Tuesday, 14 May 2019

A week-end in Wiltshire

I just had a wonderful week-end in Wiltshire. It was the best I could afford for my 66th birthday celebration; trips abroad, except in winter, seem to be outside my price range these days.

I stayed in Swindon. Not exactly a tourist destination; but there’s a hotel there, which I consider to be the best of its chain (and I’ve stayed at more than 100 of them). Comfy beds, nice staff, great breakfast, less than 2 miles from town, and has a lift. It was also cheaper, for my dates, than any other hotel in the chain in southern England.

I drove there on the Friday afternoon. It took less than 2 hours – fastest ever on that route. I walked into town, had a couple of beers at Wetherspoon’s, then trudged up the hill to the Old Town.

For me, there’s one best pub in Swindon: the Goddard Arms. Its address – 1 High Street – tells it all. Their Hog Roast Pie isn’t bad, either. Nor their wine.

On Saturday, the weather was partly cloudy, but dry and reasonably warm. I decided to do one of my longer walks. So, I took a bus to Marlborough – my old stamping ground, having been at the College there in the late 1960s. I set out westwards, through Preshute and Manton to Clatford. My plan was to walk up on the Downs as far as I could, and get whatever transport was available back to Swindon.

I went past the “Devil’s Den,” a trilithon of sarsen stones which, 50 years before, I had noted as having about it a kind of “evil electricity.” It still had that feel! And it caused me to mis-navigate; meaning that when I got to the top of the hill, I was in the right place, but the wrong side of a fence I couldn’t climb. Requiring a substantial détour.

Then I picked up a westward path, towards Avebury. There were many runners coming in the opposite direction; I later found they belonged to a club called the “Swindon Striders.”

I branched to the right, on to the “White Horse Trail.” This took me through a beautiful wood, with sarsen stones carpeted with lichen, and great numbers of bumblebees, butterflies (of many colours) and bluebells. Anyone who believes there is a human-caused “species extinction crisis” ought to visit that wood in early summer, and see the bio-diversity for themselves.

When I came to the Ridgeway path, I could see the hills of Gloucestershire in the distance. Turning right, it wasn’t long before I could see the hills of Oxfordshire. I passed the spot where, back in 2007, I had written my (so far) only profitable literary work, an essay which won me a prize of £1,000. Deciding it was time to come off the hill, I turned left and made for the village of Broad Hinton.

On the way down, I had to divert off the path to avoid a swarm of bees. Only the third time I have seen bees swarming in my 66 years! I had to wade through waist-high crops to get around them. And they were spread over a wide area. It was half a mile before I reached the shade of a copse, and could get away from them entirely. Are bees endangered? Not in Wiltshire.

At the bottom, good news! There’s an hourly bus back to Swindon, even on a Saturday. And there’s a pub – the Barbury Inn – right there. The people were friendly, and the first pint of Stella didn’t even touch the sides! Then, I took the bus back to the Old Town; and the Goddard Arms fed me again. The fish pie was even better than the Hog Roast.

To Sunday. I decided to take the bus (which, for those of a certain age in the UK, is “free”) to Oxford. And the buses on that route are especially comfortable. As a Cambridge man, I have a degree of contempt for all things Oxford. But I enjoyed my wander around what I used to dub “the second-best university in the world.” And the pint in the King’s Head afterwards.

On the way back, on the upper deck of a double-decker, I noticed that the front window was absolutely splattered with the remains of bugs that had flown into it. And as we travelled back towards Swindon, detectably more bugs added themselves to the carnage. Those who claim that there are less bugs than there used to be, and cite as “evidence” that their car windscreens don’t get as many as they used to, ignore the aerodynamic improvements in cars, which have taken place in the meantime.

But perhaps the highlight of the whole trip was my brief stop in Faringdon. This is a beautiful small town, but it has some very strange local politics. It prides itself as a “Fairtrade Town,” and claims that it signed the “Nottingham Declaration on Climate Change” back in 2007. But my main excursion was up the hill, to All Saints’ Church. Part of it dates from the late 12th century, and the vicar and his wife (at least, that’s who I assume they were) were happy to let me browse, and to chat to me. I’m not a churchy person, but that is a church worth visiting.

A pint in the Old Crown Coaching Inn, and the lux bus back to Swindon. The rest of the evening was banal, but it included (lots of) food and drink, and I enjoyed it. So was completed my 66th birthday week-end in Wiltshire.

Friday, 3 May 2019

On the Rhythms of History

Today, I’ll take a step back from detail, and try to look at the big picture. I’ll seek to trace in outline the rhythms of human history. Rise and fall, fall and rise. Progress and regress, revolution and reaction.

The rise and fall of empires

See first, in your mind’s eye, the Roman empire. See it change from monarchy, to republic, and back to near monarchy. See its western half, in time, become decadent, and collapse in chaos. See its eastern half, sometimes weakening, sometimes strengthening itself; but eventually unable to hold together against its enemies.

See, in your mind, the British empire over several centuries grow and prosper, until the sun never set on it. Then watch it decay, and become first a rump, then a laughing-stock. See the Soviet Union rise, and become a super-power. Then see it lose confidence in its ideology, and eventually shatter. See the European Union, which supposedly began as an economic project, grow, morph into a political project of “ever closer union,” and become hated by many as élitist, bureaucratic and untrustworthy. See the current American hegemony, which has risen, peaked and – so some say – might self-destruct at any moment.

Here is a rhythm of history. Human political institutions rise when they meet the demands of their times. They grow and prosper, as long as the times are right for them. When times change, they may adapt by mutating into different forms, as the Roman empire did. But eventually, they overstay their welcome. They decay and die. And the bigger they are, and the more centralized, the harder they fall.

The rhythm of revolution

Think, next, about the Renaissance. Think of its re-discovery of the legacy of Greece and Rome. Think of the spurt of dynamism and innovation it brought. Think of the art, architecture and literature it produced. Think of the new spirit of free enquiry, of recognition of the dignity of Man, of our mastery over our surroundings.

At the Renaissance, something changed inside many people’s minds. They became more individual, more dynamic, more innovative, more civilized. The change was gradual from the point of view of individual lives, but it was quick compared with the centuries preceding it.

Think of the development of the scientific method; devise an experiment to ask Nature a question, and let Nature answer. So building up, piece by piece, a picture of the scientific truth.

Think of the Enlightenment, and the new values it brought. That right and wrong are determined by human nature, not by the decrees of rulers. That government must be for the benefit of the governed. That human beings have rights, which must not be trampled on. Again, something changed in many people’s minds. The results were seen in the American revolution.

Now think of the Industrial Revolution, and the entrepreneurial spirit and improvement in living standards which it brought. Think of the energy revolution, which has enabled us to keep warm in winter, and comfortably cool in summer. Think of the transport revolution, which has enabled us to travel, at reasonable cost, where and when we want or need to, whether over short, medium or long distances. Think of the technology and computer revolution, and – for example – of how much easier it is to write an essay like this today than, say, sixty years ago. Think of the communications revolution and the Internet, and of how they have enriched and improved both the finding and taking in of information and ideas (research) and their giving out (publication).

Here is a second rhythm of our history. Periodically, new ideas give rise to an increase in human capabilities, and an improvement in the human condition. Every so often, a revolution takes place in our thinking, and we bound forwards.

The rhythm of reaction

But there is an antithesis to our revolutionary rhythm. In every case, there is a current of reaction; of opposition and resistance to change for the better.

I think it no coincidence, for example, that the printing press was developed, and Renaissance thought spread, in the same time period as the Borgia pope and the founding of the Spanish Inquisition. Nor that the scientific method was discovered, and the Enlightenment ushered in, in a 17th century characterized by religious wars and political strife. Nor that today’s governments misuse our advances in technology and communications to subject us to constant surveillance; and increasingly seek to prevent the expression of views not sanctioned by the establishment.

