In 1958, Mao Zedong ordered that sparrows be exterminated throughout China.
For three days, the Chinese went hunting for sparrows. It was the beginning of an ecological and humanitarian disaster leading to millions of dead.
In a state-sponsored announcement and as one of his first initiatives, Mao declared war on the “four pests”: mosquitoes, flies, sparrows and rats. The impact on China’s ecological balance was catastrophic. The sparrow – which Mao identified as a pest – only rarely eats farmed grain from the field. The main components of its diet are in fact insects such as locusts, which can reproduce undisturbed in the absence of their main predator.
From Dr Wolfgang Wodarg’s Telegram feed [my translation]
Systems prepare for their overthrow with a preliminary period of petrification.
R. H. Tawney in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
This post extends “Why I ‘support’ Trump over Biden” and analyses different aspects of the material in Part I of “Only the intensity has changed. Nothing will ever be the same again.” In the former, I briefly touched on the deep divisions that bedevil the American people, and by extension the world’s peoples. In the latter, I examined at some depth a few logical derivations we might tease out from the dogged phenomenon of inter-group antipathy at a broader scale than narrowly focussing on it as productive ground for sustaining an ancient strategy we know as “divide and conquer”.
Within that narrower remit, we here consider why societies and groups can be divided and set against each other, why so often we fail to see it happening, and what we might do about this understandable dynamic going forward. The article is structured as expositions of two civilisational building blocks – specialisation and hierarchy – that, taken together in the remainder of the article, serve to illustrate why divide and conquer is such an effective strategy for controlling very large numbers of people. We close by peering into the nature of reality, for it is among these deepest of fundaments that robust ideas supportive of a possible Better Way are to be found (I assert).
This article is familiar ground but it is, I feel, absolutely pivotal to our historical moment. My hope is that examining this territory from multiple angles will make the analysis more accessible to more people.
Civilisation without specialisation is almost unimaginable (see Idiocracy). One of the fundamental properties distinguishing civilisation from non-civilisation is the incredible societal complexity it can sustain over large tracts of time. Specialisation cumulatively permits this growing complexity – or more accurately is an expression thereof – and is an accomplishment with roots in numerous civilisational accomplishments such as grain stores, geometry and metallurgy. These and countless other technologies free up time some use to become experts in something very narrow, like viral infection vectors or endocrine disruption. Over time, areas of expertise cumulatively and mutually advance each other, spawn yet others and generally interact in countless ways to, put crudely, produce wealth – lots of wealth. (We’ll talk about wealth later.)
But this simplistic, progressivist rhetoric does not account for the problem highly focussed specialists can have when communicating with other highly focussed specialists, especially when their respective areas of expertise are remote from one another, yet both are suddenly relevant to some urgent social issue. Add ideological conflict to the mix, and specialists so thrown together can have a very hard time reaching agreement. More mundanely, we might also reflect on how hard it would be for primary-school teachers from north London to truly appreciate the worldviews and interests of Tibetan monks or Cebu’s street children.
And our account should also include vested interests that agglomerate around particularly valuable specialisations while thwarting or suppressing the findings of others that might harm those interests. After all, scientific research has to be funded by something, and not everything that can or should be investigated will yield financial profit – much may even harm it. In a world ruled by money, even science itself, not to mention politics and law, is for sale to a large degree. This problem is compounded by the challenge of staying humble while possessing the extraordinary ambition and skill needed to become a world-leading expert or figure of power. And then really identifying with that lofty status. As Max Planck put it, “Science advances one funeral at a time.”
But the domain of specialisation most important to our discussion here is politics (within which I include the mythical, semi-mythical or wholly real yet invariably disturbing ‘Deep State’). Politics – beyond parliaments to all institutional power structures – could be characterised as a societal process evolved to protect wealth (aka power) and determine its distribution through society. A second relevant quality politics possesses is its structural function as intermediary between Business and The People. The tensions characterising this triad’s interdependencies also characterise human history. How transparently and honestly can politics perform this role? How wisely responsive to cumulative change can it be? Does ‘runaway specialisation’ in fact fatally impair politics’ ability to be a transparent mediator? How does our cultural sense of wealth / wealth generation govern which group has more power over political processes, regardless of any moral or ethical considerations? And are this triad’s just-asserted constituent groups in fact the result of an ideological perspective, a mirage-like emergence of our acquired cultural reflexes around wealth?
