Hands on the Cave Wall: the neverending human revision of inequality and community

We have been discussing the 'Archaeology of Inequality' on the OAC and as usual some of the discussion was a little chaotic, some a bit elliptical, but there were some striking insights there it, or at least so it seems to me.

Two strands stood out.

1. The trend toward inequality is ongoing and inevitable. John argued that the trend toward hierarchy in human affairs is inevitable because Pareto-Barabasi style 'winner takes all' processes appear whenever networks form and arrive at a certain scale. In this view, regardless of human intentions, whenever a resource becomes available and begins to accumulate then a relatively tiny number of actors will acquire radically disproportionate access to that resource. More broadly, when we look across a whole range of phenomena from avalanches to evolutionary adaptation, to human economic activity, we find that, once elements are networked then a few nodes will attract most of the activity (or goodies) in the network (see Keith Hart on this).

I agree that we can observe these kinds of effects at work in different human domains -- for example the more that 'money' becomes a meta-symbol that can be deployed across very distinct scenes of human value then the more the Pareto-style effect seems to take hold -- greater and greater quantities of this abstract money commodity accumulate in the hands of a smaller and smaller number of actors. Piketty and others have commented on this in depth. 

If this effect is an ever-present potential in how social relationships organise themselves into networks then it is also a potentially very dangerous one. Money, for example, isn't just an abstract symbol, it works because of trust between people about how the abstract signifier and certain things in the world connect to each other -- in other words, it effects not only what the world means to the people who live in it, but also what their own lives mean to others around them. If, for example, by merely sitting on money, by way of compound interest etc., certain people can trap huge quantities of the money-signifier rather than redistributing it back into the network then this can have drastic effects on the economic activity of (and the meaning of the world for) most other people. Similarly, (we started by talking about Graeber's paper on Shilluk kingship) if the use of violence becomes concentrated in one person's hands in a society, then society itself starts to take the shape of something inherently arbitrary and violent. 

If all this is true, then, ideologically and practically there seem to be various ways that human beings can respond to it. For example, according to Pospisil, Kapauku Papuans are (or were in the 1950s) secularist business-minded (almost Ayn Randian) libertarians, but they could nonetheless see the dangers of hoarding money (shell money, cowries, in this case) for their individualistic economic set up. So they took a drastic approach: anyone who refused to redistribute their personal money-hoard in loans to new business ventures (business took the form of raising pigs) was taken out and shot. The money, now under the control of relatives, was reissued in loans to budding entrepreneurs.

However, the Kapauku don't have a monopoly on solutions to the dynamic of inequality. Four possible kinds of response (a quad borrowed loosely from Mary Douglas) would include the following practical philosophies:

1. variants of Fatalism, Stoicism, Buddhism: you may not like it but unequal distributions of capacities and goods are inevitable--get over it, radically accept it, look inward at what you can change in your own thought processes, not outward at events over which you have no control.

2. variants of Vitalism, Libertarianism, Individualism: be the hub of your own network, revel in your own uniqueness and the inequality and unevenness of things; take delight in specificity instead of looking for order; wallow deeply in the irrationality of human intentions and the chaotic arbitrariness of how the world manifests itself.

3. variants of Contractarianism, Communitarianism, Keynesianism: acknowledge the danger of incipient unequal access to good things, but act collectively and individually to change the dynamic by all means possible-- use rational and emotional forces to educate, inculcate shared responsibility, redistributive ethics etc.

4. variants of Epicurianism, Platonism, Hinduism etc: the world is by nature hierarchically ordered; invigorate and enjoy the values of a hierarchical society -- everything and everyone can occupy a fulfilling position in the social order from which they can come to understand themselves and the world.

This, it seems to me was the second strand of our discussion:-

2. Hierarchy means nothing without the human capacity for symbolisation and thence the creation of a cosmological 'outside' for human experience. In a series of dazzling interventions Lee pointed to the fact that before you can have the idea of hierarchy you have to have a cosmology. And he suggested that to understand the invention of cosmology you have to recognise the drug-induced, mind-altered state of the shaman who becomes the translator of the cosmos idea for what then becomes a community. We have in other words to start with cosmological awareness itself. Rather than summarising, here is one post by Lee from that exchange:

 Regarding the “lost space” of prehistoric hand stencils:

