Apr 14

Against His-Story, Against Leviathan!

larger resinAgainst His-Story, Against Leviathan!

Fredy Perlman

Black & Red 1983

Don’t be misled by the poetic and mythologizing tone with which Fredy Perlman renders his epic Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! This is an exhaustively researched book. It is also profoundly philosophical, asking questions and suggesting answers you won’t find anywhere else. The fact that it is beautifully written in an accessible manner is highly appropriate to its message, as you will see below. The book’s style is very much the opposite of dry scientific writing. I think if readers have difficulty with this book apart from getting a hold of it (it’s distributed mostly through its publisher, Black & Red), it is because there is virtually no precedent for the combination of style, depth, and content of Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! to this day. There are few works of any kind on the subject, but what few there are mostly take a (pseudo) scientific or essay approach. To my knowledge no one tackles the question of civilization with the background in philosophy, history, economics, anthropology, ethnography, Marxism, political science, etc. that Fredy does. The depth of this background knowledge may not be immediately obvious to the reader in part because of the pointedly un-scientific tone used throughout, but you could (and should, as I would argue) use Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! as an introductory text to a world history class.

Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! is the history of the world from the perspective of human beings and their communities. It may come as a surprise to some of you that this is very much the opposite of every other history book in existence, that all history books prior to this one were written as histories of institutions and the men (almost exclusively men) who supposedly set them in motion. The difference between these approaches is huge. On the one hand, we are looking at human beings and their concerns: life, freedom, joy, family, community. On the other hand we are concerned with machines and abstractions, undying entities which retool all existence in their image and relate to life only insofar as they need living beings to operate their cogs and levers because they are inanimate themselves.

Fredy Perlman asks the questions which end polite conversations and cause the questioner to be marked a pariah: if civilization is as wonderful as we are told, why did it have to be imposed on each new group of people at gunpoint? Shouldn’t its merits be obvious, the material standard of living and so forth? Why did the colonizers of the Americas complain that they can’t keep their citizens from running off to join the “savage” tribes, whereas the natives themselves could only be coerced to adopt “civilized” life, and would still revert to “savagery” given half a chance? What is it about the civilized that enabled them to conquer the world? What is it that makes them want to? And where did civilization come from in the first place?

Why against civilization? Why not against capitalists, communists, fascists, Illuminati, Masons, Republicans, Americans, colonialists, warmongers, or just plain assholes? Why not against greed or hubris? There have been many attempts to correct the injustices inherent in all civilized societies. Many people thought that if only their ideology could be given free reign everything would be fine. Every attempt so far failed; none have succeeded in returning to mankind a standard of living enjoyed by our hunter and gatherer ancestors, materially, and more importantly spiritually and psychologically. Studying history reveals that some things are not as new as they appear to us, cut off by our own literacy and technology in time. Consider the following story:

“The leader of a certain city is disturbed by the state of his people. He sees that society is two-tiered, the few rich and the many poor, and that the poor are in dire straits and have little hope for improvement. He remembers, or thinks he remembers, a time when things weren’t this way, when everyone had a fighting chance to live happily. He institutes reforms intended to fix the injustices. He decrees that “the youth was not required to work in the (rich man’s fields); the workingman was not forced to beg for his bread. The priest no longer invaded the garden of a humble person.” If a rich man wanted the healthy donkey of his servant, he had to pay the servant’s asking price in silver, and if the servant refused to sell, he couldn’t coerce him. And so on.

The reforms make the poor of his city happy, but seriously piss off the rich. The upper classes conspire to overthrow the reformer and help a ruler more sympathetic to their interests replace him.”

These events took place in the Sumerian city-state of Lagash around 2300 BC. They are recorded in a cuneiform script on a clay tablet. It is a completely modern story. In fact, Urukagina, the reforming ruler of Lagash, speaks of the injustices in his city as already ancient, though he knows they’re wrong. Lugalzagisi, the champion of the rich installed in his place, knows as well as any modern politician where his bread and butter lies. The lesson seems to be that those in possession of wealth and power will tenaciously cling to it. The Sumerians are not yet concerned with dressing up the injustices in their midst with ideologies like “trickle down economics.” But the reformers among them err in the same way as reformers will err until the present day: they assume that tinkering with the relative distribution of power and wealth is enough. Perhaps they themselves are heavily invested in the inequality, or maybe they have already forgotten what life outside of the Leviathan looks like. Or they may remember perfectly well what it is they have traded for civilization, but view the loss as already irremediable.

By the time of Urukagina, Sumerians were the inheritors of over 3000 years of increasing social stratification, large scale public works, strongmen, wars, and rapacious commerce. The first irrigation canals in the Near East were created in 6000 BC. Jericho in near-by Levant had 12 foot high walls around 8300 BC. Their world was cosmopolitan: merchants traveled ancient trade routes as far as the Indus Valley to the southeast, the Pontic Steppe (present day eastern Ukraine and southern Russia) to the northeast, Anatolia (Turkey) to the northwest, Egypt and Ethiopia to the southwest. Sumer would not have struck people from our time as incomprehensible. The concerns of a Sumerian were pretty much identical to those of a modern person: sex, stuff, status, work, rest. God(s). But both Sumer and 21st century life would be completely inconceivable to free human beings, those living outside of civilization.

