The Dawn of Everything

I just finished The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. Sadly this was Graeber’s last book. There is a lot to this book, I wish I’d read it before finishing the MECK, and anyone interesting in history or conworlding should run out and get it. But there are caveats, oh yes. They can be too breezy, they don’t always prove their points, and sometimes prove the wrong points.

What says “hierarchy” more than the temple of a divinized king? (Šu-Sin, of Sumer, circa 2000 BCE.)

I liked Debt: The First 5000 Years when it stuck to Graeber’s specialty, anthropology: his account of modern times was, as the kids say, cringe. This book barely discusses anything past 1800, which is a huge improvement. His co-author is an archeologist, and this helps too.

They started out to write a history of inequality, and (spoiler alert) found out that there could be no such thing. Too many assumptions, you see. The whole idea depends on what “inequality” is, and there is no real definition; and neither anthropology nor archeology unearths a period when there was equality and then a sudden, inexorable eruption of inequality after it.

Rousseau vs Hobbes

They trace our received notions back to two opposing theorists, Rousseau and Hobbes. Jean-Jacques Rousseau didn’t really talk about the “noble savage”, but that’s a fair summary of his ideas. His 1754 Discourse on the Origins and the Foundations of Inequality Among Mankind supposed that prehistoric humans lived in idyllic conditions, which were egalitarian but only because there was no way not to be. Then agriculture and the state came in, and everything went to hell: we got not only inequality, but patriarchy, war, debt, property, and slavery.

In the other corner, we have Thomas Hobbes, whose 1651 Leviathan famously asserted that prehistoric life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” A state of continual war and poverty, in other words, only ended when people started living in cities (civitas > civilization; polis > politics and politeness).

The first thing to notice is that political theorists have barged in and chosen sides. Conservatives tend to like Hobbes: they like the past, but not the far far past… they tend to be happiest with the 19th century UK or USA, and think that Western civilization was a matter of progress and prosperity, until the hippies appeared. Plus, you know, they like inequality, so they blame Rousseau for even questioning the idea, and probably causing the American and French revolutions.

Now, if you keep up with these topics at all– or if you’ve simply read my books– you know that Hobbes was simply wrong. Anthropologists have found that hunter-gatherers are pretty happy in general: they are usually egalitarian, they work only about 10 hours a week, they have an impressive command of their local environment. And archeology confirms that when people take up agriculture, they live shorter lives, are unhealthier, pick up diseases and parasites, and of course suffer from patriarchy and all those other ills. When comparing time periods, people often bring up modern medicine; but modern medicine got going surprisingly late: well into the 20th century. Any time prior to 1900, you were better off as a hunter-gatherer than as a peasant.

This is so well established that the Davids don’t spend much time on Hobbes. (They don’t engage with conservatism at all, really.) Rousseau is another matter.

We can now get to the thesis of the book:

  • Things were way more complicated– and more interesting– than Rousseau thought. (To be fair, Rousseau was consciously idealizing.)
  • Historical utopianism is just as alienating and dismissive as dystopianism. If hunter-gatherers were happy because of their lifestyle, they have nothing to teach us, because we sure as hell aren’t going to adopt it.
  • Viewing prehistory as an idyll also means that nothing really happened in it. It’s like the doctrine of the Fall: it’s an explanatory myth, but also a distancing one: as we can’t recapture paradise, we can dismiss it.

Do they make a case for this? Well, they do later. First they focus on something rather more interesting.

The indigenous critique

Their Chapter 2 is the most brilliant part of the book. It addresses what they call the indigenous critique of European culture. This means, what native Americans thought of European settlers in the 1600s and 1700s, of how they lived and related to each other, and (once they visited) of how they lived in Europe. They weren’t impressed.

Here’s a French report from 1611, about the Mikmaq: “They consider themselves better than the French: “For [they say] you are always fighting and quarreling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbor.”

Another friar, from 1632, about the Wendat (Hurons): “For our excessive and insatiable greed in acquiring the goods of this life, we are justly and with reason reproved by their quiet life and tranquil disposition. …They reciprocate hospitality and give such assistance to one another that the necessities of all are provided for without there being an indigent beggar in all their towns and villages.”

The indigenous critique focused on several elements:

  • The greed and combattiveness of the settlers.
  • The fact that they did not take care of each other.
  • The fact that they constantly gave orders and expected them to be followed.
  • (Once they could see Europe for themselves:) The way they let kings lord it over them.

In the native societies of eastern North America, there were chiefs, but no one had to obey them. No one could force a native to do what they didn’t want to do. There was not even punishment of crimes. (Payments could be required, but there was no way to force even that.) If someone really didn’t like their situation, they could simply leave– and they could find a place even hundreds of miles away, across tribal and language barriers. This was in part due to the clan system, which extended almost all the way across the continent: you could find someone of your clan far away, and they would take you in.

Under such conditions no one could be a tyrant. But a good chief was a persuasive one, and both men and women were good talkers.

Also of note: it was extremely hard to assimilate natives to European norms, but quite a few Europeans went to live with the natives.

(If your recollection of Native North American history is rusty, by the way, we’re not talking about hunter-gatherers, though both activities were common and important. They grew a wide range of crops, and their towns could be large. Their political groupings could be respectably large: e.g. the Iroquois Confederacy included most of New York State, an area about the size of Ireland.)

Rousseau’s book was an entry in a contest sponored by a French academy, to answer the question “What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law?” The Davids point out what an odd question this was to ask in 1754. Every country in Europe was steeped in hierarchy, and most people and philosophers took this as the natural condition of mankind, established by God. This was before the revolutions; it was not a commonplace then, as it would be today, that society ought to aim at liberté, égalité, fraternité. Why did an institution in the middle of Catholic France under Louis XV (le Bien-Aimé) ask such a question?

In part, we learn, because Europeans were fascinated by the indigenous critique. Reports by the early friars were eagerly read, and the Baron de Lahontan achieved great success with his Dialogues with a Savage (1703), which consisted of dialogs between himself and a Wendat chief, Kondiaronk. Soon all the scholars were inventing foreigners to teach Europeans to criticize their own societies. The academy in Dijon was if anything late to the party. Two decades later and the French were ready to throw out their king– agreeing with Kondiaronk who alleged that kingship turned the French into slaves.

It’s become common to acknowledge that the US Founders were well aware of the Iroquois Confederacy and imitated some of its features; but the indigenous critique and its reception in Europe were new to me.

How do we know that the Europeans were impressed with the natives? Well, because they said so in contemporary books. History tends to ignore the natives’ role, however, presenting the modern ideas of liberty and equality as a pure European invention. It turns out to be a lot more like modern art, which owes an immense debt to African and Japanese art.

Another data point: around 1700, Leibniz admired and advocated the Chinese system of government. Within a couple of centuries, European countries were governed by people given a liberal education concentrating on ancient classics, gated by competitive entrance exams… that is, roughly like the Chinese system. The Davids don’t claim that this was direct causation, but they point out that it doesn’t seem like complete coincidence either. This system was entirely unlike any previous European system of governance, and ideas obviously bounce around the punditosphere long before they’re adopted. And a lot of the ideas that transformed Europe came from the cultures that it encountered as it expanded.

(One cavil– there will be many more later: the Chinese system turned out not to be helpful with, well, running China after 1905. Tech schools were much more important for a developing nation. They were in the West too.)

What and when is equality?

Now so far, their actual discussion is fairly Rousseauvian. They mention that early European descriptions of Native Americans were nuanced, but their own is not: they hold up Wendat and Iroquois society as an ideal, and use it to define the three basic freedoms of pre-state societies:

  • everyone’s freedom from coercion
  • everyone’s freedom to move
  • communities’ freedom to think about and choose their own structures

Somehow, they say, we’ve lost especially that last one– we’ve “got stuck” in hierarchy.

If they’d stopped there, this would still be a provocative and fascinating study; but they are emphatic about not stopping there; they want to criticize pure Rousseauvianism. This takes them most of the book, and gets far more speculative, and isn’t always convincing.

Frankly, their major point is related to modern politics without addressing it directly: they want to make room for their basic freedoms in dense, advanced societies. Rousseau leaves them cold because he places paradise solely and ineluctably in the past: the freedom of primitive humanity cannot be recovered today. They would, it’s pretty obvious, like a modern but anarchist society, so they reject Rousseau’s closed door.

