The Dawn of Everything
A belated Happy New Year to everyone.
There has been a trend in recent Christmases that I get two distinct presents from Robert Fripp. These might be said to lead in opposite directions, although in actuality they both play havoc with my head: Prosecco in one way and an “improving book” in another. (By an ‘improving book” I mean one which you know you ought to read, probably containing intellectual challenges and which you are often tempted to put aside until “later”, ideally after the Prosecco). This year’s book is “The Dawn of Everything” by David Graeber and David Wengrow.
It takes as its starting point Jean Jacques Rousseau’s essay, ‘Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind’ written in 1754 (already well-known to anyone who studied Philosophy or French, or indeed both, as I did). But why, the book wonders, were French intellectuals in the mid 1750s suddenly interested in the origins of inequality (particularly as inequality, class systems, slavery had been a key feature of pretty much all Western societies, dating back beyond the Greeks and Romans).
The answer would appear to be the influence of the natives of the newly discovered North American territories. These natives shocked the all-conquering colonisers from Europe with their view that Europeans, far from being free, were enslaved by their (our) obsession with money, rigid laws and harsh systems of punishment for those who break them. “What kind of human must Europeans be that they have to be forced to do good, and only refrain from evil because of fear of punishment”.
A Wendat sage observed that the whole apparatus of trying to force people to behave well would be unnecessary if Europeans did not also maintain a contrary apparatus that encouraged people to behave badly (ie. money, property rights, unequal distribution, restrictive laws etc). He wrote that to maintain a distinction between “mine" and “thine’’ (between what I own, and what you own) was inhuman, and that “to imagine one can live in the country of money and preserve one’s soul is like imagining one could preserve one’s life at the bottom of a lake…do you really imagine that I could carry a purse full of coins and not immediately hand them over to people who are hungry”.
This is dramatic to read now – what must it have felt like in the 1700s?
The final comment reminded me vividly of my initial visit to Nashville. On that occasion the main street was filled not only with all the great music bars, but also a large number of homeless people, including some small children, who quite literally lined the street. I remember wondering at the time how to cope with that. My reaction was to give some dollars, and feel that I had “done my bit”. But had I? I could no doubt have emptied my wallet many times over, indeed my whole bank account, and still had more than most of those people. The question is what level of inequality are we personally comfortable with.
I am certainly not about to announce that I have seen a light and am mending my errant ways, but (“duh!” as Punk Sunderson would say) I had not seen so clearly before how any society based on money will always be unequal. If we all have exactly the same and share equally, money is completely unnecessary. The role of money is actually to quantify the imbalance between us. An interesting perspective.
And I am only 100 pages in.