Saturday, November 16, 2013

Tribes, Anarchy, Civilization and Bureaucracy

Okay, still on hiatus, but here are some must-reads. First up, anarchist philosopher James C. Scott reviews Jared Diamond's The World Until Yesterday:
Two fatal objections come immediately to mind. First, it does not follow that the state, by curtailing ‘private’ violence, reduces the total amount of violence. As Norbert Elias pointed out more than half a century ago in The Civilising Process, what the state does is to centralise and monopolise violence in its own hands, a fact that Diamond, coming as he does from a nation that has initiated several wars in recent decades and a state (California) that has a prison population of roughly 120,000 – most of them non-violent offenders – should appreciate.

Second, Hobbes’s fable at least has nominally equal contractants agreeing to establish a sovereign for their mutual safety. That is hard to reconcile with the fact that all ancient states without exception were slave states. The proportion of slaves seldom dropped below 30 per cent of the population in early states, reaching 50 per cent in early South-East Asia (and in Athens and Sparta as much as 70 and 86 per cent). War captives, conquered peoples, slaves purchased from slave raiders and traders, debt bondsmen, criminals and captive artisans – all these people were held under duress, as the frequency of state collapse, revolt and flight attests. As either a theory or a historical account of state-formation, Diamond’s story makes no sense.

The straw man in his argument is that contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are oases of peace, co-operation and order. Of course they are not. The question, rather, is how violent they are compared to state-societies and what are the causes of the violence that does exist. There is, contra Diamond, a strong case that might be made for the relative non-violence and physical well-being of contemporary hunters and gatherers when compared with the early agrarian states. Non-state peoples have many techniques for avoiding bloodshed and revenge killings: the payment of compensation or Weregild, arranged truces (‘burying the hatchet’), marriage alliances, flight to the open frontier, outcasting or handing over a culprit who started the trouble. Diamond does not seem to appreciate the strong social forces mobilised by kinsmen to restrain anyone contemplating a hasty and violent act that will expose all of them to danger. These practices are examined by many of the ethnographers who have carried out intensive fieldwork in the New Guinea Highlands (for example by Edward L. Schieffelin in The Sorrow of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers, Marilyn Strathern in Women in Between, and Andrew Strathern and Pamela Stewart’s work on compensation), but they make no dent in Diamond’s one-dimensional view of the desire for revenge.

On the other side of the ledger, when it comes to violence in early agrarian states, one must weigh rebellion, war and systematic violence against slaves and women (as a rule of thumb, agrarian states everywhere created patriarchal property regimes which reduced the status and freedom of women) against ‘tribal conflicts’. We also know, and Diamond notes, that hunter-gatherers even today have healthier diets and far fewer communicable diseases. Believing, against the evidence, that hunters and gatherers live in daily fear of starvation, he fails to note that they also work far less hard and thus have far more leisure. Marshall Sahlins called hunter-gatherers, even when relegated to the most undesirable environments, ‘the original affluent society’. It’s hard to imagine Diamond’s primitives giving up their physical freedom, their varied diet, their egalitarian social structure, their relative freedom from famine, large-scale state wars, taxes and systematic subordination in exchange for what Diamond imagines to be ‘the king’s peace’. Reading his account one can get the impression that the choice facing hunters and gatherers was one between their world and, say, the modern Danish welfare state. In practice, their option was to trade what they had for subjecthood in the early agrarian state.

No matter how one defines violence and warfare in existing hunter-gatherer societies, the greater part of it by far can be shown to be an effect of the perils and opportunities represented by a world of states...In the world of states, hunter-gatherers and nomads, one commodity alone dominated all others: people, aka slaves. What agrarian states needed above all else was manpower to cultivate their fields, build their monuments, man their armies and bear and raise their children. With few exceptions, the epidemiological conditions in cities until very recently were so devastating that they could grow only by adding new populations from their hinterlands. They did this in two ways. They took captives in wars: most South-East Asian early state chronicles gauge the success of a war by the number of captives marched back to the capital and resettled there. The Athenians and Spartans might kill the men of a defeated city and burn its crops, but they virtually always brought back the women and children as slaves. And they bought slaves: a slave merchant caravan trailed every Roman war scooping up the slaves it inevitably produced.