Now, this point might be better addressed directly: if you think a modern anarchist society is possible, describe how it works and/or how we’d get there; cover all the obvious objections; think about what mores and values would prevent a relapse. (They’re actually quite conscious about how good systems can go bad, so this is not a big ask.) Well, suffice it to say that this program would be an entirely different book, and way out of their fields. It’s why the second half of Debt is nowhere near as good as the first half.

What can they do remaining in the far past, and in their own fields? Mostly, point to examples where the traditional view doesn’t quite work. Thus, they emphasize:

  • Forager societies can be quite complex, and undertake megaprojects. The picture of foragers living in bands of 10 to 25 people, forced by circumstances to be egalitarian, is misleading at best, quite wrong at worst.
  • Forager societies can be dense, creating state-level entities, can accumulate wealth, can be despotic, can even include wars and slavery. (Examples of the latter include the NW Pacific Coast and Florida.)
  • Agricultural societies can function for millennia without any detectable hierarchy.
  • Cities can function for centuries without any detectable hierarchy.
  • Fairly advanced societies can throw out overlords and purposely establish an egalitarian settlement of thousands of people.
  • Kings are not inevitable; alongside kings and empires you can have republics. An unexpected one is Tlaxcala, in the time of the Aztecs.
  • A system where land reverts to the community when the owner dies is not uncommon. Nor do you have to go anywhere exotic to find them: there are examples in medieval England, Germany, and Russia.
  • “Egalitarian” societies may have systems of temporary despotism: seasons or situations where someone can tell you what to do.
  • Literal patriarchy– the despotic rule by men– is not inevitable either. Though there was no “matriarchal period”, there are cultures where women held substantial power, and at least one case (Minoan Crete) which arguably really was a matriarchy.

Again, if they’d stopped there they’d have a lot to say to historians, anthropologists and archeologists, and conworlders. Theories of a uniform progression– or regression– from bands to tribes to chiefdoms to kingdoms, theories that agriculture or cities per se ruin everything, theories that state formation is irreversible, are all dubious.

The main takeaway here is that the range of options is far greater than we might have imagined. If you know about the Kalahari Bushmen or the Yanomamo or the Pirahã, great– but they are not the only models of premodern people. If you’re a conworlder thinking about how agriculture or the state developed– slow down, there are multiple stages involved in each, and you needn’t be in a hurry to throw in power-mad pharaohs and emperors.

Some but not all of this you may have absorbed from James Scott, either directly or from my discussion of him.

The Davids don’t seem to have read Marvin Harris (he’s not in their bibliography), but they are out of sympathy with cultural materialism, because they don’t like the idea that material conditions determine the forms of human society. They think that people in all periods are perfectly capable of sitting down and debating how society should work, and that people who reject hierarchy and the state know exactly what they’re doing.

A lot of this is backed up mostly by their discussion of the Wendat and Iroquois. That’s great as far as it goes, but by their own account, these people were dealing with massive historical changes: not only the European settlers, but a rather coercive (proto-?)state based in Cahokia that had collapsed just a few centuries before. Their prickly individualism, and their interest in rich debate, may be reactions to a particular historical situation.

I’ll have a list of cavils later, but the lessons above are pretty solid, I think.

The villainous state

As the Davids recognize, the problem in all this for their political project is that despite all these nuances, the State seems to have won almost everywhere: not only in Europe but in India, China, Arabia, Africa, Central America, and the Andes.

(Scott’s nuance, which the Davids accept, is that a pretty wide range of people was an exception up till at least 1800: the nomads, some large populations of foragers or horticulturalists, and some resilient populations of state-avoidant people, e.g. in SE Asia. For most of history they could resist states, and the nomads could even conquer states. But this escape route is now closed.)

Rather than a simple takeover by despotism, they divide the state into three types of coercion:

  • sovereignty: a despot’s ability to use violence to enforce his will
  • administration: the ability to govern a large territory with rules
  • personal charisma: the ability to sway or rule people by force of personality and heroic deeds, often in competition with others; in later versions, politics

This is not uninteresting, as examples exist where only one or two of these strands is present. E.g. there are cultures where a chief can do as he likes, but only in his own village: that’s sovereignty alone. Administration alone exists in cultures where megaprojects are created without apparent coercion. Ancient Egypt can be described as sovereignty plus administration. But eventually all three threads engage and, as the Davids say, we’re stuck.

Of course, they would like to believe that we don’t have to be, even in a technological society. We’re just not used to thinking we have alternatives, and we’ll do better when we open Rousseau’s closed door. This is a hopeful but speculative point, and all I’ll say now is that given threats like climate change and oil depletion, to say nothing of fascist resurgence, we’re either going to solve these problems or have them solved for us by civilizational collapse.

Cavils and comments

This section will be quite miscellaneous; it’s drawn from the notes I took from reading– some positive, some negative. Page numbers refer to the hardcover edition.

Paradoxically, they’ve shown that modern ideas of freedom and equality owe much to indigenous peoples; yet when they look at modern society as a whole it’s horrible. Do they really disapprove that much of (say) Denmark or the Netherlands? Maybe so, but it’s worth pointing out that they’re willing to give a huge benefit of the doubt to particular past societies, from the ‘Ubaid to Tlaxcala to the Wendat: their whole point is that partial freedom is not a nightmare. But when they look at modern times, it’s just a constellation of horrors.

(155) The coastal settlement of the Americas is now accepted. People used to insist that the interior could only be reached by a narrow inland corridor… this is extremely strange as walking or boating along the coast is a no-brainer.

(158) The first idea of property may have been tied to the sacred: secret knowledge, particular patterns or objects with ritual meaning, hidden from others. This could occur even when everyday life was quite egalitarian.

(167) A very cursory treatment of language change and language families which could have been cribbed from a pop sci article. It even invokes William Jones, who was emphatically not the first person to recognize a language family.

The Davids’ disdain for other scholars– even as they rifle the journals for supporting data– gets tedious. One of their favorite words is “silly”.

(220) They use art to argue that Çatalhöyük may have been “matriarchal”. As they admit, there’s no evidence from skeletons of differential treatment; but there are female figurines that seem to depict aged females, and none of aged men. On the other hand, wall decorations feature depictions of all-male hunters.

They use this sort of argument in several places, without ever making an argument why art tells us anything about power relationships. If you look at 19th century European art, you would surely conclude that Europeans were fascinated by women, and that European women spent half their time nude. I’d also point out that depictions of older women are not uncommon.

It’s not that we can’t tell anything from art. It may well be significant that ancient Egyptian art, but not Mesopotamian art, emphasizes elite women. A king seemed to require a queen by his side. (The female king Hatshepsut had to depict her daughter next to her.) What exactly this tells us is less clear, and has to be carefully hedged: I do suspect it tells us something about royal ideology, but also that it tells us precisely zilch about peasant women.

(250) Here are the examples of co-operative land management in Europe and elsewhere. These are interesting examples of non-inheritance, but their examples all seem to be of practices beneath the notice of the elite, or in accordance with their overall lordship. I don’t think the Davids mean to say that medieval Europe was a hotbed of communism, free of violent greedy elites. Rather, an oppressive system can make use of cooperative or communal subsystems. There are advantages, after all, if the peasants run their own affairs and don’t have to be micromanaged.

(280) Foragers often travel in family groups… except when they don’t. It’s not uncommon for bands to include members who are only related in the sense that they belong to the overall ethnic group. For that matter it’s quite possible to join a band hundreds of miles away from your family of origin.

(289) The first cities were in… Ukraine? Talianki, Maidanetske, Nebelivka, dating to 3500 or earlier. (I’ve updated the Davids’ spelling.) They say that these “existed even before the earliest known cities in Mesopotamia”, but here they are misinformed: Uruk was settled by 5000, though its more imposing structures weren’t built till 3400 or so. But Talianki is pretty impressive: 335 hectares (Uruk was 450 ha), possibly with 15,000 residents. The sites show no evidence of social stratification (i.e. the villainous State). The Ukrainians grew crops, kept cattle, supplemented their diet with hunting.

