Monday, October 27, 2014

An Unstable World: Part III: Tyranny's Logic and the Dilemma of "Reasonable Men"

Continuing our discussion of recent global crises from Parts I and II, I want to say a few words about the current ISIS-Crisis.  But -- typically -- I will get to the "new caliphate" only after taking an intellectual detour!  

Starting with a look at a couple of brilliantly dark explorations of the human potential for tyranny. Then distinguishing among many types of "reasonable" and "unreasonable" men.

== Food for thought ==
Let's start with a fascinating quotation from George Orwell's classic "Nineteen Eighty-Four" -- 
1984"...it was also clear that an all-round increase in wealth threatened the destruction — indeed, in some sense was the destruction — of a hierarchical society. In a world in which everyone worked short hours, had enough to eat, lived in a house with a bathroom and a refrigerator, and possessed a motor-car or even an aeroplane, the most obvious and perhaps the most important form of inequality would already have disappeared. If it once became general, wealth would confer no distinction. 

"It was possible, no doubt, to imagine a society in which wealth, in the sense of personal possessions and luxuries, should be evenly distributed, while power remained in the hands of a small privileged caste. But in practice such a society could not long remain stable. For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance..."
diamond-social-structureI've always found Orwell fascinating. In this case, yes, he's right... sort-of. Any degree of broad empowerment is, indeed, what would-be lords fear most. The trend after World War II to create a diamond-shaped society, with an empowered and educated middle and working class so large that it outnumbers the poor and politically dominates the rich... this was key to every piece of good news since civilization's nadir in 1943. It led to all fine things, from science and moon landings to the plummets in world poverty and (per capita average) violence that Steven Pinker documents in his book that I cite below.
It would lead, eventually, to Star Trek and to a society in which a person might get rich... through smithian competition over new goods or services... but there would be no way for such creative capitalists to pass on to their children the kind of obligate-unearned lordship that was the fiercely obsessive goal of every generation of brutal men, during all of the millennia leading to our Enlightenment Experiment
It cannot be allowed to happen again! The pyramid is not only a proven attractor state but most-likely the "natural" (99% of the time) human condition.It will also lead, inevitably, to the logic that Orwell described (above) and to the calamity that Robert Oppenheimer predicted (that we'll get to, below.) Orwell gave us a graphic warning, one that might indeed become a "self-preventing prophecy"... if we gird ourselves to protect the experiment that is humanity's only hope.

== An argument over tyrannical method ==
And yet, let's pause and note that Orwell was crude in his interpretation of method. War, as a means of keeping society pyramidal, instead of diamond-shaped? Well, sure... but over time war is a chaotic, unreliable, destructive method, especially when an educated populace - if even 5% of it truly understands - will have the technological means to shatter everything. In other words, Orwell's villainous oligarchies are brutal and predictably fit the standard human pattern. But they are also deeply stupid men.
No... here is the fellow who got it right. The one who will win their old argument over tyrannical methodology. Aldous Huxley. As illustrated chillingly in Brave New World, future despots who want to last, will use a velvet glove and not an iron boot. If such rulers truly are smart, they will fool the majority into thinking they are still in charge. Distracting them not with pain, but with pleasure. 
Was Orwell right about war being used as a distraction to keep the masses stupid? It happens. And without any doubt we should all have skeptical hackles, whenever a president or politician raises a clamor for combat. Indeed, elsewhere I have carefully parsed the differences between democrats and republicans in HOW they wage war, a stunningly opposite matter of style and effectiveness.

In other words (as I portray in Existenceeven callously pragmatic oligarchs will fashion their dominance very differently, depending upon whether they are short-sighted lunatics, crudely rational, or at least bent on genuine, long term self-interest.

In fact, I'd like to now dive deeper. For Orwell's thoughts about the inevitability of oligarchy-driven war mirrored another debate that was going on, about the same time that he wrote his epic.  And this one, also, revolved around the whole notion of "reasonable" leadership.

== The saint vs the madman ==

If you do not know about it, immerse yourself in the debates that swirled in and around the scientific community, at the end of WWII, over what to do about the atom bomb.  (There have been several excellent movies and books.) 

On one side was a spectrum of sad-cynics and idealists, ranging from those wanting a total, worldwide ban on nuclear weapons to those -- like Robert Oppenheimer -- who urged putting them under some kind of international control. Steeped in knowledge about history (most scientists are vastly better-read than anyone would expect), they had just witnessed humanity plunge into its deepest nadir of horror. Their cynical view was deeply rooted in reality. 

atom-bomb-makingOppenheimer -- deeply respected by all who met him -- felt guilt-wracked over having been forced (by Hitler) to hand such instruments of potential devastation over to men who seemed much more reasonable (than Hitler). Oh, indeed, reasonable men (e.g. Marshall, Acheson, Truman and Eisenhower) were vastly better than monsters! But they were still men. And men had never been known to show restraint, at any point in our gruesomely impulsive past. There were no examples of men not using a new weapon, once it was offered to them.

On the other side of the debate was a staggeringly smart but zany "mad Hungarian" with spectacular eyebrows, Edward Teller. The George Soros of his day, Teller was fanatically anti-communist, which may have propelled his eagerness to invent the hydrogen bomb. But completely aside from all that, he also had an interesting hypothesis... that "this time is different."  That the Bomb would shake up reasonable men... and even moderately unreasonable ones... forcing them to ratchet up their powers of prefrontal contemplation, especially realization of the obvious, that it was time to make a change. To get past history's pre-adolescent reflexes and start doing things better. If for no other reason, because they were looking death in the eyes.

Put less colorfully, Teller maintained that reciprocal fear would accomplish this miracle.  That Mutual-Assured Destruction (MAD) might cause the Soviet and American empires to tamp their rivalry below the normal level of ignition into full-scale holocaust. That deterrence would suffice to bring into being an era of (relative) peace.

