Inequality Means No Center to Moderate Toward

Moderation is the issue at the moment, specifically now that politicians have been the target of violence. That is always a surefire way of getting the attention of the political class and the corporate media that obsesses over them.

A single politician shot is more concerning to the mainstream than millions of poor people harmed by the policies of politicians. Worse still is multiple politicians attacked simultaneously — it is a national tragedy, worse than decades of hate crimes and generations of institutional racism, worse than overthrowing numerous democratic governments and committing state terrorism.

Such is the way of the world, at least in a society like this. But it would be nice if some worthy public debate were made possible, even if only briefly. Maybe we shouldn’t wait until the next act of mass violence before dealing with issues of substance. The politics of spectacle is great for campaigns and corporate media profits. It’s not so great for democracy, though. Citizens shooting politicians could be seen as an indicator of failed democracy. Other indicators to be considered are politicians sending citizens off to fight immoral wars of aggression to kill innocent foreigners for reasons of geopolitics and police officers violently targeting innocent citizens for reasons of authoritarian social control.

When the government seeks to solve its problems through violence, it sets the example for its citizens that problems are solved through violence. Some might argue that is not the most optimal of results for a civil society.

* * *

Despite the shallow concerns of the comfortable classes temporarily made to feel uncomfortable, no one doubts that the problems of extremism are very much real. At the Eat Pray Vote blog, Lauren Wynn writes about political moderation (Fear and Loathing in American Politics: the Future of the Sane Center). She states that,

“It occurred to me that many of his assertions could be equally applied to both sides of the aisle — right and left, Republican and Democrat were interchangeable. Crazy concept, huh? If everyone is being this reactionary – which conversations with and observations of both sides indicate might be true – then is a middle ground even possible?”

Many Americans would agree with her, myself included. I’ve seen a number of articles like this, from diverse perspectives and yet with similar questions. I would point out that an increasing proportion of the public dislikes both parties, as there are now more independents than partisans in either major party. After all, we just had a presidential election where the two main candidates were the least popular of any major presidential candidates since polling data has been kept. And following the election, both of them continue their decline into unpopularity, demonstrating that voters still despise the choice that the ruling establishment forced upon them.

Wynn does briefly and partly get to this issue. In discussing fear, she quotes from a NYT article by Emily Badger and Niraj Chokshi (How We Became Bitter Political Enemies):

“Independents, who outnumber members of either party and yet often lean toward one or the other, are just as guided by fear. More than half who lean toward either party say a major reason for their preference is the damage the other party could cause. Only about a third reported being attracted by the good that could come from the policies of the party toward which they lean.”

Fear. That is the most troubling part. To live in fear is not a happy state, especially when it forms the ground of society and the background of daily experience. Such a culture of fear doesn’t come out of nowhere. I’d argue that fear is more of a symptom than a cause, a symptom of a sick society. Speaking of a “Sane Center,” what is supposedly ‘sane’ in a society like this? I wouldn’t consider the majority of politicians, plutocrats, and pundits who dominate our society to be paragons of sanity, not in terms of either mental health or moral decency.

I noticed that the NYT article quoted Shanto Iyengar, a Stanford political scientist: “If you go back to the days of the Civil War, one can find cases in American political history where there was far more rancor and violence… But in the modern era, there are no ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ — partisan animus is at an all-time high.” That is an odd claim. American history is full of near endless “rancor and violence.” The late 19th to early 20th century was so full of conflict that there were violent labor conflicts and military-style race wars in the streets, while the government feared being overthrown such as by the Bonus Army camped out on the White House lawn. I find myself in a near constant state of amazement at the historical amnesia of Americans, even among the the well-educated. No matter how bad problems are right now, they don’t compare even slightly to numerous other periods in US history.

Anyway, being critical of the culture of fear, I’m strongly supportive of a “Sane Center.” But it depends on what is meant by that. If sanity means being well-adjusted, then what is being adjusted to? Such things are always relative, specifically in terms of left vs right. Context is everything.

We should consider the origins of the left-right divide. The right side has for millennia been associated with power and authority, tradition and the status quo. That is why Jesus was described as sitting to the right of God. And that is why, under the French monarchy, aristocrats and clergy supporting the monarchy sat on the right side of the assembly. Even once the king was deposed, the French assembly maintained this seating with the most radical revolutionaries sitting to the left.

About the French Revolution, it’s interesting to compare it to the American Revolution. Some of the American founders gave primary credit to Thomas Paine for the American Revolution or at least in lending much inspiration toward its success. Paine was as radical as they come, in many ways far to the left of present Democrats (e.g., basic income).

Yet guess where he was seated as an honorary member of the French assembly. He sat on the right side with his moderate allies, as under that context he was a moderate who argued for not beheading the king and for passing a democratic constitution, the whole issue of a democratic rule of law and democratic procedure. He was more radically liberal than were the radical revolutionaries, but this radical liberalism is precisely what made him moderate. It was those radical or rather reactionary revolutionaries, when they gained control, who sentenced Paine to death and he narrowly escaped that fate.

As always, the issues is to the right or left of what? Paine was trying to hold the “Sane Center” in an insane world. Even the American Revolution was far more violent and bloody than is typically acknowledged,. It was a time when wealth and power ruled brutally and it was no easy task for the oppressed to stand up to that injustice, both on the right and the left. Interestingly, during such revolutions, aristocrats and plutocrats are found on both sides of the fight. The French Revolution was initiated with the help of many aristocrats and clergy who were tired of oppressive monarchy. And the same was true of the American Revolution.

Paine was an Anti-Federalist, the ideological group that supported democracy as opposed to centralized power. The Anti-Federalists considered themselves to be the real Federalists because they actually wanted a Confederation of states, as was agreed upon under the first constitution, the Articles of Confederation (the second constitution, ironically, was unconstitutional and passed unconstitutionally according to the first constitution). Because of the second constitution, most US citizens lost power and representation with only a few percentage having the right to either vote or run for office. When the revolution continued under the new government by those demanding the democracy they had fought for, the aristocrat Washington put an army together and violently put down those dreams of democracy.

The US isn’t a country that was founded on a “Sane Center.” That isn’t the kind of country it is. But it is a country that was inspired by democracy and genuine democracy is as radical today as it was in Paine’s lifetime. As Jimmy Carter has observed, the US is a banana republic and was that way before Trump came to power. Research has confirmed this in showing that we don’t have a functioning representative government, as politicians most of the time do what the wealthy want them to do and not what the middle-to-lower classes want them to do (this was analyzed in comparing public policy and public opinion). Still, we are an aspiring democracy and such aspirations shouldn’t be dismissed.

That is the context. And that leads me to the specifics of this article. It was written that,

“During the 2016 Presidential election, deep fissures appeared in both the Democrat and Republican parties. The Democrats were divided between a far-left candidate in Bernie Sanders and a more traditional Democrat in Hillary Clinton. Likewise, Republicans were divided among far-right candidates, traditional Republicans and a complete outlier — Donald Trump.”

Let me first question the claim about what is traditional. What is the comparison being made? Bernie Sanders positions are well within the range of standard policies of FDR’s New Deal. Some consider FDR to be a traditional Democrat and, if so, it should be noted that Clinton’s positions make it clear that she is to the right of FDR.

We also know that the majority of Americans presently agree with many of Sanders’ positions, as polling and surveys show that most Americans are to the left of both main political parties. So, in what sense is Sanders a “far-left candidate?” Sure, he is to the left of the political center in Washington and in corporate media. But the political center in Washington and in corporate media is to the right of the American public. If we are to use the American public as the measure of the center, then that would mean Sanders is a centrist and all the major candidates are to the right of that center.

There is more than one ‘center’ to choose from. It depends on which part of society one identifies with. As someone who agrees with majority public opinion on many issues, I personally prefer to use the known data about public opinion as the defining standard of the political center. But I realize others would prefer a different center, as they don’t want a “government of the people, for the people and by the people.” I do want such a government, as did Paine, but also as did Republicans once upon a time as those words were spoken by the first Republican president.

That gets us to confusion of what goes for traditional in the GOP. As one scholar made clear, the Republican Party has from the beginning swung between the extremes of populism and plutocracy, somehow melding the two poles at the moment with Trump. At present, it’s hard to imagine Republicans doing something as radical as abolishing slavery like Lincoln, breaking up monopolies like Roosevelt, calling out the Military-Industrial Complex like Eisenhower, or simply creating the EPA like Nixon (it’s amazing how liberal Nixon looks these days, more liberal than many Democrats right now).

It hasn’t just been the GOP pushing right for decades. The Clinton New Democrats sought to triangulate by also pushing right. This is how both parties became uncentered or rather created their own center, quite contrary to the silenced majority. Where is the sanity in this? Why do we allow corporatist parties and big biz media tell us what is the Sane Center? They aren’t in the moral position to be telling anyone much of anything. Rather, those in the so-called ‘mainstream’ are the problem.

“Moderatism seemed to have all but disappeared over the past several decades with progressivism’s constant march to the left and conservatism’s to the right, but following the election, people from both sides began discussing a path forward that would help heal the gaping wound of division in our country.”

In that light, what is moderation as an ideological goal, this so-called moderatism? That is to say, what is being moderated between and to what end? Obviously, what goes for moderation in ‘mainstream’ politics isn’t moderating toward the center of public opinion of citizens and eligible voters. When both parties are immoderate, when the corporate media is immoderate, when public intellectuals are immoderate, how is the disempowered and sometimes overtly disenfranchised public supposed to seek out moderation? Does ‘moderate’ have any meaning when the most publicly centrist and most popular candidate in the country, Bernie Sanders, is called a radical left-winger by the minority in the comfortable classes?

This has a way of making many average Americans start feeling a bit radical. Maybe at times like these radicalism is the last refuge of the “Sane Center.”

* * *

One of the similar articles I’ve come across is by Peggy Noonan, a WSJ piece (Rage Is All the Rage, and It’s Dangerous).

For a mainstream media hack, her writing is more tolerable than that of many others, but this particular one didn’t do much for me. It’s more false equivalence. As I regularly make clear, I’m no fan of Democrats. Still, we should be honest enough to admit that the GOP and its supporters, especially pundits on talk radio and Fox News, have been inciting violence for decades (e.g., repeatedly calling Dr. Tiller a “baby killer” on one of the most popular right-wing shows until an audience member murdered him).

That said, the entire country at the moment is feeling pressure and the situation isn’t primarily ideological in nature. Even a moderate mainstream politician and former president like Jimmy Carter openly states that the US is a banana republic, which is to say that partisan animosity is the least of our worries. This is at a time after decades of worsening inequality (a defining feature of banana republics), something that research has proven worsens social problems in general and violence most of all. Republicans have been pushing the gospel of inequality for as long as they’ve been pushing violent rhetoric, and it has been a useful political strategy. For that reason, those in the Democratic Party seeking greater power within this banana republic have copied GOP strategies and also pushed right.

Nonetheless, we live in a far more peaceful era, compared to the past. The 1960s to 1980s was extremely violent, across the political spectrum (economic and political problems did contribute, although the worsening rates of lead toxicity of post-war industrialization and mass car culture played a larger role). And the first several decades of last century were even more violent, that having been the era of bomb-throwing anarchists, the terrorist Klan, and large-scale organized crime.

Ideology, at times, has been a more central concern. And it does help us understand how we got to this point. There is research that shows that violence always gets worse under Republican administrations, at least for as long as data has been kept. Right-wing and reactionary ideology worsens social conditions because of what it promotes. But once a society gets pushed toward instability, ideology itself is no longer the motivating factor. Ideology simply creates the conditions for violence to play out for other reasons, typically more personal motivations.

The guy who shot those Republicans probably didn’t do so for ideology, no more than the increasing hate crimes from the political right are intended as a political strategy. Most people aren’t overtly ideological in having clear and consistent ideological principles, even as they get caught up in the ideological rhetoric fanning the flames. Many Americans are simply feeling desperate, distressed, outraged, and much else. As research shows, high inequality doesn’t increase the probability of either kind behavior or intelligent choices. Only after bad conditions and bad feelings hit a breaking point does ideology typically follow as a way of ranting or rationalizing.

Ideology might offer an outlet for one’s feelings and give form to one’s voice, but ideology plays more of a role on the societal level than on the individual level. That is true until social conditions get so bad that people start organizing terrorist groups that regularly blow up buildings, assassinate people, etc. We haven’t quite gotten to that point yet. Even then, few if any join a terrorist group because of ideology, although there is no doubt that ideology helps to create and cement a new social identity, including social identities people are willing to die for.

Our concern about ideology, first and foremost, should be the neoliberalism and neoconservatism that forms the harmful social conditions and so makes violent consequences inevitable. Once we are at the point of people committing mass violence, talk about ideology is largely moot. We need to push it back a step to see where it originated.

* * *

Related to those articles, I was reading Keith Payne’s The Broken Ladder. It was published this year. Although far from perfect, I hope it gets a wide reading by the public and gains some traction in the media.

It is a useful book because his analysis of inequality is primarily through a lens of social science, rather than economics or politics. The author explains in great detail the real world impact inequality has on people in all aspects of their lives. The basic point was made many years ago in The Spirit Level by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, but Payne takes it a step further in showing the immense amount of research that has accumulated and showing how all the research connects to form a larger understanding.

The case against inequality goes far beyond a mere moral plea for justice and fairness. Inequality makes everything more dysfunctional. This is seen most clearly in diverse social problems, but there are larger consequences starkly shown in the political sphere. If a divided country is what is wanted, there are few more effective ways to divide a population than through inequality (pp. 110-111):

“Political scientist Nolan McCarty and his colleagues have also traced political divisions over the last century in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, formulating a measure of polarization based on how lawmakers vote, similar to the data used for Andris’s graphs. The polarization index is at its highest when all Democrats vote one way and all Republicans vote the other. Using this index, they calculated how polarized American politics has been in every Congress since 1947. Figure 4.5 shows that polarization in the House of Representatives and the Gini index of inequality have followed strikingly similar trajectories. Results for the Senate are similar. Both inequality and polarization were relatively low through the 1950s and 1960s. They then began rising in tandem in the mid-1970s and have remained on par ever since.”

There is one point that has long stood out to me, as seen with inequality research. It isn’t limited to the problems affecting the lower classes. Even the plutocrats become divided in conflict. That is what results when inequality becomes so entrenched that it forms into a widespread culture of mistrust, anxiety, and fear. This is seen in comparing countries which many earlier books on the topic have discussed. Even the wealthiest are worse off in a high inequality society than they are in a low inequality society. Inequality increases stress-related illnesses, violent crime, and political corruption. To live amidst inequality is to constantly feel on edge. No amount of wealth, power, and privilege can protect one from that sad state of affairs. No gated community can entirely isolate one from problems that tear apart the very social fabric that society depends upon.

Inequality is self-destructive. It has to be remedied if the worst possible consequences are to be avoided: economic collapse, government failure, inability to defend against foreign invasion, terrorism, military coup, civil war, revolution, or some combination of these. Simply devolving into an authoritarian police state and banana republic isn’t much of a better fate. But the point is that the experience of shittiness becomes pervasive even while the outward forms of civil society are maintained. It happens in ways that are hard to see from within a society because the problems become normalized according to the status quo and the ensuing epistemic closure shuts down our ability to imagine anything else. All that is experienced by most people is a general sense of worsening. They simply feel bad which leads to some combination of apathetic resignation and fearful scapegoating. This does not help to build a shared attitude of common good and cooperation, much less compassion and tolerance.

As inequality becomes a chasm dividing the public, the center literally disappears while the once large middle class shrinks. That center is what holds civil society together, what creates a sense of a shared social order (something explained by Aristotle more than a couple of millennia ago and also explained by Adam Smith more than a couple of centuries ago). Inequality turns people against one another. This can be seen in different areas of society, such as on an airplane where people are forced into close proximity. The socioeconomic status of passengers, real or perceived, represents a microcosm of the larger society (pp. 2-4):

“As they discovered, the odds of an air rage incident were almost four times higher in the coach section of a plane with a first-class cabin than in a plane that did not have one. Other factors mattered, too, like flight delays. But the presence of a first-class section raised the chances of a disturbance by the same amount as a nine-and-a-half-hour delay.

“To test the idea another way, the researchers looked at how the boarding process highlights status differences. Most planes with a first-class cabin board at the front, which forces the coach passengers to trudge down the aisle, dragging their baggage past the well-heeled and the already comfortably seated. But about 15 percent of flights board in the middle or at the back of the plane, which spares the coach passengers this gauntlet. As predicted, air rage was about twice as likely on flights that boarded at the front, raising the chances of an incident by the same amount as waiting out a six-hour delay.

“This air rage study is revealing, but not just because it illustrates how inequality drives wedges between the haves and the have-nots. What makes it fascinating to me is that incidents of rage take place even when there are no true have-nots on a flight. Since an average economy-class ticket costs several hundred dollars, few genuinely poor people can afford to travel on a modern commercial airplane. Yet even relative differences among the respectable middle-class people flying coach can create conflict and chaos. In fact, the chaos is not limited to coach: First-class flyers in the study were several times more likely to erupt in air rage when they were brought up close and personal with the rabble on front-loading planes. As Ivana Trump’s behavior can attest, when the level of inequality becomes too large to ignore, everyone starts acting strange.

“But they do not act strange in just any old way. Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again. It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification. It makes us more inclined to make self-defeating decisions. It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is. Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.

“Picture a neighborhood full of people like the ones I’ve described above: shortsighted, irresponsible people making bad choices; mistrustful people segregated by race and by ideology; superstitious people who won’t listen to reason; people who turn to self-destructive habits as they cope with the stress and anxieties of their daily lives. These are the classic tropes of poverty and could serve as a stereotypical description of the population of any poor inner-city neighborhood or depressed rural trailer park. But as we will see in the chapters ahead, inequality can produce these tendencies even among the middle class and wealthy individuals.

“What is also notable about the air rage study is that it illustrates that inequality is not the same as poverty, although it can feel an awful lot like it. That phenomenon is the subject of this book. Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not. Inequality so mimics poverty in our minds that the United States of America, the richest and most unequal of countries, has a lot of features that better resemble a developing nation than a superpower.”

* * *

For some historical context, Noam Chomsky is useful (“The Common Good”, The Sun magazine, November 1997):

“Aristotle took it for granted that a democracy would be fully participatory — with the notable exception of women and slaves — and would aim to promote the common good. But he argued that, in order to achieve its goal, the democracy would have to ensure “lasting prosperity to the poor” and “moderate and sufficient property” for everyone. If there were extremes of poor and rich, or if you didn’t have lasting prosperity for everyone, Aristotle thought, then you couldn’t talk seriously about having democracy.

“Another point Aristotle made was that if you have a perfect democracy, yet have big differences of wealth — a small number of very rich people and a large number of very poor — then the poor will use their democratic muscle to take away the property of the rich. He regarded this as unjust and offered two possible solutions. One was to reduce poverty. The other was to reduce democracy.

“A couple of thousand years later, when our Founding Fathers were writing the Constitution, James Madison noticed the same problem, but whereas Aristotle’s preferred solution had been to reduce poverty, Madison’s was to reduce democracy. He said quite explicitly in the Constitutional Convention that, if we had a true democracy, then the poor majority would use its power to demand what nowadays we would call agrarian reform, and that couldn’t be tolerated. The primary goal of government, in Madison’s words, is “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” He also pointed out that, as time went on, this problem was going to get worse, because a growing part of the population would suffer serious inequities and “secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of blessings.” He therefore designed a system that would ensure democracy didn’t function. As he put it, power would be in the hands of the “more capable set of men,” those who held “the wealth of the nation,” and the rest would be factionalized and marginalized in various ways.”

* * *

Here are some concluding thoughts. In this post, I resisted linking to any of my old posts. I’ve written about this kind of thing many times before, but I didn’t feel like dredging up prior commentary.

For the longest time, I identified as a liberal and it is still hard for me to shake that identity, even as I’ve seen the problems with it as a specifically American ideological category enmeshed in class politics, class privilege, and class warfare. The specific problem is that the liberal class which, because middle class professionals are found in academia and media, has come to dominate the rhetoric of liberalism within public debate.

My tendency is toward moderation. And I wish I lived in a moderate society. But I don’t. The reality is that the rhetoric of moderation is too often used in mainstream/corporatist politics to defend what is immoderate to the extreme, just as liberal rhetoric is wielded to prop up illiberal power structures. My concern, as always, is more about the reality than the rhetoric. Yet to deal with the reality requires understanding the rhetoric and how it is used. That further requires immense context to gain that understanding, context that few Americans are ever taught.

Inequality and class division makes for a stupid society. I mean that quite literally. It simply is not good for the highest levels of neurocognitive development and hence intellectual capacity. Inequality, similar to poverty, stunts normal development and this can be seen in brain scans. Long-term social and psychological stress accumulates into high rates of what essentially is trauma. An entire national population traumatized isn’t so talented at achieving a moderate civil society. People, under extreme duress and unhealthy conditions, tend to think and act stupidly and that stupidity gets magnified on the collective level.

This is why it is so heart-rending to speak of an idealized “Sane Center.” A common attribute of high inequality societies, specifically those dominated by the WEIRD demographic (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic), is that they have high rates of mental illness. It’s not just the poor having their brains fucked up from lead toxicity, although that is a major component with the combined effects of economic segregation and environmental racism. In the US, even the wealthy have higher rates of mental illness. There are poor communities around the world that, despite lacking healthcare and all the niceties of modernity, have very low or even seemingly non-existent rates of mental illness. The primary difference isn’t between poverty and wealth but between high inequality and low inequality. Of course, combining poverty with high inequality creates an even greater shit storm.

This is what gets me. Those demanding moderation are often the most privileged. They are people who too often think they are above it all and so look down upon all those other crazy people, such as the poor whites who are falsely blamed for Trump’s election. It is the comfortable classes, in their privilege and authority, who get to define what (and who) is ‘sane’ and ‘insane’, along with what is ‘centrist’ vs ‘extremist’ and ‘moderate’ vs ‘radical’. This even sometimes goes along with forms of gaslighting that make people feel insane — such as hearing politicians, pundits, and public intellectuals speak about the world in a way that doesn’t match the lived reality of most people in the world.

We don’t live in a sane and moderate country. Acknowledging that fact should be the starting point of any public discussion. The ‘center’ of a society gone mad is not where we should move toward, if the public good and functioning democracy is our aspiration.

Capitalists for Corporatism

There is an odd argument from the political right. That is it seems odd to my political left perspective. The argument is intended to rationalize away regulatory capture by big biz. The basic claim is that only those who come from the corporate sector would have the knowledge and experience to effectively regulate corporations.

This is like arguing that only criminals should be hired as police and judges because they need to have firsthand experience of crime. Or like arguing only enemy combatants should be made into generals of the military they were fighting against because generals need to to have direct familiarity with the enemy. Or like arguing that only the working class should be hired as CEOs because they need to know how a business operates from the ground up (actually, that is a decent argument).

It’s hard to know how seriously to take the argument for big biz regulating itself. Political rhetoric rarely is ideologically principled and consistent, more often being conveniently self-serving. Still, for the sake of argument, I like to take such things at face value. Those making this argument don’t seem to take seriously the implications… or else they don’t notice… or don’t care.

What follows from this line of thought is that corporatism is the inevitable result of capitalism. It also indicates that cronyism is inherent to organizing society around capitalism. As Marxists predicted, capitalism if given free reign will always lead to oligopolies and monopolies through concentration of wealth and power. Regulatory capture, of course, will lead to corruption. There is no way of getting around this. So, if the argument is that regulatory capture is the only way regulation can happen, that puts corruption of government squarely within capitalism itself.

As many have argued, capitalism is far from being the same as free markets. Many anti-capitalists, Marx included, have supported free markets. In fact, the anti-capitalist argument for free markets is far stronger and more compelling. But if the reality of capitalism isn’t identical (or even much resembling) the rhetoric of capitalism, where does that leave us? Even the advocates of capitalism sometimes admit this, even if unintentionally.

So, what would an actual free market look like? How could a market be free without embodying, expressing, and defending the freedom of all people involved in and effected by the economic system? How could an economy and government controlled by big biz be free for anyone other than plutocrats? As always, whose freedom are we talking about?