(300) I’m not buying this rehabilitation of corvée labor— here, in Sumer. Curiously, in Debt Graeber described the miseries of Mesopotamians; here, for his purposes, urban work was done in a “festive spirit.” He cites an Akkadian myth where the minor gods did forced labor, while seemingly forgetting the part where the minor gods went on strike, whereupon the major gods created humanity to do menial labor instead. In the MECK I quoted multiple ancient sources which acknowledged the brutality of labor, the oppression of kings, and the none-too-happy position of people at the bottom of the social ladder. But for their overall purposes they want to delay the entry of the villain, so they paint the Mesopotamians as far happier than probably were.

A bit later on they describe the temples of Sumer, which managed enormous areas of land, included workshops, and could employ over a thousand people. This is supposed to indicate that all this organization didn’t require the state or kings. But it only requires a small reorientation of perspective to view these institutions as totalitarian. (Do they think getting out of temple work was easier than changing jobs in the modern US?) The temples were economic enterprises rather than “churches”, yes. The same can be said of medieval European monasteries. But they’re not anarchist communes either, and if they weren’t “the state” they were precursors to it.

(Why do temples have workshops at all? Probably for the same reason that the first Middle Eastern kings had workshops: because they had to create what they wanted. Markets came later; when they did, gods and kings could just go shopping.)

They also make much of the Sumerian and Akkadian assemblies. Now, it is good to bear these in mind, and not portray the Mesopotamian kings as unfettered absolute monarchs. But we also don’t know too much about how they operated, and we do know that they did not prevent wars, slavery, or the fall of families into crippling debt that Graeber eloquently deplored in Debt. In short they were not like Iroquois councils, where everyone debated and no one gave real orders.

(317) They discuss the Hindu varnas in the context of Harappan civilization. Now this is more than a stretch; it’s one or two thousand years too soon. Their description of “wealth, power or prosperity [being] of lesser value… than the purity of the priestly class” is a mindless repetition of brahmin propaganda (as in Manu). Manu and other writers– 2000 years after Harappa– wrote about the superiority of brahmins because they were ruled by non-brahmins and didn’t like it. And really, anyone who thinks that the exaltation of brahmins was a reflection of “spirituality” or something knows nothing about Indian history.

(324) They talk about cities on China— the Longshan culture, dated 3000 to 1900 BCE– before the first historically certain dynasty, the Shang, from -1600. By the Davids’ own account, there was plenty of evidence for social stratification and warfare. I didn’t talk about these cultures much in my China book, and now I wish I had. The problem is that there isn’t much that can be said. We often start with the literate cultures not because the previous ones are uninteresting, but because we can know and learn so much more from people who can talk to us. E.g. the Davids mention Shimao, from -2000, which at 400 ha was also comparable to Uruk, and possibly practiced human sacrifice. But… they devote a paragraph to it, and the Wikipedia article isn’t much longer. About all we learn from the site is that there’s a tranche of Chinese prehistory that was probably pretty lively, but which we just don’t know about in detail.

(342) Teotihuacan, which flourished from about 50 to 550, is notable because it may preserve signs of an egalitarian revolution. There is evidence for stratification until about 300, when a major temple was desecrated, and after that the city was filled with hundreds of comfortable stone dwellings of about the same size. It’s hard not to see this as a quite purposive egalitarianism. The overall population might have been 100,000.

Reading this section, I wondered what archeologists would make of Nālandā if they had no literary evidence. It was a Buddhist monastery in northern India, which housed between 3000 and 10,000 monks at its height in the first millennium. It was the major destination for the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, who reported (and archeology confirms) that it consisted of multiple large buildings with small individual monks’ cubicles opening into a central courtyard.

If you just look at the physical remains, life at Nālandā was thoroughly egalitarian, especially compared to other settlements in India. But Xuanzang reports that it was extraordinarily hierarchical: not only were the monks strictly ranked, but the more accomplished ones had servants. Moreover, the entire establishment was supported by royal grants– that is, it was fed by taxing the local peasants. Nor was Indian society of the time in any way egalitarian.

My point is not to dismiss the Davids’ speculations about egalitarianism based on equal-sized living quarters, but to recall that other interpretations are possible, and may be lost to time.

(346) Next they discuss Tlaxcala, which was a republic in Aztec times. Spanish sources compare it to Genoa and Venice, and recount the lively debates in its council on whether they should ally with the Spanish against the Aztecs. (Spoiler alert: they did, and helped the Spanish conquer Tenochtitlan.)

This is cool to know, and it’s good to recall that the historical landscape is not just kingdoms. But what the Davids don’t discuss, because it doesn’t fit into their agenda of chiding scholars, is that republics are pretty common… and can be very far from being democratic. Besides Athens, there’s Novgorod, the medieval Italian city-states, the Swiss, some ancient Indian ones, and the Iroquois. Oh, and several hundred modern states.

Now a republic has one big moral advantage over a kingdom: it has no king. But it may not be much better: it may be a republic because it’s an oligarchy, and no one notable has enough power to dominate the city. The fact that the Spanish chronicles compare Tlaxcala to Genoa and Venice may not prove what the Davids want it to prove: these were notorious oligarchies.

(392) As an example of sovereignty without the other aspects of the state, they discuss the Natchez, who had an absolute monarch residing in what was called the Great Village. He had the power of life and death and was known for killing his people… but only within his village. He could give orders to neighboring villages, but they would often be ignored.

They suggest that the Great Village was fully populated only part of the year– which probably meant that it was some sort of ritual center. Anthropologists are probably too free with the words “ritual” and “religion”, but it is true that some very unusual behaviors can occur when some things or people become sacred. In this context (the origin of hierarchy) the important point is that one of those unusual behaviors may be hierarchical authority itself. In the book the Davids describe a society where there are sacred enforcers who have power for only three months out of the year. This turns out to be not uncommon, and suggests a progression: an “egalitarian” people might agree to give absolute power to someone temporarily for “ritual” reasons (that is, for reasons we don’t really understand, but which are probably very compelling to them). That isn’t kingship… but it may create the idea for it, to be revived and generalized under other conditions.

(409) I’m pleased that they believe, as I do, that Memphis was a ceremonial center rather than a “real city”.

(412) The Shang reliance on oracles stands in “striking contrast” to the other societies discussed? Um, hello, what about the hundreds of Akkadian omen texts? What about the oracles that dotted Greece and Anatolia, constantly consulted by the kings?

(413) “Mesopotamia, where regional hegemony rarely lasted for longer than a generation or two”. This is supposed to be a contrast with Egypt, where kingdoms could last centuries. But, there’s the Kassites who ruled for nearly 500 years, and Assyria, which dominated the region for a millennium.

(416) They give Egypt as an example of a state or proto-state which had mastered sovereignty and administration, but not politics– the competition for power based on personal charisma. Well, technically they’re just talking the Old Kingdom. But what we know of the Middle Kingdom looks like it has plenty of politics: powerful factions among royal women; Hatshepsut’s unusual reign, Akhenaten’s revolution; multiple coups after Tutankhamen. Was the Old Kingdom really different, or is it just that we have better records of the Middle Kingdom?

(434) Here’s the description of matriarchal Crete. The evidence is mostly from art, and I complained about that above. But they make rather a better case here. The authority figures in pictures are female. They’re depicted as larger than men, and men are shown bringing them tribute or bowing down. They’re shown conducting rituals or sitting on thrones or meeting together. There are depictions of men, too, often graceful naked athletes. It’s like a parodic inversion of every other Middle Eastern society.

None of this is a proof, but in this case the Davids’ point is good: if there is little evidence of other matriarchies, there is also little evidence of any male-run state whose art depicted only females as rulers and males only as subservient.

(499) They make a snarky comment that the inventor of bread would probably not be called “white” today. This is pretty silly. Bread seems to go back to ancient Canaan, and outside racist circles, Middle Easterners are generally considered white. (E.g. that’s what the US Census Bureau thinks. Maybe this was Wengrow’s contribution: the UK census seems to disagree. But the point is: who the fuck cares? No one who reads this book is likely to be a white supremacist.)