In one way or another the 'outside' is the cosmological shell. In that respect, and I don't think anyone has remarked on this to my knowledge, these hand 'prints' are quite revealing. They are created by spraying pigment across the surface of the hand, -- the hand creates a lost space around which the pigment falls on the cave surface. Suppose that what is at work here is a reflection on the subjective inside versus the cosmological outside.
    This is an important idea that leads into the depths of an inquiry into the nature of symbolization.  The image of a human hand, its representational form, is not a concrete thing but, as you say, a “lost space,” an absence.  For me this thought evokes the foundational argument of Eco’s semiotics: communication – meaning – is an absent structure.  Recall that the first version of Eco’s (ponderous and canonical) A Theory of Semiotics was a much less formal essay in Italian, La struttura assente.  Essentially the same idea surfaces in Leach’s classic essay on animal categories, in which he argues that the continuum of animal life is broken up by conceptual gaps – absences – that demarcate traditional categories of animal (pets, livestock, game, “wild” animals).  Mary Douglas on taboo also employs that kernel argument.  I pirated the idea in framing a theory of culture in Dreamtime:   

In the spirit of Galileo, if not with his rigor, I would suggest that the anthropocentric Cartesian cogitoholds only if, invoking the principle of cultural generativity, we conceive of humanity as an absence at the center of things, a cipher to be filled with meaning through the operations of an artifactual intelligence.  The fact that people think at all, that they are cultural beings who do things and effect changes in their surroundings, is due to the pronounced uncertainty, the relentless unclarity of their lives. 


    I’ve often wondered about those hand stencils in the caves.  They are among the earliest extant form of human symbolization, but how can we begin to reconstruct the meaning they held for their creators?  As well as their intriguing “lost space” composition, I wonder about: Why hands?  Why not say, feet, or even a stenciled head (produced by another artist as the subject pressed his head against the cave wall)?  A thought I had is that the human hand is an excellent sign of both human distinctiveness and – what folks now like to go on about – agency.  In a world populated by humans, animals, and totemic spirits, the human talent to make things, our artifactual intelligence, and thereby create a whole new class of beings (tools) was hugely important. 

    The only way to go beyond speculation about the hand stencils and other cave paintings and petroglyphs is to continue in the vein of Lewis-Williams and look closely at the subject matter, context (which drawings occur together), and location (which part of the cave) of images.  Even so, there remains a thick veil between the Upper Paleolithic mind and our own (and run the clock ahead twenty or thirty thousand years, and guess what?).  So, your thought that The Sorcerer may be a monkey god, a source of hilarity is as plausible as other interpretations (I like the idea because it’s so different from my own first impression: I found the image chilling – thinking, I guess, what if I’d seen that thing coming at me in my dreams?)  

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Writing this in an airport on my way to a conference to do some serious, disciplined and precise anthropology. I am not sure what to say about the dispute here except that I went to one of those British public schools where they beat children for being 'indisciplined'; not exactly 'Young Torless', but it gave me the means to take a sideways look at that particular word. I don't exactly agree with Lee's Nietzschianism, but we can't have it both ways -- the definition of equality can't use the state's point of view without itself becoming tautologically statist. 

“I have suggested that inequality is a structural denial that two classes have the same nature and rights.”

This is essentially a view of equality from the point of view of the state -- one that Adolf Eichmann would have been entirely at home with. Real equality involves real recognition not the application of categories.

As a liberal I am very happy to see the outcome of the Irish referendum and what it says about people's attitudes -- the liberties they are eager to grant those around them and so on, as an anthropologist I have to take into account that in Western Europe and the U.S. marriage rates have collapsed -- as various anthropologists have noted marriage is being de-institutionalised in the West. Dwelling on the legal category alone doesn't tell me much. Sorry for premising my earlier message with 'I think…' -- alas poor cogito… No I am a middle aged man, a bit old for playing Hamlet in this discussion, I will leave that to Kristian. 

OK, Huon. I avoided replying for a while and like you I will withdraw now, with no compromise in sight. I had in mind the experience of members of an underclass (black, gay, women, children, Scots) whose inequality in the extreme is maintained by the state. And social revolutions against inequality generally take the form of changing the state, as in the case of the Irish referendum. If the Scots want independence or to be part of Europe, a good part of it, if not all, will involve the state. King's argument was that existential freedom is impossible if you can't vote for your local legal officers. Of course informal racism is widespread, but the Department of Justice will take the lead if white police are to be held accountable for killing black men. The tragedy of Turing was all about the state, during the war and after, especially when the law provoked him to commit suicide. No anthropologist could accept that it is only a question of the state, but what does it mean to exclude the state from an inquiry into inequality? I was only asking for some acknowledgment that this might be a factor. I realise that I have upset you when you bring in Eichmann. But what about Rousseau, Morgan, Engels? Isn't that where anthropology came from? I think so, to coin a phrase. And I am sorry to have written in that way. You and I share too much to fall out on a blogpost.

