Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Wanderers 2010.10.20

President Obama is in town today, but it's still too early in the day to expect any new traffic patterns. Carol wanted to attend the meeting but has a full plate.

Our presenter this morning is Dr. Karl Widerquist, Visiting Associate Professor in Philosophy, from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar

This is a talk about academic political philosophers and some of the irresponsible factual claims they've made about "primitive peoples" without bothering to factor in much of the anthropological research.

A lot of their claims (e.g. "everyone is better off with private property" or "individuals appropriate; collectives interfere") tend to be no more than the superstitious projections of their day and age, a kind of post hoc justification for an ideology, minus many reality checks.

Philosophers tend to live deeply in Plato's Cave (a kind of movie theater for the mind's eye).

The myth, traceable to John Locke and contemporaries, starts with an untamed wilderness. Homesteaders and pioneers appear, thereby appropriating it (mixing labor with land).

Inheritance and trade among homesteaders develop, after which the State appears and begins imposing its will, rules, taxes etc. In a pristine state, private property precedes government -- or so goes the (unsubstantiated) theory.

Anthropologists typically classify societies into hunter-gatherer bands, autonomous villages (tribal societies), chiefdoms, early (archaic) states or civilizations.

The philosophers depict these as ancient patterns, with only states or civilizations remaining. However, one might see a campus as a semi-autonomous village (Cal Tech, Reed College). Urban areas have bands, camps or gangs. Proctor & Gamble and Unilever are chiefdoms, as is any company with a CEO, CFO, CIO, CMO etc. (C = chief).

The argument that these are archaic forms relates to what constitutes the "highest" authority, i.e. anarchic bands (with no head person giving commands) didn't have to report to a chief or be patrolled by a police. Colleges pay taxes, engage in commerce (town/gown relations).

In conventional accounts, the nation-state is nowadays considered the highest authority, with the above configurations turned into an evolutionary tale of how the state emerged, a kind of dialectical materialism.

In hunter-gatherer bands, large game is considered a common resource no matter who kills it. In an autonomous village, access to land is flexible and non-exclusionary, with households entitled to their own harvests. Every household does its own farming, including the village administrators.

Only in large chiefdoms, consisting of multiple villages, does one find people with the power to exclude others from resources. Chiefdoms introduce the idea of a chain of command with an owner at "the top".

With the evolution of states comes tyranny and slavery, kingdoms. This pattern emerges around the world. Land tends to be a gift from the central authority, perhaps in exchange for military conquest (land was deeded for deeds).

The modern concept of private property turns out to be a recent development, emerging in Europe rather late in the game (1500s). The idea of private property spreads through colonialism and through establishment by governments. The romantic libertarian notion that private property begins in the earliest primitive societies, the government coming later, is eminently debatable.

Private property as currently understood is through government. Centralized government does not represent the usurpation of pre-existing property rights in primitive societies, but is more the vehicle for the creation of private property rights as an institution, beginning with the rights of monarchs (chiefs).

Property ownership and real estate ownership are distinct concepts. Nomadic or herding societies may not stake ownership of ground by surveying and fencing (like ranchers and farmers), but will recognize ownership of wives, sheep and goats.

Chiefdoms seem a gateway to tyranny, almost universally. The Iroquois seem to be one notable exception.

The talk was not a lot about maritime trading and the subcultures aboard seagoing vessels (pirates etc.). How a given ship is organized is a variable, even where titles of captain, first mate, navigator might have conventional meanings.

During the Q&A, I brought up the Doctrine of Discovery again, which several religious traditions are threading about. There's a need to unravel some of the mysteries behind "property" and own up to a new form of calculus that doesn't bank on the supposedly inherent superiority of one people (religion, ideology) over another.

Jim Buxton brought a generous haul of chanterelle mushrooms again, a quasi-yearly even in October and a day I look forward to. He set them out in a box with bags for us to truck them away in. Given the theme of Karl's talk, I thought this most apropos and highly civilized. Jim Buxton is a great chief.

Back at the Blue House, I advocated donating a portion of my haul to Food Not Bombs tomorrow, perhaps as a garnish or ingredient (not as bulk produce). I'm not a chief chef though.

My vision is lots of Youtube cooking shows as F~B turns into a gourmet occassion, with restaurants, farmers markets and warehouses eager not only to donate ingredients, but their personnel, as what better way to market superior quality product than in these potlatch potlucks in the park.

I need to backpedal though, as if word got out about this underground gourmet "fooding", we'd be inundated with tourists wanting to take but not give. The same phenomenon is evident in the FOSS community, where "giving back" often only happens in exchange for generous self-helpings to the work of the ages.

Our mostly under-the-radar operations, through FOSS covens and Zen dens, keeps our sponsors visible among an inner circle of cognoscenti, earning good will, without the overhead of a lot of over-the-top hype, or push advertising (no Crazy Eddy commercials required -- though around here we think of Tom Peters).