Paradoxes of State and Civilization Narratives

Below is a passage from a recent book by James C. Scott, Against the Grain.

The book is about agriculture, sedentism, and early statism. The author questions the standard narrative. In doing so, he looks more closely at what the evidence actually shows us about civilization, specifically in terms of supposed collapses and dark ages (elsewhere in the book, he also discusses how non-state ‘barbarians’ are connected to, influenced by, and defined according to states).

Oddly, Scott never mentions Göbekli Tepe. It is an ancient archaeological site that offers intriguing evidence of civilization preceding and hence not requiring agriculture, sedentism, or statism. As has been said of it, “First came the temple, then the city.” That would seem to fit into the book’s framework.

The other topic not mentioned, less surprisingly, is Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism. Jaynes’ view might complicate Scott’s interpretations. Scott goes into great detail about domestication and slavery, specifically in the archaic civilizations such as first seen with the walled city-states. But Jaynes pointed out that authoritarianism as we know it didn’t seem to exist early on, as the bicameral mind made social conformity possible through non-individualistic identity and collective experience (explained in terms of the hypothesis of archaic authorization).

Scott’s focus is more on external factors. From perusing the book, he doesn’t seem to fully take into account social science research, cultural studies, anthropology, philology, etc. The thesis of the book could have been further developed by exploring other areas, although maybe the narrow focus is useful for emphasizing the central point about agriculture. There is a deeper issue, though, that the author does touch upon. What does it mean to be a domesticated human? After all, that is what civilization is about.

He does offer an interesting take on human domestication. Basically, he doesn’t see that most humans ever take the yoke of civilization willingly. There must be systems of force and control in place to make people submit. I might agree, even as I’m not sure that this is the central issue. It’s less about how people submit in body than how they submit in mind. Whether or not we are sheep, there is no shepherd. Even the rulers of the state are sheep.

The temple comes first. Before civilization proper, before walled city-states, before large-scale settlement, before agriculture, before even pottery, there was a temple. What does the temple represent?

* * *

Against the Grain
by James C. Scott
pp. 22-27

PARADOXES OF STATE AND CIVILIZATION NARRATIVES

A foundational question underlying state formation is how we ( Homo sapiens sapiens ) came to live amid the unprecedented concentrations of domesticated plants, animals, and people that characterize states. From this wide-angle view, the state form is anything but natural or given. Homo sapiens appeared as a subspecies about 200,000 years ago and is found outside of Africa and the Levant no more than 60,000 years ago. The first evidence of cultivated plants and of sedentary communities appears roughly 12,000 years ago. Until then—that is to say for ninety-five percent of the human experience on earth—we lived in small, mobile, dispersed, relatively egalitarian, hunting-and-gathering bands. Still more remarkable, for those interested in the state form, is the fact that the very first small, stratified, tax-collecting, walled states pop up in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley only around 3,100 BCE, more than four millennia after the first crop domestications and sedentism. This massive lag is a problem for those theorists who would naturalize the state form and assume that once crops and sedentism, the technological and demographic requirements, respectively, for state formation were established, states/empires would immediately arise as the logical and most efficient units of political order. 4

These raw facts trouble the version of human prehistory that most of us (I include myself here) have unreflectively inherited. Historical humankind has been mesmerized by the narrative of progress and civilization as codified by the first great agrarian kingdoms. As new and powerful societies, they were determined to distinguish themselves as sharply as possible from the populations from which they sprang and that still beckoned and threatened at their fringes. In its essentials, it was an “ascent of man” story. Agriculture, it held, replaced the savage, wild, primitive, lawless, and violent world of hunter-gatherers and nomads. Fixed-field crops, on the other hand, were the origin and guarantor of the settled life, of formal religion, of society, and of government by laws. Those who refused to take up agriculture did so out of ignorance or a refusal to adapt. In virtually all early agricultural settings the superiority of farming was underwritten by an elaborate mythology recounting how a powerful god or goddess entrusted the sacred grain to a chosen people.

Once the basic assumption of the superiority and attraction of fixed-field farming over all previous forms of subsistence is questioned, it becomes clear that this assumption itself rests on a deeper and more embedded assumption that is virtually never questioned. And that assumption is that sedentary life itself is superior to and more attractive than mobile forms of subsistence. The place of the domus and of fixed residence in the civilizational narrative is so deep as to be invisible; fish don’t talk about water! It is simply assumed that weary Homo sapiens couldn’t wait to finally settle down permanently, could not wait to end hundreds of millennia of mobility and seasonal movement. Yet there is massive evidence of determined resistance by mobile peoples everywhere to permanent settlement, even under relatively favorable circumstances. Pastoralists and hunting-and-gathering populations have fought against permanent settlement, associating it, often correctly, with disease and state control. Many Native American peoples were confined to reservations only on the heels of military defeat. Others seized historic opportunities presented by European contact to increase their mobility, the Sioux and Comanche becoming horseback hunters, traders, and raiders, and the Navajo becoming sheep-based pastoralists. Most peoples practicing mobile forms of subsistence—herding, foraging, hunting, marine collecting, and even shifting cultivation—while adapting to modern trade with alacrity, have bitterly fought permanent settlement. At the very least, we have no warrant at all for supposing that the sedentary “givens” of modern life can be read back into human history as a universal aspiration. 5

