our Savages are happy; for the two tyrants who provide hell and torture for many of our Europeans, do not reign in their great forests, I mean ambition and avarice.  They have neither political organization, nor offices, nor dignities, nor any authority, for they only obey their Chief through good will toward him… Also, as they are contented with a mere living, not one of them gives himself to the Devil to acquire wealth.”

LeJeune goes on to talk disapprovinly about how they have sexual freedom, women don’t obey men, and how the indians love to laugh and make fun, particularly of LeJeune!

And here’s another quote from Pere Lallemant who missioned among the Wendat people, from 1644: 

I could hardly believe that there is any place in the world more difficult to subject to the Laws of JESUS CHRIST. Not only because they have no knowledge of letters, no Historical monuments, and no idea of a Divinity who has created the world and who governs it; but, above all, because I do not believe that there is any people on earth freer than they, and less able to allow the subjection of their wills to any power whatever, so much so that Fathers here have no control over their children, or Captains over their subjects, or the Laws of the country over any of them, except in so far as each is pleased to submit to them. 

And I’m quoting a bit more than Graeber and Wengrow quote because they tend to leave out the parts where people have no political authorities or authoritarian Gods to obey, which we’ll discuss next episode because Graeber wants us to believe that even the most egalitarian cultures have hierarchical religions. 

Now these quotes come from the various volumes of the Jesuit Relations books, which were accounts by Jesuit missionaries which were extremely popular in europe at the time – like imagine if people from earth landed on another planet and we got reports from how the people from those planets lived, how popular those reports would be!

And then Graeber and Wengrow continue about the native reaction to the Europeans.

In the view of the Montagnais-Neskapi, by contrast, the French were little better than slaves, living in constant fear of getting into trouble with their superiors.  Such criticisms appeared regularly in the Jesuit accounts, not only from those who lived in nomadic hunter gatherer bands, but also from settled town dwellers like the Wendat.  

And what’s really fascinating and I think a great insight is that Graeber points out that people today who would be reading these reports in western democratic countries would have a lot more in common in terms of world view and attitudes with the native american hunter gatherers and tribal horticulturalists than they would with their own european ancestors.  And this is exactly right.  Over the past 500 years, and particularly in the past 100 years, various social movements have been fighting to eliminate most of those social hierarchies that the Americans ridiculed the Europeans for, and as we’ve reduced those hierarchies, we’ve become more like them as a result.

And actually it reminds me of something my friend Josh said years ago when we were watching the documentary Mingus from the 1950s about Jazz Bassist and composer Charles Mingus.  From the beginning of the movie until about 20-30 minutes in, during which all the people on film are black people you don’t really think about what year it is.  You just see people talking music and joking with eachother.  But then suddenly when the first white person walks in the room it slaps you in the face that you’re in the 1950s – the way they hold themselves, the way they speak, the affect – so much more uptight and stuck up than the norm today – basically the cultural changes we’ve had since the 1950s inspired in part by black liberation and rights movements have shed a lot of internalized social hierarchy – and mainstream white culture resembles black culture more than it does the white culture of the 50s.  Charles Murray might thing this is awful, and the cause of all of our economic problems today, but Charles Murray has no materialist analysis – most of us would probably see this as a good thing.  

Anyhow, learning about the the way of life of the native americans, and their critiques of European life contributed to the discussions and debates and cultural changes and challenges that were already happening in Europe at the time.  And these challenges had been set off by other factors – like increasing wealth across europe with the re-establishment of long trading and travel routes which had fallen apart with the fall of the roman empire, and which put europe back into contact with influences and ideas from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

And most importantly, there was the shift away from a local land based economy which put lords at the centers of power, to a in international and global trading economy which was putting merchants and bourgeois owners at the center of power.  

The wealthy and middle class urban dwellers who saw themselves correctly as increasingly becoming the economic engine of society, had not much use for the rules and religous and social conventions that had existed in the middle ages which had served to maintain the stability of power for the rural nobility, and which kept the merchants relegated to the bottom ranks of society.  Again this is me not Graeber and Wengrow, but this is all well known stuff.  

