9 threads on propaganda, poverty, the Enlightenment etc

All Possums Go to Heaven @AndyinDC1


(1) On misleading capitalist propaganda.
(2) On Trumpism as a Ghost Dance.
(3) On Gramsci and cultural hegemony.
(4) On the Enlightenment.
(5) On the “democracy is mob rule” crowd.
(6) On the use and abuse of the term “freedom.”
(7) On John Locke as a propagandist for the propertied class.
(8) On the history of extreme poverty.
(9) On elite speech as an indicator of unfreedom.


(1) On misleading capitalist propaganda.

twitter thread

Do you ever see this chart? People are fond of whipping this out to show how AWESOME capitalism is by totally WRECKING POVERTY. It seems hard to argue with it! A system that could achieve good like this, even if it has problems, would still be pretty good.

So let’s discuss.

This chart comes from Our World in Data, a Gates Foundation-funded nonprofit. It got really popular after Bill Gates tweeted it out to the world last year, but it’s very similar to other charts that make similar pro-capitalism points.

The chart claims that the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty—earning $1.90 or less per day in 2011 dollars—decreased from almost 95% in 1820 to 9.6% in 2015. That sounds good!

But there are some problems. The first and most obvious is that the World Bank didn’t start collecting comprehensive data on global poverty until the 1980s. The chart is complete and total fiction.

Even if it weren’t fiction, there’s the problem that $1.90 per day is so obscenely low that it cannot provide basic nutritional needs. The cut off is arbitrary; even if the chart reflected data, it still wouldn’t be cause for celebration.

Virtually all of the income gain since the early 1980s has come from China. Now, China is a very populous country, so income gains there are nothing to sneeze at. But this does mean that poverty rates everywhere else have remained constant or increased.

Even if the rate of poverty has decreased, the absolute number of people in poverty has increased as global population grows. This chart obfuscates an enormous amount of human misery in a neat, feel good package.

The biggest problem with this chart is probably the hardest to grasp, because we’re so used to “income” being the primary way we access resources. We work a job, we get paid money, we use that money to buy food and housing. More income is automatically good, right?

Except that most people, for most of history, did not rely on money and markets to access resources. Most people lived in subsistence economies, with abundant resources accessible through personal labor.

Other resources might be accessible through redistribution—as when villages stockpiled grain to hedge against famine—or reciprocity—as when neighbors took care of neighbors.

Cash income represented a nice-to-have, primarily to access luxuries. Lacking money wouldn’t have meant starvation. Ever read Ox Cart Man? The family produces virtually everything it uses, but does sell a small surplus for cash it uses to buy luxuries like an imported needle.

Unlike today, people could pick or choose whatever odd job they wanted on their own terms, because turning down income meant lower access to luxuries, not starvation and homelessness. People generally have to be forced into wage labor. (Kotryna Zukauskaite)

When Robots Take All of Our Jobs, Remember the Luddites

So higher wages don’t necessarily translate into a higher quality of life. If wage labor is displacing non-income economies, higher wages can indicate greater poverty and lower standards of living.

Consider that the introduction of wage labor and the free market in England led to malnutrition, more brutal working conditions, longer hours—but also higher wages. Those wages did not compensate the workers for their losses. Wages were a step backwards.

Highs and lows of an Englishman’s average height over 2000 years

So the next time someone comes at you with this chart, understand that it is propaganda produced on behalf of a billionaire monopolist who desperately wants to convince you that the system that enriched him is really, really great and no one should consider raising his taxes.

As an addendum to my thread on whether capitalism really has lifted people out of poverty, I present this. Does $2 a day really look like a meaningful threshold of “extreme” poverty?

Don Salmon @dijoni

twitter thread w/video

Modern day slavery in the Congo. Big European corporation behind it.

Modern day slavery’s also taking place in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, they are kidnapping African domestic workers raping them and killing them. It’s time African governments condemn this brutality.

