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TRB #7 Chapter Three Part 1: Inequality and the State

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Storming of the Winter Palace

The storming of the Winter Palace, October, 1917
There is so much confusion, vagueness, and even mysticism regarding the State that, in discussing it, I hardly know where to begin. Perhaps one of the most pernicious unfounded ideas is “there has always been a State.” In order to accept this, one must use such a broad definition of State that the term becomes meaningless. In particular, when we look at hunter-gatherer systems (according to the best information I’ve been able to find), we see a society without the fundamental element that, in my view, defines the State: compulsion. If there is no compulsion, and no threat of compulsion, and, above all, no organized force responsible for compulsion, then, whatever you’re going to call the social organization, it just isn’t a State.

The lack of compulsion was pretty clearly a product of egalitarianism—or, rather, egalitarianism meant there was no need for compulsion: no one had more than anyone else. In this write-up from Psychology Today, I was especially intrigued by the notion of “aggressive egalitarianism,” versus passive. The egalitarianism was, in turn, the result of scarcity. Lacking not only the means to produce a surplus, but (perhaps more important), the means to preserve what surplus nature might from time to time provide, meant no chance for an individual or a small group of individuals to accumulate wealth.

Before going further, a note on equality: I think the notion that “equality” refers to people being identical in every way is best left to reactionary science-fiction dystopias. But it is important to be precise about what is meant by the word, because it’s going to come up a great deal in this post. In brief, I mean equality in the sense that no one is entitled to a greater share of the products of human labor than anyone else, or a greater voice in how these products are distributed.

I’ve spoken before about the relationship between the State and class society, but this time let me look at it from the standpoint of its initial development: Once Man has invented the tools and technology (ie, agriculture) to regularly produce a sufficient surplus to permit the accumulation of wealth, and, thus, to support a leisure class, then the question at once comes up: how does this leisure class maintain its privileges, its luxuries, as against the rest of the population who, we might assume, would just as soon have some of the leisure and luxuries for themselves? If I am able to amass a certain amount of wealth from the labor of others—generally, at that stage of society, slaves of one form or another—then I can use some of it to pay for armed individuals to protect my privileges, and to enforce a monopoly on violence.

Once there is a group of armed individuals protecting the property and privileges of a leisure class, we have several things: First, we have a State, because that is exactly the definition I’m using. Second, we begin to have religious, philosophical, and moral injunctions to support the State. Third, we have, for the first time, the chance to hear someone say, “What do you mean leisure class? Do you know how hard I work?”

The question “when are two individuals part of different socio-economic classes, and when is one part a privileged layer of the same class as the other” is going to become very important, but I hope we can skip it for now. The point is, as long as there is socio-economic inequality, there must be a State. The State is a function of, and inevitably tied to, social inequality—in particular, inequality in the distribution of goods. As long as there is inequality, there must be a State; if there is a State, we know there must be inequality. The form of the State varies, but, in general, we can say that it always involves three aspects: a gendarmerie to maintain the property of the exploiting class, an army to deal with external threats, and a bureaucracy to handle the administrative details that inevitably come with the first two. These aspects may be larger, smaller, or combined in various ways, but they are always there. As society progresses, division and productivity of labor increases, relationships mediated by property become more diverse and powerful, and the State in general and the bureaucracy in particular becomes larger and more complex. Indeed, as capitalism advances through the industrial revolution, the bureaucracy becomes so large and complex that it begins to obscure the other functions, and make it appear as if the armed forces are secondary to it.

Another important function State begins to take on is that, except in unusual and extreme circumstances, it gives the appearance of standing apart from and above the contending classes, and mediating their conflict. Custom becomes codified into systems of laws that reflect the actual class relationships while giving the appearance of creating them—to identify the law as determining the relationship between classes is like saying thermometers cause changes in temperature, but it can sometimes look that way, if we ignore history and broader social context.

But with all of this complexity and fetishism, what always lies at the heart of it is the defense of inequality, of social privilege, and making certain those who create the material wealth of society are held in check and prevented from taking their share of it; in Trotsky’s words, “A special apparatus . . . for holding in subjugation the majority of the people.” And underneath the inequality is the inability of society to satisfy everyone’s wants.

So, then, two questions arise: 1) Once society is able to satisfy everyone’s wants, does that mean the elimination of inequality? And 2), Does the elimination of inequality necessarily mean the end of the State? In my opinion, the answer to both questions is yes. The first does not come without effort, without the overthrow of the State and placing it into the hands of the majority, and, even after that (as we’ll see in subsequent chapters) it is not an automatic result. The second is what I want to discuss here.

One argument for the Marxist view that the end of inequality will result in the withering away of the State was expressed by Hegel: “that which is rational is real, that which becomes irrational becomes unreal.” Or, in other words, once there is no reason for the State to exist, once it serves no purpose, why would it continue? Indeed, there are habits, customs, and expectations; but these by themselves aren’t powerful enough sustain a large bureaucratic institution of compulsion once there is no reason to compel. “The material premise of communism should be so high a development of the economic powers of man that productive labor, having ceased to be a burden, will not require any goad, and the distribution of life’s goods, existing in continual abundance, will not demand—as it does not now in any well-off family or ‘decent’ boardinghouse—any control except that of education, habit and social opinion. Speaking frankly, I think it would be pretty dull-witted to consider such a really modest perspective ‘utopian.'”

The money spent by the ruling class on preserving its rule is like the rake in poker; it’s what you need to pay in order to have the game. It is not, by itself, the determining factor in how profitable the game is, but you certainly want it as low as possible. Hence, we can rely on the ruling class spending as little as it can get by with. Prisons, police, secret police, surveillance are not things that come cheap. Your likelihood of spending your money on a security system is a function of, primarily, how worried you are about being burglarized. And if you must install it, you spend as little as is required to provide a sense of safety. As we study generally “liberal” societies (the Weimar Republic, the Second Spanish Republic, Italy under Giolitti), we see the rise of fascism in response to the intensity of the class struggle; whereas such oppressive regimes as Franco’s in Spain and Greece under the Junta gradually became more liberal as the class struggle eased under the influence of the post-war boom. The same phenomenon is repeated, only faster, in several South American countries.

This observation is hardly profound: Society is as repressive as necessary to protect itself under given conditions. It can be complicated by custom, ideology, paranoia, and simple miscalculation on the part of the ruling elite; and it, too, has its dialectical element: sometimes a less oppressive state can reduce class tensions, and a more repressive State exacerbate them. But the general rule still retains its power. If anyone can suggest a counter-example—that is, an extremely repressive State in a peaceful society, or the reverse—I’d be glad to hear it. I believe we can simplify the matter into the following two laws:

1. There is always a correspondence between how repressive the State is at a given time and place, and the intensity of the class struggle.

2. The intensity of the class struggle is a reflection of the degree of inequality at that time and place.

I beg to submit that we Americans have seen this process up close for the last few years.

Knowing this, what, then, is the program of the vanguard party of the proletarian revolution after seizing State power? The workers councils, or similar organs, that made the revolution, become the sovereign power, and are guided by the principles of free election, and, moreover, immediate recall. Should there be full-time functionaries, they must be paid no more than the workers they represent, and “immediate transition to a regime in which all will fulfill the functions of control and supervision so that all may for a time become ‘bureaucrats’ and therefore nobody can become a bureaucrat.” This is Trotsky, quoting Lenin.

The analogy of a workers state to a trade union has often been made, with the further comparison of a deformed workers state to a corrupt trade union. As a thought experiment, consider how much better would be the condition of rank and file workers today if they were represented by unions in which the above policies were enforced.

So, that was the Bolshevik program for the State; why didn’t it work out that way? That will be for next time.

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skzb

Author: skzb

I play the drum.

57 Comments

  1. Wow. That’s a lot to think about.

    If we assume that the primary purpose of a state is to institutionalize inequality, what does that say about governments which were established on egalitarian principles? Is it inevitable that the state will become corrupted away from the egalitarian goal?

