This is the first essay in a new series. In which, I’ll seek to understand, and to diagnose the causes of, the ethical, political and economic ills of our times.
Some of what I say may be familiar to those who have read my earlier work. What is new here, is that I aim to put those, previously only loosely related, strands of thought into context. Metaphorically, in this series of essays I am seeking to assemble a “big crunch” of ideas. From which, in due time, I will aim to draw out material for the “big bang” of cure.
You and I – well, I certainly, and you presumably – are individuals of a genus called humans or human beings; or, in Latin, homo. Physically, we are simians, related to monkeys and to great apes such as chimpanzees. Mentally, our species has earned the Latin name sapiens, meaning knowing, discerning, wise or sensible. Of course, not all of us are always all of these four things. Children and politicians, in particular, frequently fail to be any of them.
What is special about us? What is it, that makes us different from, and better than, mere animals?
First, we have evolved languages that are intricate and expressive. Second, we can think abstractly; for example, we can do mathematics or philosophy. Third, it is in our nature to take control of, and to leave our mark on, our surroundings. And we can record our ideas for posterity, for example through writing, art, music and architecture. Fourth, we have business and trade; not just at the level of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” but also, as Adam Smith put it, “give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want.” Fifth, it is in our nature to co-operate, and to form societies of like-minded people. It is also in our nature to be creative, and to build civilizations. Sixth, we have invented, and are still developing, life-improving conveniences like money, property rights, workable systems of justice, and economic production. Finally, we are a fast-moving species. And despite periods of stagnation or regression, such as the Dark Ages, we tend to get better – and faster – as we go.
Thus, the first binding force, which tends to pull both you and I into a community, is species. What we have in common is a shared humanity.
But it has not always been so. Up to about 40,000 years ago, we “modern” humans shared our planet with another close to human species, the Neanderthals. Then, in the course of about 2,000 years, they died out, leaving as their legacy just a tiny percentage of our genome. As to how and why this extinction happened, experts are unsure. But one fact that seems generally accepted is that Neanderthals lived in smaller groups than their rivals. To me, this suggests that there may have been some social development among the sapiens, which enabled them to live in larger groups, and so to co-operate more effectively in the search for food.
Individual and partnership
So, what communities do we humans form? I already addressed this in an earlier essay “On Community.” Today, I’ll re-trace those steps, with more of a historical slant.
Human beings are individuals. That’s a biological fact. Each of us has our own body and our own mind. And yet, we are social too. Humans are convivial animals. It is in our nature to live together, and to co-operate, for mutual convenience.
The smallest multi-person community is the partnership, and specifically the partnership of two. Two adults of opposite sexes can provide the zygote, if you will, from which a family can develop. The resulting “nuclear” family, of two parents and their children, is the commonest formulation in humans of the next unit up the scale. Though there are, in some human cultures as well as among other simians, additional possibilities. Notably, polygyny, in which one male mates with several females.
The individual is the fundamental unit, from which all communities and societies are built. The family is of fundamental importance, too. For the family is the smallest unit of humanity which can survive indefinitely. And the binding force, which holds it together, is kinship.
Long ago, when we were hunter-gatherers, the primary community beyond the family was the band. Bands consisted of several families, often closely related and usually numbering a few dozen people. And the organization was generally loose; while the band’s elders were valued for their advice, there was no formal power structure.
The members of the band would have had a shared interest in finding food. This would have led them to co-operate in hunting. For example: “You flush the rabbits out of hiding, and I’ll kill them with the knife that Ugg made for me.” Thus, the primary binding force at the level of a band is teamwork. Independent individuals co-operate as a team, to produce a result which is more than the sum of its parts.
There is also a binding force of mutual trade, which enables individuals in the band – like Ugg the knifemaker – to specialize in those useful activities, at which they are particularly skilled. So, Ugg does not have to hunt, in order to eat. Making the hunters’ tools is enough.
Sometimes, bands would join together into larger units, commonly called tribes. They might have a formal group of elders, making decisions on behalf of the whole tribe; for example, on where to go to maximize the chance of finding prey at a particular time of year. And, particularly among larger tribes, they might be ruled over by a headman and his advisors. Such systems are still used today in some traditional African ch
When a tribe was well led, this could provide it with a fifth binding force, of leadership. The members of the tribe would acquire respect for the individual or individuals who led their tribe, and brought it success.
