Tuesday, 16 April 2013

On Hiearchies and Elites: Part 1

For understandable reasons anti-elitism (specifically the form of elites are evil and dragging the world down) and anarchism (also anarcho-primitivism, what JMG calls neo-primitivists) exist in the peak oil sphere. Dimitri Orlov, one of the heavyweights in the peak oil sphere, openly supports anarchism and sort of shades into primitivism, see this sequence of his. This video displays elements of neo-primitivism in it and there are various other items around. The Automatic Earth featured one side of a debate, here is Ashvin Pandurangi's (Automatic Earth) side and here is RE's (from Doomstead diner) side, about whether a purge should be initiated against the world's elites. To frame this discussion I'll list some quotes that you can find around the web. I'll also repost them in the other parts of this series.

From Wikipedia Anarchy
"The evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker writes:
Adjudication by an armed authority appears to be the most effective violence-reduction technique ever invented. Though we debate whether tweaks in criminal policy, such as executing murderers versus locking them up for life, can reduce violence by a few percentage points, there can be no debate on the massive effects of having a criminal justice system as opposed to living in anarchy. The shockingly high homicide rates of pre-state societies, with 10 to 60 percent of the men dying at the hands of other men, provide one kind of evidence. Another is the emergence of a violent culture of honor in just about any corner of the world that is beyond the reach of law. ..The generalization that anarchy in the sense of a lack of government leads to anarchy in the sense of violent chaos may seem banal, but it is often over-looked in today's still-romantic climate.[54]"
 From the Urban Dictionary on Anarchy
"Anarchy" arises from ancient Greek "An," meaning without and "Archos" meaning leader.
In modern political philosophy anarchy, or anarchism (the ideology which aims to create anarchy) is traced back, often, to Proudhon, and in particular his work "What is property?" - the origin of the still used anarchist slogan "Property is theft!"
Contrary to belief that "anarchy" is synonymous with "Disorder," anarchists generally advocate non-hierarchical, horizontal organization, typically through directly democratic structures. As such, there is a degree of common ground between anarchists and libertarian Marxists. Many anarchists are highly supportive of the practice of the Zapatistas in Chiapas.
In 1936, anarchists in the Spanish provinces of Catalonia and Aragon collectivized industry and agriculture, and established a working example of anarchy."

From the excellent blog View from Brittany; Impotence of Politics
"With the Neolithic revolution, our societies have grown far beyond what a single coalition could reasonably manage and have become fractal as a result. Modern societies are a hierarchy of nested coalitions all built upon the same model, from your average nuclear family to the G8. Inside those coalitions, everyone is jockeying for position and fighting for access to scarce resources. This the way all human groups work, even anarchies. In fact, it is far more brutal among anarchists – especially the Randite subtype – because by rejecting institutionalized power, they destroy the various social devices our species evolved to check the pack leader's dominance."

From Damien's (author of view from Brittany) response in the comments of Fascination for Death

I have glimpsed the world of the elites. I have had lunch with the man who has become the prime minister of France and my best friend gravitates around this milieu. I have the number of a senator on my cell phone... and I can tell you they are not Machiavellian, they are clueless.

They really think they can preserve the status-quo through green-washing and economic tinkering... and that it is the best thing for everybody. They don't think billions will die, because, you know, the system they game is so efficient that it simply can't happen.

As for violent revolution... both in France and the USA, today's elites have been born from such a violent revolution, so they really think they embody their values and that therefore, it can't happen to them. When lamppost day will come, they will be... indignant."

paraphrased From John Micheal Greer.
"no political system anywhere will ever be more honest than the people it governs"

Just to be upfront and in case you haven't guessed yet based on my choice of quotes, I'm in favor of; states, rule of law, functional hierarchies, having a society bigger that a single village, secularism and quite a few other things, as  superior forms of living and choices for the future. And yes I am aware of Overshoots effects and find this to be perfectly compatible with that worldview. Also, just because it is bugging me, sustainability doesn't mean being equitable, moral or just. You can have a perfectly sustainable society which is unjust (say it brutally oppresses religious or ethnic minorities), is ruled solely by the strong or it has big class divisions (in terms of wealth). Equality and justice are certainly good to have, but they don't mean you are more or less sustainable (except in specific areas). Basically, they are separate fights and an alliance on certain areas would be a good idea, like sharing the loss of wealth to promote domestic stability and the ability to transition.

We might as well start with Orlov and his use of Kropotkin, since he is one of the bigger voices in the peak oil sphere. Orlov calls Kropotkin a scientist, which he certainly was, and talks about how his observations on the natural world and various human groups lead him to determine that anarchism was the best form of social organization and that cooperation is both natural and more evolutionary advantageous than competition. His observations were most likely correct (these being that the anarchic groups delivered superior results), however his conclusions are not and I'll recount someones explanation for why.

