Here is anarchist anthropologist David Graeber on hierarchy in capitalism and how anthropological value theory can demystify its operations (from his essay, “TURNING MODES OF PRODUCTION INSIDE OUT: OR, WHY CAPITALISM IS A TRANSFORMATION OF SLAVERY”):

What I especially want to stress here though is that, when value is about the production of people, it is always entirely implicated in processes of transformation: families are created, grow, and break apart; people are born, mature, reproduce, grow old and die. They are constantly being socialized, trained, educated, mentored towards new roles—a process which is not limited to childhood but lasts until death—they are constantly being attended to and cared for. This is what human life is mainly about, what most people have always spent most of their time worrying about, what our passions, obsessions, loves and intrigues tend to center on, what great novelists and playwrights become famous for describing, what poetry and myth struggle to come to terms with, but which most economic and political theory essentially makes to disappear.

Why? It seems to happen, at least in part, because of the very mechanics of value realization. Value tends to be realized in a more public, or anyway political, and hence universalized domain than the domestic one in which it is (largely) created; that sphere is usually treated as it is to some degree transcendent, that is, as floating above and unaffected by the mundane details of human life (the special domain of women), having to do with timeless verities, eternal principles, absolute power—in a word, of something very like idealist abstractions. Most anthropological value analyses end up tracing out something of the sort: so Kayapo value tokens end up embodying the abstract value of “beauty”, a profound higher unity and completion especially embodied in perfect performances and communal ritual (Turner 1987 etc.); people practicing kula exchange seek “fame” (Munn 1986); Berbers of the Morroccan Rif, with their complex exchanges of gifts and blood-feud, pursue the values of honor and baraka, or divine grace (Jamous 1981) and so on. All of these are principles which, even when they are not identified with superhuman powers like gods or ancestors, even when they are not seen as literally transcendental principles, are seen as standing above and symbolically opposed to the messiness of ordinary human life and transformation. The same is usually true of the most valued objects, whose power to enchant and attract usually comes from the fact that they are represent frozen processes; if one conducts a sufficiently subtle analysis, one tends to discover that the objects that are the ultimate stakes of some field of human endeavor are, in fact, symbolic templates which compress into themselves those patterns of human action which create them.

It seems to me that even beyond the labor that constantly creating and reshaping human beings, a key unacknowledged, form of labor in human societies is precisely that which creates and maintains that illusion of transcendence. In most, both are performed overwhelmingly by women. A nice way to illustrate what I’m talking about here might be to consider the phenomenon of mourning. Rarely do the political careers of important individuals ends in death. Often political figure, as ancestors, martyrs, founders of institutions, can be far more important after their death than when they were alive. Mourning, and other acts of memorialization, could then be seen as an essential part of the labor of people-making—with the fact that the dead person is no longer himself playing an active role simply underlining how much of the work of making and maintaining a career is always done by others. Even the most cursory glance at the literature shows that the burden of such labor, here, tends to be very unevenly distributed. This is in fact especially true of the most dramatic forms—cutting off one’s hair, self-mutilation, fasting, wearing drab clothes, or sackcloth and ashes, or whatever is considered the culturally appropriate way to make oneself an embodiment of grief, as, essentially, negating oneself to express anguish over the loss of another. Social subordinates mourn their superiors and not the other way around. And pretty much everywhere, the burden of mourning falls disproportionately, and usually overwhelmingly, on women. In many parts of the world, women of a certain age are expected to exist largely as living memorials to some dead male: whether it be Hindu widows who must renounce all the tastiest foods, or Catholic women in the rural Mediterranean who are likely to spend at least half their lives wearing black. Needless to say these women almost never receive the same recognition when they die, and least of all from men.

