Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Oligarchy: Nature’s Inhumanity to Humans

In my rants on liberalism, conservatism, and happiness, I contrast some myths we live by with unsettling natural realities. Liberals believe we’ve progressed socially as well as scientifically and technologically, that we’ve discovered civil rights and the superiority of capitalism and democracy over all other economic and political systems. Unfortunately, liberals borrow their unidirectional, teleological notion of history from monotheism, and while modern, secular humanistic societies have “moved forward” in that they’ve developed--which is virtually a tautology--they’ve entered a postmodern stage of decline by way of nihilism. Oswald Spengler may have been correct when he observed that, much like an organism, a culture passes through inevitable stages, leading from energetic growth, when the citizens believe fervently in an ideal that distinguishes their culture, to corruption and extinction when the people lose confidence in that ideal. Mesmerized by technoscientific advances, liberals assumed that scientific methods can be applied to social problems. But science can’t tell anyone what ought to be done. When social progress failed to materialize as expected--witness the many wars and holocausts in the last century--liberals lost their faith even in their substitute religion, which is scientism. And so liberal myths have become mere shibboleths, empty, politically correct slogans and talking points that no one would die for.

Conservatives have two myths: theism and social Darwinism. Science and philosophy have demolished the rational basis for theism, a point to which I’ll return in my next rant, and social Darwinism is both internally and externally inconsistent. The libertarian faith in the wild market commits the naturalistic fallacy of inferring that because natural selection actually makes use of brutal competitions in the biological sphere, economies ought to be similarly structured. Moreover, the evidence shows that a wild market simply clears the way for the default social order, for the dominance hierarchy, which is what the religious and libertarian conservative actually defend, whether that oligarchy takes the form of a theocracy (on Earth as in Heaven) or of a plutocracy (rule by the wealthy) or kleptocracy (rule by the vicious). Unlike the narrow liberal myth of scientism, which captivates only Philistines in certain scientific circles, conservative myths are still powerful. Most westerners think of themselves as monotheists, although their behaviour shows clearly that their true religion is the libertarian’s faith in the economist’s god, in the creative force unleashed by a free-for-all of human vice. A consumer’s true faith is that when we’re at our egoistic worst, society is miraculously at its best, because of the invisible hand of natural selection. Again, though, while this myth still enchants, the myth is a noble lie rather than a spiritually uplifting narrative, since the myth rationalizes the gross, natural inequalities that inevitably result from vicious competition.

Consumerism and Oligarchy

Most people want to be happy, but the worthiness of happiness as our ultimate goal is another delusion, one which ought to be replaced by the nobler goal of creatively overcoming the knowledge of where we stand in nature. In Western, pseudodemocratic oligarchies, happiness is also misconstrued: the rich are presumed to be happier than the poor, because money buys pleasure and contentment indirectly, with the purchase of material goods such as high tech gadgets, luxury cars, or even fast food. Studies show that the rich are just as stressed as the poor, if not more so, but the materialistic delusion persists because of its usefulness in stabilizing society. Materialistic happiness is quantifiable: the more private possessions someone has, the greater his or her happiness; indeed, money is countable, so following the myth of happiness through to its absurd end, precise judgments can be made about degrees of happiness depending on the consumer’s calculable net worth. Tangible status symbols, like bank accounts, home appliances, fashionable clothing, home square footage, and so on, indicate a person’s place in the pecking order. If happiness is pleasure, everyone has the capacity to be happy, but if pleasure is caused by ownership of material products--as associative advertisements fallaciously suggest 24/7 on most surfaces of modern cities--there’s a happiness hierarchy. Now, the money that buys those products also buys power, and so the happiness hierarchy corresponds to the dominance hierarchy, which is the shape of an oligarchy in which the many are ruled by the few.