(506) “Even in Homeric-style warfare”, war was a matter of a few heroic champions grappling in front of a crowd, with only a handful of deaths. Um, dudes. Troy was destroyed. If you read Romance of the Three Kingdoms, you’d think 3C Chinese warfare was a matter of heroic grappling too. It wasn’t; it was like any state warfare, a matter of tens or hundreds of thousands of troops. Epics talk about heroes grappling because it’s great narrative.

And if they’re thinking of horticulturalist warfare– well, they should look up the Maring, discussed in detail by Harris. Yeah, in general casualties were low. But a war could easily turn into a rout with a much higher casualty rate.

tl;dr

If you’ve read this far, you’re ready to take on the Davids– their book is 526 pages of text, plus nearly a hundred pages of notes.

If this is your sort of thing, you’ll probably get a lot out of it– and disagree with a lot of it, not necessarily the parts I disagreed with.

Anthropology is perhaps the most fun part of the social sciences. It not only tells interesting stories, it tells what (to most of us) are new kinds of stories. Actual human history and ethnography is far weirder than you might imagine from school textbooks and fantasy novels. And putting just some of that weirdness into your own works will deepen them considerably.

The Russian Revolution

I just finished China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. It’s about Russia.

If you don’t know, Miéville is chiefly known as an sf novelist. Here’s my reviews of his Perdido Street Station and Kraken.

I knew very little going in: that there were two revolutions; some guy named Kerensky was in power in between; the Bolsheviks took over in October. (October by the Orthodox calendar then in use in Russia; November to outsiders.) And from Solzhenitsyn I remembered the stew of factions: the Kadets (constitutional democrats), SRs (Socialist Revolutionary Party, divided into Left and Right), Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, anarchists, and more.

It is of course a much wider and weirder story, and Miéville tells it with gusto. It’s tempting to recount the story here, but I’d probably have to read the book again. Still, some points that surprised me:

  • Lenin was not the major player until very late: he spent much of the year in exile, external or internal, and very often was at odds with the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks.
  • Similarly, Stalin barely appears.
  • The Feb-to-Oct period was characterized by Двоевластие “dual power”, meaning that power was shared by the Duma (the Provisional Revolutionary Government) and the Soviet (Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies), an amalgation of workers and peasants based in Petrograd, the capital. They both arose during the February Revolution and even used the same building, the Tauride Palace.
  • Kerensky didn’t become prime minister till July. He wasn’t a bourgeois but a socialist, a member of the SRs. He was one of the few people who had a leading role in both the Duma and the Soviet.
  • From Solzhenitsyn I learned about the Bolsheviks’ slow, totalitarian destruction of every other party, ending with a cannibalistic attack on its own. This had barely started in 1917; but what was new to me was that almost everyone (i.e. the other parties) wanted to do away with one or another political party at one time or another.
  • The final crisis was precipitated by an attempted counterrevolutionary coup, led by general Kornilov, who was in negotiations with Kerensky. They wanted what counterrevolutionaries always want: a vindictive military dictatorship. Partly due to a comedy of errors that the book gleefully recounts, Kerensky turned against it at the last minute, but he was hopelessly discredited, and the Soviet increasingly chose to rely only on itself.
  • Everyone was enthusiastically democratic during this year– soldiers wanted to elect officers, workers were electing soviets to run factories, peasants burned the landlords’ mansions and organized rural soviets. It was a strangely bureaucratic revolution, proceeding through endless meetings, special committees, votes, debates, rants published in the innumerable newspapers.
  • By world standards, both revolutions were amazingly bloodless. Large elements of the army had gone over to the Soviets, which for the most part was enough to make the regime defenders (the tsar in February, the PRG in October) surrender. More than once a wavering counterrevolutionary force was overcome by sending people to debate the soldiers. The fabled taking of the PRG’s Winter Palace in October was almost anticlimactic, so much so that the Bolsheviks had to rewrite it for their mythology as a bloody struggle. (The real blood came later on, when the counterrevolutionaries (the Whites) started a civil war.)
  • The tsar was a perfect illustration of Orwell’s analysis of conservatism as deeply imbued with stupidity. Nikolai seemed completely unable to understand anything that was going on, including the danger to his own rule. About his only response to events in Petrograd was to impatiently order the generals to suppress the unrest. The idea of even making conciliatory gestures seemed not even to register in his brain.

It’s pretty clear from the book– though this may not be Miéville’s intention– that the determining factor in 1917 was World War I. Russia was losing, it was tired of the war; the army was plagued by desertions; food was getting scarce in the cities. There was a sort of pre-revolution in 1905, when the Duma was created, but the tsarist system was able to largely ignore reformism until the war. The officers were almost all loyalists, but their military doctrine included harsh treatment of the soldiers: one of the first demands the rebelling soldiers made was for basic courtesy. The officers’ attitude (plus, you know, the threat of useless death) was a big part of why the army sided with the revolutionaries.

The war also put the PRG in a bind. It was effectively impossible to keep the war going. Kerensky convinced himself otherwise, and organized a small offensive that succeeded for only a few days, then failed. The army was barely up for defense, much less offense; nothing was done to address food shortages. Shackling itself to a deeply unpopular cause, the PRG was doomed. The only party that consistently took an anti-war position was the Bolsheviks, which contributed to their rising popularity.

Finally, when Lenin took power, his decision to make peace with the Germans– at the cost of losing the Baltics, Finland, Belarus, and Ukraine (March 1918)– committed Russia to going it alone, and set the stage for nearly a century of polarized world politics. This was not Lenin’s intent– he thought Germany, at least, would turn communist. And it’s hard to imagine what else he could do. The irony remains, though, that he signed a disastrous peace treaty with the power that lost the war just six months later.

What Miéville probably wants the reader to focus on is the possibility of a workers’ revolt, as seen in one place where it really did happen. His sympathies are clearly with the Bolsheviks, though he is quite willing to criticize their frequent missteps and internal contradictions. But the real hero of the book is, fittingly, the mass of soldiers, workers, and peasants who rose up, demanded a voice, defeated the tsarists and counterrevolutionaries, embraced debate and democracy, and did their best to start work on a better state of their world. The politicians on either side of the Dual Power often had to scramble to keep up with the masses.

Miéville describes the odd theoretical predicament the socialists of all stripes found themselves in: Marx had told them that you couldn’t go straight from feudalism to socialism. First the bourgeois had to revolt and take power, and then you could take power from them. This makes some sense of the French and American revolutions, and it was what people were trying and failing to do in 1848; it was a poor match for Russia in 1917, even in its advanced and untypical heart, Petrograd.

The Kadets are usually described as “liberals”, though this is unhelpful if you take either the American or the French meaning. They were actually on the left in the Duma before the war, and were frustrated by the intransigence of the tsarist government. After the February revolution, they were the only major non-socialist party– thus the natural target of everyone else. If you want ruination for a centrist party, give them power during a war or a depression.

In any case, as representatives of the “bourgeois”, the Kadets and Right SRs were expected to take power and fail, and that’s more or less what they did. There were calls from the masses for the Soviet to take power directly, but it refused to do so, partly from this theoretical deference to the bourgeois, partly (possibly more likely) from the realization that actually governing would mean being blamed for the deteriorating condition of the country.

Any student of political power, in fact, would expect the idea of “Dual Power” would soon collapse, though the particular way it collapsed was arbitrary. From this book, it’s hard to see that either the PRG or the Soviet was engaged in what we’d call government at all. There were plenty of demands (for peace, for land reform, for recognition of national minorities), but everybody’s response was just to call for a new conference or congress. If anyone was (e.g.) drafting legislation for the peaceful transfer of land to the peasants, we don’t hear about it here. There’s a sense that the officials on both sides of the Dual Power had much less sway in the rest of the country than they hoped they had.

(One oddity Miéville picks up on: the revolution was also determined by trains: the trains connecting the cities to the front, the sealed train that sped Lenin from Switzerland to Russia; the train the tsar was traveling in the events leading to his abdication; the train lines torn up to prevent Kornilov’s coup. Almost as important was the control of telegraph lines.)

People have debated for a century whether Stalinism was the culmination of communism, or a terrible aberration, and if so whether it’s Stalin’s fault, or Lenin’s, or something else. Miéville is no tankie; he knows that something went terribly wrong, and the last chapter of the book is more or less a rueful admission of this, though he doesn’t go so far as to explain what exactly the error was.