The point though is that symbolic distinctions between high and low do not come from some pre-existing “symbolic system”, they are continually constructed in action, and the work of doing so is done disproportionally by those who are effectively defining themselves as lower. So with mourning. As Bloch and Parry (1982) have emphasized, mourning is also about creating dramatic contrasts between what is considered truly permanent, and everything that is corporeal, transitory, afflicted with the possibility of grief and pain, subject to corruption and decay. Mourners when they cover themselves in dirt or ashes, or engage in other practices of the negation of the self which seem surprisingly similar across cultures, are also making themselves the embodiment of the transitory, bodily sphere as against another, transcendental one which is in fact created in large part through their doing so. The dead themselves have become spirits, they are ethereal beings or bodiless abstractions, or perhaps they are embodied in permanent monuments like tombs or beautiful heirlooms, or buildings left in their memory—usually, in fact, it’s a bit of both—but it’s the actions of the mourners, mainly by the dramatic negation of their own bodies and pleasures, that constantly recreate that extremely hierarchical contrast between pure and impure, higher and lower, heaven and earth.

It is sometimes said that the central notion of modernism is that human beings are projects of self-creation. What I am arguing here is that we are indeed processes of creation, but that most of the creation is normally carried out by others. I am also arguing that almost all the most intense desires, passions, commitments, and experiences in most people’s lives—family dramas, sexual intrigue, educational accomplishment, honor and public recognition, one’s hope for one’s children and grandchildren, one’s dreams of posterity after one is dead—have revolved precisely around these processes of the mutual creation of human beings, but that the mechanics of value creation tend to disguise this by positing some higher sphere, where of economic values, or idealist abstractions. This is essential to the nature of hierarchy (Graeber 1997) and the more hierarchical the society, the more this tends to happen. Finally, I am suggesting that it is precisely these mechanisms that make it possible for historians and social scientists to create such odd simplifications of human life and human motivations. The labor of creating and maintaining people and social relations (and people are, in large measure, simply the internalized accretion of their relations with others) ends up being relegated, at least tacitly, to the domain of nature—it becomes a matter of demographics or ‘reproduction’—and the creation of valuable physical objects becomes the be-all and end all of human existence.”

And here is statistician Nicholas Taleb (from this excerpt of Skin in the Game) offering what he calls a “more rigorous” definition of inequality, which when applied to the contemporary US population, shows relatively high “dynamic” equality:

There is a class often called the Mandarins, after the fictional memoirs of the French author Simone de Beauvoir, named after the scholars of the Ming dynasty that gave their name to the high Chinese language. I have always been aware of its existence, but its salient —and pernicious –attribute came to me while observing the reactions to the works by the French economist Thomas Pikkety.

Pikkety followed Karl Marx by writing an ambitious book on Capital. I received the book as a gift when it was still in French (and unknown outside France) because I found it commendable that people publish their original, nonmathematical work in social science in book format. The book, Capital in the 21st Century, made aggressive claims about the alarming rise of inequality, added to a theory of why capital tended to command too much return in relation to labor and how absence of redistribution and dispossession would make the world collapse. The theory about the increase in the return of capital in relation to labor was patently wrong, as anyone who has witnessed the rise of what is called the “knowledge economy” (or anyone who has had investments in general) knows. But there was something far, far more severe than a scholar being wrong.

Soon, I discovered that the methods he used were flawed: Picketty’s tools did not show what he purported about the rise in inequality. I soon wrote two articles, one in collaboration with Raphael Douady that we published in Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and Applications, about the measure of inequality that consists in taking the ownership of, say the top 1% and monitoring its variations. The flaw is that if you take the inequality thus measured in Europe as a whole, you will find it is higher than the average inequality across component countries; the bias increases in severity with extreme processes. The same defect applied to the way inequality researchers used a measure called Gini coefficient, and I wrote another paper on that. All in all, the papers had enough theorems and proofs, to make them about as ironclad a piece of work one can have in science; I insisted on putting the results in theorem form because someone cannot contest a formally proved theorem without putting in question his own understanding of mathematics.

The reason these errors were not known was because economists who worked with inequality were not familiar with… inequality. Inequality is the disproportion of the role of the tail—rich people were in the tails of the distribution.[2] The more inequality in the system, the more the winner-take-all effect, the more we depart from the methods of tin-tailed Mediocristan in which economists were trained. Recall that the wealth process is dominated by winner-take-all effects, the type described in The Black Swan. Any form of control of the wealth process—typically instigated by bureaucrats—tended to lock people with privileges in their state of entitlement. So the solution was to allow the system to destroy the strong, something that worked best in the United States.

