Graeber, Wengrow and the radical freedom to change.
Inequality is not the inevitable outcome of civilization. In a nutshell, this is the thesis presented by David Graeber and David Wengrow in their new book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity.
The central theme of the book is that the accepted story of the rise of mankind and civilization, a linear story of man’s progress from primitivism to modern society, is not accurate and is just that, a grand narrative, perhaps the grandest of all.
The strength of the evidence presented will be hotly debated for years to come, as technology progresses, and further light is shed on the early evolution of our social interactions and political formations.
But the importance of their thesis is undeniable: for it highlights the dangers of elevating a narrative to objective truth, and opens wide the possibility that we can choose to change society, no matter how complex it has become.
The Dawn of Everything
The story that Graeber and Wengrow challenge goes something like this: For most of our history as a species, we were primitive hunters and gatherers, roaming the wild in small egalitarian groups having little complexity or structure. Then, about 10,000 years ago, we invented farming, became sedentary, and society evolved around farming the land.
Over time, hierarchical structures of ownership and interaction developed resulting in inequality in society. Flash forward by way of linear progression to the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment, and we arrive at the ubiquitous social and political structure of modern society.
If accepted as objective truth, it is a story from which there is no escape: The world has become too complex for us to change. It is fruitless to question our modes of social organization. To do so is to romantically hark back to our innocent state of nature before the advent of farming. At best wishful thinking, but in reality, an impossibility. We are “shackled” to the social and political institutions we have developed, and inequality is an inherent attribute / consequence.
Graeber and Wengrow present evidence that counters this story, and argue for another one: that our history as a species is one of experimentation. For most of our history we have tried various modes of living and organizing socially, and have rejected some and accepted others. There is no defining moment in history, ie., farming, when we embarked on a course from which there is no turning back.
There is no straight line of progress guiding the past and propelling us forward into the future. We are not enslaved to the form of social organization that has developed. We are free to choose how to organize society, and we can choose to create a society that is more egalitarian.
We have, however, become stuck with modes of interaction that involve inequality and domination in society. But we can become unstuck. We have the radical freedom to change, if we release ourselves from the big story:
We are all projects of collective self-creation…What if, instead of telling the story about how our society fell from some idyllic state of equality, we ask how we came to be trapped in such tight conceptual shackles that we can no longer even imagine the possibility of reinventing ourselves? (NY Times)
The importance of Graeber and Wengrow’s research is that it changes the question. If there are no material constraints that prevent us from changing society such that it is more egalitarian, then there are no macro conclusions that one can make about the inevitability of inequality in society.
We can change society, and to do so we must examine the micro: the causes of and circumstances in which individual human beings find it within themselves the desire to dominate. And on the flip side, the circumstances in which we willfully come to accept our own domination.
Fascism in Society
In a Eurozine article written in 2018, Graeber and Wengrow outlined on a preliminary basis the implications of their research, one of which I wish to focus on here:
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.
How is it that in society some rise to dominate others? What are the causes? Does society cause us to be like this, or are we filled with the inherent propensity to dominate others? Is the will to dominate inevitable, or can we change?
Fascism is an overused, emotionally-charged and elusive term, in some cases nothing more than a pejorative. Attempts have been made at a comprehensive definition, but none widely accepted. Suffice it to say, the term fascism is used in an historical or ideological context, but can also refer more generally to a mode of social interaction.
Fascism in the macro sense, as used in political theory, typically refers to a form of ultra-right authoritarian nationalism that rejects liberalism and democracy. And this political model is based on the primary historical examples, incorporating the attributes, mode and ethos of the regimes in place under Mussolini and Hitler.
Fascism in the micro sense relates to informal sentiments and interactions in society. The use of the term in this context implies a number of qualities most of us would intuitively recognize as reflections of the historical and ideological model above: authoritarian behavior, domination of others, xenophobia, violence, fear mongering, prejudice, racial supremacist views, ultra-conservative sentiments, and the denial of freedom of others or groups of others.
Micro-fascism is a term coined by Gilles Deleuze, the French post-structuralist philosopher. Deleuze framed micro-fascism in the context of what he understood to be the most fundamental question of political theory:
Why do people fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?
What causes us to desire that which dominates and exploits us and others? In other words, Deleuze approaches fascism from the point of view of the person who would dominate and asks what in him or her attaches desire to a belief and behavior resulting not only in outward domination of the oppressed, but slavery of the oppressor to a transcendent ideal or belief.
The answer that Deleuze provides harks back to his interpretation of Nietzsche, in particular the latter’s discussion of active and reactive forces. Under a Nietzschean ethic, active forces are those that enable a mode of existence to be all it can be. Reactive forces are those that separate a mode of existence from its active forces; culminating in guilt, bad conscience, resentment and judgement of others.
