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The longue durée of human history is complicated

3 Mar
Conventional wisdom has it that over the course of, say, the last 50,000 years or so, human society evolved from small egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers through a series of stages of ever larger and more unequal forms of social organization as we moved through the agricultural and then the industrial evolutions. We are thus stuck with inequality forever. David Graeber and David Wengrow challenge this in an important article in Eurozone, How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that’s already happened). Here’s their final paragraph:

The pieces are all there to create an entirely different world history. For the most part, we’re just too blinded by our prejudices to see the implications. For instance, almost everyone nowadays insists that participatory democracy, or social equality, can work in a small community or activist group, but cannot possibly ‘scale up’ to anything like a city, a region, or a nation-state. But the evidence before our eyes, if we choose to look at it, suggests the opposite. Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.

These paragraphs will give you a feel for their argument:

Why are these seasonal variations important? Because they reveal that from the very beginning, human beings were self-consciously experimenting with different social possibilities. Anthropologists describe societies of this sort as possessing a ‘double morphology’. Marcel Mauss, writing in the early twentieth century, observed that the circumpolar Inuit, ‘and likewise many other societies . . . have two social structures, one in summer and one in winter, and that in parallel they have two systems of law and religion’. In the summer months, Inuit dispersed into small patriarchal bands in pursuit of freshwater fish, caribou, and reindeer, each under the authority of a single male elder. Property was possessively marked and patriarchs exercised coercive, sometimes even tyrannical power over their kin. But in the long winter months, when seals and walrus flocked to the Arctic shore, another social structure entirely took over as Inuit gathered together to build great meeting houses of wood, whale-rib, and stone. Within them, the virtues of equality, altruism, and collective life prevailed; wealth was shared; husbands and wives exchanged partners under the aegis of Sedna, the Goddess of the Seals.

Another example were the indigenous hunter-gatherers of Canada’s Northwest Coast, for whom winter – not summer – was the time when society crystallised into its most unequal form, and spectacularly so. Plank-built palaces sprang to life along the coastlines of British Columbia, with hereditary nobles holding court over commoners and slaves, and hosting the great banquets known as potlatch. Yet these aristocratic courts broke apart for the summer work of the fishing season, reverting to smaller clan formations, still ranked, but with an entirely different and less formal structure. In this case, people actually adopted different names in summer and winter, literally becoming someone else, depending on the time of year.

Perhaps most striking, in terms of political reversals, were the seasonal practices of 19th-century tribal confederacies on the American Great Plains – sometime, or one-time farmers who had adopted a nomadic hunting life. In the late summer, small and highly mobile bands of Cheyenne and Lakota would congregate in large settlements to make logistical preparations for the buffalo hunt. At this most sensitive time of year they appointed a police force that exercised full coercive powers, including the right to imprison, whip, or fine any offender who endangered the proceedings. Yet as the anthropologist Robert Lowie observed, this ‘unequivocal authoritarianism’ operated on a strictly seasonal and temporary basis, giving way to more ‘anarchic’ forms of organisation once the hunting season – and the collective rituals that followed – were complete.

Scholarship does not always advance. Sometimes it slides backwards. A hundred years ago, most anthropologists understood that those who live mainly from wild resources were not, normally, restricted to tiny ‘bands.’ That idea is really a product of the 1960s, when Kalahari Bushmen and Mbuti Pygmies became the preferred image of primordial humanity for TV audiences and researchers alike. As a result we’ve seen a return of evolutionary stages, really not all that different from the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment: this is what Fukuyama, for instance, is drawing on, when he writes of society evolving steadily from ‘bands’ to ‘tribes’ to ‘chiefdoms,’ then finally, the kind of complex and stratified ‘states’ we live in today – usually defined by their monopoly of ‘the legitimate use of coercive force.’ By this logic, however, the Cheyenne or Lakota would have had to be ‘evolving’ from bands directly to states roughly every November, and then ‘devolving’ back again come spring. Most anthropologists now recognise that these categories are hopelessly inadequate, yet nobody has proposed an alternative way of thinking about world history in the broadest terms.

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When Ravi Bhalla was sworn in as Mayor of Hoboken US Senator Cory Booker spoke of love

4 Jan

Sometime in the late summer or early fall of last year, 2017, I noticed that Ravi Bhalla, who was running for mayor of Hoboken, where I live, was holding a meet and greet at a coffee shop near the supermarket where I do much of my shopping. I went, talked with Ravi and others on his team, including James Doyle, who was running for councilman-at-large, and liked them. Some, come November, I voted for him. And he won.

