Welcome to the Machine

Last year I happened to catch the interview which Tucker Carlson did on Twitter with Hunter Biden’s “business partner”, Devon Archer. The interview didn’t reveal any great surprises from my point of view. I think Archer mentioned the word “strategic” about a thousand times. Much like the joke about how any scholarly discipline that has the word “science” in the title isn’t a real science, we could make a similar joke about how job titles with “strategy” in them have nothing to do with the subject. A “strategic adviser” is a person who facilitates deals in the murky domain at the intersection between government, capital and the private sector. That’s why Archer was “in business” with Hunter Biden.

What I did find surprising about the interview was Tucker Carlson’s attitude to Devon Archer. After insinuating and even outright stating that the business with Hunter Biden was corrupt since it was predicated on insider dealings with a government official, Carlson nevertheless praised Archer. I think at one point he even said something like “well done, that’s good business”. In Tucker Carlson’s world, Devon Archer is a “good businessman” and Joe Biden a “corrupt politician”. It’s a bit like congratulating the drug dealer while throwing the drug user in jail.

How could Tucker Carlson on the one hand claim to be super concerned about government corruption while on the other hand have a nice friendly interview with a man whose job it was to facilitate that corruption? And how could Devon Archer willingly confess to doing that job and sit there with a big smile on his face as though he’d done nothing wrong?

The reason relates back to the point I made in last week’s about the three metaphysical pillars of the modern West: democracy, capitalism and science. The case of Devon Archer and the Biden family is the perfect illustration of how capitalism corrupts democracy. But capitalism can’t be called into question since it’s an article of faith. That’s why Carlson can praise Archer as a businessman while criticising Joe Biden as a public official.

The truth, of course, is that capitalism is subverting democracy and not just in the case of the Biden family. Capitalism is also subverting science as we saw during the corona debacle. That’s what happens when you encourage people like Devon Archer to chase money to the exclusion of anything else. What the USA and the rest of the West desperately needs to reclaim both democracy and science from the clutches of money but the right side of politics has framed the issue such that any criticism of capitalism makes you a “communist”.

We should remember that both capitalism and communism are products of the Western mind and they have a lot in common. In order to see these commonalities, we need a point of comparison and, as usual, the Roman Empire provides the ideal example since in this, as in most things, it is opposite of the modern West.

Some historians have trawled through Roman history trying to find evidence that the Romans must have had something resembling our capitalism, as if all civilisation must somehow be based on the exact same values as the modern West. The truth is there is no evidence for capitalism in ancient Rome and quite lot of evidence against it. But we can go a step further and get closer to the core of the issue by making the broader point which is the one that the historian Spengler also made: the Romans had almost nothing that we would give the general label of organisation.

This doesn’t mean the Romans were disorganised. Clearly, they had a disciplined military, a legal code, a governance structure, a justice system and other things required for a peaceful and orderly society. What they didn’t have were bureaucracies, corporations, armies of lawyers or enormous public services. And they sure as hell didn’t have “strategic advisers”, “diversity officers” and human resource managers.

It’s incredible to think that, in the golden age of the Roman Empire, the Caesars ruled with almost no bureaucracy at all. The basis for Rome’s power was the army. But this was more than just an accidental occurrence. The army represented the basic ethic of Rome which we can sum up in the phrase might is right. Roman aristocrats earned their honour and status through public service and the highest form of public service was military service. They would have considered it deeply dishonourable to get involved in business dealings.

Of course, business dealings did happen in ancient Rome and many of the aristocracy became incredibly rich as a result. But they were not actively involved in business. They just accrued the money which they often spent on public works. This is another reason that Rome had a tiny government. The tax take for most of Roman history was a paltry 1% and when the government is only taking 1% in tax, it can’t afford to hire bureaucrats or public servants.

That was one reason why the government and bureaucracy was so small. Another was the simple and informal nature of Roman law. Rome never had general public education. As a result, most Romans were illiterate. Accordingly, there was no possibility of reading or signing complicated contracts. The law reflected this by allowing most arrangements to be made verbally. A classic example is marriage. A Roman man and woman could enter into marriage simply by announcing their intention to do so and then moving in together. They could break up the marriage just as easily. No lawyers were required. No government bureaucrats needed to be notified.

Related to the relative simplicity of their legal system is the fact that the Romans had no police force. What force did exist was very similar to the form taken in early modern Europe where there was a “watch” made up of ordinary citizens. In general, Roman citizens were expected to enforce the law themselves. This was literally true in the early days of the republic. If somebody committed a crime against you, you had to arrest them and drag them before the courts yourself. If the judge found in your favour and sentenced the other party to some kind of corporal punishment, you were the one who carried out the punishment.

Of course, why would you bother to go through the courts when you could just mete out the punishment directly and that’s what often happened. By our standards, Rome was a relatively lawless society. But, again, the ethic was might is right. That was true at an everyday level and it was true at the highest levels of government. The Roman system required and rewarded strongmen. That’s just how they operated, as did most societies of that era.

In summary, outside of the army, the Romans had essentially no large organisations at all. They had no corporations, bureaucracies, banks, police forces, unions, chambers of commerce, NGOs, law firms, legal societies, football clubs, political parties, United Nations, World Banks, World Health Organisations or International Monetary Funds.

Romans looked down their noses at trade, banking and commerce. The reason the Romans did not pursue organisation in these spheres was not because they didn’t have the intelligence or capability but because they did not value such things. Accordingly, the institutions which existed were rudimentary. When emergencies happened, the Romans solved the problem not through organisation but through force.

