Lessons from history
To limit the size of this post the total content of "The lessons of history" is given in 2 installments. The table of content relating to the present post is given in purple.
1. Power societies disrupted the human societal code that was practiced over the last two hundred thousand years
Biologists point to the long history of humanity's presence on earth which originated over 2 million years ago. Since then we continued to evolve biologically and reached our present configuration some 200,000 years ago when our brains acquired their newest layer the neo-cortex which "increased in size in response to pressures for greater cooperation and competition in early ancestors. With the size increase, there was greater voluntary inhibitory control of social behaviors resulting in increased social harmony". (1)
Transitions from one stage of evolution to the next seem to address new levels of organization or new kinds of interactions between the constitutive particles of an evolving entity. This excludes the possibility that a single individual could manage the evolution of the entity. Its evolution is indeed operating at the level of the interactions between all its individual constituents. This points to an evolutionary primacy of the groups' interactions over the will of individuals. But such an evolutionary primacy of groups does not imply that individuals will has no place in societies. It simply implies that we need to recognize that individual will plays at another level than societal evolution. Individual will plays indeed at the level of shaping the interactions between the individuals but more on that in my coming series on theory.
Faced with environmental and climate stresses as well as with competition, not only with other species but also with same genus groupings, the winners of the competition for survival between groups are those whose levels of cooperation between their constitutive atoms or individuals are at the highest. This principle seems to apply equally in the realm of biology and societies.
Humans like their predecessors lived in small family bands that increased in size starting some 200,000 years ago to tribal groups of 150 individuals on average (Dunbar number). That superior arrangement in human interactions was made possible by a new biological add-on in the form of the neo-cortex that allowed for the exchange of more complex and abstract thoughts. So it looks like societal and biological evolution work in tandem. But since this last biological watershed evolutionary moment we observe that societal evolution started to run ever faster than the biological.
Tribal arrangements were uncontested until some 10,000 years ago when agriculture started to destabilize them. A few males sized this opportunity to dislodge women as the traditional operators of tribal societies and impose their rule over the members of the group. But the first societies that achieved the transition from tribal to the next form of human organization appeared only some 5000 years ago and resulted in the first human civilizations and from those first only the Chinese succeeded to reproduce till the present. The transition from tribal to imperial organization was thus a lengthy 5000 years process of trial and error.
Civilizational interactions between individuals were driven by power at the hands of institutions of empires and kingdoms. Those empires and kingdoms that succeeded to reproduce over the generations were the founders of the first civilizations. The explanation of their success lays in the understanding and mastery by their men of power at letting the men of knowledge glue the minds of their citizens, through the sharing of a common worldview, which was largely operated through the works of artists. That mastery undoubtedly resulted from the imposition of power but it was the shared worldview that was the ultimate determinant factor in the stabilization of empires and kingdoms. Power was present at the demise of the tribe but to stabilize it needed to recognize the importance of a shared worldview. This implied the acceptance of the role of the men of knowledge by the men of power as well as the role of artists in diffusing the narrative of the men of knowledge. Such a process was certainly not evident and this explains why the transition from tribal to imperial was such a long and torturous process.
Power has ultimately been the gravedigger or destroyer of the tribal arrangement that had spanned over the preceding 200,000 years. But power is still a very young principle on the scale of societal evolution and observing the Late-Modern societal form it unleashed we are left with many questions about the possibility of its survival as a future societal principle.
2. from a tribal animistic worldview to a power propaganda worldview
A worldview is a foundational story about what reality is all about that is shared by all citizens. Such a sharing strengthen the societal cohesion of their society which allows for its smooth reproduction that, in turn, ensures stability and peace in the daily lives of all.
Animism, the tribal worldview, was voluntarily shared by all the tribesmen. They designated one among them to act as their man of knowledge in order to supply them with practical knowledge pertaining to the working of reality (health, weather, hunt, spirits,...). Tribal societies were pure participatory democracies that did experience no need for power institutions.
The eruption of power, following the destabilization of tribal societies by agriculture, did not succeed to ensure the reproduction of early kingdoms. It took approximately 5000 years for power societies to discover:
The stabilization and reproduction of kingdoms and empires was successfully achieved only after power succeeded to ensure societal cohesion. After that the use of force was mainly ensuring smooth societal sailing.
In Western power societies the sharing by all of a given worldview was not voluntary as in tribes. The worldview was imposed by power to all the citizens. In Rome, for example, the imperial power selected the already widely popular Christian belief system and standardized it so that it could be imposed to all. This was then followed by physical destruction of all signs of past belief systems. Middle-Eastern worldviews, or religions of the word, were basically stories about the working of reality that by the time of their rise to power status appeared totally detached from animism and also totally detached from any practical daily life considerations. This is why people did not voluntarily abandon the practical teachings of animism and their conversion to any one of the new religions had to be imposed by the use of force and the physical destruction of all relics of the former belief system.
