Ancient States

Speaking of socialization, a good book to check out is Against the Grain by political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott. A re-interpreter, Scott has surveyed recent archaeological findings to present a new vision of the emergence of the ancient state. The book (along with his earlier ones) has been much discussed, so I’ll just say—read it if you want a counter-view to the textbook assumption of the state, with its drudgery, taxation, bondage, disease, ecocide, and a small elite class milking everybody else—as progress. It’s very refreshing.

Also depressing—because it naturally inspires the question: what is the best way for human beings to live?—while leaving the reader suspecting that the answer or answers to that question are now socially unreachable, and that the only destination we are progressing toward is collapse.

And in a more profound way, not depressing—because as this book reminds us, collapse is the rule not the exception, and why would we be any different?—but latent within collapse is opportunity.

It’s tempting to romanticize the hunter-gatherer lifestyle which five or six thousand years ago was the alternative to the earliest states, even if those people did sell their brethren into the slavery required to run the state, and the hunter-gatherer way of life couldn’t exactly have been a cakewalk itself. But you will come away from this book convinced that being a nomad beat being a peasant hands-down, and dreading the “Hunter-Gatherer Cookbook” and new lines of loincloth casual wear in California which are sure to come if Scott’s ideas, and their inevitable misinterpretation, catch on. Scott persuasively argues that hunter-gatherers didn’t turn into states in a linear, progressive way, but in fits and starts, with the sedentary lifestyle long preceding, and not always evolving into, the earliest states.

But here’s the big idea I was left with: what if the formation of states wasn’t an improvement, but a disaster that led to the simultaneous emergence of bureaucrats and the brutalization of the human spirit? One is reminded of Thomas Hobbes’ famous description of human life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”—though, writing in the 17th century during the English Civil War, he meant it as a hypothetical description of just the opposite: humans outside of a “social contract.” He had a point.

But are those our only choices: stockpiling beans or the kafkaesque paranoia of the deep state? This is too big for me, but the question remains—what is the best way to live? What does it mean to flourish, to be happy? Sorry, I don’t know. I can only say that my deepest intuition of human existence is a bottomless flowing current with the distractions of our surface lives keeping us mostly from the insights, joys, and terrors of the depths. But providing unhindered access to those depths, and the resulting liberation from ego (an invention by which we subjugate ourselves to bureaucrats, including the one in our minds) are indispensable to any real human fulfillment. Preventing that fulfillment is of course the primary goal of bureaucrats, especially those in the edifice of “religion,” who have been provided by the modern world with a means of achieving that prevention more effective than slavery.

Sometimes it seems we give up too much for too little. But clearly there must be harmony between our autonomy and our participation in a social contract. These days we don’t have a clue where or what that zone might be.

October 10, 2018

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