—savages or the stupid state—

All Possums Go to Heaven @AndyinDC1

on twitter

@davidgraeber and @davidwengrow’s lecture, The Myth of the Stupid Savage, is totally brilliant and you should absolutely listen to it (I am impatiently waiting for the book).

But there’s one really specific point I want to focus on for a moment. video

Throughout the lecture (and their other work), they frequently make reference to Europeans who made startled note of how incredibly eloquent and persuasive their Native American interlocutors were.

There’s a particular moment, right around the 40 minute mark, when Graeber quotes a Jesuit’s description of the Innu. It stuck with me enough that I dug up the original: text

The sputtering indignation of the Jesuit is palpable on the page: these people think themselves free. They only respect authority when they feel like it. Worst of all, their leaders only have authority insofar as they can be persuasive.

This was not meant to be a flattering description; it’s the first in a long list of complaints. The Innu are liars, they lack compassion, they’re cruel and vindictive, they’re drunkards, etc etc. But first and foremost, they only listen to you if you persuade them.

This must have been utterly alien to a 17th century Jesuit steeped in hierarchies of political, economic, and religious power. And it is also quite a bit alien to modern ears, for though we hold pretenses to being quite free, we’re…not.

Consider these descriptions of Native American “leaders” as described by Robert Lowie in a 1948 essay also cited by Graeber and Wengrow: pdf

These were societies in which leadership was detached from coercive enforcement and relied instead on persuasion: oratory, eloquence, charm and charisma, etc. One had to be eloquent because that was the only way to get anything done.

Contrast with modern American political rhetoric, which has been steadily declining in complexity for centuries. text

In terms of length, complexity, etc, American leaders’ public discourse has been declining in a non-partisan manner. text

This made me wonder: if the eloquence of leaders in non-state and non-hierarchical societies correlates to those societies’ lack of coercive enforcement, can we use the decline in our own leaders’ eloquence as an indicator of our own declining agency?

That is, rather than the usual handwringing about The Kids These Days or the effects of social media and technology, do our elites talk down to us because they don’t have to bother persuading us?

Consider that, unlike the Innu, our society depends on a large and growing coercive capacity even as crime, the ostensible justification for that coercive capacity, has fallen. Consider too that the legal and regulatory apparatus of the state has also grown enormously.

But it’s not just the coercive and regulatory expansion of the state, but also the bureaucratic expansion of the market, that constrains our freedom. Neoliberals/libertarians get as far as “the state is bad” but miss what all that violence is for.

Every expansion of the market brings with it an expansion of the regulatory and coercive state that sustains it, as well as the private bureaucracy that complements the state’s.


blair fix @blair_fix (qt)

If the ‘free market’ was really about ‘freedom’, then why did free-market speak grow at the same time that:

(a) the number of managers in society exploded (left)
(b) the number of people employed in government exploded (right)


All Possums Go to Heaven @AndyinDC1

I do not think it’s a coincidence that our political language has declined while state violence, managerial authority, and, increasingly, the financialization of our economy have grown.

As Graeber noted, the financial sector is really just “other peoples’ debts,” and our economy is increasingly one of revenue capture, an automation of revenue extraction by private and public bureaucrats. text

From app notifications algorithmically designed to capture as much of our attention as possible to the proliferation of automatic debiting, our elites have found ever more subtle ways to transform our labor into their revenue with only the vaguest awareness on our part.


Bill Kristol @BillKristol (qt)

“Elderly Trump supporters on fixed incomes had their bank accounts depleted. The Trump campaign had to refund $122 million in online donations from their own supporters who had been duped. Score another one for the party of the working man.” text


All Possums Go to Heaven @AndyinDC1

So why would our elites bother talking to us if they don’t have to persuade us to hand over the value of our labor, when they can coerce or manipulate us into doing so?

Why would they bother when the commodification of virtually every aspect of life places most politics in the off-limits category of “the economy,” leaving us to debate things like bathroom access and WAP lyrics?

Anyway, this is speculation. I don’t have the capacity right now to do any kind of regression analysis to see what kind of link there might be to the factors I’ve outlined above, though I have a hunch. If anyone does dig into this, please let me know.

PS: I’d conjecture that we could predict differences in the length and complexity of political speech between states that don’t commodify things like healthcare (UK) vs states that do (US). Likewise, I hypothesize that insurgent group communications follow a similar pattern.

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