During the period between the adoption of agriculture and animal husbandry around 10000 BC and the beginning of recorded history in around 2500 BC, mankind went through the greatest change it ever has and possibly ever will. For those who went through it, it is no exaggeration to say this was a change from being free human beings to inmates of a compulsory labor camp. For those able to temporarily escape the monster’s jaws through flight, life was also permanently changed for the worse. They would have to continue running with every advance of this or that Leviathan, this or that civilization, until nowhere remained to run and just one Leviathan is spread over the whole world. When Francis Fukuyama will announce its final victory in 1989, he will know it as democracy or capitalism.

The few handfuls of humans who still live in what we call a “state of nature” deep in the Amazon or Congo rainforests do so today only by the grace and generosity of the civilized. A much greater number exist in a semi-free state on the margins of society, wherever they can, overlooked for the time being. These groups span the gamut from greater to lesser amounts of freedom, but none of them can be completely free because none have the security necessary to experience complete freedom. For the rest of us, the very meaning of the word freedom is inverted.

Insist that “freedom” and “the state of nature” are synonyms, and the cadavers will try to bite you. The tame, the domesticated, try to monopolize the word freedom; they’d like to apply it to their own condition. They apply the word “wild” to the free. But it is another public secret that the tame, the domesticated, occasionally become wild but are never free so long as they remain in their pens. p.7

Instead of being free to develop our humanity to its fullest potential, a process heavily intertwined with the lore and traditions of our communities, we are “free” to create a personal identity based on the kinds of objects and experiences we can afford, largely in seclusion. Naturally, this modern kind of freedom leads to suffering and confusion.

The state of nature is a community of freedoms.

Such was the environment of the first human communities, and such it remained for thousands of generations.

Modern anthropologists who carry Gulag in their brains reduce such human communities to the motions that look most like work, and give the name Gatherers to people who pick and sometimes store their favorite foods. A bank clerk would call such communities Savings Banks!

The zeks on a coffee plantation in Guatemala are Gatherers, and the anthropologist is a Savings Bank. Their free ancestors had more important things to do. pp.7-8

So what is it we the civilized are missing?

Where does one start? The short answer is, everything.

Even during the coldest winter days, when the branches of evergreens sagged from their weight of snow, the human child was born into a very warm context. The warmth did not come from the walls of the bark lodge, which failed to block all draughts, nor from the fire on the floor, but from the radiant people welcoming the newcomer.

The child was expected; she was already an important personage; her arrival completed the community. Soon after her birth, she was ceremonially named, not arbitrarily but very carefully. The Totem, namely the community of the newcomer’s kin, possessed a number of names, as the sky possesses a number of stars, and the community was not quite whole, was in fact uneasy, if the names were not carried by living individuals. Everyone attended the naming ceremony because all were enhanced by the newly-named. The names did not run out. The Potawatomi were not committed to what we will know as Population Growth, and it is said that they did not experience the phenomenon.

The newcomer provided a missing rhythm. The name expressed the community’s embrace of the missing rhythm and also some expectations about the music that might be heard.

But the specific rhythm of the newly-named could be foretold no more than the final shape of a tree can be foretold from a seedling. The child was placed in no school to stunt her growth to the expected size and shape. On the contrary, the girl-child as well as her newborn brother were left free to emulate, or ignore, uncles and aunts, cousins among the animals, everyone and everything under the Sun, not excluding the Sun.

The grownups watched, not to close doors, but to open doors, to let the children wander where they would unharmed.

By the time the Potawatomi children were old enough to have expectations of their own, they were prepared to be their own guides. Dream lodges were set up in the forest, one for the girl, another for her brother. The youngsters fasted until a Totem spirit visited them. The spirit usually appeared in the form of an animal, and was usually not the same spirit whose name the child wore. The spirit promised to guide the child along a specific path, namely to give the child an individual rhythm, and the spirit offered the child certain powers with which to achieve the rhythm, powers with which to light the path.

Henceforth the children were on their own, bound neither by laws nor by the community’s expectations. Their own dream spirit helped them decide whether or not to live up to the ancestor whose name they carried. If they decided not to, they would be renamed after the first act that revealed the children were determined to follow distinct paths.

The boy, carrying his guide’s offerings in a beautifully adorned bag, and knowing that he could call on his guide simply by fasting, set out on his own to face a cosmos whose grandeur and mystery will be inaccessible to our imaginations. We will know something of his feats as a hunter or a warrior, as a long-distance walker, as a lover. We will know less of the depth of his friendships with kinsmen or strangers, and almost nothing of his friendships with wolves and bears whose tracks he followed, whose signals he tried to grasp, whose universe he tried to understand. And we will know nothing at all of his fasts on mountain tops or alongside green mirror-like tree-surrounded lakes, of the journeys he undertook with his guide across and through the water to the place of life’s origin, of his flights on the guide’s wings to the sunset land where his ancestors gathered.

