Posts Tagged ‘John Rawls’

Video on Archaeology’s Challenge to Enlightenment Accounts of Origins of States and Inequality

December 8, 2022

This is a fascinating video I found on Novara Media’s channel the other day. In it, host Aaron Bastani talks to archaeologist David Wengrow about the origins of the state and the development of social inequality. Wengrow argues that the evidence from archaeology challenges assumptions that prehistoric and preliterate peoples were incapable of rationally deciding for themselves what kind of societies they wished to live in. He gives examples from prehistoric Europe and North and South America to show that ancient and indigenous peoples not only did decide on the kind of societies they wanted, but were perfectly capable of reversing trends in their societies towards authoritarianism. One of the examples of this, which I found truly jaw-dropping, was one of the city states the conquistador Hernan Cortes made alliance with against the Aztecs. Unlike the Aztec empire, that state city was a democratic republic. He also talks about the influence on Enlightenment critiques of western society of a Huron Indian chief in Canada, who was an intelligent conversationalist able to hold his own in conversations about the nature of society to such an extent that French, British and Dutch colonial authorities invited him to dinner to talk this matter over.

Wengrow starts off by stating that modern political theory about the origins of society, as taught in politics courses, is completely divorced from archaeological accounts. The theory is based on the speculations of foundational Enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes and Rousseau, who admitted that they were speculating. But these accounts are now taught as fact. Archaeological research, however, is overturning previous ideas about the origins of urban society. For example, it was believed that agriculture and urbanisation were linked and appeared together as part of the Neolithic Revolution. But this is not the case. Excavations of the ancient city of Catalhuyuk in Turkey show that while it was an urban centre, although Wengrow hesitates to call it a city, show that its people were still hunter-gatherers, living by foraging rather than agriculture. And the same is true of the settlement at Amesbury at the time Stonehenge was being built. The people then had given up agriculture, although they retained animal husbandry. It appears they had tried growing crops and then rejected it in favour of foraging.

He then goes on to talk about the Huron Amerindian chief. He inspired a colonist from New France, who had been expelled from the colony, to write a book based on the chief and his dinner conversation when the colonist was penniless in Amsterdam. This became a massive Enlightenment bestseller, and inspired other books by Voltaire and others in which Chinese, Tahitians and other outsiders criticise European society. Wengrow states that the Indian societies surprise western Europeans because they were much less hierarchical than they were, and contact with these societies and the indigenous critics of western civilisation did influence European political philosophy. We easily accept that Europe took over many material products from these nations, but are much less ready to accept the idea that they influenced our ideas, even though the Enlightenment philosophers said that they had.

He also talks about Cahokia, a great pyramid and city state in the Mississippi valley in America. This appears to be another example of a society, in which people rebelled or simply walked away from authority and hierarchy. It was also another indigenous monument that was ascribed to everyone else but the native peoples when it was first discovered, and is now disrespected by having a road driven through it. When it was constructed, the local society seems to have been hierarchical. At the top of the mound is a structure from which all of the city could be viewed. But sometime after its heyday it was abandoned. The traditional reasons are that the climate changed, but Wengrow finds that unconvincing. What seems to have happened instead is that people simply got tired of living in such a society and walked away.

Tenochtitlan, one of the great cities in ancient Mexico, is another example of a strongly hierarchical society that underwent profound social change and became more democratic. Wengrow states that it’s a massive state, and they owe a debt to the French scholar who produced detailed maps of it. When it first emerged, it was hierarchical but then the nature of society changed. People started living in high-quality, single-floor homes. These were so good they were originally thought to be palaces, but now it appears they were villas occupied by ordinary citizens. At some point, the people of Tenochtitlan decided that they wanted a more equal society, to the extent that some scholars believe that there was a revolution.

Then there is the case of the democratic city state Cortes encountered. This really was democratic, as there are accounts of the debates in its assembly. This astonished the conquistadors, as there was very little like it in Europe at the time, except some of the Florentine republics. This all challenges the notion that once society develops to a certain extent and becomes complex, inequality also emerges and is very difficult to challenge or remove. These cases show that indigenous peoples could and did. He also argues that the same may have been true of slavery. The only successful slave revolt that we know of is Toussant L’Ouverture in Haiti. But Wengrow suggests there could have been thousands of other successful slave revolts in prehistory of which we are unaware. Slavery came about, he argues, from the expense of laying out offerings for the dead. In order to leave food and drink for the dead, the bereaved had to have access to the foods themselves and so they became indebted and dependent on the people who owned those resources.