I’m no expert either, but one smoking gun is surely Lenin’s rebuke to the early demands of “all power to the Soviet”. He countered with, in effect, “all power to the Bolsheviks.” He was, as Miéville fully admits, an argumentative and uncompromising person– not infrequently he took positions that shocked and hobbled his own party. (This was in part because for much of the year he wasn’t even on the scene, in contact with colleagues and opponents. He spent a lot of his time alone, writing polemics.)

As I noted, suppressing entire parties wasn’t just a Bolshevik notion: after a failed ultra-left uprising in July, many wanted the Bolsheviks suppressed, and after the Korilov attempted coup, the socialists largely agreed on suppressing the Kadets. And from other revolutions, especially in the wake of decolonization, we know that a nationalist movement easily turns into a one-party state. In times of great agitation, parties get polarized and stop recognizing that their opponents even have a right to exist.

You can make a case that the Bolsheviks could hardly compromise on the war, that the Dual Power was bound to fail and had to end in a takeover by one side or another, and even that by October the Bolsheviks were closest to the spirit of the workers and soldiers. Still, the story told by Solzhenitsyn is sad, even outrageous. Eliminating all your opponents is an admission that you cannot answer them honestly. Once you’ve taken that step, it’s a short further step to decide that fractious debate in the soviets themselves is “counter-revolutionary”, and the promise of actual worker democracy has been sacrificed. And for what? Wasn’t the whole point actual worker control? When you’ve throttled that, all you have left is a new way of oppressing the workers.

And yes, I’m aware of all the tankie justifications– the isolation of the Soviet state, the greater cruelty of the right-wing counter-revolutionaries. The thing is, revolutions are often necessary– but they are not the same as government, and they are not even the same as justice. At their best they open the way to a new and more just system. But the actions and habits of mind that produce a successful revolution are often precisely opposite to those needed to actually create that new system.

If it’s not clear– I liked Miéville’s book a lot, more than his novels in fact. He’s an engaging guide, with a nose for absurdities. He’s pretty far-left himself (he used to belong to a Trotskyite party), but he focuses on the story rather than political theory. I can’t say I’ll remember all the names and events in the story, but that’s hardly his fault: a revolution takes a lot of people. (For what it’s worth, I recognized all the names in the picture above.)

Polarization, 1945

I spent a few hours tonight reading or re-reading George Orwell’s essays, and this one on “nationalism” struck me as relevant today, largely because quite a few pundits seem to believe that political polarization, echo chambers, and outright lies are unprecedented novelties.

(Note, the essay talks about “nationalism” and “nationalists” only for lack of a better term, but he makes it clear that he’s also talking about religious or political zealotry. Today we’d probably say “ideologies” and “ideologues”.)

On echo chambers:

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war.

On lying:

Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events which, it is felt, ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied.

Probably the truth is discoverable, but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth in almost any newspaper that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or failing to form an opinion. The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied. Moreover, although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him.

Orwell was writing in May 1945, just after WWII ended in Europe. And he was writing from England, not the US. Nonetheless, the essay is a good reminder that political polarization and siloing are not new, nor creations of the Internet; there was no golden age where political parties frolicked together like Elves and Men and read each other’s media.

Now, for Boomers of my age there was a time when politics seemed calm, bipartisanship was possible, and extremists seemed to be on their way out. We call it “1976.” But this was not some normal and enduring state even of American politics; it was a short interlude after the contentious ’60s and before the plutocratic revolution of the ’80s.

This is admittedly cold comfort, when conservatives seem more insane and dangerous than ever. At the same time, reading Orwell is a reminder that things are always pretty dire, a hope for a less dire world is always possible, and the evil people of the day are also liable to make the stupidest mistakes.

Cultural materialism

I just re-read Marvin Harris’s book of this name– subtitle, The Struggle for a Science of Culture. It’s a review of a dozen or so approaches to anthropology– of course he likes his own the best. It’s from 1980, so it’s undoubtedly outdated as a survey of the major schools.

First, should you read it? Oh no, it’s pretty dry, and intended for his colleagues. If you’ve never read Harris, read Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches instead. However, a distinction he makes early on is of interest to conworlders and others.

The distinction is between etic and emic levels of culture. Curiously, these terms were abstracted (by Kenneth Pike) from linguistics. Phonetics is the study of the sounds used for language, and phonemics is the study of the sounds as people speaking a particular language perceive them. We hear and produce the raw sounds, but we think we’re pronouncing the phonemes. See your copy of the LCK for more.

Applied to cultures, the etic level is the physical level: what people do, what constraints they face in resources and ecology, what their technology and social practices are. You could theoretically study all this as a Martian, just observing and measuring. The emic level is what people think. It includes their language, literature, ritual, ideology, their ideas about family and class, what they tell children and each other.

Now, most of the schools Harris discusses differ in how they approach these two levels, and which they consider primary. Oversimplifying broadly, we have

  • Materialists consider that the etic system predominates, and determines the emic level.
  • Idealists put the emic level first, and believe that it determines how cultures work (i.e. the etics).

Now, no one thinks that you can completely ignore either level. You study both, and everyone admits that the levels can influence each other. But your overall orientation influences what questions you ask, what methods you use, and what you consider to be an answer.

To avoid some complications, I’ll use an example from the contemporary US. On the etic level, since the 1960s, the Republican Party has pursued the “Southern Strategy”. Their basic policies are to facilitate the dominance of the rich elite: low taxes, low regulation, a free hand for business, as little redistribution as possible. (Yes, things like tax rates and income levels are etic. They’re objective things, relatively easy to measure; our Martian observer who doesn’t know the language could figure them out.) These things are not very popular, so to win elections the GOP goes for a larger coalition based on region (the South and non-coastal West), race (whites), and religion (mostly Evangelicals). They highlight issues designed to appeal to regional and racial solidarity while hiding their policies (which disadvantage the very populations they are trying to win over). To ensure that the coalition wins, they carefully pass laws to make it harder for the opposition to vote.

The emic level looks very different. Here we look at what the GOP actually says— that febrile stew of resentment of minorities, fear of foreigners, fear of America changing, fear of “socialism”, fear of crime, disgust over homosexuality and abortion, nostalgia for an imagined past, feelings of wounded religious sentiment, and authority worship, with an undercurrent of fantasies of violent suppression of enemies, that we know from figures from McCarthy to Goldwater to Limbaugh to Gingrich to Trump.

If you don’t like that summary, use your own, or a random set of 10-minute segments from Fox News. The point isn’t that the emic level is bad; it’s that it’s different. What you see from the outside is poles apart from what you hear and feel on the inside.

Now, the cultural materialist viewpoint is that the etic facts, most of the time, explain the emic facts. That particular mix of beliefs and preoccupations isn’t random or coincidental; it’s determined by the business elite’s need to win votes for an unpopular set of policies. The easiest way to do so is to hide the actual agenda, and make use of existing resentments.

Another way to see this is to notice how the diversions have changed over time. In the 1950s, the most effective strategy for the GOP was anti-Communism rather than racism. In the 1960s, it was the mainstream’s dismay over hippies, sexual change, and modern art. In the 1980s, the rallying points were Evangelicalism and racism.

The key point is that you’ll understand very little of American politics by looking at what the GOP believes. It may be interesting or frightening, but it’s often quite disposable (note how concern over the deficit completely disappears when the GOP is in power), and it’s a poor guide to what the GOP will do. (Hint: it may or may not pursue culture war issues. It will cut taxes.)

I’m not at all summarizing the book, whose examples mostly relate to non-American cultures. But to use any of those examples I’d have to explain those cultures in fair detail, and that’s not my point here. I should add though that if the analysis sounds rather left-wing to you (all this talk about elites and supremacy)– well, cultural materialism does trend strongly left; it owes a lot in fact to Marx.

What is my point? Well, that the etic/emic distinction, and arguments about which comes first, are useful well beyond anthropology. First, they are relevant to a lot of cultural debates today.

