Is It as Impossible to Build Jerusalem as it is to Escape Babylon?

It is enough for me to hear someone talk sincerely about ideals, about the future, about philosophy, to hear him say “we” with a certain inflection of assurance, to hear him invoke “others” and regard himself as their interpreter—-for me to consider him my enemy.

– Emil Cioran, 1949.

An interview with Peter Harrison by GYRUS. (Part Three of Three)

… It is as impossible to be for revolution – the establishment of equality and freedom on Earth – as it is to be against it…

You discuss near the end of The Freedom of Things the problems — perhaps the impossibility — of modern culture being able to really learn anything from Indigenous cultures. What are the problems involved, and what is the significance of these cultures to us if we can’t learn anything from them?

I guess I am saying that while we can learn things from a comparison of cultures we are unable to use that ‘knowledge’ to change anything effectively, or ‘for the better,’ whether we are ‘Western’ or ‘Indigenous.’ Although there is perhaps one thing we can do for ‘uncontacted’ peoples… and that is to try to make sure they are left alone by everyone. There is a small island off India inhabited by people named by India as the Sentinelese. There is an iconic photo of one of these people firing an arrow at an Indian coastguard helicopter flying over, after the 2004 tsunami in the region — the photo is taken from the helicopter. There have been a few instances of recorded contact with outsiders since the 1880s, but most have proved hostile. Apparently, the Indian government tried to encourage reciprocal relations with these people in the 1990s, depositing gifts and such. But the people began repelling them and the government gave up visiting because they became relentlessly hostile. Elements within the authorities also questioned whether these people needed to be investigated or ‘protected’ by India since they were clearly very healthy and wholly self-sufficient. Survival International has a campaign demanding these people be left alone, and the Indian government has stated that no further contact attempts will be made.

I think one can imagine that these people are aware of the danger posed by foreign intruders, and this is perhaps tied in with the traditional maintenance of ‘autonomy’ through general enmity, or vengeance, as I have explored in the book. Of course, they are right to resist foreign intrusion because we all know how their integration with the Indian, or any, State will end. These people, and others in a similar position, are for me, and romantically speaking, the last humans. The best thing we could do for them, as people who have no perspective beyond that of the economy, is to try to make sure that these peoples remain isolated and undisturbed. Anthropologists who go there to seek ‘the original human’ are poisonous idiots. Apparently, the documentary film director of one of these anthropological expeditions in the 1970s was shot in the leg while in their boat, just off the beach, with a two-and-a-half metre long arrow. [This was written before the widely reported death of John Chau.] We cannot live as they live; we cannot create a movement to try to live as they live; and once they are dragged into our world they are forever banished from their past life.

In the last part of the book we investigate the notion of knowledge as comprehended in Western and recent Indigenous discourse. The usual binary is conceptualised as Western knowledge systems versus Indigenous knowledge systems. But anthropological work, as done by anthropologists such as Paul Nadasdy for the Yukon region, indicates that the conception of a ‘knowledge system’ for either culture is a misleading approach to understanding what is really going on. By adopting the idea of knowledge systems Indigenous peoples are able to construct a possible reconciliation and a joint ‘going forward’ between the two broad cultures. And this is exactly the gloss that is put on the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge within Western science or economic practice. But there appears to be a slowly growing awareness that the combining of knowledge systems does not do what it promises.

The inclusion of Indigenous knowledge (cultivation of plants, for example, or the sustaining of fauna) within Western knowledge (how to farm, for example) is part of the process of struggle between two entirely different ways of living. And it is not possible, if we know anything about capitalism or the imperatives of States, for both ways of living to co-exist. The, often feigned and deceitful, inclusion of Indigenous knowledge and practice within Western science is simply part of the process of the final eradication of Indigenous ways of living.

The ‘West’ prides itself on its apparent generation of knowledge, and its ability to spread enlightenment. But knowledge and enlightenment are fantasy concepts used to justify and promote a way of living. The West is a pedagogical society, since the ‘pedagogical imperative’ is necessary for a State. Indigenous society is anti-pedagogical.

