We Are All Egalitarians, and Always Have Been

Man is not man as yet,
Nor shall I deem his object served, his end
Attained, his genuine strength put fairly forth,
While only here and there a star dispels
The darkness. Here and there a towering mind
O’erlooks its prostrate fellows: when the host
Is out at once to the despair of night,
When all mankind alike is perfected,
Equal and full-blown powers – then, not till then,
I say, begins man’s general infancy.

Robert Browning, Paracelsus, 1835

What is egalitarianism?

It was suggested, half joking and half serious, that we are all white liberals now. There has been a radicalizing force within post-Enlightenment humanity that has manifested a particular strain of human potential, such that it has transformed our society and come to define the modern West, American society most of all in being founded on a liberal aspiration of revolutionary idealism. This has been previously explored in what kind of shared identity we are becoming in fulfilling an ancient moral vision, not initially even a promise but a mere whisper of a small voice of conscience first felt at the foundation of modern civilization as it was laid down during the Axial Age. That whisper was a tremor that became an earthquake that overturned society and now is settling back down into an unforeseen societal order clothed in new robes of moral imagination.

The beating heart of this inspiring, if tumultuous, moral vision is a profound and unshakeable sense of egalitarianism. It remains as radical today as it was in centuries and millennia past. But what does it mean and where does it come from? The conflict we are experiencing today in protests and revolt, even minor insurrection threatening far worse to come, is essentially the same conflict that arose in the Axial Age following the collapse of Bronze Age civilization and the breakdown of the bicameral mind. Archaic authorization was lost and a new kind of rule-based and brutally violent authoritarianism first emerged. That was what the Axial Age prophets were responding to, with Jesus arriving shortly after that period of the revolutionizing of the human psyche and identity.

Jesus Christ, like many Axial Age prophets before him, preached an egalitarianism that would come to rock the world starting as early as the Peasants’ Revolt in the Middle Ages when the Black Death disrupted the social order, kinship networks were being dismantled by the Catholic Church, and the enclosure movement began the erosion of feudalism (the clearest point of origin for the WEIRD culture of individualism; see Joseph Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World). The Peasants’ Revolt is what some consider the first modern revolution and class war. It presaged the far more radically transformative English Civil War that was the model of conflict from which the American revolutionaries took inspiration (see Kevin Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars), and an early expression of proto-liberalism, proto-socialism, and proto-Marxism.

Looking back on the ancient world, what stands out is that Jesus didn’t passively resist, much less peacefully submit to worldly power. At one point, he even went so far as to have commited the greatest sin in the capitalist mind, in having committed property damage with his terrorizing the moneylenders by overthrowing their tables in the temple, a direct threat to the entrenched authority of the established social order and moral order. To the respectable elite and loyal citizens of the time, such an act was unimaginable and unacceptable, a defiance of all that was good and worthy. Jesus’ violence against property, within the ruling system of wealth and power, was as bad or worse than the regular violence of Roman authority in killing and torturing untold numbers of innocent people, a fate that would later befall Jesus as well; and so established the Christian tradition of martyrdom as inherited from the Stoics’ egalitarian re-envisioning of liberty as spiritual emancipation.

The elite response to Jesus at the time probably sounded a lot like Edmund Burke’s fear-ridden condemnation of the French revolutionaries in their daring to rise up against the nobility of robed power, in their having sought to disrobe monarchical authority so as to show it as the naked power it always was (or as the infamous Thomas Paine put it: “He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird”). Surely, many in first century Rome repeated the exact same false equivalency we hear today, that Jesus was a violent terrorist like those Jewish zealots called the Sicarii who sought to overthrow the Roman Empire with revolt and killings, equating property damage to deadly violence. This claim of false equivalency is based on an ancient claim of hierarchical power in its attempt to discredit and dismiss those who challenge it from below. That is because the same fundamental conflict remains unresolved not only in society at large but, more importantly, within the human psyche.

It’s a deep and profound sense of divide within us that gets expressed in our social relations and the social order. That is why, even after all these millennia later, it still feels like a raw wound. We’ve never recovered from what was lost with the archaic bicameral mind. One can sense what that earlier mindset must have been like by looking at some simpler societies. The Piraha exemplify this with their radical sense of communal solidarity and egalitarianism, along with their more fluid sense of identity. They express none of the oppressive anxiety and violent authoritarianism that defines the modern world. They are far from the only example of this expression of human nature. It maybe should teach us something fundamental about our shared humanity. Egalitarianism isn’t juat another modern ideal invented by intellectuals. It is the core principle of human nature that we’ve forgotten. But in our rigidly hierarchical and hyper-individualistic society, we don’t know how to healthily express this egalitarian impulse.

In denying our own nature, what results is endless conflict. The answer some offer is to further suppress the impulse and to project it onto radicals as scapegoats, as if egalitarianism itself could be cast out from respectable society, something inconvenient and unecessary as with the surgical removal of a vestigial organ. This is a way of disidentifying from the egalitarianism that is so threatening not because it’s imposed from the outside by radical totalitarian dogmatism but because this primal force of moral truth keeps emerging from within. This conflict gets expressed as violence all around. How can we imagine a peaceful society when we refuse to accept the very essence of our own human nature? The first and greatest violence is the disconnection from and denial of this most fundamental moral command of spiritual authorization. We are at war with ourselves and our whole society is built on this anxiety-inducing conflict.

Egalitarianism isn’t and never was simply about modern left-wing ideology as formed out of the revolutionary philosophies of post-Enlightenment thinkers, dreamers, and activists. Egalitarianism isn’t an abstract ideal for it is rooted within us. To attempt to remove it would be to destroy our collective soul, an act akin to ripping out our heart. We don’t hold egalitarianism as a value and principle, as a vision and worldview. Egalitarianism, rather, is who we are. There is no ‘left’ and ‘right’, no division between a set of egalitarian political ideologies and what supposedly opposes them. To oppose egalitarianism would be insanity because it would be to oppose ourselves. Egalitarianism can’t be denied. Rather than a ‘left’ and ‘right’, there is simply and fundamentaly the egalitarian center of our being. To embrace this revolutionary radicialism (i.e., to return to the root) would mean to become fully human. That is the only centrism, moderate or otherwise, that has any meaning.

We need to become fiercely passionate and compassionate, to know with absolute certainty and hold with unswerving conviction the truth of who we are and who we have always been, in speaking to who we may yet become. Egalitarianism isn’t to be forced onto the world by mere social change, protest movements, and political action but, first and foremost, to be remembered and resurrected as our birthright, a gnostic unforgetting of ultimate reality (anamnesis), the awakening to the source of our humanity like a thirst-quenching spring bursting forth from a crack in ancient stone. This moral vision of faith and truth, of freedom and fairness can never be denied or destroyed. No matter how many are killed by authoritarian power, no matter how much oppression is enforced, egalitarianism itself cannot be defeated as long as there is a single human left breathing.

The proof of egalitarianism is in our heart and soul, in each of us and in all of us, irrefutably verified and proven in our own direct experience, felt in the solid ground of our shared being. The echo of archaic authorization is heard in our longing for freedom, a piercing ache that can cripple us with fear, anxiety and nostalgia or inspire us with hope and promise. No matter how lost we can feel in our shared struggles against those who seek to divide and isolate us, may we choose hope again and again; and, however difficult to grasp, may we never forget the promise of egalitarianism, of fairness and freedom, the solidarity of fellow-feeling and spiritual kinship that lifts us out of darkness into the open light of moral vision.