In China the men of power aligned with the animist men of knowledge while selecting as sages in their court those who appeared the most masterful at providing practical and useful services. Animism was shared by all the men of knowledge in tribal societies. The Chinese men of power understood that a collaboration with the most successful amongst the animist men of knowledge could ensure the stabilization and reproduction of their power and so they never fell any need to impose a worldview as was the case in the West.
3. individuals and societies are the polarities of humanity and their dance shapes societal reality
Societies are the sum of all interactions between its constitutive parts the individuals. It is indeed the reality of those interactions that shapes the forms of a society and eventually helps it overcome the competition, of other societies of the same species or of other species, a well as any eventual environmental challenge that might occur.
Competition is thus what drives the relations between groups while cooperation is a response to that competition and any environmental problems that arise. In that sense cooperation between the individuals is essential for any grouping. But cooperation depends on the quality of the relations between the individuals. Very positive inter-relations between the individuals tend to render the cooperation successful while poor inter-relations tend to render the cooperation difficult to say the least. From a societal perspective the quality of the inter-relations between the individuals is thus a priority. The social sciences, sociology - politology - economy - law - psychology, relate the quality of the inter-relations between the individuals to the level of societal cohesion which gives the degree of stability of a society.
As I have amply demonstrated in my earlier posts the sharing of a worldview by the members of a society has been proven historically as the most potent way to strengthen societal cohesion with the arts as the instruments by excellence to substantiate and solidify that worldview in citizens minds and guts. Societal cohesion was recognized, consciously or subconsciously, as the determinant factor of:
The interest of societies is thus always to strive for higher levels of cohesion which means that threats by individuals to destabilize the internal order are discouraged by any means (conservatism). But from the perspective of the individual the internal order may eventually appear to be asphyxiating which may drive him to oppose the societal (society) or social (social differentiation) order (progressivism). Those are the two sides of the societal equation that unfortunately is very poorly understood. I'll make that equation the starting point in my next series of posts relating to theory about the working of societies.
Animism proved to be such a powerful worldview that it succeeded to ignore the possibility of individuality. Any notion of individuality or individualism was completely absent from the minds of tribesmen. The individuals considered themselves particles of their group and as such they sensed that their individual interest coincided with the interest of their society. Nothing was imposed on the individuals. Tribes had indeed no power institutions and so the adherence to the group was exclusively a matter of individual choice. Moderns might contest the free will of that adherence. But free will was not part of the picture since the notion of individuality was simply absent so one might also say that individual choice was not really part of the picture. A more reasonable interpretation of the absence of any notion of individuality, and all the more so of any notion of individualism, should be traced to an humble recognition of the true nature of the bondage of humanity to universal reality. It seems that primitive man had indeed a better grasp of systemic complexity that modern man. He conceived of himself as a minuscule tiny particle in a very complex system that expanded far out of his sight of vision and was in awe for what he perceived as the unmistakable majesty of the system's operation. As such primitive man recognized the necessity to conform to the given reality and, in his mind, one of the closest aspects of reality was society that was seen as ensuring the survival and happiness of the individual. This was not a submission to fatality. It was the recognition of a profound reality and the conclusion of the necessity of an unconditional participation in that reality.
With power societies those in power posited their individuality as being of a different nature as the being of their citizens. Initially they proved this by the use of brute force but that appeared to convince only those in the vicinity of their instruments of power. In an age of transportation by foot this left the majority of their citizens at a distance from those instruments and free to do as they please when the emperor was far away. To counter such a glaring limitation of their attributes of force the men of power eventually came to recognize the role of the men of knowledge and then recoursed to their citizens' belief systems by positing themselves as the earthly representatives of their gods or their mightiest spirits. Only then did they succeed to gain the full adherence of their subjects anywhere in their territory.
Modernity went a big step further than power by positing the primacy of the individual over his society. Its adherence to the reason underlaying the internal mechanics of capital made it reject all past worldviews as infantile belief systems. The new rich long distance traders who realized sumptuous returns on their invested capital basically claimed the right to enjoy the material possessions that such returns allowed them to pay for. So individualism did not emerge as the result of an ideological quest rather it developed as a direct consequence of reaping surpluses for the owner of the invested capital which allowed him to purchase material possessions that envy projected like so many gems in the eyes of all onlookers. No wonder that capital soon appeared to be adored and venerated as the golden calf.