Fallen State of America

The Language of Pain, from Virginia Woolf to William Stanley Jevons
by Corey Robin
(from comment section)

Glenn wrote:

Americans account for 99 percent of the world’s hydrocodone (Vicodin) consumption, 80 percent of the world’s oxycodone (Percocet and Oxycontin) consumption and 65 percent of the world’s hydromorphone (Dilaudid) consumption, according to the New York Times.

The federal government’s health statisticians figure that about one in every 10 Americans takes an antidepressant. And by their reckoning, antidepressants were the third most common prescription medication taken by Americans in 2005–2008, the latest period during which the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) collected data on prescription drug use.

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better was published in 2009. Written by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, the book highlights the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, (and) encouraging excessive consumption”. It shows that for each of eleven different health and social problems: physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being, outcomes are significantly worse in more unequal rich countries.

Donald Pruden, Jr. wrote:

Let me introduce the “World Happiness Report 2017”.

Yes, this is a thing. The Report, published under the auspices of the United Nations, states boldly that (in its words) that “Happiness Has Fallen in America”.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 7, titled “Restoring American Happiness”, it is written by Jeffrey D. Sachs and it focusses on the United States:

“The predominant political discourse in the United States is aimed at raising economic growth, with the goal of restoring the American Dream and the happiness that is supposed to accompany it. But the data show conclusively that this is the wrong approach. The United States can and should raise happiness by addressing America’s multi-faceted social crisis—rising inequality, corruption, isolation, and distrust—rather than focusing exclusively or even mainly on economic growth, especially since the concrete proposals along these lines would exacerbate rather than ameliorate the deepening social crisis.”

And this from a footnote at the end of the Chapter in question:

“5. It is sometimes suggested that the degree of ethnic diversity is the single most powerful explanation of high or low social trust. It is widely believed that Scandinavia’s high social trust and happiness are a direct reflection of their high ethnic homogeneity, while America’s low and declining social trust is a reflection of America’s high and rising ethnic diversity. The evidence suggests that such “ethnic determinism” is misplaced. As Bo Rothstein has cogently written about Scandinavia, the high social trust was far from automatically linked with ethnic homogeneity. It was achieved through a century of active social democratic policies that broke down class barriers and distrust (see Rothstein and Stolle, 2003). Social democracy was buttressed by a long tradition and faith in the quality of government even before the arrival of democracy itself in Scandinavia. Moreover, highly diverse societies, such as Canada, have been able to achieve relatively high levels of social trust through programs aimed at promoting multiculturalism and inter-ethnic understanding.”

[I especially like this last as some have tried to suggest that social strife in the U.S. is, bluntly, to be blamed on the (disruptive) presence of Blacks in the United States — Michael Moore’s “Bowling For Columbine” made a point of exposing this belief that Americans seem to hold by displaying it in a montage of person-on-the-street interviews. That film goes on to challenge that view. D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of A Nation” was probably the very first broadly distributed cultural product in the U.S. to issue such blame at Blacks.]

* * *

See my previous post:

What kind of trust? And to what end?

There is one book that seriously challenges the tribal argument: Segregation and Mistrust by Eric M. Uslaner. Looking at the data, he determined that (Kindle Locations 72-73), “It wasn’t diversity but segregation that led to less trust.”

From Community to Legalism

The United States has become a legalistic society. It has always been more legalistic than some countries, for various reasons, but it’s become even more legalistic over time. Earlier last century, most problems weren’t dealt with through the legal system.

This is why it’s hard to compare present data to past data. A lot of criminal behavior never led people to the court system, much less prison. And even when people ended up in court, judges used to have more legal freedom to be lenient, unlike our present mandatory sentencing. This meant that there wasn’t much in the way of mass incarceration in the US until this past half century or so.

Take juvenile delinquents as a key example, far from a new problem. As urbanization took hold in the late 1800s and into the early Cold War, there was moral panic about teenagers being out of control, turning into criminals, and joining gangs. But most kids with problems didn’t end up facing a judge.

There were community institutions that figured out ways to deal with problems without recourse to legal punishment. Kids might get sent to family members who lived elsewhere, to a group home for delinquents, to reform school, etc. Or they might simply be made to do community service or pay restitution. But none of it would end up as a criminal record, likely not even getting reported in the local newspaper. It would have been dealt with quietly, informally, and privately.

There were cultural reasons at the time. It was assumed that kids weren’t fully responsible for their own behavior, as kids were treated as dependents of adults. The problems of kids was seen as the failure of parenting or social conditions. There was little tolerance for bad behavior in many ways at that time, but also society was much more forgiving. A kid would have to commit many major crimes before he would end up in a court and in jail.

The downside of this is that individuals had less rights, as people were seen more in social terms. It was easier to institutionalize people back then. Or if a girl got pregnant, her family would make sure she was sent somewhere else and not bring shame on the family. Juveniles were considered dependents until well into young adulthood. A 21 year old woman who was accused of prostitution, even if false, could find herself sent off to a group home for girls. Early 20th century childhood was highly protected and extended, although far different from present helicopter parenting.

Parents were considered legally and morally responsible for their kids, in a way that is not seen these days. Individual rights were still rather limited in the early 20th century. But there was also a sense of community responsibility for members of the community. It was accepted that social conditions shaped and influenced individuals. So, to change individual behavior, it was understood that social conditions needed to be changed for the individual.

In present American society, we see the past as socially oppressive and it was. We now put the individual before the community. We think it’s wrong to send juvenile delinquents off to reform schools, to separate the low IQ kids from other students, and to institutionalize the mentally ill. But this typically means we simply ignore problems.

The kid with severe autism in a normal classroom is not getting a good education or being prepared for adult life in any kind of way, although there is merit to his being socialized with his neurotypical peers. The mentally ill being homeless instead of in institutions is not exactly an improvement, even considering the problems of psychiatric institutions in the past. And the world is not a better place for our warehousing problematic people in prisons.

Our society has been pushed to an extreme. It would be nice to see more balance between rights of individuals and the responsibility of communities. But that isn’t possible if our main options are to either ignore problems or turn to the legal system. This is a difficult challenge, as increasing urbanization and industrialization have led to the breakdown of communities. There was a much stronger social fabric a century ago. It’s harder for us to turn to community solutions now since communities no longer function as they once did. And growing inequality has undermined the culture of trust that is necessary for well-functioning community.

Yet it’s obvious, according to polls, that most Americans realize that social problems require social solutions. But our political system hasn’t caught up with this social reality. Or rather the ruling class would rather not admit to it.

Urban Weirdness

In a summary of a study from this year, it was concluded that “young city-dwellers also have 40% more chance of suffering from psychosis (hearing voices, paranoia or becoming schizophrenic in adulthood) is perhaps is less common knowledge.” The authors in the paper claim to have controlled for “a range of potential confounders including family SES, family psychiatric history, maternal psychosis, adolescent substance problems, and neighborhood-level deprivation.”

These are intriguing results, assuming that the study was successful in controlling the confounding factors and so assuming they were making a genuine comparison. Some of the features they noted for the effected urban populations were adverse neighborhood conditions and community breakdown, but I’d point out that these are increasingly found in rural areas. For example, if they further focused in on the hardest hit areas of rural Appalachia, would they find the same results? Is this really a difference between urban and rural areas? If so, that requires explaining, maybe beyond what the authors articulated.

Some of that might be caused by physical factors in urban environments.

Lead toxicity, for example, is worse in cities these days (although a century ago it was actually worse in rural areas because of heavy use of lead paint for barns). Lead toxicity has major impacts on neurocognitive development and mental illness. Also, keeping pets indoors is more common in cities. And where cats are kept as house pets, there are higher rates of toxoplasmosis which is another causal factor that alters the brain and leads to mental health issues.

Neither lead toxicity nor toxoplasmosis was mentioned in the paper. Those are two obvious confounders apparently not having been considered. That could be problematic, although not necessarily undermining the general pattern.

Other factors might have to do with crime or rather the criminal system.

There are actually lower violent crime rates in urban areas, both big and small cities, as compared to rural areas (the rural South is even worse). But it is true that specific urban communities and neighborhoods would have more crime and violence, meaning greater levels of victimization. Beyond crime itself, a major difference is that there are greater levels of policing in cities, which means more police targeting of particular populations (specifically minorities and the poor) and so more police harassment and brutality for the victimized populations. Many poor inner cities can feel like occupied territories, far from optimal conditions for normal psychological development.

Furthermore, there are more video cameras, public and private, watching the citizenry’s every move. Cities are artificial environments, highly ordered in constraining and controlling human behavior, with more walls than open spaces. In tending toward inequality and segregation, cities create divided populations that have separate life experiences. This undermines a culture of trust and makes it difficult to maintain community-based social capital. It’s understandable that all of this combined might make one feel paranoid or simply stressed and anxious. But we should be careful about our conclusions, since cities in more equal and well functioning social democracies might be far different than cities in a country like the United States.

Besides, there might be more going on than these external issues of urban environments.

Urban populations are larger and more concentrated than ever before. Maybe there are psychological changes that happen to populations under these conditions, as urbanization increases. Being in near constant close proximity to so many people has to have major impacts on human development and behavior. And this might go far beyond issues of stress alone.

This could relate to Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism, as he argued that people hearing voices became more common with the emergence of the first city-states. Urban environments are atypical for the conditions under which human evolution occurred. It shouldn’t be surprising that abnormal conditions would lead to abnormal results, whatever are the specifics involved.

So, maybe it should be expected that “mental health deterioration” would follow. If the bicameral mind actually did once exist in the ancient world, I’m sure the first urban dwellers initially experienced it as negative and threatening. Any major societal change takes many generations (or centuries) to be fully assimilated, normalized, and stabilized within the social order.

But humans are so adaptable that almost anything can eventually be integrated into a culture. Recent research has shown how highly atypical is our WEIRD society (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) and yet to us it is perfectly normal. Maybe these neurocognitive changes from increased urbanization are simply our WEIRD society being pushed ever further down the path its on. The WEIRD might get ever more weird.

A new mentality could be developing, for good or ill. If our society survives the transition, something radically different would emerge. As has been noted by others, revolutions of the mind always precede revolutions of society. Before the earthquake, the tectonic plates must shift. The younger generations are standing on the faultline and, in being hit by urbanization the hardest, they will experience it like no one else. But as it goes on, none of us will escape the consequences. We better hope for a new mentality.

“News from the guinea pig grapevine suggests that whatever it is, we won’t know until it’s way too late, you see? You see that we’re all canaries in the coal mine on this one?”
~ Barris, A Scanner Darkly

* * *

Cumulative Effects of Neighborhood Social Adversity and Personal Crime Victimization on Adolescent Psychotic Experiences
by Joanne Newbury, Louise Arseneault, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie E. Moffitt1, Candice L. Odgers, & Helen L. Fishe

Does urbanicity shift the population expression of psychosis?
by Janneke Spauwen, Lydia Krabbendam, Roselind Lieb, Hans-Ulrich Wittchen, & Jim van Os

Schizophrenia and Urbanicity: A Major Environmental Influence—Conditional on Genetic Risk
by Lydia Krabbendam & Jim van Os

Brain Structure Correlates of Urban Upbringing, an Environmental Risk Factor for Schizophrenia
Leila Haddad, Axel Schäfer, Fabian Streit, Florian Lederbogen, Oliver Grimm, Stefan Wüst, by Michael Deuschle, Peter Kirsch, Heike Tost, & Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg

City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans
by Florian Lederbogen, Peter Kirsch, Leila Haddad, Fabian Streit, Heike Tost, Philipp Schuch, Stefan Wüst, Jens C. Pruessner, Marcella Rietschel, Michael Deuschle & Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg

 

Clusters and Confluences

A favorite topic in my family is the personality differences, psychological issues, behavioral traits, and other idiosyncracies among family members. In the immediate family and on both sides of the extended family, there are patterns that can be seen. Some of this might be genetic in origin, but no doubt there is much involving epigenetics, shared environmental conditions, parenting style, learned behavior, etc. Besides, nature and nurture are inseparable, in terms of actual people in the real world.

One example of a familial pattern is learning disabilities. I was diagnosed with learning disabilities when younger, but before my generation such diagnoses weren’t common. There appears to be some learning disabilities or rather learning style differences among some of my mother’s family. Another example is a dislike of physicality that was passed down from my paternal grandmother to my father and then to my older brother.

That latter one is interesting. My older brother has always been physically sensitive, like my dad. This to some extent goes along with an emotional sensitivity and, at least in the case of my brother, the physical sensitivity of allergies. His daughter has also taken on these psychological and physiological traits. All of these family members also have a hypersensitivity to social conditions, specifically in seeking positive responses from others.

I, on the other hand, have had an opposite cluster of factors. I was socially oblivious as a child and still maintain some degree of social indifference as an adult. My psychological and social insensitivity, although compensated for in other ways, goes hand in hand with a physical hardiness.

Unlike my paternal grandmother, father, brother, and niece, I am big-boned and more physical like my mother’s family. I even look more like my mother’s family with thicker hair, big feet, a bump on my nose, an underbite, and hazel eyes. About my physicality, it goes beyond just my body type, features, and activity level. I have such a high pain tolerance that I commonly don’t notice when I get a cut. I also don’t worry about cuts when I get them because I’m not prone to infections. I’ve always had a strong immune system and rarely get sick, but neither do I have an over-active immune system that leads to allergies.

All of this is the opposite of my older brother. He and his family are constantly getting sick, even as they constantly worry about germs and try to protect themselves. I played in filthy creeks as a child with exposed cuts and was far healthier than my cleanliness-obsessed brother who, when younger, panicked if his new shoes got scuffed.

It’s strange how these kinds of things tend to group together. It indicates a possible common cause or set of causes. That would likely be some particular combination of nature and nurture. I not only take more after my mother’s family for I also spent more time with my mother as a child than did my brothers, since she took time off from work when I was born (I was the third and last child, although fourth pregnancy following a miscarriage). My brothers didn’t get the same opportunity. So, I was also more likely to pick up behaviors from her. Between my brothers and I, only I am able to relate well with my mother. In particular, my older brother’s sensitivity is in constant conflict with my mother’s insensitivity. But I’m used to my mother’s way of relating, allowing me to better understand and sympathize, not to mention be more forgiving, partly because I share some of her tendencies.

Why is one kind of high sensitivity often related to other high sensitivities: emotional, social, pain, immune system, allergies, etc? And why is the opposite pattern seen with low sensitivities? What causes these clustered differences? And how can two such distinct clusters be found among siblings, sometimes even identical twins, who shared many factors?

It makes me curious.

It’s not just conditions like allergies and intolerances. There are similar clusters of neurocognitive, behavioral, and health conditions observed in various immune system disorders, the autism spectrum, fragile x syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome and other nutritional/dietary/intestinal issues, migraines, ADHD, toxoplasmosis and parasite load, heavy metal toxicity such as lead and mercury, etc. When there is one abnormal symptom or developmental issue, there are often others that show up at the same time or later on. This can involve such things as depression, anxiety, IQ, learning disabilities, irritability, impulse control issues, emotional instability, suicidal tendencies, accident proneness, etc along with more basic issues like asthma, diabetes, obesity, and much else.

In some cases, such as lead toxicity, the causal mechanisms are known as the toxin impacts every part of the body, especially the brain and nervous system. Or consider toxoplasmosis which apparently can alter the rates of personality traits in a population, along with differences in health consequences and social results, whatever is the exact chain of causation. But sometimes the correlations are far less clear and certain in their causal relationship. For example, what is the possible connection(s) between depressive tendencies, anger issues, addictive behaviors, learning difficulties, and physical hardiness among my maternal family?

There was a particular conversation that inspired this line of thought. My parents and I were discussing many of the above issues. But a major focus was on sleep patterns. My brother, like my dad, has a difficulty getting up and moving in the morning. They both tend to feel groggy when first waking up and prefer to remain physically inactive for a long period after. They also both find it hard to fall asleep and, in the case of my dad, a problem of waking up in the middle of the night. My mom and I, however, don’t have any of these issues. We fall asleep easily, typically stay asleep throughout the night, and wake up quickly. So, the difference between sensitivity and insensitivity impacts every aspect of life, even sleeping and waking.

Oftentimes, in our society, we blame individuals for the way they are. We act like people have a choice about how they feel and what motivates them. But it’s not as if because of moral superiority and strength of will that I’ve chosen to sleep well, have a strong immune system, feel physically energetic, and generally be insensitive. No more than I chose to have a learning disability and severe depression. It’s simply the way I’ve always been.

There is obviously much more going on here than mere genetics. And so genetic determinism is intellectually unsatisfying, even as some might find it personally convenient as a way of rationalizing differences. We have too much data proving environmental and epigenetic causes. A recent study could only find a few percentage of genes correlated to intelligence and, even then, they couldn’t prove a causal connection. The same thing is seen with so much other correlation research. The way various clusters form, as I argue, implies a complex web of factors that as of yet we don’t come close to understanding.

One intriguing connection that has been found is that between the brain and the gut. There are more neurons in the lining of the gastrointestinal system (the enteric nervous system) than in either the spinal cord or the peripheral nervous system. This is often called the “second brain,” but in evolutionary terms it was the earliest part of the brain. This is why there has been proven such a close relationship between intestinal health, diet, nutrition, microbiome, neurotransmitters, and mood. The human brain isn’t limited to the skull. The importance of this is demonstrated by introducing a new microbiome into the gut which can lead to physiological and pyschological changes.

Much else, however, remains a mystery. Seemingly minor changes in initial conditions, even epigenetic changes from prior generations, can lead to major changes in results. There can be a cascade of effects that follow. As I’ve previously stated, “This is because of the cumulative effect of initial conditions. One thing leads to another. Lowered nutrition or increased toxicity has its impact which gets magnified by such things as school tracking. Each effect becoming a cause and all the causal factors combining to form significant differences in end results.”

Later conditions can either lessen or exacerbate these results. Even epigenetics, by way of altered environmental conditions, can be switched back the opposite direction in a single generation with results that we know little about. Now consider the complexity of reality where there are millions of factors involved, with only a tiny fraction of those factors having been discovered and studied in scientific research. Those multitudinous factors act in combined ways that couldn’t be predicted by any single factor. All of this has to be kept in mind at the very moment in history when humans are ignorantly and carelessly throwing in further factors with unknown consequences such as the diversity of largely untested chemicals in our food and other products, not to mention large-scale environmental changes.

We don’t live at a society ruled by the precautionary principle. Instead, our collective ignorance makes us even more brazen in our actions and more indifferent to the results. The measured increase in certain physical and mental health conditions could be partly just an increase in diagnosis, but it’s more probable that at least some of the increase is actual. We are progressing in some ways as a society such as seen with the Moral Flynn Effect, but this is balanced by an Amoral Flynn Effect along with many other unintended consequences.

Along with this, our society has a lack of appreciation for the larger context such as historical legacies and a lack of respect for the power of larger forces such as environmental conditions. We are born into a world created by others, each generation forming a new layer upon the ground below. We are facing some tough issues here. And we aren’t prepared to deal with them.

As individuals, the consequences are laid upon our shoulders, without our realizing all that we have inherited and have had externalized onto our lives, as we grow up internalizing these realities and coming to identify with them. Each of us does the best we can with the hand we’ve been dealt, but in the process we get more praise and blame than we deserve. The individual, as the product of collective forces, is the ultimate scapegoat of society. The lives we find ourselves in are a confluence of currents and undercurrents, the interference pattern of waves. Yet, in our shared ignorance and incomprehension, we are simply who we are.

* * * *

The Ending of the Nature vs Nurture Debate
Heritability & Inheritance, Genetics & Epigenetics, Etc
What Genetics Does And Doesn’t Tell Us
Weak Evidence, Weak Argument: Race, IQ, Adoption
Identically Different: A Scientist Changes His Mind
What do we inherit? And from whom?
To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition
On Welfare: Poverty, Unemployment, Health, Etc
From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations
The Desperate Acting Desperately
It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!
Facing Shared Trauma and Seeking Hope
Society: Precarious or Persistent?
Plowing the Furrows of the Mind
Union Membership, Free Labor, and the Legacy of Slavery.
Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology

Failure of Public Intellectuals

Over at Teeming Brain, Matt Cardin mentioned a book. It’s The Ideas Industry by Daniel Drezner. There is an initial response I gave in a comment to Cardin. I turned that comment into a post I made earlier, Public Intellectuals As Thought Leaders. And I added to that with another post, Thoughts on Inequality and the Elite. In a second comment to Cardin, I sought to put it into further context:

This is an important topic and this book being far from the only example of it being discussed. There is also The Death of Expertise by Thomas Nichols, another book I haven’t read. There are many other similar books as well, such as Rigor Mortis by Richard Harris where is discussed the damaging failure of expertise in a particular field.

As I thought more about it, I realized this should be put into a larger context. The whole issue of “fake news” has received focus as of late. But who determines what is fake?

It was quite shocking see what was in some of the leaked emails, that those in the mainstream media were working close with party insiders, even to the point of secretly sharing debate questions prior to the debate and sending articles to them for editing before publishing. Yet this same corporate media wants to judge alternative media, one of the last bastions of honest discussion of important issues. There is a fight going on right now between old media and new media, such as what is going on with YouTube and AdSense, a fight that could shut down the growing voices outside of the establishment.

It is all very concerning.

There are other books that I could point to. Some of them are listed below, along with a few reviews and articles.

I’m not a big fan of blaming the public in a society that gives so little voice and power to the public, such as calling the public stupid. It would be a fair criticism if this was a functioning democracy, but the fact of the matter is that this is a banana republic. The real power is some combination of neoconservatism, neoliberalism, military-industrial complex, deep state, corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, plutocracy, kleptocracy, oligrachy, and I’m sure others could add a few to the list. I’ve often prefer the lens of corporatism with its long history in progressivism, fascism, colonialism, and earlier ideological systems. Corporations have become the dominant institution of our age.

Here is another angle. The pseudo-meritocracy, despite the liberal and progressive rhetoric, is actually a rigidly stratified system of concentrated wealth and power that tends toward authoritarian expressions of technocracy and scientific management (see an earlier discussion). Those with power and privilege love to wield the authority of expertise. But who determines who gets to be called and perceived as an expert in the corporate media, corporatist political system, and increasingly corporate-funded academia and scientific research?

The simple fact is that public trust has been lost. In many cases, it’s uncertain that it was ever deserved. Consider the authority of our criminal system, as assessed by the National Academy of Sciences:

Rigorous and mandatory certification programs for forensic scientists are currently lacking, the report says, as are strong standards and protocols for analyzing and reporting on evidence. And there is a dearth of peer-reviewed, published studies establishing the scientific bases and reliability of many forensic methods. Moreover, many forensic science labs are underfunded, understaffed, and have no effective oversight.

Forensic evidence is often offered in criminal prosecutions and civil litigation to support conclusions about individualization — in other words, to “match” a piece of evidence to a particular person, weapon, or other source. But with the exception of nuclear DNA analysis, the report says, no forensic method has been rigorously shown able to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.

Now consider an estimated 2-5% of prisoners and 4% sentenced to die are innocent of all criminal charges. It was a public legal system built on professional expertise that led to these sad results. It’s sadder still when one looks at the racial biases. And the very public intellectuals getting promoted the most are often those, like Charles Murray, who preach a racial narrative and so offer justifications for prejudice.

We can’t simply turn to public intellectuals in the hope they’ll sort it all out. They are often part of the problem. And it isn’t public intellectuals who are most harmed in the process. When even public debate among public intellectuals fails to lead to public good, where does that leave the general public that has little voice at all, specifically those among us who suffer the worst consequences?

The failure isn’t intellectuals as a broad category. It’s a minority of intellectuals who become members of the affluent and influential intelligentsia, often working for special interest organizations, lobbyist groups, and think tanks. This is what being a public intellectual has come to mean, at least as it gets presented in corporate media and corporatist politics. What we need is more public intellectuals from more sectors and levels of society, in order to have genuine public debate.

A technocratic ruling elite is not going to save us.