Moreover, there is today a concerted effort, by the political class and their hangers-on, to discredit the advances we have made over the last several centuries. No, they try to tell us, we are not masters of our surroundings; we are no more than (and, to some of them, we are less than) animals. No, they try to tell us, there is no such thing as truth. And you should not try to use science to seek truth; this is a “post-normal” era, in which you must simply believe whatever the “experts” tell you. No, they try to tell us, there are no objective standards of right and wrong; you must simply obey whatever “laws” the panjandrums currently in power dictate.

No, they try to tell us, industry is not good; it causes pollution, damage to the environment, and risks to health. Not to mention global warming and endangering species. And, so they say, it should be curtailed or eliminated. No, they try to tell us, capitalism – that is, private ownership of business and industry, with investments determined by private decision – is not a good thing; we should simply rely on the state to do everything and to take care of us.

No, they try to tell us, we should not heat (or, even worse, cool) our homes so as to be comfortable. No, they try to tell us, we must not drive cars, but should walk, cycle or use public transport; or not travel at all. No, they try to tell us, we must not travel by air – even though they themselves do it regularly. And on top of all this, they shower us with nasty epithets like “selfish,” “ignorant” or “wanton” – not to mention “denier.”

Paradigms

There is a fourth rhythm of human history, too. It is on a larger scale than the first three. Periodically, the way we do things changes. An old way of doing things – an old paradigm, if you like – comes to its breaking point, and is replaced by a new.

For example, as I explained in an earlier essay, before about twelve and a half thousand years ago, our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. Then something changed. Perhaps the population reached a critical mass in some areas. Or perhaps there were many bad hunting seasons in a row. Whatever the reason, our ancestors began to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. So, agriculture was born. I can only imagine the tensions between the new cultivators and herdsmen, and those that continued in the old ways. But the fact is, the agriculturalists won out. And no-one today – except a very few crazy environmentalists – would willingly give up the benefits which come from farming, and return to a subsistence based on hunting and gathering.

Until five or six thousand years ago, later in some places, societies were mostly peaceful. Power and prestige were acquired by the mere fact of survival into relative old age. Then, something changed. Perhaps, again, the population reached a critical mass in particular areas. Perhaps there were many years of bad farming conditions, leading to famines. Whatever the reason, something changed inside the minds of some of the stronger and more intelligent men. They began to desire power – power over others. They didn’t want to wait to become elders; they wanted power now! They began to develop their skills in combat, and in leading and controlling people. They started to raid their neighbours. They began to cultivate violence and deceit; for in war, violence and deceit are considered virtues. Thus arose the state – institutionalized violence and dishonesty.

Others, meanwhile, were learning to control people more subtly. They knew that people sensed, through their minds, a great power at the edge of experience. This power went by many names – the gods, God, the “logos,” the Muses – and many people liked to do homage to it. So, the unscrupulous began to control people by setting themselves up as representatives of this power. They claimed moral authority by placing themselves between people and their gods. Thus arose the church – institutionalized mental control and mumbo-jumbo.

From that time, right up to the present, we’ve been suffering the Age of State and Church. And control and conflict have been the dominant themes of human history.

Progress and Regress

But then came the Renaissance. And it was followed by after-shocks: the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the 19th-century entrepreneurial spirit, the 20th-century technology and communications revolutions. These times of progress have, however, always been resisted by the “old guard,” the establishment and their cronies. They don’t want to give up any of their power or their unearned privileges. So, they fight hard; and they use lies, ruses, harassment and, at need, organized violence as their weapons in that fight.

It is in our nature, human nature, to be civilized. And that means building civilizations. We have built up from the Neolithic villages, through the ancient and mediaeval city-states, to the current (but failed) system of nation-states. And now we are approaching the ability to build a world-wide Civilization, in which every individual can flourish to the limit of his or her abilities. Ever since the Enlightenment, though, our progress towards this Civilization has been fitful. Like the contractions which precede the birth of a baby, there have been motions of forward and backward, of progress and regress.

In an earlier essay, “On Political Ideologies,” I recounted how the tone and flavour of political societies have evolved over the last four centuries or so. And the story isn’t good. The current political model, laid down in the 16th century by Frenchman Jean Bodin, has allowed wave after wave of evil political ideologies to take hold in various parts of the world. Socialism, Marxism and communism, fascism, racism, dictatorship, theocracy. And recently in the West, the unholy trinity of welfarism, warfarism and environmentalism, supplemented by political correctness. That’s without even mentioning the super-state projects: the EU and the UN.

Except for Enlightenment liberalism, all these ideologies have been anti-human. Corruption and decay are built into the entire political system. And the fig-leaf called Democracy, despite initial promise, has proved a failure. For democracy has allowed the worst actual and potential psychopaths into positions of power. It has polluted our mental atmosphere with lies, deceit, ruses, propaganda and empty promises. And it gives apparent legitimacy to bad governments.

The deep rhythm

From my reading of history, I think I see a deep, underlying rhythm, a repeated pattern in human events. When new ways of doing things are tried, at first, they can work well and be a benefit. But after a certain point, they often become corrupted, polluted and perverted. Then they cease to be positives, and become drains on people. But those, that benefit from the continuation of the system, seek to preserve it, and even to expand and intensify it.

Gradually, things get worse, until a tipping point is reached. Before the tipping point, there is often a time of chaos. These are not easy times to live in. The old way of doing things is collapsing; but the new way has not yet arrived.

In the lead up to a major tipping point, the chaos is not just political; there are uncertainties and contradictions inside people’s minds, too. People lose confidence in “authorities” and “experts.” Many lose confidence in religion, too. And their trust in those at the top of the political system reduces, and eventually approaches zero.

But when the tipping point happens, the game changes completely. There is a paradigm shift; a, relatively sudden, change in the way in which many people think. This happened, for example, at the Renaissance and at the Enlightenment. And this shift leads to further new ideas being tried. Often, radical ones. Eventually, one or more of these new ideas works well. And life starts to get better again – often, very substantially and very quickly.

This rhythm, I think, helps to explain our slow and fitful progress towards Civilization over the last several centuries. And today, we’re in the lead-up to a tipping point. Not just any old tipping point, either. I think we’re headed for the biggest change in several thousand years. That is, the impending collapse of the state, and the political system as we know it; and their replacement by a new and better way.

Monday, 22 April 2019

Foresters’ Cough: A Fable

1.

Once upon a time, there was an island. On which, there were two realms, each ruled over by a king. On one side the ruler was King Nick, of the O’Hell dynasty. And on the other, King Dopo, of the house of O’Whinger. They were totally different characters; and they had completely different approaches to ruling.

King Nick was an individual. He knew how lucky he was, to have been born a king. He had been trained as a mathematician, so he thought from the bottom up. He knew he was fallible, but he always strove to be rational and objective. When opposing points of view were presented to him, he sought to look at both sides, compare one with the other, and work out which was closer to right. When one of his advisors asserted something not sufficiently backed up with facts, he liked to reply: “Prove it!” And when someone admitted that they didn’t know the answer to one of his questions, he often asked: “What would it take to find out?”

He was a strong supporter of the precautionary principle: “Look before you leap,” or even “First, do no harm.” So, he was always reluctant to intervene in the affairs of his subjects, unless he had reason to be pretty damn sure the effects would be positive.

King Nick cared about his people – the human beings over whom, by some chance, he had been “elected” to rule. Not only in the singular – “the people.” But even more so, in the plural: “people.” Persons. Individuals. He had a very strong ideal of justice: everyone deserves to be treated as he or she treats others. Of course, he didn’t care much for criminals or political operators – “I’ll give them what they damn well deserve” was one of his favourite sayings. But if people didn’t do bad things to others, he let them get on with their lives in their own way.

