Have we got our ancestors wrong? How have we gotten so stuck?

Original jpgReview: The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow

This new ambitious and earthshaking history of humanity by two anthropologists finds that established narratives of modernity have been based on constricting and false premises which make it impossible to believe in our inherent cooperativeness. The errors arise from the gospel that

‘…for most of human history our ancestors lived an egalitarian and leisure-filled life in small bands of hunter-gatherers. Then, as [Jared] Diamond put it, we made the “worst mistake in human history”, which was to increase population numbers through agricultural production. This, so the story goes, led to hierarchies, subordination, wars, disease, famines and just about every other social ill – thus did we plunge from Rousseau’s heaven into Hobbes’s hell.

— Andrew Anthony via The Guardian

Synthesizing a wealth of recent archeological data, they replace the idea that humanity was forced along through preordained evolutionary stages, in which humans are passive objects of material forrces, with a picture of prehistoric communities shaping their own political organization and social realities. The upshot is that it is not inevitable that we are stuck in the modern system of hierarchies and conspicuous inequalities of wealth and consumption. In fact, I might add, the accepted narrative comes to appear as dictated by the prevailing ideology in a self-serving justification of the status quo.

A more detailed account of the thesis can be found in this piece in The Atlantic by William Deresiewicz, “Human History Gets A Rewrite.” Graeber and Wengrow show that hunter-gatherer societies were more complex and varied than we knew and that these people made deliberate and collective decisions about how to organize themselves, in other words “practicing politics.”

When you think about it for a moment, since these were essentially human beings like ourselves, how could we not have realized that it would not be otherwise? From my own anthropological studies before I became a psychiatrist, I do know however that they are not the first to dispute the commonplace notion of the simple savages unselfish-consciously dwelling in “a kind of eternal present or cyclical dreamtime, waiting for the Western hand to wake them up and fling them into history.” A counterpoint to that can be found as far back as the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss,’ whose eye-opening The Savage Mind (1962) established how prehistoric knowledge organization was based on a sophisticated “scientific” approach.

Carrying their narrative forward to the development of city-states, Graeber and Wengrow show that they were not an inevitable consequence of agriculture, as we thought, but in many instances preceded it. A related assumption they turn on their head is that large populations inherently need layers of bureaucracy to govern them and that scale leads inevitably to hierarchy and political inequality. They describe data showing that many early cities with populations of thousands show no signs of centralized administration. If anything, they claim, aristocracy emerged in the smaller settlements of warrior societies which were in tension with the agricultural states. So ‘the state’ is not the inevitable apex form of human social organization but one of

‘…a shifting combination of, as they enumerate them, the three elementary forms of domination: control of violence (sovereignty), control of information (bureaucracy), and personal charisma (manifested, for example, in electoral politics). Some states have displayed just two, some only one—which means the union of all three, as in the modern state, is not inevitable (and may indeed, with the rise of planetary bureaucracies like the World Trade Organization, be already decomposing). More to the point, the state itself may not be inevitable. For most of the past 5,000 years, the authors write, kingdoms and empires were “exceptional islands of political hierarchy, surrounded by much larger territories whose inhabitants … systematically avoided fixed, overarching systems of authority.” …’

They are suggesting that civilization could be organized around mutual aid and cooperation without the loss of basic freedoms as seen in modern bureaucratic capitalism enforced by state violence. No surprise that Graeber is a committed anarchist.But —

‘…The Dawn of Everything is not a brief for anarchism, though anarchist values—antiauthoritarianism, participatory democracy, small-c communism—are everywhere implicit in it. Above all, it is a brief for possibility, which was, for Graeber, perhaps the highest value of all…

“How did we get stuck?” the authors ask—stuck, that is, in a world of “war, greed, exploitation [and] systematic indifference to others’ suffering”? It’s a pretty good question. “If something did go terribly wrong in human history,” they write, “then perhaps it began to go wrong precisely when people started losing that freedom to imagine and enact other forms of social existence.” It isn’t clear to me how many possibilities are left us now, in a world of polities whose populations number in the tens or hundreds of millions. But stuck we certainly are…’


Opinion: The GOP rebrands itself as the party of tax cheats

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‘Once upon a time, Republicans portrayed themselves as the party of small government and family values. Recently, though, GOP leaders have been cobbling together a new coalition, welcoming insurrectionists, white-nationalist tiki-torchers and people who think Bill Gates is trying to microchip them.