After the French Revolution, the trick of oligarchy is to maintain the obscene social inequalities and thus the stability of this social order, by preventing a rebellion of the have-nots. Were a pecking order dictated by something like personal physical strength, weaker persons couldn’t invest themselves in the society, because they’d lack any hope that they could elevate their social position. The genius of a capitalistic pecking order is its offering of the real possibility of social mobility, as a means of protecting the forces that work against such mobility, namely money and power. In the first place, anyone can be happy, to some extent or other, because every human brain is capable of some kind of pleasure. And anyone can go from rags to riches in the US, for example, as long as the person has a great idea, works hard, and maybe gets a little lucky--that’s the capitalistic legend which isn’t wholly false, although the US isn’t as socially mobile as it once was. So a pleasure-obsessed, capitalistic society becomes a Melting Pot, winning the goodwill of all of its members.

But a truly democratic society works by mob rule, which is unstable. Only certain elite members are fit to rule, and their fitness must be clearly signaled without disrupting the whole society by antagonizing the ruled majority. Were the majority to know nothing at all of the fact that they’re ruled by a minority, the majority might think they’re in control and so unwittingly challenge the true holders of power, which would lead to conflict. The signals therefore need to be given in the cherished language spoken by the majority, using symbols of the society’s superficial fairness and equality. Happiness, the universal goal, is therefore quantified, by associating the hedonic mental states with the ownership of material goods, so that degrees of happiness can be easily, albeit indirectly perceived, by perceiving a consumer’s amassed possessions. The hedonic ladder attracts the members of this society--and indeed many immigrants as well, since the more ethical ideal of dealing heroically with our existential predicament is a tragic one. Meanwhile, the rungs on that ladder indicate also the consumer’s degree of power, which is to say his or her position in the pecking order. The minority at the top dominates all of those below. And so the poor members of this stealth oligarchy see their society as being equal and fair (in so far as they’re mesmerized by the chance of ascending the hedonic ladder) even while they know, if only in the back of their minds, that they’re ruled by a minority over which they have no control (in so far as the poor are aware of the corresponding wealth gaps).

The poor majority don’t want to rebel, because they’re emotionally invested in a social game with clearly distinguished positions: their position is one that affords them little power, because they’re poor, and they submit to those who are clearly in control due to their wealth and social connections, because the elevated position of these rulers is measured monetarily, which also happens to be the more egalitarian measure of materialistic happiness. In a semi-democratic oligarchy, that which divides the members also unites them: material wealth divides the positions in the dominance hierarchy, but this wealth also distributes degrees of happiness. The poor have practically no control over how their oligarchic society is run, but as long as they can afford fast food and other cheap goods, they have some tangible degree of associated pleasure, given the materialist’s degraded notion of happiness.

The key to the way the myth of happiness can hold together a stealth oligarchy is thus the ambiguity of money. Even in a democracy money provides power, but money also provides happiness. In a materialistic oligarchy, happiness is more evenly distributed than power, because even a little pleasure can satisfy an individual whereas a little amount of power has no social effect. The poor majority have reason to rebel against the wealthy minority, because the wealthy have power over the poor which they use to the latter’s detriment. But the majority also have reason to preserve the dominance hierarchy, because this hierarchy corresponds to the happiness hierarchy in which the majority are emotionally invested. The economic inequality translates into a dangerous centralization of power, but the ability of money to buy a base form of happiness, through the consumption of cheap material products, endears the whole social order even to its victims.

Free and Tyrannical Oligarchies

A critic of what I’ve been saying about oligarchies might protest that the US and other democracies can’t be oligarchic because they’re so different from tyrannical dictatorships in which alone the few obviously rule over the many. In particular, the majority in a dictatorship lack freedom of movement or of thought, equality under the rule of law, and human rights. Victims of a police state can be kidnapped at midnight and tortured without trial just for politically unpopular speech. In a democracy, however, people are free, governed by the rule of law, and enjoy basic rights. There is, then, no worthwhile comparison between a democracy and a totalitarian dictatorship.