We are all egalitarians. We are a truly free people, the very expression of the egalitarian, a living faith. Let our actions be our prayer, the embodiment of hope’s fulfilment. This is not an endpoint but a beginning, a neverending revolution of the mind, an eternal return of what was never lost, the kingdom all around us. What is true within human nature is the truth of humanity as part of nature, as part of the world out of which we formed. We are not wandering alone in the unknown, not refugees in a foreign land. In listening to this voice of moral authorization, it tells us that we belong, that we are at home in the world, that we are welcome among friends. It is a simple assurance and sense of trust, a faith in humanity.

This is egalitarianism.

For you are all children of God in the Spirit.
There is no Jew or Greek;
There is no slave or free;
There is no male and female.
For you are all one in the Spirit.

Based on Galations 3:28, Stephen J. Patterson, The Forgotten Creed

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

John Ball, 1381 sermon at Blackheath, after his release from prison during the Peasants’ Revolt

Balance of Egalitarianism and Hierarchy

David Graeber, an anthropologist, and David Wengrow, an archaeologist, have a theory about hunter-gatherer societies having cycled between egalitarianism and hierarchy. That is to say hierarchies were temporary and often seasonal. There was no permanent leadership or ruling caste, as seen in the fluid social order of still surviving hunter. This carried over into the early settlements that were initially transitory meeting places, likely for feasts and festivals.

There are two questions that need to be answered. First, why did humans permanently settle down? Second, why did civilization get stuck in hierarchy? These questions have to be answered separately. For millennia into civilization, the egalitarian impulse persisted within many permanent settlements. There was no linear development from egalitarianism to hierarchy, no fall from the Garden of Eden.

Julian Jaynes, in his theorizing about the bicameral mind, offered a possible explanation. A contributing factor for permanent settlements would be because the speaking idols had to be kept in a single location with agriculture developing as a later result. Then as societies became more populous, complex and expansive, hierarchies (as with moralizing gods) became more important to compensate for the communal limits of a voice-hearing social order.

That kind of hierarchy, though, was a much later development, especially in its extreme forms not seen until the Axial Age empires. The earlier bicameral societies had a more communal identity. That would’ve been true on the level of experience, as even the voices people heard were shared. There wasn’t an internal self separate from the communal identity and so no conflict between the individual member and larger society. One either fully belonged to and was immersed in that culture or not.

Large, complex hierarchies weren’t needed. Bicameralism began in small settlements that lacked police, court systems, standing armies, etc — all the traits of an oppressively authoritarian hierarchy that would later be seen, such as the simultaneous appearance of sexual moralizing and pornographic art. It wasn’t the threat of violent force by centralized authority and concentrated power that created and maintained the bicameral order but, as still seen with isolated indigenous tribes, shared identity and experience.

An example of this is that of early Egyptians. They were capable of impressive technological feats and yet they didn’t even have basic infrastructure like bridges. It appears they initially were a loose association of farmers organized around the bicameral culture of archaic authorization and, in the off-season, they built pyramids without coercion. Slavery was not required for this, as there is no evidence of forced labor.

In so many ways, this is alien to the conventional understanding of civilization. It is so radically strange that to many it seems impossible, especially when it gets described as ‘egalitarian’ in placing it in a framework of modern ideas. Mention primitive ‘communism’ or ‘anarchism’ and you’ll really lose most people. Nonetheless, however one wants to describe and label it, this is what the evidence points toward.

Here is another related thought. How societies went from bicameral mind to consciousness is well-trodden territory. But what about how bicameralism emerged from animism? They share enough similarities that I’ve referred to them as the animistic-bicameral complex. The bicameral mind seems like a variant or extension of the voice-hearing in animism.

Among hunter-gatherers, it was often costume and masks through which gods, spirits, and ancestors spoke. Any individual potentially could become the vessel of possession because, in the animistic view, all the world is alive with voices. So, how did this animistic voice-hearing become narrowed down to idol worship of corpses and statues?

I ask this because this is central to the question of why humans created permanent settlements. A god-king’s voice of authorization was so powerful that it persisted beyond his death. The corpse was turned into a mummy, as his voice was a living memory that kept speaking, and so god-houses were built. But how did the fluid practice of voice-hearing in animism become centralized in a god-king?

Did this begin with the rise of shamanism? Some hunter-gatherers don’t have shamans. But once the role of shaman becomes a permanent authority figure mediating with other realms, it’s not a large leap from a shaman-king to a god-king who could be fully deified in death. In that case, how did shamanism act as a transitional proto-bicameralism? In this, we might begin to discern the hitch upon which permanent hierarchy eventually got stuck.

I might point out that there is much disagreement in this area of scholarship, as expected. The position of Graeber and Wengrow is highly contested, even among those offering alternative interpretations of the evidence see Peter Turchin (An Anarchist View of Human Social Evolution & A Feminist Perspective on Human Social Evolution) and Camilla Power (Gender egalitarianism made us human: patriarchy was too little, too late & Gender egalitarianism made us human: A response to David Graeber & David Wengrow’s ‘How to change the course of human history’).

But I don’t see the disagreements as being significant for the purposes here. Here is a basic point that Turchin explains: “The reason we say that foragers were fiercely egalitarian is because they practiced reverse dominance hierarchy” (from first link directly above). That seems to go straight to the original argument. Many other primates have social hierarchy, although not all. Some of the difference appears to be cultural, in that humans early in evolution appear to have developed cultural methods of enforcing egalitarianism. This cultural pattern has existed long enough to have fundamentally altered human nature.

According to Graeber and Wengrow, these egalitarian habits weren’t lost easily, even as society became larger and more complex. Modern authoritarian hierarchies represent a late development, a fraction of a percentage of human existence. They are far outside the human norm. In social science experiments, we see how the egalitarian impulse persists. Consider two examples. Children will naturally help those in need, until someone pays them money to do so, shifting from intrinsic motivation to extrinsic. The other study showed how most people, both children an adults, will choose to punish wrongdoers even at personal cost.

This in-built egalitarianism is an old habit that doesn’t die easily no matter how it is suppressed or perverted by systems of authoritarian power. It is the psychological basis of a culture of trust that permanent hierarchies take advantage of through manipulation of human nature. The egalitarian impulse gets redirected in undermining egalitarianism. This is why modern societies are so unstable, as compared to the ancient societies that lasted for millennia.

That said, there is nothing wrong with genuine authority, expertise, and leadership — as seen even in the most radically egalitarian societies like the Piraha. Hierarchies are also part of our natural repertoire and only problematic when they fall out of balance with egalitarianism and so become entrenched. One way or another, human societies cycle between hierarchy and egalitarianism, whether it cycles on a regular basis or necessitates collapse. That is the point Walter Scheidel makes in his book, The Great Leveler. High inequality destabilizes society and always brings its own downfall.

We need to relearn that balance, if we hope to avoid mass disaster. Egalitarianism is not a utopian ideal. It’s simply the other side of human nature that gets forgotten.

* * *

Archaeology, anarchy, hierarchy, and the growth of inequality
by Andre Costopoulos

In some ways, I agree with both Graeber and Wengrow, and with Turchin. Models of the growth of social inequality have indeed emphasized a one dimensional march, sometimes inevitable, from virtual equality and autonomy to strong inequality and centralization. I agree with Graeber and Wengrow that this is a mistaken view. Except I think humans have moved from strong inequality, to somewhat managed inequality, to strong inequality again.

The rise and fall of equality

Hierarchy, dominance, power, influence, politics, and violence are hallmarks not only of human social organization, but of that of our primate cousins. They are widespread among mammals. Inequality runs deep in our lineage, and our earliest identifiable human ancestors must have inherited it. But an amazing thing happened among Pleistocene humans. They developed strong social leveling mechanisms, which actively reduced inequality. Some of those mechanisms are still at work in our societies today: Ridicule at the expense of self-aggrandizers, carnival inversion as a reminder of the vulnerability of the powerful, ostracism of the controlling, or just walking away from conflict, for example.

