Category Archives: Readings

What David Graeber and David Wengrow’s “The Dawn of Everything” has in common with sci-fi economics

A few weeks ago, I finished David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything. It is not science fiction, nor it is economics. And yet, I propose it has to do with both. The book begins by stating inequality has risen to the top of the agenda for public debate. Scholars, politicians,  business leaders are calling attention to it. Where, they ask, does inequality come from? How can we reduce it to tolerable levels?

The authors then proceed to question these questions. A lot of people believe there is this thing called “inequality”, and it comes from somewhere – it was not always there. This belief is cultural, and we can investigate it. So, Graeber and Wengrow’s research question is not “where does inequality come from?”. It is “where does the question about where inequality comes from come from?”

It is a move typical of anthropology. In fact, Graeber does the exact same thing in the opening chapter of Debt: The First 5,000 Years . He finds himself at a party, and the conversation falls on the 2011 Greek debt crisis. A guest remarks that yes, the Greek people are suffering, but “debts must be paid”! And Graeber wonders: why do people think that? where does this belief come from? And off he goes.

I am a big fan of Debt. I read it twice, back to back, and went back to it several times to re-read inspiring digressions from the main theme. While worth reading, Dawn is not as good as Debt, in my humble opinion. Its arguments are not as thorough, and it tends to treat absence of evidence as evidence of absence. But it does make an important contribution: it replaces the question on the origin of inequality with a better question. That better question is: how did we get stuck?

It works like this. The question about the origins of inequality implies a linear social process. Back in humanity’s hunting-gathering days, the story goes, all men and women were equals. But then, about 10,000 years ago, humanity shifted to agriculture. This created regimes of private property, cities, complex societies, wars for resources and élites to appropriate their surplus. So, we got inequality, and we are stuck with it, because it is the price to pay to have a complex society.

The problem with this story is that is not borne out by what we know. Graeber and Wengrow’s data consist of archeological findings and ethnographies of indigenous societies encountered by European settlers during colonial times. And these, the authors tell us, agree: there is no linear process from equality to inequality. Ancient societies appear to have experimented with many models. Foragers experimented with farming, then let it go. Large urban settlements arose in the absence of agriculture. Farming societies remained egalitarian for centuries. Cities dominated by élites abandoned the construction of pyramids and temples to embark on large-scale social housing projects. There are even documented societies that lived in towns, and farmed, during the winter, and in small bands of hunters gatherers during the summer.

The authors insist that all this happened because the people that made up those societies wanted it to. They were politically sophisticated and reflective. They knew that they could shape their institutions in ways that preserved their freedom and well-being. A part of getting this right was making sure people did not have too much power over one another: in our modern terms, that people would equals.

Ancient societies were not stuck. Its members were free to roam, and were subject to very little cohercion. But entire societies were also free in another sense, that of shaping arrangements that made people’s lives better. Instead, we moderns are very stuck.

And that brings me to the Sci-Fi Economics Lab. When my partners and I dreamed up the Lab, in 2019, we had no idea what Graeber and Wengrow were up to. Yet, like them, we felt stuck. We felt crippled by our inability to imagine living under any system other than late-stage capitalism. To heal, we turned to the imagined futures of science fiction, and to economics as an angle of attack. It was a good choice: we have come some way to freeing our imagination. Today, sci-fi stories set in the world of Witness give us a glimpse of everyday life in post-capitalist systems. Graeber and Wengrow appear to have taken the opposite route, into humanity’s distant past. But we share the same curiosity, and the same conditional optimisms, and I know them for kindred spirits.

Erasmus students in Oslo

What Hans Magnus Enzensberger does not get about Europe

Advised by my friend Luca Galli, I read Brussels, The Gentle Monster by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. A distinguished poet and author, Enzensberger takes an impassionate look at the historical anomaly of the European Union. The book has three things to offer:

  1. An unusually balanced account of the European project. Enzensberger is a critic, but that does not stop him pointing out the many good things about European institutions: the uncompromising renounce to violence and cohercion, the benevolent attitude, the altruism. Conversely, he has no trouble chastising Brussels for the many things that make it unpopular with some people.
  2. An interesting account of the early days, marked by Churchill and, especially, Jean Monnet. The latter is extremely interesting: a technocrat trying to build peace in postwar France, Monnet seems to have served as the template for the European civil servant, a sort of “Eurocrat Zero”.
  3. A theory that the European Union is fundamentally undemocratic. In a sense it may have to be, because “democracy just does not work at the supranational level”. Policy implication: the EU should “go on a diet”, restricting its sphere of influence as much as possible.

