traps


Introversion — along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness — is now a second class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.
— Susan Cain

Remember the heady days when we non-smokers finally stood up for ourselves and our way in the world? Once we linked together in awareness, once we began to empower one another and to affirm our boundaries toward smokers and their inconsiderate, stinky, illness-promoting behaviors, the world changed. I believe we are now at another such momentous juncture: introverts rising!

For too long have we been relegated to second class molluscs in the extroverts’ oyster-world. They are the ones catered to, celebrated and accommodated; we, on the other hand, are mostly invisible, sometimes ridiculed, and always expected to adapt, to assimilate, to come out of our shells, to get better at extroverting so we can blend in.

But our day has arrived. We are half! We now know that introverts comprise slightly more than 50% of the population. The stats may even edge upwards as more introverts come out of the closet. We are not some small, socially impaired minority of wallflowers and geeky recluses. The socially impaired ones are the extroverts, if you ask me in my high dudgeon, who can’t seem to get that fast talking without pauses is a royal pain, who are oblivious to the needs of half of their fellows, who not only talk too much but say too little, listen poorly, and ignore signs of distress in those who would like to have a word in edgewise. And that’s only the beginning of my shit list. Say… wasn’t it reckless extroverts who gave us the 2008 financial collapse?

Just the other day, I realized who stole my beloved fireworks. When I was growing up, the magic of the swoosh and pop then the sudden bloom of color in the night sky never failed to take my breath away. Fast forward to America: the colors and shapes are even more magnificent, the bloom morphs from one color to another… what a delight. Until I get close, get battered by the cannonade of rat-a-tat-tat boom-flash-flash-flash-boom that sends birds, dogs, cats and introverts fleeing, if not for their lives, then for their sanity. Another lovely bit of my world, trampled by the heavy hooves of the extrovert herd.

Let’s face it: extroverts have taken over. Highly represented among the egos who have pushed the excesses of modernity on the rest of us, they wage war on peace and quiet, war on silence, war on darkness. They push speed and razzle-dazzle, playing havoc with our senses. And how much of the assault on nature is really carried forward by the extroverts’ overly ambitious and aggressive ways of dealing with the obstacles they encounter? How many problems of industrial civilization are due to the extroverts’ tendency to act now and think about it later, if at all? How much has privileging extroversion along with the relentless promotion of rapturous gregariousness and compulsory optimism cost us all in health, authenticity, and integrity?

Extroverts’ hunger for more and more stimulation is depriving the rest of us of our accustomed ways of gathering energy amidst tranquility, amidst solitude. They’ve been killing “our world,” and we won’t put up with it any more! 😈


Resources:
The Atlantic published an article in 2003 that garnered its author, Jonathan Rauch, more letters from readers than anything else he’s ever published. It provided the first spark.

Also interesting, the Top Ten Myths about Introverts.

A quick free test for introversion/extroversion that also pegs your Myers-Briggs type.

There are several books out worth reading, none heavily recommended, but each imparting an important message. Psychologist Laurie Helgoe went to the trouble of digging up the results of the best, most recent, randomized, large group studies identifying introversion. The first group came in at 50.7%, the next at 57%. Her book, Introvert Power, is worth checking out just for that chapter alone.

Quiet by Susan Cain contains lots of research, and a scary chapter on the cult of extroversion promoted by the likes of Tony Robbins seminars, the Harvard Business School, and evangelical megachurches. Yup, dontcha know, extroverts are God’s and capitalists’ favorite people! 🙄

Since Angie recently posted a thoughtful response on this blog on the voter’s dilemma, that old old issue of bargaining with the Devil has been haunting my inner world. There was a time, some years back, when I too believed that choosing the lesser evil is the way to go.

I once engaged in such an argument with an ethicist, and it ran as follows: if aliens come and tell you they will spare the Earth if you kill off all the 8-year olds, what is the moral thing to do? The ethicist argued that choosing the lesser evil and killing all the 8-year olds is the moral thing to do. I disagreed, and said that while you may be necessary to choose the lesser evil, it is still evil, and never a moral thing to do. We left the discussion unfinished.

A more poignant argument involved a thoughtful orthodox Jew named Russ I encountered in a multi-religious forum. We focused on Sophie’s Choice. To refresh your memory, Sophie is a young Polish mother of two who tries to smuggle a ham in from the countryside. She is arrested by the Nazis, and we find her next in a line of people being processed into a concentration camp. She accosts the passing commandant, telling him a mistake’s been made; she does not belong here. The sadist, amused, gives her a choice: surrender one of your children to death. And be quick about it. If you refuse, both will be taken. Sophie, amidst the agony, chooses the younger, her precocious little girl, bargaining in her mind that the older boy is more likely to survive. He does not, but she lives and comes to America, where her ghosts find her and destroy her.

I tried to persuade Russ that when evil asks for one child, it’s wrong to surrender both voluntarily. In other words, I was convinced that Sophie did the righter thing by choosing the lesser evil. Russ argued, based no doubt on the rabbinic tradition, that it is immoral to try to make deals with evil, period. She should have refused. She should have refused the demonic “choice” he was imposing on her. Our debate ended in a stalemate, but it’s been part of my inner life ever since.

All those long years I have been haunted by that wrenching movie scene. Wishing that Sophie had a kitchen knife secreted in her boot, and plunged it into the commandant’s belly. Or, that she had been defense-trained and poked out the man’s eyes with her fingertips. Even had he lived, he would never again divert himself by posing such choices to incoming prisoners. But short of that? The older I’ve gotten the more examples I saw around me and in my own life of such failed bargains, such self-betrayals, albeit in smaller doses. I have had to finally acknowledge that Russ was right. Bargaining with the Devil is invariably a losing proposition. The aliens who ask you to kill all your eight year old children are not trustworthy by definition, and will betray your hopes as soon as you do the grisly deed, asking for another yet grislier. The commandant who asks you to sacrifice one of your children will kill the other with a smirk on his face, if it so pleases him. Where do you draw your line?

These are extreme examples, of course, such as ethicists love. But we all face moments where bargains with the Devil come up in our lives, and modern elections are one such example. People think they can bargain with the future. But we cannot. It was not in Sophie’s power to save her children, or to survive the camp (that was a good measure of luck and circumstance), or even, in the end, to save herself. But it was in her power to choose to be a woman of integrity who would never ever betray those she loved, whatever the consequences. Who knows? Bullies often respect those who resist their bullying; maybe such a move would have given the family the best chance of all if the commandant showed some grudging admiration for a woman of courage (as he showed it later in response to her endurance and quiet strength).

And after all those years of mulling (after all, I am an introvert!) this is where I’ve come to rest. When we debated Rebecca Solnit’s “propaganda for Obama” post on the Energy Bulletin, a couple of the commenters made some notable points.

JumpNow said: Ms. Solnit’s cliche filled essay complains about the cliche of the lesser of two evils, because she must admit that she has hitched her wagon to Obama’s stairway to heaven and declared the slaughter of Muslim children OK because “thousands” of American children will do better under Obamacare. (I can do cliches, too).

Ms. Solnit belongs to the amoral left, that seeks its own benefits,
without regard to the costs paid by others. No matter what happens,
well off “liberals” like Ms. Solnit will do fine, or at least she
believes that.