After venerating and putting in practice the reason at work within capital, for as long as over half a millennium, the belief in its rationality was anchored deeply in the minds of the merchants. Envy and greed being the wicked councilors, that all traditional belief systems anywhere on earth knew them to be, it comes as no surprise that rationality was also in the minds of all those around the merchants. That's how the rationality at play within the internal mechanisms of capital was finally adopted as the operating system of philosophic rationalism. Diderot's encyclopedia is testament of the true wherewithal of rationality: the search of technical means to realize the production of goods in such a way that it procures richness.
The genie of envy and greed was finally liberated from its bottle with the advent of the mass market and very fast it swept the societal playing field totally clean of any vestige of past narratives about the working of reality. By Late-Modernity the golden calf is the only standing god and everyone seems also to have lost the control of the working of his own mind which does not bode well, I have to say, about humanity's capability to answer the multitude of problems that are being unleashed by the great convergence.
I believe that any valid theoretical effort at understanding the human condition has to focus from the start on the dance of the polarities of humanity: individuals and societies. That dance, it looks to me, contains all the elements necessary to understand the behaviors of the individuals and the working of societies. This will be one of the subjects I'll try to develop in my next series of posts dedicated to theory.
4. capture of the mind by the internal mechanics of the reason of capital during Modernity
By positing the primacy of the individual over his society Late-Modernity demonstrates its parti-pris and ideological capture. No longer is the systemic complexity of reality accepted to be inaccessible to humanity; rationality and the scientific method are now presented as some sort of demiurge in Plato's sense of the artisan creator of the universe. Not only is rationality now presented as having shed to the dustbin of history the idea of the unattainability of the reality of the whole in which we are such tiny particles; it now is being shaped as a creator of reality. But perhaps this is the signature of our time of complete postmodern delirium.
Primitive man recognized the necessity to conform to the given reality. This was the source of the wisdom of animism that was based on the idea that the way forward to understand the working of reality was to induce or derive a principle from specific observations. In that sense we come to understand why the conclusions of animism were pragmatic and operational in daily life. In Late-Modernity we have come to the antipode of animism. We first posit unproven general principles from which we draw specific conclusions. Rationality, for example, is presented as a general principle that acts as the key to unlock the mystery of reality. From that general principle many Late-Moderns then deduce that science will solve all of our societal problems and religiously bow to its infallibility.
The problem with the deduction method is that you are forced to start by positing something that is unproven. Along the path of Modernity we have come to accept the idea that rationality is the key to understand everything and that this will help us to solve any problem we encounter. But where does the idea, that rationality is the key to understand everything, come from and has it really such a capability?
As many times stated already 'the mechanics of the reason at work within capital' were not a human invention. It was more like the sanction of not respecting these mechanics was understood as being the source of the loss of invested capital. After experiencing repeated losses of invested capital the pain inflicted on their owners would force them to find remedies to avoid future losses and that's how they gradually discovered its mechanics. That process spread over centuries. But those who were successful at generating surpluses, through real understanding of the rules or by sheer luck, gained immense fame for the material possessions their gains financed and they were thus the subjects of much envy. One has to try to situate that process in the times when it took place to understand the impact envy really had on the people who circulated in the social circles of the lucky bastards who successfully accumulated fortunes through long distance trade. The rules of 'the mechanics of the reason at work within capital' were only uncovered by mid-19th century. So for nearly 700 years investing was more like a lottery than a rational decision. The absence of a clear understanding of what was going on inside capital transformed it into a mystery with unbound power. This was a perfect recipe for adulation.
The lure of acquiring material possessions is extremely powerful and this explains how 'the mechanics of the reason at work within capital' were unconditionally respected as the truth. After so many centuries of trials and errors understanding those mechanics acted like an obsession for all those who aspired to social recognition. In that obsession most lost any sense of the working of reality. Modernity was largely driven forward by envy and that finally solidified an obsession in people's minds for the reason of capital. That obsession acted like a short in their minds' circuitry and this explains how their minds were taken over. Modern man has thus navigated essentially in complete unconsciousness over all these centuries firmly believing in the truth of the general principle of rationality that promises to solve all our problems. This we call scientism.
5. daily culture memes, that are replicated along the generations, are integrated in the worldview which thus gradually evolves
Culture is the sum of daily behaviors and ideas in a society, at any given moment, and it changes from one moment to the other. In Late-Modern societies culture takes the form of commodities. People are like sheep. They like to follow the flock and this is sized upon by marketeers to impose on them all kinds of commodities and ideas like un-necessary gadgets, dumbed down books - movies - music - paintings, and so on. Such a commodification process impulses the supply of a continuous stream of new products and services that are launched in the hope that they'll make a splash on the market and catch the purchasing power of many consumers.
