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 organisation 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 dominance of war opponents, and dominance behaviours, 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 acceptable within one’s own ‘tribe’ or ‘nation’. And in some cases (like ours) they then 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 really fucked us up.

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

Most indigenous cultures that 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, and ultimately the decision on what to do is left up to each adult individual’s discretion, and is respected even when considered unwise.

If we didn’t live in a culture that encourages and rewards (with the best of intentions) argument, competitiveness, coercion, dishonesty, and propaganda, 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 be producing horrific suffering among the poor, and leading to economic and resource collapse even when there is arguably sufficient for everyone.

If we lived in a healthy culture, one 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 in how to live together functionally in community, this civilization is destined for a hard fall. I believed that, based on my study of complex systems, even before I abandoned my belief that we have free will.

I don’t believe we are meant to govern each other. I think the Davids’ work suggests that collaborative governance is possible, and that temporary roles that have 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, and history suggests we’re not capable of the massive and rapid cultural changes that would be necessary to rediscover how to create and sustain functional communities and societies, mostly self-governed.

This is our conditioned behaviour, 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 for it. I don’t think you can get there from here.

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4 Responses to Not Meant to Govern Each Other

  1. I think governance is a context dependant response. In the nathro-complexity world we talk about “governing constraints” pertaining to ordered problems and “enabling constraints” pertaining to complex problems. Expertise, electrical engineering, is important for building an electrical grid and governance that restricts emergent practice is very helpful for running an electrical grid safely.

    But beyond that, I think we can afford ourselves, and the world around us, the freedom to operate within the bio-physical constraints imposed by the planet. We have learned to craft life giving contexts for action and community, but the power of control often benefits those who hold that power and I think that power like that perverts the ontological realities of living within the enabling constraints of our environments.

    We’re not doing that. And the attempt to live beyond our means will result in increasingly tight governing constraints as we try to control the ever more severe effects of the catastrophic collapse of illusory order. And then they will break. And something will happen, and I reckon our descendants – if we have any – will get much smarter about enabling constraints and ontologically aligned choice-making than we all are now.

  2. Andrew McEwen says:

    David’s and Wengrow’s book is important to emphasise the realm of what is possible along with Riane Eisler and Douglas Fry’s “Nurturing our Humanity” and Jeremy Lents “The Patterning instinct and “The Web of Meaning all of them open up the possibility of a quantum leap in cultural evolution at the crisis this point to a collaborative empathic civilisation.

    But cultural change of itself will not be sufficient without a revolution in the production and consumption system post capitalism. We need to shift back to a peer-to-peer system of community production and exchange away from the market economy and back to the gift economy.

    The return of mutualism and a gift economy based on bioregional limits is both possible and potentially exhilarating. That is not to deny the current trajectory and the unwillingness of the system to confront its own hubris will lead inevitably into a civilization crisis. The question will be is it dramatic crisis as Homer-Dixon argues of interlocking deep catagenic crises that leads to chaos despair and collapse or will there be enough time and engagement (25% of society) to get to a social tipping point the institutes some of the changes that Graeber and Lent and Eisler argue it is possible in a low EROI environment to have a high quality life within sustainable limits.
    Andrew McEwen ecolore1@bigpond.com

  3. Philip says:

    Go Dave with seeing the world as it is -we are not meant to govern each other alright……we got some rules to follow, this and that, these and those. Nietzsche mentions the bargain we make to exchange what we really would like to do for the benefits of civilization. With increasing scarcity of stability in resources and quality of environment, will come more severe forms of governance. No transformation can be made, our myths are broken and no new myth can arise that would enable sound governance. Our cries for leadership but distrust in authority show we are really made for a different time to the world we find ourselves in.

  4. Paul Reid-Bowen says:

    Dave, you may like this short commentary on The Dawn of Everything by a fellow eco-philosopher Adrian Ivakhiv, which usefully highlights some of its shortfalls, perhaps most notably the lack of space for ecology and ecological determinants. https://blog.uvm.edu/aivakhiv/2022/07/21/eco-querying-the-dawn-of-everything/

    There is also a link to a talk by Adrian from last year pertaining to the time of the Anthropocene, which is worth thirty or so more one’s time if searching for some further ecological food for thought. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FrIQ3WRF4NA

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