The British must pay reparations for genocide in Africa. But all the costs against the people in Kenya. British concentration camp in Kenya 1952 to 1960. #ReparationsNow

  • Britain’s Gulag : The brutal end of Empire in Kenya Caroline Elkins pdf
  • Imperial Reckoning : The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya 2005 Caroline Elkins pdf

It is fear to say that many of these Middle Eastern countries are also kidnapping Filipinos domestic workers and brutalizing them. Modern day slavery in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries. Brutality.

The Belgium must pay reparations to the people of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda. The Belgium king Leopard systematic murder close to 20,0,1885 to 1908. #Reparations2020

  • King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa 1999 Adam Hochschild pdf

MeanderingWonk @MeanderingWonk

Prevalent in many countries, including my own. Mining, apparel retail, waste recycling are the most exploitative in this aspect.

  • Blood Mica : Deaths of child workers in India’s mica ‘ghost’ mines covered up to keep industry alive text



(2) On Trumpism as a Ghost Dance.


In 1889, a new syncretic religious movement emerged among the Northern Paiute and quickly spread among the shattered remnants of the plains tribes. In English, this came to be known by a bastardized mistranslation, the Ghost Dance.

A thread. The Ghost Dance was spread by a Paiute prophet, Wovoka, who preached honesty, cooperation and nonviolence, and hard work among the plains peoples. He emphasized the performance of traditional circle dances as a key component of his practice (hence the name).

The Ghost Dance was millenarianist: it promised a radical transformation of society.

It’s not hard to understand why the plains peoples would turn to a revivalist, millenarianist movement like this. In addition to the unintentional spread of diseases like typhoid, the plains peoples had been devastated by years of genocidal aggression by the US.

Years of war, massacres, displacement, and a deliberate policy of starvation by wiping out the buffalo, the plains peoples were relegated to a handful of paltry, marginal reservations.

Then, in 1887, the US passed the Dawes Act, with the goal of subdividing and ultimately dissolving the reservations, transferring most of the land to white settlers.

The plains peoples were absolutely devastated. Wounded Knee would follow shortly thereafter. What did they have to lose by adopting a religious revival that promised the earth would roll back like a carpet, wiping out the invaders and returning life to its old ways?

Let’s turn our attention now to Trumpism and QAnon. What I don’t want to suggest is that these are directly analogous to the Ghost Dance. But they do strike me as aspects of some deeply rooted human instinct, the place our minds go when all else fails.

What is QAnon but a millenarianist cult that believes fervently that it’s rituals will eventually bring about mass arrests, an end to a hated system, and the birth of a new and just order?

I mean, I don’t want to get too apples and oranges, but the Ghost Dance adherents believed the earth would peel back to restore the victims of white settlement and QAnon believes… that the earth is peeling back to restore the victims of vampires

  • Fact check: 35,000 “malnourished” and “caged” children were not recently rescued from tunnels by U.S. military 2020 Reuters Staff text

Why would something like this emerge now? I hear very frequently: America is the best greatest country on earth, our poor live better than kings of old, poverty was declining before COVID cheated Trump, etc.

Let’s take a look at that.

Americans are getting shorter, a clear indication of increasing malnourishment. text

Our suicide rate has increased thirty-five percent in the last 20 years. Add into that other deaths of despair, from causes such as alcoholism and opioid abuse, and we’re looking at much higher effective rates. text

As a result, life expectancy has been declining while fatality rates increasing. We’re dying.

  • American Life Expectancy Rises for First Time in Four Years text

Unsurprisingly, at least some of those deaths can be attributed to the way our economy has evolved into a revenue farm through indebtedness. (Thanks Joe Biden and everyone else who passed bankruptcy “reform”!)

  • The Ones We’ve Lost: The Student Loan Debt Suicides text

Our entire financial industry, which dominates our economy and politics, functions almost exclusively through predatory fees.