And so I decided to attend Bhalla’s inauguration on January 1, 2018. I had no particular expectations about what this would be like, but I was a little surprised to see a packed auditorium with the aisles ringed with TV cameras. This, apparently, was a big deal.

It didn’t occur to me that we would say the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of the ceremony. It’s possible that high school was the last time I stood, hand over heard, saying those words. I remembered the words, and felt a lump in my throat as I said them.

A big chunk of the (progressive end) of the local Democratic establishment was in the audience, and several of them were on the stage, along with New Jersey’s two US Senators, Robert Menendez and Cory Booker; the Governor-elect, Phil Murphy, sent Gurbir Grewal, his nominee for Attorney General, as his representative. Grewal, like Bhalla, is a Sikh. The opening prayer was offered by a Sikh, Giani Raghvinder Singh, and a Jew, Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, offered the closing prayer. A Roman Catholic offered the benediction, Monsignor Michael Andreano. This was an all-nations program.

As it should be, for Hoboken, along with its southern neighbor, Jersey City, the whole of northern New Jersey, and metropolitan New York, is an all-nations region. That was the theme of Senator Cory Booker’s remarks. As background he referred to the divisiveness and “darkness” in the country in 2017; he didn’t name names, but we all knew who and what he was referring to. Against that he talked of America’s ideals, fully acknowledging that our founding documents did not reflect those ideals – women were not mentioned and African-American’s were said to equal only 3/5s of a person – he argued that, in time, those ideals having been winning against the darkness.

It’s in that context that he talked of love. I was a bit surprised and shocked when I first heard the word, love; it’s not one that politicians use very much (if at all), and I forget his exact phrasing. But he must have used the word at least half a dozen times – love love love love love love – though obviously not in immediate succession (he wasn’t channeling the Beatles). His point was that when Robert Menendez was the first Latino elected to the New Jersey General Assembly, that was not merely a victory for Latinos, it was a victory for American ideals. Love. And when Barack Hussein Obama was elected President of the United States, that was not only a victory for African Americans, but, and more importantly, it was a victory for American ideals. Love. Nor is the victory of Ravi Bhalla – a “towel-head” at a time when He Who Shall Not Be Named legitimized and valorized such epithets on the national stage – only a matter of pride for his fellow Sikhs and Asian Indians. That victory is something for which all Americans can be proud, for it exemplifies and further amplifies the ideals equality and justice on which this nation was founded. Love.

Love is not all we need. We need hope, imagination, courage, and determination as well. But, yes, we do need love, for it is the foundation on which the others rest.

* * * * *

Cory Booker on The Conspiracy of Love.

RESISTANCE – Resistance to Trump

21 Apr

Over at Blogging Heads, Robert Wright talks with Erica Chenoweth, a student of non-violent resistance who is Professor & Associate Dean for Research at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Along with Maria J. Stephen she’s published Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia UP, 2011).

Early in the discussion she specifies the kind of resistance they studied (c. 3:26):

People that rely on techniques of resistance that don’t physically harm the opponent or threaten to physically harm the opponent can be categorized as nonviolent. And that when people rely on those type of techniques of resistance, whether or not they have a moral commitment to passivism or a moral commitment to non-violence per se, that the accumulation of those non-violent techniques activates a number of different political dynamics in a society that makes them more likely to succeed.

They discussion spends some time on Egypt and Syria, noting that things were going well with primarily non-violent methods in Syria (17:39 ff.) until regional and international actors began interfering (by supplying arms, etc.). Toward the end Chenoweth about current resistence to the Trump administration in America (c. 52:14):

http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/45863?in=49:25&out=52:14

The nice thing about studying nonviolent resistance in dictatorships and in territorial independence movements is that we picked those cases deliberately because they were thought to be the hardest for these campaigns to succeed. And so if there are lessons that can be learned from them that can be applied in cases where there are more freedoms of association and freedom of speech that people enjoy right now, we should expect those lessons to be easily translatable.

And really I’ll just say that the four things that succeed in these difficult situations do, is that first (1) they get large and diverse participation. Second (2) they switch up techniques so that they’re not always protesting, or petitioning, or striking. They’re doing lots of different things that are sort of sequenced in a way that continually puts pressure on the site of oppression in order to dismantle it or transform it. The third thing (3) they do is they remain resilient, even when repression escalates against them. So, meaning they have a plan and they’ve figured out a way to prepare for the repression, they expect it, and they remain disciplined and the stick to the plan even when it starts.

