Category Archives: Psychology

“INDIGENOUS PERSPECTIVES” PODCAST: Interview with Peter d’Errico about his new book: Federal Anti-Indian Law: The Legal Entrapment of Indigenous Peoples *

“Indian Law Turf Wars: Contesting Native Lands and History” : “Indigenous Perspectives” Monthly Broadcast on HealthyLife.Net, # 23– October 27, 2022. **


PDF TRANSCRIPT : “23.IndianLawTurfWars” – available from: [accessed Nov 03 2022].

Image credit: Emma Cassidy/Survival Media Agency Creative Commons license.

* Federal Anti-Indian Law: The Legal Entrapment of Indigenous Peoples, by Peter d’Errico. Praeger, 2022.

** This a part of ECOLOGIA‘s Native American and Indigenous Paths to Environmental Resilience program and one of several podcasts and print transcripts focused on the challenges to and emerging opportunities for indigenous people to take control of environmental affairs on their own lands and on contested lands.

Old Praise for Ursula LeGuin

In August 2019, Siobhan Leddy wrote a thoughtful little essay, “We should all be reading more Ursula Le Guin.” She said, “Her novels imagine other worlds, but her theory of fiction can help us better live in this one.” Here’s a quote:

“The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” an essay Le Guin wrote in 1986, disputes the idea that the spear was the earliest human tool, proposing that it was actually the receptacle. Questioning the spear’s phallic, murderous logic, instead Le Guin tells the story of the carrier bag, the sling, the shell, or the gourd. In this empty vessel, early humans could carry more than can be held in the hand and, therefore, gather food for later. Anyone who consistently forgets to bring their tote bag to the supermarket knows how significant this is. And besides, Le Guin writes, the idea that the spear came before the vessel doesn’t even make sense. “Sixty-five to eighty percent of what human beings ate in those regions in Paleolithic, Neolithic, and prehistoric times was gathered; only in the extreme Arctic was meat the staple food.” Not only is the carrier bag theory plausible, it also does meaningful ideological work — shifting the way we look at humanity’s foundations from a narrative of domination to one of gathering, holding, and sharing.

Yes, LeGuin is an important writer! I’ve read a lot of her books and in every one found a deep understanding of life as well as a good story that teaches lessons. She seamlessly weaves anthropology and science fiction into perspectives that shed light on history, politics, economics, enlivening those staid and sometimes pompous disciplines.

But let me pick a few nits with Leddy. Well, not exactly nits, because I think they are of some significance to understanding LeGuin and her relevance to Leddy’s project.

  • She uses that terrible word ’stakeholder’ to refer to members of a community:

While, in reality, most meaningful social change is the result of collective action, we aren’t very good at recounting such a diffusely distributed account. The meetings, the fundraising, the careful and drawn-out negotiations — they’re so boring! Who wants to watch a movie about a four-hour meeting between community stakeholders?

No wonder she says it’s boring: “Stakeholder” washes out the juice and truth of “collective action”. The OED ties ’stakeholder’ to money, finance, and business: “A person, company, etc., with a concern or (esp. financial) interest in ensuring the success of an organization, business, system, etc.”; “An independent person or organization with whom money is deposited, esp. when a number of people make a bet or other financial transaction.” These are not the dynamics of a community.

See Vine Deloria, God is Red, describing American towns: “Very few political subdivisions are in fact communities. They are rather transitory locations for the temporary existence of wage earners.”⁠ ’Stakeholders’ appropriately describes residents in such places, but not in the communities imagined by LeGuin. 

  • Leddy gets the meaning of community here:

 The carrier bag gatherer, meanwhile, is no lone genius (genius being its own kind of heroism, after all), but rather someone rooted in a shared existence.

  • Leddy gets some other things spot on — ’nature’ is not our adversary (even though many natural forces challenge us); ‘domination’ is self-defeating:

We will not “beat” climate change, nor is “nature” our adversary. If the planet could be considered a container for all life, in which everything — plants, animals, humans — are all held together, then to attempt domination becomes a self-defeating act. By letting ourselves “become part of the killer story,” writes Le Guin, “we may get finished along with it.” All of which is to say: we have to abandon the old story.

But as for ‘abandoning the old story,’ I think people will only be able to do that when they see that the ‘killer story’ has abandoned them, turned on them, come to its logical conclusion. The killer story includes the reduction of ‘community’ to ‘stake-holding’; notice the examples from the OED, where the dominator actors promote ’stake holding’ as a ‘new’ story:  

stakeholder economy n. originally British Politics an economy regarded or conceived of as giving all members of society a stake in its success.
1994    W. Hutton in  Guardian 31 Oct. 10/5   Instead of the winner-take-all economy and polity, the aim should be a stakeholder economy and polity in which all have an interest.
1996    Daily Tel. 8 Jan. 4/1   Tony Blair will today begin to map out the main themes of Labour’s campaign pitch for the next general election. He promises to develop a ‘stakeholder economy’ in which everyone can participate.
2003    New Straits Times (Malaysia) (Nexis) 13 Mar. 12   This will encourage more participation and, consequently, move the country closer to a stakeholder economy.

