Notes On The News
by Gwydion M Williams
Authentic conservatism died in the 1980s. If the Left had got its act together in the 1970s and pushed through the radical notions of Incomes Policy and Workers Control, then authentic conservatism would have carried on in reduced circumstances, defending what was left of old-fashioned values. But most people on the Left pushed militancy for its own sake, without realising that militant workers would get tired of struggle without clear gains. And it didn’t help that much of the Hard Left sneered at actual left-wing achievements out of an unrealistic hopes for some more left-wing alternative.
Thatcherism was the functional alternative. Thatcherism was Radical-Right: its core idea was that the 20th century had been a mistake. That the 1960s in particular had been a mistake.
Economically, its mission to restore British greatness failed. In as far as it pushed the economy back towards 19th century values, it damaged it. Britain in 1979 had a crisis that could have been solved in an authentically conservative manner, by curbing Trade Union power but keeping the norms of what was then called the Mixed Economy. Functional conservatism would have meant keeping unemployment as low as possible, to prevent the risk of a detached Underclass developing here, as it has in the USA. Instead we had a Radical Right vision that hoped to turn the entire world into a gigantic collection of suburban households, each pursuing personal goals and delivering vast benefits. But it didn’t happen. A recent report called The Macroeconomic Impact of Liberal Economic policies in the UK shows in detail that it did not happen. That economic growth was slower overall. That most Britons would be much better off if Thatcherism had never happened. [a]
Socially it was also a failure – at least it was for social conservatives like Thatcher, who yearned for the relative social stability of the 1950s. Lurking in the background of the New Right was a substratum of Libertarians who liked Free Markets but very logically linked it with Free Individualism on sexual matters, and sometimes also on drugs. Much of this agenda, which Thatcher would surely have hated, became official Tory policy under nice-seeming David Cameron.
It was also the main positive achievement of the Blair years: he yielded on Free Markets and asserted the Free Individualism that a lot of Tories had anyway always privately favoured.
We can imagine an alternate world in which Thatcherism broadly failed. This would have been the case if the Falklands War had been either lost or prevented sensibly. We might have carried on with a reformed version of the successful Corporatist system that had flourished from the 1940s to 1960s and was still functioning in the 1970s, despite the crises of inflation and trade union militancy. (At the time of Thatcher’s death, it was pointed out that overall growth in the UK was better in the despised 1970s than in any decade since. That she had entirely wasted the windfall of North Sea Oil – unlike Norway, which has kept it for the benefit of its citizens.)
There were a series of crises in the 1970s, including the end of cheap oil when OPEC realised that they could control the market. Things needed to be changed, and many things were changed. But the New Right economic changes were not an overall success. They damaged a system that was basically sound and needed just to be updated. Indeed, the system has remained broadly Corporatist, but special privileges are given to anything that has the appearance of Private Enterprise.
Ordinary Britons have paid a large price for Thatcher’s attempts to repeal the 20th century. Talking about the ‘Macroeconomic Impact of Liberalism’ report, The Guardian says:
“The economists find that average annual growth of per capita GDP fell from 2.6% per year in the three decades prior to 1980 to 2.2% per year in the following decades to 2007, and a decline of 0.2% per year since 2007. Productivity growth slowed even more sharply, from 2.9% per year in the three decades prior to 1980, compared with 1.7% from 1980 to 2007, and a decline of 0.2% per year since 2007.”[b]
But Thatcherism wasn’t a failure for the very rich, the more-than-millionaire class that dominate business, the media and politics. Those people have got an unfair and unearned share of the new wealth created since the 1970s. An absurdly large slice of an undersized cake. Have gone on flourishing after the crisis of 2008, because a crisis caused by speculative finance was successfully blamed on state power and state spending:
“FTSE 100 chief executives (CEO) earn on average 183 times more than a full-time worker, research suggests.
“A report by the High Pay Centre, a think tank which monitors income distribution, shows that top bosses earned on average £4.964m in 2014.
“That compares to £27,195 median pay for a full-time employee in 2014, according to official figures.
“The High Pay Centre said the executive pay packages went ‘far beyond what is sensible…to inspire top executives.’
“The pay gap did not increase dramatically between 2014 and 2013, when chief executives earned 182 times the average workers pay, but the High Pay Centre points out that it is much bigger than in 2010, when CEOs earned 160 times more.