On top of these Jesuit books, eager european readers were also gobbling up other books about the New World, like Baron Lahontan’s collection, New Voyages to North America, 1666-1716.  Of particular interest is a section called Curious Dialogues with a Savage of Good Sense Who Has Traveled which was first published in serial form in 1703.  

In these dialogues, Lanontan reports debates between himself and Adario, a fictionalized version of the real Chief Kondiaronk – a Native American of the Wendat nation of great renown who Lanhontan had made friends with and who had engaged in many debates and discussions with in the IRL, in Montreal, where I’m recording this video from.  Maybe in this very apartment?

And in these debates, Adario many detailed critiques of European society – religion, patriarchy, social castes, wealth inequality, ownership of private property, the existence of a punitive legal system – much of which Kondiaronk had likely expressed to Lahontan, but some of which was also likely Lahontan’s own point of view as he was himself a forward thinking critique of traditional europe.  And these same arguments were soon echoed and sometimes wholesale adopted by enlightenment philosophers in their debates and treatises, in particular the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  

KONDIARONKS WORDS

So let’s look at some of Kondiaronk’s critiques as recorded by Lahontan in his book where the author debates with Adario i.e. Kondiaronk, as cited by Graeber and Wengrow:

… I find it hard to see how you Europeans could be much more miserable than you already are. What kind of human being, what kind of creature must Europeans be to be forced to do good and refrain from evil only for fear of punishment? …

You have noted that we lack judges. What is the reason for this?  It’s because we never bring charges against each other. And why do we never sue eachother? Because we have made a decision not to accept or use money. Why?  Because we are determined not to have laws.  Since the world was a world, our ancestors were able to live happily without them.

Kandaronk then goes on eviscerate the French legal system point by point, [this is graeber and wengrow talking] focusing particularly on judicial persecution, perjury, torture, accusations of witchcraft, and differential justice for rich and poor. And in the end, he returns to his original observation: the whole punitive apparatus of trying to force people to behave properly would be useless if France did not also maintain contrary institutions that incentivized people to behave badly. These institutions consisted of money, property rights, and the resulting pursuit of material self-interest.

Kandiaronk continues: 

I’ve spent six years thinking about the state of European society and I still can’t think of a single one of your ways that isn’t inhumane, and I sincerely believe that it can only be because you stick to your distinctions of ‘mine’ and ‘yours’. I affirm that what you call money is the devil of devils; the tyrant of the French, the source of all evil; the scourge of souls and the slaughterhouse of the living. To imagine that one can live in the land of money and preserve one’s soul is like imagining that one can preserve one’s life at the bottom of a lake. Money is the father of luxury, lasciviousness, intrigue, deceit, lies, betrayal, insincerity, all the worst behaviors in the world. Fathers sell their children, husbands their wives, wives betray their husbands, brothers kill each other, friends are false, and all for money. In light of all this, tell me that we Wendat are not right to refuse to touch or even look at money?

Lahontan then tries to counter-argue that without money, europe would collapse.  

Without it, nobles, priests, merchants and many others who do not have the strength to work the soil, would simply starve. Our kings would not be kings; what soldiers would we have? Who would work for the kings, or for anyone else? This would plunge Europe into chaos and create the darkest confusion.

And one gets the impression that this is a setup for Adario’s response which is what Lahontan really thinks, and that Lahontan and Kandiaronk were actually on the same page:

So Adario, aka Kandiaronk replies: 

Do you really think you will influence me by catering to the needs of nobles, merchants and priests? Yes, such distinctions between men would dissolve; a leveling equality would then take its place among you as it does now among the Wendat. 

And he goes on to say that all the useless parasites who live off of others’ labour will die off but their children will know how to work and the world would be a much better place.

I’ve enumerated many times the qualities which define humanity: wisdom, reason, justice, etc.  And I’ve shown that people having opposed material interests turns all of these things on their heads.  A man motivated by interests can never be a man of reason.   