And the fourth thing (4) they do they elicit defections or loyalty shifts from within the opponent’s pillars of support. So in this case it would mean getting a bunch of congress-people who are in the GOP to start coming out more openly and resisting the Trump agenda in Congress. It could mean police that refuse to crack down in certain ways or like deportation officials who refuse to comply with orders they think are unjust, or excessive, or disproportional.

So there are lots or ways we can imagine these taking place in the US and I would argue that many of those have already started, as you mention, the courts for example. I think there are lots of ways that the lessons from the hundreds of other countries that I’ve studied over the last century could apply to our case and there are tried and true methods of nonviolent resistance that apply absolutely in the American context today.

On the Republican Convention, translated for liberals by Tyler Cowen and Cass Sunstein

21 Jul

Tyler Cowen:

The Straussian interpretation of the Republican Convention is the correct one, which is perhaps one reason why Peter Thiel will be speaking there. They are not saying what they are saying, in fact they are saying “the world is going to hell, and many of those amongst us have been traitorously disloyal. That is why we scream out stupidities, debase ourselves, and court attention by waving our arms in ridiculous ways. We are a small church seeking to become larger.” Is that not how many smaller churches behave? Is that not how some of the early branches of the Christian church behaved? Did they have any influence?

Cass Sunstein:

Many Democrats do not merely disagree with the Republican Party platform and with the speakers at this week’s convention. They may even struggle to understand what they are reading and hearing.

That’s a problem for Republican politicians, who hope to connect with Democratic voters, but even more for Democrats, who hope to keep the presidency and to capture the Senate. The reason is that Republicans are appealing to deep and honorable strands in American political culture, which Democrats ignore at their peril.

The best explanation comes from New York University’s Jonathan Haidt, who has produced some of the most illuminating recent work on political psychology. Haidt’s central finding is that across many cultures, human beings have embraced five distinct moral foundations: fairness, avoidance of harm, respect for authority, purity (as opposed to disgust), and loyalty. Contemporary U. S. conservatives embrace all five; liberals emphasize the first two, but care much less about the last three.

Haidt has compiled massive evidence to support these conclusions. Conservatives and liberals agree that it’s wrong to break a promise; that’s unfair. They also concur that it’s wrong to assault someone; that’s harmful. But conservatives feel far more outrage when people have acted disrespectfully toward their superiors, engaged in what they view as a disgusting act or breached a duty of loyalty. Liberals don’t like any of those things either, but to them, avoiding unfairness and harm is much more important.

The 2016 Republican Party platform and convention may well be placing a greater emphasis on authority, purity, and loyalty than at any time since the early 1970s, when Richard Nixon underlined the need to respect authority, making “law and order” a defining Republican theme. (Ronald Reagan once starred in a movie with that title.) Increasingly, Donald Trump is echoing that theme.

Is universal mistrust the moral foundation of this stage of capitalist society?

31 Mar
Over at Crooked Timber Corey Robin has a post, The Bernie Sanders Moment: Brought to you by the generation that has no future. Here’s the first paragraph:
Last week I met with a group of ten interns at a magazine. The magazine runs periodic seminars where interns get to meet with a journalist, writer, intellectual, academic of their choosing. We talked about politics, writing, and so on. But in the course of our conversation, one startling social fact became plain. Although all of these young men and women had some combination of writerly dreams, none of them—not one—had any plan for, even an ambition of, a career. Not just in the economic sense but in the existential sense of a lifelong vocation or pursuit that might find some practical expression or social validation in the form of paid work. Not because they didn’t want a career but because there was no career to be wanted. And not just in journalism but in a great many industries.
The discussion has been going on a bit, as many discussions do at Crooked Timber. I was particularly struck by this observation by George Scialabba (comment 156):
It would be interesting to know, if one could quantify such things, what proportion of all the communications one receives (or better, perhaps, the stimuli one experiences) in an average day are some form of advertising or marketing. I’d guess a large majority. In which case, a hypothesis presents itself: the nature and function of human communication has altered. Through most of history, the default reaction to any communication was “this is what the speaker believes.” One needed only to judge the credibility of the speaker in order to know how to act. In the 21st century, after generations of saturation advertising, much or most of it deceptive or at least manipulative, the default reaction is “this is what the speaker, for some purpose of his/her own, wants me to believe.” Virtually all public communication may safely be presumed to be aiming at some effect, rather than simply at conveying information or conviction. Finding out what the speaker actually believes, much less what’s actually true or false, is the hearer’s responsibility: caveat auditor. Universal mistrust is the moral foundation of this stage, at least, of capitalist society. Hence, honesty is no longer the best policy.