As a result, the economy flourished, and King Nick’s people were happier than those in other realms of the time. Moreover, Nick took only such payment as was necessary to support his own role as Chief Justice, his assistant judges and support staff, his advisors for the time being, a few Sheriffs to deal with those violent criminals that were too dangerous for ordinary people to arrest, and such a militia as might be necessary from time to time. And he never re-distributed wealth, except to make wrongdoers compensate the victims of their wrongs.

King Dopo, across the border, might have been a nice person, if he hadn’t been a king. But he was a top-down thinker, and he had his own dogmas. One was that the collective was everything, and individual freedoms, rights and desires meant nothing. Dopo called this idea “democratic socialism.” Another was… because he had been born a king, that gave him a right to rule.

Dopo had a restless mind, and a fiery imagination. Having been trained as a biologist, he loved animals, but he didn’t like people very much. He thought that people were naturally bad; and that most of them never grew up. He also thought he knew everything there was to know about the world. That meant, that every time he had a new brainwave, he conceived a desperate urge to try it out on his people. Regardless of the consequences to those people; for Dopo believed that “the king can do no wrong.”

Moreover, when presented with an issue, Dopo only ever looked at the bad consequences, never the good. His interpretation of the precautionary principle was: “If something bad might happen, I must act.” He never looked at the other side of the issue, or at the damage his actions might cause. Nor did he ever accept responsibility for that damage when it happened.

King Dopo fawned on those among his advisors, who told him what he wanted to hear. He called them “experts,” and elevated them to the highest positions. And, on the promptings of those “experts,” he made laws. Lots of laws. Most of them, bad laws. For the advisors spent most of their time scheming how they could fool Dopo into supporting their own interests. The rest of the time, he spent indulging himself with his own pet projects.

And Dopo taxed his people heavily. Not merely for courts, police and militia; but also, for his pet schemes, and for his advisors and their ever-growing cadres of bureaucrats, propagandists and hangers-on. So, the people of Dopo’s realm were subjected to rigid rule, in which taxes went forever up and up, and relief – let alone progress – was out of the question.

But to give him his due, Dopo wasn’t a warlike king. King Nick, who wasn’t warlike either, had chosen simply to let him be. And the kings from other islands were put off by the stories of his terrible taste in colour. When in military dress, Dopo’s subjects wore, and carried shields of, a mixture of bright red and green so disgusting to behold, that enemy soldiers who saw them felt an overwhelming urge to be physically sick, and soon recused themselves from the battlefield. Thus, although life for people under Dopo’s rule was dull, depressing and draining, his realm endured for decades without a revolution.

2.

Some years before, vast deposits of oil had been discovered in Nick’s realm. The people had soon found many uses for this black, sticky, flammable stuff. They used it to heat their homes. They used it to make chemical products. They used it to drive their (steam) engines. They developed steam ploughs and steam seeders. The effect of these innovations was to free up much of the labour force; who then went to the towns and cities, and started making other products which were in demand in Nick’s realm and in others. They built oil powered ships to transport their wares to other islands, and steam carriages – running on specially constructed tracks – to transport people and goods within the realm. And so, Nick’s realm became a great manufacturing and trading power, and his people prospered ever more.

On the other side of the border, Dopo had bought a polar bear from a king in the far North, and installed it in a specially constructed reservation. This project failed, because the bear escaped from the reservation, and killed about fifty of Dopo’s subjects before being put down. More successful was the heron colony, which Dopo founded in a forest a few miles from his capital. Indeed, the herons – large, vicious, long-beaked birds, up to five feet tall, that lived on a diet of large fish and small to medium-sized mammals – were too successful. They increased so rapidly in size, that they started to eat human children, when available.

Meanwhile, Dopo’s people continued to farm using the ancient methods. The rich used animals to haul their ploughs, while the poor had to yoke themselves up and do all the work themselves. And in winter, they continued to heat their homes using wood. Indeed, it was already noticeable that the forests were becoming smaller in some parts of the realm.

When Dopo heard about the discovery of oil, he was worried. Now, Dopo’s realm also had oil, though not as much as Nick’s. But he worried that this “oil” stuff might be toxic. He worried that it might run out. He worried that it might be unsafe to use. But, alarmed also about the possibility of running out of wood, he did allow a pilot project to be built, a small oil-fired incinerator that burned dried sewage. But this project was a failure. A stuck valve, and a lax attitude to safety typical of the privileged class under socialism, resulted in a mighty explosion and fire, that destroyed half of one of the prettiest cities in the realm.

Dopo issued a Royal Proclamation that the extraction and use of oil would henceforth be banned in his realm. Knowing that the people would not be happy about this, he also put his spinmeisters into action. Their latest slogan, “Burn wood, and life will be good; burn oil, and we’ll all boil,” echoed up and down the land. And the people bought it – for now.

3.

Now it came to pass, that a disease arose among the people on the island. The main symptom was a raw, hacking cough. It was at its worst in quiet weather, during the seasons of Autumn and Winter. The disease was first noticed among the people in remote, heavily forested parts of King Nick’s realm. And so, it was dubbed Foresters’ Cough. Most people soon recovered from the cough, and returned to full health; but a very few of those, who got the cough, died.

Nick, true to his nature, asked one of his advisors to find out what might be the cause or causes of this ailment. The adviser went out to the boondocks, and returned with a suggestion that there might, perhaps, be some association between the burning of wood, particularly in closed spaces, and the incidence of Foresters’ Cough. Nick set up a commission to investigate this. Up and down the realm they went, measuring how much wood was being burned in each place, and how many people got (and how many died from) Foresters’ Cough there.

The Commission wrote a report, and presented it to Nick. Foresters’ Cough was lowest in the towns and cities, where many people now burned oil. And it was highest in the remote forests, particularly among the poorest people. It seemed that there was a clear correlation between the burning of wood and the cough. Some members of the commission suggested that wood smoke was the cause of the cough. Nick, however, was scathing. He said: “Correlation does not imply causation. And what are the physical and chemical mechanisms, by which wood smoke causes toxic effects?” The commissioners could not answer.

Then Nick said: “You have done good, honest work. But there is not enough proof here for me to make any regulations regarding the burning of wood by my people. So, I bid you publish and promulgate your report. Let the people read it, and do each what they will.” He also suggested, to a group of industrialists: “You may want to increase production of your gas masks, to protect those people who cannot avoid breathing the smoke from burning wood.”

Out of courtesy, Nick sent Dopo a copy of the report by personal messenger. As a result – no pun intended – Hell broke loose.

Now Dopo’s treasury at the time was badly stretched, under the ever-increasing demands of the rich and powerful “experts” and their hangers-on. Not to mention the huge, and ever growing, projects he had taken on at their suggestion. And worse, he had recently precipitated the fiasco of the Low Dung Zone.

The Low Dung Zone had been a brilliant idea. Horse dung was obviously damaging to the people; it smelled bad, and they could slip in it. So, Dopo had instituted a swingeing tax on all journeys by horse in the most populated parts of his realm. The “experts” and other cronies were exempted, of course; for when they rode, they were doing so on the King’s business. But far from bringing in the revenues he had hoped, the tax had backfired. Unable to afford to pay the tax, the people had simply stopped making any journeys longer than they could do on foot. As a result, everyone was worse off; even Dopo himself.

Foresters’ Cough was also affecting Dopo’s kingdom. In fact, because the people were far poorer, its effects were much more severe than they had been in Nick’s realm. Dopo’s advisers urged him to “act decisively to remove this scourge,” and to “declare a public health emergency.”

Dopo liked what he heard from his sycophants, so he acted. He banned the burning of wood, throughout the kingdom and with immediate effect. The ban would be enforced by mounted squads of Wood Police, staffed by the most violent, vicious and unthinkingly obedient scum in the realm. And as always, Dopo and his buddies would be exempted from the ban.

Dopo issued the relevant Royal Proclamation. Then he scribbled a note to Nick thanking him for the report and outlining what he was going to do, and gave it to the messenger. Next, he gave his spinmeisters instructions for a change of course. To Full Astern, indeed. Now, the slogans that poured out of the spin machine included “Save Our Forests!” and “If you burn wood, you’ll soon be coffin’!”

