Thursday, September 13, 2018

Daniel Quinn's Rickety Path to the Future

In a way, Daniel Quinn of Beyond Civilization is just like me. He is trying to find a way out of the dreadful hierarchical culture in which we find ourselves. But he and I have rather different ideas about what is good and what is bad and what needs to change.

In the Good Old Days, he says, humans lived it tribes and were as happy as tribes -- or lions and tigers and bears. But then came the agricultural revolution and hierarchy, with Pharaohs at the top and serfs at the bottom. A great life for Pharaohs, but not so good for the folks that had to build the pyramids.

See, he writes, a tribe is like a circus, where everybody pitches in and does their bit without griping. Everybody instinctively understands that everybody has to pitch in to make the circus a success.

Except, old chum, that tribes and circuses come and go like the wind, and when they go they disappear into the void, known only to God. Whereas the Pharaoh and his food-built pyramids lasted for a thousand years.

The thing about the agricultural age is that it formalized hierarchy. Don't tell me that the old tribes didn't have hierarchy; of course they did, just as the troops of the great apes have hierarchy. It's just that it seems that all the cultures of the agricultural age had big-time hierarchy, with kings and armies and priests and then serfdom and slavery for the guys at the bottom.

Now Daniel Quinn claims that the lost Central American civilizations -- Maya, Toltec, and whatnot -- mysteriously ended and nobody knows why; on his view it seems that the people, the proles, just "walked away." And so can we.

Hey, Dan. I doubt it. Think Venezuela. The proles are perfectly happy to live in a vile hierarchical Bolivarian regime. And when the whole thing starts to fall apart they don't demand reform. They just sit there taking their bennies from the regime until the money runs out. Then, and only then, they start to walk away, as the Venezuelans are now doing.

Here's what I think really happens when things start to go wrong. The people rebel, whether it is the peasants with pitchforks of the early Second Millennium, Walt Tyler and all, or the Captain Swing agricultural laborers smashing the threshing machines, or the Luddites smashing machine looms, or the workers in the late 19th century getting shirty during capitalistic financial panics and depressions. But their rebellions are the useless actions of cornered rats. Now maybe this is just the slave behavior of the lower orders of the agricultural age carried over into the new world order of capitalism, but I doubt it. Otherwise we wouldn't talk about cornered rats.

But let us be clear. The point about agricultural empires is that there are a lot more people living in them than there used to be when everyone was just living in a tribal village. And this is a big thing.

So when an agricultural empire breaks up and grass starts growing up in the cracks, and people start walking away, what you don't see is the millions of people that are dying in the process as the agricultural empire resets to village. This is because of the millions that did not survive to tell their tale. All stories in this world are survivor stories. The rest are only known to archaeologists thousand of years later.

What Daniel Quinn wants us all to do is to break out of the hierarchical civilizational model and start inventing new tribes, where people come together spontaneously to form some enterprise, kinda like the Eastern Mountain News that he and his wife and a couple of other folks created out of nothing in Madrid, New Mexico, a while back. They just paid themselves out of the proceeds each week. No wages, no benefits. They just adjusted their demands on the organization to fit the proceeds.

Couldn't agree more, pal. Only your ignorance of the nature of the Great Enrichment of the last 200 years, and the price system, and the fact that your Beyond Civilization came out just before the Tech Startup Culture became a thing means that you really do not get what is trying to be born right here in the good old USA.

For instance, you don't have many nice things to say about today's billionaires, the Bill Gateses of the world. But do you know what I heard from a guy that heard it from a guy that spoke to Gates? He asked Bill Gates why he bothered to take Microsoft public. And Gates replied that he did it in order to share the company with the employees. And that is the implied contract in all tech startups. If we make it big then we go public and everybody gets a bit of the loot.

Quinn is also a bit dismissive of the wage culture, taking the Marxist view that wages dehumanize the workers, making them into mere drones. But the thing about wages is that they remove from the workers the day-to-day risks of a farm or of a business, which means that the owners and the bond-holders have to take a bigger risk. I suspect that most people really do not like to shoulder the day to day risks of life, and that this goes deeper than the learned subordination of the agricultural age. In fact, I believe that business owners are pretty cunning about this. They provide a lot more than just cash wages, such  as health insurance and pensions and vacations and sick leave and stuff. All that makes it hard for wage-earning employees to pick up and leave all that for another job.

