Universal Translator

Thursday, January 5, 2012

All Thane’s Day and the Occupy Movement

Some time ago I wrote a post about the Occupy movement’s insistence on maintaining a non-hierarchical, horizontal organization even if keeping that kind of organization might not always be in its best interest.  I pointed out that for thousands of years humans naturally have been organizing ourselves into hierarchies for good reason:  a hierarchical structure brings with it a number of distinct advantages that consensus driven organizations just do not possess.

This afternoon, just to have something to look at while I ate my lunch, I randomly opened Jared Diamond’s fantastic book Guns, Germs and Steel and came across something Diamond wrote about social organization that seems to travel along the same line as my earlier critique.  I’m going to get to Diamond in a moment, but first I’d like to tell you about All Thane’s Day.

All Thane’s Day is the name I and my best friends from college (for reasons too complicated to go into here) gave to the reunion we used to hold each year after we were graduated and had gone our separate ways.  It was always a time of great fun and greater debauchery, a week-long event devoted to reminiscing, to remembering why we all care so very much for each other, and to playing the Sport of Kings . . . Beergammon.  (Undoubtedly the subject, some day, of a post in its own right.)

Of course, over the years most of us would go on to marry and have children and as our individual families grew larger and the children grew older it became increasingly difficult to organize a full week away for everybody – there just was no longer any week that did not conflict with someone’s schedule.  So even though we all still keep in touch and even get together from time to time, it’s probably been 4 years or more since we’ve had an honest-to-God, week-long All Thane’s Day reunion.

Which is a damned shame.

One of the last of these reunions was held at Nag’s Head, North Carolina, in the Outer Banks.  We had rented a large beach-front house, one that could accommodate at least nine adults and six children.  Unlike in years past, when we were younger and had stronger metabolisms, the focus of the week was not so much on playing Beergammon as it was on simply hanging out together. 

Every night we would put together a communal feast involving absolutely enormous quantities of food.  We would all gather around a single large table (kids ate elsewhere) to eat and drink and talk and laugh, and when everyone was finally full we would look about at the absolute mess that remained in the kitchen and on the table and on the porches, and then start shuffling around to clean up after dinner.

And I remember one night looking around at what we were all doing – without direction, without instruction, just everybody pitching in and doing what was necessary to clean up our mess – and marveling that nobody was slacking, nobody was shirking clean-up duty.  No, quite the opposite.  All of us were going out of our way to try and find ways to do more than our fair share.  The enormous clean-up job was completed in probably less than 15 minutes.

This is what communal living is supposed to look like, I remember thinking.  Everybody contributing voluntarily to the good of the whole community and it all being pulled off effortlessly.  Why hasn’t this ever been able to work on a large scale?

And of course immediately I thought that question I had the answer:  Because people only work together like this when they are part of the same family.

* * *

I pretty much still think that is true.  No matter how reasonable the ideal of communal living is, no matter how much sense a completely egalitarian society seems to make in the abstract, no matter how much we all might benefit from a “non-hierarchical, completely horizontal, consensus-driven” social organization if only we were all angels. . . our very human nature means that social organizations of that kind just do not scale up

When everybody knows everybody else – personally – those personal connections alone are sufficient to keep society functioning.  Individuals genuinely want to help the community either because they legitimately (not intellectually, but emotionally) love and care about all the other individuals in that community, or because they just don’t want to be seen by people who actually know them to be getting a “free ride” while everybody else does all the work.  (Actually, I’d be willing to bet it is almost always some combination of both factors.)

But when a group of humans grows too large for everybody to personally know everybody else (once that group contains more than a few hundred members, Diamond suggests) then the social cohesion that automatically forms around smaller groups breaks down.  As much as we’d all like to think that humans are basically angels, the truth is that -- in the absence of some countervailing social structure -- when two strangers meet it’s very likely at least one of them is wondering why he shouldn’t just kill the other guy and take all of his stuff:

One reason why the organization of human government tends to change from that of a tribe to that of a chiefdom in societies with more than a few hundred members is that the difficult issue of conflict resolution between strangers becomes increasing acute in larger groups.  A fact further diffusing potential problems of conflict resolution in tribes is that almost everyone is related to everyone else, by blood or marriage or both.  Those ties of relationships binding all tribal members make police, laws, and other conflict-resolving institutions of larger societies unnecessary, since any two villagers getting into an argument will share many kin, who apply pressure on them to keep it from becoming violent.  In traditional New Guinea society, if a New Guinean happened to encounter an unfamiliar New Guinean while both were away from their respective villages, the two engaged in a long discussion of their relatives, in an attempt to establish some relationship and hence some reason why the two should not attempt to kill each other.

(pp 271 – 72).

Yep.  We’re not angels.  We’re bastard-coated bastards with a creamy bastard filling.

And that is why I applaud and whole-heartedly support the Occupy movement’s messages of protest against crony capitalism, against the vast income and wealth disparity that exists in modern America, against the corporate control of our government by the 1%, etc., etc., etc., but I never have been able to work up much enthusiasm for the idea that Occupy was attempting by its example in Zuccotti Park or Dewey Square to create an alternative social organization that the rest of the country might be interested in emulating.

Interested in emulating the ideals of the movement, yes, of course . . . but in reproducing its social structure?  For 300 million people?

I’m sorry, I just do not think that communal, strictly horizontal, wholly consensus-driven social organizations can possibly scale to the size of a nation.  Don’t get me wrong -- it may have been a great idea for Zuccotti Park.  But it always was an unworkable idea for the United States of America.

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