The basic narrative of sedentism and agriculture has long survived the mythology that originally supplied its charter. From Thomas Hobbes to John Locke to Giambattista Vico to Lewis Henry Morgan to Friedrich Engels to Herbert Spencer to Oswald Spengler to social Darwinist accounts of social evolution in general, the sequence of progress from hunting and gathering to nomadism to agriculture (and from band to village to town to city) was settled doctrine. Such views nearly mimicked Julius Caesar’s evolutionary scheme from households to kindreds to tribes to peoples to the state (a people living under laws), wherein Rome was the apex, with the Celts and then the Germans ranged behind. Though they vary in details, such accounts record the march of civilization conveyed by most pedagogical routines and imprinted on the brains of schoolgirls and schoolboys throughout the world. The move from one mode of subsistence to the next is seen as sharp and definitive. No one, once shown the techniques of agriculture, would dream of remaining a nomad or forager. Each step is presumed to represent an epoch-making leap in mankind’s well-being: more leisure, better nutrition, longer life expectancy, and, at long last, a settled life that promoted the household arts and the development of civilization. Dislodging this narrative from the world’s imagination is well nigh impossible; the twelve-step recovery program required to accomplish that beggars the imagination. I nevertheless make a small start here.

It turns out that the greater part of what we might call the standard narrative has had to be abandoned once confronted with accumulating archaeological evidence. Contrary to earlier assumptions, hunters and gatherers—even today in the marginal refugia they inhabit—are nothing like the famished, one-day-away-from-starvation desperados of folklore. Hunters and gathers have, in fact, never looked so good—in terms of their diet, their health, and their leisure. Agriculturalists, on the contrary, have never looked so bad—in terms of their diet, their health, and their leisure. 6 The current fad of “Paleolithic” diets reflects the seepage of this archaeological knowledge into the popular culture. The shift from hunting and foraging to agriculture—a shift that was slow, halting, reversible, and sometimes incomplete—carried at least as many costs as benefits. Thus while the planting of crops has seemed, in the standard narrative, a crucial step toward a utopian present, it cannot have looked that way to those who first experienced it: a fact some scholars see reflected in the biblical story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

The wounds the standard narrative has suffered at the hands of recent research are, I believe, life threatening. For example, it has been assumed that fixed residence—sedentism—was a consequence of crop-field agriculture. Crops allowed populations to concentrate and settle, providing a necessary condition for state formation. Inconveniently for the narrative, sedentism is actually quite common in ecologically rich and varied, preagricultural settings—especially wetlands bordering the seasonal migration routes of fish, birds, and larger game. There, in ancient southern Mesopotamia (Greek for “between the rivers”), one encounters sedentary populations, even towns, of up to five thousand inhabitants with little or no agriculture. The opposite anomaly is also encountered: crop planting associated with mobility and dispersal except for a brief harvest period. This last paradox alerts us again to the fact that the implicit assumption of the standard narrative—namely that people couldn’t wait to abandon mobility altogether and “settle down”—may also be mistaken.

Perhaps most troubling of all, the civilizational act at the center of the entire narrative: domestication turns out to be stubbornly elusive. Hominids have, after all, been shaping the plant world—largely with fire—since before Homo sapiens. What counts as the Rubicon of domestication? Is it tending wild plants, weeding them, moving them to a new spot, broadcasting a handful of seeds on rich silt, depositing a seed or two in a depression made with a dibble stick, or ploughing? There appears to be no “aha!” or “Edison light bulb” moment. There are, even today, large stands of wild wheat in Anatolia from which, as Jack Harlan famously showed, one could gather enough grain with a flint sickle in three weeks to feed a family for a year. Long before the deliberate planting of seeds in ploughed fields, foragers had developed all the harvest tools, winnowing baskets, grindstones, and mortars and pestles to process wild grains and pulses. 7 For the layman, dropping seeds in a prepared trench or hole seems decisive. Does discarding the stones of an edible fruit into a patch of waste vegetable compost near one’s camp, knowing that many will sprout and thrive, count?