Incidentally, this was also true in the early days of modern Europe. Kings needed bankers to fund wars. Once the war was over, the kings would often refuse to pay their debts and the banker was left to foot the bill. If he had a problem with it, he could take it up with the king’s army. That was also how Rome worked. Might was right.

We can see, therefore, that one of the main differences between our society and the Romans is the scale of our organisations. How did we get so good at organisation?

There is, of course, no single answer to that question but we can state for sure that trade and commerce played a very important role and this where capitalism comes into the picture.

The British East India Company is arguably the proto-corporation of the modern world. For many years it was the largest corporation in the world and may even have been the largest in history (it’s probable that the Chinese or Indians had something larger through sheer population size). In any case, the British East India Company was orders of magnitude larger than any Roman organisation.

How did the British East India Company come about? Well, Francis Drake is sometimes called an “explorer” or a “privateer”. We could more accurately call him a pirate since the original purpose of the voyage which made him famous was to sail to South America and steal gold from the Spanish. He achieved that aim and then, while sailing back to England, landed in what is now Indonesia. He traded some of the gold he had stolen from the Spanish for spices, apparently not realising their enormous value in Europe at that time. When he got back to England, he was a hero. More importantly, those who had invested in his voyage became fabulously wealthy. Thereafter, other “privateers” decided to try their luck on the open seas and the rest, as they say, is history.

There’s much that could be said about this story but notice one crucial aspect: all of this activity was not instigated by the crown or the state but by private citizens. The East India Company had what we would now call a CEO, it had a board of directors, it went through all the legal hoops required for its creation. Already by the year 1600, most of the organisational and legal pre-requisites that we recognise as “trade and commerce” were already in effect in Britain. The reason we are all so familiar with them is because it was that “trade and commerce” which would become the basis for the British Empire. It took over the world quite literally.

By the time of the creation of the United State of America, trade and commerce had become more than a way to get rich by stealing Spanish gold. It had become an article of faith. In Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, arguably the founding document of the USA, we find the idea of trade and commerce as a way to gain freedom from the “tyranny” of kings such of King George III.

It’s worth noting again that all this is the inversion of the Roman paradigm. The Romans would never have dreamed of elevating trade and commerce above the Caesar, but the British and the Americans did. This is why capitalism really is an article of faith for Americans and has been from the beginning of that nation.

There’s another way in which the paradigm of the British and American empires is different from Rome. The Romans led with military might. Trade was a secondary benefit. The British and Americans have led with trade with military power reserved for situations that threatened trade (of course, military power has also been used for other reasons too).

Some people on the right of politics in the US have criticised the recent bombings of Houthi targets in Yemen. This reveals a surprising naivete about how the world works. The US and British are bombing the Houthis because the Houthis had managed to shut down shipping in the Red Sea thereby causing major disruption to transportation networks. That is not a new policy. It’s quite literally as old as America itself.

The conflict with the Houthis is an almost exact replica of the Barbary Wars fought at the beginning of the 19th century under the presidency of none other than Thomas Jefferson. What was at stake then, as now, is the freedom of navigation required to enable trade. America and Britain have always been prepared to go to war when trade and commerce were threatened. All of the shenanigans in the Middle East in the 20th century have been predicated on maintaining the most important trade of all; petrolem.

The rise of trade and commerce has, from the beginning, been accompanied by the enormous growth in the law, especially commercial law. In modern America, being involved in public life at all let alone in business requires a team of lawyers working round the clock to manage your affairs. Law is what enables our enormous organisations to be created. Thus, we can say that law is also a cornerstone of the modern Western paradigm.

As international trade became a huge boon for Britain, it incorporated mercantile law into its common law. As Lord Mansfield put it at the time – “Mercantile law is not the law of a particular country but the law of all nations”. It’s fair to say that Lord Mansfield did not ask other nations whether they agreed with this statement. It’s also fair to say that many nations, from the Barbary states of the 19th century through to the Houthis today, did not and do not agree with this statement. Nevertheless, the success of Britain and America has meant that other nations have had to abide by mercantile law whether they wanted to or not and so mercantile law has ended up becoming international.

It is these mercantile laws that form the basis for the incredible complexity of the modern global economy. When we enter into a contract, we know that it will be enforced and we can rely on the outcome being delivered. How many different contracts must exist in order for an iPhone to be created? Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of independently organised contracts have to be signed that coordinate the producers of minerals, plastics and electronic components with transportation companies, intermediaries and retailers from around the globe.  It’s a stunningly complex system that runs on laws.

Laws are the great strength of the system. But, increasingly, the costs of the system are outweighing the benefits and that is, I believe, what is behind the religious crisis that is affecting us today. We are the victims of our own success.

Consider this. The word “contract” comes from the Latin contractus which originally had the meaning of “to draw in, to shrink”. A business contract is a metaphorical extension of the original meaning. This makes some sense when you consider that to enter a contract is to limit yourself by binding yourself into an agreement with somebody else. The more contracts you enter into, the more you are binding yourself and reducing your ability to do other things. The Roman and Greek aristocrats’ distaste for trade and commerce was precisely because they saw it as a form of slavery; of being bound.

In the modern West, we have come to think that it’s the other way around since the contacts we enter into as consumers result in some benefit to us. But everything in life has diminishing returns. There probably was a time where the benefits of signing a contract outweighed the cost. That is clearly no longer true. The average person now enters into a huge number of contracts but, increasingly, they must go into debt in order to so. For the average person over the last 30 or so years, contracts have become little more than a chain around their neck; a form of debt bondage. That’s one huge problem that we face right now.