P.S. You can read “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” courtesy of The Anarchist Library, at

BOOK PUBLISHED: Federal Anti-Indian Law: The Legal Entrapment of Indigenous Peoples

Book Cover: Federal Anti-Indian Law

September 27, 2022, Praeger, ABC-CLIO

Hardcover: 978-1-4408-7921-0
eBook Available: 978-1-4408-7922-7

Publisher’s Description

In 2020, in McGirt v. Oklahoma Justice Neil Gorsuch said Congress has “authority to breach its own promises and treaties” with Native nations based on “Christian discovery” precedents.

Telling the crucial and under-studied story of the U.S. legal doctrines that underpin the dispossession and domination of Indigenous peoples, this book intends to enhance global Indigenous movements for self-determination.

In this wide-ranging historical study of federal Indian law—the field of U.S. law related to Native peoples—attorney and educator Peter P. d’Errico argues that the U.S. government’s assertion of absolute prerogative and unlimited authority over Native peoples and their lands is actually a suspension of law.

Combining a deep theoretical analysis of the law with a historical examination of its roots in Christian civilization, d’Errico presents a close reading of foundational legal cases and raises the possibility of revoking the doctrine of domination. The book’s larger context is the increasing frequency of Indigenous conflicts with nation-states around the world as ecological crises caused by industrial extraction impinge drastically on Indigenous peoples’ existences. D’Errico’s goal is to rethink the role of law in the global order—to imagine an Indigenous nomos of the earth, an order arising from peoples and places rather than the existing hegemony of states.


  • Combines a deep theoretical analysis of the law with historical perspective
  • Argues that federal Indian law is an exception from regular legal processes
  • Offers a global Indigenous perspective on human civilization
  • Provides analysis from an attorney and educator with decades of experience in federal Indian law


Federal Anti-Indian Law is a gut-wrenching analysis. My whole career grappled with the contradictions d’Errico illuminates and dissects. One finally comes to understand Louise Erdrich’s rotten noodles metaphor for U.S. laws that dominate Indigenous Peoples.” —Sarah W. Barlow, Retired Attorney, Albuquerque, NM

“In this ground-breaking work, d’Errico launches a frontal attack on the whole field of American law pertaining to Indigenous Peoples. He exposes not only the racism, but also the Christian discovery roots of federal domination of the Indian nations, and then goes beyond criticism, offering a way out of this unacceptable situation. This book is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand American history and the questionable basis for U.S. sovereignty.” —Kent McNeil, Distinguished Research Professor (Emeritus), Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto, Canada

“This book covers an enormous area of historical and modern-day federal Indian law, which the author calls ANTI-Indian law. Like an iconoclast in the truest sense of the word, d’Errico attacks the colonial foundations of Indian law and challenges professors, historians, Indian nations’ leaders, and tribal attorneys to stop relying on Supreme Court case law that is built on disastrous premises and instead to resist and reverse these foundational principles.”—Robert James Miller, Professor, Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University

Federal Anti-Indian Law provides a significant contribution in establishing a proper context in which to engage in the exercise of identity. Governmental representation at all levels, academia at all levels, and anyone who ‘cares’ about the Original Free Nations and Peoples of this land should have a better understanding of who these nations and peoples are and where they come from. ‘Where are we all going?’ is the real question. This book represents a contribution of the type of ‘truthful’ and ‘respectful’ communication that is absolutely necessary to know where the future will collectively lead us.” —JoDe Goudy (Yakama Nation), Owner,

Federal Anti-Indian Law is a paradigm-shattering work. Professor d’Errico has spent decades teaching, studying, and reflecting upon the system of ideas the U.S. government has used to establish its claim of a right of domination over the original nations and peoples of the continent.” —Steven T. Newcomb, Director, Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery 

“Many Americans have never heard of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery or understood how the federal government retains nearly unlimited authority over Native lands and nations. Professor d’Errico explains how, even today, Indigenous Peoples in the United States live under an ‘exception’ to U.S. law—an eye-opening revelation for many readers. Federal Anti-Indian Law is an accessible read that reveals the interplay of law with history and should not be limited to legal classrooms—it’s an important and enlightening book for all people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.”—Robert Maxim II (Mashpee Wampanoag), Senior Research Associate, Brookings Institution 

“Covering nearly every influential legislative act, legal decision, and federal policy, Peter d’Errico does not take a ‘bird’s eye view’ of U.S. Indian law, but brings us down to the ground, revealing a vast, long, and lucid view of the quagmire of ‘anti-Indian law,’ a system designed to dispossess and dominate, which rests on the ancient foundation of the Christian doctrine of discovery. Under his acute analysis, and with engaged storytelling, the shaky foundation beneath the system gives way, opening more sustainable paths to a just future.”—Lisa Brooks, Henry S.Poler ’59 Presidential Teaching Professor of English and American Studies, Amherst College; Author of Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War

About the Author

Peter d’Errico, JD (LLB) is professor emeritus of legal studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he has taught for more than 30 years. He is a member of the New Mexico Bar and was staff attorney at Dinébe’iiná Náhiiłna be Agha’diit’ahii (Navajo Legal Services). He has litigated Indigenous land and fishing rights as well as Native spiritual freedom rights in prisons, and he consulted of-counsel in other Native cases. He is a regular presenter of online seminars about Indigenous peoples’ legal issues at and elsewhere, including National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institutes for Teachers on “Teaching Native American Histories.”

In Praise of Liberty and Mutual Aid: A short review of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2021).

In Praise of Liberty and Mutual Aid: A short review of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2021).