We have two types of mainstream voters in Amerika — moralistic
conservative voters (such as in they oppose abortion, but don’t mind if
the child starves or dies without health insurance) and amoral liberal
voters, who cannot take a moral stand on any issue, no matter how
urgent.

Free and Easy Rambler responded: With this article Rebecca has officially jumped the shark – much the way Monbiot did with his pro-nuclear article after Fukushima. JumpNow is absolutely right; liberals have never met a moral principle that they aren’t willing to compromise for the sake of political expediency. We’ve all seen what the result of that is.

Personally, I think we would all be better off ignoring the spectacle of electoral politics and getting on with our lives.

This political system, so full of lies and grotesque evil, profits by driving all sides during each election, Republicans, Democrats and Independents, into desperately trying to justify repugnant bargains. As long as this game persists, nothing will change. ‘Divide and conquer’ will remain the winning hand.

We don’t have the power to determine the future. The only power we have is the power of our here-and-now, deep-down integrity. Which will you take? The desperate bargaining, or the quiet clarity of your conscience, refusing all pseudo-choices?

Master plans embalm embryos; they are a form of cryogenics.
— Joseph R. Myers

Unplanning is an interesting concept because it suggests that we need to ‘undo’ what we currently know and relearn a whole new way of doing things.
— Neil Perkin

Rumor has it that energy is seeping out of the Transition Town movement. I am not surprised. They went ‘whole hog’ for planning, and it is my carefully considered, worry-tinged opinion that the hog will do them in if they don’t come to their senses.

At the heart of the current TT process is the creation and implementation of the so called Energy Descent Action Plan for each locality. The Totnes group spent two years — 2 whole years! — on creating their EDAP. I am not the first person to wonder if the time, effort and money could not have been more profitably spent on actually “doing energy descent.” But it gets worse. The depressing secret is out: step #13 (sic) of their 12-steps is — groan — yet another plan (viz these documents from Dunbar, Scotland, for example).

Contemplating what to me looks like a bizarre cul-de-sac, I decided to poke my nose into the maze. The Transition Handbook tells us that those who fail to plan, plan to fail. Is it really so? Rob Hopkins, one of the founders, has in a recent interview been once again advocating “that intentional, design-led, strategic approach. The whole idea is that you’ve got a limited amount of time, limited resources, limited financial resources. Just running out and just starting to do stuff not in a strategic overview, in a strategic framework, could be a complete waste of time. ” Hm… — what if it’s the other way around? For help, I turned to the history of planning, which, before the advent of the planning craze in our time, meant mostly urban planning.

While the planning impulse probably harkens all the way back to Plato and his ideal forms, it came into its own by mid-19th century when “blueprint planning” formed a preamble to leveling town walls and historical neighborhoods in European cities, to be replaced with broad, straight thoroughfares, massive rows of new apartment buildings, and other monumental projects. In blueprint planning, the planner has an end-state in mind and seeks to achieve it through high levels of codification and control. All subsequent planning systems are variations on this theme. Adding embellishments like closer attention to goals, prediction and analysis, public participation, advocacy for the underprivileged, or lately, dressing up this process in hip, spiritual, green-friendly garb does absolutely nothing to change the underlying logic of control.

Next, I looked into planning literature, seeking evidence that planning works as advertised. The author of Urban Development: the Logic of Making Plans — a lifelong professional planner — examines the rationale behind planning and finds it wanting. He notes that plans are seldom updated despite exhortations to the contrary, that people don’t make and use plans the way planning lit says they do, and that “the lack of estimates of net benefits of plans is a major gap in research about planning.” In the end, he recommends that plans only be used as adjuncts to decision making, and specifically warns away from their deliberate implementation. After all, he tells us, human beings generally want to focus on issues, decisions and solutions and not on plans.

Is it then unreasonable to wonder whether those 19th century planners were so in thrall to their own egos and so worshipful of their own rationality that the entire planning concept is fundamentally misbegotten? What but an arrogant sense of their own superiority would drive them to trample and wantonly destroy what had evolved over centuries of human habitation, as countless people through the generations negotiated each other within the intimate intricacies of local spaces? Like hostile aliens they swooped down to raze all that well-loved, well-worn richness, all the irregularities, surprises and nooks that make vernacular architecture such a delight. It hurts, remembering.

In the New World, towns were decreed, then forced upon the land. It never seems to work well. Roads and alleyways connect properties, not intuitive landmarks. Paths for those who would walk are missing. Right-angle street grids pleased some long-gone technocrat but fail to please the human spirit, and the land itself got carved up by geometry-minded surveyors like a slab of cheese. It hurts, living in its midst.

Isn’t planning one of the tools we use to bludgeon the world into submission? Why then do we act surprised when it lies bleeding at our feet? Living forms flow from one state to the next. Civilized humans push and pull, always wrenching, wounding in our scramble toward some vaunted future. Modern planning provides a battering ram, doing unto the world according to our will.

Sometimes I wonder if Lewis Mumford was a lonely man; his understandings were so far ahead of his time. He had an answer to Rob when he wrote: “Organic planning does not begin with a preconceived goal: it moves from need to need, from opportunity to opportunity, in a series of adaptations that themselves become increasingly coherent and purposeful so that they generate a complex, final design, hardly less unified than a pre-formed geometric pattern. Towns like Siena illustrate this process to perfection.

Well, then, what does planning actually do, and why are people drawn to this way of ordering their thinking and doing? Here is my shot at it:

  • it enables us to linger in the safe cognitive realm, unsullied by hands-on messiness; it creates an impression that ‘something is being done’ and provides a handy cover for delays and procrastination
  • it gives us power to command tomorrow’s people to march to our tunes (but unless they are compelled, they probably won’t)
  • it provides a tool for those inclined to force the world to give them what they want
  • and it satisfies the hunger for a method that would help us bridge the gap between dreams and reality

It really comes down to ritual and incantations, doesn’t it. We all long for a magic wand that would give us the power to manifest our desires. But planning is black magic, machine-mind magic. Clumsy, always at least somewhat coercive, heavy-handed, inflexible, and absurdly linear, it is one of the reasons modernity is imploding all around us. If we are truly committed to coaxing “the world to come” with gentleness and regard for its own moment-to-moment unfolding, shouldn’t we seek to use and embody a process that truly works with the world?

If only we set the goals right, if we find the logical steps to get there, if only we march resolutely enough! Then we look away, baffled, when this path reaches once-promising milestones at the price of unplanned, untoward consequences. A far subtler tool is needed to lead us away from civilization’s impasse.

Christopher Alexander’s call for us all to reflect on the damaging processes we have inherited and to search in our daily life for processes that make for wholeness and life, tugs at my heart. Can you feel it? Another way is possible. On a clear day, I can see it emerging within the goodness of the present moment.

If we examine a complex natural system evolving, each next stage of its evolution depends on its previous stage. Mechanistic 19th-century science created a thought-model in which the next stage would be easily predictable from the previous stage. But it turns out that the world is not like the mechanical thought-model. More sophisticated discoveries have made it clear that in a complex system the next stage is dependent on the current configuration of the whole, which in turn may depend on subtle minutiae in the history of the previous wholes, so “trace-like” that there is no way to predict the path of the emerging system accurately ahead of time.