Hold those thoughts.
Hierarchy is a social structure that tends to emerge from advanced specialisation. Decentralised, more anarchic/democratic structures can emerge from specialisation but are far less likely, as history attests. Currently and for a while yet, hierarchical social forms have their hands on history’s steering wheel.
What does this mean, fundamentally speaking? It means politics’ function as protector and distributor of wealth operates within a hierarchical dynamic that must, by virtue of this dynamic’s structuring pattern that is ever operant, ‘autonomically’ favour the pyramid’s upper over its lower layers over time. I would argue this is the case in state communism and socialism, in ‘free-market’ capitalism, indeed in any institutionalised hierarchy. In other words, the wealth-power any hierarchy generates flows cumulatively to the top. The degree to which a rising pyramid lifts all boats depends on circumstances, which include but are by no means limited to the relative balances of power available to each level. One contemporary example would be trade-union relative to corporate/business power.
To continue with trade unions by way of further explication, they tend to be structured hierarchically. This is hardly surprising; in societies that have been hierarchical for centuries, we would expect almost every member therein to be reflexively hierarchical, to reflexively expect leaders and followers and to not know how to organise differently. To be effective, trade unions must have power and wealth. Hunger for power is probably the best predictor for which personalities within a union’s membership will make it to leadership positions and be effective in those roles. As such, they are likely to have more psychological affinity – even if hidden from conscious view – with the leadership of corporations and politics than with the members they represent. This makes them easy to corrupt and separate from their members. I don’t mean this disparagingly, I’m simply teasing out logical derivations from the components under discussion.
To recap, organisations, groups, unions, political parties, etc. have particular defining dynamics. If these happen to be inflexibly or ideologically hierarchical, the decisions, solutions and discoveries they will tend to favour will conform to or serve the dynamic outlined above; favouring upper over lower levels of the hierarchy over time. And yet despite this systemic tendency, the vector history takes cannot be controlled completely; unintended consequences will slip out from under all attempts to control history and have their unpredictable way with it.
In the case of politics generally, this tendency will underpin, in both the most hidden and obvious of ways, how politics continues to conceptualise its role – romantically and pragmatically – and will also reinforce its perception and understanding of the wealth it is solemnly sworn to protect. Systems structure perception. And all of this somewhat in the manner of a positive feedback loop that one day must crash against the mounting cliffs of perpetual change.
Groupings: antipathy, mistrust, conspiracy
Combined, the two civilisational building blocks presented above generate seemingly endless groupings: sub-groups within groups, fringe groups, dominant groups, tiny groups and huge meta-groups, and we may not be particularly conscious of the many groups to which we belong; sociology does a dizzying job of discovering new groups, and most laypeople have probably never heard of them. The more we look, the more we reveal. Who can say what part fantasy and what part reality play in this process.
Not all groups have antithetical interrelations but any two can be coaxed into that relationship. Propaganda, public-relations and behavioural-programming powers are by now highly advanced skills. Should it serve the interests of those with the means to wield these skills – those at the very tip of the hierarchical pyramid whose duty is to sustain that pyramid by any means possible –, they can create new groups as if out of nothing, and set them against each other. Of course, to be effective, such efforts must be sufficiently psychologically grounded, e.g. those who fear viruses and those who fear authoritarian power, or those wanting the freedom to question claims made about vaccines and those believing such criticism leads to widespread disease and death. It seems fault lines develop along axes of fear. Fear goes viral in ignorance, and ignorance is a hard thing to defeat in highly specialised societies, especially when education is designed to dumb down the vast majority of us.
But this tempting civilisational tool is something of a double-edged sword. Societal continuity over time is an existential matter. Our ideas around what reality is about – pursuit of happiness, property accumulation, success and accomplishment, humble service to God, humanism, science, etc. – are cohering forces that power us through time, structure us, guide us, unite us. Were an entire civilisation to lose faith in their deepest convictions and beliefs over night, the resultant chaos would be terrible, regardless of how noble or cynical the establishment of those cohering beliefs had been. Hence, the continuity that is the core remit of the political layer in guarding and distributing generated wealth – one critical part of which is sustaining consensus about what wealth is – is fiercely protected. No individual or group is as valuable as that continuity; every group and individual would be plunged into the abyss were that continuity to suddenly snap. Of course, this does logically make the group guarding continuity the most important group, and there’s the hierarchical rub.
