Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Clintons and the legacy of Carrol Quigley

What is a civilization? This was part of what historian and political scientist Carrol Quigley was interested in answering in his book The Evolution of Civilizations, first published in the 1961. If a civilization is but a large group of people then what distinguishes one civilization from another? And why do civilizations rise and fall?
Quigley's first attempted definition of a civilization was a culture with a written language and cities. A culture is already something different than a group. It is a group that mostly interacts with itself. A civilization is a collection of cultures that can share geographic space without annihilating each other. Other things can be shared, such as social institutions: military, governing, religious, productive, financial, or distributive institutions.

Quigley made an interesting observation that helped him understand how civilizations rise and fall: social institutions have a built-in self-destruct mechanism. They start out as attempts to satisfy social needs (defense, coordination of activities, self-transcendence, productivity, the need to save energy and invest it in the future, and the need to trade goods and services), at which point Quigley calls them instruments. Then they inevitably seem to evolve into self-serving institutions, in which the original aims are forgotten, vested interests take over, and inertia and inability to adapt ensue.

The particular instrument that redefines and explains the rise and fall of civilizations is what Q called an instrument of expansion. A civilization is thus a culture with an instrument of expansion. It has 3 parts, according to Q:
1. Incentive for innovation
2. instrument to generate surplus
3. Ability to invest the surplus in innovation

The instrument invariably decays into a dysfunctional institution that no longer is able to provide expansion and if it can't be reformed or circumvented, conflict arises, which weakens the civilization, eventually enough to be successfully invaded by peripheral peoples or other civilizations. Out of the ashes a hybrid sometimes arises of the old civilization and the invaders, and if it can develop an instrument of expansion, the birth of a new civilization has occurred.

Now Q was not a devotee of the religion of Progress, which sees all history as going towards improvement in all areas. He understood tradeoffs, or the idea that progress in one area often leads to regress in another area. Q was part of the cyclical school of historians, which includes Vico, Spengler and Toynbee, who saw history and civilizations in terms of cycles. Q critiqued the previous cyclical historians for not finding causes for the observed cycles, which he claims to have done with the theory of the instrument of expansion.

But why must a civilization be able to expand in order to merit its name? Why isn't it sufficient, as many cultures have been able to do, to be sustainable? This is no small achievement, requiring many virtues of observation, communication, patience, delayed gratification, acceptance of outsiders and peacefulness. Isn't Q equating civilization with empire? He refers to non-civilized cultures (according to his definition of lacking an instrument of expansion), as parasitic, which he contrasts with productive. But here he betrays his own western cultural bias. To take from the land while not giving back in fertility, to reap benefits while externalizing costs, to use people in a one-sided way (for their petroleum, for their medicine, for their labor), to rob future generations of non-renewable resources, this is much closer to parasitism than cultures who can live sustainably. So in this Q would be admonished by Gandhi who said Civilization would be a great idea. But western civilization, and the empire civilizations that preceded it are not civilized in having the virtues above. They are rapacious empires which depend on expansion for survival.

What human need does expansion serve? Since there are plenty of cultures which are not empires and do not need or want to expand, there must be some other human need that expansion is a proxy for. Quigley suggests that there is a basic need for expansion and that the coincidental appearance of the 3 factors (see above and below) enables a culture to satisfy that need or not. This is hard to test because cultures that say they have no need to expand could be saying it because it is true, or because the 3 factors have not appeared and so they only think they don't have a need to expand. If it isn't expansion in itself, what is it that leads some cultures to expand while others have no such need? At this point it is useful to break down this so-called need into the constituent parts that Q found in order to understand it in more detail.
1. Incentive to innovate: this seems to be related to the human (and some animal) need for change. Too much routine leads to boredom. But too quick or too much change leads to insecurity and instability. These needs must be balanced. Note that though all humans need change, not all cultures provide an incentive for innovation. The need for change can be satisfied in other ways (e.g. travel or being in tune with the cycles of nature) other than innovations in economic organization or technological innovation.
2. The ability to generate surplus: for Q this entailed necessary wealth inequality, where some people have surplus at the expense of those who have to spend all their time surviving. Those with surplus can then use it to invest in innovation.
3. An ability to invest the surplus in more innovation.

Let's examine 2 and 3. The ability to generate surplus can happen from
A. technological means (e.g all the technology involved in domestication of animals and plants, grain, storeage of grain, meat preservation, etc.), from
B. economic organization (e.g. slaves, who generate surplus for their masters, or workers who generate surplus for capital owners, or specialization, or free trade, or distributist production), or from
C. working in harmony with nature, the supreme generator of surplus, but which we often waste or degrade with unwise ecological practices.

Note that Q only considers B. Moreover there is no necessity in investing surplus solely in innovation, except in capitalism where surplus gives rise to falling prices (abundance in capitalism causes scarcity for producers in a never ending cycle). It can also be invested in distributing the wealth equitably (not necessarily equally), in proportion to each person's contribution or costs, instead of the zero sum game that Q saw as the only choice. There can be such a thing as too much innovation, leading to insecurity and instability. Also, there can be a tradeoff between innovation and social wealth equity, dependent on how much of the surplus is invested in innovation and how much in wealth equity. In not seeing these tradeoffs Q has fallen prey to a Religion of Progress meme of neglecting tradeoffs.