For archaeo-botanists, evidence of domesticated grains depended on finding grains with nonbrittle rachis (favored intentionally and unintentionally by early planters because the seedheads did not shatter but “waited for the harvester”) and larger seeds. It now turns out that these morphological changes seem to have occurred well after grain crops had been cultivated. What had appeared previously to be unambiguous skeletal evidence of fully domesticated sheep and goats has also been called into question. The result of these ambiguities is twofold. First, it makes the identification of a single domestication event both arbitrary and pointless. Second, it reinforces the case for a very, very long period of what some have called “low-level food production” of plants not entirely wild and yet not fully domesticated either. The best analyses of plant domestication abolish the notion of a singular domestication event and instead argue, on the basis of strong genetic and archaeological evidence, for processes of cultivation lasting up to three millennia in many areas and leading to multiple, scattered domestications of most major crops (wheat, barley, rice, chick peas, lentils). 8

While these archaeological findings leave the standard civilizational narrative in shreds, one can perhaps see this early period as part of a long process, still continuing, in which we humans have intervened to gain more control over the reproductive functions of the plants and animals that interest us. We selectively breed, protect, and exploit them. One might arguably extend this argument to the early agrarian states and their patriarchal control over the reproduction of women, captives, and slaves. Guillermo Algaze puts the matter even more boldly: “Early Near Eastern villages domesticated plants and animals. Uruk urban institutions, in turn, domesticated humans.” 9

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Cryptonomicon: Democracy & Moderation, Conflict & Violence

I’m not going to do a full review, much less a fair and neutral analysis, of Cryptonomicon. The book is large with multiple storylines, one of which involves World War II. The passage that caught my attention, however, comes from the storyline set in the late 1990s when the book was written. Before I get to that passage, let me make note of the worldview of the novel and of the author’s other novels.

I’m going to take a partly critical view on Neal Stephenson’s work or at least aspects therein, but I’m not trying to dismiss his work. I enjoyed Snow Crash, in particular. It felt like a very plausible future in many ways. Stephenson can be a fun writer to read. He is imaginative. So, my purpose here isn’t to do a review of Cryptonomicon or literary criticism of his ouevre. I simply want to use his writing as a way of offering cultural criticism since Stephenson very much seems like a product of our culture. So, I will be narrowly focused in this sense.

I haven’t read all of Stephenson’s books (nor do I want to try). From what others have written, it seems that all of his fiction involves conflict and typically fighting, often outright war. As Al Dimond explains:

Conflict is a theme that runs through every Stephenson novel that I’ve read. That’s a pretty vague theme, you might say. Well, how about this: they’ve all ended in the middle of violent struggle. The corporate wars and virtual swordfights of Snow Crash, global factional fighting in The Diamond Age, small-scale jungle combat in CryptonomiconCryptonomicon‘s story of World War II, its central thesis made explicit in Enoch Root and Randy’s conversations in jail, is the clearest statement that Stephenson basically believes in conflict. He believes that the right side (the progressive side) will eventually win if there is conflict. That without conflict societies lose their sense of what they believe in the first place and can’t progress. Whether or not you believe that what I’m calling progress here is good, this is something that rings true to me: in a world of competitive civilizations, the progressive ones wipe out the others. We always worry that they (we) may wipe out themselves, too, just for the sake of completeness (ha, not really, actually just because we know no other way, or because there’s still enough inequity and thus conflict to keep us fighting and thus progressing). This is a subject that I’ve got to do some reading on, because I’m sure Great Books have been written on the subject.

One could easily conclude that Neal Stephenson, going by his fiction, seems to have little faith in the ideal of social democracy working out its problems without recourse to violence and revolution. There seems to be no overarching socio-political worldview that can encompass the diverse opinions and viewpoints of his characters. Some group apparently has to win and everyone else lose… or else there will be endless fighting and competition between forces. One might say that it is a bit of a Social Darwinian vision. Unsurprisingly, there is a libertarian bent to many of the narratives and characters.

The following is by David Axel Kurtz. This is from the beginning of his post which is a celebration and apologia of this worldview:

In Neal Stephenson’s novel Cryptonomicon, there is nothing more derided than irony. It is seen as the enemy of the artist, an obstacle to creativity, and the antithesis of true production.

If there is a protagonist to Crypto it is Randall Lawrence Waterhouse. He is comparable in many ways to the author of the story. They both came from the American heartland. They both ended up in the Pacific Northwest. They both came of age at the time of the computer’s introduction. They are both highly educated. They are both “white male technocrats.” They are both nerds.

The nerd as hero. I have nothing against that in principle. It is better than Rambo, but Cryptonomicon has both types: the nerd-hero and the soldier-hero. The greatest enemy of all is not taking one’s mission deadly seriously (i.e., irony is bad). No matter which type of hero you are in this world, you have to fight for what you believe in. There is no pacifist-hero of slow, gradual democratic change… for I guess that would make a boring story (and some would say make for a boring ideology)… very few stories, ideologies or products are sold without some drama involved, even if the only drama is the conflict of not having the beautiful woman in the advertisement.

