August 20, 2017

The no-good guides to the Good Life

“As industrial society grinds to a halt, people will lose confidence in conventional wisdom and current solutions. In fact, this has already begun. They will be looking for different answers, very different ones”.

From the journal PHP, Japan, June 1976.


In search of the “good life” we have moved from what we refer to as “primitive” societies to what we now call “modern” social arrangements. We are guided in this modern living by the industrial vision, the idea that restraints are remnants of an immature past, by modern money and economic principles, psychoanalytic theories, a plethora of political institutions, science, technology and modern education. Are these guides bringing us closer to the good life or not? What forces are capable of directing us more surely to stability and satisfying humane existence?

Experience of Industrial Society a Guide?

I do not believe that we can understand our problems exclusively in terms of the experience of our industrial society. Let us not forget that it is a very short one. It has only been in existence for about 150 years, whereas man, depending on how we define him, has been around for as much as one million, possibly two million years. In fact, our whole experience of industry, when compared with man’s total experience, is no more than two days in the life of a man of seventy.

If the industrial experience has been short, so has the agricultural one. Systematic agriculture probably only came into its own 10 or 12 thousand years ago. Before that, man was a hunter and a gatherer, and to a lesser extent a slash-and-burn or a shifting agriculturalist. Possibly 95% of all the people who has ever lived fell into this category. It is a defect of practically all the disciplines into which academic knowledge is at present divided, that they are based on the experience of industrial society to the exclusion of all others, i.e., on a quite inadequate sample of the total human experience. This defect is not a minor one. It is sufficient to invalidate most of the work done by our scientists today. It prevents science from providing adaptive guidelines for public policy. The reason is clearly that what our scientists have taken to be general laws governing human behaviour at all times are in fact but a set of principles which appear to have applied to a very limited sample of human behaviour.

This is true of today’s sociology, which attempts to study modern societies without any reference to the traditional or primitive societies from which they have emerged and of which they are, to a large extent, aberrant or pathological forms. It is true of economics, which assumes a whole set of conditions such as a market economy, which, as Michael Polanyi points out, have only been present in a fraction of known societies and for a very short period to boot. It is true of psychoanalysis. Bronislaw Malinowski pointed out that the Oedipus complex made no sense at all in a matrilineal society such as that of the Trobriand Islanders, in which a child is brought up by the mother’s elder brother and not by her husband. It is true of government—traditional societies being perfectly governed without the aid of any of the institutions which we associate with government and regard as indispensable to the maintenance of social order. Public opinion, reflecting traditional norms and the influence of the elders, was sufficient to maintain the strictest adherence to the social norm.

Not only must we look at social questions cross-culturally, but we must look at them “cross-behaviourally”—that is to say, in the light of all other forms of behaviour. In the same way one must reject the notion that pre-industrial societies are not relevant to understanding the behaviour of industrial man, on the principle that he has now achieved so elated a status that he is above the laws that have so far governed the behaviour of human societies, so one must reject the notion that man, primitive or industrial, is above the laws governing behaviour in general.

Man is an animal, and any analysis based on the illusion of his uniqueness can only lead to the most foolish conclusions. It may be argued that we are not in possession of the methodology for examining our social behaviour in this light. This only appears to be so, because we are so preoccupied with the empirical approach—more precisely the experimental method which consists in examining the component of the biosphere in isolation, in the totally artificial conditions of a laboratory. It is not in this way, however, that we can understand the biosphere. Being a complex system made up of closely inter-related sub-systems, the separate examination of the latter in isolation cannot reveal the nature of these inter-relationships. A system is in fact not simply the sum of its parts. That is why the experimental or reductionist method is proving to be such a disastrous failure. A more suitable method for understanding the behaviour of complex systems is provided by the new disciplines of general systems or cybernetics, the two being for all practical purposes indistinguishable. Both deal with the behaviour of “systems” or units of behaviour, and what is surprising is the extraordinary similarity of systems, however different they may appear to the naked eye.

Consider a lobster and a man. What is, in fact, of interest is not so much their dissimilarity, but their extreme similarity in functional terms. They both eat, excrete, move, reproduce, etc., and in a similar way.

Cybernetics is basically the study of control. It reveals that there is basically only one way of controlling the behaviour of a natural system, whether it be a man, a lobster, a society, or an ecosystem. Even artificial systems can only be controlled in the same way.

Back to top

Fewer Restraints the Way?

The increasing incidence of crime, delinquency, drug addiction, and alcoholism in the U.S. one must regard as but the symptoms of social disintegration. Another such symptom, as Emile Durkheim pointed out more than 50 years ago, is suicide.