So you have this critique coming from native americans, but also from europeans like Lanhontan who clearly agrees with Kandiaronk, and this stuff is tearing across europe challenging the social order like heavy metal and rap records in the 1980s. 

And ultimately, Graeber and Wengrow argue – and I think this is where their original argument comes in – the stuff about the native influence on the west has been argued before by other scholars – so they’re original argument is that it was in order to fend off these types of critiques from Native Americans, and the Europeans influenced by them, that European thinkers developed the theory of stages of human progress.

So the originator of this idea is not a conservative traditionalist, but a bourgeois liberal free market economist, Turgot, who notably was Louis XIV’s economic adviser who opposed the reduction of bread prices during a famine – so someone who was against the medieval hierarchies of the three social orders, and the rule of the church, but who was for economic hierarchies, and also for a monarchical absolutist government.  

In Turgot’s formulation, people start as hunter-gatherers, and then move up and advance to being pastoralist animal herders, then they advance to being farmers, and then finally they advance to commercial market civilization, with each stage being better and happier for everyone than the previous one.  

And in this schema, the liberty and equality that the native americans enjoyed were ultimately signs of economic and cultural backwardness, something that’s incompatible with avanced civilization. At the end of the day hierarchy and submission to authority were the price that people had to pay for all the benefits of civilization and markets.  

Quoting from Graber:

Yes, we all like the idea of liberty and equality, Turgot writes, that is, in principle. But one must take into account the larger context. In reality, the freedom and equality of savages is not a sign of their superiority, but proof of their inferiority, since such equality is only possible in a society where each household is largely self-sufficient, and thus where all are equally poor. As societies evolve, and technology advances, the natural differences in talents and abilities between individuals become more and more important, and eventually they form the basis for an ever more complex division of labor… and where the poverty and dispossession of some, however lamentable, is the necessary condition for the prosperity of society as a whole. There is no way to avoid this. The only alternative, according to Turgot, would be massive state intervention to create a uniformity of social conditions, an imposed equality that could only have the effect of crushing all initiative and thus be an economic and social catastrophe.

And these are the same arguments we have heard over and over ever since, but which reached a particular crescendo during the Cold War when these arguments became the heart of the pro capitalism argument, with the Soviet and Chinese communist dictoatorships as the ultimate examples of Turgot’s thesis.  But in Turgot’s time they were actually referring to the Peruvian Incan empire which was sort of the soviet union of the americas, but not really – though interestingly some russian communists like Georgi Plekhanov in the late 18thC were worried about a communist government becoming an Inca style dictatorship if a revolution happened in the wrong conditions, which is more or less what happened after 1917.  

But note the assumption built into Turgot’s theory, that natural inequalities of ability – Peenerson’s “hierarchies of competence” automatically lead to wealth inequality as soon as you have wealth surplus and accumulation, and that these can only be reversed by some tyrant imposing unnatural equality from above.  Now this isn’t true as we’ll see next time, but it’s an idea that’s very much ingrained into our own culture today.

So you had the Native American and European critique of european hierarchy, and then you had Turgot’s and others’ defense of european hierarchies, particularly of wealth and power.  

And then, you have Jean Jacque Rousseau – and according to Graeber and Wengrow, what Rousseau does with his Discourse of Inequality, is that he synthesizes the two opposing views into a masterful declaration of impotence.  He issues a scathing and shocking for the time critique of European hierarchy and economic inequality, but according to Graeber and Wengrow his critique ultimately implies that we have no alternative, and thus his critique ends up serving as a justification of the status quo, or at least of a society with unjust dominance hierarchies.   

Woe is me, everything sucks, it’s not right, and it goes against human nature – but hey what can you do, we can’t go back to living in trees amirite?  Whip yourself on the back and jerk off with your friends about it while servants get you tea and clean your piss bucket.  

Now I don’t exactly buy this.  