To create a living world, successfully, we must again find ways of making all building processes move forward in [an] experimental, responsive fashion. That one thing alone, as a kind of bedrock for all design and all planning and all building, will change the world.

NOT THIS!

 

We are fucked! We are so fucked!
— a doomer

It’s not that I am rooting for civ to survive. I believe and hope that this civilization is on its last legs. My unciv credentials remain unimpeachable. It’s the other stuff that bugs the hell out of me.

I am sick and tired of all the mantras of doom offered up in daily genuflections by “our kind” of people. Haven’t they noticed that the Spectacle promotes endlessly depressing messages, and has done so for ages? Custom dispiriting propaganda for different population targets! And we have helped it along through a regular menu of bleak scenarios, reassurances of very grim events looming just ahead, and perpetually hopeless computer simulations. You see, whatever we do — repeat after me — we.are.fucked.

Meh. It’s gotten boring, folks.

Isn’t it just a variation on the same millenarian bullcrap spouted by those crazy-eyed folks who assure us that the world will end next May 21st? Nobody knows the future. Nobody. Therefore we cannot know whether we are fucked or not. Ain’t that nice? Having those dismal tidings perpetually running through our heads gets in the way of sensing possibilities that have so far been missed. And guess what: the puppet-masters of the Spectacle want us to miss them!

So I am drawing a line. I will no longer repeat and pass on those tunes that flow out of the ol’ doomer hurdy-gurdy. I henceforth throw my lot in with those of us who are busy sensing transformative ways of proceeding, seeing new visions, finding and walking new paths. To think that we could know the future with the help of smart machines! What an exquisitely bizarre turn of the familiar hubris screw. Forget about those oh so slickly persuasive scenarios. Let us instead bet heavily that Gaia has something else in mind. Let us assume that the endless complexity that is the universe can morph into something unprecedented, swayed by the flapping of a butterfly’s shimmering wing or by a sudden wee burst of lovingkindness. The future I have in mind and heart begins in some tiny thing I do today that amplifies in completely unpredictable ways and tomorrow brings forth a … surprise.

I have been reading an ambitious, sprawling economic history of this civilization. Graeber’s ‘Debt: the first 5,000 years’ is a creative, eye opening work worth a series of winter evenings. I want to quote from its last chapter; to share some lines that hit me square in the solar plexus.

For most of the last several centuries, most people assumed that … the future was likely to be fundamentally different. Yet somehow, the anticipated revolutions never happened. The basic structure of financial capitalism remained in place. It is only now, at the very moment when it’s becoming increasingly clear that the current arrangements are not viable, that we suddenly have hit the wall in terms of our collective imagination.

There is very good reason to believe that, in a generation or so, capitalism itself will no longer exist – most obviously, as ecologists keep reminding us, because it’s impossible to maintain an engine of perpetual growth forever on a finite planet… Yet faced with the prospect of capitalism actually ending, the most common reaction – even from those who call themselves “progressives” – is simply fear. We cling to what exists because we can no longer imagine an alternative that wouldn’t be even worse.

Maintaining [the military] apparatus seems even more important, to exponents of the “free market,” even than maintaining any sort of viable market economy. How else can one explain what happened in the former Soviet Union? One would ordinarily have imagined that the end of the Cold War would have led to the dismantling of the army and the KGB and rebuilding the factories, but what in fact happened was precisely the other way around. This is just an extreme example of what has been happening everywhere. Economically, the apparatus is pure dead weight; all the guns, surveillance cameras, and propaganda engines are extraordinarily expensive and really produce nothing, and no doubt it’s yet another element dragging the entire capitalist system down – along with producing the illusion of an endless capitalist future that laid the groundwork for the endless bubbles to begin with. Finance capital became the buying and selling of chunks of that future, and economic freedom, for most of us, was reduced to the right to buy a small piece of one’s own permanent subordination.

In other words, there seems to have been a profound contradiction between the political imperative of establishing capitalism as the only possible way to manage anything, and capitalism’s own unacknowledged need to limit its future horizons lest speculation, predictably, goes haywire. Once it did, and the whole machine imploded, we were left in the strange situation of not being able to even imagine any other way that things might be arranged. About the only thing we can imagine is catastrophe.

The system wants it so that the only thing we can imagine is a catastrophe. People trapped and thrashing in the sticky web of perpetual doom will rather stay with the devil they know. And that serves the elites just fine. Fearing a popular alternative, they felt constrained in the Depression to make concessions, and to spread wealth around after the war. Once that alternative was discredited, they concluded that anything goes. And so “anything went.” And this same “anything” is still going down. But a new game is afoot. They’ll never realize it until it pokes them in the eye. We know the Spectacle is not real. It only exists because people keep watching it and dancing to its tunes.

Since doomerism has become part of the Spectacle, yet another way to keep people fearful and stuck, it no longer serves our interests. Dwelling on ghastly scenarios once had its charms; now it’s just another distraction. Let us imagine something that the puppet-masters hope we’ll fail to see in our mind’s eye — a world that works, a world where life thrives, a world where being human is an adventure — and give that world our undivided attention.

Aren’t we merely searching for a single banner that says “We have gone wrong — ethically, ecologically, economically. We can go right.”?
— steelweaver

I’ve come across a fine speech on a new blog, directed at the recent Uncivilization Festival. In an eloquent, impassioned post, steelweaver addresses the meta-problems of these latter days, pokes at the failures of the various approaches that have been tried to budge the Leviathan, and looks for a way to move forward.

He voices his frustration with the sense that “no action actually proportional to the problems [we already understand] has any likelihood of occurring.” He then goes into an extended riff on “reality as a failed state,” blaming this lack of action on the fact that we no longer inhabit the same reality. But has humanity ever inhabited a single reality? Isn’t the longing for one a totalitarian trap, an old hankering of the civilized? When everyone converts to Christianity… when everyone becomes educated and accepts rationalism… when everybody turns libertarian, anarchist, Green… when everyone accepts the techno-scientific point of view… then the world will be finally set right. Argh.

Steelweaver asks us “what the prospects are for bringing Daily Mail readers and Indymedia readers back onto the same page of reality.” I have an answer for that. The prospects are nil. But there is no need to despair! This has always been so. Humans are ornery critters insisting on living in their own slice of reality, and the modernity’s project to force them (us) into one mold has failed rather spectacularly. As of course it must have failed if humans have any spunk left… nobody wants to be a clone of someone else’s reality. Do you?

What happens if we assume that realities vary naturally among humans? The best we can hope for is sufficient overlap so that we can successfully coexist; not a shabby outcome at all. But what about unified political action? Since we do not fully share our reality, and do not agree on key ideas and beliefs, we must look for a unifying principle elsewhere.

“Can we even imagine what it would be like to organize ourselves around beliefs, ideas, a particular narrative of reality anymore?” steelweaver sadly inquires. Being a history buff, I can imagine it rather easily. History is rife with such efforts, and the results have been, shall we say, mixed. The National Socialists were spectacularly good at this. The communists a bit less so, but much more enduring. The capitalist beliefs, ideas and narratives are still tenaciously with us, despite obvious holes in the increasingly threadbare fabric. Oh hell. The results have generally sucked, the occasional helpful reform notwithstanding. Our more spirited ancestors were always trying to free themselves from one reality cage or another.

