Against His-Story, Against Leviathan!
Black & Red 1983
Don’t be misled by the poetic and mythologizing tone with which Fredy Perlman renders his epic Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! This is an exhaustively researched book. It is also profoundly philosophical, asking questions and suggesting answers you won’t find anywhere else. The fact that it is beautifully written in an accessible manner is highly appropriate to its message, as you will see below. The book’s style is very much the opposite of dry scientific writing. I think if readers have difficulty with this book apart from getting a hold of it (it’s distributed mostly through its publisher, Black & Red), it is because there is virtually no precedent for the combination of style, depth, and content of Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! to this day. There are few works of any kind on the subject, but what few there are mostly take a (pseudo) scientific or essay approach. To my knowledge no one tackles the question of civilization with the background in philosophy, history, economics, anthropology, ethnography, Marxism, political science, etc. that Fredy does. The depth of this background knowledge may not be immediately obvious to the reader in part because of the pointedly un-scientific tone used throughout, but you could (and should, as I would argue) use Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! as an introductory text to a world history class.
Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! is the history of the world from the perspective of human beings and their communities. It may come as a surprise to some of you that this is very much the opposite of every other history book in existence, that all history books prior to this one were written as histories of institutions and the men (almost exclusively men) who supposedly set them in motion. The difference between these approaches is huge. On the one hand, we are looking at human beings and their concerns: life, freedom, joy, family, community. On the other hand we are concerned with machines and abstractions, undying entities which retool all existence in their image and relate to life only insofar as they need living beings to operate their cogs and levers because they are inanimate themselves.
Fredy Perlman asks the questions which end polite conversations and cause the questioner to be marked a pariah: if civilization is as wonderful as we are told, why did it have to be imposed on each new group of people at gunpoint? Shouldn’t its merits be obvious, the material standard of living and so forth? Why did the colonizers of the Americas complain that they can’t keep their citizens from running off to join the “savage” tribes, whereas the natives themselves could only be coerced to adopt “civilized” life, and would still revert to “savagery” given half a chance? What is it about the civilized that enabled them to conquer the world? What is it that makes them want to? And where did civilization come from in the first place?
Why against civilization? Why not against capitalists, communists, fascists, Illuminati, Masons, Republicans, Americans, colonialists, warmongers, or just plain assholes? Why not against greed or hubris? There have been many attempts to correct the injustices inherent in all civilized societies. Many people thought that if only their ideology could be given free reign everything would be fine. Every attempt so far failed; none have succeeded in returning to mankind a standard of living enjoyed by our hunter and gatherer ancestors, materially, and more importantly spiritually and psychologically. Studying history reveals that some things are not as new as they appear to us, cut off by our own literacy and technology in time. Consider the following story:
“The leader of a certain city is disturbed by the state of his people. He sees that society is two-tiered, the few rich and the many poor, and that the poor are in dire straits and have little hope for improvement. He remembers, or thinks he remembers, a time when things weren’t this way, when everyone had a fighting chance to live happily. He institutes reforms intended to fix the injustices. He decrees that “the youth was not required to work in the (rich man’s fields); the workingman was not forced to beg for his bread. The priest no longer invaded the garden of a humble person.” If a rich man wanted the healthy donkey of his servant, he had to pay the servant’s asking price in silver, and if the servant refused to sell, he couldn’t coerce him. And so on.
The reforms make the poor of his city happy, but seriously piss off the rich. The upper classes conspire to overthrow the reformer and help a ruler more sympathetic to their interests replace him.”