Indeed, there are those three differences between them. Those differences, however, have to do only with the means by which power is exercised and protected, not with the question of whether the majority or a minority truly rule. A dictator has absolute power and terrorizes his population so that their fear keeps them docile and functional. Historically, that social system has had severe drawbacks. Absolute power also corrupts the dictator or renders him insane, and brutalizing the populace makes them fearful but also enraged, so that they’re vigilant for any opportunity to rebel. Knowing this, the dictator becomes paranoid, surrounding himself with obsequious underlings who ingratiate themselves by keeping bad news from him, so that the dictator becomes further removed from reality. Eventually, the people revolt or an external power intervenes, and the dictator is rounded up and torn limb from limb. A police state is a crude, unsustainable way of keeping social order, because the ruler’s arbitrary use of power antagonizes most of his population.

Americans, by contrast, do enjoy more freedom, rule of law, and human rights, and these facts can be expected to maintain their social cohesion. But let’s look more closely at how the US lives up to each of those three ideals. With regard to freedom, it’s important to distinguish between what the political philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, calls positive and negative liberty. Positive liberty is the ability to live well that comes from following what’s assumed to be an objectively correct ideal. Typically, socialist nations and dictatorships hold up one ideal or another and their elites claim to instill the freedom of the rest of their people, by indoctrinating them or forcing their compliance, equipping them to embrace the ultimate value. Negative liberty is the ability to choose one’s own way of life, according to what’s treated as a subjectively valued ideal, where the ability follows from the preservation of a private domain in which there’s no coercion by the state or by anyone else. Classically liberal nations like the US are supposed to defend only negative liberty.

The problem with positive liberty is that if the state picks the wrong ideal, the sacrifices involved in purifying the people are worthless and absurd, and who can prove which ideal way of life is objectively supreme? The problem with negative liberty is that the outsider’s scientistic faith in the rational individual’s autonomy is belied by the insider’s confidence that people are fundamentally irrational and subject to manipulation through the expert use of propaganda, as in the case of the government’s market-researched talking points or corporate advertising. This problem can be seen in the fact that the US defends positive liberty, after all: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Far from being a Christian nation, the god that Americans actually obey is the creative chaos of the wild capitalistic economy, the god that commands consumers--through its economic and political spokespeople--to consume material goods for pleasure. And while Americans aren’t tortured or imprisoned just for denying this ideal, they are indoctrinated with a barrage of propaganda that links happiness to consumption. They have the option of living privately with no such propaganda, in a log cabin in Alaska, for example, but this is just to say that there’s no such privacy anywhere in American society, that the propaganda is inescapable unless you leave American civilization for the wilderness or for another country altogether.

So the US guards both positive and negative freedom. The so-called American Dream is to be rich and happy, to move up the happiness ladder and thus the pecking order. The ideal way of life in the US, which Americans hold to be objectively correct, is the technologically-enabled pursuit of pleasure. Negative freedom in American society is enjoyed only within the parameters set by that guiding American myth--pockets of antisocial wilderness in the geographical US notwithstanding. Thus, once an American is trained from infancy to consume parasitically, without regard for the planet’s long-term sustainability, he or she has an endless choice between brands and products.

As I argue in Happiness, though, the pursuit of happiness is not objectively the best goal, regardless of whether the happiness is materialistic or otherwise. Ethically speaking, happiness is unbecoming to sentient creatures who understand their grim existential situation. So even if a consumer acquires a trove of material possessions and the corresponding pleasures, the consumer’s happiness still tends to be rudely interrupted by anxiety caused by the extent to which he or she understands that situation. This anxiety often manifests itself in the feeling that the American’s narrow negative liberty is meaningless. So many choices, so little quality! So many superficial differences between techniques for feeling pleasure, so little contentment in the end, because nature is inhumane, the patterns in its processes are alien to our preferences, and natural forces accidentally undermine our little games a thousand times each day. The consumer who’s left with the free choice between products that are supposed to bring happiness is in a similar position to the postmodern liberal who’s left with nihilistic instrumentalism, who dreads normative questions and who can only calculate which means most efficiently brings about a predetermined end.

