Friday, March 2, 2012

Are Americians Ik-y?

I had a thought that was triggered by my last post. It came to me as I went walking for some groceries.

The social relations between Americans are not those between fellow citizens or between politicians and constituents, artists and patrons or buyers and sellers. All American social relationships are essentially those between predator and prey. Most of the above imply relations between equals, where each comes out ahead in some way (corresponding to the "classical" model of economics we're all fed). In reality, America has become separated into predator and prey relationships. Those with houses prey on those without. Politicians prey on their constituents by cutting services and taking bribes from their patrons. Corporations prey on their "customers" through lock-in-contracts, monopolies, hidden fees, false advertising, "push" marketing, hiking prices, and a million other ways. Buyers seek to "take advantage" of sellers through fraud and chicanery. Employers squeeze their employees to the maximum, paying them less and less while making them work more and more, assuming they don't eliminate jobs entirely and pay themselves a hefty bonus for doing so. Governments prey on their citizens by raising user fees, taxes, handing out tickets, enforcing nuisance regulations on small business, etc. Wall Street preys on society thorugh financial "innovation" and globalization. Health care preys on the sick by charging exorbitant rates and getting as much swag as possible through "insurance" and the government programs. Insurance charges higher and higher premiums and co-pays, while fighting to deny any payment. Universities prey on students, turning them into debt serfs for their education and pay graduate students a pittance to do the work of professors. Banks and mortgage companies mercilessly prey on all of us. A million shady businesses from "online universities" to payday loans seek to prey on the burgeoning poor and desperate. Everyone acts as a predator to someone lower down the food chain.

How can a country survive when everybody is trying to prey on those below them in the food chain? It can't. It can only tear itself apart.

A famous example of what the Unites States may become was given in the classic anthropological text The Mountain People by Colin Turnbull. Turnbull's book was about the Ik people of Uganda. The Ik were a hunter-gatherer tribe forced off their homeland who settled down and started to farm. But the land they settled was not fertile enough, and they were plagued with drought and famine, causing severe food shortages. What happened next? All social ties broke down. The society became an "every man for himself" society. Parents no longer cared for children. The elderly were left to starve. No one cared anymore. Here's a summary from Wikipedia:

There is no better or more heartbreaking example of the alienation of the human capacity to love than the story of the Ik tribe of Uganda. Colin Turnbull in his book Mountain People documents how Milton Obote nationalized traditional hunting lands as national park for European tourists, and prevented the Ik from hunting in their traditional hunting grounds. After a couple of generations of starvation conditions, the Ik, originally a cooperative, child loving tribe, became a group of selfish cruel people who don’t trust or help anybody. They would desert children at an early age and one story Turnbull tells is how after abandoning a baby to be eaten by wild animals the animals were hunted an [sic] eaten."

I found this blog entry giving a good summary of the book:
Years upon years of permanent scarcity exerted a relentless pressure upon them, turning their lives into nothing but a ceaseless struggle for survival.

Under this pressure, their society eventually disintegrated. What remained was little but a mass of supremely selfish individuals to whom most of the principles that we naively imagine to be universally human, e.g. the notion that parents should look after their children, or that people should help their close friends and relatives, seemed simply absurd.

...Here's an illustrative comment on the way people stopped caring not only for the elderly, but even for their children: “there simply was not room, in the life of these people, for such luxuries as family and sentiment and love. [. . .] The children were as useless as the aged, or nearly so; as long as you keep the breeding group alive you can always get more children. So let the old go first, then the children. Anything else is racial suicide, and the Ik, I almost regret to say, are anything but suicidal.” (Ch. 5, pp. 108–9.)

For those positive qualities we value so highly are no longer functional for the Ik; even more than in our own society they spell ruin and disaster. It seems that, far from being basic human qualities, they are superficial luxuries we can afford in times of plenty, or mere mechanisms for survival and security. Given the situation in which the Ik found themselves as I headed toward them, man has not time for such luxuries, and a much more basic man appears, using much more basic survival tactics.” (Ch. 1, p. 27.)

“[T]here is one common value, apart from language, to which all Ik hold tenaciously. It is ngag, ‘food.’ This is not a cynical quip — there is no room for cynicism with the Ik. It is clearly stated by the Ik themselves in their daily conversation, in their rationale for action and thought.” (Ch. 6, p. 112.)

Parents kick their children out of the house at the age of three. Children from age three to seven live in ‘bands’ of 6–12 children, in which a newcomer of course begins on the lowest rung and then gradually progresses as he or she grows older. In the end his or her next younger colleagues kick him or her out of the band, and he or she has to join a new band consisting of children age eight to thirteen, where he or she is again the youngest and thus least important member. At thirteen or so he or she is again kicked out by his or her next younger colleagues, and from then one is an adult. “These friendships [between children of similar age in a band] are temporary, however, and inevitably there comes a time, the time of transition, when each turns on the one that up to then has been the closest to him; that is the rite de passage, the destruction of that fragile bond called friendship. When this has happened to you three or four times you are ready for the world, knowing friendship for the joke it is.” (Ch. 6, p. 114.) “For most the plump years, the stomach-filled years, the good years, were between about fifteen and nineteen&rdquo (ch. 9, p. 191).

