Tuesday


It has long been my impression that one of the unacknowledged problems of industrialized civilization is that the individuals who ascend to the highest positions of influence and political power are the worst kind of people — the kind of people who, if you met them on a personal basis, you would hereafter seek to avoid them. I have not heretofore attempted an exposition of this impression because I could not express it concisely nor offer a causal mechanism to explain it. Moreover, my impression is merely anecdotal, and might be better explained as the sour grapes of someone not successful in the context of contemporary social institutions. Nevertheless, I cannot shake the feeling that most politicians and celebrities (the people with power in our society) are unpleasant, self-serving social climbers whose only redeeming quality is that, usually, they are not openly malevolent.

Having recently learned the meaning of the term “the managerial state” (also known as anarcho-tyranny, but I will use the aforementioned term) I find that I can use this concept to give an exposition of the idea that industrialized civilization promotes the worst kind of person into positions of influence and authority. Intuitively we can understand that the managerial state is a bureaucratic institution characterized by technocratic management; the anarcho-tyranny part comes into the equation because the managerial state, through selective enforcement of the laws, aids and abets criminality while coming down hardest on the law abiding citizens. If this sounds strange and improbable to you, I ask you to search your memory, and I would be surprised if you cannot think of someone whose life was destroyed, or nearly destroyed, due to some some infraction that was enforced as though it were to be an instance of exemplary justice, even while obvious criminals were allowed to go unmolested because of their wealth, their influence, or some other “mitigating” factor. If you have never heard of any such episode, then you are fortunate. I suspect that most people have experienced these injustices, if only obliquely.

What kind of person — what kind of bureaucratic manager — would thrive in the managerial state? Here we have a ready answer, familiar to us since classical antiquity: Plato’s perfectly unjust man. In an earlier post, Experimenting with Thought Experiments, I discussed the section of Plato’s Republic in which he contrasts the perfectly just man — who has the reality of justice but the appearance of injustice — and the perfectly unjust man — who has the reality of injustice but the appearance of justice. Thus the Platonic metaphysics of appearance and reality, which has shaped all subsequent western metaphysics, is invoked in order to provide an exposition of moral virtue and vice in a social context.

The perfectly unjust man would thrive in the role of apparently virtuous manager of the state while in reality exclusively serving the interests of the managerial class, who retain their authority by doing the bare minimum in terms of maintaining the institutions of society while turning the full force of their talents and interest to the greater glory of the technocratic elite.

The existence of the managerial state, then, engenders the conditions in which the perfectly unjust man can thrive, as though a petri dish were specially prepared to cultivate this species. The managerial state, in turn, appears in industrialized civilization partly due to the technocratic demands placed upon the leadership (charismatic and dynastic authority are likely to no longer be sufficient to the management of the industrialized state) and the increasingly scientific character of society encourages the rationalization of institutions, which in turn selects for an early maturation of the institutions of industrialized society.

I have here painted a very unflattering portrait of contemporary political power, but that I would do so starting from the premise that industrialized civilization raises the worst people to the top should come as no surprise. For a countervailing view we might take the many recent pronouncements of Jordan Peterson. I wrote a post about Peterson when he was first coming into wide public recognition, Why Freedom of Inquiry in Academia Matters to an Autodidact. Since that time Peterson has rocketed to notoriety, and has had many opportunities to present his views.

One of the themes that Peterson returns to time and again (I’ve listened to a lot of his lectures, though by no means all of them) is that the hierarchies that characterize western civilization are hierarchies of competence and not hierarchies of tyranny established through the naked exercise of power. The proof of this is that our society functions rather well: water comes out of the tap, electricity is there when we turn on the switch, and our institutions are probably less corrupt than the analogous institutions of other societies. I more-or-less agree with Peterson on this, except that I regard our hierarchies as more of a mixed bag. We have some hierarchies of competence, and some hierarchies that have more to do with birth, wealth, family, and, worst of all, dishonesty and cunning.