Understanding the growth of equality in Pleistocene human communities is the big untackled project of Paleolithic archaeology, mostly because we assume they started from a state of egalitarianism and either degenerated or progressed from there, depending on your lens. Our broader evolutionary context argues they didn’t.

During the Holocene, under increasing sedentism and dependence on spatially bounded resources such as agricultural fields that represent significant energy investments, these mechanisms gradually failed to dampen the pressures for increasing centralization of power. However, even at the height of the Pleistocene egalitarian adaptation, there were elites if, using Turchin’s figure of the top one or two percent, we consider that the one or two most influential members in a network of a hundred are its elite. All the social leveling in the world could not contain influence. Influence, in the end, if wielded effectively, is power.

Ancient ‘megasites’ may reshape the history of the first cities
by Bruce Bower

No signs of a centralized government, a ruling dynasty, or wealth or social class disparities appear in the ancient settlement, the researchers say. Houses were largely alike in size and design. Excavations yielded few prestige goods, such as copper items and shell ornaments. Many examples of painted pottery and clay figurines typical of Trypillia culture turned up, and more than 6,300 animal bones unearthed at the site suggest residents ate a lot of beef and lamb. Those clues suggest daily life was much the same across Nebelivka’s various neighborhoods and quarters. […]

Though some of these sprawling sites had social inequality, egalitarian cities like Nebelivka were probably more widespread several thousand years ago than has typically been assumed, says archaeologist David Wengrow of University College London. Ancient ceremonial centers in China and Peru, for instance, were cities with sophisticated infrastructures that existed before any hints of bureaucratic control, he argues. Wengrow and anthropologist David Graeber of the London School of Economics and Political Science also made that argument in a 2018 essay in Eurozine, an online cultural magazine.

Councils of social equals governed many of the world’s earliest cities, including Trypillia megasites, Wengrow contends. Egalitarian rule may even have characterized Mesopotamian cities for their first few hundred years, a period that lacks archaeological evidence of royal burials, armies or large bureaucracies typical of early states, he suggests.

How to change the course of human history
by David Graeber and David Wengrow

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications. As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the ‘big questions’ of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris, and others – still take Rousseau’s question (‘what is the origin of social inequality?’) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence.

Simply framing the question this way means making a series of assumptions, that 1. there is a thing called ‘inequality,’ 2. that it is a problem, and 3. that there was a time it did not exist. Since the financial crash of 2008, of course, and the upheavals that followed, the ‘problem of social inequality’ has been at the centre of political debate. There seems to be a consensus, among the intellectual and political classes, that levels of social inequality have spiralled out of control, and that most of the world’s problems result from this, in one way or another. Pointing this out is seen as a challenge to global power structures, but compare this to the way similar issues might have been discussed a generation earlier. Unlike terms such as ‘capital’ or ‘class power’, the word ‘equality’ is practically designed to lead to half-measures and compromise. One can imagine overthrowing capitalism or breaking the power of the state, but it’s very difficult to imagine eliminating ‘inequality’. In fact, it’s not obvious what doing so would even mean, since people are not all the same and nobody would particularly want them to be.

‘Inequality’ is a way of framing social problems appropriate to technocratic reformers, the kind of people who assume from the outset that any real vision of social transformation has long since been taken off the political table. It allows one to tinker with the numbers, argue about Gini coefficients and thresholds of dysfunction, readjust tax regimes or social welfare mechanisms, even shock the public with figures showing just how bad things have become (‘can you imagine? 0.1% of the world’s population controls over 50% of the wealth!’), all without addressing any of the factors that people actually object to about such ‘unequal’ social arrangements: for instance, that some manage to turn their wealth into power over others; or that other people end up being told their needs are not important, and their lives have no intrinsic worth. The latter, we are supposed to believe, is just the inevitable effect of inequality, and inequality, the inevitable result of living in any large, complex, urban, technologically sophisticated society. That is the real political message conveyed by endless invocations of an imaginary age of innocence, before the invention of inequality: that if we want to get rid of such problems entirely, we’d have to somehow get rid of 99.9% of the Earth’s population and go back to being tiny bands of foragers again. Otherwise, the best we can hope for is to adjust the size of the boot that will be stomping on our faces, forever, or perhaps to wrangle a bit more wiggle room in which some of us can at least temporarily duck out of its way.

Mainstream social science now seems mobilized to reinforce this sense of hopelessness.

Rethinking cities, from the ground up
by David Wengrow

Settlements inhabited by tens of thousands of people make their first appearance in human history around 6,000 years ago. In the earliest examples on each continent, we find the seedbed of our modern cities; but as those examples multiply, and our understanding grows, the possibility of fitting them all into some neat evolutionary scheme diminishes. It is not just that some early cities lack the expected features of class divisions, wealth monopolies, and hierarchies of administration. The emerging picture suggests not just variability, but conscious experimentation in urban form, from the very point of inception. Intriguingly, much of this evidence runs counter to the idea that cities marked a ‘great divide’ between rich and poor, shaped by the interests of governing elites.

In fact, surprisingly few early cities show signs of authoritarian rule. There is no evidence for the existence of monarchy in the first urban centres of the Middle East or South Asia, which date back to the fourth and early third millennia BCE; and even after the inception of kingship in Mesopotamia, written sources tell us that power in cities remained in the hands of self-governing councils and popular assemblies. In other parts of Eurasia we find persuasive evidence for collective strategies, which promoted egalitarian relations in key aspects of urban life, right from the beginning. At Mohenjo-daro, a city of perhaps 40,000 residents, founded on the banks of the Indus around 2600 BCE, material wealth was decoupled from religious and political authority, and much of the population lived in high quality housing. In Ukraine, a thousand years earlier, prehistoric settlements already existed on a similar scale, but with no associated evidence of monumental buildings, central administration, or marked differences of wealth. Instead we find circular arrangements of houses, each with its attached garden, forming neighbourhoods around assembly halls; an urban pattern of life, built and maintained from the bottom-up, which lasted in this form for over eight centuries.⁶

A similar picture of experimentation is emerging from the archaeology of the Americas. In the Valley of Mexico, despite decades of active searching, no evidence for monarchy has been found among the remains of Teotihuacan, which had its magnificent heyday around 400 CE. After an early phase of monumental construction, which raised up the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, most of the city’s resources were channelled into a prodigious programme of public housing, providing multi-family apartments for its residents. Laid out on a uniform grid, these stone-built villas — with their finely plastered floors and walls, integral drainage facilities, and central courtyards — were available to citizens regardless of wealth, status, or ethnicity. Archaeologists at first considered them to be palaces, until they realised virtually the entire population of the city (all 100,000 of them) were living in such ‘palatial’ conditions.⁷

A millennium later, when Europeans first came to Mesoamerica, they found an urban civilisation of striking diversity. Kingship was ubiquitous in cities, but moderated by the power of urban wards known as calpolli, which took turns to fulfil the obligations of municipal government, distributing the highest offices among a broad sector of the altepetl (or city-state). Some cities veered towards absolutism, but others experimented with collective governance. Tlaxcalan, in the Valley of Puebla, went impressively far in the latter direction. On arrival, Cortés described a commercial arcadia, where the ‘order of government so far observed among the people resembles very much the republics of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa for there is no supreme overlord.’ Archaeology confirms the existence here of an indigenous republic, where the most imposing structures were not palaces or pyramid-temples, but the residences of ordinary citizens, constructed around district plazas to uniformly high standards, and raised up on grand earthen terraces.⁸

Contemporary archaeology shows that the ecology of early cities was also far more diverse, and less centralised than once believed. Small-scale gardening and animal keeping were often central to their economies, as were the resources of rivers and seas, and indeed the ongoing hunting and collecting of wild seasonal foods in forests or in marshes, depending on where in the world we happen to be.⁹ What we are gradually learning about history’s first city-dwellers is that they did not always leave a harsh footprint on the environment, or on each other; and there is a contemporary message here too. When today’s urbanites take to the streets, calling for the establishment of citizens’ assemblies to tackle issues of climate change, they are not going against the grain of history or social evolution, but with its flow. They are asking us to reclaim something of the spark of political creativity that first gave life to cities, in the hope of discerning a sustainable future for the planet we all share.