The problem is never the problem; it is how people handle it. What was worse than the Piketty flaws was the discovery of how that Mandarin class operates. They got so excited by the rise of inequality that their actions were like fake news. Economists completely ignored my results—and when they didn’t, it was to declare that I was “arrogant” (recall that the strategy of using theorems is that they can’t say I was wrong, so they resorted to “arrogant” which is a form of scientific compliment). Even Paul Krugman who had written “if you think you’ve found an obvious hole, empirical or logical, in Piketty, you’re very probably wrong. He’s done his homework!”[iv], when I pointed out the flaw to him, when I met him in person, evaded it –not necessarily by meanness but most likely because probability and combinatorics eluded him, by his own admission.

Now consider that the likes of Krugman and Piketty have no downside in their existence—lowering inequality brings them up in the ladder of life. Unless the university system or the French state go bust, they will continue receiving their paycheck. Donald Trump is exposed to the risk of ending having his meals in a soup kitchen; not them.

Further, the envy-driven feelings that usually—as we saw in the works of Williams and Lamont—do not originate from the impoverished classes, concerned with the betterment of their condition, but with that of the clerical class. Simply, it looks like it is the university professors (who have arrived) and people who have permanent stability of income, in the form of tenure, governmental or academic, who bought heavily in the argument. From the conversations, I became convinced that these people who counterfactual upwards (i.e. compare themselves to those richer) wanted to actively dispossess the rich. As will all communist movements, it is often the bourgeois or clerical classes that buy first into the argument.

I doubt Piketty asked blue-collar Frenchmen what they want, as Lamont did. I am certain that they would ask for a new dishwasher, or faster train for their commute, not to bring down some rich businessman invisible to them. Envy does not work long distance, or across so many social classes. But, again, people can frame questions and portray enrichment as theft, as it was before the French Revolution, in which case the blue-collar class would ask, once again, for heads to roll.

I offer them for side-by-side comparison to highlight their divergence on the most pressing problem of political economy today (=inequality). [These two once had it out on Twitter.]

To define inequality one has to first offer, implicitly or explicitly, a metaphysics of value. Both Graeber and Taleb are passing metaphysical value judgments on the present state of our global economy in the above excerpts. Graeber foregrounds the values of anthropoiesis (human-making; i.e., values manifesting through child-rearing, housekeeping, cooking, educating, mourning, etc.), while Taleb foregrounds the values of chrematistics (money-making; i.e., value as symbolic wealth accumulation). Taleb tries to out-resent the “intellectual yet idiot” professional class (a class he includes Graeber, professor at the London School of Economics, in) for its communistic resentment of the capitalist values apparently shared by blue-collar workers and “self-made” millionaires like him.

Graeber tries to articulate an axiology rooted in social bonds and kin relations, while Taleb seems to champion a Nietzschean version of the myth of individual self-creation. Both approaches are anthropocentric (though Graeber has elsewhere shown signs of accepting a more panpsychist origin of value), but still, each should be part of a more inclusive cosmological scheme. I think Whitehead’s scheme brings together the best of both socialist-relationalist and individualist-atomist ontologies.

If we continue to let chrematistics rule the world, if we continue to believe in the “free-market” God of capitalism, not only will the value of anthropoiesis continue to be exploited and externalized, the entire biosphere will be eradicated. “Communism” isn’t the answer. But our cultural and natural ecologies of value cannot continue to be monopolized by capital, either. Money is not the measure of all things. Value originates closer to home. Perhaps it is time for the Left to reclaim “family values” just as boldly as it has claimed environmentalism.

Here is anthropologist Anne Buchanan on the post-truth era in natural science.

I was reminded of my post on the federally-funded Brain Initiative a few years ago.

Buchanan includes geneticist Ken Weiss’ list of facts that do not fit the reductionistic paradigm of “normal science” in biology at the end of her post.