No, my friends, it is not agreement around beliefs and ideas that we need in order to move forward. Look at Wikipedia. It thrives on disparate realities and on disagreement. It could not function without it. Sometimes, the disagreements get so heated articles have to be locked up and it may take years for a sufficiently shared understanding to emerge. But that is ok! Agreement without disagreement leads into groupthink. These two are siamese twins and if you sever them, you kill any chance at wisdom.

Wikipedia provides a process that leads to good quality encyclopedic articles that have huge advantages over static encyclopedias: fast correction of errors and timeliness. Agreement emerges out of the process that is Wikipedia. Transient, it is ongoingly, fluidly superseded by yet another agreement. In any case, agreement was not the vision that spurred the developers. The vision was a fully participatory encyclopedia that delivers good, timely articles on any topic that matters to a human being who wants to get involved.

Trying to start with ideological agreements is a mistake. We need a way that enables us to get along and work together well in the face of disparate realities. Lacking a process that leads to fertile, agreeable coexistence and evolving wisdom amidst our natural variability, we get stuck. Once we’ve cracked this nut, we can begin the Great Good Work of healing the planet.

Eritis insuperabiles, si fueritis inseparabiles.
You would be insuperable if you were inseparable.
— Edward Coke

I have often railed against “elites” who run things, as have many others, Joe Bageant’s rants being the most memorable. Recently, though, as a result of reflecting on the surprisingly enthusiastic reviews of Ralph Nader’s latest book Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! I have modified my view. No, I am not falling for the persistent fantasy that those with vast amounts of wealth and power will suddenly step up to the plate in a brand new way. Paul Newman is dead, and Warren Buffett’s too busy playing bridge. Nevertheless, I have begun to see the division of rich and poor, privileged vs. non-privileged, as part of the ancient and still going strong “divide and rule” routine.

“Divide and conquer” is an old label for a rich trove of strategies that split and weaken a resisting constituency. These machinations range from sowing suspicion and fear, trashing capable leaders, inventing enemies, and stirring up trouble while blaming “certain people,” all the way to lavishing attention on wedge issues and extremists factions, and discriminating in the allocation of resources and opportunities. The aim is to induce opponents to fight among themselves, thus losing track of their mission and their chance at a unified front. Did you know that racism was fomented in colonial days to drive a wedge between black slaves and white indentured servants who often ran off together?

As James C. Scott shows in his well-researched study of a Malaysian village in Weapons of the Weak (an on-the-ground description of the ways the poor and disempowered discreetly defy the rich and powerful), the only division that really matters in the world is the division between the unprincipled, and the rest of us. Scott begins the book by describing in great detail two people, one a poor wily slacker, the other, a wealthy miser. Both are antisocial personalities and famous in the village for their excesses (which, strangely, are tolerated). Both the poor man and the rich man are always scheming how to game the system to their advantage. The poor man is aggressive in seeking charity gifts from rich neighbors, does not hesitate to sell the lumber given him to repair his house – twice! (meaning the first buyer got nothing) – and pilfers his neighbors’ rice harvest before it’s stored. The rich man, nicknamed Haji Broom because he managed to sweep large chunks of the village lands into his possession, lends money to area farmers who are in need, then hides when the loan is to be repaid so that the debtor runs out of time and loses the land.

Professor Scott is a Marxist who went to this village to study the strategies of the downtrodden. His intent was not to study the untrustworthy, and my interpretation of his data is my own. But reading of the exploits of these two individuals, what jumped at me was that the village as a whole was being screwed by both people. Screwed by a both kinds of people, that is; those – rich or poor — who want to game the system for their own personal advantage, no matter the harm to the polity. Both are tolerated, and both serve as a rich trove of outrageous stories validating for the rich their contempt of the poor, and equally validating for the poor their contempt of the rich. And nothing is done to stop their predatory ways.

When the poor villagers employ their “weapons of the weak” – dissimulation, backbiting, false compliance, feigned ignorance, desertion, petty arson — they always lose ground even though the strategies do work, and occasionally work very well. Scott does not address this particular ‘why.’ I think they fail because their society has been successfully divided along a misleading line… a line cultivated by aggrandizers since the Neolithic. This line divides a formerly-cooperative polity into the scorned, naïve, lazy poor, and the thriving, clever, provident well-to-do. It’s a ruse. The division is systemic – aggrandizers can gain status only when some others lose it. If all had status then the strategy of aggrandizement would not work. This is why, by the way, aggrandizer-run tribal economies (big man societies) have been known to destroy valued items when the items’ sudden plenty threatens their usefulness in the maintenance of privilege.

This class division focus has been picked up in our latter days by social reformers enraged by the injustices attendant to social stratification, effectively turning the poor into deserving victims and the rich into undeserving predators. There is allure in this way of dividing the world, because indeed the poor are frequently victimized, and the rich behave like dicks or sociopaths all too often. Still… isn’t it just another way to weaken the commonwealth?

The only boundary that matters is the one between those that game the system at the expense of their fellows, and those who by and large do not. (I say ‘by and large’ because none of us are perfect. Perfection is not required.) Human communities must wake up and take power away from antisocial types who come from all classes and layers of society. Which brings me back to Ralph Nader’s fantasy. While it is very hard to imagine the current elites who have most of the power and money in the world doing something breathtakingly wonderful and outstanding for the planet or for America, it’s indeed misleading to put them all into one basket. There are those who prey remorselessly, and there are those, like Paul Newman or Ted Turner, who try to do some good with their big sack of money and influence. Those are potential allies.

Suppose we sever our allegiance from that hoary ol’ rich-poor paradigm and do the radical thing? Suppose we say no to this fractured way of looking at the world? Cleansing the doors of our perception, we focus on the real culprits. Slashing boldly through the layers of social stratification, we expose those who, from within any stratum, any class, prey on the commonwealth. It could be that some of the rich and privileged are our allies. (And some of the middling and downtrodden are not.) Our allies can be anywhere and we need them all. Let’s not exclude potential supporters from the upper reaches of society on principle.

I would like to end my musings with an example from American revolutionary times. After independence, the newly-American gentry turned against their former democratic ideals, and successfully schemed to push democracy back. It is easy to see them as greedy aggrandizers, and clearly some of them were. But they, as a class, were in a pickle. They had become enmeshed in a web of generous flood of credit extended them by wealthy Europeans. When the tab came due and the French revolution threw a monkey wrench into land speculator hopes for massive European investment, many of the gentry’s finances were on the brink or underwater. The war debt IOU scheme got them out of the worst, but when the land bubble burst, even Robert Morris ended up in debtors’ prison. Many of these rich and influential people were so enmeshed in debt and speculation they were no longer able to act freely on their ideals. When their desperate policies were met with obstructionism and resistance from common taxpayers, they stood to lose a great deal. Sometimes everything.

The elites were faced with the choice of pleasing overseas bankers and continued prosperity, or pleasing their farmer and mechanick neighbors and getting punished, maybe even ruined, by the faraway lenders and investors on whose goodwill hung their personal future. The resistance of the ‘moneyed men’ to economic forms of democracy provoked the resistance of the poorer sorts to explotive policies, which in turn energized the gentry to make institutional changes to hamstring democracy. Resistance fed the “us against them” paradigm. While Americans had successfully united to win political independence, they lost the battle for financial independence and deeper democracy because distant financial manipulators managed to split them into inimical factions.