He also talks about the problems in describing some of these urban centres as cities. There are huge sites in the Ukraine, but archaeologists are hesitant about calling them cities with some preferring other terms such as ‘mega-sites’ because they aren’t centralised.

Bastani asks him at one point about the problem of pseudo-archaeology. I think this came up because Graham Hancock is currently fronting a series on Netflix claiming that way back in prehistory there was an advanced society, but that it was destroyed in a global cataclysm. Wengrow states that quite often pseudo-archaeology is based on old and discarded idea, such as Atlantis. The people involved tend not to be anyone who’s ever been on an archaeological dig, and view archaeologists as spending their lives trying to hide some momentous secret from everyone. But it can act as an entry for some people to archaeology, and he doesn’t really like the sneering attitude of some archaeologists towards it.

Wengrow himself is an interesting character. He didn’t want to be an archaeologist originally, but came to it from acting. He also worked in the BBC Arabic service. He decided at one point he wanted to get a degree, applied to the best university he could, Oxford, and sent reams of applications to its various colleges. They turned him down. Then he was told that he should apply for a place on a course that was just being set up. One of the colleges was just setting up an archaeology course, so he did. When it came to the interview, he told the interviewer that he had always wanted to be an archaeologist. At which point she held up all the previous letters he’d written. But they admitted him, and he has now had a career teaching and excavating in places like Egypt.

He states that sometimes the pseudoarchaeology about a period or culture misses the point about what’s really interesting about it. He talks about the idea that the Sphinx was constructed before the pyramids, and admits that it’s actually a reasonable question. But if you go back to the predynastic period a thousand years before the pyramids were built, you come to the burial sites of one of Egypt’s first kings. This is fascinating, although you wouldn’t know it from the dry way it has been discussed in conferences and museums like the Petrie Museum. Excellent though these are, they talk about highly specialised subjects like pot typography which is excruciatingly dull if you want to know the wider picture. The early king’s tomb is composed of room after room of the bodies of the people and occasionally the animals that were slaughtered to accompany the king into the afterlife.

The interview is based on a book Wengrow wrote with a colleague, The Dawn of Everything. Sadly, after spending a decade writing it, the co-author died just a few weeks after its completion. The book has been widely praised, and has even inspired artistic pieces. He talks about a French woman, who composed a piece of music based on it. He regrets he was unable to attend its performance thanks to jet lag coming back from somewhere, but later met the lady when she came to Britain.

I know a little about some of what he’s talking about to have no doubt that he’s absolutely right. One of the seminars in the archaeology department at Bristol, which I attended, was about how cities like Catalhuyuk were established before the appearance of agriculture. One of the huge Neolithic sites in the Ukraine is discussed in the La Rousse Encyclopedia of Archaeology. The great mound of Cahokia is also discussed in a book I bought years ago on North American Indian archaeology. I wasn’t aware that the people of Stonehenge had given up growing crops, nor of the democratic city states in South America and Mexico. This is fascinating stuff.

He’s right about archaeology contradicting the ideas of Enlightenment philosophers about the origins of society, though I’m not sure how much of a problem this is. The philosophers he discusses – Hobbes and Rousseau – were Social Contract theorists. Social Contract theory is the idea that the state and society were set up when men came together to select an authority under whom they would live, so that their lives and property would be protected. Thus the first kings. These princes are the representatives of the people, and so from the 17th century onwards the idea developed that sovereignty lay with the people, who could revoke the power they had delegated to the prince. This was the view of John Locke. However, subsequent philosophers showed that this was just conjecture, and that it could have happened like that as the people at the time were using concepts that only subsequently developed after the foundation of states and kingdoms. I thought Social Contract theory was dead, and he closest it had to a modern advocate was John Rawls in his Theory of Justice. Rawls argued that if people were just disembodied entities wishing to chose the kind of society in which they would care to live, they would choose one that had the maximum freedom and justice for everyone, as that would also include them. Away from centrist politics, the anarchists have been keenly interested in anthropology and those indigenous societies where there is no central authority.