“‘Pay packages of this size go far beyond what is sensible or necessary to reward and inspire top executives.”[c]
Why did it happen? In part, because it’s not the same system that previous generations of socialists protested at. Those people are no longer a coherent ruling class. They are an Overclass, detached from social concerns and vaguely believing that everything will work out OK if the ‘best people’ win out. It is eminently possible to demoralise such people, since the cleverer members of this stratum are worried by the stagnation since the 2008 crash and also the rise of increasingly extreme and successful versions of hard-line Islam.
The relative economic failure gets hidden, of course. You could call it the Leeson Effect. Created the appearance of brilliant success by hiding actual losses, as rogue trader Nick Leeson did by hiding all his losses in an ‘88888’ account which was not reported to his Head Office. As he explains in his biography, there were plenty of indications that all was not well. To keep on trading, he had to request vast amounts of hard cash to cover his losses, since the Singapore authorities were suspicious of him. But the experts at Barings Bank went on believing in his paper profits until the whole thing became public knowledge – or at least pretending to while they collected fat bonuses. Likewise all sorts of well-placed and powerful people have an interest in hiding the New Right failure.
It would be sensible to point out just what ordinary people have lost when it comes to the next General Election. Had the 1950s British growth rate of 2.55% been sustained, people on average would each be £5000 a year better off.[d] But of course people aren’t averages, and the rich would have had a smaller cut of this much bigger pie.
It is entirely rational for the more-than-millionaire class to want to carry on with Feed-The-Rich policies. What’s puzzling is why anybody else should believe in it.
Sadly, the arguments have simply not been made in this form. One gets a blanket condemnation of ‘capitalism’, which has reduced credibility after the Soviet collapse. The flourishing Chinese economy gets labelled capitalist, when it’s much more regulated than the West’s Mixed Economy ever was. It could be labelled ‘capitalism with socialist characteristics’, or the term ‘Mixed Economy’ could be revived. One way or another, get through that it worked much better than the Feed-The-Rich Capitalism that Thatcher promoted and that Blair and Brown accepted as an unalterable reality.
One could do a graphic for it. Show two sets of ten stick-persons, showing the actual incomes of the ten deciles (tenths by income) in the actual world and in an alternate world where Thatcherism didn’t happen and things stayed more like Germany or Scandinavia. Call it Thatcherism Didn’t Work.
Butskellism was a satirical term used in British politics to refer to the political consensus formed in the 1950s and associated with the similar policies of Chancellor of the Exchequer Butler of the Conservative Party and Hugh Gaitskell, then leader of the Labour Party.
The economic successes of Butskellism would seem a utopian dream by modern standards – but it worked at the time. There’s no reason why it should not be tried in future. Most of Continental Europe never really moved away from it and they continue to do well.
Considering the reasons why the Labour Party was created, it might have been better to have lost in 1997 than to have won the way Blair won. The whole New Right agenda was fading under Major: Blair conceded its basics and gave it new life and vigour.
Before Blair, Labour’s aim and actual achievement was a Mixed Economy and Welfareism, along with radicalism on family and sexual matters. Blair abandoned the economic radicalism and declared Feed-The-Rich policies to be the only possible future. The new consensus could be called Blamerism, the shared ground between Blair and Cameron. Cameron followed Blair’s lead in recognising that society had fundamentally changed, not attempting to seriously defend older social values in the way Thatcher had. But since Blair had not questioned Thatcherite economics and had continued privatisation, the Tory Party was not going to act otherwise.
Harold Wilson once said ‘the Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing’.[e] Tony Blair decided that being nothing was a smart way to get re-elected. Wilson’s deeds didn’t live up to his words, but in a lot of ways he was effective in an imperfect world. He faced the problem of dumping the legacy of the British Empire, including Sterling as a reserve currency. He did manage to keep Britain out of the Vietnam War, whereas Blair pitched eagerly into a much more foolish war on Iraq. He also faced the problem of a Trade Union movement that was massively overplaying its hand, being militant in ways that ultimately alienated many of its members. That rejected Social Partnership and Workers Control when Labour were eager to offer it.
