Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War is one of my favorite sort of books: those that dig into my thoughts and continues to influence them by providing a perspective to work with…or sometimes against. I find his analysis of the patterns of history intriguing and I believe he throws a light on our political landscape.
This will take on much of the flavor of a book report. In fact, it will look much like a bad book report in which I substitute long quotations for my own reactions and analysis. So be it. There is a direction. I am building to an open ended point…some questions I find interesting… which does contain the seeds of a thesis but tries not to narrow down to too fine a point. My format will be to add a skeleton of an outline to frame up material from the book and then add some observations that spark off Turchin’s work.
“Following the fourteenth-century Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun, I call this property of groups asabiya. Asabiya refers to the capacity of a social group for concerted collective action. Asabiya is a dynamic quantity; it can increase or decrease with time. Like many theoretical constructs, such as force in Newtonian physics, the capacity for collective action cannot be observed directly, but it can be measured from observable consequences
“Generally, in a struggle between two groups of people, the group with stronger norms promoting cooperation and the most people following such norms has a greater chance of winning.
“The phase of the secular cycle also determines the trend in social and economic inequality—whether it increases or decreases. This aspect is of particular interest because of the corrosive effect that glaring inequality has on the willingness of people to cooperate, which in turn underlies the capacity of societies for collective action
“The disparity in economic development between the Italian north and south is striking. Today the south is rural and poor, whereas the north is urban, industrialized, and wealthy. Few people realize just how well off the Italian north is, because when we see economic statistics for Western Europe, they are typically broken down by country, rather than by regions. Italy as a whole is in the middle of the pack, but its northern regions, such as Lombardia and Emilia-Romagna, are at the very top of the list. The overall rank for Italy is pulled down by its poor Mezzogiorno.
“In 1993, Robert Putnam published Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. “Social capital,” as Putnam explains, “refers to features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions.”
“How can one measure “institutional performance,” that is, how well regions are governed? Asabiya (or social capital) is the key. However, capacity for collective action is a complex, multifaceted property of society, and therefore we cannot expect a single way to measure it perfectly. Putnam and his co-workers, however, came beautifully close. They chose 12 indicators, ranging from measures of operation efficiency such as bureaucratic responsiveness and budget promptness to a quantification of services provided to the public, such as the number of daycare centers and family clinics.
“When Putnam and co-workers finished estimating the institutional performance for each Italian region, they saw a remarkable pattern. There was very strong north-south gradient in how well regions were governed. The regions in the Po Valley such as Emilia-Romagna and Lombardia were consistently at the top of rankings in institutional performance, whereas southern regions, such as Campania (the region around Naples), Calabria (the “toe” of the Italian boot), and Sicily were at the bottom.
“Well before Putnam, and even before the Italian experiment in devolution of powers to regional governments, anthropologists knew that something was wrong with the society of the Italian south—the Mezzogiorno, as it is known in Italian. A particularly interesting study is that by the American anthropologist Edward Banfield, who spent a number of years in a southern Italian village during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1967, he published a book detailing his findings, The Moral Basis of the Backward Society. Banfield describes the extreme atomization of the southern Italian society, in which all cooperative efforts are limited to the smallest possible societal unit, the family. Relations even to such kin as cousins, and sometimes even grown-up siblings, are rife with distrust and lack of cooperation. Community-level cooperative efforts are virtually impossible. Banfield called this type of society “amoral familism,” and defined its basic philosophy as this: “Maximize the material, short-run advantage of the nuclear family; assume that all others will do likewise.”
“Millions of slaves, captured during the wars of conquest, flooded Italy during the second century B.C. Because slaves had no human rights, and legally could hold no property (in practice, some masters allowed them to accumulate funds to buy themselves out of slavery), their presence in massive numbers made the Roman society during the late Republic even more unequal than is usual in pre-industrial states
“The distinction between slaves and freemen is perhaps the most extreme form of social inequality. Thus, widespread slavery must be a very corrosive influence on the society’s asabiya. In fact, empirical evidence shows slavery has a deep, and lasting, negative impact on “social capital.”