4.

When the messenger returned to Nick’s palace, Nick read the note from Dopo. Now, the season was already Autumn. And Nick’s weather forecasters had predicted a hard Winter. Nick, unusually for him, took immediate action. He gave orders for a force to be sent to the border area. “Methinks we’re going to have a refugee problem,” he said to the messenger.

Nick’s forecasters had predicted well. The weather became cold, then colder, then coldest.

Meanwhile, in Dopo’s realm, the Wood Police galloped around looking for people to punish for burning wood against “the law.” The punishment was incineration of the people’s houses, along with everyone in them. As the great majority of the houses were made of wood, the effect was actually to increase the amount of wood smoke in the air – a subtlety that had been entirely lost on Dopo.

The weather grew colder, and it snowed profusely. Dopo and all his closest cronies withdrew to his Winter Palace, next to the heron colony. There, they burned huge quantities of wood to keep themselves warm. They thought they were safe, because they had bought a job lot of the latest designer gas masks from the manufacturers in Nick’s kingdom.

Cold, hungry and angry at Dopo, the people got up and left en masse. Those who lived near the coasts took to ships. Some sailed south, seeking softer seasons. Some sought sanctuary with kings on neighbouring islands. The rest took such provision as they had, and embarked on the long trudge towards the border of King Nick’s realm. Except for a few of the relatively rich who owned mules, they had to leave their horses behind, as they could not carry enough fodder for the journey, and no grass was available because of the snow.

Even the Wood Police had grown tired of Dopo. They stole the few ships which remained in the harbours, and set off to sea. Since only a few were seamen, many of them perished. But historians tell us that the Wood Police founded the first of the many colonies of pirates, which would so plague sea trade in the region over the next century or so.

When the caravan arrived at Nick’s border, the border guards were friendly, but would not allow them across the river which separated the two realms. “Settle yourselves on the other side of the river,” they said, “and nominate twelve of your number to form a delegation to King Nick.”

The delegation, once admitted, travelled to Nick’s capital by steam carriage. All agreed that it was warmer, smoother and much faster than even the finest coach-and-four. Nick received them cordially, and said: “I will issue a proclamation, that all who are willing and able to give should send to the border food for you, to help you through your immediate emergency. After that, all the help we give you, you will have eventually to pay for. But that should not be too hard for you, because Dopo’s realm has ample deposits of gold. And I’m sure our financiers can work out a payment plan for you, which is acceptable on both sides.”

Nick appointed a viceroy, to go back with the delegation to their camps on the other side of the river, and to lead them in integrating into industrial society. There were few trees in the immediate border area. So, Nick also sent engineers, to teach them how to find and extract oil – for there was oil on Dopo’s side of the river, too – to keep them warm through the winter.

By February, back at the Winter Palace, the supply of wood was running out. Dopo sent a group of his cronies out for more, but they came back bemused. There was not a single human being to be seen in all of the area. “Cut it yourselves, then,” ordered Dopo. But few of the “experts,” propagandists and the like had any knowledge of forestry. The efforts to gather more wood were slow, noisy and doomed to failure.

The last days of King Dopo are not recorded in the annals. But there is a theory, which some ascribe to King Nick himself, that alerted by all the noise, the hundreds of huge, hungry herons – now, each big enough to devour a grown man – got him. And all his cronies, too. And then, the herons all died of food poisoning.

On the first day of Spring, King Nick travelled by steam carriage to the border. He walked across the bridge, conferred with his viceroy, and then said to the assembled multitude: “Those of you, who wish to settle on this side of the river and trade with us, are free to do so. For the rest of you, it is time to go home.”

And they all lived happily – not to mention freely and prosperously – ever after.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Extinction’s Extinct! (Or is it?)

I’ve been (reluctantly) following the news of the recent London protests by a group calling themselves “Extinction Rebellion.” There have been similar protests in Australia, and maybe in other places too.

Here’s what I got from their website: https://rebellion.earth/the-truth/demands/

(1) “Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.”

Now, I’m all in favo(u)r of government telling the truth! (Which it almost never does). But the truth is, that the greenies have gone way beyond sanity. To anyone who looks into the matter, the green allegations – and the mantra “human CO2 emissions cause catastrophic climate change” in particular – are fraudulent. They’re right that there’s urgency for change; but wrong about its direction.

(2) “Government must act now to reduce biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.”

Again, they are right and yet wrong. If government should act “to reduce biodiversity loss”, it ought to act to protect the most endangered species on this planet – we civilized human beings! The greenies and their political soulmates have already taken away most of our rights, freedoms and earned prosperity. And now they are closing in on us, and trying to destroy what remains of our civilization.

Would they destroy a termite hill? If yes, how would they explain themselves to the individual termites? If no, where do they get any right to destroy our termite hill?

(3) Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.

Umm, well, err… “I’m the king of your castle.”

* * *

It seems that the driving force behind this movement is the idea that human beings are driving (no pun intended) all other species to extinction. According to received wisdom, there is about one species on this planet for every thousand human individuals. And therefore, about one in a thousand of us must be guilty of extinguishing, or at least trying to extinguish, a species.

So, I thought I’d put forward some questions to ask those that accuse you or me of this “crime.”

(1) Name a species, in whose extinction I played a part.

(2) Describe that species. In detail.

(3) Clearly differentiate that species from any other similar species.

(4) Give the date on which the species became extinct.

(5) Prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that there were live examples of the species within the 10 years preceding your extinction date. If possible, exhibit a specimen.

(6) Prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that the species had died out before your claimed extinction date.

(7) State the causes of that extinction.

(8) State what I as an individual did, and on what date, that contributed to that extinction.

(9) Prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that what I did, on that date, contributed to the extinction of the species you named.

(10) Prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that you have never played any part in extinguishing, or attempting to extinguish, any species. (If you can’t, you have no right to prosecute me.)

Thursday, 11 April 2019

On Politics and Psychopathy

There’s been a meme going around, for some time now, that politicians are psychopaths. Or, at least, have mental disorders. It seems this meme was first sowed in 2003 by neurophysiologist Paul Broks, who suggested, on the evidence of conduct leading up to the Iraq war, that Tony Blair was a “plausible psychopath.” It was spread in 2012 in an article by James Silver in the Atlantic Magazine. The meme is still around today in the blogosphere, and every so often I catch new echoes of it.

So, today I’ll take a look at how much of a link there may be between politics and psychopathy.

What is a psychopath?

The word “psychopath,” dating from 1885, means: “a mentally ill or unstable person; especially a person affected with anti-social personality disorder.” Some use an alternative term, “sociopath.” Even among the experts, the distinction between psychopath and sociopath doesn’t seem entirely clear. But broadly, sociopaths suffer from anti-social personality disorder (ASPD). For example, they have little regard for morality or for the rights of others, they tend to be violent, and they do not feel remorse or guilt. Whereas psychopaths show further, and more severe, symptoms. Including: lack of empathy with others, dishonesty and manipulativeness, and a tendency to take risks and be reckless.

Moreover, psychopaths tend to be better able to hide their disorder, and are often glib and charming. So, compared with sociopaths, it is easier for psychopaths to get away with their bad acts. Which makes them more dangerous to all of us.

Robert D. Hare

In the field of psychopathy studies, a central figure is Robert D. Hare. He is a Canadian psychologist, now in his 80s, who has specialized in the psychology of criminal offenders. About 1980, he developed his Psychopathy Check List (PCL). At the time, there was no general agreement on what a psychopath was, or how to identify one. Hare set out to create a measuring tool for psychopathy, so psychologists could be sure they were talking about the same things.