On the other hand, in creating a new culture, there is a need to grow infrastructure and hence a need to generate surplus. This is ignored by people who see all growth as an abomination. Growth and the surplus necessary to sustain it are necessary in certain stages of organismal and cultural history. The problem is not growth per se, but perpetual growth, or unlimited growth on a finite planet. At some point growth must cease (but change must continue in other ways because it is a human need), but not before the new culture matures and builds its infrastructure.

Q saw 7 stages of every civilization, arising rom the mechanism of the institutionalization of the instrument of expansion:
1. Mixture
2. Gestation
3. Expansion
4. Conflict
5. Empire
6. Decay
7. Invasion.

We will not talk about these in detail but refer to 5-6 below.

These ideas are not just abstract, but have influenced Bill Clinton, who considered Q his most influential professors. Hillary Clinton is probably influenced by Bill Clinton's worldview and many neo-liberal thinkers are probably too. So it's a safe bet that the next president of the US, HRC is going to make all the same mistakes inherent in Q's distorted and erroneous worldview:
1. She will encourage more growth at the expense of wealth equity and environmental sustainability
2. She will encourage more high tech innovation, even if the innovation makes things worse.
3. She will not shy away from global conflict, believing that this will ease domestic conflict because it addresses the "need" for expansion, and also because the stage of Universal Empire is predicted by Q to follow the stage of conflict and to provide a peaceful (though temporary) resolution to the stage of conflict.
4. She will try to reform institutions of expansion so that they become better able to achieve their goals (in Q's terms, she will try to transform them back into instruments). These are banking, military and industrial institutions.
5. She will try to consolidate the American Empire against competitors such as Russia and China.
6. She will try to defend against the peripheral "barbarian", (fill-in-the blank) invaders, who signal the 7th, terminal stage of a civilization, and keep ours in the 5th (Universal Empire), or 6th (decay) stages. I wonder if the stage of decay gives her a historical stamp of approval for such maneuvers as election rigging.

I was wrong about the next president. But some of Quigleys predictions still work for the present one.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

comparison of cultures and breeds

There are a few differences, but the differences are not as important as the similarities  for understanding many things about cultures and breeds. Viruses are used as controls, to show bigger differences that matter for anything related to some of the topics of this blog. Interestingly, isolation if still important with viruses, but for different reasons.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

memetic isolation with culture genesis

Check out my article with Chris Congleton and Gil Ben-Moshe, based on our experience with intentional communities:

cultural isolation

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Progress or progress?

I feel like a renegade monk who has left his order or even his religion because of what he perceived as spiritual deficiencies, but who still has emotional ties and sympathies with that order, or at least the original spirit in which it was founded. The order I am talking about is the Religion of Progress, one of the most prevalent secular religions of our day, and yet one of which many of its adherents are not even conscious.

Besides searching my soul for alternative ways of looking at the world, I would like to have some rapprochement with the ROP, and in so doing create something akin to a reformation. I still resonate with the original intention of making life better for people. Unlike Luther who had 95 theses questioning the practices of the catholic church, I only have 4 theses, which I will summarize below and then go into more detail later:
1. The non-teleological nature of evolution
2. The recognition and study of tradeoffs
3. Measurement as a useful tool of limited validity
4. The long view of history

The non-teleological nature of evolution

Evolutionary biologists have realized already that biological evolution does not have any other goal besides reproduction. Sometimes certain traits produce better reproduction, but other times not. Certain traits work better for some species than for others. Sometimes and for some species such as our own, more complexity and higher levels of organization are better. Other times and for some species such as bacteria, less complexity and lower levels of organization are better. There is no goal of complexity in evolution.

The situation in social evolution is not as clear to most ROP devotees. Why the confusion in thinking that social evolution has a goal (e.g. more diversity, tolerance, equality, compassion, freedom, spiritual enlightenment, happiness, cars or what have you)? I think there is a confusion here between our values and evolution. The idea that something has a goal comes from us trying to optimize certain values and sometimes succeeding. But there is nothing inevitable about it or external to us and what we want, and nature or any transcendent aspect of it (e.g. God or Progress), is not obligated to give it to us.

That doesn't mean that our values are not important to us, as inspirations and heuristic strategies. It doesn't mean we don't try to optimize them and progress towards their realization. But it does mean we drop the capital P from Progress and think instead of how to progress towards our values.

It also means we don't confuse the local fitness optimum that history and we have chosen in our culture with a global optimum, or say that our fitness optimum is better than another culture, past or present. That is like saying that nematodes are better than bacteria, just because nematodes came later in evolution. We can't say nematodes are better because they are multi-cellular or have nuclei in their cells, because bacteria do quite well with single cells and no nuclei. We can't say we are better because we have internet and those poor "savages" only had face to face communication. We can't even say that more fitness is better, unless we agree that Might makes Right, that invasive species are good, and that invasive cultures like mainstream Islam or Evangelical Christianity are better than less invasive cultures like Judaism or Sufism, or monastic Christian orders that keep to themselves.