    That’s what seems to happen. How can that be prevented?

  2. skzb

    What governments do you mean, David?

  3. The United States and the USSR come to mind. Each for egalitarian reasons, from a different direction. And each corrupted in a slightly different manner.

  4. skzb

    Ah. I see what you mean. Remember that, by “egalitarian” I’m using a specific definition for the purpose of defining its relationship to the State. The US was founded on principles of *political* equality, but not *economic* equality, and it is economic inequality that requires an instrument of oppression. As to the USSR, of course, that’s what I hope to get to in the next post.

  5. The one comment I’d make about this is that, *prior* to the time when productive powers are sufficient to produce all that everyone might want, it’s absolute lunacy to adopt the principle the no one should have a greater voice in how these products are distributed.

    Prior to that time, the only rational strategy is to give the power of application of capital to those who have demonstrated the greatest ability to effectively use capital to increase said productive powers.

    Any other strategy results in it taking longer to get to that not-exactly-utopian future, pretty much by definition.

  6. If you define the role of the state as ‘management of the distribution of the surplus’ rather than ‘enforcement of inequality’, the argument being made mostly goes away.

    A state can’t exist without a surplus, but that you can’t turn that historical fact into a prediction of the future without shenanigans.

    It seems implausible that in a socialist utopia there would be no (as opposed to perhaps fewer) serial killers, drunken arguments, etc. So you still need some police; the thing is they shouldn’t have the role they had in both Stalin’s USSR and the contemporary USA; locking up some workers ‘pour encourager les autres’.

  7. Recently (in Budapest!) I advanced a thesis about the relationship of widening wealth inequality and mass surveillance:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_UPmNvb8js

    In short:

    * In liberal democracies, there is an “economically rational” equilibrium between redistribution and guard labor — that is, there’s a point at which it is cheaper to establish political legitimacy through schools, roads and hospitals than it is to buy more walls and cops to protect your wealth from the unrest caused by the perception of illegitimacy

    * Automation has had a profound effect on the efficiency of guard labor; in the case of mass surveillance, we went from the Stasi’s ratio (1 snitch:60 Germans) to the NSA’s ration (1 spook:10,000 humans), a massive reduction in the labor inputs into guard labor

    * This has shifted the guard-labor/redistribution inflection point a lot further up the wealth-inequality curve — larger and larger fractions of the population can be “rationally” disenfranchised and you can contain the resulting social destabilization at an affordable price through surveillance

    * There’s a prima facie reason not to like this if you’re an anarchist, socialist or Marxist, but even if you’re a capitalist, this is worrisome

    * Because capitalism supposes that capital will migrate into the hands of people whose special talents will improve productivity and thus increase the national wealth, but this requires that the state institute rational, evidence-based policy

    * When wealth concentrates into the hands of a small elite, the ability of the state to pursue rational policy is curtailed — only policies that don’t gore the elite’s ox can be pursued

    * Thus: climate-change denial, etc

    * Capitalism supposes that functional markets can aggregate, filter and enact the distributed intelligence of the world through activity in the market, but large fortunes distort markets by buying off regulators/pols and getting them to ensure incumbency

    * Thus: ending mass surveillance is a necessary (but insufficient) precondition for the pursuit of a just society, regardless of your position on the political spectrum

  8. “Prior to that time, the only rational strategy is to give the power of application of capital to those who have demonstrated the greatest ability to effectively use capital to increase said productive powers.”

    That makes sense. But who do we trust to decide who it is that has demonstrated the greatest ability?

    If anybody in particular makes that decision then it tends to devolve into crony capitalism.

    But if it is decided by some sort of rules, like whoever acquires the most money is considered to be the most productive, then the power will tend to drift to whoever is best at finding loopholes in the rules.

    So here’s my plan — we set up a giant game that people can play, that’s designed to simulate the things that experts think are most important about an economy. Millions of citizens will play the game, if they want to. They all compete to see who can gain capital and use it to increase the kinds of production that get rewarded.

    At intervals — say, every 4 years — choose the winners and start over from scratch. The top ten winners get inflation-adjusted $1 billion each, the next 100 winners get $100 million, the next 1000 winners get $10 million, and the next 10,000 winners get $1 million each. They can use this capital to try to get a start in business. Those prizes would cost $10 billion/year, and likely worth it! The kind of people who’d win wouldn’t sit back and retire with the money, most of them would try to play the game in real life. The economy would repeatedly get 11,110 new capitalists ready to take on the world. Some of them would succeed and shake things up somewhat. The whole country would look at the published stories about how they succeeded, and think about how the economy ought to work, if they disapproved of the ways that demostrably do work.

    This is at best only half the solution. We also need a way to examine people who have capital and who demonstrate that they are not using it productively. These people should not be allowed to keep their capital, it should be given to others who might use it better. Unfortunately, every method I’ve thought of to do that seems invidious.

  9. @hacksoncode,
    I think J Thomas made an excellent counter to your position. I have three additional counters.

    First, as @skzb wrote above: the enforcement of an unequal distribution of production carries considerable costs. Some percentage of the costs of production might be consumed to fund the police, the courts, the lawyers, the lawmakers, the prison guards, etc… and of course the people actually in prison aren’t contributing to economic production (well, there is prison labor – but that’s a sign the whole system is broken).

    So when you write, “*prior* to the time when productive powers are sufficient to produce all that everyone might want” – you have to consider that adding a heavy layer of state enforcement of the unequal distribution of the fruits of labor may in fact be the added parasitic cost that stops productive powers from being sufficient to produce all that everyone might want.

    Second, to bolster J Thomas’ point, when someone stands to gain from the unequal distribution of productive powers it is in their best interest to promote the idea that productivity is perpetually too low for equitable distribution.

    Third, an unequal distribution of production will hinder productivity in the future. Healthy, well fed, educated people who think they are being treated fairly do the best work. Hungry, or sickly, or poorly educated people produce inferior work. People that believe they are being treated unfairly also produce inferior work.

  10. skzb

    Cory: This is fascinating; thanks. The effects of surveillance technology and income disparity are dialectical; I hadn’t considered it from that point of view. Increased income disparity requires greater repression; improved means of repression permit greater income disparity. I’m going to have to think about that.

    A couple of observations: 1) we have to be careful, when we use categories like, “liberal democracy,” to remember that we’re not talking about something permanent. Societies are constantly in flux, responding to pressures both national and international, and these pressures are reflected in the degree and type of suppression. In other words, yeah, there is such a thing as a liberal democracy, but it’s liable to turn into something else. 2) I am leery of attacking mass surveillance in isolation from attacking the situation that produced it. It is liable to either be futile, or, worse, generate additional repression that we haven’t prepared for. I think the attacks on the surveillance state have to be part of a broader program that attacks the inequality that produces it, which, in my opinion, means a socialist program.

  11. Mike S, let’s separate it into investment and consumption. We might want to give everybody equal consumption, but I’d rather try to make sure everybody has enough, and then maybe have extras for rewards. Who gets to give away awards is another sticky issue. Say we give everybody “enough” plus x%, and they each have a cellphone or something — point it at somebody and give them a tip, Maybe people could get a basic income and then another 10% that they can’t spend for themselves but can only give away to people they think deserve it. Some people would just tradei it so they could each have more, but a lot of people would spread it around to people they saw doing something good, which would encourage people to do good things.

    Anyway, consumption. It isn’t possible to give everybody everything they need even in the best case. Say Joellen gets a cancer and the known cure is to design a virus just for her that attacks her personal cancer cells, at a cost of $200 million. The easiest way to deal with that sort of thing is don’t invent the super-expensive cures, instead tell people who’re too expensive to live that it’s time for them to die. My point is that there’s something basicly arbitrary about how we decide how much people need.

    Investment is something else.

