The hope for human (and non-human) survival

Long-time readers of this blog know that I am harshly critical of our current system of social organization.[1] Introduced with the Neolithic, it substituted an authoritarian, exploitative structure for a relatively egalitarian, harmonious structure. It enabled massive population growth and replaced an ethic of living with nature with an ethic of domination.[2] The resulting domination, of humans, animals, and nature, in combination with population growth, has led to extreme social injustice and to environmental havoc on a scale that poses an existential threat to human survival.[3]

We have thousands of years of experience with this system of social organization. From this experience, we know a lot about what doesn’t work.

The Doomsday Clock

You might not have heard of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It sounds like just another in a long list of peer-reviewed journals, albeit with a curiously antiquated name. But you’ve probably heard of the Doomsday Clock, an index of the threat to human survival that the Bulletin publishes. Judging the time on this clock to be five minutes to midnight, the time when metaphorically, our carriage turns back into a pumpkin, they identify several existential threats: climate change, nuclear weapons, fissile materials, and cyber technology.[4] The thing to notice about these threats is that they are intrinsic to our system of social organization:

  • Environmental ruin, including climate change, follows from an attitude that nature exists to serve humans.[5]
  • There is very little, if any, evidence for systematic violence—war, the rationale for nuclear weapons—prior to the Neolithic,[6] and it seems fairly clear that war is largely an enterprise of the elite, squabbling over control of and the ability to exploit territory, people, and resources.[7]
  • Our faith in technology leads us to view problems superficially, to dispense with a certain notion of culture, and to assume, incorrectly, that technology can solve all of our problems while neglecting that each technological solution, such as nuclear fission and cyber technology, is at least very likely to create new problems, on a planet on which we are likely exhausting the capacity to survive new problems.[8]

But there are also other dangers and because the behaviors that create these threats are intrinsic to our system of social organization,[9] it follows that this system must change if we are to survive.

Hierarchy

We also know, for instance, with a high degree of confidence that a system of social organization that works for human survival cannot be an authoritarian system, such as now predominates on the planet, including in putative “democracies.” The notion that any ruler can “protect” the rest of us relies on an assumption of original sin, that humans are inherently evil, and on the following conclusion that authorities are needed to protect us from each other. But since rulers are also human, it follows that they are no more virtuous than the rest of us. Indeed, it turns out that they act in self-serving ways, principally to protect their own positions of privilege and power at the expense of the rest of us. It is also clear that any system of so-called meritocracy is inevitably perverted toward this end.[10] As Lord Acton wrote to Bishop Mandell Creighton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[11] Further, they seek even to preserve the apparent distinction between themselves and the rest of humanity through their ability to consume[12] and by creating a society within a society that excludes ordinary people.[13]

Among the benefits of being an elite is discretion in whose “competence” one will recognize and promote. It is evident that rather than rewarding competence and knowledge, this system defends against any threat to the status quo and thus concentrates incompetence among the elite.[14] It is thus no surprise that they have failed to take any substantive action to remedy the existential threats to human survival. Further, it is unreasonable to expect that they will take such action.

Finally, we cannot trust any “balance of power” to check the ruler’s power as in the U.S. Constitution’s vaunted “separation of powers.” This only enables more elites who share a common interest, come from similar backgrounds,[15] and who behave in all the ways that make elites undesirable.

Exchange systems of economics

We know further that a system of social organization that works for human survival cannot be based on exchange. As Max Weber pointed out nearly a century ago, such a system privileges whomever has the greater power to say no, and the privileges and handicaps that result from each exchange are cumulative. Contrary to any notion that a “free” market is in fact “free,” “free” markets in fact enslave. Workers, reduced to offering their labor, are inevitably subject to those who, through any inequity whatsoever, have managed to accumulate property,[16] leading to all of the problems associated with authoritarianism.

Yet, utterly without foundation, we imagine that people have “equal opportunity” to prosper in our society. As Thomas Shapiro put it, we imagine “that talent, skill, hard work, and achievement largely determine life chances. We believe that everyone has a fair shot at whatever is valued or prized and that no individual or group is unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged.”[17] Once upon a time we acknowledged that there were social goods that might not be profitable,[18] which is to say that such goods such as education, culture, and the arts might not reduce to exchange value. Now we imagine that the market can solve all problems, even non-economic ones.[19] But because power in our society is inextricable from the market, power is assigned to those who benefit from the valuation of talents with money. Such people, our elites, have no interest in rolling back neoliberal ideology.

That same misguided notion leads us to stigmatize the poor, to fear them as a threat to ourselves. We regard them as “undeserving,” we lock them away, and thus we do violence to the poor, to their families, and to their communities. In short, we do everything we can to increase their desperation, so that they are forced to commit crimes, thus fulfilling our self-fulfilling prophecy.[20]

Back to the past

We also know that, short of a calamity which seems to be fast approaching, we cannot go back, at least not precisely, to the relatively egalitarian and harmonious system of social organization that prevailed for millions of years and ended with the Paleolithic. The earth, at that time, had a maximum carrying capacity of roughly 200 million hunter-gatherers.[21] With environmental degradation and habitat loss, it follows that that number would be far lower today.