Thus the foreign financiers kept America on a leash by dividing its people into those who were willing to tighten the screws of economic warfare, and those who suffered from it. A bitter rift emerged where before there was a great deal of common ground. Ideals were abandoned in the face of economic realities. The more radical notions of the American revolution had to be put on hold, and all Americans were the losers.

The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things. Things left unspoken for too long; disturbing, difficult things. The time has come to unify across all social divides: economic, religious, dietary, ideological, ethnic, gender, parties, and any others the system so eagerly churns out. Enough already! Let us get away from the habit of harping on our differences, extremely annoying though they often are, and focus on the one key lever of change: unity. Only unity can disable and render null and void the millennia-old strategy of ‘divide and rule.’

Are you sick and tired of being conquered yet? Well, are you?

Sometimes when you win, you really lose.
— White men can’t jump

I had previously sounded off in comments on this blog that resistance does not accomplish anything. I was wrong. Resistance can accomplish plenty under the right circumstances. While studying the American revolutionary era, a sudden flash of clarity drove home to me the stupendous successes of the radical democrats of that age. Common people exuberantly entered the political process, first by pushing their way into the formerly elite Committees of Correspondence and by organizing themselves into militias in a shockingly egalitarian way. How’s this for amazing? One captain was asked how many men he had under him; “none,” he replied, “but there are 90 men who command me!” Farmers, millers, artisans and shopkeepers insisted on having a voice regardless of rules and tradition. Then, as soon as the old order fell, ordinary Pennsylvanians had much say in the creation of the state constitution and together with the gentry made it a visionary document embodying strikingly altered practices. A far more inclusive political process than had ever existed among them came into being within months of independence! In addition, people had the good sense to resort to extra-legal solutions when necessary; they were bold enough to interpret laws their way. Militias refused to march against neighbors when ordered to defend the interests of land speculators; they reasoned it would be against “the Very Spirit of our Laws & Constitution.”

When the people realized they could not stop the new American elites from legislating self-serving policies, they put in place resistance networks that were quite able to block their enforcement. Bouton’s Taming Democracy describes in detail the rings of defense circling communities. The first ring was staffed by county revenue officials who thwarted ruinous tax collection. The second ring consisted of county judges who refused to prosecute delinquent taxpayers and tax collectors. Juries acquitting the accused and sheriffs who refused to make arrests made up the third and fourth rings. Fifth ring meant stopping tax collection, foreclosures and auctions through non-violent protests. Violent protests and independent-minded militias completed the circles of resistance. During the 1780s, these protective networks shielded local communities from the excesses of depredation, and gave people an outlet for their efforts to create a more just society. While imperfect, they were for a time so successful that the collection of taxes ground nearly to a halt. (It is useful to remember that those taxes went to pay the gentlemen holders of the war debt IOUs who had created the tight money policies under which the people were suffering.)

It was this very success that was their undoing. Both the power of the local resistance and the people’s outspokenness in the political arena panicked the elites enough to change their minds and begin plans to restructure constitutions, take away local self-governance via top-down political appointees, remove states’ ability to modify contracts and issue currency, and do away with militias’ independence. Through such means and yet others, they pushed democracy way back.

The people’s resistance provided the motivating energy to those feeling threatened by it. Resistance provokes counter-resistance, and the more successful resistance is, the more it alarms and energizes the opposition. Hence the saying, “what you resist, persists.” The civil rights movement energized white supremacists. The environmental movement energized “wise use” anti-conservationists. Decades of official anti-fascist denunciations energized skinheads and neo-nazis. Greens have energized anti-Green opposition. Climate activism has energized climate deniers. Just as in the days of yore, successful radical democrats energized the Federalists who under the guise of democracy amplified the backlash and built it into the Constitution.

Many fed-up people in America and elsewhere long for a powerful movement which would put massive pressure on the elites to effect big changes. Be careful what you wish for! Considering that the odds are stacked in the elites’ favor, why give them the gift of extra umph by our resistance? We need that energy for us; why give it away to those who will use it against us?

And that leads to the million dollar question: if not resistance, then what?

Government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, and not for the particular emolument or advantage of any single man, family, or set of men who are only part of the community.
— 1776 Constitution of Pennsylvania

Who is to blame for the lapse of common sense that allowed America to fail in its pursuit of appropriate technologies that briefly took off in the 70s? That seems to be the gist of the current series of irritated posts by John Michael Greer. In the second installment of his quest for the roots of nihilism, JMG takes potshots at those of us who recognize that America is ruled by an elite, many of whom are unelected and unresponsive to popular will. Apparently, we are to blame for the failure of will and sanity that could have ushered in the eco-technic future!

I have been meaning to write for some time about a little book that has become my personal “book of the year,” and which shines a light — as no other book I have seen — at the roots of present American political malaise. Jolted into action by what I perceive as Greer’s unfair or mistaken attack on clear-seeing Americans, I want to recommend Terry Bouton’s Taming Democracy to your attention. It documents in engaging detail the last four decades of the 18th century as they played out on the ground in Pennsylvania, then among the most democratically-minded of the colonies turned states.

A paradigm-changing book. I am sorely tempted to rail at my old political philosophy professor who fed us the standard-issue propaganda about the clever Federalists and the Founding of America. This book is a wake up call, and a heartbreak. So packed with good stuff you may want to buy it and underline. (And I hate damaging books by underlining! Buy two. :)) For those who already have a book list for the year piled ceiling high, I offer here a partial synopsis of the book. The lessons of that time form one of the pieces of the puzzle this blog is assembling.

The sorry tale covers Pennsylvania in the 1760s and 70s – still under British dominion – and the 1780s and 90s, when the War of Independence wound down, new government was crafted, the economy fell apart, and the first rebellions against the new order were crushed. But let’s begin at the beginning.

Landowning by ordinary people brought a measure of political say-so to the colonists. In Pennsylvania, all white males who owned 50 acres of land could vote. That meant 50-75 % of adult white men. In comparison, only some 15 % could vote in Britain. To be sure, most families lived hard-scrabble lives, and office holding was open only to the rich. Power in those pre-revolutionary days was “concentrated in the hands of unelected and largely unaccountable men: the king, royal officials, proprietors like the Penn family, and a host of home-grown gentlemen who thought they were cut from finer cloth than the common folk.”

During the 18th century, there were signs that common people’s independence was eroding, and the rich came to own a greater and greater share of wealth. “By 1760s, the top 10% of the population [of Philadelphia] owned nearly half of the city’s wealth.” The country fared better, but there too, the landless population was growing. “And the problem was soon to become far worse. During the 1760s and 1770s, Britain enacted a set of policies that would bring prolonged hardship to the colonies and widen inequality across Pennsylvania.”

What were those policies? They were the kind the elites use to impoverish and squeeze people to this day. “Britain enacted a set of policies encompassing trade, finance, and taxation that created a profound scarcity of money that brought hardship across the land.” They began to eliminate paper money, demanding specie (gold and silver) from the colonists. They wanted to punish the colonists for allowing paper money to depreciate during the French-Indian War, and forbade more paper money while gradually taking it from circulation. (The state had been forced to print money because they had little hard currency, and Britain demanded that the war be fought without providing the wherewithal. Catch 22.) Why was there a shortage of specie? Because Britain assured that hard money flowed mostly one way, through trade laws favoring Britain. Perpetual indebtedness of the colonists to the mother country resulted. Catch 22.

