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The previous three messages on The dawn of everything explore Indigenous criticism. We saw how Native Americans viewed the French invaders and how they viewed their own societies, all based on contemporary reports from French missionaries, soldiers and merchants. At the end of Chapter 2, David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that these criticisms had a great impact on French readers in the first half of the 18th century. A number of French writers produced books like Lahontan’s explaining and expanding on the Native Critique. This provoked a violent reaction from the defenders of French society.
One of these defenders was Turgot, a prominent French economist and theorist. In 1750 Trugot published Philosophical review of the successive advances of the human spirit, which expounded an evolutionary theory of human progress, from hunters, to herders, to farmers, to the then current pinnacle of commercial civilization. I read a little of it; it is a fascinating account of human progress from the perspective of French cultural and intellectual superiority. See Chapters 13 and 14.
It is easy to see how a sense of French superiority could make Turgot’s evolutionary theory the dominant theory of the development of human society. The French and other Europeans were delighted with the progress of early scientific research and a host of new ideas about freedom and government. Turgot’s theory justified French belligerence towards Native Americans. It put the savages back in their place, below the French. She justified the rancid inequalities of the French social structure as unpleasant and regrettable, but necessary for the human race to reach its full greatness. Freedom and equality are traded for social progress. And so we return to Rousseau’s stages of social development.
The essence of the Indigenous Critique is that the French were not free because they were controlled by their desperate need for money and property, to survive, or to gain status or whatever. The authors say that for Europeans, the concept of freedom is linked to private property. It is oriented towards the freedom to do what one wants with one’s possessions. This type of freedom necessarily means that people without property are less free. This is the price of progress.
The authors claim that early humans had other ideas about how to organize their societies. As we will see in the next chapters, over the millennia they have put in place different social structures, with more or less freedom and equality. They were not bound by any artificial principle. They changed back and forth between different social arrangements with the changing seasons or for no apparent reason. Research shows that history does not support the Turgot/Rousseau theories.
The purpose of this book is to explain how our ancestors actually lived, based on the latest research. How did we obtain from a varied set of experimental social arrangements the seemingly rigid and permanent structures of today? Why can’t we imagine a future that isn’t more of the same? Graeber and Wengrow want to know how we got stuck in this place where “… [a] very low percentage of [the] the population controls the fate of almost everyone, and they do so in increasingly disastrous ways. p. 76.
Turgot and Rousseau propose that there are three or four stages of development that culminate with the pinnacle of human perfection, the French society of their time. Both give credence to the Bible. Turgot’s story begins with Noah’s Flood. Rousseau says we know from Holy Scripture that the first human received the commandments and its understanding directly from God, raising the question of whether a human ever lived in a state of nature. Both quickly abandon the Bible and move on to a discussion of speculative ideas about social and individual human development. For both, there is progress over time. Both accounts are fundamentally scalable. They describe different successive stages, but with only minimal efforts to explain the transitions. The descriptions do not relate to different groups of humans. They assume it’s the same progression everywhere.
This idea of progress took hold when the industrial revolution began to change societies. We see it in Hegel’s theory of history, guided by Providence which may or may not mean the Almighty. We find it in Marxist historiography which teaches that there is an end state of human development, a classless society. It is still found in totalitarianism, at least according to Hannah Arendt. The origins of totalitarianism, p. 461 et seq. She writes:
Totalitarian legality, defying legality and claiming to establish the direct reign of justice on earth, executes the law of History or Nature without translating it into standards of right and wrong for individual behavior. It applies the law directly to humanity without worrying about the behavior of men. The law of nature or the law of history, if properly executed, is meant to produce mankind as its end product; and this expectation underlies the claim to world domination of all totalitarian governments. P.462.
The idea that there is one law applicable to all is present in American Christian nationalism, sometimes called Christian Dominionism. This is from Wikipedia:
An example of Dominionism in Reformed theology is Christian Reconstructionism, which originated in the teachings of RJ Rushdoony in the 1960s and 1970s. Rushdoony’s theology focuses on theonomy (the rule of God’s law), a belief that all of society should be ordered according to the laws that governed the Israelites in the Old Testament. His system is strongly Calvinist, emphasizing God’s sovereignty over human freedom and agency, and denying the operation of charismatic gifts in our day (cessationism); both are in direct opposition to Kingdom Now theology (see below). Fn omitted.
The idea that there is an inescapable law governing the human future has a long history, much longer than this brief description. We have seen the horrific results of this belief. Graeber and Wengrow give us a story that has no place for this misconception. It’s a huge contribution.