Sunday, March 28, 2010

This Is No Time For Compromise

Can we now dispense with the word “bipartisanship” now?

We are in a Crisis era, a Fourth Turning. Roughly once a lifetime, we go through a period of civic upheaval in which our national institutions (political and economic) have, for one reason or another, become dysfunctional. The last time this happened was in the 1930s-40s with the Great Depression followed by World War II. The time before that was in the 1860s-70s with secession, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. The time before that was in the 1770s-80s with the American Revolutionary War and the framing of the Constitution. You can find out more about the concept at this web site: But what I want to write about today is not the overall concept of the generational cycle and the Fourth Turning. I want to talk about a specific characteristic that all Fourth Turnings have, this one (so far) included. That characteristic is divisiveness. It’s something that is often decried, but it is in fact a good thing – indeed, an absolutely necessary thing.

A Crisis era (such as this one) is a decisive time. It’s a time when much-needed reforms are put in place, reforms that have been neglected for decades. It is not a time for compromise or soft talk or middle courses. It’s a time when consensus cannot be achieved, when conflict arises between those who see a need for the new and those who would preserve the old, however dysfunctional it may be. It is the nature of such a conflict that it cannot be resolved through agreement. There must be a victory, and there must be a defeat. Consider the three Crisis eras from our nation’s past, beginning with the American Revolution.

In 1773, tensions had been rising between England and the American colonies for decades. The expensive conclusion of the Seven Years War (or French and Indian War to Americans) moved the British government to try to get the colonies to contribute financially to their own defense. A reasonable request, of course, but it ran head-first into the colonists’ conviction that they had come to America in the first place in search of self-rule, and that Crown and Parliament had no proper sovereign authority over America. London’s position was diametrically opposed: the British government insisted on its right to govern all British territory, including the colonies in America.

This impasse had grown over time. Prior to the French and Indian War, the British government didn’t really make any attempt to govern the colonies. Britain used America as a convenient dumping ground for condemned criminals (as she would later use Australia), a source of raw materials, and a market for manufactured goods, but otherwise left the colonists to their own devices. Thought in Britain had always held that the Crown and Parliament held sovereignty and the right to govern, but why bother? As American society became more developed and sophisticated, though, as population grew, and as the war with France forced Great Britain to take an interest in (and spend more money on) America’s defense, the attitude of the British government and that of the Americans approached collision.

A number of taxes were imposed on the colonists in the years following the end of the war, provoking a storm of protest. The government backed down and repealed most of these taxes by the early 1770s, retaining only a token duty on imported tea.

Was the tea tax onerous, an unconscionable burden threatening to reduce Americans to abject poverty? Certainly not. It was barely a tax at all. It would fall short of paying for the French and Indian War by millions of pounds. Most Americans would likely shrug their shoulders, pay the duty, and hardly notice. But the Tea Act, if allowed to stand, set the precedent that Parliament had the authority to tax the colonists and to legislate in other ways. Rather than accept this, a radical group led by Samuel Adams engaged in a bit of guerrilla theater, nonviolent civil disobedience, and applied vandalism, and destroyed a cargo of tea in Boston harbor.

This was not a move intended or calculated to provoke compromise. In response, the British government didn’t compromise, either. It imposed a series of Punitive Acts (or “Intolerable Acts” as the Americans called them) which further roused the Americans’ ire. Americans began forming militias and stockpiling arms and ammunition. The Crown dispatched reinforcements to America and negotiated with the German principality of Hesse for mercenary troops. The Americans formed a provisional government and appointed George Washington commander of its newly created army, which set about besieging the British forces in Boston. Battles were fought. Washington’s forces outmaneuvered the British at Boston and forced them to withdraw. The British thereafter returned the favor at New York City and nearly (but not quite) destroyed the Continental Army. The Congress passed a motion to declare independence from Great Britain. From that point on, the lines were drawn and no compromise was possible. Either America would become fully independent of Great Britain, or the colonies would submit to British rule, but the prior condition of loyal but self-governing colonies would cease to exist, one way or another.

Does this begin to sound familiar in terms of our current situation?

We can also compare it to what happened in the 1860s. Tensions had been building over issues related to industrialization of the country, particularly slavery, for many years. The territories acquired during the U.S.-Mexican War were a focus for much of the argument, since they would eventually become states and their representatives in Congress would weigh in on one side of the divide or the other. The newly-formed Republican Party represented the interests of the northern capitalists and of the abolitionists (who were in agreement over the specific issue of slavery; both opposed it although for different reasons). A moderate Republican, Abraham Lincoln, was nominated for president in 1860. Lincoln was not proposing to outlaw slavery, but did propose to keep it out of the new states formed from the western territories. This would, over time, result in an anti-slavery majority in Congress, and the planter interests saw the writing on the wall.

