Friday, September 28, 2012

Our inner CEO

A primatologist, Frans de Waal, wrote Our Inner Ape, a book about how modern-day apes can offer insight into what we mistakenly think of as uniquely human behavior. I flipped it open at random and read where he refers to the will to power as "an archaic tendency" traceable to our primate social evolution, and laments the fact that the powerful in our own society are reluctant to admit that they enjoy their power (we should embrace our inner ape). He claims that, because of our evolution as social primates, humans have an inner drive to manipulate and control others.

He might be right. However, he bases his claims on the observations of chimpanzee and bonobo behavior by scientists who have been completely metabolized into the power hierarchies of modern civilization. So one might reasonably question the degree to which the power hierarchies observed in apes are the result of the particular frame being used by the observers. 

Consider what he says about the importance of social hierarchy: "[C]larification of hierarchy is essential for effective collaboration. This is why the most cooperative human enterprises, such as large corporations and the military, have the best-defined hierarchies. A chain of command beats democracy any time decisive action is needed. We spontaneously switch to a more hierarchical mode depending on circumstances."

The fact that he refers to large corporations and the military as "cooperative human enterprises" is frankly astounding. I suppose that the reason that these are held out as the "most cooperative" is because slavery is no longer a legal institution. But to say that someone on the receiving end of torture "cooperates" is just bad euphemism. Cooperation is not a feature of either the corporate or the military world (to the extent a meaningful distinction can be made between the two). 

Compliance and capitulation is not cooperationand no one has ever "spontaneously" chosen obedience.

To translate, then, what de Waal is saying is that the implementation of a potent power hierarchy is an efficient expedient if persons in power want to engage in a large-scale venture in which large numbers of people are to be forced to act in ways that serve interests that are not their own, and that the problem with democracy is that it prevents the efficient manipulation of human labor power because, in a true democracy, individuals are (theoretically, at least) free to express their refusal to participate in activities that run counter to their own interests. 

And, more to the primate point: sensitivity to gradations in social status, sexual jealousy, defined gender expectations, and occasional aggressive displays of dominance, our so-called "archaic tendencies" also seen in apes, are qualitatively different from behavior shaped by the perpetual threat of overwhelming lethal force to conform to the artificial power structures of the modern police state. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The empire drones on

According to a recent study, between June 2004 and September 2012, US drone strikes have killed up to 3,325 people in Pakistan, including as many as 881 civilians (176 of whom were children), and injured as many as 1,362 others. These estimates are in stark contrast to the prop-Obama-ganda coming out of Washington.  

"High level" targets (read: horrible bad guys, or people who represent a potential threat of some sort to US corporate interests, or maybe just someone with the wrong family connections) represent around 2% of those killed. Don’t know about you, but if I had a gun that could only actually hit the target one out of every 50 rounds no matter how carefully I aimed it—and "accidentally" killed innocent bystanders with the other 49 rounds—I might think about getting another gun.

Of course, the collateral deaths are anything but accidents. And these statistics are irrelevant for evaluating the success of the drone program. Drone strikes are not designed to kill bad guys. Their singular purpose is to establish fear and dread and passive compliance in the face of overwhelming force. And the Pakistanis are just cannon fodder—lab rats for working out the technological kinks in the system prior to its broad application, both around the world and as a weapon in the domestic police arsenal back home.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The paleo diet as a gateway drug

The paleo diet has been gaining in popularity recently. But it’s more than just a diet. It’s really about eating the kind of food our body expects. And, for some people, it might also serve as a point of personal departure toward a more authentically human mode of living in general.

The basic idea behind eating paleo mirrors the main thesis of my book, Born Expecting the Pleistocene. Human DNA does not reflect the Neolithic in any meaningful way. Our physiological systems—like our social and psychological tendencies—have evolved to accommodate foraging hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Legumes, grains, and dairy—let alone high fructose corn syrup, GMO soybean oil, and factory-farmed meat—were not a regular part of the Pleistocene menu.

There are a number of good paleo blogs with recipes and other tips aimed at accommodating our evolved dietary needs to the realities of life in modern industrial technoculture.   

