Tuesday, January 6, 2015

We Humans are Subordinate Worms

In his three volume sociological epic, The Sources of Social Power, Michael Mann of London's LSE introduces the notion of "caging."

Presumably this notion owes something to Max Weber's famous "iron cage." Mann uses the notion in discussing the rise of alluvial agriculture in Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago. His idea is that the agriculturalists doing alluvial agriculture were not able to get up and walk away from their rulers. They needed the political infrastructure that protected them and their agricultural surplus from raiders and the economic infrastructure of irrigation that gave them their bountiful harvest. So they were stuck.

In our day we like to talk about freedom from the hierarchical society of the agricultural age. But, really, how much freedom do we really enjoy? Are we not "caged" even more than the early agriculturalists, not to mention the feudal peasants that we like to marginalize.

At least the agriculturalists could live for months on their own. They had stored grain; they had domestic animals for milk and meat; they had varied skills to keep life going.

But we moderns are completely helpless. We depend on electricity for everything from heat to cooking; rare is the family that has a stack of wood out in back. We depend on supermarkets to deliver food to us every day; rare is the family that has stored any food against disaster. And we work for the Man, not as peasants did, at some distance from the local lord, but directly, every day, as a subordinate employee in a small business, a large corporation, or a monster government bureaucracy.

We talk a pretty good line about freedom, if we are conservatives and libertarians, and emancipation and liberation if we are liberals and lefties, but in practice we subordinate ourselves to the system, and we seem to like it.

I'm talking about "subordination" as defined by the German sociologist Georg Simmel. I've discussed Simmel and subordination here, here, and here.

Oh we complain about subordination. We grumble that "they" haven't fixed the pothole in our street, or that "they" have screwed up the economy. We complain about our lousy boss at work. But we are far too comfortable in our subordinate cage to actually do anything about it.

I like to talk and write about humans as social animals, as organisms that thrive through cooperation. But maybe that's mostly fantasy. The reality is that social animals are subordinate animals; they live by subordinating themselves to a ruler: the alpha male.  In humans this alpha male is the president, the village "big man," or the family patriarch. Or, more recently, the feminist scold.

So let's do a "reset." Let's stipulate that the conservative-libertarian idea of freedom is a pipe-dream; let's stipulate that the lefty ideas about solidarity and liberation are nonsense. In reality, people want to find a community to which they can subordinate themselves in security and comfort.

Then the question becomes: choose your poison. Do you want to subordinate yourself to the market system, to prices, to supervisors, to customers, to CEOs? Or do you want to subordinate yourself to politicians, bureaucrats, activists, and precinct captains?

Maybe, then, the point of politics is to regulate the terms of subordination. What rights has the market or your boss over you? And what rights does the politician, the expert, the activist have to tax your and push you around?

Not quite as exciting as freedom and liberation.

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