  12. (Side note: I’m thrilled as a little boy on his birthday to now have two of my favorite writers in the discussion.)
    J Thomas,
    I agree with what you wrote. I’m not directly advocating an equal division of resources for all with no decision-making process involved and no consideration for diseases that are expensive to treat. I don’t know what a practical solution would be. I just wanted to bring up some of the problems introduced by the capitalist solution from hacksoncode.

  13. How do we decide how much to invest instead of consume, and how do we decide which things to invest in? Whoever gets to decide, should have some responsibility. If they make good decisions they get bigger decisions to make, and if they do badly then they are trusted less. The Peter Principle applies to this. People who’re good at investment decisions at one level may not be good at the next higher level. How do we decide how good they are? How far should they look ahead? If we judge them by what they did last quarter, they shouldn’t look very far ahead at all. If we judge them on their decisions 5 years ago, maybe thigns which look bad now will look great in another 5 years. Maybe, have them say what they think will happen, and judge them by how much they got right?

    We should invest more when we expect it to pay off better. But that’s a hard thing to predict. A few things pay off incredibly, enough to pay for lots of mistakes. Sometimes an innovation makes lots of existing investment obsolete. I can’t imagine how to make a rational guess at how much investment will pay off on average in the long run. It’s a gambler’s ruin sort of thing. Particular rare investments pay off incredibly well, and we can’t guess which ones, or just how rare they will be.

    We must decide on the basis of radical uncertainty. We don’t know the consequences of our actions, and we must choose anyway.

    Maybe it’s best to somehow let the people decide this collectively. If there were some technocrats who could reasonably say they know best, that the size of the economy will double in half the time doing what the experts say instead of what the people say, then maybe the experts should get to choose. But that isn’t true. The experts don’t know either. If everybody just sort of chooses and we mash the answers together and go with that, at least it’s what the people actually chose.

    Nobody knows how to balance investment and consumption. Within a wide range, there aren’t even good guesses. At a minimum we have to replace stuff that wears out, to that’s a minimum. (Except that in a few years new technology might provide cheaper replacements so it’s a false floor and not a real minimum.) And we have to provide everybody with a certain minimum standard of living. (Except that in a few years new technology might make it cheaper to provide that, so it’s another false floor.)

    If people make sacrifices to do the R&D that leads to new wealth, they may in fact get nothing that’s worth the sacrifice. If they don’t do enough R&D they may never get the new cheap cancer treatments, or the improved industrial methods that result in much less environmentally-caused cancer.

    I don’t know how to solve it. I’m not confident I even know how to find out how to solve it. We might as well look for some method to balance consumption and investment that looks fair, because we don’t know how to get a better solution by being unfair.

  14. Mike S, I agree with you. I see no way to equalize consumption that would seem fair to a large majority. We could probably make something reasonably practical and reasonably fair, though. A basic income might be a good start. Even if it didn’t provide everything that some people desperately needed, still it would be a good thing for a lot of people. We might find a thousand ways to argue that it wasn’t completely fair, and we could use those arguments to look for ways to improve on it. So long as most people agreed it did more good than harm, the argument would be about alternatives that could be predicted to do even more good and even less harm, and not about whether it should be shut down because it was imperfect.

    Some people might argue that it’s immoral for the government to keep people from starving who in fact ought to starve. If there are enough people like that, then we will get some inequality and some starvation.

  15. J Thomas, I participated in a management class where we each ran a simulated company in competition. I came out on top, but didn’t get a billion dollars. ;>)

    You touch on the “let people die” philosophy of the uber class and the GOP. This needs to be openly discussed in politics, but it isn’t. I think the theory is that if you feed the poor, they will simply multiply until you are unable to feed the poor again. So instead let the excess population die.

    This goes against what has been found to happen (at least after a while), which is that well fed and more comfortable people have fewer children. This makes perfect sense as the only asset the really poor have is to have children who can take care of them later, as no one else will do it for them.

    Today, business and Wall Street seem to be hell bent on creating as many poor people as possible. Often wages are at starvation levels even though the businesses can easily afford a livable wage for their workers. That strikes me (besides being pathological) as a deliberate action to create poor people. Unfortunately, not everybody decides to live with the inequality and to die quietly.

  16. Way back, Paul Goodman advocated a basic income for everybody. Enough for food shelter and clothing. I am not sure he included health care, but I would make that free as it mostly is in Canada (and while a few abuse the system, it is very few). Then if you wanted your smartphone, you would have to work for it. This didn’t imply equality, but it went a long way to making inequality less painful.

    @Jthomas: if someone gave me a billion, or 100 million, or even 10 milltion, I would take it offshore and live off it for the rest of my life. I am not interested in starting a business or doing anything productive (unless you call mathematics research productive). So I think your suggestion is a non-starter. Look what happens to major lottery winners.

    Another point I would make is that the US did not start with political equality. I believe that in most or all states only property owners (and only males and maybe only whites) were permitted to vote. Gradually, it got extended to all white males, then all males, then, 50 years later to all adults. Gradually, it is now being eroded and only people with driver’s licences can vote in many states. (An exaggeration, but not that wrong.)

  17. @Big Mike,
    You may be aware of this, but “Basic Income Action” is a new advocacy group for basic income in the US. The website articles make a good case for their cause.

  18. “if someone gave me a billion, or 100 million, or even 10 milltion, I would take it offshore and live off it for the rest of my life.”

    David Hajicek won his business simulation. I predict that you would not. I could be wrong. Maybe you would devote enough attention to the game to come out better than 1112th place out of the whole nation, and then after you had your $10 million you would do nothing else interesting with the rest of your life. I predict that most of the winners would go into business for real, but I could be wrong. We can’t be sure what will happen until we try it.

  19. When I was younger, I would have started a company with the prize money. Now I would take it easy as I no longer have a lot of energy or ambition. I accomplished most of the goals I had set for myself in life, so I am fairly content.

    A billion is too much, you can do some really stupid shit with a billion dollars. 10 to 100 million is about right. It is unfortunate that it takes maybe 100 million to start a self-sustaining company these days. If you start with a billion, you bypass the need for a solid technical and business base and can fake it until the billion (and more) is gone.

    I do like the idea of supplying everybody enough to meet their basic needs. Nothing fancy. A roof over their heads, basic food and basic health care with no penalty for making some money on the side.

    Heroic medicine is one of those grey areas. Many of us will die of some prolonged health problem which could take millions of dollars to treat and then we die of it anyway. Better to have excellent disease management, hospice and the ability of the patient to “pull the plug” when they decide enough is enough.

    Something like organ transplants, I would not automatically classify as heroic. They are becoming more common place and the recipient can lead a satisfying life afterwards. We just need to get the costs down. I am thinking more about operations where the odds of a good patient outcome is pretty small and the expense is very high. Things like trying to remove cancers that have metastasized and which chemo doesn’t kill. Fortunately, there are some new developments (other than surgery) on the horizon, that could be low cost and effective.

    Unfortunately, a lot of people hope heroic efforts will keep them from dying. Too often, it results in a prolonged period of pain and disability without the promised relief. One could be cynical and say hospitals do this just for the money, but maybe they are hoping for a better outcome than usual, plus the hope that better techniques will be found. Still, heroic medicine is consuming a disproportionate amount of the health care budget without significantly improving the patient’s life. Better that people become more comfortable with the concept of death. And then the people who are content for other people to starve and freeze to death shout, “death panels.”

  20. I will add that there are exceptions, where heroic medicine has worked. A friend of mine found an experimental drug (very, very expensive, of course) that keeps his cancer in check. So I’m not smart enough to be able to say what cannot be tried because it is too expensive.

  21. I know we could have an interesting discussion about how to get medical technology to advance in affordable ways, but right here and now I’d like to concentrate on the economy.

    Heroic medical techniques are an example where different people have different needs. If we try to give everything the same things, it doesn’t always work. We could give everybody a diet that’s heavy on wheat and peanuts, but some people have celiac disease and wheat kills them, and peanuts kill others. We can’t give everybody the same stuff. We can’t expect them all to survive on the same amount of money. Different people have different needs, and there’s no obvious way to make it fair. But we can try to make it be OK for the large majority of people.