The first two contributions are valuable. However, I think the third – though it does offer an important intuition – is undefensible. Let me elaborate.

  1. States are platforms (unless you are a nationalist). What are states for? Most people do not really care about state institutions, like post offices, standard setting bodies or air traffic control authorities. We care about our loved ones, art, having fun, traveling, making money, whatever gets you and your fellow citizens excited. State institutions are platforms infrastructure. They enable us to live our lives more cheaply and easily. When they work well, they are invisible. Just like your phone’s operating system, you’ll only notice them when they break. Most people do not know or particularly care who runs infrastructure, as long as it works (many Italians think Brussels is better at running them than Rome). I wrote “most people”, because there are people that, on the contrary, deeply care about their states as good in and of themselves. These people are called nationalists. Nationalism does not have a good track record in Europe: more nationalism correlates almost without exception with more wars. You should be very cautious around nationalism. It kills people.
  2. Modern life requires larger platforms than European nation states. As a small (but global) entrepreneur in Europe, I am now struggling with the following problem. If a company in country A wants to hire an employee who resides in country B, it faces quite a lot of complexity, due to the fact that the employee’s salary is taxable in country B. I do not to want to go into the complexities here, but the important point is this: the specifics of doing this depend not on European regulation, but on the bilateral treaty between country A  and country B. This implies that, in a Europe with 28 members, there are are 784 (28 to the power of 2) different legal regimes. If you are trying to hire, or get hired, you see how a European platform would work much better than a plethora of national ones. Nation states are simply not large enough to be efficient – unless they are China, or India, or the US. The last two are federations anyway, so why not us?
  3. The European democratic deficit is caused by member states, not by Brussels. Enzensberger points out flaws in the democratic accountability of European institutions, and he is right. For example, it is illogical, even outrageous that the (elected) European Parliament cannot initiate lawmaking, whereas the Commission (designated by member states) can. So why do we not have more democracy? Why can’t we elect the President of the Commission, why can’t Parliament have a monopoly on lawmaking, enacting a true separation of powers? Because members states do not permit it. And why do they not permit it? Because European-scale full democracy would imply the hollowing out of the power base of national élites. If and when the EU completes its evolution from club of states to a confederal state in its own right, it will no longer need to fall back on member states for its legitimacy. In this sense, Enzensberger is right: where states are involved, no democracy is possible, because states are more interested in their self preservation than in their citizens being part of a fully realized democracy.
  4. Democracy is a failsafe, not a nirvana. I propose that many political thinkers have an idealized, unrealistic take on democracy. Like states, democracy is not good in itself. We need it, because the people running our platforms could grow power-crazy and drag us, through lies, into war, so it’s good to be able to oust them. But, let’s face it, democratic participation is difficult and costly, and often ineffective as a failsafe (Hitler came to power winning elections in 1933). As Enzensberger readily admits, the European Union is doing a very good job of “again and again valiantly taking action against cartels, oligopolies, protectionist dodges and banned subsidies” (many readers will remember Mario Monti’s giant fine to Microsoft for acting as a monopolist). If the EU is good at this, why not let it get on with it? Ideally, let us elect the president of the Commission, so we can oust her if we do not like the work she does. But otherwise, this stuff is not broken, so don’t fix it.
  5. Europe’s mission is not accomplished. According to Enzensberger, we do not need Europe to be more integrated than it already is. Why does he say that? Apparently, because he already knows many people in Europe (“divorced husbands, summer homes, business partners…”). I guess this is enough for him. I hope my example with the 784 different legal regimes for something as simple as hiring a person proves our current level of integration is not enough for everyone.

I may be wrong. But then again, I don’t think I am. In the final part chapter of the book, Enzensberger reports a conversation between himself and an anonymous Eurocrat. The latter can very easily deflect most of Enzensberger’s critiques :

Why on earth do you keep on about the European Union? Why do you avoid talking about Rome, Budapest or Dublin? These national governments are not one whit better! their bureaucracies leave a great deal to be desired. There is no lack of narrow-mindedness and incomprehensible hollow verbiage in one as the other. I won’t even mention the scheming and corruption I encounter every day. Lobbyists, if you’ll allow me to be frank, are like flies, no matter, in your country too [Germany]. Just take a closer look at your tax system, your irrational health and education reform. Everything of which you accuse us, you find again if you look in the 27 different national mirrors of this European Union.