By Peter d’Errico *

The Dawn of Everything, a “new history of humanity” by David Graeber and David Wengrow, an anthropology and archaeology research team, joins a burgeoning global awareness that life on Earth is in social and ecological crisis and that the crisis is tied to the system of industrial state corporate society. The book’s contribution is to help us understand why we are having a difficult time figuring a way out of the mess. The reason, they say, is that our thinking is trapped by belief in the story that modern corporate state society is the end state of human evolution, the inevitable result of “progress” from “barbarism” to “civilization.” The obstacle to thinking of alternatives to the current organization of society is a belief that there is no alternative to this organization. 

This belief dominates received opinion. Francis Fukuyama, in the heady days of US self-congratulation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said we are at the “end of history.” Recently, even as ecological data confirmed that the current social system is problematic, Jared Diamond persists in promoting the view that it is “unrealistic,” because of “biogeographical” factors, to expect to live without “kings, presidents, and bureaucrats” except in “some tiny band or tribe.” He insists on this limiting view even though the event he presumes caused the dilemma, the so-called “agricultural revolution,” is “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” If we believe received wisdom, we can only conclude there is no way out of a world out of balance.

Speaking of Fukuyama and Diamond, Graeber and Wengrow say, “The truly remarkable thing is that, despite the self-assured tone, such pronouncements are not actually based on any kind of scientific evidence…. There is simply no reason to believe that small-scale groups are especially likely to be egalitarian—or, conversely, that large ones must necessarily have kings, presidents or even bureaucracies.” Notions of a “necessary” human evolution from small-scale egalitarian to large-scale hierarchical societies “are just so many prejudices dressed up as facts, or…laws of history.” 

The Dawn of Everything is a riposte to received wisdom. But The Dawn is not a polemic. It is a detailed survey of scientific data about ancient human civilizations from archaeological and anthropological investigations that have only recently become possible (archaeobotany, DNA analysis, “statistical frequencies of health indicators from ancient burials,” etc.). The conclusions they draw from this data are directed against all stories of irreversible historical inevitability, those derived from Rousseau’s notion of an original human egalitarianism ruined by the “agricultural revolution” and those tied to Hobbes’s proposition of an original “nasty, brutish” humanity rescued by “sovereign government.”  The Dawn rejects both versions on the grounds that they “simply aren’t true; have dire political implications; [and] make the past needlessly dull.” 

These three analytical categories shape the authors’ overall approach and tone of the book: First, occupying the greatest portion of the book, is the scientific data; second are discussions of political implications of various readings of history; third are speculations aimed to enliven our “sense of human possibility.” The authors suggest that our “future now hinges on our capacity to create something different” and they ask a question to motivate readers through the nearly 700 pages of text: “What if, instead of …[repeating the conventional story], we ask how we came to be trapped in such tight conceptual shackles that we can no longer even imagine the possibility of reinventing ourselves?” 

The book’s opening salvo is, “Most people rarely think about the broad sweep of human history anyway.” The authors then declare their intention to go where most people don’t go, to take up “the sort of grand dialogue about human history that was once quite common.” In fact, as the authors quickly make clear, lots of people do talk about human history, “from industrial psychologists to revolutionary theorists…[to] popular writers.” The problem, they say, is that the talk generally shares the same “foundational story… the prevalent ‘big picture’ of history [that]…has almost nothing to do with the facts.” They embark on the task of backing up their assertion by exposing the ethnographic and historical assumptions incorporated into the dominant story of human evolution to state-of-the-art scientific work. The result, they promise, will not simply be a catalog of new data, but “a conceptual shift” in thinking about the “notion of social evolution,” a shift “retracing…the idea that human societies could be arranged according to stages of development…hunter-gatherers, farmers, urban-industrial society, and so on.”

Ursula Le Guin [“Books Aren’t Just Commodities” (National Book Awards Speech, 2014)] also reminded us of human possibility and the power of conceptual shifts to motivate historical change: “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.” 

I approached The Dawn of Everything with a view to bolster my own work studying Indigenous peoples’ legal issues, a field I’ve been working for more than 50 years. From that perspective, rooted in scholarly study and personal experience, I long ago realized the falsity of the Anglo-European proclamation of civilizational superiority. I wasn’t looking for “proof” that Indigenous peoples of the past built sophisticated societies and grappled with complicated social problems. I understood that Indigenous perspectives about human society today offer valuable alternatives to the political economy of industrial extraction and “wealth production.” I knew Rousseau’s “noble savage” and Hobbes’s “brute” were efforts to bracket and come to terms with evidence of alternative modes of human existence from the “New World.” I had already done what Graeber and Wengrow decide to do: “To move away from European thinkers like Rousseau entirely and instead consider perspectives that derive from those indigenous thinkers who ultimately inspired them.” 

The authors’ core thesis is that the story of a “necessary” human evolution from “barbaric tribes” to “civilized states” was produced by European writers to rationalize the great differences between their societies and the societies “discovered” in the “New World.” The Dawn refers to this process as Europeans responding to the “Indigenous critique,” ideas put forward by Indigenous people criticizing European Christian civilization. The most significant reports of the Indigenous critique were provided by Jesuits and other missionaries in the Northeast Woodlands region: That Native peoples are very generous with one another, that there’s no one who goes hungry within their communities unless everyone is hungry, that there are no beggars within their communities and no jails. The reports also noted that Indigenous chiefs only have authority in as far as they’re eloquent, and that no one will do anything when ordered to do so unless they find it agreeable. Scandalized missionaries reported that Indigenous women had full control over their bodies; colonial authorities noted that women often took part in Indigenous governance. 