* * * *

Flawed Scientific Research

Twilight of the Elites:
America After Meritocracy
by Chris Hayes

Failed:
What the “Experts” Got Wrong about the Global Economy
by Mark Weisbrot

Experts and Epistemic Monopolies: 17
by Roger Koppl, Steve Horwitz, & Laurent Dobuzinskis

Escape from Democracy:
The Role of Experts and the Public in Economic Policy
by David M. Levy &Sandra J. Peart

Scientism and Technocracy in the Twentieth Century:
The Legacy of Scientific Management

by Richard G. Olson

Beyond Technocracy:
Science, Politics and Citizens
by Massimiano Bucchi

The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium
by Martin Gurri

Type of expertise and their goal matters
by d. doyle

The problem today is not necessarily a lack of experts as it is how to determine what is relevant and what the goal is behind any expert’s pronouncement.

The Limits of Expertise
A defense of experts exhibits the very problems it complains about.

by Noah Berlatsky

Believe the experts! Experts are not perfect, but they are more likely than non-experts to be right. Experts know what they do not know, and are therefore more cautious and better able to self-correct. Sometimes, in small ways, non-experts may outperform experts. But in general, America and the world need more respect for expertise.

That is the thesis of Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. It is also, as it turns out, a critique of the book itself. Nichols, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, is an expert on Russia and national security; he is not, however, an expert on expertise.* His hand wringing about kids today is not grounded in a scholarly background in education policy or the history of student activism. He is a generalist dilettante writing a polemic against generalist dilettantes. As such, the best support for his argument is his own failure to prove it.

There are two central flaws in The Death of Expertise. The first is temporal. As the title implies, the book is written as though there were once a golden age when expertise was widely valued—and when the democratic polity was well-informed and took its duty to understand foreign and domestic affairs seriously. “The foundational knowledge of the average American is now so low that it has crashed through the floor of ‘uninformed,’ passed ‘misinformed’ on the way down, and finally is now plummeting to ‘aggressively wrong,'” Nichols declares. His proof for this statement is that “within my living memory I’ve never seen anything like it.”

As Nichols would ordinarily be the first to point out, the vague common-sense intuitions and memories of non-experts are not a good foundation for a sweeping theory of social change. Nichols admits that Americans are not actually any more ignorant than they were 50 years ago. But he quickly pivots to insist that “holding the line [of ignorance] isn’t good enough” and then spends the rest of the book writing as if he didn’t know that Americans are not getting more ignorant. […]

The balance between trusting experts and challenging conventional wisdom is always difficult. How do you create discussions online where folks who have been traditionally marginalized are welcome without empowering bad actors determined to harass them or spread disinformation? How can political parties encourage participation and democratic engagement without opening themselves up to opportunists and quacks? Those are questions worth asking, but Nichols, alas, is not the writer to answer them. Someone with more expertise is needed. Or, possibly, with less.

Comment to above article
by VG Zaytsev

“Believe the experts! Experts are not perfect, but they are more likely than non-experts to be right. Experts know what they do not know, and are therefore more cautious and better able to self-correct.”

That is 100% wrong in two ways. First as the breadth of knowledge continually increases, the scope of expertise shrinks. Attaining and maintaining expertise requires an ever greater focus on an ever narrower field, which necessarily means less knowledge in other areas, getting progressive lower as the distance form their narrow specialty increases. Which is fine in itself, but it is not how humans perceive the world and their social groups. Instead we believe that wisdom, cast as expertise, is wide – to universal. So that an “expert”‘s opinion is valued on a wide range of issues, most of which he has less information and experience dealing with than a generalist. Experts themselves are prone to this flaw.

Secondly the trust in experts and the narrow scope of actual expertise creates,the opportunity for faux experts to claim a level of authority and deference that they have no legitimate claim to. We see this repeatedly with “experts” put forward by the media to push a pre determined agenda.

‘The Death of Expertise’
by Scott McLemee

A survey of 7,000 freshmen at colleges and universities around the country found just 6 percent of them able to name the 13 colonies that founded the United States. Many students thought the first president was Abraham Lincoln, also known for “emaciating the slaves.” Par for the course these days, right?

It happens that the study in question was reported in The New York Times in 1943. The paper conducted the survey again during the Bicentennial, using more up-to-date methods, and found no improvement. “Two‐thirds [of students] do not have the foggiest notion of Jacksonian democracy,” one history professor told the Times in 1976. “Less than half even know that Woodrow Wilson was president during World War I.”

Reading the remark now, it’s shocking that he was shocked. After 40 years, our skins are thicker. (They have to be: asking the current resident of the White House about Jacksonian democracy would surely be taken as an invitation to reminisce about his “good friend,” Michael.)

The problem with narratives of decline is that they almost always imply, if not a golden age, then at least that things were once much better than they are now. The hard truth in this case is that they weren’t. On the average, the greatest generation didn’t know any more about why The Federalist Papers were written, much less what they said, than millennials do now. The important difference is that today students can reach into their pockets and, after some quick thumb typing and a minute or two of reading, know at least something on the topic.

Beware: the experts are usually poor forecasters
by Allister Heath

To say that experts often get it wrong is an understatement.

Philip Tetlock, a brilliant US academic who has studied this phenomenon in detail, once concluded that the average “expert” was in fact “roughly as accurate as a dart-throwing chimpanzee”. Consumers of expert advice should thus always heed the old adage of caveat emptor, or “let the buyer beware”.

The record of private and public sector forecasters is all too often abysmal, and in some cases almost a counter-indicator. The world craves certainty, even though no such thing can possibly exist. Pollsters thought that Labour would win the last election, have miscalled many others around the world and didn’t originally foresee the rise of Donald Trump. Most economists and large companies supported the UK’s membership of the euro, for example, which would have been a complete disaster. With a few heroic exceptions, hardly any economists saw the financial crisis and Great Recession coming, and of the very few who did spot that something was amiss hardly any worked out how the collapse would unfold.

So much for the big calls; the smaller ones tend to be equally wrong. We tend to see a strong bias towards over-optimism at the top of a boom and towards excessive pessimism at the trough of a recession. GDP numbers are always at least a little incorrect, and nobody predicted the employment bonanza of the past few years or the disappointing productivity performance. Even the Bank of England cannot correctly predict its own actions. As to most active fund managers, again with a number of brilliant exceptions, they aren’t worth the money: they cannot consistently deliver above-market returns after costs, even though that is their job. It gets worse: even oil companies cannot accurately work out what’s going to happen to the price of oil. […]

The problem is that it is impossible to know from the outset which so-called expert is actually a superforecaster and who will turn out to be no better than a random prediction machine. We therefore need to be very careful when listening to the expert consensus.

What if Elite Experts are Wrong About What They Supposedly are Experts About?
by Peter Boettke

Ever since the Wilsonian period, the progressive agenda has come with trained experts who by design immune from direct democratic pressures.  This is most evident in the Independent Regulatory Agencies — CPSC, EPA, FTC, FAA, FCC, FERC, Fed Reserve System, FDA, ICC, NLRB, NRC, OSHA, SEC — but it is an embedded attitude in our universities, our legal system, our politics, our media.  Experts are expected to lead the way based on their expertise in the policy sciences. […]

The problem with experts isn’t that individuals can have superior judgement to others, or that one can earn authority through judicious study and successful action.  The problem is an institutional one, and institutional problems demand institutional solutions.  In the case of the Levy/Peart and Koppl stories, the problem results from monopoly expertise that produce systemic incentives and social epistemology which is distortionary from the perspective of correct policy response.  […]

In fact, this focus on institutions of governance, and the fragility or robustness of these institutions, has been a focus […] Our knavery comes in the form of arrogance and opportunism, and if we construct institutions of governance that fail to check our knavery, and instead unleashes experts immune from democratic pressures, we get expert failure.

Tremendous power and authority has been entrusted in these experts.  Yet, there are serious issues that potentially delegitimize large segments of the establishment in: education from primary to secondary to higher, media from traditional print to radio, TV and even the echo-chamber of social media, public services from police to infrastructure to public pensions, and government from local to state to federal.  One way to “read” the election results is that this was an indictment of the establishment of experts.

Comment to above article
by arun

I think experts who serve an ‘elite’ aren’t going to be objective because an elite, by definition, believes that it’s values and preferences are ‘hegemonic’ in the Gramscian sense- i.e. they are prescriptive because of some obvious virtue which everybody recognizes as attaching itself to the ‘elite’.

In other words, the elite has an incentive to employ an expert who predicts that which is in their narrow interest and tries to pass it off as a ‘Muth Rational’ solution.

If Elites are insecure or subject to rent-contestation, sure, they may consult ‘expert cognition’ mavens so as to hedge their bets but they still have an interest in supporting official ‘experts’ who either predict what they want them to predict or who make a policy space multidimensional in a manner that gives the Elite ‘agenda control’and thus the ability to rig the outcome in their favor.

Comment to above article
by BenK

This comes back to the local knowledge problem; that experts may indeed have general knowledge about class of problem abstracted from its setting, but that only works for problems that are truly able to be abstracted. As a result, effective experts usually need to embed, or ‘condescend’ to understand local conditions when addressing a problem in the specific. However, when community problems are fundamentally about the ‘community,’ the experts are likely to favor being ‘objective’ and ‘distant’ rather than ‘involved’ and perhaps compromised. As a result, there is a conundrum. They cannot sit on high in judgement on the community and still understand it; but if they become involved, the problem will not appear the same. It’s a kind of relativity, particularly well known in families.

The answer is not to have contests among the experts to see who is more frequently right. This favors cherry picking and all sorts of bad strategies. The answer is to have experts as local as feasible; and keep them local, not giving them broad authorities. They can learn from each other but not subsume each other. There are costs to this approach, but it will be more robust than the current brittle strategy.

“First came the temple, then the city.”

“Landscape is memory, and memory in turn compresses to become the rich black seam that underlies our territory.”
~Alan Moore, Coal Country, from Spirits of Place

Sense of place. This place I live in is my home, where I spent much of my childhood. No matter how far I stray, I’ve always returned here. It’s the place I know. In fact, I know it so well that I can conjure images in my mind of buildings, fountains, and streets that no longer exist and, in some cases, disappeared long before I was born (via the magic of old photographs I’ve come across). The human world is built out of memory, personal and shared.

This is easy to forget, at least for many of us in modern society. We are constantly on the move. I lived in four states before I even made it to high school and this is not unusual for an American. It was all the leaving and returning that more fully imprinted this place onto my brain matter, seeping deep down into my sense of self. That is what makes me different than so many others. I daily see the haunts of my childhood and regularly visit with my childhood friend, a rare experience in an era when few people live in the communities in which they grew up.

For all of that, my sense of place is superficial. Many indigenous societies have a profound grounding in and knowledge of the world around them. In some cases, this communal experience goes back millennia. There are indigenous people who are still telling stories that accurately describe what their immediate environment looked like during the Ice Age. Now that is a sense of place, a collective memory more ancient than even the most faint traces of Western Civilization.

Lynne Kelly, maybe more than any other author I’ve recently read, has provoked my intellect and imagination. I first came across her in reading Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies. It’s about mnemonic traditions in indigenous cultures, which she initially explored through her study of Australian Aborigines. I’ve yet to finish it, as it is one of those books that is so interesting that I keep going back to it, sampling passages as they catch my fancy. She has a more recent book on the topic, The Memory Code, where she gives more detail about how these mnemonic systems work and she further delves into their significance.

It is fascinating, to say the least. What is shown in those two books explains so much about what it means to be human in the world, not just what it means to live in an indigenous tribe. And various aspects resonate far and wide, not just landscape and sense of place but: the city as social construction, temples as mnemonic devices, songlines as symbolic conflation, state-dependent and context-dependent memory, revolution of mind preceding revolution of social order, radical imagination and moral imagination, embodied experience and extended mind, etc. It speaks to the interconnection of natural resources and hunting techniques, tool-making and structure-building, relations and culture, mythology and rituals, language and symbolism, song and dance, space and accoustics, knowledge and history, astronomical observation and astrotheology, calendars and and natural cycles, and much else.

Looking at an even more basic level, I was reading Mark Changizi’s Harnessed. He argues that (p. 11), “Speech and music culturally evolved over time to be simulacra of nature.” That reminded me of Lynne Kelly’s description of how indigenous people would use vocal techniques and musical instruments to mimic natural sounds, as a way of communicating and passing on complex knowledge of the world. Changizi’s argument is based on the observation that “human speech sounds like solid-object physical events” and that “music sounds like humans moving and behaving (usually expressively)” (p. 19). Certain sounds give information about what is going on in the immediate environment, specifically sounds related to action and movement. This sound-based information processing would make for an optimal basis of language formation. This is given support from evidence that Kelly describes in her own books.

This also touches upon the intimate relationship language has to music, dance, and gesture. Language is inseparable from our experience of being in the world, involving multiple senses or even synaesthesia. The overlapping of sensory experience may have been more common to earlier societies. Research has shown that synaesthetes have better capacity for memory: “spatial sequence synesthetes have a built-in and automatic mnemonic reference” (Wikipedia). That is relevant considering that memory is central to oral societies, as Kelly demonstrates. And the preliterate memory systems are immensely vast, potentially incorporating the equivalent of thousands of pages of info. Knowledge and memory isn’t just in the mind but within the entire sense of self, sense of community, and sense of place.

Let me explain the quote used in the title of this post: “First came the temple, then the city.” It comes from Klaus Schmidt who led the excavation of Göbekli Tepe. The discovery of this archaeological site has overturned prior assumptions about the archaic human societies. It’s the earliest known example of permanent structures and they were built before the development of agriculture. That requires some explaining. The only domesticated animal these people had was the dog and so they had no beasts of burden to help haul the large stones. They hadn’t even yet developed the making of pottery. Their tool use and technical skills were limited with no prior stone masonry and probably not much specialization. These structures seem to have come out of nowhere.

Most perplexing is that there is a telling lack of evidence that this was a human settlement. It appears to have been a meeting place. Schmidt theorized that it was for communal rituals and so would have been the first temple complex. Julian Jaynes made similar arguments about early societies, in speculating that the first houses were built for the gods. This would have meant a place to store the mummified corpse or skull of a once revered leader, either having been considered divine during his life or having become deified in death, the worship of the leader maintained through visceral memory of his voice, at least until that memory faded. Only later did humans settle down to build their own houses and from this formed a priestly class. That then required the development of farming to support the population.

In whatever variation of this theory, civilization as settled lifestyle began from ancestral worship and a cult of the dead. This interpretation is supported by the dead buried under floor/benches in Jericho and Catal Hayak and cremated human remains at Stonehenge. Further excavation needs to be done at Göbekli Tepe, but some evidence already points in this direction. The temple complex has prominent vulture images and headless human figures, both associated with death in early cultures. For example, there was the archaic practice of removing skull for veneration and so the relevance of portrayals of the headless. Humans have long been obsessed with death. Elders were those who carried and passed on cultural knowledge, those who embodied and gave voice to gods, spirits, and ancestors. They were accordingly revered. In shared memory, their knowledge and voice lived on.

That is how authority operated long ago, by what an individual embodied and represented. Both Jaynes and Kelly see ancient authority as having originally been less hierarchical or else based on different forms of power, such as voices and knowledge. What makes knowledge into power isn’t just that it is information controlled by the few but because it is knowledge given form and voice through the force of personal presence. Ancient knowledge systems were visceral, not abstract, although incipient forms of abstraction had emerged, such as how physical mnemonics once learned could be accessed in the mind without the external triggers.

In these societies, the individual is so fully enmeshed within the world that the world is exists within the individual. These aren’t just systems of memory and knowledge. They are entire lived and embodied worldviews. The person is inseparble from the place. Everything would be integrated in such a community: tradition, knowledge, language, culture, ritual, religion, worldview, environment, etc.

It’s hard to know what that would have meant. The still existing societies with this kind of system have been in contact with modern societies for generations or centuries. In some cases such as the Australian Aborigines, they’ve taken the lessons learned in dealing with white Westerners and incorporated them as songs into their cultural knowledge. We have no way of being able to observe a society prior to contact and contact inevitably brings changes. Sometimes changes come far in advance of direct contact by way of intermediary tribes and environmental alterations. We can only guess at what is indicated from limited evidence.

I become aware of this difficulty sometimes while reading books like that written by Lynne Kelly. There is often the assumption that people in other societies are basically like us with the differences being mostly superficial. So, for example, behaviors and motivations are interpreted according to modern Western experience. But we know from research, that WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) subjects are among the least representative populations in the world, which is problematic as they are the most commonly used in scientific studies.

Related to this is when Lynne Kelly discusses the power held by those who control knowledge in indigenous societies, It occurs to me that this is very much a WEIRD way of understanding human nature. That is projecting an intention onto others that she cannot possibly know. She is arguing, so it seems, that they lack sincerity in performing their ritual. But maybe sincerity and insincerity is not a standard framework for the oral cultures of indigenous tribes.

John Beebe defines sincerity as the aspiration toward integrity, by which he means that you can only aspire toward what you lack. In that case, sincerity and hence insincerity can only exist among those who have lost the ancient inheritance of an integrated worldview (i.e., integrity). This would make sense, if indigenous mnemonics actually is an inseparable structure to a cultural experience of reality, rather than being a mere memory technique. That is what the Australian Aborigines appear to be claiming when they state that they sing the world into existence.

This is not to romanticize tribal people, but it is a serious consideration of the possibility that we modern Westerners would not recognize full integrity if we saw it. If anything, this is to counter the romanticized ideal of integrity that sincerity evokes, as differentiated from the lived experience of integrity. A number of thinkers have seen an opposition between cultures of ritual and cultures of sincerity, sometimes used to contrast Catholicism and Protestantism but maybe it goes much deeper when considering societies where ritual is entirely dominant. It’s just something to keep in mind as a possible point of misunderstanding.

This leads to a stumbling block for many in imagining the bicameral mind that Julian Jaynes describes. From the modern Western experience, such a mindset seems absurd or impossible. But it might be more plausible within a worldview of ritual and integrity.

If songlines originally were an expression of bicameralism or else something similar, each song would be a distinct voice (or set of voices). These songs would express the voices of gods, spirits, and ancestors as passed down by the song teachers across the generations. The songs would invoke not just landscapes but also narratized worlds with specific worldviews, mindsets, personalities, and histories. This internalized public space would be the precursor for the post-bicameral interiorizing of private space, both being metaphorical but the former connecting the individual to the concrete and the latter freeing the individual through increasing abstraction.

In building structures in the world, what if early humans were building structures in their minds? Creating a radically different mindset might have offered greater survival value than even building a permanent house to live in. An entire world would have been formed where new possibilities were made available. Maybe humans had to change their way of thinking before they could imagine civilization into existence.

* * * *

Making Gods, Making Individuals
Building and Battling in Ancient Europe
Music and Dance on the Mind
Choral Singing and Self-Identity
Development of Language and Music
Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond

Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies
by Lynne Kelly
Kindle Locations 441-464

Knowledge is power

Or so it used to be. Australian Aboriginal cultures in their traditional state, American Indian cultures resisting the influence of the colonisers and African cultures still practising their ancient knowledge systems all provide ample examples of the way in which those who controlled the knowledge also controlled society. The role of knowledge in the exercise of power is underrepresented in archaeological interpretation of prehistoric social structures.

Mike Parker Pearson, the British Neolithic archaeologist, and Ramilisonina wrote:

We employ cross-cultural generalizations as a means of assessing the likelihood of certain aspects of social organization being shared between different cultural contexts. We may define these generalisations as probability analogies since they work on the principle that, if a certain relationship is found amongst most traditional societies today, then there is a probability that this relationship probably obtained in most societies in the past (1998a, p. 309).

Archaeologists describe monument building eras, such as the British Neolithic, the Archaic of the American Southeast and the Ancestral Puebloan era of the American Southwest, as showing no signs of a wealthy elite, no physical signs of a hierarchy. Yet, to build such monuments as Stonehenge, Poverty Point and Chaco Canyon there must have been an organising hierarchy. It is this feature which leads to the first, and the most definitive, of the ten indicators of a mnemonic monument described below. I propose that, as in contemporary Australian Aboriginal hunter-gatherer cultures and Pueblo sedentary societies, the power granted to elders in these cultures was based on their access to knowledge.

I acknowledge that, as Renfrew says, ‘Modern hunter-gatherer societies are the product of forty centuries of sapient evolution, just as much as urban ones. They should not be regarded as living representatives of the Palaeolithic past’ (1998, p. 4). Methods found in contemporary Australian Aboriginal knowledge systems can be traced back for over 40,000 years (Haynes 2000, p. 53). Hence, it is considered justified to propose that the generalisations about oral knowledge systems can be translated into prehistory, as archaeologists currently transfer generalisations about human physical attributes and needs. It would be highly speculative to transfer the beliefs of any contemporary culture into the prehistoric era. However, it is logical to consider that the technologies by which they formally taught and painstakingly memorised their knowledge might have analogies in the more distant past. A deeper appreciation of the demands of knowledge retention and transmission in oral cultures opens up possibilities for radical reinterpretation of archaeological sites and artefacts globally.

Kindle Locations 4906-4927

The organisation of labour, degree of planning, structuring of space and caches of exotic materials all point to a complex Chacoan political authority over a large region over a long span of time (Lekson 1999, p. 48; Sebastian 1992, p. 57). It is generally agreed that the time of great house construction in Chaco Canyon itself was a time of low violence; coercive force was not an integral part of Chacoan society (Frazier 2005, pp. 2, 74– 82; Mahoney 2000, p. 16). Pueblo Bonito has disproportionately few infants in the burial sample (Saitta 1997, p. 15), as would be expected if the privilege of burial at Chaco was awarded to members of the knowledge elite.

Social inequalities increased between ritual leaders in the great houses of Chaco Canyon and the other Ancestral Puebloans over the course of the tenth century (Van Dyke 2007, pp. 98– 101). During the latter half of the eleventh century, some elite burials occurred at Pueblo Bonito, in rooms that were nearly 200 years old at the time (Van Dyke 2007, pp. 121– 2). In Room 33 of Pueblo Bonito, two males were interred with thousands of turquoise pieces (Saitta 1997, p. 15). However, the number of burials in great houses is so small that some researchers question that much can be concluded from their context (Saitta 1997, p. 5; Sebastian 1992, p. 51). Nevertheless, analysis of those interred in the great houses indicated that they had a better level of nourishment than those in the villages (Saitta 1997, pp. 14– 15; Van Dyke 2007, p. 3).

It can therefore be stated fairly reliably that there was an elite with power in Chaco Canyon during the Classic Bonito phase, but that there is minimal, if any, sign of individual wealth or coercion. This chapter argues that power was due to control of knowledge, and the centre of the knowledge was Chaco Canyon. Knowledge specialists from the outliers would have come regularly to the canyon to maintain existing, or gain new, knowledge from the elite in the great houses. The implementation of knowledge spaces was also localised in each outlier. Control of esoteric knowledge is so integral to the power structure in contemporary Pueblo society that Sebastian argues that ‘it would be surprising if such control were not a component of ancestral Puebloan societies as well’ (2004, p. 95).

The Memory Code
by Lynne Kelly
Kindle Locations 94-109

Orality, I soon discovered, was about making knowledge memorable. It was about using song, story, dance and mythology to help retain vast stores of factual information when the culture had no recourse to writing. It was the first step to understanding how they could remember so much stuff. The definition of ‘stuff’ was growing rapidly to include not only the animal knowledge I was researching, but also the names and uses of plants; resource access and land management; laws and ethics; geology and astronomy; genealogies, to ensure they knew their rights and relatives; navigation, to ensure they could travel long distances when there were no roads or maps; ideas about where they had come from; and, of course, what they believed. Indigenous cultures memorised everything on which their survival—physically and culturally—depended.

I wasn’t far into my research when I began to understand that songlines were key to the way Indigenous Australians organised this vast store of information so that it would not be forgotten. Songlines are sung narratives of the landscape, singing tracks that weave across the country and enable every significant place to be known. At each location, rituals are performed that enact the knowledge associated with that specific place. In this context, rituals are repeated acts and no more should be implied by that word. The degree to which they are religious ceremonies depends entirely on the specific ritual. One elder explained to me how singing the names of the sacred sites along the songlines created a set of subheadings to the entire knowledge base, a place for knowing about every animal, plant and person. The songlines could be sung when moving through the space in reality or in imagination.