  • Ferguson and the Criminalization of American Life 2015
    David Graeber text

Our infrastructure is crumbling around us, and quite literally poisoning us.

  • The Devastating Flint Water Crisis Wasn’t Even the City’s Worst Lead Exposure Event of That Decade text

Fully a quarter of young people reported seriously considering suicide. Which is, again, unsurprising considering how clearly any hope of living the life promised by America has vanished for them.

  • Amid Pandemic, More U.S. Adults Say They Considered Suicide text

Also, don’t forget that half our country is literally on fire.

Our country is in ruins. The only thing that stopped school massacres was a pandemic that has killed over 200,000 of us, which we could have stopped but collectively chose not to.

Alienation, confusion, anger, and despair boiled over in a perfectly human way, but unfortunately instead of a revivalist religious message like the Ghost Dance, America found a toxic stew of paranoia and conspiracy to express its collective outrage.

Consider the story of this couple, and then think about who was president when this happened. No one is coming to save America and people are starting to realize it.

  • Cops: Man can’t afford wife’s meds, kills her text

Yes, I realize that liberals love to blame racism alone for Trump’s rise and dismiss any claim that economic uncertainty played a role. That’s classism, and it denies the real trauma that people are experiencing as our country crumbles.

So, two final thoughts. Don’t write these people off. They’re comrades in waiting. And things are going to get a lot, A LOT worse before they get better.

Monica McClain on DeviantArt


(3) On Gramsci and cultural hegemony.


Antonio Gramsci was an early 20th century Italian Marxist who died after imprisonment by Mussolini. His prison diaries are worth reading for a variety of reasons, one of which is his radical optimism, the exhilaration at the prospects of a struggle to make the world better.

But he’s probably best known for his concept of cultural hegemony, the process by which the ruling class uses the institutions of society—media and press, schools, etc—to project its ideology, goals, and common sense onto the rest of society.

In a very crude summary, this was Gramsci’s explanation for why the proletarian revolution had not yet emerged from the dialectical contradictions of capitalism.

The ruling class, he believed, relied not just on coercion but also cultural hegemony to stay in power, building consent by making the status quo seem just, natural, permanent, and inevitable.

Gramsci has taken on something of a bogeyman role for the right, who imagine that leftists have infiltrated all the cultural institutions in America (and the West generally), engaging in a subversive “Gramscian March” to take over society from within.

The irony is, of course, that this idea is too a part of capital’s cultural hegemony, an effort to cast even the milquestoast criticisms of the status quo you might get from college students as radical and dangerous and beyond the pale.

Cultural hegemony is often subtle, or at least so pervasive that it seems subtle. The never ending parade of cop shows. A press that treats politics as horse race theater. The patriotic kitsch of professional sports. It’s endless and everywhere.

But rarely is it so explicit as this: a direct government restriction on even mentioning criticism of the status quo to British school children.

  • Schools in England told not to use material from anti-capitalist groups text

I often accuse the US of being every bit as ideological as the Soviet Union was, but this is a helpful reminder that the UK, birthplace of capitalism and neoliberalism, is a close second.

I can only guess that our ruling elites are getting sufficiently nervous about the obvious decay of capitalism that they’re throwing subtlety to the wind. All the better time to read Gramsci to understand what is being done to you.

  • Selections from the Prison Notebooks Antonio Gramsci pdf or Vol 1 pdf Vol 2 pdf Vol 3 pdf


(4) On the Enlightenment.


The Enlightenment was an ideological project to justify the dismantlement of Europe’s traditional systems—however meager—of privileges for the poor, and the wealthy’s obligations to the poor, under the guise of equal rights.

Under late feudalism, as I’ve discussed before, the poor owed landowners nominal rents, fixed by custom, which had been inflated away. The poor also had traditional access to common land, which enabled them a measure of economic independence.

The wealthy also owed obligations to the poor—protection, manorial courts, access to the commons, basic implements of agricultural production, etc.