Fair points. By the sound of it, the difference comes back to the formal and the informal view of equity, or perhaps more accurately a formal-objective versus subjective view of what equality is or means. I am coming, as I usually do, from a subjective view -- what does equality mean to people who experience it? What equality means situationally is likely to besomewhere in between the public political framework and its symbols/categories and the potential for knowing and living with other people. That doesn't invalidate your formal dialectic, but the reference to Eichmann wasn't thrown out as an insult. Eichmann argued that he was just following the legal framework as it existed at that time. Arendt pointed out that iif morality really was just just a matter of applying formal categories to a situation then he was right, but real equality is lived subjectively. Formal categories are simply a means to a communicative end and they can be deployed both in the direction of increasing liberties for some groups but also toward disciplining and boxing people into whatever regime the state has in mind. Anyway, we can pick that discussion up later.

As much as I’m honored by your casting Huon, I cordially decline; my intentions are a lot less murderous. This debate is already way too high-drama for yet another haughty prince.

Keith, in a dynamic online forum like this one, gunslinger argumentation is the name of the game. Elsewhere you have argued for keeping it short as well pleaded lack of time. Hence, it’s unfair to defame other’s quick-thought analyses. My sweeping scenario of a snail march of the 99% towards a human scavenging economy is far from apocalyptic. In fact, this seems rather like a return to the most normal state of affairs in sedentary human social units throughout times. Your own literary record exhibits several vaguely similarly sober predictions.

Huon, you somehow seem locked in a default insistence to disagree with Keith. I’m sure you’d see the sense in his proposal if you thought twice. Analyzing social category-plays is epistemic to anthropology. Keith’s proposition about thinking of (in-)equality in terms of how categories are shuffled around by structural social dynamics, though old-fashioned, is actually pretty apolitical, something which is truly a rare virtue in the anthropology of the day. Labelling it statist as you do goes against most work done by anthropologists on the state the last 20 years. To sound a bit first-semester: The state is not a thing! It’s rather an ongoing process of power centralization that has agglomerated to a certain organizational scale. As citizens, employees, voters, tax-payers, activists etc., we’re all part of it in our own little ways, whether we like/deny it or not. In effect, the notion of ‘inside vs. outside the state’-points of view on equality is just about as much of a clog on this debate as the other dusty dichotomy you keep on fueling, the qual vs. quan-one.

Lee, in this blurry light, only you fathom what it means to ‘howl at the doors’. Whatever it be, I’m afraid it does little to help the wretched for whom you howl. Thus, I’d encourage you to enter the heat of the city. I deeply agree that freedom, or what I’d preferably coin ‘the experience of personal autonomy’ is a detrimental piece of the equality-puzzle. Look back, and you’ll see me repeatedly arguing for a phenomenology of equality where the generative core is external trespassing on personal autonomy.

To typologize a bit, the ongoing debate has made me see three potential, interrelated modes of analysis for an anthropology of equality:

Ethical mode – Laying out the practical implications of symmetric recognition of other people’s status and needs

Cultural mode – Mapping the semantics of particular forms of equality, and their social applications

External mode – Explore how conceptually pre-defined forms of equality are politically generated and distributed

Any rigorous attempt should at least engage with the two latter ones. The first, I think, should be predominantly reserved for the emerita.

Finally some thoughts on thinking about an anthropology of equality as one focusing on the play of political categories or not.

Keith’s encouragement to focus on the structural play of particular political categories, such as race-, gender-, age-, and sexuality, is deeply grounded in the equality-tradition of the enlightenment. At it’s core lies a moral commitment to the project of making all individuals into formal political equals. As a humanist I’m a personal believer and supporter of this project. As Huon keeps wanting to tell Keith, discrimination obviously is an operational force in any analysis of how such categories are structured by living, breathing social systems.

But, returning to the snail-march, I think that in our day there is another, non-categorical equality approach which is becoming more and more empirically relevant. This is because of how current financialization processes work to economically disenfranchise more and more people in a way that is increasingly detached to the categorical status of the ones disenfranchised. In turn, this trend is surely set to transform into various other inequality forms. As of yet, fixated as most anthropologists are on the good old R(ace)A(ge)G(ender)-category set, it’s a good chance that we’re missing out on a whole range of historically new emergent forms of inequality.

    Could it be that the three of us are making much the same point here? 


Huon:  A key feature of the current political situation is that the awareness that the scale of monetary inequality is completely incommensurable with the scales for hierarchy or the ideas about human equality that we have been trying to use up to now. The sovereign state in its current form is utterly incapable of adjusting and so something will eventually have to give.    


Kristian:  .. .  I think that in our day there is another, non-categorical equality approach which is becoming more and more empirically relevant. This is because of how current financialization processes work to economically disenfranchise more and more people in a way that is increasingly detached to the categorical status of the ones disenfranchised. In turn, this trend is surely set to transform into various other inequality forms. As of yet, fixated as most anthropologists are on the good old R(ace)A(ge)G(ender)-category set, it’s a good chance that we’re missing out on a whole range of historically new emergent forms of inequality.   