Since then, his check list has evolved into several different forms. The one, with which I’m concerned today, is the Screening Version (PCL:SV). This was developed in the 1990s, for use in psychiatric evaluations and personnel selection. Hare himself co-wrote a paper in 1999, which concluded that the Screening Version is an effective short form of the earlier, more detailed and complete, version of the checklist.

The effects of psychopathy

Hare’s work was, initially, done in prison settings. It is generally reckoned that about 20 per cent of prison inmates are psychopaths. And that psychopaths are responsible for over 50 per cent of violent crimes. So, it’s clear that psychopaths cause real problems for those around them.

They can cause a lot of trouble at work, too. Many of you will have known the types that behave with cruelty towards those they work with, while sucking up to the big bosses. And if you’re unlucky enough to get one of them as your manager, you’re in big trouble.

The prevalence of psychopathy

Hare has estimated that about 1 per cent of the population are psychopaths. Other researchers think his number is high; perhaps ½ per cent might be more supportable. But there seems to be a substantially higher proportion of psychopaths among business executives and CEOs. A figure of 4 per cent has been suggested for this. Hare himself has said: “Not all psychopaths are in prison – some are in the boardroom.”

Hare’s check list and its Factors

Robert Hare’s check list, in both the full and screening versions, consists of three elements. One, a list of items to be assessed. In the screening version, there are 12 such items. Two, a scoring system; the higher the score, the greater the level of psychopathy. Three, a cut-off score, at or beyond which an individual is to be regarded as psychopathic. The scoring system is the same in different versions of the test. But the lists and cut-off scores are different. For the screening version, there seem to be two different cut-off scores. The lower represents a “potential psychopath,” while the higher is simply referred to with the word psychopath.

There’s some dispute about Hare’s division of the list of items to be assessed into Factors, representing different aspects of psychopathy. The original check list had two of these: Factor 1 and Factor 2. There have been developments since, by Hare himself and others. For my purposes, however, I find Hare’s original two-factor approach good enough. So, I’ll stick with it.

There’s another point of dispute between Hare and his critics. The American Psychiatric Association, publishers of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) which aims to offer a standard set of rules for classifying mental disorders, list both sociopathy and psychopathy as forms of ASPD. But Hare maintains that psychopathy is different from, and goes beyond, ASPD. Now, it seems that Hare’s Factor 2 correlates quite well with ASPD, but Factor 1 not so well. Factor 1 seems to correlate better with a different disorder, narcissistic personality disorder: “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.” For this reason, I find myself agreeing with Hare’s view.

The list of items to be assessed

Here are the six items in Factor 1 (Part 1) of the test. As a whole, they refer to “selfish, callous and remorseless use of others.”

1. Superficial. Glib; having a surface charm.

2. Grandiose. Arrogant; think they are superior human beings to others.

3. Deceitful. Lying, insincere, selfish and manipulative, unscrupulous, dishonest.

4. Lack of empathy. Lacking sensitivity towards, or regard for, other people.

5. Doesn’t accept responsibility. Denies responsibility; seeks to evade accountability for actions.

6. Lack of remorse. Cold and calculating attitude to others, seeming to feel no guilt, lacking concern for the losses, pain and suffering of victims.

And Factor 2 (Part 2): “chronically unstable and anti-social lifestyle.”

7. Impulsive. Foolhardy, rash, unpredictable, erratic, reckless.

8. Poor behaviour controls. Showing irritability, annoyance or impatience.

9. Lacks goals. Living a parasitic lifestyle, or having no realistic, long term goals.

10. Irresponsible. Untrustworthy; repeatedly failing to fulfil or honour obligations or commitments.

11. Adolescent anti-social behaviour.

12. Adult anti-social behaviour.

The scoring system and cut-off

To quote one of Hare’s papers: “Items … are rated on a 3-point scale (0 = item doesn’t apply, 1 = item applies somewhat, 2 = item definitely applies). The items are summed to yield total scores … that reflect the degree to which an individual resembles the prototypical psychopath. A cut-off score … or greater is used to diagnose psychopathy.”

In the screening version, the scores lie in the range 0 to 24, and the cut-off score is 18. Anyone scoring 18 or more can be considered a psychopath. The threshold for “potential psychopath,” however, is much lower, only 13.

Of course, in a prison setting, or when screening someone for a job such as a police officer, the assessments must be done objectively and without bias. A mistaken positive diagnosis of psychopathy can bring undeserved ruin to the victim’s career and life. Because of this, Hare mandates that the test must only be carried out by suitably trained professionals.

Nevertheless, I think Hare’s test is of great value to ordinary people. Not so much to evaluate specific individuals like Tony Blair – though Paul Broks, I think, was along the right lines in his opinion. But more to gain an understanding of the levels of psychopathy among different sectors of the population. Among politicians, for example, or bureaucrats. Or among politically active groups, such as socialists, racists, religious or social conservatives and green activists.

Psychopathy in the general population

Next, I’ll look at the distribution of scores among the general population, as reported in a 2008 paper by Craig Neumann and Robert Hare in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
Neumann and Hare took, from the MacArthur violence risk assessment published in 2001, the PCL:SV scores from a group of 500 or so randomly selected people, whom the study had tested in order to provide a “comparison group” for the offenders tested in the main part of the study. These people came from the same demographic and racial mix as the offenders. The most remarkable result, for me, was the distribution of test scores among the comparison group. I quote from the paper: “Over half of the total sample had a score of 0 or 1, and about two-thirds had a score of 2 or less. A score of at least 13, used in the MacArthur civil psychiatric study as an indication of ‘potential psychopathy,’ was obtained by 1.2 per cent of the total sample.”

This is an amazing result – and they add that this “is consistent with the findings of other large community studies.” Reading their graph, 36 per cent of the people in that random sample have no trace of any psychopathic tendencies at all. Zero! This is extremely reassuring news for those who, like me, posit that humans are naturally good, and psychopaths are aberrations.

Mr. Politico

Now, I’ll create a cardboard cut-out of a “typical politician.” I’ll try to give him a good mix of the characteristics that politicians often have. I dub my candidate Mr. Politico. Let’s see how well he does on the test, shall we?

Factor 1

Superficial? Glib? Having a surface charm? Check. Mr. Politico goes out of his way to be smooth, slick and charming. He takes great care over his appearance. He is hardly ever at a loss for words; quite the opposite, in fact. And when speaking, he moves his hands about more than most people – a known characteristic of psychopaths. Score: generous 1, harsh 2.

Grandiose? Arrogant? Thinks he is a superior human being to others? Check. Mr. Politico wants power. He wants to order people around. And the more power he gets, the more it will reinforce his conviction that he’s a superior being to those he rules over. Score: generous 1, harsh 2.

Deceitful? Lying? Insincere? Selfish and manipulative? Unscrupulous? Dishonest? Don’t make me laugh! Lying, exaggerating, hyping, denying or obfuscating the truth; these are Mr. Politico’s stocks in trade. He doesn’t have any interest in the truth at all, if it conflicts with his policies or prejudices. Indeed, he may even deny that truth exists at all. Moreover, strongly abetted by his media cronies, he likes to scaremonger, to manipulate emotions, and to instil false guilt.

He seems to have little or no sense of right and wrong; most of all, where his own selfish gain is involved. He often behaves as a hypocrite, and fails to practice what he preaches others ought to do. Mr. Politico ticks every one of the boxes under the Deceitful heading. Score: 2.

Lack of empathy? Lacking sensitivity towards, or regard for, other people? Check. Empathy is “being sensitive to… the feelings, thoughts and experience of another.” And, vitally important, empathy is feeling for individuals. You can’t have empathy for a nation, or a species of wildlife, or a political policy. You can only have empathy for people – for persons. Of course, there are situations in which you can reasonably cut off empathy to particular individuals. For example, those that have wronged you, or promoted or supported political policies that have harmed you. But such cases apart, we should always try to be sensitive towards the feelings of others, and mindful of their differences from ourselves.