At some point, these obligations became so costly, and feudal rents so inflated, that feudalism was no longer cost-effective. Enter the Enclosure Movement, a series of laws allowing for the forcible privatization of previously common feudal land.

  • A Short History of Enclosure in Britain pdf

This was not a peaceful process. Peasants had to be burned out of their land. Some of them violently resisted the Enclosures.

But, as we discussed with our thread on Gramsci yesterday, elites don’t like to rule through coercion alone. Police states are very costly! It’s much cheaper to rule people who believe their subjugation is just and natural, who have been convinced to consent to their subjugation.

Enter the Enlightenment, an elite project that justified the dismantlement of elite obligations to the poor under the guise of individual liberty.

So the poor were gradually liberated from their customary obligations to the nobility. They were no longer to be bound to the land, or loyalty to a particular lord, or membership in a particular church. No longer subject to manorial justice or feudal rents.

These were definitely liberatory, and these gains are not to be sneezed at. But the value of these gains paled in comparison to what was lost—the value of the commons as an independent source of sustenance.

The gains to wealthy elites were enormous, though. They seized common land and enclosed, or privatized it, creating the first European markets in land. They could graze sheep or raise crops for sale. And they didn’t owe the peasants anything anymore.

This had the added benefit of forcibly converting the peasantry, en masse, into a proletariat, a mass of unemployed who now owned nothing but their own labor, and who could be compelled to labor cheaply in the burgeoning factories of the Industrial Revolution.

Indeed, the architects of Enclosure were explicit about their intent. From Michael Perelman’s “The Invention of Capitalism” (courtesy of @johnrad):

When you take two people of vastly different means—the wealthy landowner and the impoverished former peasants, and declare them both equally liberated from hereditary obligations, you have only truly liberated one of them.

Early political economy understood this vast power imbalance. A peasant liberated from feudal rents is not as “free” as a landowner. Adam Smith was not subtle; he wrote about wage labor as an exchange between workers and masters.

This would not do for ideological purposes. So, as I’ve mentioned before, the “science” of economics was invented in the late 1800s, distinguished from political economy, by its insistence on imaginary exchanges between purely equal individuals.

  • The Borrowed Science of Neoclassical Economics text

How’s this whole Enlightenment project working out? No so great, observes Rajani Kanth: text

None of this is to suggest we need to go back to the Inquisition to remedy the ills of modernity. We’re a clever species that socially constructs our daily reality.

Which means we’re more than capable of picking the best aspects of the Enlightenment while rejecting its atomization, alienation, and immiseration. We can house our homeless, feed our hungry, and wear masks to protect each other in a pandemic without returning to feudalism.



(5) On the “democracy is mob rule” crowd.


Another brilliant thread by @ArashKolahi. Read the whole thing. But the gist: American politics are dominated between elites who view democracy as a way of coopting public support vs elites who view democracy as a threat to their power and wealth.


The history of modern democracy is largely one of elites expanding the franchise to coopt support from various elements of to endorse elite rule.


Arash notes that not all elites are fans of this expansion, and would prefer a more naked and direct rule over the public. Hence Donald Trump attempting a coup in the name of “freedom” and “liberty.”

This idea of “liberty” being under threat from democracy boils down to a single issue: the right of property-holders to rely on the state to coercively defend their property from everyone else.

In an ideological triumph, they’ve convinced large numbers of people that democratic governance of the economy is an unacceptable intrusion into property rights—that is, “liberty.”

You will often see some variation of “democracy is mob rule” propagandizing this idea, conflating your community with an undifferentiated and hostile “mob” and the compromises we naturally make as social animals who live in communities as dire threats to survival.

This isn’t just theory; this idea was the ideological basis of the Pinochet regime in Chile, in which economic “liberty”—that is, property rights of the elite—was the supreme ideal.

Without any sense of irony, Pinochet—advised by Chicago School libertarians—tortured & murdered political opponents, crushed labor unions in the name of “liberty.” The contradiction is resolved only when you note that “liberty” serves as a euphemism for elite property rights.