There’s a second and related problem. The enormous complexity of our society is facilitated through laws, rules and contracts. Increasingly, it is corporations and bureaucracies who control and operate those rules in a way that is not visible to the general public.

Consider the corona debacle. At the beginning of corona, I received pamphlet in my mailbox. The pamphlet was printed on the letterhead of my local council (local government organisation in Australia). It contained information about a supposedly new disease called “covid” whose symptoms were indistinguishable from the common cold/flu. In the fine print at the bottom of the page was stated that the information had been provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

What chain of command had to exist in order for that pamphlet to get delivered to my house? There is the Australian postal service which delivers the mail. There is an administration assistant, a graphic designer, and whoever else is employed by my local council to produce pamphlets. There is a printing facility to print them. The council gets its instructions from the state public health bureaucracy who gets its instructions from the national health bureaucracy who get their instructions from the bureaucrats at the WHO.

All of this chain of command exists because the Australian government is a signatory to a contract with the WHO. That contract requires the Australian government to do things when the WHO tells them to. In order to do those things, the Australian government funds the bureaucracies which operate according to strict rules.

The general public thinks that those bureaucracies are “intelligent”, that the people who work for them are highly educated and that their job it is to know things. In fact, the people who work in bureaucracies are only required to know that which enables them to follow the rules. That is what bureaucracies are good at. It might be the only thing bureaucracies are good at.

What has happened in the post war years with the massive expansion of bureaucracy both in the public service and in the private sector is to create a machine-like system that runs on rules and contracts, not on thinking. The corona debacle represented the complete absence of thinking. It’s exactly what you would expect if you put bureaucrats in charge of the world.

The corona debacle was made possible by a system where people mindlessly follow the rules. Why were so many people tested at hospitals early on, even people who had no symptoms of respiratory illness? Because that’s what the rules said had to happen. Hospitals were contractually required to carry out testing. Of course, hospitals were also incentivised by the fact that they received thousands of dollars per “covid patient”.

In one sense, the corona debacle was stunningly well-organised. Think of all the contracts, invoices, bookkeeping, information systems, laboratory reports etc that were needed to make it possible. But what corona proves is that we are no longer driving the machine. The machine is driving us.

Remember the double meaning of the word contract. It’s now the case that, with every new contract, we contract. Every new contract now contracts individual liberty and humanity in general. There can be no starker example of that than the corona lockdowns. Of course, the average person had no idea they had entered into the corona contract. Their governments did it on their behalf. An entire bureaucratic machine was built that nobody knew about.

Quite a number of people have recently had idea that modern society is possessed by Satan or some other force outside ourselves. That force is the machine. We created the machine and now the machine controls us. The great strength of the modern West has been organisation. But we now have too much organisation.

That’s how every great tragedy plays out. The hero’s greatest strengths become the flaws that lead to doom. Macbeth and the Othello were the great warriors who kept fighting when they should have sheathed their swords. King Lear was the ruler who could not retire. Romeo and Juliet were the passionate youths who could not control their emotions. Western civilisation has been the great organiser. But our solution to every problem is now one more rule, one more law, one more contract, one more bureaucracy, one more vaccine, one more technology. Every time we add one more of these, we bind ourselves tighter to the machine.

36 thoughts on “Welcome to the Machine”

  1. Interesting synchronicity here. This story has been doing the rounds online in the last couple of days – https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackkelly/2024/01/12/viral-tiktok-video-of-cloudflare-employee-is-a-lesson-on-how-to-not-fire-workers/?sh=380099de3d5a

    A young woman gets fired but the human resources people who fire her do not provide any reasons why. Apparently this happens because HR is reading off a script that comes from the legal department which requires HR not to say anything because it can be used in court later if the employee sues. A perfect example of why people are made to act like robots and are unable to communicate as humans because they have to follow “the law”.

  2. Hi Simon,

    This topic is like catnip to me, and then you go and chuck in a Pink Floyd reference – and what awesome songs they are. 🙂

    Don’t you think it is interesting how over arching in peoples lives, the machine actually is? Trying to get some distance is not as easy to do as you’d imagine. And like you note, every time it draws you back in. The Big J got around this minor nuisance by suggesting to ‘render unto Caesar’. Sound advice, but then what?

    One of the interesting things I wonder about with all the data collection going on. At what point does it make no sense, and the collection of data becomes the end goal – as distinct from the use thereof.

    A truly fine essay!

    Cheers

    Chris

  3. Chris – like most “technological advances” these days, I don’t think anybody knows what the purpose of the data collection for “AI” is. There’s a million ideas floating around, of course. But it’s all speculation. That’s the other weird part of the predicament we are in. The general public is bound by the rules while the people at the top get to engage in pure speculation. Try and opt out of having your data collected and fed into “AI”. You pretty much can’t.

  4. Hello,
    You are right to call bureaucracy a machine. It is also a machine that has helped civilization such a the eastern Roman Empire, the Chinese and Indian empires run for 1000’s of years. However they ran on people.
    Our bureaucracies run on technology. Technologies with a huge capacity to acquire data. Not much good a dealing with people. No one is really gathering data for a reason. It is happening because it can. Much of the data gathered can not be read or accessed later because the technology it is stored on has been replaced by newer technology. Why is the technology replaced? So private companies can make money.
    I know because I used to work for a large government department which no longer exists. Private companies took over the work.
    Capitalism at work. You now pay more for less but the companies are making 100 of millions of dollars of profit a year.