A true compromise on the issue of slavery would have resulted in gradual emancipation with compensation paid to the slave owners for loss of their property, but the hard-liners were not interested in that on either side. Southern fire-eaters saw an opportunity to provoke secession from the U.S. by states that permitted slavery. The strategy for this was to ensure a hard-line pro-slavery Democratic candidate in the election. Moderate Democrats held their own convention, with the result that the party split and nominated two competing presidential tickets, both of which lost (predictably enough) and Lincoln won with a plurality of the popular vote, exactly as the fire-eaters had intended. Seven states promptly seceded. Lincoln initially attempted a compromise solution and peaceful rejoining of the Union. The seceding states were having none of it. They formed a new central government with a Constitution modeled on the one they had abrogated (with a few appropriate changes) and, in a dispute over a federal fort within the borders of one of the seceding states, went to war.

Once again, an irreconcilable conflict existed. The southern planters wanted to preserve an antique way of life based on wealth generated by growing cash crops with slave labor. The northern commercial and industrial interests wanted to pursue an increasingly mechanized and industrialized future in which slaves would be replaced by machines and finance capital would dominate the entire economy, and the emancipationists, their temporary and ad-hoc allies, wished to free the slaves for moral reasons. A solution might have been found short of war, but it would have required the planters to accept defeat and seek the best compromise deal they could get. They were unwilling to do that. And so the lines were drawn once again, and the conflict fought to the finish.

The Great Depression was less violent, but no less uncompromising. A breakdown of the capitalist economic system with its governing philosophy of laissez-faire left some 25% of the workforce unemployed. Neither the breakdown nor dispute over that philosophy was new; the industrial economy put in place after the Civil War suffered periodic financial panics and depressions roughly every 20 years. The philosophy itself was opposed by labor union activists, anarchists, socialists, and Communists. Class conflict had been intensifying for decades. The Depression brought it all to a head. Herbert Hoover, the president when the economy tanked, was no laissez-faire purist, or so one would judge from his past. But he moved in that direction in the face of disaster, perhaps out of genuine conviction or perhaps because the Republican Party demanded it of him. The conflict this time was political and electoral and did not involve guns (which we may take as a sign of progress), but it was no less decisive. Over the years of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, laissez-faire was abandoned. The workplace was unionized, the government regulated the banks and other industries, and the first social welfare programs (Social Security and unemployment insurance) were put in place. By the time World War II was over, a new economy had been crafted, a mix of capitalist and socialist elements. This was not accomplished through bipartisan compromise any more than the changes of the American Revolution or the Civil War were. The divide was sharp and partisan, with the Democrats on one side of it and the Republicans on the other. The Democrats won, and the Republicans lost.

In the present time, we again face a situation similar to those three. The economy has again broken down, although not as severely as during the Great Depression. In addition, we face shortages of key raw materials and severe environmental dangers. The problems this time are global in scope. The global economy is beyond the power of any one national government to regulate – an international means of regulating it is required. One economic problem that was not present in the 1930s was a shortage of fuel; the U.S. was still a net exporter of oil then. Today, we are faced with the need to transform our energy economy away from its dependence on oil – no easy task. We cannot simply apply the same methods that worked in the Depression, despite a superficial similarity.

On all of these points, we do not find national unity. There are voices on the other side, claiming that the problems don’t exist, or that we can solve them without changing the way we do business. In many cases, these voices are cynical and insincere, acting not with genuine public concern but out of a desire to protect private profits. We saw how fiercely the lines were drawn over the health-care reform debate. This is the template for the next few elections. A compromise, “bipartisan” solution will, almost by definition, be an unworkable one. We must accept that the conflict exists. It’s too soon to broker a negotiated settlement. First, we must win. Then we can make peace.

I hope – and given the example of the Great Depression, I cautiously believe – that I speak of “winning” and of “peace” only in metaphor. Some violence, however, has already occurred. It remains to be seen whether those who are defeated at the polls (rather, some of their crazier supporters) will resort to the cartridge box instead of the ballot box. Let us pray not. Such efforts would of course be defeated, but in the course of it lives would be lost for the most futile of causes. In that sense, I hope that we have peace now, not after victory. But at the same time, we cannot let the danger of violence deter us from doing what must be done.