Where would you have put your money, way back in 1948? On such a blatantly mad fanatic? Or the blatantly brilliant and saintly Oppenheimer, and nearly all of his equally brilliant and history-wise associates? Would you have bet on the endlessly repeated pattern of human behavior, across all of our annals? Or upon a new notion, that "this time is different?" (A phrase that nearly always gets the speaker into terrible trouble.)

Consider your almost-daily habit of expressing cynical contempt for humanity and its institutions.  Yes, I mean you. It is so common a reflex that I am pretty safe in assuming you - dear reader - engage in it almost relentlessly. I examine this elsewhere, in many places, and how unproductive, but personally satisfying the reflex can be! No doubt you deem my tentative and surprised optimism to be just as mad as Edward Teller.

I do know this, however -- that the image of the mushroom cloud has to have been the most effective work of art ever, across all of the last 40,000 years. For it persuaded hundreds of millions, visually and almost without argument, that something had to change! 

Supporting artworks like Dr. Strangelove and On The Beach helped with this transformation, by providing explicit self-preventing prophecies that stirred great efforts to prevent some Accident from triggering the Unthinkable.

But the main effect of the mushroom cloud lay in redefining what terms "reasonable" and "unreasonable" were to mean, in the second half of the 20th Century.

(Note, as I've said often, the second great visual artwork to come out of physics was the image of Earth, as a lonely oasis in the desert of space, provided by Apollo 8 at the very end of that awful year, 1968... a picture that also transformed our hearts and our behaviors, perhaps even just enough to save us.)

== Was Teller right? ==

For the West it meant continuing to spend, as if we were in a real war. Because it would have gone hot the instant we let up. We are now told, explicitly, by ex-Soviet generals that they were always poised to strike, and intended to, if the West ever let down its technological and military advantages. 

And hence (as I've said many times and will reiterate next time), there must be a limit to the complaints of any living human against Pax Americana. Yes, like all Pax imperiums, it committed crimes (though less deliberately and persistently and with a higher ratio of compensating good deeds than any other people who were tempted by such power; name one counter-example.) We must learn from those crimes, though!  

Moreover, our agenda must be to create a new world that does NOT depend on any "pax" power to keep the peace, a peace we should maintain ourselves, as planetary citizens!  Nevertheless, if you are currently alive, and know anything at all about our species history, then you'd be a hypocrite to deny any need for gratitude.

But I'll go farther in swimming contrary to modern habit. Shall we all pay homage to Saint Bomb? The greatest invention for peace ever made? Oh, sure, we might see those long-delayed mushroom clouds tomorrow. But my generation of males would have all died on World War III battlefields, if not for the unprecedented peace that Steven Pinker so well documents in The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Even if it turns out to have been a temporary reprieve, it lasted an entire human lifetime. So Teller was right. Things were different. At least... it had become so for reasonable humans, confronting others who -- while unreasonable -- at least lived in a logic of cause and effect.

And so, you can see the segue coming, to discussing world problems that are currently being caused not by reasonable folks, or even logical-unreasonable ones like our old Soviet adversaries. Rather, recent news forces us to pay heed to the far more common types that Robert Oppenheimer saw in the pages of history books. Those who would never refuse a weapon or pause for a moment before using it. Those who -- like all of our insatiably unreasonable ancestors -- will concoct any excuse to prevent their own citizens from offering up criticism...

...as so many of you are leaping to your keyboards right now, in order to criticize me for calling our own civilization "reasonable"! Pounding keys, as free women and men, exercising a right of upward and lateral criticism that you take for granted, but that none of our ancestors... nor the poor folks living in Russia or under ISIS... could ever do. A habit -- the habit -- that has kept us at least a little bit "reasonable."

Sorry boys and girls. If you are doing that, without once pausing to consider the irony, then yes, alas, we have fallen since the days of giants like Teller and Oppie, or Marshall and Ike, or Gandhi and King.

But I've gone on too long.  So we'll hang fire a bit, on ISIS and Ebola and such. Don't worry.  These things aren't about to go away. Not yet. So much for an "end of history."

== Continue to Part IV: Pax Americana

or Return to Part I: An Unstable World: Russia

54 comments:

Sue Stone said...

Actually, I was going to agree with you, having come to similar conclusions a long time ago...

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi
I sort of agree - but with some reservations
Pinker data does not show a step change after WW2 but a continuation of a downward trend

In his book he discusses what he sees as a steady downward trend with "noise" superimposed on it

The "noise" is warfare - a nuclear war would not have been ruled out by his trend

So the Teller Effect may well have been very important in ensuring that WW3 did not start

But it probably did not cause the continual drop in overall violence
(Just stopped it from having one almighty spike upwards)

Paul Smith said...

This type of wealth is under attack now in America The powers that be have decided that the average worker cannot earn them enough to feed let alone provide health care for. The American public is no longer a market. The worst part is there is no longer a frontier to move to. The rest of the world is in the same predicament. We cannot leave this planet with out a drive that gives an isp of about 10000 and thrust that will lift a ship against 1g. Education will help the lucky but my own profession is obsolete in the civilian world. I'm an electronics tech and no one is repairing circuit boards any more.

Paul Smith said...

Political power is purchased. Our only chance would be to get 10 to the 8th or more citizens to agree and to donate $10 each to elect a candidate. Not happening.

Beach Bum said...

...many of you are leaping to your keyboards right now, in order to criticize me for calling our own civilization "reasonable"!

Hell no, this post actually lifted my spirits a great deal. There are times all the bad news can make a person lose perspective. We've got a hell of a global mess to clean up but it can be done.

Stephen Peterson said...