Another binding force in a tribal community would have been a shared religion. The people of the early tribes usually believed in many gods. And each tribe would have had its own set of gods, differing in one way or another from those of other tribes.
Thus, the sixth binding force of human communities is a shared belief system, and a shared understanding of the world around us.
Land and people
About twelve and a half thousand years ago, a great change took place. Groups of people, in several parts of the world, abandoned the traditional hunting and gathering. Instead, each group settled down in one place, and began to cultivate crops and to domesticate animals. When conditions were benign, the new approach allowed the populations of these groups to increase. The result was the rise of the Neolithic village.
People in such villages would have felt a strong attachment to the people in, and the territory of, their group. Thus, their community would have acquired a seventh binding force, which I’ll call proximity. And individuals in that community would have acquired a strong sense of we. They would have acquired a love of our land and our people, or what we would today call patriotism.
Now, a dark shadow will enter my tale; the state. Political states aren’t an inevitable result of communities like the villages of Neolithic times. Indeed, the earliest states only appeared several thousand years after the Neolithic revolution. Nevertheless, the territorial state seems to have been an attractor point, towards which human communities were drawn.
There are several theories as to how the first states came about. Of these, Robert Carneiro’s seems to me as believable as any. In bad times, groups that were short of food would seek to use force to take for themselves the product of the labours of other villages. Thus was unleashed on humanity the scourge of war. In some places, the losers of such wars were able to flee to a new territory. But in places where arable land was scarce and its area circumscribed, when there was famine and so wars between villages, the losers could not flee. The conquerors would soon have worked out that they were better off if they didn’t exterminate the defeated. Instead, they subjected these villages to taxation in the form of their produce.
This had two consequences. First, the size of political units increased, from one village to many. And second, within such units there was a differentiation into two classes. A ruling class, formed of the strongest warriors and their cronies and hangers-on; and a productive class, subjected to the ruling class. The state was up and running; and soon, war became all but endemic. For, as Randolph Bourne has told us, war is the health of the state.
As time passed, a variety of structures evolved. But most had one thing in common. That is, power was in the hands of a small, élite minority, who did not contribute to food production, but were supported by the labours of the ordinary people. Furthermore, in many cases accession to the élite was hereditary. More often than not, there was a single individual at the top of the pile – a chieftain or king – surrounded by an aristocracy of senior members of select families. And many such chieftains claimed that their power and authority was sanctioned by the gods. From which, it was only a small step to claiming that they were gods.
Something rather nasty had happened here. Earlier human communities had been formed for mutual benefit, and in them there had been a role for everyone, according to their talents. But with a state in place, the link between the benefit of the ruling class and of the ordinary people had been severed. Furthermore, the ruling class had leisure to plot and scheme for further power gains. So, the system tended to perpetuate itself. A bottom-up community, one of whose binding forces was leadership of those most fit to lead, had morphed into a top-down one, in which ordinary people were subjected to the rule of the powerful. The rulers were not always the best equipped to lead the community for the benefit of all its members. And the worst among them were not much interested at all in the good of the ordinary people.
The city state
Despite the evil that is the state, our progress continued. The city state of ancient Greece was a great advance on what preceded it. It was the environment in which the first codes of law, and some of the first examples of money, were introduced. And inside the walls of city states, there was time and opportunity to experiment with ways of organizing the community. It is from the Greek polis, city, that the modern word “politics” comes.
There were similarities between the Greek cities. For example, all of them relied on the institution of slavery. And while many cities in theory allowed political rights to all male property owners, in practice only a small minority of the residents had full political rights.
But each city state was different, too. Each had its own culture and values. Athens, for example, had a culture which valued rational thought. And it encouraged skilled and talented foreigners to settle there; Aristotle was one such. Sparta, on the other hand, was a militaristic oligarchy, closed to most foreigners, and not allowing its own people to travel.
Thus, the city state added, to the binding forces of species, kinship, teamwork, trade, leadership, belief and proximity, an eighth: a shared culture, with a shared set of values and customs. The people of a city would have felt attachment to their particular culture and customs, and to the values which underlay them.