If you read Rousseau’s essay, it concludes with a “what then is to be done?” section – the last big paragraph basically, where he asks how do we improve our unnatural hierarchical conditions.  And he more or less says well we can’t go back to living on acorns, but what we can do is be good people, obey our laws when they’re just, obey our leaders, but make sure they put out good laws and good constitutions… 

Now this is very reminsicent of what weird hypocritical left liberals do today – they issue a harsh and perceptive critique of our social institutions, and then instead of calling to overthrow or fundamentally change those institutions, they’re like that’s why “corporations need to be good corporate citizens!”  Or “we should vote for a president who’s a nice good boy instead of a meany weenie!”  Almost every book written by a non-socialist author ends up with this kind of garbage.  Or in the wanna be left post raisin bran critical theory academic version, they’re like “revolutions are doomed to failure because the hegemonic power discourse reproduces the structures of power, but challenges to power are still possible in the interstices of power – like we can make tiny useless changes – so let’s fight the power by criticizing the representation of data as an autistic coded person in star trek the next generation” yibbedeyabbedyibbede.  

So all of this does track with what Graeber and Wengrow are saying, but realistically, if Rousseau had actually proposed any real solutions – like had he called for the overthrow of Monarchy and the Church, he would have ended up in jail!  Like it was the enlightenment and all, but France was still an absolutist Monarchy.  And if you read that concluding paragraph it really just seems like like he just slapped that in there so as not to get in trouble.  

in short, who are persuaded that the Divine Being has called all mankind to be partakers in the happiness and perfection of celestial intelligences, all these will endeavour to merit the eternal prize they are to expect from the practice of those virtues, which they make themselves follow in learning to know them. They will respect the sacred bonds of their respective communities; they will love their fellow−citizens, and serve them with all their might: they will scrupulously obey the laws, and all those who make or administer them; they will particularly honour those wise and good princes, who find means of preventing, curing or even palliating all these evils and abuses, by which we are constantly threatened; they will animate the zeal of their deserving rulers, by showing them, without flattery or fear, the importance of their office and the severity of their duty. 

At the end of the day, given that Rousseau was a major inspiration for the Jacobins and the sans culottes – the more radical egalitarian factions in the french revolution – it’s clear that those people took the critique part of Rousseau way more seriously than the stupid passive 3 second slapped on stephen king novel conclusion. 

It’s actually Turgot that does what Graeber and Wengrow say Rousseau is doing – and you can see that just from reading their own section on Turgot which I talked about above!

Graeber and Wengrow also point out that Rousseau can’t really envision what a society would actually look like in a state of liberty and equality.  Rousseau says that humans in a state of nature are free and equal, but Rousseau’s description of humans in a state of nature – a state of liberty and equality according to Rousseay – is individuals living all alone in the trees with no ties to one another and without even language.     

But, his description of humans in a state of nature is not supposed to be real, it’s not based for example of any of the literature on native americans for example – instead he’s talking about a hypothetical people, lacking many essential human traits like language and sociality, who exist in a hypothetical state of nature—a state that, as he puts it, “no longer exists,which perhaps never did exist, which probably never will exist,”

It’s just a thought experiment of the situation that it would take in order to reveal the true nature of humans. 

What Rousseau is saying is that if humans are just left to their own individual devices, without any dependence on anyone else for anything, then we have no need to oppress anyone and we would live free and equal lives.  

In a way, his concept of human nature prioritized freedom, but it was also fundamentally anti social.  According to Rousseau, it’s almost society itself – social ties and obligations that oppress us.  It’s like a spoiled north american kid – or adult – who thinks that happiness is just the right to do whatever you want whenever you want at any second without any limits or obligations to anyone interfering with it, and then they become an ayn rand libertarian.  Just like Ayn Rand he saw social obligations as the antithesis of freedom.  The second every person isn’t totally self sufficient, you are oppressed.  

As Rousseau puts it in english translation:

…from the moment one man began to stand in need of the help of another; from the moment it appeared advantageous to any one man to have enough provisions for two, equality disappeared, property was introduced, work became indispensable, and vast forests became smiling fields, which man had to water with the sweat of his brow, and where slavery and misery were soon seen to germinate and grow up with the crops.