In any case, the main point I want to make here about freedom and oligarchy is that the peculiar mix of American freedoms seems the product of a stealth oligarchy. What the critic should expect, assuming there’s no useful comparison between an alleged democracy like the US and a tyranny, is that there’s freedom in the former but none in the latter. Instead, what we find is that there’s positive freedom in both and superfluous negative freedom in the former. In either case, the positive ideal seems erroneous, whether it be that of the Soviet Union, of an Islamic dictatorship, or of the materialistic US, and in the case of the US the negative freedom, that is, the bewildering choice between a superabundance of hedonic devices, provides another illusion that the majority have ultimate control over their lives. This is just an illusion and the US is in fact an oligarchy, because the choice is confined to the means of achieving the pre-established goal of materialistic happiness, a goal not intrinsically preferred by people but set by a capitalistic economy that happens to run on myths that drive consumption, rather than on, say, the export of natural resources. Instead of coercing people to consume products in a democracy, those with power over the consumers bombard them with materialistic myths, exploiting people’s innate cognitive deficiencies. The US isn’t a tyranny, but it seems a more stable form of minority-rule, despite its illusions of democracy and of the rational autonomy of its citizens.

Equality Under the Law?

How about the rule of law? Once again, the US and other democracies have more equality under the law than there is in a dictatorship, but the difference isn’t as stark as might be expected. In a dictatorship, there’s rampant nepotism and the whim of an evil or insane ruler or cabal of oligarchs. Any law in such a society expresses the will of the powerful, so that power rules over the law rather than the other way around. But nowhere does the law interpret or enforce itself. People must do so and people can be corrupted--even in a democracy. So in a democracy, rich people can afford better lawyers and also lobbyists to write the laws in their favour, buying off regulators and politicians so that their injurious business practices become legal. The US, the so-called freest of the democracies, has the world’s highest incarceration rate. The American god of the free market has corrupted not just US medical care and its scientific institutions, but also the country’s law enforcement, so that its prison system has become a thriving business. Police, judges, lawyers, and prison builders profit from certain interpretations and enforcements of the law, and the conflict between that narrow self-interest and their obligation to seek justice or to otherwise protect the society must be just another bit of chaos on which Mother Nature thrives. (Let those profiting from the legal system and its impoverished victims sort out their conflict by a brutal struggle! Natural forces will reach an “equilibrium” that represents the optimal end state. As I point out in Conservatism, by “optimal” the economist can mean only “descriptively functional,” meaning that a predetermined end state which the economist can’t prescribe, will thus be most efficiently realized.)

As is evident from the familiar fiasco of the O.J. Simpson trial, to the capture of the MMS regulators who were charged to prevent catastrophes like the BP oil spill, to Obama’s ability to let the Bush administration and Wall Street bankers escape legal inquiries, the US clearly doesn’t have simple equality under its law. Instead, the US weds its legal system to a vicious capitalistic economy which corrupts everything it touches. Under that circumstance, the law becomes another weapon in the hands of the powerful rulers to control the poor majority, to keep the latter class in its low position in the power hierarchy. This is done by dividing the poor against each other, largely through the drug war which promotes tribal warfare in the ghettos and creates lost generations who are further spoiled by the prison system.