But Mr. Politico doesn’t care a damn about individuals, except his cronies and perhaps his family. He has no empathy for ordinary people. Oh, he’s very clever at using his skills of glibness and deceit to make it look as if he cares about “people.” But if we look hard at his behaviour, we don’t see much evidence, if any, of fellow feeling towards us individual human beings; even towards those he is supposed to “represent.”

Mr. Politico belongs to a political party. That is, a gang with an ideology and agendas it wants to impose on people. And he usually toes the party line. He supports whatever policies the party hierarchy dictates. He supports the “Great Causes” and policies pushed by his masters – like “sustainable development,” “clean air” or “health and safety” – ahead of the needs, desires, rights and freedoms of us human beings. And he is willing to say and to do whatever it takes to get those policies imposed. The politics of the day, and his own privileged position in it, are all that matter to Mr. Politico. Score: 2.

Doesn’t accept responsibility? Seeks to evade accountability for actions? Check. Mr. Politico may try to cover up his wrongdoings, or point the finger of blame at someone else, or lie in an attempt to rationalize his actions, or bluster to try to convince people that he was right all along. There is only one kind of “responsibility” that Mr. Politico really wants; the kind that will give him more power, fame or riches. Score: generous 1, harsh 2.

Lack of remorse? Cold and calculating attitude to others? Seeming to feel no guilt? Lacking concern for the losses, pain and suffering of victims? Check. Just about every “law” that politicians make today is seeking to inconvenience us, to make us poorer, to violate our human rights, or all three. And when was the last time a politician ever said “sorry?” Don’t make me laugh. Score: 2.

Factor 2

Impulsive? Foolhardy? Rash? Unpredictable? Erratic? Reckless? Maybe Mr. Politico isn’t all these things all of the time; but they’re in there, all right. He may support wars in places like Syria; first on one side, then a couple of years later on the other. Or he may support highly risky “solutions” to green non-problems, like geo-engineering schemes, or replacing reliable energy sources by intermittent ones. Score: 1.

Poor behaviour controls? Irritable? Annoyed? Impatient? Again, Mr. Politico isn’t all these things at once. But today we far too often hear politicians demanding ACTION! NOW! on the trumped-up scare du jour. For example: “We have only 12 years left to act on global warming!” “We must act NOW! against this air pollution crisis!” Score: 1.

Lives a parasitic lifestyle? Has no realistic, long term goals? Well, I’ll admit, Mr. Politico is innocent on that last one. He does have goals – to make himself popular, rich and famous, while screwing everyone except his cronies and supporters. But virtually all professional politicians are parasites; because they live off taxation, yet do nothing worthwhile for the people they are supposed to “represent.” Score: 1.

Irresponsible? Untrustworthy? Repeatedly failing to fulfil or honour obligations or commitments? Check. “Read my lips, no new taxes.” “The government will abide by the result of the [Brexit] referendum.” Politicians – and Mr. Politico is no exception – can’t be trusted further than you can throw them. And that, unfortunately, isn’t far enough. Score: 2.

As to the last two, adolescent and adult anti-social behaviour, Mr. Politico is probably not guilty. (But if he was, the story would have been suppressed, of course.)

Assessing Mr. Politico

Mr. Politico has scored between 9 and 12 on Factor 1, and 5 on Factor 2. His score on Factor 1 shows him to be likely a narcissistic personality. His score on Factor 2 shows that he may be an anti-social personality, too. His combined score is between 14 and 17. Mr. Politico is a potential psychopath, verging on a full psychopath. Mr. Politico is, at best, in the worst 1.2 per cent of the population.

Mr. Politico is, quite clearly, not the kind of individual any decent human being would want to associate with. Let alone vote for! In a properly ordered community of human beings, he would be expelled, or at least imprisoned. He would never get even a sniff of power.

Assessing politicians in general

Now, Mr. Politico is a cardboard cut-out of a politician. So, it would be rash to try to deduce, from the above, that every politician is a potential psychopath. In reality, most politicians show some of these psychopathic traits to some degree. Some possess more of them, others less. It is only when the traits are aggregated together that the diagnosis of psychopathy becomes sound.

However, in a supposedly “democratic” system, we should be able to expect – should we not? – that those allowed into positions of power should be qualified to represent the people. Thus, each of them must be at least as good a person – in this context, that means must score no higher on the PCL:SV test – than the people they are supposed to represent. And since half of the general population score 0 or 1 on the test, we should reasonably be able to expect that the great majority of, if not absolutely all, those allowed power should score 0 or 1 on the test too.

But consider that, if an individual has even one of these psychopathic traits at the level of “item definitely applies,” that puts them over the median score, so ought to disqualify them from power. Yet many of today’s politicians seem to have two or more of these traits: glibness, arrogance, deceit or dishonesty, lack of empathy, failure to accept responsibility, lack of remorse, recklessness, impatience, untrustworthiness.

Assessing the wider political class

But it isn’t just politicians that show these psychopathic traits. Most political activists, and many in government positions, have them too.

For example, when you see activists or “spokespeople” glibly trying to sell their policy wares, usually without being at all specific about what they’re really selling and what the consequences would be, that’s a pointer they may have psychopathic tendencies. They’re probably lying, too; and many of them, in addition, are impulsive or have poor behaviour controls.

Behind the scenes policy drivers, such as self-appointed aristocrats in organizations like the UN and the EU, are probably psychopaths. The grandiosity and arrogance of “celebrities” and many of the rich is easy to spot, as well. Businessmen that mistreat their people, or go to government to get rules made to hobble their competitors, are also showing arrogance, as well as lack of empathy and lack of remorse for their victims.

Deceit, lies, insincerity, and dishonesty are stocks in trade, not only of politicians, but also of virtually all the main stream media, as well as politicized academics and “scientists.” And the politically active routinely show their lack of empathy, not to mention lack of remorse for their victims. For example, when they seek to promote, support or enforce a political policy that is intended to harm, or is likely to harm, innocent people. Or to single out people for bad treatment by, for example, race, religion, economic pursuit or status, sexual orientation or lifestyle.

The same goes for bureaucrats and other jobsworths, that seem to enjoy making life difficult for people. Moreover, bureaucrats, that fail to deliver what those who are forced to pay for their “services” actually want, are parasites too.

Psychopaths and power

It’s easy to see why psychopaths are drawn to political power. It enables them to live out their grandiose delusions of superiority over others. If they can get enough power, they can start wars. They can behave towards the “little people” with the full force of the disdain they obviously feel for us. They can tax us all but out of existence. They can set agendas and policies, and they can make bad laws that violate our rights, or actively harm us. The 16th century, failed system of political states and “sovereignty” is explicitly set up to give them “rights” to do such things! And it allows them, more often than not, to get away with their crimes.

Furthermore, today’s political systems are well suited to bringing psychopaths to power. Even the circus called “democracy” selects in favour of psychopaths. It’s almost a requirement to be glib and persuasive, in order to get elected in the first place! And once a political party has become seeded with psychopaths or potential psychopaths, then – as in a septic tank – the really big chunks will rise to the top. If an honest person does get elected, they must kow-tow to their party’s policies, or risk their careers. That, I think, is why the very few honest people, who do enter politics, almost always rapidly become either corrupted or side-lined.

It gets worse. Once a critical level of psychopathic tendency is reached among those at the top of a political system, the entire system becomes corrupt. As an old Italian proverb says: “If you want to know that a fish is bad, look at its head.” This explains, I think, a lot of what we are going through today. Even if some (or even many) individual politicians are not in any way psychopathic, once the critical level is reached, the political institutions, collectively, go insane.

And that’s where we are today. Politicians, government officials, political activists, many academics, the media, big business, all those that profit unjustly from the current system; all have gone insane. The rulers and beneficiaries of the failed political system, under which we are all forced to live, have coalesced into what is, in effect, a giant, collective psychopath. Glibness; arrogance; lies, deceit and dishonesty; lack of empathy or remorse; recklessness; impatience; parasitism; untrustworthiness. All of these things have become the norm rather than the exception.