Years ago (maybe a decade, can't remember which is why I can't link or name the article) I read an article in new scientist  that talked about the use of evolutionary theory to justify social systems. It started with the Victorian's who exclusively focused on the Red in tooth and claw aspect of nature and competition, then used that to justify both the existing class system and Britain's exploitation of the world, their observations were accurate, organisms successfully compete against each other. Here's an example of competition, some scientists (this was also in new scientist) were examining the fungal communication system of plants (sort of like a plant's internet) and they simulated an insect attack. One species would instead of enhancing its defenses start growing faster to exploit the attack and gain more resources, hence successful competition.

After the Victorians another set of scientists from around the time of communism (so Kropotkin is included) did in one sense the exact opposite while in another acting exactly the same. They exclusively focused on cooperation in nature and then used their findings to justify various social schemes such as communism or anarchism. Like the Victorian's their observations were correct, cooperation is both common and successful in nature. An example is human ears not being able to swivel, which probably means that early human tribesmen relied on each others hearing to detect danger, which is a good example of cooperation, among the more well known ones such as ant colonies etc.

However, both groups in their conclusions are wrong, for the simple reason that evolution is context dependent and they basically ignored each others work and a wider more meta understanding of evolution. Neither competition or cooperation is supreme in evolution, sometimes one is used exclusively but more often an organism will both compete and cooperate. Kropotkin was correct that competition and brute force weren't the sole drivers of evolution, but he was wrong in ignoring their importance. Neither competition or cooperation is the sole driver of evolution. Also as the article mention, evolution in the natural world is a horrible way to justify social systems or invent new ones. The main reason is that everyone who has tried has ended up ignoring data that contradicts their preferred theory (something fairly common in general). An example of this is saying either prostitution or homosexuality is wrong because no animals engage in those behaviors  and then ignoring that those behaviors are observed in the natural world, penguins engage in both for example.

Whether a trait or behavior is useful depends entirely upon the context and organism in question. Eyes are useless in caves and simply waste scarce resources while adding a major vulnerability, fur attracts parasites and is expensive, mating behavior (especially dangerous mating behavior) only works when there are mates around and so on. Competition and cooperation are exactly the same, which is best depends on the context and this can be seen just as easily in human societies as in the natural world. Human females are assertive and not drab (compared to the males), an incredible rarity in the animal world, which hints at intra-band competition in the past, but when paying bride prices or payments for damage down, an entire tribe/extended family can join in and cooperate. This also means that the social habits of say ants, deer, birds, horses etc, are not readily applicable to human societies because the contexts and organisms are incredibly different. Humans are sapient, have a very weak form of alpha males (one male doesn't even take most of the females in tribal life), are highly adaptive, very capable tool users and the females are assertive and colorful (think in terms of clothes). Those differences matter, especially when you consider the population densities and structures we can expect even after overshoot.

The way to examine in an evolutionary way the best human structures is to look at human societies, mainly through the large variety of tribes left because they are the oldest surviving human societies. This is what Jared Diamond does in his latest book The World before Yesterday, he examines tribal societies and contrasts them with each other and state societies. It's quite a good book and the conclusions he draws are very important. Here's a quote from Orlov's new book  "Their human populations are then able to come out of the vegetative condition to which settled, civilized existence has consigned them and revert to their original, nomadic state". The problem with that is nomadic behaviour under what Jared Diamond classifies as non-state societies is a function of population density, not of some innate human trait. Non-state people can only travel about two neighboring groups away before it becomes to dangerous and they are likely to be killed, so I'd have trouble traveling the next suburb down under that system. States on the other hand detach nomadic behavior from population density with such quaint concepts as law and order, the rule of law, a monopoly force and so on.

Missing from the book is the intermediary forms that would have been common in ancient/medieval times and don't really exist anymore (starting to come back in some weak/failing states). They offered some of the advantages of modern hierarchical societies but not to the same extent. Here's an example, if medieval writers wanted to say some king was a great law giver, one of the things they would say is that a virgin could walk across the entire kingdom without being raped. Under normal times a virgin (or almost any sort of female) walking across the kingdom without escort would almost certainly be raped and/or murdered. But you could go on pilgrimages and villages often had houses set aside for pilgrims, something impossible under a tribal system. Note: China was no different, I remember one of the mongol rulers (possible Genghis Khan) having the platitude above in his description. 