The latest recruit to the Big Tent? Tax cheats.

Here’s the backstory. Each year, about $600 billion in taxes legally owed are not paid. For scale, that’s roughly equal to all federal income taxes paid by the lowest-earning 90 percent of taxpayers, according to Treasury Department data.

These unpaid taxes — often called the “tax gap” — are predominantly owed by wealthy individuals. The richest 1 percent alone duck an estimated $163 billion in income taxes each year.
To be clear, rank-and-file wage-earners are not necessarily more honest or patriotic. It’s just much harder for them to shortchange Uncle Sam….’

— Catherine Ramped via Washington Post


The Conspiracy Theory Bubble

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‘True, we’re hearing a lot about Covid-19 and QAnon-related conspiracies. But just because they are more visible does not mean that belief in them has gone up.

I’ve been doing work with Joseph Uscinski of the University of Miami—the leading specialist studying conspiracies theories—and we’ve carried out a number of studies, assessing whether Covid-19 conspiracy theories have proliferated over the course of the pandemic and whether we’ve seen a general increase in belief in conspiracy theories in the last fifty years. Our paper is currently under review, but our findings may surprise you: Belief in conspiracy theories has, if anything, decreased over the pandemic….’

— Hugo Drochon via Persuasion


Is the era of the skyscraper over?

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‘As millions around the world have settled in to working from home, it’s hard to imagine the office tower ever being a viable proposition again. Planning applications for tall buildings in London plummeted by a third last year, while New London Architecture’s 2021 tall buildings survey found that work started on just 24 buildings of 20 storeys or more – down by almost half from 44 in 2019. Has the age of piling people into great glass shafts, of cities competing for ever higher spires, finally come to an end?…’

— via The Guardian


‘Longtermism’: the most dangerous secular credo you’ve never heard of


Header essay final nn11440305‘…over the past two decades, a small group of theorists mostly based in Oxford have been busy working out the details of a new moral worldview called longtermism, which emphasizes how our actions affect the very long-term future of the universe – thousands, millions, billions, and even trillions of years from now. This has roots in the work of Nick Bostrom, who founded the grandiosely named Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) in 2005, and Nick Beckstead, a research associate at FHI and a programme officer at Open Philanthropy. …

…humanity has a ‘potential’ of its own, one that transcends the potentials of each individual person, and failing to realise this potential would be extremely bad – indeed, as we will see, a moral catastrophe of literally cosmic proportions. This is the central dogma of longtermism: nothing matters more, ethically speaking, than fulfilling our potential as a species of ‘Earth-originating intelligent life’. It matters so much that longtermists have even coined the scary-sounding term ‘existential risk’ for any possibility of our potential being destroyed, and ‘existential catastrophe’ for any event that actually destroys this potential.

Why do I think this ideology is so dangerous? The short answer is that elevating the fulfilment of humanity’s supposed potential above all else could nontrivially increase the probability that actual people – those alive today and in the near future – suffer extreme harms, even death. Consider that, as I noted elsewhere, the longtermist ideology inclines its adherents to take an insouciant attitude towards climate change. Why? Because even if climate change causes island nations to disappear, triggers mass migrations and kills millions of people, it probably isn’t going to compromise our longterm potential over the coming trillions of years. If one takes a cosmic view of the situation, even a climate catastrophe that cuts the human population by 75 per cent for the next two millennia will, in the grand scheme of things, be nothing more than a small blip – the equivalent of a 90-year-old man having stubbed his toe when he was two.

Bostrom’s argument is that ‘a non-existential disaster causing the breakdown of global civilisation is, from the perspective of humanity as a whole, a potentially recoverable setback.’ It might be ‘a giant massacre for man’, he adds, but so long as humanity bounces back to fulfil its potential, it will ultimately register as little more than ‘a small misstep for mankind’.

Elsewhere, he writes that the worst natural disasters and devastating atrocities in history become almost imperceptible trivialities when seen from this grand perspective. Referring to the two world wars, AIDS and the Chernobyl nuclear accident, he declares that ‘tragic as such events are to the people immediately affected, in the big picture of things … even the worst of these catastrophes are mere ripples on the surface of the great sea of life.’…’

— Phil Torres, philosopher at Leibniz University in Hanover Germany, via Aeon Essays