Friday, October 26, 2018

Austerity Quickly Became Doubleplusungood

Fans of Nineteen Eighty Four will recall George Orwell’s presentation of his dystopia, Oceania, not as a razor-edged steel-and-concrete police world but as a squalid dump. Critics have observed that Orwell’s future London, with its decaying buildings, unrepaired bomb craters, and blocked drainpipes, was simply a more worn-out version of the London he lived in during the 1940s. Shortages and deterioration proved both ubiquitous and bearable during the Second World War, but Britons expected prosperity to return with peace. When postwar Britain had to tighten its collective belt*, it probably seemed to Orwell and his contemporaries that austerity would last forever. The privation suffered by Winston Smith and his fellow Oceanians bore more than a passing similarity to those witnessed by their real-world predecessors, forty years earlier.

"One Person's Rations, 1951," via
I was reminded of this while reading Victor Sebastyen’s recent chronicle 1946: The Making of the Modern World (Pantheon, 2014). Sebastyen writes that British citizens considered their wartime food rations “adequate and fair,” and above all temporary. A year after VE Day, however, rationing remained in effect. Indeed, the Food Ministry announced a large cut in rations in February 1946. Henceforth each adult would only be allowed to buy (for each member of the household) fifteen ounces of meat and cheese, a quart of milk, and a single egg each week. Two imported wartime foods, powdered eggs and rice, disappeared entirely. Worst of all, the Ministry underhandedly tried to cut bread consumption by reducing the “one-pound” and “two-pound” loaves by 2-4 ounces, while maintaining the old prices (pp. 68-69). One can see how persistent and deepening shortages of essential foods influenced 1984. Oceania’s fictional Party members subsisted on dirty gray bread and watery stew, ersatz coffee and acidic fake gin, a meager diet but one which British readers, sick of root vegetables and mock hamburger, would have found familiar. Orwell even threw in what may have been a backhanded reference to the ‘46 bread scandal. His Ministry of Plenty cut chocolate rations to twenty grams and later claimed it had actually raised the ration to twenty grams. Oceanians had to swallow the lie along with their reduced rations. Postwar Britain, at least, remained democratic: consumers saw through the bread ruse fairly easily, and Food Minister Ben Smith lost his job that May.    

* Thanks to a severe shortage of foreign currency and the curtailment of American loans.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Temporary Cities and Cyclical Hierarchies

David Graeber has received abundant praise this year for his new book Bullshit Jobs. It deserves the attention. For my money, though, the most intellectually exciting thing Graeber has written in 2018 was the essay he cowrote with David Wengrow in Eurozine, on the alleged origins of inequality and how its (false) history affects modern policy debates. “How to Change the Course of Human History” affects no false modesty. Wedding “big history” to radical social critique, the article offers both a new model of ethnohistorical interpretation and hope for the future of human societies. Not a lot of scholarship like that nowadays.

Wengrow and Graeber start by observing the sense of futility bred by modern studies of human social evolution. Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, and their imitators argue that social “progress” is both a one-way street and inseparable from the increasing concentration of wealth and power. Humans allegedly began their history as small, egalitarian bands, but as they developed agriculture, cities, and the rudiments of industry they necessarily embraced forms of specialization bound to enrich some and immiserate others. Moreover, these civilizational advances trapped human beings who developed them, much as a fishing weir snares a fish. Farmers, city-dwellers, or beneficiaries of an industrial revolution cannot abandon these innovations without depriving most of their enlarged population of work or food. As with human individuals, human societies cannot return to their historical childhood, even if doing so could alleviate poverty and inequality. Kings, robber barons, and one-percenters, in this framework, become necessary evils. The only alternatives to Pareto are Malthus or Hobbes.

The authors agree that this pessimistic, “realist” view of human history must appeal to at least some readers. To argue that struggles against inequality are futile or dangerous is to comfort the comfortable and empower the powerful. They also demonstrate, I think very persuasively, that this argument has little basis in historical reality. Go back to the Eurasian Pleistocene and one finds many of the features of more hierarchical, “civilized” societies: valuable luxury goods, like ivory beads, buried with (necessarily high-status) children, “micro-cities” where hunting bands came together to trade and feast and worship, and even monumental architecture, like the megaliths of Gobekli Tepe (9,000 BCE). Then come forward a few millennia to the early Holocene, and one finds early agricultural societies who retained their egalitarian social structure, and who, far from finding themselves caught in a Malthusian trap, were able to replace horticulture with gathering when it suits their interests. Examine early urban societies, like the Indus Valley culture and the Sumerians, and one finds little evidence of armies, personal monuments, or the other trappings of a political elite. Hunter-gatherer societies could develop gaudy hierarchies, and farmers and city-dwellers could pull them down. Civilization was not an antisocial trap but a social opportunity.