We will know that he eventually returned to his Totem with meat and with numerous stories, and that he married his beloved’s sister because his beloved had in the meantime married a youth who had not stayed away for so long. We will know that he spoke of his exploits and his voyages to his children and also to his sister’s children, the nephew and niece whose dream lodges he built in the forest.

We will think that his strength left him when he gave up warring as well as hunting, when he became a peacemaker, storyteller and lone wanderer.

We will not know that he revisited a mountain top he had known in his youth, fasted until his guide came for him, flew to the land beyond the sunset, joined his beloved, he as youthful as on his first trip, she as beautiful as on the day he first saw her, and traveled with her alongside him across and through water to the place of Life’s beginnings.

If we knew all this, we wouldn’t ask why the man resisted encasing himself in our linear, visionless Order. Isn’t it our longing that expresses itself in a story about a European called Faust who turns his back on respectability, on the esteem of his colleagues, on law as well as religion, so as to have access to a personal guide and personal powers available to every Potawatomi?

The man’s older sister, in the meantime, created a music that will sound less ‘romantic’ to our ears. She too followed her own dream, but she found it possible to fulfill her own guide’s expectations as well as the community’s. She lived up to the Totem ancestor whose name she proudly continued to carry. She threw herself into the Totem’s activities, perhaps reacting against her lonesome brother; perhaps she, too, thought him excessively ‘romantic’.

Like her name-ancestor, she turned bark of birch trees into canoes and winter lodges and tree-sugar baskets; she turned the skins of animals into cloaks, skirts, moccasins and medicine bags. Her own spirit inspired the colorful quilled symbolism with which she finished everything she made.

Like her ancestor, she was one of the preparers of the ceremonial welcoming of spring’s new shoots, and after her marriage she was also a preparer of the ceremonial expulsion of Wiske, but the words she sang and the steps she danced were inspired by her own spirit.

Like her ancestor, she gathered herbs and became familiar with their general uses, but when her son was attacked by something he ate, she had to learn from her own spirit how to combine and administer the herbs while singing him back to health.

Her son as well as her daughter later took after her lonesome younger brother, but she was neither disappointed nor surprised; she knew that the children were following their own dreams, as she herself had.

Her dream had guided her to the center of the festivals and ceremonies, to the village council and the medicine lodge. Nothing her kin did or knew was alien to her.

Yet some of us will pretend to be honest when we ask why she was so vigorous in expelling Wiske from the ceremonial circle, why she would have been repelled by the prospect of becoming a housewife in a Civilized household, even the Archon’s.

Can we not recognize that in the fullness of development of universal human capacities she exposes the immiseration of the shamefully stunted products of Civilization? Can we not see that this Potawatomi matron who excels as Architect, Shoemaker, Shipbuilder, Furrier, Dramatist, Painter, Composer, Dancer, Druggist and Doctor already surpasses the many-sided Genius, the notoriously flexible Renaissance Man?

Shouldn’t the question be inverted? Shouldn’t we ask why we are fascinated by a Da Vinci, instead of asking why she is repelled? Is it because Da Vinci dangles from Leviathan’s neck like a cowbell, whereas she stands on ordinary dirt?

Why does a Da Vinci gleam for us among the beast’s innumerable cowbells? Is it because, after all the stunting and spirit-breaking that makes us Civilized, we still want to be what she was, but can no longer become even what he was, can only applaud what Leviathan becomes instead of us? pp.242-245

I’m sure I don’t have to emphasize the fact that it is extremely unusual to condemn civilization, wholesale or even in part. The idea that civilization is a good thing is, to most people, so true it is self evident and needs no proof. For most people born and raised inside of Leviathan, with no notion that there even is an outside, questioning civilization is among the hardest mental exertions. But as Fredy Perlman shows in this book, this wasn’t always the case. Once it came into being, civilization conquered or co-opted every group of people it came across, but it took a long time and the “progress” was far from uniform. From the very start, humans have resisted the supposed bounty of civilized life whenever they had the chance.

Much of Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! is concerned with tracing this history of resistance to civilization. People did not willingly trade their freedoms in the state of nature for the garb of a civilized worker and consumer. Such conversions mostly only take place once no other alternatives exist. The focal point of the resistance has shifted from those on the exterior of Leviathans in the beginning to those already inside it more recently, as less and less yet un-civilized space remained. It seems like the mountains are always the place where resistance is fiercest, from the first barbarians who descended on Uruk from the Zagros mountains to the unconquerable Pashtuns or Kurds of today.

The middle sections of the book may not hold the attention of people without some interest in history. It’s hard to keep track of the different groups being discussed—the Hittites? The Mittani?—but careful reading all the way through is extremely rewarding to even a casual student of history like myself for the insights Fredy offers about different periods and civilizations. Like his observations that the Ancient Greeks talked about everything but the olives and wine which made their empire function, and became aesthetes so they could maintain the illusion. Even for those lacking any knowledge of history, the first portion of the book is great as a stand-alone essay on civilization and its origins, and the section about the Potawatomi later in the book is a beautiful description of what life was like without civilization. Both are pure poetry.