Lee: . . . the whole income-money thing is so out of whack, so incredibly skewed that “inequality” doesn’t capture the enormity of the human condition.  To discuss human relationships in terms of income inequality is like noting that an inequality exists between an elephant and a gnat.  Our comparisons go off the scale, or, rather, there is no useful scale to apply. 


Granted, Kristian uses more syllables than Huon and I (financialization??), but the common understanding seems to be that the mechanisms for accumulating wealth have overwhelmed the political processes which exist to keep things more or less together, to maintain those (increasingly fictional) entities, “people” and “nations.”  “Inequality” must be conceptualized anew in a world of One Percenters and Ninety-nine Percenters.  As Kristian notes above, “it’s a good chance that we’re missing out on a whole range of historically new emergent forms of inequality.”  What might those new emergent forms be?  Any ideas?  

Hello, again. As noted elsewhere, I have just returned to Japan from a business anthropology conference in China. There the primary focus was the usefulness of ethnography and participant observation to explore those parts of the real world omitted for the sake of simplification from the sorts of abstract models favored by the economists and social psychologists. And what do I find here? Anthropologists engaged in debating high-level abstractions. A curious thing that. 

Let me say that speaking personally I find Keith's contrast between equality, conceived in a Robbie Burns-like "A man's a man for a' that" manner and hierarchy as justification for inequality compelling. [I do, of course, read Burns with a contemporary sensibility in which "a man" may be male, female, or multiply gendered and have been delighted by the results of the recent Irish referendum legitimizing gay marriage.]

Near the start of this conversation Huon writes that I have proposed a model in which inequality is inevitable. No, I reply, it is only very likely if steps are not taken to counter this tendency. Here we enter the realm of politics and policy. What, concretely, should equality consist of? And once we know that, what steps should be taken to increase or maintain it?

Here I take a hint from the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty, who says of his political principles that he favors (1) minimizing misery and (2) equal opportunity for every child. He knows that misery will never be completely eliminated and that some children will be born with greater opportunities than other. Nonetheless these two criteria suggest compelling answers to contemporary debates. Neither can be satisfied in societies with radical differences in access to (1') food, shelter and health care and (2') education. Nor can such radical differences be prevented in societies where Pareto/power laws are allowed to go unchecked. As George Soros observes, the market may be the greatest wealth-generating mechanism in human history; there is nothing in its principles to ensure a just distribution of wealth and sufficient spending on infrastructure, social safety nets, and education. Of particular importance, then, are steps to redistribute wealth, steeply progressive taxation including inheritance taxes that ensure the dispersal of great wealth before it hardens into aristocratic privilege.

Such steps were common in all of the OECD countries following World War II. Then they came to be seen as stifling the competition required for social vitality and increasingly dismantled, leading to the situation we face today. Is it possible to reverse this process, short of violent revolutions that, as we learned in the 20th century, only replace Privilege with Party in states impoverished by bureaucratic corruption? This is the central question of our times. 

That is my two yen.

John, looking back on your own written record, there’s plenty of high level theorizing. Nothing wrong with that in and by itself. The problem is when such discussions remain too polyphonic [polyphony at the empirical level, on the other hand, is quite appropriate). What we need to make sure when abstracting is that we touch base on a regular basis.

Lee, just google ‘financialization’. The term’s become a bit of a fad among European social-economic researchers over the last few years.

John, all your Rorty-claims sound just fine to me. But they are also rather common moral knowledge on the left-liberal end. What should concern us, if we want to make a practical difference is, like Sahlins said, to get a grip on the (pragmatic) origins of (modern forms of formalized political) equality. And we've got to design such origin-analyses in was that are politically credible (i.e. appear objectively true in a widely convincing manner)

Let me give a sketch example by a survey of historical developments in Norway’s unity school. Historically this school system was quite possibly the first in the world to formally implement universal rights to education. Sweden, it's big welfare-state brother for instance, only did so half a century later.

(Hold your hats; reducing abstractions necessarily implies having to fill some more blank)

1837: A set of parliamentary laws are passed that grant municipal elect councils extensive local political powers (see my accounts of the particular class-structure that facilitated this political feat here). A core organ in these municipal councils were school commissions, set to manage and administer the local offer of public schooling. The national public school system was rooted in a laws of 1739, enacted by a strictly pious Danish king who intended it to be a charitable means to ensure that all his subjects receive equal access to Christian salvation.

