Progress Studies: Uplift
May 31, 2021 11:42 PM   Subscribe

How to change the course of human history - "The story we have been telling ourselves about our origins is wrong, and perpetuates the idea of inevitable social inequality. David Graeber and David Wengrow ask why the myth of 'agricultural revolution' remains so persistent, and argue that there is a whole lot more we can learn from our ancestors."[1]
...from the very beginning, human beings were self-consciously experimenting with different social possibilities. Anthropologists describe societies of this sort as possessing a ‘double morphology’. Marcel Mauss, writing in the early twentieth century, observed that the circumpolar Inuit, ‘and likewise many other societies . . . have two social structures, one in summer and one in winter, and that in parallel they have two systems of law and religion’. In the summer months, Inuit dispersed into small patriarchal bands in pursuit of freshwater fish, caribou, and reindeer, each under the authority of a single male elder. Property was possessively marked and patriarchs exercised coercive, sometimes even tyrannical power over their kin. But in the long winter months, when seals and walrus flocked to the Arctic shore, another social structure entirely took over as Inuit gathered together to build great meeting houses of wood, whale-rib, and stone. Within them, the virtues of equality, altruism, and collective life prevailed; wealth was shared...

The pieces are all there to create an entirely different world history. For the most part, we’re just too blinded by our prejudices to see the implications. For instance, almost everyone nowadays insists that participatory democracy, or social equality, can work in a small community or activist group, but cannot possibly ‘scale up’ to anything like a city, a region, or a nation-state. But the evidence before our eyes, if we choose to look at it, suggests the opposite. Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace. Egalitarian families and households are not. Once the historical verdict is in, we will see that the most painful loss of human freedoms began at the small scale – the level of gender relations, age groups, and domestic servitude – the kind of relationships that contain at once the greatest intimacy and the deepest forms of structural violence. If we really want to understand how it first became acceptable for some to turn wealth into power, and for others to end up being told their needs and lives don’t count, it is here that we should look. Here too, we predict, is where the most difficult work of creating a free society will have to take place.
Prehistoric cemetery in Sudan shows war has been hell forever - "While it is difficult to know why they fought, it came during a time of climate change in the region from a dry period to a wetter one along with severe Nile flooding episodes, possibly triggering competition among rival clans for resources and territory."
  • @conorsen: "Been thinking about bottlenecks to greater aggregate economic prosperity. Through maybe the mid-20th century it was technological; Then through the 1980's it was financial/capital shortages; Ever since it's largely been about insufficient political will and social equity."
  • @WhiteHouseCEA: "For the past four decades, the view that lower taxes, less spending, and fewer regulations would generate stronger economic growth has exerted substantial influence on U.S. public policy. Over this period, the United States has underinvested in public goods such as infrastructure and innovation, and gains from growth have accrued disproportionately to the top of the income and wealth distribution. Long-standing racial, ethnic, and gender disparities persist... tax cuts contributed to inequality by delivering disproportionate gains to the already well off without the promised wage gains for the middle class. The economic theory underlying President Biden's American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan is different. These proposed policies reflect the empirical evidence that a strong economy depends on a solid foundation of public investment, and that investments in workers, families, and communities can pay off for decades to come... In order to function and deliver strong and shared economic gains, markets need an engaged, effective public sector."
  • @mattsclancy: "What are the returns to R&D? [W]hat if we stopped R&D for one year? Under a lot of different reasonable assumptions, the implication is that growth would also stop for a year (maybe spread out over multiple years though). Doing some basic accounting, you can show the cost of that would be huge! On average, R&D is an incredible investment."
  • What is economic growth? And why is it so important? - "All of these goods and services do not just magically appear. They need to be produced. At some point in the past, the production of most of them was zero, and even the most essential ones were extremely scarce... An economic good or service is provided by people to each other as a solution to a problem they are faced with and this means that they are considered useful by the person who demands it. And a last characteristic that is helpful in deciding whether you are looking at an economic product is ‘delegability’. An activity is considered to be production in an economic sense if it can be delegated to someone else."
Interview: Patrick Collison, co-founder and CEO of Stripe - "His biggest intellectual interest is the idea of technological progress — what it means, why it happens, and how to encourage more of it. Among his ideas is the field Progress Studies, an interdisciplinary field that studies the history and determinants of technological advancement and how it feeds into social progress more generally."[2,3]
More broadly, we need to make all of the things that you and I enjoy every day cheap and efficient enough for billions more people to afford (with safety/security high on that list)... I'll just say that I find it somewhat discouraging that one of the biggest and clearest violations of liberty and human rights of our era -- the treatment of the Uyghurs by the Chinese government -- receives as little condemnation from those in power as it does. I get why, of course: it's bad for business. But I think that our support for human rights and liberty should be somewhat closer to an absolute. (On this topic, 70% of Americans agree.) In his commencement address at Harvard in 1978, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn claimed that civic courage was in decline. I don’t know whether or not it was (or is), but, whatever the trendline, it seems important to me to ensure that it doesn’t.
Kevin Kelly on Why Technology Has a Will - "No, we're not in control of [technology] at all. But again, we have this curious relationship to it, because we are both the parent of it, and the child of it. Right, so it's coming through us, we're carrying it. When you're a parent, you don't really 'make' a baby, in a certain sense. You're kind of a conduit for the baby. We're conduits for this technology. But we also can have a lot of say about the character of it."