In the past, the average person was “convinced” to become civilized at the point of a sword. Today, we are persuaded that we are the beneficiaries of the best, most advanced and satisfying way of living ever through more advanced mechanisms, but perhaps the biggest factor in favor of civilization these days is the fact that it has swallowed all alternatives to itself. Still, a staggering amount of work goes into convincing a completely captive audience that they should want the thing that is supposedly so wonderful it is self-evident.

It is no exaggeration to say the way we think about almost anything is channeled through the lens of our pro-civilization ideology. I first read Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! perhaps fifteen years ago, and may have been introduced to anti-civilization thought maybe a few years before that. In the years since, I’ve done more research on history, politics, economics, etc. and the way they alternately shed light on or obscure facts about our lives. I’m no stranger to these ideas, and yet re-reading Against His-Story this last time, I discovered that I still have trouble not being impressed by the grandeur of imperial Rome, the sublime aesthetics of the ancient Greeks, the sheer terror of Scythian or Mongol cavalry. A part of me still thinks of these as “Us,” when I know full well that this is the point of the propaganda; by identifying with these things I am being duped into trading experiencing my own visions for merely consuming the carefully calibrated visions of Leviathan.

A big reason it’s so hard to not be duped by the glitter and thrill of Leviathanic ideas and spectacles, even when you know full well they are no good, is that most of us have nothing better, know of nothing better. When we accidentally stumble on something that makes our hearts sing, we misidentify what it is we are experiencing because we have no frame of reference with which to understand it. Such is, to use one example, group life in the army. I’ve heard many soldiers express how fulfilling it is to be a part of a group of people who support each other as they work towards achieving a common goal. Whatever their feelings for the institution of the military,  many former soldiers miss this aspect of serving their country. Few realize that the fulfillment they experienced there is the same one that all humans used to share as a birthright.

We are all raised deep inside of Leviathans. Even village life is generations in the past for most of us. Most people don’t even have the vocabulary to describe the difference between life inside of Leviathan and without. Some have tried to describe the difference nevertheless, to create the vocabulary to do so from scratch or to reclaim words for this purpose from their Leviathanic usage. Those who did discovered just how hard it is to kick against the pricks.

There is very little reason to think that, things being what they are, a more critical approach to civilization is going to arise on a large scale anytime soon. I’m sorry for not having a more optimistic outlook. I’ve found that knowledge of these ideas is neither a prerequisite nor a predictor of human decency. A better predictor, I think, is the extent to which someone’s upbringing and life resembles that of a free human being. It is unfortunately extremely hard to unlearn the worldview we are raised with, and if we are taught that other people are objects and tools to manipulate, that’s pretty much how we’re gonna treat them. I’m not saying that people don’t change, they do. But there’s probably a pretty small limit to how much someone can change (sorry, born-again people; if you manipulated people as a godless drunk, you’re probably gonna manipulate them as a sober evangelical, too).

Without a prompt re-evaluation of our beliefs and priorities, we are facing an impending disaster on a global scale. It’s bizarre to live in a country where reality has been completely discarded in favor of a fantastical narrative of heathen enemies at the gate and god-given rights to plunder and profit from everything in sight. This story may have been current for some nation somewhere 3000 years ago, but it’s hard to imagine it being anything other than self-serving even then. Now, when we desperately need to acknowledge our unique predicament as a potential scourge of all creation, the bullshit issuing from the loudest available channels is deafening and disorienting, which is likely exactly the effect it is supposed to have.

Fredy Perlman was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1934, and immigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1945. He apparently intended to be a teacher and an intellectual, but working at the University of Michigan in the late 1960s turned out to be more intellectually and ethically compromising than he could handle. For the rest of his relatively short life, Fredy lived a materially modest life, unattached to any institution that could influence or support his work. He spent a number of years in Yugoslavia in the 1960s, writing a doctoral dissertation in Economics for the University of Belgrade. He travelled to Paris in May of 1968 on the last train before the general strike stopped all transportation. Returning to Detroit, he organized and maintained a cooperative printshop used by different radical groups for the remainder of the 70s. Throughout, he never stopped learning and writing. A wonderful account of his life, Having Little Being Much, was written by his lifelong partner Lorraine, who also collaborated with Fredy on many works and translations.

Dec 15

Current Trends in Socialization

painting of a giant phallus running over pedestrians by dmitry myaskovsky

How much does the way we conceive of human nature matter? Normally, we pay very little attention to it, with the exception of philosophers, but I’m not even sure we still have those. It’s been suggested that people are the product of their genes, which would mean that human nature is something programmed into us the way dog-ness is programmed into dogs. I think its more like a collage of different influences: our genes, which is another way of saying the millions of years we spent as all kinds of other animals before we evolved into primates, hominids, sapiens; everything every other human has ever figured out before us and passed down to us in the guise of “culture”; the social conditions we are born into; the material circumstances of our life; and surely other stuff, too.

