06 August 2019

No you can't

Various learned commentators are remarking that domestic violence, patriarchy, white supremacy, and fascism are inextricably linked, as a common source of coercive social violence.  As is the entire notion of a legitimately coerced prescriptive norm; there isn't a short term for that (so far as I know), but it's all of a piece.

You know what sits under all of those?

The idea that you can legitimately get rich.

White supremacy starts off as a moral system to explain why it's ok to steal things; it's the engine of colonization, which is after all a system of organized looting rather than production.  The reason for the looting is that it's fast; you get rich much quicker if you can loot it.  (It also uses a much different skill set than production does.)  This is not a net win, but you're rich now, and not obliged to care.

Everything after that is a set of interlocked, ramifying rationalizations for the desire to get really rich.  (It is potentially instructive to look at the backgrounds of the main conquistador figures in the creation of the Spanish empire; they were nigh-uniformly people from poor backgrounds with no prospect of social advancement due to ethnicity.  Enough gold could almost fix that.)

Thing is, as soon as you introduce the necessary degree of control to the system, the one that allows you to create and maintain disproportionate great wealth, you're introducing failure.  You can have success or you can have control; wanting to be really rich compels you to introduce control and chose failure.  (Notice how there's these repeated financial crises that are hard to explain in their ubiquity?  Some of that is feedback timing, but a whole lot of that is the insistence on a means of control.)

This is not, by the way, an argument for poverty or for moral virtue arising from poverty or similar nonsense.  Having more choice is a good thing.  It needs to be relatively evenly distributed in the absence of systems of control, is all.


Peter T said...

Soldier-republics are a thing. As in, 'let's all join together and add to our lands at the expense of the neighbours, sharing out the proceeds'. Fairly equal (it's when they win big they become unequal).

Not quite sure of your distinction between control and success. Historically, participation, control and success - the latter being achievement of some collective aim - go together. Foragers don't have a lot of control, but they also don't achieve much collectively (apart from long-term survival, of course).

Graydon said...

+Peter T

I would be very interested in an example of a soldier-republic well supported by modern scholarship. Republican Rome is effectively defined by picking a different approach than (what we think was) customary to their incessant, intractable, and quite bloody class conflict. Rollo required the support of the warband, but was not primus inter pares and wasn't holding votes on policy direction. Swiss pike units specifically avoided territorial conquest.

Control has scales; a society has to have, in one sense, a control system to function; there are feedbacks and constraints, so system, and there needs to be a way to make policy decisions, so control. (Though not often as much as people think there is.) On an individual scale, faced with something you couldn't in principle do yourself if you just had enough time, you get thrown into the iron hands of Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety; you can limit the behaviour of the system (that is, people); you can provide matching variety (that is, a class of overseers); you can build a variety amplifier (ubiquitous surveillance cameras...). All of these involve crippling the system's ability to make decisions if they're required to simplify the system down to a scale one person can comprehend.

Aristocracy, from a systems angle, is the political system that says all decision-making has to be simplified enough that one of these guys can understand it, and the decision has to be enforced no matter how much sense it doesn't make. That's the failure; you can generally build a control system that'll keep the system as a whole within certain bounds, but you can't impose a "I understand it", "someone understands it", or "can in principle understand it" constraint if you want the "generally" to apply. Only political systems tend to insist on the "I understand it" (or the "it will act like my belief that I understand it is correct" variant) and do terrible jobs of being a system-scale control mechanism.

Harold Henderson said...

Forgive my ignorance: who has best written US history from this perspective? I'm thinking that a regional candidate might be T. D. Allman's "Finding Florida." What am I missing?

Graydon said...

+Harold Henderson I don't know of a single history from a systems viewpoint.

Both 1491 and 1493 cover the implications of the Columbian Interchange, and that starts to give a sense of the systemic connections which aren't usually covered. (E.g., the distinct and lasting political consequences of potatoes in northern Europe or maize in China.)

Instro systems stuff is Donella Meadows' Thinking in Systems, Stafford Beer's Designing Freedom, or (more philosophically) Jane Jacobs' Systems of Survival.

Peter T said...

Soldier republics:

Early Rome. Class conflict is not the right term, given that it was a patronal society - plebeian did not mean poor (there are plebeian magistrates from the earliest days of the republic). What there was was conflict over spoils and privileges, coupled with general unity over taking land from Veii, Caere and other neighbours. Vikings - local leader, usually a farmer-priest (godi) recruits local freeholders to man ship and raid Ireland/France/the Wends/England etc. Swiss - hey collectively expanded quite a lot - check a map of the three cantons vs current size, and the date of admission of the Italian areas to cantonal membership). Sparta - collectively took over Messenia. That's just my spotty - but fairly up to date - reading.

The control theory you outline misses the collective culture. In effect, a lot of the parameters are wired into everybody in the system (the warriors fight because that's what warriors do; the people of the Echidna clan don't eat echidnas because that's not done...). Aristocrats (or anyone else) does not have to explicitly understand the system, but competence in the role does require a sense of the limits and the key levers.

Graydon said...

+Peter T Rather than descend into disputes over interpretation of history, let me point out that collective culture has a terrible lag problem; you can only rely on your cultural norms if the rate of change is low, and the things your culture -- all of you in your generational cohort, now that your cohort is the one of mature years and making political decisions -- agreed on when you were forming your opinions thirty years previously still hold.

That hasn't been reliably the case since printing with movable type became widespread; it's entirely not the case today, with the combined change drivers of the climate disaster and Late Capitalism.

Peter T said...


I agree. The lag seems to be of the order of 30 years, which is maybe ok most of the time (I don't think policy disasters were any less frequent in medieval or ancient times than in, say, the 1700s) but, as you say, entirely not ok now. If we are doing in 2050 what we should be doing now (as we are now slowly doing some of what we should have done in 1980) then we are doomed.