But this was all too good to last. In a world of warring states, it was inevitable that an experiment like Athenian democracy would eventually be killed off by the “top dog” of the moment. In this case, the Macedonian Empire in 322 BC.
Rome was the city state par excellence. It was the one which, in time, rose above all the rest. In the process, it managed to incorporate, and to build on, some of the best of the Greek culture. And to develop the important ideas of ius and lex; justice and law. Though the Romans could also, of course, be brutal towards those who opposed them.
Rome’s power lasted many centuries. One reason was that, up to the end of the Republic at least, the Romans preferred to tolerate the religious practices and heritage of those they conquered. Another was that allies of the Romans, and even those they had conquered, were often allowed to become Roman citizens. And so, many people became bound to Rome, and to its culture and values. Moreover, there was much trade and interaction between people from different parts of the Roman world. At its best, Roman culture was cosmopolitan like none before or since.
But this, again, was too good to last. Rome died, not so much by conquest, as through internal decay. The death was a slow and painful one, lasting many centuries. And it included many elements that we also see today. For example, increasing centralization and bureaucracy, high taxation, corruption and economic decline.
I’ll pass quickly over a millennium or so. During this time, Europeans were suffering the Dark Ages, and things weren’t going too well for the Mayans, either. It was left to the Arabs and the Chinese to be the main carriers of the torch of human civilization through this period.
The Renaissance got Europeans moving again. Part of it had a backward-looking focus; that is, the re-discovery of Greek and Latin thought. But there were also great advances in art, literature, music and philosophy, and even in political theory. Perhaps it was to be expected that such a movement would begin in Italy. For Italy was, at that time, a chaotic network of city states. In which, people were freer than under centralized monarchies like France, Spain or England.
But the Christian religion had become a mess. By the early 16th century, it had been transformed into a top-down system, just as had happened with the rise of the state. Popes and their hangers-on behaved as badly as kings, and often worse. Religion was no longer about shared belief in a deity, but about conformity to official dogma. Inquisitions severely punished “heretics.” And the persecutions were stepped up once the Protestant Reformation had got under way.
To the present day
Earlier, I wrote two essays, “On Political Societies and Political Governments” and “On Political Ideologies,” which deal with most of the salient history of the subsequent period.
In the first of these, I looked at the “Westphalian” nation state, and the badly outdated 16th century idea of sovereignty. I looked at the fiction of the “social contract,” which is supposed to bind us all together into political states. If there’s a binding force in there, I’d call it nation, the source of nationalism.
The reason I am unsure about whether nation is a valid binding force or not, is that it seems to be little more than a hybrid of several of the other binding forces. Kinship, leadership, religious belief, proximity and culture are all in there. Language, maybe, is something the idea of nation can add into the mix. But this leads to difficulties. Are English and Welsh speakers one nation, or two? What about polyglot Switzerland? Or even the USA?
Moreover, too many people seem, when talking of nation or country, to equate it with the state. “My country, right or wrong” is an egregious example of this. How can a piece of land be right or wrong? A state can do right or (far more often) wrong; but not a country!
In the second essay, I talked of the Enlightenment, which freed human minds from shackles both religious and political. And I listed some of its values, such as reason, tolerance, natural rights and freedoms and the rule of law. There is, I think, a tenth binding force in there; one which links together people who share these values. I’ll call this binding force enlightenment.
But against enlightenment, there are arranged a huge mass of clashing political ideologies, whose promoters and supporters want to enforce them on everyone they can. They vary from liberalism and conservatism, through nationalism, to evils such as socialism, violent anarchism, communism, fascism and theocracy. And ultimately, to the “unholy trinity” of corrupt ideologies, to which we in the West are subjected today: welfarism, warfarism and environmentalism.
To sum up
That’s as far as I want to take this line of argument today. I’ll close by inviting those interested to re-read the two essays I named above. Later, I plan to come back and address the question: how well are these ten binding forces working for us human beings today? Here they are, again:
- Belief system.
- Culture, customs and values.
- (?) Nation.
But, in the words of Michael Ende: That is another story, and shall be told another time.