These hard facts mean states and other powerful interests will play groups against one another if such is perceived to be helpful in protecting societal continuity. This sort of realpolitik could be termed conspiring. As Stalin put it, you have to break eggs to make omelettes. I’d add that one tends not to reveal which eggs are going to be sacrificed, to extend the metaphor to its logical limit. Such decisions are thus made in secrecy (for the good of the realm!).
The problem is the temptation to abuse this great power that politics must wisely manage – forever. This challenge is made steadily more difficult as the pyramid’s tip loses touch with its lower levels, as it loses connection with ‘reality on the ground’, as it struggles to properly understand specialist advisors, as it fails to resist the persuasive charms of lobbyists etc. It takes a rare set of individuals indeed to handle these sorts of pressures: making life-and-death decisions at mass scale while staying wise and compassionate.
Recalling the communication issues that bedevil specialisation and how this relates to the above paragraphs, we might recast this phenomenon as one of several co-factors eroding community cohesion over time. For example, a 50-strong hunter-gatherer band is going to be a far more cohesive community than, say, the population of Great Britain. The social complexity of the latter far exceeds that of the former. This complexity can be viewed as a rich attack surface offering an endless number of fault lines that might be exploited for divide-and-conquer purposes. In other words, because we don’t know each other very well, we can easily be induced to become suspicious of each other. Some have called this the atomisation of society. An episode from the first season of “Black Mirror” (“Fifteen Million Merits”) depicts one dystopian version of extreme atomisation. And it is dystopian, not utopian, precisely because humans are social animals. Distrust is poison to us, depresses us, corrodes our emotional, psychological and physical health.
So what are we to do if we want our civilisational cake and eat it too? My answer is that we have to revisit what we mean by wealth, by hierarchy and anarchy, value and other foundational concepts. The concluding section will now turn to these matters.
Closing observations towards a Better Way
Underneath both building blocks discussed above, and I believe also under any others we might advance, lies value. All decision making is guided by our value systems, whether ‘civilised’ or ‘primitive’, ‘humanist’ or ‘animal’. Value is thus somewhat synonymous with wealth; wealth is what we value. But neither is a distinct object impervious to change. Over the last two or three centuries, both terms have become profoundly influenced by materialism. Materialism requires the measurement of all things so as to mechanically describe and thus control them. Measurement is of course nothing new, but materialism’s dominance has reached unprecedented levels in this time period, though is now past its zenith, in my view.
Value, it is claimed, is measured by money. One effect of this peculiar claim is that we have come to see value as almost entirely contained in and created by money, and is thus expressible in numbers.
Money, being little more than numbers attached to some currency symbol and imbued with purchasing power, simplifies and thus cheapens how we conceptualise and structure the economic domain. Economics should concern itself primarily with wise husbandry of the environment by protecting biodiversity. Instead it casts itself as an impartial science of market mechanisms, which are asserted as laws of nature steered by price discovery via supply and demand in the market place of life. If market forces are left to their own devices, the rest of reality will take care of itself, including the environment, which is conceived as an endless pool of idle resources. This intellectual framework actually places money at the heart of society, but this reality is artfully concealed by the orthodoxy that money is a “veil”, or almost meaningless consequence of buying and selling, a necessary but neutral tool invented to make trading more efficient.
Money is so much more than this disingenuous description.
Money, being made of numbers, can grow forever, especially when it is created as interest-bearing debt. Try as humanity might, its attempts to anchor money-as-numbers to something real, like gold, always fail. Money’s core logic – more is better than less –, combined with human invention and ambition, tends to grow the economic domain beyond what is sustainable. Only the big and powerful survive (until they collapse). Numbers can grow forever. Human imagination can grow forever. The constant battle for scarce resources adds fuel to this growth conflagration, whispering into our collective ears to escape constraints, to completely ‘tame’ the ‘wild’, to get everything under control. But resources are only scarce because human imagination is inexorably steered towards greed by the poor definition of value under discussion: tautology as positive feedback loop.