Of course there were deeper reasons for this. The 1945 Labour government made changes that in the long run successfully erased the former gulf between Working Class and Middle Class, as understood in Britain. Differences remain, but nothing like what they were, and with the bizarre phenomenon of some people from posh backgrounds pretending to be working class. The separation was anyway more social than economic, with quite a lot of small independent business people who count as working class, and much less of the absurd pretentiousness of the dwindling Lower Middle Class. And there are huge numbers who are socially Middle Class but wholly dependent on paid employment. Too much of the left just ignored these changes. And some of those who did notice took the easy path of accepting Blamerism as an unalterable truth. This despite evidence that Corbyn’s views on a lot of issues are much more in line with public opinion than Blamerism is.[f]
It didn’t help that so many of the left combined a reverence for Marxism in the abstract with a hostility to those Marxists that had made some practical advances towards Marxist goals. Marxism offers a simple picture of how an industrial society works: a vastly more accurate picture than you get from conventional economics, yet still incomplete. It was always weaker on politics, tending towards citing ‘revolution’ as a one-size-fits-all solution (though Marx and Engels and even Lenin did on occasions say different and subtler things). But what you tend to get is now a too simplified version, inferior to people’s understanding within any given society. Still very useful for understanding alien societies and for people of non-European backgrounds to enter the modern world. But such successes were mostly talked down by the Western left. There was a loud insistence that anything less than a perfect result must be due to wicked tyranny by whoever was in charge.
There was also a foolish distrust of the state by ordinary people, encouraged by most radicals. Corporatism was a dreadful monster that was about to devour us, rather than being accepted as a workable solution for the great diversity of human needs and ambitions in an imperfect world. Hostility to Corporatism and Big Government was the official ideology of the New Right – but not its actual practice. The state nowadays intrudes in areas of personal life that used to be sacrosanct. The rich know better than to bite the hand that feeds them: they keep and strengthen those aspects of state power that suit them.
Ordinary people get misled – noticing only the inconvenience of Trade Union membership, and unaware that the existence of strong Trade Unions ensured decent wages and employment rights even for those who would never think of being Trade Union members. And the media tell them that the actual deterioration for ordinary people is somehow due to globalisation, with great horrors threatened if globalisation were ever challenged.
The 1950s and 1960s saw a wave of rather incoherent anger that redefined social life. Rather against its intentions, this protest did cause some substantial reforms without the need to smash what existed and start all over again. The acceptable limits of freedom expanded, in ways that have been allowed to slip out of public awareness. Britons under 40 seem unaware that it was ever considered unusual for a normal heterosexual couple to spend some time living together before getting married, or before splitting and seeking elsewhere. Or that BBC television ran something called The Black and White Minstrel Show from 1958 to 1978, featuring white Britons wearing the ‘blackface’ that was the respectable end of the vicious racism of the US South.[g] That song-and-dance show was hugely popular at the time, an embarrassment nowadays – but the left have let it get forgotten about.
Despite which, there is now a populist revolt against Blamerism. Something that can take either left-wing or right-wing forms: the 2015 British General Election saw a surge by the Scottish Nationalists and UKIP, both of which sounded rebellious. The 2010 election saw Tories and Liberal-Democrats get 59% of the votes between them[h]: in 2015 it was down to 45%, with just under 37% voting Tory.[i] It was the oddities of Britain’s archaic First-Past-The-Post electoral system that gave them victory, not a public opinion suspicious of deviations from Blamerism.
Ed Miliband let himself get intimidated by the media, rather than pointing out that they are dominated by business interests. He seemed hesitant about promising the people the things a majority of the people actually want. He was weak in contesting the Tory lie that Gordon Brown caused the current economic crisis by excess state spending. The crisis began with speculative finance in the USA, the sort of thing that was only possible because of the massive financial deregulation that began in the 1980s. He and others also showed a peculiar legacy of 1960s radicalism: he seemed to feel that British Labour should be ashamed of its own past. This made sense when 1960s radicals believed that they could transform everything: but the failures since then should have made them respectful of past Labour successes rather than submissive to Blamerism.
At the time of writing (22nd August), it is assumed that Jeremy Corbyn is going to win. His candidacy began as just another left-wing no-hoper standing in a leadership election that some centrist must win. But then his campaign took off: Labour supporters were sick of Blamerism. I don’t view him as an ideal candidate: I tend to wonder ‘can anything good come out of Islington?‘ But the best of the rest is Andy Burnham, who did sensibly mention the need to re-connect to Labour’s ‘Spirit of 45’, but also hesitant about challenging Blamerist values. And he should not be challenging the legitimacy of the vote: competitive electoral democracy will fall apart if everyone casts a slur on any outcome they don’t like.
