Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The impotence of politics

I have just finished a round of elections which have kept me from writing for a while – that and a rather nasty breakup. Overall, it turned out the way I wanted – the election, not the breakup. I didn't get elected, but then that never was the point. The second round opposed the Greens to the old socialist party, which was quite an event in itself, and by openly supporting the former, I put myself in a good position for the 2014 municipal election. This required a lot of advance planning, but it has worked so far.

If this sounds cynical, it's normal, at least in part. That's only a part of the story, however.

Activists and radicals are prone to dismiss mainstream politicians as cynical and self-serving, but this comes from a distorted view of what politics are and can do. We may live in offices and eat processed food, our social behavior is still rooted in our evolutionary history as pack hunters and primates. Archaic human societies were ruled by coalitions, most of the time a strongman and his lieutenants, with a number of social devices designed to make sure he is dependent upon his followers for his continued dominance.

With the Neolithic revolution, our societies have grown far beyond what a single coalition could reasonably manage and have become fractal as a result. Modern societies are a hierarchy of nested coalitions all built upon the same model, from your average nuclear family to the G8. Inside those coalitions, everyone is jockeying for position and fighting for access to scarce resources. This the way all human groups work, even anarchies. In fact, it is far more brutal among anarchists – especially the Randite subtype – because by rejecting institutionalized power, they destroy the various social devices our species evolved to check the pack leader's dominance.

A consequence is that our leaders' power is utterly dependent upon the support of their allies and followers. The chieftain of a Cro-Magnon tribe could theoretically browbeat his fellow hunters into submission. A modern politician must give his supporters what they want – or at least tell them what they want to hear – lest they desert him. That means he must cater to the delusions and obsessions of his electorate if he does not want to become a very lone voice crying in a very empty desert.

That is why even the few politicians who know the truth about our situation cannot do anything meaningful about it. If they did they would soon find themselves out of a job, in the manner of Ben Ali.

The Greens, which I supported, are basically a revitalization movement. The closest historical example – at least from an American point of view – was Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa's confederacy. Quitting drinking and opposing a united front to the settlers was clearly a good idea, but even a total success on that front would not have been enough to keep the settlers at bay. Piling up symbolic acts – even if some of them are actually good ideas – won't prevent, or even significantly slow, the decline of industrial civilization, not this late in the game. The only thing which could have some effect, that is deliberately diminishing our consumption, is every bit as unthinkable among the Greens as it is in the other political parties – including mine, it has to be said.

I am, in fact, quite sure that at least some Greens (as well as some of us) are aware of this. The problem is that going so blatantly against the wish and expectations of their (and our) electors will make them run away in less time than one needs to say “Mubarak”.

Even those who officially support degrowth are forced to disguise it as progress, lest they lose whatever small support they have. There is no way to support extensive public services without an industrial economy, yet degrowthers feel obliged to claim the contrary because most of them come from the left and being on the left here means maintaining that state funding for your lifestyle is an inalienable right.

Should a left winger (or anybody else for that matter) state the truth — that is, that the years of affluence are nearing their end and that we, as a people, are going to have to live with far less — he would be immediately branded as a dangerous extremist and an accomplice of whatever conspiracy is fashionable at the moment.

In fact, politicians' options are far more limited than laymen's.

Acting openly to prepare for the future is impossible – we would be quickly out of a job. We can, of course, prepare covertly for the future. I am persuaded that a few leaders, and at least some services, do this. The problem is that the changes needed to adapt to the end of the industrial society are so drastic that one cannot implement them stealthily. Moreover, even a gradual implementation is likely to be met with fierce resistance... and there would be no shortage of would-be presidents to capitalize on that.

In France, the most likely winner would be Marine Le Pen – think Nick Griffin with a brain, and a skirt.

The role of intellectual exile is another option, and a tempting one. Walking out of the political scene and writing for the future enables you to keep your intellectual integrity. It may also give you a greater influence upon the future. After all, Augustine of Hippo's writings have had a far greater impact than the actions of the Western Emperor Honorius or the Vandal king Geiseric. The problem is that not everybody is Augustine of Hippo, and that whatever you write is far more likely to end up in a recycle bin than in a neo-monastic library.