In traditional western civilization — by which I mean western civilization prior to the three revolutions of science, popular sovereignty, and industrialization — power was secured either through the naked exercise of force, or through dynastic pan-generational inheritance. In a dynastic political system (like that of contemporary North Korea), you get a mixed bag: some generations get good kings and some generations get lousy kings. Given the knowledge that the heir to the throne was not always the best leader, feudal systems developed a wide distribution of power and a battery of alternative institutions through which power could be exercised in their event of a weak, stupid, insane, or feckless king.

The feudal system called itself “aristocracy,” which literally means “rule by the best,” and this is precisely what is meant by hierarchies of competence: rule by the best. But the people who actually lived in feudal systems knew that the best were not necessarily or inevitably at the apex of the political system, and so they prepared themselves with institutions that could survive poor kingship. Each generation had the luck of the draw in terms of the king they got, but since this was a known weakness of the system, it could be mitigated to some degree, and it was.

One of the problems of industrialized civilization has been the simultaneous and uncritical embrace of popular sovereignty, which is at least as easily manipulable as feudal institutions, and arguably is more manipulable than feudalism. By throwing ourselves headlong into popular sovereignty, and, at least in the case of the US, slowly dismantling those institutions that once insulated us from the brunt of popular politics (thus accelerating the progress of popular sovereignty), we have few of the protections that feudalism had built into its institutions to limit the reach of incompetent leadership.

The perfectly unjust man is no analogue of an incompetent king: he is good at what he does. Plato called the perfectly unjust man, “great in his injustice.” Just so, the perfectly unjust man is a competent manager of the managerial state, but being a competent manager of a managerial state is not the ideal of democracy. And yet democracy, the more it seeks an illusory perfect egalitarianism, and deconstructs the last of the institutions that limit and balance power (for even the unlimited exercise of popular sovereignty is a dystopian tyranny), the more the managerial state comes into the possession of those temperamentally constituted to thrive within its institutions: the perfectly unjust men. This is my response to hierarchies of competence: yes, perfectly unjust men are competent, but they are not the ideal of leadership for civilization. They may even be the antithesis of the leadership that civilization needs. And now they have the stranglehold on power and will not be forced out without a struggle.

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Monday


space landscape

What happens when invariant civilizational properties are subjected to variation due to adaptation?

If the extraterrestrialization of human civilization is consistent with all previous human civilization, then human extraterrestrial civilization will exhibit the civilizational invariants of warfare, social hierarchy, and geographically settled communities (which I recently identified as civilizational invariants in Invariant Properties of Civilization). That is to say, there will be some form of warfare, some form of social hierarchy, and some form of geographically settled communities.

Certainly it would be remarkable if any of these norms of civilization were seriously called into question; it would be, by definition, an unprecedented circumstance, and unprecedented circumstances are historically unique upon their occurrence (even if they should become common later, after their first appearance in history). As extraordinary historical claims demand extraordinary evidence, so unprecedented historical claims demand unprecedented evidence. In order to show that civilization has assumed an unprecedented form, our evidence would need to pass a high bar.

If the necessary transition and adaptation of earth-originating human institutions to a future extraterrestrial context results in an absence (or suspension) or warfare, an absence of social hierarchy, or the absence of settled communities (or any combination of these three), then the processes of extraterrestrialization could be said to precipitate a post-civilizational successor institution, and upon the realization of such an institution humanity could be said to have entered upon a fundamentally novel form of development (and a new macro-historical period). This would be remarkable, but it is within the realm of possibility.

I have employed the example above of an extraterrestrial human civilization, but similar considerations hold for any strategic trend that might come to dominate the shape of the human future over the coming centuries. What are these possible shapes of the human future?

In earlier posts I have outlined five possible scenarios for the future, all of which involve extrapolation of known strategic trends occurring in the present (and therefore my futurism represents a kind of uniformitarianism):

Extraterrestrialization is the expansion of human civilization beyond the surface of the earth, so that humanity ultimately becomes a majority extraterrestrial species.

