Friday, January 07, 2022

We Need Multidimensional Portraits Of Ancient Peoples...,

ineteconomics  |   Napoleon Bonaparte asked, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” Graeber and Wengrow come in to shake off the spell of prevailing fables — not as armchair theorists snatching ideas from thin air but as reviewers and synthesizers of a plethora of tantalizing recent discoveries, along with the work of neglected thinkers who (hello, feminist scholars) who drew ire for their attention to glaring inconsistencies in the established narratives. In doing so, they recover frameworks for the way ancient peoples experienced their world that help us to see that we could be organizing ourselves – socially, economically, politically — on principles much different from those that seem inevitable today. This is heartening.

Among the propositions of Graeber and Wengrow are these:

  • We barely have the language to express what our remote ancestors were up to 95% of the time.
  • The Agricultural Revolution wasn’t a revolution at all. The real story is much more complex – and interesting.
  • Ancient peoples lived with a rich variety of social and political structures, even varying according to the season. (Very flexible, those folks).
  • Humans aren’t just pawns on a chessboard of material conditions. We’ve been actively experimenting from the get-go.
  • Inequality in large-scale human communities isn’t inevitable, nor is it a product of farming. Ditto, patriarchy.
  • Past societies that valued women were happier places to live. (Duh).
  • We can do better. We have done better.

The authors begin by pointing out that eighteenth-century theories of human history were partly a reaction to critiques of European society offered by indigenous observers. Consider Kandiaronk, a Wendat chief so skilled in debate he could easily shut down a Jesuit, who blew the minds of listeners with penetrating insights on authority, decency, social responsibility, and above all, freedom. Kandiaronk’s critiques, presented in a dialogue form by the Baron de Lahontan in 1703, sparked a whole genre of books voicing criticisms from a “primitive” outsider. Graeber and Wengrow illuminate how profoundly these products influenced Enlightenment thought and helped give rise to social and political experiments (including the U.S. Constitution), as well as defensive strategies to discount such perspectives (also including the U.S. Constitution).

Madame de Graffigny’s epistolary novel of 1747, “Letters from a Peruvian Woman” (1747) tells the story of an Incan princess who rails against the inequality she observes in French society – particularly the ill-treatment of women. This volume, in turn, helped shape the thinking of the economist A.R.J. Turgot, who responded by insisting that inequality was inevitable. He outlined a theory of social evolution posited as progress from hunters to pastoralism to farming to urban commercial civilization that placed anybody not at the final stage as a vestigial life form that had better get with the program. Turgot’s scheme of social evolution started popping up in lectures of his buddy Adam Smith over in Glasgow, and eventually worked its way into general theories of human history proposed by several of Smith’s influential colleagues such as Adam Ferguson.

The new default paradigm formed the lens through which Europeans viewed indigenous peoples the world over; namely as childish innocents or brutal savages living in deplorable static conditions. Everybody was to be sorted according to how they acquired food, with egalitarian foraging societies banished to the bottom of the ladder. The Kandiaronks causing anxiety by pointing out the grotesque conditions of so-called civilization — from the large numbers of starving people to the need for two hours for a Frenchman to dress himself — could now be dismissed. This mindset became prevalent in the emerging field of archaeology, where practitioners churned out biased interpretations of ancient societies that rendered them non-threatening to the modern, capitalist way of life.

Teleological history was the name of the game, and scholars played it endlessly.

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