Elites, History, Progress

23:51 Mon 28 Jan 2008. Updated: 02:04 29 Jan 2008
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This is a fourth-order post, a post about a post about a review of a book. Such are the times we live in. Which times, according to the book, are not necessarily cut off from much of human existence by the division of the past into history and ‘prehistory’. The blog post is Internal Affairs: Biochemistry and the Body Politic, the review is Steve Mithen in the London Review of Books on Daniel Lord Smail’s Deep History and the Brain.

Last August I posted about hunter/gatherer societies in comparison to more modern societies, prompting some reactionary comments that I sadly never got around to addressing. The question of what those societies were like comes up again here, as Smail apparently makes the claim that they of necessity evolved a much more egalitarian mode, and that the move to agriculture allowed opportunistic types (one could legitimately call them sociopaths, really) to dominate others through direct violence, control of the food supply, intimidation, and later expanded methods for maintaining control over their societies.

A number of other things that Smail claims in his overview make a lot of sense to me—for example, I’ve long believed that the various prohibitions imposed by religions are agains things that make people more difficult to control and more in control of themselves, adn that all successful governance mechanisms require a populace consisting mainly of individuals who don’t feel in control of themselves. Preferably a populace stressed out and distracted, hence easily manipulated and intimidated.

I don’t know if Smail makes this claim (obviously I’m going to have to read the book), but I also think that there’s some remarkable longevity in some of the ruling elites, and that once the extended clans at the top consolidate power, they do their absolute best to keep it and to exclude others, and that they’ve done rather well over the centuries. There are clearly declines, and in some cases outright breaches where other groups sweep in to take over (Russia, for example), but there might be more continuity than one generally thinks. This isn’t a “secret chiefs” argument, just a note on how successful dynasties tend to be and how tenacious and adept many of the elites are in terms of holding onto power (which they’d better be good at, really, since that’s their job…).

This is a subject, or collection of subjects, that can go in many directions. A few points I’ve made before, but they’re worth repeating.

Those who rule don’t care about the ruled, except perhaps in terribly abstract (and self-serving) sense, or conversely in terribly specific instances that don’t reflect larger policy. They don’t care, and the consistent difficulty that the ruled have in comprehending this is a major advantage the elites have.

The system that they’ve put in place, ruling through stress, manipulation, intimidation, ideologies of disempowerment, strategies of division—all these things they have also bequeathed to the rest of us, as a kind of gift, for us to use upon ourselves, thereby creating a vast system of pieces that mirror the whole, little fiefdoms each with a mini-elite. Yes, many primates act this way, so there’s a “natural” aspect to this. But (as Smail argues) hunter/gatherer societies were more egalitarian, and in psychosocial terms the advent of agriculture and more control-oriented societies may well have been a step backwards, not forwards.

Speaking of “backwards” and “forwards”, what is progress? What’s it for? If, for all of human history, egalitarian hunter/gatherer tribes had hung out, adapted well to their environments and been comfortable (because many were, although those in more marginal areas definitely were not), and then didn’t ‘do’ anything, would we have had no progress? No cars, no internet, no exploration of space, no printing press, no electricity, no writing, no advanced mathematics? Are those things progress, and are they worth the price of untold suffering, so many deaths and so much misery? I don’t think that’s an answerable question. But I think that right now, if lots and lots of people decided that it’d be better to spend a lot of time doing nothing but having sex, eating, and messing around in non-consumerist ways, we’d be an awful lot better off. In other words, much of the “doing stuff” is actually harmful and not beneficial, and “progress” seems to insist on doing it anyway, doing more of it, and hoping for the best that it turns out well, as it must have turned out well so far, because hey we’ve all got iPhones.

Lastly: who are the people who need these methods of social control to keep everything from falling apart? Is it you? No, it’s not, is it? You can be trusted to take care of shit, to deal with what you need to deal with, to do what needs to be done. But, you know, people in general need rules, guidelines, some controls, because otherwise things would fall apart, people wouldn’t do everything that needs doing, and they’d leech off those that do. So people need these controls. Other people. Everybody (almost) thinks that other people need these controls to make sure they do the right thing. But you can be trusted for the most part, and don’t need a priest/state/teacher/warden/chaperone to keep an eye on you. Thank (insert whatever here) that we have priests/states/teachers/wardens/chaperones, though, because who knows what those other riff-raff would do to the place if we didn’t.

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