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. 

No comments:

Post a Comment