Pastoralization is the growth of conurbations and the parallel continuing depopulation of the rural countryside, in which agriculture has also been urbanized.

Singularization is the now-familiar scenario of the technological singularity, in which humanity is either superseded by its superintelligent mechanical progeny or itself merges with these machines.

Neo-Agriculturalism is the return to an agrarian civilization, albeit with our technology (mostly) intact, in part as an environmentalist reaction against industrial-technological civilization.

Neo-Marxism is the familiar future of communism, which I have argued in many posts has not been historically falsified as usually believed, most recently in The Re-Proletarianization of the Workforce.

In regard to extraterrestrialization, the idiom of “space settlement” is already becoming current (in the attempt to avoid the use of the term “space colonization” because of the desire to disassociate an exciting human future from the dismal history of colonialism), but these settlements would not be located at a geographical location on the earth’s surface, which already marks a radical departure. However, the basic properties of settlement would likely be realized in any permanent human community off the surface of the earth. There is no reason at present to suppose that we will not bring our social hierarchies into space with us, and we already have nascent warfighting technologies for space under development, despite the efforts of the international community to de-militarize space.

In regard to Pastoralization, settlement is focused on cities, cities are likely to retain their entrenched social hierarchies, as well as their tendency to go to war with other cities, so this macro-historical development does not greatly challenge the existing paradigm of human civilization.

In regard to Singularization, human institutions disappear in the most radical scenario (a “hard landing”), which means the disappearance of human warfare, human social hierarchies, and human settlement. This represents a radical departure from the received paradigm of civilization, but we must ask next if the machines that supersede us will replicate our tendency to warfare, social hierarchy, and settlement. We cannot know this, and for this reason we cannot say that it is impossible. If post-humans or machines reconstruct the familiar institutions of human civilization without human beings, should this be accounted a continuation of human civilization?

In regard to Neo-Agriculturalism, here settlement remains a strong force, while I imagine those who might imagine such a future would conceive an utopian future free of warfare and social hierarchy, however unlikely it is that this dream would be attained. If an attempt were made to put such conceptions into practice it would more or less guarantee a dystopian result of horrifically magnified warfare and hierarchy.

In regard to Neo-Marxism, we have a conception of the future that is ideologically committed to the elimination of human social hierarchies, and in this sense neo-Marxism represents a strong challenge to a civilizational invariant, but we know that all attempts at constituting Marxist societies resulted in no change to social hierarchy, only the fungibility of the individuals within that hierarchy. Marxism also represents a view of the future in which, at totality, warfare would be eliminated because all reasons for war would be eliminated through just allocation of goods and services. Again, no actually existing experiment in Marxist society was free from war, so the tension between ideal and realization remains strong. Neither Marxism nor neo-Marxism calls settled society into question.

In each case of these potential macro-historical revolutions, the developments are consistent with either the retention of civilizational invariants or their abolition. In so far, then, as these macro-historical revolutions issue in specifically human civilizations (even if it is an essentially human civilization replicated by machines in our absence), the weight of history suggests that the civilizational invariants will remain largely invariant — perhaps producing a few problematic cases that represent qualifications, exceptions, or conditions that must be introduced into any exposition of civilizational invariants.

From the perspective of long-term futurism — what one might also call futurism in the context of big history — the really interesting question here would be to identify the developments of human civilization that might force a change in one or more civilization invariants, and to do so in an unambiguous way, so that what follows must be understood as a post-civilization social institution.

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Thursday


Permutations of Militancy, Hierarchy, and Settlement

militancy hierarchy settlement 2

as Predictors of Post-Civilization Successor Institutions


War is coextensive with civilization. Or, to add an important qualification, war has been coextensive with civilization so far. Another way to express this is to say that warfare is an invariant property of civilization as we know always known it. Where there is civilization, there will be war, and where there is war (except for the Hobbesian war of all against all) there is a civilization making that war possible.