In our century, the idea that humans are competing with each other all the time has become widespread. This idea didn’t exist until Darwin came up with the theory of evolution and natural selection. Before Darwin, societies conceived of their members at various times as free sovereign beings, god’s children, vessels of sin, and other things. People can be treated as the subjects of their own destinies or as objects of oppression or exploitation, in accordance with the way they are thought of. Today, we have the ability to feed, clothe, house, and entertain everyone on Earth, and technological tools to make the planet a paradise. It seems to me that the idea that humans are always competing with one another is a way to justify maintaining the status quo: a world of economic inequality, where the haves have everything and the have nots make everything. The richest 1% now own as much wealth as the other 99% combined, a level of disparity never seen before– not in Ancient Rome, not in Genghis Khan’s times, not in the age of the Robber Barons.

Any other conception of human nature would imply certain inalienable rights to mankind; at a minimum, the dignity not to be treated like something disposable. Not in the “competition” model of society. Here, no one owes anyone anything, and getting away with something at others’ expense means you’re smart. If someone isn’t doing so well, it’s their own fault. Poor people are poor because they are stupid and lazy. Rich people are rich because they are smart and worked hard for their money. Any boy or girl can be the president of the U.S.A.

People are not by nature competitive. Some are, and some aren’t. But people are social to a fault, and have a profound need to belong. This need is so strong that, in a fascist society people adopt fascist principles, and in a socialist society they adopt communitarian ones. In a capitalist society people adopt heartless capitalist principles, and act the competitor because that’s what society at large promotes and values. To think that the American personality is what people are really like is ethnocentrism: there are plenty of other people living in other ways in other societies even now, despite the centuries-old campaign to rid the world of any way of living that doesn’t recognize private property and such.

For how often one hears the American way of life is evoked and lauded, you’d think it would be a well-defined, well-understood thing. But what the American way of life is, exactly, is rarely discussed, and never defined: all we get are the clichés “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and the “American Dream” (now more likely to be achieved almost anywhere else). Yet, the American way of life is a real thing as well as a slogan, and can be described and understood.

For a period of decades following World War II, the material standard of living in the U.S. was the highest in the world. European competition was bombed to pieces while American industry had spent the war years making things like cars, planes, and bombs. Americans got used to being well off and being able to afford stuff, and ideas of social justice were put on a back burner amid this unprecedented prosperity. When movements for social change came back around after thirty years, they were of a very different kind from those of the Depression years. Depression-era social movements were about economic issues, which naturally begged the question, “why exactly do the haves have everything and the have-nots nothing?” Late 1960’s social movements were often born of boredom rather than poverty and injustice, and the infusions of energy provided by the genuinely revolutionary movements happening at the same time or shortly before, movements for an end to segregation or apartheid for blacks and indigenous people, end to colonial occupation, and perhaps for equal rights for women, didn’t really catch on with kids rebelling against what they imagined was oppressive conformity. The rebellion against boredom eventually produced results: American capitalism responded to the crowds by providing products tailored to individual tastes, and learned to sell lifestyles and experiences. Apparently, this solution has kept everyone content for 45 years and running. Content not to riot, anyway.

Americans are obsessed by the idea of individualism: one can safely say that individualism has become one of the pillars of the American way of life. Despite all evidence to the contrary, everyone believes they are unique. In 1880, the ten most popular boys’ names were given to 40% of all newborn boys. Throughout the 20th century the proportion has been shrinking. Today the top 10 most popular boys’ names account for about 8% of male newborns. People used to name their kids in honor of a relative to continue a human chain through generations, or at least to give their kids a name respected and popular with their peers. Today, parents want to give their kids a unique name, which will presumably help them grow up into a unique individual. The names have changed, too: only half of the most popular boys’ names in 2015 were even in the top 50 until recently. Top 3 of 2016? Noah, Liam, and Mason—boys, Emma, Olivia, Sophia—girls.

The most important thing we misunderstand about our nature as human beings is the degree to which we are social beings. Everything we do depends on our continual engagement with others of our own species, and the rest of creation. We can’t achieve anything without the support of others. Very slight failures of socialization in childhood can make a person permanently miserable and incapable of doing anything for themselves or anyone else.

It’s hard to over-emphasize the degree to which we under-estimate our social natures. Most of the problems people hire psychologists to fix for them stem from improper or inadequate socialization, at childhood or another point in life. Ironically, psychologists’ method of solving these problems often involves advising their patients to focus more on themselves, which works just fine if your goal as a medical professional is to continue getting paid indefinitely, but not so well if you’re actually trying to get better. Society has been described as running on “organized lovelessness.” If people were properly socialized at all stages of their lives, no one would work a shitty job for a minute longer than it takes to make sure one is fed and clothed. Properly socialized people would never stand for a society built on violence, as ours is, and you can bet they would have no trouble coming together to find ways to overthrow the rotting carcass of the oppressive civilization around them and build a better society from scratch. In a million ways, people starved of human warmth and affection are the absolutely indispensable foundation for a society like ours.