A lot of the anthropological schools Harris discusses prefer the emic level, and some of them feel that this is the only valid level: find out what the natives think, and explicate that with the maximum of empathy and detail. And I think this approach has a strong attraction to anyone interested in other cultures– after all, shouldn’t we study them on their terms rather than ours? Some of the discourse about colonization and privilege falls easily into this point of view, even criticizing “scientific” approaches as objectifying and disrespectful.

Now, if you’re not doing anthropology, your approach should be based on what you’re doing. If you want to be a Buddhist, you of course want to study Buddhism from the inside, and probably shut up the scientific skeptic within you. Reading literature or watching movies or just interacting with people, you can pursue and enjoy the emic level as much as you want. And if you’re not an anthropologist or historian, guesses about the etic level may be quite misguided.

The problems come when you get curious about why things are as they are. You want to know the emic level, it’s very important. But–

  • the emic level is likely to be wrong about why things are as they are.
  • the emic level is likely to be inherently conservative— to put it bluntly, it’s the realm of authoritarian old farts.

The emic level, after all, includes native justifications for slavery, for colonialism and war, for sexism, for foot binding, for the Indian caste system, for Aztec slaughter and cannibalism, for the divine right of kings, for holy wars, for dictatorships and inquisitions and pogroms. If you believe what the culture says and thinks about itself, you’ll accept a lot of immoral trash, almost all of it designed to prop up the local elite.

Not everything in the emic level is tainted, of course. Some of it is purely interesting and enjoyable. Some of it is problematic, but so is almost everything. Some of it you can learn from on its own terms.

I like Harris’s approach, because etic explanations are far more interesting and satisfying. Take sexism, for instance. Emic explanations run toward gender determinism, or else the original-sin-like position that male supremacy is universal yet unmotivated. Gender determinism is itself problematic, and the “universal” position is simply wrong. There are more egalitarian societies, though you may have to go all the way back to hunter-gatherers to find them.

More importantly, there are reasons why all the evils listed above exist, and why some cultures have some evils but not others. Here cultural materialism is critically different from the rather annoying theories that biologists come up with, like evolutionary biology. Cultural materialist explanations may be based on physical constraints, but not on supposed aspects of human nature, because anthropologists know way too much about the diversity of culture. If human nature determined how societies worked, they’d all be the same or virtually so. Instead they’re wildly different in many ways, so these differences have to be examined and explained.

Also, importantly, changing human nature is almost impossible, but changing etic facts is not. So cultural materialism is far more optimistic. If sexism is caused by certain etic constraints, then there’s a hope for eliminating it by changing those constraints. (Indeed, a lot of the progress made in advanced societies is precisely due to changing the etic level.)

Another reason people often prefer emic approaches is that etic ones can seem, well, a little Martian. Just as it’s a little disturbing to take an anatomy class and cut up former humans, it’s a little disturbing to see how cultures are made. Reading about a war, for instance, it’s most rousing if it’s a morality tale, especially if the good guys win. Yet almost all wars can be explained at the level of resources, tactics, and logistics.

For conworlding, you can also take an emic or an etic approach. For the former, I’d point to Lord of the Rings. It’s presented as a literal document from its conworld, written by participants. At all points it adopts the worldview of its protagonists– directly, the hobbits; indirectly, the elves. Tolkien has almost zero interest in ecological constraints, economies, or how power operates, beyond the emic categories of “good kings” vs. “corrupt kings”. At no point in the book does he criticize how Gandalf or the elves think or behave. (I’m aware this is not true of the Silmarillion.)

For a fairly pure etic approach, perhaps take Neuromancer. The focus at almost all times is what people are doing, on a low technical level. Almost all the characters are primarily motivated by practical needs… no one needs or consults an ideology. The organization of society by the elite is directly criticized, without much interest in what the elite has to say for itself emically.

If you’ve been following my conworlds, Almea and the Incatena, you can probably see that I’m equally interested in both levels. I try to indicate what causes various social structure to form– e.g. why Eretald is male dominant and the Bé is female dominant, or why there are far more restrictions on Verdurian kings than there were on Caďinorian emperors. But I also provide extensive presentations of people’s ideological systems.

There’s a scene in Against Peace and Freedom where Agent Morgan more or less explains the etic bias of the Incatena, as opposed to the ideological systems of the antagonists. Morgan says to one of them:

Give us a static society and socionomics will tell you how to turn it into a dynamic one– what to teach the kids in school, what comic books to write, what family behaviors have to change, what sectors to encourage. Of course, a static society won’t like those changes.. that’s why it stays static. No problem… back up a level, we can tell you what to do to generate a liking for them.

Socionomics is essentially far-future cultural materialism. Of course we don’t know today how to do these things, though many people think they do. But the Incatena has way more data.

Again, if all this whets your appetite, try Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches. It’s hard to invent premodern cultures without it. (Or read my books— there’s a lot of Harris in the PCK.)

Yes, Trump’s a fascist

The latest annoying thing in the pundit class is think pieces on whether Trump is a fascist. Here’s The New Statesman saying no, not at all. Here’s Vox saying maybe but mostly no.

For readers who’ve been living in a cave: for nearly half a century, the gold standard for presidential corruption was Watergate, for which Nixon was almost impeached (he resigned instead). Now it’s January 6, 2021, when Trump gave a speech urging his supporters to march on Congress, and they did– thousands of them bursting into the capitol and forcing the Senate and House to flee to safety. A handful of people died, including one policeman beaten to death by the mob. At least some of the rioters were attempting serious sedition, bringing weapons and restraints; they aimed to murder Congress members or take them hostage. Some threatened to kill not only Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker, but Mike Pence, Trump’s own VP.

It’s become clear that this was no protest or exuberant mob– it was a deliberate attack, and the ringleaders went right to various Members’ offices. They failed to get their hands on anyone; I’m sure there will be whole books written on why that was. But it was way closer than it should have been.

A question that’s become almost a joke over four years is “What would it take for Republicans to turn against Trump?” Personal corruption and a torrent of lies didn’t do it, nor did abuses of power, attempts to ruin America’s alliances, concentration camps for migrants, cozying up to Putin, unlabeled feds bundling dissenters into vans in the middle of the night, a pandemic on track to kill more Americans than World War II. But what did it for quite a few of them was their own president egging on a mob to kill them. Who knew?

It was an attempt at a violent coup to overthrow democracy. The “fascism” charge should be open-and-shut at this point. So why are the pundits so sure it’s not?

Before we get there, let’s look at one expert that’s willing to call Trump a fascist: Robert Paxton. He wrote, “I have been reluctant to use the F word for Trumpism, but yesterday’s use of violence against democratic institutions crosses the red line.”

This is significant for me, because he wrote the book that I reviewed back in the Bush administration. His definition is worth quoting:

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

At the time I concluded that Bush wasn’t a fascist– largely because the use of violence wasn’t there. Trump’s coup attempt crosses that line.

One objection would be the clown-car aspect of Trump and Trump’s supporters. It wasn’t a successful coup attempt. But this misses the point.

  • Trump is the president… the guy with the nuclear football. His incompetence may have saved us for now, but…
  • Half the Republicans in Congress supported his attempts to overturn the election.
  • Trump retains the support of a majority of Republicans (though his approval has declined since the attack).
  • The extremists– the people with the guns and restraints– were emboldened by the attack, and plan to do more.
  • Ever hear of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch? A failed coup attempt has historically led to more attempts.
  • Hitler and Mussolini made far more use of violence. But both were put into power legally, by the conservatives of the day. They were contemptuous of democracy– but used its institutions to get into power, only dismantling them afterward.

Why are the fascism experts besides Paxton reluctant to call Trump a fascist? The objections mostly come down to one of these things:

  • Worries that some “real” fascist will come down the pike, and we won’t know what to call them.
  • Quibbles over the historical details of early-20C fascism.
  • Wise-ass comments that Trumpism has American roots.

The first objection does make a point, just not a very good one. Suppose Trump had succeeded in denying the election results. Would it be comforting, or educational, or pedantically correct, to say that he wasn’t a “fascist”, but an “authoritarian”, or a “right-wing populist”, or a “nationalist”? Jesus, people, we’re talking about an illegal coup ending our 250-year American democracy. You don’t win a prize by denying it the word “fascism”. And you know, people who successfully execute a coup don’t end their criminal careers with that. The violence and vindictiveness would only ramp up.