Besides, politicians are often dependent on the power structure for their livelihood. They are as free to leave as your average middle manager – especially after a nasty and costly breakup. Incidentally, this is also true for radicals. Could a Marxist or the head of a women's studies department diverge from the party line without endangering his or her job? Hardly.

The end result is that those of us who are aware of the situation just muddle through, and try to quietly advance policies we know might help without jeopardizing the social order or our ability to pay our mortgages.

And sometimes, we think of Augustine of Hippo.


  1. Good to see you back posting! Re "various social devices": I've been reading the work of Elinor Ostrom on the social devices (she calls them institutions) that are used in a variety of what she calls "social dilemmas", in particular stakeholder-managed commons.

    In her recent book "Understanding Institutional Diversity", she presents a framework for analyzing these institutions. Turns out establishing, and changing, these institutions is a tricky business. As a politician with an unusually broad view, you might find it interesting, if the academic tone doesn't bother you.

  2. "Archaic human societies were ruled by coalitions, most of the time a strongman and his lieutenants, with a number of social devices designed to make sure he is dependent upon his followers for his continued dominance."

    Not likely. A strongman trying to screw his tribe in the middle of an ice age would be quickly dispatched, or the tribe would not survive. Cooperation works far better when resources are scarce. Strongmen are a feature of later plenty. I recommend Hierarchy in the Forest by Boehm. A very illuminating study of our origins.

  3. Other than that, yes, politics is useless for helping us. If the people lead, though, the leaders will be glad to follow. :-)

  4. Dwig, thanks for the reference. I'll have a look at it. It is true that if social functions are universal - at least in complex societies - institutions are not. Look at the family, for instance. The basic structure is always the same (a woman bears a child and some male parent cares for both of them) but the details vary wildly. Once a society a chosen a given institution, it is very hard for it to change it even if it becomes dysfunctional.

    The choice is generally between a long evolution or a collapse followed by a reconstruction

  5. Vera, the alpha male is, I am afraid, very much alive, and, while it is fortunately far from the norm, a significant number of modern families work that way.

    Remember that today's hunter-gatherers are survivors, driven away in inhospitable lands by agrarian cultures. They had to deal internally with the aggressive tendencies of their members because projecting those aggressive tendencies outward was no longer an option.

    The paleolithic strongmen were probably not the majority, but they certainly existed. When resources are scarce, there are great advantages in being the leader, or close to the leader. Indeed, the fact that human female are not drab - a rarity in the animal world - suggests there was a very intense intra-band competition at some point of our evolutionary history.

    Now, as a species, we have evolved various device to limit this competition, even if the job is far from being finished.

  6. Glad you are back.

    - from a regular reader.

  7. Advantages for whom?! Certainly not the tribe, who are just as armed and just as able to plot behind the scenes as any such putative leader may be.

    We should be learning from the experience of our ancestors, whether originally Leavers, or refugees from civ, how to put the kaibash on the alphas.

  8. Anonymous, you are welcome. Now that my own version of maintenance crisis is safely in the past, I plan to write a lot more often

  9. Vera, being at the top is highly advantageous for the man at the top, and those close to him, that's why there are so many candidates for the job.

    We may not like it - and I surely don't - but we are pack hunter primates with a lot of hierarchic hard-wiring left from our evolutionary past.

    To give you an example, yesterday I met the president of the General Council. I had sided with his adversary during the last election and am committed to get his party out of the town hall in 2014. Yet, I caught myself leaning toward him and talking faster - marks of submission. Fortunately, there was no no pretty girl around.My attractiveness probably plummeted

    That's an old instinct, but it helped our ancestors to survive the Ice Age and the Toba eruption. Even if it can be counter-productive and can get pretty much out of hand, as we Europeans learned the very hard way, I am afraid we are stuck we it for a very long time.