As I write, there are also some indications that the world is heading for another major economic crisis, without having properly recovered from the first.[j] We definitely live in interesting times.
Blamerism in Britain, Regantonism in the USA. Bill Clinton largely accepted the new consensus that Reagan had created, and Hillary Clinton is likely to be more of the same. And unlike the British Tories, the US Republicans have been unable to curb or neutralise the old-fashioned views of the authentic conservatives they need to win elections.
One problem is that authentic conservatives in Britain favour moderation and civilised values, and such a combination is much rarer in the USA. The USA suffers from a noisy populism that glorifies violence and ignorance. The rich are admired and the educated are resented.
Hence Donald Trump, currently front runner for the US Republican nomination.
“While most elite-funded and elite-supported Republicans want to increase immigration and decrease Social Security, a significant number of voters (across both parties) want precisely the opposite – to increase Social Security and decrease immigration. So when Trump speaks out both against immigration and against fellow Republicans who want to cut Social Security, he’s speaking out for a lot people.”[k]
That’s not quite accurate: Trump supporters are mostly white and Anglo and want Social Security mostly for themselves, deeply resenting anyone else getting it. This doesn’t quite add up: or rather it would only add up with a properly fascist movement that based itself on an assertion of basic inequalities of race and nationality. Southern Democrats had a milder version of it, a semi-fascist politics that at one time was very fond of actual European fascism. People who were compelled to become anti-fascist because Hitler and Mussolini were foolish enough to back the attack on the USA by Imperial Japan.
Civil Rights as pushed by Kennedy and Johnson lost the hearts of southern racists by making some genuine advances towards mutli-racialism. US Republicans beginning with Nixon managed to sabotage functional multi-racialism by championing Individual Rights: but the Republican elite also had no interest in restoring the functional racist society that the US South used to have. Their main aim was to herd the racist sheep in directions that suited Big Business.
The US Republican elite play games. They tell ordinary voters they are part of the elite. And must be privately sniggering at those voters for believing it.
Multi-racialism doesn’t just happen. In Britain, it is normal for people of different races to be living in the same street. That’s because talk of ‘individual liberty’ was never allowed to override the needs of the society. It’s still imperfect, but the main issue is immigration (much of it from Eastern Europe) rather than race.
Class War hasn’t ended: it continues as a war by the rich against the rest of society. But also they are not going to take it very far, being an Overclass rather than people who truly aspire to rule. Just doing what they can get away with: very few of them would have the guts for a real war and many are ‘Chicken-Hawks’ who found legal loopholes to avoid the Vietnam War. You do have a few brave and tough characters, and perhaps the occasional would-be fascist dictator. But most of them have no intention of suffering much for whatever they believe in (if indeed they believe anything.) Alarmist talk of immanent US fascism misses the point. Authentic fascism will look after the needs of ‘their people’, but it also get millions of them killed – at least seven million non-Jewish Germans died as a result of a war he could easily have avoided or limited. The Overclass are shallow and have a pattern of fighting small wars with a mix of disillusioned professional soldiers, unreliable mercenaries and unsuitable paramilitaries like the National Guard. Naturally they do so without much success.
And it’s not all negative in the Presidential race. Bernie Sanders as a self-declared socialist is making some impact as a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination, though it seems very unlikely he will actually get it. But he might shift the concept of what’s normal, in a way that Obama has sadly failed to do.
Obama is likely to get his place in history, thanks to his foes using the label ‘Obamacare’ for the basic Health Care that the US lacked for decades after most developed countries had it. It may be more than he deserves. He’d never really run anything before winning the Presidency, and both his political skills and his intentions have been weak.
“I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth” sang The Who in their famous song Substitute.[l] Of course they were also born into a Britain that offered excellent free medical care and education, and where you had to be really determined to avoid getting a job. Part of the same incoherent anger I mentioned earlier. Don’t take ‘yes’ for an answer. If it’s not perfect, it is someone else’s fault. All I need do is denounce them.
A sneeringly negative view of the better world created after 1945 didn’t pave the way for something better: it paved the road down to Thatcherism. People mostly now don’t try to put you down if you ‘get around’. They mostly ignore your private life, especially if they figure you can make money for them. Whereas the Corporatist system did see an obligation to find jobs for everyone willing to work, nowadays people see no need.