Testimony by ex-Soviet generals, combined with recent declassified documents on the extent of Paperclip-like operations by the U.S. (grabbing any Nazis of not-too-high profile as intel assets), presents a fascinating but disturbing moral conundrum: http://io9.com/the-cia-and-fbi-had-1-000-nazi-assets-during-cold-war-1651301118

Especially for the Millennial generation that never really lived the Cold War, it kinda helps one grasp the psychology of Mutually Assured Destruction. Utter madness, it seems to me, but it worked, and perhaps better than the alternatives.

David Brin said...

Stephen P. I recently saw a fool who likened US recruitment of Von Braun as identical morally to certain nations sheltering Eichmann, Barbie, Bormann and other exemplars of the very worst monsters our species ever produced. A demonic regime that the US destroyed for the world... then had to face and keep static one that in many ways was almost as bad.

Were Von Braun and his paperclip pals war criminals? Sure. In the real world, reasonable men seldom have fully clean hands and sheltering BB and co was a moral hazard. But as you say, OUTCOMES go a long way toward excusing. Not all the way! There are "means" we should always refuse and punish, no matter what the ends!

But ends do matter. This world of life, with hope for freedom and prosperity and a surviving ecosystem are worth fighting for. Purists can be useful goads and nags... till they obstruct our best pragmatists -- like George Marshall -- from making the actual world actually better.

Anonymous said...
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Daniel Copeland said...

As I recall, Pinker specifically rejects the Nuclear Peace hypothesis.

David Brin said...

I see our stalker-lunatic has followed us to this thread. Ah well. I get less of this than any other public figure I know. I'll try to clean up the offal but frankly, I expect to be lazy about it, so ignore the smell when I miss one or two.

Tom Crowl said...

Thoughts on the Biosocial Roots of Oligarchy
http://culturalengineer.blogspot.com/2014/10/thoughts-on-biosocial-roots-of-oligarchy.html

A.F. Rey said...

Our only chance would be to get 10 to the 8th or more citizens to agree and to donate $10 each to elect a candidate. Not happening.

The irony is that, if you could get 10^8 people to contribute $10, you wouldn't need the $10.

You'd already have the votes. :)

Laurent Weppe said...

"Future despots who want to last, will use a velvet glove and not an iron boot. If such rulers truly are smart, they will fool the majority into thinking they are still in charge. Distracting them not with pain, but with pleasure."

The problem with the panem & circenses approach is that it's costly, which means that either you make the moneyed elites pay their share to fund the system -which defeats the tyranny's very raison d'ĂȘtre-, or you rely on some form of raubwirtschaft, in which case you end up much closer to Orwell's dystopia than to Huxley's rather unbelievable hyper-efficient consumerist World Government.

Daniel Duffy said...

"War, as a means of keeping society pyramidal, instead of diamond-shaped? Well, sure... but over time war is a chaotic, unreliable, destructive method"

Orwell thought constant war would become a steady state. From 1984:

In one combination or another, these three super-states are permanently at war, and have been so for the past twenty-five years. War, however, is no longer the desperate, annihilating struggle that it was in the early decades of the twentieth century. It is a warfare of limited aims between combatants who are unable to destroy one another, have no material cause for fighting and are not divided by any genuine ideological difference....

To understand the nature of the present war -- for in spite of the regrouping which occurs every few years, it is always the same war -- one must realize in the first place that it is impossible for it to be decisive. None of the three super-states could be definitively conquered even by the other two in combination. They are too evenly matched, and their natural defenses are too formidable. Eurasia is protected by its vast land spaces. Oceania by the width of the Atlantic and the Pacific, Eastasia by the fecundity and industriousness of its inhabitants. Secondly, there is no longer, in a material sense, anything to fight about. With the establishment of self-contained economies, in which production and consumption are geared to one another, the scramble for markets which was a main cause of previous wars has come to an end, while the competition for raw materials is no longer a matter of life and death. In any case each of the three super-states is so vast that it can obtain almost all the materials that it needs within its own boundaries....

But when war becomes literally continuous, it also ceases to be dangerous. When war is continuous there is no such thing as military necessity. Technical progress can cease and the most palpable facts can be denied or disregarded. As we have seen, researches that could be called scientific are still carried out for the purposes of war, but they are essentially a kind of daydreaming, and their failure to show results is not important. Efficiency, even military efficiency, is no longer needed. Nothing is efficient in Oceania except the Thought Police. Since each of the three super-states is unconquerable, each is in effect a separate universe within which almost any perversion of thought can be safely practised. Reality only exerts its pressure through the needs of everyday life -- the need to eat and drink, to get shelter and clothing, to avoid swallowing poison or stepping out of top-storey windows, and the like. Between life and death, and between physical pleasure and physical pain, there is still a distinction, but that is all. Cut off from contact with the outer world, and with the past, the citizen of Oceania is like a man in interstellar space, who has no way of knowing which direction is up and which is down. The rulers of such a state are absolute, as the Pharaohs or the Caesars could not be. They are obliged to prevent their followers from starving to death in numbers large enough to be inconvenient, and they are obliged to remain at the same low level of military technique as their rivals; but once that minimum is achieved, they can twist reality into whatever shape they choose.

David Brin said...

Laurent you apparently do not remember that Huxley’s world is also one of chemical and mental reinforcement and conditioning, which helps to make each caste content.

Daniel D, notice in your quotation how many things Orwell got wrong. Economies are not “self-contained.” Materials are at issue. Military R&D is dismissed by him as futile and irrelevant, which is kind of weird given that he wrote all this shortly after the biggest transformation of military tech in history. All told, I find Orwell’s war aspect to be entirely unconvincing.

The Thought police, though…

Derek Balling said...

So perhaps I'm grasping at straws, but part of me wants to tie this to this excellent article I read yesterday about "The economics of star trek", talking about a proto-post-scarcity economy.