We also saw this in the form of Republican governance in North Carolina & Wisconsin, where they built illiberal democracies—gerrymandered, with enormous obstacles to voting, packed institutions, & super-majority requirements for meaningful change.

  • What Is the Far Right’s Endgame? A Society That Suppresses the Majority text

Likewise, ride sharing companies in California spent enormous sums lobbying (that is, bribing) for the passage of Prop 22, which sets a requirement for a mind-boggling 7/8 supermajority to amend it.

  • California’s Prop 22 Would Be Virtually Permanent if It Passes 2020 Lizette Chapman text

The goal is, of course, to eliminate the possibility that the public might take action to protect workers and eat into their profits.

This argument is by no means new, which only makes it more vile by its pedigree. James Henry Hammond, South Carolina’s leading proslavery intellectual, argued in 1858 before the Senate that the south‘s system of slavery was more stable than the north’s wage labor…

…because poor laborers, “being the majority…are the depositories of all your political power.” That is, if the poor are enfranchised, they will vote to distribute wealth equitably, threatening elite property and power.

It’s better, Hammond argued, to disenfranchise the poor, as through slavery. If he were around today, he’d probably be advocating some variation of “liberty” through voter ID laws.

Nancy Isenberg meticulously traces the history of this idea in “White Trash.” Thomas Paine, for example, drafted a constitution for the Carolina Colony that explicitly “avoid[ed] erecting a numerous democracy”.

He later warned in “Common Sense” that “the property of no man” was safe from democracy. Jefferson, Franklin, and others we closely associate with our democratic republic were deeply hostile to the idea of genuine democracy because of the threat it posed to their wealth.

It is always cast as a principled philosophical position, but it is always, at its core, an ideological argument to justify restrictions on democratic freedom of the many to preserve the property of the few.

The milquetoast variation of this theme is Mitt Romney’s claim about the 47%—the mainstream political idea that the allocation of resources downward is illegitimate, breeds dependence, and constitutes a political bribe, taking from the makers and giving to the moochers.

The more robust variation is a literal mob of Trump supporters attempting to undo a democratic outcome to keep the election’s loser in power in the name of constitutional liberty.

Never mind that democracy is, in anthropological terms, our “natural” social organization. Because it’s not about freedom or liberty. It’s about property.


  • There Never Was a West. Or, Democracy Emerges From the Spaces In Between 2007 text


PS – how could I have forgotten the “republic not a democracy” contortion?


(6) On the use and abuse of the term “freedom.”

twitter thread

I’ve struggled with this apparent contradiction for a while—“freedom” as an idea of people who behave as if they absolutely loathe actual freedom. I have two possible, speculative explanations.

A thread.


The simplest explanation is that their concept of freedom is bounded by the constraints of capitalism that they can’t, or don’t want to, see.

Imagine two inmates in prison trading tv time in the rec room for ramen flavor packets. It’s the sort of exchange that can only happen in the coercive environment of the prison. The individual exchange might be “free,” but the mode of exchange is coerced.

In this explanation, the right wing “freedom” brigade has drunk the Kool-Aid, internalized the neoliberal propaganda of the state as the antagonist of a free economy, and wants maximal freedom within the confines of capitalism—like inmates wanting “free trade” in prison.

They resist, or haven’t encountered, the idea that having to sell your labor to employers or face starvation or homelessness, since public resources are privatized and policed by the state, isn’t very free. They’re imprisoned but can’t see the bars.

But an alternative idea occurred to me, inspired by the identification of so many of the Capitol rioters as members of the petite bourgeoisie. The son of millionaires, a woman who flew on a private plane—the small-scale capital class.

  • Confronting white supremacy among our neighbors, our families — and ourselves (bostonglobe wall) text

And I remembered this brilliant observation by David Graeber: “the “middle class” is not an economic category, it’s a social one. To be middle class is to feel that the fundamental institutional structures of society are, or should be, on your side.”