What comes out of Jared Diamonds book is a lot of things that can be used to improve our current societies, child rearing could certainly use an upgrade and beneficial additions to the justice system exist. However he also identifies traits of state societies that are beneficial, such as a low homicide rate, a lower death toll from war and definitive peaces. From his book, the !Kung before modern law and order started having an effective homicide rate 3 times that of the USA's, the first quote above mentions something similar and it is a trait of tribal societies to have a high proportional homicide rate. The average death toll for war in tribal societies is 1% of the population a year when averaged over a century, while in the state societies he examined the highest (including WW1 and WW2) state had an average rate of .36%, or a third of the average for tribal civilizations. Related is the end of chronic warfare since total war is the exception in state societies but the norm in tribal societies, it is often nearly continuous as well. Contrary to a lot of rhetoric, state societies are more peaceful than tribal societies, both in terms of war and murder. The ability to travel through an area full of strangers safely is another bonus that even in weak states is provided in some capacity (think pilgrimages, or the ability to hire local guides/escorts), today it is almost absolute in working nation states.

Noticeably lacking is any radical changes or insights from Jared Diamonds study, he advocates no large scale societal changes or completely new way of doing things. Compared to Kropotkin or the Victorians its quite simple, humble and barely says anything about changing society at the large structural level, his insights are far more important and relevant than that. The thing is, state societies evolved just like tribal societies did and are what humans have been observed to do under the conditions we can expect to become more common (as much of the world can be expected to have a fairly high population density). They are just as natural to us as tribal life is.  

Orlov mentions another element of Kropotkin's analysis which matches his own experiences. "His examples of communist production were the numerous communist communities that were all the rage in the United States at the time, where the numbers showed that they produced far better results with less effort and in less time than individuals or family farms.", Orlov mentions his experience with companies that anarchism works better. Now in these observations both Orlov and Kropotkin are most likely correct, at least for modern society and this needs an explanation. The groups mentioned are embedded inside a hierarchical, state system and thus receive indirect subsidies from the overall societal system mentioned above (law and order, ability to peacefully relate to unrelated strangers etc). The applied anarchism they advocate only makes sense as an embedded system inside a hierarchical system, since at the whole system level it fails to work due to being unable to provide many of the benefits it itself requires. Context is very important for these ideas and observations. It should probably be mentioned at this point that the modern nation-state is not the only form of hierarchical structure possible, though it is likely that at least the state part will remain for much of the world.

Now cooperation in most cases internally to human societies is better than competition (cooperation is however used as a form of competition between groups). There are important exceptions however, in the Discourses of Livy Machiavelli says that one of the main reasons the early Roman republic stayed free (compared to Greek cities the Roman republic rarely had anything approaching a tyrant) was because the Patricians (upper class) and Plebs (lower class) were constantly competing and that anacyclosis was best stopped by having all three forms of governments competing. It did not prevent it partly due to the inevitable breakdown of the patrician pleb divide (it was hereditary rather than based of actual wealth), also the stresses of empire building destroyed the republic and then bread and circuses did the rest. During his time these ideas were completely rejected, those aspects of Rome were seen as weaknesses (even by Livy, a Roman historian), but from this Machiavelli founded the idea of checks and balances, along with the separation of powers (executive, legislative and judicial) in political thought. Before, political theory held that unity was the best and any internal struggles were bad, such as the constant struggle between the patricians and the plebs.The experiment of trying those ideas (along with quite a few more) out has helped birth modern representative democracy, which has worked out incredibly well compared to other government systems. Competition is the order of the day in politics, and having competing ideologies helps to. Cooperation on the other hand more often leads to group thought and a failure to consider other options, not something which is particularly useful.

Here's the Churchill quote "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Just to be clear. When JMG is talking about democracy, specifically Robert's rule of orders and the one that grew out of English tradition, he is referring mostly to direct democracy. Direct democracy can only really function on a small scale (at most a small city by our standards, about 50,000 people) and representative democracy is the modified form which can operate on a bigger scale. Machiavelli's concepts work on the representative democracy scale which was also born the from English tradition (about the 16th century) of direct democracy. At the time every one said they hated Machiavelli while copying everything he said in the prince, while the republican minded took on his ideas in the Discourse of Livy and fused them with a few other important things. Thus starting modern representative democracy right there. The American founding fathers were also greatly influence (John Adams mostly), so his ideas were listened to by very practical nation builders.

Due to this modern representative democracy isn't an accurate term, since it's actually a mixed government. This is important to keep in mind when reading older discussions on democracy. "I do not say that democracy has been more pernicious on the whole, and in the long run, than monarchy or aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy; but while it lasts, it is more bloody than either. … Remember, democracy never lasts long." by John Adams. He's talking about a pure democracy without the checks of a aristocracy or a dictator. Modern representative democracies have those checks as they are a mixed government and not a pure democracy. Australia as the aristocracy in the form of the senate, while America has the senate and the president as the dictator. It's one of the main reasons it works better than any historic form of democracy, for example the tyrants which do appear in a functioning modern democracies are incredible weak compared to the ones that Athens or other Greek cities had. 

