My reading of The World Until Yesterday (WUY) is taking me down a Jared Diamond rabbit hole which is turning into a semester-long project. At the end of my last entry on Diamond I wanted to talk more about how his approach to understanding human variation differs from that of actual cultural anthropologists. However, in order to do this I’d actually have to review his other new book Natural Experiments in History, which would drive me off course of my review of WUY. Since these blog postings are going to be collected and appear in an actual published article and the deadline is nigh, I’ll reign in these general discussions of what science is or could be, and continue on to chapter 1 of WUY, entitled “Friends, Enemies, Strangers, and Traders.”
I should begin by saying that there is a lot that is right in Diamond’s book — all the stuff that he got from anthropologists! So much of WUY is a standard ‘they do it different, and possibly better, over there’ anthropological line that it is hard to criticize the broad thrust of the book. My feeling about WUY overall is similar to my feeling about Guns, Germs, and Steel: the stuff that Diamond borrows and popularizes is good, useful, and deserves a wider audience. It’s the things which Diamond adds to this that are so problematic. Overall, I think that Diamond is like Mao: 70% right and 30% wrong. Or, as they say in tok pisin, em i gutpela tasol em i no gutpela tumas.
There will be some people who will just be filled with outraged that Diamond refers to people as hunter-gatherers because doing so inherently wrong. There will be those who are nauseated at the press coverage and fanboyage which surrounds Diamond. There will be those who dislike the compromises that one makes when writing a popular book. And there will always be the sticklers for detail who are outraged when Diamond says his coffee cup is in the middle of the saucer when it’s actually three centimeters to the left and Jared Diamond is trying to cover that up! But overall Diamond is a careful, intelligent, experienced, person who has drawn fire before and is very good at covering his ass. When someone like that does their impression of an anthropologist, its hard to make simple arguments stick, or to excuse superficial reading of his work. Again, the comparison to David Graeber is relevant: the people who have already decided they do not like him will not take the time to read the work critically and look for the actual problems that might lie therein.
At base, what drives people crazy about Diamond is his Whiggish history of humanity, a personality and disposition to be insufficiently critical of his subject position. We see it peak out in unexpected places in WUY, where it is carefully shielded by reasoned generalization. Whether or not you like Diamond’s tendencies is a personal choice so I can’t really argue with people who just, in principle, think the guy should be more interested in Occupy. But I do think that this Whig version of human history does lead to some strange conclusions — like the one I will examine in this chapter, about passports.
In this chapter, Diamond lays out what all traditional/small-scale societies have in common by examining how they divide space and the people who travel though it (see my notes for World Until Yesterday). Traditional societies (TS) have a variety of different forms of managing land between groups. In situations where food supply is scarce or unpredictable and population is low, boundaries between groups tend to be porous, while in stable, fertile areas they are likely to be well-defined and patrolled. According to Diamond people know little about the broader world, trade mostly with adjacent groups, and fear strangers they encounter as potential enemies.
There’s a lot to say about this picture, but here I want to focus on one thing. Diamond contrasts this closed-in existence with that of modern first-worlders. “Over much of the world today,” he writes, “citizens of many countries can travel freely. We face no restrictions on travel within our own country. To cross the border into another country, we either arrive unannounced and just show our passport, or else we have to obtain a visa in advance but can then travel without restrictions in that other country. We don’t have to ask permission to travel along roads or on public land. The laws of some countries even guarentee access to some private lands” (37). Such freedoms, he says, are “unthinkable… almost everywhere in the world throughout human history and still are in parts of the world today” (37).
I understand why some people would believe that this is true: the story that Diamond is telling jibes with (but carefully avoids endorsing!) an evolutionary view of increasing freedom and human perfection that can be traced back to Herbert Spencer, among others. There are many social scientists whose books are still on the shelves who make a similar argument. However, I think this point is profoundly wrong.