These events took place in the Sumerian city-state of Lagash around 2300 BC. They are recorded in a cuneiform script on a clay tablet. It is a completely modern story. In fact, Urukagina, the reforming ruler of Lagash, speaks of the injustices in his city as already ancient, though he knows they’re wrong. Lugalzagisi, the champion of the rich installed in his place, knows as well as any modern politician where his bread and butter lies. The lesson seems to be that those in possession of wealth and power will tenaciously cling to it. The Sumerians are not yet concerned with dressing up the injustices in their midst with ideologies like “trickle down economics.” But the reformers among them err in the same way as reformers will err until the present day: they assume that tinkering with the relative distribution of power and wealth is enough. Perhaps they themselves are heavily invested in the inequality, or maybe they have already forgotten what life outside of the Leviathan looks like. Or they may remember perfectly well what it is they have traded for civilization, but view the loss as already irremediable.
By the time of Urukagina, Sumerians were the inheritors of over 3000 years of increasing social stratification, large scale public works, strongmen, wars, and rapacious commerce. The first irrigation canals in the Near East were created in 6000 BC. Jericho in near-by Levant had 12 foot high walls around 8300 BC. Their world was cosmopolitan: merchants traveled ancient trade routes as far as the Indus Valley to the southeast, the Pontic Steppe (present day eastern Ukraine and southern Russia) to the northeast, Anatolia (Turkey) to the northwest, Egypt and Ethiopia to the southwest. Sumer would not have struck people from our time as incomprehensible. The concerns of a Sumerian were pretty much identical to those of a modern person: sex, stuff, status, work, rest. God(s). But both Sumer and 21st century life would be completely inconceivable to free human beings, those living outside of civilization.
During the period between the adoption of agriculture and animal husbandry around 10000 BC and the beginning of recorded history in around 2500 BC, mankind went through the greatest change it ever has and possibly ever will. For those who went through it, it is no exaggeration to say this was a change from being free human beings to inmates of a compulsory labor camp. For those able to temporarily escape the monster’s jaws through flight, life was also permanently changed for the worse. They would have to continue running with every advance of this or that Leviathan, this or that civilization, until nowhere remained to run and just one Leviathan is spread over the whole world. When Francis Fukuyama will announce its final victory in 1989, he will know it as democracy or capitalism.
The few handfuls of humans who still live in what we call a “state of nature” deep in the Amazon or Congo rainforests do so today only by the grace and generosity of the civilized. A much greater number exist in a semi-free state on the margins of society, wherever they can, overlooked for the time being. These groups span the gamut from greater to lesser amounts of freedom, but none of them can be completely free because none have the security necessary to experience complete freedom. For the rest of us, the very meaning of the word freedom is inverted.
Insist that “freedom” and “the state of nature” are synonyms, and the cadavers will try to bite you. The tame, the domesticated, try to monopolize the word freedom; they’d like to apply it to their own condition. They apply the word “wild” to the free. But it is another public secret that the tame, the domesticated, occasionally become wild but are never free so long as they remain in their pens. p.7
Instead of being free to develop our humanity to its fullest potential, a process heavily intertwined with the lore and traditions of our communities, we are “free” to create a personal identity based on the kinds of objects and experiences we can afford, largely in seclusion. Naturally, this modern kind of freedom leads to suffering and confusion.
The state of nature is a community of freedoms.
Such was the environment of the first human communities, and such it remained for thousands of generations.
Modern anthropologists who carry Gulag in their brains reduce such human communities to the motions that look most like work, and give the name Gatherers to people who pick and sometimes store their favorite foods. A bank clerk would call such communities Savings Banks!
The zeks on a coffee plantation in Guatemala are Gatherers, and the anthropologist is a Savings Bank. Their free ancestors had more important things to do. pp.7-8
So what is it we the civilized are missing?
Where does one start? The short answer is, everything.
Even during the coldest winter days, when the branches of evergreens sagged from their weight of snow, the human child was born into a very warm context. The warmth did not come from the walls of the bark lodge, which failed to block all draughts, nor from the fire on the floor, but from the radiant people welcoming the newcomer.