The fact is that slaving was at the very centre of state-making. It is impossible to exaggerate the massive effects of this human commodity on stateless societies. Wars between states became a kind of booty capitalism, where the major prize was human traffic. The slave trade then completely transformed the non-state ‘tribal zone’. Some groups specialised in slave-raiding, mounting expeditions against weaker and more isolated groups and then selling them to intermediaries or directly at slave markets. The oldest members of highland groups in Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Burma can recall their parents’ and grandparents’ memories of slave raids. The fortified, hilltop villages, with thorny, twisting and hidden approaches that early colonists found in parts of South-East Asia and Africa were largely a response to the slave trade.
Crops, Towns, Government (London Review of Books)

It seems like a good time to post this interesting interview with Kirkpatrick Sale:
Do you think that the Luddites today are one of the last positive minorities?

I do. And I wonder how much of a minority they are. Sometimes I'm persuaded they're a majority. Millions of people believe that this new industrial revolution is, as Newsweek said in February, "outstripping our capacity to cope and shifting our concept of reality."

People feeling this way range from those who simply don't like these new technologies, to people who have lost their jobs because of them, to people who understand that specific technologies such as asbestos or nuclear power or pesticides or silicone implants that were sold to them as great benefits of technology have turned out to hurt us. Then there are philosophical opponents of these technologies.

If you put them all together, I think we have many tens of millions of people who at least understand the dangers of this technological revolution and wish they knew how to resist it.

Do you think these neo-Luddites see themselves as such?

Not for the most part. They have come to their positions often by happenstantial ways. What I hope is that we could get a movement going by saying to them, "Yes, there are a lot of other people like you-you are not alone." They might come to proudly say, "I am a Luddite, and I have millions like me who are proudly saying they are Luddites." If it happens to be a word like Quaker or Queer that started out as insults, but for people who were insulted that way said, "I'm proud of being a Quaker," and will take that. "I'm a Quaker, I'm a Queer, and will defend proudly what that means." And that same thing may happen to the word "Luddite."

Looking at your past works, they seem to outline a path to return to some sort of tribal mode of existence.

Yes. And by "tribal" I mean small-scale and communitarian and nature-based, which is what tribal societies have always been and always will be. This is why they were so successful, the reasons they have survived for a million years and remained the form of our society for the greater part of our time on Earth.
Rebel Against the Future: An Interview with Kirkpatrick Sale (Culture

I discovered Peter Turchin's Web site: Cliodynamics: History as Science
Empires rise and fall, populations and economies boom and bust, world religions spread or wither... What are the mechanisms underlying such dynamical processes in history? Are there 'laws of history'? We do not lack hypotheses to investigate - to take just one instance, more than two hundred explanations have been proposed for why the Roman Empire fell. But we still don't know which of these hypotheses are plausible, and which should be rejected. More importantly, there is no consensus on what general mechanisms explain the collapse of historical empires. What is needed is a systematic application of the scientific method to history: verbal theories should be translated into mathematical models, precise predictions derived, and then rigorously tested on empirical material. In short, history needs to become an analytical, predictive science.

Cliodynamics (from Clio, the muse of history, and dynamics, the study of temporally varying processes) is the new transdisciplinary area of research at the intersection of historical macrosociology, economic history/cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Mathematical approaches – modeling historical processes with differential equations or agent-based simulations; sophisticated statistical approaches to data analysis – are a key ingredient in the cliodynamic research program. But ultimately the aim is to discover general principles that explain the functioning and dynamics of actual historical societies.
I've featured Turchin's work before. And see Peter Turchin's blog: Social Evolution Forum. There's some good stuff on there. See the following post in contrast to the above, War Before Civilization:
Insecurity and war, with a constant threat of sudden (or, worse, painful and degrading) death, was the typical condition of human societies before ‘civilization’—before large-scale states with their government and bureaucrats, police forces, judges and courts, complex economies, and intricate division of labor.