    Capitalism makes no effort to be fair. It can be argued that everybody gets some sort of opportunity and the people who’re good at seizing opportunities when they arise will come out OK.

    If we try to develop a concept of fairness we open ourselves up to problems that capitalists avoid almost completely. One time in Paris, a beautiful French communist woman explained to me how to stop a committee from taking action. You argue that whatever is done must be fair to everybody. Then whenever they appear to be in danger of approaching agreement, you argue that it is unfair to some third party who is not present. If you can get them to argue with you about what’s really fair to the third party that all sides are fantasizing about, you can depend on them to waste hours coming to no conclusion.

    If you argue that it isn’t fair to you, they might offer you terms they think are generous, and then when you still refuse they vote it in without you. But when you argue that it is unfair to women, and gays, and trans, and ethnic minorities, and active-duty military, and the scientific community etc, they want to be careful not to be accused of being unfair to them….

    It is simply not possible to be fair. The best you can hope for is to be good for some people who need help, and not very bad for anybody else.

  22. “1) Once society is able to satisfy everyone’s wants, does that mean the elimination of inequality?”

    Everybody’s wants? I have a lot of wants just by myself. I want the extinction of species stopped and every extinct species restored, as long as we have genetic material for it. Then I want to be able to visit the places where all those species live so I can see them. (I’ll settle for the birds.) I want a Theory of Everything and experimental tests of it. And I want Vallista, Tsalmoth, Lyorn, Chreotha, and if such a book is planned, The Last Contract.

  23. It looks like there is some confusion (it’s really easy to do) between “wants” and “needs.” Things needed to stay alive and healthy are within our grasp. There is plenty of wealth and food to go around, it is just not distributed very well. Wants may never really be satisfied because they are at a higher level of expense, vary so much, and (as Jerry points out) may not be realistically attainable regardless of resources.

    So I can want a Koenigsegg, but have to settle for a Ford. Unless one’s ego is involved, that isn’t much of a hardship.

  24. As you said, David, even the things *needed* to stay alive and healthy may include “heroic measures” in medicine, which are a gray area in the enough-for-everyone picture.

  25. I don’t think we can provide “enough” for everybody. And we can’t make it fair. But we have sufficient resources that could be shared so that the large majority of the population could raise two children if they wanted to, and a large fraction of them would die of old age.

    Ignoring the edge cases, I think something like this is a worthy goal, that perhaps needs to be balanced against other goals. If you can raise your share of the next generation then you haven’t completely lost. Society hasn’t completely lost. If there’s some other goal that’s worth accomplishing, maybe it can be accomplished later. But if you don’t get the opportunity to reproduce then there is no later, the gene pool is being depleted, the population is evolving in whatever direction that is not you, etc.

    In general rich people live longer than poor people. They don’t get as much wear-and-tear, they get a lot of help when they’re decrepit. I say it’s good that old people get taken care of, and it’s vital that people on average get enough resources while they’re young enough to reproduce. We can’t give every person with special needs everything he needs, but we can make sure that most people get access to their ordinary needs.

    I think that’s why so many people are so scared now. It isn’t like the Depression, but the situation does not look hopeful. My children are in a school where the teachers pile on make-work homework to get them used to the idea that they have to do a lot of meaningless boring make-work every day, because that’s what they have to look forward to if they can get “good” jobs. Also if they get badly-paying jobs. A lot of them are on anti-depressants. They have a whole lot of fun time-wasting pleasures available, but they are supposed to not entertain themselves but instead manage the self-discipline to do boring make-work so they can get into good schools and then get the good jobs that will keep them busy with very little free time until retirement.

    We are collectively using up a collection of resources — oil, coal, etc. There isn’t as much to go around, and an increasing share of what’s left is being used by government and rich people. Using up those resources slower is not an inspiring goal. Climate change resulting from our waste products looks like a serious threat but also does not suggest inspiring goals. I had a point to make about this but somehow it slipped away. Something about resources and inspiring goals, but I just feel depressed and I can’t think of it.

  26. SKZB writes: “…egalitarianism [in pre-State societies] meant there was no need for compulsion: no one had more than anyone else.”

    “…when we look at hunter-gatherer systems (according to the best information I’ve been able to find), we see a society without the fundamental element that, in my view, defines the State: compulsion.”

    ” … as long as there is socio-economic inequality, there must be a State.”

    The basis for your views as laid out in the first few paragraphs makes use of well-known stereotypes of early human societies. Archaeologists, anthropologists, and paleo-anthropologists have tried to dispel most of these stereotypes, but they still persist. Lawrence Keeley wrote War Before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage (Oxford University Press, 1996) showing that warfare was actually more prevalent and more deadly in primitive societies than it is today. Reflecting 15 years after he wrote ‘War Before Civilization,’ Keeley penned Chapter 2 for ‘The Evolution of Violence’ where he wrote:

    “In the past 20 years, there has been a resurgence of archaeological interest in prehistoric and ancient warfare. Whether warfare is seen as a cause or an effect of certain features of and changes in the archaeological, ethnohistorical, or ancient historical record, it is back “in play.” This change was the result of a number of archaeologists working in Europe and the New World who were confronted by the warfare obvious in archaeological records in their areas of research. They then all argued in the most widely read and stringently refereed publication venues, citing unequivocal evidence and using clear logic, that prehistoric and ethnohistoric warfare did occur and needs attention (i.e., Vencl, Milner, Haas, Keeley, Cahen, LeBlanc, and Guillane, among others). ”

    Now, it is difficult to make the claim these societies lacked compulsion when they were often at war with one another.

    Furthermore, if we look at research like ‘Wealth Transmission and Inequality Among Hunter-Gatherers’ we find the very idea of socio-economic inequality and what exactly that means is debatable. Yet when scientists attempt to measure it in early societies they find that it did exist. Not as prevalent as what we would find in most states today, but exist nonetheless. As the authors state: “Thus, to the extent that our measures for this set of foragers are representative, wealth inequality is moderate—that is to say, very low by current world standards, but far from a state of “primitive communism””

    The very notion that “there was no need for compulsion: no one had more than anyone else” seems to misread human nature. If we give ten people identical starving rations one of them is bound to realize he might live if he took the rations from one or two of the others. We don’t need to hypothesize the existence of a State. The compulsion will come from the individual – likely with a rock to the side of someone’s head.

  27. SKZB writes: “… when we look at hunter-gatherer systems (according to the best information I’ve been able to find), we see a society without the fundamental element that, in my view, defines the State: compulsion.”

    “The lack of compulsion was pretty clearly a product of egalitarianism—or, rather, egalitarianism meant there was no need for compulsion: no one had more than anyone else.”

    “The point is, as long as there is socio-economic inequality, there must be a State.”

    I would suggest that this is all wrong. It is based on mistaken stereotypes.

    Wealth Transmission and Inequality Among Hunter-Gatherers, Eric Alden Smith, Kim Hill, Frank W. Marlowe, David Nolin, Polly Wiessner, Michael Gurven, Samuel Bowles, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, Tom Hertz and Adrian Bell. Current Anthropology, Vol. 51, No. 1 (February 2010), pp. 19-34

    War Before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage, (Oxford University Press, 1996) , Lawrence H. Keeley

    The Evolution of Violence, edited by Todd K. Shackelford, Ranald D. Hansen, (Springer Science & Business Media, 2013), Chapter 2: War Before Civilization – 15 Years On, Lawrence H. Keeley.

    Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage, Steven A. LeBlanc and Katherine E. Register, (Macmillan, 2013)

    Just on its face, the notion that “egalitarianism meant there was no need for compulsion: no one had more than anyone else” is a complete misread of human nature. Greed, envy, jealousy, gluttony, lust, and rage are not eradicated because everyone has the same amounts of material goods, social status, prestige, etc. One does not need to hypothesize a State to know that humans will compel others for a multitude of reasons. Give 20 people identical starving rations and the compulsion will quickly take the form of a rock upside the head – no State needed.

