Monday, January 31, 2011

A model

I'm not under the impression that any of what follows is some kind of revolution in thought. It's just useful to lay things out every once in a while. Suggestions for amendments also welcome.

At the start, people for the most part do what is needed for survival (obtaining and preparing food, finding and/or constructing shelter) themselves, individually or cooperatively as a community.

A point arrives where some minority, whether through luck or nasty genius or both, hits upon a way of getting other people to do these things for them--that is, a method of getting other people to use some of their time to provide necessities for them rather than for themselves and their actual community. This is great for the minority.

It does however create a problem in that such a system is naturally subject to a lot of resistance from the majority, who would rather use their time and labor for themselves and their communities than for a minority of people who don't do anything to help. The minority therefore have to devise methods to keep the majority working for them, whether through violent enforcement or the establishment of a system of beliefs, religious or otherwise, or the corruption of a pre-existing system, which will function to convince the majority to sacrifice portions of their own lives for the benefit of the minority.

The minority is no happier doing this work than they were doing the work of directly supporting their own lives, especially since by this point they've gotten used to not doing any work. So for their own convenience they create a new class, still a minority but a larger one than the now-ruling class, which will be responsible for managing the people who do the essential work: keeping up the belief system, performing violent enforcement, etc., in the service of keeping the necessities flowing from the class that still creates them.

Perhaps at first this intermediary class still spends some time producing necessities as well, but as their responsibilities grow more complex, this becomes increasingly impossible. So before long, there is a laboring majority, which does all of the actually necessary work, a ruling minority, which does none of the actual work itself, and a third group, intermediate in both size and power, which does all the work of keeping this situation viable but none of the genuinely essential work (in case it needs to be said, I and in all likelihood you are members of this class).

Of course, there is then a problem with keeping the intermediate group doing its job instead of rebelling, as it otherwise would tend to and indeed on occasion does. And so another intermediate class must be created. And so on, until, inevitably, the whole damn mess collapses, one way or another.

This pattern is observable on many different scales, from worldwide to a specific empire to a specific region to a specific town to a specific family.


Jack Crow said...

as a template - very useful

I think the logic of the form of power rarely varies, which is interesting in its own right.

Even if the cultural layers and justifications differ widely, and wildly.

bonobo said...

Hmm, yes a useful template and I like where you say this pattern reproduces itself at the extremely local level.

However, it seems to presuppose that all the ruling class really wants is leisure. Now it could be that I am mistaking some very highly-compensated members of the intermediary class for the ruling class, but it seems to me that we'd be a whole lot better off if the ruling class really was made up of parasitic layabouts. But, unfortunately, far too many seem to be a bunch of malevolently busy little bees. I mean, where do you place the likes of Henry Paulson and the riff-raff at Goldman Sachs? Henry Kissinger?

I think this theory gives the ruling layer too much credit in that it does not seem to take account of the drive to dominate and subjugate for their own sake. To accumulate more for so that others will have less. It doesn't account for the possibility that inequality is an objective rather than a simple effect.

Bolo said...

Very neat. I've never seen something like this laid out so starkly and it definitely helps generate some ideas. Riffing off your post, how about this:

Human existence can be thought of as the struggle to gain more output for your (self, family, clan, nation, etc.) with less input. More benefits for lower costs, to put it in econo-speak. There are two ways to do this. (1) Have someone else give you some of their output so you may reduce some of your input. (2) Figure out ways that you may reduce your own input and still maintain (or grow) your output. The first kind is predation and changes little other than relative prosperity and power. The second kind is what we ideally call progress and can potentially help others reduce inputs and increase outputs.

I've kept the terms "input" and "output" very vague, as I think they can be anything--input could be time, labor, or health while output could be health, time, material wealth, or happiness.

This whole process could also move sideways, where one input is lowered but a new one is substituted in to gain a new output--kind of like how we have so much wonderful technology that increases work productivity, yet still work 40+ hours per week. Essentially, the second ("progress") process has been captured by those who use the first ("predator") process.

bonobo said...

I think I could put it more simply by saying that this model does not take account of greed, status-seeking and sadism.

humpting said...

Also, it's not obvious to me that societies collapse because of unmanageably large numbers of intermediaries. Admittedly I haven't read much about collapsing societies so my objection here is only that this claim is not obviously true the way most of the rest is.

bonobo said...

humpting is me by the way. I have a tendency to cluelessly name myself after the verification text.

JRB said...

Yes, I'm with Jack.

You could send this to just about anyone as an invitation to think more deeply about their lives.

I'm encouraged to think what might happen if we just keep sending these kind of love notes to one another!

Thanks -- also for the many things you've been up to lately that I don't get a chance to comment on.

Justin said...

I had a half written post today that I posted prematurely owing to getting busy at work.

Anyway, I was trying to get at a similar idea related to this, which is the segmentation of the American worker into these different strata of classifications depending on the employer's preferences.