Farewell to the ‘Childhood of Man’
by Gyrus

[Robert] Lowie made similar arguments to [Pierre] Clastres, about conscious knowledge of hierarchies among hunter-gatherers. However, for reasons related to his concentration on Amazonian Indians, Clastres missed a crucial point in Lowie’s work. Lowie highlighted the fact that among many foragers, such as the Eskimos in the Arctic, egalitarianism and hierarchy exist within the same society at once, cycling from one to another through seasonal social gatherings and dispersals. Based on social responses to seasonal variations in the weather, and patterns in the migration of hunted animals, not to mention the very human urge to sometimes hang out with a lot of people and sometimes to get the hell away from them, foraging societies often create and then dismantle hierarchical arrangements on a year-by-year basis.

There seems to have been some confusion about exactly what the pattern was. Does hierarchy arise during gatherings? This would tally with sociologist Émile Durkheim’s famous idea that ‘the gods’ were a kind of primitive hypothesis personifying the emergent forces that social complexity brought about. People sensed the dynamics changing as they lived more closely in greater numbers, and attributed these new ‘transcendent’ dynamics to organised supernatural forces that bound society together. Religion and cosmology thus function as naive mystifications of social forces. Graeber detailed ethnographic examples where some kind of ‘police force’ arises during tribal gatherings, enforcing the etiquette and social expectations of the event, but returning to being everyday people when it’s all over.

But sometimes, the gatherings are occasions for the subversion of social order — as is well known in civilised festivals such as the Roman Saturnalia. Thus, the evidence seemed to be confusing, and the idea of seasonal variations in social order was neglected. After the ’60s, the dominant view became that ‘simple’ egalitarian hunter-gatherers were superseded by ‘complex’ hierarchical hunter-gatherers as a prelude to farming and civilisation.

Graeber and Wengrow argue that the evidence isn’t confusing: it’s simply that hunter-gatherers are far more politically sophisticated and experimental than we’ve realised. Many different variations, and variations on variations, have been tried over the vast spans of time that hunter-gatherers have existed (over 200,000 years, compared to the 12,000 or so years we know agriculture has been around). Clastres was right: people were never naive, and resistance to the formation of hierarchies is a significant part of our heritage. However, seasonal variations in social structures mean that hierarchies may never have been a ghostly object of resistance. They have probably been at least a temporary factor throughout our long history.1 Sometimes they functioned, in this temporary guise, to facilitate socially positive events — though experience of their oppressive possibilities usually encouraged societies to keep them in check, and prevent them from becoming fixed.

How does this analysis change our sense of the human story? In its simplest form, it moves the debate from ‘how and when did hierarchy arise?’ to ‘how and when did we get stuck in the hierarchical mode?’. But this is merely the first stage in what Graeber and Wengrow promise is a larger project, which will include analysis of the persistence of egalitarianism among early civilisations, usually considered to be ‘after the fall’ into hierarchy.

 

Midwestern Values of Community & the Common Good

Here is a video about a local shooting of a man in his home by an officer. You might think this would lead to outrage, but these Midwesterners in typical fashion are calm. Instead of outrage, they simply want resolution and understanding. That is the complete opposite reaction of what I’m used to seeing, especially in other parts of the country.

In my post about the North/South divide, I made an argument that there are cultural differences between Northern and Southern states. Specifically, I wrote about my experience of living in Iowa as compared to my experience living in South Carolina. One difference I noted was that Southerners tend to treat their family as their community and Northerners (or, at least, rural Midwesterners) tend to treat their communities as family.

In watching the above video, it jumped out to me how important ‘community’ was to these people. They explicitly talked about community rather than about individual people or individual families. This is an event they all are experiencing together. And it is an event that threatens the fabric of their community. To attack the officer for his actions would feel like an attack on the whole community.

These people may become more angry later if it turns out the shooting was unjustified or if the officer doesn’t act adequately remorseful. But, for now, their immediate concern is ensuring a sense of community is maintained.

This community-obsessed culture makes sense when you consider the history of the region. Small family farmers in these rural areas were extremely isolated early on when these towns first formed. They depended on and still depend on one another. This is the origin of Midwestern neighborliness.

It’s easy to forget communities like this still exist. This is the most clear example I’ve seen in a while.

It reminds me of the speech Zach Wahls gave. Zach is a native-born Iowan who was raised by gay parents. Some might find it strange that Iowa would be one of the first states to legalize gay marriage, but along with the community-centered culture there is an egalitarian sense of everyone deserving to be treated equal.

Zach naturally used a conservative defense of gay marriage. He didn’t portray his life as being special nor that he wanted special treatment. He didn’t portray himself as defending gay rights but as defending human rights. There is a conflict-avoidance in this attitude. It’s not us vs them but us together as a community (and society just being community on the largescale). Zach made it even more clear by stating that his family was a normal Iowan family and by describing himself as a hardworking Iowan. He said, “And if I was your son, Mr. Chairman, I believe I’d make you very proud.”

Growing up in the Midwest, this way of viewing the world is a part of my sense of reality. It’s not that Iowa doesn’t have it’s own ideologues that like to fear-monger and stir up trouble, but such people just seem against the grain of the culture here. They are more the exception than the rule. I made this argument in another post. As evidence I quoted a Tea Party speaker to show how different the Tea Party is in Iowa as compared to other states:

Doug Burnett, the event’s first speaker, urged the crowd to stress the positive rather than the negative.

“Let’s watch our words.  Thoughts become attitudes, attitudes become words and words become actions.  I hear too often people saying, ‘I’m scared.  I’m scared for my country. I’m scared for my way of life’ and I don’t doubt the sincerity of that sentiment, but I do question the accuracy of the words.

“Scared is negative.  It’s powerless.  It’s debilitating.  Scared is what happens when you wake up in the middle of the night to that bump, right?

“We’re frustrated.  We’re angry.  We’re concerned and trust me, many times I look at our elected leaders and I see the boogey man, but we are the Tea Party and we aren’t scared of anything.  Are you scared?  We don’t do scared.

“Think of words that are positive and accurate, like ‘I’m engaged. I’m empowered. I’m moved to action.’”

A Tea Party that is positive instead of fear-mongering. Watching the mainstream media, it’s hard to believe such a thing exists… and yet it does exist, at least here in Iowa. Even the Tea Party in Iowa isn’t interested in dividing the community.

Whether a defender of gay rights or member of the Tea Party, Iowans seek a common vision to unite the community. When something threatens that sense of community, the response is to bring community closer together.

The War on Democracy: a personal response

I wrote in my previous post about democracy, specifically the war on democracy. Both that post and this post are a continuation of my thoughts in my other recent posts: Is Classical Liberalism Liberal?, Political Labels – Meaningless? Divisive?, and Bashing My Head Against a Brick Wall: Love of Truth or Masochism?. The war on democracy is, in the final conclusion, a war on liberalism. Conservatives are often unwilling to acknowledge that America is a democracy at all. They think by denying the word they can make the reality go away.

