12 September 2008

Confusions of Civilization

The point to having a civilization is to be able to have more comprehensive division of labour and gang up on bigger, longer-term, and tougher problems, with the eventual side effect of providing greater realizable access to choice to the people in the civilization.

Pretty basic stuff, but we're ground apes. Our default social unit is small; 200 people is a huge one. Inside those social units—which can more or less manage a certain amount of common defence and seasonal migration from the plains to the hills—status comes down to who you can hit and who you can fuck.

And this lurks in the backs of people's brains, as we're all embedded in something that is way too big and way too complicated for any one individual to actually understand. And there's this tendency to reach for status as a means of insecurity management, especially when the standard narrative—that mechanism for emulating comprehension—gets disrupted.

If everybody has been brought up to understand that civilization means that the benefits are in the side effects and that meaningful status is something other people grant you gladly, rather than something you compel, that's not so bad.

Otherwise, well, people feel scared, and want to increase the list of people they can hit. (Or fuck, or rape.) And you get this general push against choices of all kinds, social mobility, women's rights, or cultural change, because all of those things tend to make that list shorter, and—somewhere deep down where the ground ape is counting wrongs—there's this sense of unfairly lost status.

Which is most of the "culture war", something that would be more accurately described as "where's my status?"

This is a good question, and if it produces things like Mecahnic's Unions or universal suffrage or universal education, it has good results. If it produces answers like "they took it", and leads to a negative-sum fight for status tokens (that aim of most neo-conservative politics), it has terrible results. (If it produces things like noticing who is encouraging the tail-chasing argument while rigging the game to run the money their way, you often enough get revolutions, which are a different kind of terrible result.)

Which is why I don't think anyone of conscience could vote for Steven Harper's Conservative party; they're arguing for the ur-status, the "if you can't hit who you want you've lost something" position. Which is not the position of civilization, which is a lot closer to "you can love who you chose" than "you can hit who you want".

And, yes, more complicated, more work, just plain harder. Also better, which is easy to lose track of while you've still got the one you inherited.


jennie said...

meaningful status is something other people grant you gladly,

Isn't it just too much work to maintain it, otherwise? I mean, if people aren't granting it to each other gladly, then those seeking to assert their status have to run around beating others into submission all the time. How can they possibly get anything else done?

This does, of course, explain rather a lot of history and politics. Beating others into submission is not entirely consistent with getting much else done, in general, which is why very few cathedrals (or the moral equivalent) get built during wartime.

Graydon said...

The cathedrals are generally a function of economics; you can have a war or a cathedral, but you can't have both.

(This is one of the signs of total incompetence going on now; attempts to have the war and the cathedrals. If there's actually a war on, you have tax increases, rationing, and economic rationalization. Or you have a gods-awful economic hangover later.)

And, yup, beating others into submission (if they're themselves willing to trade rather than raid) is completely pointless/a waste, but, hey, you might not win if you don't do that.

A lot of what I'm ranting about is really a busted definition of "win".