The various quibbles are interesting to historians. E.g. the New Statesman article explains that Hitler and Mussolini were war-mongers intent on grabbing new territory. Yes, but there are historical reasons for that. Germany and Italy came late to the European imperialism party; one had just lost a World War and the other felt like it had. This was, if you remember, a time when Britain and France still had their colonial empires; the feeling was that that was what great nations do. Plus, they were small nations by US standards– their only way to feel like superpowers was to expand.

The US has a very different history and sense of itself. Though the rest of the world thinks it’s imperialist, it’s mostly via soft power; our actual colonial empire was not very important. American nationalists aren’t at root very interested in the world: they are consumed with the threats they see internally.

Finally, some historians are concerned that people over-emphasize 20C Germany and Italy, forgetting the long history of right-wing nationalism and white supremacy at home– everything from the Confederacy to Jim Crow to Joe McCarthy to the Klan. Again, there’s a point to this: there is no need to sync up events today and a hundred years ago, and think that Trumpism is a repeat of Hitler.

But the more general answer is: yes, Trumpism does recall some of the more lawless parts of American history, and that shouldn’t be news to anyone.

It’s worth noting that the real fascists, the people who really like Hitler, are already on board with Trumpism. A bunch of them participated in the attempted coup– proudly wearing their Nazi T-shirts. It’s undoubtedly true that they would turn on Trump on a dime if he isn’t nasty enough for them. But they’ve been made welcome in the GOP, and until that problem is solved, fascism will be a major factor in US politics.

Finally, the Jan 6. attempt– unlike the two months of legal shenanigans– created a real fissure in the Republican Party. For once we don’t have a few pursed lips expressing “concern” over Trump. We don’t know how meaningful that is, yet; we’ll get a much better idea during the impeachment trial.

Trumpism isn’t gone, and the large fraction of the GOP electorate that cheered him on won’t disappear. But things might start to look different in a week, when Trump is out of office and can’t post on Twitter– and a bunch of Senators start to realize that they have the power to keep him from running again.

Ask Zompist: What just happened?

You’re probably very busy right now, but would you mind writing a kind of overview of the current election situation, perhaps for the benefit of foreign observers who don’t know that much about US politics, and other people who might be easily impressed by Republican talking points?

–Raphael

As someone pointed out on Twitter, when we look at this in a few years, it’s going to look very simple: at every point this year Joe Biden looked like he was going to win, against a historically incompetent and unpopular president. And he did. And he won by a decisive margin: currently 74 to 70 million votes, and probably by 306 to 232 electoral votes. And thus did the realm of Sauron fall.

Edit: As of the 25th, the margin is now 80 to 74 million votes.

Of course, the devil is in the details, which is why this year has felt like it’s a decade long.

(This post will be a bit rambling, as I am writing for that hypothetical foreign observer, and guessing at what they might find puzzling.)

First, there’s what the pundits call the fundamentals. If you looked from January 2020, you’d have to say: incumbents usually win (6 won, 3 lost from FDR to Obama), and presidents in good economies usually win. The election was Trump’s to lose.

Then there’s the Trump factor itself. Trump has been remarkably, consistently unpopular: since Jan. 2017, his favorability never rose above 46%. But since 2018, it hasn’t fallen below 40% either. Nate Silver’s site has comparisons to past presidents, where you can see that this sort of consistency is rare. Obama’s line is almost as flat, which suggests that both lines are consequences of our new polarization. People stick with their leader because they are terrified of the opposition.

US political parties used to be coalitions, where Republicans had some liberals and Democrats had some conservatives; that made the parties increasingly resemble each other, and made the most effective strategy a fight for the center. Since the mid-1990s the GOP has instead moved far right, and in response the Democrats have moved left, though not nearly as far. Generalizations base on the mixed-coalition era are thus no longer accurate.

Popularity is not voting: Trump got (at current reporting) 47.7% of the vote. We don’t have exit poll analyses yet, but it’s been clear for a long time that Republican voters, even if they have reservations about Trump, will still vote for him. So his unpopularity was a negative, but GOP loyalty in general was a plus. (In 2016 we could hope that there were a bunch of “Never Trumpers” who wouldn’t vote for him. That didn’t happen, and his standing in the party was obviously better this year.)

If there’s any one factor that doomed him, it was his handling of Covid. I don’t mean that it was bad luck that dragged him down. Disasters don’t make leaders unpopular; usually it’s the reverse. George Bush got a huge boost out of 9-11; several leaders, such as NZ’s Jacinda Ardern and South Korea’s Democratic Party, won landslide elections under Covid, when people could see them handling it well. Even Trump got a boost– until April, when his incompetence began to show. He was handed a golden opportunity, and he fucked it up. Letting a quarter of a million people die, creating an economic crisis, and refusing to agree to (continued) emergency measures is not the way to attract the moderates.

Then there’s Biden himself. The Democrats had two ways they could go:

  • Pick someone inspiring, who’d fire up the base and/or the country.
  • Pick someone who just doesn’t mess up the opportunity.

Replaying the 2016 primary is Democrats’ favorite hobby and vice, so let’s just say that Biden is in category 2. Biden has some real virtues, but not many of these had to be put into play: his best move seemed to be to sit there not being Trump and not messing up, and let Trump dig his own grave. Which he did. When he did get attention, during the convention and the debates, he was competent, and compassionate enough to underline the comparison– without really making a strong personal impact. And that was probably fine, especially compared to Hillary, who was widely disliked.

I don’t know if it really matters, but Trump’s campaign didn’t seem to know what to do with Biden. Or with anything really. Trump didn’t talk much about his record (such as it is), nor make any attempt to woo the center. He leaned hard on repressing protesters, which probably backfired as most people sympathized with protests against police racism. He tried to play up Biden as too doddery, which a) makes no sense since the same could be said for him, and b) was exposed as an obvious lie when Biden talked. Trump was reduced to trying to run against Bernie Sanders instead… again, probably not effective with the moderates.

I should emphasize that Trump’s 2016 campaign, for all its chaos, was managed ten times better. He could play outsider, and rile up his own side when he wanted to; and he took enough moderate positions that people of all persuasions could see what they wanted to in him. If he had stuck with his populism, American politics might have looked far different… but he not only governed as a strict conservative, but as a total asshole. His base loved him in both roles, but he was unable to revive his populist side this year.

Biden didn’t do as well as the polls suggested. That’s a big problem for the pollsters, but it also shouldn’t be exaggerated. We don’t know the absolute final results, but they’ll probably make Biden look better than he does right now. It wasn’t the huge blue wave that we would have liked to see. At this point I’d say: take anyone’s explanation of that with a truckload of salt, especially if the pundit opines that Biden would obviously have done better if he had followed the pundit’s favorite policies.

So, the GOP turned to Plan B, which was voter suppression. They knew their policies were unpopular, so the plan was to obstruct the vote as much as possible. This put them in the position of purposely insisting on in-person voting, with its risks of spreading a deadly disease… but they were already in death cult mode; what did they care so long as they won? There were other shenanigans, like removing voting stations in big cities to make it harder to vote.

Next on the agenda was kneecapping the post office, starting in the summer. We don’t know the extent of the damage, except that the mail immediately got slower, and many post offices removed their sorting machines. The big question is perhaps, did they think no one would notice, in an organization that employs half a million people? People did notice, there were Congressional hearings, and the commissioner promised to stop interfering. It’s not clear how much this was a factor… but now that we have the results, it seems clear it just didn’t work. (Though in my household, we made sure to turn in our ballots at the village hall.)

All this was worrisome, but as a coup attempt, a little lame. First problem: elections here are run by the states, not by the President. That meant that blue states couldn’t be corrupted. Second problem: the obvious interference only made Democrats more determined to vote. Turnout is higher than ever this year, and that really paid off in places like Georgia. Third problem: playing tricks is evidently something rank-and-file GOP officials will do; but outright lawbreaking by election officials and judges, not so much. Almost all of them tried to run the election properly.

Foreign readers might wonder, why did it take several days to declare the winner, and why did Pennsylvania flip? Basically: one more bit of Republican games-playing. The state legislature forbid mail-in votes from being counted before the election, as they are in many states. This was obviously done in the hopes that Trump would “obviously win” on Tuesday night, and that counting mail-in votes would somehow look suspicious.