Kurtz identifies the character Randy (Randall) with the author Stephenson. That is something I wondered when I came across the passage where Randy takes on the smug humanities professor G. E. B. Kivistik, a truly pathetic caricature in the tradition of right-wing fear-mongering about the academic liberal elite. What I wanted to know is: Why was the author setting up a straw man for his antagonist to knock down, unless that caricature is genuinely how the author perceives such people? The scenario was a libertarian wet dream. This immediately put my defenses up and made me start to pay closer attention to the story. I’m still not entirely sure where the author comes down on this.

Randy sees himself as self-accomplished and hardworking. He doesn’t see the privilege he has had a white guy born and raised in America. Nor do those inspired by this passage see this. It has become a manifesto of white male victimhood.

Dominic Fox explains this worldview in terms of a “tribal sociology”:

The point to understand here is that Randy is right for a small, local value of “this society”: if you are in a position to participate in the social customs and network of the Dwarves, the path to advancement is indeed to “work hard, educate yourself, and keep your wits about you”. If you are amongst Hobbits, you need to practice quite different virtues. Tribes such as these act as force-multipliers for personal effort (working one’s ass off, something Kivistik has also presumably done in his own way), provided it is directed towards goals that the tribe esteems and is in a position to reward. What is “entrenched” is of course not Randy’s personal position within the tribe to which he is affiliated, but the position of the tribe itself, with its considerable resources of knowledge and power.

The ideological move common to Cryptonomicon and The Diamond Age is to displace class analysis (which would have something to say about hierarchy and exploitation, as fundamental operators of the division of the social world) into a “pagan” compartmentalisation of the world into competing tribes, a flat ecology of value-systems whose historical development is governed by something like an evolutionary fitness landscape. This is apparent from Cryptonomicon’s opening metaphor of the “first self-replicating gizmo” as a “stupendous badass”, and progenitor of a tremendous and varied proliferation of badassery throughout the natural and, by metaphorical extension, social world. This compartmentalisation enables Stephenson to range across wildly varied social and moral environments, and gives the Baroque Cycle its bewildering sweep and scope as well as its synoptic power. But it leaves Randy Waterhouse essentially mystified as to the nature of the opportunities available to him, and unable to grasp the Hobbits’ point, rendered as it is in language that seems offensively fatuous and vapid to him, about “false consciousness”.

An even more scathing criticism came from an unknown author of an essay, Retronomicon:

[W]hat’s most striking given recent political events, Cryptonomicon reads now like a lengthy, pulped-up pamphlet from Ron Paul. In its fascination with electronic cash and the gold standard, the book was dated even at the time of writing (remember, Paypal made its debut only a few months after publication, and the bubble burst in Silicon Valley a year later). Like seemingly all libertarian fantasies, there’s a lot of water, boats, and islands involved. Reading it critically, one is struck by the attempt to normalize some pretty wild ideologies, like tying Holocaust prevention to the possession of homemade automatic firearms. Pull back from the engaging spy-counterspy plot for even a second, and the whole thing starts to unravel, particularly since the dot-com bust has put a lot of its present-day speculation to death. Indeed, the WWII sections are still the strongest in the book, if only because they focus on a character who is not A) a self-indulgent technocrat or B) a particularly deep thinker.

But what I remember bothering me even as I read Cryptonomicon for the first time in college, is the dinner-party flashback in which he viciously burns a strawman of liberal arts and academia. In a novel that often goes out of its way to champion nerdiness (particularly the unexplainable romantic plotline, in which the tough-but-beautiful girl seems to fall for the protagonist through a courtship that bears no resemblance to human behavior), the dinner party stands out as a towering triumph of misplaced Mary Sue dialog.

This critic is speaking of that same passage. Further on, s/he gets into the meat of the issue:

Let’s set aside the poor-little-white-male victimhood schtick for a second, since it’s patently transparent. Look at Kivistik’s original question, the one Randy derides so readily: How many onramps will connect the world’s ghettos to the Information Superhighway? If you strip away the metaphor, all he’s asking is “who’s going to make sure the poor can also access the advantages that the Internet brings?” This isn’t some far-fetched academic pretense: it’s a classic question of the Digital Divide. Perhaps a superhighway is indeed a bad metaphor for this, although I think it actually works rather well. But to argue about the highway, instead of connectivity for the poor, is to miss Kivistik’s point entirely.

And in a book written by an honest author, instead of one using his protagonist as a mouthpiece for radical cyber-selfishness, a professor from Yale would point that out. But Cryptonomicon is not that book, sadly. That the author is capable of writing these sentences himself, and then misinterpreting his own words, is a sign of a shocking lack of empathy with his characters. And yet, I get no sense that he’s writing from the perspective of an unreliable narrator, since the same tone of self-congratulatory geekishness pervades the entire story.