What now?

From the time of Herodotus, ‘the father of history,’ it is the norm, and expectation, that any written analysis of human social life should serve either as a panegyric or a warning, or as both. It is only within the convention of fiction that one is permitted to refuse to offer a solution for particular or general ills, and this is why fiction remains the truest kind of writing.

The Freedom of Things might appear to end on an optimistic note. The last line of the book is: ‘The critique of society has, once again, only just begun.’ But all this means is that I think the book provides a slightly different way of approaching an analysis of present conditions and that I think this could be taken up by others. It does not mean that I think that through such a critique we can tunnel our way out… or build the means to leave this world. The essence of the critique is that all such apparently practical objectives are ensnared and made impossible by the very conditions that we find ourselves in. The prime one being the size of the human population.

The simple fact that it is population numbers that makes the State (hierarchy, domination, slavery) necessary, creates a wealth of contradiction. It might be possible for readers to go away from this book thinking that ‘the solution’ is to reduce the numbers of humans on the planet drastically and then set up autonomous groups that defend their autonomy against other groups and keep their respective population numbers down. But, as the book indicates, such a ‘solution,’ is not only horrific, it is impossible. We cannot act against ourselves and decide on a new way to live that is wholly in opposition to the way we live now. We are products of the State who, as has been historically demonstrated, function to recreate the State. And we can do nothing else in the final analysis, even when we claim to want to abolish the State, since the population is too big, and has been for 5000 years, and, added to this, we want, naturally, as people formed by and born into a State, peace and harmony and enlightenment for all.

All serious movements that seek to radically alter, abolish, or escape State societies are millenarian movements. Millenarianism is a product of the critique of the State. The State, that which oppresses us, whatever it is, will always be critiqued. The State necessarily, or naturally, creates the conditions for this critique, and, therefore, millenarians, that is, revolutionaries, are functions of the State. They do not appear where there is no State. They do not appear in non-State societies. But, counter-intuitively, the critique of the State or ‘present conditions’ is not harmful to the State (though it may prove so for particular elements in the State hierarchy). In fact, it is necessary to its development, as recorded examples beginning with the English Civil War, at least, attest.

Yuri Slezkine, in his intelligent book about the Russian Revolution, The House of Government, traces physical outbreaks of millenarianism from Moses to Soviet Russia, and outbreaks of millenarian critique from Zoroaster to Marx. It would have been useful to me if this book had been published before mine, as the clarification of the fact that revolutionaries are not just dogmatists of a certain religion (dogmatists of a Russell’s Teapot) but actual millenarians would have given my own perspective in the book a sharper focus. I abandoned my millenarianism, completely, soon after writing the book, through a series of informal written engagements and reflection. Slezkine’s clarifications have given me more words and analogies to use. It is also interesting for me to review my answers above in the light of reading Slezkine. There was a significant time break before the last three questions, and it was in that time that I read and processed The House of Government. If I had read the Slezkine before embarking on the interview, references to his analyses would have appeared much earlier, probably right at the beginning.

Slezkine suggests that the Russian Revolution is probably the most successful expression of millenarianism the world has witnessed. He writes that, ‘It was as if the Fifth Monarchists had won the English Civil War.’ In general terms, ‘Millenarianism is the vengeful fantasy of the dispossessed, the hope for a great awakening in the midst of a great disappointment.’ He also writes that, ‘All millenarianisms are cargo cults at heart.’

It is with the ‘cargo cult’ analogy that Slezkine comes closest in the book to my own assertion that ‘revolutionism’ is shaped and contained by life in a State. ‘Cargo cults’ are a reaction to, or function of, the State, they appeared in the Pacific amongst people who had become dispossessed by colonising forces. The belief was that State bureaucrats and petty despots had diverted the fabled wealth and happiness that should rightfully have been delivered after the arrival of the colonisers. So, for example, in the classic image, it was decided that if the people built an airstrip then the wealth, the ‘cargo,’ would arrive.