Public figures in Europe directly encountered the Indigenous critique from Natives visiting Paris, London, and other cities, who saw beggars in the streets and attributed this to a lack of charity on the part of the Europeans, condemning them for it. The contrasts between European hierarchy and domination, selfishness and greed, and the way of life of Indigenous peoples had a profound impact in Western thinking and was one of the major streams of thought flowing into the Enlightenment. 

In a nutshell, The Dawn of Everything says the theory of human evolution from “barbarism to civilization” was developed specifically to defend European feudal societies against the overall Indigenous critique. Europeans were shaken by the unmistakable openness and fluidity of Northeast Woodlands Indigenous societies and the paradoxical (to Europeans) combination of Indigenous insistence on individual autonomy with an equally strong insistence on group solidarity. The central theme of the European arguments was that individual autonomy and self-determined group cohesion were viable only among “primitive” peoples and had to be abandoned as humans “evolved.” Followers of Rousseau and Hobbes alike argued that “advanced civilization” was “necessary” in human “development” and that the life of “tribes” was doomed by this necessary “progress.” 

The Dawn notes that Europeans did not perceive such dangerous ideas from the Aztec and Inca, whose urban civilizations and empires rivalled Europe. Neither did they bother to figure out how their theory of “human progress” could explain such “advanced” Indigenous societies. The only explanation they needed to combat such peoples was the “heathen and infidel” argument that, with religious notes, also composed a hierarchical scale putting European Christendom at the top. 

The eventual outgrowth of European defense against the Indigenous critique produced a combination of “human evolution” and the doctrine of a “right of Christian discovery,” a combination adopted into US law in 1823 by the Supreme Court decision in Johnson v. McIntosh. Justice Joseph Story [Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833)] characterized that decision as “…the title of the Indians was not treated as a right of propriety and dominion; but as a mere right of occupancy. As infidels, heathen, and savages, they were not allowed to possess the prerogatives belonging to absolute, sovereign and independent nations. … The territory, over which they wandered, and which they used for their temporary and fugitive purposes, was, in respect to Christians, deemed, as if it were inhabited only by brute animals.” (Not surprisingly, “Christian discovery” originated as a Portuguese “right” to the African slave trade in 1452.)

That doctrine and the “evolution” story remain dominant at the legal foundation of contemporary US claims of inevitable supremacy. Recent examples include City of Sherrill v. Oneida Nation (2005), where Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said: “Under the ‘doctrine of discovery,’ …fee title to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign—first the discovering European nation and later the original States and the United States….” [she denied Oneida land ownership]; and McGirt v. Oklahoma (2020), where Justice Neil Gorsuch said Congress has “authority to breach its own promises and treaties” with Native nations, based on “Christian discovery” precedents [he said Congress had not done this yet with the Creek Nation, but “remains free to …[do so] at any time”].

Indigenous critique also persists in the 21st century, including: Idle No More (founded 2012)— Led by women, with a call for “refounded nation-to-nation relations… a movement for Indigenous rights and the protection of land, water, and sky”; Independent Lakota Nation Declaration on Lakota Nationhood and the Dakota Access Pipeline Conflict (2016)— “We do not recognize United States or state permits to gather, pray, or otherwise demonstrate our cultural, social, and political institutions on our own aboriginal lands”; Yakama Nation amicus in Washington State v. Cougar Den (2018)—”The Court should expressly repudiate the doctrine [of Christian discovery] and instead rely on the Yakama Treaty”; Manoomin,, v. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, (Case No. GC21-0428 in White Earth Tribal Court, 2021)—”an action for declaratory and injunctive relief to declare Manoomin, or wild rice, within all the Chippewa ceded territories is protected and possesses inherent rights to exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve, as well as inherent rights to restoration, recovery, and preservation.” 

In short, the 16th century dynamic cited at the core of The Dawn remains active in the 21st century, providing global humanity with the same opportunity and challenge that faced Christian European colonial powers: to shape human societies harmoniously and sustainably. 

Even as apparently “simple” Indigenous societies befuddled and disturbed European intellectuals, they attracted on-the-ground colonists. James Axtell [The Invasion within: The Contest of Cultures in Colonial North America (1985)] summarizes what colonists said about their experiences living among Native peoples: “They found Indian life to express a strong sense of community, abundant love, and uncommon integrity…[as well as] social equality, mobility, adventure…the most perfect freedom, … ease of living, the absence of…corroding solicitudes….” 

The record of contacts between colonial invaders and Native peoples illustrates what Axtell and The Dawn say: The Puritans, for example, were embarrassed by the fact so many of their kind fled to the “Indians,” while so few Natives wanted to adopt the Puritan world. Sebastian Junger [Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging (2016)], like Graeber and Wengrow, quotes Benjamin Franklin bemoaning that white captives “liberated from the Indians” and returned to “stay among the English…take the first good opportunity of escaping again” to their Native communities. On the other hand, Franklin said, “When an Indian child has been brought up among us…if he goes to see his relations…there is no persuading him ever to return.” Junger recounted that when Colonel Henri Bouquet, a Swiss mercenary under British General Jeffrey Amherst, attacked Odawa Chief Pontiac’s forces (after delivering smallpox-infected blankets to Fort Pitt [see d’Errico, “Amherst and Smallpox” (2001, 2020)]) and demanded return of white captives, Native families had to bind those people and forcibly bring them in. Many later escaped and returned to their Native communities. 