  5. Sue – that’s a fair point. Although, I seem to recall that Confucius was complaining 2,500 years ago that people would follow the rules without understanding the meaning behind them. So, this is not a new problem!

    The problem with capitalism is that it always needs more and so we have to have more and more in shorter and shorter timeframes. Then, when growth slows, you can let capitalism metabolise government bureaucracies. But what happens when capitalism has finished eating up the government? At the moment, it looks like capitalism is eating itself!

  6. Hello Simon,
    You ask what happens when capitalism has eaten itself?
    I would answer when the ruling class (in our society the capitalists) lose support of all society, they risk losing the mandate of heaven as the Chinese say.
    At that point they will be replaced. What with is the question. If the question is being widely asked then I would say the process of replacement has already begun. We are now just waiting to see what comes next.

  7. Sue – I think you’re right. The trouble is that capitalism and money has now infected all the other institutions in society which would allow the “mandate of heaven” to be restored by correcting the imbalances in the system. That means that, when the correction comes, it’s almost certainly going to do a lot of damage.

  8. Hi Simon,

    You ask the question: But what happens when capitalism has finished eating up the government?

    One of the 99 reasons why the Roman Empire failed was because the wars to the north west cost them economically and militarily, and produced very little lasting benefit. They got bled dry. It’s a nasty slow demise for an organisation.

    All those hungry things have to squeeze others to turn a profit, or at least convert capital into a short term profit, otherwise they fail. I’m guessing that is the possible outcome. Incidentally, I reckon the ever increasing debt is being used to cover over the lack of returns. But even that trick has diminishing returns.

    I read somewhere that debt servicing is increasing at a rate faster than the NDIS. What did they expect?

    Cheers

    Chris

  9. Chris – yes, and interestingly the “experts” in Davos appear to know full well that the current paradigm is finished and they aren’t shy about talking about a new one. It seems to have gone unnoticed that the “experts” aren’t having a very good run lately. I wonder if it has occurred to them that their plans aren’t going to work out.

  10. It’s always the interesting thing about Rome that in many ways they were a reluctant Empire. The whole concept of Empire didn’t really sit well with the Carpe Diem, renounce all abstraction attitude, and the fact that the Empire itself was named after a City-State clearly shows what was most important to them.

    I think the might makes right thing exists in all cultures, it’s just that in the Classical culture whatever priestly cast that in most cultures offers the contrasting metaphysic died out early and the aristocrats completely dominated. All aristocrats have that same attitude, even if hidden behind flowery words.

    The contrast is seen between Jesus and Pilate, in the ‘What is Truth?’, ‘What is reality?’ juxtaposition.

  11. Skip – that’s the fascinating part because the Americans are, if anything, an even more reluctant empire. There’s a school of thought that said Britain backed out of empire due to the fact that it looked like it would destroy the nation (obviously only when things started to go bad). America had and still has a significant group of isolationists who didn’t want to get involved in Europe’s troubles. But, following WW2, what choice did hte US have. It could let Germany implode who would probably take Britain and France with it and let Stalin capture Europe. Meanwhile, that would weaken also weaken the US economy not to mention hand much of the globe over to the communists. So, America had to become an empire even though a significant portion of its public didn’t want to.

    Maybe that’s the whole history of civilisation. You either seize power yourself or allow your enemies to do so.

  12. We are becoming much more inflexible due to our sprawling bureaucracies. Most of these bureaucratic institutions seem to be only serving themselves instead of fulfilling their original mission.
    When I see how long building projects last in Germany and compare that to the pragmatic approaches in other countries, I must throw up. Worst examples are the airport in Berlin, which took 14 years instead of the planned 5 years to build and start operation, and the Rheinbruecke Leverkusen which has restricted traffic since 2012, while the new bridge is still not finished. Apparently, it will be finished in 2027. I would expect that if that would happen in China, all project related executives would have “disappeared” a long time ago.
    The education system is also in freefall. I could rant about it for weeks.
    Is it time to reign in the bureaucratic merchants?

  13. Secretface – easier said than done. We’ve created a whole system based on bureaucracy which goes education –> university –> bureaucracy. Let’s say we permanently sacked 1/3 of the bureaucrats. Now you need 1/3 less university jobs and perhaps even 1/3 less high school jobs. That’s a lot of people who would be unemployed and angry. It’s the same issue with slow building projects. We have the same thing here in Australia. The reason why it can continue is that we don’t really need any of these bridges or railways or whatever else is getting built. So, yeah, the huge problem we have is that we don’t have enough real jobs for people to do and the bureaucracy is there to make up the difference.

  14. I agree that it is easier said than done as the ones profiting from this system will not give it up voluntarily, but people are already talking about regime change or even civil war. A transition to whatever will follow, will not happen without violence. Maybe we get a dictator like Stalin or Mao to facilitate the change. They had an effective but brutal way to deal with opposition.

    I don´t agree that we don´t have enough real jobs. We don´t have enough real jobs that require a university degree. That´s why we are creating them out of thin air. I once worked as an advisor for a big pharmaceutical company. One of my clients told me that they had around 14 job positions for lab technicians on offer but could only fill two of these positions because they did not have enough (suitable) candidates. On the other hand, he told me that they easily have more than 100 candidates to choose from if they have a job position on offer which requires a university degree. We are educating against the demand.