Again, what the critic should expect is that a totalitarian dictatorship is lawless, whereas a democracy has equality under the law, but what we find are shades of gray. Power distorts justice in a democracy too, because humans are in charge of any legal system and humans are vicious, mostly irrational animals that readily give in to temptation. In a wild capitalistic democracy, our corruption is even encouraged by a pagan faith in the divinity of evolutionary forces. (These forces may be divinely creative, but why suppose that they work inevitably in our favour? The economist’s optimism here is so childish that it must be disingenuous, and the pagan faith must be a noble lie meant to maintain an oligarchic social order.) Hence, the comparison between even a democratic republic like the US and a totalitarian dictatorship: both are oligarchies, or rather the US recurrently devolves into an oligarchy as domestic liberals and socialists lose their confidence in the viability of their scientistic, progressive alternative to the oligarchic status quo that obtains in most groups of social animals. The legal system thus becomes more and more undermined by natural forces, with ever less equality under it, with more legal exceptions for the powerful, and with more crushing weight on the weak. In the American free-for-all, both the powerful and the powerless want to nurture their vices, but only the powerful can codify their white collar misdeeds and create or exploit a legal system that persecutes the poor under the pretexts of a drug war and of holy social Darwinism.

Human Rights?

Finally, there are those unalienable human rights that are enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence but which are conspicuously absent in a tyrannical oligarchy. A dictatorship is a dystopia in which some self-serving goal, such as that of glorifying the Leader or the State, overrides all other values so that most of the citizens are reduced to means of achieving that goal. Just as you can sacrifice part of a machine if the part prevents the whole from functioning, so dehumanized people in a dictatorship can be killed if that sacrifice is called for by the Leader’s vision.

In a classically liberal democracy like the US, by contrast, all of its citizens are supposed to have rights as autonomous, rational beings. As the philosopher Kant said, each person spontaneously creates her own experience, by applying concepts to sensations, giving the person a kind of godlike sovereignty over that cognitive labour and over the mental tools used, which means that we each own ourselves and, like any piece of private property, a person ought to have sole authority over how she’s treated. Our reason dignifies us, gives us godlike insight, freedom, and creativity, and so we’re each an end in ourselves, not merely an object that might be useful to someone else. As I say in Liberalism, however, this Enlightenment rationalism has fallen apart. Cognitive scientists have shown that reason, being the product of natural selection, consists mostly of heuristics, or rules of thumb, which are actually so many biases and fallacies. Moreover, this rationalism commits the naturalistic fallacy of inferring that we’re valuable or that we have rights, just because we think a lot. In the current postmodern period, liberals have therefore slipped into nihilism, realizing that no normative conclusions follow from factual premisses about our cognitive powers (even assuming these premisses are accurate, which they’re not).

Even before postmodernism, the myth of human rights hardly persuaded many Americans. African-Americans were enslaved and half of the US wanted to go to war to follow the capitalistic (vicious) imperative that slave labour should be exploited for profit. Women were not allowed to vote until 1920. Like most other people, many Americans are still racist and sexist. In foreign affairs, the American military has no difficulty suspending the ideal of human rights, torturing foreigners in Abu Ghraib prison or rendering captives to be tortured by foreign middlemen. Indeed, the unalienable right to life conflicts with the waging of any war, and American society is highly militaristic. Note that it would be self-contradictory to reply that the US Declaration is meant to recognize the human rights only of American citizens, since Americans aren’t the only humans around. Once you assume that some people have rights in virtue of their humanity and not just their nationality, you have to recognize that all people have those rights. But the point is that Americans evidently aren’t convinced that there are any such rights.

Take, for example, the issue of gay marriage. Proponents frame the issue in terms of a civil right, as though all people ought to marry and have a family, and since homosexuals are people they have that same obligation. Says who? Why believe there’s any such obligation to get married or to respect the institution of marriage? Like other animal species, humans seem to be at least serially monogamous, but that’s just to speak of a biological function which has precisely no normative implication. Just because people tend to marry doesn’t mean they ought to. Therefore, we don’t yet have a right to marry; that is, we haven’t yet shown that marriage, or a monogamous relationship, is to be valued as a good thing. Is there a religious reason to believe we ought to marry? Don’t make me laugh! (See Theism.) At best, marriage is a legal contract, which means only that consenting adults should be able to do whatever they want as long as they don’t thereby deprive anyone else of the same freedom. This makes marriage something that’s actually desired, which gives marriage mere subjective value, putting the interest in marriage in the same category as the taste for, say, spicy food. No such rights or tastes are unalienable; on the contrary, they can change as passing fads. Is our ability to do what we want in this way itself a good, so that whatever we thereby do is right? How so, without committing the naturalistic fallacy?

