"'I come atter you, Brer Rabbit,' sez Brer Fox, sezee. 'Dar's gwineter be a party up at Miss Meadows's,' sezee. 'All de gals 'llbe dere, en I promus' dat I'd fetch you. De gals, dey 'lowed dat hit wouldn't be no party 'ceppin' I fotch you,' sez Brer Fox, sezee.
"Den Brer Rabbit say he wuz too sick, en Brer Fox say he wuzzent, en dar dey had it up and down, 'sputin' en contendin'. Brer Rabbit say he can't walk. Brer Fox say he tote 'im. Brer Rabbit say how? Brer Fox say in his arms. Brer Rabbit say he drap 'im. Brer Fox low he won't. Bimeby Brer Rabbit say he go ef Brer Fox tote 'im on his back. Brer Fox say he would. Brer Rabbit say he can't ride widout a saddle. Brer Fox say he git de saddle. Brer Rabbit say he can't set in saddle less he have bridle fer ter hol' by. Brer Fox say he git de bridle. Brer Rabbit say he can't ride widout bline bridle, kaze Brer Fox be shyin' at stumps long de road, en fling 'im off. Brer Fox say he git bline bridle. Den Brer Rabbit say he go. Den Brer Fox say he ride Brer Rabbit mos' up ter Miss Meadows's, en den he could git down en walk de balance er de way. Brer Rabbit 'greed, en den Brer Fox lipt out atter de saddle en de bridle.”
Many a reader of Plutarch’s Lycurgus must have been struck by the resemblance between Sparta’s lawgiver and Br’er Rabbit. At least I was, last night.
In Kautsky’s book on Thomas More’s Utopia, he listed Lycurgus as a fore-runner of socialism. Kautsky said nothing about Brer Rabbit, however. Lycurgus got on the short list because, as Plutarch’s life shows, he imposed an apparently radically egalitarian ideal on the Spartans. Save, of course, for the helots. Myself, I think it is important to see this ideal for what it is: it is animated less by egalitarianism than for a hatred of the effects of wealth.
However, to continue along the traditional lines of telling the story: Lycurgus did create an egalitarian state. The way he did it was Brer Rabbit like. For instance, here is Lycurgus, solving the perennial problem of wealth inequality. First, he solved it for immovables (Henry Maine claims that the primal category of property is into immovables and moveables) by creating a new, equal division of land between all Spartans and all Laconians.
Then he moved onto moveables.
“Not contented with this, he resolved to make a division of their movables too, that there might be no odious distinction or inequality left amongst them; but finding that it would be very dangerous to go about it openly, he took another course…”
"Co'se Brer Rabbit know de game dat Brer Fox wuz fixin' fer ter play, en he 'termin' fer ter outdo 'im, en by de time he koam his ha'r en twis' his mustarsh, en sorter rig up, yer come Brer Fox, saddle en bridle on, en lookin' ez peart ez a circus pony. He trot up ter de do' en stan' dar pawin' de ground en chompin' de bit same like sho 'nuff hoss, en Brer Rabbit he mount, he did, en dey amble off. Brer Fox can't see behime wid de bline bridle on, but bimeby he feel Brer Rabbit raise one er his foots.
"'W'at you doin' now, Brer Rabbit?' sezee.
"Short'nin' de lef stir'p, Brer Fox,' sezee.
"Bimeby Brer Rabbit raise up de udder foot.
"'W'at you doin' now, Brer Rabbit?' sezee. Pullin' down my pants, Brer Fox,' sezee.
"All de time, bless grashus, honey, Brer Rabbit wer puttin' on his spurrers, en w'en dey got close to Miss Meadows's, whar Brer Rabbit wuz to git off, en Brer Fox made a motion fer ter stan' still, Brer Rabbit slap de spurrers into Brer Fox flanks, en you better b'leeve he got over groun'.
In order, Plutarch claims, to complete his radical egalitarian program, Lycurgus had to attack both the possessions and the private life of the Spartans. The first he did in the following way:
“… he commanded that all gold and silver coin should be called in, and that only a sort of money made of iron should be current, a great weight and quantity of which was but very little worth; so that to lay up twenty or thirty pounds there was required a pretty large closet, and, to remove it, nothing less than a yoke of oxen. With the diffusion of this money, at once a number of vices were banished from LacedÃ¦mon; for who would rob another of such a coin? Who would unjustly detain or take by force, or accept as a bribe, a thing which it was not easy to hide, nor a credit to have, nor indeed of any use to cut in pieces? For when it was just red hot, they quenched it in vinegar, and by that means spoilt it, and made it almost incapable of being worked.
In the next place, he declared an outlawry of all needless and superfluous arts; but here he might almost have spared his proclamation; for they of themselves would have gone after the gold and silver, the money which remained being not so proper payment for curious work; for, being of iron, it was scarcely portable, neither, if they should take the pains to export it, would it pass amongst the other Greeks, who ridiculed it. So there was now no more means of purchasing foreign goods and small wares; merchants sent no shiploads into Laconian ports; no rhetoric-master, no itinerant fortune-teller, no harlot-monger or gold or silversmith, engraver, or jeweler, set foot in a country which had no money; so that luxury, deprived little by little of that which fed and fomented it, wasted to nothing, and died away of itself.”
What Lycurgus is aiming at is luxury –luxury is the vice of inequality, the effect of wealth, the thing that brings in itinerant fortune-tellers, harlot mongers and gold and silver smiths. The attack on wealth is an attack on the effect of wealth. And though it seems to be an attack levied for the sake of equality itself, it turns out that it is a way of clearing out unnatural hierarchies so that natural ones can flourish. The natural ones will be of the healthy and the strong over the weak – the good fuckers and good bearers of children over the degenerates – the silent, or plain speakers over the garrulous – the spending of words being parallel to the spending of money – etc.
In this, Brer Rabbit is different than Lycurgus. Lycurgus is the great deceitful lawmaker, and Brer Rabbit is the great deceitful lawbreaker. Since I’ve been considering the nineteenth century stories concerning the origin of property, I thought I’d put this note aside for later.