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?