Junger, echoing Axtell, says colonials gravitated to the “intensely communal nature” of Indian life: Not only the “rough frontiersmen,” as he puts it, but also “the sons and daughters of Europe” were drawn to the natural sociability of Indian life, even as against “the material benefits of Western civilization.” He quotes French immigrant writer Hector Saint John de Crèvecoeur, saying, “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European. There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us.” 

Graeber and Wengrow launch their book against this background: “Revisiting [the encounters of Indigenous peoples and Europeans]…has startling implications for how we make sense of the past today, including the origins of farming, property, cities, democracy, slavery and civilization itself.” They suggest that “The ultimate question of human history…is not our equal access to material resources…, much though these things are obviously important, but our equal capacity to contribute to decisions about how to live together.” Contemporary diatribes against “tribal politics” in the US have forgotten this long-existing perspective that “tribal” life is more humane than state civilization. 

European efforts to counter the Indigenous critique and neutralize its threat, combining the “human evolution” story and religious theory, ultimately merged into a field of  “natural law,” a domain of thought explicitly triggered by debates about the moral and legal implications of European Christianity’s “discovery” of the “New World.” The core debate focused on the question: What “rights” do humans have even if they exist in a “state of nature” ignorant of “revealed religion”? The answer, generally, was that they have some rights, but that these are inferior to the rights of civilized (read, European Christian) humans. 

The argument in Dawn only touches on the development of “international law” from these natural law origins. That history is told by Carl Schmitt [The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum(1950; trans. 2003)] and will be helpful to recap here: Schmitt says, “The traditional Eurocentric order of international law…arose from a legendary and unforeseen discovery of a new world…. The Age of Discovery, when the earth first was encompassed and measured by the global consciousness of European peoples…resulted in …a Eurocentric international law: the jus publicum Europaeum. …Its nomos was determined by the following divisions. The soil of non-Christian, heathen peoples was Christian missionary territory; it could be allocated by papal order to a Christian prince for a Christian mission. … European international law considered Christian nations to be the creators and representatives of an order applicable to the whole earth. The term ‘European’ meant the normal status that set the standard for the non-European part of the earth. Civilization was synonymous with European civilization. … The first question in international law was whether the lands of non-Christian, non-European peoples…were at such a low stage of civilization that they could become objects of organization by peoples at a higher stage.”

Schmitt has this to say when he focuses specifically on the claim of “a right of Christian discovery”: “The meaning of the legal title ‘discovery’ lay in an appeal to the historically higher position of the discoverer vis-à-vis the discovered. This position differed with respect to American Indians, and other non-Christian peoples, such as Arabs, Turks, and Jews…. From the standpoint of the discovered, discovery as such was never legal. Neither Columbus nor any other discoverer appeared with an entry visa issued by the discovered princes.”

In the same vein that Graeber and Wengrow decry the absence of questioning of all this, Schmitt says, “Jurists …have in view…only the system of a specific state legality. They are content to reject as ‘unjuridical’ the question of what processes established this order.”

We might expect that The Dawn’s thesis will be rejected by many commentators. After all, contemporary edifices of power, whether in academia, media, corporations, or statehouses, is dependent on public belief in the inevitability of the edifice; more, a fear that the absence of the edifice would mean a loss of “quality of life.” Nevertheless, a quick rejection is not viable. Proper evaluation of the thesis requires engagement with nearly 700 pages of information from the most recent scientific work related to human history. I will point readers to the book itself for that task and close my review with a comment about anarchy, which some may assume must be the underlying philosophy of The Dawn, especially because Graeber was known as an anarchist. 

The dominant story of “human evolution,” to which mass society and professional commentators seem equally wed, has no room for anarchism. Liberty and mutual aid are either gone forever or limited to their bureaucratic manifestations in the “welfare state.” Anything else is said to be wishful thinking, hopelessly naïve, even “anarchy.” 

If it be anarchism to challenge the received (and celebrated) story of inevitable statist domination of human life, so be it. On the other hand, anarchism is not the same as anarchy. Specifically, anarchism is “a political theory advocating the abolition of hierarchical government and the organization of society on a voluntary, cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion”; anarchy is “a state of disorder due to absence or nonrecognition of authority or other controlling systems.” Anarchism not only comprehends social order but celebrates such order that arises from and is compatible with liberty and mutual aid. One need not be a Marxist to embrace these values; Friedrich Hayek did also. To explore the significance of that coincidence requires more than I can do here. 

Suffice it to say, quoting Carl Schmitt again, “Anarchy is not the worst scenario. Anarchy and law are not mutually exclusive. The right of resistance and self-defense can be good law, whereas a series of statutes shattering every notion of resistance and self-defense, or a system of norms and sanctions suppressing anyone who proposes resistance and self-defense can presage a dreadful nihilistic destruction of all law.” 

I have long been fond of a remark by Professor Grant Gilmore [The Ages of American Law (1977)], who, to my loss, left Yale Law School as I was entering, and I close with it: 

“Law reflects, but in no sense determines the moral worth of a society…. The better the society, the less law there will be. In Heaven, there will be no law, and the lion will lie down with the lamb…. The worse the society, the more law there will be. In Hell, there will be nothing but law, and due process will be meticulously observed.” 