Now that I’ve disposed of some fatuous myths surrounding the debate about gay marriage, I can ask what’s really going on. My answer: postmodern nihilism. Just as with postmodern visual art, in which anything goes because people have lost their faith in any grand metanarrative, ideal, or myth that inspires a healthy culture prior to its inevitable death and decay, so too with postmodern sexual relations. What decides a social debate between liberals who believe in nothing is just a handful of empty, politically correct slogans. Liberals want to believe we should all be happy; they no longer subscribe to the Enlightenment myths that once justified that imperative, so they presuppose it and focus on how to advance society in the interest of spreading happiness. If gay people are unhappy because they can’t yet marry, then the institutions should change to accommodate them. The most efficient way to change social norms is to deploy such Machiavellian tricks as the use of vacuous but nonetheless effective rhetoric, given our cognitive deficiencies. Nihilistic liberals, who are the chief proponents of gay marriage, think in such instrumental terms; they can do no other. Mind you, I’m not saying gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry. My point is just that human rights have nothing to do with the debate.

So even if people are more respected and better treated in a democracy than in a dictatorship, there’s hardly a guarantee of human rights in the former. What are called civil rights have legal protections in a modern democracy, but the reasons given in support of those laws are noble lies. The discourse of human rights is, at this point, thoroughly instrumental and scientistic, which is to say that the meaning of the politically correct slogans about the dignity of all kinds of people, whatever their natural inequalities or handicaps, is much less important than the effect of those slogans. As with most of the words spoken by democratic politicians, the point of postmodern liberal speech isn’t to reach philosophical understanding, but to apply the social sciences, to re-engineer people and their institutions.

Liberals behave as though they were technocrats; unfortunately, some of their social technologies rest on pseudosciences such as economics. A social science that has genuine force, though, in terms of a theory or model that predicts the future in such a way that technologies can be invented to apply that empirical knowledge, is cognitive science, which is actually a cluster of sciences. And the main finding of cognitive science is that people are animals, not gods. For example, we don’t reason as well as we often boast. Liberal politicians, pundits, and public relations folks (propagandists) are doers, not idealists, and so when they speak about human rights, they’re trying not to appeal to you as a rational agent, but to “spin” you or to “push your buttons,” meaning that they want to train you to obey like a pet. That’s the function of instrumental rhetoric: it’s used as a piece of technology that has predictable effects.

The remaining question is whether the rhetoric of human rights is useful to oligarchs, so that we can see that there’s no internal conflict, at least, in saying that a stealth, semi-democratic oligarchy might protect human rights, to some extent. Clearly, a dictatorship has no use for those rights, since the rulers in that sort of society rule by terror caused by physical brutality. But in an oligarchy that pretends to be a democracy, the minority rule not by such a blunt, counter-productive tactic, but by granting the majority superficial control over the government so that they identify with the leaders and won’t rebel against them. This control is exercised by voting, and a myth about the equality of all people naturally surfaces, complimenting this use of democracy. For the majority to believe that they hold ultimate political power in their democracy, they must believe that they’re at least as important as their elected representatives. Hence the egalitarian notions of human rights and of equality under the law. In actuality, assuming minimal democracy can be used as a cover for a stealth oligarchy, ultimate power is held not by the majority of voters, but by a minority who enjoy undemocratic control over not just the politicians (through campaign contributions and the revolving door between public and private sectors), but lawmakers (through lobbyists and the revolving door), the economy (by capturing regulators and creating too-big-to-fail institutions that hold the nation hostage), and the minds of the majority (with scientifically-crafted, multimillion dollar ad campaigns, training even the likes of evangelical Christians to be pleasure-obsessed consumers). 

Just a Conspiracy Theory?