1840-1860: Until this period, public schooling outside the cities was mainly offered by wandering teachers, commissioned by the church. Wealth started increasing among rural landowners through the advent of industrial technologies. Many of these same people were also council elects and members the school commissions. The school commissions were until 1889 formally lead by the local priest. Typically, these priests had liberal university education, and were ardent universal education idealists. Building moral alliances with the increasingly wealthy local land-owners, a considerable expansion of permanent schoolhouses was financed across the countryside, alongside many teacher education institutions. Note how a crucial structuring factor to this expanding bottom-up universialization was the formal political powers invested in the municipal councils to decide on local affairs, and the fact that the local policy makers were held together by multiple, complex reciprocal social relationships that served to buffer the political consolidation of biased interest.

1860: Municipal council members previously involved in local school politics around the country (often themselves teachers and/or priests) are elected to the parliament. They succeed in passing a law which oblige all municipalities to build permanent schools, effectively abolishing the system of wandering teachers and considerably expanding the scope and content of the public education across the country.

1860-1945: With the rise of public school teachers as the front line folk-heroes of the nation state, various laws are passed to give teachers and their organizations extensive formal and informal political powers, from the municipal to the state level. The church is gradually side-lined.

1945-1990: In the ideological legitimation of the welfare state, public education (Enhetsskolen/‘the unity school’) turns into a key instrumental vehicle in the Utopian production of a ‘universally equal society’. A series of laws and measures are passed to ensure a formal ‘positive discrimination’ of the various political categories at any time perceived as structurally disfavored (girls, disability, indigenous sami, immigrants). In practice, 'positive discrimination'-measures mainly came in terms of extra economic resources and categorically tailored pedagogic adaptions. At the level of political process, it's crucial to note that the state (often in the voice of teacher professionals) retracts the municipalities’ control over local school finances. From now on, all tax revenue is to be redistributed through the state center by means of complex bureaucratic algorithms.

1990-onwards: The ideological grounding of the ‘unity school’, anchored in the foundational equality-ethos of the welfare state, buffers neoliberal educational privatization trends setting in elsewhere. Education remains on state hands. What Apple has called ‘the conservative restoration’ however, runs rampant within it. In a mix of globalization-euphoria- and anxiety, new ranks of professionalized politicians in the labor party manage to oust the teacher profession from the formal political decision making chain. In their place a series of professional bureaucratic agencies are instituted, who start relying on quasi-private education research institutes and commissioned research endeavours instead of the university based teacher profession as knowledge oracle. Equality turns less and less about ‘categorical’ relations, more and more about the individual educational outcomes relative to the statistical mean. In the current Norwegian unity school, 'equal education' means system designs that ensure that everyone learns the same stuff equally well (and the relative quantity of that stuff keeps growing by the minute). If some struggle, teachers are made responsible (i.e. held accountable) to tinker with the method of transmission until deviant individual test scores show improvement towards the mean. All in the name of sustaining the prosperity nation state in a world of global turbulence.

Returning now to the question of the origins of equality, what this sketch might be taken to prove is that the kind of early welfare state equality we’d like to see more of relies on a radical distribution of formal political powers across the specific system in which  we’d like to see categorical equality happen. Looking at Norway and Europe alike, a seeming basic necessary soil for such distributions to occur is the absence of strong power biases to a minority of stakeholders (i.e. skewed class structures). In Norway, significant precursors to such a condition was the black plague, geopolitical provinciality, rich resources and a small population, and the presence of an external colonist other in the state-making process. In Northern/Western Europe, social states could only grow after the horrible class system destructions of the early 20th century. Thus, it seems, the longer the current skewing proceeds, the more difficult it gets to see how it could be reversed with non-violent means.

What new forms of ‘inequality’ does the contemporary situation generate? To not fly skyhigh, I’ll limit myself to the preceding educational analysis. For once, we seem to get a whole lot of emotionally stressed kids. There are plenty of quan-surveys to document increasing anxiety/depression levels among Norwegian youth, partly related to too high school expectations. This is a form of inequality that strikes most but the few who are exceptionally psychologically resilient (or have exceptional means to cope)

Another paradoxal fact about political education systems so forcefully designed to cut everyone as the same cookie (i.e. along the neoliberal construct of high-standards educational equality) is that they increase the relative significance of genetic hereditary factors. Nowhere do kids with below average IQ, or with system-inappropriate personality-quirks (‘ADHD-spectrum’ demeanors) become so conspicuous as in high-equality-standards education.

Now I’ve flailed out a rowdy, low-level story line about the pragmatic origins of the Norwegian educational equality systems (and some loose generalizations beyond that). Do you have any story lines of origins to offer John?


    Re “financialization”:  Google indeed tells me this is not only a word, but a cottage industry for some economists.  Just a country boy, it passed me by completely.  Still, an inelegant word for an insidious phenomenon. 