    By the way, paleolithic leavers did not survive to pass their knowledge one, and the prime cause of death in many hunting-gathering groups is murder. This may not show, but for a 50 men strong band, one violent death every two years is the equivalent of WWII - just do the math.

  10. Ey, Damien. "being at the top is highly advantageous for the man at the top, and those close to him"

    Exactly. Why would any tribe where everyone is more or less equally armed put up with it?

    We have some hierarchical wiring, and we have some pretty strong egalitarian wiring. It is up to us what to do with it.

    Yes, there is steady low level violence in tribes, mostly men competing for women. Along with the occasional inter-tribal skirmish. To compare any of that with war is, frankly, insane.

  11. You might enjoy this:

  12. Anonymous, it is quite interesting, but you are wrong about the banks. The system works fine for growing economies (the key word is growing). When governments create money the often end up with a very embarassing surplus of it (and very funny-looking banknotes with a lot of zero on them)

    Sociopaths are a problem, that's true, but sometimes you need their ruthlessness (when another sociopath is invading, for instance). The democratic answer has been check and balance, and while success is never certain in politics, the fact I am writting from a cozy apartment in Saint-Nazaire rather than from a prison cell in Kerguelen Island shows it works reasonably well.

  13. Vera, one violent death over a four years period in 50 persons strong band is 2% mortality. The mortality rate of WWI over the same period was 1,75%... counting civilian casualities. The chances of a tribesman meeting a violent death a far greater than mine or yours.

    As for submitting to tyrannical rulers... well we, as a species, have done since the beggining of our history. So there is no point in asking why we would do it - we do it, on a regular basis.

    On a deeper level, claiming that tribal life was some kind of paradise which was destroyed by civilisation, is just the myth of progress reversed...

    Tibal life is as brutal as feral life. There is an intact tribe on Sentinel Island (no contact with civilization, remote observation only). Not so long ago a freighter was shipwrecked on the reef there. The crew had to be evacuated by helicopters because the natives were shooting at them.

    From time to time a fisherman gets lost not far away from Sentinel Island. His body is generally found on some beach... with arrows sticking out of it

  14. I understand the argument, Damien. Trouble with it is this: many tribes do not have those kinds of casualties. The Senoi being one of them. To assume that our ancestors did seems to me too much of a reach. Second, I would far rather live in a band where there is one violent death in a four year period than in a society where every so often, whole countries go bonkers and start massacring everyone and vandalizing everything in sight. The real costs are far far different.

    Our history, Damien, began 200,000 years ago. We only began submitting to tyrannical rules a few thousand years ago, a fraction of our species history. Ergo, there is every reason to ask why we do it. Human nature did not change 6,000 years ago, did it?

    I am not claiming that tribal life was paradise. I am claiming that we could learn a few things from it, though.

    Sentinel Island... never heard of it... very cool. Well, look, isn't that nice that there is at least one tribe still extant that is shooting at us, instead of the other way around? We have pretty much destroyed the rest of them... very civilized of us, hm?

    Civilized life is as brutal as they come... with a veneer on top. Don't get me started... ;-)

  15. Also been thinking... how exactly is a tribe supposed to survive except by keeping us away? We are the kiss of death. I looked up the Andamanese, there is a neighboring tribe that decided to stop shooting arrows at us and play nice. They are now being "studied." How long before their culture disappears?

  16. Hi Damien — I find it interesting how few people, even the educated (I'm talking about Australia!) understand how politics works. I spent a morning with our local Federal representative, who is a very capable fellow, as he was harangued by the "green" faction at our little meeting. He kept pointing out that his election depends on pleasing the voters in the power-generating district to our north and the expanding suburbs at the western end of the electorate. Our "green" faction are good people but they simply don't understand how politics works. You must convince the voters, not their representatives!

    It is easy to see how a radical underground green movement could come to the fore, as a minority of the educated elite see the only hope of change being through a "dictatorship of the ecologically-minded", imposed by force on an unwilling population.