That leaves the problem of the democratic deficit. But that’s fixable, if we accept a reduction of the power of states. Enzensberger’s unforgivable failure (and that of his generation) is that he does not consider this as a possible alternative: he does not even contemplate it. I think Jean Monnet’s culture is a much better ticket for a free, prosperous future.

Photo: Erasmus students in Oslo, by Jose Ramòn Alvarez Suarez

Photo credit: Gerald Grote on

Complexity and public policy: a very short reading list

I have a new talk out, sort of. So far I have delivered it only in Italian (slides with notes), and it’s still work in progress. But getting there. It addresses the following question: can we reform government by making it more open and smart? If so, how?

I know. It sounds like something from a B-list TEDx event. You can almost picture some eager junior civil servant talking about “innovation” and “design” and “disruption”, the sort of disruption that does not destroy anyone’s job, civil rights, or democratic institutions. What could possibly go wrong?

It turns out to be much more difficult than that. Even talking about it is difficult. To even address the question, I had to ask myself: what is government? Why did it come into existence? Whhich evolutionary pressures now constrain its evolution? Doing so set me on a strange journey. I have been on it for about ten years now. It led me to uncover relevant stuff in many disciplines: history, economics, anthropology, networks science, sociology, math, philosophy, archaeology, experimental psychology, biology (lots of biology). It does not look like it’ll be over any time soon.

I still don’t know if and how we can make government more open and smarter. But I did get something in return for ten years of hard thinking: my brain is now rewired. I now look at administrative action in a perspective borrowed from complexity science. I draw most of my metaphors from biology. I have (somewhat) learned to look for emergence and self-organisation, and I can’t unsee it. I have become (somewhat) aware of my own psychological biases and cognitive limits. This transformation has been so profound that I can barely discuss with my former war buddies anymore.

And what I see is not cute. It’s strong stuff, inebriating and scary. So: last week I did this talk to open the School of Civic Technologies in Torino, and some students asked me for a reading list. Here it is, but don’t say you have not been warned. This is a red pill-blue pill situation. “There’s no turning back.”

So, here’s a barebones reading list in chronological order. If your interests center on public policy, start from the end. If you are more curious about complexity science, skip Ostrom, read Waldrop first and work your way up. Whatever you do, read Scott.

  1. Elinor Ostrom, 1990, Governing the Commons. People can and do steward common resources over the long run, with no central control and no definition of property rights. Great example, solid theorizing.
  2. Mitchell Waldrop, 1992, Complexity: the Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. Still the best account of the story of the Santa Fe Institute in the early days. Functions as an introduction to the main intuitions behind complexity science.
  3. James Scott, 1998, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Essential reading. It shows how statecraft and legibility are tightly coupled. Casts a dark light on the emphasis on “evidence based”  and “data driven” when the guy speaking these words is also the guy with the gun.
  4. David Graeber, 2011, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. A long-term history of money and debt (it turns out they are the same thing). The book is very rich, and most of its value is not in its main thesis. For my purposes, the main teaching lies in the incredible value brought to the table by disciplines apparently quite far removed from policy issues – and, conversely, of the intellectual danger of not being interdisciplinary.
  5. Duncan Watts, 2011, Everything is obvious (when you know the answer). One of my favourite networks scientists sets out an ambitious (but achievable) research plan for the social sciences. Its take on what constitutes “data” and “evidence”, and of their limits, are typical of complexity science. Vanilla policy people tend to not understand data even minimally crunched.
  6. David Colander and Roland Kupers, 2014, Complexity and the Art of Public Policy:
    Solving Society’s Problems from the Bottom Up. An account of what public policies would look like if both the government and the governed knew complexity science, and were prepared to take it seriously. Review, in English and Italian.
  7. Beth Noveck, 2015, Smart Citizens, Smarter State. An authoritative take on why open government is failing. My favourite part is the treatment of how government became professionalized (and therefore exclusionary) in the USA. Review, in English and Italian.