Most people are raised in an environment social enough to maintain basic function, but not nearly enough to create complete human beings. From civilizations’ point of view, it’s a delicate and necessary balance. Below a certain threshold, people stop functioning; above a certain threshold, people stop being manipulable. Because people innately understand their need for socialization, and make efforts in that direction in any situation, there is a constant effort to break up these efforts. At the same time, where socialization is too retarded, the costs of policing people become too high.

What happens when socialization falls below a critical threshold? The story is told adequately in commonly sited statistics. In 1972, U.S. prisons held 300,000 people. Today, they hold 2,300,000. This is actually undesirable to a capitalist society, since somebody has to pay for all these prisoners. Ideally, they would all be working at McDonalds for just enough money to buy essentials and an occasional iphone or whatever. It may be argued that this social model, call it the U.S./ third world model, is competing with the European social model, where workers get higher wages and support a greater proportion of the overall economy than in the U.S. at the expense of the richest of the rich. I see it as an experiment everyone in the business of oppression is happy to see carried out: how low can you go before the little people either rebel, starve, or go mad, whichever the case may be in the particular experiment. The fact that European “elites” accept slightly lower portions of the pie to ensure slightly smoother social functioning may or may not be better than the “take ‘em for all they’re worth” mentality of the American super-rich. Neither system is currently doing anything constructive to prevent the impending global climate catastrophe. Still, considering that it’s impossible to get anything at all done among people lacking socialization, I would probably prefer Europe to America.

Have I communicated how worrisome (and debilitating) I find the current trends in socialization? More and more, people I meet seem to lack even basic social graces, never mind the instincts to be supportive to one another. Everyone believes themselves to be smarter, better, or anyway more special than everyone else, and this is considered normal, if not a good thing. Selfishness is, for many, a virtue. Personal ambition is assumed to take precedence over relationships. And in spite of all evidence that we are a nation of lonely people, everyone insists that what they personally need is money, or love, or fame, or new breasts, anything but the obvious—friends and family, a good home and community.

Socialization is invisible to us until it is gone, at which point we all of a sudden realize that we can’t get anything done without some amount of it. But it can remain invisible after it is gone, too, especially when so much effort goes into convincing us that the problem isn’t our world, it’s us. But it’s actually not us for once: the society we inhabit is the problem.

Oct 18

Neanderthal sex

just like the homos sapiens, neanderthals were non too bright

We still picture neanderthals as non too bright and non too happy

Though we have more power than ever to change our environment, we seem as confused as ever about who we are, what makes us tick, where we came from, how we fit into our world, exactly, all questions which have immense importance for how we choose to wield our power. More worryingly, we seem to have adopted a mode of thought (science) which disregards these exact questions as “unfalsifiable,” outside the scope of scientific inquiry, and hence, of no consequence. Science as we currently practice it carries the implicit assumption that we need not worry ourselves with such questions: science is always there, working on our behalf; everything scientists discover will be used for good; and if somehow something causes a problem, science will automatically remedy the situation. Clearly, this is wishful thinking, not to mention deluded, dangerous, and terrifying, and we need to address the old questions now more than ever.

The extent of our ignorance about ourselves is staggering. The way scientific inquiry works has given us the false impression that we are much more knowledgeable and much more in control than we actually are. In reality, tradition and convention mean that scientists tend to work in established fields, and build on existing ideas. Yes, the framework is in place to replace a faulty theory with one which better describes reality, but many factors work against this in practice, not least of which is the fact that we are disinclined to consider theories which seem to go against our current understanding of how things work. Or a lack of imagination. What this means in practice is that a vast amount of work in the sciences goes on in support of theories which are wrong. This gives the impression that the totality of scientific knowledge is rapidly increasing, while in reality we are often merely adding to a faulty foundation which will one day be discarded wholesale.

Where do we come from? The main reason we get it wrong when trying to imagine what early humans were like, how they lived, how they settled the world, etc., is because of our fallacious belief that we are an infinite distance removed from any other critter, a different level altogether. We maintain a condescending attitude towards them, and waste time fashioning scenarios which fit our notions of development from inept apes to Mount Olympian homo sapiens. We are primed to resist thinking of human and animal consciousness as being made of the same stuff, so to speak, in part by centuries of religious thought. Christians believe that only humans have souls, and that only souls get to go to heaven. To the extent that Christianity influences the debate, we will have a hard time understanding the nature of our consciousness and that of other animals.