This gives voice to my intuitive response when I initially read the passage in question. It seems the author expects us to take fully seriously this portrayal of academia and its takedown by the idealized nerd-hero outsider. Nonetheless, I wanted to give the author the benefit of the doubt.

In the passage, Randy defends himself against the accusation of being a technocrat… worse still, a privileged technocrat. I haven’t done a thorough search about the author’s views on such things, but I did come across an interview where he discusses a technocratic society:

The success of the U.S. has not come from one consistent cause, as far as I can make out. Instead the U.S. will find a way to succeed for a few decades based on one thing, then, when that peters out, move on to another. Sometimes there is trouble during the transitions.

[ . . . ] for the era from, say, 1940 to 2000 it was the engineer, the geek, the scientist. It’s no coincidence that this era is also when science fiction has flourished, and in which the whole idea of the Future became current. After all, if you’re living in a technocratic society, it seems perfectly reasonable to try to predict the future by extrapolating trends in science and engineering.

It is quite obvious to me that the U.S. is turning away from all of this. It has been the case for quite a while that the cultural left distrusted geeks and their works; the depiction of technical sorts in popular culture has been overwhelmingly negative for at least a generation now. More recently, the cultural right has apparently decided that it doesn’t care for some of what scientists have to say. So the technical class is caught in a pincer between these two wings of the so-called culture war. Of course the broad mass of people don’t belong to one wing or the other. But science is all about diligence, hard sustained work over long stretches of time, sweating the details, and abstract thinking, none of which is really being fostered by mainstream culture.

Since our prosperity and our military security for the last three or four generations have been rooted in science and technology, it would therefore seem that we’re coming to the end of one era and about to move into another. Whether it’s going to be better or worse is difficult for me to say. The obvious guess would be “worse.” If I really wanted to turn this into a jeremiad, I could hold forth on that for a while. But as mentioned before, this country has always found a new way to move forward and be prosperous. So maybe we’ll get lucky again. In the meantime, efforts to predict the future by extrapolating trends in the world of science and technology are apt to feel a lot less compelling than they might have in 1955.

That seems to offer a clue.

In Cryptonomicon, Randy denies being a technocrat, denies even knowing what that means. The author in this interview, on the other hand, offers a loving portrayal of the technocratic society he was born into. Growing up, Stephenson saw strife and bickering take over our country. Little of the optimism that brought us to the moon was left by the time he was an adult.

Stephenson states that, “It has been the case for quite a while that the cultural left distrusted geeks and their works”. That is pretty much the opinion of Randy and how he sees the humanities professor. Following this statement, Stephenson also makes a similar statement about the “cultural right”. He is speaking of the culture wars and so the “cultural right” he speaks of is the religious right. However, he separates out the technical class out of this culture war. That is precisely the view of Randy as he sees himself as the outsider. This so-called “technical class” is stereotypically known for its libertarianism and I doubt Stephenson is unaware of this when he makes such statements. He is speaking about a specific group with a specific ideological tendency.

Stephenson seems to have sympathies for the libertarian-minded, but at the same time he sees a broader view:

Speaking as an observer who has many friends with libertarian instincts, I would point out that terrorism is a much more formidable opponent of political liberty than government. Government acts almost as a recruiting station for libertarians. Anyone who pays taxes or has to fill out government paperwork develops libertarian impulses almost as a knee-jerk reaction. But terrorism acts as a recruiting station for statists. So it looks to me as though we are headed for a triangular system in which libertarians and statists and terrorists interact with each other in a way that I’m afraid might turn out to be quite stable.

As he further explains, “Myth of Redemptive Violence, which he sees as a meme by which domination systems are perpetuated. But he is clearly all in favor of people standing up against oppressive power systems of all stripes.” Despite all the conflict and violence in his fiction, he apparently hasn’t embraced this as normative. Still, the fictional worldview being presented is certainly not one of moderation or even any obvious hope for moderation. Stephenson’s stories offer some particular conflict resolved or semi-resolved in a world of conflict, maybe never to be resolved.

Like me, Neal Stephenson was a child of the Cold War. He is of a slightly older generation, a young Boomer. So, he is even more of the Cold War era than I am. That “triangular system” of stability is very much a product of the twentieth century, but when Stephenson spoke in that interview it was several years after the 9/11 terrorist attack and in an entirely new decade following Cryptonomicon. In this new century, conflict and violence has become a lot more personal to Americans. It isn’t about oppressive foreign countries or dystopic futures. We have come to a point where statism, terrorism and libertarianism are being brought to their extremes.

Stephenson explores the world where great heroes go on quests and great men fight for what they seek. Most of us on this teeming planet aren’t great heroes or great men. We are just people trying to get by and hoping for a better world for the next generation. What is everyone else supposed to do while all the great things are happening? Is there any room for democracy to emerge, for grassroots change that doesn’t require conflict and violence?