By repeating the stories of the mythological beings through songs and dances at sacred landscape sites, information could be memorised, even if it was not used for tens, hundreds or thousands of years. Songs are far more memorable than prose. Dances can depict animal behaviour and tactics for the hunt in a way no words can do. Mythological characters can act out a vivid set of stories that are unforgettable.

Kindle Locations 231-241

In oral traditions, dance acts as a complementary memory cue to the sung narratives. Not only do the dances entertain but information can also be encoded in dance that defies clear expression in words. As a natural history writer, I doubt I could accurately describe details of the movement of a kangaroo—the flick of an ear, the subtle change in stance as it detects an approaching human—despite having observed them for most of my life. Australian Aboriginal dancers can represent this behaviour in a matter of moments.

Rituals performed before a hunt are often referred to as ‘hunting magic’, the word ‘magic’ implying that they are simply superstitious acts performed in the belief that they increase the fortune of the hunt through a call to supernatural beings. A little more investigation shows otherwise. Many of the songs reinforce details of animal behaviour, such as indicators that the animal may be aware of the hunters, or the way in which a mob of animals may disperse in fleeing. These rituals confirm planned hunting strategies and so, exactly as claimed, enhance the likely success of the hunt. When I discussed ‘hunting magic’ informally with Australian Aboriginals and Native Americans, they indicated that they were well aware of this rational link. The songs, for them, combine practical and magical aspects.

Kindle Locations 376-390

I found the concept of singing the road map, with paintings and sand drawings to help visualise it, mightily impressive, but I had yet to glimpse the power of the songlines. They were so much more than navigational tools. At each sacred place along the route, songs were sung and rituals performed. Rituals, by definition, are simply acts that are repeatedly performed. Those performances include the songs and dances that encode knowledge of a wide range of the practical subjects I was exploring, not just the navigational routes. What intrigued me was the way the songlines acted as an organiser, a table of contents to so much of the knowledge.

Each location acted as a subheading for the knowledge encoded in the ritual performed at that location. Vivid stories at each of these sacred sites told of the mythological ancestors who created the landscape, the animals, plants and everything in Country. Everything was linked. Everything had a place and was named and known. The traditional Aboriginal landscape is a memory space on a grand scale.

Non-Indigenous observers have mentioned their surprise at the depth of the emotional response in a singer when chanting a set of placenames, a seemingly unemotional task. Within the singer’s mind are all the associated stories. I have set up a series of ‘songlines’, a few kilometres of locations to which I have encoded information such as countries of the world, history and families of birds. When I list the locations, my head is full of all these associations, vivid images, funny stories and a precious store of knowledge. But even more than that, my songlines are now so familiar and so much a part of everyday life, I am extraordinarily fond of them. I have an emotional response as well as an intellectual one when I think of my songlines. I could not have understood this had I not done it myself. For elders with their entire culture tied to the knowledge embedded in the landscape, the effect must be extraordinarily intense.

Kindle Locations 484-495

Mythology certainly reflects spiritual beliefs, but what is pertinent to the story being told in this book is that it also encodes a vast store of practical information and rational knowledge of the world. Mythology, in this context, is an incredibly effective memory aid.

If the story carries knowledge about a particular plant, for example, then the plant will often be cast as an animated character. The plant-character will have human-style adventures and experiences, setbacks, difficulties and successes, acting as a metaphor for the events of a normal life. The character or personality of a medicinal plant, say, will be easily remembered while often telling a moral tale as well. If a plant is poisonous, then the story will involve its deathly quality. Realising that mythological stories are memory aids is not a revelation from Western researchers. Non-literate people are well aware of the role of story. […] Traditional peoples would not have survived had they been, as so often portrayed, living in a fog of superstition and irrational thinking.

Kindle Locations 515-522

One problem with trying to understand something as critical as the wangarr is that we have no equivalent in Western culture and no appropriate words to describe the concept. A viewer who watches the three long films, a number of short films and listens to the narrative about the Djungguwan learns that there is nothing in the wangarr that can be called a god. The mythological ancestors are not worshipped nor are they the objects of prayers. Their stories are told and through those stories cultural knowledge is imparted and cultural values sustained. It is simplest to accept the term and describe, granted in simplistic terms, that the wangarr are those who travelled through the land, creating the landscape, plants, animals and people. The wangarr gave the Yolngu languages, ceremonies, sacred designs and laws and, critically, the songs, dances and stories that encode all the knowledge and beliefs of the culture.

Kindle Locations 1355-1365

Unfortunately, Göbekli Tepe was labelled a temple by Schmidt and everyone discussing it since has used the term, leading to the assumption that it was primarily a religious building.2 With no sign of habitation, it was not domestic. Situated on what was a forested plateau, but is now desert, there was no nearby water. There are no burials and no sign of a wealthy hierarchy. However, there are signs of feasting, public and restricted performance spaces, and stone pillars in clear sequences. Göbekli Tepe has all the indicators of a memory space.

Göbekli Tepe was built by non-farming people. It has long been assumed that to build monuments, people needed to be farming to free the time for such labour-intensive activities. I believe that in order to settle, it was essential that indigenous peoples found some way to create a local memory space. This would gradually replace the knowledge system embedded in the broader landscape. Any strongly sequenced set of objects, such as standing stones or posts, could be used to replicate the locations along the songline or pilgrimage trail. The fact that many of these monuments are circular is indicative of the way time is cyclic for indigenous cultures when they talk of resource management and agriculture. The monuments need to represent the landscape locations while also providing both public and restricted performance spaces.

Kindle Locations 1812-1815

All these theories are consistent with the concept that Stonehenge was primarily a knowledge space, and that death rites, astronomical observations, timekeeping and healing were all part of the complexity that is seen in historical indigenous knowledge systems.

Kindle Locations 3398-3403

This monument was built by hunter-gatherers, as was the far more sophisticated Louisiana site of Poverty Point, which emerged nearly 2000 years later. Poverty Point was the centre of a hunter-gatherer culture spreading over nearly 2000 square kilometres. It demonstrated that a large complex monument could be created by hunter-gatherers.4 The fact that these sites were built without any sign of agriculture challenges accepted wisdom that communities needed to settle and farm in order to free up the time required to build monuments. I believe that the reverse is true: people needed to build monuments in order to preserve the knowledge system to enable them to settle.

Kindle Locations 3488-3491

The archaeology of the Poverty Point monuments demonstrates that essentially egalitarian hunter-gatherers attained levels of organisation and integration once only attributed to advanced farming cultures. Hunter-gatherer people may be less complex in terms of their hierarchies, cities and politics; it should never be assumed that they are less complex intellectually.

A Million Years of Music
by Gary Tomlinson
Kindle Locations 4252-4272

From the recent end of the timescale also there are indications that the institutionalization of ritual power may extend back into the Paleolithic, even in monumentally structured ways. The excavations since the 1990s of Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey have uncovered a project of staggering scope of stone quarrying, carving, and building that resulted in a long-lasting center of activity starting about 11,000 years ago. With little sign of on-site habitation yet found, Klaus Schmidt, the lead archaeologist, and others posit this as a sacred locale for groups of foragers in the surrounding areas, periodically gathering to celebrate essential rituals. It is, to say the least, not the kind of project hunter-gatherers have usually been thought to mount. For Schmidt it points to a new, ideological stimulus for the beginnings of the transition to sedentism: religious ritual and institution. In this view it is metaphysics that drove settlement patterns and eventually brought about farming, not the reverse.

A recent revisionist account has taken issue with this interpretation, seeing in it an anachronistic distinction of shrine from house and envisioning Göbekli Tepe as a sacred settlement, along the lines archaeologists have now and then perceived elsewhere. 7 (Inca Cuzco is a much more recent example.) This new interpretation suggests that the real message of Göbekli Tepe might instead be that what counted most for early Neolithic humans was life integrated with incipient ritual, not separated from it. It is hard not to imagine this as a repeating of earlier, Paleolithic lifeways.

Whatever our interpretation of the site, however, we are left with the construction of a special center, built and used across centuries and involving daunting technological challenges— all some seven millennia before Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid of Giza. We must contemplate that arresting date in prospect, so to speak, from the vantage of Paleolithic developments, not merely in retrospect. It places the earliest monumental construction at Göbekli Tepe closer in time to the painting of Lascaux than to the building of the pyramids. The famous decorated caves from the end of the Paleolithic propose themselves to us as ritual spaces just as eloquently as Göbekli Tepe does; this similarity is inescapable. To entertain it is, however, to locate Göbekli Tepe in a history of the making and use of such sites reaching far back into the Paleolithic period, if on smaller scales. This history includes not only Lascaux, Altamira, and many other sites from after the Last Glacial Maximum but Chauvet also, painted much earlier, in Gravettian or even Aurignacian times; and it includes many open-air and enclosed sites of rock painting and sculpture from Africa, the immense antiquity of which has only recently begun to be appreciated.

Inside the Neolithic Mind
by David Lewis-Williams & David Pearce
Kindle Locations 544-587

Most sensationally, Schmidt found that the pillars had images carved on them (Pls 2, 3, 4; Fig. 6). They include wild boar, gazelles, wild cattle, foxes, snakes and birds – no domesticated animals. Nor is there sign of any domesticated plants or animals in the deposits. These people were hunters and gatherers, albeit socially and economically complex.38 One pillar appears to have a human arm carved on it, and this feature, seen in association with the armed pillar at Nevali Çori, seems to confirm the impression that the stone columns are all somewhat anthropomorphic. Here was an early Neolithic, pre-farming community that, like their Upper Palaeolithic predecessors in Europe, most definitely had image-making as a practice that went beyond practical matters of making a daily living – though such a distinction is probably ours rather than one made by the people themselves.

The pillars came from a quarry about 91 m (300 ft) away. There, the limestone bedrock was cut and the pillars shaped, at least to some extent. One pillar still in place in the quarry would, had it been removed, have been as much as 6 m (20 ft) long and would have weighed 50 tons. What drove the people of Göbekli Tepe to make these pillars, to drag them to the rock-cut structures, to embellish them with images and to raise them up?

Schmidt has found no traces of early Neolithic houses nearby. He therefore concludes that Göbekli Tepe was a ritual centre to which Neolithic people came for religious purposes. It may have been a site of intense religious experiences that reinforced beliefs and social networks. Perhaps ‘pilgrims’ came regularly from as much as 100 km (62 miles) away, from a site known as Jerf el Ahmar, where there are comparable round structures with benches and also images of animals, but no rock-cut structures with stone pillars.

While contemplating Göbekli Tepe, the English archaeologist Steven Mithen had an idea that supports what one of us had previously advanced for the domestication of cattle at Çatalhöyük and which, in general terms, followed in Cauvin’s footsteps.39 Mithen concluded that the religious beliefs embodied in the massive stone structures and associated carvings came before and eventually led to agriculture. How could this inversion of the sort of scenario that Childe would have recognized have happened?

Schmidt pointed out to Mithen some hills about 30 km (18.6 miles) to the south. These are known as Karacadag (‘Black Mountains’). Phylogenetic DNA studies had shown that this area was the origin of domesticated einkorn wheat. To put the matter more forcefully, Karacadag was the place of origin of domesticated grain and therefore the origin of the Neolithic.40 Mithen suggests that the switch to domestication came about as a result of frequent ritual and construction activities that took place at Göbekli Tepe, in our terms, religious practice. Large numbers of people, possibly measured in hundreds, would have been needed to make the Göbekli Tepe structures and pillars, and this would have necessitated the gathering and processing of much wild grain to sustain the workers. This activity would, in time, have resulted in fallen grain springing up, being gathered again and thus becoming domesticated. Mithen concludes that a drier climatic spell may not have been the trigger that set off Neolithic agriculture, as many researchers believe: ‘It may have been a by-product of the ideology that drove hunter-gatherers to carve and erect massive pillars of stone on a hilltop in southern Turkey.’41

The good quality of Karacadag grain may have led workers returning home to take some with them to sow in their own gardens at Jerf el Ahmar and other settlements, eventually step-by-step even as far as Jericho itself. In addition to seashells and shiny obsidian that we know Neolithic people traded, the first domesticated strains of grain may also have spread across the Near East. Indeed, there is more obsidian at Jericho than one would expect for a town of that size; it may therefore have been a trading centre and one of its commodities may have been the Neolithic itself.

More than environment: preternatural seeing

The rock-cut structures and carvings at Göbekli Tepe and the highlighted eyes of the Jericho skulls point to an unavoidable part of human life, one that Childe, as a Marxist, and more recent environmentalist archaeologists have tended to ignore, or, at any rate, to deprive of any causal influence. We suggest that ‘conversion’ from one belief system to another means accepting new understandings of the functioning of the human brain and the mental states that it produces (though, of course, the people themselves do not see it that way). What were once regarded as aberrant, meaningless mental states may, with a change in religious perspective, become central divine intimations. In short, we need to examine human consciousness, not just in the alert, problem-solving state that we cultivate today, but also in the more mysterious states that, in some circumstances, become the essence of religion.

Kindle Locations 2948-2951

we note the significance of stones as oracles: they link the initiate to supernaturally vouchsafed information about cosmology. One of the stones is like a mouth and has a hollow in it. We recall the standing stones at Göbekli Tepe, ‘Ain Ghazal and other sites. Working in west European Neolithic tombs, Aaron Watson, an archaeologist at Reading University, found that ritually produced sounds can ‘induce enormous stones to appear to shake and become alive’.41

Places of the Heart
by Colin Ellard
pp. 14-15

The business of designing environments that affect human feeling and action is so ancient that it actually predates any other aspect of human civilization, including written communication, the design of cities and settlements, and even the birth of agriculture, which is traditionally considered to be the seminal event that set into play most of the other forces that shaped modern humanity. The roots of such endeavors lie in southern Turkey, near the city of Urfa, at the ancient ruins of Göbekli Tepe. This structure, more than eleven thousand years old, consists of a series of walls and pillars constructed of stone slabs, some weighing more than ten tons.1 As architecture, the site represents the oldest building, other than simple dwellings, that we know to have been built by human beings. Indeed, the construction of Göbekli Tepe predates Stonehenge by about as much time as separates the origin of the Stonehenge from the present day. As artifact, Göbekli Tepe is even more important than this. It turns on their heads long-held truths about the origins of architecture. Before Göbekli Tepe, the conventional wisdom was that it was domestication, settlement, and agriculture that spurred the development of architectural practices, and eventually cities. Now it’s clear that this story drives the cart before the horse. These stones must have been laid down by hunter–gatherers who lived by killing and eating prey animals rather than by farmers living in settled groups. The walls that have been unearthed here may well be the first ever constructed for a purpose other than to shield the contents of one’s possessions and one’s family from enemies, the elements, and the prying eyes of neighbors.

Over such a long reach of human history, it is almost impossible to know what purpose the massive columns and walls of Göbekli Tepe might have served for their builders, but the scant evidence of human activity found at the site—the bones of animals and the remains of fireplaces along with the iconography of human figures and large birds, snakes, and carnivorous mammals carved into the columns—suggests that the place served as a kind of religious sanctuary, and most likely, a site of pilgrimage that was visited, modified, built, and rebuilt over a span of hundreds of years. What is clear is that nobody actually lived at Göbekli Tepe. It was a place to visit, perhaps to encourage thought and worship. Possibly, the carvings of the fearsome creatures found there were meant as totems to help manage the fears of the terrible dangers that their designers faced in their day-to-day lives as hunters. It’s also possible that, like Stonehenge, Göbekli Tepe was built as a healing place—an indication that one of the earliest human drives that led to building was a response to our awareness of our own finitude and that these early structures represent a nascent struggle against mortality. In some ways, much of the history of architecture, but especially religious architecture, can be seen as a concerted effort to find a way to cheat death—prima facie evidence of our early understanding of the power of the built structure to influence feelings.

Regardless of what can be known about the thinking that lay behind the careful construction of Göbekli Tepe, six thousand years before the invention of the written word, one thing is clear—what happened there may represent the very beginning of what has now become a defining characteristic, perhaps the defining characteristic of humanity: we build to change perceptions, and to influence thoughts and feelings; by these means, we attempt to organize human activity, exert power, and in many cases, to make money. We see examples of this everywhere, scattered through the length and breadth of human history.

Big Gods
by Ara Norenzayan
pp. 118-121

Göbekli Tepe is the world’s oldest known religious structure. It’s made of massive, humanlike, T-shaped stone pillars, arranged into a set of rings, and carved with images of various animals such as gazelles and scorpions (see figure 7.1). Long mistaken for a medieval cemetery, this ancient monumental architecture in present-day southeastern Turkey dates back to about 11,500 years, which makes it at least twice as old as Stonehenge (4,000 to 5,000 years old), the Great Pyramid of Giza (4,500 years old), and a few thousands of years older than Armenia’s Karahunj, another ancient megalithic structure with religious significance. Göbekli Tepe’s importance is magnified by the fact that no evidence of settled agriculture has been found so far. This could be explained by the fact that Göbekli Tepe is old enough to have been one of the world’s earliest temples built by hunter-gatherers. If true, it may hold clues to one of the deepest puzzles of our time, the question of how the Neolithic Revolution got off the ground, and gave rise to the origins of human civilization itself.2

Who built these structures, and how did they do it? The sheer scale of the operation must have been unprecedented—the stones in the Göbekli site weigh between 7 and 10 tons each, located on a site far away from any other known settlements, at a time when sedentary life, and its benefits, was still nonexistent—there were as yet no writing, masonry, metal tools, and domesticated animals to carry loads. And for what purpose would these hunter-gatherers—if indeed they were that—have built these monuments, which must have incurred spectacular costs in calories, time, and effort?

There are many puzzles and unanswered questions about this ancient site that will wait for more evidence and will be debated for a long time. The current picture that this site paints is incomplete, and open to multiple interpretations. Perhaps these were agricultural peoples, and it will take time to find evidence of domesticated plants and animals in Göbekli. To add to the mystery, the reasons behind the transition from hunting game and gathering wild foods to domestication of grains and animals remain somewhat puzzling and are hotly debated by archeologists. Unlike the more reliable supply of daily calories from hunting and gathering, domestication is a long-term affair fraught with risk. The diet of early agricultural peoples was poorer in protein content than the diet of hunter-gatherers. Evidence from prehistoric human remains suggests that early farmers were less healthy and less well fed than were hunter-gatherers.3 Despite negative effects on health and diet, early agriculture had one advantage over hunting and gathering: in the long run it could feed more mouths and sustain larger populations.

What we do know, with some confidence, is that in the cradle of agriculture that is the Middle East, not far from Göbekli Tepe, clear evidence of this transition is found to be about 11,000 years old. We also know that this transition coincided with population explosions. However, in more than 15 years of careful excavation, archeologist Klaus Schmidt, who first discovered these stone structures on top of a mound buried in earth, and others who have worked there since then, have not found any in Göbekli. If the builders and early worshippers of Göbekli Tepe were indeed hunter-gatherers, then we face the intriguing possibility that early forms of organized religious activity predated the agricultural revolution and the massive cultural transformations it ushered. This scenario, if confirmed, would turn on its head the conventional wisdom that organized religion, with priesthood classes, elaborate rituals, and sacrifices to powerful Big Gods, was a mere consequence of the transition to agricultural societies.

Göbekli Tepe suggests the idea that early stirrings to worship Big Gods motivated people to take up early forms of farming, and not the other way around.4 An analysis of the blades made of volcanic ash found on the site suggests that it attracted pilgrims from a wide range of locations. This raises the possibility that the temple was an early cosmopolitan center.5 Schmidt argues that the initial religious impulse to periodically congregate and worship among at least some hunter-gatherer groups in the Middle East might have led to semipermanent settlements around the sacred area. People likely continued to lead a hunter-gatherer existence, possibly for a long time. Eventually, however, settlements swelled. Hunting and gathering cannot feed large populations. This might have created the impetus for experimentation with an agricultural lifestyle in addition to hunting. Animal and plant domestication, in turn, would have led to food surpluses, and larger population sizes. In turn, this demographic growth, along with conquest or absorption of smaller groups, would have facilitated the cultural spread of these peculiar religious beliefs.

This hypothesis, which sees prosocial religions with Big Gods as a contributing factor (rather than merely as a side-effect of settled agriculture), fits better with the other observations discussed in this book. It is consistent with the psychological evidence that supernatural monitoring, and credible displays of faith to watchful deities, encourage cooperation, contribute to trust, and enable collective action among groups of strangers. It is also consistent with the historical evidence from the written record pointing to the role that these belief-ritual religious complexes played in the establishment of long-distance trade. This hypothesis accounts for the cultural spread of prosocial religions at the dawn of the agricultural revolution by assuming that, at the very least, Big Gods were one critical causal factor that contributed to the rise of large groups unleashed by agriculture. It would also explain the glaring absence of evidence for domesticated grains and animals in Göbekli Tepe.

The Well-Tempered City
by Jonathan F. P. Rose
Kindle Locations 974-984

These early settlements also required a new degree of large-scale cooperative behavior. Although they were built by hunter-gatherers, there was something different in their culture that brought them to work together at a scale never before achieved in human history. The psychologist Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia proposed that the transformation came with the emergence of a new belief system, one he called “big gods.” Prior to that time, humans believed in gods who created the universe, or local spirits, who had little interest in people’s behavior. In small-scale societies, cooperative behaviors were monitored by the group. Free riders were expelled from the community. But larger groups are harder to monitor, and to get to cooperate. Norenzayan believes that the belief in judgmental deities, or “big gods,” provided the cooperative glue necessary to build places such as Göbekli Tepe. A watchful, punishing god or gods proved to be a very good monitor of behavior, particularly if the god had authority over your after- or future life. “Big gods” tempered human behavior.

Edward Slingerland, a historian at UBC Vancouver, observed that all-knowing big gods are “crazily effective” at enforcing social norms. “Not only can they see you everywhere you are, but they can actually look inside your mind.”

Birth of the moralizing gods
by Lizzie Wade

Norenzayan thinks this connection between moralizing deities and “prosocial” behavior—curbing self-interest for the good of others—could help explain how religion evolved. In small-scale societies, prosocial behavior does not depend on religion. The Hadza, a group of African hunter-gatherers, do not believe in an afterlife, for example, and their gods of the sun and moon are indifferent to the paltry actions of people. Yet the Hadza are very cooperative when it comes to hunting and daily life. They don’t need a supernatural force to encourage this, because everyone knows everyone else in their small bands. If you steal or lie, everyone will find out—and they might not want to cooperate with you anymore, Norenzayan says. The danger of a damaged reputation keeps people living up to the community’s standards.

As societies grow larger, such intensive social monitoring becomes impossible. So there’s nothing stopping you from taking advantage of the work and goodwill of others and giving nothing in return. Reneging on a payment or shirking a shared responsibility have no consequences if you’ll never see the injured party again and state institutions like police forces haven’t been invented yet. But if everyone did that, nascent large-scale societies would collapse. Economists call this paradox the free rider problem. How did the earliest large-scale societies overcome it?

In some societies, belief in a watchful, punishing god or gods could have been the key, Norenzayan believes. As he wrote in Big Gods, “Watched people are nice people.” Belief in karma—which Norenzayan calls “supernatural punishment in action”—could have had a similar psychological effect in the absence of actual gods, a proposition his colleagues are investigating in Asia.

History and archaeology offer hints that religion really did shape the earliest complex societies. Conventional wisdom says that the key to settling down in big groups was agriculture. But “agriculture itself is a wildly improbable cooperative activity,” notes Slingerland, who studies ancient China. “Especially in places where you can’t get agriculture off the ground without largescale irrigation or water control projects, the cooperation problem has to get solved before you can even get the agriculture ramped up.” That’s where religion came in, he and Norenzayan think.