I’ve been trying to grapple with the issue of ideologies and labels which can irritate me immensely at times. As a liberal, I often feel misunderstood living in a country where conservatism is portrayed as the norm, although the polling data seems to show that Americans are way more liberal than most mainstream pundits and politicians would prefer. To be a radically idealistic, freedom-loving, bleeding-heart liberal is to be forever discontented with the status quo of established power and authority, forever discontented with the forgetting of history’s horrors which leads to its repeating.

– – –

In my above mentioned previous post, I offered a simple answer to a problem often made complex by ideological debates and rhetoric. By offering that simple conclusion, I was questioning whether the problem actually was complex at all. Those with complex answers will seek to make the problem appear more complex than it is. As such, I was hoping to find the heart of the issue.

My basic point, in that previous post, was that democracy is more about people than politics, more about how humans can relate well to each other on the largescale of society. My suggestion was that, if we actually care about seeking solutions, we should begin with caring about people. Either you care about others or not. It’s that simple.

I’d also add that to the degree that you care about ideology (personal beliefs, political systems, religious dogmas, ethnocentric groupthink, etc) is the degree to which you don’t care about people. When we see people in terms of their place within society, as labels and categories, social roles and demographic data, as voters and citizens… when we see people as mere ‘other’, as strangers and foreigners, as objects and resources… when we see people as as ‘us’ vs ‘them’, as workers or unemployed, as rich or poor, as their religion or skin color, as part of or excluded from some group… when we do this, people become less in our eyes (and in our hearts). We lose our own humanity when we embrace labels and categories. And that is a very sad way to live one’s life.

This isn’t to say all labels and categories are always negative. They serve a function. In and of themselves, they are value neutral. However, labels and categories (when used without awareness and understanding) can easily lead to seeing the world through the filter of biases and preconceptions. This is how prejudice functions. Labels and categories are only dangerous when they are used in defense of an ideological worldview, a dogmatic reality tunnel.

– – –

In the rest of this post, I will continue some of those thoughts but in the context of more personal experience and feelings, along with some complaints, questions and ponderings of a less personal nature.

I acknowledge that everything I have written applies to myself as well. I’m all too aware of that fact. I know that I don’t live up to my own hopes and ideals. I often feel the attraction of what is offered by ideological righteousness, by ideological labels and categories. I feel weak in my sense of self and in my experience of the world. I feel weak because I feel isolated, because I feel disempowered and disenfranchised. I don’t feel part of a community, that my life is integrally significant to the life of those I interact with on a daily basis. Even so, it may be true that I’m more rooted to the place I live in than many people (which, if true, is a sad statement about the lives of many people). I love this town where friends and family live, where I’ve spent much of my life (although with many intermittent years spent living elsewhere). But I always feel a bit disconnected, a blurring of the edges between myself and the world around me.

Modern life makes it more difficult to deeply connect (which causes many people to cling even more to artificial group identities). We have busy lives, each person isolated in their respective activities and goals. So many people spend their entire lives moving around from place to place… chasing careers, chasing dreams… seeking to escape the sense of dissatisfaction and unease that haunts the modern soul. I’m as much a product of the modern world as anyone else. I grew up in a family that moved on a fairly regular basis… and following that I moved around for a number of years.

It’s not that I haven’t tried to find a community to be a part of. I choose to live in this town where I’m surrounded by memories, a place that feels like home. During a period of my life, I sought to find my niche in this community. I went to many churches and found one I liked to an extent. I socialized and volunteered. I found people I connected with and made some new friends. But in the end the effort was too taxing for an introvert like me. It takes a lot of effort to try to create, almost ex nihil, a sense of community in the modern world. This town, for example, is a college town. It’s probably a majority of the population that either attends or works for the university and the university hospital. It’s a very transient population with very few people who were born here and lived their entire lives here. In a place like this, people come and go.

My life isn’t unusual and the town I live in isn’t atypical. Most cities in urban and suburban areas are to varying degrees like this town. Most people live in larger cities with transient populations and most people have moved a number of times in their lives. It’s just the social norm of modern life and of American society.

– – –

This is the challenge we face.

Most of the evolution of the human species happened prior to modern society and so human nature isn’t designed to work optimally in large societies with concentrated populations. Well, to be more accurate, the problem didn’t just begin with modernism for the world we live in is merely the outgrowth of the first civilizations. The Axial Age religions were a response to the early urbanization of human society… which was when the human species first had to deal with the conflicts of cultural diversity, with the disintegration of traditional lifestyles, with challenges to ancient religious authority.

The reason Buddha and Jesus preached universal love and forgiveness,  unreserved acceptance and compassion for all (even strangers, even criminals, even prostitutes… heck, even the rich) is because the rise of civilization was stretching the limits of human nature. Humans are mostly just capable of identifying with and sympathizing with a very small group of people who they know intimately. In many ways, this is as true today as it was millennia ago.

However, humans didn’t stop evolving after civilization began. If anything, evolution quickened because civilization allowed the simultaneous mixing of diverse genetics and the concentrating of certain genetics. We can see the results of this today with the fact that liberals tend to gravitate toward cities and conservatives tend to gravitate toward rural areas. There is a theory that liberalism is a newer trait in human evolution which intuitively makes sense to me and which seems to accord with some data I’m familiar with.

A major difference between conservatives and liberals, as shown in psychological research, is that: (1) the former tends to respond with fear and disgust when faced with the new and different, the unusual and foreign (one particular study showed conservatives feeling disgust toward rotten fruit which, from a liberal perspective, seems like an oddly strong response toward such a harmless object); and (2) the latter is more open to new experiences, new ideas, new possibilities and, as such, more sympathetic to the plights of those perceived as being outside of the norms and standards of any given society (strangers, foreigners, criminals, drug addicts, the poor, and the homeless; those who challenge authority figures, those who don’t submit to traditional rules of behavior, those who are ostracized, and those who are considered to be at fault for their own problems).

There is nothing wrong with the conservative attitude in and of itself. In a traditional society, such an attitude was beneficial and even necessary. But such an attitude, by itself or in aggressive opposition, doesn’t serve us well in a global society and we presently have no choice but to live in a global society, unless someone wishes to either seek the destruction of civilization or else colonize space. Even the few remaining isolated indigenous people can’t avoid the effects of modern society in that they are forced to drink water and breathe air that has become polluted, forced to depend on food sources that become increasingly scarce, forced to deal with new and deadly diseases introduced by foreigners, and are forced to constantly retreat from encroaching poachers, loggers, farmers, miners, missionaries, soldiers, bureaucrats, and others.

All humans (of all persuasions, in all places) are forced to adapt to a changing world. There is no conservative paradise where everything is frozen in some idyllic moment in time.

The Axial Age prophets like Jesus preached an essentially liberal vision, and radically liberal at that. Jesus was a leftwing loon of his era. The Axial Age prophets taught that we should treat all others as we would want to be treated; that we shouldn’t judge others according to ethnocentrism, class divisions, and other social norms; that one’s spiritual family was more important than one’s traditional nuclear family (that the water of baptismal rebirth was stronger than blood). The liberal ideals of egalitarianism and compassion (i.e., bleeding heart liberalism) are at the core of all civilization because only such ideals can counteract the negative side effects of building a civilization. Unless civilization collapses and we return to small traditional communities, we will have to come to terms with these liberal ideals.

– – –

This isn’t about liberal ideology defeating conservative ideology. I’m not saying conservatism doesn’t have it’s place, but I am saying that liberalism is increasingly necessary.