We’re living in a time of madness. And we sane people aren’t happy about it.

To sum up

Psychopaths want power. Current political systems, including democracy, tend to favour psychopaths over honest people for positions of power. While this tendency acts quite slowly, over time it has relentlessly increased the incidence of psychopathic traits among politicians. And so, today too many of those with political power are arrogant, deceitful, selfish, callous and remorseless in their treatment of others. Not to mention impatient, reckless and untrustworthy. And once a critical level is reached, political institutions go mad.

The same psychopathic tendencies also exist among those that hang on to the coat-tails of those in power. Political activists and their supporters, celebrities, big business, the rich, the media, academe, bureaucracy. All are corrupted by at least some degree of psychopathy. As a result, today we’re in the grips of a giant, collective, psychopathic insanity.

This essay is about diagnosis, not about cure. So, I’m going to leave it there for today.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

On the Binding Forces of Communities

This is the first essay in a new series. In which, I’ll seek to understand, and to diagnose the causes of, the ethical, political and economic ills of our times.

Some of what I say may be familiar to those who have read my earlier work. What is new here, is that I aim to put those, previously only loosely related, strands of thought into context. Metaphorically, in this series of essays I am seeking to assemble a “big crunch” of ideas. From which, in due time, I will aim to draw out material for the “big bang” of cure.

Humanity

You and I – well, I certainly, and you presumably – are individuals of a genus called humans or human beings; or, in Latin, homo. Physically, we are simians, related to monkeys and to great apes such as chimpanzees. Mentally, our species has earned the Latin name sapiens, meaning knowing, discerning, wise or sensible. Of course, not all of us are always all of these four things. Children and politicians, in particular, frequently fail to be any of them.

What is special about us? What is it, that makes us different from, and better than, mere animals?

First, we have evolved languages that are intricate and expressive. Second, we can think abstractly; for example, we can do mathematics or philosophy. Third, it is in our nature to take control of, and to leave our mark on, our surroundings. And we can record our ideas for posterity, for example through writing, art, music and architecture. Fourth, we have business and trade; not just at the level of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” but also, as Adam Smith put it, “give me that which I want, and you shall have this which you want.” Fifth, it is in our nature to co-operate, and to form societies of like-minded people. It is also in our nature to be creative, and to build civilizations. Sixth, we have invented, and are still developing, life-improving conveniences like money, property rights, workable systems of justice, and economic production. Finally, we are a fast-moving species. And despite periods of stagnation or regression, such as the Dark Ages, we tend to get better – and faster – as we
go.

Thus, the first binding force, which tends to pull both you and I into a community, is species. What we have in common is a shared humanity.

But it has not always been so. Up to about 40,000 years ago, we “modern” humans shared our planet with another close to human species, the Neanderthals. Then, in the course of about 2,000 years, they died out, leaving as their legacy just a tiny percentage of our genome. As to how and why this extinction happened, experts are unsure. But one fact that seems generally accepted is that Neanderthals lived in smaller groups than their rivals. To me, this suggests that there may have been some social development among the sapiens, which enabled them to live in larger groups, and so to co-operate more effectively in the search for food.

Individual and partnership

So, what communities do we humans form? I already addressed this in an earlier essay “On Community.” Today, I’ll re-trace those steps, with more of a historical slant.

Human beings are individuals. That’s a biological fact. Each of us has our own body and our own mind. And yet, we are social too. Humans are convivial animals. It is in our nature to live together, and to co-operate, for mutual convenience.

The smallest multi-person community is the partnership, and specifically the partnership of two. Two adults of opposite sexes can provide the zygote, if you will, from which a family can develop. The resulting “nuclear” family, of two parents and their children, is the commonest formulation in humans of the next unit up the scale. Though there are, in some human cultures as well as among other simians, additional possibilities. Notably, polygyny, in which one male mates with several females.

The individual is the fundamental unit, from which all communities and societies are built. The family is of fundamental importance, too. For the family is the smallest unit of humanity which can survive indefinitely. And the binding force, which holds it together, is kinship.

Bands

Long ago, when we were hunter-gatherers, the primary community beyond the family was the band. Bands consisted of several families, often closely related and usually numbering a few dozen people. And the organization was generally loose; while the band’s elders were valued for their advice, there was no formal power structure.

The members of the band would have had a shared interest in finding food. This would have led them to co-operate in hunting. For example: “You flush the rabbits out of hiding, and I’ll kill them with the knife that Ugg made for me.” Thus, the primary binding force at the level of a band is teamwork. Independent individuals co-operate as a team, to produce a result which is more than the sum of its parts.

There is also a binding force of mutual trade, which enables individuals in the band – like Ugg the knifemaker – to specialize in those useful activities, at which they are particularly skilled. So, Ugg does not have to hunt, in order to eat. Making the hunters’ tools is enough.

Tribes

Sometimes, bands would join together into larger units, commonly called tribes. They might have a formal group of elders, making decisions on behalf of the whole tribe; for example, on where to go to maximize the chance of finding prey at a particular time of year. And, particularly among larger tribes, they might be ruled over by a headman and his advisors. Such systems are still used today in some traditional African chiefdoms.

When a tribe was well led, this could provide it with a fifth binding force, of leadership. The members of the tribe would acquire respect for the individual or individuals who led their tribe, and brought it success.

Religion

Another binding force in a tribal community would have been a shared religion. The people of the early tribes usually believed in many gods. And each tribe would have had its own set of gods, differing in one way or another from those of other tribes.

Thus, the sixth binding force of human communities is a shared belief system, and a shared understanding of the world around us.

Land and people

About twelve and a half thousand years ago, a great change took place. Groups of people, in several parts of the world, abandoned the traditional hunting and gathering. Instead, each group settled down in one place, and began to cultivate crops and to domesticate animals. When conditions were benign, the new approach allowed the populations of these groups to increase. The result was the rise of the Neolithic village.

People in such villages would have felt a strong attachment to the people in, and the territory of, their group. Thus, their community would have acquired a seventh binding force, which I’ll call proximity. And individuals in that community would have acquired a strong sense of we. They would have acquired a love of our land and our people, or what we would today call patriotism.

The state

Now, a dark shadow will enter my tale; the state. Political states aren’t an inevitable result of communities like the villages of Neolithic times. Indeed, the earliest states only appeared several thousand years after the Neolithic revolution. Nevertheless, the territorial state seems to have been an attractor point, towards which human communities were drawn.

There are several theories as to how the first states came about. Of these, Robert Carneiro’s seems to me as believable as any. In bad times, groups that were short of food would seek to use force to take for themselves the product of the labours of other villages. Thus was unleashed on humanity the scourge of war. In some places, the losers of such wars were able to flee to a new territory. But in places where arable land was scarce and its area circumscribed, when there was famine and so wars between villages, the losers could not flee. The conquerors would soon have worked out that they were better off if they didn’t exterminate the defeated. Instead, they subjected these villages to taxation in the form of their produce.

This had two consequences. First, the size of political units increased, from one village to many. And second, within such units there was a differentiation into two classes. A ruling class, formed of the strongest warriors and their cronies and hangers-on; and a productive class, subjected to the ruling class. The state was up and running; and soon, war became all but endemic. For, as Randolph Bourne has told us, war is the health of the state.

As time passed, a variety of structures evolved. But most had one thing in common. That is, power was in the hands of a small, élite minority, who did not contribute to food production, but were supported by the labours of the ordinary people. Furthermore, in many cases accession to the élite was hereditary. More often than not, there was a single individual at the top of the pile – a chieftain or king – surrounded by an aristocracy of senior members of select families. And many such chieftains claimed that their power and authority was sanctioned by the gods. From which, it was only a small step to claiming that they were gods.