In other words I'd say that most people just want to belong and stay where they belong. They do not get up and git unless they are well-and-truly forced to do.

Now I believe that our modern capitalistic era represents an amazing New Dawn for the human race, because through the nature of the price "system" and the marketplace, we folks today are constantly informed of the value of the service we provide our fellow humans. And if we try a new venture the price system pretty quickly tells us whether we have a good idea or not. This is radically different from the hierarchical static world of the agricultural age where most people were subordinate peasants and had to be because of their intrinsic vulnerability to pirates and plunderers.

In other words I would say that many of us humans are willing and eager to invent a new form of tribalism, of spontaneous belonging and enterprise if it weren't for stick-in-the-muds like Daniel Quinn that have worshipped too long at the altar of environmentalism, sustainability and divided the world into good people like him that want to save the world from "maximum harm" and bad people that just want to get on. Daniel Quinn has listened to too much of the bad news about violence and poverty and waste and poisoning of the environment to have read the counter-narrative of today's reduced violence of 5 violent deaths per 100,0000 in the capitalist world against 50 per 100,000 in the Medieval world and 500 per 100,000 in the hunter-gatherer world. Or that when societies get to about $10,000 per capita GDP they start cleaning up the environment. Etc.

But we humans are afflicted by the folks running a Great Reaction that are trying to hobble and prevent what Quinn says he is trying to encourage.

OK, great. Only, to my mind, Daniel Quinn has his feet planted too firmly in the camp of the Great Reaction to really help with the folks walking away from the crumbling wreck of what he calls the "Taker" culture.

For instance, our liberal friends make a big deal about the sins of slavery. Yeah, well, according to Max Weber and others slavery was a particular characteristic of the agricultural age. And it is curious that on the very cusp of the transition from the agricultural age slavery reaching its most perfect manifestation in the slave sugar plantation in which slaves cultivated the efficient C4-photoynthesis cane sugar plant and got fed with C4 corn. But in the new age slavery doesn't pay, according to Weber. We need more responsible workers now. So we made a big deal about the immorality of slavery, had a knockdown-drag-out Civil War about it and then had the early 20th century wars which we may hope were the last hurrah of slavery, including drafted soldiers (really slave soldiers).

So I dare say that the new models of enterprise in the Internet age will just throw the old ways in the garbage can of history.

But I don't know if Daniel Quinn will really like it. There is a lot in him that seems to revel in the old ways of Good and Bad, with Nietzsche's "the priests" teaching us to hate ourselves, as in non-sustainable practices that are Going To Kill the Planet!

And he seems especially immured in the creative culture that, in my view, is a poor substitute for the creation and rearing of children. His Ishmael novel is apparently about a kid that was real nice and sang and played the guitar, but never found a purpose to get his life going. So he committed suicide. Well, since the kid didn't find a girl and marry her and get some children going I can understand that. And I notice that Quinn mentions his wife Rennie but no children.

Here's my problem with this. I suspect the reason that humans got with the hierarchy and the serfdom and the slavery and the exploitation of the agricultural age is that it was better at getting kids on the ground and out of the nest that you could get from life in the hunter-gatherer tribe. Agriculture sustains a lot more humans on this planet than hunter-gathering. Energy-fed industry sustains a heck of a lot more humans than agriculture, although there is a risk, which liberals obsess over, that we may kill the planet in the process. But hey, liberals, maybe not!

Because however we argue about Pharaohs enslaving us and "maximum harm" and growing our own food instead of just picking it up as we wander through the forest, there is one and one only point to human life. Generation. The next generation. If we get the next generation on the ground and out of  the nest, then we are doing OK, at least for now. But anyone that doesn't put kids on the ground is not pulling their weight. And in my view anyone that doesn't put kids on the ground is liable to suffer from many of what the Freuds and the Jungs called "neuroses," whatever that meant. I guess we call it "mental health problems" now. Quinn thinks that the incidence of mental health problems is way up. I wonder why.

Right now I am reading the last part of Nietzsche's Also Spake Zarathustra in which he is supposed to show us what he really means by the higher man, or Superman, or Übermensch. That is what we are all working on, Nietzsche, Chantrill, and Quinn. But what, Zarathustra, is that higher man really going to be, presuming he won't be the Blond Beast of whom we've heard tell?

Stay tuned till next week.

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