Wednesday, March 20, 2013

New Hopes for a Changing World, Chapter Eight

“The Rule of Force,” pages 67-73

Humans can cooperate on an equal, voluntary basis, or greater force can compel submission. Until recently, relations between the genders were based on force, but now women in most places have increased scope for consent. [Russell’s recognition that the superior social position of men all derives from physical power had been (forcefully!) stated by his godfather, John Stuart Mill, in 1869: “the inequality of rights between men and women has no other source than the law of the strongest.”] The movement towards private freedom for women has been fostered by the increasing monopolization of all power by the state. Russell admits to exaggeration as he provides a pithy summary: “Women became emancipated from men in proportion as both became slaves of the State [p. 68].”

Cooperation between the genders and within the family originated in force. Fathers used force on their children, who then returned the favor when they grew up. Recognizing their eventual vulnerability, fathers built the honoring of parents into a mainstay of morality. “Filial piety is a good example of the way in which a superiority which is originally one of physical strength acquires the sanction of religion, and is thereby able to survive even when it is no longer sustained by superior strength [p. 68].” Another example of a religious precept growing out of superior strength is the biblical claim that women should submit to men.

Similar forces are at work on more macro scales. Some warrior tribe or clan imposes its will on a subject people, and over time, the clan becomes a hereditary aristocracy associated with religious virtues and worthy of special privileges. “The remarkable thing is that conquering aristocracies succeed in getting these views accepted by their subjects [p. 69].” Such is the origin of the divine right of kings, though aristocrats and nobles are loath to accept the military origin of their position. Many Indians resent British claims to superiority, which are founded on force; their own caste system has a similar basis, but became hallowed with time. Slavery, of course, also is based on force, and so are post-slavery social advantages claimed by the descendants of the slaveholders.

Now a word in praise of rule by the powerful. It may be that such an organization of power is the only feasible organization, that without rule through strength, there is no organization; rather, there is anarchy. Once government is consolidated by a forceful monarch and habits of law-abiding behavior are established, the government can transition to one that is responsive to popular will. [Shades, again, of Mill: "Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one."] The consolidation of a social unit generally is the hard part; the transition to a democratic form can be much smoother. And that consolidation (Russell echoes the Melian Dialogue), at first, restrains only the weak elements of the unit, while the powerful do as they will. Even murder is only a crime when an inferior kills a superior; the law will condone and even ease the homicides committed by the superior class.

We need to keep this process in mind today for a transition to world government, which is necessary for preventing war. United Nations-style voluntary associations must needs be weak, as individual nations will not be keen to relinquish their sovereignty. So the establishment of a world government must be the work of a strong power or a small group of strong powers. Once established, the world power can take on a more democratic hue. “This view, which I have held for the last thirty years, encounters vehement opposition from all people of liberal outlook, and also from all nationalists of whatever nation [p. 72].” The alternative, however, of waiting for voluntary surrender of authority, is not feasible.

Like it or not, we need to have world government imposed by a strong military force. One hundred years or so of enforced compliance can then give way to voluntary compliance, and a democratic world government can evolve. Any attempt to establish meaningful world government without military superiority will fall victim to the siren song of nationalism, the call to fight and die for freedom rather than to exist in a condition of servitude. Perhaps we could sidestep this logic if people were different than they now are – and maybe they can be different. “It will be necessary that individuals shall have less feeling of hostility and fear towards other individuals, more hope of security as regards their own lives, and a far more vivid realization that, in the world which modern technique has created, the need of world-wide co-operation is absolute, if mankind is to survive [p. 73].”

Saturday, March 16, 2013

New Hopes for a Changing World, Chapter Seven

“The Size of Social Units,” pages 59-66

Technical and psychological factors determine the size of social units. Psychological factors tend to constrain optimal extension before technical scale economies have been exhausted. The technical tradeoff is that larger organizations bring more people into cooperation, but large size begins to compromise unity. “Where Governments are concerned, the essential condition is that it must be possible to transmit orders and troops from the center in less time than it takes to organize a revolt [p. 59].” Traditionally, roads were the determining factor, but they have since been eclipsed by railways. Both the railroad and the telegraph greatly enlarged optimal state sizes – and then the plane came along. “A journey from London to Sydney is now a no more serious undertaking than a journey from London to Edinburgh was two hundred years ago [p. 60].”

Soon, any state will be able to attack any other state almost instantaneously. The optimal size of states has grown, and might be limitless, because military power requires huge and dispersed resources. [Adam Smith noted in The Wealth of Nations (V.1.43) how the invention of firearms tilted the military advantage to rich nations: “In modern war the great expence of fire-arms gives an evident advantage to the nation which can best afford that expence, and consequently to an opulent and civilized over a poor and barbarous nation. In ancient times the opulent and civilized found it difficult to defend themselves against the poor and barbarous nations. In modern times the poor and barbarous find it difficult to defend themselves against the opulent and civilized. The invention of fire-arms, an invention which at first sight appears to be so pernicious, is certainly favourable both to the permanency and to the extension of civilization.”] And large countries permit large free trade zones, themselves friends to opulence. Multiple countries could establish similarly large zones, but national prejudices seem to preclude them. [Would Bertie’s fondness for world government extend to the EU and WTO?]