  • Ferguson and the Criminalization of American Life 2015 David Graeber text

I’m fond of pointing out: the state is the bureaucratic and coercive arm of the capital class. It doesn’t somehow stand in opposition to the free market, it’s the instrument the capital class uses to impose capitalism on us.

The state is the sheriff’s deputy who evicts kids into homelessness in winter to protect “property,” it’s the IRS that collects taxes we can only pay by taking on wage labor, you get the idea.

I noted just the other day that the libertarian ideal of “liberty” is the right to coercively defend property. I wrote that about elites behind such counter-democratic movements as Pinochet’s Chile or North Carolina under Republican control.

(5) On the “democracy is mob rule” crowd.

So what if this current moment is more about petite bourgeoisie demanding that the state operate as much on their behalf as it does our super-rich elites, our donor class?

It’s not like the Capitol riot was about defeating the state. Its goal, to the extent that there was a coherent one, was counter-democratic but non anti-state, to reinstall Trump in power in opposition to an election.

It wasn’t about reducing or removing state power from their lives—it was about coopting state power to serve their interests more than it already does. In Graeber’s terms, they wanted to force the state to “be on their side.”

So we have a class of people who are not economically anxious in the way that people typically mean the term. They’re not going hungry. But are they anxious in a different way? Are they anxious that their own position could be precarious in our increasingly unequal society?

Or are they worried that things have gotten so bad in our society that the have-nots are ready to explode, and these folks are desperate to coopt the state into defending them against the guillotine?

In this telling, the contradiction is revolved by interpreting every use of “freedom” as a *freedom to rely on the state to preserve their privilege,” not as a freedom from interference. Or did I just restate the obvious? Anyway, just trying to work through this out loud.


(7) On John Locke as a propagandist for the propertied class.

twitter thread

John Locke was the Steven Pinker of late 17th century England.

A thread.

Locke is fetishized by the modern right as the “Father of Liberalism” for his role in articulating and propagating many of the Enlightenment ideals that are seen as the foundation of modern (neo)liberal society.

But it’s important to contextualize his work: whatever his personal beliefs or intent, Locke was primarily writing to intellectually justify a system of coercive appropriation, hierarchy, and capital.

Much like Pinker, who made a name for himself propagating pro-status quo propaganda: the world is getting better, less violent, more equal, etc, in contravention of all evidence, so don’t change the system that enriched his billionaire patrons.

  • Progress and its discontents text

Why would a linguist with no particular expertise in any of these topics have such a vested interest in a status quo that has enriched and privileged him in ways far beyond any reasonable measure of his actual talent? It’s a mystery!

John Locke was doing the same exact thing for the elites of his time: he was an intellectual gun-for-hire, producing philosophical works that provided intellectual justification for something elites were doing already: enclosing the commons and stealing everyone’s land.

Locke’s theory of property, elucidated in his 1689 “Second Treatise of Government,” was, very crudely, that something becomes your property when you are the first one to “mix” your labor with natural resources.

Locke offers some examples of what we can call “personal” property, the things you directly “collect” from nature for your own use: apples and acorns you gather, water from a fountain you collect in a pitcher, a deer killed by “Indians.”

But Locke goes one giant leap forward and conceives of a regime of perpetual exclusionary property in land and not just some acorns you might find on it. By ““till[ing], plant[ing], improv[ing], [and] cultivat[ing]” land, you “inclose it from the commons.”

Locke argued that this initial act of “mixing” your labor with virgin land would create a natural property claim on that land forever. It was yours, as long as you used it and didn’t let it spoil, until you died or sold it. Moving some dirt creates property forever.

There is a lot wrong with this. The first and most obvious is that Locke imagined a “Year Zero” of sorts in which virgin land was first tilled, planted, and improved, creating a legitimate property claim—a fantasy history of actual land use patterns that never happened.