In any case, it’s time to jettison the search for “bipartisanship.” There will come a time later on, after the necessary reforms are in place and their opponents have accepted reality, when consensus may be sought once more. But that time is not now.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Interim Post

I'll have a regular weekly post up here tomorrow, but at the moment I want to put up a few links where more of my writing on various things can be found.

My Facebook page.!/profile.php?ref=profile&id=100000709608530

In the Notes section, I include poetry and excerpts from my novel, The Stairway to Nowhere.

Which novel has an e-book page here:

You can read half of the book on-line for free, or download either a free sample or the whole book in various formats (.mobi for the Kindle, epub, LRF for the Sony Reader, PDF, or RTF).

See you tomorrow, and thanks for visiting.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Advanced Civilized Paradigm III: Government

This is the third entry in the Advanced Civilized Paradigm series, concerning government. As with the economy and religion, we can recognize two stable, long-lasting forms of government in our history and prehistory, before entering upon modern times and the whirlwind of change we’ve become accustomed to. When I say “long-lasting,” I mean over time measured in the thousands of years.

When the species Homo sapiens first appeared on the planet, the government structure of the Precivilized Paradigm already existed, as did its economic forms and, very likely, its basic religious ideas. The hominid species that preceded us, H. erectus, had already invented the fundamental technologies with which our ancestors faced the world: simple stone tools, the controlled use of fire, clothing, basket-weaving, primitive medicine. True humans quickly refined and improved all these technologies, but even so it was a long time before our ancestors resorted to the key technology which changed the paradigm of social life: agriculture. As long as humans lived by foraging and hunting instead of by planting and husbandry, certain forms of government, economy, and religion prevailed. It was a simpler, more egalitarian, less formalized way of life.

As with the economy and religion, we should ask ourselves a key question: what is government for? What purposes are served by having an empowered authority over society, whatever form it takes? As with economy and religion, the answer is a simple one, despite the amazing complexity and variety of tasks before modern governments. A government has two functions. First, it resolves disputes among citizens. Second, it decides, coordinates and implements collective action. Every operation of government – armies and navies, police and courts, bureaucracies and legislatures, aid to the poor and corporate subsidies, men on the moon and men in black – serves one or the other of these purposes. Humans are a social species not a solitary one, so both these function of government are always necessary regardless of the particulars of society. Wherever people interact, disputes arise, and if we are not to resolve all of them by individual violence, we must have some method in place for resolving them by recourse to decisive authority. Also, all societies of necessity do some things collectively rather than individually, and so a means of making collective decisions and effectively giving orders to participants is required. These needs are constants, but the way in which they are met has varied – yet not endlessly.

In precivilized times, people lived in small bands. Everyone in a band knew everyone else, and most of them were related to each other. Leaders of the band were chosen by informal consensus, and collective decision-making was by informal discussion. In short, there was no formal government, really, nor any need of one. Like the economics and religion of the Precivilized Paradigm, its governing structures were maintained universally wherever human beings lived for somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 years. It’s difficult to imagine life going on without change in its patterns for such a long time as that.

In fact, though, it didn’t quite. Technological progress occurred in precivilized times at a glacial pace, but over 100,000 or 200,000 years, even glacial-pace technological progress adds up. Humans improved their techniques of toolmaking, going from the thrusting spear or swung axe to the thrown spear to the spear-thrower to the bow and arrow. They learned to use domesticated dogs as hunting companions. They developed new and better methods of food preservation, and applied borderline methods that skirted between gathering and agriculture. As food supplies increased, so did populations, until the pressure of numbers forced human societies to make use of agriculture proper. As soon as that step was taken, the nature of human society, including its governing institutions, began to change.

The change occurred over at least a thousand years, going through several transitional forms, including the chiefdom and the council of elders and the primitive republic, until tribal life evolved into the city-state. From that point on, government assumed the form of the Classical Civilized Paradigm, and retained that form, with occasional temporary exceptions, for about seven to eight thousand years. The elements of government under the Classical Paradigm in nearly every society that lived in cities, from the earliest known city-states in the Near East until things began to change in the sixteenth century in Europe, remained constant, and revolved around hereditary monarchy, with the royal power compromised by the influence of the hereditary landed warrior elite, of the priestly class, and (where a significant commercial element existed in the economy) of the merchant class. In a few exceptional cases, the elite classes governed without a monarch, sometimes with a pretense of democracy; this was the case in classical Athens and in the Roman Republic. Such societies always had a very strong commercial economic base, and were the exceptions to an overwhelming rule. Not only was the governing structure of the Classical Paradigm the norm in agrarian, pre-industrial societies of the western Old World that had contact with each other and might conceivably have influenced one another through imitation, but also in societies that evolved with relative independence, such as the monarchies of ancient India, China, and Japan, or even with total independence, such as the civilized monarchies of Mesoamerica. This form of governance was not, I would argue, something primarily learned by one society through contact with another, but rather something dictated by material circumstance. A warlike society with a primarily agricultural economy, in which land was the primary source of wealth and labor to work the land the primary necessity for its exploitation, readily available in the form of captives taken in war, naturally developed an elite class of warriors who were rewarded with land ownership and slaves to work their land. The king was in origin merely the most powerful and influential noble, but through the support of the priestly class and the machinery of formal government became something more than that, his power a check on that of ambitious aristocrats – not always successfully. Where the material circumstances shifted away from the norm for agrarian societies, most often when a society could achieve greater wealth through trade than through large-scale agriculture, a divergence was sometimes seen from the Classical Paradigm pattern.