The recognition and study of tradeoffs

Second, we must recognize that nothing in nature shows perpetual growth. Things might grow for a while, but then either reach a steady state or decay, diminish, shrink or die. This includes organisms, species, civilizations, religions, technology, and ideologies. Why do quantifiable things not increase (or decrease) forever? There are 2 mathematical reasons:
1. The independent variable is a non-linear function of the dependent variable(s) and the second derivative goes negative. There is a point of diminishing returns, where more is not as better as it was before. Here is a cartoon of happiness as a non-linear function of hours spent at work.

2. Sometimes the previous case can be explained as follows: dependent variable is a weighted sum of other dependent variables, all of which depend on an independent variable. Whereas some of the dependent variables increase with the independent variable, some of them decrease. Here is a cartoon (the exact numbers are not meaningful, only the trend might be) of a model in which individual happiness is a sum of feelings of community and freedom. Feelings of community increase with increasing group rules (for a while, though we don't show their diminishing returns in this example), whereas feelings of individual freedom decrease with increasing group rules.

Here is the same idea applied to medical technology which gets better with more resources, and pollution/other environmental problems which get worse with more resources applied to technology.

And here it is again, this time applied to automation's effect on production efficiency, but at the expense of meaningful work, and ultimately happiness.

The following cartoon has a model of happiness that is the negative sum of socio-economic violence and direct physical violence. If we only look at direct physical violence, as Pinker did in his latest book (The Better Angels of Our Nature), we might think that things are improving for our species.

All of the preceding examples are calls for empirical research, to make the cartoons into actual graphs, to find the functional dependence of the various dependent attributes. The real world will be more complicated than these cartoons suggest, not just in the functional dependence of the attributes, but in their number, and in the number of independent variables. Surveys and other means of extracting data are needed. Numerical data analysis techniques are needed.

Even if Pinker is right in identifying the causes of decreasing physical violence (I don't know if he is, I will look at his data and decide), it would be wrong to conclude that we should pursue those causes, because those same causes could be increasing other forms of violence, or decreasing things we value like a connection with nature and each other.

Here are some more dependent attributes (in the form of questions) that need to be considered before rushing off in any direction where Progress blindly leads us:
Are we more empowered to make political decision? Are we feeling more connected to each other?  Are we able to share resources (what is happening to commons?) How many native cultures are getting destroyed?Is diversity decreasing?Is  topsoil lost?, Is pollution increasing? Ugliness, decreased health, flooding?, are we feeling more or less connected to nature?
Do we have a way to express our gifts in the world more or less? Are we more compassionate, intelligent, or just more literate? Are we more well-rounded?

You might have noticed in these cartoons that there is no single best way to add up the two conflicting attributes. In the examples above they were added with equal weights (both negative in the last example), but what or who determines those weights? They vary from individual to individual and society to society. Sometimes they are hardwired, and sometimes subject to individual, or societal choice. If they are hardwired then empirical research is needed to determine these coefficients. But if not, another approach is needed. Which brings us to the next point.

Measurement as a useful tool of limited validity

Not everything can be decided based on measurement. Some things are decided based on gut feelings, values, experience or non-numerical thinking.  Once we decide on relative values of various quantities, we can measure them in order to understand them better, and also try to optimize their weighted combined utility.
These might be called the descriptive and prescriptive functions of the empirical method.  In either of these cases measurement is useful as an input to optimization or satisficing (and satisficing can be shown to be a special case of optimizing a utility function so we won't refer to it further). But let's not forget that different people and different cultures will choose  (either consciously or not) different coefficients in their utility function. And sometimes we might reconsider our coefficients especially if we feel there is something wrong with our well-being, or the future well being of our descendants, or other cultures or species. Which brings us to our next point.

Taking the Long View

As we saw previously, the empirical method has a descriptive and a prescriptive function and we can easily mess up both of them. We can mess up the descriptive aspect if we only look at a small sample, for example in a time series. Here are some examples: If we only look at the 20th century, we would conclude that infinite growth in energy extraction is possible. We would need to look a bit further into the present, or use our foresight to extrapolate into the future, as some petroleum engineers have done to see that this is false, both empirically and logically (the latter because we only have a finite amount of petroleum or coal and there are diminishing returns in ease of extraction, and because solar is a much less concentrated form of energy, requiring more material resources than are available for continuing the trend of energy extraction based on petroleum and coal).

Same goes for economic growth, or the use and prevalence of reason and foresight. If we look more carefully into the present we will find diminishing returns for all these.

And if we expand our view into the past, as the cartoon to the right shows, we might see something like cycles that have to do with the rise and fall of civilizations, which we missed due to our unfounded belief in constant growth (of what we think we like) or decline (of whatever we think we dislike).