It’s important to note that Locke distinguished agriculture as the legitimate means of establishing property. Locke was writing at a time when European settlers were violently appropriating Native American land.

Because of different technologies, European settlers struggled to even recognize indigenous agriculture and imagined indigenous communities as hunter-gatherers who lived on, but didn’t mix their labor with, the land. It was, Locke told them, theirs for the taking.

The 2nd problem with Locke’s proposal is that it doesn’t survive contact with reality. Why is labor the magic sauce that creates property? Why not, per @GeorgeMonbiot, peeing on it? Why doesn’t your claim stop at the roots of the plants you “grew”?

  • Intergenerational Theft George Monbiot text

Or consider Robert Nozick’s objection: why can’t he claim ownership of the ocean by performing the labor of pouring a can of soup into it?

All of these objections are unanswerable, because Locke’s project was never to discover “natural” laws of just property acquisition, but rather to provide intellectual justification for what his wealthy patrons were already doing: looting the commons.

Locke wrote in the midst of the Enclosure Movement, in which English elites were violently expelling the public from their lands, destroying their common property rights.

The 17th century also violent responses from the public: the Digger and Leveler movements, rioting against the draining of the Fens, etc. Locke’s job was to intellectually justify this massive theft in the face of public resistance.

  • A Short History of Enclosure in Britain pdf

Prior to Enclosure, land rights were complicated and overlapping. A feudal lord might own rights to the land from the king, but tenants also owned usufruct rights to common land.

Locke argued, conveniently, that the labor of “servants” actually belonged to their employers, so the work that tenants had performed to improve the land didn’t actually accrue any property rights to them, just the seniormost landlord.

Locke articulated a property system to ensure exclusion, appropriation, & accumulation of wealth by hereditary elites. Except for “original” appropriators, their heirs or customers wealthy enough to pay, literally everyone else alive or in the future is shit out of luck.

Contrast with the system that Locke’s private property replaced: property in most agrarian societies was owned by families rather than individuals and could not be alienated through sale, ensuring future generations could not be excluded by accidents of history.

Regular rotations of land among families by community consensus is also a near-universal feature of societies as varied as ancient Sumeria, the Haudenosaunee, and modern Tristan da Cunha, all to ensure that sheer happenstance doesn’t lead to any family or person dominating.

Locke’s conception of the perverse “liberty” of private property didn’t stop with his treatise. He was also a founding member and third-largest stockholder of the Royal African Society, which held a monopoly on the English slave trade.

Locke also authored the “Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina,” the legal governing document of the Carolina colony in 1669. Locke articulated a colonial hereditary nobility with titles like “landgrave” (of which he was one) and “cacique.”

Locke’s constitution was obsessed with slavery, and declared that “every Freeman in Carolina shall have ABSOLUTE POWER AND AUTHORITY over his Negro Slaves.”

Locke also established a hereditary class of serfs, called “Leet-men,” who were owned by particular lords, bound to particular estates, and could be leased or rented out. From Nancy Isenberg’s “White Trash”:

The result was a perverse society of coerced labor, in which the vast majority were unfree, ruled over by a tiny hereditary elite who had “property rights” to the land of the colony.

It’s important to remember that, despite the fantasy of the heroic frontier homesteader, the vast majority of early American settlers were either unfree slaves and indentured servants, tenant farmers, or squatters who were routinely expelled from their homes by force.

So that’s who we’re dealing with when we fetishize Locke: a man who loathed democracy and loved slavery, who worked to justify one of the largest thefts in human history, a darling of the hereditary elite he served. Sort of like Pinker.


(8) On the history of extreme poverty.


Illustration of a Common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula)

A key ideological trope of capitalism is that people in the past were poor and miserable until capitalism saved them, and a key mouthpiece for this propaganda is the billionaire project Our World in Data, which produced the chart below.