I got onto the thought after the girlfriend told me that soon she would be a long-term temp at her current job, which would give her access to a retirement plan there. It struck me as absurd that a company would create a retirement plan for workers it classified as temporary. But, of course, we know that the real reason to classify workers as temporary is to make it easier to fire them and to avoid providing unstable (cost-wise) benefits packages.

This economic caste system is breaking roughly along the following series of progressions, unemployed-unpaid intern-temp worker-long term temp worker-independent contractor-part time worker-full time worker-middle management-senior management-executive-owner. I expect greater stratification at the lower end of this series in the future. Anyway, I think that is related to what you are saying here, though I am not getting at it very well.

McDuff said...

Hmmm. No.

In fact I might go as far as to say it's exactly backwards.

While the basic structure of people at the top leeching off the bottom and those in the middle defending the status quo probably holds up, I don't think you've thought the causal mechanisms through enough.

It simply doesn't have any explanatory power to cover things like war, from either the ruling or the ruled's point of view. It takes no account of gender. It's essentially a one-dimensional set of drives applied across populations that demonstrably exhibit far more complexity than that.

At the least, at the very least, I think it should at least model power and status not as means towards laziness, but as ends in themselves. That would be a start. But, there's more to it than that, as well.

Jack Crow said...


Gender is a control function. It no doubt has its uses closer to the "top" of hierarchy - but it's not as important "up there" anymore. Transcending gender in the heights is in fact a power marker now, preserving the form of the hierarchy, and adding to its durability, while the population it rules changes.

Ethan said...

Oh my god, so many good comments. Thank you, everybody.

Jack, absolutely. Power is very consistent. My reading of Seeing Like a State is one of the things that sparked this post, and something Scott emphasizes over and over again is the consistency of action from one authority to another (his particular examples are czarist/Soviet Russia and Tanzania under colonial rule and out of it), despite widely different ideologies used to justify the actions.

bonobo, you're right--making it out to seem like all power wants is leisure is vastly oversimplified. More than that, it's misleading and really should be amended (I think tomorrow I'll be updating this post with amendments--clearly marked and sourced, of course!). I think the desire for relative leisure and, perhaps more importantly, relative luxury still does a decent job explaining it, though it is still incomplete. Sadism, greed, and status-seeking strike me more as emergent properties of the stratification itself, but I don't actually have an evidence of that. Just a gut feeling.

I think that the buzzing activity you refer to might very frequently be exactly the creation of more and more intermediaries as I describe here--as for example US meddling around the world, installing new dictators to serve as an intermediary class between elites and the people of various other countries who produce what the elites need/want (and of course the dictators set about busily creating their own intermediaries). Or just war itself, where troops are the intermediary between the ruling class, who themselves aren't actually doing much, and the productive majority.

And "humpting," if that is your real name, the imputation that societies collapse just because of an overabundance of intermediaries was sloppy on my part. For one thing, it's (probably) not as consistently true as I think my other assertions are. For another thing, it's not a matter of direct cause and effect--there are steps missing in what I wrote. In my defense (kind of?) the reason I left it so sloppy is that the connection between the two is not the same in every case.

But, ok, two different narratives. In the first, a society becomes so stratified that it forgets that it relies on the knowledge of the working majority. At this point, maybe it becomes just insanely cruel to that majority, provoking a revolution, or decides that they're useless and starts killing them off. In either case, everything that society needs to survive is gone, and therefore, so is the society. In other words, if elements of a society are dependent on other elements, with no reciprocity, the dependence itself becomes a weak point that might break at any point.

Another narrative is the direction pretty much all of human society seems to be headed in, which is to rely more and more on non-sustainable technological solutions to satisfy the needs of the ruling minority. The intermediaries in the world today are constantly working on new ways to extract resources from the majority and from the earth itself, and the system as a whole has become so successful at it that it's on a course to exhaust basically everything. Again, collapse. I feel that I haven't quite sealed my case in this example, but I swear it's just because I'm tired.


Ethan said...

Bolo, interesting! Really cool analysis. Your last paragraph reminds me of something else Scott discusses in SLaS, which is that a lot of "progress" does exactly what you describe. Big agriculture, to name one he discusses at length, when examined in and of itself, can look awfully efficient and profitable--but it's only because its model, by its very nature, shifts inefficiency and cost (of all kinds: monetary, ecological, human, etc.) to other places. Make other people deal with it, basically. I think the "sideways" movement you describe is extremely common, perhaps systemic; "progress" is one of the systems of belief the ruling minority uses to keep the working majority working.

JR, thank you so much! I keep wanting to comment over at your place but keep feeling like I don't have anything intelligent to add to your discussions. You've been doing some really interesting work there recently, hopefully I'll come up with some contributions soon.