    Your call to identify “historically new emergent forms of inequality” may be answered in part by your account of the Norwegian school system.  From its impressive beginnings, with municipalities and teachers running things, the system has d/evolved to the point that bureaucrats now run things by administering an endless series of performance tests to students.  Test results can be quantified, again endlessly, so that students are ranked according to how well they’ve assimilated whatever “education” the bureaucrats have chosen to impart.   In short, students are required to jump through any number of hoops if they hope to “succeed.”  Of course, since that process of financialization steadily widens the gap between rich and poor, there are fewer and fewer chances to “succeed.”  That makes the tests all the more important, and contributes, as you point out, to increasing anxiety among school kids.  In this way the blame for failure is placed on the students: the bureaucrats can piously claim they gave the kids every chance in a perfectly objective system and, oh, too bad, lots of them blew it.  In this way those who run things can paper over the fact that the world increasingly belongs to the One Percenters, that the society is based on and perpetuates inequality

    This, of course, is but one example of the ”audit culture” that has taken hold everywhere.  With roots in big corporations and big government, it has now spread to all levels of the educational system. 

    A distressing fact is that this mechanism for generating inequality functions in very different societies, Norway and the U. S. for example.  In the U. S. the audit culture took root in an educational system plagued by low performance, absenteeism, and a high drop out rate.  The great social philosopher, George W. Bush, found the fix: No Child Left Behind.  Every kid in this great land would be required to perform at an acceptable level; all that was needed were specific goals and verifiable results.  Hence, test, test, test.  “Objective” tests composed by bureaucrats doubtlessly of the same ilk as Norway’s are now administered from the early grades on up.  And the test results do not primarily impact the individual student; collective student scores determine whether teachers are kept on, let go, or just perhaps given a merit raise.  The same holds for entire schools and school districts.  It’s the carrot or the stick.  With teachers and administrators in fear for their jobs, kids spend hours on end in practice sessions, then move on to days of the real thing.  Einstein and any number of creative types would never have had a chance; it’s regiment or perish. 

    A “new emergent form of inequality,” but supposedly not based on race, gender, or family income.  

Kristian, thanks for that brief history of education in Norway. But if you think that is a rowdy story, welcome to the USA. Here are a few items to consider.

1. Diversity

Reporter-historian Colin Woodward has argued brilliantly that North America is home to eleven distinct nations, whose politics are shaped by the cultures of the European immigrants who colonized the continent. A brief description of Woodward's book can be found here.

2. Local Interests

The thirteen colonies that formed the original United States began with a loose confederation that was only solidified by the writing of the Constitution. In one of the greatest pieces of political wisdom ever written Alexander Hamilton writes in Federalist 1 that,

Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected. The plan offered to our deliberations affects too many particular interests, innovates upon too many local institutions, not to involve in its discussion a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.

One result was the 10th Amendment to the Constitution,

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Control of education was left to the States, which, in most cases, delegated the authority to build and operate schools to local school boards, funding schools through taxes levied by the city, county or  township in question.

3. Savage Inequalities

In Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol described the consequences of the localization of control over education described above. Most schools are funded by local property taxes. Those with the means to do so move out of cities to suburbs with better schools. The children of those left behind are divided into a minority who attend elite private schools and a majority, the children of the poor, who are educated, if that is the right term, in schools impoverished by a shrinking tax base. With a few notably heroic exceptions, those schools become, in effect, juvenile detention facilities. (A strong taste of Kozol's argument can be found in this conversation posted online.)

4. Personal Observations

At my wife's elementary school in Indiana, the first three grades had, until World War II, been taught in German, the native language of the immigrants who settled there. Garrison Keillor is a celebrity who has made a career out of radio broadcasts describing life in Lake Woebegone, a fictional small town in Minnesota two of whose notable residents are the Norwegian bachelor farmers, a town where "all the men are strong, all the women are beautiful, and all of the children above average." During my own last two years of high school in York County, Virginia, I was made to take courses titled "Virginia and American History" and "Virginia and American Government," in which much was made of Jamestown, the first English-speaking settlement in North America established in 1607. It wasn't until I went to college in Michigan and was compelled to take a freshman survey titled "American Civilization I" that I learned that the Pilgrims who landed on Plymouth rock were more than those who got there second. 

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case in which the Court declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. It was not, however, until 1963, the year after I graduated from York High School, that segregation was ended in York County. The reason? About half the students in the school were military dependents, most with parents at Langley Air Force Base, the headquarters of the North American Air Defense Command. When the Department of Defense announced that failure to desegregate the county's schools would result in withdrawal of the "Impacted Area" funding paid to the county, fire-breathing racism disappeared overnight. 

My daughter grew up in Japan and attended a Japanese kindergarten and a local public school through third grade. By then, however, it was obvious that our best intentions to teach her English were failing (She spoke and read fluently, but writing? Oh, my God). We were, however, well off enough to send her to a private International School. When she and her husband moved to Washington, D.C., he wanted to live out in the country with lots of land; she wanted to live in the city. They decided, however, to buy the house they now own in Fairfax, a county closer to the city with one of the best public school systems in the USA.  Their children's education was their No. 1 concern. Are my grandchildren privileged? Yes, they are. 