    We don’t need to rely on thought experiments. We have the archaeological record. As Keeley writes in ‘War Before Civilization – 15 Years On’ that record is pretty clear:

    “In the past 20 years, there has been a resurgence of archaeological interest in prehistoric and ancient warfare. …This change was the result of a number of archaeologists working in Europe and the New World who were confronted by the warfare obvious in archaeological records in their areas of research. They then all argued in the most widely read and stringently refereed publication venues, citing unequivocal evidence and using clear logic, that prehistoric and ethnohistoric warfare did occur and needs attention (i.e., Vencl, Milner, Haas, Keeley, Cahen, LeBlanc, and Guillane, among others). ”

    War is pretty much unique to humans and chimpanzees. It is our collective form of compulsion. A State isn’t necessary for chimpanzees to wage war and a State wasn’t necessary for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to engage in war either.

  28. Thank you Kevin. I’m not sure where the idea of the “peaceful savage” came from. We are learning more about ancient battles such as between American Indian tribes. They didn’t call themselves “warriors” for the fun of it. Just a quick look at the Aztecs, Incas and Maoris should quickly dispel the idyllic savage notion.

    As you say, it is pretty much human nature for somebody to want to be on top and for them to get more than the rest. Even some apes and wolves do that. It makes sense that this would happen as it is uncommon for the strongest to not take advantage of their strength. It can be rationalized that the strongest need to stay strong to defend the group. Not all indigenous people did that, but probably most.

  29. skzb

    These links appear to be mostly about the notion of war, or to refute the “peaceful savage” idea, which no one here has been promoting (unless you want to say war and class struggle are identical, which you’d have a job proving). But, yes, I am not surprised that those who don’t like to consider the implications of the fact that our ancestors had no State must fall back on the superstition of “human nature.”

  30. SKZB – War is compulsion. One group of people compelling another to give up their possessions, land, women, lives, etc. The archaeological evidence is clear: War existed in these hunter-gatherer societies despite the fact that States did not yet exist.

    The link to ‘Wealth Transmission and Inequality Among Hunter-Gatherers’ directly addresses the issue of whether these hunter-gatherer societies were actually egalitarian. And the answer the authors arrive at is: No, they were not.

    The ‘superstition’ of human nature is hardly that. We have studied our close relatives, the chimpanzees, and see that compulsion exists in their societies. I don’t believe chimpanzees have any form of State. We have studied ourselves and we have thousands of years of history to look at. Is it really necessary to provide links to scientific studies of humans and our baser instincts? That can be done, but really shouldn’t be required.

    I remember the old Cracker Jacks commercial. “Father:What did you learn in school today? Young boy: Sharing.” Anyone that has had children or spent much time around 2-year-olds has almost certainly heard the exclamation, Mine! The superstition here is that somehow, despite what we know of human nature, that our ancestors were different and did not resort to compulsion to satisfy their desires.

  31. David Hajicek: The Aztecs, Incas, and Maoris are irrelevant, since they had agriculture.

    Kevin O’Neill: War may be compulsion, but it’s not the kind of compulsion within a society that leads to the formation of a state with an exploiting leisure class, which is what SKZB was talking about.

    Thanks for the link to the “Wealth Transmission and Inequality” article. You read it differently from the way I did. Some of the cultures described were very egalitarian. The three non-fishing cultures appeared to have nothing like what a Marxist would describe as exploitation, which I take to be the use of force, wealth, or superior social status to get the products of others’ labor. The only compulsion mentioned for them was the social pressure among the Ju/’hoansi toward equality, not inequality. The article says they weren’t completely egalitarian in terms of wealth–they didn’t make sure everyone had the same amount, which might be called primitive communism–but the differences didn’t seem to be the result of compulsion.

    The two fishing societies had more inequality. This is typical, from what I’ve heard and what the article says, and it mentions former fishing societies that, though lacking agriculture, had complex hierarchies and even slavery. The boat shares among the Lamelarans might be an example of exploitation in the Marxist sense, though I found it hard to tell.

    Overall, the article seemed to refute the idea that because of human nature, all societies have exploitation by compulsion.

  32. Jerry, I am not writing in a vacuum. I was responding to SKZB’s statement: “… the fundamental element that, in my view, defines the State: compulsion.” and his idea in the opening paragraph that since hunter-gatherer societies lacked compulsion they cannot be regarded as States.

    Now, I would agree that hunter-gatherer societies should not be regarded as States. I doubt few, if any, researchers that study the subject that would disagree. But if compulsion defines ‘State,’ then this is a contradiction because compulsion existed before States existed.

    The logic is flawed by relying on mistaken stereotypes. Early pre-State societies were more egalitarian than most States that followed them, but there was still moderate wealth inequality. Early pre-State societies still resorted to compulsion and used violence against their neighbors (war). Since we consider these societies to be pre-State, it is mistaken to believe that compulsion defines State.

    As for my or your take on ‘Wealth Transmission and Inequality Among Hunter-Gatherers’ remember what SKZB wrote: “The lack of compulsion was pretty clearly a product of egalitarianism” Now, if these societies were not egalitarian, (and the data shows they were on par with Denmark today – moderate inequality, but not non-existent), then how could the ‘lack of compulsion’ be a product of egalitarianism? If these societies actually practiced compulsion how could there be a ‘lack of compulsion?’

  33. Kevin: Yeah, but there’s a vacuum and then there’s context, and they aren’t negatives of each other.

    I think that, in context of general knowledge about what *other* things comprise a state, SKZB’s statement can only be read as compulsion being a necessary but certainly not a sufficient condition for a state.

    A state is a lasting (i.e. not arising from a specific circumstance) *organized* form of compulsion. Compulsion is definitely core to the state, and its primary defining characteristic, but more is required.

    Exactly what form that organization has to take in order to call it a state is fairly variable, but it wouldn’t apply to a single person with a strong personality that everyone is afraid of, for example.

    Now, personally, I have a very hard time imagining the existence of a surplus of production without some kind of inequality in the absence of a state that somehow compels equality… that’s not because I think there’s a “human nature”, but rather because I have a vast amount of evidence that there is human *variability*.

    Personally, that’s one of the reasons that I think the “withering away of the state” is a far larger “superstition” than “human nature”… but… that said…

    Scarcity below the level of basic survival does have a tendency to reduce that variability, because nearly everyone is largely focused on the broadest level of the Maslow Hierarchy of needs.

  34. Jerry writes: “David Hajicek: The Aztecs, Incas, and Maoris are irrelevant, since they had agriculture.”

    The inspiration for Marx and Engels ‘primitive communism’ was actually the Iroquois – not a true hunter-gatherer society. The Iroquois did practice agriculture. You are drawing a distinction that Marx and Engels did not draw. As Wiki says, ” Marx and Engels used the term [primitive communism] more broadly than later Marxists, and applied it not only to hunter-gatherers but also to some subsistence agriculture communities.”

    I think you have perhaps missed the unspoken relationship here between SKZB’s linking to Peter Gray’s article (How Hunter-Gatherers Maintained Their Egalitarian Ways), Gray’s reference to Lee’s ‘Reflections on primitive communism,’ and Marx and Engel’s use of ‘primitive communism.’ It is also Lee that wrote, “Bourgeois ideology would have us believe that primitive communism doesn’t exist.”

    As I have tried to show, it is not ideology, but science that tells us primitive communism didn’t exist. Being of Native American bloodlines I am naturally predisposed to believe good things about my ancestors, but I also prefer to believe things I can plausibly call truth 🙂

  35. hacksoncode: Read what was written: “In particular, when we look at hunter-gatherer systems (according to the best information I’ve been able to find), we see a society without the fundamental element that, in my view, defines the State: compulsion. ”

    This deconstructs fairly easily to: Hunter-gatherer societies were without compulsion.

    The archaeological record does not support this. Hunter-gatherer societies were *not* without compulsion. We know this because they practiced war on one another (almost constantly).