The same array of technological changes that resulted in other divergence from the Classical Paradigm – the printing press, the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, electronics, computers, the Internet and, in future, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence – have also resulted in a change of government form. I do not believe, however, that our society has finished changing in terms of government any more than in terms of economy or religion.

The changes to government in the centuries since the divergence began have all been in two directions. One direction has been that of equalizing influence on the state and elevating formerly powerless classes of people to greater power and greater protection against government abuses. Hereditary government positions have been replaced with elected ones, and the franchise extended to broader and broader percentages of the electorate, until today the vote is held by all people living in modern states except non-citizens, the very young, the severely mentally ill, and in some cases convicted felons; i.e., voting has become a right with relatively rare exceptions instead of a privilege held by few. Voting has probably been extended as far as it can be, but there remain two sources of privileged influence, one being wealth, and the other political office itself.

The other direction of change has been the expansion of the size and scope of government. As society has grown more complex, government has taken on more functions over time that were previously handled by private agencies, if at all. In addition, the size of territory administered by the “top layer” of government has grown, and the number and scope of intergovernmental bodies – government at a wider level than that of the nation-state – has increased.

So, where does each of these processes meet its natural end point, beyond which further technological advance will take it no further? We must, as always, speculate about the Advanced Civilized Paradigm, and none of this is certain. I play here with ideas. That said, here is what I think will ultimately happen.

The representative democracies we have today will in the end be replaced by direct democracy, facilitated by communications technology – the Internet or perhaps something more impressive, a linking of person to person that is always on. We will still elect representatives, but they will no longer make collective decisions for us. Instead, they will act as legal experts and consultants, presenting suggestions for the people’s consideration. The people themselves will be smarter on the average than they are now, thanks to genetic engineering and/or artificial enhancements, and biological humans will be joined by robotic intelligences in a dual citizenship.

One very desirable effect of this arrangement will be to undercut and neutralize the current contemptible influence of lobbyists and campaign contributions. Wealth will have much less effect on lawmaking because the people, not the people’s representatives, will be making the laws. The representatives may still be lobbied, but it will be increasingly impossible to keep any such efforts secret, and they will be easily countered by the instantaneous registering of public opinion.

The scope of government will be both broader and deeper, encompassing everything except personal and private life. Remember that under the Advanced Civilized Paradigm, there will be no such thing as a job. Everyone will be an owner and receive an income from that rather than from work, and so all business will become a public enterprise. This will vastly expand the role of government to encompass the entire economic private sector as it stands today – but since nobody will be employed any more, this will not amount to a significant degree of government leverage over people’s lives.

While deepening, government will also broaden, and many functions that are now handled at the nation-state level will move up to the level of global governance. Other national functions will devolve to a regional or local level of government, and national governments will wither away (at least in part), becoming much weaker than they are today. A single global government will handle all matters of trade regulation, peacekeeping, and resource husbandry, while local and regional governments handle criminal law, most civil law and the management of local business enterprise. There will be very little for national governments to do, especially since military forces as they currently exist will be abolished by the global government, and war as we have known it for thousands of years will disappear. There will probably still be a need for armed forces to contend with terrorist movements and civil disturbances, but these could be maintained at a tiny fraction of the resource and manpower cost of today’s armed forces, freeing up immense resources for the public good.

A remaining question is how government functions will be handled once mankind expands off planet Earth. Will the communication technology exist to make the global government a solar system or even interstellar government? Impossible to say – and this suggests there may, eventually, be a state of society beyond the Advanced Paradigm. But the visions presented here should be enough to occupy our progressive dreams for a good long while.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Advanced Civilized Paradigm II: Religion

This second entry in the Advanced Civilized Paradigm series concerns religion. I touched on this subject last January: Here, I want to go into a bit more detail about the nature of religion in the far future, in the end state of significant technological progress.

