Sunday September 24, 2017

The Real Meaning of Society

by Christopher Chantrill
August 18, 2017

If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.1

Humans are social animals; we live in groups. Living in groups, humans idealize group living. We envision the happy family, the peaceful village, the bustling city. We create myths about the Garden of Eden, the Isle of the Blessed. In the misery of suffering we conjure up a means of salvation, a liberation from injustice. We love cooperation; we hate conflict. We construct a faith in a providential God, and then worry about why this God allows little children to die of starvation.

Charles Darwin wrote frankly about humans as social animals. For him, it is the capability “of reflecting on his past actions and their motives” that really differentiates humans from the “lower animals.”2 This development of moral qualities extends social instincts such as “pleasure in one another’s company,” warning of danger, defense and aiding of those in the same community. Language becomes a guide to aid one’s fellows, and the motive to give aid “is much influenced by the praise or blame” of others. But man is also guided by conscience, where “habitual convictions, controlled by reason” develops into “the supreme judge and monitor.”3 As instinct or morality, social behavior is “highly beneficial to the species” and is probably “acquired through natural selection.”4

Social living isn’t all cooperation, of course. Social living is a blend of cooperation and conflict. Consider the chimpanzee, our closest genetic relative, exhaustively researched in Africa by celebrity researchers like Jane Goodall for the past half century. There is no secret to our interest in the great apes: we want to know what we humans are like underneath the cultural veneer.

Jane Goodall started out thinking that “the chimpanzees at Gombe lived in one happy group.” But she discovered that she was wrong; they did not. As Nicholas Wade describes it in Before the Dawn,

Chimps are divided into communities of up to 120 members, which occupy and aggressively defend specific territories.5

Chimps are like human hunter-gatherers. They are patrilocal, “meaning the males stay in their home territory and females move to find mates in neighboring territories.” In human society, women “marry out.” There is another way in which chimps are like humans. They conduct “murderous raids on neighbors.”6

Chimps are territorial and aggressive for a simple reason. Chimps feed on fruit from trees, and these fruit-bearing trees are typically scattered throughout a territory. The bigger the territory the more fruit-bearing trees and the shorter the interval between births for the female chimps. Chimp survival depends on defending a territory big enough to have trees coming into fruit throughout the year. Territory is a matter of life and death.

We modern humans have developed a myth about human conflict. We believe that the modern era has experienced wars of unprecedented savagery, while primitive peoples live in comparative tranquility. In fact the opposite is true. About 30 percent of chimp males in the Gombe reserve die from aggression, about the same as males in the Yanomamo tribe in South America.7 A typical hunter-gatherer tribe loses about 0.5 percent of its population to combat each year. That’s equivalent to about two billion combat deaths for the human population in the 20th century.8 In fact, we learned from Steven Pinker, we need to accept that human violence has declined over the centuries. In hunter-gatherer band the entire male population is enrolled in the armed forces and conflict over territory is constant. In late agricultural society, the entire aristocracy is enrolled in the officer corps, and conflict over territory is more periodic. In the industrial age, wars are the professional responsibility of a small corps of experts, and the rest of the population works to produce for each other and to serve each other.

There is a practical reason for the decline in conflict from the hunter-gatherer days. Big agricultural empires are much less vulnerable to loss of territory than small groups of hunter-gatherers. Even if border wars are constant, they will affect only the people in the border areas of larger agricultural fiefdoms, whereas all the people in a hunter-gatherer band are immediately affected by a dawn raid from the neighboring tribe.

A similar rule applies to the decline of conflict in the industrial era. In the transition to an industrial society that began five hundred years ago and is now perhaps past its peak the whole question of territory has lost its urgency. Wealth and power are no longer measured in land and good rich acres. They are measured in capital, the ability to produce goods and services. In industrial society, therefore, the real wealth is not in land, or even in factories and farms. In the high-income countries in 2000 the World Bank estimated total wealth at about $439,000 per capita. Of this $10,000 was “natural capital,” $76,000 was “produced capital,” and fully $353,000 — over 80 percent — was “intangible capital.” Intangible capital is the capital inside peoples’ minds.9

The emergence of intangible wealth has left an indelible mark on the modern world. When hunter-gatherers won a border war, they killed all the defeated males. In the agricultural age the Romans salted the fields of the defeated Carthaginians, so that truly, Cato’s demand of Carthago delenda est was fulfilled, and when feudal lords won a dynastic war they plundered their enemy and brought home the spoils of battle in valuables and slaves. But at the end of World War II the victorious Allies competed to obtain the services of the best German scientists. Then they sent food aid to their vanquished foes and lent them money to rebuild democratic capitalist prosperity out of the ruins of defeat. Nazis may have been evil, but Germans were and are industrious workers that benefit the world with their manufacturing Mittelstand. The Japanese army may have brutalized China, but Japanese are cooperative workers that have defined modern product quality in their work for the Japanese keiretsu.