Audrey Tang on her 'conservative-anarchist' vision for Taiwan's future - "The country's digital minister has a radical vision and acknowledges the high-stakes balancing act between mass surveillance and good governance."
Tang, whose mother was active in Taiwan’s cooperative movement before the country transitioned to democracy, much prefers collaboration to battle... Tang is mindful of Taiwan’s recent history of dictatorship, and as a self-professed “conservative anarchist,” she said, “Any top-down, coercion, whether it’s from the capitalists or from the state, is equally bad.”

The state in question is not only Taiwan but also China. Like all Taiwanese people, Tang has kept close watch on Hong Kong in recent months, as China has tightened control in physical and cyber space. “All this feels rather familiar because my dad’s Ph.D. was on the dynamic of the Tiananmen protests,” she said. When Tang was a child, she and her brother and mother accompanied him to study for a year in Saarbrücken, Germany. “My household living room was full of his research subjects, who were people in their early 20s, freshly frustrated from Tiananmen and continuing their education in Europe.” In recent months, Tang has met with many people who had to flee Hong Kong. Taiwan now, like Europe back then, is a place of sanctuary.

I asked Tang if she fears for the future of Taiwan — if the Chinese internet, to say nothing of its real-life analogs, could wipe out the digital democracy that she’s helped construct since the Sunflower Movement. “The crackdown of Hong Kong is hinged on the premise that, if you have too much democracy, it will hurt, I guess, stability, harmony, economy,” she said. “We have a responsibility to show that democracy works, and not just lockdown or top-down or takedown.”
Shifting the impossible to the inevitable: A Private ARPA user manual - "There can be ecosystems that are better at generating progress than others, perhaps by orders of magnitude."

The Great Online Game - "The Great Online Game is played concurrently by billions of people, online, as themselves, with real-world consequences. Your financial and psychological wellbeing is at stake, but the downside is limited. The upside, on the other hand, is infinite... We now live in a world in which, by typing things into your phone or your keyboard, or saying things into a microphone, or snapping pictures or videos, you can marshall resources, support, and opportunities."

The Disorders of our Collective Consciousness - "We are accustomed to distinguishing between the individual and society. But I think McLuhan is also implying that we can speak of a social or collective consciousness in the same way that we might speak of a person’s consciousness. And that, along similar lines, we can speak about disorders of the corporate psyche in the same way that we might speak about disorders of the individual psyche."[4,5,6]
McLuhan, I’ll note in passing, also understood the dynamics of the so-called attention economy long before the term was coined. “Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems,” he warned, “to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we don't really have any rights left.” “Leasing our eyes and ears and nerves to commercial interests,” he added, “is like handing over the common speech to a private corporation [!], or like giving the earth's atmosphere to a company as a monopoly.” In other words, we do not own our extended nervous system, nor our external memories or our augmented voices. And this only heightens the disorders of our collective consciousness. It generates a kind of paranoia about what we perceive, which in the meta-discourse of our collective mind takes the form of endless debates about tech platforms, free-speech, deep fakes, filter bubbles, etc.
Tech Companies Are Profiling Us From Before Birth - "Children today are the very first generation of citizens to be datafied from before birth. The social and political consequences of this historical transformation have yet to be seen."[7,8,9]

Data Sovereignty - "Increasingly, countries are pursuing regulations that ensure that their laws apply to their citizens' personal data. One way to ensure you're in compliance with these laws is to store and process data of a country's citizens entirely within the country's borders."
The EU, India, and Brazil are all major markets that have or are currently considering regulations that assert legal sovereignty over their citizens’ personal data. China has already imposed data localization regulations on many types of data. Whether you think that regulations that appear to require local data storage and processing are a good idea or not — and I personally think they are bad policies that will stifle innovation — my sense is the momentum behind them is significant enough that they are, at this point, likely inevitable. And, once a few countries begin requiring data sovereignty, it will be hard to stop nearly every country from following suit.
A Data-Driven End to Capitalism as We Know It - "There's a Faustian bargain to make from Covid-19 that could increase our ownership of the 21st century."
One powerful suggestion has come from Columbia Law School Professor Katharina Pistor. In a recent paper, she argued that it will be useless for us, as information producers, to get authorship rights on our individual raw data. They have very little value. Yet, when algorithms analyze billions of data points, they glean insights about our behavior. Big Tech shares the intelligence for a profit with providers of goods and services, who then use the knowledge to influence our choices as consumers and make a further gain.