  17. Vera, who is this "us". The Bantus did push away African hunter-gatherers, not the Europeans. The Inuits destroyed the Dorset culture, not the Vikings or the Danes. As for the European hunter-gatherers, they evolved out of this lifestyle.

    The tribes are not some primaeval heaven, they are human societies trying to make the best of limited resources. The only reason why they did not become kingdoms or Empire is because their neighbors (for the Senois) or their environment (for the inuits) or both (for the khoisan) did not allow them to do it.

  18. Lloyd, that's indeed a risk, and we have our share of red-greens down there more than willing to impose a green dictatorship (oops! excuse-me, planned degrowth under the benevolent guidance of the proletarian state".

    They remain in the minority, fortunately

  19. "Us" of course is the civilized. While you are right that in former times, it was not just the civilized destroying the tribes, for quite some time now it has been. In any case, this is a minor point. My contention was that the only way for that tribe to keep what they have (whether or not *you* judge it a primaeval heaven) is to keep us away, because we are clearly not civilized enough to know how not to destroy them via contact.

    The only reason they did not become civilized is that they couldn't????!!!!! Yikes. I guess you are pretty firmly entrenched in the myths of civilized superiority to be able to just throw off such a remark... ;-)

    Lloyd, ah, yes... it is such a temptation, to just march in and "make'em"! No wonder righties sometimes speak of green Nazis... there is some truth to it.

  20. "Anonymous, you are wrong about the banks. The system works fine for growing economies (the key word is growing). When governments create money the often end up with a very embarassing surplus of it (and very funny-looking banknotes with a lot of zero on them)"

    And private banking is somehow immune from such shenanigans?! The ongoing economic disaster should show those looking that "any" group that is not balanced by others can fall into such abuse.

    Why do we acquiesce to the practice of bankers creating money out of thin air, lending it to governments at interest, and bagging it as profit... but when they screw up, they want to be bailed out at public expense. A scam.

  21. Anonymous, private banking is definitely not immune from money printing, that's why Central Banks have credit policies, but in a normal economy they would have paid for that.

    That they were bailed out shows we are in a dysfunctional economy, but saying so does not mean that the "solutions" some push forward are better.

    Giving back the power of printing money to government would lead to less accountability, not more as history repeatedly showed. As for gold or silver... well, their rate of extraction is unrelated to the general health of economy, so there is real risk of disastrous mismatch

  22. Vera, in a tribal society, I would not have gotten past my first year.

    As Tainter showed, civilization, i.e investment in complexity is a problem solving technique and all people tried it to the extend they could to outcompete their rivals. The Senoi were not the first inhabitant of Malaysia and neither were the Taiwanese aboriginals or the Ainus. As for Australian, their linguistic diversity is quite low, so somebody must have gotten into a civilization spree at some point in the past, even if at that point being civilized was using a boomerang

  23. Has history showed less accountability with government? I am only familiar with the Guernsey pounds which were reputed to be administered soundly for 150 years. The Pennsylvania scrip, backed by land, was a stable currency for several decades, and its inflation was connected with the French Indian war that Britain wished to fight but did not provide needed revenue for. But I am no expert in this area.

    I am merely observing that when money is treated as a public utility, when it's administered well, the entire commonwealth profits by the interest collected, and when it is not, all suffer equally.

    Whereas, when it's privatized, the interest collected goes into a small number of private hands, and when they screw up, the rest of us suffer, while they get bailed out and trow a bonus party.

  24. Anonymous, the administration of such a currency will be as accountable as the government and as responsible as the people. Besides, a beleaguered government will print money as if there were no tomorrow.

    Look, for instance at what happened to the French assignats or to the continental currency, or more recently to the Zimbabwean dollar.

    Even the gold standard is not immune to this : putting gold into gold coins in a time-honored tradition.

  25. Beleaguered gov't will. So will beleaguered bankers. So what do you suggest? Perhaps a peer-to-peer monetary system like Bitcoin will finally find a way...