The child was expected; she was already an important personage; her arrival completed the community. Soon after her birth, she was ceremonially named, not arbitrarily but very carefully. The Totem, namely the community of the newcomer’s kin, possessed a number of names, as the sky possesses a number of stars, and the community was not quite whole, was in fact uneasy, if the names were not carried by living individuals. Everyone attended the naming ceremony because all were enhanced by the newly-named. The names did not run out. The Potawatomi were not committed to what we will know as Population Growth, and it is said that they did not experience the phenomenon.
The newcomer provided a missing rhythm. The name expressed the community’s embrace of the missing rhythm and also some expectations about the music that might be heard.
But the specific rhythm of the newly-named could be foretold no more than the final shape of a tree can be foretold from a seedling. The child was placed in no school to stunt her growth to the expected size and shape. On the contrary, the girl-child as well as her newborn brother were left free to emulate, or ignore, uncles and aunts, cousins among the animals, everyone and everything under the Sun, not excluding the Sun.
The grownups watched, not to close doors, but to open doors, to let the children wander where they would unharmed.
By the time the Potawatomi children were old enough to have expectations of their own, they were prepared to be their own guides. Dream lodges were set up in the forest, one for the girl, another for her brother. The youngsters fasted until a Totem spirit visited them. The spirit usually appeared in the form of an animal, and was usually not the same spirit whose name the child wore. The spirit promised to guide the child along a specific path, namely to give the child an individual rhythm, and the spirit offered the child certain powers with which to achieve the rhythm, powers with which to light the path.
Henceforth the children were on their own, bound neither by laws nor by the community’s expectations. Their own dream spirit helped them decide whether or not to live up to the ancestor whose name they carried. If they decided not to, they would be renamed after the first act that revealed the children were determined to follow distinct paths.
The boy, carrying his guide’s offerings in a beautifully adorned bag, and knowing that he could call on his guide simply by fasting, set out on his own to face a cosmos whose grandeur and mystery will be inaccessible to our imaginations. We will know something of his feats as a hunter or a warrior, as a long-distance walker, as a lover. We will know less of the depth of his friendships with kinsmen or strangers, and almost nothing of his friendships with wolves and bears whose tracks he followed, whose signals he tried to grasp, whose universe he tried to understand. And we will know nothing at all of his fasts on mountain tops or alongside green mirror-like tree-surrounded lakes, of the journeys he undertook with his guide across and through the water to the place of life’s origin, of his flights on the guide’s wings to the sunset land where his ancestors gathered.
We will know that he eventually returned to his Totem with meat and with numerous stories, and that he married his beloved’s sister because his beloved had in the meantime married a youth who had not stayed away for so long. We will know that he spoke of his exploits and his voyages to his children and also to his sister’s children, the nephew and niece whose dream lodges he built in the forest.
We will think that his strength left him when he gave up warring as well as hunting, when he became a peacemaker, storyteller and lone wanderer.
We will not know that he revisited a mountain top he had known in his youth, fasted until his guide came for him, flew to the land beyond the sunset, joined his beloved, he as youthful as on his first trip, she as beautiful as on the day he first saw her, and traveled with her alongside him across and through water to the place of Life’s beginnings.
If we knew all this, we wouldn’t ask why the man resisted encasing himself in our linear, visionless Order. Isn’t it our longing that expresses itself in a story about a European called Faust who turns his back on respectability, on the esteem of his colleagues, on law as well as religion, so as to have access to a personal guide and personal powers available to every Potawatomi?
The man’s older sister, in the meantime, created a music that will sound less ‘romantic’ to our ears. She too followed her own dream, but she found it possible to fulfill her own guide’s expectations as well as the community’s. She lived up to the Totem ancestor whose name she proudly continued to carry. She threw herself into the Totem’s activities, perhaps reacting against her lonesome brother; perhaps she, too, thought him excessively ‘romantic’.
Like her name-ancestor, she turned bark of birch trees into canoes and winter lodges and tree-sugar baskets; she turned the skins of animals into cloaks, skirts, moccasins and medicine bags. Her own spirit inspired the colorful quilled symbolism with which she finished everything she made.