Instead of being participants in a free market, this power game makes us victims, twice over. No notice-and-consent privacy law or antitrust regulation can improve our bargaining position. We need partial ownership not of the data, but the databases. Put another way, if technology has made it our destiny to be “ruled by data,” then we must have rights in a depository trust of data. Pistor explains:
This trust would have a right to a share in the earnings the company derived from the data and would have the task of channeling these earnings to the data producers. The trust would also exercise voting rights on behalf of the data producers.
The argument hinges on debunking a popular myth: Our information footprints, the professor says, are not oil, or anything resembling a regular commodity or asset. Beyond seeking protection against hacking, the technology industry hasn’t relied on legal protection to assert its property rights. It has simply captured data as “res nullius,” or wild animals, and enjoyed supernormal profits. It’s time governments ended the ambiguity over ownership, and gave data the status of “res communis,” or community property. This is what a depository achieves.
Covid exposes capitalism's flaws - "The pandemic is an opportunity for policymakers to fix the structure of the economic system."[10]

The Seven Secrets of 2020 [ungated link] - "One lesson we learned in 2020 is that national governments had been choosing not to exercise their enormous powers so that those whom globalization had enriched could exercise their own."
While bringing about radical change is never easy, it is now abundantly clear that everything could be different. There is no longer any reason why we should accept things as they are. On the contrary, the most important truth of 2020 is captured in Bertolt Brecht’s apt and elegant aphorism: “Because things are the way they are, things will not remain the way they are.”
Notes on technology in the 2020s - "Will we end the Great Stagnation? Here are the technologies I'm watching in the next decade."[11]
  • NASA has selected its deep space hardware—now comes the fun part - "If SpaceX's Starship program delivers on its promises, NASA would no longer have to consider brief forays on the Moon but could build bona fide cities and allow commercial activity to thrive. Thales Alenia could build large, pressurized domes for habitats. Nokia could build its LTE/4G network on the Moon. We could have mining, manufacturing, space tourism, and so much more. The cost of getting people and materials to the Moon has always been the limiting factor for any of these ventures to take place."
  • MIT: On Course to Create a Fusion Power Plant - "How an MIT engineering course became an incubator for fusion design innovations... Their answer was SPARC, based on the experience gained from designing Vulcan and ARC. This compact, high-field, net fusion energy experiment has become a collaboration between MIT and Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup seeded with talent from 22.63."[12]
  • Quantum Double-Slit Experiment Offers Hope for Earth-Size Telescope - "Bland-Hawthorn, Bartholomew and Sellars suggest plugging in a quantum hard drive at each telescope that can record and store the wavelike states of incoming photons without disturbing them. After a while, you transport the hard drives to a single location, where you interfere the signals to create an incredibly high-resolution image. To make this work, quantum hard drives have to store lots of information over long periods of time. One turning point came in 2015, when Bartholomew, Sellars and colleagues designed a memory device made from europium nuclei embedded in a crystal that could store fragile quantum states for six hours, with the potential to extend this to days. Then, earlier this year, a team from the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei demonstrated that you could save photon data into similar devices and later read it out."
Endnotes on 2020: Crypto and Beyond - "2020 is as good a year as any to ponder a key question: how should we re-evaluate our models of the world? What ways of seeing, understanding and reasoning about the world are going to be more useful in the decades to come, and what paths are no longer as valuable?"
So we have a world where: One-to-one interactions are less important, one-to-many and many-to-many interactions are more important. The environment is much more chaotic, and difficult to model with clean and simple equations. Many-to-many interactions particularly follow strange rules that we still do not understand well. The environment is dense, and different categories of powerful actors are forced to live quite closely side by side with each other.
2020 letter - "I wonder if the right analogy for China today is as a successful East Germany."[13]
As recently as five years into Xi’s term, there were still optimists who believed that his regime might turn out to be more kind. The removal of term limits routed that camp, and few recent events can re-instill confidence that the state sees a limit to greater repression. Detention camps have not gone away, and I wonder if they will be expanded to more than a few sites in western provinces. Surveillance capabilities have significantly scaled up. And everyone knows that the regime is serious about instilling discipline and control.
China: Its Industrial Policy & Its Striving for Deweaponized Autarchy - "There are no good models in history for what China is doing."[14,15]

The New Whole State System: State-led Financialization, State-Private Fusion, and China's Innovation Policies after 2008 - "This article joins ongoing efforts to reconceptualize the role of the state in capitalism through the experiences of China. Using tech companies owned by Tsinghua University as a case study, we offer a novel perspective on China's post-2008 innovation system and the renewed significance of the state in economic restructuring. Drawing on existing research about the history of capitalism and China, we contextualize China’s innovation system within its own history of interacting with global capitalism and identify five distinct new features at the conjuncture of post-2008 macroeconomic and geopolitical transformation: mixed-ownership reform, Government Guided Investment Funds, local government financing platforms, transnational investments, and (re)consolidation of party-state leadership."[16,17]

Neil Ferguson interview: China changed what was possible - "How the Chinese example changed the boundaries of what governments could 'get away with' in the West."[18,19,20]

The fading light of liberal democracy [ungated link] - "Pluto-populists' strategy of using identity issues to convince voters to act against their economic interests is working."[21]

The circle of apocalypse - "Technology and scale mean externalities are pervasive and extensive."[22,23,24,25,26]

The Darkness [thread(reader)] - "Illiberalism is on the march, all over the world."
Before we can defeat the Darkness abroad, we’ve got to defeat it at home. And realistically, since Democrats will definitely not win an unbroken string of electoral victories from here to infinity, this means Republicans who recognize the threat of the Darkness have to stand up and take their party back from the people who think coups and election denial are good ideas...