Even conservatives today are more ‘liberal’ than conservatives a few centuries ago. It’s all relative. Conservativism and liberalism exist on a spectrum which is always shifting. Conflict is only perceived when the middle of the spectrum is ignored and when history is ignored. The liberalism of one era becomes the conservatism of the next era. This is particularly confusing for American society. As Gunnar Myrdal explained, “America is conservative in fundamental principles… but the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical.”

American conservatives may be an extreme example, but they may not be highly unusual. Jesus challenged the conservatives of his day (the social norms, the political status quo, the traditional religiosity of Judaism, etc) and yet has been embraced by the conservatives of later generations. Once Jesus was dead, he was safe for being turned into an idol, sterilized of radicalism. Similarly, classical liberalism is safe for conservatives today because it’s an ideology from the past, i.e., a dead ideology. A liberal ideal or vision, if successful, eventually becomes a set of dogmatic beliefs or other ideological system. Once that happens, liberals leave it behind and conservatives will then defend it (as a defense against the next new thing that liberals seek out). As such, every conservative principle began as a liberal ideal because every tradition began as a challenge to a former tradition.

Liberalism ultimately isn’t ideological because ideology closes down the mind which is the opposite of the liberal impulse. Liberalism is the impulse toward ever greater inclusion, acceptance, and openness. This liberal vision is idealistic but it isn’t ideology. Jesus wasn’t preaching politics. In fact, Jesus put no faith in politics whatsoever.

Maybe this is why liberal ideals can be placed in the context of any ideology, including conservative ideologies. The liberal impulse, by nature, will seek to expand any ideology to be ever more inclusive. Even the most righteously dogmatic Christian fundamentalism can’t entirely obscure the radical vision contained in Jesus’ own words and actions. Christians, no matter their ideology, can be inspired by these ideals. Liberals don’t own these ideals. This liberal vision isn’t liberal ideology. Liberalism, as a general concept, is defined ‘liberally’ because liberalism is expansive, ever reaching beyond divisions, reaching even beyond the status quo of liberal ideology. There is no and can be no definitive explanation of what liberalism is in specific terms for liberalism challenges limiting definitions, all definitions being limiting to some degree. The moment a liberal vision becomes an ideology it becomes less liberal, i.e., more conservative (to defend an ideology is to seek to ‘conserve’ that ideology).

That is the power of the liberal vision which is an inclusive vision, aspiring toward inclusion of all people even conservatives. It’s the same as Jesus preaching a universal message that applied to all people, even those who weren’t his followers, even those who actively opposed him (i.e., forgiving one’s enemies). There is no greater, no more radical vision of liberalism than this. And the most radical liberal vision of all is anarchism, both political and epistemological anarchism, because this is the extreme endpoint of the liberal desire for liberation, for liberty. Jesus’ refusal to acknowledge any earthly authority was a form of anarchism.

In the larger sphere of society, this liberal vision is basically the same as what is called ‘social democracy’. You can make it complicated with theory and with specialized terminology, but the ideals of freedom and egalitarianism are very simple. Even a child can understand these ideals. Even a child wants to be treated fairly. Children tend to be natural liberals because everyone is born with an openness to experience, a desire to explore, an endless curiosity. A child is just being a good liberal when he endlessly asks, ‘Why?’ And, when given an answer, asks ‘Why?’ again.

– – –

It might seem like I’m getting a bit abstract or speculative here, but this relates to the personal for me.

I’m someone with a liberal predisposition. I feel strongly and I empathize easily. I care about others, even random strangers on the street or in the news. I’m a bleeding heart liberal. I don’t want to live in a society of blame, of ‘us’ vs ‘them’. I intellectually can understand that those with conservative predispositions are less likely to see the world this way, but in my heart I can’t understand.

From my (biased) perspective, liberal values seem to be the only way we will avoid collective self-destruction. Sure, if civilization collapses, the human species can return to it’s conservative roots. But I would hope that even conservatives aren’t seeking the destruction of civilization merely because it would benefit the predominance of the conservative worldview. It’s true that, during times of societal conflict and violence, the conservative worldview becomes persuasive and hence popular. However, any conservative who promotes a vision of conflict or incites violence in order to achieve this end has become cynical to the point of utter moral depravity. I hope most conservatives are above such realpolitik games of hatred and fear.

Also, I’d like to believe that empathy and compassion aren’t merely liberal values. Everyone has some capacity for empathy and compassion… well, everyone except psycopaths. It’s not that conservatives are heartless, but research has shown that conservatism as a trait predisposes one to have less capacity for empathy and compassion (relative to liberalism as a trait)… or rather they have a more limited, narrow focus of their empathy and compassion, less empathy and compassion for those not perceived as part of their group. But are these attitudes inevitable and predetermined? Are people just born one way or another?

The question is whether people, all people, have the potential to develop more empathy and compassion. If we are fatalistically determined by our genetics and our early upbringing, then maybe our only or best hope is that there will be an evolutionary leap. The problem is we can’t exactly plan for and depend on an evolutionary leap happening. But how else will change happen in society unless some fundamental transformation happens within human nature? Isn’t such a radical transformation what was being envisioned, even prophesied by some, during the Axial Age? Is there a way that we as a human species can manifest on a global level our potential for empathy and compassion? Is Jesus’ inspiring message of love a real potential or merely an empty dream? Isn’t there a way conservatives can maintain their conservative values while also stretching the comfort zone of their ability to empathize and be compassionate toward others, especially those different than them?

The conservative impulse is to identify with their group, their religion, their tradition, their culture, their ethnicitiy, their nation, etc. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but I’d like to believe that this group identity can be expanded to include all humans. But do we have to wait for an alien invasion before we have an enemy ‘other’ that will force all humans to identify as a collective humanity with a collective fate?

– – –

This is the problem I face.

I can, like Jesus, preach about love and compassion. But, as a liberal, I’ll mostly be preaching to the choir.

Is there a way to translate liberal values into conservative terms? Is there a way to translate conservative values into a larger and more inclusive global context? I don’t want to blame conservatives any more than I want to blame the rich. I don’t want to blame anyone, to exclude certain people or groups (because they are different, because they don’t conform to my values, because they don’t agree with my ideology). However, what am I to do if, as a liberal, conservatives want to blame and exclude me? And what am I to do if, as a working class person, the rich want to blame and exclude me? How does one persuade others toward an inclusive vision if their own vision opposes it? If someone doesn’t care about the poor living in slums or oppressed people living in developing countries, I can’t force them to care. I have a hard enough time convincing myself to care and not give into cynicism.

I hate this situation. It’s the eternal conundrum of being a liberal, the desire for universal values that transcend mere ideology… while, no matter what liberals desire, conservatives will still just see it as liberal ideology for the lense through which conservatives see everything is ideology. Liberals are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The desire to include those who desire to exclude you. The desire to treat others fairly and equally who don’t desire to return the favor. The desire to compromise with those who see compromise as moral weakness and failure. The desire for compassion even of those who choose prejudice and blame. Between openness and conformity, between idealism and ideology, why is it so often the latter that wins? I realize Jesus said my reward would be in heaven, but it would be nice to see a bit of heaven on earth.

I just don’t understand. Why are empathy and compassion often perceived by many as almost entirely exclusive traits of bleeding heart liberals? Why is unreservedly caring about others deemed to be a mere liberal agenda? And why do conservatives believe unreservedly caring about others will destroy society? Aren’t empathy and compassion traits found in all normal (i.e., psychologically healthy) people?