In Pursuit of Reality: The Cognitive Function of Fashion Media

New York Magazine’s “Spring Fashion Issue” [Table of Contents – February 5, 2018] raises the #MeToo debate to a fever pitch, partly as a result of editorial intention, partly as a result of media finance infrastructure, which intermingles intellectual content and advertising: The articles may be read as criticism of the ads, which may, in turn, be read as examples for the critique; OR, the ads and articles may be read as a complex whole, exemplifying and demonstrating a moment in the history of culture, when virtual (the world of advertising images) and real (the world of intellectual apperception) are confusedly interpenetrated. Either mode of reading points to a question about the role of fashion and social media in relation to lived experience.

The interpenetration becomes obvious from titles of articles explicitly raising questions about “fashion”:

Other articles explore pop culture phenomena, including an exploration of “Instagram influencers”—”ordinary people” whose product buying choices are integrated into brand marketing programs. The confused interpenetration of virtual and real becomes explicit:  “Of course, what the influencers say they are offering, above all else, is ‘authenticity,’ even as they become fully compensated players for the advertising team. ‘Influencers resonate with so many people because of the sense of realness you get from them….'”

This “authenticity” comes with a price—not simply a monetary price paid by the advertiser, but a personal (dare we say spiritual?) price paid by the influencer: Here’s a statement from a November 2016 article in Bloomberg Businessweek: “Constantly,” Floruss said, when I asked him how often he takes pictures of himself. ‘You sell part of your soul. Because no matter what beautiful moment you enjoy in your life, you’re going to want to take a photo and share it. Distinguishing between when is it my life and when am I creating content is a really big burden.’”

Another NYMag article focuses on “Poppy,” a YouTube performance artist: “Is she a robot, a troll, a high-concept art project, a postmodern cultural critique, a cult leader, a clever satirist? Do I get the joke? Is there a joke? What is reality, even? But somehow, Poppy has confused people into paying attention to her. People have willingly gone through the looking glass — or, more accurately, the Black Mirror — in order to understand what this simulacrum of a pop star means. Except now, to further complicate matters, Poppy appears to be trying to become a more traditional kind of famous person….” Poppy told NPR’s Scott Simon in November 2017, “I hope I’m the most special part of [my fans’] day. I want them to feel like I’m taking them to a part of their imagination they’ve never experienced. Poppy’s world is a magical place, and it’s the most free part of the entire universe.” 

The references to “through the looking glass” and “Black Mirror” neatly implicate the experience of reading the magazine itself. On one hand, this makes the “fashion issue” a bold editorial gambit, tossing caution to the winds and challenging the paradigm of high (read exotic, transgressive) fashion—indeed, challenging the notion of “fashion” itself. On the other hand, this gambit produces the very “looking glass, Black Mirror” effect—readers are buffeted by analyses targeting their experience as viewers. In this sense, the editors are playing with a variation of the question posed by the title to the article about Poppy: “Like Warhol But for 2018. Is Poppy enacting a meta-commentary on fame in the YouTube era? Or does she simply want to be famous?”

Startling and amusing results happen in a media format subject to algorithmic ad placement. For example, an ad appeared on my screen last year as I read an article about sex robots in The Guardian July 2017: Plunked into the author’s serious questioning whether sex robots “could amplify objectification of women” because they are “based on representations garnered from pornography” was an ad for women’s clothing from Rosewe, whose website says, “Our target audience is the fashion conscious 18-35 women’s wear market. We aim to be exciting and innovative, offering our customers the fashion they want, when they want. To stay in touch with the ever changing trends within our market we have developed a dynamic and very responsive organisation.” I took a screenshot:

I trust you see the quasi-pornographic aspects of the image. My point, however,  goes not to the imagery as such, but to the algorithmic automaticity of its appearance in the midst of a critique of such images! Looking glass and Black Mirror, indeed!

In 1899, William James addressed the topic of “Apperception,” in Chapter 14 of his Talks to Teachers: “The gist of the matter is this: Every impression that comes in from without, be it a sentence which we hear, an object of vision, or an effluvium which assails our nose, no sooner enters our consciousness than it is drafted off in some determinate direction or other, making connection with the other materials already there, and finally producing what we call our reaction. The particular connections it strikes into are determined by our past experiences and the ‘associations’ of the present sort of impression with them.”  James was at pains to demystify the process of apperception, but also to “confirm in [teachers] a healthy sense of the importance of [their] mission, to feel how exclusively dependent upon [their] present ministrations in the way of imparting conceptions the pupil’s future life is probably bound to be.”

What are the implications of James’ insight and concern today, in a time when the educational model of teachers and pupils has been superseded by social media and corporate advertising, in which the overwhelming majority of “impressions…from without” are simulations of reality, produced in an effort to maximize profit for the impression producers? One suggestive answer to this question comes from Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations (1988): “Simulation … is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – … It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.”

Not to put too fine a point on it:  It appears that advanced (read: hyper-capitalized) society has come to the point where an insufficient sense of “realness” drives masses of people to seek to become commodities—going beyond the commodification of persons and relations implicit in a capitalist economy. This drive toward a virtual realness fuels both sides of the pop culture—”fans” and performers. Warhol’s (in)famous equation of business and art marks an historical moment when creative acts are not creative unless—and to the extent that—they occur as commodities. And individuals become “real” only to the extent they appear as “fans” of a “famous” other—imitators of one talked about.

