Could we choose to live as equals?

Sunday, March 19 2023

Could we choose to live as equals?

Are equal societies possible?

In ‘The Dispossessed’ Ursula Le Guin imagines a society of rebels, people who rose up against hierarchy on their home planet and were banished to form a free and equal society on the encircling moon. Their world, Anarres, is poor, food is dull and manual labour an accepted inevitability of life. Anarres also treats men and women equally, no one must work if they don’t want to, and everyone has the same right to property and food, the moon is lacking in envy. Le Guin imagines a sort of utopia. A fantastical utopia in its literal sense, as Anarres does not exist.

Popular archaeology would concur. So it goes, equal societies may exist on small scales, but as societies expand and move past the phase of bands of hunter gatherers, a hierarchy is inevitable. A bureaucracy is inevitable. Inequality is inevitable. ‘The Dawn of Everything’, a rich and technical work by David Graeber and David Wengrow, anthropologist and archaeologist in turn, analyses reams of recent archaeological evidence to draw the opposite conclusion. Wengrow has a mind-bending command of archaeological discoveries that show a multicoloured tapestry of polities. Societies that chose again and again what it means to be equal. Not the Ancient Greek kind of equality that excluded women or the enslaved, but meaningful equality: equality of the sexes, equality of property ownership, equality of status.

For example, we read of the Yurok in California. Among the Yurok everyone is considered to be born equal and hardwork, frugality, and abstinence from pleasure are exalted much as in Puritan America. Among the Yurok, slavery was also seen as a natural part of life. For another, the matrilineal Haudenosaunee where the man moved into his wife’s family home and women owned the land but torture was accepted. Another: Teotihuacán, a city of over 100,000 where the first excavated homes were described as palaces until excavationists kept digging and noticed that every home was just as palatial. Graeber and Wengrow’s work is large and thick enough to club a seal and not without reason, they rightly believe that only example after example could possibly bend the dominant narratives that abound about our human history, and their radical propositions arguing that bureaucracy is not an inevitability of conglomerations of people, that we have a linear evolution in our politics to today are indeed challenging. They show that throughout history, cities did indeed live in an equality of their choosing.

Graeber and Wengrow appreciate that much of archaeology is guesswork, and present it as such. They discuss their reasoning for a lack of monarchs, such as no painting among thousands found depicting any person larger than others, or ruling over others, and they rarely cross the chasm into speculation. For speculation we must turn back to Le Guin. The world of Anarres does have equality amongst sexes, and a lack of hierarchy, and it defines fundamental freedoms, such as the freedom to choose not to work. Like the Davids’ work it is not a romantic dreaming. In ‘The Dispossessed’, cliques of bureaucracy exist, violence does too in a ritualised form, as does selfishness and acts of cruelty. This is shown most in the protagonist raping a woman when drunk. An appreciation of the darker sides of human nature amongst a world so different to our contemporary one is reminiscent of examples of Haudenosaunee where giving orders was taboo, but members were free to torture and kills people of other groups. What Graeber, Wengrow, and Le Guin all strive to say is that there is darkness in every world, but another world is possible, and our society must be viewed as one mode of many, not an inevitability.

Building on this, ‘The Dawn of Everything’ suggests that we have been constructing societies that govern and organise themselves in different ways for over ten thousand years. Graeber and Wengrow suggest that our ability to create new political structures exists as long as we have: The freedom to move away The freedom to disobey The freedom to re-organise Arguing that as each of these freedoms erode, inequality seeps in until it ossifies as people are no longer able to change their society. They provide bizarre and entertaining examples such as the Great Sun of the Natchez who had ultimate power, and so people just lived out of his vicinity — and bureaucracy.

In the world that Le Guin constructs, the people of Anarres almost have these fundamental freedoms. They may move away to another town if they dislike it, or another job. They may disobey any work request, although a moral sense of duty may guide them. What they lack is the freedom to re-organise themselves. If an inhabitant of Anarres volunteers to work, where they will be sent is decided by a central computer, and although the overseeing bureaucracy is rotational and anyone may apply, there are hints there are hints at a permanent bureaucracy that organises from behind the scenes. And on closer examination, we find that the freedom to move is limited, for people of Anarres are unable to leave their planet. Their last remaining freedom is to disobey, although those seen to be shirking work are ridiculed by the community and often beaten up until they move on to another community, where shirking work, they may be ostracised again.

Le Guin’s work is as much about the role of gossip in a society, as it is about equality and freedom. Moral judgement is an oppressive tool of its own, and perhaps it should be viewed as a fundamental part of a society, rather than a side-effect. This harkens closely to an insightful review of ‘The Dawn of Everything’, where the author hypothesises that such equal societies as seen in the archaeological evidence presented by Graeber and Wengrow were ‘Gossip Traps’, where people were eternally constrained by the community’s judgement and never free, for moral reprobation was always around the corner. This is exactly the society we see in Le Guin’s work, one in which you could disobey any command, but doing so would leave you cajoled and in line for an educative reprobation by your community.

So where does this leave us? We have rich archaeological evidence of civilisations of equality, hammering example after example that suggests that modern conceptions that hierarchy and bureaucracy are inevitable and merely modes of thinking beaten into us from four hundred years of history. On the other hand we have stories like ‘The Dispossessed’ that are similarly deep and rich in another form of human understanding, and try as they might to present huge equal societies, show the cracks within it. Could we ever agree on what it means to be equal, and make a world in that image? Or is it just a fantastical story?