War is not the only invariant property of civilization. I can think of at least two other civilizational invariants, namely hierarchy and settlement. Civilizations as we have known them to date vary according to the particular kind of militancy, the particular kind of social hierarchy, and the particular kind of settlement practised, yet the possession of some kind of militancy, some kind of hierarchy, and some kind of settlement has proved invariant in the history of civilization.

I have addressed this question previously in separate posts that did not make clear the systematic relationship that holds among invariant properties of civilizations. For example, in Civilization and War as Social Technologies I emphasized that war and civilization are locked in a coevolutionary spiral. It could with equal justification be said that civilization and hierarchy are locked in a coevolutionary spiral, or that civilization and settlement are locked in a coevolutionary spiral.

In Invariant Social Structures I observed that the one social structure that remained constant in the transition from agrarian civilization to industrialized civilization was, “a very small political elite in positions of real power and the vast majority of people without any access to power at all.” It could with equal justification be said that war and settlement also remained constant in the transition from agrarian to industrialized civilization.

In Civilizations Settled and Unsettled and in Settled Life, Settled Thought I tried to show how settlement is intrinsic to civilization and is central to the thought of civilized peoples. It could be said with equal justification that militarism and hierarchy have been constitutive of the thought of civilized peoples.

In Civilizations Settled and Unsettled, in distinguishing between settled and transient civilizations, I observed that transient civilizations (such as the Vikings, the Mongols, and the plains Indians) were exceptions to the rule of settled civilization, that there had not yet been an industrialized transient civilization, and that this possibility, i.e., transient industrialism, remains an unfulfilled possibility of human history. A related thought appeared in What comes after civilization? in which I speculated on the possibility of post-civilizational social institutions. I took this thought a step further in Civilization, War, and Industrial Technology, in which I wrote the following:

“…the conception of civilization without war is far more radical than the conception of civilization without technological progress. It is, in fact, so radical, and war is, in fact, so inherent to civilization, that the end of war would also mean the end of civilization. Civilization could not survive intact the excision of war. The end of war would mean not the emergence of a civilization without war — war and civilization have been co-extensive — but rather the emergence of some new social institution that would supplant civilization.”

Taking together the civilizational invariants of militarism, hierarchy, and settlement, we arrive at eight possible permutations, one of which is civilization as we know it today, while the others may have some vague historical precedents — the most radically distinct social institution of nomadic egalitarian pacifism bears a striking resemblance to what has been called the Paleolithic Golden Age — but which may also be understood as templates for post-civilizational successor institutions.

war hierarch settlement 1

1. settled hierarchical militarism

2. nomadic hierarchical militarism

3. settled egalitarian militarism

4. nomadic egalitarian militarism

5. settled hierarchical pacifism

6. nomadic hierarchical pacifism

7. settled egalitarian pacifism

8. nomadic egalitarian pacifism

war hierarchy settlement 2

It is an interesting corollary the entanglement of civilizational invariants that, not only is each engaged in coevolution with civilization, but each is also engaged in coevolution with the others, so that there is a coevolutionary spiral of war and settlement, of war and hierarchy, and of hierarchy and settlement.

There has been a scientific revolution in historiography that has unfolded for the last several decades, and, in so far as history studies civilizations, the next step is to think scientifically about civilization. Thinking scientifically about civilization is obviously going to result in difference according to how one conceives science and how one conceives civilization. While my approach to this is rather different than mainstream historiography, I have written about the possibility of The Future Science of Civilizations, and the above investigation in the invariants of civilization may be taken as representative of how I would approach such a science of civilization (as well as of post-civilizational successor institutions).