Justin, yes! I saw your post and I thought it fit in with this as well. What we're going through right now seems to be a period of rapidly expanding stratification, the creation of more and more layers of the intermediary classes.

McDuff, Jack responded to your point about gender essentially the way I intended to. I think my model actually explains war quite well, as I touched on in my response to bonobo. War is one form of intermediary between the rulers and the workers. I can think of no war that was fought over anything but the extraction of resources from a large group for the benefit of a small one.

You say that it's one-dimensional, a simplistic account of something more complex, which I fully admit it is--that's what a model is, after all. I wouldn't argue in favor of making all of our decisions based off of these paragraphs! But I still submit that much of the complexity you seek arises out of the basics of this model. Beyond that, I'm not sure what to grab onto in your critique, whether to refine my thoughts or to disagree with yours or what have you. There probably is, as you say, "more to it than that," but I don't currently know what that is. If you feel like expanding on your arguments, please do!

Thank you again, everyone. This is a better conversation than I had even hoped for.

Soj said...

A point arrives where some minority, whether through luck or nasty genius or both, hits upon a way of getting other people to do these things for them.

That point is "arrived" (very passive language) at when one very specific thing happens - what we call in modern parlance "private property".

It is only when something can be both owned and owned exclusively that all of the rest follows exactly as you described.

Don't know if you read the Sumerian corpus but as it is our oldest available written record, it clearly establishes how miserable it is to be coerced into working for others over 4,000 years ago and exactly how such a situation came to pass.

Nik said...

Ethan, have you read Freddy Perlman? This post felt a lot like a condensed Against His-story, Against Leviathan.

Randal Graves said...

Good stuff one & all, I mean, hell, I didn't see my kids helping me shovel the driveway this morning. I'm really doing this imperial tyrant thing all wrong.

Anonymous said...

That point is "arrived" (very passive language) at when one very specific thing happens - what we call in modern parlance "private property".

It is only when something can be both owned and owned exclusively that all of the rest follows exactly as you described.

Oh lawdamerseybeat.

It's not "private property" that is the problem. Such reductio ad absurdum has no place in a serious discussion. You have reduced it so far to be meaningless.

One might as well say the root problem is being alive.

The fact that I "own" as my private possession a bicycle that I enjoy riding and maintaining doesn't ruin life for others.


Oxtrot 1
Marx 0

Needs more thought. It has something to do with how the private property is managed, doesn't it? And thus, it has to do with WHAT THINGS should be allowed to be owned privately.

It's not about mere private property.

Ethan said...

Charles, we've disagreed on this before, and I'm sorry to say I still disagree (which is of course fine). I'm sure you've considered this, but have you thought about the difference between private property and personal property?

Soj, I don't know squat about Sumerians. Do you have a reading recommendation? I like your analysis. At first I was going to say that private property only applies on certain scales of this model, but then I realized that that doesn't actually make any sense and that your addition applies at all scales.

Nik, I'm completely unfamiliar with that, thanks for the tip. It's on the list now.

Randal, obviously your kids are the tyrants. Better luck next time!

Bruce said...

I don't think it's just luck that minorities take control. As Ernest Becker examined in his work, because life is ambiguous, there is a real desire in people to find an anchor that will establish their identities and roles. Culture and religion are not simply imposed on people - they are welcomed.

Richard said...

Yeah, as Ethan says, private property is not the same thing as personal possessions. That we tend to think of them both as private property is a longstanding victory for capital.

Ethan said...

Bruce, I think I addressed both of your points in my original post--I didn't say it was only luck that did it, and I pointed out that belief systems can be created or pre-existing ones corrupted.

Anonymous said...

Ethan, before I respond I want to tell you that I wasn't meaning to undermine this good discussion. When talking essentials of group societies and the problems they should resolve to address, these sticking points are bound to arise.

I think the real problem is that there's a leftist romantic attachment to the notion of utter abolition of private property, which is rooted in the urge for more communal living -- a good urge, a valiant one even, and one I share.

Suggesting there's a real distinction between "personal" and "private"? Not entirely sure I follow. I suspect "personal" property exists by social agreement -- "that's Oxtrot's house, and he doesn't like strange people squatting there" -- but is not enforceable in any way, meaning it exists at the suffrage and forbearance of all urges to exert communal control over everything.

Maybe it's something more than that, though.

Bruce said...

Ethan, thank you for your response.

I realize that you mentioned the establishment of a belief system, but I think it necessary to emphasize that, despite the extra work involved, the laboring majority truly desires a belief system that orders their universe and that the minorities, too, believe in it. It is not merely a power game because the life of humans is strange and ambiguous, in itself, and humans want it to make sense - even if it kills us.

Capitalism is not founded by the merely power-hungry, but by people who were (and are) desperately afraid of disorder. This fear may be misplaced, but if we don't acknowledge it we are left with seeing such people as simply evil.

What makes Mubarak so destructive? Is he just evil incarnate?