Religion changes over time. In particular, it changed dramatically at the same two junctures I cited in my last entry, the transition from the Precivilized Paradigm to the Classical Civilized Paradigm, and the transition in which we currently find ourselves, away from the Classical Paradigm and (perhaps) towards the Advanced Paradigm. Just as in government, in work, and in other areas, a pattern can be seen that remained constant within recognizable parameters across thousands of years of history and everywhere in the world.

It’s sometimes hard to recognize this, because all of the so-called “great” religions were developed under the Classical Paradigm. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, all of these emerged during the millennia of agrarian economies and monarchical governments, and so they show the common characteristics of all such faiths, but because we are used to considering only these ancient religions, and the parameters of the possible are (incorrectly) imagined to be coextensive with their variations, the relatively insignificant differences among them stand out in stark relief and the essential similarity is all but invisible. It’s analogous to an all-male convention in which one observes that some of the attendees are tall, some short, some thin, some fat, some bearded and some not, some bald and some with hair, and fails to observe that none of them have breasts.

Religion, like government, follows the material needs of society, in this case the need for a statement and ritual reinforcement of collective morality and of the myths that describe man’s place in the cosmos. Like the governments of the Classical Paradigm, the religions of that era all had certain characteristics in common. They all stipulated that man was the master of nature, entitled to rule and dominate. They all elevated a principle separate from nature over and above man. (Usually, that principle was personified as one or more deities. Occasionally, as in Buddhism, it was not. But in all cases, the principle elevated to sacred status was separate from nature. It was either the creator of nature, or supra-powerful beings dominant over nature, or a principle of reality with nature seen as illusion. Nature itself was shorn of sacrality.) They all acknowledged the superiority of some men over others and of all men over women. All propounded a sexual morality that maximized birthrates by making women the sexual property of men, denying them control over their sexuality and their reproductive behavior, and placing upon them a moral obligation to have as many children as possible, while condemning both (female) extramarital sex and (for both sexes) homosexuality.

In matters of organization as well as doctrine, broad constants can be seen. All Classical Paradigm religions included a formal priesthood. All entered into partnership with the state, which gave privileged status to the official faith and, more often than not, suppressed all others. In all cases, the clergy represented an elite class alongside the warrior nobility, endowed with similar wealth and privileges, and often enjoying somewhat higher status than the nobility itself. In all cases, the formal priestly hierarchy had the authority to declare official doctrines and to declare deviance from those doctrines to be heretical; more often than not, the hierarchy also had the power to impose material penalties for heresy either directly or through the agency of the state.

These characteristics do not describe the religious beliefs, practices, and organizations of the Precivilized Paradigm, to the extent we know about those faiths. Admittedly that knowledge is less than perfect, but we can be certain about some things. For example, we can be sure that precivilized religion did not enjoy a special relationship with the state, because precivilized societies did not have states. What we can tell about our hunter-gatherer ancestors in terms of religion, assuming that the precivilized societies that have survived into historical times and had their beliefs recorded may be taken as typical, is that their myths and morality alike placed man as part of, subordinate to, and interwoven with nature, rather than above it. Women enjoyed a higher status in precivilized society than under the Classical Paradigm, and the religious beliefs of our distant ancestors reflect this. The stories and myths taught that people should treat nature, and the animals and plants that comprise nature, with the utmost respect. The religion of the Precivilized Paradigm was appropriate for the material circumstances in which people lived, and so was that of the Classical Paradigm.

Beginning in about the 15th or 16th century CE in Europe, our ancestors began to diverge from the Classical Civilized Paradigm. They did so in terms of religion just as they did in terms of economics and government. The Protestant Reformation was the first major upheaval in that transition. Most of the religious ideas of Protestants were as rooted in the Classical Paradigm as those of Catholics (after all, most them were the same ideas), but in two key respects the movement was revolutionary. One was the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers: that each person was his or her own authority on matters of doctrine, and required no sacerdotal intermediary. The other was the sheer existence of the movement and the challenge it posed to religious authority. By breaking the monolith of western Christianity, the Reformation weakened the religion’s power and paved the way for the related Enlightenment ideas of religious freedom and separation of church and state.

