Monday, October 3, 2011

On Violence II

It ain’t over yet. The issue I grapple with in this and the post which precedes it is complex. It has to do with the messiness of consensus. Even in a unit as small as a couple, even before we get to a family of three, consensus is often a battle. Of course there are happy moments of easy convergence, say to go to the movies rather than stay in, but as we all know, we each employ manipulation, bargaining, argument, reason and charm to get what we want at the cost of our partner or friend. That’s part of the glorious mess of human relationships, even with pets! Obviously, consensus among tens, hundreds or thousands of millions is quite a bit trickier.

I want to put this in some historical perspective. Class tensions and other conflicts at large social scales are as old as time.

The Hellenistic successor kingdoms established by Alexander’s generals, from Greece to India, employed mercenaries rather than national armies, but the story of Rome is, again, similar to that of Athens. Its early history, as recorded by official chroniclers like Livy, is one of continued struggles between patricians and plebeians, and of continual crises over debt. Periodically, these would lead to what were called moments of “the secession of the plebs,” when the commoners of the city abandoned their fields and workshops, camped outside, and threatened mass defection—an interesting halfway point between the popular revolts of Greece and the strategy of exodus typically in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Here, too, the patricians were ultimately faced with a decision: they could use agricultural loans to gradually turn the plebeian population into a class of bonded laborers on their estates, or they could accede to popular demands for debt protection, preserve a free peasantry, and employ the younger sons of free farm families as soldiers. As the prolonged history of crises, secessions, and reforms makes clear, the choice was made grudgingly. The plebs practically had to force the senatorial class to take the imperial option. Sill, they did, and over time they gradually presided over the establishment of a welfare system that recycled at least a share of the spoils to soldiers, veterans and their families.
David Graeber, “Debt: The First 5,000 Years”, p230

To my mind the dynamic touched on here by Graeber emerges because of the slow evolution of people into what they see as distinct groupings, the subsequent divergence of the evolution of these groups as a consequence of conflicting or opposing interests, which then leads to the dehumanization of ‘The Other’ to the extent that all manner of violence becomes commonplace and acceptable. Yet someone has to 'win'. Consensus is vital if there is to be any sort of constructive and joint endeavor. The question is, who benefits how from this consensus, how was it won, and how is it sustained? In state form (as a monopoly on force and ideology creation and interpretation), or otherwise?

In my view, chieftaincies are sufficiently different from states to warrant separate classification. The key diagnostic feature is fission. All political systems up to the time of the early state, have as part of their normal political and demographic processes, inherent tendencies to break and form smaller units across the landscape. [...] The state is a system which overcomes such fissiparous tendencies.
Ronald Cohen, “State Origins: A Reappraisal”, in “The Early State”, p35, Claessen and Skalník (editors). [My emphasis.]

To prevent the constant fission of groups a state apparatus emerges. Prevention of fission is of course only possible around some general consensus. The methodology of states across time and space is based on force, violence, propaganda and extraction. Being hierarchical states are about extraction of the non-elite in the interests of the elite, with sufficient welfare provisions allowed so as to prevent the type of fission that would be harmful to the elites. Since all history has not demonstrated cohesive consensus at large scale societal level in the absence of state apparatus, anarchism has a lot to prove. Nevertheless, the analyses of our modern predicament which have most convinced me are anarchistic, and I include here The Venus Project and The Zeitgeist Movement (TZM), though they would not describe themselves as anarchists. Nevertheless, any movement which calls for the break up of the state and party political governance is anarchistic at heart (the 'leader' being nature itself, which is self-evidently self-organizing). Although my knowledge of anarchism is that of an interested beginner, it is, it seems to me, Natural Law which both The Venus Project/TZM and anarchism refer to as guiding principles for governance. Both refer to the hubris of thinking The Market or Science can magic infinite growth on a finite planet, that supra-national corporations or other bodies such as the UN or IMF can operate above natural law, and so on.

However, We, The Human Race have never tried anything like globally connected anarchy. My own vision is of regional polities networked via Internet software/hardware cooperatively and openly managing or husbanding the earth’s resources. Getting there will be violent simply because the powers that be want to sustain the current status quo at pretty much all costs. No change as fundamental as required to transition to what I see as the next logical set up for humanity can happen, with as much invested in the current arrangement as there is, without violent upheaval. The current system also happens to be violent to its core. All this is quite uncontroversial.

But what about thereafter, assuming such a transition actually happens?