A case in point, they say, is Göbekli Tepe, an archaeological site in southeastern Turkey. Huge stone obelisks carved with evocative half-human, half-animal figures dot the 11,500-year-old site, which the late Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute, who excavated there, called “the first manmade holy place” (Science, 18 January 2008, p. 278). Moving and decorating the great obelisks must have required a huge community effort. But signs of agriculture don’t appear nearby until 500 years later, meaning that the builders of Göbekli Tepe were likely hunter-gatherers who had come together to practice shared religious beliefs, Slingerland says. As Schmidt has said, “First came the temple, then the city.”

Ultrasociety
by Peter Turchin
pp. 10-11

Like the creators of Stonehenge, the people who built Göbekli Tepe left no written explanation of their motives. But, as the Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse writes in Aeon Magazine, “a consensus is emerging among archaeologists that this was a hugely significant ritual center: not a permanent home but a sacred place where people gathered at special times.” The “Göbeklians” did not live on, or near, the hill; instead they traveled to it from many semi-permanent settlements within a large area, some coming from 100–200km (roughly 100 miles) away. We know this because archaeologists find the same kinds of symbolic objects from widely dispersed sites, from the T-shaped pillars, so characteristic of Göbekli Tepe temples, to peculiar-looking scepters.6

The Göbeklians carved T-shaped pillars from the side of the hill (a few of them are still there, unfinished), then transported them to a circular enclosure and installed them in carefully excavated rectangular pits. A typical temple has a dozen T-shaped pillars, with the two largest placed in the center, surrounded by the rest, almost like a group of people standing around two leaders. In fact, the pillars are clearly meant to represent people (or perhaps gods). The T-part looks like a head. Many pillars have arms carved into their sides and a loincloth in front.

Once the job of the construction was over, the fun part began. Göbeklians feasted on roasted gazelles and aurochs and drank copious amounts of beer. During their excavation of the site, the archaeologists Oliver Dietrich, Jens Notroff and their colleagues found large numbers of burned bones. They also found many large barrel-like and trough-like vessels, carved from limestone, with dark grayish residue coating the sides. Chemical analysis indicated the presence of oxalate, which precipitates during the fermentation of mashed barley (remember, this was not a cultivated cereal). Some of these vessels could hold 160 liters (40 gallons) of beer, or almost three kegs. Quite a party! A carved stone cup, found in the nearby site of Nevali Çori, depicts two people with raised arms, dancing. Between them cavorts a fantastic turtle-like creature, which Dietrich and colleagues think “might well hint at the dancers’ altered state of conscious.”

The archaeologists aren’t sure how long each temple was in use. At some point, however, the Göbeklians destroyed their temples by burying the monoliths in rubble. Clearly, the purpose was not to create a monument that would last forever; everything was in the service of the ritual.

Perhaps all the megalith-building cultures felt the same way. A retired carpenter and construction worker named Gordon Pipes recently recruited a team of volunteers to help him demonstrate how a small group of people could have moved the Stonehenge megaliths.7 Pipes estimates that 40-ton stones can be erected using Stone Age technology with fewer than 25 people. Placing lintels on top could require no more than a dozen workers. But such calculations and experiments seem to miss the point. At least as far as Göbekli’s temples were concerned, the idea wasn’t about erecting monuments in the most efficient manner, with the fewest possible workers—that’s the rationalistic thinking of a 21st-century engineer. The purpose was to bring people together.

This is an argument put forward by Jens Notroff and colleagues in an article titled “Building Monuments, Creating Communities.”8 These archaeologists look to recent ethnographic accounts of monument-building, such as the construction of megalithic tombs on the Indonesian island of Nias. There, a crowd of 500–600 share the work, hauling the megaliths—which are a bit smaller than the Göbekli pillars—using Stone Age technology (with a wooden sledge, rollers, and ropes made from lianas). It takes three days to move the stones a distance of 3km (two miles) to their destination. Many more people participate than is necessary. But it’s not about efficiency. It’s about having fun. And then, after the monoliths have been installed, everybody has a party with lots of food and (of course) beer. The tangible result—the monument—is not important. The intangible but lasting feeling of community and cooperation is what the whole thing is about.

pp. 171-172

Bringing together the various strands of the argument, I see the following sequence of events leading to the despotic archaic states. With the end of the Pleistocene around 12,000 years ago, the climate grew warmer and, more important, much less variable. Human populations began to increase everywhere. Migrations and colonization peopled new areas as they became habitable, and over the next few thousand years, the Earth’s landscapes filled up with foraging bands. Eventually, few places suitable for human habitation remained unoccupied. Areas where people were already present in substantial numbers during the last Ice Age, such as the Near East, filled up first.

According to the standard archaeological model, this is what happened next. Around 10,000 years ago, human beings started to domesticate plants and animals. This allowed them to increase production of food dramatically, which in turn enabled greater population densities, sedentary ways of life, villages—and then cities, complex societies, states, writing—in a word, civilization. The adoption of agriculture, then, created a resource base capable of sustaining high population densities and an extensive division of labor. It also generated a “surplus” capable of supporting craftsmen, priests, and rulers. At this point, the standard theory branches out into several different models, with some emphasizing the need to manage the economy, others focusing on warfare, and still others stressing the role of ritual and religious specialists. Details vary, but the common denominator is that a rich resource base is not only a necessary condition, but also a sufficient one for the rise of complex societies.

I call this the “bottom-up” theory of the evolution of social complexity, because it treats social complexity as a sort of “superstructure” on the material resource base. In other words, if you stir enough resources into your evolutionary pot, social complexity will inevitably bubble up.

The problem with the bottom-up theory is that in several places where we can date the key stages in this process, we see a different sequence of events. The two sites with early monumental architecture that we discussed in Chapter 1, Göbekli Tepe and Poverty Point, arose before agriculture.

So here we have an inverted sequence of events. First, a fairly large-scale society arises, with quite sophisticated ritual activities and buildings requiring the mobilization of large numbers of workers. Only later comes agriculture. Has the standard theory reversed cause and effect?

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
by Julian Jaynes
pp. 143-151

This was a paradigm of what was to happen in the next eight millennia. The king dead is a living god. The king’s tomb is the god’s house, the beginning of the elaborate god-house or temples which we shall look at in the next chapter. Even the two-tiered formation of its structure is prescient of the multitiered ziggurats, of the temples built on temples, as at Eridu, or the gigantic pyramids by the Nile that time in its majesty will in several thousand years unfold.

We should not leave Eynan without at least mentioning the difficult problem of succession. Of course, we have next to nothing to go on in Eynan. But the fact that the royal tomb contained previous burials that had been pushed aside for the dead king and his wife suggests that its former occupants may have been earlier kings. And the further fact that beside the hearth on the second tier above the propped-up king was still another skull suggests that it may have belonged to the first king’s successor, and that gradually the hallucinated voice of the old king became fused with that of the new. The Osiris myth that was the power behind the majestic dynasties of Egypt had perhaps begun.

The king’s tomb as the god’s house continues through the millennia as a feature of many civilizations, particularly in Egypt. But, more often, the king’s-tomb part of the designation withers away. This occurs as soon as a successor to a king continues to hear the hallucinated voice of his predecessor during his reign, and designates himself as the dead king’s priest or servant, a pattern that is followed throughout Mesopotamia. In place of the tomb is simply a temple. And in place of the corpse is a statue, enjoying even more service and reverence, since it does not decompose. […]

Let us imagine ourselves coming as strangers to an unknown land and finding its settlements all organized on a similar plan: ordinary houses and buildings grouped around one larger and more magnificent dwelling. We would immediately assume that the large magnificent dwelling was the house of the prince who ruled there. And we might be right. But in the case of older civilizations, we would not be right if we supposed such a ruler was a person like a contemporary prince. Rather he was an
hallucinated presence, or, in the more general case, a statue, often at one end of his superior house, with a table in front of him where the ordinary could place their offerings to him.

Now, whenever we encounter a town or city plan such as this, with a central larger building that is not a dwelling and has no other practical use as a granary or barn, for example, and particularly if the building contains some kind of human effigy, we may take it as evidence of a bicameral culture or of a culture derived from one. This criterion may seem fatuous, simply because it is the plan of many towns today. We are so used to the town plan of a church surrounded by lesser houses and shops that we see nothing unusual. But our contemporary religious and city architecture is partly, I think, the residue of our bicameral past. The church or temple or mosque is still called the House of God. In it, we still speak to the god, still bring offerings to be placed on a table or altar before the god or his emblem. My purpose in speaking in this objective fashion is to defamiliarize this whole pattern, so that standing back and seeing civilized man against his entire primate evolution, we can see that such a pattern of town structure is unusual and not to be expected from our Neanderthal origins.

From Jericho to Ur

With but few exceptions, the plan of human group habitation from the end of the Mesolithic up to relatively recent eras is of a god-house surrounded by man-houses. In the earliest villages,1 such as the excavated level of Jericho corresponding to the ninth millennium B.C., such a plan is not entirely clear and is perhaps debatable. But the larger god-house at Jericho, surrounded by what were lesser dwellings, at a level corresponding to the seventh millennium B.C., with its perhaps columned porchway
leading into a room with niches and curvilinear annexes, defies doubt as to its purpose. It is no longer the tomb of a dead king whose corpse is propped up on stones. The niches housed nearly life-sized effigies, heads modeled naturalistically in clay and set on canes or bundles of reeds and painted red. Of similar hallucinogenic function may have been the ten human skulls, perhaps of dead kings, found at the same site, with features realistically modeled in plaster and white cowrie shells inserted for eyes. And the Hacilar culture in Anatolia of about 7000 B.C. also had human crania set up on floors, suggesting similar bicameral control to hold the members of the culture together in their food-producing and protection enterprise.

Göbekli Tepe
by Wikipedia

Schmidt’s view was that Göbekli Tepe is a stone-age mountain sanctuary. Radiocarbon dating as well as comparative, stylistical analysis indicate that it is the oldest religious site yet discovered anywhere.[8][32] Schmidt believed that what he called this “cathedral on a hill” was a pilgrimage destination attracting worshippers up to 150 km (90 mi) distant. Butchered bones found in large numbers from local game such as deer, gazelle, pigs, and geese have been identified as refuse from food hunted and cooked or otherwise prepared for the congregants.[33]

Schmidt considered Göbekli Tepe a central location for a cult of the dead and that the carved animals are there to protect the dead. Though no tombs or graves have been found so far, Schmidt believed that they remain to be discovered in niches located behind the sacred circles’ walls.[8] Schmidt also interpreted it in connection with the initial stages of the Neolithic. It is one of several sites in the vicinity of Karaca Dağ, an area which geneticists suspect may have been the original source of at least some of our cultivated grains (see Einkorn). Recent DNA analysis of modern domesticated wheat compared with wild wheat has shown that its DNA is closest in sequence to wild wheat found on Karaca Dağ 30 km (20 mi) away from the site, suggesting that this is where modern wheat was first domesticated.[34] Such scholars suggest that the Neolithic revolution, i.e., the beginnings of grain cultivation, took place here. Schmidt believed, as others do, that mobile groups in the area were compelled to cooperate with each other to protect early concentrations of wild cereals from wild animals (herds of gazelles and wild donkeys). Wild cereals may have been used for sustenance more intensively than before and were perhaps deliberately cultivated. This would have led to early social organization of various groups in the area of Göbekli Tepe. Thus, according to Schmidt, the Neolithic did not begin on a small scale in the form of individual instances of garden cultivation, but developed rapidly in the form of “a large-scale social organization”.[35]

Schmidt engaged in some speculation regarding the belief systems of the groups that created Göbekli Tepe, based on comparisons with other shrines and settlements. He assumed shamanic practices and suggested that the T-shaped pillars represent human forms, perhaps ancestors, whereas he saw a fully articulated belief in gods only developing later in Mesopotamia, associated with extensive temples and palaces. This corresponds well with an ancient Sumerian belief that agriculture, animal husbandry, and weaving were brought to mankind from the sacred mountain Ekur, which was inhabited by Annuna deities, very ancient gods without individual names. Schmidt identified this story as a primeval oriental myth that preserves a partial memory of the emerging Neolithic.[36] It is also apparent that the animal and other images give no indication of organized violence, i.e. there are no depictions of hunting raids or wounded animals, and the pillar carvings generally ignore game on which the society depended, such as deer, in favor of formidable creatures such as lions, snakes, spiders, and scorpions.[8][37][38] Expanding on Schmidt’s interpretation that round enclosures could represent sanctuaries, Gheorghiu’s semiotic interpretation reads Göbekli Tepe’s iconography as a cosmogonic map which would have related the local community to the surrounding landscape and the cosmos.”.[39]

Cathedrals Built on Water: An Institutional View of Religion, Scholastic Discipline, and Civilization
by Robert Wyllie

Civilization involves a widespread belief in ideas, and is actualized through effective discipline. Nietzsche called this ideal basis of Roman civilization, for example, a Begriffsdome or “concept-cathedral” constructed “upon a moving foundation, as it were, on flowing water.”[5] In the less poetical terms of modern sociology, civilization is a social imaginary, broadly including the “images, stories, and legends” shared by large groups of people.[6] The temple typically comes before the city because disciplining a population with a social imaginary drastically lowers the costs of extending and maintaining power. […]

The lesson of Göbekli Tepe is that civilization is cheaper than we once thought. Even without a substantive economic base, or the perfect environmental conditions, a foundationless religious idea is enough to launch a civilizational project. Modern nomads, from sixteenth-century Calvinist radicals with their pamphlets, to twenty-first-century militant Islamists on YouTube and social media, have done the same. Civilizations emerge in effective discipline, which we see in the Reformed consistories’ emphasis on compulsory schooling and the emphasis on new strict school curricula by the Islamic State.

What we see on the news from Syria and Iraq is neither anomalous nor retrograde in any “grand scheme.” To the contrary, it seems possible that Western political tendencies to either underestimate radical Islam (usually on the Left) or essentialize it as Other (usually on the Right) might be related to an inability to understand the religious origins of Western civilization.

The Göbekli Tepe Ruins and the Origins of Neolithic Religion
by Biblical Archaeology Society Staff

The Göbekli Tepe ruins and enclosures—the earliest monumental ritual sites of Neolithic religion and possibly the oldest religion in the world—are causing experts to rethink the origins of religion and human civilization. Until recently, scholars agreed that agriculture and human settlement in villages gave rise to religious practices. The discoveries at the Göbekli Tepe ruins, however, indicate that earlier hunter-gatherer groups that had not yet settled down had already developed complex religious ideas, together with monumental ceremonial sites to practice the sacred communal rituals of Neolithic religion.

Indeed, excavations at the Göbekli Tepe ruins uncovered tens of thousands of animal bones, indicating that many different species—including those depicted on the pillars—were slaughtered, sacrificed and presumably eaten at the site. While it is uncertain to whom these sacrifices were made, it’s possible they were offered to the enclosures’ stylized human pillars that, as some have suggested, may represent priests, deities or revered ancestors in Neolithic religion. Given that human bones were also been found, others believe the Göbekli Tepe ruins may have been a Neolithic burial ground where funerary rituals and perhaps even excarnations were practiced.

The First and Oldest Temple in the World? – Göbekli Tepe
by Bryce Haymond

Probably the biggest indicator that this may have been a temple lies in the fact that there has been no substantial evidence of any settlement at the site – no homes, no trash pits, etc. – the usual markers of human habitation. In other words, this wasn’t a site where people lived, so they must have been doing something else. The dating of the site indicates that the people were nomadic hunter-gatherers, so many archaeologists think that what was likely going on here was some sort of ritual – it was a shrine, or place of worship. This has changed many archeologists’ theories about the beginning of mankind. The history books have stated for a long time that people did not gather together and establish communities or centers of gathering (cities) until agriculture developed, sometime after 9,000 B.C. But this complex shows otherwise, which has provoked lead archaeologist Klaus Schmidt to say, “Our excavations also show it is not a domestic site, it is religious – the world’s oldest temple”6. The interpretation is that “first came the temple, then the city”7. I think Hugh Nibley would have agreed with that argument. Furthermore, Schmidt gives another Nibleyesque statement on the “terrible questions” which these temples were made to answer: “In my opinion, the people who carved [the pillars] were asking themselves the biggest questions of all… What is this universe? Why are we here?”8. It may have been the very rituals that these people were gathering to perform that led them to develop agriculture. Andrew Curry in Science Magazine notes:

Archaeologists once hypothesized that agriculture gave early people the time and food surpluses that they needed to build monuments and develop a rich symbolic vocabulary. But Göbekli Tepe raises the alternative possibility that the need to feed large groups who gathered to build or worship at the huge structures spurred the first steps toward agriculture.9

The site is on the top of a hill/mountain, which is the highest point in that area. We learn from the scriptures and modern revelation that mountains are synonymous with temples. People always ascended to their sanctuaries. As Nibley often said, the temple is the cosmic mountain, the primordial mound or hill. Moses ascended Mount Sinai. Nephi was caught away to a high mountain. The temple has even been referred to as “the mountain of the Lord’s house” (Isa. 2:2). So it is not surprising to find a temple on a high hill.

Evidence indicates that people traveled from great distances to come to the site. Many bone remnants have been found at Göbekli Tepe, indicating that animal sacrifice was performed.10

Klaus Schmidt suspects another reason why this might have been a temple:

Though he has yet to find them, he believes that the first stone circles on the hill of the navel marked graves of important people. Hauptmann’s team discovered graves at Nevali Çori, and Schmidt is reasonably confident that burials lie somewhere in the earliest layers of Göbekli Tepe. This leads him to suspect the pillars represent human beings and that the cult practices at this site may initially have focused on some sort of ancestor worship.11

Indeed, Sean Thomas has said that “human skeletons have been found, in telling positions, which indicate that Gobekli was possibly a funerary complex, a shrine that celebrated the life and death of the hunters”12.

Schmidt has also noted that this was not only the first man-made monument, but “the first manmade holy place” ever built13. Gary Rollefson, another archaeologist from Washington, also agrees – “Certainly it was a major focus for regional celebrations or ritual activity”14. While there are several such ritual sites in the region, Rollefson notes, “Göbekli Tepe’s really the only one with that megatemple approach”15. Schmidt continues, “Here we have the religious center for settlements at least 50 kilometers away… Those were village churches; this is the cathedral on a hill”16. Andrew Collins likewise agrees: “Göbekli Tepe can be described as sacerdotal, in that it was clearly utilised as a place of veneration and perhaps communication with supernatural entities and domains”17.

Uncovering Civilization’s Roots
by Andrew Lawler

Some archaeologists argue that crop irrigation and the resulting food surplus spurred that rise, while others cite the appearance of kings, colonial domination, or spread of a common religion. But the new Ubaid finds add weight to the hypothesis that growing contact among different groups—a so-called interaction sphere—was the spark that eventually ignited the urban revolution. “There is a direct correlation between an increase in cultural interaction and an increase in cultural complexity,” says Harvard archaeologist Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky.

The Beginning of the End for Hunter-Gatherers
by Graham Chandler

Traditionally, theories of the origins of food production have been based on human need: response to population pressures or other causes of resource imbalances. But as studies have advanced, no evidence of resource stress or malnutrition has been found in places where farming has bloomed, fueling new theories and debates.

But there’s little debate that the Neolithic period was truly a time of revolutionary change for humankind, not only in technology and ways of life, but religiously and spiritually. Jacques Cauvin, the late director emeritus of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, a leading scholar of the early Neolithic period in the Near East, called it a complete restructuring of human mentality, expressed in new religious ideas and symbols. Göbekli Tepe was front and center in that timeline.

The Neolithic revolution saw both highly developed religious ideology and mixed farming take a firm hold throughout the Middle East. Cauvin viewed the finds at Göbekli Tepe and the later sites of Çayönü and Nevali Çori as evidence of rooted communities with a religious bent. “We encounter for the first time simultaneous evidence for public buildings and for the collective ceremonies of a religious character that took place in them. These must have served as a strong cement for the psychological cohesion of these sedentary human groups,” he wrote in The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture. “It is also quite probable that they were addressing … a personal divinity.”

As agriculture took root, it had a powerful impact on these religious themes. “It seems probable that at sites such as Göbekli Tepe and ‘Ain Ghazal [an early Neolithic village in Jordan], myths featured protagonists who mediated the hunting/farming dichotomy…,” write David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce.

The switch from pure hunting and gathering to farming was surely a profound change. Says another Neolithic researcher, Peter Bellwood of Australian National University, “There are obviously many aspects of mobile hunter-gatherer society that are antithetical to adoption of the sedentary lifestyle of the cultivator. On top of this, we have the attitudes of the farming and pastoralist societies themselves, often ranked and status-conscious, with whom some of the ethnographic hunter-gatherers have come into contact and by whom many have eventually been encapsulated.”

First came the temple, then the city
by Christopher Seddon

Many of the pillars are carved with bas-reliefs of animals, including snakes, wild boar, foxes, lions, aurochs, wild sheep, gazelle, onager, birds, various insects, spiders, and scorpions. Where sexual characteristics are present, they are always male. The images are large, often life-size, and semi-naturalistic in style. Some pillars exhibit pairs of human arms and hands, suggesting that they represent stylised anthropomorphic beings. However, it is unclear as to whether they represent gods, shamans, ancestors, or even demons. There are also a number of mysterious abstract symbols that have been interpreted as pictograms (Schmidt, 1995; Schmidt, 1998; Schmidt, 2000; Schmidt, 2003; Peters & Schmidt, 2004).

Pictograms are graphic symbols used to convey meaning, often by pictorial resemblance to a physical object. They are widely used in present-day road and other public signage to denote traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, speed cameras, etc. If the Göbekli Tepe symbols were indeed pictograms, then the origins of writing may extend back into the early Neolithic, thousands of years before the appearance of writing systems such as cuneiform and hieroglyphic script.

No traces of houses have been found and there is little doubt that Göbekli Tepe was a ritual centre, possibly the first of its kind anywhere in the world (Schmidt, 1998). Unlike Stonehenge, the people who built Göbekli Tepe lacked a mixed farming economy. This overturned the conventional wisdom that such major projects could only be realised by fully-established farming communities. “First came the temple, then the city”, as Schmidt put it. How are we to interpret this temple?

One possibility is that the animals depicted in the various enclosures are totemic. It could be that the site was frequented by a number of groups, each of which identified itself with a different animal or animals and travelled to the site to perform rituals in its own particular enclosure (Peters & Schmidt, 2004). Another possibility is that Göbekli Tepe was associated with shamanistic practices (Lewis-Williams & Pearce, 2005).

A project on the scale of Göbekli Tepe would have required a large number of labourers and craftsmen. Coordinating the activities of all these people, to say nothing of providing them all with food and shelter, would have been a major undertaking. It should also be remembered that unlike the builders of Stonehenge, the Göbekli Tepe people were still not yet full agriculturalists. Such an undertaking was almost certainly beyond the capabilities of a few shamans and their communities. Instead, it seems likely that the monument was constructed by a hierarchical, stratified society, with powerful rulers. The shamans might have had more in common with priests (Peters & Schmidt, 2004). The link between rulers and religion, so prevalent in later times, might have already started to take shape.

The totemic and shamanistic explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and if the totemic view is correct, then it possible that animals depicted in each enclosure could provide clues as to the origins of particular groups. For example, wild boar depictions predominate in Enclosure C. This suggests a group originating from the north, where pigs account for up to 40 percent of the animal remains found at PPNA sites. Combinations of wild boar with aurochs and cranes, as seen in Enclosure D, suggest an ecotone of steppe and river valley, such as along most water courses in the Euphrates and Tigris drainage regions (Peters & Schmidt, 2004).

All Mixed Up?
by Andy Ornberg

I once read an account by a researcher who spent time with a group of aboriginal people in Australia. He insisted that there was a kind of mental telepathy going on between these people. He noted that there were times he would observe an individual drop what she was doing to respond to a command, summons, etc. she received when no one else was around. The only way this modern westerner could interpret this was to attribute it to telepathy, though it sounded much more to me like they were experiencing command auditory hallucinations ala Jaynes.