    In addition, there are whole industries, where we need to import people to do the work because no one wants to do them anymore (e.g. anything that requires physically demanding work). So, if we would get rid of a big part of the bureaucracy system (my estimate would be that at least 2/3 are superfluous), we can put them in these professions. If that is against their will, we still have the “might is right” option.

    During the Corona debacle, even the government admitted that most people are doing useless stuff as only the “system-relevant” jobs needed to continue their work. Funnily, it was mostly jobs that nobody in our society wants to do anymore. So, from my point of view, we don´t lack the jobs, our society is just too conceited and lazy to do them.

  15. Secretface – hah, “system-relevant”. Is that the phrase they used in Germany? Here, it was a distinction between “essential” and “non-essential” workers. But that reveals my whole point. The majority of us are non-essential. I agree that there are essential jobs that need to be done and that most of those jobs are not the jobs that the average westerner wants to have anymore which is why we need to import people to do them. I still think that there aren’t enough of those jobs to keep the population employed. This was a point made by Bertrand Russell almost a century ago and, if anything, it’s only more true today.

    Russell’s solution was that we should stick to the “essential” jobs but work less. He estimated everybody could have worked four hours a week to produce the things that were necessary for life. We could then have the rest of the week do whatever interested us. It’s a good idea in theory. Why it never worked in practice is a complex question but I suspect part of the answer is that human beings need dominance hierarchies. Where there is no hierarchy, we will create one. Bureaucracies have a dominance hierarchy built in, so they fulfill that need.

  16. Simon – costs outweighing benefits? Yes! Except for a rapidly shrinking obscenely wealthy proportion of our species. Was just reading about a text from the 5th century BCE: Epidemics (Books I & III). The author, who may or may not have been Hippocrates, stresses prognosis over treatment, recognition over remedy. The observational basis for medicine. LOL: two & a half millennia later, ‘medicine’ has outsourced most if not all of the observation to machines: imaging technology, PCR tests etc. Freeing up GPs to spend less time thinking & more time signing referrals & prescriptions. The remedy is the focus. All that’s needed is to invent new maladies, often in the form of acronyms. The point is no longer to heal but to monetise human suffering. And the more suffering, the more potential for profit.

  17. Shane – I had a weird one recently. Went to a doctor with a minor skin problem and he asked me to go for blood tests. I asked him why since it seemed unrelated and he said that the skin problem could be indicative of a general immune system weakness. Since the test is free and since there’s a collection centre within walking distance of my house, I agreed to do it. Surprise, surprise. The tests came back with nothing. Of course, I had to make an extra trip back to the doctor to get the results. The whole thing struck me as a scam, not to mention a waste of money. Although, of course, for the doctor a “waste of money” is income. Dodgy.

  18. Funnily enough, Russell’s scenario seems to be how some resource-rich countries live. In places like Saudi Arabia, where most things are paid for by the gigantic resource income, energy and real-life slaves do most of the heavy income, and the citizens play sort of pretend with work.

    The energy slave thing is the crucial point. Each person in industrial nations has an enormous amount of them and without them, everyone would be back in the fields/mines/factories.

    I think part of it too is the cultural uniqueness of Western European man, which seems to have only been matched by China and Egypt in terms of insane work ethic. Other cultures don’t seem to have it and probably look upon it as madness. We seem to go mad without some sort of striving forward momentum and this probably has something to do with all our bureaucracy and bullshit jobs. It is completely nonsensical and much ado about nothing once you step back and have a look, something we avoid.

  19. Skip – that’s why the Protestant Work Ethic is such a key concept. On the surface of it, the Protestants had what should have been a non-starter of a theology. They said that most people were going to hell and there wasn’t anything you could about it. What happened instead was that people did start to do something about it. They started working, not to accrue wealth, but to prove they were going to heaven. Apparently this had something to do with the fact that Luther had the idea of a “calling” that came from God. This got interpreted as the idea that if you became a successful tradesman, that was evidence God liked you and you’d go to heaven. So, Protestantism created an ethic where people would live very frugally (cos it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle…) but also work their asses off. Unsurprisingly, this was conducive to economic growth.

    Interestingly, I wonder whether what was really going on there was skilled labour as a form of meditation. I’ve experienced this in a couple of jobs I’ve had. There is a peculiar state you get into doing repetitive but skilled work. It’s a kind of “being in the zone” and it definitely feels spiritual.

  20. It’s interesting that the monastic life dies out with the reformation, as if that sort of resigned spiritual existence is no longer a mark of piety, only hard work, striving ‘will’ power is what is important. I think it really hits home that orthodox Christianity is a world apart in that the monastic life still lives on there, whereas even the Catholic Church did away with it along with all the new Protestant sects.

    There are all the usual economic explanations to be found in the Protestants putting people to work, (proto-capitalism etc) but to me our conception of time is the reason for it, because it takes an abstract faith in the future to possess such work ethic. Extension into the past and future is what creates striving in the present, and of course western culture created the clock. If you don’t treat the abstract future as as real as the present (or revere the past), I don’t think you would possess the work ethic. So from this will to power into the future comes the religious justification for it. All the cultures that have possessed the work ethic (China, Egypt, Faustian and most likely Meso-American) have been the most meticulous record keepers and historians, and this gives away the time conception as a common denominator.

    This is why I think classical man would find all our striving so hilarious, because he would see the future focus as a ridiculous abstraction, which from their perspective it certainly is. Fish and not knowing water as they swim in it and all that.

  21. Skip – true. But we could also flip that around. A time traveller from our time visiting Rome might say to the Romans “y’know, with just a little bit of organisation you could avoid a lot of these problems you’re having”.