We can mess up the prescriptive function of the empirical method, if we are wrong in our assessment of the coefficients going into a utility function, either because we made certain unwarranted and unconscious assumptions (like economic growth, technological growth and tolerance have the only non-zero coefficients), or because we do not understand our nature very well, then we will progress towards non optimal values of the utility function. In the case of happiness this means increasing misery. Here is a cartoon depiction of this for when one considers the only non-zero coefficient to be the one for production efficiency, vs. equal coefficients for production efficiency and meaningful work. In the first case one continues to increase automation (presumably until one feels miserable enough to stop), in the second case one stops increasing production efficiency at the sweet spot.
A special case of messing up on the prescriptive function of the empirical method is due to our nature to discount the future relative to the present, also known as addiction. Benefits in the present get a coefficient much greater than costs in the future.

We also tend to discount things that worked well in the past because we haven't experienced them and because they might be associated with other things that didn't work very well. But there is no logical connection between the medieval apprentice system and the medieval sanitation system. We can have the first without the second. This is maybe the converse of not seeing tradeoffs. Is it possible that we could adopt some of the things that worked better in the past, but still keep some of the things that work better now, assigning coefficients to each?

Here are attributes that I give higher coefficients than
1. high tech healthcare:
Will settle for midwives washing hands during childbirth, hygiene, family doctors, village craft-produced anti-biotics, early 20th century medicine, and eastern medicine. Lifespan should not be affected, and might actually increase, since most of the increase in lifespan is due to poor hygiene affecting early childhood and birth deaths, and environmental toxins and stress might decrease.
2. Internet and phone communication:
These are about satisfying the need for community, but this can be satisfied better if there is a physical community nearby.
3. Internal combustion engine transport:
Bicycles and horses. Possibly steam engines run by solar thermal.
4. Appliances that provide touch-button comfort:
I'd rather cut and split firewood than press a button to stay warm. Bake bread in a wood fired oven than a breadman. Plant trees for shade and have a pond nearby to dip in when it gets hot, rather than air conditioning.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

God, Socialism, Evolution and the invisible hand of the Market

I've been asking myself why altruistic people of good will, social and ecologic consciousness can't get together to design an economy which will meet their needs with minimal harm to everyone else. Or rather, why can people coordinate their lives in a romantic couple, coordinate a representative democracy which touches lightly on economic matters in market economies and more strongly in socialist economies, but are not even willing to try to coordinate an economy on a village scale?

Part of the issue is technological: a true local economy, meaning one that goes beyond local ownership into local production, consumption and planning, requires creation of a local technology infrastructure. It is a feature of our times that most people are not competent to create any infrastructure, communicate civilly and coordinate activities with anyone (unless they are forced to by their job or the government). Specialization and automation in work, technology which has gone beyond enhancing human potential to getting people addicted to crutches, an entertainment industry which has sapped people's creativity and initiative and an educational system which has dumbed them down are only partial causes. All of these have in common a global economic market. The market has been successful in optimizing production and cost efficiencies, but a failure in meeting most other human needs including the need for intimate, cooperative, altruistic community, edifying, creative work, ecological stewardship, stable commons and the ability for small groups to politically and economically self organize. Similar qualities can be ascribed to Evolution--it is good at optimizing reproductive fitness and whatever correlates with it in a specific environment, but not necessarily good at meeting human (or environmental) needs that go beyond reproductive fitness. Those would need to be explicitly put in to the optimization attempt and not left to God, the Holy Spirit, the Market or Evolution, unless we are part of those transcendent forces, instead of their helpless children. Not that any of these transcendent forces could not be involved too. For the record, I believe there is a benign and intelligent ground of being that we can tap into, that the Market can help coordinate economic activity and that evolutionary forces of mutation, selection, reproductive isolation and drift operate on levels equal to and higher than genes (such as organisms, groups, species and ecosystems), AND we are not helpless children, rational egotists or myopic selfish genes, having the potential to at least partially shape our destinies through collaboration, creativity, foresight, and compassion.

There are people who see not just the successes, but also the failures of the impersonal global market and the impersonal large scale state-run political systems which have gone by various names such as social democracies, socialism and communism. For example, there are homesteaders: people who are quite capable with basic material skills--growing food, building and maintaining houses, tending animals. They are not against trading with their neighbors or gifting with them. But even they seem to have a knee-jerk reaction to sitting down with neighbors and planning who will produce what, based on skill, affinity and need. They would rather supplement their own production by getting a job in town, selling goods to wealthy people they don't know through the internet, or services to wealthy  people they get to know who pass through leaving green energy behind (procured from the global economy by the usual means), and buying on the internet or through a food coop from far away producers they don't know who may have ecologically questionable practices and who can only survive by interacting with the global economy. This is all fine as an interim strategy for making ends meet, but not as a long term vision of creating an alternative to the global economy.