As this process of disintegration occurs, so the bonds holding people together are relaxed, as are the essential constraints which previously enabled individuals to act as the differentiated parts of a social system. This notion of constraints is extremely important. It is at the basis of organisation. Today it is not fashionable to discuss constraints. We live in a permissive world and have developed all sorts of very childish arguments for justifying this permissiveness. In reality it is another word for chaos. To identify it with liberty is simply ludicrous.

To the Greeks, liberty meant the freedom to run themselves. They were free because their society was self-governing. The Persians were slaves because they were run by an autocrat. This did not mean that there was greater permissiveness in Greece than in Persia. The opposite in fact was true. The Greeks were highly disciplined.

Fustel de Coulanges, in his famous study of the ancient city, was shocked by the extent of their discipline, by the all-pervading tyranny exerted by public opinion over the citizens of the city state, which was greater in his eyes than that imposed by any dictator.

A cross-cultural study of stable societies reveals that this discipline of self-discipline, characterises them all. It is a sine qua non of self-government. For this reason self-government, which we regard as synonymous with democracy, cannot occur in a mass-society.

We will see this must be so if we consider the nature of systems. A group of individuals learn to constitute a system by accepting constraints, i.e. by limiting their range of choice. It is in this way that order is built up. Order involves by definition a limitation of choice. Consider the system that is the family unit. It can only exist if its members behave within the framework of a particular set of constraints that makes possible the survival of the family unit.

Another important principle, which few people are willing to face, is that a society, like any other system, must be organised hierarchically. This must be so because the pattern of instructions ensuring the control of a system is so arranged that the instructions based on information reflecting the experience of the species over a long period are hierarchically superior to those representing its experience over a short period. Genetic information is not easily changed. It would be unadaptive for it to be so, otherwise it would cease reflecting the experience of a species over a long period, and simply that of a single generation. In such circumstances the species would cease to be stable. There would no longer be any continuity. Each generation would have to improvise its own biological form, which is clearly impossible.

The same is true of cultural information, though less so. This type of information is more malleable, more adjustable to immediate environmental requirements. The reason is that it only controls the particularities of behaviour, the generalities being determined genetically. Nevertheless, the generalities of a cultural pattern must also be relatively immutable, except over a long period, if a society is to be stable.

Back to top

The Powerful Institutions

I regard a culture as the control mechanism that ensures the stability of a social system. That this principle is not obvious to everybody is due to the fact that we are accustomed to viewing aberrant or disintegrated societies, which require for their control elaborate institutions of all sorts. The basic principle of government in a traditional society is that it requires no institutions, save perhaps an informal Council of Elders. Australian aboriginal societies have been referred to as gerontocracies, or government by the old men. In my opinion it would be more appropriate to refer to them as necrocracies, or government by the dead. Such societies are governed by traditional information.

Politics must be entirely governed by the society’s religio-culture, as is the case in traditional societies. Institutionalised government has never worked. Look at our history, it is but a story of intrigues, massacres, wars, assassinations. Politicians have all been hopeless. All have failed to identify the real problems facing man. Consider that the greatest problem we have faced since the agricultural revolution has been soil-erosion. The lands bordering the Mediterranean, which were once very fertile, have been turned into wildernesses as the top soil has disappeared into the sea. Yet can anyone recall a political speech exhorting people to conserve the soil? How many votes would a politician in Britain obtain were soil conservation to be the principal plank of his party platform? Look at our politicians today. With the world collapsing about their ears, what do they discuss at Westminster? Equal pay for women, the interest rate on mortgages, whether we should build a third airport or channel tunnel. Let us face it, it is not in this way that a society can be controlled. When politics is governed by a society’s traditions it is very different. The role of the Elders is simply to interpret the traditional law. Government has no institutions; democracy is not representative but participatory. All take an active role in governing the society in accordance with the principles handed down from generation to generation.

Back to top

Two Other Leaders—Science and Technology

If politics has failed to replace tradition, so has science. Our scientists have swallowed the worldview of industrial man, hook, line and sinker. The idea that it is as objective as it is made out to be is an illusion. The belief which we cherish—that it is possible by means of science and technology to create a paradise from which all human problems such as poverty, unemployment, diseases, malnutrition, ignorance and war will be eliminated—is the ultimate heresy. It justifies the design and development of a totally new organisation of matter, the technosphere, or world of human artefacts, which is everywhere being purposefully substituted for the biosphere, or world of living things. The truth is that man was not designed phylogenetically to solve the sort of problems he is faced with today. For two million years while he was a hunter-gatherer he undoubtedly developed a considerable talent for chasing small mammals and digging for roots. On the other hand he has been unsuccessful in most of his enterprises since he abandoned this way of life.

