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LQD: Parables of Power

by das monde Fri Mar 21st, 2008 at 01:54:51 AM EST

Power satisfies people, power corrupts, power moves people, power makes people despair. Why is power so important? How much does it affect humans and societies?

An important book on this subject is

The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution

by Andrew Schmookler. The author has a blog, writes also here.

The main thesis of the book is that

the history of civilization has been largely shaped by the way that, as a system, civilization has no mechanisms for restraining the raw struggle for power between societies.

I am quoting from these excerpts.


THE COMMONSENSE THEORY of social evolution offers a benign and reasonable view of human affairs. According to this image, people are continually hunting for ways to better their condition. [The] alternatives are readily generated by this pursuit of improvement. The longer the hunt goes on, the more alternatives are discovered. And, since man is an inventive as well as exploratory creature, what is discovered in the world is increasingly supplemented by what people have created. With the passage of time, therefore, more and more cultural alternatives become available for all aspects of our cultural business - how and what to produce, how to govern ourselves, what to think, how to travel, play, make music, and so on. The process of selection is done by people. The criterion for selection? People choose what they believe will best meet their needs, replacing old cultural forms when new and better ones become available. [The] resonance with economic theory is striking: social evolution is the product of choices made in the marketplace of cultural possibilities.

How much our understanding of the world is determined by economic practice of the most effective empires? For a historic example, Kropotkin viewed Huxley's enthusiastic cut-throat competition interpretation of Darwinian evolution as distorted mistranslation of rugged British individualism and cut-throat laissez-faire economics into a natural world.

The commonsense theory of selection by human choice leads one to expect a continuous betterment of the human condition. For a story of improvement, however, the history of civilization makes rather dismal reading...

[The] idea of history as progress is itself of relatively recent origin. And those who endorse that idea are usually looking only at relatively recent history for support. [The] idea of progress has relied in another way on the lack of a clear vision of the distant past. The life of primitive peoples is widely assumed to have been nasty, brutish, and short. The step from the "savage" state to the "civilized" is consequently assumed to have been straight up. Increasingly, however, as anthropologists have taken a closer and less ethnocentric look at hunter-gatherers, the evidence has shown that primitive life was not so bad.

Of course, we can only look for patterns that we know.

In his classic, Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes describes what he calls "the state of nature" as an anarchic situation in which all are compelled, for their very survival, to engage in a ceaseless struggle for power. About this "war of all against all," two important points should be made: that Hobbes's vision of the dangers of anarchy captured an important dimension of the human condition, and that to call that condition "the state of nature" is a remarkable misnomer.

In nature, all pursue survival for themselves and their kind. But they can do so only within biologically evolved limits. The living order of nature, though it has no ruler, is not in the least anarchic. Each pursues a kind of self- interest, each is a law unto itself, but the separate interests and laws have been formed over aeons of selection to form part of a tightly ordered harmonious system. Although the state of nature involves struggle, the struggle is part of an order. Each component of the living system has a defined place out of which no ambition can extricate it. Hunting- gathering societies were to a very great extent likewise contained by natural limits.

This is interesting. The nature apparently does have mechanisms for restraining raw consumptive and subdueing impulses...

With the rise of civilization, the limits fall away. The natural self-interest and pursuit of survival remain, but they are no longer governed by any order. The new civilized forms of society, with more complex social and political structures, created the new possibility of indefinite social expansion: more and more people organized over more and more territory. All other forms of life had always found inevitable limits placed upon their growth by scarcity and consequent death. But civilized society was developing the unprecedented capacity for unlimited growth as an entity...

[In] a finite world, societies all seeking to escape death - dealing scarcity through expansion will inevitably come to confront each other. Civilized societies, therefore, though lacking inherent limitations to their growth, do encounter new external limits - in the form of one another. [Each] civilized society faces an unpleasant choice. If an expanding society willingly stops where its growth would infringe upon neighboring societies, it allows death to catch up and overtake its population. If it goes beyond those limits, it commits aggression. With no natural order or overarching power to prevent it, some will surely choose to take what belongs to their neighbors rather than to accept the limits that are compulsory for every other form of life.

In such circumstances, a Hobbesian struggle for power among societies becomes inevitable.

But when it comes to human growth, there can be no hope?!

The new human freedom made striving for expansion and power possible. [No] one is free to choose peace, but anyone can impose upon all the necessity for power. This is the lesson of the parable of the tribes.

Imagine a group of tribes living within reach of one another. If all choose the way of peace, then all may live in peace. But what if all but one choose peace, and that one is ambitious for expansion and conquest? What can happen to the others when confronted by an ambitious and potent neighbor? Perhaps one tribe is attacked and defeated, its people destroyed and its lands seized for the use of the victors. Another is defeated, but this one is not exterminated; rather, it is subjugated and transformed to serve the conqueror. A third seeking to avoid such disaster flees from the area into some inaccessible (and undesirable) place, and its former homeland becomes part of the growing empire of the power-seeking tribe.