The problem with that “plan”: there was really no point where Trump had “obviously won”. I just scrolled through CNN’s entire election blog, and Biden was ahead in electoral votes at every point, starting from 8:15 p.m. election night. By the next day, he was already a mere 17 votes shy of winning, and he was pretty clearly going to win enough of the outstanding states. So all the Pennsylvania GOP succeeded in doing was in prolonging the process for everyone.

Plan C was to hope for litigation. In particular, the GOP geared up for a repeat of 2000. Trump openly entertained fantasies of the Supreme Court handing him the election, and of course McConnell obliged by fast-tracking Amy Barrett’s nomination. The problem for the GOP is that no Florida 2000 situation recurred. As a reminder, Bush led Gore in the count in that state, by 537 votes, and Florida’s electoral votes alone would decide the election. The Court really only had to freeze the count in place rather than throwing out votes. That’s a pretty narrow scenario, and it didn’t repeat.

Trump is supposedly going to file a bunch of lawsuits. But the ones he already filed went nowhere, and there’s not really a major state that he could likely flip. There are some close states, but recounts and finagling over individual ballots have historically affected a few hundred votes, not the tens of thousands that would be needed to flip (say) Pennsylvania. Trump’s hope that somehow all mail-in ballots could be thrown out is almost certainly going to be laughed out of court even by Republican judges.

The thing is, stealing an election gets harder the longer you wait. The GOP’s best best was to steal it ahead of time by suppressing the vote. That didn’t work. Hoping for Florida 2000 again was not even a plan. Now that there’s an actual vote which Biden solidly won, stealing the election would require throwing out votes already cast, on the scale of tens of thousands of votes. That’s pretty unprecedented in this country. On Dec. 14, the Electoral College meets, and you really can’t reverse the EC vote without getting into hard coup territory– the kind that comes with guns and civil war.

Can Trump do something to somehow steal the election now? Well, you can never count a Sith Lord out entirely. But at this point it seems clear that all he has left is temper tantrums. He was squealing “STOP THE COUNT”… and the count didn’t stop. When even Fox News declares Biden the winner, it’s almost certainly over. We need to pass a few more milestones, of course, but the Trump team’s strategies haven’t worked so far, and if their last trick is “open coup attempt”, the smart money is that it’ll fail.

Trump has refused to concede… but this has no legal meaning. He doesn’t get to decide whether to accept the results, and he’d do well to avoid the indignity of being tossed out by the Secret Service. Again, his intransigence is going to look even more ridiculous after the Electoral College vote. There are already reports that advisors or powerful GOP figures are telling him– as nicely as they can, undoubtedly– to stand down.

Finally, for those foreign observers and not a few domestic ones: the Senate is not yet decided, and that affects whether Biden can pass his legislative agenda. It’s 48-48 right now, but the GOP is ahead in two of the remaining states. Note that a 50-50 Senate would be Democrat-controlled, since the Vice President is the tiebreaker. The last two seats are both in Georgia– and those are both close enough that a runoff election will need to be held in January. So we actually won’t know what happens in the Senate till then.

Virus, depression continue

The GOP continues to lead the country into death and depression.

Over 5 million infected, 160,000 dead. Latest red/blue state numbers:

  • 2.85 million cases in red states. That’s 876,000 more than my last update.
  • 2.06 million in blue states. 348,000 since the last update.

Florida and Texas have managed to surpass New York’s formidable total.  But so has California, which is responsible for almost half of the new blue-state cases.

Worldwide, similar right-wing nutjob Bolsonaro has led Brazil into nearly 3 million cases.

As ever, this was an avoidable catastrophe.  South Korea: still under 15,000 cases. Canada has 119,000 cases, or 1/5 of the case rate we have.

Meanwhile, the economy shrank 9.5% in the 2nd quarter, the worst performance ever, exceeding even drops during the Great Depression. Naturally, the GOP responded by doing nothing, letting the extra unemployment benefits end.  Oh, they did have a plan: they proposed to prevent employers from being sued if their reopening policies made their employees die.

That’s the modern GOP.  Why choose between plague and economic catastrophe when you can have both?

Red states pull ahead

Today the red states (the states Trump won in 2016) pulled ahead.

Coronavirus cases in red states: 1.625 million
Coronavirus cases in blue states: 1.590 million

Since my last update, June 26: 188,000 new cases in blue states, 533,000 in red states. 

And that’s despite the hefty lead built up by New York (426,000 cases), and California’s valiant effort to stay in the running.  But the death cult is winning.

Cases per million people is a good stat to look at between nations. The US has 9900; the UK 4200; South Korea 261. Of course whenever South Korea is brought up, people immediately think of reasons we couldn’t possibly learn from them, so let’s look at Canada: 2800.

Here;’s a comparison of daily US vs. EU cases. It’s as of July 1; I couldn’t find a later chart. Today’s new case count is way off this chart at 64,000.  Europe beat the curve; we didn’t bother. Donald Trump’s ego was way more important.

coronavirus-EU-US-july-1-640x452

And the right-wing lie machine is still telling its viewers that there’s no problem.  Could they at least put a health warning on the screen?  “Warning: listening to Fox News can kill you and your family.”

Red state fever

I’m not going to do a full roundup, but I thought it was time to update the counts for red and blue states, as of June 27.

Blue states: 1.4 million cases, 84,700 deaths
Red states: 1.1 million cases, 41,500 deaths

At my last report, May 13, the death counts were 58,600 vs. 22,600. So the increase since then is blue 144%, red 184%.

The death cult is seeing results.

We’ve got competition now, though. Brazil has 1.3 million cases, 56,100 deaths. Somehow, pandemic + right wing idiot in charge = tens of thousands of dead people.

And just to rub it in, our 127,000 deaths were completely unnecessary. South Korea has had 282.  2% as much.  The GOP has managed to kill more people in 2020 than all American deaths in World War I and the Vietnam War. Combined.

Doom and gloom

The Covid-19 case count in the US has reached 1.4 million. Hey, remember those long-ago days when it was under 1000?

Some fun facts about death tolls, for some very queasy values of “fun”:

  • Covid-19 deaths in the US as of today: 83,700
  • US deaths in Vietnam War: 58,220
  • All US gun deaths in 2018, including suicides: 39,221
  • Automobile deaths last year: 38,800
  • Flu deaths 2018-19 season: 34,200
  • US deaths due to terrorism since 1995: 3,658

The coronavirus toll is likely significantly higher than the above figures. E.g. a recent survey of New York City alone found 24,200 excess deaths (those above the normal amount, 7900, from previous years). 5300 of those were not officially linked to Covid-19. There’s no other particular reason for that many deaths, so they are probably untested cases, or emergencies that turned into deaths due to hospitals being overstressed by the virus.

I took worldometer’s by-state figures and found the number of deaths in states won by Trump and by Clinton in 2016:

  • Blue states: 58,600
  • Red states: 22,600

Now, 62% of the blue state total is New York + New Jersey. Still, these figures alone are obviously part, though just part, of why the GOP doesn’t take the virus seriously.

22,600 deaths is still a lot. If the red states were a separate country, they’d still be #6 in the world for total deaths, just behind France. But only three red states (MI LA PA) have more than 2000 deaths.

The GOP logic is “The parachute has slowed our fall so far, so that proves we don’t need it.” So it’s pressing to “re-open the economy”. It’s not hard to predict what’s going to happen: a disaster.  Maybe if it hits some red states hard, it’ll finally knock some sense into them.

Once again, it’s a false choice, indefinite lockdown vs. killing millions.  Other countries are actually mastering the virus. Perennial comparison: in all of April, the US had 62,000 Covid-19 deaths. South Korea had 85.

Grimly amusing: Trump has everyone near him tested constantly. But he doesn’t see the need for testing the rest of the country, because he doesn’t fucking care.

The sad thing is that it’s hard to see things improving before the end of the year.  That could be a lot of deaths, and a Depression’s worth of financial destruction. All because Donald J. Trump doesn’t have a fuck of a clue, and the GOP is terrified of standing up to him.