Health, on the other hand, isn’t like money. Health is an expression of biological systems that cannot grow forever. Perpetual growth of health makes no sense, not even as an idle notion. Health is something we must always tend, much as we might tend a garden, not that it expands, but that it stays functional, perhaps beautiful. Health and beauty can be thought of as synonyms.
Something about perpetual economic growth appeals to our civilisational instincts to escape the limits of reality (see transhumanism). What we value governs what we choose, how we steer our lives. If money is value, then money and its ‘infinite’ potential governs our lives. Were we instead to perceive health as value, how different would civilisation be? What effect would such a simple but profound change have on specialisation and hierarchical systems?
Aside from measurement, number and the illusion of control emerging from mastery thereof, another consequence of materialism is a pervasive victim-centred passivity that leads to depression, apathy, cynicism, nihilism, etc. ‘What’s the point? I’m just material stuff knocked this way and that by forces beyond my control.’ ‘There’s no such thing as free will; I’m a biological robot.’
This psychological stance sees health in a mechanical light, a perspective that makes health seem less attractive, dull somehow. The greeds and appetites that are the products of this stance desire primarily what cannot nourish: pornography rather than love; romance instead of relationship; quick and easy junk, not inconvenient home-cooked food etc. Such desires, expressed as economic demand, end up rewarding those powers that need our needs to forever remain in that narcissistic frame, in that painful emptiness. How is this a recipe for health, for meaningful success?
Hence too-big-to-fail banks, hence Big Pharma, hence Big Ag, hence dumbed-down populations who prefer not to think for themselves, who don’t have the time to do so anyway, who just want a ‘quiet life’ in the face of all the existential angst around money, career and meaning. It’s a vicious circle and there can seem no way out.
All this adds up to one sad truth: humanity is suffering an unprecedented crisis of trust. There’s too much divide and conquer, too much hierarchical control, too much nefarious meddling and nudging … all to keep the system going as it fights to survive rapidly accelerating technological change. And though this basic pattern – dawn to decadence – is as old as history, there is far more at stake now than there has ever been. Whether our response to the crisis takes us in a healthier or a yet more dysfunctional direction depends on whether we can learn to wisely manage the structural tensions and challenges detailed above. The healthier way is the harder; the slippery slope into totalitarianism the easier, the more passive.
The causes of this crisis are of course more complex than I have captured here, but concealed beneath them all is, as argued, the low quality of our cultural reflexes around value and wealth. As the saying goes, we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The wholly out-of-date constitutions and instincts of our governing bodies confront a situation they can only respond to with ever more control. These instincts – civilisation’s DNA as it were – are, naturally enough, honed to self-protection, but this time the ‘elite’s’ egotistical inflexibility may prove catastrophic.
At root, cultural and societal reflexes become unfit for purpose for the simple reason that change is the only constant. The way things were is not the way things are. “Systems prepare for their overthrow with a preliminary period of petrification.” And we cannot stop change unless we transform reality into absolute nothingness. Can we be more flexible and wise in how we handle inevitable change? I strongly believe so. The trick lies in redefining, or newly appreciating, value.
I should point out here that I do not advocate throwing all babies out with all bath waters, nor do I advocate a return to any prior ‘normal’, an ugly concept at the best of times. Besides, despite repeating patterns, return itself is an impossibility. As Heraclitus put it, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”
In pursuit of the healthier path and as far as we are able, we should try to rid ourselves of all ideologies; they censor perception. Traditionalism (conservation of the good) partners radicalism (perpetual change) via trial-and-error, seesawing exchanges. Patterns repeat eternally while the contexts within which they iterate, great and small, are always changing. Spring comes every year, but every spring occurs within a unique context and is composed of only unique events. Further, spring itself can be seen as a symbol for life cycles that characterise conscious processes of growth and decay that both precede and will last beyond this planet’s existence, a claim that takes us neatly to the nature of reality.
As chance would have it, I recently came across an article entitled “Scientists Reveal a Multidimensional Universe Inside the Human Brain”. Though still rooted in materialism, I believe it is indicative of a turn in science that will inexorably lead to a cultural acceptance that consciousness is reality’s true foundation. Donald Hoffman’s investigations into consciousness are another indication of this turn.