Part of it no doubt comes from not wanting to produce in large volumes, with the associated gas-guzzling machines, and realizing that small output, home craft production can't compete with industrial production which can supply many goods more cheaply with a small marginal cost. Part of it comes from fear of collaboration based on previous failures of intentional communities, and the rugged individualism characteristic of the US. But I think there is something deeper going on here, because both these problems have solutions. In the case of cost of production, it doesn't matter if the cost is higher because there are also higher benefits, i.e. addressing those human and environmental needs that the market is unable to address. And in the case of the problem of collaboration, there have been many communication and organizational tools developed to deal with it, as well as religious calls for humility and altruism. There are other problems intentional communities face such as the problem of freeloaders and the problem of the Tragedy of the Commons, both of which have been solved by groups that happen to follow the 8 principles Elinor Ostrom distilled in her empirical research. These principles are also followed to some extent by groups of cells that successfully form organisms or animals that form herds or superorganisms like hives--nature has solved these problems already.

To understand what might be at the root of the fear of village-scale economic coordination, we take some inspiration from Max Weber's Protestant Work Ethic. Weber realized that capitalism arose in protestant countries because the kind of work that merchants and factory workers did was consistent with the belief in the Chosen being chosen based on their economic success. Whereas in both the eastern and catholic church-controlled economies, humility and obedience were rewarded and work was correlated with the willingness to suffer (toil was punishment for eating that apple from the Tree of Knowledge), in the protestant cultures, self-promotion, initiative and enjoyment in work were prized and indicative of salvation. (Before Catholicism and the eastern church in Europe, and in other places even after Christianity, economic activity was coordinated by local markets and the political and military machinery of empires or local tribes).

Beyond the nature of work (and Max Weber's ideas), Protestantism also influenced the kind of associations that people would form to coordinate economic activity. Whereas the (mainstream Catholic and Eastern) Church was both the intercessor between God and Man and the coordinator of economic activity, with the rise of Protestantism there was no longer any need for an intermediate between God and Man, and in parallel for a human coordinator of an economy. God however was too lofty to concern himself with coordinating economic matters and people too greedy, selfish and sinful to do so. So a replacement for the Church had to be found, one who was as benign, all powerful and invisible (though not necessarily in his effects) as God.

In steps Adam Smith, offering us the Invisible Hand of the Market. To interpose any human organization would be acceptable to the secular descendants of mainstream catholic and eastern orthodox cultures, but not protestant. Also, mystical Christians (who are usually catholic, but sometimes protestant) would dislike any attempt to create a system of organization that interferes with the holy spirit, effectively barring any attempt at coordinated collective action beyond the simplest levels (such as meeting for worship or protest).

Another transcendent institution beyond human scale would arise to replace the Church and God in managing human economic affairs that would be acceptable to most catholic descendants and those protestant descendents who did not fully embrace the Market. That would be the nation-state government, adopted by the Scandinavian countries.

The rise of the Corporation can be understood in this view by considering that the Corporation is not meant as an intermediate between Man and the Market, but a facilitator of that relationship, just like protestant churches were and are facilitators of the relationship between God and Man. The corporation is not about coordinating economic activity unless it has a monopoly, which is blasphemous to the Market. It becomes another rational, selfish actor, competing with other such actors, which through the Invisible hand and despite all evidence to the contrary, magically ensures the greatest good. The Protestants and mystical Catholics who are willing to leave economic coordination to those transcendent powers above are sometimes willing to criticize corporations, but in the end are afraid to take over what the corporations produce, making their criticism ineffectual. I don't mean this in an individual way, but in a collective way, that through organizing a local economy, someone or some group in that economy can produce what the corporation formerly produced in the global market, but for the local market or the needs of the local people. This is obviously not possible with everything, but rather than copying the production patterns of the global market, a local socialist economy can decide what the individuals in it really need and produce accordingly.

It should be added that these classifications do not necessarily refer to religions, but to the cultural descendants of those religions, whether they keep the religious beliefs or just the cultural remnants of those beliefs. Jews, like mainstream Catholics, would not shy away from socialism at whatever level, though they would pragmatically also see the advantages of the Market (especially when they have a sub-monopoly like they did when usury was forbidden to everyone else). I don't know enough about other religions and cultures to comment on how they would perceive socialism on a local or global level. I suspect there is no conflict between socialism on the one hand and Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and other polytheistic religions on the other.

Going beyond the religious roots of economic modes of organization, we can ask what are the psychological roots that lead people to wanting God or the Church (or the Market or the State or Evolution) to take care of them? There is something self-serving, and privileged about leaving economic coordination to God, the Market or the Holy Spirit. Most of those who resist economic organization beyond the family unit and invoke God, the Holy Spirit or the Market in doing so usually have money, land and other means of production. They are all too willing to engage in charity, but not to empower other people (and sometimes themselves) to produce what they need by sharing their money, land, tools or skills.