  36. Jerry, as Kevin has pointed out, the hypothesis put forward by skzd is that a “state” is needed to compel people to give up wealth (food, labor, money) to the higher ups and that primitive societies were egalitarian and pre-state with no compulsion. Compulsion being a key element. This sounds plausible but doesn’t hold up when one looks at details because compulsion is basically present in nearly all societal groups all the way down to single family hunter gatherers (daddy gets first choice of the food, kids get the scraps).

    Trying to move the argument further back in history to try to find an era where the argument holds up or denying that people have consistent behavior patterns (human nature) is just a band-aide to try and prop up a flawed argument.

    We should accept that states do use compulsion to force economic inequality and move on. We do not need to invent a time were compulsion didn’t exist in groups for this argument to be true. While compulsion is a property of a “state”, compulsion can also exist without there being a state.

  37. David writes: “We should accept that states do use compulsion to force economic inequality and move on. We do not need to invent a time were compulsion didn’t exist in groups for this argument to be true. While compulsion is a property of a “state”, compulsion can also exist without there being a state.”

    We can go beyond that: Compulsion by the State can be used to enforce equality as well as inequality. If not, how do we explain Denmark?

    As an aside, while I did not watch the Democratic Presidential debate, Paul Krugman has written this about it: “Bernie Sanders said he wants America to become like Denmark; Hillary Clinton was a bit skeptical, but agreed that Denmark is a good role model. And it is! Denmark has combined high taxes and strong social benefits (free college, heavily subsidized child care, and more) with strong employment and high productivity. It shows that strong welfare states can work.”

    So, we have two Presidential candidates that want America to become more like Denmark – a country with inequality measured at the same level as early hunter-gatherer societies. If primitive communism is the goal, as exemplified by the actual wealth inequality we can measure in those early societies, then it already exists *today* and we have Presidential candidates in the USA that want to see us move in that direction.

  38. Kevin O’Neill: It seems clear to me that when SKZB says that compulsion defines the State, he means compulsion of its own citizens (or members or whatever), or as he said, the class struggle, not war. And whether he said the following or not, I think it’s fair to say that at least some hunter-gatherer cultures don’t have enough economic inequality to need compulsion to protect property or to allow economic compulsion to work for capitalists who own the means of production, as the Marxists say.

    Marxists’ goal is not primitive communism: It’s technologically advanced communism organized on a far bigger scale than hunter-gatherer bands. I don’t know whether they’d consider the level of wealth inequality of hunter-gatherers or Denmark acceptable for the communism of their dreams. However, SKZB did say that what is important is not banning private property but banning private ownership of the means of production, which has not been done in Denmark. (I find the model of Denmark appealing, as I suspect you do.)

    On the subject of what I may have missed between the lines, your quotation from Wikip says later Marxists define “primitive communism” more narrowly than Marx and Engels did, and SKZB is a later Marxist so I think Marx’s and Engels’s Iroquois example is irrelevant. SKZB did not endorse Gray’s statement that hunter-gatherer cultures don’t have war. I don’t know the technical definition of “primitive communism”, but some of the societies in the paper you mentioned have no private ownership of the means of production and so much sharing that I can see the term might apply.

    David Hajicek: I’ll agree that it’s human nature for parents or other caretakers to compel children to do things, for instance by carrying babies from place to place. In fact, it’s so obvious it’s not worth talking about. So let me say that some societies appear to have no compulsion of adults as a regular thing. However, I’m not clear on what happens to an Aché man who declines to participate in a mass clubfight (they have a positively
    Paarfian level of violence among men, and that’s not even to mention killing children) or breaks the taboo on eating the meat of an animal he killed.

    http://www.public.asu.edu/~krhill3/Ache.html

    Speaking of feeding other people, such as children, no Hadza children had “protein-calorie malnutrition” when they were studied, so if the children are getting scraps, they’re getting enough. I’d be interested to know your source that Hadza children get scraps, though.

    https://books.google.com/books?id=8p-AG8cqCJwC&pg=PT310 (Hadza. If you search for “children”, you’ll see a snippet that says that in the children surveyed, there was no protein-calorie malnutrition.)

    I think hunter-gatherer societies are interesting to talk about because to the extent that humans have consistent behavior patterns, they show the variability of those patterns. For example they show that a state is not part of human nature–though the possibility of a stateless culture of more that 10,000 or certainly more than 100,000 people has yet to be demonstrated.

  39. Jerry, I never commented on the Hadza tribe. This part of the discussion is pretty irrelevant to what an ideal socialist state might be or whether Denmark is a good political model. There is no need to find a primitive tribe that was strictly egalitarian and didn’t use compulsion.

    I think it is pretty obvious all states (and ultimately we are talking about a state) use compulsion. Also it is silly (IMHO) to say that compulsion doesn’t count when we are talking about war, that only economic compulsion is relevant. In the US, economic inequality is closely tied to war and it is typically the poorer people who are economically compelled to enter the military. Without this source of cheap labor, we could not continue having wars.

    You seem to say that ancient tribes of people did not compel their members to fight and that wealth was evenly distributed. The compulsion to fight may not have been a “law” in our sense of the world, but I’m sure at least some tribes had heavy social pressure to fight for the tribe and that your status in the tribe was directly related to whether you fought or not. The rewards for being a good hunter and warrior likely included more food and better shelter than those in the lowest social standing. Again social pressures apply.

    I have no idea why you think this is important.

  40. skzb

    ” The rewards for being a good hunter and warrior likely included more food and better shelter than those in the lowest social standing. Again social pressures apply.”

    There is exactly zero evidence to support this, and considerable evidence the other way. THE FORREST PEOPLE by Colin Turnbull remains a good source, in spite of reactionaries attempts to overturn it, and there are many others, including the the article I linked to in the OP.’ Google “hunter-gatherer equality”:

  41. It’s useless to quote the most modern archeology or anthropology. Give it 20 years and even-more-modern science will say something very different. You could argue that 20 years ago they had it all wrong and in the last 20 years they finally got it right, but I consider that claim short-sighted.

    This is a philosophical discussion and facts are mostly disputable and so can’t trump the claims. The concept of a society without compulsion is a philosophical construct. In an ideal society with no compulsion, everybody could do absolutely anything he wanted, and nobody would ever try to stop him. Such a society would require an “interesting” definition of rape.

    If I am stronger than you and I dominate you in some way, it makes a philosophical difference whether I do it as an agent of a State or as a private individual. But to the person being dominated, the difference is only philosophical.

    I like to use Inuit examples because they are a popular culture and there are lots of stories publicly available. I tend to fall into the presumption that they were all the same, but they weren’t. They did have some general customs. In many places and many times, it was the custom that in winter each village would have a meat board where people shared their food. It was considered wrong not to share. The village all starved together. But it was the custom that anyone who was tired of the pains of living could hang himself, and mothers would help hang their children who said they were ready to give up.

    The system was not egalitarian. Hunters who brought in the most food were important people. They did not need to take food from others, they supplied food to others and could expect gratitude. A man who owed his family’s lives to a good hunter could be expected to willingly share his wife etc. There was a slogan, “Whips make dogs, and gifts make slaves”. The custom was that if someone admired a possession it should be given to him. You could have anything you wanted by asking, but people hesitated to ask….

    I found a couple of stories about Inuit wars involving 20 or more men. It didn’t happen every often, but it wasn’t impossible.

    They lived on permafrost, so it was possible to store food in an icebox anywhere. Food caches were plainly marked, they often had 20 foot poles so if the snow was 10 feet deep they would know where to dig. It was the custom that you did not take food from somebody else’s cache unless you had permission. I remember a story where an anglo got all upset because a woman was taking food from a cache. “Are you sure this is your brother’s cache? How can you know? You’ve never been here before.” “You’re so silly, Of course this is his cache. You think I wouldn’t know how my brother packs meat in his own cache?” I never saw a story where somebody took food from somebody else’s cache. I don’t know what was supposed to happen if they did. I never saw it discussed.

