A book I have slowly been reading and talking about here, Debt, The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber, is full of anecdotes, stories, scholarship, and accounts of long past tribes and civilizations, which is one reason, along with my slow pace of reading it, why I keep discussing it. But one story in particular from the book has stuck with me. It's a very little sketch, and intense in its way, but it reminds me of unsolvable problems in my workplace and ones in the wider culture I live in as well. I would not say that this book idealizes tribal cultures, nor trivializes them. And I pretty much never, in all these accounts, see some cultural solution that seems utopian to me. Nevertheless, something in this story... speaks to me.
In the tribe of the people of this story, hunters primarily fished for their sustenance. And they also shared things freely among themselves as so many of these sorts of cultures did. And beyond that, it was the custom of these people, where if someone asked for a portion of one's catch, one would give that person the best part of the catch.
And so it came to be that one person, instead of fishing themselves, regularly asked for some of various people's catches, getting, as per custom, the choicest parts of it. The fishers, uncomplaining, gave away their catch. And so this continued on until, eventually, these fishers got together and killed the person asking for their catch.
I told you it was a brief account. And I guess we could ask: Why don't these people, instead of killing them, say to this person "Hey, it's not cool you're taking advantage of our custom to get the best of our catches."?
But I recognize this from my workplace. If there is a custom that, at a minimum, a worker take care of anything that happens during their hour running the automated check in machine at my library, and does not contrive to pass off, nor leave anything from their time for the next worker to take care of, and someone regularly breaks with that custom, it calls into question things that are difficult to directly address. It causes one to elevate a normal human decency of being aware of others, to a virtue, by the social process of naming it. And it suggests that a kind of poisonous sociopathy in the violation of this custom is just a lack of simple instruction or understanding or even choice.
If we look at say the CEO of Starbucks busting unions, refusing to pay people reasonably, and making hundreds of millions of dollars for themselves, there are similar sociopathies at play. There is a breach here that reflects a genuine break from human decency. But as we cast it instead as some kind of competing philosophy, or a misunderstanding of the situation, which culturally we now unceasingly do, for like all false things it needs to be constantly inflated lest it collapse, it allows for a structural rationalization of stealing and unceasing greed.
But let us draw the line here, lest I start writing my own book that I am ill-equipped to do.