Part of what I hear you describing sounds a lot like people trying to cling to a model that might or might-not be viable in a post-scarcity environment. And -- right now -- we are actually pretty close to a post-scarcity environment (we just have phenomenally bad distribution, so we have massive surpluses where we don't need them and no reliable way to get those materials where they're needed).

https://medium.com/@RickWebb/the-economics-of-star-trek-29bab88d50

I feel like there's a way of tying the two lines of reasoning together, but it's sort of in that space "just past my fingertips" where I can't quite put it together in a way that doesn't sound contrived.

Evelyn Fledrich said...

"Paul Smith said...

This type of wealth is under attack now in America The powers that be have decided that the average worker cannot earn them enough to feed let alone provide health care for. The American public is no longer a market. The worst part is there is no longer a frontier to move to. The rest of the world is in the same predicament. We cannot leave this planet with out a drive that gives an isp of about 10000 and thrust that will lift a ship against 1g. Education will help the lucky but my own profession is obsolete in the civilian world. I'm an electronics tech and no one is repairing circuit boards any more."

@Paul Smith

I agree with a lot of what you've said in your comment. The problems with growing wealth disparity can be felt throughout Europe as well. But even more important is that many of us feel like there is no real need for us, getting work as an employee has become a privilige, not something to do when one is out of money to save up for the next attempt at self-employment.

Currently, the pinnacle of the European manned space program is Copenhagen Suborbitals, a group of volunteer enthusiasts who essentially work for free to build a space rocket. By the way, 1000ISP would be more than enough, would still leave half the launch vehicle mass in orbit. What is more important is how to manufacture that kind of propellant cheaply, and how to safely return the vehicle with only minimum maintenance required after each flight. Or one of the big concepts could also work, like MagLev or Loftstrom Launch Loop, especially for moving large numbers of people. We desperately NEED a new frontier right now, the cradle is becoming too small for us.

Politically Europe is also not in a good shape. Take for example the country I was born in back in 1979, Hungary. The place I knew from my childhood was by name a communist country, but it was actually more anarchic at the time. We used to joke about polititians even in kindergarden. It was a place with a smell that somehow reminded me of TV depictions of the USA in the 60ies. It was a place where you could buy the translated works of Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke around every corner. The people finally overthrew the system back in 1989, two months after my family emigrated to Germany. We would still go back at almost every school break and I loved the optimistic views of the future that were offered in the discussions on radio, underlaid by a moderate amount of white noise. It was a huge relief from the mood in Germany at the time, where manned space flight was laughed at at best and technological advancement was seen with increasing scepticism amid occasional bursts of schadenfreude when something didn't work out as expected.

Now 25 years later, the same place has transformed into a backward looking, nationalistic oligarchy, where the people on top are among the very same who brought down a similar system that one generation ago. The first thing I noticed that became different was that in the early years of the new millennia this kind of future-optimistic talk in the media was gone and the SciFi corner was replaced by books about military history.

I can only hope for all of us that this way of thinking will give place to something more positive soon again. I'd much prefer to help in the design of spacecraft and colonies in the outer solar system than thinking about how to survive the present.

Perry Willis said...

Interesting article. Great argument for the nuclear umbrella. I've long agreed with it. But it doesn't follow that the hot wars and interventions we've waged then have been a positive thing.

You might say, as you imply in your response to a comment, that the benefits of military research justify the rest of the Military Industrial Complex. It's hard to go wrong with any kind of research -- you always get benefits from it. many of them unpredictable. But this is more an argument for research than it is for our hot wars and interventions (Iran in 1953, etc.)

So I continue to doubt that there really was a Pax Americana, aside from the nuclear umbrella. I think history actually points the other way. We've created a lot of chaos. There would have been some chaos anyway, sure, but we magnified it.

The U.S. sponsored trade regime has also been a good thing, but it is managed in a highly cronyistic way that contributes to the pyramid shape society you quite rightly dislike. I think a flatter result could have been achieved by simply dropping all of our own trade barrier unilaterally. Combine that with a nuclear umbrella and no foreign meddling otherwise, and you get an even better result I think. Or...

If we could go back and write the Spanish American War and the U.S. intervention in WW1 out of history, and you get an even better result -- one with no need for a nuclear umbrella.

Vb Wyrde said...

I enjoyed reading this thoughtful article. Thank you. My only regret at the end was that you didn't mention Herman Kahn, though you did allude to his work "Thinking the Unthinkable". Of course my reasons are purely personal as I am a friend of the family. At any rate, my own sense of things is that 60 years is in fact too short a time in which to draw definitive conclusions. The roosters have not all come home to roost yet, and may not for some time. What the end game will look like is probably dictated more by the logic of the condition of the human species than anything else. It may be that humanity is simply not ready, whatsoever, for the kinds of technologies we've brought to light - and that there is really no chance whatsoever that some people will be ruthless enough to use them for the worst of purposes. Or that mistakes will be made (ie - the release into the atmosphere of a catastrophic disease by a research group). It may be that humankind is simply too immature to handle the ever expanding set of powers and capabilities at our disposal, no matter how kind hearted and altruistic many people may be. It only takes a few rotten apples to devastate the world. In fact, Herman Kahn mentioned in "The Next 200 Years" that we at that time had probably about 60 years to figure out what to do about this issue before it began to catch up to us. He had a kind of Clarkian optimism about mankind's capacity to do the right thing, but I'm afraid his caveat came into play - "barring bad luck, or bad management" ... it seems we've had some of the former, and quite a whole lot of the latter - especially lately. Furthermore, it may be that not only is humanity too immature to handle the technological revolution, but it may also be too immature, greedy and foolhardy to handle democratic forms of government. As has been pointed out by philosophers for quite some time, "Once enough people learn that they can vote for themselves other people's money, democracy is doomed." And after democracy, the government of Freedom, what does Socrates say we inevitably get? Tyranny. In some sense I wonder if the inexorable logic was not laid out for us from the moment the first caveman genius began working on his new fangled invention the flint arrowhead? In any case, I wouldn't go so far as to suggest any solutions, except to say hold on to your hats, fasten your safety belts, and hope for the best. And also, thank you for the interesting read and comments following.