Like her ancestor, she was one of the preparers of the ceremonial welcoming of spring’s new shoots, and after her marriage she was also a preparer of the ceremonial expulsion of Wiske, but the words she sang and the steps she danced were inspired by her own spirit.
Like her ancestor, she gathered herbs and became familiar with their general uses, but when her son was attacked by something he ate, she had to learn from her own spirit how to combine and administer the herbs while singing him back to health.
Her son as well as her daughter later took after her lonesome younger brother, but she was neither disappointed nor surprised; she knew that the children were following their own dreams, as she herself had.
Her dream had guided her to the center of the festivals and ceremonies, to the village council and the medicine lodge. Nothing her kin did or knew was alien to her.
Yet some of us will pretend to be honest when we ask why she was so vigorous in expelling Wiske from the ceremonial circle, why she would have been repelled by the prospect of becoming a housewife in a Civilized household, even the Archon’s.
Can we not recognize that in the fullness of development of universal human capacities she exposes the immiseration of the shamefully stunted products of Civilization? Can we not see that this Potawatomi matron who excels as Architect, Shoemaker, Shipbuilder, Furrier, Dramatist, Painter, Composer, Dancer, Druggist and Doctor already surpasses the many-sided Genius, the notoriously flexible Renaissance Man?
Shouldn’t the question be inverted? Shouldn’t we ask why we are fascinated by a Da Vinci, instead of asking why she is repelled? Is it because Da Vinci dangles from Leviathan’s neck like a cowbell, whereas she stands on ordinary dirt?
Why does a Da Vinci gleam for us among the beast’s innumerable cowbells? Is it because, after all the stunting and spirit-breaking that makes us Civilized, we still want to be what she was, but can no longer become even what he was, can only applaud what Leviathan becomes instead of us? pp.242-245
I’m sure I don’t have to emphasize the fact that it is extremely unusual to condemn civilization, wholesale or even in part. The idea that civilization is a good thing is, to most people, so true it is self evident and needs no proof. For most people born and raised inside of Leviathan, with no notion that there even is an outside, questioning civilization is among the hardest mental exertions. But as Fredy Perlman shows in this book, this wasn’t always the case. Once it came into being, civilization conquered or co-opted every group of people it came across, but it took a long time and the “progress” was far from uniform. From the very start, humans have resisted the supposed bounty of civilized life whenever they had the chance.
Much of Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! is concerned with tracing this history of resistance to civilization. People did not willingly trade their freedoms in the state of nature for the garb of a civilized worker and consumer. Such conversions mostly only take place once no other alternatives exist. The focal point of the resistance has shifted from those on the exterior of Leviathans in the beginning to those already inside it more recently, as less and less yet un-civilized space remained. It seems like the mountains are always the place where resistance is fiercest, from the first barbarians who descended on Uruk from the Zagros mountains to the unconquerable Pashtuns or Kurds of today.
The middle sections of the book may not hold the attention of people without some interest in history. It’s hard to keep track of the different groups being discussed—the Hittites? The Mittani?—but careful reading all the way through is extremely rewarding to even a casual student of history like myself for the insights Fredy offers about different periods and civilizations. Like his observations that the Ancient Greeks talked about everything but the olives and wine which made their empire function, and became aesthetes so they could maintain the illusion. Even for those lacking any knowledge of history, the first portion of the book is great as a stand-alone essay on civilization and its origins, and the section about the Potawatomi later in the book is a beautiful description of what life was like without civilization. Both are pure poetry.
In the past, the average person was “convinced” to become civilized at the point of a sword. Today, we are persuaded that we are the beneficiaries of the best, most advanced and satisfying way of living ever through more advanced mechanisms, but perhaps the biggest factor in favor of civilization these days is the fact that it has swallowed all alternatives to itself. Still, a staggering amount of work goes into convincing a completely captive audience that they should want the thing that is supposedly so wonderful it is self-evident.