In the 20th century, democracy — not just the system of holding elections, but the entire package of human rights, minority rights, free expression, civil liberties, and social-democratic welfare protections — was the only system, the only ideology, that managed to defeat totalitarianism instead of morphing into totalitarianism. At its most fundamental level, what I’ve been calling the Darkness is a lack of respect for the value of individual human beings, while democracy (should I capitalize the “D”?) is the elevation of respect for humanity to the status of society’s fundamental organizing principle.
Excerpt: David Brin Explores the Inspiration Behind His Uplift Novels - "My uplift novels portray a future in which newly-sapient dolphins and apes have many rights of citizenship and may speak their minds. Their sages serve on our councils, offering their own styles of wisdom, art, and insight, enriching an Earth civilization that is no longer only human. It's an attractive outcome … though the path to get there is fraught with dangers and moral hazards. Moreover, even if we do almost everything right, with loving intent, there nevertheless will be pain along the way."

Margaret Atwood Writes for the Future - "Young people worry a lot more than older people. And the reason they worry a lot more than older people is that they don't know the plot of their own lives yet. They don't know how it's going to turn out for them. At my age - and I am starting to sound like one of those people who says 'at my age' - [both laugh] at my age, I kind of know how the story goes. So, should I get hit by a truck tomorrow, the plot will pretty much have unfolded."
BROOKE: And the rest of the human race?

ATWOOD: Well, of course I worry about them, but they have to worry about themselves. Because it's not going to be my problem very shortly.
'We've Seen This Before': Margaret Atwood on 'The Handmaid's Tale' and How History Repeats Itself - "The author reflects on the lessons of decades past, how they emerge in her writing, and what they can tell us about the future."
We’re in a very unsettled moment. Since there is no “the future,” not graven in stone, there are a number of potential futures, and how people react to these things now is going to determine what kind of “the future” we have in, say, two, three, four, or five years. It has never been any different. We’re in a moment, much like the Thirties, in which things [are] pretty polarized. And we have just seen another Thirties-era thing happen, which is this huge — better not use that word, “huge,” so many words have been trashed — the enormous infrastructure plan that the Biden government has just proposed, a lot like FDR’s.

Is this a moment of crisis for America? Yes, it is. How should America respond? It should respond with positivity and some realism. People in the United States have taken for granted for so long that they’re top dog, that they can afford these battles and in intramural wars that they’ve been having, but maybe they can’t afford them. Maybe to indulge yourself that way is going to be to slip from world power. And when you slip from power — I give you the Battle of Waterloo as an example — when you turn around and start to run, you will be ruthlessly pursued, because other people want your power.
posted by kliuless (39 comments total) 125 users marked this as a favorite
 
so. much. profundity. (thanks kliuless, I’m truly clueless as to how you manage, without fail, every time you post. kudos and more, truly.)
posted by progosk at 11:57 PM on May 31 [2 favorites]


Oh, yes, that's my reading for the summer sorted. Thanks, kliuless!
posted by Harald74 at 12:01 AM on June 1 [2 favorites]


I'd love an articulated thru-line or elevator pitch. Why these articles, together?
posted by Thella at 3:12 AM on June 1 [31 favorites]


Thank you kliuless, a huge trove, a horde of vital things. I won't be able to settle down and digest for months.
posted by unearthed at 3:14 AM on June 1


What I observed on a recent visit to the US: a lot of people (especially white people) truly do want to stay asleep and be told what to do. Practicing agency and accountability is hard, as is holding the line against people who will not want to release their hold on their riches. Ask a revolutionary (and contrary to the Eurozine article's assertion, there were quite a few effective revolutionaries all over the world especially in the 20th century).

And moar tech will not solve social inequality... the Eurozine article discusses this quite a bit.

Until things get difficult enough and bad enough for enough people, AND those people start to work together instead of listening indiscriminately to big-money narratives that divide them, there's probably not going to be any meaningful change. And that process, sadly, would probably not be bloodless.

But... minds can be changed, even the most apparently fixed minds. Hell, how else would we have gotten to the Fox News hellhole we're in in the US? Recent episodes of David McRaney's You Are Not So Smart podcast are an excellent primer for cutting-edge thinking and practice along these lines. Some of the links above are probably informative on this point too, but I need to take the time to go through them!
posted by Sheydem-tants at 5:01 AM on June 1 [2 favorites]


Also: let's get some reading from writers and thinkers outside the global North on this list.

I recommend LeftWord Books and the Tricontinental as two great places to start.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 5:08 AM on June 1 [2 favorites]


Nokia could build its LTE/4G network on the Moon.