Some anthropologists object to using the historically known societies of American Indians as a mirror of life in all small-scale, tribal societies before the rise of civilized states and empires. They argue that the arrival of Europeans in the Americas with their germs, metal tools, weapons, and an insatiable appetite for certain trading goods (such as furs) destabilized native societies and raised the intensity and lethality of inter-tribal warfare. There is much merit in this argument. More generally, war intensity has varied greatly between different regions and, within regions, over time. Nevertheless, life in small-scale tribal societies was much more precarious and violent than most people realize.

We know this is true because archaeology can tells us much more today, compared to a few decades ago, about the life in societies before history. Consider, for example, a village of Oneota Indians, who lived along the Illinois River 700 years ago (that’s 200 years before Columbus). The archaeologists located the village cemetery (the site is known as ‘the Norris Farms #36’) and studied the remains of 264 people who were buried there. At least 43 of them—16 percent—died a violent death. According to George Milner,

Many of them were struck on their fronts, sides, and backs with heavy weapons, such as celts [stone axes], or they were shot with arrows. Some people apparently were facing their attackers, whereas others were not. Presumably the latter were wounded when trying to flee. Victims were occasionally hit many more times than necessary to cause their deaths; perhaps several warriors struck blows to share in the kill. Bodies often were mutilated by the removal of scalps, heads, and limbs. Scavenging animals then fed on many corpses, which were left exposed where they fell until the remaining parts were found and buried in the village cemetery.

The pattern of deaths suggests a state of constant warfare, with men and women being ambushed singly or in small groups as they went about hunting and gathering. In other words, this Oneota village was quite similar to many later Indian villages observed by Europeans, although, as I said earlier, the general level of violence increased quite noticeably in the post-Columbus era.

The estimated proportion that died a violent death, 16 percent, lies in the middle range of such estimates for prehistoric populations. This is not to say that their life was uniformly grim. At times people living in small-scale societies enjoyed periods of peace and prosperity. But at other times, warfare was even worse than what the Oneota villagers had to endure. Roughly at the same time but several hundred miles to the northwest of the Oneota settlement, on Crow Creek, South Dakota, there was once a village of the Caddoan speakers. Crow Creek is one of the most famous prehistoric massacre sites. It was a very substantial village protected by a defensive moat, but it was nevertheless overrun and completely destroyed by enemies.
And see this: The Tall-but-Poor 'Anomaly':
One of the founders of anthropometrics, John Komlos, refers to the observation that the Plains Indians were the tallest in the world in the nineteenth century as the “Tall-but-Poor Anomaly.” But there is no anomaly here. It just shows that GDP per capita is a very poor measure of well-being. For example, between 1850 and 1890 GDP per capita, in inflation-adjusted dollars, increased by 130 percent, but the height of Americans fell by 2 cm. It’s not that Americans were becoming shorter as they were becoming richer. It was the top 1 percent who were becoming richer, while the 99 percent were becoming shorter.

So the Indians were nominally poor, but they lived in a way that only rich people can afford today. They exercised (riding them horses was a pretty good exercise!), ate grass-fed bison, supplemented by roots and berries (that’s paleo diet!), breathed fresh air, and drank uncontaminated water. Today this kind of living is only within the reach of the very wealthy.
And since we featured James C. Scott above, here's another review of Scott himself by economist Brad De Long, comparing it with the works of the so-called "Austrian School." Worth reading in full:
There is a lot that is excellent in James Scott's Seeing Like a State.