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Sunday


Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt just tweeted the following:

We see it again: hierarchies can’t really control networks in the modern world. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/with-chen-guangcheng-news-on-twitter-chinas-censors-lost-control/2012/05/05/gIQAUctU4T_story.html?hpid=z3

The linked story from the Washington Post, With Chen Guangcheng news on Twitter, China’s censors lost control, discusses how the volume of micro-blogging and text messages outpaced the Chinese censors with the Chen Guangcheng story, as well as the Bo Xilai scandal and high speed rail disaster.

There are at least two related but distinct factors involved here: 1) the actual difficulty for the censors of deleting so many micro-blog posts so quickly as they are spreading virally, and 2) the difficulty of maintaining an unchallenged “official” position that departs too far from the facts on the ground given the rapid spread of information from non-official sources. While the Great Firewall of China can stifle much comment, the airing of honest opinions is becoming more and more a cat-and-mouse game. Although the cat catches lots of mice, a smart mouse can outwit a cat, and a sufficiently large number of mice can defy a cat.

Unless a nation-state is willing to completely sever its citizens from the internet, as in the case of North Korea, controlling information is difficult, and getting more difficult all the time. And even in the case of North Korea there are cracks in the facade of information control. The Globe and Mail recently published an interesting article, North Korea’s small pool of mobile phones pose a big political threat, about the increasing influence of cell phones in North Korea, despite regime attempts to limit their usefulness.

Foreign Minister Bildt’s clear and intuitive contrast between hierarchies and networks provides an excellent context in which to explore the game-changing effect of electronic communications technology. The centralized nation-state has embodied hierarchy, and initially made use of technologically-enabled mass communications technology (newspapers, radio, and television) in order to reinforce its hierarchical message. But as technology has increased and improved, electronic telecommunications have become increasingly democratized, enabling networks that have no connection to the nation-state hierarchy.

Can hierarchies control networks, or are networks intrinsically beyond the ability of hierarchies to control? At present, the answer to whether hierarchies can control networks is a qualified “yes.” Hierarchies can partially control networks, but they cannot completely control networks. If this is what Bildt means when he says that, “hierarchies can’t really control networks in the modern world,” he is right. It is a question of what you mean by “control.”

The Chinese authorities are able to control a surprising amount of expression, despite the size of the internet and its users within China. Even the most prominent writers and intellectuals like Han Han and Ai Weiwei have their blog posts regularly deleted. This is Chinese democracy: no one is above the law, or, at least, above the censors. So if you are an isolated individual trying to get your story out the world, you are still very much subject to controls on expression. However, if a story becomes sufficiently large and compelling, it outruns the ability of the censors to stop it.

The internet, for all its size and flexibility, which gives the advantage to asymmetrical strategies, is still a material artifact. It requires electricity, wires or cables or signals, a device to access it, and so forth. All of these things can be brought under the hierarchical control of a nation-state. But as these elements of electronic telecommunications and computing become universal forms of infrastructure they become democratized. As the Gaddafi regime in Libya was collapsing it shut down access to the internet to try to stop the tide of information reporting its collapse, but there are limits to this, and in the case of Libya it turned out to be a temporary and unsuccessful measure.

As the hierarchical functions of the nation-state become dependent upon the universal telecommunications and computing infrastructure, as is already essentially the case in all the advanced industrialized nation-states, it is no longer an option to pull the plug. Or, in other words, pulling the plug would do more harm than good. China is an interesting case in point, because at the present moment it is on the cusp of this development. It can partially shut down the internet, but it can’t really afford to completely shut down the internet, and as long as it cannot completely shut down the internet, it cannot completely control communications.

The ongoing development of industrial-technological civilization, which necessitates even the most hierarchical of nation-states to adopt a universal infrastructure of telecommunications and computing, suggests that it is only a matter of time before electronic telecommunications is democratized to the point that hierarchies cannot really control networks. We have not yet reached that point, but we can see that the day is coming.

It may be that, in the fullness of time, the emergence of networks based on electronic telecommunications may change the political structure of societies, and the networked nation-state will be the (first) successor institution to the hierarchical nation-state. What will come after the networked nation-state is anyone’s guess.

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