    Other cultures aren’t going to fit cleanly into our concepts. Because they’re other cultures, and they don’t think quite the way we do. Our concepts of Coercion and The State won’t fit well because they’re artifacts of our own culture, and not universals.

  42. I haven’t had time to read any of the articles but before I do I just wanted to add one thing. Communal labor works by getting people to do more work together than then can do alone. For instance if you add all the work being done by 6 people working together you get X amount of work done. But if you get 6 people who work together who all respect each other the amount of work done is greater then the work being done by 6 individuals. What happens when the state is brought in is that the state uses disrespect in order to get all the individuals working together. When that happens the amount of work done is less than what 6 people could do individually. Then because of the incompetence of the state and its inability to get the individuals to work in collectively they just add more people to the equation. So a state run economy needs to have 8 people working to get what 6 people working independently to do. All mankind is competitive, but how do we get people to work together out of respect instead of selfishness.

  43. In earliest times people may have lived in small groups, a family or a few families that traveled together. When you’ve eaten too much of nature’s bounty one place, you go somewhere else. They would only occasionally meet other groups. It would make sense to have bigger meetings — perhaps yearly or more often — at a time and place where there was enough food to go around.

    Are extended families egalitarian? It depends. People make a big deal about Inuits letting their children do mostly whatever they want, until they’re old enough to be helpful. It’s only natural to want to give your children a happy time when life will be hard later. They were careful to store dangerous tools up high where small children couldn’t reach them.

    There are various other cultural examples like that. But nobody really lets their children do whatever they want. It just looks that way to people from some cultures when they see people from other cultures. People who don’t spank or use harsh language look like they have no control….

    Old people get a lot of respect, and they give orders, but they are careful not to give orders that will not be obeyed. How powerful are they?

    In one inuit teaching story, a young man (unwisely) talked about how wonderful his wife was. One of the good hunters said, “If she’s so great, I’ll try her out” and took her. The young man was upset. The elders discussed it and then told him not to kill the hunter because they needed him, but if his wife agreed, he could take her and run away. (Presumably if he did kill the man they would tell him to leave. And presumably if he didn’t leave fast enough and one of the hunter’s friends killed him, they’d tell that man to go away unless they needed him.)

    I have the idea that before people could settle in large numbers,maybe arrangements were mostly personal. If somebody coerces you, it’s that bully coercing you and not the State. But for all I know maybe a lot of the time it was mythic instead. People acting out the roles without it seeming personal at all.

    I expect that when people try to make big broad generalizations about all the people who lived before writing or before agriculture, usually they’re partly wrong.

  44. Well, the rewards for being a good *hunter* (or gatherer) obviously included better food regardless of social structure….

  45. Erin, I agree completely. I am repairing my deck which required deck removal and replacement of the rotted house siding. I have a friend and my son helping me. I do some work only by myself when they are not available. The ratio between what 3 guys can do instead of one, is more like 10 times. No matter how clever I might be, there are some tasks that require at least 3 people to go fast. But we work well together which makes a huge, huge difference.

    J Thomas, Miramon, I agree. I don’t understand why it is important to believe that there were societies where everybody got exactly the same things and had no coercion. That is not necessary nor important to the discussion of why socialism could be of value. It’s like monks arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin and saying that it is important in understanding God. It’s like the Nazis inventing the Aryan race to justify themselves. Maybe some feel it is necessary to socialism to show that pure economic equality is possible. Well, listen up. True economic equality today is NOT possible. It can be your goal, but it will never be reached. And arguably, that may not be the best goal (the price might be too high).

    As an aside, I told my wife I will drill a small hole in the new floor, and insert a straight pin. Then she too can dance on the head of a pin.

  46. The problem with Turnbull’s ‘The Forest People’ is that it’s really a journalistic account of his time with the Mbuti. If one reads his actual field notes or his later monograph (Wayward Servants) one comes away with a slightly different view of the Mbuti.

    Almost all of ‘The Forest People’ takes place in the forest (hence the title), but Turnbull’s field notes show that of the 13 months he spent with the Mbuti in 1957-58 at most 3 months were actually spent in forest camps, never for more than two weeks at a time. The rest of the time the Mbuti spent in the village.

    The Mbuti rely on the surrounding Bantu or Lese villages for 50 – 65% of their caloric intake. Ichikawa, in ‘AN EXAMINATION OF THE HUNTING-DEPENDENT LIFE OF THE MBUTI PYGMIES, EASTERN ZAIRE,’ calculates that if the Mbuti hunted daily, from dawn to dusk, they could possibly sustain themselves without having to trade with the villages. They are not, and probably have not been for centuries (millennia?), a hunter-gatherer society – but that’s the impression that Turnbull gives..

    To the villagers the Mbuti are inferiors. They provide a source of meat (which they can often sell at ten times the price they pay the Mbuti) and to have or to ‘own’ Mbuti is more prestigious than not owning them. Mbuti women do occasionally have children by village men (and the children are accepted into the village), but village women are off limits to Mbuti men. The villagers themselves are not wealthy – only in comparison to the Mbuti. This is clearly a subordinate relationship.

    Alex Liazos wrote: “I have been one of probably hundreds of thousands of people who have loved and praised the book. From 1971 to 2007, when I retired from teaching, I used it every time I taught a course in cultural anthropology (the only anthropology course in a sociology department). Periodically I also used it in some sociology courses, such as introduction to sociology and community.” You’ll find that passage from Liazos in “The 1950s Mbuti: A Critique of Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People‘ which he felt compelled to write after reading Turnbull’s field notes.

    As an aside, on page 86-87 of ‘Children of the Forest: Africa’s Mbuti Pygmies‘ by Kevin Duffy, one can find an argument between two Mbuti hunters after a kill. During the argument one of them says, “It was my arrow that killed the animal, yet you gave the worst piece to my wife ……. Did I not kill the animal and deserve a better piece?” I think this fits with what David says are the rewards for being a good hunter. There is obviously the expectation of a ‘good’ piece of meat for the one who made the kill. There’s an also obvious corollary – someone else gets the less good pieces of meat.

  47. “I don’t understand why it is important to believe that there were societies where everybody got exactly the same things and had no coercion.”

    Yes. Similarly, the people who insist that all societies had tremendous amounts of coercion, control, and warfare. People tend to start with what they want to have happened, and then imagine that it did happen that way.

    My own bias is to think they had tremendous diversity. There was pretty much cultural diversity back before the internet, and more before TV, and more before printing and mass literacy. The harder it is to push central ideas onto everybody, the more they’re likely to vary.

    But we went something like a million years using the same basic fist-axe design, and then people started making changes, and the started making more changes in stone tools faster and faster. If the stone tools took a long time to change, maybe everything else did too. Maybe the cultural diversity is mostly recent. Maybe even all the diverse languages developed after the last big ice age, and before that everybody spoke much closer to the same language. I dunno. My bias is not a reliable tool.

  48. Kevin, every important anthropological study will eventually be debunked, because it is important enough to debunk. Whatever conclusions people drew from it before, will be challenged. The debunking is no more definitive than the original research.

    This isn’t mathematics, where proofs are logically correct, or science where repeatable experiments are repeated under controlled conditions until the results are clearly reliable. It’s interpretation of human behavior.

    Whale-hunting Inuit had ivory models of whales that showed how the whale should be divided among 8 (or maybe more) hunters. They were expected to share the catch, but it mattered a lot *who* was sharing.

    When the quality of meat varies, it makes sense that somebody choose who gets what, and others might complain. You can’t give everybody the same when stuff is different. If people hunted giant slime molds that were all the same inside, then there’s be nothing to argue about but quantity,but….

    Maybe it would be better if we try to clearly state the ideological positions we are trying to support, and then just say that the evidence supports them without going into details.

    My position is that people are diverse, and for any system that gets a good start, some people will fit into it (maybe with great effort) while others will reject it and try to join something else. So a good system should make it easy for people who reject it to find alternatives.