    Funnily enough, this mentality exists in the IT industry. It’s called the hero mindset. I’d never thought about it before, but it fits the Romans since they worshipped the “great man”. Anyway, the hero mindset is the person who doesn’t want to try and solve the underlying causes of problems because they enjoy getting credit for coming to the rescue. Thus, you get computer programmers waking up at 3 in the morning when the system crashes. In some organisations, they get praised for that behaviour and even paid for it too, so they have no incentive to prevent it happening again. Similar psychology to the firefighters who start fires so they can take hte credit for putting them out.

  22. Simon – Yes, that was the official phrase used in the German media. The people working in system-relevant jobs got a pat on the back and a moment in the spotlight, nowadays they have fallen into oblivion again, just like before Corona.
    Interesting, that Bertrand Russell came up with the four-hour-workweek. So, Tim Ferriss just stole the concept. A contemporary of Russell, John Maynard Keynes, also thought that with further productivity gains, our working time would be further reduced to 15 hours a week. For some reason, this also did not happen. We still work the same amount of time as back then. I would agree that our thirst for status is one of the reasons for that (and the related concept of “Keeping up with the Joneses”). People also want to feel useful, having a job is an easy way to achieve that, as most people seem to be overwhelmed, if they have too much free time, and spend it in a passive state in front of the TV (or Smartphone).
    Skip – I first heard of the energy slave concept through Buckminster Fuller. I think that he calculated that we have around 100 energy slaves at our disposable on a constant basis. We are all living like kings. Still, we (pretend to) work a lot instead of just enjoying life like the aristocrats of the past.

  23. Secretface – “you have been judged irrelevant to the system.” Sounds like the beginning of a dystopian science fiction movie 🙂

  24. Hello Simon, you’re comment to me at ecosophia reminded me that I haven’t visited here for a wee while. You are always spot on in your takes, and I, for one, am “disentangling” from the machine to the greatest of my ability to “subsist” (ie to stand on ground of my own choosing). 🙂

    Just a thought on this, though. “Russell’s solution was that we should stick to the “essential” jobs but work less. He estimated everybody could have worked four hours a week to produce the things that were necessary for life. We could then have the rest of the week do whatever interested us. It’s a good idea in theory. Why it never worked in practice is a complex question…”

    But… I wonder if you mean – “why it never worked in practice [for human beings]” or “why it never worked in practice [for humans living in civilisations]”? Because if you meant the first, then of course, this is wrong, and you yourself live on a continent on which it has been wrong for tens of thousands of years. As Marshall Sahlins (among many others) pointed out when writing about “the original affluent society” (ie hunter gatherer nomads)… societies, which, when observed, lead to: “the most obvious, immediate conclusion is that the people do not work hard. The average
    length of time per person per day put into the appropriation and preparation of food was four or
    five hours. Moreover, they do not work continuously. The subsistence quest was highly
    intermittent. It would stop for the time being when the people had procured enough for the time
    being. which left them plenty of time to spare.” https://www.appropriate-economics.org/materials/Sahlins.pdf

    It may well be, though, that no human civilisation has accomplished such general affluence, with its surplus of time for leisure before. And also, it may well be that (as James C Scott wrote about in “The Art of Not Being Governed”) so-called “primitive” hunter gatherers/nomads/barbarians and such are not so much *ignorant* of civilisation and its ills, as *determined* to be free of them, and well-versed in techniques and [anti]technologies for keeping civilisation at bay.

    So, for myself, it seems that although I live *in* a civilisation, I mostly skulk around the edge of it as a covert barbarian… doing my best to adapt/adopt some of those self-same [anti]technologies… 🙂

  25. Scotlyn – well, yes, this raises the fundamental question “what is civilisation”? It’s quite incredible to think that Toynbee wrote a monumental work on the subject and the historian, Kenneth Clark, an equally impressive TV series called “Civilisation” and yet both of them admitted they couldn’t give a satisfactory abstract definition of what civilisation is. I’m always wary of Rousseau’s noble savage idea and yet, we have to admit that, from a certain perspective, civilisation does seem to be a step backwards. That’s a point that Locke had also made. Civilisation requires giving up some individual freedom of action but getting back more than what you gave up due to the benefits you receive from the collective. In theory, you should be able to withdraw your consent from the collective when the benefits dry up. In practice, it doesn’t work that way. Still, as you allude to, there are ways to withdraw consent without completing severing links with society and be a covert barbarian. Or what about: barbarians undercover. Like a witness protection program 🙂

  26. Yes, well, of course savages are not noble… (especially by the standards set by royals and such…) 😉

    Savages are just people. However savages are “just” people who happen to have taken a different stance to the very bargain you mention:

    “Civilisation requires giving up some individual freedom of action but getting back more than what you gave up due to the benefits you receive from the collective.”

    ie – a savage is someone who:
    a) declines to give up individual freedom of action, and
    b) (at least over the past few thousand years since civilisations – whatever they are – got going) can plainly see that the likelihood of “getting back more than you gave up” from civilisation (especially if you join it at the only level it offers – the bottom) are pretty slim.

    Or as James C Scott often says (paraphrase) “Tribes and ethnicity start where taxes and couvee labour (states) end”.