Lastly, I’d like to consider another likely objection to what I’ve been saying about stealth oligarchy in a putative democracy, which is that this is all just a conspiracy theory. Strictly speaking, this is no objection since there are such things as conspiracies and so there can be theories of how they work. As conspiracy theorists like to say, many people are actually in prison for committing crimes that the law itself calls “conspiracies.” But this response misses the objection’s point. “Conspiracy theory” has a pejorative sense, and it’s important to see exactly what’s wrong with such theories as that the Bush regime was responsible for the 911 terrorist attack, that extraterrestrials crash-landed in Roswell, or that the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, the Business Roundtable, and the Illuminati cabal secretly run the whole world. What’s wrong with these theories, I take it, is that given what their conclusions say, the proponents of these theories couldn’t possibly know enough to put the theories forward in a sensible manner. The theories tend to be about the secret machinations of quintessential insiders, whereas the theorists themselves tend to live in basements, with access only to exoteric information. Conspiracy theories fill this gap, between what the theories say and who the theorists are, with loose associative reasoning and other such tactics of obfuscating the theories' necessary lack of sufficient evidence to justify much confidence in them.

Is what I’ve said about stealth oligarchy a conspiracy theory in that sense? I think not, because I’ve proposed mainly a metatheory that operates at a philosophical rather than an empirical level. I haven’t pretended that I can name all the oligarchs or specify the dates, locations, and other details of their activities. Thus, I haven’t needed to resort to loose reasoning to tenuously link fragments of evidence. What I’ve concluded is that even while the majority are supposed to hold ultimate power in a democracy, what tends to happen is that a minority holds that power instead, and that in the US the minority’s power derives mainly from its wealth. Moreover, I’ve identified oligarchy with the natural dominance hierarchy, making this social order the norm rather than the exception. Granted, this theory predicts that those with the most money are fine candidates for oligarchs, so if we wanted to investigate how a stealth oligarchy works, the preliminary step would be to follow the money. The US is well-known for being the most economically inegalitarian of modern democracies, with the largest inequality between its rich and poor. So the US oligarchs shouldn’t be hard to find; they’re the ones with almost all the money.

However, on my naturalistic picture of politics, it’s unlikely that the true rulers of capitalistic democracies cook up schemes in secret meetings. Even were there such meetings, they wouldn’t be crucial to maintaining the power inequality. On the contrary, my point is that natural selection takes care of an oligarchy’s details. Just as fish, birds, and chimpanzees don’t establish their pecking orders self-consciously, but just follow their instincts which naturally sort the strong from the weak, so too in a capitalistic democracy a dominance hierarchy happens as a matter of course--unless a heroic effort is made to counteract that force of evolutionary gravity. In particular, capitalism is a version of natural selection, and the struggle to compete in a wild, minimally regulated market is comparable to the way so-called uncivilized, “wild” animals struggle to survive in their environments. The point is that humans are animals too, our vainglorious delusions notwithstanding, and so we should expect that in a capitalistic free-for-all in which the pagan, virtually Satanic cult of free market economics celebrates vice as the engine that drives Mother Nature to grow an economy, growth is nothing less than the establishment of a stable dominance hierarchy.

Thus, I’d dump my critic’s objection back into his or her lap. Far from my philosophical account of stealth oligarchy being a dubious conspiracy theory, just such a theory is needed to explain how a capitalistic democracy could fail to naturally degenerate into an oligarchy. The main countervailing force is liberalism/socialism, which strengthens government regulation and creates a middle class that stands as a bulwark against powerful special interests who naturally seek undemocratic control over the society. But this only pushes my counter-objection back a step, because now a dubious conspiracy theory is needed to justify liberalism/socialism, or to explain how that countervailing force could fail to dwindle in a postmodern climate. What gives humans unnalienable rights as equally rational, free, conscious and otherwise godlike persons, given that science has undermined those Enlightenment myths? Most of these myths were borrowed, in any case, from utterly hopeless monotheistic religions. Or why should a natural dominance hierarchy be prevented in a human society, given the liberal’s commitment to the scientific picture of the world? What makes the weak and the poor in the lowest class of a pecking order deserving of a more elevated position? What justifies the normative dimension of liberalism/socialism? How can the naturalistic fallacy be dodged without precisely a dubious, loosely-reasoned conspiracy theory of natural rights that’s no real dodge at all?  