In the context of micro-fascism, those who would dominate others have become separated from their own active life forces of creativity and evolution via an attachment to, or desire to identify with, a transcendent belief or disposition. They have become dominated by rules of belief that inform all behavior, eg., non-white people are inferior.
Separated as such from their own humanity, they re-enact this separation in all of their social interactions, and at the extreme, participate in behavior that disregards the humanity or active forces of other human beings, or groups of human beings.
Human history becomes a far more interesting place, containing many more hopeful moments than we’ve been led to imagine, once we learn to throw off our conceptual shackles and perceive what’s really there. (Eurozine)
Let’s return to the importance of Graeber and Wengrow’s book. If there are no grand narratives governing the story of mankind, then the structure of society does not create inequality as a foregone conclusion. Taking this a step further, we cannot reasonably employ a linear story of the progress of civilization as a justification for answers to philosophical questions such as whether man is good or evil, cooperative or competitive, egalitarian or hierarchical. Society hands these answers back to us only when we accept them as objective truth.
We may be stuck, but we can change for the better. We can learn to treat each other in more egalitarian ways. And we can learn to treat the planet better. A vision of a fair society is not linked to a dream of a primitive utopia, for we have all along had the ability to create real change. À la Rousseau, we are not forever bound by chains that are seemingly everywhere.
Going far back in time, it is clear inequality and domination have been aspects of our core relations. But so has the ability to create egalitarian and fair societies. By dismantling the narrative of an inevitable inequality entrenched in social complexity, the authors point to the question we must focus on: how can we eliminate or minimize fascist sentiment and interaction in society?
As a threshold matter, we must first abandon the need to create grand narratives for the human species. We must come to view them for what they are at best: as per Popper and Kuhn, they are models or paradigms or thought experiments that are only valuable if they are fallible. And, I would add in the context of social science, are only valuable insofar as they provide insight into, or empower us with, the freedom of thought that enables or inspires us to be all that we can be as a species. Otherwise, such narratives are pointless.
A metanarrative, paradigm, model, academic, intellectual or otherwise, regarding humanity is nothing more than a construction, a thought experiment often employing causalities and correlations. It is an attempt to create order to data that is otherwise chaotic; a mean or line of best fit that hides out of view all that is remarkable about humanity.
Narratives and paradigms elevated to objective truths are deterministic, paralyze, create conformity, attack freedom, and engender slavery to an idea. As such, they separate us from our natural active force of life. They cover over the pure difference that informs our existence. Indeed, only by understanding the fascist tendencies inherent in the human need to create unchallengeable stories of mankind can we be released from their domination over us.
We are not stuck in time. We exist in the context of ongoing change that defies all narratives. For both the past and future remain open. And the present moment is one of complete and radical freedom, if we are willing to grasp it as such and act accordingly. Notwithstanding the weight of history and the oppression of reactive forces in society that would denigrate life, we can displace, or indeed eradicate, oppressive social formations and replace them with egalitarian structures and processes.
Is the psyche of man inherently fascist? I would argue there can be no grand narrative here either, notwithstanding anecdotal evidence provided by the social sciences. Fascist tendencies arguably can exist in all of us, and we must keep the inner fascist at bay. But we are free to choose, regardless of any grand structures proposed regarding the psyche or nature of man, eg., as selfish, benevolent or otherwise.
Hierarchical states are not inevitable. To understand how they arise, we need to dig deeper into the domination that creeps into micro-relations. We must confront the micro-fascism that can arise in each of us.
Knowing what the challenge is, we can create more possibilities for humanity, and choose to fashion societies that counter fascist tendencies, evolve psychologically as well as socially, and embrace an ethic that is egalitarian. We can posit a broader spectrum of meaning for liberalism and democracy that goes beyond institutions, and incorporates an internal ethic of openness and acceptance. We can explore new forms of organization that counter our tendency to fascist interaction; educate, enlighten and spur us on to a practical sense of acting with civility and acceptance for all.
Where to Next?
The Dawn of Everything is a reframing of, and not the final word on, an anthropological narrative. But radical freedom does not depend on our view of anthropology, nor the facts put forth in this book.
What this book does do is pry open and expose the holes in the conventional story of mankind, and in so doing, puts to rest the notion that we are limited by anything other than our own will to become better human beings. It is up to us.
The power of imagination and creativity within each of us in enough to create a better world. For we are the 99.
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Excerpt from my forthcoming book, Becoming: A Life of Pure Difference (Gilles Deleuze and the Philosophy of the New) Copyright © 2021 by Tomas Byrne.