The Pirahã and the Bicameral Mind
by Merlijn de Smit

More strangely, the Pirahã have, according to Everett, a strong cultural taboo against talking about anything not within their immediate sphere of experience. No creation myths, or epic stories of any kind – or indeed no art of any kind. And finally entering bizarre territory: according to Everett in his Current Anthropology article, the Pirahã, despite any lack of actual religious belief or myth, do see forest spirits. Meaning, they see forest spirits. Everett recounts being woken from his tent one night by shouting and hollering – and found the whole tribe gathered at the river side, shouting at something on the other side. When Everett inquired what it was they seemed to upset about, the Pirahã incredulously asked whether he could not see the forest spirit that was obviously on the other side.

All of this is far from the “smoking gun” for Jaynes’ hypothesis. Jaynes regarded a total lack of deceit as a hallmark for the “bicameral” mind. The Pirahã seem to be well enough aware of the possibility of being cheated in trade, and, by Everett’s account, are very humorous, joke-loving people. But the apparent restriction of any communication to the immediate sphere of experience, and the actual, externalized perception of forest spirits, rather than imagining them, or divining their workings from inanimate nature, would, if indeed valid, at least bring to mind Jaynes’ thesis.

Mythologizing Landscape
by Andrea Green

Paul Devereux in Symbolic Landscapes (1992) suggests that prehistoric people experienced the landscape in a way alien and inaccessable to contemporary westerners . According to Devereux, prehistoric people were “more easily able to enter trance conditions then we are” (1992: 38) He refers to Julian Jaynes’ theory of the “bicameral brain” – a mode of consciousness that Jaynes ascribes to prehistoric peoples where the brain was “wired” differently and therefore affected sensory perception. (1992: 39) Devereux uses this theory to suggest that the relationship of prehistoric (in this case early bronze age) people with their landscape and environment was experienced through a different consciousness – one which was often hallucinatory and which swapped easily between normal awareness and altered states. In such a state the landscape moved, spoke and gave instructions. The siting and purpose of ritual sites was decided upon through direct communication with the landscape.

Songlines in the City? Hearing the spirit dimension
by Lloyd Fell

Songs and singing are a combination of words and melody – that which separates and that which draws together. Zuckerkandl regarded folk songs and chanting as the most fundamental forms of music because they blend word and tone to integrate our rational and emotional aspects. Purce claimed that using the voice and listening to the sound at the same time enables us to ‘go beyond the dualism of language and separation from the world.’

Jaynes (1990) developed a provocative explanation that consciousness actually originated in ‘the breakdown of the bicameral mind’ which refers to a stage in the evolution of the human brain when the two hemispheres performed distinctly different functions. One side, usually the right hemisphere, produced voices, which directed the other side that controlled speech and conscious thoughts. These were interpreted as voices of the Gods and only as their influence waned did the human responsibility of decision making and reflection that we know as consciousness develop. He argued that the vestiges of this are evident today in the considerable number of people who do hear voices at certain times, in schizophrenia and in the ‘quest for authorisation’ which manifests itself in both religion and science today.

It is widely accepted that brain function is lateralised in that the so-called dominant hemisphere mainly controls speech and rational, linear, thought whereas the other hemisphere is more concerned with creativity, intuition, holistic perception and music. Many anthropologists think that song came before speech in our evolution and Jaynes reviewed evidence that very early poetry (and the voices of the bicameral mind) were invariably sung. There is good evidence that singing requires the opposite brain hemisphere to speaking and that listening to music is also highly lateralised. People with brain lesions that prevent speech can often sing. Jaynes argued that the experience of music is a vestigial operation of the bicameral mind therefore stemming from our historical belief in the sacred Muses.

Musical performance often occurs in groups, sometimes in an improvisatory manner. Improvisation in musical performance has been described as not so much a skill to be developed as ‘the unlearning of habitual patterns of nonawareness and disconnectedness’ (Borgo 1997). The skill of music improvisation is an apt metaphor for the awareness of holonomy in everyday living

Class Confusion and Its Uses

There is an article in the Wall Street Journal that perfectly, albeit unintentionally, captures a common variety of confusion in American thought. The piece is “The ‘Longshoreman Philosopher’ Saw Trump Coming in 1970” by Reuven Brenner. The premise is that in Eric Hoffer’s 1970 essay, Whose Country is America?, he “eerily anticipated not only the political events of 2016 but the tone and language of last year’s campaign and the anti-Trump hysteria since Election day.” Brenner then goes on to blame ‘intellectuals’ for everything

It is completely idiotic. And it’s a propaganda piece. I would simply dismiss it, if not for the fact that the influence of such propaganda is all too real. Because it is pushed by corporate media, it is worth analyzing.

Keep in mind that Brenner is an employee of the Koch-funded Cato Institute, originally called the Charles Koch Foundation, one of the most powerful and influential right-wing think tanks in the world. He also has done work for the Koch-funded Fraser Institute and Shell corporation. Think tank employees are regularly given a platform on corporate media. But beyond that, the ignorance of the piece is maddening. And worst of all, I suspect the author to some degree believes his own bullshit or else believes that pushing such bullshit onto others is good for his personal and professional agenda, which is to say for the agenda of the likes of the Koch brothers and Wall Street Journal. He is apparently a highly sought after intellectual-for-hire, an intelligentsia mercenary.

About Brenner’s assessment quoted above, other people would strongly disagree. Al Hackle wrote that, “If a desire for decency and honesty equates to elitism, if billionaires are the common people — and if someone writing in 1970 to bash the hippy youth, etc., of that era from a pretentiously anti-intellectual (but highbrow!) standpoint was actually foreshadowing the politics of 2016-17 — then this article makes perfect sense.”

I wasn’t familiar with the particular Hoffer essay in question. Brenner begins with this quote from it: “Scratch an intellectual, and you find a would-be aristocrat who loathes the sight, the sound and the smell of the common folk.”

That is plain bizarre on multiple levels, according to the normal definition of ‘intellectual’ (i.e., someone focused on intellectual activity as a career, lifestyle, or identity). I’ll have more to say about this further on, as the usage is apparently highly idiosyncratic. Also, one might suspect, as Matthew Watkins argued, that “I felt like the quoted passages were pieced together to validate the author’s anti-intellectual take on the election.” Well, Hoffer wrote those words almost a half century ago and so probably wasn’t attempting to predict distant future political events. But for the moment, let me take it at face value, in the way Brenner is treating it.

Hoffer is a famous American intellectual, even though he was of the self-taught working class variety (so he claimed; more about that below). This is nothing unusual, considering America has a long history of working class intellectuals. For that reason, it’s strange to hear anti-intellectualism from an intellectual, as if Hoffer worried that there is some kind of shame to being an intellectual and that he wants to defend against any accusation that he too is an intellectual, however he defines it. Stranger still is the fact that this is being quoted by Brenner who has made a long, successful career out of being a professional intellectual, and it’s quoted in an article written for a conservative newspaper that styles itself as highly intellectual (Wall Street Journal not being a low brow publication for the dirty masses). As one commenter put it (Patrick McCafferty), “Define irony: An intellectual essay complaining about the influence of intellectuals and their essays.”

Somehow, these ‘intellectuals’ are all of those other people to be dismissed, presumably the elite left-wingers aspiring to rule the world, bias the media, and propagandize the children. It turns intellectuality into some foreign danger invading the body politic and threatening the Real America of Real Americans, and accordingly this is why Real Americans (what right-wing culture warriors used to proclaim as being the “moral majority”) supposedly voted for and gave a political mandate to Trump. This portrayal of intellectuals, along with the portrayal of the American public, is a caricature in the demented fantasies of right-wing rhetoric. It’s amazing that this attack on intellectuals so often comes from intellectuals themselves, although less surprising when those intellectuals work for right-wing think tanks. One might suspect they are being disingenuous. Anyway, the average non-intellectual doesn’t read either Hoffer or Brenner. These intellectuals attacking other intellectuals, one might argue, are projecting their own sense of disconnection from the rest of the population. It would be amusing, if it weren’t so pathetic, specifically in the case of Brenner (as for Hoffer, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for the moment, since his words are being used for someone else’s purposes).

Let me break down Brenner’s argument:

Hoffer started his analysis with “the conspicuousness of the young”—that is the baby boomers. “They have become more flambouyant, more demanding, more violent, more knowledgeable and more experienced,” he wrote. “The general impression is that nowadays the young act like the spoiled children of the rich.”

Similar accusations had been made toward prior generations of youth, specifically the generations born into the emerging America of industrialization and growing middle class, from the Lost Generation born into consumerism and violence to the Silent Generation born into affluence and a pampered childhood. How can any reasonably informed person not know this? How can such historical amnesia have such persistence?

This lack of basic knowledge is all the more shocking when it comes from intellectuals. Maybe that is what one gets when an intellectual dismisses intellectuality. An anti-intellectual intellectual is a confused person. I might be able to excuse Hoffer because he was a working class autodidact and so his self-education was maybe more random than thorough, just some guy voicing his opinions after reading some books (like me). Brenner, on the other hand, has gained wealth and respect as a formally educated public intellectual. Worse still, Brenner is the elite of the elite, not only a respected thinker promoted and read by the elite but also a college professor and published academic. Even if Hoffer didn’t know better, Brenner should.

A bit further on, Brenner writes that,

The “phenomenal increase of the student population”—enrollment in colleges and universities would more than triple between 1958 and 1978—created a critical mass: “For the first time in America, there is a chance that alienated intellectuals, who see our way of life as an instrument of debasement and dehumanization, might shape a new generation in their own image.”

Actually, the sharp increase in college enrollment began in the 1940s, initially because of the GI Generation returning from war and taking advantage of the cheap college education offered through the GI Bill. Besides that, there were other reasons. The college students from the late 1930s to the mid-to-late 1960s were mostly of the Silent Generation, depending on the years defining that generational cohort. The earliest wave of Boomers hitting colleges didn’t happen until 1964 and it would only have been in the following years when they would have become the majority on campuses. The Silents were the first generation to receive universal public education (it having been made compulsory in the early 1920s) and so the first generation with high rates of high school degrees, a requirement for enrolling in college. They were extremely protected in childhood and, upon reaching adulthood, never had to fight in any major war. Because of the peace and prosperity of the times, more of them were able and could afford to go straight from high school to college.

It’s possible that Hoffer was directing his antagonism more at the Silent Generation than any other. They fit the description of what he was complaining about, as they were the rising vanguard of intellectuals, radicals, activists, and leaders that brought on the tumultuous 1960s — having included such figures as Martin Luther King jr and Malcolm X, Jane Fonda and Wavy Gravy.

Hoffer was of the Lost Generation (according to the birthdate he gave), the generation before the GIs. They were one of the most criticized generations in modern history (the earlier equivalent of Generation X), although largely forgotten now as a cohort. Unlike the Silent Generation, they were not pampered and instead were latchkey kids.

The Lost Generation was known for growing up quick because they had little choice, having been born into a world of mass industrialization and urbanization, of absent parents and broken communities. Most of them spent their childhoods working, rather than in school, and they experienced little parental oversight. They were a precocious lot, the first generation of mass consumers, and possibly the most violent generation America has ever seen. The world they knew as children was rough and chaotic. They were notorious for forming youth gangs in the cities rapidly becoming overcrowded (think of the movie “Gangs of New York” which, although portraying an earlier generation from the mid-19th century, was based on a work written by someone of the Lost Generation, Herbert Asbury). Later on, they were the veterans of WWI who experienced the larger world and came back not just with a cosmopolitan woldliness but also suffering PTSD, alcoholism, and addiction. They were among the most famous gangsters and bootleggers, not to mention among the most famous artists and writers: Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Nucky Johnson, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Aldous Huxley, Norman Rockwell, Grant Wood, George Gershwin, etc (some of the Elliot Ness’ Untouchables were of the same generational cohort). This generation made itself known and notorious during the Roaring Twenties, as I previously described them:

The members of Lost Generation were many things, but respectable they were not. They were immigrants and the children of immigrants, hoboes and migrant workers, gangsters and bank robbers, socialists and anarchists, drunks on Cannery Row and Bonus Army veterans camped out in Washington, DC. The Lost Generation members of my mom’s family in Southern Indiana included moonshiners and moonshine runners. They were born into a rough world, lived rough lives and often had rough endings. They were what the KKK so feared, what the older generation saw as a threat to the American Way.

These younger Americans didn’t have respect for tradition and social order, especially not the young blacks and the young women who demanded equal rights, the women even gaining the right to vote in 1920. It was in this early twentieth century era when the NAACP was founded and when the IWW was organized.

Of course most of that generation were forgotten members of the nameless working class. But even among the working class, radicalism was in the air and the many workers organized to confront the powers that be, sometimes with violent results which usually meant workers getting hurt and killed by the agents of corporate and political power. For example, Hoffer belonged to the militant leftist ILWU that was formed following a 1934 bloody strike and was headed by Harry Bridges, another member of the Lost Generation. The mostly unknown men in that and many other strikes made sacrifices that would benefit the workers who followed them. The good life of later generations, including that of Brenner’s Boomer Generation, was built on their backs. And sadly all that many in the Lost Generation got for their sacrifices was high rates of poverty and short lives. But they paved the way for the better life that would follow in the post-war Boom era.

Interestingly, Hoffer speaks of “alienated intellectuals”. The odd thing is that he gives voice to the alienated intellectual, apparently perceiving himself as a thinker alienated from a new generation of thinkers, which is the source of his complaint. The largely uneducated Lost Generation is famous for its alienated intellectuals. They were also highly critical of American society.

The protests of the 1960s was child’s play compared to the violent rampage of the Lost Generation, a complete overturning of the social order at the beginning of the 20th century. They didn’t just have race protests. They went so far as to have race wars that involved WWI veterans fighting military-style battles on American streets, sometimes leading to hundreds injured and killed along with bombings and the burning down of neighborhoods. That was the origin of the Civil Rights Movement. The labor organizing of that era, not just on the docks where Hoffer worked but also in Appalachian mining communities, was the most ferociously combative in American history. And when the Lost Generation wasn’t involved in that kind of ideological violence, the most dangerous troublemakers among them were committing gang violence and sometimes fighting federal agents. Social conflict at such extremes and violence at such high rates hadn’t been seen at that time since the Civil War. And holy shit were their politics radical, rooted in left-wing ideologies of a working class variety: trade unionism, syndicalism, anarchism, Marxism, communism, socialism, etc. The Lost Generation were extremists in so many ways, particularly on the political left but also on the political right, including some drawn toward fascism.

Maybe more than any other generation, they helped create what modern America has become. Or at the very least, they most starkly represented the societal change that transformed America and the world, whether they are considered a cause or a product of that change.

Continuing his ‘analysis’, Brenner makes further use of Hoffer’s writing:

The problem for society is “that the alienated intellectual does not want to be left alone,” Hoffer wrote. “He wants to influence affairs, have a hand in making history, and feel important.” The country continued to be plagued by problems “like race relations, violence, drugs.” Common people, however, “know that at present money cannot cure crime, poverty, etc., whereas the social doctors go on prescribing an injection of so many billions for every social ailment.”

That is rich. If the likes of Brenner (and presumably Hoffer) had no desire to influence or feel that their existence mattered in the slightest, why all the writing directed at an audience consisting mostly of the educated? It has been mostly intellectuals like Brenner who have read intellectuals like Hoffer. These arguments aren’t to any great degree reaching the lower classes, not that they were ever the intended audience.

Once again, what is most irritating is the historical amnesia. It was the Lost Generation, especially later in life, that did so much to promote big government in throwing large sums of tax money at problems, such as helping to create Social Security and universal public education that helped following generations. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was immensely popular among the that generation and that was decades before the 1960s. And that public spending was funded with the highest tax rate the country had seen before or since.

Many in the Lost Generation, for all the deserved or undeserved blame they got, didn’t want others to have to suffer what they suffered. And because of their sacrifices, they were the last generation of uneducated child labor. They worked hard to ensure their own children and grandchildren could get educated and get good jobs. I doubt many felt nostalgic and morally righteous about their own brutally deprived childhoods. Quite a few of them for damn sure believed in the role of collective action, through government and unions, in ensuring the public good. This is how the American Dream was created, with rise of economic mobility and growth of the middle class promoted through immense government funding for public infrastructure and public programs, World War II vets benefiting most of all in a way that World War I vets never experienced, although life did improve for those of the Lost Generation who lived long enough.

Hoffer, having lived into the 1980s, was a beneficiary of this government funding and progressive economic policies, this political activism and labor organizing. His self-education and writing career was made possible from the high paying job and plenty of free time ensured by the labor union, having been a member of the most powerful leftist union at a time when unions were at their height of power. His retirement was supported through social security along with a union pension. Although he claimed to have wanted neither, he actively sought out filing his application for social security when he was around 40 years old and as a longshoreman he was an actively involved union member.

At an earlier point in his life when he was unemployed and homeless, a police officer directed him to a federal work camp. He spent a month there getting back on his feet. Observing his fellow tramps, his thinking was split between judgment and praise of these lowest of the low, but he had one moment of clarity in realizing that modern capitalism couldn’t do much for these impoverished men in stating that, “less than half the camp inmates (seventy normal, plus ten youths) were unemployed workers whose difficulties would be at an end once jobs were available. The rest (60 per cent) had handicaps in addition to unemployment.” But he didn’t seem to follow this line of thought to explore its implications for the larger society.

Also, he was proud of having made use of public libraries in his self-education, which is to say his supposed self-education was publicly funded. Besides, there are reasons to question the account he gave of his past, as no one has been able to confirm most of it. This is detailed by Thomas Bethell in his book, Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher. Hoffer could speak English, German, and Hebrew. Also, he was familiar with German textbooks on botany and Chemistry. He claims to have taught himself much of this while living in poverty on skid row in Los Angeles. Bethell concludes in one article, “That is hard to believe” (The Mystery of Eric Hoffer). More plausible is that he had received an education at some point and for unknown reasons wanted to keep this past a secret, one explanation being that he was an undocumented immigrant from Germany. As Aram Bakshiam explains, in “The Ultimate Self-Made Man“:

While we will probably never know the true details of his birth and childhood years—most of what he wrote about them was contradictory or unsubstantiated—he clearly was immigrant stock, and quite possibly an immigrant himself. Until his dying day, he spoke with a particular type of thick German accent: southern “Low German” characteristic of Bavaria and Austria, although he claimed that his father was a cabinet maker from Alsace-Lorraine who had settled in the Bronx. No records exist to that effect. His dramatic accounts of childhood blindness, benevolent nurses, and the early deaths of both parents are also unsubstantiated. Indeed, the first documentation of Hoffer himself is his application for a Social Security account, filed in Sacramento, California, on June 10, 1937, when he would have been 38 years old. His pre-California life is thus a matter of speculation, and it is possible—even likely—that he was born in Germany, received some primary and secondary education there, and emigrated to America on his own as a young man, “jumping ship” without papers and heading pretty quickly to the West Coast.

Despite his expressed anti-intellectualism and attacks on the more educated younger generation, the same year he wrote “Whose Country is America?” (1970) he also “endowed the Lili Fabilli and Eric Hoffer Laconic Essay Prize for students, faculty, and staff at the University of California, Berkeley” (Wikipedia). And that was at a time when Berkely was almost entirely funded by government, as compared to only 14% public funding today.

So, it’s not clear who were the intellectuals he was attacking. He had weird notions about intellectuals. This is made clear by reading his 1970 essay, Whose Country Is America? Having not read it previously, I gave it a perusal. I can see why Brenner decided to use it. The piece is still relevant, although for reasons Brenner doesn’t understand or for reasons Brenner would rather others not understand. The same confusion that Hoffer espouses remains common to this day among too many Americans. Still, it’s quite telling in the ways that Brenner misreads and falsely portrays Hoffer’s views. In the last half of Brenner’s article, he explains what he considers to be Hoffer’s accurate prediction:

It’s a warning that affluence condemns younger generations to political decline unless institutional checks and balances, combined with education for civic responsibility, are rigorously preserved.

That is a highly deceptive paraphrasing of the original argument. It is true that Hoffer targets affluence as problematic. But what a plutocratic apologist like Brenner won’t acknowledge is that Hoffer was aiming his sights on the plutocracy. In Brenner’s conclusion he quotes Hoffer as concluding that, “We must deflate the pretensions of self‐appointed elites. These elites will hate us no matter what we do, and it is legitimate for us to help dump them into the dust bin of history.” What is left out is that he is talking about the moneyed elite, not just the educated elite, Hoffer having intentionally conflated the two in his argument. The elite that is being referred to is the aspiring technocrats of inherited wealth who, in seeking global influence (specifically referring to foreign aid), “hanker for the trappings of the 20th century. They want steel mills, airlines, skyscrapers, etc.” It’s a vision of industrialized corporatism. Today we would see in this the agenda of neoliberal globalization and neocon imperialism, the kind of thing Brenner fully supports.

Brenner is a joke. There is no need to take his ideas seriously, even as his intentions are deadly serious. He isn’t making an honest argument. But Hoffer is more problematic for his argument is earnest in its honest attempt at persuasion, genuinely believing what he is expressing. Still, I want to be clear that the moral faults of Brenner shouldn’t be projected onto Hoffer. The latter hated the likes of the former. There is good reason to doubt there would have been any friendship or kindness between those two, if they had ever met. Now I want to take Hoffer on his own terms, considering where he was coming from in his views and exploring what he meant by ‘intellectuals’.

It’s not clear what were Hoffer’s ultimate political commitments. In his writings, there are many thoughts expressed, not all of them fully articulated or consistent. But I feel confident that, for all of his complaints about what some might call the liberal class or bourgeoisie, he was far from standard American conservatism. As someone who personally preferred lovemaking to marriage, he stated in no uncertain terms that, “Lovemaking is radical, while marriage is conservative.” And he was equally clear about religion: “Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.” He was no culture warrior seeking to defend religious morality and family values.

About ‘intellectuals’, it was simultaneously more narrow and more broad than how most Americans would use the word, at least in present usage. He wrote that, “In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” Yet, speaking of himself a couple of year before his death, he referred to himself as learned: “I have written learnedly on the nature of creative milieus” (Last Notebook, September 25, 1981; quoted in Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher by Tom Bethell, p. 248). So, who exactly are the ‘learned’? It’s not entirely clear, since being learned apparently can be either a good or bad condition. Otherwise, we must assume that he was criticizing himself in his old age, implying that in having become learned he had found himself “beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” That latter interpretation is a real possibility. There is a note of nostalgia in some of his writing.

As he distinguishes being a learner and being learned, he doesn’t see all of intellect and intellectual activity as the sole proprietorship of the intelligentsia. Taken from an interview by Calvin Tomkins published in New Yorker, Penn Kemble offers this quote by Hoffer (On Eric Hoffer): “Every longshoreman thinks he could write a book if he tried—and it is true, he probably could… Every intellectual thinks that talent, that genius is a rare exception. Talent and genius have been wasted on an enormous scale throughout our history; this is all I know for sure.” This could be taken as humility. After all, he was a longshoreman who thought he could write a book if he tried and successfully did so. Still, it is an exaggeration. It is highly improbable that many longshoreman ever have such thoughts. As far as I can tell, most people in general have no aspiration to write a book, not even as a casual possibility.

Hoffer was just making a point, basically declaring the intelligentsia to be condescending. And no doubt this would accurately describe some of those in the intelligentsia, especially at a time when being an intellectual meant being part of a clearly defined and confined class. But these days, it sounds strange. Intellectuals are dime a dozen in the world right now, most of them not being part of the upper classes, much less a real or aspiring ruling elite. I live in a town where large proportion of the working class is ‘learned’, in that they have college degrees. When Hoffer was a young man, having a college degree meant a lot more than it means now.

It still seems strange. All of his writings were written fairly late in his life, his first book True Believer having been published in 1951 which was more than a half century after his birth in the late 19th century. His strident harping on intellectuals came in the following decades. The piece that Brenner quotes was written by Hoffer as an old man in his 70s. In those decades of his late life writing career, college education was becoming more common and far from being limited to the economically well off. He lived to see a large portion of several generations having moved from working class to middle class by going to college. Even though he acknowledged this new affluence as a key factor in what he perceived as fraying the moral fiber of society, he continued to think of higher education in purely class terms, as if most college students were still the children of the plutocracy. His observations and condemnations lagged behind changing realities.