Something rather nasty had happened here. Earlier human communities had been formed for mutual benefit, and in them there had been a role for everyone, according to their talents. But with a state in place, the link between the benefit of the ruling class and of the ordinary people had been severed. Furthermore, the ruling class had leisure to plot and scheme for further power gains. So, the system tended to perpetuate itself. A bottom-up community, one of whose binding forces was leadership of those most fit to lead, had morphed into a top-down one, in which ordinary people were subjected to the rule of the powerful. The rulers were not always the best equipped to lead the community for the benefit of all its members. And the worst among them were not much interested at all in the good of the ordinary people.

The city state

Despite the evil that is the state, our progress continued. The city state of ancient Greece was a great advance on what preceded it. It was the environment in which the first codes of law, and some of the first examples of money, were introduced. And inside the walls of city states, there was time and opportunity to experiment with ways of organizing the community. It is from the Greek polis, city, that the modern word “politics” comes.

There were similarities between the Greek cities. For example, all of them relied on the institution of slavery. And while many cities in theory allowed political rights to all male property owners, in practice only a small minority of the residents had full political rights.

But each city state was different, too. Each had its own culture and values. Athens, for example, had a culture which valued rational thought. And it encouraged skilled and talented foreigners to settle there; Aristotle was one such. Sparta, on the other hand, was a militaristic oligarchy, closed to most foreigners, and not allowing its own people to travel.

Thus, the city state added, to the binding forces of species, kinship, teamwork, trade, leadership, belief and proximity, an eighth: a shared culture, with a shared set of values and customs. The people of a city would have felt attachment to their particular culture and customs, and to the values which underlay them.

But this was all too good to last. In a world of warring states, it was inevitable that an experiment like Athenian democracy would eventually be killed off by the “top dog” of the moment. In this case, the Macedonian Empire in 322 BC.

Rome

Rome was the city state par excellence. It was the one which, in time, rose above all the rest. In the process, it managed to incorporate, and to build on, some of the best of the Greek culture. And to develop the important ideas of ius and lex; justice and law. Though the Romans could also, of course, be brutal towards those who opposed them.

Rome’s power lasted many centuries. One reason was that, up to the end of the Republic at least, the Romans preferred to tolerate the religious practices and heritage of those they conquered. Another was that allies of the Romans, and even those they had conquered, were often allowed to become Roman citizens. And so, many people became bound to Rome, and to its culture and values. Moreover, there was much trade and interaction between people from different parts of the Roman world. At its best, Roman culture was cosmopolitan like none before or since.

But this, again, was too good to last. Rome died, not so much by conquest, as through internal decay. The death was a slow and painful one, lasting many centuries. And it included many elements that we also see today. For example, increasing centralization and bureaucracy, high taxation, corruption and economic decline.

Later developments

I’ll pass quickly over a millennium or so. During this time, Europeans were suffering the Dark Ages, and things weren’t going too well for the Mayans, either. It was left to the Arabs and the Chinese to be the main carriers of the torch of human civilization through this period.

The Renaissance got Europeans moving again. Part of it had a backward-looking focus; that is, the re-discovery of Greek and Latin thought. But there were also great advances in art, literature, music and philosophy, and even in political theory. Perhaps it was to be expected that such a movement would begin in Italy. For Italy was, at that time, a chaotic network of city states. In which, people were freer than under centralized monarchies like France, Spain or England.

But the Christian religion had become a mess. By the early 16th century, it had been transformed into a top-down system, just as had happened with the rise of the state. Popes and their hangers-on behaved as badly as kings, and often worse. Religion was no longer about shared belief in a deity, but about conformity to official dogma. Inquisitions severely punished “heretics.” And the persecutions were stepped up once the Protestant Reformation had got under way.

To the present day

Earlier, I wrote two essays, “On Political Societies and Political Governments” and “On Political Ideologies,” which deal with most of the salient history of the subsequent period.

In the first of these, I looked at the “Westphalian” nation state, and the badly outdated 16th century idea of sovereignty. I looked at the fiction of the “social contract,” which is supposed to bind us all together into political states. If there’s a binding force in there, I’d call it nation, the source of nationalism.

The reason I am unsure about whether nation is a valid binding force or not, is that it seems to be little more than a hybrid of several of the other binding forces. Kinship, leadership, religious belief, proximity and culture are all in there. Language, maybe, is something the idea of nation can add into the mix. But this leads to difficulties. Are English and Welsh speakers one nation, or two? What about polyglot Switzerland? Or even the USA?

Moreover, too many people seem, when talking of nation or country, to equate it with the state. “My country, right or wrong” is an egregious example of this. How can a piece of land be right or wrong? A state can do right or (far more often) wrong; but not a country!

In the second essay, I talked of the Enlightenment, which freed human minds from shackles both religious and political. And I listed some of its values, such as reason, tolerance, natural rights and freedoms and the rule of law. There is, I think, a tenth binding force in there; one which links together people who share these values. I’ll call this binding force enlightenment.

But against enlightenment, there are arranged a huge mass of clashing political ideologies, whose promoters and supporters want to enforce them on everyone they can. They vary from liberalism and conservatism, through nationalism, to evils such as socialism, violent anarchism, communism, fascism and theocracy. And ultimately, to the “unholy trinity” of corrupt ideologies, to which we in the West are subjected today: welfarism, warfarism and environmentalism.

To sum up

That’s as far as I want to take this line of argument today. I’ll close by inviting those interested to re-read the two essays I named above. Later, I plan to come back and address the question: how well are these ten binding forces working for us human beings today? Here they are, again:

  1. Humanity.
  2. Kinship.
  3. Teamwork.
  4. Trade.
  5. Leadership.
  6. Belief system.
  7. Proximity.
  8. Culture, customs and values.
  9. (?) Nation.
  10. Enlightenment.
But, in the words of Michael Ende: That is another story, and shall be told another time.

Thursday, 28 February 2019

It was a fine day

It was a fine day: February 27th, 2019. I drove to a beautiful place in the New Forest. It was 4pm, still sunny and warm; although it had been almost 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit) earlier in the day. Compare that with Minnesota, quite a way south of my latitude, where the daily forecast was minus 16 Fahrenheit (minus 27 Celsius).

For a week and a half, we had had exceptionally fine and warm weather for February in England. Ten days earlier, I had sat in a pub garden full of people. Full! That’s rare enough in March; and unheard of in February. And since I was lucky enough to be in a break between work projects, I had walked a lot around my local area during that time.

The wildlife loved it! Geese were congregating in the fields by the canal, or on the island in the middle of the lake. Ducks, moorhens and smaller birds were active too. The mating season is coming! The “You dick” bird, as I name it because of its call, was more vocal in the trees than ever. (Thirty miles south, I call it the Referee Bird; there it says, “Free kick, free kick, free kick.”)

In the New Forest, the ponies and cattle grazed in the sun, seemingly comfortable and content. I got out of my car, and went for a brief walk. The New Forest is often boggy, even in summer. But not that day. A good thing, because I had forgotten to bring my walking boots. Off the gravel track, the grass was springy, clean and easy to walk on. In February!

And yet, there are many today – mostly political operators – that, with ever increasing stridency, trumpet that “we” humans are warming the planet, and causing catastrophe! And try to use it as an excuse to destroy our prosperity, our freedoms and ultimately our civilization.

OK, this isn’t the time to discuss the flawed, corrupted “science” of “global warming.” Nor even to point out that historically, human civilizations have fared better in warm times than cold. No… the question I ask today is, why do the political class and their hangers-on do this crap to us, against all objective evidence? They’re obviously afraid of something. But what is it that they’re afraid of?

Now I’m no Christian these days, but I was brought up in that tradition. And when young, I read the Old Testament all the way through. And the very last chapter of it begins with the following (Malachi 4:1): “For behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven.”

And then I read the next words. “And all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble; and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.”

“All the proud” and “all that do wickedly?” Yup. That describes the political class perfectly. No?