We’ve talked about it before, so I don’t feel the need to rehash every critique, but there’s an interesting new study that @jasonhickel flagged that sheds even more light on it. text

The OWID chart derives pre-1981 data from an attempt to estimate historical inequality by first estimating GDP, estimating population, deriving an estimate of GDP per capita, and then estimating income distribution from that. A lot of estimates!

If any of those estimates and assumptions are off, then the data are garbage. And even the authors admit that they are just attempting to estimate income, not economic well-being, and confess that non-income data are too hard to find or estimate, so they don’t even try.

The authors also admit that relying on GDP per capita–each person’s average share of overall commodity production and sale–doesn’t take into account purchasing power. We genuinely cannot understand economic well being or even income from these data.

Despite the authors’ attempts to derive global trends, they also just…made it up for most of sub-Saharan Africa, because they just didn’t have the data to make even their convoluted estimate. But despite these caveats, OWID presents these data as fait accompli.

In contrast, as Hickel notes, Robert Allen avoids GDP data and instead tries to understand historical economies through consumption data from the US, UK, and India. (He’s not pretending to estimate global trends.)

  • Extreme poverty isn’t natural, it’s created text

What he finds, which will surprise few of you, is that extreme poverty was much lower than the OWID estimate and that extreme poverty, rather than being a natural condition for humanity pre-capitalism, was largely the product of the birth and spread of capitalism.

In the UK, “welfare ratios suggest that things improved from 1350-1500, during the revolutionary post-feudal era, and then worsened again with enclosure after 1500, a period characterized by mass dispossession and a collapse in wages.”

That “revolutionary post-feudal era” is, of course, the aftermath of the late medieval price revolution, in which feudal dues were inflated into nominal amounts and people were better off than they would be for centuries after the enclosure movement.

OWID would have us believe that the workers described below–who set their own hours and enjoyed more leisure time than we do–were living in such extreme poverty that they lacked basic nutrition to sustain normal human activity:

Allen’s estimate that extreme poverty increased with the advent of capitalism is corroborated by data on English heights, which similarly declined during this period before recovering centuries later.

Allen similarly estimates that extreme poverty in India in 1810 was probably no more than 23% after centuries of British colonialism and went up from there. Unsurprising since the British looted upwards of $45 trillion from India in this period.

  • How Britain stole $45 trillion from India Hickel text

The British did this primarily by privatizing the Indian commons, forcing Indians into wage labor, and generally imposing “free” markets on them. As Hickel notes, this period “30 million Indians died needlessly of famine” and “life expectancy in India dropped by 20%.”

Allen concludes that historical rates of extreme were not as bad as OWID estimates; where they were bad, they were largely the product of enclosure & colonialism. Hickel notes “extreme poverty in 20th century Asia was significantly worse than under 13th century feudalism.”

To paraphrase Charles Mann, looking at recent, contingent poverty and assuming it represents the sweep of human history is like finding Holocaust survivors escaped from a camp and assuming all Europeans lived like that, always.

Allen’s findings should be unsurprising to anyone who paid attention to actual history. NPR reports an archeological “mystery” that food security in Ghana peaked in 1500 before falling under the colonial era. What a mystery!

  • An Archaeological Mystery In Ghana: Why Didn’t Past Droughts Spell Famine? text

I’d also highlight this brilliant piece from @AgathoniaMedia that surveys historical working hours and finds that people generally worked fewer hours in the period that OWID alleges almost everyone was living in extreme poverty.

  • working time the first 20000 years the historical decline of free time text

If people were genuinely living on the edge of starvation, as OWID claims, how did pre-capitalist farmers and workers enjoy so much time off, so many feast days, so much power to set their own hours and decline jobs they didn’t want?

The primary antidote to capitalist propaganda is learning about actual history, which is vastly more complicated than OWID’s simplistic cheerleading for a system that caused most of the harm capitalism claim’s to solve.


(9) On elite speech as an indicator of unfreedom.

twitter thread

@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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