I have been eating mostly paleo for several years now, and can offer anecdotal support for every one of its purported benefits. For example, I noticed an immediate and dramatic change in my energy levels and overall mental clarity the moment I stopped eating wheat products and reduced dairy to an occasional condiment. At this point, I have completely eliminated dairy and all grains (even starchy grain-like seeds such as buckwheat). I eat a lot more meat than I used to, most of it either grass-fed or wild. I found that I have a real affinity for buffalo. Four-season cold-frame gardening keeps me supplied with fresh organic greens year-round. An occasional hummus jones has kept me from completely dropping legumes. And then there’s alcohol—which is why I say “mostly paleo”—although a sizable proportion of my (moderate but regular) alcohol ingestion comes by way of homemade mead. Honey wine, by the way, is remarkably easy to make, although it takes considerable willpower to keep from drinking it before its flavor reaches full maturity.    

Food is important, but it is only one part of an authentic human lifestyle. We are also being forced to engage in artificial “processed” behavior and to participate in unnatural forms of interpersonal interaction that leave us socially and emotionally malnourished as well. Civilization deforms and destroys  the social and environmental input that is essential for healthy human maturation, and replaces it with conditions that engender chronic immaturity, acute dependence, and a perpetual state of emotional need—a state of need that is easily exploited by the superficial enticements of consumer culture with its technological trinkets and two-dimensional community affiliations.

The increasing popularity of the paleo diet might simply reflect a point in the natural life course of yet another consumer fad.  But maybe, just maybe, some of those who choose to eat from an undomesticated plate might start to wonder what it would be like to think with an undomesticated mind. 

Dairy, grains, and legumes today.  Oil, iphones, and the international monetary fund tomorrow.

Friday, September 14, 2012

The tyranny of Lego blocks

Every young child learns early in their experience with building blocks that it is easier to destroy than to build. The exception to this rule is Lego blocks. Lego blocks are just as hard (and sometimes even more difficult) to take apart as they are to put together. The reason is because Legos, unlike simple smooth wooden blocks, are designed for specific attachment to other Legos.

Notice the tradeoff involved. Legos can attach securely; but to do so, severe restrictions in their mutual orientation must be applied. Two smooth wooden blocks can be oriented in any manner allowable by gravity. This freedom of orientation is possible between Legos as well, but only if they have not been forcefully joined—and once joined, gravity is irrelevant and unnecessary for their continued association. The free association between two wooden blocks allows each block involved to move any way it wants, relatively unrestricted by the structure. This is of course why constructions built with plain wooden blocks are so vulnerable to the sweep of little sister’s wrecking-ball arms. Structures built with Legos, on the other hand, are extremely durable. But this durability is purchased at the expense of freedom of movement for individual blocks.

Notice also that every projecting nib of every Lego block is emblazoned with the corporate logo.

Legos work through the homogenization of connections, through standardization. Small deviations in uniformity can be catastrophic. When I was a kid, I had a dog that would occasionally get ahold of a loose Lego and chew on it, the deformations caused by her bite marks rendering the block useless.

Three things here. First, the restriction of free association provides the means by which large and elaborate structures are built. Second, this restriction is accomplished only by force. Third, the possibility for ordered structure is orders of magnitude greater for Legos than for smooth wooden blocks, but this increase in order is accompanied by a reduction in the tendency toward novelty. If you want to build a novel structure with Legos that includes specialized shapes and objects not part of the generic block design, you need to purchase a "themed" Lego set that includes customized manufactured components. The potential for novelty is in some sense built in to the open-ended structures constructed with wooden blocks: plain wooden blocks can interface just as easily with a variety of household objects (e.g., dinner plates, beverage containers, etc.) as with each other.

What most anarchists want is the kind of open and unrestrictive associative possibilities found with plain wooden blocks. But how to achieve that in a world where interpersonal communication is increasingly mediated through standardized electronic conduits, where human beings are little more than servomechanisms, where uniform participation in the corporate orgy is obligatory, where we are groomed from infancy to be servile and dependent on the latest consumer pabulum to drip from the teats of power, where our connectivity is coerced, monitored, and enforced by subhuman servomechanisms in uniform licensed to use deadly force? 

I keep coming back to the dog and her deforming bite marks…

The Lego block analogy shows why anarchism and civilization are incompatible. Without standardization, specialization, and forced (non-voluntary) association, there is no way that any of the major institutions of civilization could possibly be assembled in the first place, let alone stand for any length of time.