“It was, thus, the rise of inequality and especially of its ugliest form, slavery, that began corroding Roman asabiya during the second century B.C.
“…southern Italy—the core region of the defunct Roman Empire—was an asabiya black hole. <> Peninsular Italy, including Sicily, remained an asabiya black hole from the collapse of the Roman Empire to this very day
You are looking at a map of violence based on an analysis from an NGO, the Institute for Economics and Peace, based in Sydney Australia. Red is bad. Blue is the best. The rest range in between, color coded as you’d expect.
I’m taking the week off to do some writing, work on side projects, and generally try to get organized (an ongoing but quixotic project of mine.) I thought I’d limber up by posting something from the archives.
Here’s something I found last week while digging through old files. High school buddy, Denny, was asked to give the Commencement Address at our old high school. He sent out a call to some of us to send in our advice. Here was mine:
Everything I needed to know I learned during freefall.
We all graduated in 1970. That might make you think that we were in high school during the 60’s. In actual fact, South Dakota went directly from the 1950’s to the 1970’s and skipped the 60’s almost entirely with the except of a few short months allowed for transition.
Although those months were short, they were intense and we were there.
The main thing about the 60’s was that all the Big Truths about God, America, and Western History were called radically into question. All the stuff we were taking for granted became so suspect that I found it necessary to clear everything off the table and start over. My theory was that I’d examine the Big Truths one by one and let the valid ones back on. Unfortunately, none of them made it back and I’ve been forced to rely on a collection of smaller truths instead. I offer some for your consideration.
1. Life’s too short to live anybody else’s but you own.
2. Never try to psychoanalyze a cop while he’s arresting you.
3. It’s a good idea not to be any stupider than absolutely necessary.
4. Truth itself is an attempt to use limited tools to describe an unlimited reality and therefore all truths are necessarily wrong.
5. Some truths are much more wrong than others.
6. Reality doesn’t sit there waiting to be described like a mackerel on a plate. It’s a tiger that might get up at any given moment and thoroughly kick your ass.
7. Love and affection are more important that sex.
8. Sex is important.
9. The statement “If he’s so smart, why isn’t he rich” is the logical equivalent of “If he’s so smart, why isn’t he fat”. It takes a lot less money to get fat, however.
10. After reading Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Husserl, Tillich, and numerous others in search of a approach to life, the best I’ve been able to figure is that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you get rained out. All three, when they happen, have their attendant problems and it’s wise to be emotionally prepared to deal each of them.
Denny, this may need a quick edit. I didn’t have time to let it sit then read it over again. Also, the order of the above might could use rearranging.
21 Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
22 Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?
23 And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
Matthew 7:21-23 (King James Version)
Having been alerted by Pat Robertson that hurricanes and other natural disasters are communications from God, I couldn’t help but notice that what my parents and grandparents termed the Bible Belt seems to take an inordinate number of hard shots. Katrina, for example, hit Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Louisiana (disasters from which they’ve yet to recover) as have frequent subsequent hurricanes. If you look at the map of the BP oil spill, notice it angled in toward Mississippi and Florida.
My hypothesis is that contemporary Christians have changed the religion into a ‘divine’ justification for their petty hatreds, angers, and judgments (encroaching on God’s explicitly claimed prerogative on that last point.) This combination of spiritual arrogance and conscious or unconscious hypocrisy is starting to make God a little testy.
Here’s some good evidence from last week’s San Francisco Chronicle.
photo credit: Brant Ward / The Chronicle
Pictured are Associate Pastors Chris Nunn and Steve Messick from Imperial County featured in an article “County leads battle against gay weddings.”
Notice the background. They are posing in their church which is under repair…after being damaged….in an earthquake….on Easter!
My theory? God loves these people but hates what they do. He’s trying to give them a wakeup call. Will they get it in time?
Yours in faith,
“Many are called but fewer are called Al”
“If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?”
I’m glad you asked that.
I’ve always taken my inspiration from biological systems. One universal here is that inputs are good in a biological system only in a narrow range. Too much water and too little water will kill a plant. Too much food and too little food are both bad. Medicines have a low threshold of ineffectiveness and a high threshold of toxicity. My grandfather took strychnine as a blood pressure medicine. Critical vitamins can kill in both lack and excess.