As humans evolved culturally from hairless chimpanzees into the nomadic groups that colonized the world and then to agricultural peasants and now to modern knowledge workers, the big problem has been what to do about the aggressive instincts of the males. How do you transform the border warrior that teamed with his brothers and cousins in murderous dawn raids on the neighboring village into today’s construction worker, who cooperates in a work team by day and joins with his buddies in the evening to root vicariously for the warriors on his city’s professional baseball team as they battle their hated rivals on TV? How do you transform the Homeric warrior that hewed to his warrior’s honor code into today’s aggressive CEO leading his team to market-share victory?

The answer is that you change the culture. The Greek warrior chieftains battling on the plains of Troy lived in a world of fate and quarreling Olympian gods that helped or hindered humans as the mood took them. The span of cooperation among the Argives was limited; they only trusted the people from their polis. The reality of their life was conflict, and to the victor the spoils. The modern CEO lives in a world of nature’s providence, of wealth waiting to be created for humans with knowledge and initiative. The span of cooperation is vast; trust is worldwide, a weave of informal relations and formal agreement. Conflict is the exception, an unwelcome interruption to normal cooperative relations.

Moderns are pretty well agreed that the wide modern horizon of cooperation is a good thing, and the marginalization of conflict is a good thing too. But moderns do not agree upon the moral/cultural, economic and political arrangements needed to support a tranquil world of cooperation, and they perceive that people that oppose their view of the good society represent a risk of future conflict. In fact, moderns believe that conflict is only justified in the promotion of their own particular vision of the good, cooperative society. American exceptionalists believe that conflict is unavoidable between the democratic capitalist west and dictators wielding weapons of mass destruction. Islamists believe that conflict is unavoidable between the House of Peace and the Great Satan. American liberals believe that conflict is inevitable between traditionally marginalized communities and reactionary racists, sexists, and homophobes. But after the necessary conflict is won, then universal cooperation will ensue.

American conservatives are the same as the enthusiasts described above. We believe in a necessary conflict too. Our necessary conflict is, unfortunately, a two-front war. Beyond the borders of the United States, conservatives are determined to fight against forces opposing the extension of democratic capitalism to the wide world. These opponents used to be fascists and Communists; today they might be radical Islamists or thug dictators, or conceivably a rising hegemonic power like China. Inside the United States, the enemy is the liberal administrative state: big government, the liberal social agenda, administrative regulation, government experts, crony capitalism, the mainstream media complex. The enemy is not liberals as such; the enemy is liberal power: the political regime of liberal corruption, liberal cruelty, liberal waste, liberal injustice, willful liberal ignorance, and liberal delusion. The way to victory is not by fighting liberals as such, but by persuading ordinary Americans to reject the corrupt vanities of liberal power, to show them how and why liberal power hurts them and their families, and to show them how the new conservatism can give them what they want, a society that meets their needs and legitimate desires without trenching on other peoples’ needs and desires.

This new conservative vision must meet the following requirements:

It must honor the founding vision of the First Conservative, Edmund Burke, to blend tradition and reason.

It must minimize the scope of force.

It must honor the space of the transcendental.

It must encourage human flourishing through voluntary social cooperation.

It must protect the vulnerable and the marginalized.

It must understand the range of normal human social diversity, from the ethnic enclave to the enthusiastic Christian to the creative artist to the communitarian to the visionary.

In other words, this new conservatism recognizes the claims of all the peoples to belong to that nation of nations, the United States of America.

Each head of this vision is connected to the others, and each is justified by the others, and each begins with the manifesto of Edmund Burke, the Cassandra that hurled a prophetic curse at the French Revolution. In 1790 he predicted it would end in tyranny, at the hands of “sophisters, economists, and calculators,”10 and he was right: the mechanistic philosophy and practice of the French revolutionaries must have ended in horror and the gallows,11 and it did.

Burke’s insistence upon the relevance of sentiment in a scientific age has been at the core of modern conservatism ever since. Burke is also famous for his fight against arbitrary power. That was the point of his ten year fight to impeach and convict Warren Hastings, Governor of Bengal, in the House of Commons. And Burke, as a Protestant Irishman, but probably a crypto-Catholic, was deeply moved by the sufferings of minority communities. He supported free trade with Ireland and a relaxation of the penal laws on the Catholics, and for his trouble lost his House of Commons seat in Bristol. Burke defined what it meant to be a self-conscious conservative, living in the modern world but conscious of holding in his heart a sacred trust from the ancestors even while preserving that inheritance for generations yet unborn.