Vb Wyrde said...

PS - Sorry for my typo's... I'm so used to being able to edit after sending, and this little comment box on blogger is so ridiculously small I got caught out. Of course I meant to say " and that there is really no chance whatsoever that some people will not be ruthless enough..."

Laurent Weppe said...

"Laurent you apparently do not remember that Huxley’s world is also one of chemical and mental reinforcement and conditioning, which helps to make each caste content."

On the contrary: I have a harder time suspending my disbelief in Brave New World precisely because of the chemical & pavlovian conditioning: simply producing, stockpiling, and distributing enough finely tuned psychotropics to turn billions into functioning drug addicts would demand either impossibly efficient logistics or an enormous over-production to make sure that there's always a supply to meet demands: a single freak accident, or production falling behind schedule, or a vengeful act of sabotage by some disgruntled atypical alpha leader or beta middle-manager could transform a whole metropolitan area into a death trap filled with people in the middle of the mother of all withdrawals, and since it's clearly stated in the last conversation between John and Mustapha Mond that the world is organized the way it is because its rulers are utterly incapable of inventing an alternative system, there's no way that the Fordom is collectively competent enough to reach any lasting equilibrium.

1984 differs because Orwell throws enough hints that the super-states system is not viable in the long term, and that their leaders/founders know it but don't give a shit about it so long as the final collapse happens after they all die of old age: whereas Huxley seems to want to convince its readership that Humankind is about to reach an inescapable cultural dead end, Orwell's argument is that a person trapped inside a violent despotate may come to believe that she has no chance of outliving its and that submission is therefore the best choice, even if on an intellectual level, she's aware of its glaring defects, and I happen to find Orwell's argument much more convincing.

***

"The place I knew from my childhood was by name a communist country, but it was actually more anarchic at the time. We used to joke about polititians even in kindergarden"

I finished High-School in Budapest: according to some of my teachers who lived there during Kadar's era, by the early eighties, every educated adult knew that the system was about to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, and that pretty much everyone under 60 would outlive it: they were pretty much all waiting for the old tyrannical landlord to die of old age to finally start partying again.

raito said...

Evelyn,

I'm really unsurprised that yesterday's revolutionaries are today's oligarchs. It wouldn't be the first time that's happened.

Vb,

Hope for the best? That's just not good enough. I prefer to act. At least it keeps me busy.

Evelyn Fledrich said...

"I finished High-School in Budapest: according to some of my teachers who lived there during Kadar's era, by the early eighties, every educated adult knew that the system was about to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, and that pretty much everyone under 60 would outlive it: they were pretty much all waiting for the old tyrannical landlord to die of old age to finally start partying again."

I know plenty of people who lived much of their lives under the system, but never joined the party or the Workers' Guards. Sure, most of them didn't protest openly, but they managed to live relatively undisturbed private lives.

Interestingly, religion was a place of quiet and not so quiet resistance. There were still catholic schools, despite the official atheist state doctrines and for example, after the regime change the new priest in the town I spent part of my childhood in survived his time in the House of Terror. I only heard from others going to his sermons that he would often go on talking about that experience.

Bat sadly now quite often their sacrifice is used by others, who were party members and political officers and now have suddenly found their religious side, to preach an intolerant version of Christianity, using it to gain power and wealth.

So yes, it is possible to resist such a regime, if one is willing to accept the cost. In the end, it's about how much it means for a person to be able to look into the mirror each day.

LarryHart said...

Laurent Weppe:

in which case you end up much closer to Orwell's dystopia than to Huxley's rather unbelievable hyper-efficient consumerist World Government.


You find Huxley's world unbelieveable? In many ways, I find it almost indistiguishible from the world we actually live in.

LarryHart said...

Laurent Weppe:

The problem with the panem & circenses...


Holy crap, is that where the name of the Hunger Games's country "Panem" comes from?

I always thought of it as a misspelling of "Pan-Am", and so never made the connection before.

But once a thing is seen, it can't be un-seen.

LarryHart said...

Daniel Duffy:

Orwell thought constant war would become a steady state.


Or at least, his characters thought so. The Party head describes it to Winston almost literally as "the end of history".

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

All told, I find Orwell’s war aspect to be entirely unconvincing.


War as method of actually oppressing people, maybe.

But war as perpetual excuse for keeping down the standard of living? I'd say we're well on our way there already. How much has government not been allowed to spend on infrastructure or economic stimulus because so much debt has been rung up by the war machine? And every time we seem about to enjoy the benefits of a "peace dividend", some new existential threat suddently rears its ugly head.

LarryHart said...

Derek Balling:

And -- right now -- we are actually pretty close to a post-scarcity environment (we just have phenomenally bad distribution, so we have massive surpluses where we don't need them and no reliable way to get those materials where they're needed).


That's exactly why "The Grapes of Wrath" now seems torn from today's headlines. In that 1939 book about the Great Depression (now Great Depression I), millions were starving while fruit on the vine was being destroyed because it wasn't profitable to sell.

You'd think that "too much food" and "starving people" side by side would be a problem that fixes itself. But there was no way for big business to profit from the transaction, so it didn't happen.

LarryHart said...

Laurent Weppe:

On the contrary: I have a harder time suspending my disbelief in Brave New World precisely because of the chemical & pavlovian conditioning: simply producing, stockpiling, and distributing enough finely tuned psychotropics to turn billions into functioning drug addicts would demand either impossibly efficient logistics or an enormous over-production to make sure that there's always a supply to meet demands


Huxley in 1932 didn't envision the "drug" turning out to be television, but isn't that already the modern dynamic?