Rare are the commodities that survive longer than a seasonal cycle and rarer still are those that survive the span of an entire generation of consumers. Commodities that survive the span of multiple generations of consumers are the exceptions. New products are most often shaped along the lines of a new message, a new idea, a new vision, a new fashion or what is popularly called a meme (2). A meme is to culture what a gene is to biology. So what is popularly known as a meme is thus most often merely a mutation of something that is stored in the societal code as a meme. A meme mutation that sticks in the minds carries the power to transform a product or service into a commodity that finds a demand on the market. If demand for that commodity is reproduced by generation after generation of purchasing consumers the meme mutation it is founded upon will eventually be replicated into societies' 'memetic code' or worldview.
Commodities are not only founded solely on meme mutations. They can also be founded on ideas and values contained in real memes that form the units of the memetic or societal code or worldview. In an atomized Late-Modernity the real memes stored in the societal code are rare indeed in the individual's conscious mind. They are hidden deep in their subconscious. One such powerful meme is the notion of power or the notion of inequality. Both are at the root of the thinking that the offer of commodities should differentiate their consumers along the lines of their power which over time has come to mean their buying power. So one commodity is offered in different qualities corresponding to different price ranges to allow consumers to differentiate amongst themselves. Commodities, that integrate such subconsciously stored memes, will strengthen those values and ideas behind those memes to the point that consumers find them as truthful as rules of nature. This is what gives fashion its attraction. It is also what keeps atomized societies from collapsing right away.
The novelty of meme mutations is what catches consumers' attention initially but once the novelty has worn off most of them fall by the way-side and are forgotten. Basically meme mutations act in the same fashion as genetic mutations. Many occur but very few are replicated in the 'genetic code' (biology) or in the 'memetic code' (worldview).
Along history the replication of meme mutations did not always follow that path. The reign of commodities is relatively recent indeed. During High Christianity, for example, meme mutation occurred as a result of the adoption by the church at large of the thought of one of its men of knowledge and so it went with St Thomas Aquinas
"St Augustine held that the words of god as revealed by the books is what governs all creation. He called this the Eternal Law. ... St Thomas Aquinas added that in shaping reality the Eternal Law is augmented by human participation which acts like the Natural Law that completes the eternal law. Natural Law is discovered by reason and is based on 'first principles'. ... So natural law is derived from reason and applied by governments to societies." (3) St Thomas' argument was not accepted by the church from the get go. It took nearly two centuries before his theses were fully accepted and he was proclaimed a "Doctor of the Church".
Meme mutations in Early-Modernity happened at the hands of the new rich merchants. The societal worldview was still the religious worldview of Christianity. As I wrote here above the societal acceptance of individualism and private property was not the result of a conversion to an ideological argument. The integration of those values was most fundamentally due to envy and greed. Their further acceptance and integration by the religious worldview was a result of St. Thomas Aquinas' arguments and their adoption by the church.
What I wanted to show here is that the integration of meme mutations into the memetic code is depending on the societal reality of the day. Seen that societal realities vary considerably geographically and historically the process of integration of meme mutations in the societal worldview varies in lockstep with the societal realities.
In "Social cognition, inhibition, and the theory of mind: The evolution of human intelligence" by Bjorklund; Kipp, David; Katherine (2002) as cited in Wikipedia.
"A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.
The word meme is a shortening (modeled on gene) of mimeme (from Ancient Greek μίμημα pronounced [míːmɛːma] mīmēma, "imitated thing", from μιμεῖσθαι mimeisthai, "to imitate", from μῖμος mimos, "mime") coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976) as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. " in Wikipedia
3. meme mutation in High Christianity:
See "From modernity to After-Modernity (11). Early-Modernity"
Video of thee week
Articles of the week
- "The Space Between Stories" by Charles Eisenstein in The Space Between Stories
- "How Goes the War?" by Jim Kunstler in Clusterfuck Nation
- "Modern Silk Roads and China’s Brave New World" by Pepe Escobar in Asia Times
- "The Cancer Of Financial Repression" by Paul Craig Roberts in Macro Analytics
- "Extinct—Extincter—Extinctest" by Dimitry Orlov in ClubOrlov
- "Global Politics – a war of meanings" by Nikolai Starikov
Gives us the Russian point of view of the present geo-political reality. A stark contrast with the Western narrative...
- "The answer to the Needham Question?" by C Ikehara in Asia Times
"What Books Could Be Used to Rebuild Civilization?: Lists by Brian Eno, Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly & Other Forward-Thinking Minds" in Open Culture
Painter of the week