There were no private banks in the colonies. Private banking was commonly perceived as inimical to common interests and opposed. Loans were provided through state land banks which lent against real estate at low interest. In Pennsylvania, this system worked very well from 1723 to 1764, and the scrip held its value until the inflation caused by the French-Indian War. The system actually worked so well that much of Pennsylvania’s infrastructure and other governmental expenses were covered by the interest collected, without the need to resort to taxation. But the new crown demands disabled this system.

Taxes were to be paid only in gold and silver just as the money supply was shrinking. Then the infamous Stamp Act was enacted which taxed anyone filing an official document or printing a newspaper. Luxury items like tea, and whiskey, functioning as currency of last resort, were taxed. Pennsylvanians of all strata were growing angrier and more frustrated. The results of these policies were calamitous. As both merchants and farmers were unable to settle even small accounts, first lawsuits and then foreclosures and bankruptcies swept over the land, and trade and jobs disappeared. By 1774, the top 10% owned 70% of the wealth. Poverty rates skyrocketed. Not surprisingly, the finger of blame pointed at unelected British officials and “a minority of rich men.” Preachers toured the countryside speaking against those who “worshiped material possessions above God.” This soul-searching affected gentlemen as well as commoners, and Pennsylvanians grew firmer in their resolve to make power and wealth more equal. They came to believe that it was economic equality that made political equality possible.

There was a widespread and growing conviction that a healthy self-governing republic was unlikely to succeed in societies “with great disparities of wealth because the affluent would use their economic power to dominate the political system.” The best protection against such corruption was the relatively even distribution of wealth. It was not that most Pennsylvanians sought a land reform, or wanted to reduce everyone to the same level. They stressed that some inequality was natural, inevitable, and even beneficial, as people of different talents complemented one another and fostered general prosperity. On the other hand, they were quite clear that the government had no business amplifying such inequalities and enabling the rich to come together monopolizing the resources of the land and extracting wealth from the common people.

As the Revolution got under way, the gentry’s Committees of Correspondence were pushed to take a more radical stance by common men organizing into militias. The gentlemen were often drawn into assuming militia leadership more by fear of common men leading than by patriotism. In May 1776, the Quaker-dominated ruling class of Pennsylvania, unable and unwilling to support the revolutionary effort, was unceremoniously ousted, and independence was declared. That summer, Pennsylvanians of many classes convened to craft a new constitution. Ben Franklin was among them, pushing for more radical reforms than some were ready for.

This constitution was meant to end the rule of “great and over-grown rich Men” who used the government to help themselves. There were debates regarding the possibility of enabling the government to equalize wealth by confiscating property from the very rich, but even though equalizing wealth was a common sentiment, the delegates had the good sense not to implement such draconian means.

The document allowed nearly all adult men to vote, including free blacks who were taxpayers. There were no longer any property requirements for holding an office. It was thought that allowing men without property to vote put up protection against the corrupting influence of the rich. The constitution offered strong protection for civil liberties such as we are familiar with from the later Bill of Rights. Remarkably, it also added the right to revolution: “the community hath an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish government in such manner as shall be by that community judged most conducive to the public weal.” Most offices were elected, not appointed. A unicameral legislature was instituted, along with a president’s office without a veto, to prevent the abuses of a system like the British where the House of Lords and royal veto handily defeated most initiatives from the House of Commons. Short election cycles and term limits were meant to weed out career politicians, and to keep office holders faithful to their constituents. Transparency was stressed as the meetings of the legislature were open, and public records of the deliberations were kept. Public schools were called for so that people were able to function as informed citizens. This constitution enjoyed wide support across the state among the common people as well as the gentlemen, who welcomed the modest influx of ordinary people into power even if they criticized some aspects of the new system.

By the end of the War of Independence (‘75-’83) the situation had changed profoundly, and the elites began to work hard to stem the tide of democracy. Bouton lists many possible reasons, from the upheavals of war, to decreasing deference toward the gentlemen which was resented, to the rise of war-created nouveau riche social climbers who were eager for the perks of their new status. Many among the new elites sank deeply in debt to overseas creditors during their spending sprees or overextended speculative land acquisitions, and they feared losing the favor and trust of European bankers by permitting the “inferior sorts” to run things. And perhaps most of all, it had to do with the underdogs suddenly finding themselves in the shoes of the rulers, and assuming the previous rulers’ habits, tastes and strategies.

The rest of the book documents in great and saddening detail the unraveling of the dream of equality and the vigorous but ultimately futile fight of common Pennsylvanians against the rising coalition of the rich and powerful. Enacting nearly identical laws that Britain had used to impoverish and immiserate the populace, they were not too ashamed to hoist a new Stamp Act on the people. Like the British before them, they blamed the currency depreciation on popular mismanagement, a call formerly hotly decried as tyranny. When money dried up and debts, even as small as a few dollars, could not be paid, another wave of economic misery swept the land, along with bankruptcies and foreclosures. In some counties, 60-70% of taxpayers were served with foreclosure, and in one county more than 100% were. Farmers lost land over their inability to raise 3 dollars in gold or silver. The people fought back through local governments which were more likely to protect their own, via protest and petitions, by forcibly freeing prisoners and taking over garrisons, even by blocking roads, but after the widely unpopular Constitution of the United States was ratified (via a slew of dirty tricks they don’t teach in schools) their chances for victory diminished rapidly, and were finally squelched as federal armies twice marched through Pennsylvania in the ‘90s.

What has made perhaps the most shocking impact on my consciousness is the story of the war debt. It begins with Robert Morris, a prominent Framer of the Constitution, a Daddy Warbucks and financial manager of the revolution. Morris was an aggrandizer writ large:

If his passions led at times to overindulgence, Morris was a man who made things happen. As a merchant, he was the king among princes, so aggressive in his dealings that he took risks no others would dare – such as when he single-handedly tried to corner the nation’s tobacco market. When he built his dream mansion, it was so palatial in scope that it was never completed… When he invested in land, Morris leveraged his fortune to buy at least 6 million acres… Even when he ate, he could not stop at the average portion… He envisioned gentlemen taking control of government, using it to enrich themselves, and then scaling back democracy so that it did not threaten their interests.

He planned to combine the interests of the moneyed men into one general money connection. Once this was accomplished, the government could be turned into a vehicle for “opening the purses of the people” for the benefit of “respectable Citizens of Fortune and Character” such as himself. This would make the country great! He started America’s first private bank which turned into a disaster and undermined the war effort. Widely hated and only kept afloat by the discretion of gentlemen who well knew the truth but feared losing their investments, the bank was eventually stripped of it charter by Pennsylvanians who argued that the charter was unconstitutional. It was, they said, “illegal to incorporate bodies for the sole purpose of gain.” The revolution was not fought for the advancement of the “principles of avarice.”