=============== addendum ===============

On 16 February 2018, Jenn Abelson and Sacha Pfeiffer, of the Boston Globe’s famed “Spotlight” team, presented the results of their investigation into the “fashion industry”—“Modeling’s glamour hides web of abuse”  (Wow! I beat Spotlight by 6 days… :-). They present excerpts from extensive interviews with more than 50 models. One sentence in the article particularly captures the “looking glass” and “simulacra” phenomena: “the very nature of models’ work involves the marketing of seduction. At times, they are asked to dramatize sexual behavior they may not yet have experienced in real life.”


Social Media Critics Recognize Mental Health Issues

On 9 October 2017, I wrote about how social media exploits the frailties of human consciousness and monetizes the results of mental addiction — “Capitalism’s Attack on Mind; Meditation as Antidote to Social Media Addiction”. I suggested meditation as an antidote because the mental phenomena targeted by social media are understood in meditation as forms of suffering, to be alleviated rather than exploited. Recently, other voices have pointed to the same underlying vulnerability in human consciousness and have suggested withdrawal from social media. Among the most prominent critics are former executives and engineers at FaceBook (which a friend calls FacelessBook, to highlight the virtuality of its “community” experience).

On 12 December 2017, the Associated Press reported, “Some of Facebook’s early friends now its sharpest critics.” The AP report quoted Sean Parker, the company’s first president: “Facebook exploits a ‘vulnerability in human psychology’ to addict its users.” AP also quoted Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook vice president: “Facebook is ‘ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.'” Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist and early investor in both Facebook and Google, was quoted as saying “both companies ‘threaten public health and democracy.'” The AP report adds explicit discussion by these figures about how social media aim to exploit human consciousness for corporate profit.

On the same date, The Guardian newspaper published an article focusing on Chamath Palihapitiya, under the headline, “Former Facebook executive: social media is ripping society apart.” In addition to the mental health aspects of social media exploitation of consciousness, the article explored political implications: “Social media companies have faced increased scrutiny over the past year as critics increasingly link growing political divisions across the globe to the handful of platforms that dominate online discourse.”

On 15 December, The Guardian followed up with a report, “Facebook admits it poses mental health risk – but says using site more can help.” The report stated, “Studies have repeatedly found that Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites can damage the emotional wellbeing of heavy users, particularly younger people.” As might be expected—following the lead of tobacco companies and other corporate actors faced with evidence of harm—FB “painted the literature on the subject as mixed and inconclusive.” But the company also says it will introduce new user features to “hopefully make their experience more positive.” {BTW and FWIW: “Hope” was the last item in Pandora’s Box.}

As the issue becomes more sharply focused, we may see people taking their minds back from the algorithms. As Palihapitiya said of his former employer, “I can control my decision, which is that I don’t use that shit. I can control my kids’ decisions, which is that they’re not allowed to use that shit.”  On the other hand, likely under pressure to tone down his critique—despite his personal withdrawal—Palihapitiya later “walked back his comments, saying: “I genuinely believe that Facebook is a force for good in the world.”

For the millions of social media users {n.b., drug addicts are also described as users} who begin to feel used and understand they are being used, the power to pull free remains in their hands and minds. Meditate on that.


Capitalism’s Attack on Mind; Meditation as Antidote to Social Media Addiction

Corporate social media aims to capture personal data by exploiting the frailties of human consciousness. Meditation aims to liberate human consciousness from the mental habits that constitute that frailty.

“How can we be assured that Facebook is really safeguarding democracy for us and that it’s not us who need to be safeguarding democracy against Facebook?” asked Max Read, writing in New York Magazine (1 October 2017: “Does Even Mark Zuckerberg Know What Facebook Is?”). Read’s question echoes growing concern that social media systems are in fact undermining democracy. As Sabrina Siddiqui put it in an article in The Guardian (26 September 2017: “‘From heroes to villains’: tech industry faces bipartisan backlash in Washington”): “As political polarization continues to plague Washington, a rare consensus is emerging between the left and the right that America’s largest technology companies must be subject to greater scrutiny.”

These questions are important, but they stay at the level of economics and politics—systems theory—and leave individuals with a sense that things are out of control unless we happen to be high-level corporate or political actors. In Read’s telling, even the latter may be unable to mount any effective response to the global situation:  Facebook’s role in the last U.S. election, though “presented as a democratic town hall was revealed to be a densely interwoven collection of parallel media ecosystems and political infrastructures outside the control of mainstream media outlets and major political parties and moving like a wrecking ball through both.” Read concludes, “Facebook is bigger, newer, and weirder than a mere company.”

The self-proclaimed Facebook “mission”—to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”—wraps the platform in the rhetoric of “community values”; but as Read puts it, the guiding principles of the Facebook “community” are “whatever encourages people to post more. Facebook’s actual value system seems less positive than recursive. Facebook is good because it creates community; community is good because it enables Facebook. The values of Facebook are Facebook.” Read cites a recent essay for the London Review of Books, in which John Lanchester argues “that for all its rhetoric about connecting the world, the company is ultimately built to extract data from users to sell to advertisers.” Read says, “This may be true, but Facebook’s business model tells us only so much about how the network shapes the world.”