I’m not sure how well some of this would go down with Sargon of Akkad and the Lotus Eaters. They’ve developed an interest in archaeology, recently posting a video discussing Homo Erectus, along with the Norman Conquest and ancient Rome. But Sargon is a huge fan of John Locke and describes himself as a classical liberal. I don’t know whether archaeology’s findings about the origin of early states would contradict his ideas or not.

Gove Claims Labour ‘Weaponised’ Windrush Scandal to Divert Attention from its Anti-Semitism Problem

April 29, 2018

Mike put up a piece last night responding to another malign comment uttered by Michael Gove. Gove is the former cabinet minister responsible for education, and so can fairly be blamed for a good portion of the problems now affecting our educational system.

He’s a close of ally of Boris Johnson, though this didn’t stop BoJo stabbing him in the back over Brexit. Nevertheless, he showed his loyalty to Boris, as well as his complete ignorance and utter incompetence in the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. This was the British woman of Iranian origin, who went back to Iran on holiday. She was visiting relatives, but the Iranians threw her in jail on the trumped up charge of spying. Boris made her situation worse by claiming that she was teaching journalism. She wasn’t, and Johnson’s comment was seized on by the Iranians as confirmation of their own allegations that she was trying to overthrow the regime. Gove then appeared on TV to support Boris, and declared in an interview that ‘we don’t know what she was doing’. This was wrong, and showed Gove really didn’t know what he was talking about. And it just made matters worse for Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who used his stupid comments as more proof of espionage and put more years on her sentence.

Now Gove has waded in to give his considered thoughts on the current scandal of the deportations of the Windrush generation and their children. OH no! cried Gove, it’s not that bad. It’s just been ‘weaponised’ by the Labour party to divert attention from the massive anti-Semitism in their ranks.

No, Gove, it isn’t. As Mike points out, the evidence shows that anti-Semitism in the Labour party has actually fallen under Jeremy Corbyn. But this won’t matter to the Tories. Like Goebbels, they prefer to repeating a good, useful lie until people believe it. Well, it worked with a lot of people under Thatcher. There’s always the possibility, however, that Gove really does believe what he says, or, just as likely, he’s so ignorant of the facts and the issues involved that he doesn’t know any better. Just like he didn’t know better than to mug up on the real facts before holding forth about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

The deportation of the Windrush generation is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s a vile, racist policy in itself. But it’s also offensive and dangerous because, as Lammy shows, they were British citizens. The Social Contract theory of government states that political authority arose when the early human community joined together to elect a powerful figure – a king- to protect their lives, families and property. The theory was first formulated in Ancient Greece, where it was taken over by Plato. It was the basis of some medieval theories about the origins and duties of kingship, and formed the basis of the political theories of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes. It has also been used to argue for the people’s right to remove their sovereigns and leaders, and to form democratic, representative governments.

Social Contract theory’s been more or less rejected by scholars. One of the reasons is because their almost certainly was never a primal meeting of the early human community, to elect a leader using legal terms that wouldn’t exist until thousands of years later. Even so, it has still be influential. Rawls attempted to defend it, or advance a similar theory, in his A Theory of Justice. And it remains true that one of the very basis, essential functions of government is to preserve the lives and property of its citizens.

But this the Tories have signally not done. They have decided to remove the basic right of citizenship from the Windrush migrants, simply because of their ethnicity. This has led to their deportation from a country, in which they have every right to live, and the denial of other essential rights. Like cancer treatment under the NHS, and other basis services to which they are entitled.

Not that this bothers the Tories. They’re whole attitude to government is based on marginalising and depriving the poorest, most vulnerable sections of the population in order to give more wealth and power to the rich elite. Hence the attacks on the poor, the unemployed, the disabled as well as the normal attacks on immigrants and ethnic minorities.

This is what has made the deportations extremely dangerous. It has shown that the Tories regard basic citizenship not as a right, but a gift that can be withdrawn on a whim or for reasons of political expediency.

This is not about Labour trying to use it to deflect attention from the anti-Semitism smears and witch hunt in its own ranks. This is about protecting a group, that has been subject to a monstrous injustice, and preserving fundamental civic rights.

Not that you can expect Gove to admit to all this, as someone who has constantly supported the Tories’ persecution of marginal and underprivileged groups.

It’s time to get him, Tweezer and the rest of them out of office.