But Morris’ audacity was shown in all its glory in the plan he concocted to turn nearly worthless war IOUs – originally issued as pay for soldiers, or given to farmers and craftsmen who provisioned the Continental Army — into a vehicle for massive wealth redistribution to the rich. He explained to Congress how gentlemen should be encouraged to buy these IOUs for pennies on the dollar over several years, while the original holders despaired of getting anything close to their value out of them. Then the government should step in and redeem the IOUs for top dollar. The holders would have spent little and reap huge rewards. These funds would then provide the rich with the funds to better exercise their “talents.” And so it happened. “By 1790, over 96% of Pennsylvania’s share of the war debt was held by just 434 families.” Though the people of Pennsylvania came up with a plan that would have paid off the debt by spreading the costs and benefits all around, this plan was never seriously considered. And the taxpayers were stuck with paying for this largess to the rich speculators. Like the British had done, new laws were enacted forcing people to pay taxes in gold and silver, so that these speculators could cash in their IOUs for hard money. A prolonged economic depression resulted once again, and eventually, even some of the rich were swept away in a real estate bubble that burst toward the end of the century.

And so the new policies became as oppressive at the old policies of the British, and spread the same misery over the land. Some estimate that the depression lasted from 1774 till 1805… 30 years. And when people complained or protested, they were blamed for being ill-informed or lazy, and ignored or crushed.

The radical Pennsylvania constitution was superseded in 1790. The effort to prevent the government from transferring powers to private corporations that were free from popular control was lost. The attempts to find remedies via voting and electing “our” people into office came to naught as the elected representatives were nearly always corrupted or coopted by the perks of life in Philadelphia. Local governance was undermined by centrally assigned appointees. And the possibility for defense from economic injuries via state-level remedies was severely curtailed by the new federal Constitution. Pennsylvanians nearly stopped voting, and after the federal troops crushed their rebellions, pretty much gave up.

I don’t know about you, but what I see is this:

  • economic depressions are engineered with more or less the same strategies; they serve to impoverish the many so that the few can pick up foreclosed properties and other valuables on the cheap; they are not accidental or mere mismanagement
  • the political system, even in those rare moments when “our” people are elected, is not equal to redress the people’s injuries: it was constituted in 1787 precisely to make such redress near-impossible; America is not really a federalist system as states lost their self-determination in key (particularly financial) matters with the ratification of the Constitution
  • the government serves primarily to transfer wealth to the rich and powerful because it is thought (by the rich and powerful) that they are better, wiser, and more talented than the rest of us and therefore it is in the interest of all to gladly suffer such transfers; we are currently witnessing the efforts to roll back certain modern exceptions to this
  • while Americans won political independence from Great Britain, they remained enserfed economically by their European (primarily British and French) creditors and bankers, passing the enserfment down the economic ladder; this is still true today while the bankers are global
  • Americans (even small farmers) ran on debt even in those early days; how did this get started in a subsistence economy?
  • the wisdom of the common “uneducated” people and their ability to discern the root causes of their economic troubles and to fight the good fight to keep monopolistic practices at bay is quite impressive; the schemes of the rich often turned into (sometimes self-admitted) mismanaged disasters for which they then assiduously blamed someone else
  • the vision of the Founders of America, when counting both the Framers and the common people, if combined, could have resulted in a country with a very different future, a very different present for us today; as things turned out, however, the structural problems that made life miserable for people 220 years ago are echoed again and again in later struggles, and remain unresolved to this day
  • the Federalists, hated and reviled by many for betraying the revolution, faded from history, thereby ushering in a period when America had only one party (the so-called Era of Good Feelings, 1816-24), but their schemes remain, and the fact that the aggrandizers of today have brought the country to its knees is not something we ought to be surprised by, considering this very old and sad story of hope, shining common sense, and betrayal.

The law doth punish man or woman
That steals the goose from off the commons,
But lets the greater villain loose
That steals the commons from the goose.
— 16th century English rhyme

Anthropologists have noted three main pathways to power. I say there are four. And out of these pathways come four types of weapons used against us, and four types of weapon industries. One of these has been obvious to all, two became more and more visible as the 20th century progressed, and the last needs far greater exposure than it has received. What are those weapons? What are the main ways to inflict damage on human beings by those who seek to dominate?

The list leads off with physical weapons, of course. From thuggish brawn, through pikes and pitchforks, on to tanks, bombs and computerized stealth killers, they have been relied on by rulers through the ages who hastened to build a military industry and a standing army as soon as they could afford it. But such weapons have two big disadvantages. They are expensive and they are crassly obvious, leaving too many visibly dead and maimed, generating anger and resentment. That is why clever aggrandizers have always resorted to more subtle weapons whenever possible.

Economic weapons, launched primarily nowadays by the financial industry, come next. Look past their endless mutations; you will see that these weapons come in three forms: extortion, enclosure and debt. When the first aggrandizers rose to power in forager and subsistence agriculture societies, extortion was a common tactic. Ambitious, scheming individuals with despotic tendencies inflamed conflicts among neighboring societies, stoking fears and insecurity, then extorted protection payments from their own people. Next, they gradually expropriated chunks of the commons under the guise of “public benefit.” And the strategy of indebtedness was not far behind. As aggrandizers grew more entrepreneurial, they began to twist traditions and customs into tools for self-promotion, and debt became the favorite venue. It is still so today. The poor and dispossessed began to multiply.

The third class of weapons, though visible in aggrandizer-run tribal societies, only received proper recognition when the communists and fascists used it so prominently in their rise to power. Probably invented in Upper Paleolithic via religious societies and embodied in various sneaky manipulations of fear and superstition, ideological weaponry was much later utilized by kings, emperors and high priests via religious dogma, coopting the universal human spiritual impulse for the uses of power. But it was the rise of secular ideologies in the 19th century and most notably the blatant propaganda of the 20th century that drew massive public scrutiny. Ideological weapons include lies, misinformation, misdirection, designer propaganda, astroturfing, political intrigue and panic-mongering, all the way to institutionalizing children so they can be subjected to a relentless, dispiriting and confusing barrage of outdated trivia to short-circuit their learning and competence. The main industry of mystification is the media. Casualties? The dumbed down, the chronically confused, the hoodwinked, the depressed.

But the sneakiest weapon of all is the weapon oozing all around us nowadays like brackish water around gasping fish. We believe we need this weapon for our very own protection. And Mother Culture whispers in the background: there will be mayhem loosed upon the world if you step outside its shadow. If you want to be safe, you need law and order. You need government, she sings softly; without it, brute chaos reins. The fourth class of weapons consists of legal manipulations, laws and regulations, and the weapon industry that builds and applies them is the government itself. The powerless are its casualties.

Political rule making traps its victims in a maze, tilting at windmills. Such choices we have! We can work hard to reform the rules, yes siree. It took the women of New Jersey only 113 years to get back the vote they lost in 1807! Or we can replace the legislators with new ones who promise a whole different windmill design, easier to tilt; once in power, even such changes will be cosmetic. Or we can do as did the mechanicks (tradesmen) of 1770s New England who simply barged into town meetings and began to have things to say and the chutzpah to vote despite being officially disenfranchised. The extra-legal solution worked, of course. The good mechanicks stepped out of the rules box! (Alas, they did not account for the problem of power. The newly-American gentry got so alarmed by these “excesses of democracy” they sent delegates to a secretive constitutional convention in Philadelphia to put a stop to them. And so they did. But that’s another story.)