And interestingly, Rousseau, like Turgot also takes for granted the assumption that inequalities or hierarchies of ability will necessarily result in economic inequalities.  Quote:

In this state of affairs, equality might have been sustained, had the talents of individuals been equal … but, as there was nothing to preserve this balance … the strongest did most work; the most skilful turned his labour to best account; the most ingenious devised methods of diminishing his labour: the husbandman wanted more iron, or the smith more corn, and, while both laboured equally, the one gained a great deal by his work, while the other could hardly support himself. Thus natural inequality unfolds itself insensibly with that of combination, and the difference between men, developed by their different circumstances, becomes more sensible and permanent in its effects, and begins to have an influence, in the same proportion, over the lot of individuals.

Graeber and Wengrow see Rousseau’s thinking as stuck in european notions of liberty which are rooted in individual ownership of private property where liberty ultimately comes at someone else’s expense, like the ancient athenians who needed slaves to be able to enjoy liberty – as opposed to Native Americans who saw that liberty actually comes from being part of a society, from mutual interdependence.  

So quoting from Graeber and Wengrow

For the Americans, the freedom of the individual was supposed to be based on some level of basic communism, 

And as articulated since his Debt book, Graeber’s concept of communism is basically the idea of a sharing relationship with someone, like between parents and children, or between friends, rather than a relationship where you keep score of exchange and debts.  Quote:

For the Americans, the freedom of the individual was supposed to be based on some level of basic communism, since, after all, people who are starving or without adequate clothing or shelter in a snowstorm are not really free to do much of anything except what is necessary to stay alive. 

The European conception of individual freedom, on the other hand, was intimately linked to conceptions of private property. 

From a legal point of view, it goes back to the ancient absolute power of the Roman head of the family to do whatever he wanted with his personal and private property, including his children and slaves. [52] In other words, freedom was always at least potentially at the expense of others. 

Moreover, there was a strong sense that households should be self-sufficient; hence, true freedom meant autonomy in the radical sense, not just autonomy of will, but in no way dependence on other human beings (except those under their direct power or control). [53] 

Rousseau, who himself always insisted that he wanted to live his life in a way that did not make him dependent on the help of others (even if he had all his needs met by mistresses and servants), echoes this logic.

When our ancestors made the fatal decision to divide the land into individual parcels and created, first, legal structures to protect their property and then governments to enforce those laws, they imagined that they were creating the means to preserve their freedom. 

But in reality, they ‘ran headlong into their chains’. This is a powerful image. But it is hard to imagine what exactly Rousseau’s lost freedom consisted of, if (as he insisted) any continuing human relationship, even of mutual aid, was a restriction on freedom. No wonder, perhaps, that he ended up inventing a purely imaginary age in which each individual human wandered alone among the trees.

and then a bit later we have this passage:

Of course, Rousseau’s effusions on the fundamental decency of human nature and the lost ages of liberty and equality were in no way responsible for the French Revolution in the sense of putting strange ideas into the heads of the sans-culottes (as we have noted, it was the intellectuals in European history who seem to have been the only class of people who were unable to wrap their heads around these ideas). But, it could be argued that by bringing together the indigenous critique and the doctrine of progress originally developed to counter it, that he in fact wrote the founding document of the left as an intellectual project.

So here they’re differentiating between the spirit of the sans-culottes, the true revolutionaries of the french revolution, and the intellectual left – the lawyers and intellectuals who took power – and they’re saying that Rousseau’s narrative which according to Graeber and Wengrow is a half assed cop out synthesis of the indigenous critique and the right wing reaction to that critique, where we criticize inequality, but we ultimately resign ourselves to hierarchy – they’re saying that this cop our is the foundation of the intellectual left!  

So what Graeber and Wengrow are doing with this chapter, is they’re setting up some of their main arguments for the rest of the book.  In the paragraph I just read, they’re setting up a critique of the intellectual left, by which I assume is going to become a critique of the marxist left.   So like in their interpretation of Rousseau, where you have a harsh critique of hierarchy based a vague two dimensional vision of a society of free and equals that is ultimately a justification for hierarchy to persist, in the marxist left and leninist left you have a far off vision of a free and equal future, but you need these hierarchical parties and states to get us to that point, which never really materializes, and this is where we get the USSR and Communist China etc.  