Anarchism vs Progressivism

I was having a discussion with an anarcho-capitalist who was moderate rather than ideological. It was quite refreshing. Most of the anarcho-capitalists I’ve met have been extremely ideological.

I myself am persuaded by both anarcho-primitivism and progressivism. I think civilization is problematic, but as long as civilization exists I consider it morally optimal to seek the greatest good for the greatest numbers while preventing as many problems as possible. I’m unpersuaded by the idolization of enlightened selfishness and the monetization of human life.

Here is a video this person shared with me to present his anarcho-capitalist view:


Here are two of my responses:

FIRST RESPONSE

He is right about the problems of government building logging roads and selling trees at below market cost. Derrick Jensen discusses that issue. Ownership does increase short-term responsibility. A company will want to ensure its profits are maintained in the near future, but this becomes less certain in terms of decades & completely uncertain in terms of generations.

Also, this video leaves out some important issues.

Big businesses want big governments. Big businesses don’t want anarchistic markets that they can’t control or reliably predict and they don’t want anarchistic societies with populations that aren’t controlled where protesters can shut down factories and an unrestrained population can start revolutions.

People who advocate ownership rights in terms of capitalism too often ignore the non-capitalist ownership rights of indigenous people. Big business wants big government to deal with unruly indigenous people who think they have a right to the land their people have lived on for centuries. Big businesses are too often fine with colluding with the genocide or displacement of the indigenous. Sometimes they don’t even need big govt to do this since there are examples of big business hiring mercenaries or local goons to kill or scare away the indigenous.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/does-poverty-rise-as-biodiversity-falls-pavan-sukhdev/

Anarcho-capitalism might benefit small businesses, but it would never benefit big businesses. Big businesses have immense power. If big businesses didn’t like big govt, they could easily use their power to decrease the size of govt. But big business types such as the Bush family want the big govt. The Bush family is even personal friends with Saudi royal family which rules one of the most oppressive big governments in the world. There is no incentive for a big business owner to help create a truly free market where they have to fairly compete. If competition existed, then businesses would be forced to decrease in size and wealth would no longer be concentrated. These big business types like having their wealth and power. They would never willingly give it up just for some noble ideals of a free market.

SECOND RESPONSE

We seem to both agree that the extreme examples of corruption and oppression as seen with concentrated power isn’t human nature. However, I take it a step further in saying all modern civilization is contradictory to human nature.

Maybe I’m less critical of statism and progressivism simply because I’m equally critical of all modern systems of social, political and economic organization. My cynicism makes me have lower standards and more moderate expectations. I’m more accepting of the failings of our society because I just assume that one kind of failure or another is inevitable with civilization as we know it. Or maybe, as someone who feels like a failure at life, I feel it would be hypocritical to be too judgmental of the failure of others. I have a strong sense of sympathy for human imperfection.

Anyway, I had some thoughts that I wondered how you would respond to.

Not all costs and benefits can be monetized, but capitalism (whether free market or not) almost entirely by design excludes anything that can’t be monetized. This is less of a problem with small communities. Hunter-gatherer tribes, for instance, were more widely spread apart so the actions of one community were less likely to impact other tribes. Similarly, early small agricultural communities caused less large-scale problems. But in todays world of industrialization and globalism, impacts are non-local and the human mind isn’t evolved to understand or care about non-local impacts or the strangers elsewhere impacted. I don’t see how a free market can solve this problem inherent to the limits of human nature.

Some costs and benefits are collective such as fire prevention. A private for-profit company couldn’t solve this problem nor could you get everyone to voluntarily agree to a single solution. A collective solution has to be forced on all because the dangers and costs of fires, especially wildfires, impact everyone in a community. A fire can spread from house to house and from community to community. Fires don’t know property boundaries. If not for government, who would bear the costs and implement collective action to do control burns and watch over vast areas of wilderness to spot fires before they spread?

Also, what about long-term costs and benefits such as with local ecosystems? And what about the extremely non-local costs and benefits of the entire biosphere? Pollution doesn’t know property boundaries or national boundaries. We all collectively share the same water and air and we share even many of the same food sources such as seafood. The challenge with environmental costs and benefits is that they’re usually only seen after decades or centuries. A problem prevented may have no short term benefits, but if not prevented it may have massive long-term costs.

As an example, the President Carter helped create the EPA. The reason it was created was because there was little monetary incentive for companies to solve the problems of pollution and environmental destruction. Much of the costs were invisible to everyday experience. Even scientists didn’t know all the potential problems with pollution, but they knew enough that prevention was the wise course despite there being no immediate and apparent benefits. One of the pollutants decreased was lead and the benefits to this weren’t seen for decades. It was only until recent research that scientists could see that the decrease of lead helped to vastly decrease the violent crime rate. No one could’ve predicted this, but problems like this need to be prevented for the very reason we don’t understand them. It’s the precautionary principle.