And it makes us unhappy.
“Children in England are among the unhappiest in the world, behind countries such as Ethiopia, Algeria and Romania, research suggests.
“The Children’s Society report, which looked at 15 diverse countries, ranked England 14th for life satisfaction of its young people, ahead of South Korea.
“More than a third of English children said they had been bullied in school, and half had felt excluded, it found.”[m]
From 2011 to 2013, the Financial Times Share Index (FTSE 100) was bouncing around between 5000 and 6000. From 2013 down to very recently, it has been between 6000 and 7000, recently pushing over 7000.[n] As of 25th August, it stood at just over 6000, with further falls likely.
The USA’s Dow Jones shows much the same. It wandered between 10,000 and 13,000 from 2011 to 2013. Then went from 14,000 to a high of over 18,000 until the recent falls,[o] which have taken it down to 15666.44 when it closed on the 25th. Still way above where it was in 2011, despite a broad stagnation in the real economy.
That’s to say, it is a bubble. A mass of heavily over-valued shares, helped by cheap money that Western governments have generously given to the more-than-millionaire class in the shape of Quantitative Easing.
A small wobble in the broadly-healthy Chinese economy is being blamed. But the previous absurd increases had nothing to do with China. Stock markets have always included pump-and-dump strategies, but the deregulation of the 1980s mean that the speculators are wholly dominant. They have maybe figured that this is a good time to dump.
They may also have figured that blaming China improves the chances that the Western public will carry on paying for their gambling losses for a few more years.
Sex can be used to sell anything except sex. That’s the current rule for the Anglosphere. Young women are encouraged to sell their sex appeal without actually selling sex. But since there are far more aspirants than there are decent jobs, things slip.
I’d approve of banning the phoney implications of easy sex from advertising. I reckon it has a bad effect on both sexes – and note that some of the sexiest adverts are for products that only women might buy.
Feminist groups have sometimes protested. More often they have gone for the soft options of criticising overt pornography and commercial sex, relatively small interest-groups that are also very used to being unpopular. And they demand that prostitution as such remain illegal, despite massive evidence that it does not end but merely moves underground, with greater risk of crime.
Thankfully there are some contrary opinions:
“A crucial vote to protect the human rights of sex workers was passed today in Dublin at Amnesty International’s decision-making forum, the International Council Meeting (ICM). Delegates from around the world adopted a resolution which authorized the International Board to develop and adopt a policy on the issue.
“‘Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse. Our global movement paved the way for adopting a policy for the protection of the human rights of sex workers which will help shape Amnesty International’s future work on this important issue,’ said Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International.”[p]
The move has got less publicity than it deserved – which is why I’m mentioning it here.
No doubt most Feminists will continue to oppose it. They seem to have found a comfortable niche for themselves, given a nice niche based on an unrealistic claim to represent women in general.
Women are at least as diverse as men are. Everyone would see it as absurd if I said that I as a man felt offended by what some other men choose to do with their bodies. But what’s sauce for the gander is also sauce for the goose, surely?
At the time of the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, we were assured that ordinary Iraqis would be benefiting from the splendid Western package of Human Rights that the invading armies would bring with them. All of us in the Bevin Society said that it was foolish, well in advance of it failing to happen.
Likewise with the Arab Spring. Maybe 10% of Arabs had accepted some version of Western liberal values. Introduce competitive electoral politics, and the other 90% were going to assert themselves with some mix of authoritarianism and hard-line Islam.
This is another case of authentic conservatism withering in the West and being replaced by a slew of 1960s ideas, some of them mutated to be decidedly right-wing, but Radical-Right rather than conservative. 1960s Radicalism mostly ignored history and felt that it was demanding things that had always been valid and should be introduced immediately. There was little concept of human development – even though the way women were treated at the time would now be unacceptable, and there was some hesitation about including homosexuality in the new liberation. (Plus some debate before a vast majority decided that laws against under-age sex were not an oppression but a necessary part of protecting the vulnerable.)
But having made huge shifts in its own culture, the West started demanding that the rest of the world must immediately conform with whatever has just become fashionable in the West. Have people forgotten even that ‘Human Rights’ is itself a relatively new term, being coined after women made the very reasonable protest that ‘Rights of Man’ didn’t clearly include them?