The second major change to impact religion was the scientific revolution. In creating the myths that explain man’s place in the universe, religious thinking during the Classical Paradigm had often employed statements about observable fact which, under scientific scrutiny, turned out not to be true. That in itself did not invalidate the myths, whose purpose was never scientific (that is, they were not intended to make factual claims about objective reality, but rather to use observable reality as a metaphor to make values statements), but it did undermine claims to infallibility, and thus further diminished religious authority.

A third major change has emerged over time from the industrial revolution, that awesome tidal wave of progress that has toppled kings and aristocracies, freed slaves, liberated women, and radically transformed societies from top to bottom. It has had its effect on religion as well. It has allowed population to grow to the point where we now need to restrain it rather than encourage it, and this has rendered inappropriate much of traditional sexual morality. Together with the elevation of brain over brawn, the same change has rendered pointless the subjugation of women. It has expanded human power over nature until today we must restrain ourselves in its use, so that myths which make man a divinely-authorized tyrant over the natural world have become inappropriate.

A fourth change impacting religion is the revolution in communications technology. From the printing press to the Internet, this has led to the exchange of religious ideas on a global basis, making it problematic for any faith to remain intellectually isolated and preserve its doctrinal purity or claims to exclusive possession of truth.

Most subtle of all, but perhaps most radical, is the observed reality of progress itself. All Classical Paradigm religions were built on a foundation of unchanging Truth known for all time and handed down by God or perceived in a state of enlightenment. (It’s true that there are Truths which are True for all time, but it’s also true that none of these Truths can be told in language, so religious doctrines, which of necessity are expressed in words, do not expound them.) Commandments written on stone tablets by the finger of God. God Himself inhabiting a human body and proclaiming infallible truth. The Prophet taking dictation from an angel. But these metaphors and mythic images, while appropriate and holding resonance within a society whose pace of change is so glacially slow that it is possible to believe it never does change, cannot work well in a society where change is rapid and constant. We cannot help but feel that they are relics of a bygone time – and indeed they are.

There is I believe one final change which has not emerged, but will. It will come from future developments in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. When we are able to remake the genetic structure of our own species, we will not use this technology merely to eliminate genetic diseases or augment average intelligence. There is more than one template of the ideal man or woman, and so the man or woman of the distant future will be a highly diverse creature, with genetic variation that is difficult to contemplate today. (The science fiction writer Greg Bear did a fair job of it, though. I recommend his Eon for a good mind boggle. To a lesser extent, also his Darwin’s Radio and Darwin’s Children.) At the same time, developments in artificial intelligence may create minds, recognized as being minds, with a radically different basis of thought than our own. The myths expressing man’s place in the cosmos must take different forms when the nature of man itself has changed almost beyond recognition.

These six changes – religious liberty, scientific method, the need for environmental responsibility, global communication, the perceived reality of progress, and redefinition of what it means to be human – will define the religious thought of the Advanced Civilized Paradigm. Under the influence of these factors, we may get a somewhat hazy image of what will emerge, indeed what is already emerging.

First, contrary to what is supposed by some militant atheists, I am sure that religion will still exist. There is a need in the brain for mythos, for a narrative expounding the nature of man and our place in the universe, for ritual weaving us into that narrative, and for reinforcement of collective morality. Whether and to what extent the religion of the future incorporates crude “supernatural” ideas is another question, but a more subtle one than is usually recognized; the myths of the Gods, and perhaps even more so that of God, resonates with the mystery of consciousness and that of existence itself, which are inherently beyond the reach of science. Reason does well at contemplating the working of the parts, but is not designed to encompass the whole.

But if we need neither fear nor hope for the end of religion, the end of the religions of the present day in their Classical Paradigm forms is a certainty. The religion or religions of the Advanced Paradigm will have the following characteristics:

Fluidity. Religion in an advanced civilization will be an evolving thing, and it will be accepted and understood that its forms must adapt themselves to the concept of change itself. People will move easily from one religious idea to another, and the idea of fixed membership in a strictly-defined belief system will be abandoned.

Diversity. Religion will take many forms, mixing elements of many faiths and adding new metaphorical forms. The fact that all religious ideas are metaphors, and so multiple “truths” are possible – or rather, that multiple ways to express truth are equally valid – will be universally recognized.

Egalitarian, environmental morality. The Advanced Civilized Paradigm will include much greater recognition of the ideal of equality than the Classical Paradigm did, and it will, of necessity, be environmentalist to a degree most people do not comprehend at this point. Religion will reflect these values. All religion will promote equality of rights and economic equality, and all will promote good stewardship of the natural world. As a consequence, traditional sexual morality will be replaced by a morality of respect and trust in sexual matters. As part of this, traditional taboos against homosexuality will disappear.

