“Ideas Which Have Become Obsolete,” pages 147-160.
Russell’s Unpopular Essays was published in 1950, one year prior to New Hopes for a Changing World. Unpopular Essays contains one chapter entitled “Ideas That Have Helped Mankind,” and another entitled “Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind.” Chapter Sixteen of New Hopes, which initiates the book’s third section devoted to man’s internal contest with himself, examines a different (though somewhat intersecting) subset of the universe of ideas.
Custom and tradition have allowed the gains achieved by generations past to be utilized by their descendants. Respect for custom, therefore, has many benefits – but it can be taken too far, and some societies are brought to ruin by excessive veneration of ancient ways. [Russell’s godfather again: “The despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary, which is called, according to circumstances, the spirit of liberty, or that of progress or improvement.”] Modern science and technology will only achieve their potential for improving human welfare if our ways of thinking change. “In an age of machines and skilled scientific production, we retain the feelings and many of the beliefs that were appropriate to the ages of scarcity and primitive agriculture [p. 148].” Ideas about politics – even the ideas of communists – are stuck in the 1700s or earlier.
Our Malthusian past was one of poverty and population pressure, famine, war, and oppression. The ongoing transition to better outcomes got under way only about the time of the French Revolution. The principal change has been the scientific revolution and mindset, unleashed most productively with the advent of democracy and low birthrates.
Widespread human prosperity has become a possibility. “What the West has discovered (though as yet the realization is incomplete) is a method by which practically everybody can have as much of material goods as is conducive to happiness, without excessive hours of labor, and with that degree of mental culture that is needed to make leisure delightful [p. 149].” The productive society that provides this happy possibility is vulnerable to destruction by envious outsiders, and by insiders whose ideas are no longer appropriate. Chief among these ideas is that one must fight over scarce resources to survive – only the winners in prior struggles survived to bequeath their beliefs. War became sanctified, despite the ritual Sunday obeisance to peace. Love was fine for dealing with insiders, but outsiders were fit subjects for just, patriotic wars.
Further, the characteristics associated with the economically powerful, the landowners, naturally became popular. They had come by their position as descendants of those who were military successes, those who had achieved victory in zero-sum struggles. Again, ruthless struggle achieved social luster.
The industrial revolution made constant struggle even more central, because factory wealth had a shorter half-life than land-based wealth, and because the poor, those who lost at the struggle, at first got poorer. Even when the nouveaux riches could not be admired themselves, the mechanism that produced their riches, the competitive market, could become an object of veneration. “And so industrialism, which is technically capable of bringing peace to mankind, in fact brought not peace but a sword [p. 151].”
Market competition was designed to be limited, but it could not be contained, and spread to social classes and to nations – socialism and war were the unintended consequences of a free trade ideology. When industrialization has proceeded far enough, the costs of competition, which include wars and strikes, become more significant. All can benefit from increased cooperation, but from long habit, people maintain a zero-sum view of trade (and the resulting wars seemingly justify the zero-sum perspective). [Russell made a similar point in “Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind.”] Now, Westerners view Russian economic gains as a cost to them, and Russians feel similarly about the West. “But the difference between their interests is caused by their sentiments, not by any external natural cause, and so it is with the public enmities in the modern world [p. 153].”
Nations separate the world politically and culturally. The cultural pluralism is quite positive on its own, and it is a mistake to think that it demands political rivalry. The British and the French considered themselves to be adversaries for years – and fought as adversaries – until they finally decided that their interests really didn’t conflict, and now they are friends. Imagine the peace dividend if Russia and the West did not believe that they were targeted for destruction by the other side. Neither side will be inclined to comprehend that their interests are not really threatened, because hostility, once it exists, takes on a moral imperative. If a drug could clear the minds of Truman and Stalin, they would see themselves as fellow imperfect beings, and work out a fair solution to the issues that currently seem to divide them so deeply. Their countrymen, however, without access to the drug, would oust them, and renew hostilities.
The moral of the drug fable is that the minds of everyday people – not just the government – must change for the political situation to change. A sophisticated view of self-interest is all that is necessary. Alas, that view cannot win in the marketplace of ideas against appeals to bravely undertake sacrifice for supposedly noble causes. But Russell does not want to be mistaken for one of those who assert that human nature is such that war is inevitable – an assertion whose adherents feign to take sorrow in, but in reality one in which they revel. The response to them is that war will surely soon end, either through a cooperative agreement or through the destruction of all the combatants. “The dictum that human nature cannot be changed is one of those tiresome platitudes that conceal from the ignorant the depths of their own ignorance [p. 155].” Experiments with babies indicate quite profound limits to what human nature compels, and many political ideologies are consistent with our biological substrate. Anthropologists know that one culture’s practices can seem, to people from another culture, as being inconsistent with human nature.
The claim that human nature demands a love of fighting has one interpretation that is true, and a second that it is false. The interpretation consistent with the facts is that people will become annoyed if they are sufficiently provoked or assaulted, such as by having their noses pulled. The interpretation that is not consistent with the facts is that people have an innate love of combat. There are people who do love aggression, but this love is socially constructed, not innate. “It is only these people that constitute a problem, since the other people can be placated by the simple technique of not pulling their noses [p. 156].”
The social sanction for aggression can be withdrawn, as has occurred in the case of dueling. And with dueling socially condemned, the supply of insults that formerly would have demanded a duel has dried up as well – insulting someone is just plain rude. This sort of transformation can be made more general.
Some nations (and some women) still offer succor to macho types, who develop into bullies – and they maintain their aggressiveness as adults, including when they deal (unfairly) with foreigners. At the time of Genghis Khan such tactics at least offered the possibility of riches. Now, any riches to be had in dealing with outsiders are more likely to be secured through cooperation. Macho types are put off by this; though they are not intelligent, they can see that intelligence is valuable. They can’t understand finance, and when the he-men take over banking, as in the 1920s, disaster ensues. They resented the policy that helped to limit the disaster, because they could not – or could not be bothered to – understand that policy.
“Hatred of intelligence is one of the great dangers of the modern world, because with each new advance in technique intelligence becomes more necessary [p. 158].” The prejudice against intelligence motivates politicians to appear to be denser than they actually are.
Better schooling is an antidote to outdated ideas. Schools now promote the sort of leadership appropriate for captains of pirate ships, not captains of commerce. The old zero-sum, us or them, cheer or boo, black or white outlook, appropriate for a world of intense scarcity, is terribly out of date in a world of plenty. Where there is scarcity today, it is a result of failures of intelligence, not of output. The old way of thinking helped lead to the depression, and to the Nazi and Bolshevik notions that riches would be secure once the right people were exterminated.
Global prosperity is available, if only people would recognize the value of cooperation, and set aside the rivalry and envy of the past. The mental revolution is not easy, but it is possible. People can be educated to be citizens of the world, not quarrelsome partisans of one small slice of the world. “We must learn to think of the human race as one family, and further our common interests by the intelligent use of natural resources, marching together towards prosperity, not separately towards death and destruction [p. 160].”