In the modern world, a government of foreigners can’t develop a country. A colonial regime can do something, as Britain did in India, but that is only when attitudes are pre-national. And India did a lot more developing under its own government than ever happened under British rule.
People in the West seem to find this hard to grasp, so I’ll give an analogy.
Supposing aliens had taken over Earth in the 1950s and tried to impose on the West what have become mainstream Western values as of 2015? Or even the moderate conservative version of these? Would there not have been massive resistance then to things we have voluntarily accepted by stages and as organic developments within many different societies.
Think in those terms and you can see why the West is failing in Arab World. Meantime in China, quiet changes have been successfully made by a party elite that is very much rooted in the society.
That’s why the whole Iraq intervention was a complete goof. Saddam and the Baath were the only effective Westernising force. Now there’s nothing functional.
Having wholly messed up the Arab world – and also re-ignited sectarian hatreds in first Former Yugoslavia and now Ukraine – the West is keen to do the same to Asia. Especially the various popular authoritarian regimes of East Asia.
Of course the real problem for the Western elite is that East Asia is returning to its historic role as something equal to Europe. Western Europe and the USA may talk about human unity, but what they mean is unity by everyone swallowing Europe’s values, and then still consenting to play a secondary role.
China would need to remain poor and behave meekly in order to be truly acceptable to the Western elite. They’d be fools to listen to criticisms, and mostly they have not. (Though as I said last month, they inflicted the current stock-market crisis on themselves by swallowing Western notions of financial deregulation.)
It isn’t just China. Just after the Soviet collapse, there was a wave of suspicion against Japan, even though Japan has a highly Westernised legal and political system. This faded only when Japan’s economy stalled and they ceased to threaten to eclipse US and European Union power.
The amount of noise made about Human Rights relates to how far a country is seen as a threat by the elite, who own or control almost all the media. So much more noise about Russia and China than India, even though India has not yet decriminalised homosexuality and the position of ordinary women is much worse. (Though if China ever fell into turmoil and ceased to be a challenge, India might find that they were next on the hit-list.)
Meantime very little said about the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, which reject Western values on the rights of ordinary people, but are very useful to the power of the Western elite.
1930s pictures of our present Queen doing a Nazi salute shocked many people.[q] Not me. I know the actual history of mainstream and centre-right sympathy for Nazis in Britain up to maybe 1938, the moment when Nazi Germany suddenly came to be seen as a power-political threat to the British Empire, then the world’s dominant power.
What was maybe more shocking than the future Queen as a child being influenced by her pro-Nazi uncle Edward was the wife of the future George 6th also giving the Nazi salute. The late and widely-admired Queen Mother for most of her daughter’s reign, she was old enough to know what she was doing.
But hardly alone in liking Nazis. The Daily Mail was continuously pro-Hitler for as long as this was respectable.[r] Hitler by the time of the 1936 Berlin Olympics was openly a dictator who had set aside parliament, and had murdered a whole range of opponents (not just the obnoxious Brownshirts) in the Night of the Long Knives. He had also stripped German Jews of their citizenship, and made it clear that these Olympics would be a Nazi party. And everyone came who normally came. The Soviet Union was never included until after World War Two, and the only refusal came from the newly elected Spanish Republic. Even Harold Abrahams, Jewish co-hero of that brilliant 1981 movie Chariots of Fire, chose to attend in his later role as a sports reporter.[s]
Someone should do a film covering the bad moral choices that were made in 1936. Maybe call it The Hitler Games.
“We modern humans cooperate to an extraordinary degree. We engage in highly complex coordinated group activities with people who are not kin to us and who may even be complete strangers. Imagine, in a scenario suggested by anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy of the University of California, Davis, in her 2009 book Mothers and Others, a couple of hundred chimps lining up, getting on a plane, sitting for hours extremely passively and then exiting like robots on cue. It would be unthinkable–they would battle one another nonstop. But our cooperative nature cuts both ways. The same species that leaps to the defense of a persecuted stranger will also team up with unrelated individuals to wage war on another group and show no mercy to the competition. Many of my colleagues and I think that this proclivity for collaboration–what I call hyperprosociality–is not a learned tendency but instead a genetically encoded trait found only in H. sapiens. Some other animals may show glimmers of it, but what modern humans possess is different in kind.