Read acknowledges the monetization of attention and human desires (and fears) inherent in social media—how could he not?! He quotes Tim Wu, the Columbia Law School professor and author of The Attention Merchants,  “Facebook has…attentional power, but …not a sense of responsibility. No constraints. No regulation. No oversight. Nothing. A bunch of algorithms, basically, designed to give people what they want to hear.” But Read frames that issue as “the government’s problem,” and segues into a confession: “From one angle, the Facebook hypercube terrifies me; from another, it’s a tool with which I have a tremendous and affectionate intimate bond. I have 13 years of memories stored on Facebook; the first photo ever taken of me and my partner together is there, somewhere deep in an album posted by someone I haven’t talked to in years. It gives me what I want, both in the ­hamster-wheel–food-pellet sense, and in a deeper and more meaningful one.”

A major impediment to critical thinking about social media arises from failure to investigate the human infrastructural elements of the “business model” underlying social media functions (and dysfunctions). The problem can be expressed in a single phrase—”monetization of attention”—how does social media capitalize (literally) on human consciousness? The answer, as Lanchester puts it, is that social media functions on the basis of “how people’s minds work and in particular of the social dynamics of popularity and status.” This functional basis rests on what Lanchester calls “a pretty dark view” of human nature—that we have no “values and beliefs of our own; what we have instead is an instinct to copy and compare”—a view propounded by Christian philosopher René Girard, whom Facebook investor Peter Thiel studied at Stanford. Lanchester quotes Thiel, who said. “Social media proved to be more important than it looked, because it’s about our natures.” Lanchester adds, “We are keen to be seen as we want to be seen, and Facebook is the most popular tool humanity has ever had with which to do that.”

 Paul Lewis, writing in The Guardian (6 October 2017: “‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia”), interviewed a number of silicon valley “refuseniks:..  designers, engineers and product managers who created the building blocks of a digital world from which they are now trying to disentangle themselves.” Justin Rosenstein, for example, was the Facebook engineer who created the “like” button; he told Lewis that “Facebook ‘likes’ are ‘bright dings of pseudo-pleasure’ that can be as hollow as they are seductive.” The mechanisms by which Facebook and social media systems generally attract people’s attention not only “addict users” to the systems, but—in a seeming paradox—contribute to a phenomenon called  “continuous partial attention”, which limits people’s ability to focus. As Lewis notes, a recent study showed that “the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity – even when the device is turned off.” As Rosenstein put it, “Everyone is distracted. “All of the time.”

The silicon valley engineers are not limiting themselves to calling for government action. They are, as Paul Lewis put it, “weaning themselves off their own products” and preventing their children’s attentions from getting hooked. Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products—teaching techniques used in social media—writes, “The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions.” He explains the “subtle psychological tricks…to make people develop habits, …to create ‘a craving,’ … exploiting negative emotions that can act as ‘triggers’: “Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation.”

My first response to reading Read’s confession was pity: How sad to find his mind and memories intimately captured by forces outside his control; to feel intimately bound to that which terrifies; to have his life story in a database for corporate advertising; to recognize without resisting hamster-like behavior. But then I realized this confession opens the way to getting out of the hamster wheel through an exercise of our own power as individuals, independent of whatever any government may do—our “attentional power.” The power we have to “wean ourselves” from social media addiction involves paying attention to our attention!  Advertisers and social media systems exploit the inverse of this phenomenon—namely, that our attention can be manipulated by others.

At this point, we can understand that social media exploits—takes advantage of, trades on—the human mind’s capacity for distraction; and, more importantly, we can focus on this capacity as a problem susceptible to our own power to pay attention to our attention, otherwise known as meditation, mindfulness. Much has been written about mindfulness meditation. Robert Wright’s new book, Why Buddhism is True, provides a useful introduction* combines a focus on core Buddhist teachings with information derived from research in neuroscience and psychology. As he explains, “Mindfulness meditation…is a good way to study the human mind. At least, it’s a good way to study one human’s mind: yours. You sit down, let the mental dust settle, and then watch your mind work.” Mindfulness  meditation practice aims at breaking the grip of the very same mental habits—the “mental dust”—that social media encourages and exploits for commercial purposes!  Corporate social media aims to capture personal data by exploiting the frailties of human consciousness. Meditation aims to liberate human consciousness from the mental habits that constitute that frailty.

  • * Note: Wright provides useful discussion of meditation practices, insights, and implications; but his digressions into “natural selection” (“Darwinism,” “evolution”) to present meditation as “undoing” evolution get in the way. First of all, the ground on which meditation happens—mind—does not require an explanation; a description suffices (e.g., “subject to illusion,” “agitated by desire and aversion,” etc.). Second, Wright grossly misconstrues “natural selection,” referring to it as “design” and “intention”; but as the Berkeley site, “Understanding Evolution” puts it in “Misconceptions about natural selection,”: “‘need,’ ‘try,’ and ‘want’ are not very accurate words when it comes to explaining evolution. The population or individual does not ‘want’ or ‘try’ to evolve, and natural selection cannot try to supply what an organism ‘needs.’ Natural selection just selects among whatever variations exist in the population. The result is evolution.” Third, if we want to hook up meditation and evolution, we would do better to follow the implications of the Berkeley discussion: “The genetic variation that occurs in a population because of mutation is random — but selection acts on that variation in a very non-random way: genetic variants that aid survival and reproduction are much more likely to become common than variants that don’t.” The question becomes: Are there genetic markers associated with ability or predisposition to mindfulness—human “attentional power”—that aid human survival? Only time and space will tell.