There is also something psychologically immature about leaving economic coordination to the transcendent powers in the title of this essay, just like with big government on a national or higher scale.  When one is psychologically immature, one's parents know better what one needs than oneself. But maturity requires us to take that burden from them and take it upon ourselves. It is interesting that this state of infantilism brought about by protestantism makes any but the most trivial collective action impossible, with the exception of creating other transcendent powers. When people are willing to engage in political (democratic) socialism a la Scandinavian socialism or Bernie Sanders (or really any mainstream politicians), whereby decisions concerning the welfare of most people are made by a few planners/legislators/politicians, it's similar to the other forms of immaturity (like leaving it up to an external God or the Market), leaving our welfare to a parental figure. Parents can take care of their kids, but how can such a large, impersonal political system satisfy the varying needs of most people? Only if people were like bees or ants it could, but even a bee or ant colony has a maximum viable size after which it splits into two colonies. The scale is totally wrong. The right scale is one where people personally know everybody in their economy, because only that way can they respond appropriately to everyone's needs. Even at the smaller scale of one of the small states in the US, it is too big. Indeed, economic needs would better be satisfied by global capitalism, but even better by local socialism or even local socialism with a free market component. But if we can't make local socialism work (beyond the family unit), what hope do we have in making it work on a national scale?

The objections to socialism that say it suppresses initiative and fails to satisfy the variability of human needs which happens with centralization and burocratization are spot on, but they do not apply to small scale organization among neighbors. Max Weber's objection that there is no universal method for a rational calculation of value is also inapplicable to small scale socialism. People can determine relative value based on rational and non-rational means which are not universal, but vary with both location and time. For example they might determine value based on hours of labor and material costs. Or they might decide in advance what they need and allocate production based on people's enthusiasm, skill and gifts, as well as time required for production. In fact, they might let the local market decide value, but still plan what they will produce in a coordinated fashion, working it out among themselves instead of through the intermediary of the market. 

If a group of people get together to plan their local economy, there are still market/evolutionary forces at work, but in addition to those there is the newest one which is our foresight.  For the fear of interposing human organization between God and Man present in protestant culture, there is a corresponding fear of interposing human organization between Evolution and Man. It is as though the other forces of evolution don't continue to exercise their effects in the face of planning and foresight. Both world views make any but the most trivial collective action futile to attempt.

Take Esperanto, for instance. Esperanto was the product of Reason and Foresight, but also subject to evolution. It just was selected against for reasons that are easy to understand in retrospect, and probably could have been predicted a priori (e.g. competition from other pre-existing languages). It doesn't mean that we shouldn't try anything new with economics, in fact we should try many experiments, and not be true believers in the outcomes of any one such, because like mutations in speciation, most will be selected against. Otherwise we are stuck with the status quo, which selects for sociopaths as business leaders, destroys community and ecosystems and desacralizes work. And yes, most people do not have the foresight, wisdom or means to try anything radically new, so it is up to those that have all 3. And sometimes instead of Esperanto, people  can produce American Sign Language (ASL).

There is a valid concern (encapsulated in the story of the tower of Babel) among both Catholics and Protestants that egotism (hubris) will ruin any attempt at collective action. This is why Quakers encourage getting in touch with the inner voice of divinity in their meetings. I invite them to extend that technique towards economic organization. Similarly, there might be a concern  among evolutionists and Market Fundamentalists about Reason and Foresight for the collective good being apart from Evolution or the Market and thus being doomed in organizing economics or other aspects of human culture. I invite them to view Reason and Foresight as part of evolution and the Market, while acknowledging their limitations. And I invite all supporters of big government
to learn about hubris from the Christians and to try organizing the economy on a village scale rather than the scale of the state.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Pros and cons of cultural isolation

There is no other idea expressed in this blog which is at the same time so intuitively obvious, yet hard to understand (when starting from the mindset of the mainstream culture) as the idea of cultural isolation. In this essay I want to try to explain it better, not just in an abstract mathematical way (which I have done before, and do here again in an appendix*), but in an appeal to intuition and common sense. I also want to explain why it is so hard for many people to understand.

The origins of Humanism go back to the jewish prophets and Jesus. We see here a reaction to tribalism, parochialism and predatory nationalism, which breed war, small mindedness, bigotry, suspicion and even hatred of outsiders. During the renaissance this movement flowers and brings about an explosion of science, art, and ideas in general.

And now, in these current times, who can deny that we benefit intellectually and aesthetically from sharing ideas with people all over the world? Not just ideas but feelings, and images/videos/films showing each other how we live. A tourism industry also helps promote this mutual understanding of cultures. This brings us closer together, creates more understanding and empathy, and as a result, at first look, it seems to promote cultural diversity. Not only diversity of ideas and lifestyles, but of products--the "global village" produces more abundance and diversity than an old fashioned local village possibly could, although some people benefit much more than others. Economic protectionism is passe after we have seen the abundance produced by global trade. At the same time, we have seen disasters produced by cultural isolation in the form of cults, where members are not allowed contact with the outside world.

So why would I suggest that there are not only benefits to cultural and economic isolation, but that for some purposes the benefits outweigh the costs? First I have to clarify that by isolation I don't mean complete isolation. I mean pretty strong boundaries. The strength depends on the situation, and also on the stage of the new culture that is forming. When starting a new culture from a strong civilization, stronger boundaries are needed than when starting from a decaying or collapsed civilization. When starting a new culture, stronger boundaries are required than once the new culture has gained some stability. Starting a new civilization requires stronger boundaries than starting a new culture.