We’ve always believed that we’re different from and superior to apes in specific ways, but it’s not completely clear what those ways are. Humans seem to be better at learning socially than other great apes– maybe, and better at abstract reasoning– perhaps… The only thing that’s undeniable is that we have a bug up our ass that’s gotten us to do all this stuff above and beyond the needs of bare survival, and that, having done stuff and made stuff, we’re convinced that an unbridgeable gulf separates us from “lower” animals. It seems to me that the “bug up our asses” is consciousness, and more specifically, what’s referred to as meta-consciousness, the consciousness of being conscious. This is the factor which pushed us, alone out of the animals, toward ever more abstract and complicated activities. But this isn’t as simple as having a quality that another being lacks. This kind of consciousness is rare, even among humans, and then, only at work some small portion of the time, while the rest of the time we react more or less automatically to the things life throws at us. Rather, it is more accurately conceived of as a motivator, the restless and unfulfilled state of mind which, in combination with superb analytical capabilities, could push one towards interesting new things. But this isn’t the only way in which we differ from other animals.

For a thought experiment, imagine stripping a human of not only clothes, tools and weapons, etc., but also of the 10,000 years of civilization and 3,000,000 years of chipping at stones, and leave them in the rainforest with empty hands. How much better than apes would we do? How effective is our cognitive apparatus without the knowledge our culture has gathered over the millenia? Has a human child ever been raised by apes, but grew up into a human? And if we did eventually figure out how to thrive without any culturally transmitted knowledge, what would that look like? Similar to other great apes or not? Would we have language? What kind of language?

Conversely, scientists are finding that many animals, and great apes in particular, do most everything we once thought of as unique to man. They have emotions, hold grudges for months, solve complex problems, learn language and abstract thought, and are capable of deceit, meaning they have the ability to think from the point of view of another being. The criteria for what are considered uniquely human qualities are getting increasingly complicated.

A July 2012 conference at Cambridge titled “Consciousness in Human and Nonhuman Animals” concluded: “Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.” It’s great that scientists in the field of animal cognition are recognizing that many animals have the makings of human-style consciousness, but this doesn’t mean that the work of scientists in other disciplines is going to take this into account, or that laboratory animals will cease being tortured in their colleagues’ labs. Nor that our laws will be changed to reflect this.

So, if apes are capable of accomplishing most everything we can, but usually don’t care (or need) to, we are forced to view early hominins as people, if somewhat scatterbrained and unambitious ones, and their activities, motivations, and ways of life become intelligible.

Did homo sapiens breed with neanderthals? Has a frat boy ever refused sex? No amount of cultural prohibitions have ever thwarted our sex drives. Our closest relatives, the bonobos, fuck to relieve tension, boredom, hunger, and just to say hello. As do we. It is a safe bet that early humans also bred with anything that walked, and that at least some of the time, some of the matings produced fertile offspring.

That being the case, the mystery of what happened to all the early hominins seems a lot less mysterious. Just like in America’s fabled melting pot, human groups disappear to interbreeding all the time. If a group is similar enough to mate with, it’s a good bet it could eventually be absorbed through interbreeding, and if it was too different to mate with, it was probably killed off. It’s worth remembering that times of crisis are the most likely times for interbreeding and absorption to happen, just as the survivors of decimated groups of Native Americans came together to form new tribes after contact with Europeans and their diseases.

Did humans migrate out of Africa once 55,000 years ago, to colonize most of the known world in one wave? Or did we leave Africa a number of times? This is, to me, a strange question. Once humans settled Europe and Asia, any additional immigrants would simply join the colonists already there. Furthermore, there is no reason for the emigrants not to visit the relatives they left back home in Africa, or even to immigrate back. That’s what people do. I’m not sure what kind of signs this would leave on our genomes for scientists to decipher. Both apes and humans can be far-ranging, and the homo sapiens who ventured out of Africa around 125,000 years ago may already have had watercraft, expediting travel. Certainly the later “waves” of migrants had boats, since they colonized Australia by 40,000 ybp at the latest. It seems to me that the only way this debate can exist is if we assume that these were animals less than capable of making decisions and executing them. Otherwise, the question seems a little academic: people just fill open niches and seek opportunities where they exist, and there were probably very few times when a group of people entered a large expanse of new land and found it yet uninhabited by hominoids.

If neanderthals disappeared as a distinct race by 24,000 bp at the latest, while humans from Africa with fewer neanderthal genes kept migrating into Europe and Asia after that, we would expect to find the proportion of neanderthal genes carried by Europeans and Asians to be ever smaller as we get closer to the present day. This seems to be the case, as Europeans carry 2% neanderthal genes today on average, but apparently had a greater proportion in the past, as archaeological finds such as the Lapedo Child in Portugal, buried 24,500 years, seem to show. Neanderthals, too, seemed to carry some proportion of sapiens genes.

Anatomically modern humans existed by 150,000 bp, but most scientist carry around a checklist of “modern” behaviors, and deny our ancestors the status of behavioral modernity until about 50,000 bp, when enough behaviors on that list appear together. Yet, at least 80,000 bp, sapiens used ochre for decoration and fished at Blombos Cave in South Africa, while neanderthals apparently did everything sapiens did, but weren’t even of our species. “Some researchers describe how anatomically modern humans could have been cognitively the same (as modern humans) and what we define as behavioral modernity is just the result of thousands of years of cultural adaptation and learning.” That makes sense. We are beneficiaries of the knowledge of our ancestors, and wouldn’t be so smart or successful if we had to figure it all out from scratch. Early sapiens brains, too, were larger than modern humans, just as wild animals’ brains are larger than their domesticated kin. Neanderthals had brains on average 20% larger than ours.