    There are many systems that work, that people can fit into. For every system that works there are many variations that don’t work. For every system that works for a longer time before it fails, there are many systems that work for a shorter time and fail.

    The events of 2008 prove once and for all that unregulated or poorly-regulated capitalism does not work and cannot work.

    The history of the USSR shows that poorly-regulated command economies do not work either.

    At this point we do not have an example of a very large economic system that works. To my way of thinking that is an argument that we should create a variety of small economic systems and study them for a few generations to get a sense of how they fail and how they can be improved. We clearly are not ready to run a world economy where everything depends on everything else. The idea that everybody in the world should depend on a world economy to run efficiently and reliably — is that the scariest story you’ve ever heard, or what?

  49. “The events of 2008 prove once and for all that unregulated or poorly-regulated capitalism does not work and cannot work. ”

    That should be “once again” instead of “once and for all” as 2008 had few lessons that were new from the events during various years in the Great Depression. What we also learned again is that politicians will ignore proven facts and happily run future events smack into a wall if it will get them a few votes now.

  50. “Once again” and “once and for all” both work.

    We shouldn’t have needed an extra demonstration, but we got one anyway.

  51. JT-“Kevin, every important anthropological study will eventually be debunked, because it is important enough to debunk.”

    Frankly, I doubt many people are losing sleep over Turnbull or the Mbuti. But to the point, the ‘debunking’ is by Turnbull himself in his actual scientific monograph and his field notes.

  52. Turnbull and some poster’s beliefs and debunking make an interesting study in confirmation bias. We all (myself included) can suffer confirmation bias. Applying scientific methods would ideally avoid confirmation bias, and it can where something can be measured and people can decide what was the right answer and agree to be bound by that answer.

    The trouble with social studies and politics is that it is very hard to separate conjecture, opinion and bias. All the facts get fuzzy. I haven’t thought of a good way to resolve issues as people do not change their mind after their belief has been shown to be wrong. If anything, they double down. It gets to, “It’s just your opinion that the Earth is not flat.” As, if that is their belief, nothing will convince them otherwise.

    I’ve enjoyed the posts. Good discussion.

  53. “the ‘debunking’ is by Turnbull himself in his actual scientific monograph and his field notes.”

    My interpretation of this is that science popularizers took his research and interpreted it to fit things which fit their preconceptions. Later, someone looked in detail at his field notes etc and decided that they did not mean what people said. Then people who had a different point of view interpreted the new claims to fit their different preconceptions.

    I don’t believe we will get very far with this approach.

    We might as well just tell plausible stories as try to claim our stories have scientific backing.

    Here’s a story: To run a factory with human labor, you need a lot of people to behave precisely. They must show up, and if any of various key people is late, everybody else has to wait for them. The factory runs at the rate of the slowest worker on a critical path, or else it gets some products assembled incorrectly.

    People must behave in inhuman ways for long times, as much as 8 hours a day or even longer. They may be subject to repetitive strain injuries. People don’t enjoy this kind of thing. To get them to do it — for years or decades — requires extraordinary rewards and/or punishments.

    I knew a man who died a few years ago, who told me about working as a skilled carpenter before the Depression. He got one dollar a day, and felt he was not badly paid. He lived near a large town.

    But a skilled auto worker in the Ford plant could make three dollars a day or even four. It was hard work but it paid well.

    But then, in those days a whole lot of people had relatives with a farm. If an industrial job didn’t work out or there was a depression, they could go live on the farm and help out, and eat well. It wasn’t a great alternative, but it was a fallback that was widely available.

    Now the punishment for being fired from a job are much worse. It’s hard to get a new job when you’ve been fired. You could wind up homeless. People are quite ready to take jobs that nobody wants to do, to avoid those punishments.

    Any economy that needs people to do work that almost everybody hates to do, will need some way to bribe or coerce people into doing them. Unless you give them special bribes for doing the work (which is inequality) or special punishments for not doing them (which is coercion) they won’t get done.

    Could we find ways to do without work that people particularly hate to do? Sometimes. Maybe often. Lots of jobs could be automated away, unless the job of designing automated tools involves work people hate. (And maybe tools could be built to do the worst parts?)

    But if there is remaining work that people hate to do, that has to be done, we’re stuck. We must bribe them, or coerce them, or depend on their sense of altruism, or let them feel they are atoning for past crimes, or something.

  54. David Hajicek:

    “This sounds plausible but doesn’t hold up when one looks at details because compulsion is basically present in nearly all societal groups all the way down to single family hunter gatherers (daddy gets first choice of the food, kids get the scraps).”

    Sorry, I guess you didn’t comment on the Hadza tribe. Maybe they’re among the exceptions that led you to write “nearly all” instead of “all”.

    However, feeding the kids scraps doesn’t sound like a good plan for long-term survival of the social group. What’s your basis for thinking that’s common among hunter-gatherers?

    You said you don’t see why this is interesting. I think lots of facts are interesting and like to get them right. Also, if some social groups don’t have compulsion, as your “nearly all” implies, I think that’s extremely interesting.

    Maybe more later.

  55. My question was why is this important to to discussion of socialism? Lots of things are interesting, that doesn’t necessarily make it important to something else. You find it interesting, I find it a distraction from the general discussion. So what if Marx or Lennon thought savages were egalitarian (they were probably more so than contemporary civilizations). The question is what to do today.

    I agree that feeding scraps to the kids isn’t the best for the kids. This happened in even western civilizations (the family hierarchy). Perhaps because so many kids died early of various diseases, they didn’t want to invest too much in the children until they reached a safer age. Can I prove it? Not without a lot of work, which I can’t justify for something that is only possibly interesting and a distraction.

  56. I agree, this is entirely a side issue wrt socialism.

    In line with my claim that hunter-gatherer societies probably varied a lot, the Inuit are widely regarded as giving their children the best of the food when there is plenty. Later when times are tough they wanted their children to have happy memories. But if the time came in winter that they were starving, they tried to give the hunters most of the food until there was more. This makes sense in that hunters that aren’t quite starving hight be more effective hunters. If they can bring in enough food, nobody starves. If they can’t bring in enough to feed themselves, everybody starves.

    There are lots of stories about orphan boys and their grandmothers. A person alone could not survive, but two could. LOTS of stories about the love between an orphan boy and his old grandmother.

    People would wisely avoid giving too much assistance to orphans, and the orphans would grow up to be great hunters, small and quick, immensely strong, ready to accept deprivation, cold, utter exhaustion, hyper-aware. They suffered, but it was good to have people like that around.

    Well, but they were communal and shared everything? Yes and no. There was a lot ofo that but they didn’t fit western ideals.

  57. SKZB writes: “These links appear to be mostly about the notion of war, or to refute the “peaceful savage” idea, which no one here has been promoting (unless you want to say war and class struggle are identical, which you’d have a job proving).”

    But in his opening paragraph he also wrote: “In particular, when we look at hunter-gatherer systems (according to the best information I’ve been able to find), we see a society without the fundamental element that, in my view, defines the State: compulsion. If there is no compulsion, and no threat of compulsion, and, above all, no organized force responsible for compulsion, then, whatever you’re going to call the social organization, it just isn’t a State.”

    If the 2nd quotation is not promoting the “peaceful savage” idea, then what is it? Just what is “…no compulsion, and no threat of compulsion, and, above all, no organized force responsible for compulsion..” describing if not a peaceful society?

    When it was pointed out that science has determined that almost all of these prehistoric societies were constantly at war with their neighbors (and had wealth inequality similar to Denmark of today) a disconnect occurred. The first quote simply dismisses the scientific studies of these societies and fails to recognize (or refute the idea) that war is organized compulsion of one group upon another. Due to this disconnect it also fails to recognize that the premise that these societies were compulsion free is a myth.

    So we’re left with a contradiction; either these early societies were States or compulsion does not define State. No one seriously considers these societies to be States, that leaves us with compulsion is not the fundamental element that defines the State.

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