This issue is complicated with the inherent conflict between transnational corporations and local communities. What monetarily benefits a company such as mining often doesn’t benefit the local community. And the costs of the companies actions may not be seen until years or decades after the company has moved it’s business elsewhere or maybe even has gone out of business. Who is responsible for those costs?

When indigenous people experiences diseases introduced by foreigners… when the water supply is polluted or the wildlife scared away causing the indigenous to be no longer able to sustain their traditional lifestyle… when industrialism leads to poor health because of pollution and malnutrition, who is responsible for the costs to individuals and communities? How does a free market monetize the costs and benefits that are collective and long-term?
I’m reminded of an example that Derrick Jensen used. He was describing this particular community that was established before there was a large federal government and when people mostly solved their own problems. The first settlers killed and scared off the Native Americans living there. The people who live there and own the land are the descendants of the people who stole the land originally. The same Native Americans still live in the area among the people who still possess their stolen land, the people who are descendants of those who killed their ancestors and destroyed their way of life. The creation of such an ownership class is inherently built upon violence and sustained through oppression. All of that violence and oppression happened before big govt.

This story has been repeated a million times around the world. Right now as I write there are indigenous people being exploited and oppressed often by big business or sometimes by small business owners that settled on the homeland of the indigenous. Early settles used the principle of property rights to steal land because they believed/rationalized that he who makes use of the land has the right to the land. This was based on the concept that land in it’s natural state is worthless. This bias continues to this day. We are only beginning to understand the value of health ecosystems to ensuring water and air is clean, things we normally take for granted without considering the costs and benefits.

All these problems I speak of have their origins at the beginning of civilization. The problems of pollution and environmental destruction, malnutrition and disease became apparent the moment people left behind the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and formed permanent villages which became city-states which became states which became empires which became our present industrialized globalism. Indigenous people have perfectly healthy teeth until they are civilized and start eating a grain and sugar based diet. Capitalism or statism then offers the solution of dentistry, but capitalism and statism are part of the social condition that caused the problem in the first place. That relates to wildfires as well. We have to control nature in order to build stable societies and economies, but that control leads wildfires to become larger than they would ever have become naturally. So, once again, businesses or governments have to create solutions for the problem created by the entire system. All of civilization is the solving of problems that civilization created and every solution creates further problems.

So, the fundamental problem is civilization itself. The human species and human communities, ecosystems and the biosphere didn’t evolve under the conditions of civilization. Civilization has only existed for a few thousand years. Civilization has developed faster than evolution can happen. This has led to the extinction of massive numbers of species and the destruction of massive numbers of cultures.

The further problem is that civilization has created massive concentrated populations which are in themselves unnatural and which preclude natural solutions. We humans are a clever species, but it’s our cleverness that gets us into trouble. We like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, but fundamentally we are driven by the same non-rational impulses as any animal. The difference is that no other species has ever had the power to destroy nearly all life on the planet.

I don’t see how free markets or any other human idea can solve all these problems without just causing more problems… as history has proven. As has been said before, when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing you should do is stop digging. But how do we stop? Civilization is built on continual progress or else the whole house of cards might fall down. We collectively as a species have to keep running just to stay in place. Solution? We don’t even understand the problem. We are the problem or are at least inseparable from the problem. Any solution will have to be a complete transformation of how humans operate on a collective level, but such a solution could never be predicted just as we have never been able to predict any of the problems we’ve created. So, all we can do is cross our fingers and hope for the best.

I feel frustrated when someone offers up something like the free market. The striving for freedom won’t save us. The problem is that we aren’t free. We are embedded and enmeshed in, intertwined with and integral to the entire world. We aren’t free of anything. The very idea of freedom is one of those many abstractions that keeps us trapped in the Iron Cage of rationality, the bureaucratization of humanity… costs and benefits, ideologies and systems, improvement and progress. It’s not that any given idea is wrong. Free markets, for example, sound wonderful. What frustrates me is the mindset that constantly creates more ideas to be forced on humanity, on reality, on all the world around us. We think that if we just find the right idea or principle, the right method or framework then the the problems will be solved… but the fundamental problems of civilization are never solved… or at least not so far.

Maybe you don’t share my frustration. Maybe you have more hope in solutions despite the all the failings of history. I realize most people don’t see the world as I do. I just don’t see anything changing until something forces humans to change. I’m not filled with hope.

Government is Good

What Americans REALLY Think about Government

If we are asked about this issue in the abstract, 45% of us say we want “a smaller government providing fewer services,” and 42% say that we want “a bigger government providing more services”5 — a pretty even split. But then when people are asked about specificpolicy areas, much larger numbers of people say they support expanded government services. For example, almost three quarters of Americans say they want to see more federal involvement in ensuring access to affordable health care, providing a decent standard of living for the elderly, and making sure that food and medicines are safe. And over 60% want more government involvement in reducing poverty, ensuring clean air and water, and setting minimum educational standards for school. These are hardly the answers of a people who want drastically smaller government.