Weiss and Buchanan have co-authored the book The Mermaid’s Tale: Four Billion Years of Cooperation in the Making of Living Things

Though I haven’t read their book yet, Buchanan and Weiss’ perspective seems to dovetail nicely with what I argue (with Whitehead’s help) in Physics of the World-Soul: that the paradigm shift required to make sense of self-organizing dynamics active at the biological scale will also need to make sense of the self-organizing dynamics active at the quantum and astrophysical scales. In short, mechanical models describable solely in terms of efficient causation cannot account for the observable facts of physics or of biology. Organism must replace mechanism as the root image, and formal and final causation must be reincorporated into a more adequate naturalistic ontology—a naturalism wherein value and experience are intrinsic to every process of realty.

Below I’ve pasted a couple of excerpts from Latour’s work on politics and law.

“Why do we regret that politicians ‘don’t tell the truth’? Why do we demand that they be ‘more transparent’? Why do we want ‘less distance between representatives and those whom they represent’? Even more absurd, why do we wish that ‘politicians wouldn’t change their minds all the time’, ‘wouldn’t turn their coats for the slightest reason’? These demands, repeated throughout the press like a complaint, a rumbling, a shout or, rather, like a mort, are good sense in appearance only, for they all amount to judging the conditions of felicity of one regime of talk in relation to those of another. The denigration of political talk would never be possible without this ignorance of its key, of its own peculiar tone, of its spin as English-language newspapers so accurately (albeit, mockingly) put it.

First, let us put an end to an ambiguity, an imposture: under no circumstances can double-click information don the white coat of scientific method to defend its right to represent the rectilinear way of faithful talk. If politicians are to be hated for their lies, what can be said about scientists? Demanding that scientists tell the truth directly, with no laboratory, no instruments, no equipment, no processing of data, no writing of articles, no conferences or debates, at once, extemporaneously, naked, for all to see, without stammering nor babbling, would be senseless. If the demand for transparent and direct truth makes understanding of the political curve impossible, remember that it would make the establishment of ‘referential chains’ by scientists even more impracticable. The direct, the transparent and the immediate suit neither complex scientific assemblages nor tricky constructions of political talk, as Gaston Bachelard has so amply shown. If we start making direct and transparent processes the supreme law of any progress, then all scientists are liars and manipulators, and all politicians corrupt bastards. The ‘crisis of representation’ has nothing to do with a sudden loss of quality by politicians or scientists; it emerges as soon as we impose the impossible yoke of transferring double-click information to practices with very different goals. A stupid question deserves a stupid answer. One could just as well complain about the poor quality of a modem that was incapable of percolating coffee ordered on the Internet!

If we turn from the demand for transparent information and focus a little more directly on the conditions of felicity peculiar to political discourse, we discover an entirely different demand for truthfulness. Political discourse appears to be untruthful only in contrast with other forms of truth. In and for itself it discriminates truth from falsehood with stupefying precision. It is not indifferent to truth, as it is so unjustly accused of being; it simply differs from all the other regimes in its judgement of truth. What then is its touchstone, its litmus test? It aims to allow to exist that which would not exist without it: the public as a temporarily defined totality. Either some means has been provided to trace a group into existence, and the talk has been truthful; or no group has been traced, and it is in vain that people have talked.

-Latour, “What if we Talked Politics a Little?”