So in the next few paragraphs they quote an original member of the illuminati calling for a small cadre or intellectuals to lead society into an era of equality and liberty and they point out that this seems to prefigure the French and Russian Revolutions and also that it looks just like an excerpt of Rousseau’s writing.  

And hopefully they’ll also throw in a critique of the post-raisin bran academic left and it’s ideology of powerlessness as well.  

And then, as part of this critique of the intellectual left, they’re going to argue that the idea that human beings started out as egalitarian hunter gatherers, and then transitioned to hierarchical societies because of changes in material conditions, like the advent of agriculture and civilization, is part of this intellectual left justification for hierarchy – in other words people who argue that human beings started out as egalitarian hunter gatherers – which is the majority opinion among anthropologists since the 1960s’ – that what these people are ultimately doing is saying that we can’t have egalitarian societies anymore because we’re not hunter gatherers anymore, like Turgot or Rousseau saying that hierarchy is the price of civilization.  

And this is one of the big points they’ll be making in their article “How to Change the Course of Human History” which is what we’ll be focusing on next episode, and this is where I’ll be starting to critique them ferociously, because this argument is just not true.   

There are some people with no expertise like Francis Fukuyama who make arguments like that, usually in passing – it’s just dumb “common sense” folk wisdom – but there are no hunter gatherer specialists who make arguments like that, and there are many hunter gatherer experts who make the exact opposite argument – that the fact that humans probably started out as egalitarian hunter gatherers enjoying liberty and equality at the same times shows that human being are capable of living in a state of equality and liberty – and maybe that we’re even evolved and best suited to be living that way, and that we can do that in a context of civilization if we change some of our major institutions and our material conditions.  

And we’ll see why the evidence that they present that humans weren’t mostly egalitarian hunter gatherers is really weak, and based on a really flimsy theoretical basis, and total ignorance or in Graeber’s case total denial of the anthropology of egalitarian hunter gatherer societies – and we’ll see why the egalitarian origins thesis is still the majority opinion among anthropologists and hunter gatherer specialists.  

CRITIQUE OF EQUALITY

OK, so up until now, I have a few quibbles with what Graeber and Wengrow have been saying, but in general I find this chapter super interesting, it’s really exciting I learned all sorts of interesting history i didn’t know, it changed my view of the enlightenment etc. 

But then in the closing paragraphs of the chapter, we get to the part that makes me want to pull my hair out, because it’s basically a big tirade against the idea of equality as a meaningful concept – Graeber and Wengrow say that they don’t know what equality means, and then instead of trying to figure out what it means given that it’s such a foundational concept – they just want to throw away the whole idea.  And this is a theme that has quietly appeared in Graeber’s work throughout the years – but here he’s finally saying it outright – the arguments in this section are based on all sorts of inaccuracies, outdated information, and weak cop-outs.  

And it exemplifies what’s wrong with the state of political theory today, and what’s wrong with anthropological theory today, and what’s wrong with David Graeber’s thinking on human social organization, and it’s why I’m doing this show in general and these episodes in particular.

But in order for you to really see what’s wrong with this stuff, and why it’s just so obnoxious and counterproductive – and why their arguments in How to Change the Course of Human History are so obnoxious and counterproductive – I need to give you a little lesson on the history of the anthropology of hunter gatherer societies.  

And that’s what I’ll start off with next week, before I read the end of this Kandiaronk Chapter, and then I go on to read and criticize the How to Change the Course of Human History preview article, and hopefully I can get that out there before Graeber and Wengrow’s book comes out on october 15th!

In the meantime, please tell other people about this show, and share the epsiodes, and please like and subscribe and also review and rate on itunes or urple music, its really important and helps the show pop up more readily on searches – and please subscribe to my patreon so I can keep doing this and until next time … seeya!