Hierarchy, Equality, and Culture
humans are social animals
After reading David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything, which is a kind of Moby-Dick hunt for the great white whale of egalitarian societies in our past, I am starting into Graeber’s earlier work, Debt, in which we are to understand that debt sits at the very foundation of domination and oppression. I couldn’t take it any more: I went back and reread My Girl George Eliot’s Adam Bede.
I have a great weakness for 19th century authors like Dickens, son of a gubmint clerk, Eliot, daughter of an “estate manager,” the guy that keeps the trains running on time on a landed estate, and Hardy, son of a stonemason. It is because they give us educated-class swells a glimpse of another world, a world that is gone forever.
And it is a world rather different than the one lefties like Graeber want us to believe in.
We like to think of the agricultural world as one of rigid hierarchy. And so it is. But it is more accurate to speak of people living in two different worlds, two different cultures.
Rereading Adam Bede I am struck most of all by the culture of the tenant farmers like the Poysers and the skilled carpenters — ahem — like Adam Bede. Eliot wants us to know that these subordinates had their own highly developed culture, and very definite ideas about virtue and honor. They were not understrappers of the landed elite; they lived in their own world by their own rules. On the one hand, they certainly knew that the landowners were the boss. But their lives seldom intersected with the rich, even though they all got to see each other on Sunday in church.
The story of Adam Bede turns upon the seduction of a very pretty but very empty-headed teenage girl, Hetty, by the handsome but foolish son of the manor. She gets pregnant, but cannot face her aunt, Mrs Poyser, and so goes off in search of the father, who’s an officer in the army. But on the journey she gives birth and then hides the baby, which then dies. So she is tried for murder.
The shame of this to the Poysers and to Adam Bede is indescribable. The Poysers feel that they will have to leave their village and go somewhere else, because of the shattering of their honor. Adam Bede, who is as stalwart and worthy a person as Eliot can imagine, is utterly broken by the events: he thought he was going to marry Hetty, and is now humiliated; for she has tainted him with her guilt.
Here’s a point. In his hour of need, Adam Bede is succored by the grumpy old crippled teacher Bartle Massey. And Hetty is succored by the veritable saint, Dinah Morris. How does that square with any political or domination narrative?
I raise this to measure against the Graeber narrative, which does not give the people below the political elite any agency. He assumes — takes it as given — that without an egalitarian society the vast majority of people in society are just props on the stage of the elite.
There is no doubt that ordinary people, perhaps more in our current society than in olden times, are very much subordinate to the rulers. The rulers order us around; they write the books; they make the movies; they send us off to fight their stupid wars; they set the agenda.
And yet, when we go home from work we live in our own world, our own family, and the front door is closed to the state and its minions. We have the power to live in our own world and develop our own culture and just ignore the educated swells that want to dominate us.
Now, our lefty friends are outraged at hierarchy and domination and dream of a world where all are equal: “Equality Hurts No One” says the yard sign.
But, of course, if equality is enforced, as it is all through the world of liberal democracy, then it is not equality, but domination and oppression.
And then, because the promised equality does not appear, the rulers double down on enforcing equality; they reach down and interfere in every kind of transaction they can imagine. By which process they make society even more unequal.
The point is that, before any system or narrative or story of the world so far, is the fact of humans as social animals, and the culture that grows up in their social interactions.
We should pay far more attention to the ordinary culture of everyday people. Because that is where humans live and have their being. And in our individual worlds, away from the bosses and the enforcers, we men are men, and the women are women, and the kids are kids.
And we live our lives in much greater independence from the swells, and have the power to change the world much more than they can imagine.