We minimize force because the principle and daily practice of limited government is the bulwark against tyranny. We believe that government is force, and that the government that governs least governs best not least because it uses less force. We believe that limited government with its separation of powers, its rights and its laws that restrict the powers of government, is a defense in depth against the powerful. Just as a small country well supplied with defensive works and obstacles can make life very expensive for a powerful invading army, so the defensive works of law and custom can provide shelter against the hurricane of fire from the shock troops of the great powers in the land. The powerful always get to have an advantage over the weak, but we can limit the power of the powerful if we separate powers, both in government and in the wider society.

We honor the transcendental because it is through reflection on the infinite, at the horizon of the known world, that humans try to understand the meaning and purpose of their own lives and the community of humans within which they live and die. There cannot be certain knowledge of the world, its origin, its workings, its purpose, its meaning. Thus all the speculations that men and women have created about the ultimate things amount to declarations of faith. All living things seem to have a purpose. Humans, as self-conscious living things, are anxious to know their seeming purpose so that they might consciously seek it. They must be allowed the space to do so, each in his or her own way.

We encourage human flourishing because to live is to grow and flower, to fruit and seed, and then to fade away. All the paraphernalia of human life, whatever else they might mean, come down to life and its recurrent rhythms. We conservatives believe that the best way to encourage flourishing is by voluntary social cooperation. We believe this partly from language, from the understanding that the root of “social” and “society” is the Latin “socius,” meaning “companion.” We believe this partly from experience, from the record of the voluntary social cooperation in the economy, the Great Enrichment of the last two hundred years. We believe this partly from faith. We believe that friendliness is a good thing, capable of infinite extension, and force is a bad thing, for use only in emergency.

We help the weak and the helpless because it’s the right thing to do. Everybody, except perhaps Conan the Barbarian, agrees on that. The great question is: How to help? What is the best way to help the helpless, and what are we trying to do when we help them? Conservatives believe that the experience of the last century is unequivocal. Government welfare is a very bad way to help the poor, for anyone supplied with a pension, whether from his father or from the government, will respond with reduced work effort. Today’s government welfare is, after all, merely a continuation of the “outdoor relief” of the old Elizabethan Poor Law. Where once the poor were bossed around, face to face, by the parish beadle, today they are bossed around by the state bureaucracy. What the poor learn from parish beadles and government bureaucrats is a contempt for government. Unfortunately, the poor also learn the cunning needed to scam the system, and that is anti-social. What is needed is to accept the poor as members of the community and interact with them as members of the community, to insist that the poor be integrated and socialized into society, full members of society expected to contribute to the community with that most precious resource, time, and not be set apart in an inner-city ghetto and stigmatized as beings that are less than full citizens.

We work to understand people different from ourselves because that is the beginning of wisdom. Humans have always regarded the “other” as idiotic or worse. Back in the classical age Greeks used the word “barbarian” as onomatopoeia from the way the Greeks mimicked the speech of non-Greeks: “bar bar bar.” In the modern era we look down on other people more politely, using developmental psychology to explain the differences between people, after Hegel and his Phenomenology of Spirit (or Mind). For conservatives, the approach of Eric Voegelin is more comfortable. He views the development of human consciousness as the move from compactness to differentiation. Anyone can throw a ball. But some people, called major league baseball pitchers, have developed the skill to throw a ball with extraordinary accuracy and speed.

That’s the agenda for the new conservative, an American manifesto to conjure up a vision of life after liberalism. The question is what to do about it. As conservatives, we do not believe in root and branch change to the United States, the “fundamental transformation” sought by President Obama. We believe in practical, sensible change. And that means change first of all in the moral/cultural realm of American life, a kind of Great Awakening, just as the movement against plantation slavery erupted as a moral movement in the late 18th century. From the movement in the moral/cultural sector change will come to the other sectors as a harvest comes from a sowing, complementary changes in the politics and the economy of this nation, so that people will again say to each other in America, as Ronald Reagan once said, that “you and I have a rendezvous with destiny” in “this, the last best hope of man on earth.”12 And they will go to their rest knowing that America will always be a beacon, “a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”13

1George Eliot, Letter to Charles Bray, July 5, 1859.

2Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, American Home Library, p. 786.

3Ibid., p. 788.

4Ibid., p. 785.

5Nicholas Wade, Before the Dawn, p. 142.

6Ibid., p. 143.

7Ibid., p. 150.

8Ibid., p. 152.

9World Bank, Where is the Wealth of Nations? p.26.

10Edmund Burke, “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” Collier, 1937, p. 212-213.

11Ibid., p. 214.

12Ronald Reagan, “A Time for Choosing.” October 27, 1964.

13Ronald Reagan, “Farewell Speech,” January 11, 1989.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at