This is not so hard to accept. It is also not so hard to accept that nation states use the strategy of setting boundaries in order to grow and maintain their own autonomy and culture. What we are not used to thinking about are the benefits of isolation for smaller groups than nation states, and the failure of isolation even at the level of nation states because of the rise of empires and recently the global economy, both of which attack isolation explicitly in order to succeed.

Why start a new culture when the old one could just be modified in a piecemeal way? Rather than answer this in general, let us specialize to our present global culture of neo-liberal economics, Progress of science and technology, and humanist values.

Globalization has brought not only benefits, but problems. If there were only benefits there would be no need to modify the old culture or start a new one. The problems are known to most people and I don't need to go into them here. They affect not only the third world, but the first world, and indeed the non-human world as well. Unlike reformers, I have come to believe that most of the benefits of globalization can't be detached from the problems. For example, I don't think we could have our electronic gizmos and internet communication without people in the third world suffering to produce them, and without structural unemployment* and work alienation here in the first world. Another example: our wealth depends on burning fossil fuels and no amount of "green technology" will grant us our current extravagant lifestyle as these fossil fuels become harder to extract and dwindle in supply. A third example: environmental destruction and our complicity in it will continue as long as we are dependent on products that are produced without our knowledge, and as long as we are disconnected from our immediate environment and think ourselves above nature.

If you can connect the dots and see the gordian knot of the benefits and problems then you will realize that what we need is not piecemeal solutions but a new culture. You will encounter opposition if you take Einstein's advice and try to solve the problems with a new mindset or Bucky Fuller's advice and try to create a new culture that will make the old one obsolete.  The opposition will come not only from people unconscious of the connections between benefits and problems, or people who are consciously aware of the problems but too selfish, comfortable or blissfully unaware to give up their privilege, but from many feedbacks, ways of doing and being and institutions, which is to say the opposition will be systemic, not personal.

There are two ways that one can fail without isolation/strong boundaries, in analogy with what happens in biological speciation (genetic drift and selective disadvantage within current species). The first is that you've made a beneficial change in your new culture. but you get worn down by distractions from the old culture and eventually your beneficial change gets lost in distractions such as trying to pay the mortgage, the rent, the taxes. Your children get distracted and seduced by the old culture (mostly through media, but also through their peers in the old culture) and return to it and your culture fails to propagate. The second way one can fail is that though you have something that is beneficial in your new culture once mostly formed, it is detrimental in the old culture, or even in the new culture if just starting. For example, you want a gift economy, but if you try that with people from the old culture, they take advantage of you. Or you want a local technology, but until you've built up your infrastructure, you are at a disadvantage if you start a business to try to compete with people from the old culture who use power tools while you are using hand tools. If you can provide for your own culture, then you don't need to compete with them in their economy, and you can get away with using hand tools. Or you want altruism but people find that family loyalty is easier within the mainstream culture than group loyalty, and altruism towards people outside the group does not give much return on energy investment and the groups that do not achieve some isolation get burnt out as a result. Or you want polyamory but all the legal institutions are biased in favor of monogamy, most therapists are biased in favor of monogamy, most of your friends are biased in favor of monogamy.

Any attempt at a true solution of the problems of the mother culture without insufficient boundaries will be co-opted by the old culture in order to maintain itself and eliminate threats to its existence, since the very existence of the old culture depends on the benefits which depend on the problems.  Sometimes attempts at solutions will be thwarted just from inertia, unless the attempt has strong boundaries to keep out the old culture. The more you depend on the old system, the more it can interfere and thwart your attempts to create a new system. The old system is bigger and stronger than the new system in its infancy and it is normally the groups that try to change the system with insufficient isolation that become obsolete, instead of the other way around. Seen in this light, cult-phobia is an attempt by the old culture to prevent threats to its existence. The "global village" meme is an attempt to make people in the first world feel good about having slaves in the third world (John Michael Greer calls it the "global plantation") and to instill the idea that isolation is bad. The supposed diversity of the global village is seen to be an actual attempt to instill conformity to the mainstream culture of impersonal economic relations and consumption as a sacrament, where even local sub-cultures are to be consumed to feed one global culture. We need some space from this voracious beast to grow a new culture, or preserve an old one that has still not been consumed by the global culture. We can't effectively create a new culture if we are dependent for our livelihood, or even technologically on the global one, though this is unavoidable in the short run.

There are many positive historical examples including the Amish, Hutterites, catholic orders of monks and nuns who were able to form new cultures due to their relative isolation from their mother culture. Other monastic orders also achieved isolation and formed new cultures, such as buddhist monks of various sorts.

Modern global civilization also arose in the Renaissance from isolation of various people including Issac Newton and his colleagues in the Royal Philosophical society during the plague, Renee Descartes during his sickness, the British culture which gave us much of our economic and political theory, relatively isolated on an island from the rest of Europe and the catholic church, the Italian merchants who also achieved some isolation from Rome and gave us modern trade.