In the past, empires generally were unthreatened by nationalistic uprisings, but now they make it very hard to hold power by force alone. “Most moderns accept nationalism as a natural phenomenon and do not realize how new it is [p. 62].” Communism is a powerful force, but it succumbed to nationalism in Yugoslavia. [Odd now to hear tragically multi-national Yugoslavia held up as a beacon of nationalism.]

State power is dominated by nationalism even though the state controls impressive means of propaganda in the press, radio, and schools. “Every child during the impressionable years is exposed to a point of view which, whether avowedly propagandist or not, is always such as might be expected to imbue the child with loyalty to his Government [p. 63].” Where states and nations are equivalent, this control inflates nationalism to new heights. British people today show much more connection to British military success than they did at the time of Nelson. But state propaganda fails when states are opposed to nations, as Britain found in Ireland.

Nationalism is stoked by crude means involving historical falsification and assertions of the moral superiority of the nation in question. Today’s Russian state wants to claim priority in all sorts of old inventions and discoveries, at the expense of Newton, Darwin, and Copernicus. “If men were anxious to live happily they would allow a committee of Unesco to pronounce on all such matters [pp. 63-64].”

Young people around the globe generally are taught history in ways that will lead them to exaggerate their nation’s chances of victory in the next encounter. This over-optimism breeds over-war in the future. Nationalism is the major force driving humanity to extinction. In America, the nationalism of the Republicans is so extreme that they cling to it despite it being obviously counterproductive to their own aims. They choose to insult foreigners whose assistance is requisite in advancing American policy. “The Republicans apparently feel that if America could only prosper by causing other nations to prosper, then it would be better to fail [p. 65].”

Nationalism is not the only bar to social cohesion and to enlightened self-interest. In ancient Greece, strains within city-states between democrats and oligarchs prevented Greek unity. (The Romans soon enough reduced the import of these disputes to the level of neighborhood political spats.) A similar dynamic played out in Renaissance Italy, and modern Western Europe is hosting a revival.

Sadism, the love of cruelty and of seeing some enemy punished, is the psychological barrier to the unity we need to survive. Unity cannot be maintained if the love of cruelty is merely suppressed; rather, it must be extirpated. “It is possible, and in slightly different circumstances it would be easy, to live happily – far more happily indeed than anyone now lives – without malice and hatred and the desire for victory in disastrous contests [p. 66].” But this is a topic postponed until part three, “Man and Himself”.

Friday, March 15, 2013

New Hopes for a Changing World, Chapter Six

“Social Units,” pages 53-58

“Every man feels himself at once an individual and a member of a group, and it is because both these feelings are so deeply engrained in his nature that he has found it necessary to make moral codes and prohibitions and a vast apparatus of praise and blame [p. 53].” Problems arise when individual self-interest takes precedence, despite harm to overall human flourishing.

The need for infants – and for moms engaged in childrearing – to be protected lies at the basis of family relations. But long ago, in-groups expanded beyond the family, to larger agglomerations such as tribes. People tend to be cooperative to those in the in-group, but rivalrous towards outsiders. Harmony within the in-group is threatened by sexual competition, and various customs – including the incest taboo and rules concerning exogamy – help to mitigate that competition. The power of custom can be glimpsed by means of the incest taboo. Almost no one seems constrained by it, yet it requires a serious subjugation of instinct.

Social groups could find themselves competing for food, with war as the predictable result. Larger groups have an advantage in physical conflicts, pressuring tribes to take on larger populations. The larger social units do not have the same instinctual basis for loyalty and cooperation as does the family, however. Nonetheless, when even a group as large as a nation is threatened, its citizens rally to the cause. “So long as we have common external enemies, hostility between England and Scotland will be kept within limits, but incidents like the Stone of Scone show how easily it could break out [p. 57].” A major question (p. 58) exists as to the extent to which a psychological connection to large groups can be inculcated through education and propaganda, when it does not exist naturally.

New social groups erode the power of old ones; thus, the welfare state has diminished the role of the pater familias (and his sometimes despotic wife), which used to extend both broadly and deep. [Russell is echoing an argument he made in multiple places in Marriage and Morals.] Now, much of the world is centered around nuclear families. A totalitarian state might eliminate the family, as in The Republic.

The notion that centralized centers of power tend to undermine smaller, decentralized ones holds beyond the family. Large organizations enervate smaller ones. “But sometimes the larger organizations fail to flourish, and centrifugal forces prevail [p. 57].” A precipitate step towards a global state might fall into one of those “fail to flourish” cases, and strengthen nation-states. The tiny moves that actually have been attempted towards global governance so far perhaps are a case in point.