Laurent Weppe said...

"Huxley in 1932 didn't envision the "drug" turning out to be television, but isn't that already the modern dynamic?"

TV didn't replace drugs, it replaced village squares' gossips, until we used the net to recreate cyber equivalents of village squares, and downgraded TV to a secondary source of fuel for online gossips and bickering.
And gossips do not make the population compliant.

Al said...

Future tyrannies will have to persuade the people that the people are in charge even though they are not, but any future government that hopes to preserve liberty will have to do the same.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Laurent Weppe:

On the contrary: I have a harder time suspending my disbelief in Brave New World precisely because of the chemical & pavlovian conditioning: simply producing, stockpiling, and distributing enough finely tuned psychotropics to turn billions into functioning drug addicts would demand either impossibly efficient logistics or an enormous over-production to make sure that there's always a supply to meet demands

Hi Laurent,
You don't understand mass production,
Setting up a manufacturing operation may be difficult but operating one is relatively easy
Once you had sorted your drug (hard)
Sorted your manufacturing process (hard)
The rest is easy

Have a look inside some modern electronic equipment - or better yet the schematics of whats in an IC
And think of the millions that are made

Television
TV is not "the equivalent of a village squares gossip"
simply because it is only one way

I would say that TV is a very strong drug

Example
When I was younger I had a TV that would work for long enough to watch the F1
It was only switched on for the races
I regarded myself as pretty immune to the telly bug

I used to visit a pal to play badminton once a week
We used to sit down for a coffee afterwards while his girlfriend watched Eastenders (British Soap)
To my horror I found myself being sucked into it - I was waiting for the next episode!!

It was insidious! I barely escaped!

TV is a STRONG drug!
And unlike your gossip example does not bring people together

Jerry Emanuelson said...

One reason for the general decrease in violence may be that as violence becomes less socially acceptable, the genes that cause some of it may be slowly eliminated from the human gene pool.

If this is the case, then the general tendency to less violence may be, to some extent, irreversible.

Just this week, the discovery of two genetic variants were announced that may account for 5 to 10 percent of all severe violent crime in Finland, where the study took place.

See: http://www.nature.com/mp/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/mp2014130a.html

Mark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark said...

One problem with history is it never provides the appropriate control group. In other words, history never tells us as much as we think it does because we never really know what was random and what was inevitable.

For example, to make up numbers, imagine you have two possible futures. In future one you have a 100% chance that 20% of the population will die due to war. In future two you have a 80% chance that no one dies in war and a 20% chance that everyone one dies in war.

Which do you choose?

Of course, we never know those are the options. History doesn't help, either. That 80% looks like 100% if everyone survives. No one ever notices the 20% possibility, at least not for long.

This is why I'm never sure how much we can put into our history with the Bomb. Did the bomb really help, or did it just give us more dramatic odds we were lucky enough to win?

Duncan Cairncross said...

"One reason for the general decrease in violence may be that as violence becomes less socially acceptable, the genes that cause some of it may be slowly eliminated from the human gene pool."

Stephen J Gould talked about this,
When a species has a high population and a lot of mixing it is very difficult for evolution to make much change
The human gene pool is so large with so much mixing that it is difficult to think of it changing much

From this I don't think we have had anything like enough time for our genetics to have shifted appreciably

So I would put the changes down to cultural evolution

Alfred Differ said...

Regarding social drugs: TV can't be our village squares due to its one-way nature. From what I remember, it was more like gin was to the British during the early years of the Industrial Age. People suddenly had a lot more spare time than they had before and they didn't have anything to do with it. They got bored and many chose to escape into alcohol. We did much the same with TV later. It is an escape drug. Fortunately, many of the youngest generations have figured out something to do with their spare time. Social media sites are replacing TV by offering us cheap access to our favorite pastime. Above all, we like talking to and about each other.

Regarding Pax Americana: The evidence for the existence of our Pax is easy to spot. Many nations have for all practical purposes defunded their military. Some of them are former imperial states. Look to the mess that was the last military action in Libya to see this. Which of the nations who acted still had trained service members and the equipment to project power. Pax Americana would prefer they did NOT have the skill to project power very far and that's what we have. Another bit of evidence is to look at where complaints about disorder in the world are delivered. Who is expected to clean up a mess when most nations cannot project power far from their borders?

Regarding Pinker and 'war noise': I think it is useful to note that Pinker's trend is one that the wars of the 20th century didn't disturb much due to the fact that years between wars were not that dangerous to most people. We didn't all get along, but to a large extent, we weren't murdering each other. What Teller's approach did is put an end to a trend that had been growing with respect to war. WWII was the last 'total war' because the next one would kill us all. Total war is a modern phenomenon where the commoners get involved in the process. It is hard to argue against the notion that the real weapon the US wielded to win three 'world' wars in Europe and Asia last century was our economic might. The People got involved and outperformed opponents who had better weapons, excellent defenses, and a head start. The mushroom cloud picture helped put an end to total war, but the image of Rosie the Riveter tells the real tale behind our power. It was that power that put us on the Moon.

Regarding Orwell vs Huxley: I have to smile at any notion of a competition between the issues in their visions. Both outcomes suck big time and both have serious problems in how they fail to portray real human beings. David points this out in The Postman and elsewhere. We aren't that stupid and our social institutions aren't that dumb or fragile either. A social tradition that emerges from behavioral chaos over millenia does so because it is a survivor and 'fit' in the evolutionary sense. Orwell brushed over how we've traversed seemingly impassable barriers, thus his super-states could NOT be invulnerable to invasion. No sane Russian would ever believe such a thing. Huxley brushed over our natural variability, thus suppressing our natures to make us all content through pharmaceuticals is highly unlikely. Perhaps if he'd known more about genetics and epigenetics he would have altered the story a bit to use targeted products and viral agents. That has the potential to change what it means to be human and bring about his dystopia, but the people at the top will have to use it too. 8)

Jerry Emanuelson said...