Interesting problem with communications (or other) satellites orbiting the moon. Gravity. Gravity is not stable, unlike our planet that has a fairly liquid middle which makes gravity very uniform no mater what orbit a satellite has, the moon is a clump of hard chunks. Probably not anything a person hoppin on the moon would notice but for a comms satellite it changes the orbit just enough to make it unstable. Crash. A satellite will need very expensive frequent course correction mass. So communications will be significantly trickier.


(great post but it's perhaps too expansive for a discussion with good flow, perhaps should be split up)
posted by sammyo at 7:15 AM on June 1 [3 favorites]


"There is no such thing as a democracy on a sailboat" - Sterling Hayden

Everyone does board consensually and knowing that this relationship is temporary as it is required for a safe sail.
posted by goalyeehah at 7:24 AM on June 1 [5 favorites]


...from the very beginning, human beings were self-consciously experimenting with different social possibilities.

For instance, almost everyone nowadays insists that participatory democracy, or social equality, can work in a small community or activist group, but cannot possibly ‘scale up’ to anything like a city

I read most of the article, but I mean, yeah, they experimented with having all houses the same size or with having no central leadership for a small city (both examples from the article), but they didn't last, did they? Unfortunately those experiments did not endure. There are imaginable reasons that those people gave for those approaches not being possible in our world now.

I get that the author was some kind of anarchist and tried to argue that prehistorical societies were much more dynamic than the simple, gradualistic narrative of agriculture-capital-chains. But another way to interpret the same evidence is just that the narrative was more complex, more dynamic, and not either-or relating to egalitarianism vs scale, than previously thought. Which is worth knowing about, but doesn't necessarily undermine the broad strokes version of history?
posted by polymodus at 7:41 AM on June 1 [2 favorites]


but they didn't last, did they?

From the article:
To take just one well-documented example: around 200 AD, the city of Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico, with a population of 120,000 (one of the largest in the world at the time), appears to have undergone a profound transformation, turning its back on pyramid-temples and human sacrifice, and reconstructing itself as a vast collection of comfortable villas, all almost exactly the same size. It remained so for perhaps 400 years.
American capitalist democracy has lasted barely 200 years, I think it's slightly premature to crow about how it is the teleological endpoint of social evolution, especially in light of the past few years.
posted by Pyry at 8:27 AM on June 1 [19 favorites]


Did Teotihuacan actually abandon human sacrifice? I thought we didn't know that?
posted by Easy problem of consciousness at 8:39 AM on June 1 [2 favorites]


I think the point is that if these things have varied quite so much then it opens up spaces of possibility that we had reflexively assumed would not work for historical reasons.

If it is the case that relatively complex societies have existed that were much more egalitarian than ours, that doesn't give us directions to egalitarianism but it does give us a hint that it may be more doable than we think.

Also, pirate ships were democracies or at least elective dictatorships which could change captains between voyages. The absence of permanent hierarchy does not mean the absence of all direction.
posted by atrazine at 9:13 AM on June 1 [3 favorites]


I still can't believe we lost Graeber so young.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:55 AM on June 1 [7 favorites]


This post is incredibly wide-ranging! But to the 1st link: I was just learning about this James C. Scott book I hadn't heard of before: Against the Grain, which apparently argues that the first states were designed around enslaving people for grain cultivation. Curious how these two works speak to each other...
posted by latkes at 10:00 AM on June 1


Pyry, "appears" is doing a lot of work in that sentence, as Easy problem of consciousness notes.

In any case, though that article is arguing against what it identifies as the dominant grand narrative of human social development, for me at least the issue has never been imagining whether alternative modes of social organization are possible, so much as how they are realizable from the world as it currently exists.

Inuit society, pirate ships, the earliest human cities, etc. had a multitude of different means of social organization and order. Okay, great, what implications does that have for modern global society as it currently exists?

Because what's most concerning about this piece is the somewhat dishonest implications the authors make. They provide all sorts of examples of societies "switching back and forth between different forms of organization" but, again, "switching" is doing a lot of work here, and elides quite a bit about just how that switching was accomplished, which is a pretty key concern.

Early on they cite Walter Scheidel's 2017 book The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century which concludes that, per the authors, "there’s really nothing we can do about inequality. Civilization invariably puts in charge a small elite who grab more and more of the pie. The only thing that has ever been successful in dislodging them is catastrophe: war, plague, mass conscription, wholesale suffering and death." They later conclude that all their examples of societies switching shows that "Walter Scheidel notwithstanding, it is simply not true that ruling classes, once established, cannot be gotten rid of except by general catastrophe."

Fine, Scheidel may or may not be incorrect about the historical reality of the establishment or removal of ruling classes. But the issue is whether Scheidel is right about the world today. Can the ruling classes of the actual world as it is right now be unseated without mass violence and suffering? All available evidence from any attempt to even consider doing so seems to point to no, that those on top today are not going to give it up without one hell of a fight. Not only that, they seem content to let everyone else suffer and die if preventing any of that would mean them loosening their grip or giving up even a little bit of their power and wealth.