Table 1: Public Attitudes Toward Spending on Government Programs8

Should Spend More Spending About Right Should Spend Less Don’t Know or No Answer
Protecting the environment 59.8% 27.9% 7.7% 4.6%
Protecting the nation’s health 66.8% 25.0% 5.6% 2.6%
Halting the rising crime rate 60.9% 28.4% 9.3% 3.0%
Dealing with drug addiction 58.2% 27.9% 9.3% 4.6%
Improving the education system 69.7% 22.1% 6.3% 1.9%
Social Security 55.7% 31.9% 6.3% 6.1%
Solving urban problems 45.5% 29.8% 12.1% 12.5%
The military, arms, and defense 17.5% 46.3% 30.3% 5.9%
Highways and bridges 38.2% 47.1% 9.6% 5.1%
Welfare 16.0% 36.1% 43.3% 4.6%
Parks and recreation 34.0% 55.2% 6.1% 4.7%
Mass transit 31.7% 47.3% 9.4% 11.5%

No Turn to the Right

Another striking finding of the polls cited above is that Americans’ positive attitudes toward many key government programs have held steady for the last three decades.24 Since the 1970s, our strong support for these programs has hardly wavered at all. This comes as a surprise to many people, especially those on the right. Minimal government activists like to argue that their attempt to cut programs is simply a reaction to the public’s increasing conservatism and hostility toward government. They suggest that there has been a general turn to the right in American politics in response to the liberal excesses of the Great Society in the 1960s,  and this includes an increasing public opposition to big government. But no such “right turn” has taken place. As numerous studies have shown, “there is virtually no compelling survey evidence that more Americans have actually embraced conservatism since the 1960s.”25 Surveys that ask people to position themselves on a conservative—liberal continuum have found that the number of people calling themselves “conservative” has increased by a mere 2% since the 1960s. And a study of the public’s view of left-right issues conducted by Morris Fiorina concluded that “Americans are about as conservative or liberal as they were a generation ago.”26

Polls also reveal that negatives attitudes toward government have not increased across the board during the last decades – and some have even decreased. In 1972, when asked if government was “too powerful,” 49% of Americans said yes. But that figure was down substantially in 2002 – to 39%.27 And when asked whether they wanted to cut government services or to provide more services (even if that required raising taxes), Americans were evenly divided in 1992. By 2000, however, more than twice as many wanted to increase services (39%) than wanted to cut them (18%).28

Something has turned sharply to the right in the last 30 years, but it has not been the public. It has been the conservative leadership. A generation ago, most Republican politicians were actually moderates, in the mold of Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Nixon was probably the most conservative of these four, but he often embraced government and expanded its powers and programs when necessary to deal with a variety of problems. He signed into law the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, he helped to implement Affirmative Action, and he supported passage of a national health insurance plan. More new federal regulations were adopted under Nixon than under Lyndon Johnson. Hardly the policy record of someone who thought that we had too much government.

But conservative leaders began to veer sharply to the right in the 1980s, as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have documented in their book, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy. They show, for example, that the median Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives is now 73% more conservative than their counterpart in the 1970s. They also cite studies that examine how the political views of core Republican activists compare to those of independent voters. These studies show that in the 1960s Republican activists were only about 20% more conservative than independents, but that by 2002, they had become 40% more conservative.29 Hacker and Pierson conclude that “Republican activists are not only far to the right of independents, they are also far to the right of ordinary voters within their own party. And they have been heading ever more sharply right since the 1980s.”30

Part of this increasing gap between conservative leaders and many independent and conservative voters can be seen in their diverging attitudes towards the value of government programs. This is clearly evident in the results of the polls cited earlier on how much the public supports spending on various government policy efforts. These surveys reveal that those who oppose the conservative leadership’s agenda of cutting vital government programs are not just liberals – they include many independents and conservatives as well. Only about 20% of the electorate identify themselves as liberals; and yet the figures in Table 2.1 show that upwards of 90% of Americans believe we should not be cutting spending on health, education, environmental protection, and so on. This means that very large numbers of people who see themselves as moderates or independents support these government programs. And since over 30% of Americans identify themselves as conservative, clearly many of them too do not want to see cuts in these areas of government responsibility. This is understandable. You could be a social conservative, for instance, who is strongly anti-abortion and anti-gay, and yet also strongly supports spending on health care and environmental protection. In any case, these poll figures provide more evidence that the anti-government movement’s policy agenda of slashing funding for many of these programs is not only at odds with the views of most Americans, it is out of touch with the views of many conservatives as well – a good indication of just how extreme this agenda really is.