My daughter is, like her parents, politically left of center, a progressive Democrat willing to pay higher taxes to support public education. Again like us, she is both in favor of greater equality as a political ideal and, at the same time, determined to provide her kids with whatever competitive edge she can. This includes not only a foodie diet, gardening and other outdoor exercise, but also a strict restriction on "screen time." access to TV, computers, or other electronic toys to 15 minutes a day, except on movie nights no more than once or twice a week. She would like all children everywhere to enjoy the advantages her children do; but when push comes to shove, they come first.

John, thanks for the stories.

Though proclaimed humanist, I also instinctively place my children's educational success first. Thus, the crucial factor in terms of systematically deliberated equality seems to which particular formal political constraints are placed on the pan-political human inclination to act on their world from the position of their own body within it.

My son has his first school day today in a private school with a distinctly progressive pedagogical model that is far removed from the OECD-school. Though an alternative only available to a privileged few (we actually got a spot through an open lottery), thanks to living in Germany, such private alternatives are at least quite readily available. In Norway, you have little choice but what the state offers. In spite of all the system flaws, over in the US you at least have the advantage that you can home-school; most places in Europe you risk the state taking away your child if you did so.

On first look, historical US educational federalism as you describe it appears to be much alike in principle to that which evolved in Norway in the 19th century. I’d emphasize some differences that I think are crucial.

  1. The foundational model of Norwegian public education is the state church. In terms of content, all shall be blessed with the same (e.g. ‘equal’) education. In the early days of divine absolutism, that ‘one knowledge’ would merge you and all others with God. Later on it would merge individuals en masse into the h social democratic equality-utopia. A very practical implication is a long tradition of more and more tightening national curricula
  2. In the early 20th century, the labor movement caught parliamentary sway, much thanks to the international financial turbulences of the time. One consequence was a clamping down of a system established by liberals in the 19th century of state financial rewards to entrepreneurial school commissions. In effect, this system favored already well off municipalities in central areas while leaving small, provincial municipalities behind. Later on, this idea of relative geographical equality in terms of educational financing produced a strongly centralized system for a fair redistribution of education revenues
  3. Grounded in its crucial symbolic role in the anti-Swedish nationalist-romantic-enlightement-ish independence movement, the political power of the pedagogic profession was internationally unparalleled. From the late 19th to the late 20th century, people from its ranks pervaded the state at all levels (not only the education departments). Hence the political success of the dream of a centralized unity school system as a universalist equality-machine of society

In sum, you see that a range of factors entered the picture from around the turn of the century to interfere with those 19th century liberal—federalist roots, ideologically speaking all joined under the master term of ‘equality’. To keep it short, the most significant legacy of these factors today is that privatization, as well audit systems remain virtually non-existent. Instead, neoliberal education doctrine  has usurped the state education system from within. Pragmatically speaking, this is largely a cause of signing onto EU-internal free-trade deals towards the end of the 1990s, which also implied signing on to a series of neoliberal EU-educational treaties.

I’m very well aware of the Brown vs. Board case, the subsequent Coleman-surveys, and the culture of poverty-, and white-flight debates in the US. What is really interesting to me here how those early white-flight-tendencies in the US (which I suspect there as most places now had most to do with particular strictures of the housing market, e.g. state subsidized mortgage policies) produced some of the earliest so-called 'at-risk'-schools. These schools became the proto-laboratories for early experiment in what later evolved into late-capitalism’s dominant effective-schools regime, the one of high-standards-equality-for-all. Ironically, in the early vanguard of the school effectiveness movement, many were black racial education activists searching for scientifically grounded pedagogic methods to close the achievement gap. It was here that the ideas of high standards and instrumental skill-drilling were first hatched, and, through quasi-scientific research-designs, ‘proven to work’. Later on, neoliberal education politicians across the west promoted them as evidence-based guiding stars for all education, and, ultimately, as a practical remedy to consolidate national economic growth in the knowledge age.

Returning to Norway, the system of state educational centralization, morally sealed by a primordialist idea of universal equality, now proves itself a double-edged sword. That is, it’s very efficient at producing whatever cultural forms of equality that it is bent to produce. As I’ve indicated several times, in political practice ‘equality’ is a chameleonic signifier, now mainly anchored in a test-score-standard definition.

