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 13

Society ended and no one noticed

freedom from empathy.  and sense.

Through Siberia by Accident
Dervla Murphy
John Murray (Publishers), London 2005
ISBN 978-0-7195-6664-6

Humans are very good at following and processing sudden shifts in their environments, but very bad at being aware of gradual changes. No one noticed that life in America has little by little turned into “just holding on,” that the fun we have, when we have it, is too little too late, that we’re never completely convinced we should keep trying at any given moment rather than watch TV or drink ourselves into a stupefied calm. These changes happened slowly, over decades and generations. To complicate things, the better conditions some time ago weren’t all good for all people, and were downright awful for many: the deterioration in the quality of life over time has been a complex process. Most people have traditionally focused on improvements in material well-being to claim that life is better now than before and getting better all the time, a dubious claim itself considering how much misery there is out there today. Perhaps it isn’t all that much more, as a proportion of the total, than at the height of the abuses of the industrial revolution, but no one with any access to accurate information should claim that we today enjoy better lifestyles than cavemen or hunting/ gathering groups. (Not only did hunter/ gatherers enjoy a more varied and nutritious diet than almost anyone who came after them, their brains were bigger than ours, paralleling the decrease in brain size which happens to domesticated animals.)

We’re not merely less happy than we’ve been at perhaps any other time in our history, and we’re not just stupider, meaner, more selfish, less interesting and interested, less empathetic, less fun, and more confused. We in the west, certainly those of us in the U.S., are no longer members of human society as its always been understood and conceived of. Society has come to an end, and no one noticed. But, how would one notice the end of society? When society peters out, people go on living, its just that they no longer live as a social species, but as something else. What “else” may be for the pundits or the sci-fi writers to figure out. Whatever we ever meant by “society,” we in the West no longer practice anything of the sort.

The words “society,” “socialized,” and “social” are problematic for what I’m trying to bring to your attention, because most people understand them as referring to things people do together, without differentiating between, for example, sharing an elevator in a tall building and singing together with a group of people, and in the latter example, between singing with others in a high school music class, or around a campfire, or at a demonstration. Social, to most people, simply means things we do together, as opposed to individual. But a collection of individuals in a place and time (and sometimes neither, i.e. social media), can be simply a collection of separate beings, or it can be something more: an experience which leaves all involved transformed for the better. Consider a group of people gathered inside a mass transit bus, and a group of people gathered around a volleyball net. Both are social events, but one makes everyone involved feel like garbage and resent the people around them, whereas the other makes everyone involved feel invigorated and connected to everyone else. For what I’m trying to describe here, the two kinds of group activity have to be carefully differentiated: there is no separate word for the kind of “social” that I am concerned with here, the kind that strengthens bonds between the participants, but this is the one we need to pay attention to. I am proposing that “society,” “culture,” and such words, describe the transformative experience of people coming together in a place and a time for a common purpose, and not the results and the record of such comings together, which may be better termed “material culture” and its accoutrements.

I realize this definition leaves much to be desired, but I am hoping I can be understood anyway, and maybe helped in this project, for which I am surely woefully inadequately equipped. If I’d seen it tackled by anyone else, I would, I promise you, have the sense to bark up the right trees only. But, the ongoing end of human society seems to be well off everyone’s radar, even though everyone senses that something is very wrong. I attribute it, mostly, to a lack of a vantage point from which the whole trajectory of society can be observed.

I wouldn’t have become aware of this alarming development if I hadn’t had the experience of being born in the Soviet Union, and the privileged position being an immigrant affords to someone observing people and their ways. Obviously, the subject of differences between ethnic groups has remained a favorite from the day the first Neanderthal met the first Homo Sapiens, but I’ve recently begun to think that I may be observing something more profound than variations in ethnic color, namely, the struggle of some people to hold on to a socialized existence, and of others to deal with an existence lacking in socialization altogether.

Everyone knows that people in other parts of the world are profoundly different from Americans. When describing the difference we see in these others, we use words like, “hospitable,” “quaint,” “warm,” etc. We lack the words to describe these differences because we mostly lack the concepts for them. What we see as local color, that quaint hospitality some people in remote places across the world show us, is what people living in properly socialized environments are like. I think it’s funny that we see such people as dupes or quaint at best, and fail to see all the things which allow them to be generous, hospitable, and warm, things we lack: extended families to teach us when young, support and help us when we need it, and learn from us in turn when we’re old; a stable home rooted in a specific place to discover, love, and protect; a simple life free of the anxiety of media phantoms parading all the things we supposedly lack before us all day; a simple life dedicated to real pleasures and real goals, where you can actually be whatever you want to be, certain of the support of your loved ones, instead of having unattainable, sociopathic goals. These things comprise the social dimension of life. When we think of society, we usually think instead of the infrastructure our civilization has built to keep itself going, the different classes of people, the professions, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, etc. All those things are relevant, to be sure, but they aren’t what makes humans properly socialized, and in fact, often serve to distract us from the fact that we’re alone, miserable and confused.

Elsewhere, people still live lives socialized to various degrees. Though tearing at the seams and strained to the max almost everywhere, society is still a part of many people’s lives outside of the West. Russian people’s lives are in many cases still highly socialized. I was reminded of what Russians are like by Dervla Murphy’s Through Siberia by Accident, a great book by a great author. Murphy took her trip through Siberia in 2002, when the Russian people were finally far enough removed from the “market reforms,” which dispossessed them in the mid-1990s, to observe the effects western culture was having on their lives with some clarity.