For a large number of reasons that I won’t set out here, I am confident almost to the point of certainty that what we call matter and energy, or rather what we experience as matter and energy, occur entirely within consciousness, not the other way around. In much the same way – metaphorically at least –, pixels on a computer screen behave like ‘real’ trees and rocks to the pixel-based avatars we conscious humans operate when playing, say, League of Legends. From the point of view of a character within the game, the rules (code) defining the matter-like behaviours of trees, rocks, light, gravity, etc., are invisible, or behind the scenes. Similarly, the set of continuous experiences we call physical reality is governed by rules – we could think of them as the Laws of Physics – that structure our universe. A switch from matter to consciousness as foundational would not mean all scientific discoveries would have to be discarded, just that they are couched in an error of perception that puts the cart before the horse. In Hoffman’s terms, physical reality is a constructed user-friendly “interface” that enables us to do what consciousness generally feels it needs to get done … for some as yet unknowable reason. Our lives on earth serve some conscious purpose we cannot as yet discern.
In my view, the crisis of trust that is the bitter fruit of decadence includes the erosion of materialism this time around. One of materialism’s tenets is a universe of lifeless objects. As touched on above, this foundational perception (weltanschauung is perhaps a better word) fosters the objectification, and by inexorable extension the commodification of nature/reality. Materialism undergirds the hubristic notions that nature (Other, NotMe) is a subset of the economy (experienced as ‘my material needs and desires’), and that perpetual economic growth is possible and good, and so has ultimately given rise to soulless, narcissistic consumerism.
As humanity increasingly dislikes what it sees in the mirror, as modern humans search in vain for a soul, as economic growth refuses to reignite, as advanced robotics and the historically rapid approach of AI turn most of humanity into little more than vessels of demand through which to pour a very conditional universal basic income, so the structures that got us here desperately need a redesign. To co-create something healthier and wiser than previous versions, for our co-creation to be lovingly open rather than psychotically totalitarian (i.e. The Great Reset), a profound evolution of consciousness is needed. Though profound, however, this required evolution is in fact quite simple conceptually – once the unnecessarily complicated and superfluous detail of modernity is pierced. As Charles Eisenstein has it, though the sky seems impossibly far away, it starts at the ground and rises from there.
Systems structure perception. We are each constrained by a matrix of beliefs that filters what we perceive. Fear of identity collapse, of betraying the group, of losing face, of being wrong, of dying, of being a powerless incompetent fool … all of it is currently rooted in a now instinctive belief (oddly we rarely believe it when pressed) that value = money = price = property accumulation. The antidote to fear is always courage. Courage is – among other things – a readiness to be wrong and the strength to persevere in developing understanding and wisdom regardless of setbacks along the way, and not permitting ourselves to be held back by beliefs. In short, being scientific in the noblest sense of that word. This is our healthiest path as conscious beings.
There are many ways to pierce the convoluted matrix of modernity but each would be assisted greatly by the realisation that there is nothing but God, that there is only God. Or, that there is only consciousness. I believe this realisation is dawning. It’s not the only way to break the spell, but it might be the most effective and lasting because it describes reality more accurately; consciousness cannot arise from matter but the experience of ‘matter’ can occur within consciousness.
Whatever path we take, rerooting our cultural sense of value in health and love will produce wealth-generation systems that enhance beauty, fecundity, freedom and truthful living everywhere. Were we to earnestly take on this task, I suspect social-organisation systems – politics – would become a fluid mix of anarchic and hierarchical. Natural authority is a beautiful thing, authority by brute force is not. Anarchy – leaderless decision making – is at its healthiest when our systems of education promote independence of thought and a willingness to be wrong, to learn by doing, to know in youthful excitement that learning never ends. As such, anarchy and hierarchy are not opposites at all; they are compatible decision-making modalities that can be used like any tools: as needed. The desire to treat Other with respect, to want its health to flourish and prosper, is simply a healthier way to be. It is love’s way. Love exposes how deceptive the selfishness-selfless dichotomy is; as I do unto Other, so I do unto Self. And all this would sustain civilisational complexity while presenting a minimal attack surface to divide-and-conquer tactics.
What’s not to like!