Something just occurred to me. He is giving voice to the complaints that were made during his own childhood and young adulthood, although a slightly different context. Jackson Lears discusses this in Rebirth of a Nation, the relevant passage to be found in a post of mine from a few months ago (Juvenile Delinquents and Emasculated Males). As rural life came to an end and a new generation was being urbanized, there was a sudden fear about the loss of rites of passage that were supposedly provided by farming, fishing, and hunting. It was a fear of immaturity and emasculation, that boys wouldn’t grow up to be real men (nor girls real women). As Lears put it, “for many other observers, too many American youths—especially among the upper classes—had succumbed to the vices of commerce: the worship of Mammon, the love of ease.” This seems to be what Hoffer means when he speaks of ‘intellectuals’, the anxious transition toward deindustrialization having followed closely after the anxious transition toward post-rural industrialization. In “Whose Country is America?”, he writes:

In the past, breakdowns of value affected mainly the older segment of the population. This was true of the breakdown of the Graeco‐Roman civilization, of the crisis that gave birth to the Reformation, and of the periods of social disintegration that preceded the French, the Russian and the Nazi revolutions. That our present crisis particularly affects the young is due partly to the fact that widespread affluence is robbing a modem society of whatever it has left of puberty rites to routinize line attainment of manhood. Never before has the passage from boyhood to manhood been so difficult and explosive. Both the children of the well‐to‐do and of families on welfare are prevented from having a share in the world’s work and of proving their manhood by doing a man’s work and getting a man’s pay. Crime in the streets and insolence on the campus are sick forms of adolescent self‐assertion. The young account for an ever‐increasing percentage of crimes against persons and property. The peak years for crimes of violence are 18 to 20, followed by the 21 to 24 age group.

He talks about this as if it were a new phenomenon or else a new phase in an ongoing phenomenon. I wonder if was unaware that these exact same charges were made against his own generation. This shift had been going for centuries as urbanization progressed, but the same complaints were probably heard in the first city-states millennia ago. Certainly, there was rising crime rates centuries ago when, because of land enclosure, unemployed landless peasants crowded into cities. And there was a severe spike of youth violence in Hoffer’s own generation at the beginning of the 20th century, caused by rapid urbanization, mass immigration, and high rates of childhood lead toxicity. But overall violence and crime had been decreasing across history, as Steven Pinker pointed out with the Moral Flynn Effect. Nonetheless, I will give Hoffer credit for understanding that there is a larger historical context that needs to be considered, for a few paragraphs on he adds:

THE contemporary blurring of childhood is not unprecedented. During the Middle Ages, children were viewed and treated as miniature adults. Nothing in medieval dress distinguished the child from the adult. The moment children could walk and talk they entered the adult world, and took part in the world’s work. In subsequent centuries, the concept of childhood became more clearly defined. Yet even as late as 1835 schoolbooks in this country made no concession to childhood in vocabulary or sophistication. Child labor, so widely practiced in the first half of the 19th century, and which we find abhorrent, was not totally anomalous in a society that did not have a vivid view of childhood as a sheltered, privileged age.

To counteract an old man’s tend ency to snort at the self‐important young, I keep reminding myself that until the middle of the 19th century the young acted effectively as members of political parties, creators of business enterprises, advocates of new philosophical doctrines and leaders of armies. Most of the wars that figure in our history books were fought by teenagers. ‘There were 14‐year‐old lieutenants in Louis XIV’s armies. In one of his armies the oldest soldier was under 18. The middle aged came to the fore with the Industrial Revolution. The experience and capital necessary to make an industrialist required a long apprenticeship. One might say that from the middle of the 19th to the middle of the 20th century the world was run by and for the middle‐aged. The post industrial age seems to be groping its way back to an immemorial situation interrupted by the Industrial [Revolution?].

That is a thousand more times interesting than how Brenner filters the argument down into simplistic ideological rhetoric. It reminds me of a number of things. Daniel Everett observed that the Amazonian Piraha lack any extended childhood and adolescence with no stage of life involving tantrums or rebellion, just a straight and immediate transition into adulthood following toddlerhood. Research has found that, under stressful conditions, biological including neurocognitive development happens at a faster rate (related to this, Adam Smith argued for universal public education precisely for the reason that he predicted repetitive labor would stunt cognitive development, which is confirmed by this research showing stress-related premature development correlates to constrained development, meaning that earlier maturation comes at the cost of human potential). That is surely the case with the Piraha with the dangerous environment they live in and the corresponding high rate of child mortality, such conditions demanding early maturity which Everett noted in the greater physical ability of Piraha children. The same would have been true for childhood prior to modern public education and health concerns. For most children in the Western world until the GI Generation, they had to grow up fast often for the sake of survival. A kid who didn’t mature rapidly would have a low survival rate while working on a farm, in a mine, or in a factory. That was the reality for most children until child labor laws.

Hoffer doesn’t make it clear, but the issue of concern isn’t merely ‘intellectuals’. The comfortable intellectual class along with college students are symbolic in his mind of the growing affluence of society in general and so indicative of the worsening anxiety about what the changes mean. That said, his claim is absurd in arguing that the younger generations are acting out delayed adolescence in fighting for basic human rights. There is an element of truth that affluence makes social progress possible. The desperately poor and disenfranchised often have a harder time challenging entrenched power. The American colonists, for example, were able to successfully revolt partly because they were one of the most free and affluent populations in the world at that time. It takes immense resources (human, economic, and natural) to support such a collective action against centralized authority, even when it was as distant as was the seat of British imperial power. But it is pointless and unfair to complain about people who choose to seek betterment for themselves and their society when the opportunity arises. This is particularly the case for someone like Hoffer who took advantage of such a time of affluence, fought for by others, that allowed him to work shorter hours for greater pay in order to have the freedom to write and get published such intellectual arguments.

I find it hard to follow the line of his thought. He sees a modern industrial society as inevitably aligned with the middle class. But he doesn’t seem to mean the struggling and aspiring lower middle class of the upwardly mobile American Dream, many having been of the working class not long before. Maybe he is primarily speaking of the upper middle class professionals, the segment of the middle class that had been fairly stable for many generations at that point. Such stability is what is required for an intelligentsia to form, what he simply refers to as ‘intellectuals’. The argument, from what I can tell, is that affluence has made this upper middle class too stable and secure, and so utterly disconnected from the working class that they look down upon. There is some kind of loss of what originally motivated the middle class and fueled the Industrial Revolution, as a post-industrial age takes over and indeed in that 1970 piece he already saw America as becoming post-industrial, whatever that meant to him at that time.

It’s as Hoffer continues with his piece that he goes from being a crotchety old man to a mad visionary of fevered dreams. Listen to him here:

In this country, the coming of the postindustrial age may mean the loss of all that made America new—the only new thing in the world. America will no longer be the common man’s continent. The common people of Europe eloped with history to America and have lived in common‐law marriage with it, unhallowed by the incantations of “men of words.” But the elites are finally catching up with us. We can hear the swish of leather as saddles are heaved on our backs. The intellectuals and the young, booted and spurred, feel themselves born to ride

What the fuck! It’s an amusing image, but it’s plain nonsense. When did the common man control all of American society? When the Constitution was put into place, only a few percentage of Americans could vote, hold public office, or participate in any way. Most blacks were enslaved, Native Americans were still experiencing genocide, most women didn’t even have the most basic rights, and even the vast majority of white men were disenfranchised. This has always been a country of a ruling elite, even as some Americans were always seeking to escape to the frontier to get beyond their reach.

What Hoffer probably had in mind was the sweet deal he had in one of the rare highly democratic labor unions in the country where workers had control over their own fates. As for most other Americans at the time, they had little control at all and neither did their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. In America, when the common man fought the elite, I can promise you the common man rarely won that fight. Legalized slavery through chain gangs, oppression in diverse forms, and political disenfranchisement continued well into the 20th century. Hoffer’s latter years were spent in one of those rare places and times in American history, far from being representative of what most Americans had experienced. And the freedom that Hoffer was given freely by his fellow union members was bought for with generations of their sweat, blood, and tears. It was a heavy price to pay for that small amount of freedom for a small part of the population and even that would be lost as unions came under attack near the end of his life. He took a lot for granted.

He continues:

The phenomenal increase of the student population is shaping the ‘attitudes and aspirations of the young. There are now more students in America than farmers. For the first time in America, there is a chance that alienated intellectuals, who see our way of life as an instrument of debasement and dehumanization, might shape a new generation in their own image. The young’s sympathy for the Negro and the poor goes hand in hand with an elitist conceit that pits them against the egalitarian masses. They will fight for the Negro and the poor, but they have no use for common folk who work and moonlight to take care of their own. They see a free‐wheeling democracy as a society stupefied by “the narcotic of mass culture.” They reserve their wrath for the institutions in which common people are most represented: unions, Congress, the police and the Army. Professor Edgar Z. Friedenberg thinks that “elitism is the great and distinctive contribution students are making to American society.” Democracy is for the dropouts; for the elite, an aristocratic brotherhood.

Holy fuck! What was this guy smoking? He seems to think being educated is a bad thing, the doom of America. Besides, it’s not like students killed all the farmers and feasted upon their blood. Many of those first generation of college students had been raised on farms. Their uneducated parents wanted them to get a college degree and do better. Considering that Hoffer comes off sounding like an alienated intellectual, his whole ranting jeremiad is rather misguided.

Even more unforgivable, he dismisses everyone who is not like him as being allowed membership into the “common folk”. Minorities aren’t common folk. The poor aren’t common folk. The young aren’t common folk. And anyone who aspires above the most basic manual labor isn’t common folk. I guess only older whites with little education but well paid unionized workers like Hoffer who hate mass culture are common folk. If so, these idealized common folk aren’t all that common. It’s disturbing to learn that all of the major institutions of American society (unions, Congress, the police and the Army, not to mention democracy itself) don’t represent minorities, the poor, the young, the educated, dropouts, the elite, or anyone else who doesn’t precisely share Hoffer’s demographic profile. I suppose I’m fine with excluding the aristocrats, but I don’r run into too many of them these days.

He preaches that, “For those who want to be left alone to realize their capacities and talents, this is an ideal country.” As he wrote those words, poor minorities were being ghettoized, working class white communities were falling into poverty and despair, an entire generation was once again being poisoned with lead toxicity, the police were being militarized to target the lower classes, his beloved unions were under attack, the government was destroying grassroots movements with oppressive COINTELPRO, a hopeless war in Vietnam was being fought and pointlessly killing so many in the process, several inspiring leaders had been assassinated, and one of the most corrupt leaders in US history was president. All he had to do was open his eyes and clean the wax out of his ears. His ideal society was in shambles.

He further lambasts the ‘intellectual’:

The trouble is, of course, that the alienated intellectual does not want to be left alone. He wants to be listened to and be taken seriously. He wants to influence affairs, have a hand in making history, and feel important. He is free to speak and write as he pleases, and can probably make himself heard and read more easily than one who would defend America. But he can neither sway elections nor shape policy. Even when his excellence as a writer, artist, scholar, scientist or educator is generally recognized and rewarded he does not feel himself part of the power structure. In no other country has there been so little liaison between men of words and the men of action who exercise power. The body of intellectuals in America has never been integrated with or congenial to the politicians and business men who make things happen. Indeed, the uniqueness of modem America derives in no small part from the fact that America has kept intellectuals away from power and paid little attention to their political [opinions].

The nineteen‐sixties have made it patent that much of the intellectual’s dissent is fueled by a hunger for power. The appearance of potent allies—militant blacks and students —has emboldened the intellectual to come out into the open. He still feels homeless in America, but the spectacle of proud authority, in cities and on campuses, always surrendering before threats of violence, is to him a clear indication that middle‐class society is about to fall apart, and he is all set to pick up the pieces.

There is no doubt that in our permissive society the intellectual has far more liberty than he can use; and the more his liberty and the less his capacity to make use of it, the louder his clamor for power—power to deprive other people of liberty.

Martin Luther King, jr was an alienated intellectual. There were many people who had sought higher education to improve themselves and to better their life circumstances. That has always been a core element to American society, the aspiration for something more. Hoffer is correct in a sense that such people aspiring didn’t merely want to be left alone. They wanted freedom and opportunity to act. They wanted to be treated as full citizens as part of a functioning democratic society. They wanted to participate in civic society and to feel like they belonged. They wanted to be able to give their children what they had not been given. I doubt even Hoffer merely wanted to be left alone. His unionized job gave him far more than that. Most other Americans simply wanted what Hoffer had and took for granted. Getting a college education hardly gave most people entry into the intellectual elite. Hoffer sounds resentful of the younger generations for being given opportunities of higher education he had maybe been denied when he was younger, even though such new opportunities were still rather limited. The generations following his own were hardly living the high life. Most Americans of all generations continued to have rather basic lives, their greatest achievements maybe involved owning a house and affording to take vacations, no different than what was available to Hoffer.

It is odd that he felt so threatened by ‘intellectuals’. To this day, most people with higher education don’t have much power in our society. It’s the plutocracy of politicians and businessmen who go to Ivy League colleges and dominate American society. Even the average college professor or teaching assistant is far from being part of the ruling elite, especially as universities become increasingly dependent on private funding from wealthy benefactors and corporate interests. Sure, intellectuals could express their dissent and lend their voice to protest movements, but the intellectuals of recent history ended up having less impact than the intellectuals from earlier in our country’s history, from the American Revolution to the Civil War. The only way intellectuals can gain power is to become part of the political class or get hired by a corporate think tank, as did Brenner. Obviously, Hoffer had no idea where the country was heading, from his limited vantage point from a half century ago.

A bit further on, his tirade goes into yet more strange territory:

AN interesting peculiarity of present‐day dissenting intellectuals is their lack of animus toward the rich. They are against the Government, the Congress, the Army and the police, and against corporations and unions, but hardly anything is being said or written against “the money changers in the temple,” “the economic royalists,” “the malefactors of great wealth” and “the maniacs wild for gold” who were the butt of vituperation in the past. Indeed, there is nowadays a certain rapport between the rich and the would‐be revolutionaries. The outlandish role the rich are playing in the affluent society is one of the surprises of our time. Though the logic of it seems now fairly evident, I doubt whether anyone had foreseen that affluence would radicalize the upper rich and the lowest poor and nudge them toward an alliance against those in the middle. What ever we have of revolution just now is financed [by?] the rich.

I didn’t know that present-day intellectuals lacked animus toward the rich. Apparently, there were quite a few intellectuals who weren’t told about this. Besides inspiring leaders like MLK, there were college-educated radicals such as Fred Hampton and academics such as Chomsky. There has been a long tradition of American intellectuals with less than friendly attitudes toward the problems of concentrated wealth and plutocracy. That has been a major driving force of a strain of American intellectuality over the centuries and directed at diverse guilty parties: British monied interests, Southern aristocrats, wealthy slaveholders, war profiteers, large landholders, those of inherited wealth, Robber Barons, etc. These intellectual critics of the rich have come from diverse backgrounds, from various degrees of education to various levels of socioeconomic class.

It’s extremely hard to figure out what Hoffer is going on about. Who are these “the money changers in the temple,” “the economic royalists,” “the malefactors of great wealth” and “the maniacs wild for gold”? If these plutocrats and moneyed interests aren’t in any aspect of government or business, then what are they doing and where did the wealth come from? He is being intellectually vague and evasive. The target of his ire appears to be an apparition of his imagination. What the heck is a revolution financed by the rich who aren’t involved in either the public sphere or the private economy? Is he suggesting that the Civil Rights movement, anti-war protests, Black Panthers, etc are all being secretly funded by a plutocratic conspiracy against the middling but uneducated common folk? And what is this radicalism that he speaks of? Is he not including the labor union he belonged to, one of the most radical in US history? Why is the radicalism that has benefited him personally not included in his criticisms?

More along these lines, he explains this radicalism:

Moreover, the radicalized rich have radical children. There is no generation gap here. The most violent cliques of the New Left are made up of the children of the rich. The Weathermen…have not a member with a workingman’s back ground. The behavior of the extremist young makes sense when seen as the behavior of spoiled brats used to instant fulfillment who expect the solutions to life’s problems to be there on demand. And just as in former days aristocratic sprigs horse whipped peasants, so at present the children of the rich are riding rough shod over community sensibilities. The rich parents applaud and subsidize their revolutionary children, and probably brag about them at dinner parties.

I don’t know of many in the New Left that came out of wealthy elite. There were many radicals and activist that came out of the middle class, including the lower middle class. That has always been true, partly because the middle class have more time and resources for political involvement. Still, it would be false to say that the working class weren’t involved as well. He seems aware of this when in this same piece he wrote that, “affluence would radicalize the upper rich and the lowest poor,” unless he is arguing that the working class and the working poor are two separate groups with the latter somehow being radically aligned with the plutocracy, which would be a kooky argument to make. I’m not sure how affluence radicalizes the lowest poor who lack affluence more than anyone else. There is absolutely no logical consistency and coherence to this meandering line of thought. His mind is all over the place.

Let me get at some specifics. Even where it’s clear what he means, it is far from justified. Take his claim that, “The Weathermen…have not a member with a workingman’s back ground.” That is patently false. I don’t know the background of all the members of the Weather Underground, but some of them were from the working class, such as Terry Robbins having been raised by a single father who was a factory worker and Naomi Jaffe having grown up on a small family farm. The New Left, like the Old Left, included many from the working class. As with MLK, the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton sought to organize the working class of all races and ethnicities in what was called the Rainbow Coalition. Hampton reached out to the working class white groups such as the Young Patriots, the kind of people who didn’t have the protection and representation of labor unions as did Hoffer. These working poor whites felt immense gratitude in being acknowledged and included by the Black Panthers, as they had been ignored and dismissed by mainstream society.

Like so many other respectable people at the time, Hoffer shows little understanding of these people and this is in spite of his once having had known poverty. His own words make clear the disconnection from the common folk that he projects onto supposedly wealthy intellectuals. In his comfortable older age made possible by the working class activism of his labor union, he forgot what it meant to be poor. He makes the odd assertion that, “It is remarkable that common people are aware of this fact. They know that at present money cannot cure crime, poverty, etc., whereas the social doctors go on prescribing an injection of so many billions for every social ailment.” Well, he must not have been talking to many common folk when he wrote those words in 1970. Yet he occasionally comes close to understanding, before flitting away back to his perch of middle class identity:

The diffusion of affluence has accelerated the absorption of the majority of workingmen into the middle class. The unemployable poor, left behind, feel isolated and ex posed, and it is becoming evident that a middle‐class society, which hugs the conviction that everyone can take care of himself, is singularly inept in helping those who cannot help themselves. If the rich cannot feel rich in an affluent society, the poor have never felt poorer.

What is left out is the large numbers of working poor. This population was the majority for most of American history. The middle class did briefly grow larger, but the working poor have never been small in number and they are returning to their predominance in our society. Hoffer doesn’t seem to realize the highly unusual and precarious nature of the temporary economic boom that made a large middle class possible after World War II. He acts like the working poor have disappeared from the world, based on an assumption that the only poor people remaining are those unable or unwilling to work. Yet most poor people continued to work what jobs they could find, although it is true that some turned to the black market for a source of income. Heck, when Hoffer was poor, he also turned to the black market of odd jobs. How did he come to lose this awareness of the lives of the working poor? Talk about disconnection of an extreme variety.

After imagining the working poor out of existence, he goes back to his routine of blaming the ‘intellectuals’:

I have yet to meet an intellectual who truly believes that common people can govern themselves and run things without outstanding leaders. In the longshore men’s union the intellectuals have a nervous breakdown anytime a common, barely literate longshoreman runs for office and gets elected.

He says this about the union he belonged to, the ILWU. What made it unique is that it broke free from another union that the workers perceived as corrupt. They formed the ILWU to be more democratic with little hierarchy to separate the union leaders from the union members, such as disallowing high salaries. Those supposed intellectuals had spent their lives making sacrifices and had participated in bloody strikes. These union leaders and activists were far less disconnected from the realities on the ground than apparently was Hoffer. And where does his moral high ground come from? He was an active member of the union, but he never sought a leadership position or to volunteer on behalf of his fellow workers. No one was keeping him from being more involved and having greater influence. Instead, he chose to spend the freedom that the union made possible to pursue his intellectual ambitions. That is as it should have been. The freedom given to him was a good thing. But maybe he should have shown more appreciation and gratitude.

Like his definition of an intellectual, his view on socioeconomic classes was a bit unusual. But the confusion is maybe more common than in a country like this. The class order has been constantly shifting for the entirety of American history. So, I’m not sure what to think of Hoffer’s ideas about class. Seven years earlier in 1963, he wrote another piece titled The Role of the Undesirables. He uses a similar class breakdown and yet his conclusion has a slightly different emphasis compared to his 1970 analysis.

In both cases, 1963 and 1970, he seems to conflate the working class with the middle class, portraying the extremes at the top and bottom as something else entirely. But in the 1963 piece, he refers to them as the best and the worst, which I guess portrays the amalgamated working-middle class as mediocre — stating that the “inert mass of a nation is in its middle section” and that, apparently in an inert state of impotence or apathy, “are worked upon and shaped by minorities at both extremes: the best and the worst.” He is uncertain about whether he should blame or praise the broad middle section of workers, even though he idealizes the work that he claims that only they do, the very work that supports and pays for all of society including the lifestyles of the presumably nonworking rich and poor. Yet as he argues in 1970, the affluence has made the middle class flabby and indolent. Does this mean the affluence has lifted them up into the lazy upper class? As for intellectuals, he never is clear about whether to entirely blame them on the upper class or to share some of the blame with the middle class. Where else are the increasing number of college students to come from other than the growing middle class?

In Hoffer’s vision of class order, specifically as it relates to the moral order, inertness is the rhetorical opposite of action. He often speaks of men of action. Like so much else in Hofferian thought, it’s not clear about the quality or value of such things. Businessmen and politicians are often portrayed as ultimate men of action, but also leaders of mass movements (True Believer, p. 115). On the other hand, the rich and intellectuals are defined as being men of leisure, no matter how much they may long for power over others. You’d think that this is praise of capitalist system where men of action dominate, but his take on capitalism is nuanced:

It is probably true that business corrupts everything it touches. It corrupts politics, sports, literature, art, labor unions and so on. But business also corrupts and undermines monolithic totalitarianism. Capitalism is at its liberating best in a noncapitalist environment.
(“Thoughts of Eric Hoffer, Including: ‘Absolute Faith Corrupts Absolutely,'” in The New York Times Magazine, 25 April 1971, p. 50)

Now that is a unique view of capitalism. There is an implied corollary conclusion: Capitalism is at its liberating worst in a capitalist environment. That is to say that capitalism only leads to freedom when it doesn’t dominate. So, one would think that the moment one is free capitalism should be quickly limited and powerfully regulated, lest it becomes a new force of corruption. Just because the businessman avoids the moral failing of leisure and laziness doesn’t mean that being a man of action necessarily leads to moral worth and excellence. Men of action are only made worthy in their capacity to build and contribute, even the most lowly men forced into action by circumstances. As a writer and an intellectual, Hoffer still sought his identity as a manual laborer, one who does productive work. Any other kind of action was suspect. So, the worker needed to distinguish himself from the intellectuals, including the intellectuals in union leadership, even when those intellectuals had worked their way up from mere laborers. And workers as men of action are in opposition to managers as men of action, when their action was merely to manage workers doing the real work. It’s an almost left-wing idealization of the worker minus any clear left-wing ideology.

Penn Kemble, in On Eric Hoffer, offers this quote:

To the eternal workingman management is substantially the same whether it is made up of profit seekers, idealists, technicians, or bureaucrats. The allegiance of the manager is to the tasks and the results. However noble his motives, he cannot help viewing the workers as a means to an end. He will always try to get the most out of them; and it matters not whether he does it for the sake of profit, for a holy cause, or for the sheer principle of efficiency. . . . Our sole protection lies in keeping the division between management and labor obvious and matter-of-fact. We want management to manage the best it can, and the workers to protect their interests the best they can. No social order will seem to us free if it makes it difficult for the worker to maintain a considerable degree of independence from management. The things which bolster this independence are not utopian. Effective labor unions free movement over a relatively large area, a savings account, a tradition of individual self-respect—these are some of them.