Let’s face it, people living in a world without the state, bureaucracy, police, and complex networks of material culture allied with these forces (fences, locks, concrete barriers) lived in a world of much greater freedom than those of us who have passports today. If you wanted to go somewhere, you went there. Today you need a passport and visa — objects which require a lot of time and money to get. For people who are not wealthy college professors, getting a passport takes a lot of time and trouble — much less trouble than putting some sweet potato in your netbag and hitting the road.
And indeed, Papua New Guineans have frequently remarked on this difference between their country and mine. I’ve frequently been told that America is a “money country” where your actions are curtailed by police and strangers, whereas Papua New Guinea is a “free country” where you can “eat, sleep, and run free”. In America you must have a job to earn money to buy food, and getting time off to leave the country is not easy. In Papua New Guinea, most people are not enmeshed in a system of industrial work-time and can pretty much do and go where they want without having someone fire them for being late to work. And while police violence is a problem, it is also random and not something used to enforce the dictates of the state.
Of course, Papua New Guineans couldn’t physically travel as far as Americans today because they lacked the technical capacity to do so. But our capacity for long-distance travel comes from a narrowing of our choices, a placement in a system of inequality which amplifies our ability to do some things and forecloses the possibilities of us doing others.
The same is true of everyday life within the US and EU. I was struck by Diamond’s argument because my own experience of returning from Papua New Guinea to the US was the exact reverse of his — compared to PNG’s rural countryside of subsistence farmers, America’s physical environment of enclosed private property, security cameras, locked buildings, ‘warning do not enter’ signs, lampposts and pipes and public telephones and ATMs and vending machines — which all claim to be illegal to tamper with — is a minefield of fenced-in, warded-off, privately owned property which restricts your freedom.
Even in ‘public’ spaces in the United States, permissible actions are incredibly curtailed. You can’t sleep. You can’t go to the bathroom. In many places you cannot cook or eat food, or must wait for special times to do so. Unless if you’re in NOLA, you most likely cannot drink alcohol outside. You cannot ride cars without elaborating permitting and licensing rules. Even if you have obtained all those permits and licenses, you still must travel at certain speeds, and obey the instructions of stop signs and traffic lights. You must drive on one side of the street and not the other. You can only park in some places and not others, and often times you must pay for parking. You cannot dig up electrical cabling under the ground. The subsoil resources you find beneath your house do not belong to you. You cannot print your own passport or money. The list goes on and on.
Diamond probably thinks, like most Americans, that it is worth making this trade off in order to be able to go on vacation to France. But its one thing to say that its worth giving up your freedom to acquire vacations, another thing to mistake the latter for the former. Many Papua New Guineans I’ve met have told me they would rather live free and reliant on their sweet potato garden then give up their autonomy in exchange for occasional plane flights.
In fact, most people who live in many countries around the world (China, India, Indonesia, Brazil) cannot just up and travel wherever they’d like. Visas and passports are even more difficult for them to acquire — if you are a Papua New Guinean coming to the United States, you must overcome the presumption that you are an intending migrant. From the lofty big-picture viewpoint of Guns, Germs, and Steel US and EU privilege is the result of the shape of continents and where cattle were domesticated. But at any scale that is relevant to our current lives, the current international travel restrictions (or lack thereof) on Americans follow from a history of international relations in which the US and the EU have been pushing people around a really long time. Our freedom is a result of our power, not the generic way we carve up time and space. It’s genuinely surprising to me that Diamond, the guy who literally wrote a book on colonialism, can transform “the most privileged people from the most privileged countries can do what they want” into “highly evolved states allow people more freedom of movement than traditional societies”. Its strangely myopic and, at at basis level, just not true.
I think you can see now why I call WUY the “Anti-Debt“. Beneath Diamond’s particular aim to find things of value in TS, there is a much bigger narrative at work about world history and the value of Western society. One may or may not find this story offensive or politically incorrect, but to me the most important thing to note is that at times it just leads one astray into saying things which, imho, are just incorrect.