Money is an input in a biological system. Too much and too little both trend towards toxicity…though in quite different ways.
The statement “if you’re so smart why aren’t you rich” is the precise logical equivalent, in my opinion, of “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you fat!”
I point out in passing that I’m not poor.
Now the counter question. I’ve noticed a tendency among the rich to keep working to get rich. What’s up with that? Lack of imagination? Trapped in the system?
To quote Baba Ram Dass when asked about his switch from LSD, “Well, when you’ve received the answer, hang up the phone.”
I recently reread William Gibson’s Spook Country. I read it first years ago shortly after publication and it has lurked the back of my memory ever since. Its characters, plot elements and moods would surface even though only vaguely connected to the matters at hand. I wanted to get back into it for another full immersion.
It was a very satisfying re-read.
Now then, I read it on the Kindle and the Kindle has a dangerous aspect, particularly for insomniacs: you can buy a book on impulse at 2 am and be reading it minutes later. Spook Country (of which I had vivid memories) lead to Pattern Language (which I remembered hardly at all despite some overlap in characters and vibe) and then on into a mini-sf reading spree of early Gibson, newer Ian Banks, and mop up Kage Baker.
Noting what remained vivid in memory and what didn’t lead to some thinking about what sf does.
I’ve read various theories over the past decades about the pulps and the limits and appropriate role of genre fiction. My theory of sf matches none of that and simultaneously works as a description of why I like all the interrelated genre’s of sf, fantasy, & horror.
The role of sf is, quite simply, to erode the present.
The gradient of how things will move forward has now been changed!
The present flows into the future along an altered channel with different resonance and open possibilities.
And finally that new future feeds back and revises the present. Our world becomes more eerie, more open, more wondrous, more strange.
A favorite author of mine, Kage Baker, died young at 57 on 1/31/2010.
I took the news as a call to chase down and read anything I could find of hers that I’d somehow missed. There was very little to find. I’d been following her work assiduously since reading her In the Garden of Iden in 1997. Not much had slipped by me.
Short version (extended quotation below):
“Three billion years ago, life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them.
Evolution was a communal affair.
But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbors in efficiency. That cell separated itself from the community and refused to share.
The Darwinian interlude had begun.
Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over.
— Freeman Dyson
original quote from Visions of Discovery: New Light on Physics, Cosmology, and Consciousness
see The Darwinian Interlude by Freeman Dyson
From Our Biotech Future by Freeman Dyson, NYRB, 7/19/2007
Whatever Carl Woese writes, even in a speculative vein, needs to be taken seriously. In his “New Biology” article, he is postulating a golden age of pre-Darwinian life, when horizontal gene transfer was universal and separate species did not yet exist.
Life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them. Evolution was a communal affair, the whole community advancing in metabolic and reproductive efficiency as the genes of the most efficient cells were shared. Evolution could be rapid, as new chemical devices could be evolved simultaneously by cells of different kinds working in parallel and then reassembled in a single cell by horizontal gene transfer.
But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbors in efficiency. That cell, anticipating Bill Gates by three billion years, separated itself from the community and refused to share. Its offspring became the first species of bacteria—and the first species of any kind—reserving their intellectual property for their own private use. With their superior efficiency, the bacteria continued to prosper and to evolve separately, while the rest of the community continued its communal life. Some millions of years later, another cell separated itself from the community and became the ancestor of the archea. Some time after that, a third cell separated itself and became the ancestor of the eukaryotes. And so it went on, until nothing was left of the community and all life was divided into species. The Darwinian interlude had begun.
The Darwinian interlude has lasted for two or three billion years. It probably slowed down the pace of evolution considerably. The basic biochemical machinery of life had evolved rapidly during the few hundreds of millions of years of the pre-Darwinian era, and changed very little in the next two billion years of microbial evolution. Darwinian evolution is slow because individual species, once established, evolve very little. With rare exceptions, Darwinian evolution requires established species to become extinct so that new species can replace them.
Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over.