Management is to be kept in its place, serving its limited role and leaving workers alone. That describes how his labor union operated, as employment and specific work opportunities were directly controlled by the union, not management. He has the left-wing mistrust of management. And he goes so far as to see business as a corrupting force. Yet it is the intellectual who is most easily corrupted. In a 1967 interview by CBS’s Eric Sevareid, Hoffer explained:

First of all, I ought to tell you I have no grievance against the intellectual. All I know about the intellectuals is what I read in history and how I saw them perform. And I’m convinced that the intellectual, as a type, as a group, are more corrupted by power than any other human type. It’s disconcerting, Mr. Sevareid, to realize that businessmen, generals even, soldiers, men of action are not corrupted by power like intellectuals.

Here is how I make sense of this. Men of action have the power to corrupt. But it is men of leisure who are prone to corruption. I presume that is the fear of the middle class transitioning from a bourgeoisie working class to a bourgeoisie leisure class. And I presume that is why colleges are to be seen as potential sites of corruption, for that is where a new generation of wealthier intellectuals is born out of the middle class. Or something like that. As such, the only saving grace of society is the work of the working class, which he calls the middle class. This is why he argues for work being instated as a rite of passage for the young generation, to ensure they turned into proper adults, rather than lingering in extended adolescence. The proposal in question seems to be some kind of work program for social uplift, by keeping the middle class grounded in the working class out of which it emerged. Yet he acknowledges this situation was a creation of a middle class industrialized society and so the fate of a post-industrial society is far from hopeful.

I’m attempting to clarify what Hoffer himself never quite made clear. His thought had too many loose strands. Like his mysterious past, his criticisms of society and his moral vision maybe doesn’t quite add up. It feels like he is attempting some kind of balancing act with no specific point of balance. The poor and the rich don’t work. But the middle class that is the working class has become inert and is in danger of no longer producing men of action. These men of action are needed, even as they are inevitably corrupting. They are still better than the men of inaction who are simply corrupted. The problem is that action is motivated by work toward affluence, but that affluence undermines society. Everything is constantly under threat of becoming something else and so the whole precarious order breaks down. His intellectual philosophizing was formed out of and made possible by the radical activism of trade unionism, even as he denigrated both intellectuality and radicalism. Praise becomes criticism and criticism becomes praise. His thoughts go round and round without quite cohering into a whole.

All of this makes it easy to cherrypick quotes from Hoffer’s decades of writings and take his life experience out of context. His lack of clarity is a product of our confused society. And so it makes for useful fodder in justifying the muddled rhetoric about the social order, as long as one ignore the inconvenient parts of his thought. That is how such an odd thinker can end up being used by a think tank intellectual in a Wall Street Journal propaganda piece.

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The Right’s Working-Class Philosopher
by Peter Cole, Jacobin

He was a frequent guest on network television, often praising conservative politicians like then-California Governor Ronald Reagan. In his first and most influential book, The True Believer, Hoffer criticized mass movements of all stripes, especially communism, and lauded the government’s containment policy.

Yet Hoffer was a walking contradiction. Despite his rightist politics, Hoffer belonged not just to the country’s most powerful leftist union, the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU), but its most militant local, the San Francisco Bay Area’s Local 10.

The central paradox of Hoffer’s life is even more striking because it was precisely the left-wing militancy of the ILWU that provided him the good fortune (yes, fortune) and time to write nearly a dozen books and hundreds of articles condemning radicalism, civil rights, and the social advances of the 1960s. […]

In a real sense, sailors and dockers were the world’s first proletarians, toiling under corporate-controlled shipping lines in the first global industry. And like some of the pirates of yesteryear, the ILWU had created a system that spread the wealth among all its members.

In addition to this largesse, Hoffer also benefited from the tremendous flexibility ILWU members had won. In essence, rank and filers could decide when — and if — they wanted to work on a particular day. He also had the advantage of location: While there were no guarantees of a ship to work, San Francisco had long been the largest and busiest port on the coast.

All Hoffer had to do to maintain his union membership was report to the hall a certain number of days each quarter, attend monthly meetings, and pay his union dues. Thus, the “longshore philosopher” could work three days a week, write the other days, and know that he would get dispatched when he showed up at the hall. Or, he could work six straight days and take a week off to think and write, as he often did. And if that didn’t provide him enough latitude, union members like Hoffer could decide that they wanted to work in another ILWU-controlled port.

It was into this union that Hoffer stumbled, making (for a writer) an incredibly soft landing. He then proceeded to lambast the politics of the Left that had made his life so rich in money, safety, and workplace power.

Hoffer deeply appreciated the working conditions created by his powerful union, calling them “millennial” on numerous occasions. Yet he refused to praise the union and its leftist leadership, including President Harry Bridges. Bridges and the ILWU membership were highly critical of US foreign policy, especially its military interventions in Asia.

As a result of their politics, hundreds — perhaps thousands — of ILWU members were investigated for “communist sympathies.” Bridges himself was likely the single most persecuted labor leader during the McCarthy era — both by the government and a rightward-shifting CIO, which expelled the ILWU in 1950. However, he survived due to the tremendous loyalty of ILWU members, most of whom were not communists but almost all of whom loved what Harry and the other “’34 men” had done to create such a great job for working people.

Even in his private journals, some of which later were published, Hoffer rarely credited the union, and never Bridges. Though the man wrote constantly and voluminously, he rarely wrote about the union that made the selfsame writing possible.

He occasionally commented in his journals on the work he did — unloading transistor radios for eight hours at Pier 34 or working with a Portuguese partner while talking about his family. But the “longshoremen philosopher” never seemed to reflect deeply on the ILWU nor his role in it. For a while he became interested in automation and its impacts on workers, but largely was sanguine, hopeful, and arguably naïve about the benefits of capitalism for ordinary people.

The man lived a rich life of the mind — reading on the job during breaks, taking half-day walks to ponder particular intellectual conundrums, journaling fastidiously, and writing for publications. However, he never changed his views that politicians like Nixon and, especially, Reagan (first as governor, later as president) were noble and his union leaders dupes, “true believers” of false idols who demonstrated their own lack of self-confidence by joining a mass movement. Based on the limited record, Hoffer never spoke at meetings, never ran for any union office, and never volunteered in the union to help his fellow workers.

Ironically, the best-known working-class American of the Cold War era was a conservative who was lucky enough to find a job represented by the most powerful leftist union in postwar America. As such, his life represents the cognitive dissonance of many working Americans today: profiting from — albeit less so than in the past — the great gains of the labor movement yet unwilling to become union advocates.

The Right-Wing New Age

Describing a Salon article by Mitch Horowitz, there is a post over at Matt Cardin’s blog. He offers a summary:

“But the article’s overall topic is much broader, as indicated in the provided editorial teaser: “If you think New Age alternative spirituality is solely the domain of lefty hippies, you don’t know your history.” In just under two thousand words Horowitz discusses such things as the influence of Manly P. Hall on Ronald Reagan, Madame Blavatsky’s promulgation of the idea of “America as the catalyst for a revolution in human potential,” Donald Trump’s association with Norman Vincent Peale, FDR’s decision to put the eye-and-pyramid of the Great Seal of the United States on the dollar bill, Hillary Clinton’s visioneering meetings Jean Houston (who once told Bill Clinton that he was an “undeveloped shaman,” at which point he got up and walked out), and more. Horowitz’s basic point is that none of this represents a conspiracy, notwithstanding the claims of the paranoid conspiracy theorizing crowd”

It doesn’t surprise me. And I can’t say that I worry about the media having “characterized Bannon as the Disraeli of the dark side following his rise to power in the Trump administration.” That said, there might be a connection between Bannon’s attraction to both mysticism and fascism, which could cause one to wonder what kind of New Age he might envision. But the general connection between alternative spirituality and the political right isn’t particularly concerning. As Horowitz explains, that is simply a part of the social fabric of American society and far from being limited to right-wingers.

My conservative parents raised my brothers and I in several liberal New Agey churches, from Christian Science to Unity. It was my paternal grandmother, coming out of a Southern Baptist upbringing, who after she moved to California introduced my parents to New Age spirituality. It helped transition my dad from his earlier doubting agnosticism to his present family values Christianity. Interestingly, my parents now attend a liberal mainstream church, even as they remain strongly conservative. Both of my parents are into positive thinking, my dad being a fan of Norman Vincent Peale.

Religion plays a major role on my dad’s side of the family. My paternal grandfather was a minister who was more spiritual than religious, odd as that might sound. Along with reading my grandmother’s copy of A Course In Miracles, I enjoyed looking at some books my dad had inherited from my grandfather. Among those books, I was introduced to world religions and the likes of the two Krishnamurtis (Jiddu and U.G.).

I could point out that there is a common history to Evangelicalism, New Thought Christianity, and Prosperity Gospel. There are a number of books that cover this and other related history. Theosophy took hold in the US during the late 1800s Populist Era. There was a lot of odd mystical and spiritual thinking that arose in the 1800s, such as the popularity of spiritualism.

There have been many diverse expressions of religion across American history. My paternal great grandfather was an orphan in one of the last surviving Shaker villages, having left when he reached adulthood. Also, there was the Quakers, Deists, Unitarians, Universalists, Anabaptists, Pietists, Camisards, Huguenots, Moravians, Brethren, Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, Amanas, etc. Spiritualism and related practices became popular across religions. The Shakers went through a spiritualism phase, during which much interesting artwork was produced.

Multiple strains of dissenter religion influenced American society, in particular some of the radical thinking during the English Civil War when the first American colonies were taking hold. Roger Williams was a rather interesting religious radical in the early American colonies.

Here are some books that might be of interest, including one from the author of the article:

Occult America by Mitch Horowitz, Religion, Magic, and Science in Early Modern Europe and America by Allison P. Coudert, New Age and Neopagan Religions in America by Sarah Pike, A Republic of Mind and Spirit by Catherine L. Albanese, The New Metaphysicals by Courtney Bender, Ghosts of Futures Past by McGarry Molly, Plato’s Ghost by Cathy Gutierrez, The Occult in Nineteenth-Century America by Cathy Gutierrez, Each Mind a Kingdom by Beryl Satter, The History of New Thought by John S. Haller & Robert C. Fuller, Religious Revolutionaries by Robert C. Fuller, Spiritual, but not Religious by Robert C. Fuller, Restless Souls by Leigh Eric Schmidt, Spirits of Protestantism by Pamela E. Klassen, Secularism in Antebellum America by John Lardas Modern, The American Encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912 by Thomas A. Tweed, America’s Communal Utopias by Donald E. Pitzer, and The Kingdom of Matthias by Paul E. Johnson & Sean Wilentz.

On a slightly different note, I would highly recommend The Churching of America by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. The authors show how, until the 19th century, Americans didn’t have high rates of religiosity such as church attendance. The increasing focus on spirituality was simultaneous with greater concern with mainstream religion.

Another thing that could be added were the Transcendentalists. They had interest in Eastern religious and philosophical thought. Translations of Eastern texts such as the Bhagavad Gita were available in the early 19th century. Henry David Thoreau brought the Bhagavad Gita with him to Walden. See: American Transcendentalism and Asian Religions by Arthur Versluis and The Gita within Walden by Paul Friedrich.

Later in that century, the Theosophical Society translated a large number of Eastern texts. Theosophists came to have much influence during the Populist Era of the 1890s and into the following century. I recall a march on Washington, DC during the 1890s was led by someone influenced by Theosophical thought.

That was a major turning point for American spirituality, fueled by populist revolt and questioning of religious authority. There was a hunger for both new politics and new religion. This was the same historical moment when such things as New Thought Unity Church was organized, specifically 1889. Jackson Lears, in Rebirth of a Nation, describes this era (pp. 237-238):

“Yet the vitalist impulse itself had larger than utilitarian implications. Its significance, like its origin, was religious. It lay at the heart of a broad revolt against positivism, a rejection of a barren universe governed by inexorable laws, where everything was measurable and nothing mysterious. The real problem for many vitalists (and certainly for James) was the specter of a life (and death) without meaning. It is possible to see all the talk about “life” as a way of whistling past the graveyard of traditional Christianity. But the vitalist ferment was also a genuine attempt to explore new meanings for human existence amid the wreckage of collapsing dualities: body and soul, matter and spirit, this world and the next.

“Educated Protestants, dissatisfied with desiccated theology, cast about for vital conceptions of cosmic meaning. Many explored medieval Catholic mysticism as an alternative to the banalities of the typical Sunday sermon, the sort of platitudes uttered by Henry Ward Beecher and other ministers who reduced the Protestant ethic to a mere prescription for worldly success. Buddhism and other Asian religions—discovered, imagined, and synthesized—also began to play a role in focusing popular longings. Vedanta, popularized at the Chicago World’s Fair and after by Swami Vivekenanda, and theosophy, preached by Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant, were both synthetic expressions of spiritual ferment. Paul Carus founded the magazine Open Court to carry forward the work of the World’s Parliament of Religions, begun at the Chicago Fair, to create a common ground of ecumenical discussion, which might lead to a new synthesis—a “Religion of the Future” that might appeal to believer and skeptic alike.

“The results were mixed. Contributors to Open Court asked questions like “What is Life?” and then stumbled about in a soupy haze of abstractions. “The truth is, there are, as there must be, original factors in the world…and life (or chemical activity and appetency) is like gravity, one of them,” William Salter announced in 1901. “If we wish to account for them, we have to go back to the maker of all things (if there is a Maker) not to any of the things that are made.” One thing was certain: “The only salvation for society as for the individual, is from within—it is more life.” The reverence for “life” could overcome death itself. “Who knows but that that greater death which sooner or later overtakes us all…starts energies into play deeper than we had known before—that it is the death of the body, and freedom, new birth, to the soul?’

“The desire for regeneration led to death’s door and beyond. Yearnings for empirical proof of an afterlife and for communication with departed loved ones accelerated the appeal of spiritualism. Here was another example of fascination with invisible force, impossible to see but unmistakable (to believers) in its consequences—tables rising from the floor, sepulchral voices, mysterious music. Even William James was intrigued. While he remained skeptical of sweaty séances in darkened rooms, he joined the American Society for Psychical Research, providing legitimacy to the quest for connection with “discarnate spirits.” His interest in spiritualism reflected his openness to all manner of evidence, no matter how bizarre or apparently inexplicable—his radical empiricism, as he called it.”

By the way, Horowitz’s article reminded me of a passage in What’s the Matter with Kansas? by Thomas Frank. In a brief but insightful observation, Frank explains why right-wingers would find appealing what otherwise seems the New Age babble of hippies (Kindle Locations 1998-2013):

“Today bitter self-made men—and their doppelgängers, the bitter but not quite as well-to-do men—are all over the place. They have their own cable news network and their own TV personalities. They can turn to nearly any station on the AM dial to hear their views confirmed. They have their own e-mail bulletin boards, on which you can find hundreds of thousands of them plen-T-plaining about this outrage and that, from the national to the local. And although they like to fancy themselves rugged individualists (better yet, the last of the rugged individualists), what they really are is a personality type that our society generates so predictably and in such great numbers that they almost constitute a viable market segment all on their own.

“One more thing about the backlash personality type: every single one of the bitter self-made men of my youth was a believer in the power of positive thinking. If you just had a sunny disposish and kept everlastingly at it, they thought, you were bound to succeed. The contradiction between their professed positiveness and their actual negativity about nearly everything never seemed to occur to them. On the contrary; they would oscillate from the one to the other as though the two naturally complemented each other, giving me advice on keeping a positive mental outlook even while raging against the environmentalist bumper stickers on other people’s cars or scoffing at Kansas City’s latest plan for improving its schools. The world’s failure to live up to the impossible promises of the positive-thinking credo did not convince these men of the credo’s impracticality, but rather that the world was in a sad state of decline, that it had forsaken the true and correct path.2 It was as though the fair-play lessons of Jack Armstrong, Frank Merriwell, and the other heroes of their prewar boyhood had congealed quite naturally into the world bitterness of their present-day heroes, Charles Bronson, Dirty Harry, Gordon Liddy, and the tax rebel Howard Jarvis.”

(Note 2. “In The Positive Thinkers, Donald Meyer comments extensively on positive thinking’s understanding of the business civilization and extreme laissez-faire economics as the way of nature. (See in particular chap. 8.) As for its politics, Meyer points out that Norman Vincent Peale, the movement’s greatest celebrity preacher, dabbled in right-wing Republicanism, and a famous positive-thinking Congregationalist church in California embraced the John Birch Society. It is possible that the universal embrace of positive thinking by the bitter self-made men of my youth was a geographic coincidence, since Kansas City is home to one of the great powers of the positive-thinking world, the Unity Church. But I am inclined to think not. Positive thinking is today a nearly universal aspect of liberal Protestantism, traces of it appearing in the speeches of Ronald Reagan and the self-help entertainment of Oprah Winfrey.” [Kindle Locations 4350-4357])

* * * *

Some of the earliest blog posts I ever wrote was a 4 part series. In those earlier writings, I covered all of this in great detail and included much of my personal experience. They came from my old blog, originally posted on the now defunct Gaia website. I apologize for their needing to be cleaned up a bit, as the transferal of posts was done quickly, but they are readable as is.

New Age: Part 1
New Age: Part 2
New Age: Part 3
New Age: Part 4

* * * *

Additional thoughts (5/14/17):

My mother’s all-time favorite preacher is Robert Schuller. He is well known for his having built the Crystal Cathedral, the embodiment of the crass materialism of self-indulgence and cult of personality. Although humbly born and raised in Iowa, he became a mega-church preacher in California and thereby amassed immense wealth.

It’s interesting to learn about how California is the origins of the mega-church movement, along with the modern religious right that took over the GOP. California is also the birthplace of Nixon (infamous Orange County), as Southern California is filled with Southerners. Nixon promoted the Southern strategy and Reagan, a California transplant and professional corporate spokesperson, gave it a voice and a face. I should note that the Southern presence was so influential even in early Californian history that the state was almost split in two during the Civil War.

It was in California that my grandmother, raised Southern Baptist, converted to New Age religion. There is not much distance between the New Right and the New Age. Robert Schuller’s prosperity gospel and ‘old time’ family values easily bridges that distance. It’s why my conservative parents could simultaneously listen to the kindly patriarchal Schuller on television, attend a uber-liberal New Thought church (Unity), and vote for Reagan with his culture war religiosity and Hollywood smile — all part and parcel of the same worldview given its fullest form during the Cold War through the expression of Capitalist Christianity.

I recently learned that a regular guest on Schuller’s televized ministry was Laura Schlessinger, one of the major stars of late 20th century right-wing radio. I remember listening to her when I was still living in South Carolina. It was around the mid 1990s, considering her show was nationally syndicated in 1994 (the year I graduated high school). As the female version of Limbaugh, she was a typical egotist who thought her every ignorant opinion was God-inspired truth. She was a no-nonsense Cold War culture warrior, one of these privileged upper middle class white people who can talk tough because they’ve never dealt with a real problem in their entire life.

One time a caller complained about personal problems and Schlessinger’s advice was that the young woman should either take care of her problems or kill herself. I was shocked that any radio host would be that irresponsible, but that was common for right-wing talk radio. There is a heartlessness to this attitude. I can guarantee you that if this person had killed herself, a sociopathic social Darwinian like Schlessinger would have been happy that there was one less ‘loser’ in the world.

Now consider this mean-spirited asshole was a close personal friend of Robert Schuller, having said of her that she is “A positive voice for positive values without equal in our time.” Despite Schuller’s kind and friendly demeanor, there was a dark cancerous rot at the heart of his prosperity gospel. In the end, prosperity gospel was simply yet more rhetoric upholding the plutocracy and defending inequality. It was a worship of Mammon, in place of God.

This kind of prosperity gospel didn’t die with Schuller. It is still going strong. The mega-church movement has become more popular than ever and, with big money, it is a major political player with impressive clout. Some of Trump’s most outspoken and influential supporters were prosperity gospel preachers, such as Paula White and Joel Osteen (along with many others). This is nothing new. Going back decades, some truly hateful and demented religious leaders have openly supported and socialized with Republican politicians and even presidents. Some of these religious right leaders said things far worse than Trump and associates have dared to say and there was no backlash. Republicans have been courting rabidly reactionary radicalism for a long time.

This is not old time religion, in the traditional European sense. But America has always had weird strains of religiosity and spirituality, a hybrid spawn of Protestant Reformation and Counter-Enlightenment. The descendants of this match made in hell were suckled at the teat of American materialism with its dark history of oppression and inequality. Then driven mad through the delusional fear-mongering of generations of propaganda, from Cold War to War on Terror.

If one were feeling particularly cynical, it could be argued that Trump represents the final endpoint and highest expression of American Christianity. But that would be too dismissive toward the religious diversity that has always existed in North America, even if the ugliest expressions of religiosity too often have dominated. It should not be forgotten that the United States also has a history of radical left-wing religiosity as well. The hard-hitting Christian attitude eloquently put forth by the likes of Martin Luther King jr is alive and well, no matter how much corporate media hacks and corporatist politicians ignore it.

There is another point that should be made clear. The religious right mentality isn’t limited to the religious right, for the simple reason that the religious right itself in America is the product of post-Enlightenment liberalism. The American right in general has long been in love with the rhetoric of liberalism with its focus, however superficial, on liberty and freedom in terms of not just of religion but also of states rights, free markets, hyper-individuality, meritocracy, private ownership, gun rights, civil libertarianism, and on and on. So, in direct connection to this, it’s unsurprising to realize the extent to which liberals, specifically of the liberal class, have embraced right-wing ideology as great defenders of capitalist realism that supposedly liberates and empowers even as it harms and scapegoats so many.

Having been raised in the extreme liberalism of New Thought Christianity, this understanding developed in my direct personal experience. What Barbara Ehrenreich describes in her book Bright-sided is what I absorbed form childhood. And it really does fuck with your head. Ehrenreich criticizes a type of cruel optimism popular in America that is superficial and too often used to rationalize egregiously immoral or otherwise dysfunctional behavior. In my experience, positive thinking just made me feel worse, as if my depression was a sign of personal failure.

The expectation of positive thinking can be a heavy burden to carry. This is much worse when dealing with serious issues involving conditions of poverty and inequality, oppression and injustice, pain and suffering, desperation and struggle. According to prosperity gospel, all problems are to be blamed on individuals. It’s the punishment of having a wrong relationship with God, a carryover from the bleak predestination of Calvinism that involves a God who favors an elect of individuals and damns everyone else. But in prosperity gospel, God’s elect are made clear as his favors are seen in this world through material gifts and blessings, i.e., wealth.

I went into some detail about this in a previous post:

The inspiration for her writing about positive thinking was her experience with cancer. She saw the darkside of positive thinking within the cancer community.

This brings to mind my own grandmother who died of cancer. It’s because of her that I was raised in New Thought Christianity where positive thinking is very popular. She was diagnosed with cancer. She embraced the whole alternative medicine field and she had great faith in positive thinking. My dad says she was utterly crushed when doing all the right things didn’t make her cancer go away. She died of cancer. She was a woman who had a great sense of faith, and apparently I inherited my spiritual interests from her. I’ve seen all aspects of positive thinking and so I have a personal sense of what Ehrenreich is talking about.

But what is different is that positive thinking has become mainstream like never before. It’s not just alternative types. Positive thinking has become merged with the early American ideals of meritocracy, and together they create something greater than either alone.

In one video I saw of Ehrenreich, she made an interesting connection. She was talking about the meritocracy ideal, but I don’t think she was using that term. She was just talking about the ideal of positivie thinking in general within American culture. She connected this with Ayn Rand’s libertarians. If I remember correctly, she was making the argument that Rand was a one of the factors in popularizing positive thinking. She mentioned the book The Secret and how it’s representative of our whole culture. She blames the economic troubles we’re having now with the business culture of positive thinking, and it makes a lot of sense to me.

Also see two other videos:

Barbara Ehrenreich: “Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking Undermines America”

‘Smile or Die” How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World