    You see, what the savage, and also the person at the bottom of civilisation’s heap can spot is this: “the collective” is everybody at the bottom, and the “benefits received from the collective” is everybody at the top.
    And so, as James C Scott also showed in “The Art of Not Being Governed” there is actually a lively traffic between the two states… Sometimes an individual savage joins the bottom tier of the civilisation, because of perceived benefits, sometimes a person from the bottom tier of the civilisation runs away to join the savages, because of the weight of perceived costs. Some individuals go back and forth and never “commit”. Even though the civilisation can only conceive of this traffic as going one way (primitive people learning to become civilised in accordance with the arrow of progress), in fact it goes two ways, and always has done, ever since there were civilisations.

    As I see it, to become savage (a barbarian undercover) while remaining in place in a civilisation is not so much a case of withdrawing consent as it is a case of reducing dependency, and withdrawing support/compliance. The first increases the scope of freedom to enable the second.

  27. Scotlyn – agree. That’s why the story of Alexander the Great meeting the cynic philosopher Diogenes is symbolically so fitting. You’ve almost certainly heard it, but the story goes that Alexander had heard of the great philosopher and asked to meet him. Diogenes was lying in the sun when Alexander approached and asked if he could do anything for him to which Diogenes replied “step aside, you’re blocking the sun.” The moral of the story is that the people at the bottom and the people are the top can meet as equals since they both have their freedom.

    There’s another great example of that from colonial Australia. An aboriginal tribesman, Bennelong, was befriended by the very first governor of the colony at Sydney, Arthur Phillip. Bennelong learned English and even learned how to write. He travelled with Phillip to England and the story goes that he even met the king, although there’s no official record of that. Anyway, having seen the great city of London and been given every opportunity to assimilate, Bennelong returned to the bush when he got back home and thereafter became a kind of ambassador between his tribe and the colonists. I’d say he’s an ideal example of your point about the traffic between “civilised” and “uncivilised”.

    It is an interesting question in general why so many people at the bottom of the ladder put up with hardship when they see no benefit. For most of history, it seems, the worst of the hardship was put onto a class of non-persons (slaves). In modern Europe, the difference was the point that Skip made in an earlier comment. People put up with it because they believed life would be better for their children. That turned out to be true, so I guess they were right.

  28. Interesting Scotlyn, but what I would argue is that civilisation isn’t a choice, no more than a tree growing from seed is a ‘choice’. It’s just something that happens when conditions are right. It seems to be a tendency within nature itself, because once a large energy source is tapped by biology the same processes kick into gear. Generalist species such as ravens, foxes, bears, humans have a great deal of freedom regarding habitats to live in, while specialised rainforest species are much more limited.

    A modern industrial civilisation is a lot like a rainforest, tapping a huge energy source with specialised roles everywhere. For the individual workers life isn’t great, but it seems there isn’t a real choice in the matter. Even the Australian aboriginals seem to have been down the path in certain locations such as south west Vic and the certain fertile points in NSW and Qld. Odum mapped a lot of this out in Energy Power and Environment it’s worth checking out. Australias lack of civ is probably due to climate and fertility than choice. It had to be first imported and then utilise early industrial technology to take off here. Even long term the prospects are grim here without industrial tech.

    But even so life in agrarian civilisations often wasn’t as harsh work wise as early industrial civs. When you work the land you have plenty of rest days due to weather and the changing of the seasons. The factory and mines had no days off.

  29. Simon – unless that doctor identified other signs of poor immune function, sending you for a blood test sounds like a way to hide his ignorance. I’ve been referred for so many tests in recent years (mostly declined) that I wonder if doctors are often just passing the buck – maybe for legal reasons; healthcare’s gotten so legalistic – or just to save face so they don’t lose business. Or both.

    This discussion of civilisation & its discontents is synchronistic; have just been reading John Zerzan (anti-technology, anti-civilisation, anti-language etc.). Civilisation seems to me to be a function of population expansion, which tends to entail degradation as well as increasing complication. For instance, the larger a population of any species gets, the more environmental havoc it tends to wreak. Which goes for factory farming as well as overpopulation of species in nature due to intervention &/or imbalances. But I don’t think it’s useful to apply value judgements; a way of life doesn’t need to be ‘wrong’ to be unfulfilling, hugely dysfunctional &/or destructive. Zerzan does my head in because he also critiques the imposition of time as a frame of reference – w/o which, I don’t think he’d be equipped to compare hunter–gatherers w/ their successors.

    ‘Freedom’ requires a lot of skills that most ‘civilised’ folk lack. So it seems obvious that very few would welcome a peaceful reversion to barbarism. Within the somewhat stringent limits of my personal circumstances, my approach is to beat the rush. 🙂

  30. Shane – hadn’t heard of Zerzan. If he’s “anti-language”, why is he writing books?

  31. Hello Simon. I LOVE the Diogenes story, but of course I disagree with your reading. Alexander was NOT the equal of Diogenes in freedom. As the driver of a people-machine, he was “top” sure, but if that machine should break, would HE know how to get his food, clothes, satisfy his wants and needs? I doubt it. He was utterly dependent upon the machine, even though he occupied the “top” role of driver. Therefore not free.

    Skip, thank you so much for giving thought to this matter! I will certainly check out Odum in time, but while I do think that energy sources can contribute to the formation of patterns and arrays in the ways that species and populations adapt, that is never the whole story.