Duncan, what I was trying to say was that this is an unusual case where cultural evolution may be affecting genetic evolution in a very specific way.

Specifically, if females are increasingly rejecting violent men, or aborting their fetuses, and other violent men are serving long prison terms during the years that they are likely to reproduce, then these actions will selectively remove the genetic variants that cause violence from the general human gene pool.

I am not saying that these genes are the only things that cause violence, but the removal of specific genes from the human gene pool because of cultural choices can become permanent over the course of a century or so. The cultural factors themselves, on the other hand, can change over time, while leaving their genetic legacy behind.

Selecting out certain genes by deliberate human action, even if the purpose of the action is not to affect the human gene pool, is a very different matter from random mutations among a species with a large worldwide population where there is not a strong reason to avoid selection of that particular genetic trait.

Although I don't have the specific data to prove it, it is likely that violent people, whether male or female, are now much less likely to reproduce than in previous human eras.

Laurent Weppe said...

"Setting up a manufacturing operation may be difficult but operating one is relatively easy"

The problem is not day to day operation, it's fixing the unholy mess fated to happen:
Imagine if instead of producing 9% of US demand for refined sugar, Port Wentworth's factory had been producing 9% of US demands for psychoactive drugs in a society where everyone is addicted to them: now you need to put the rest of the Soma production/distribution infrastructure on alert and triple shifts if you don't want 30 million of people going mad from the withdrawal and destroying everything around them.

Mustapha Mond should have been way too busy managing monstrous civilizational crisis after monstrous civilizational crisis to even have the time to exchange three words with John.

***

"We aren't that stupid and our social institutions aren't that dumb or fragile either. A social tradition that emerges from behavioral chaos over millenia does so because it is a survivor and 'fit' in the evolutionary sense"

For Huxley's society to be believable, one has to accept the premise that it is inherently stable enough to have lasted for several centuries; for Orwell's society to be believable, one has to accept the premise that by pushing schoolyard-bullies' MOs to their absolute extremity, a totalitarian state may put a lid over the social traditions which challenge its authority, force its subject to behave the counter-intuitive way it wants and trudge along for a human lifetime or so.

It's the time scale which makes all the difference: to last for centuries, a dystopia must remain consistently competent across generations and somehow evade the nepotistic rot which never fails to affect oligarchic systems.

locumranch said...


I also agree with the gist of this thread, excepting that David’s continued infatuation with the top-down hierarchical social model (one that inevitably degenerates into feudalism, oligarchy & tyrannical oppression) proves an ongoing rejection of the ’Systems Approach’, even though he acknowledges frequently that his (most desired) ‘diamond-shaped’ social hierarchy is inherently unstable (requiring of constant maintenance and vigilance) with a tendency to degenerate into (surprise, surprise) feudalism, oligarchy & tyrannical oppression. This is a type of compulsive insanity, this pattern of repeating the same acts over & over while expecting a different outcome.

That, and David’s rejection of George Orwell’s prophetic assessment of hierarchical society being always at ‘war’ (despite the unprecedented military build-up of the Cold War, an unending series of Proxy-Wars in Southeast Asia, the Middle East & Afghanistan, and the ceaseless ‘Wars’ on Poverty, Political Incorrectness, Drugs, Terrorism & now Ebola) represents his cultural 'blind spot’, one that was well-recognized by the likes of Eisenhower (who warned about the dire consequences of an unchecked Military-Industrial Complex) and Thomas Jefferson (who warned that an Idle Standing Military would eventually declare War on its own people).

This is what Edward Teller meant when he said "this time is different” in reference to the Bomb & Mutually-Assured Destruction, not that it would "shake up reasonable men (and force) them to ratchet up their powers of prefrontal contemplation" and grant the world an unending Peace (which is absurd), but that the Bomb’s destructive powers were so extreme that its use could put an end to (the Hierarchical Norm) of Eternal Warfare and will therefore be avoided by ‘reasonable men', so we can continue to Oppress and Kill Each Other (ourselves if not a foreign ‘enemy’) For All Eternity because Human Hierarchies REQUIRE a constant state of Warfare in order to maintain social cohesion, stability and order.

And, don’t get me started on Pinker, whose flexible definition of violence (one that ignores the inherently violent nature of peer pressure, forced conformity, social exclusion and imprisonment which has driven 34.5% of our population INSANE) allows him to ‘prove’ that human world is becoming less violent and therefore (??) more peaceful AS IF individual insanity is an appropriate price to pay for us to maintain our current state of cultural (and hierarchical) insanity.


Best

locumranch said...


If you swing a hierarchical hammer, then everything looks like a non-hierarchical nail.

Anonymous said...

The most important issue of our time is humanity's lack of vision for it's own future. Whether we have a diamond shaped society or a pyramid we are relentlessly pursuing our own destruction We now pump more than 30 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere yearly. We have reached 400 ppm and the rate of increase continues to increase. The oceans are acidifying. Nothing with enough impact has been done about this and won't be done in the near future because the political class is owned by the wealthy. And many don't want change to a less wasteful, less luxurious way of life anyway. This is the last great century of man (if you can call it great since we are destroying ourselves).

raito said...

Way back in high school, we read 1984. And wrote on it.

As I recall, I thought (and probably still do) that there wasn't really a war, and there weren't really 3 countries.
It was my opinion that since travel was restricted, it was quite easy for BB to >tell< people there were other countries and wars, even though there wasn't.

I guess I'd figured out even back then that if the people believed it, it was a good as it being real (for political purposes). And BB could use the fictional 'other' to keep control.

Heck, if there's no war, you can still conscript people (especially the unreliable), kill them off, and pass it back to your citizenry as war casualties.

Anonymous said...