How can any ideology (whether religious, political or economic) be seen as trumping the basic human value of caring about others? How can conservative Christians continue to ignore Jesus’ message of love which, according to Jesus himself, trumps the oppressive Old Testament laws of hatred and divisiveness, of fear and vindictiveness, of blame and guilt, of retribution and scapegoating? Jesus never asked if the blind or sick person had the money to pay for being healed, never asked if people were deserving before he fed them, never asked if someone was to blame before dispelling the demons that were possessing them. Jesus simply acted compassionately in response to suffering. Jesus wasn’t acting according to ideology. Jesus wasn’t preaching about meritocracy or a free market, wasn’t preaching about constitutional republics or political revolutions, wasn’t preaching about traditional values and norms.

Why aren’t there bleeding heart conservatives? Why do compassionate conservatives seem lacking in compassion toward anyone who doesn’t conform to their own ideological agenda? And, when conservatives do help those in need, why is their attitude typically that of condescension and superiority as if the needy person should feel lucky that the well off conservative didn’t leave them to starve to death or to freeze alone under a bridge? Yes, I’m speaking of the extreme variety of conservatives, but I speak of them because this is also the extremely vocal variety of conservatives who vocally defend conservatism.

If we as a society are going to ignore Jesus’ radical message of love, then we should stop calling ourselves a Christian nation (not that Jesus would approve of nationalism in any form, especially not in his name). If being a Christian nation wasn’t mere ethnocentric nationalism and instead meant being a nation of love and forgiveness, a nation of acceptance and inclusion, a nation of helping the poor and needy, then maybe I (along with many liberals, atheists, and non-Christians) wouldn’t take such issue with this prideful labeling of America.

– – –

It’s become increasingly clear, with events over the past decade, how interconnected is the global society. What one person, one group, one corporation, or one government does, effects people all over the world. We can’t continue to live pretending we are independent and isolated. We benefit and suffer because of the choices made by others. No one succeeds or fails simply based on their personal merits.

Poverty exists despite there being plenty of wealth in the world to allow everyone to live a decent life. Homelessness exists despite the resources being available to provide everyone basic shelter. Starvation exists despite there being enough food to feed everyone in the world. Many diseases continue to exist and proliferate despite there being known cures. The amount of money that the US government alone spends on international meddling (wars, military bases, CIA, propaganda programs, etc) probably would be enough to build schools, hospitals, health care clinics, and food banks in every city in the world. Most of the oppression and suffering in the world exists because of decisions made by other people, usually not by those who are oppressed and suffer. People born into poverty, homelessness, and hunger don’t deserve those conditions because of some personal failure. People living in war zones aren’t responsible for nations fighting over the resources that happen to exist in the ground beneath their homes. People born black in America aren’t to be blamed for the history of prejudice which is still being imposed upon them.

What we choose to do (what we buy, how we vote, who we donate to) or what we choose not to do (injustices we ignore, prejudices we accept, suffering we don’t seek to end) isn’t just a personal choice. Every action is public because the results of our actions are collective. We are forced to be responsible for each other, whether or not we accept that responsibility. If we walk past someone who is homeless or hungry, they remain homeless or hungry because we choose to allow such conditions to continue. We may not consciously realize we’ve made a decision, but that doesn’t change the fact that a decision was made.

– – –

I’m complicit in all of these failings and problems. That is what pisses me off.

I want to live in a society of people who care. I want to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. It’s been said that we need to be the change we want to see. But I can’t get rid of the feeling that all actions seem futile, that nothing is ever going to change for the good. Despite all the superficial progress, the world just keeps getting worse in so many ways.

I’ve nearly lost all hope for the future, all faith in humanity. Part of me still wants to care and yet another part of me wants to give up. I just don’t know. What is the point? Change seems potentially so easy in that there is nothing stopping change besides ourselves (“We have met the enemy and he is us”). We are individually of no significance, but collectively almost anything is possible. The problem is that collective action too often is fueled by ignorance and fear-mongering, propaganda and herd mentality.

It may be true that, “United we stand, divided we fall.” But, even if united, are we united in anything worthy?

As someone raised as a Christian, how do I live up to Jesus’ radical vision?

As an American, how do I live up to Thomas Paine’s radical vision?

What can any of us do about such radical visions? What is the practical value of such inspiring idealism?

The War on Democracy: a simple answer

I have a relatively simple thought I want to share about democracy. It’s somewhat in the context of my recent thoughts about Thomas Paine’s vision of America, but it’s directly inspired by my having just watched the John Pilger’s documentary ‘The War on Democracy’.

Democracy is a potential that has yet to fully manifest in American politics and in international politics, partly because the US and other global superpowers have often gone out of their way to crush emerging democracies. Watching Pilger’s documentary, I became aware that it’s not an issue of creating the right political system or the right economic system. Merely having elections doesn’t a democracy make. A political system can’t be free. Only people can be free. This is also why a free market makes no sense. Many systems can be claimed as free, but the measure is whether or not the people are free. A system can’t make people free. Only people can demand their own freedom and they must do it collectively (freedom for all or freedom for none). And only free people can make systems that serve freedom.

This is why partisanship and ideological debate is meaningless. It doesn’t matter what inspiring rhetoric is spewed by a politician even if well-meaning. It doesn’t matter what argument can be made for why any particular system should work better. Everyone has there own arguments that they are convinced by… and yet such debate and ideological posturing hasn’t led to real democracy. What is forgotten is that a system isn’t an abstract model to be enforced onto people. A system is created by people. A system merely represents the way people relate to one another.

Democracy is ultimately more about how an entire society (in all aspects, on all levels) functions and not just about politics. If there isn’t grassroots organization in communities and in workplaces, then there can be no democracy. Grassroots organization directly relates to egalitarianism because such foundations of democracy can’t operate in a class-based society. And a class-based society will always exist where there is inequality of wealth and power, an inequality of opportunities and justice, and inequality of freedom and rights.

In our present global society, we have a class-based society that maintains its power and wealth through constant class war (and often actual war as well, along with coups and propaganda). In America which is the wealthiest nation in the world, a quarter of the population lives in poverty while a small percentage controls most of the government, media, and means of production. It’s corporatism because there is no clear division between the public and private sectors. A revolving door exists between big business and big government. That is the tricky part because no single person or single sector or single anything can be blamed. It’s a whole class of people who are in collusion, whether directly or indirectly, by shared interests. Getting rid of one aspect would just shift the problem to another aspect. Limiting the power of corrupt politicians would just increase the power of corrupt capitalists, and vice versa. It’s a social problem, not a political or economic problem.

Arguing about ideology just ends up helping to perpetuate the problem. We have to look at it on the level of real humans. This means we have to begin with empathy and compassion. We can’t just think what will help me and my own. Rather, we have to consider what will help all. It may seem naive, but it’s the vision that Paine wrote about and it’s the vision that inspired the American Revolution. Paine saw this as not just a battle for Americans gaining national self-control. What Paine hoped for was a global revolution that would spread from country to country until all people were free. When the US government (often with the support of Americans) attack other countries claiming to defend their own freedom, they are actually destroying their own freedom. The greatest insight Paine had was that we can only have the rights we are willing to allow others. Research shows that even the rich are better off in societies that have less economic inequality. The wealthy elite have been waging a class war, but they don’t realize they are destroying the society they are a part of. No walled community will keep them safe forever.

It’s not about just blaming the rich. The elite are able to rule because the majority allows them to. People have to demand freedom which is a hard thing to do in a society whose population is kept ignorant and isolated. All people need to wake up, rich and poor alike. Class war can’t be ended by more class war. We must end the ignorance by increasing the sharing of knowledge. We must end isolation by creating a strong sense of community where people understand that there fate is tied with the fate of all. Changing society is probably a lot easier than it seems. Fear and apathy is what holds us back. If people were to wake up for just a moment, to see clearly with their own eyes, to feel fully with their own hearts, society would transform over night. The problems of society are right in front of us every day. We walk by pretending not to notice, pretending to be mature adults with our cynicism and realpolitik.