    You say: “For the individual workers life isn’t great, but it seems there isn’t a real choice in the matter,” and I beg to disagree. There has never been a civilisation that did not have a “hinterland” of people choosing otherwise than to BE the battery for the civilisation’s machine. These choices WERE what actually drove many of the cultural forms that anthropologists were studying as “primitive peoples” in the 19th and 20th centuries. And those cultural forms often encode what James C Scott calls “state-evading” and or “state-resisting” behaviours. For example, many such cultural forms actively suppress the formation of hierarchies, stress high mobility (in inverse proportion to material acquisitiveness), allow for easy fissioning of groups, practice diverse and various sustenance habits, and so on. All of these aimed at producing a high quality of personal life (ie Russell’s short workweeks coupled with ample leisure) – and not at all “grim” – as Australia’s own Bill Gammage has amply demonstrated in “The Biggest Estate on Earth”.

    It seems that civilisations develop, and get driven by, purposes OTHER than promoting a high quality of personal life, and such purposes are often driven by the social, religious, political or economic visions and designs of a small elite which must recruit others into the “working” lower strata of their hierarchical machine.

    Simon points out that in the past some of the lowest strata of the machine were made up of slaves, and as David Graeber points out a slave is “made” by depriving him or her of their “connections” – taking them by force or deception out of their familiar homeplace, and cutting them out of the web of relatives and friends and people to whom they are known, and inserting them into a new, strange situations lacking in friendly or loyal faces, where they become “fungible” interchangeable units. In such a situation, a person’s array of choices is limited to deciding to die, or to live in crap conditions. Many choose to live… and LATER some (never all, but always some) of those will choose to run away.

    And, as Shane points out, freedom requires skills (but also, I’d argue, intimate conditions to a set of people and a known place), that civilisation tries its best to train out of people, without ever completely succeeding.

    In any case, gentlemen, may you all be well, and stay free! 🙂

  32. Scotlyn – What you’re describing is the late-stage civilisation. That’s when things become machine-like and rather brutal. What Toynbee and Spengler noted was that the first half of the civilisational cycle works very differently.

    Why do people willingly contribute to civilisation? One answer might be that they look at a Chartres Cathedral or they listen to a Mozart symphony or they watch a Greek tragedy and they feel a connection to it, even if they can’t explain the nature of that connection. That was Kenneth Clark’s definition. Whatever civilisation was, it was something like Chartres Cathedral. That raises the question: is the society that builds Chartres Cathedral qualitatively different from the one that doesn’t? James C Scott’s analysis suggests that the answer is yes, since the societies that don’t build a Chartres Cathedral have a different structure. Then there’s a further question: why do some people prefer to live in the society that builds Chartres Cathedral and some prefer to live in the one that doesn’t?

    Anyway, thanks for contributing to a stimulating discussion.

  33. Yeah that’s why the culture/civilisation is so important. A culture built Chartres Cathedral, a civilization builds roads and skyscrapers and train stations. A culture lives like an organism in a confident, unquestioning, tragic manner with a metaphysical backing, whereas civilization loses faith, rationalise it all and kills it.

    Even using the deterministic energy scheme to explain civilisation gives away my position in late faustian civilization, using supposedly materialistic and causal explanations while still using articles of faith (‘energy’ is the most Faustian term ever) to explain a phenomena, rather than just accepting it as destined fate. But that’s just where we are at.

    From what you are saying re the Cathedral and Mozart Simon the more Germanic/Romantic/Spenglerian thought lines would say that the for the original culture the calling is metaphysical, a deep longing to express something, usually through architecture to begin with and then expanding out to other fields. There are many sacrifices required to express this something, but they are taken willingly to start with to join in the expression. But once the creative part of the culture dies the civilization takes over and becomes the expansive destroyer that people choose to avoid or run away from.

  34. Skip – my understanding is that Chartres Cathedral was built with the willing labor of the peasantry over a period of decades. It’s hard for us to imagine that since we typically only engage in “communal” work through paid employment. I’ve attended several volunteer “gardening blitz” events over the years and that captures, I think, something of the spirit of coming together as a group to do something just because you care about it. It is surprising what a group of people casually working away for several hours can achieve with the right coordination.

  35. Simon, you are quite right that a late stage civilisation is different from an early one. To build a Chartres Cathedral is a magnificent elite purpose. True, that purpose is not to promote a general high personal quality of life. (Per what I said before) Still, it IS a magnificent vision, and magnificent enough in scope and beauty and wonder to attract people from the hinterland into the centre to take part (even a small and peripheral part) in bringing this vision and purpose into visible form…

    And, of course, there is a momentum in such a young civilisation towards centre and away from periphery – and yet, the periphery is never quite emptied of those who decline the bargain, and decline to give up personal freedom. While, as the civilisation ossifies and goes into its late stage, that periphery develops its own attraction for those at the heart of it, and the momentum changes, as more people begin to move away from the centre, and towards the periphery where personal freedom beckons. The point that I am making is that it is never all or one. From each individual person’s perspective, there are choices. Towards the centre or towards the periphery. Towards being civilised, or towards being savage, if you will. Towards helping make the central cultural vision of the elite come to pass, or towards moving away from and hindering the central cultural vision of the elite. The overall momentum is a population thing, and that is what engaged the interest of Toynbee and Spengler, but the fact that both centre and periphery always exist, side by side, means that personal choice is never fully eclipsed, and THAT is what engaged both Scott and Graeber, and (of course) undercover savages like me… 😉

    That said, even savages can very easily find ourselves co-ordinating enthusiastically with others on mutually benefitting projects. 🙂

    Also, thanks! for continuing to write and think and write some more! Always good for thinking with, your blog!

  36. Scotlyn – valid points. We have Spengler and Toynbee to thank for describing civilisation in great detail and Scott and Graeber to thank for describing the other side of the story.

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