The opening paragraph of this post touched on the kinds of small disagreements that happen between couples and smalls groups of people. It would be absurd to suggest that all such disagreements could disappear, regardless of the social arrangement. Does this mean the inevitable emergence of groupings that develop distinct philosophies, sensibilities, jargon, expertise, etc? Is therefore the perpetual emergence of dehumanization inescapable? Even assuming an abundance, an absence of poverty, provision of the basics to all humans everywhere; even assuming that drudge work is automated, or, less technologically, that whatever work done by human hand is uniformly seen as essential and therefore ‘good,’ how can we possibly imagine an end of conflict and disagreement, of diverging interests, perceptions, philosophies?

In hunter gatherer groups, to my mind the closest analog to a human society directly governed by egalitarianism and natural law, violence and other conflict occurred. Indeed, murder was an accepted way of dealing with those who refused to conform to tradition, after other avenues had been exhausted. The group co-evolves with its particular environment and develops traditions and culture it ‘must’ adhere to to survive. Anyone threatening that is a threat to the group (obviously) and must be dealt with in the interest of the majority. And yet change happens. We today have states and multi-national corporations. We also have an overarching paradigmatic consensus based on private property, money, competition and survival of the fittest which, though fractious, kinda-sorta holds us together. But it's breaking apart, quickly, and even the elite know this, from what I can tell. Change is upon us.

Whatever change of direction is in the offing, whatever new paths emerge from the rubble of the current global meltdown, if we are interested in wisdom—and I believe we are—we must not allow ourselves to be overtaken by rigid ideology, fanaticism, or insistence on anything in particular. Though even writing this I feel like an ideologue. Even the posting of opinion as an admonition to beware stubborn and over-emotional loyalty to this or that ideology quickly becomes a work of hypocrisy. There is a necessarily impenetrable aspect to pondering what lies around the corner. And though reference to the past is helpful, my increasingly erudite gut tells me that this time it’s different. I mean really different. Something profound is underway here, in which our past efforts are all caught up and intertwined; Rome, Greece, China, India, Persia, Turkey, Europe, The United State, ‘The Primitives’ and so on; humanity has been cooking in its multiple soups for millennia and somehow it all comes together here, now. At not one time in all the ructions and upheavals that have brought us here had we seen earth from outer space, got to know each other via international travel and media such as radio and television, spoken to each other from one corner of the globe right across to its furthest opposite, instantaneously, nor had we experienced social networking software, though horribly commercialized, giving us a practical sense of being joined, across nations and cultures, into one fractious family. This is very, very new.

Violence is something intensely unpleasant. It is natural during periods of profound change to want to heal that which has gone wrong, to prevent evil from happening again. But evil is a perception of violence which can only be done away with by throwing out too intensity and pleasure. The vital diversity of perception which gives rise to the beautiful mess of life must mean, inescapably, that one man’s pleasure is another’s poison, which must likewise mean tragedy, violence, suffering and so on, are as vital as anything else.

I think what we can realistically imagine is learning from history. The type of violence that we might therefore rid ourselves of, is of the large group scale that leads to war and wanton destruction. Weapons of mass destruction are part of that wisdom. The majority of us simply don’t want to unleash that much suffering on each other, don’t want to wipe out millions of our fellow humans, nor, indeed, other life forms. The majority are probably far wiser than the elite on this and many other topics. As Charles Eisenstein says, we are falling in love with life. E. O. Wilson called this biophilia. I think this too is new. Our new, self-conscious appreciation of empathy is a huge part of this.

My strong sense is that an anarchistic, self-organizing system would allow us all to have more immediate control of the direction humanity pursues. In such a system we simply would not see it as beneficial to dumb ourselves down, to foster and entrench deep wealth and power divisions, and instead see health in the relatively unimpeded and open flow of wealth and power across all of humanity. The impetus towards direct democracy, with software like Liquid Democracy as pioneered by The Pirates, including direct action movements like Occupy Wall Street and many others, are the vanguard of this. If we make it, if we do create a garden of Eden on earth, violence will be there as it always was, as will scorpions, snakes, mosquitoes, wasps, weeds, and so on. But our appreciation of the mess of it all will have evolved.

If we make it through this challenge, it will only be because we have earned it, acquired the cultural wisdom to deal creatively and constructively with our new technologies, the challenges of peak growth, peak oil, peak debt and peak everything else, and organized ourselves accordingly. In such a system, whatever we decide to call it, there will be far less ‘unnecessary’ violence than in our current, disintegrating model, not because we seek to eradicate violence, but because a more just, more open and transparent model will give rise to less, by default. Consensus may or may not be as fraught as it is today, but perhaps our patience and maturity in dealing with achieving it will improve.

Worth fighting for.


Cool Breeze said...


Thoughtful post. I realize this is ridiculous, but who couldn't use a good laugh...