The next century should be much more interesting. Most of mankind will be gone. Farewell to Gaia. It will be a far hotter, drier, more hostile planet for homo sapiens. Possibly the race will have learned the lessons of hubris by then. Man's time on earth expressed in a teardrop.

A.F. Rey said...

You are far too pessimistic and cynical there, Anon. Yes, mankind is in for a rough ride in the next few decades. And we will only have ourselves to blame.

But unless we pass a tipping point in our climate, I believe mankind will survive. We are highly adaptable to many different environments. We will adapt to the new ones were are creating. And we are already working on ways of mitigating the CO2 levels in our atmosphere. Once we rein in our CO2 emissions, we can get on with the work of undoing what we've done.

The only question is how many humans will survive to that time. Far fewer than we have today, I fear. Which alone is a good reason to do our best not to create such a future, and rein in our CO2 emissions NOW.

But barring some unforeseen disaster (like a runaway greenhouse effect), mankind will survive. Hopefully more mindful and humble than before. (Hey, I can dream, can't I?)

A.F. Rey said...

And the real reason I visited here: a popular science article on longevity, corroborating the idea that we can't live longer than 125 years (and the personality characteristics of those who do live long lives).

http://theweek.com/article/index/266851/how-to-live-a-long-life-according-to-science

BTW, does anyone know if someone is taking genetic samples of these undecagenarians to see what keeps them ticking?

David Brin said...

Perry WIllis I have to wonder what has happened to the scrupulously logical fellow I once knew. You said: “But it doesn't follow that the hot wars and interventions we've waged then have been a positive thing.”

Um… where did I say anything remotely like that? Imperial pax powers inherently throw their weight around, make mistakes and commit crimes. My assertion has been that: (1) the RATIO of good deeds to bad - by Pax Americana - is stunningly better than any other pax power across time…

(2) OUTCOMES have been vastly better, the the extent that we might actually tip into an era when pax law is no longer needed.

(3) Wretched events like Vietnam and Allende, while calling for fierce retrospection and learning, do not alter the fundamental facts, that percapita violence and poverty have plummeted under PA>

“You might say, as you imply in your response to a comment, that the benefits of military research justify the rest of the Military Industrial Complex.”

AH, I see, you enjoy erecting strawmen and arguing with them. Let me know when you feel like addressing something I’ve ever actually said.

“The U.S. sponsored trade regime has also been a good thing, but it is managed in a highly cronyistic way that contributes to the pyramid shape society you quite rightly dislike. I think a flatter result could have been achieved by simply dropping all of our own trade barrier unilaterally.”

Interesting assertion. That is in effect what we did. I despise the crony aspects and fight it all my life.

US intervention in WW! prevented German conquest of France. Sorry. WIlson should have leaned much harder on Clemenceau.

Locum’s charming belief that peer pressure and conformity are GREATER now, in individualistic western societies, than they were in stunningly oppressive feudalisms… is back to entertaining bizarreness.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David Brin said...

Linguistic analysis shows that was our stalker-troll, again. In fact, despite being an unpleasant loony, half of her questions were valid. But I'll not wallow in filth in order to engage the logical half. One learns.

I will say that while Pax Brittanica was vastly more moral than previous pax powers... on occasion living up to its lip service hypocricies... e.g. banning slavery... and toweringly better than the deliberately vicious and genocidal Pax Hispania...

...to cll its ratio of positive outcomes better than PA is laughable to Gandhi or Kenyatta or the Hashemites or the victims of the Opium War... and so on...

Jerry Emanuelson said...

A.F. Rey, there has been one genome-wide study of two people who lived beyond 114 years. It is at:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3262222/

There was also a genome-wide study of 801 individuals who lived beyond 100. It is at:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3261167/

Both studies came up with lots of interesting information, but there was no one simple genetic factor that correlated with extreme longevity.

One genetic factor that did seem to stand out (especially in the latter study) was the APOE gene. Defects in this gene can give you a very high probability of getting Alzheimer's Disease. A healthy APOE gene can give you a higher probability of an extremely long life.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi David

Ghandi is a null on the positive/negative - he achieved what he wanted without extreme violence on either side
(what would have happened if he had tried that on a Nixon??)

I'll give you Kenya and the opium wars
And raise you the Native American genocide

The PA should have been better than the PB purely because of the shifts in what was "acceptable" as time went on

The big positive from the PA is the massive lift out of poverty for so many millions of people




Alfred Differ said...

I'd argue that the PA should be considered as a continuation of PB due to our cultural inheritance. The difference is we got to drop certain behaviors because we didn't retain the entirety of British history.

There is good reason to think the PA at least tried to behave if you look at the Congressional debates associated with statehood for Texas and Hawaii. Our history has plenty of people who argued against the drive to empire. Sometimes they delayed things and other times they got to have some say in how it happened anyway.

I suspect history will long remember our solution for the Cold War. Between the containment strategy and the 'leave them in the dust' strategy, a reasonable reader of history will see how liberal states demolish command-and-control states.

George Rappolt said...

We certainly haven't had WWIII yet, and we did follow Edward Teller's prescription for Mutually Assured Destruction, but that policy may not have been responsible for the peace. The author of "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers" studied world power and major wars over the past 500 years in detail, and noted certain consistent patterns. One is that the really big wars happen when one great power is about to be displaced by another - which in turn happens when the rising power's GDP has passed the old power's GDP, but the rising power's political status hasn't yet risen accordingly. This never happened with the Soviet Union - their GDP never passed ours (and so they were never strong enough to have a realistic hope of defeating us militarily). Mutual Assured Destruction may (or may not) have been the means that kept this pattern in effect, but the fact that the Cold War never turned into World War III is just a continuation of the old pattern of doing business.

Perry Willis said...

Thanks George Rappolt for the summary of "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers." Very interesting. I'm adding it to my reading list.