We, as a species, are at a critical juncture. We either collectively wake up and embrace democratic values (which simply means caring about other people) or we’ll keep going down this path of collective self-destruction. But few people want to face the obvious, to see the writing on the wall. The answer is simple, assuming people actually want an answer. It’s a choice between caring or not caring… between caring about others, all others or not, between caring about society or not, between caring about the environment or not, between caring about the fate of future generations or not. You can always choose selfishness and greed, you can always choose ideological righteousness or ethnocentrism, but your neighbors and your grandchildren will suffer horribly for your sins… and, depending on how long you live, you might get the opportunity to suffer for your own sins as well. If we don’t change our ways, the inevitable results won’t be desirable even for the richest of the rich. I don’t envy future generations.

The United States of Inequality

 

This is a long video, but it’s a very important topic. The video brings together a lot of data and analysis. I highly recommend watching it.

The fundamental issue isn’t solutions per se but rather what helped to create a situation that is so in need of solutions. It wasn’t accidental. This is the result of specific policies and market factors which have been a part of a class war that has been going on for a long time.

I gained some insight about this when I saw psychological research showing that social inequality tends to bother liberals and tends not to bother conservatives. To the conservative mindset (in its most extreme form), there is no problem and so no solution is needed. There is no point in talking about solutions if we can’t agree that there is even a problem.

I wrote about some of the psychological research in recent posts:

Right Vs Left: Personality Differences

Violence vs Empathy, Indifference vs Unhappiness

Also, I think insight is to be found in the analysis of George Lakoff which I’ve mentioned before:

National Debt, Starve the Beast, & Wealth Disparity

George Lakoff, Moral Politics, pp 194-6:

The conservative political agenda, for example, is not merely to cut the cost of government. The conservative agenda, as we shall see, is a moral agenda, just as the liberal agenda is.

Consider, for example, the issue of the deficit. How did it get so large?

Liberals like to think of Ronald Reagan as stupid. Whether he was or not, those around him certainly were not. While constantly attacking liberals as big spenders, the Reagan and Bush administrations added three trillion dollars to the national debt by drastically increasing military spending while cutting taxes for the rich. They could count; they saw the deficit increasing. They blamed the increases on liberal spending, but Reagan did not veto every spending bill. Moreover, Reagan’s own actions acounted for much of the deficit increase. Had financial responsibility and the lessening of spending been Reagan’s top priorities, he would not have allowed such an increase in the defiicit, simply by not cutting taxes and not pushing for a military buildup far beyond the Pentagon’s requests.

While the deficit was increasing, there was a vast shift of wealth away from the lower and middle classes toward the rich. Liberals, cyncally, saw this shift as Reagan and Bush making their friends and their political suporters rich. Certainly that was the effect. It is hardly new for the friends of supporters of politicians in power to get rich. This is usually seen as immorality and corruption, and with good reason. Many liberals saw Reagan that way.

But Ronald Reagan did not consider himself as immoral. Certainly he and his staff could tell that their policies were producing vast increases in the deficit, when they had come into office promising a balanced budget. Reagan was not forced to pursue deficit-increasing policies. Why did he do so?

I would like to suggest that he pursued deficit-increasing policies in the service of what he saw as overriding Moral goals: (1) Building up the military to protect America from the evil empire of Soviet communism. (2) Lowering Taxes for the rich, so that enterprise was rewarded not punished. Interestingly, for President Reagan as for any good conservative, these policies, however different on the surface, were instances of the same underlying principle: the Morality of Reward and Punishment.

What was evil in Soviet communism, for Reagan as for other conservatives, was not just totalitarianism. Certainly Soviet totalitarianism was evil, but the U.S. had supported capitalist totalitarian dictatorships willingly while overthrowing a democratically elected communist government in Chile. The main evil of communism for Reagan, as for most conservatives, was that it stifled free enterprise. Since communism did not allow for free markets (open to Western companies) or for financially rewarding entrepreneurship, it violated the basis of the Strict Father moral system: the Morality of Punishment and Reward.

Adding three trillion dollars to the deficit actually served a moral purpose for Ronald Reagan. It meant that, sooner or later, the deficit would force an elimination of social programs. He knew perfectly well that the military budget would never be seriously cut, and that a major increase in tax revenues to eliminate the deficit would never be agreed upon. In the long run, the staggering deficit would actually serve Strict Father morality – conservative morality – by forcing Congress to cut social programs. From the perspective of Strict Father morality, Ronald Reagan looks moral and smart, not immoral and dumb as many liberals believe.

Shakers: Socialists & Capitalists

I was listening to an interview on the radio last night. It was about a legal battle that happened a couple centuries ago in the US. A man joined the Shakers and took his children with him, but his wife didn’t want to join the Shakers. She sought to get a divorce and get her children back. At the time, it was hard for a woman get a divorce. She did finally succeed and it set an important precedent.

The history of this incident was interesting, but I was more just fascinated by the Shakers themselves. I’m already somewhat familiar with them. My great grandfather was raised in a Shaker orphanage and some years ago I visited a Shaker village. Of course, there were all kinds of religious communities in early American history, but there are several things that make the Shakers stand out in my mind.

They believed in abstinence and in not bringing more children into the world, but they did have orphanages where they took in other people’s children and where the children of new members were raised. They believed living a simple life. They farmed together and lived together, men on one side of the hall and women on the other side. They believed in equality which was impressive for the time. Women were considered equal to men and blacks were considered equal to whites. At the time of the legal incident, the Shakers had as their leader a woman. She was the most powerful woman in the US. Most women had no rights at all, but she was the head of a national organization which was quite powerful and wealthy. The Shakers were more than a century ahead of the rest of the country when it came to civil rights.

Here is the interesting part. They lived a communal life and so were socialists. Christians from the beginning have always been attracted to socialism, from early Christian communities (which valued equality like the Shakers did) to Catholic monasteries. However, in America, we always like to think of socialism as being alien to our culture. But Shakers were as American as any other group. Many like to say that socialism can’t work and it’s true the Shakers have mostly died out by now, but that is mostly because they didn’t have children which creates a minor problem in sustaining the Shaker lifestyle. In their heyday, they were wealthy and this partly came about because new members gave all their money and property to the Shakers. Still, the Shakers didn’t merely live off of the wealth of new members.

They were a very successful community. They were leaders in the field of agriculture. They were technologically innovative and they produced some of the best seeds in the entire US which other farmers would buy from them. Even though they were socialists among themselves, they were capitalists within larger society. They didn’t merely isolate themselves.

I just thought this was interesting. The example of the Shakers goes against the assumptions of conservatives, libertarians and objectivists. Socialism and capitalism are seen as opposed, but China has proven that this is not the case even on the level of global markets. Socialism and capitalism not only weren’t opposed but seemed to operate in balance within the Shaker community. How could socialists living in a commune be among the greatest technological innovators of their time? It goes against everything most Americans believe… and yet such a community did exist.

Also, they didn’t just produce innovative technology and high quality seeds. They also produced very skilled people. As I said, my great grandfather was raised by Shakers. He learned how to care for plants. When he left the Shakers, he got a job as the head groundskeeper on the estate of a very wealthy family. A child raised by the Shakers was better educated and better prepared to be successful than most Americans were in the past. My great grandfather came from a poor family which is why he was given to the Shakers to be raised. Many poor children today in the US would be lucky if Shaker orphanages were still around.

In conclusion, I’d just like to say that Glenn Beck can put that in his pipe and smoke it.