Now that we have once again entered the annual time of the new year resolution and the attendant run on self-help books (and e-books) to help inspire us to improve ourselves, we even hear of such efforts — and their entirely unsurprising bad ends — on the scale of nations.
The bad end of self-improvement efforts is not surprising because it is so very nearly universal, but before we delve into the human nature — or is it a particularly American human nature?– that insists on believing that if only a measure of self-control were added to our lives then all things could improve, from melting pounds to eliminating deficits, perhaps it would be profitable to take a look at the one measure that did, once set one part of the world on the path toward prosperity, low corruption and — yes — democracy.
Let us consider first which countries have achieved this: The Netherlands came first, then England with Scotland close behind, then Germany. Also, on a different scale we have Switzerland, one half of Belgium, Canada (by extension, mostly, from England), Luxemburg and — eventually — the American Midwest. France was — and is — a laggard, and we all know of the state of South Europe and much of the rest of our little globe. Then let us consider what they have in common – and that is, without exception, a particular brand of Christianity — namely early forms of Protestantism that did away with the idea of salvation via works and substituted grace, or faith, into the equation.
Without exception these societies, when at the height of their development, far from mouthing platitudes about camels and need-eyes saw wealth instead as a big sign of divine favor rather than a result of sin, and so they honored the work of finance and commerce that were the main route to its acquisition. By contrast, all the other cultures denigrated all self-interest and viewed wealth acquisition with suspicion — not that they could succeed in banishing all wealth, but because gains were sinful it was a priori no worse to get at them through sinful means like theft or conquest.
To bring this overlong discourse back to where it started, the only way for a society to join the club of nations prosperous because of the efforts of their people rather than merely their minerals (or certain plant-based powders), one must begin by inviting preachers of the most intolerant, hell-fire breathing, patriarchal, Calvinist persuasion, setting them loose to convert the populace, and then waiting two or three hundred years for their efforts to begin to bear fruit. This would appear to work a great deal better than demonizing their wealthy for not wishing to give away large portions of their fortune or demagoguing the so-called “fair share” of taxation to pay for profligacies of the unproductive.
It is telling that whenever proponents of a political ideology discuss their particular project as the inevitable outcome of the natural process of history, they generally default to the messianic language of the Romantic-era Christian proselytes. Our current preoccupation with a mildly capitalistic democracy as the best and most-natural system of governance is the unquestioned policy of both the official and the chattering establishments, quite despite its recent paramount failures in Egypt, Libya and Afghanistan. Not even in the heat of the current presidential campaign are its premises being evenly remotely questioned.
Any theory of social groups and their elites to be successful must take into account the need of members of our species to belong to distinct in-groups, of these in-groups to cluster into larger groupings, the innate hostility of in-group members to outsiders, and finally the inherently hierarchical nature of all group structures. The mythology of primitive communism and other literature of tribal egalitarianism must founder on the rocks of actual structures of all human societies as actually observed.
In considering how the culture of Western Europe, so backward at the terminus of Late Antiquity relative to China, India, the Middle East and even the Americas — unlikely as it would have appeared to contemporaries — came to dominate the world with its arms and ideas we must consider not geography, shared as it always was with Asia, and not genetics, shared also with Asia, but rather the development path that Europe undertook in the intervening centuries. Continue reading
It is interesting to see all current efforts to medicalize violence — as if to classify is to somehow ward it off — but it is not the rarity of violence but its pervasiveness through time and place that are of note. Only a denuded, feminized intelligentsia can have the smugness to consign it to a label of pathology, while those who are in the world removed from academe see nothing more in violence than the natural state of the human condition. If abnormality is seen to be as truly what it is — a deviation from objective norm rather from an abstract moral standard — then it is the lack of propensity to violence in our society that is truly pathological. We homo sapiens have always defined ourselves in savage terms — it gives our tribes identity and individuals a sense of motive force rather than powerlessness.
To define the human creature as by nature communitarian is to both oversimplify and to ignore the evidence to the contrary. It would be more accurate to say that the majority, the followers, is naturally communitarian, while a minority, the leaders, are egomaniacal. Recurring efforts to marginalize this segment with such labels as “psychopath“, “sociopath”, or other presudoclinical badges are really little more than an example of sheep passing resolutions in favor of vegetarianism in wolves. They change nothing of the fact that an immensely larger than the average — or “normal” if you will — self-regard, and even hubris, is required to presume that one can and ought to command his fellow Homo sapiens.
Perhaps the most paradoxical trait of followers of divers collectivist, communitarian, and other progressive ideologies — whether they claim origins based on science, revelation or morality — is their propensity to unquestioningly follow leaders, and the greater the logic they claim as their justification, the less they seem to give thought to questions regarding precepts, imitations or empirical outcomes of their beliefs. Continue reading