This weakening of social ties doesn't mean that there is absolutely no cooperation between individuals; they have a system of mutual obligations where doing one person a favour makes the recipient ‘indebted’, meaning he must repay you the favour when you ask him to. But since he doesn't want to be indebted in this way, he'd often really rather prefer that you not help him. But since you want him to be indebted to you in this way, you try to help him in such a way that he cannot refuse... “[A]nd so you have the odd phenomenon of these otherwise singularly self-interested people going out of their way to ‘help’ each other. In point of fact they are helping themselves, and their help may very well be resented in the extreme, but is done in such a way that it cannot be refused, for it has already been given. Someone, quite unasked, may hoe another's field in his absence,” etc. (ch. 6, p. 121).

The Ik seem to be the ultimate libertarians. “It is certainly difficult, through a study of Icien behavior, to establish any rules of conduct that could be called social, the prime maxim of all Ik being that each man should do what he wants to do, that he should do anything else only if he is forced to.” (Ch. 8, p. 152.)

The disintegration of Ik society was not a sudden process. It took some time before the old people died, the ones who could still remember the times when people would occasionally help each other or do something at least moderately altruistic. But once this process was complete, it seems that there is no way back (ch. 9, p. 192).

Near the end of the book, the author mentions a famine relief effort organized by the government. Food was provided for everyone, but the government only transported it as far as the nearest town. The strong and healthy Ik could get there from their villages and were supposed to pick up the food not just for themselves but for their weak, elderly, or ill relatives as well and carry it to them. But almost without exception this idea of bringing food to a weak or elderly person struck them as absurd, as a laughable waste of food, and they would routinely stuff themselves full of it on the way home, even to the point of vomiting, rather than bringing any of it to their starving neighbours and relatives (ch. 11, pp. 232–3).
I would be remiss if I did not mention that Turnbull's book has been highly controversial and come under attack from other anthropologists. You can read some of the criticism though Wikipedia here.

Think it can't happen here? That a tribal society like the Ik has nothing in common with the poor-are-lazy, no-one-owes-you-a-job, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, Ayn Rand worshiping society we've become? Perhaps you've forgotten the howls of delight during the Republican primary when Ron Paul advocating letting sick people die in the gutter if they didn't buy insurance. Here's Wall Street gambler Dennis Gartman on income inequality:
We celebrate income disparity and we applaud the growing margins between the bottom 20% of American society and the upper 20% for it is evidence of what has made America a great country. It is the chance to have a huge income… to make something of one’s self; to begin a business and become a millionaire legally and on one’s own that separates the US from most other nations of the world. Do we feel bad for the growing gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S.? Of course not; we celebrate it, for we were poor once and we are reasonably wealthy now. We did it on our own, by the sheer dint of will, tenacity, street smarts and the like. That is why immigrants come to the U.S.: to join the disparate income earners at the upper levels of society and to leave poverty behind. Income inequality? Give us a break. God bless income disparity and those who have succeeded, and shame upon the OWS crowd who take us to task for our success and wallow in their own failure. Income disparity? Feh! What we despise is government that imposes rules that prohibit or make it difficult to make even more money; to employ even more people; to give even more sums to the charities of our choice. That is what we despise… oh, and next question please.
Here's a commenter to the New York Times:
Severe Republican ideology is winning the battle at the local level. Take a look at the online version of your local newspapers--click on the Comments sections.

Here in Maine, you will find an overpowering number of comments by people (some of them surely trolls) who are keeping a strong focus on how evil poor people are--they want us to ignore billionaire fraud and special tax breaks.

They portray all impoverished people as lazy losers who are fraudulently demanding unemployment benefits, Medicare, and food stamps, while wearing "designer clothes" and driving new cars.

They fling around words like "socialist" and "Commie" when anyone brings up health insurance reform or an end to corporate welfare, or even just stands up for poor people.
It's certainly true of the local paper here.

It seems like if there's anyplace in the modern industrial world that's primed to become an Ik-like situation, it's the United States, where pure, unadulterated, unenlightened self-interest is the true founding religion of the country. Based on my observations of people around me, most of them have been conditioned to look out only for themselves, and preserve their place in the hierarchy to the exclusion of all else. They neither expect, nor give sympathy, and any moment of weakness will bring out the long knives. Every waking moment is about climbing the ladder, stepping over those below you, showing no compassion or remorse whatsoever. It's endemic to the character of most (fortunately not all) Americans.It's sad, but It's what I observe. We're already like the Ik, just without the scarcity, yet. When you all you have are predator-prey relationships, you don't have any sort of functioning society, period. And eventually the prey all get eaten.

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