Not Meant to Govern Each Other

The late David Graeber talks with Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, image from London Real (2015)

The gradually accelerating collapse of our economic and financial systems, political systems, health and education systems, essential infrastructure, civil discourse, and of course our climate and ecological systems, and our utter incapacity to make them more than marginally and temporarily functional, has me thinking about governance.

Here’s how governance is defined:

Governance encompasses the system by which an organization or society is controlled and operates and the mechanisms by which it and its people are held to account. Ethics, risk management, compliance, and administration are all elements of governance.

From reading the two Davids’ extraordinary book on past human cultures, The Dawn of Everything, it would seem that scale isn’t necessarily an impediment to functional governance. But likewise:

  • Large human settlements (cities and nations) have historically more often been networks of collaboration and exchange than complex, hierarchical structures and certainly don’t have to be organized top-down; they are often confederacies of highly-autonomous small groups (what indigenous cultures call “Nations”).
  • Part of the global acrimony we are dealing with today arises from the feeling we’re ‘stuck’ with existing political structures and that there are no longer any alternatives to them, which stems from a failure to understand history and its alternative structures and a failure of imagination.
  • War isn’t necessarily a part of civilizations and has often been absent for centuries, even since the invention of agriculture. But it’s possible that when war arose, the learnings about the dominance of war opponents, and dominance behaviors, were then brought back and applied domestically in peace-time, and that is how slavery, oppression, incarceration, and other (arguably unnecessary and dysfunctional) aspects of hierarchical cultures came to be accepted within one’s own ‘tribe’ or ‘nation’. And in some cases (like ours) they became considered inevitable and essential to the functioning of the tribe or nation. In short, war, and a culture of sustained aggression, sustained violence, and ruthless competitiveness, are unnatural and have fucked us up.

But that’s where we are. What interests me is whether we are now essentially ungovernable, why, and is governance even a natural aspect of human societies?

Most indigenous cultures we know about are not governed according to the above definition. There are respected members of the community, often elders, who are listened to more attentively than others, but everyone has a voice. Ultimately, the decision on what to do is left up to each adult individual’s discretion and is respected even when considered unwise.

Suppose we didn’t live in a culture that encourages and rewards (with the best of intentions) argument, competitiveness, coercion, dishonesty, and propaganda. In that case, it is, I think, unlikely that the debacle of CoVid-19 would ever have happened. It is unlikely that we would have destroyed the natural environment to the point of ushering in the sixth great extinction of life on the planet. It is unlikely that massive inequality would produce horrific suffering among the poor, leading to economic and resource collapse even when it is arguably sufficient for everyone.

If we lived in a healthy culture without these attributes, then, if the Davids are correct, we would be thriving today.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t share the Davids’ optimism that we can still choose to change, abandon, or reinvent our culture to make it healthy. I think that was a possible trajectory at one point (long ago), but it is now far too late. We are locked in, and while we may be able to conduct some healthy experiments on how to live together functionally in a community, this civilization is destined for a hard fall. Based on my study of complex systems, I believed that even before I abandoned my belief that we have free will.

I don’t believe we are meant to govern each other. I think Davids’ work suggests that collaborative governance is possible and that temporary roles with hierarchical aspects, where the person most trusted to make decisions rotates or that role is eventually eliminated as no longer necessary, can assist in creating a functional society. These are all examples of short-term bottom-up granting of power. Top-down power and governance, based on wealth or heredity, is, I think, inherently dysfunctional and inevitably leads to intolerable inequality, supremacism, and oppression.

But that’s what we’re stuck with. History suggests we’re incapable of the massive and rapid cultural changes necessary to rediscover how to create and sustain functional communities and societies, mostly self-governed.

This is our conditioned behavior, and that conditioning is now being effectively passed down to, and entrenched in, each new generation.

It would be nice to believe the Davids’ optimistic view of our potential for rapid cultural transformation, but I see no evidence. I don’t think you can get there from here.

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