Graeber and Wengrow's thought-provoking article made one observation that particularly appealed to me: that societies can develop seasonal, cyclical hierarchies of rank and authority, and that we most commonly associate these shifting modes of social organization with Native Americans. At certain times of the year, usually spring and summer, the Inuit, Lakotas, and Pacific Northwest nations dispersed into small bands in order to fish and hunt. In the colder months, they assembled into large-scale winter meeting houses, massive hunting encampments, and chiefly towns, there to exchange gifts and contract marriages. Among the Inuit, the mobile hunting bands were patriarchal and the winter meetings more egalitarian; among Indians in western North America, the reverse held true. In each case, however, neither cities (or large-scale settlements, if you prefer) nor rulers were permanent parts of the physical and social landscape. This cyclical social pattern also pertained in the Ohio Valley during the Hopewell era (200 BCE to 500 CE). As I learned while writing my recent book, the Hopewell people lived most of the year in dispersed settlements, but assembled part of the year to hold ceremonies and build mounds and monuments for their elite. Their elite may have had considerable economic power, but according to Matthew Coons, commoners appear to have had the means to challenge their authority. The Hopewell culture lasted rather longer than later Native American cultures which built more permanent cities and towns and had less challenge-able ruling classes, like the Mississippian city-states exemplified by Cahokia. Given that the problems Cahokia encountered - resource exhaustion and an increasingly self-absorbed leadership - grew out of its fixed geographic location and fixed hierarchy, the more flexible arrangements of the Hopewellians may have contributed to their comparative longevity.*

* The Mississippian culture as a whole actually lasted for about six centuries, but larger cities had significantly shorter lifespans, about 200 years or so in Cahokia's case.  The Ancestral Puebloan culture (900-1300 CE) of western New Mexico is perhaps a better comparative example.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Quote of the Week

Students of the early American republic will probably remember the highly-conditional emancipationist sentiments Thomas Jefferson expressed in Notes on the State of Virginia (1782). The state should abolish slavery, TJ wrote, but African-American freedmen should not be permitted to remain in the Commonwealth, lest they try to take vengeance on their former masters or - perhaps worse, in Jefferson's eyes - marry them.* This was a common enough sentiment among whites in the contemporary upper South, one which would help inspire the colonization movement of the early nineteenth century.

Lest we think that only Virginia slaveholders held such views, however, let us attend to the words of Governor James Sullivan (1744-1808) of Massachusetts, who expressed Jefferson's idea in more allegorical (and more memorable) language:

"We have in history but one picture of a similar enterprise [colonization], and there we see it was necessary not only to open the sea by a miracle for them** to pass, but more necessary to close it again to prevent their return." (Quoted in Eva Wolf, Race and Liberty in the New Nation [LSU Press, 2006], 128.) 

Nothing like a little anti-semitism to help wash down the racism, I guess.

* TJ did not extend his opposition to interracial liaisons to himself and his own human property. Rules are for other people.

** For those unsure about the identity of "them," see Exodus 14: 21-29.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Cardboard Shoes

In my childhood I wrote several small books - handmade, stick-figure-illustrated - as gifts for family members. My parents didn’t think much of these, but my grandmother Eleanor (1918-2004) wrote me a nice thank-you letter for one of them, “Marvin Mouse on the Orient Express.”* She particularly liked that I mapped and followed the route of the actual Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul, but

“I wish you had given more description of Yugoslavia, a beautiful country. But the people there are very poor, they work very hard and when I was there I was appalled to see that their shoes were made of cardboard. I was only in two cities: Beograd the capital and Dubrovnik on the Sea. In Beograd where the Sava River and the Danube River join together I saw the ladies (in their paper shoes and poor clothing) doing street cleaning and hard construction work.”

I think she was more shocked by women doing construction work than anything else. She continues:

“I remember when our train from Vienna crossed from beautiful, prosperous Austria into poor Yugoslavia - poorly painted houses, horse-drawn carts, poorly dressed people plodding along the muddy roads, lugging cardboard boxes of their possessions.” (January 10, 1980)

My grandparents’ visit to Yugoslavia probably occurred around 1970, and took them through some of the more prosperous parts of that former republic: Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia. I do not think she would find it recognizable today: living standards have risen, the cardboard shoes have (I suspect) largely vanished, and the blight of poverty has become less noticeable. On the other hand, the Yugoslav successor republics still bear the scars, psychological if not physical, of the civil war that eliminated the old federation. Historical change isn’t a vector quantity: people’s collective levels of happiness and misery can move in multiple directions at once.

* I’m afraid no-one was murdered in my version. I didn’t read the original until I was in my forties, and all I knew of the movie was that the ‘75 version was on TV a lot. 

 Images: Yugoslav 50-dinar note (1968) via The Yugoslav flag is in the public domain.