It is no exaggeration to say the way we think about almost anything is channeled through the lens of our pro-civilization ideology. I first read Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! perhaps fifteen years ago, and may have been introduced to anti-civilization thought maybe a few years before that. In the years since, I’ve done more research on history, politics, economics, etc. and the way they alternately shed light on or obscure facts about our lives. I’m no stranger to these ideas, and yet re-reading Against His-Story this last time, I discovered that I still have trouble not being impressed by the grandeur of imperial Rome, the sublime aesthetics of the ancient Greeks, the sheer terror of Scythian or Mongol cavalry. A part of me still thinks of these as “Us,” when I know full well that this is the point of the propaganda; by identifying with these things I am being duped into trading experiencing my own visions for merely consuming the carefully calibrated visions of Leviathan.
A big reason it’s so hard to not be duped by the glitter and thrill of Leviathanic ideas and spectacles, even when you know full well they are no good, is that most of us have nothing better, know of nothing better. When we accidentally stumble on something that makes our hearts sing, we misidentify what it is we are experiencing because we have no frame of reference with which to understand it. Such is, to use one example, group life in the army. I’ve heard many soldiers express how fulfilling it is to be a part of a group of people who support each other as they work towards achieving a common goal. Whatever their feelings for the institution of the military, many former soldiers miss this aspect of serving their country. Few realize that the fulfillment they experienced there is the same one that all humans used to share as a birthright.
We are all raised deep inside of Leviathans. Even village life is generations in the past for most of us. Most people don’t even have the vocabulary to describe the difference between life inside of Leviathan and without. Some have tried to describe the difference nevertheless, to create the vocabulary to do so from scratch or to reclaim words for this purpose from their Leviathanic usage. Those who did discovered just how hard it is to kick against the pricks.
There is very little reason to think that, things being what they are, a more critical approach to civilization is going to arise on a large scale anytime soon. I’m sorry for not having a more optimistic outlook. I’ve found that knowledge of these ideas is neither a prerequisite nor a predictor of human decency. A better predictor, I think, is the extent to which someone’s upbringing and life resembles that of a free human being. It is unfortunately extremely hard to unlearn the worldview we are raised with, and if we are taught that other people are objects and tools to manipulate, that’s pretty much how we’re gonna treat them. I’m not saying that people don’t change, they do. But there’s probably a pretty small limit to how much someone can change (sorry, born-again people; if you manipulated people as a godless drunk, you’re probably gonna manipulate them as a sober evangelical, too).
Without a prompt re-evaluation of our beliefs and priorities, we are facing an impending disaster on a global scale. It’s bizarre to live in a country where reality has been completely discarded in favor of a fantastical narrative of heathen enemies at the gate and god-given rights to plunder and profit from everything in sight. This story may have been current for some nation somewhere 3000 years ago, but it’s hard to imagine it being anything other than self-serving even then. Now, when we desperately need to acknowledge our unique predicament as a potential scourge of all creation, the bullshit issuing from the loudest available channels is deafening and disorienting, which is likely exactly the effect it is supposed to have.
Fredy Perlman was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1934, and immigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1945. He apparently intended to be a teacher and an intellectual, but working at the University of Michigan in the late 1960s turned out to be more intellectually and ethically compromising than he could handle. For the rest of his relatively short life, Fredy lived a materially modest life, unattached to any institution that could influence or support his work. He spent a number of years in Yugoslavia in the 1960s, writing a doctoral dissertation in Economics for the University of Belgrade. He travelled to Paris in May of 1968 on the last train before the general strike stopped all transportation. Returning to Detroit, he organized and maintained a cooperative printshop used by different radical groups for the remainder of the 70s. Throughout, he never stopped learning and writing. A wonderful account of his life, Having Little Being Much, was written by his lifelong partner Lorraine, who also collaborated with Fredy on many works and translations.