On one level, it is an extraordinary well-written and well-argued tour through the various forms of damage that have been done in the twentieth century by centrally-planned social-engineering projects--by what James Scott calls "high modernism" and the attempt to use high modernist principles and practices to build utopia. As such, every economist who reads it will see it as marking the final stage in the intellectual struggle that the Austrian tradition has long waged against apostles of central planning. Heaven knows that I am no Austrian--I am a liberal Keynesian and a social democrat--but within economics even liberal Keynesian social democrats acknowledge that the Austrians won victory in their intellectual debate with the central planners long ago.
This book marks the final stage because it shows the spread of what every economist would see as "Austrian ideas" into political science, sociology, and anthropology as well. No one can finish reading Scott without believing--as Austrians have argued for three-quarters of a century--that centrally-planned social-engineering is not an appropriate mechanism for building a better society.
But on a second level, it is an act of displacement. Friedrich Hayek, after all, won the Nobel Prize in Economic Science for making many of Scott's key arguments: that the bureaucratic planner with a map does not know best, and can not move humans and their lives around the territory as if on a chessboard to create utopia; that the local, practical knowledge possessed by the person-on-the-spot is important; that the locus of decision-making must remain with those who have the craft to understand the situation; that any system that functions at all must create and maintain a space for those on the spot to use their local, practical knowledge (even if the hierarchs of the system pretend not to notice this flexibility). These key arguments are well known: they are the core of the Austrian economists' critique of central planning.
James Scott and Friedrich Hayek (Brad DeLong) The above is why, while I find anarchist philosophy to be important and intellectually stimulating, I have no time for Libertarianism, especially as it is espoused today. All Libertarianism is is a stripping of protections for the weak in favor of the strong in the name of "freedom.". It is essentially "might makes right" dressed up in pseudo-intellectual drag and peddled to useful idiots by today's venal plutocrats. By contrast, anarchist philosophy takes a deeper look at power, centralization and coercion at all levels of society.

And a final point, engendered by this article:
Human beings coordinate their actions to do things which would be hard or impossible for them individually. This is not a particularly recondite fact, and the recognition of it is ancient; it is in the fifth book of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura, for instance.... The nineteenth century, and to a lesser degree this one, have witnessed a dramatic expansion in the numbers of us engaged in administration, bureaucracy, management, oversight--that is to say, in formally-organized tasks of collective cognition and control. We did not invent bureaucracy, the mainstay of the ancient empires, but we're much, much better at it... corrupt, inefficient institutions which work poorly; every election, Piffleburg [WI]'s citizens mutter something like "what do we pay taxes for anyway?" Yet to run any one of these institutions at the level of honesty, efficiency and efficacy which makes Piffleburg grumble would have demanded the full powers and attention of even the ablest Roman propraetor or Tang magistrate. That all of those institutions, plus the ones not restricted to a single city, could be run at once, and while governed by a very ordinary slice of common humanity, would have seemed to such officials flatly impossible.

The immediate question this raises, of why we are so much better at collective endeavors than the ancients, can be answered fairly simply. To a first approximation, the answer is: brute force and massive literacy. We teach nearly everyone to read and write, and to do it, by historical standards, at a high level. This lets us staff large bureaucracies (by some estimates, over 40% of the US workforce does data-handling), which lets us run an industrial economy (the trains run on time), which makes us rich enough to afford to educate everyone and keep them in bureaucratic employment, with some surplus left over to expand the system. (let's not forget fossil fuel power - CH)

All this is in the realm of technique; when it comes to theory, we are quite at a loss. We can see, in a rough, common-sensical way, what makes us better at running things than the Romans were, but we don't understand how either they or us pull off the trick at all. That is to say, we don't really have a good theory about how collective action and cognition work, when and why they do, how they can be made to work better, why they fail, what they can and cannot accomplish, and so forth.
The final point is essential: we don't really know how cooperation works, and we don't know why it breaks down. But it does break down. To some extent, there is something profoundly unnatural about the massive governments, states, corporations and bureaucracies that we small-group primates find ourselves living in today. While some argue that our social "circle" will keep expanding to eventually encompass all of humanity, history teaches us a very different lesson, one which we can observe in the nascent hypertribalism of America today: sometimes things fall apart. Our cooperation has limits. Since we don't really understand these massive cooperative mechanisms in the first place, why do we simply assume their robustness as a matter of course? We shouldn't. And when they do fall apart, because of corruption, incompetence, sabotage, apathy, conflict, loss of trust, or what have you, it's clear that we will be able to accomplish much less than we were able to before as a society. This is one important reason why those of us who are suspicious of "progress" or that things will continue to get continuously better for everyone (in spite of massive recent evidence) have come around to our way of thinking.

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