Throughout Siberia, Murphy met plenty of people who viewed Russia as only getting better with increasing western influence, and plenty of others who saw western culture as intrinsically at odds with indigenous culture, and ultimately displacing it to everyone’s detriment. Opinions split, unsurprisingly, along economic lines: those who were making money hand over fist in the “New Russia” were inclined to see it as improved by westernization, while many of those approaching the changes with more caution came from the public sector–teachers, architects, and the like. According to Murphy, many Russians are worried about the dissolution of their society as the result of the free flow of western values. Murphy quotes a Siberian acquaintance: “For ten years we have democracy and all are free, no one telling children what to do and when, no one organizing anything for them. And what are they doing with their freedom? How can they be expected to organize themselves? The intelligentsia can use freedom but not the rest.” (p.57) Western values consider freedom unequivocally good, for anyone, in any circumstance. I know young American parents who wouldn’t think to thwart the freedom and development of their child in any way– before they can talk, they are allowed to pursue anything that catches their fancy in any way. That’s fine, but kids have no concept of freedom, and need, above all, a stable, loving environment, adult role-models, a good home in a good community. These aren’t things that the parents can provide their children on their own, but without them, kids will grow up improperly socialized to various degrees, and eventually, unhappy.

Russians are different from Americans in specific ways. Traits having to do with strengthening social bonds such as thoughtfulness, politeness, accommodation, are held up for praise in Russian society. Dervla Murphy, in her 60s when visiting Siberia, could always count on a seat when riding crowded mass transit: young men or women invariably stand up and offers their seat to an older person should there be nowhere to sit. These qualities are, by contrast, very rare in America, where instead traits focusing on the individual are held in esteem. It is a rare home I’ve visited in Milwaukee, WI– a quaint city by many standards– where the host offered their guests so much as a glass of water. This is, for many people the world over, treatment one wouldn’t give to one’s enemies. Yet, these aren’t bad people, they are just clueless that another way of living exists because they weren’t raised with any other way. They see their crappy, lonely lives as normal, and stoically blow their brains out, as well as, increasingly, the brains of others’ who may happen to be in the way, when their ludicrous dreams prove unattainable and no deus ex machina is at hand. These are two different breeds of men, but only one is capable of replicating human society– the other can only recreate the pyramid scheme which got them where they are.

What would a society that’s dissolved look and feel like to the people forced to inhabit its’ ruins? I think the most important benchmark of a functioning society is the empathy its members experience towards one another. Empathy is both a prerequisite and a consequence of human society. Ours is perhaps the first civilization in human history to have a serious enough problem with individuals lacking in empathy to create a word and a concept for it, “sociopath.” But the breakdown in empathy between members of a group is not always due to an individual pathology. Some people are unable to experience empathy, some don’t experience it because they haven’t been taught to experience it to the appropriate extent in childhood, and some might simply not want to, for any number of reasons. It seems to me that when the levels of empathy fall below a certain threshold, you may no longer be dealing with a society deserving of the name. Again, empathy is not so much a metaphysical way of getting inside other people’s heads, and more about the way people who live together, spend time together, share values, habits, dreams, and so on, just know what the other members of their group experience. Naturally, this faculty is diminished when you live a life largely removed from others, or in a belief that everyone is so “individual” the things we have in common don’t matter, or both.

But it is important to remember that a bunch of people will keep on going about their things, buying, selling, fighting, fucking, and the sort, long after any meaningful social component has been taken out of their way of life. Instead of the common good, they will serve laws written by people they chose to represent them far away. Mostly, they’ll have no clue why they value the things they value, because people they’ve never seen will dictate their tastes to them, common taste for conformists and rare tastes for the rebels. Civilization doesn’t end because everyone becomes a petty Napoleon, convinced that their expansion is limitless until checked by another in a never-ending war of all against all. It doesn’t even slow down. It just becomes unbearable for everyone involved.

Can it be fixed? I think there’s nothing simpler. Empathy isn’t a complicated, hard to understand quality– it’s simply the way people who share in a human society interact. All that needs to happen for empathy to be restored is for people to go back to living in a more mutually-dependent, mutually-assisted, way. Anyone incapable of seeing the world through the eyes of their fellow man will probably not be able to live closely with others. Empathy is simply that adaptation to close-quartered life, which carries the additional benefit of keeping us sane. That is to say, we can’t be fulfilled and probably not even retain our sanity without having the benefit of others’ empathy and being empathetic ourselves: our nature as human beings is to live with others of our own kind.

So, I hope I’ve been able to communicate something of what’s been occupying my mind for a long while. Society, obviously, didn’t end in so far as most people think of society as the machinery and ideology of our system of life, in all its glorious, inhuman complexity. But something did end– namely, that component of our lives which allows us to be happy, the social component. No one’s ever paid much attention to it because no one’s ever had any reason to imagine a life without it. No matter how bad things have previously gotten for men, slavery, Auschwitz, famine, we always had each other to make it through the bad times. For the first time, this is no longer the case. We’re finding that not only are we unable to get through the bad times alone, but we can’t make it through the good times, either– we can’t accomplish anything alone at all. Any task one might pursue requires an army of supporting characters, from the day you’re born to the present moment, and all the way back to the dawn of history if you want to be really thorough.

It’s fascinating that all these years, the conventional wisdom has insisted that if you’re unhappy, you’re not pursuing your dreams– the answer is, more freedom, more individualism. The conventional social roles we are forced to act out against our will are stifling us and making us miserable. Our goal is to “find ourselves” and tap into our individual-ness. Was it really the opposite the entire time? How could so many get things so wrong for so long? This isn’t the first time human nature has been completely misunderstood, and yet… Perhaps no one should be surprised that the idea that what’s making us all miserable is a lack of individual freedom has been as influential for as long as it has: it fits all too neatly into the longer-term project to destroy local human communities in order to advance the goals of international capitalism.