“…you might object that I observed not ‘legal reasoning’ but the ways French administrative law judges (and they are not even judges but political appointees, former ministers, heads of public companies, journalists, etc.) think legally. That’s where I somewhat disagree. Anthropology of law has this interesting feature in that – contrary to, let’s say, anthropology of science, my original field – there was never any question that all cultures have law. It might differ in content; the conclusion might horrify the ethnographer – or the plaintiff; the circuitous route of reasoning might look incredibly farfetched; there might be blood all along; but it is always recognizable as tracing the path of something – quite elusive I agree – that we all call ‘legal’. So, yes, a case study will always be just a case study, and it should not be generalized too much, but the whole book that you, hopefully, are going to accept to read is based on the assumption that the English-speaker does not need to learn about ‘French administrative law’ (unless they wish to) but about the passage or the transit of law, a question that, naturally, can be highlighted only thanks to a detailed case study but that may become, in the end, rather independent from it. The true reason why I invested so much energy in this field work (I found, on the whole, law much more technical and difficult to follow than science or technology) is that it was precisely to compare the passage of law with the other types of enunciation regimes I had studied up till then (or have studied since). I belong to a small group of social theorists who believe that we have been pretty wrong in providing a ‘social’ explanation of anything—science, religion, politics, technology, economics, law and so on. Far from being what should provide the source of explanation of those phenomena, what we loosely call ‘the social’ is rather the result of what has been produced by types of connection (‘associations’ in my terminology) that are established by scientific, religious, political, technological, economical or legal connectors. If this theory (now called ‘Actor Network Theory’ or ‘ANT’) is even vaguely right, there is a paramount interest in defining, as precisely as possible, what it means to connect some association, let’s say, religiously, or scientifically, or politically, etc. The use of the adverbial form is crucial to the argument, since there may be a great gap between speaking about politics or religion and speaking politically or religiously. It’s much easier to understand, and it will become even clearer in what follows, that there is similarly an immense difference, very easy to grasp, between speaking about law and speaking legally. In the last thirty years, I have done much field work to define the scientific way of establishing connections: what I called ‘reference’. The book you are about to read is the Laboratory Life, not for the construction of facts, but for the construction of legal arguments (‘moyens de droit’). In the same way that I had been able to extract, from one admittedly limited set of case studies, a plausible definition of what it was to speak scientifically of some state of affairs, I have tried here, through another carefully devised set of ethnographic devices, to extract, to educe, to highlight a plausible definition of what it is to speak legally of a tort. My overall point, my general contention, is that we can’t possibly provide a positive anthropology of the Moderns (who, I remind you, have never been modern, but that is only a negative definition: what have they been, then?) as long as we don’t have a clear comparative study of the various ways in which the central institutions of our cultures produce truth. And clearly there are several types of felicity conditions for the various kinds of truth production (scientific, legal, religious, etc.) that define the former Moderns. There exists an inner pluralism in the way truth production is defined among the Moderns – which does not mean that they are indifferent to truth, quite the opposite. It is actually what makes law so interesting.”

Preface to Latour’s The Making of Law

inside_the_united_states_supreme_court

“…there is nothing about the Earth as Earth that we don’t know through the disciplines, instruments, mediations, and expansion of scientific networks: its size, its composition, its long history and so on. Even farmers depend on the special knowledge of agronomists, soil scientists and others. And this is even truer of the global climate: the globe by definition is not global but is, quite literally, a scale model that is connected through reliably safe networks to stations where data points are collected and sent back to the modellers. This is not a relativist point that could throw doubt on such science but a relationist tenet that explains the sturdiness of the disciplines that are to establish, multiply and do the upkeep of those connections.”

-Bruno Latour, “Waiting for Gaia”

More here.


“America and Me (for Ginsberg and Whitman)”

by Matthew T. Segall

 

America, you’ve given me everything

and now you are nothing.

 

America 21 trillion 114 billion dollars in debt

April 3rd 2018.

 

I no longer own my own mind.

 

America when will we end the

Earth War?

 

In 1956, Allen Ginsberg said

“Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb, America.”

 

In 1856, Walt Whitman still

heard America singing.

Squatters, nurses, train conductors,

carpenters, itinerant lecturers, masons, merchants,

shoemakers, farmers

singing.

He heard mothers

singing to children

and friends and families singing

strong patriotic songs.

He heard enslaved Americans,

souls singing and bodies dancing

on their one night in seven

of fire-lit freedom.

 

Whitman reminds us of the great

“plunges and throes and triumphs and falls of democracy,”

and he reminds us of that Great Family of nations

—the Nation of nations—

the Earth,

and he reminds us of

the greatness of the way

the Earth became what it is.

 

“Do you imagine Earth is stopped at this?,”

Whitman asks.

“Do you imagine its increase abandoned?”

 

Earth absorbs

every atom bomb,

every server farm,

every pipeline and every protest,

every birth and every death of

every being beneath the Sun,

and it weeps glacial tears

for the tragedy of our history.