“The question of how we came to have this genetic predisposition toward our extreme brand of cooperation is a tricky one. But mathematical modeling of social evolution has yielded some valuable clues. Sam Bowles, an economist at the Santa Fe Institute, has shown that an optimal condition under which genetically encoded hyperprosociality can propagate is, paradoxically, when groups are in conflict. Groups that have higher numbers of prosocial people will work together more effectively and thus outcompete others and pass their genes for this behavior to the next generation, resulting in the spread of hyperprosociality. Work by biologist Pete Richerson of U.C. Davis and anthropologist Rob Boyd of Arizona State additionally indicates that such behavior spreads best when it begins in a subpopulation and competition between groups is intense and when overall population sizes are small, like the original population of H. sapiens in Africa from which all modern-day people are descended.” (Scientific American, [t])
Like other mammals, we can be vicious in individual conflicts. Like other social primates, we can have fights between rival groups. But wider cooperation – potentially with the entire world – is the specific human development.
So is it ‘Regiments Rule OK’? Forming large socially coordinated groups seems to be a specifically human achievement. Some animals form vast herds, and birds form flocks, but these are mere mobs with no coordination. Animal herds attacked by wolves, lions etc. do not gang up on the predator as humans would. And as apes and other strongly social creatures would, but only in bands of maybe 50 closely-related individuals.
This may well have been the key advantage of modern humans over earlier near-humans. Small family bands would have got into confrontations, as with other apes. But the Scientific American article suggests that the modern humans would have had wider alliances and probably called in hundreds of young men and mature warriors from neighbouring bands, intimidating the opposition. That’s probably what happened to the Neanderthals: each group was on its own whereas the humans had networks of friendship and mutual aid and kept grabbing new lands.
Though even modern humans need coordination. A regiment, usually 800 to 1000 strong, functions in wars as a single cooperating unit. It’s there to fight other humans or sometimes to oppress them, even massacre them, and most regiments will do so if ordered. But it’s much too large a group for most of its members to know each other, never mind have close ties. The military and most other human bodies take a modular approach, groups within groups, the closer the stronger.
Not that it’s just about war. ‘Hyperprosociality’ may well have made us the most successful of the apes. But it has been sharing and cooperation on other matters that have made us something greater.
If we humans really gained global dominance by being able to form armies rather than just bands of fighters, then we paid a price for it later on in our development. Plenty of ancient skeletons show signs of violent death. And it got worse after agriculture was invented, and people became much more likely to stand their ground rather than move on to avoid a fight:
“A mass grave containing at least 26 skeletons is further evidence of the brutal conflict that appears to have beset central Europe 7,000 years ago…
“Individuals had their heads smashed. Some even had their legs broken, which could indicate they were also tortured… the condition of the burial pit fits an emerging pattern of widespread violence in Early Neolithic times.
“Similar mass graves have been unearthed at Talheim, also in Germany, and at Asparn/Schletz in Austria.
“The occupants were likely all drawn from agricultural communities whose pottery decoration style has led to them being dubbed the Linear Pottery culture, which translates as Linearbandkeramik (LBK) in German.
“This group has left a rich archaeological record, which Christian Meyer and colleagues say highlights the unusualness of the mass graves.
“These people would normally have been buried in a ceremonial style, carefully positioned on their left side, and surrounded by artefacts of value.
“But in the pits, the bodies have been dumped in haphazard fashion, and are surrounded by all manner of waste objects.”[u]
Another recent discovery suggests that the possibility of living off one fixed patch of land was known much earlier, but not followed up:
“Until now, researchers believed farming was ‘invented’ some 12,000 years ago in an area that was home to some of the earliest known human civilizations. A new discovery offers the first evidence that trial plant cultivation began far earlier – some 23,000 years ago…
“Although weeds are considered a threat or nuisance in farming, their presence at the site of the Ohalo II people’s camp revealed the earliest signs of trial plant cultivation – some 11 millennia earlier than conventional ideas about the onset of agriculture.