As with all elements of the Advanced Paradigm, we should not expect its religious motifs to emerge without controversy. But emerge they will, because they must. In fact, the religious aspects of the Advanced Paradigm are closer to being with us already than any of its other aspects. That’s to be expected, because one must envision the future before one can build it.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Advanced Civilized Paradigm I: Work

I’m going to be writing a series of blog articles about far-future changes. This is the first one. In writing these articles, I’m not going to be addressing current events or immediate problems (which means I may interrupt the series from time to time with something that needs more urgent attention), but rather considering long-term implications of advancing technology and the changes that it brings. I’m calling this series “The Advanced Civilized Paradigm.”

Here’s the basic idea behind the Advanced Civilized Paradigm. If we look at the way our precivilized ancestors lived from the first emergence of the human species, somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 years in the past, until the development of agricultural communities around 10,000 years ago, we find a persistent pattern. People lived in small communities of mostly-related people. They had no formal government or organized religion. This pattern persisted all over the world wherever people lived by foraging and hunting, for tens of thousands of years. This kind of persistent pattern or template of society I’m calling a “paradigm,” and this original, very old one in particular I call the “Precivilized Paradigm.”

Over a few thousand years, the early agricultural communities developed into city-states, and as they did, another pattern emerged that was also found all over the world, and that lasted for a long time, although not nearly as long as the Precivilized Paradigm did. This pattern included hereditary monarchy, a hereditary warrior-aristocrat elite class, a class of slaves or serfs at the bottom of the heap who worked for the benefit of the elite under threat of force, formal state religion, subordination of women to men. This pattern can be seen all over the world wherever people lived in cities in agrarian communities, with only rare and partial exceptions. It lasted from the emergence of the first city-states in the fifth or sixth millennium BCE and endured until relatively modern times. I call this pattern the “Classical Civilized Paradigm.”

Starting in Europe in roughly the 16th century CE, this pattern began to morph into something different and we’re still in a transition stage. It’s not at all clear where we’re going, but we certainly haven’t achieved any stable form that is likely to endure for as long as the Classical Civilized Paradigm did, let alone the Precivilized Paradigm. Maybe there won’t be any. Maybe we’ll just continue in a progressive upheaval forever. Or maybe not; maybe there’s a practical limit on the advance of technology and the social changes that accompany it, beyond which we’ll continue to progress but more slowly, with refinements on what’s already been developed, but nothing revolutionary, the way the printing press was revolutionary, or the steam engine, or electricity, or radio, or the assembly line, or the robotic factory, or the Internet.

For purposes of this writing series, I’m going to assume the latter is the truth: that there’s a practical end to all this, however far we are from it at the moment. With that in mind, I’m going to explore some logical “end states” of visible developments.

What will the economy be like when there is no such thing as a job?

What will religion be like when there are no barriers of language or communication?

What will government be like when instantaneous voting becomes a reality?

What does human mean in a world of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence?

I will deal with the first of those today in this entry.

What An Economy Does

An economy is a social arrangement that produces and distributes wealth. By “wealth,” I mean goods and services. (Money is not wealth. Money is a medium of exchange whereby wealth is traded.) Note that this description has two functions: production and distribution. An economy produces goods and services and gets them to the people that need or want them. An economy that succeeds in doing this is successful. An economy that fails in either function breaks down and fails in both. You can’t distribute wealth that hasn’t been produced. If it has been produced and you fail to distribute it, the economy stops producing it, too.

There are of course many ways of producing and distributing wealth, of varying sophistication. But no matter how complex the economy, or how many layers of esoteric financial manipulation are constructed on top of it, in the end it comes down to those two things. Can the economy produce enough wealth for everyone? Can it spread that wealth around so everybody has enough? To the extent it answers both questions “yes,” it works.

Now let’s consider a specific economic transaction and how it serves both functions at once: wages for work. First, we have to understand that our society assigns “ownership” of the material resources necessary to produce wealth on the basis of history, going back to someone who, in the far past, was able to grab those resources and hold them by force. In America, that generally means a white person who seized them from Native Americans. In other parts of the world, it’s slightly different, but it always comes down to forcible seizure at some point along the way. (Of course, if you look at the Native American from whom the white person seized the resources in question, and trace ownership back from that point, you find that somewhere along the way a Native American seized the resources from another Native American by force, too. The point here is not that white people are more wicked than Native Americans, but that ownership ultimately derives from piracy.)

Since the initial seizure, the property may have been traded many times by more peaceful and voluntary means. The history of these transactions ascertains who owns the material resources that are necessary to produce wealth. By societal convention, all wealth produced is considered “owned” by the “owner” of the material resources necessary to produce it – that is, of the land, natural resources, factories and infrastructure by which wealth is produced – and not by the people who do the work to produce it. The people who do the work to produce it, since they don’t own the wealth being produced, and can’t be coerced into doing the work by main force, must be paid to do it. That’s how our society has set things up, and how wealth is both produced and shared. Wages motivate workers to work, thus facilitating the creation of wealth, and at the same time provide workers (which, please note, means most of the population – this is important) with money (tokens of exchange, remember) that they can exchange for wealth (goods and services). In that way, wages also facilitate the distribution of wealth. They are the mechanism by which the wealth our economy produces is put into the hands of most of the people who receive it.

With me so far? It’s easy to take all of this for granted and consider it an artifact of nature, but every bit of it is a societal convention. There’s no reason why we MUST assign ownership of material resources to individuals, or say that the wealth produced is owned by the people who own the resources used to make it, that’s just the way we’ve done things for a long, long time, and so we seldom question it. What we have is a system in which rich and privileged people buy the labor of almost everyone else and then sell them the goods and services that their labor produced, thus resulting in a distribution of wealth. In terms of economic function, that’s what’s going on. Money (tokens of exchange, remember, not wealth) goes in a circle. It goes from the rich and privileged to everyone else, then it goes back to the rich and privileged (allowing wealth to be shared out to most everyone in the process), and the whole cycle starts over. The flow of money is two-way and circular, but the flow of wealth is one-way and linear.

Let me note in passing (I’ll come back to it) that wages for work aren’t a terribly good or reliable way to distribute wealth. They’re better than nothing, but they tend to distribute wealth rather poorly, resulting in frequent breakdowns of the economy such as we are currently experiencing. Wages tend to drop below productivity, and have to be propped up with regulations and laws and unions and other measures that fight against this tendency, and that doesn’t always work, as in fact it’s not working now. Keep that in mind as I discuss a long-term trend and take it to its logical conclusion.

With any work that’s done for pay, it’s theoretically possible to replace human beings by machinery. As a practical matter, for the present it’s not possible to do this with all work, but it’s increasingly possible with more and more of it. A tiny fraction of people work in agriculture today as did 150 years ago. Manufacturing as well has been increasingly automated (except in some poor countries where labor is actually cheaper than machines). Some services have been automated, too. For example, if you call the customer service department of many a company, you will find yourself talking to a voice-recognizing computer program that fields your questions or complaints. Such programs cannot, at present, completely replace human beings in customer service, but they can do the simpler sorting tasks and answer the easy questions that used to be done by low-level CS operators, and pass the hard stuff to humans just as low-level clerks would once pass hard questions to their supervisors. In principle, there is no reason why a machine could not be made to do any and all service work whatsoever. Machines could, in principle, run businesses, conduct sales, do scientific research, give artistic performances, or even perform the services of the sex trade. Some of these things would require considerable advances in technology over what is available at this time, but none of them is demonstrably impossible.

Let’s take this to its logical conclusion. Imagine a world in which machines can do anything human beings can do as well as humans or better. Every company that needs labor for any purpose no longer hires people, it buys or leases machines. Not only does it not hire any workers for the factory floor or the secretarial pool, it doesn’t even hire executive officers. Forget today’s CEOs of mega-corporations getting multimillion dollar bonuses. They’re unemployed, too. In fact, everyone is unemployed, and the only people who can make any money are the stockholders of the corporations.

Only problem is, they can’t make any money, either. The goods and services the companies are producing can only be sold to people who are making money, and under that scenario that means only to the stockholders. And there aren’t enough big stockholders to buy enough to keep business profitable – so everyone goes broke, the economy fails, and everyone in the world starves to death, leaving a world populated by nothing but robots.

Well, of course it wouldn’t actually go that far, because as soon as things got bad enough to really tick people off, we’d have a revolution of some kind. As this system we have in which rich and privileged people buy the labor of everyone else and then sell them the goods and services their labor produced goes from sort-of-working to not-working-at-all, it will be replaced with something that works better. But what?

Remember the exception above to “nobody’s making any money”? Stockholders still have wealth to trade and can still buy stuff, at least until the whole economy collapses. So a system in which all the work is done by machines would work just fine as long as everyone is a significant stockholder. Or, to put it another way, in which everyone has an owner’s share of the wealth produced.

In the far future, I believe that’s what we will have. We’re still a long way from it, but it’s the way our descendants will live.