I, and I think most people, am not opposed on principle to changes in society, nor suffer from the condescending and outright insulting "you just can't imagine a different way, open your mind!". I can imagine, but imagining doesn't make it so. What I want is a concrete idea of how, say, an anarchistic visions can be achieved in the modern world without mass death, which is apparently what these authors are selling. This seems to always be an issue with anarchist writings I've seen, that the biggest problem to solve is envisioning different modes of social organization, and questions of implementation or organization are unimportant afterthoughts, just as the right-anarchist libertarians smugly crow about the perfect laissez faire "free market" that would solve all problems without having to explain how that would ever actually be achieved.
posted by star gentle uterus at 10:26 AM on June 1 [12 favorites]


I don't see anarchists, no, anyone talking about responsibility. The search for power is untamed without talk of responsibility, but communities are about looking out for each other and our collective power together is tamed by responsibility to one another.

I get you're ambitious for your own sake -- where is your ambition for our collective sake?
posted by k3ninho at 11:16 AM on June 1


Can the ruling classes of the actual world as it is right now be unseated without mass violence and suffering? All available evidence from any attempt to even consider doing so seems to point to no, that those on top today are not going to give it up without one hell of a fight.

A lot of it is the battle for the hearts and minds of those in the society.

The wealthy get to exert their power partially because we societally say that it's ok. Even if, say, Bezos takes it too far, we still seem to agree that it's OK for others who don't take it quite that far.

If the pursuit of grandiose wealth were shunned as immoral, if working your employees to the bone made you a social outcast rather than a "cunning businessman," things might change a bit.

We can reinforce these societal values by, for example, taxing wealth. The old saw of "show me your budget and I'll tell you your values" comes to mind.

Part of the article was to point out that measures of "inequality" as a technocratic solution are somewhat deficient, because there are going to be people happy to live a more spare life, while others enjoy "high living." It's only a problem when the former are actually oppressed by the latter.

If we can shift society to seeing more things as basic human rights and protections of dignity rather than things the wealthy confer onto us as gifts, we can enact those societal values. But first, we have to topple the myth that inequality and oppression are undeniable, necessary evils of modern living.
posted by explosion at 11:18 AM on June 1 [3 favorites]


A lot of it is the battle for the hearts and minds of those in the society.

"Hearts and minds" don't stand up very well against bullets, which is the point.

I'm not saying change isn't possible today, just that I don't think it can be done without a great deal of violence and suffering inflicted by the current ruling class unwilling to relinquish their positions. The authors of that piece, as I said, want to create the implication that this isn't the case by invoking supposed historical examples, but this implication does not seem to reflect reality. The ruling class of the world today has clearly demonstrated over and over that it would not be content to just step down or transition away no matter how "society" feels about it, and has already amply demonstrated their willingness to back up their position with force.

Scheidel/Piketty are right: the only way things will really change today are by great catastrophe. Disagree? Great, lay out in detail an actual, realistic actionable way you're going to dislodge today's ruling class without one.
posted by star gentle uterus at 11:40 AM on June 1


Suppose someone in the feudal era was asked to lay out in detail an actual, realistic, actionable way to replace the feudal system with something better.

Would they say this:

"Oh sure. Large scale economic activity is going to be run by new institutions called corporations, characterised by a separation of ownership and control: the managers won't be the owners but will be responsible to them by a board of directors, the whole thing being owned collectively by a huge number of shareholders. To make corporations less risky if it loses money the shareholders won't actually be responsible, a corporation will be kind of a person only not. Money won't be gold, it will be created out of thin air by a special kind of corporation called a bank. The total ratio won't get out of control because a special government bank will set the right lending ratios and create more money if it's needed. Some things will be done by corporations, some by individuals and family businesses, other things like roads done by the government."

That's how the current economy works. But no-one in the feudal system could possibly have set out that plan. Capitalism wasn't invented one day by Bob Capitalism: the system evolved gradually, piece by piece through trial and error.

Yet it would still have been a mistake in the feudal era to say "Feudalism must be the optimum way of running an economy and will never be superseded".
posted by TheophileEscargot at 12:44 PM on June 1 [19 favorites]


Hearts and minds are required in order to fire bullets, at least until weapon systems become fully autonomous.

If you think change cannot come without violence and suffering, that's like, your opinion man. My opinion man is that it can. One salient fact is that the violence and suffering is occuring anyway, right now, to people near you. Catastrophe has already happened, is already happening, and is looming ominously in the rear view. Objects are closer than they appear.

To dislodge the ruling class: refuse to be ruled by them. Quit your job. Don't pay rent. Kill your TV. Take the hits as they come. Other people do these things as a matter of necessity, we all can do them as a matter of solidarity.
posted by Rev. Irreverent Revenant at 12:49 PM on June 1 [8 favorites]


the system evolved gradually, piece by piece through trial and error

This includes the overlap of feudal and corporate structures in history. For instance, the Hanseatic League.
posted by snuffleupagus at 1:40 PM on June 1 [2 favorites]


The article in the first link is definitely interesting and worth reading and discussing. Based on what I know, I think the authors overstate 1) the extent to which the view of prehistory that they're attacking represents a genuine consensus rather than a simplified pop-science narrative that's pushed overly literally by a few popular authors, 2) the extent to which this view actually has any effect on the way people behave with regards to thinking about future social change, and 3) the amount and quality of evidence for their own viewpoint on social structures in hunter-forager societies. I mean, they cite precisely two examples of societies that they interpret as having seasonal social structures, provide only broad brushstrokes and no context for understanding why we should interpret these behaviors according to their pet theory that these people are "playing" with different social systems rather than having a single social structure that manifests in different ways depending on the environmental affordances during the year, and then extrapolate wildly to suggest that this is actually the norm for hunter-forager societies. I'd be very interested to know what anthropologists specializing in this area think, though. Regardless, I do think it's generally a good thing to undercut the notion that the last 10,000 years of human history reflect a general trend toward "progress", or that there's an inevitable association between any particular technological and social changes revealed by the historical record of societies adopting agriculture and cities.

I admit I was a bit put off by the frequent ax-grinding about "technocrats" as well. Haven't the last few years given us enough know-nothing populism?
posted by biogeo at 1:41 PM on June 1 [4 favorites]


To dislodge the ruling class: refuse to be ruled by them. Quit your job. Don't pay rent. Kill your TV. Take the hits as they come. Other people do these things as a matter of necessity, we all can do them as a matter of solidarity.

"Everyone should quit their job and choose homelessness in solidarity with the marginalized" seems less than realistic as a plan for toppling capitalist feudalism.
posted by Lyme Drop at 2:08 PM on June 1 [14 favorites]


Objects are closer than they appear.

Agree. The ruling elite are the catastrophe. The destruction and death are happening now -- which, according to the idea that Scheidel is pushing, means we are ready for change now. LFG, y'all.
posted by kaelynski at 2:13 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]


Wait are technocrats bad now? My definition of technocrats is “the people who know how to get things done instead of just talking about it”. Like you wouldn’t put an introspective anarchist in charge of keeping the sewage plant running or coordinating IRS tax collection. There are multiple definitions but I think of technocrats as the people that keep shit working and who can tell you how practical your idea is. Unsung heroes !

Good set of articles for stimulating discussion. We are in a time that doesn’t have a precedent; there’s instant global communication and we are nearing the planet’s carrying capacity and pushing limits on CO2, garbage, water, land, etc. History is instructive but we are really at a critical point compared to even, say, 50 years ago. Moon colonies notwithstanding, we’d better figure some shit out and quick .
posted by freecellwizard at 3:08 PM on June 1 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I mean at least in the literal sense, "technocrat" comes from Ancient Greek τέχνη (craft, skill) + κρᾰτῐ́ᾱ (rule), as in, rule by the skilled, as in, the people in charge of something should have some specific knowledge and ability regarding the thing they're in charge of. The alternative is what Plato warns us about in Gorgias: rule by sophists, whose only skill is in convincing others that they should be allowed to rule.
posted by biogeo at 3:55 PM on June 1


Plato warns us about in Gorgias: rule by sophists

Plato also warns us about democracy, though, so I don't know. If skill is all it takes to be a technocrat then what does it mean to see history littered with examples of skillful monsters? The question of how to organize people in ways that are both effective and humane is not so much a computational problem that can be solved as such, as it is a process of continuous upkeep of the networks of mutuality and reciprocity in which we recognize, affirm and chasten one another.

At least that is, I think, the lens through which Graeber and Wengrow invite us to re-examine our prejudices and fairy tales about our most ancient history. They ask us to join them in a Rousseauian thought experiment (and being a Rousseauian thought experiment, it's kind of over the top), in which we get to re-imagine the past in order to re-imagine the future, so that ultimately, perhaps, we get to re-imagine the present, including what words like "technocracy", or "savagery", or "humanity" can or should mean.
posted by dmh at 5:33 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]


Yeah the problem with rule by technocrats is that they are not going to allocate resources in accordance with the wishes of the rest of the polity. Technocrats should be in charge of their technical specialty but still governed by the people (or whatever).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:55 PM on June 1 [2 favorites]


>If skill is all it takes to be a technocrat then what does it mean to see history littered with examples of skillful monsters?

Technocrats can of course be monsters, but I would not say history outside China is littered with technocrats let alone monstrous technocrats. A technocrat is not "a leader who is skilled" but rather a leader selected by a process designed to select based on skill. By definition a technocrat can't have been elected, born to her position, chosen by lottery, etc regardless of how skilled she might be - and conversely people who get their positions via examination results are technocrats even if they are unskilled and cheated on the exam.
posted by Easy problem of consciousness at 6:07 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]


Plato's warning about democracy, though, was that eventually people would inevitably retreat from the responsibility of self-governance and choose a tyrant to rule over them. As an American still trying to figure out what the hell is happening to my country in 2021, it's looking distressingly like he might have had a point.
posted by biogeo at 6:26 PM on June 1 [1 favorite]