Toby said...

Made me laugh!

It's funny coz it's true.

Malagodi said...

very nice post.

I think we can say with some confidence that we are at the end of the Current Era.

What this means in practical terms is that the future is inconceivable, and attempts to guide its course are futile. I sum this up in a quite shallow way with the expression "Capitalism [or industrialism] is killing us, Socialism can't save us, and no one knows what happens next."

Humans once at least officially believed that the Earth was the center of the Universe and that humanity was the only child of God. We no longer officially believe these things, but our hubris and grandiose egos still tell us that we are somehow at the controls of our future.

I am happy to say that I believe that the future is out of our control. If that is the case, then what we must do is understand that we don't know specifically what to do, only that we do what we must*. In that situation the only guide, the only criteria available for making decisions is compassion, the act of feeling together.

Thomas Merton once said "Humility is a virtue, not a neurosis." What he meant, I believe, is that humility, like compassion, is an attribute, not something that can be deliberately acquired, like a college degree. This ability to 'feel together' [a more direct deconstruction of compassion would be to 'suffer together'] is the attribute that will save humanity - or not.

All other details, constructions or forms of a future world are mere arrangements of the furniture, if you will. There is no point to try to figure out how the tables and chairs should be arranged for a gala whose guests are completely unknown.

*John Cage's 1959 discourse "Indeterminancy" is the germ of this. "What is the purpose of purposelessness?"

Toby said...

Thanks, Stephen.

"I am happy to say that I believe that the future is out of our control."

I feel the same way. And I can tell you it's a load off! It has been a winding path getting my mind to this point but once you realize control is an illusion, and you're prepared to imbibe and be changed by the implications of that, lots of other things fall into place. And some of the pleasure of life comes back too. And yet the fight goes on. Ah, sweet paradox!

Timbo614 said...

"The Conjunction of the Million Spheres", a certain Mr. Moorcock once called this approaching moment...

Debra said...

Funny that you are talking about the "fission" of groups (another way of talking about separation, dixit Eisenstein ?) and that we pursue.. the FISSION of matter.
I like reading "The Dark Materials Triology" for reasons that probably go over the head of Pullman himself.
How Lyra reads the alethiometer (spelling ?).
Getting around those X Ray eyes that bothered Oedipus so much that he had to put them out at the end of "Oedipus Tyrannus".
Gotta close our eyes a little bit...
Shakespeare has beautiful poetry about sleep in "Macbeth".
"Macbeth has murdered sleep..."
WE have murdered sleep.
Time to close our eyes a little bit.
Maybe even... DREAM ?
(What luxury.)
If you create the time to open "Hamlet", you will see how well Shakespeare addresses your concerns in this post... in the 1600's.
Pretty eery, eh ?
At least we might manage to let our eyes fall OUTSIDE OF THE SOCIAL SCIENCES AND THE TEXTBOOKS ??

Toby said...

Tim, I haven't heard the name of Moorcock in years! I never read any of his stuff (didn't he write lyrics for Iron Maiden or something?), always wanted to though. I'm intrigued by the title you quote. Shall look into it.

Debbie, the more I read the clearer it is to me that everything I can possibly observe or contemplate has been written down centuries ago, probably multiple times, most likely first in China, or India or Arabia. Europe, including William S, was very late to all sorts of ideas. As to looking beyond science and the social sciences, I suspect they both demand that of themselves and are that anyway, in the end--implications and all that. At their best they are both Art, which is the best Universe has to offer, wouldn't you say?

Timbo614 said...

Hi Toby,

As far a I remember it was a band called Hawkwind that he wrote for and probably others.

"The Conjunction of the Million Spheres" is a culminating event for threads running through 30+ books of his in the Science Fantasy genre and were mostly written in the late 60s / early 70s.

They concern the trials and tribulations of the Eternal Champion who appears in different times guises, and places throughout the various series. I had nearly all of them on a shelf in about 1975 - but when I grew up a bit more I threw them all out, probably a mistake because finding the originals is now quite hard!

They are not to be taken too seriously (I believe) but there is an underlying philosophy of course.

Provided you don't read the final ones first - it does not really matter what order you read each set (usually of 3) in! For laugh and taster read "The Dancers at the end of Time" trilogy - I always found them the most amusing and probably the only ones I read twice (if that's any recommendation).

enjoy - if you can locate copies :)

Toby said...

Hi Timbo,

thanks for the details. Who knows, when I've got the rhythm of my day, post quitting-work, more conducive to enjoying myself with reading fiction of an evening, I may well check his stuff out. That'll have to wait a few weeks yet, but it's close enough to taste.