“The plant material was found at the site of the Ohalo II people, who were fisher hunter-gatherers and established a sedentary human camp…
“Because weeds thrive in cultivated fields and disturbed soils, a significant presence of weeds in archaeobotanical assemblages retrieved from Neolithic sites and settlements of later age is widely considered an indicator of systematic cultivation…
“The researchers found a grinding slab – a stone tool with which cereal starch granules were extracted – as well as a distribution of seeds around this tool, reflecting that the cereal grains were processed for consumption. The large number of cereals showing specific kinds of scars on their seeds indicate the likelihood of those cereals growing in fields, and the presence of sickle blades indicates that these humans deliberately planned the harvest of cereal.”[v]
It seems likely that the wandering hunter-gatherer lifestyle was preferred for as long as it was possible. People might plant crops sometimes, but would not become dependent on them. But that depended on there being enough free land. If there wasn’t, due to some local drought or other disaster, a new way of life would emerge. People who had grown up with agriculture would then stick to it, and also push out seeking new lands.
It’s definite that agriculture entered Europe from West Asia, with a mix of new people pushing in and existing peoples copying or being absorbed by the newcomers. And it’s a pattern that kept on happening. Most people know that the English originated from settlers from what’s now North Germany and Denmark. Much less known is evidence that the original Celts were also conquerors from Central Europe, probably moving in several waves and absorbing older local populations.
And of course there was also always a lot of violence between people who were culturally identical, as with the Central European massacres 7000 years ago. And as with the continuous local conflicts in the oldest Celtic and Germanic legends, reflecting the violent warrior cultures we find from archaeology.
It’s an odd way for civilisation to have developed. And lots of people have wondered if it is some sort of error in human biology or culture. Even the Science Fiction ideas that we might be much more violent than the typical intelligent species capable of developing technology, and are currently being left alone to see if we improve.
Whatever about that, improvement is certainly useful and also entirely possible. Born in 1950, I grew up with the dominant idea that we were almost certain to kill ourselves in nuclear war. We avoided that: we can go on improving.
“Islamic environmental and religious leaders have called on rich countries and oil producing nations to end fossil fuel use by 2050.
“The Islamic Climate Declaration says that the world’s 1.6bn Muslims have a religious duty to fight climate change.
“It urges politicians to agree a new treaty to limit global warming to 2C, ‘or preferably 1.5 degrees.’
“The Declaration asks Muslims, in the words of the Koran, ‘not to strut arrogantly on the Earth’.”[w]
CERN’s Large Hadron Collider was recently re-started with boosted power. And has an interesting but unconfirmed new discovery:
“W bosons, which carry the weak nuclear force, are supposed to come only in left-handed varieties. The debris from smashing protons at the LHC has revealed evidence of unexpected right-handed bosons…
“If confirmed, it would be the first boson discovered since the Higgs.”[x]
They expect to be able to confirm or reject the idea by October this year. If valid, it would go beyond the existing Standard Model for particles. (Whereas the Higgs Boson was long expected.)
[Sadly, it was a statistical blip that soon vanished.]
“A new UN study of global population trends predicts that India will overtake China to become the world’s most populous nation by 2022.
“The report also says that Nigeria will replace the US as the world’s third most populous country by around 2050.
“Africa is expected to account for more than half of the world’s population growth over the next 35 years.
“The current world population of 7.3 billion will reach 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100, it predicts.”[y]
China’s one-child policy was harsh, but has paid off. (And don’t believe stories about a demographic crisis: the problem almost everywhere is a lack of jobs for young people to do.)
Globally, July 2015 was the hottest July ever. [z] Of course there are lots of regional variation. In the UK, it started hot: “a maximum temperature of 36.7 °C was recorded at Heathrow (Greater London) on the 1st, a new UK record for July.”[aa] But then it cooled, so that the UK was slightly below average.
The year 2015 is expected to beat all previous records. The feared El Nino effect did not come this year, but is likely for 2016. And may be very bad indeed.
Previous Newsnotes can be found at the Labour Affairs website, http://labouraffairsmagazine.com/past-issues/. And at my own website, https://longrevolution.wordpress.com/newsnotes-historic/.
[a] Available free as a PDF at http://www.jbs.cam.ac.uk/media/assets/2015_cbr-report_macroeconomic-impact-of-liberal-policies-in-the-uk.pdf
[d] http://www.jbs.cam.ac.uk/media/assets/2015_cbr-report_macroeconomic-impact-of-liberal-policies-in-the-uk.pdf, based on a chart on page 17.
[n] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business/markets/europe/lse_ukx. The page defaults to daily movements, but has buttons that show weekly, monthly and yearly movements.