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Did Atlantic pirates reinvent democracy?

Published on 30 August 2013
Updated on 06 March 2023

David GRABER is a favorite anthropologist of mine. He writes clearly and cleverly. And his insights are often arresting – even when (or precisely because) he does field work in contemporary society. He has written an interpretation of the phenomenon of direct action in North America, which is both amusing and worth pondering.[1]

An essay in the same collection takes on the fortunes of the term “democracy” in “Western” culture.[2] GRAEBER is a committed anarchist and post-modernist: he refuses to believe that ideas are begat from philosopher to philosopher in a “chain of intellectual being”. Rather, as the “structures of conjunctures” command, ideas are mined (they are “recuperated”) from intellectual middens and recycled in contemporary discourse. Often little more than the word is salvaged. This is what Eric HOBSBAWM calls the “invention of tradition”[3] a cultural phenomenon which is more than popularizing the millennial tradition of the Scottish kilt in the XIXth century (for commercial purposes), whose origin can be traced to 1726 or so.

His argument is that the creation of the Atlantic System in the XVIIth century destroyed numerous societies – in America and in West Africa. Migration also brought small communities to foreign shores. There was a mingling of cultures away from the power of the state: pirates, escaped slaves, colonists, adventurers, or whatever. People, and pirates, experimented with methods of self-rule. Yes, apparently pirates were vertically organized in battle, but reverted to horizontal forms of self-organization in their lairs. It is from this crucible that the experience of democracy – as self-rule – emerged: “They inhabited spaces of democratic improvisation, in which a jumbled amalgam of people, most of which with at least some initial experience of methods of communal self-governance, find themselves in new communities, outside the immediate supervision of the state.” (pg. 362)

This experience of democratic improvisation spread. More and more colonists, in many marginal or frontier situations away from state supervision, tasted the savor of democracy. Resistance, then rebellion against the mother-country state ensued. Revolution was successful. Alas, the emergent state was republican – a system of checks and balances designed to thwart democratic impulses and the despised “rule of the mob” which destroyed Athens.

I like this process, for it fits with the evolutionary experience of biology. Speciation tends to occur in small populations which, by chance, were separated from the main body. The chances of favorable mutations spreading in a small group and establishing themselves are greater than in a large population, which tends to be stable and revert to the mean. Genetic drift certainly plays a role (its role is sorely underestimated).

I also like the view that experience drives institutional and intellectual change, not the other way round. This is matched by the “trial and error” mode of natural selection. Only social behaviors that have proven themselves in preserving groups – I’d say in fostering self-domestication – survive. There is a subtle irony in all this: the “Western System” smashed traditional societies of the Atlantic rim. Out of the shards of these broken civilizations emerged new forms of government that destroyed the “new order”. This is akin to saying that the meteorite destroying the dinosaurs allowed mammals to emerge from their rat holes.

GRAEBER concludes: “These authors are searching for the origins of democracy precisely where they are least likely to find it: in the proclamations on the states that largely suppressed local forms of self-governance and collective deliberation, and the literary-philosophical tradition that justified their doing so.” (pg. 361) He may have a point.

Can we go a step further, and argue that the state – as system of organized violence according to GRAEBER – is a Bernard Machine that tends to replicate itself? Bernard Machines are homeostatic systems (see my 232). Termite mounds are perfect Bernard Machines allowing endless generations of termites to survive in a carefully modulated environment. Termites maintain the system by unvaryingly obeying simple physical laws that fit the system. By analogy, the state, once in place, should allow for self-replication – without change, or just minor corrective action (the role of the police). This is not the case, I’d conjecture. Speaking about the anti-globalization (and now the “occupy Wall Street” movement) he concludes: “the directive action approach was so effective that short-term goals were reached almost immediately”. He is right. The “Washington consensus” never recovered, and the issue of social inequality is square in the middle of current political discourse. Behavioral economics is replacing rational expectation economics. The Gini coefficient is in many politicians’ mind: he knows that he needs to compose with it.

I’d draw two conjectures: the first is the relentlessness of cultural innovation. No oppressive system lasts a long time: as power is organized vertically and delegated to the nether social groups, people grasp whatever they get from above to suit their own goals. Soon enough the basis nixes the elite’s intentions. We seldom simply endure or react: we innovate, and out of the experimentation social reality selects new way of doing things. The other conjecture is that the self-domestication compact, which humanity signed hundreds of thousands of years ago, when we became social (and even more, political) animals, remains the basis of society. The termite queen does not recognize the workers as part of the termite whole. She is the perfect autocrat using the workers to replicate the colony. But even the worst autocrats know their place as part of society. That’s why the worst died paranoiacs, like Stalin. Even he dreamt of leading his people to future bliss.

I used the term “conjecture”: why so? My point would be that theses like the ones advanced by GRAEBER have plausibility, but not causality written all over them. But once one moves away from verifiable causal links, over-determination accrues. GRAEBER and other historians have combed the historic evidence for signals of unrecorded social processes taking place. The Bostonians who threw tea into the Boston Harbor had disguised themselves as Indians. Was it a symbolic act, or just a fluke? GRAEBER’s historian friends find in significant. Who knows? Out of such threads one can create many weaving patterns. And let’s face it: plausibility has “self-serving” written all over it. We introspect: what is “plausible” is validated by our personal experience (we yell: “it makes sense” in a parody of Archimedes’ “eureka”).

Marx spoke of “bourgeois class”. He made it the centerpiece of his analysis. Ever the punctilious and meticulous selves, after WWII French Marxist historians went scurrying through the archives for evidence of an emerging “bourgeois class”. They were disappointed.[4] The French Annals School is predicated on the idea that long term forces are the true shapers of society and that “evenemental” history (kings and battles) only touches the surface of what moves society. I’d agree with the dismissal of kings and battles (I could never built a head of steam over Alexander the Macedonian). But can we see to the bottom of the sea for the underlying currents? I’m afraid it is just plausible speculation. In describing unknown lands the old maps said “hic sunt leones” – it could have been any other animal in the bestiary of barely imagined things.

Reading GRAEBER is necessary in order to shed blinkers and rosy-tinted spectacles we wear and which delude us into believing that we can make sense of reality. They are self-serving ideologies. But there is no other pair of them ready for use. We have to accept our short-sightedness, and imprecision, and relish the fact that it precisely this imprecision that challenges our creativity.

[1] David GRAEBER (2007): On the phenomenology of giant puppets: broken windows, imaginary jars of urine, and the cosmological role of the police in American culture. In: David GRAEBER (2007): Possibilities. Essays on hieraqrchy, rebellion, and desire. AK Press, Oakland, Cal.

[2] David GRABER (2007): There never was a West : or, democracy emerges from thev spaces in between. In op. cit.

[3] Eric HOBSBAWM – Terence RANGER (1988): The invention of tradition. Canto, Cambridge.

[4] See : Robrt DARNTON (2009) : The great cat massacre : and other episodes of French cultural history. Bais Books, New York.

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