The alternative is what Plato warns us about in Gorgias: rule by sophists, whose only skill is in convincing others that they should be allowed to rule.
posted by biogeo


And more than two millennium later various forms of force and sophistry remain the two most effective routes to power. :-(
posted by Pouteria at 7:36 PM on June 1


> I'd love an articulated thru-line or elevator pitch. Why these articles, together?

so the through-line is the intersection between technology and culture that yields development and progress -- or not! what forms of human organization result in uplift? i.e. progress studies :P

"The ultimate, hidden truth of the world, is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently." —David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules

or:*
If you managed to convince everyone on earth that you can breathe under water, it won’t make any difference: if you try it, you will still drown. On the other hand, if you could convince everyone in the entire world that you were King of France, then you would actually be the King of France. (In fact, it would probably work just to convince a substantial portion of the French civil service and military.)

This is the essence of politics. Politics is that dimension of social life in which things really do become true if enough people believe them. The problem is that in order to play the game effectively, one can never acknowledge its essence.
"If only everyone wants it, it can be arranged at once." —Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

"Wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born." —Matthew Arnold, Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse

or like one historian put it:
There is no way we can predict the future, today less than ever before in history. Nobody really has a clue how the economy or society or gender relations would look like in 2050. What we can do is explore some of the possibilities. I think for historians, for academics, the task with regard to the future is not to make predictions. It is to explore different possibilities to prepare ourselves for them. In this sense, it is often said you study history in order to predict the future and learn lessons from the mistakes of the past. I think the main reason to study history is to free ourselves from the past. The past controls us, through stories and institutions. The past controls our hopes, our thoughts, our dreams, our fears, and shapes them. This really limits the horizon of possibilities which we can see before us. I think my job as a historian is in trying, just a little bit, to relax this grip of the past and enable us to envision a wider horizon of possibilities.
> What I want is a concrete idea of how, say, an anarchistic visions can be achieved in the modern world without mass death, which is apparently what these authors are selling.

(pre)historical debates aside, audrey tang is a self-described anarchist involved with 'questions of implementation', e.g. taiwan's sunflower movement. also btw, south korea's experience may be instructive: Forty years ago, the citizens of Gwangju rose up to fight for their democracy.
posted by kliuless at 10:40 PM on June 1 [6 favorites]


The problem with technocracy is that it inevitably limits debate to fundamentally technocratic questions of implementation and competence rather than fundamental questions like what society should look like.
posted by atrazine at 3:07 AM on June 2 [9 favorites]


Yeah I don't know why people are so derisive towards technocrats, who are just non-ideological experts who do the hard work of determining what percentage of the population needs to be sacrificed to the markets to maximize GDP growth.
posted by Pyry at 7:13 AM on June 2 [7 favorites]


I'm guessing you don't know many civil servants working for the government.
posted by biogeo at 12:48 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]


"Civil servant" and "technocrat" aren't synonyms. If you want to say that "technocrat" is a mostly-meaningless pejorative that makes the user sound juvenile, then sure, that's a perfectly fine position to hold. But if you want to rehabilitate the idea of technocracy, to say that no, actually, "technocrat" shouldn't be an insult, then I think you're going to have your work cut out for you.
posted by Pyry at 1:26 PM on June 4 [1 favorite]


The problem with technocracy is that it effectively permanently makes political decisions outside of the political process and then constrains politicians to essentially act as if they're civil servants working within the external framework set by those decisions.

There's nothing wrong with technocrats but ultimately poltics is about values and it is anti-democratic to pre-determine those values and then let "politics" be about playing within that unchallengeable framework.

For example, we assume that *of course* trade policy and interest rate policy are set by a set of WTO / central bank rules. That's fine, but only if real political consensus was used to determine their mandates in the first place. The people tell the Fed to balance unemployment and inflation, "balance the output gap in our name," they say. Or not maybe.

The danger is that the most important decisions are place beyond debate and political leaders are left with posturing, making identitarian claims, and mischief.
posted by atrazine at 2:51 PM on June 4 [2 favorites]


In the charitable interpretation of technocracy politicians/the people decide on values and then technocrats, selected primarily based on competence, implement those values into policy.

However, the idea that a skilled, non-political policymaker ought to be equally able to implement any values that politicians decide on only makes sense if you believe that all values are just parameters in some universal model. It presumes that everyone fundamentally agrees on a policy framework, and that political differences are reducible to disagreements about how the knobs are tuned. To think this, you have to be so invested in a world model, or ideology, that you don't even realize it is an ideology.
posted by Pyry at 9:13 PM on June 5 [2 favorites]


We're getting pretty far afield here so I don't want to engage too deeply on this lest we derail things further, but I don't understand that argument. Why should we think that a skilled, non-political policymaker ought to be equally able to implement any values that political representatives decide on? Obviously there are many priorities and goals that do not lend themselves to skillful implementation, because they are incoherent. This is why right wing populists (and I guess maybe left wing populists too?) hate technocrats: because they tell them they can't implement their incoherent ideas.
posted by biogeo at 10:56 AM on June 6


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