That sounds a lot like Dawkins in the first chapter of "The Selfish Gene":

Even in the group of altruists, there will almost certainly be a dissenting minority who refuse to make any sacrifice. If there is just one selfish rebel, prepared to exploit the altruism of the rest, then he, by definition, is more likely than they are to survive and have children. Each of these children will tend to inherit his selfish traits. After several generations of this natural selection, the 'altruistic group' will be over-run by selfish individuals, and will be indistinguishable from the selfish group. Even if we grant the improbable chance existence initially of pure altruistic groups without any rebels, it is very difficult to see what is to stop selfish individuals migrating in from neighbouring selfish groups, and, by inter-marriage, contaminating the purity of the altruistic groups.

But we return to Schmookler:

Let us suppose that others observing these developments decide to defend themselves in order to preserve themselves and their autonomy. But the irony is that successful defense against a power-maximizing aggressor requires a society to become more like the society that threatens it. Power can be stopped only by power, and if the threatening society has discovered ways to magnify its power through innovations in organization or technology (or whatever), the defensive society will have to transform itself into something more like its foe in order to resist the external force.

Power can be stopped only with power... Some power will certainly be needed. But will only greater power will do? Can't the defensive society be a servant of power only as much as it needs?

Or do you have even better thoughts?!

Where are we now? How much power do the most powerful have? How powerless are those repressed? Will we ever resist power better?

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European Tribune - LQD: Parables of Power
Even in the group of altruists, there will almost certainly be a dissenting minority who refuse to make any sacrifice. If there is just one selfish rebel, prepared to exploit the altruism of the rest, then he, by definition, is more likely than they are to survive and have children. Each of these children will tend to inherit his selfish traits. After several generations of this natural selection, the 'altruistic group' will be over-run by selfish individuals, and will be indistinguishable from the selfish group.

this is the anglo disease... not making any sacrifice can be seen as the life of a 'trader in financial services' who can parlay thousands into millions clicking a mouse comfortably esconced behind a monitor, miles away from the consequences of their actions, which might include the firing of workers, markets manipulated, people going hungry, even war.

so removed from the proddings to human conscience, life and death reduced to flickering pixels, endless enumerations.

lives like that freeze the soul, hell's not hot, it's c-o-o-o-o-ld.

these parables of power in tribal life ring all kinds of inner resonance bells.

when the planet was underpopulated, this fouling of the moral nest must have stimulated a lot of travel, nomads  being moving targets, and because over the rainbow was more land to husband, away from the mad mongols/huns/gauls/romans coming ovet the hilltop, just as you've got your place together, fruit trees bearing, fencing sorted, women bearing healthy children etc.

has any culture lived in peace for long? the rumours i grew up with about the fabled himalayan shangri-las of hunza, mustang, bhutan i always suspected were that way (if they really  were!) because they were so damn hard to get to, and severely selected for only the hardiest and canniest by the topography and climate challenges, very difficult to storm even with armies of serious size.

not much there to pillage in those days either, although that might be different now, with ores and metals demands rising so fast, and better technology to find them with.

becoming aware quite young about the de-souling of english country and culture, i explored different corners of the world to observe how they addressed this age old problem.

the happiest people i found were in faraway places, where they were poor in money, but rich in human contact and relationships.

the more modern, the more destructive, insensitive, unaware and neurotic.

the biggest flag...the children smile more, and the adults are generally merrier too.

but nowadays, there are no places completely immune, the global clarion call to consume and gorge while you still can has immense reach, coca-colonisation wherever you go, and escape can never be more than relative...

thanks for this diary, it cuts to the nub of the problem, power is such core stuff, and the games played with it start very young.

we all crave and deserve to enjoy power, as much as we can stand without shaking to bits, but we have to find ways that satisfy ourselves that have no bad blowback.

not power-over, but power-with...
das monde:

Dynamics of power always causes some despair.

you sure got that right!

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri Mar 21st, 2008 at 06:50:47 AM EST
I find the topic fascinating but not necessarily enlightening:
yes, peaceful societies would probably tend to be overrun by aggresive ones but so what? The period when this could continue has eclipsed. Earth has reached capacity and there is nowhere else to go for now. Therefore the peaceful and the aggressors will need to coexist somehow. In fact, the only reason that we still exist IS because in key turning points of history power was not met with greater power but instead a compromise was accepted. The greater danger lies in the passivity of the "masses"; the culture of coach potato coka sipping soma munching individuals -- where power struggles have been transferred to irrelevant (and largely imaginary) spectacle and the choice between peace and aggression has been rendered mute.

I take issue with the Dawkins scenario: his 'story' entirely disregards the strength of societal meta-structure of ethics, mores, laws,philosophy etc. Our societies do in fact continue to exist because the continuous "contamination" of altruism with egoism has been kept at bay with a combination of the mechanisms listed above. In fact my intuition is that societies need this combination in order to be vibrant rather than stilted.

As a sidenote, I observed a lot of resentment towards religion in threads in this site and I can sympathise with many of the views against organized religion but in the end (aside from the metaphysical beauty of some inspired texts and transcendental experiences) religion provided a strong mechanism for altruistic mores to endure. I know this is a debatable position and I offer no proof but neither do I expect anyone to conclusively prove otherwise.

Orthodoxy is not a religion.

by BalkanIdentity (balkanid _ at _ google.com) on Fri Mar 21st, 2008 at 01:02:12 PM EST


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