 

And we Americans,

though less youthful and buoyant now,

still feel special,

believe ourselves exceptional,

defenders of freedom.

 

But what of the Earth Guardians,

what of the Water Protectors,

what of the buffalo and the bumblebee,

the salmon and the sequoia,

are they not Americans, too?

 

I am angry at you, America,

and you’ve gone so mad

only poetry can save you now.

 

America when will you awaken

from your dream?

 

You already stand stark naked before

the weary-eyed world,

all your top secrets leaked,

all your rigging and spying and droning

out in the open.

 

When will you look at yourself

through geostory,

When will you see yourself

though Gaia’s eyes?

 

When will you be worthy

of humankind and the

Earth Community?

 

America why are your cities so proud while

homeless men and women

sleep in tents

on the street

in the shadow of half-empty

high rises?

 

America why are your libraries empty?

America why are your elementary schools like prisons

and your universities like shopping malls?

America will you send your eggs to Palestine?

 

Why did Ginsberg dream of meeting Whitman

in a grocery store

and not a mushroom speckled meadow?

 

America why are all your forests on fire?

Why are your dollar bills green?

 

America where are your poets?

When will poets become

the acknowledged lawmakers of

our nation?

When will poets replace presidents

as our common referees?

Will America ever learn to

chant the Earth’s strophes?

Will we settle for

catastrophe?

 

America after all it is you and I

who must heal this world

and not the green God we pray to

on our trusty money.

 

America your machinery

is too much for my humanity.

 

I read Chomsky and Zinn

in college.

America your history

made me want to renounce

my citizenry

to become a rabbi

wandering in the wilderness of God.

 

There must be some

other way to heal

this wound.

 

Bernie Sanders is still

a Senator,

but the system is

so sinister.

 

We thought Trump was funny on TV

next to Little Marco

and Low Energy Jeb

and Lyin’ Ted,

but now he’s in DC

plotting wars

like business deals.

 

I’m trying to get to the point.

America stop pushing me,

I know what I’m doing.

 

America the plum blossoms are falling.

 

I haven’t read the news

in minutes,

every second

somebody caught lying,

stealing, cheating, shooting,

going on trial

for rape and murder.

 

America I’m addressing you.

 

Don’t let your emotional life

be run by CNN and Fox.

I’m obsessed with the news.

I read it every day.

The scrolling horrors staring back at me

as I flick at my phone screen

on the crowded Millbrae train.

I glance at all the phone screens around me

their numbing glow

obscuring the obscenity

of what they display.

 

America it’s not news

we’re all going to die one day.

 

America why is medicine so expensive?

Why is healthcare not a right?

 

America I feel sentimental

about democratic socialism.

 

America I used to be an anarchist when I was a kid

I’m not sorry.

I sat at my desk for nights on end

staring at the books on the shelf.

 

You should’ve seen me

reading Marx.

 

I smoke cannabis every chance I get.

 

My astrologer thinks I’m perfectly right.

 

I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.

 

America I still haven’t told you

what you did to my grandpa

after he came back

from fighting in

Germany and Japan.

 

America we’ve got a mission

but we’re missing the boat.

 

America I don’t pledge allegiance

to your flag.

 

America your star-spangled

and blood-spattered banner

deserves to unravel.

 

If we be patriots of some nation,

may it be the Earth Nation,

one nation under Sun, Moon, and Stars,

One People made of many,

all species called to congress.

 

America you’ve given me everything

and now I am nothing.

 

America give the Earth its freedom back.

Compost the Constitution.

Let democracy become creaturely.

America this is quite serious.

America this is the impression I get

after looking up from my screen.

America is this correct?

 

America the oceans

that once sheltered you

from waves of war

are rising.

 

As your empire evaporates,

take no hope in isolation.

Become an open home

of equal daughters, equal sons,

All, all alike endear’d,

grown, ungrown, young or old,

Become strong, ample, fair,

enduring, capable, rich,

Perennial with the Earth,

with Freedom, Law, and Love,

Become a grand, sane,

towering, seated Mother,

Chair’d in the adamant of Time.