Space colonies

Finally, we know that we cannot, anytime soon, save any significant portion of the population by colonizing space or other planets. George Monbiot, noting that “such fantasies are taken seriously by millions of adults, who consider them a realistic alternative to addressing the problems we face on Earth,” argues that humans would be propelling themselves into what, in the end, amounts to desolation. We would be leaving behind the environment that makes us who we are. And he doubts that in a crisis that would impel such a migration, we would have the wherewithal to pull it off.[22]

What to do?

We need, therefore, to be thinking seriously about what shape a system of social organization that would serve humanity might take. If it is anti-authoritarian, it must be anarchist. If it is to preserve the planet, it must change our relationship with the planet and its creatures, and therefore, our society must be vegetarian ecofeminist.[23] Because an anti-authoritarian society would lack the means of mass incarceration to hold people accountable, this means a society in which poverty does not exist as a predominant cause of “deviant” (criminal) behavior.[24] It means a vegan lifestyle, for we cannot afford the resources required to sustain meat production.[25] It means an egalitarian society that extends the notion of personhood not only to humans but to sentient animals, acknowledging all of our autonomies to self-actualize to the maximum of our capacities,[26] and acknowledging that each being is a being of value, not to be threatened, not to be made afraid, but rather to be loved as a sibling. We must refuse to tolerate the suffering of our fellow beings.[27]

Even as a broad outline, with innumerable details to be filled in, this is, obviously, a tall order. I am doubtful that, in our present condition of pretending our myths are grounded in empirical fact, we are capable of adapting pragmatically to real reality. But it is our only hope.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works’,” March 15, 2012, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2012/03/15/we-need-to-know-how-it-works/
  2. [2]John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008); William J. Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2008); Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1991).
  3. [3]David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2013/03/06/we-have-found-the-enemy-and-he-is-us-and-our-system-of-social-organization/
  4. [4]Robert Socolow, et al., “An open letter to President Obama: The time on the Doomsday Clock is five minutes to midnight,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 14, 2013, http://thebulletin.org/open-letter-president-obama-time-doomsday-clock-five-minutes-midnight
  5. [5]John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008); Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1991).
  6. [6]William J. Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2008).
  7. [7]David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2013/03/06/we-have-found-the-enemy-and-he-is-us-and-our-system-of-social-organization/
  8. [8]Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, John Wilkinson, trans. (New York: Vintage, 1964); Igor Matutinovié, “An Institutional Approach to Sustainability: Historical Interplay of Worldviews, Institutions and Technology,” Journal of Economic Issues 41, no. 4 (December 2007): 1109-1137; Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage, 1993).
  9. [9]John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008).
  10. [10]Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012).
  11. [11]John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton in John Bartlett, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 17th ed., ed. Justin Kaplan (New York: Little, Brown, 2002), 554.
  12. [12]Anup Shah, “Creating the Consumer,” Global Issues, May 14, 2003, http://www.globalissues.org/article/236/creating-the-consumer
  13. [13]Peter W. Cookson, Jr., and Caroline Hodges Persell, “The Vital Link: Prep Schools and Higher Education,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 380-391; G. William Domhoff, “The American Upper Class,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 156-164; C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956; repr., New York: Oxford University, 2000).
  14. [14]Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012); C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956; repr., New York: Oxford University, 2000).
  15. [15]C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956; repr., New York: Oxford University, 2000).
  16. [16]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 119-129.
  17. [17]Thomas M. Shapiro, “Introduction,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 1-7.
  18. [18]F. A. Hayek, The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, ed. Bruce Caldwell, vol. 2, The Road to Serfdom: Text and Documents; The Definitive Edition (1944; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago, 2007).
  19. [19]Henry Giroux, “Neoliberalism’s War Against the Radical Imagination,” Tikkun, February 11, 2014, http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/neoliberalisms-war-against-the-radical-imagination-by-henry-giroux; Henry A. Giroux, “Beyond Neoliberal Miseducation,” Truthout, March 19, 2014, http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/22548-henry-giroux-beyond-neoliberal-miseducation; Henry A. Giroux, “Neoliberalism’s War on Democracy,” Truthout, April 26, 2014, http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/23306-neoliberalisms-war-on-democracy; Daniel Stedman Jones, Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 2012).
  20. [20]Ernest Drucker, A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America (New York: New, 2011); Herbert J. Gans, The War Against The Poor: The Underclass And Antipoverty Policy (New York: Basic, 1995).
  21. [21]Union of Concerned Scientists, “Population – Biodiversity Linkage,” August, 2000, http://www.ucsusa.org/ssi/biodiversity/population-and-environment-series/population-biodiversity.html
  22. [22]George Monbiot, “Better Dead Than Different,” November 11, 2014, http://www.monbiot.com/2014/11/11/better-dead-than-different/
  23. [23]David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2013/03/06/we-have-found-the-enemy-and-he-is-us-and-our-system-of-social-organization/
  24. [24]Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006); Herbert J. Gans, The War Against The Poor: The Underclass And Antipoverty Policy (New York: Basic, 1995); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  25. [25]David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/wp/2013/03/06/we-have-found-the-enemy-and-he-is-us-and-our-system-of-social-organization/
  26. [26]Martha C. Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2011).
  27. [27]Bstan-ʼdzin-rgya-mtsho, Ethics for the New Millennium (New York: Riverhead, 1999); Erich Fromm, The Sane Society (1956; repr., Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2010).

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