As technology takes over from the biosphere, so does the world resemble less and less that to which we have been adapted—which makes it very difficult for us to understand it. In fact, one of the maladjustments caused by this process is “cognitive maladjustment.” If you put an East African wart hog into a shoe factory, you would not expect it to interpret correctly the components of this new and strange environment. It could only interpret it in terms of its previous experience. Similarly, when Captain Cook first arrived at Tahiti, the native he encountered had never seen a horse. The only mammal of which they had had any experience was the pig, and they quite logically referred to the horse as a man-carrying pig.

We are increasingly in this situation ourselves. Our natural instincts provide us with no guidelines for dealing with the strange new components of our environment. Horrible things like radioisotopes, X-ray machines, food-additives, nuclear-power plants, pollution, resource-depletion, massive social mobility, of all these things we have had no cultural, let alone phylogenetic experience, and neither our politicians nor our scientists, nor anybody else, can respond to them adaptively.

It may be argued that we have accumulated an immense amount of data over the last fifty years. But data by itself cannot serve to guide public policy. It must first be organised into information. Unfortunately, our scientists carry out endless experiments whose results are described in detail in thousands of separate specialised journals. These are written for the specialist, and specialists defend their academic territory more ferociously than any territorially-based bird or mammal described by Robert Ardrey. The data is thereby locked up in a host of little pockets to which only the initiated have access. Efforts to organise data into information are looked upon as “unscientific” as it is often not the sort of work that can be carried out in laboratories. There is a perfectly good tool for organising this data—general systems or cybernetics. But as we have seen, it is rarely used. The idea, in fact, that science can hope to provide a means of controlling our society, is a terrible illusion.

On the other hand, in a traditional society, science is kept under cultural control, as has always been the case in India, and as was the case in Europe until very recently.

It is interesting to note how in a traditional society technology, which with us has gone completely berserk, is also kept under control. It is only in this way that good technology is possible. Consider a fishing society living on a lake. Let us suppose that every year there is a net production of 1,500 fish. A good technology would enable them to catch precisely this number, and this is the one which a traditional society would undoubtedly exploit, the one consistent with its religion and ritual life. A modern technology, introduced by an unthinking external power, would undoubtedly enable them to catch many more than 1,500 fish but with the inevitable depletion of fish stocks.

Technology in a traditional society is an integral part of its behaviour and cannot be looked at separately. There is a famous story of a tribe in Australia among whose members the possession of a stone axe was of particular significance. Only the elders possessed the right to have one, and there were elaborate rituals for lending axes to other people, all of which were very important for the maintenance of the tribe’s social structure. Missionaries, seeking to ingratiate themselves with the aborigines, dished out axes to everybody, steel ones at that, and the result was the break-down of the society and the transformation of its members into depressed slum-dwellers living on the periphery of the modern world.

Back to top

Misled by Modern Education

One of the most important aspects of our behaviour which must be culturally controlled is education. We have totally lost sight of its very purpose, and consider that it consists in cramming ever increasing quantities of largely irrelevant information into the heads of our unfortunate children. We forget that education is basically but another word for socialisation. This is certainly true in traditional societies, where it consists of transmitting the traditional information from one generation to the next, so as to ensure the society’s continuity or stability.

This information is that which is required to enable the child to fulfil its functions as a member of its family and community. If this is so, then the information will differ from one society to the next. That required to enable a young child to fulfil its functions as a member of a bushman band will be very different from that which he would require were he a member of a centralised African kingdom, such as Benin. In fact, a bushman with first class honours at Oxford University is, as far as I am concerned, uneducated.

Back to top

After the Current Solutions Fail

The sooner we understand this principle, the sooner will this terrible social disruption we are causing throughout the Third World start coming to an end. Meanwhile, we should start considering now that information must be communicated to future generations which would enable them to develop a stable, continuous and satisfying society.

I do not think that this work will be in vain. As industrial society grinds to a halt, people will lose confidence in conventional wisdom and current solutions. In fact, this has already begun. They will be looking for different answers, very different ones. One can predict a new interest in traditional forms after a period in which people have only been concerned with the novel, the original, and the outrageous, a longing for a communal living to replace the cult of individualism, a frantic search for spiritual values by those who have only experienced the squalor and misery which our materialist philosophy has inevitably brought about.

·Ω·

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Diaspora
  • Identi.ca
  • email
  • Add to favorites
Back to top