But the ‘cargo’ is really a metaphor for recreating the society — or Eden — that has disappeared or is rapidly falling through their fingers. The karai prophets (see above) tried to escape the encroaching State by journeying to Eden. The ‘cargo cultists’ tried to connect with the ancestors, or the spirit world, or the gods, so that they would see what was happening and establish heaven on earth for those who deserved it, the members of the cult. As it says in the New Testament, while Christianity was still a sect, still a ‘cargo cult,’ before it had dispensed with its millenarianism and “was adopted by Babylon as an official creed”: He who has ears, let him hear.

But, as Clastres suggests, the simple formation of such cults or sects does the unification work of the State for it, and in double-quick time. The transformation of Russia under Soviet rule — the rule of the Bolshevik sect — was probably the swiftest and most amazing, and most terrible, historical example of State unification and industrialisation possible.

So, back to your question. We are caught in a bind now. The world is bad. What can we do about it? The problem is that everything we do acts against us. We could, as Voltaire’s Candide advises us, retreat and concentrate on tending our own gardens, thereby, apparently, reducing the active harm we may do to others. But we don’t have this choice all the time, and maybe we only have the choice after our youth is gone. We are, anyway, at whatever age, forced to act when events find us. In the era of the State – a result of reaching the tipping-point of population – millenarianism is one of the features of our eternal return. It is as impossible to be for revolution – the establishment of equality and freedom on Earth – as it is to be against it.

But my comparison of State and non-State societies reveals another frustrating problem. We are conditioned as subjects of States to desire peace and harmony upon the earth. The State really does ‘want’ peace. It really does aim to acquire the monopoly of violence (despite the current anomalous resistance of the NRA in the United States). We are led into the passionate desire for peace and harmony because we have become increasingly, globally, dependent. Just as trade is seen as a mechanism to promote peace (by everyone from Kant to Lévi-Strauss) – because one trader’s wealth is dependent upon the cooperation of other traders, and vice versa – so it is that we understand peace (and prosperity) to depend upon the cooperation of all.

So, the aim and vision of all millenarian movements is eventual peace, despite the fact that they must first bring a sword between family members in order to begin to destroy the old allegiances and the old unhealthy traditions.

And eventual peace is also the aim of all our non-millenarian thinkers and philosophers, from Hobbes, to Kant, to Douglas Fry, to Steven Pinker, and R. Brian Ferguson, as I have indicated above, and explain in the book. Just as it is for me. We all want eventual peace. How could we not? Some of us want freedom too, and the elimination of oppression. For these (amongst whom I count myself) the problem is that analysis of non-State society reveals that the – for want of a better word – freedom that people enjoyed relied on the constant generation of enmity and the pursuance of vengeance, in order to prevent the unification of peoples. It is the unification of peoples, however it happens, that is the death knell of the non-State way of life. Peace is servitude. Peace is dependence. Peace is the imperative of a mass society. The idea of peace began 5000 years ago, and was a goal shared by both servant and master.

Christopher Boehm, an anthropologist who has written extensively on the feud and vengeance in pre- or proto-States argues, as others do, that feuding is a means of social control. But I think, as I explain in the book, that this universalising or teleological, and patronising, assumption in regard to human behaviour in societies that are not States is not only shallow, but wrong. Analysing non- or proto-States in terms of how they accomplish social control presumes, right at the outset, that peace is the goal of these societies. It also tells us that they weren’t very good at achieving it and therefore reinforces the idea that non-State societies or, indeed, any past society is backward, or primitive, compared to our own.

Your question was ‘What now?’ My book could have been given this title. My observation, as explained in the book, is that all roads out are blocked. What should we do when there is no solution that we can ever lay our hands on? What should we do when there is nothing we can actively do for ourselves that doesn’t work against us as humans? Carry on regardless? Do we have a choice? The difficulty here is immense.

Originally published in 2018 by Dreamflesh blog.

Peter Harrison wrote ‘The Freedom of Things: An Ethnology of Control,’ and co-authored ‘Nihilist Communism: A Critique of Optimism in the Far Left.’ For work Harrison drives a bus.  Email: