15 June 2008

An Unhelpful Inheritance

Does the submission of others make you more secure?

If you're in a little band of ground apes somewhere on the savannah, sure it does; you get to eat before at least them, you have better breeding opportunities, and better chances to feed any offspring you manage to have.

If you live in a city—any city, not just a post-industrial city—this makes you much less secure, because more and more of the effort that could be going into import replacement, education, and innovation are going into increasingly nasty political fights over submission, and eventually, you don't have a city anymore.

This is the core trick with cities, and the thing that is impossible to explain to a barbarian; if you understand that cities (the rule of law, cosmopolitan acceptance of social difference, and the recognition that absolute access to choice is more important than relative access to choice) make the question of submission to individuals irrelevant, you've stopped being a barbarian.

Submission to the rule of law—accepting that you are better off not getting what you could take by force—yes, that has to be there. But not submission to an individual. (Take a look at the process by which successful democracies have formed; there is great emphasis on the institutions and as little emphasis as possible on living people, because that makes it easier to make the question one of participation in the great endeavour, rather than submission to some eminent individual.)

The difficulty is that not everyone is civilized; lots of people are still running on something back before civilized, and some are running on the basic ground ape band forming rules, most especially "I'm a dominant male if I can hit who I want and fuck who I want". And given their social assumptions, proving that to be the case is the most important thing in the world.

The massive down side of all this—aside from the quality of life of anyone who has to deal with the would-be dominant male— is that this desire is corrosive to civilization; it brings the question of personal submission into the conduct of dailing business, and *poof*, there you are with all kinds of homophobia, misogyny, intensely ritualized process to pretend there are no real power differentials and equally ritualized processes to force and maintain submission.

The human trick is ganging up on problems; civilizations can put at least tens of millions, and very probably billions, of people into active co-operation with one another. Regular old primate band structures can manage a couple hundred. You can stack that—behold the roots of actual feudalism, not the late god-king autocracy that tends to be mistaken for feudalism in general discourse—and you can regiment it so it works for up to a couple thousand (if it has an external support structure for most things; behold the regiment of the New Model Army) but it is not really a machine for co-operation; it's a machine for determining relative social status.

Civilization treats social status as a side effect. You get it because people think you've done admirable things with your life. This is slow and hard work; it doesn't convince the young would be dominant male in any case, because there's no ritual of submission so it can't be real.

Which is a funny definition of real; log huts, and lives nasty, brutish, and short are real, but so are climate controlled habitation, gracious conduct, varied diet, and good health care.

The trick is spotting the folks for whom none of that matters if they can't assault and rape. They need to be kept out of political power.

1 comment:

jennie said...

Okay, yes, those for whom what matters is that they may assault and rape must be kept from power. But, how?

We don't seem to have developed good, workable, ethical strategies for this. I tend to believe that part of what education does should be to sell the young and impressionable on the advantages of climate control, health care, apples in winter, and expanded access to choice, but that trick doesn't seem to be working.