Rules, laws and legalities are a game those in power play to hide reality. Here is a simple example from life in the United States. Well publicized hospital regulations say that each patient has a right to see their medical record. The patient asks the nurse, he delays. Hours later, she asks again. He claims the doctor had not given permission. (The patient had asked the doctor to give permission, having grown savvy from a previous stay.) She asks for the records again. Some hours later, it is now 11 p.m., she asks again. The irritated nurse turns around and calls the doctor at home, waking him and pissing him off. In the morning, doctor yells at patient. Patient is too ill and worn to explain. She shrugs and lets it go. After release, the former patient applies for a copy of the records to be given her. After some weeks, she receives a letter from an outside copy contractor wanting $52. She shrugs and lets it go.

The reality behind those pretty “patient rights” posters? The hospital was forced by earnest legislation to accept certain rules and to let each patient know. But nothing has changed behavior-wise: most of the doctors, nurses, and administrators do not wish the patients to see their records any more than they did before the law was passed. The rules mask the truth, mislead patients, and pacify the patient advocates who pushed the law through in the first place. Rules in the political arena work the same way. They take people’s attention away from reality and lead would-be reformers by the nose. People in positions of power who wish above all to protect their privileges, if pressed to put some democratic rights on a hallowed parchment, will seek to whittle them away in real life.

But more than this. I am starting to think that government is a house of smoke and mirrors, a front for whoever really pulls the strings. So whenever people try to counter evils by getting into the government, by trying to reform it, or by some other focus on the “governing bodies,” their efforts play out as another bout of battling the windmills. Those who run things in a system of domination and privilege are not fool enough to be subject to popular control or sent packing by means of our votes. And the complex layers of mystification and legal gobbledygook called the government is the keystone in the whole scheme. Shielded Powers-That-Be decree the legal code that steals the commons from the goose and twists the cultural fabric into a curtain concealing their activities and removing them far from any public checks or balances.

If the extreme self-interest personality types are given free rein, they usually ruin the lives of others, erode society and culture, and degrade the environment. They have always been a force to be dealt with by community action, and they are so today.
– Brian Hayden

Canadian archeologist Brian Hayden pioneered the use of the term “aggrandizer strategies.” These patterns, deduced from Hayden’s excavations at Keatley Creek and observed during his stays with simpler societies, are utilized by aggrandizers to weave webs of economic and political control over other people. The original paper came out in 1995 as part of the Foundations of Social Inequality anthology. In 2001, it was restated in another anthology, Archaeology at the Millennium, as part of an essay on the origins of agriculture. And in 2010 another anthology has come out, this time titled Pathways to Power in honor of the original monograph which has profoundly shifted anthropological thought, not only about ag origins, but also about the roots of social stratification, privilege, and poverty.

My summation is based on Hayden’s article called The Dynamics of Social Inequality (2001). Hayden argues that wealth accumulation by itself is not sufficient to account for social inequalities; misers are universally despised in tribal and village societies. Nevertheless, control of wealth is the universal component of pathways to power. He stresses that while these strategies were undoubtedly used many times in the last two millions years, they by themselves will not be sustainable in establishing a hierarchy of power without a surplus-oriented economy. He says:

These surplus conditions, as well as the technologies that produced them, clearly occur before food production and domestication emerge. One other important element is the notion that aggrandizing personalities occur at least to some extent in all populations, even among generalized [egalitarian] hunter-gatherers, whether due to genetic or individual developmental factors. Darwinian selection for individuals pursuing their own self-interest would seem by itself to ensure that some such individuals remained in every gene pool. Aggrandizers and their strategies for obtaining economic and political control are probably the single most powerful factor in understanding the sweeping changes that occur in the transition from egalitarian to transegalitarian [big man] societies.

What are these old and well worn strategies that have been used by aggrandizers the world over up to our time (having, of course, added many new ones along the way)? They are rooted in attempts to monopolize access to desirable resources or roles (food, mates, leadership, political contacts, trade etc.), and to exclude as many other people from these areas as possible. Here is his list:

  • Ownership – aggrandizers work hard to establish ownership of desirable resources (land, fishing spots, water, and useful animals).
  • Contractual debts – the other strategies listed require that inducing people into debt be part of at least some of the social transactions.
  • Feasting – political power is universally acquired by organizing feasts, underwriting large projects, and forging alliances; feasts etc. can easily be coopted and subverted by the enterprising into mechanisms for extracting surpluses and establishing debt hierarchies.
  • Bride prices – using surpluses to get the most desirable wives, and to exercise control over young people.
  • Investment in children – special training, costly and ostentatious maturation ceremonies, and elite body deformations (e.g. elaborate tattoos or foot binding) raise the value of children as a means to make advantageous alliances.
  • Prestige items – surpluses are converted into prestige items that serve as status symbols, and these then are used to make transactions, or to create obligations by gifting. (Hayden argues that many of the early domesticates were prestige “items:” draft animals, chili peppers, avocados, chocolate, vanilla, dogs, pigs, et al).
  • Trade and profit – controlling access to exotic or labor-intensive prestige items becomes important, as is the use of interest in economies rich enough to support it; interest becomes a way of seducing people into producing more and more surplus.
  • Taboos, fines and control in dispute resolution – noted as the excessive proliferation of taboos on behaviors that incur fines and penalties; the people hit the hardest are folks with weaker social connections and standing; poor people are sometimes disenfranchised or enslaved by these techniques.
  • Warfare and other calamities – aggrandizers manipulate conflicts to their advantage, and use natural disasters to consolidate their control over power and resources.
  • Access to the supernatural – a very common strategy to consolidate and justify political power is “to claim and orchestrate privileged access to supernatural messages and powers.” This typically involves claims of descent from mythical ancestors, esoteric ritual knowledge, and the ability offer costly sacrifices to obtain the cooperation of the spirit world.
  • Manipulation of cultural values – aggrandizers promote cultural values that serve their interests, and exclude those that do not. It is in their interest, for example, to push the notions that certain ancestors can bless or curse the village, or that injuries or deaths can be paid for in wealth, and many many others; they bend, promote, negotiate, and reformulate the rules to suit their own self-interest.
  • Separation from others – cultivating special ways of speaking, dressing, manners, and other distinctions serve to separate themselves from other people and limit access to “the club” and its perks.
  • Payoffs – grudging toleration is secured by minor gifts to lesser members of the community: free food at certain feasts, charity, increased community defense and others.

Once a community accepts the gambits of the aggrandizers as legitimate, refusal to participate in the new game leads to loss of power and marginalization. Families that cleave to the old sharing, laid-back ways are scorned and kept out of important social networks and consumption events. This is the moment when true poverty is born.

One of the most important consequences of all these strategies is that very strong pressure develops to increase production by any means possible. A classic positive feedback situation is created in which power is predicated largely on the production and control of surpluses, and is therefore used to create and control ever more surpluses, which creates even more power and wealth. Thus prestige technologies, domestication, irrigation, terracing, slavery, soil enhancement, industrialization, fossil fuels, electricity, nuclear energy, genetic manipulation, and many other means of increasing surpluses have been underwritten, promoted and perfected under the direction of aggrandizers. Aggrandizers are in control of this process today just as much as they were in the past.

To avert a calamity due to the intense competition of our leading aggrandizers along with their rapidly decreasing marginal utility, how about we learn to readily recognize and foil the strategies that lead us to bondage and powerlessness? The ancient path of vigilant cooperation enhanced by canny latter-day awareness beckons those who see past the spiderweb.

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