Bicameralism is a theory which says, among other things, that the development of meta-consciousness (consciousness of consciousness) as we understand it today may have happened as recently as 3000 ago. Julian Jaynes, the author of this theory, believes that prior to the rise of meta-consciousness, volition (the minds’ commands) were perceived as coming from outside of oneself, and perhaps attributed to gods. Texts composed prior to this time give no indication of self-awareness, introspection, or other cognitive meta-processes, whereas after this time, the full range of meta-cognition is present. The change falls in the middle of the old testament; unfortunately, there aren’t all that many texts written before this.

This seems on the right track: a great range exists among people today in self-awareness, as well as, probably, between different groups of people. It makes sense that consciousness wouldn’t be an absolute, possessed by humans but no other being. We all have varying amounts of it. Some people seem to entirely lack the capacity for self-awareness, self-doubt, etc., and even those of us who do have it go through life largely without using it, being stricken by it only on certain occasions. Yet other people seem to be absolutely paralyzed by a constant over-abundance of it. (Too much self-awareness can make daily life impossible. The only way I can get through work is by shutting off my conscious mind as much as possible, just dealing with what’s happening on an automatic level.)

Wikipedia page on behavioral modernity says:

…bicameral mind theory argues for an additional, and cultural rather than genetic, shift from selfless to self-perceiving forms of human cognition and behavior very late in human history, in the Bronze Age. This is based on a literary analysis of Bronze Age texts which claims to show the first appearances of the concept of self around this time, replacing the voices of gods as the primary form of recorded human cognition.

But, this is not “very late in human history,” human history is, by definition, recorded history, which first arose shortly prior to this time. Anyway, it doesn’t seem important when, exactly, people added meta-consciousness into their arsenal for dealing with the world. The main thing is that it is something we in the West today have a lot of, relatively speaking, and that in the recent past it was scarce to non-existent. One could say that meta-consciousness is significantly correlated with civilization, and may be either the cause or the effect of it, if not both. The other main thing is that meta-consciousness is something which arises culturally, rather than biologically or genetically, as everyone has always assumed it did.

Jul 22

Escape from Freedom

Escape from Freedom
by Erich Fromm
Published September 15th 1994 by Holt Paperbacks (first published 1941)
original title
The Fear of Freedom
ISBN
0805031499 (ISBN13: 9780805031492)

 

Amazing book, so good one wonders how it ever got published. Surely only because back in 1940 people still thought of civilization as responsible for the realization of human potential, collectively and individually. How much has changed.

Fromm makes sense of Freud in just a few straightforward pages: to simplify, Freud saw people as governed by innate drives seated deep in their sub-conscious. Fromm sees people as governed by social forces. The change in focus takes much of the absurdity out of Freud’s thought, and has immense explanatory potential. For example, Fromm’s emphasis explains why certain character traits are shared by entire socio-economic groups, i.e. anal personality in the middle class of his day.

But it’s mostly the realism of Fromm’s world-view that makes him so valuable. The freedom we “gained” as a result of the Enlightenment is a double-edged sword: as it individuates us and makes it possible for men to conceive of concepts like self-realization, it severs us from the comfort of established social relationships and age-old ways of life. As a result, people are isolated and without identity or support even as they are ever aware that the world is theirs for taking, should they rise up to the challenge. This is a terrifying condition to endure for most people, who turn to any number of substitute behaviors and ideologies as a kind of “security blanket,” things like nationalism and xenophobia all the way to autistic disorders, I suppose. This trend is exacerbated in times of greater social stress, like economic depression. I think this explanation rings very true in a general sense.

In an even broader sense, this book is about the way modern society is anti-human, insofar as it makes it impossible for people to grow as human beings, instead harnessing their anxiety into various kinds of despotic projects. Fromm says as much– I don’t have the book in front of me and can’t quote it, but I am not making it up: elsewhere, Fromm says that the majority of people in western society today live (and are) as automatons. He does not mince his words. Yet, as seems common, he does not follow his own thoughts to their conclusions. He thinks that since modern society has the technological means to make the realization of human potential a possibility for all people, this is a worthy goal to pursue (technology is not a tool to be used in a disinterested way, it creates its own social conditions and eventually entire world-views. See Zerzan, Mumford, all the way to Marx).

Fromm realizes that the Humanist freedom is not all positive, that it involves the giving up of security enjoyed by people in older societies. But I wonder if the positive freedom as formulated by Fromm, the freedom to seek and fulfill self-realization, is not a hoax, leaving us with nothing but the loss of our place in the world, and nothing to compensate for the loss. As Kurt Vonnegut said (I think he said it), the jury is still out on whether big brains give their bearers an evolutionary advantage or not. The jury is still out, as far as I’m concerned, on whether consciousness is anything but a hindrance, and if it is not, that it is not best in small doses, like so many things.