  1. Just found your blog, really enjoying it and will do lots more exploring. I especially enjoyed some of your essays after enduring several hours of this which made me scream many times, especially the part on morality and meaning, horrible. I'm hoping the free will and consciousness stuff is better...

    This last year I read 'The Creation of Inequality' by Marcus and Flannery, plus 'Hierarchy in the Forest' and 'Moral Origins' by Boehm and enjoyed them a lot. I'd be interested to hear your take on their ideas and how that might affect your take (if indeed it does) on a 'natural dominance hierarchy' and just what sort of hierarchy that might be. I've always been pretty repulsed by Nietzsche's hard-on for hierarchy, so I'm sort of primed to value what looks like 'evidence' that he might be mistaken in some key ways.

    1. Thanks! I read about that naturalism conference on Massimo Pigliucci's blog. Some big names were there. I've written a criticism of Jerry Coyne's scientism and determinism you might be interested in, called "Jerry Coyne on Scientism and Freewill."

      I haven't read those books, but I'll check them out.

    2. I've just had a look at the Amazon pages for those books, to get more of an idea of their contents. They do look like interesting books.

      I connect the idea of the dominance hierarchy with the Iron Law of Oligarchy and with the maxim that power corrupts. So when Creation of Inequality points out that humans started off in small, egalitarian books, and inequality emerged only in larger societies, I think this is consistent with the point about oligarchy: the larger, more complex the group, the more power must be concentrated to avoid chaos and collapse, and that concentration leads to corruption and to the rigidification of class divisions. Gerrymandering in democratic politics is a good example of this.

      Hierarchy in the Forest seems to give a Nietzschean interpretation of egalitarianism as the slaves' revolt against their masters. Anyway, I don't think we have to turn to Nietzsche to see that hierarchies and inequalities are important in social species.

    3. I need to read up a bit more on the Iron Law and review my notes on Hierarchy in the Forest, but your quick impressions seem in line with what I remember reading. Although rather than revolt, in the sense of contained events, Boehm suggests that over very long time periods, long enough for natural selection to do its thing, the hierarchy of the many over the sociopathic tendencies of the few (and perhaps more gifted) was relatively stable in human social groups, although continuously contested of course.

      The creativity and intelligence involved in how that actually worked is something worth exploring. 'Creation of Inequality' goes into more detail on specific societies in historic time, and what is particularly interesting are those in which the power structure alternated between egalitarian and more hierarchical states. Check them out, great reads both of them, and 'Creation' has pictures too, gotta love that.

      I'm about to start watching/listening to the workshop segment on free will and consciousness and am already primed by your essay lol, in addition to not having liked much of what Coyne said so far. Its been a bit weird to put faces, voices and mannerisms to the names I'm familiar with and in some cases enjoy reading, particularly Deacon, Dennett and Flanagan. I still like them, which is sort of a relief, but others have made quite a negative impression on me (Coyne for example). Massimo's accounts of what went on during the morality bit were very polite and careful (IMHO), I'd really love to see some 'outsider' reviews of this workshop that are a bit more, umm, pointed perhaps. I'd love to read what you, Bryant, Kotsko, Verfallen and Bakker for example might say. If you slog through the hours of discussion, write something up.

      I'm just starting Bellah's 'Religion in Human Evolution', very much liking it so far, a nice little vacation from pondering the implications of the blind brain theory and your latest essay lol.

    4. Interesting. Are you saying the determinists came out even worse than Massimo let on in his review? I'd like to watch that video, then.