Medieval culture in Europe arose from the isolation of various barbarian tribes from the Roman Empire once it was on its downward trajectory (makes it easier to isolate then) and the isolation of various Christian communities both before and after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire.

The American culture also emerged with relative isolation from England and the rest of Europe.

There are also many negative examples of how without cultural isolation, new cultures fail to form. This happens every time a new supposedly "green" technology is discovered that is supposedly going to change the world  or save it from ecological destruction, but instead is brought into conformity with the culture of unsustainable consumption (this has happened since the industrial revolution, but now there is a new flavor of "green").  Another example is the repeated failure of intentional communities that do not achieve sufficient cultural isolation.  They fail partially due to economic pressures, but mostly due to internal strife. The need for isolation is obvious when there are economic pressures or other intrusions of the mainstream culture such as land speculation, but not so obvious when there is internal strife.

Cultures, like species, carry their memetic/genetic  environment within them. The founders of any new culture bring some of the old culture with them in their minds and social behaviors so that even if they are explicitly isolated from other people in the mainstream culture (thus avoiding drift), they can only be isolated from their own minds and social behaviors in a limited way. Only one or a few memes need to be initially changed to achieve implicit isolation, but they have to be the right ones that actually produce a new stable valley in negative fitness space, providing implicit isolation. There are many candidates for such so called master memes, including localism (which is a distinct idea from isolationism, but I won't go into it here), love, Ostrom principles, altruism, integral consciousness. But most cults and "green" businesses choose memes that do not give them enough isolation from mainstream culture, even if they manage like some cults to be geographically isolated. An example of a cult at the national level is the former Soviet Union, which achieved explicit isolation from the capitalist culture, but not implicit isolation because the mindset of the soviets was still one of Empire. In the language of this blog, the soviets did not choose to change a master meme and hence could not get out of the valley of the civilization of Empire. In another post I have talked about how given both the advantages and disadvantages of isolation, a sweet spot has to be found for each attempt to create a new culture between too much and too little isolation.

The basic idea is that if a group is to grow not just by biological reproduction, it needs to recruit new members, so it can't be completely isolated (unlike biological species). Also nowadays we need a lot of help from the mainstream culture before we can be self-sufficient on a village level.

So I hope it has become clear that despite its disadvantages, some measure of isolation is important for creating a new culture or civilization.

 * you can check the BLS website here: inputting the following series:
LNU02076930 – Employment Level, 16-64 years
LNU00000060 – Civilian Non-institutional population, 25-54 years
LNU00024887 – Civilian Non-institutional population, 16-24 years
LNU00000095 – Civilian Non-institutional population, 55-64 years and see that about 32% of the american population between the ages of 18 and 65 is not participating in the mainstream economy, despite the official government propaganda of 5% "unemployment rate"

** Indeed a good understanding of evolutionary biology and systems theory in general, explains why isolation is important when trying to form a new culture or a new species. Here are several observations and hypotheses that form the basis for such a theory:

First, that complex, stable living systems such as cells, organisms, breeds, species, cultures, tribes, nations and civilizations form and maintain boundaries, with various levels of permeability. Diversity and life itself would not be possible without membranes, or other effective boundaries.

Second, that though genes can propagate freely within a species, they propagate less between breeds, and they do not propagate at all between species. This requires no physical membrane, yet it happens through mechanisms that involve behavioral and biological barriers to gene exchange and viability even if exchange occurs.

Third, that the genesis of a species (not only its continual stability) requires strong barriers to gene exchange with the mother species. This happens for two reasons: first that genetic drift from the mother species can wipe out mutations in the nascent species, even if they are beneficial. Usually they are not beneficial  (so drift can wipe them out even faster) when starting from the mother species, but are beneficial in the nascent species. The nascent species provides an environment that is conducive to its own propagation, turning a mutation with a selective disadvantage (in the mother species environment) to one with a selective advantage (in the nascent species environment). So if a mutation is getting selected against in the environment of the mother species, it would help to give it the best chance possible by protecting it against random drift from the mother species, with explicit mechanisms of isolation such as geographic and behavioral ones. The second way to protect it is by giving it an environment where it has a selective advantage, which is the internal gene environment of the new species. This creates an implicit isolation from the mother species, one that can best be visualized by valleys connected through a mountainpass, where the height represents negative fitness. The first mechanism of isolation from external drift causes speciation. The second mechanism of isolation by increasing selective advantage both causes and is the effect of speciation (a form of positive feedback).

Though this can be made mathematically precise, it is perhaps too abstract for most people to understand.  I have not published anything about this theory in a peer reviewed journal, as I no longer have the institutional backing to do so. Though I expect this theory to be not so radical for current evolutionary biology, the situation in sociology is more complex. The analogy is between breeds and cultures, and between species and civilizations. There are slight differences in how reproduction happens in the biological and cultural cases, but I don't think they affect the theory. The main elements of evolution operate in both cases: random mutations, selection and drift, combined with complicated hierarchical networks of genes or memes.