I now live in Germany. Here I often meet people who, unhappy about the exceedingly instrumentalist character of their own state education, react to my ‘Norwegian-ness’ with ‘oh, up there you’ve got such a nice and socially minded education system’. It is probably true that progressive educational thought, strongly anchored in categorical notions of equality, was extremely strong in Norwegian classrooms in the 1970s and 80s. But when the Norwegian state changes course, Norwegians have a peculiar tendency of moving with it (grounded in this peculiar 200 year long historical experience that that state has felt to most more a friend than an enemy).

A 10-minute snippet from my fieldwork in 1st grade classrooms in Oslo in 2011/2012. You meet teacher ‘Astrid’ and a few of her 6-year old first-year pupils preparing for next day’s city-wide standardized literacy test:

Astrid tells the children to write their names at the top of their task forms [photocopies of tasks from last years’ test]. Proceeding with a list of multiple-choice tasks, she urges: «Write big crosses…big crosses! ». Looking towards Ali, she prompts: «You use too long time writing crosses! Nina, look at several pictures at a time…put cross quickly… put cross quickly!! Yes, that’s as quickly as you should do it. Put cross quickly. Norbert…not such a big cross! Only a cross. That [points to a picture on Norbert’s sheet] is a doll. When you see that picture, then you know it cannot be that one, so you just proceed».

A few moments later, as Ali finishes his form he exclaims: «Yes, now I’m finished! ». About the same time, Nina having also finished, proclaims: «I did it, I did it! I won! You know what, I was first! ». Astrid: «Oh dear Nina and Ali... [makes a disapproving face expression] No, Nina was first. That’s not the point». Astrid promptly has them flip the page and start on a new list of tasks.

When Nina discovers that there’s another page, she exclaims in dismay: «There’s one more!? ». Astrid: «Yes. Tomorrow we’ll have 7 different», ushering them on: «Now you’ll have 5 minutes on the remaining tasks». Nina’s gaze strays, which has Astrid reassert herself: «Nina….Nina!! 5 minutes for 3 pages! Now you’ll have to read! Hush! ». As Ali looks at Nina, Astrid reprimands him: «You have to read...you have to read…you have to read! You must not look at Nina! ».

By their low, suppressed voices, I hear how the children painstakingly work to decode the words in the task text, letter by letter, syllable by syllable. Nina [looking over to Norbert]: «That’s wrong! ». Norbert: «I’m finished! ». Astrid: «If one is finished ahead of time, what is one supposed to do? ». Norbert: «Check [for mistakes] ». Astrid: «Check, very good! ».

Considering Astrid's vigor, it's perhaps surprising to know that she, as most her colleagues, were often highly critical about the test- and skill-drill regimes she was was set to perform. Nevertheless, it's gotten so worked into the everyday social life in Oslo-schools in recent years through top-down bureaucratic directives from the city's education department (eager to produce the municipal school sector with the best scores in the country) that the only thing the teachers feel they can do to serve their pupils is to train them as best they can to cope with the regime on the premises of it's own game-rules. Unlike the US, there are few formal rewards keeping up the system; no prizes, no salary bonuses. Only the relentless everyday social grounding of a bureaucratic system that says: if your scores don't match the target, we'll benignly help you improve your teaching by proven, evidence-based pedagogic techniques. And implicitly, if you don't comply, you're gradually frozen out as a non-cooperative, anti-collegial weirdo who doesn't care about the welfare of your pupils. In the long run you learn to ignore the lump in your throat and comply, or you voluntarily change occupation.

Again, a way to long post from me; after all, education is my field, so I get a bit carried away.

The base line, of my argument, I think, I purposed earlier: An anthropological study of equality should include a conjoint empirical exploration of both (1) how equality operates as a sociocultural construct in particular fields and (2)  what kinds of relational symmetries and asymmetries are generated between various players in the field due to particular ecological/pragmatic/historical constraints (particularly crucial here are formal legal systems).

In the USA two ways of characterizing equality are common. One defines equality as a fair chance to be the best that you can achieve. The other defines equality as a life on a part, ideally middle-class, with everyone else. A question for all of us here: Are there other options missing from this binary opposition?

The critical issues give these two options are, first, what counts as a fair chance? and, second, what counts as the life that everyone should share? Local, ethnic, and class divisions result in different answers to these questions. Is the same true in Britain or other parts of Europe?

At this point I'd recommend this book: Anarchic Solidarity: Autonomy, Equality, and Fellowship in Southeast Asia (2011). The authors purpose that a crucial twin-mechanism keeping check on the accumulation of hierarchy in egalitarian social systems is (1) a cultural appreciation of autonomy, and (2) real opportunities for individuals to pull out of social relations and group formation processes if they want to.

In sum, what these mechanisms do is to prevent reciprocal relations from becoming excessively asymmetrical (i.e. turning into debt relations). So to your question John, an alternative conceptualization of equality, now as a system feature, could be built on the degree to which the system allows its constituent individuals to dis-commit themselves from its particular social projects.

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