So the question then for fostering cooperation (when appropriate) remains, is it best done by a lack of hierarchy or within a hierarchy. The answer is again, it depends. There are certainly examples of cooperation happening under anarchic conditions, people pulling together during disasters is a good example. However for a larger or long term response having a hierarchical organization is advantageous, otherwise problems appear. A good example of hierarchy fostering cooperation when anarchy only breeds competition is available, and for a society as well as individuals it is quite an important feature, that of warfare.

Tribal warfare is very competitive, even when cooperation would help. Tribal archers don't fire in volleys (except for one or two exceptions), even through it would greatly enhance their effectiveness, ambushes are hard to pull of because every warrior wants the prestige of attacking first as well as lacking the discipline needed. No strategies and tactics can be used because no obeys them and often fights just dissolve into slug fests or name calling. Hierarchical armies on the other hand are incredible cooperative, fire is coordinated, tactics and strategies are used and formations maintained. They idea of warfare being a team effort is entirely a product of hierarchies, without it competition is the norm even through it disadvantages the entire group.

Cooperation can be fostered by hierarchies, not always, but hierarchies do not always foster competition as quite a few radicals say they do. The same is true for anarchies. Remember the average casualties for tribes is 1% of the population a year, far more than state societies in part due to the cooperation of state armies (less massacres than in tribal warfare), so the inefficiency of tribal warfare doesn't keep overall casualties down, it could even cause them to increase because each battle has little consequence (one or two dead is typical). This also means that while future governments will be smaller and certainly won't be able to fight world wars, the casualties from warfare needn't be different, in fact they will most likely be higher, partly due to increased frequency and the pressures of different warfare types.

This also extends onto the meta aspects of warfare and the politics/policies that surround it. If discipline isn't maintained in troops, then chances are when they get the chance they'll kill a large portion of any enemy settlement they can, whether or not their leaders want them to. In tribal societies there is no discipline so they simply kill every settlement they can, while in state societies the majority (not all) of settlements are spared and settlements can surrender, something which doesn't happen in tribal war. Jared Diamond mentions this happening against the will of the leader in the tribal war he examines. Then there is the peace-keeping aspect of having some sort of armed forces and how that's used.

The Romans generally used massive retaliation, attempting to completely annihilate an enemy (see the destruction of Carthage), which since everyone knew about acted as a relatively effective deterrent. The other approach is flexible response, deal enough pain to force your enemy to negotiate, which doesn't act as a deterrent and could then cause more wars to be fought. Then there is the difference in how many wars are fought in a given area, so break up the European countries into smaller states and all else being equal they will fight more wars than if the states stay the same size, and likely each state will be fighting more wars as well (more neighbors to potentially go to war with). This would also likely reduce the distance most civilians are from a war-zone and if no state can easily conquer another, even more wars will be fought because no dire consequences exist to fighting them.

Remember, the point of aircraft carriers and nukes is not as it is commonly perceived to fight wars, but more often to stop them occurring. Showing the flag operations are almost entirely meant to calm local tensions down and avert a war or conflict. They are more often weapons of peace than war, even when by keeping that peace they allow injustices to continue (peace is not always good). Ignore these aspects of militaries, like a fair few radicals do, and you cannot understand how states relate to each over. Blustering and posturing can often fulfill a states goals just as well as an actual war, especially when the memories of war are lying around.

That's it for the specific criticism of Orlov and Kropotkin, now onto anarchy is more general terms.


  1. Good stuff Leo! I've been thinking along similar lines for a long time but not as thoroughly as you've done here. You've cleared away a lot of ideological underbrush!

    Part of the problem for us thinkers of this subject is our motivation. It seems to me that lots of doomers and libertarians are drawn to the collapsitarian/peak oil scene because they have a fantasy in the back of their mind that they'll be leading a barbarian horde on a campaign of pillage after TSHTF.

    I have become very weary of those on a campaign to Save the World and the word 'sustainability' should now be banned: it has become so polluted that all meaning has been drained from it.

    Enough of my ranting. I think this direction you're thinking in is the most valuable way to go now. Kunstler, JMG and Dmitri Orlov have been great pioneers but now we must move on.

  2. I remember a comment by someone that he had a weird feeling that after the collapse many of the full doomers just expected to get on with their lives and leave the cinema.

    A lot of good has been done under the label of sustainability, life cycle analysis is one, but like any 'pleasant' word it's now co-opted and misunderstood. Voluntary poverty works better in that sense than voluntary simplicity.

    The problem is that until overshoot is widely accepted, you need the pioneers around. But that sort of change normally takes at least a 100 years. Its hard for the subculture to separate along the line it needs to now, its slowly happening.