Saturday, August 20, 2016

Samizdat

Happy Gulf Of Tonkin: Gene Healy: Cato Institute
October Surprises: Consortium News
Covert Contras & Cocaine: The National Security Archive
Killing King: William Pepper
Killing Kennedys: Bender & Swidey: Boston Globe
thanks to J P Sottile

Links

The Trump Conspiracy: J P Sottile: The Anti-Media
Vote For The Crook, Its' Important: Adolf Reed: Common Dreams
Or Not: Gaius Publius: Naked Capitalism
Finance Is Not The Economy: Dirk Bezemer &@ Michael Hudson
Trust: Ortiz-Ospina & Roser: Our World In Data
Collins On Weber: Ian Welsh

ULTRASOCIETY: The Neo-Liberal Locus of Trust


I'm not an evolutionary biologist, so maybe naively I ascribe to Richard Wrangham's notion from his book "Catching Fire," that man's relationship to flame is integral to our genome, that we could not have become who we are without it. We domesticated fire, inadvertently at first, but to our own purpose and set ourselves on a co-evolutionary path with technology while creating, through a conscious relationship to things, an exponentially broader cultural sphere than that of any other species.  Many other animals require deliberate knowledge transfers between generations for collective survival, mirror neurons in their brains, like those in ours, combine with "kin selection's" genetic impulses to form the facilitating substrate. But when hominids began to cook, they applied Morris' notion of energy capture, the import of power, to their own organism and captured the heat applied to food in the form of metabolically supercharged calories. In the process we evolved smaller guts and much larger brains and an ever expanding cultural/technological artifice constructed over and eventually changing nature itself.

With our hypertrophied brain came the explosion of culture resultant from energy capture: cooking is a technology, a cultural artifact with which we co-evolved, there's no gene for it and yet a hundred thousand years latter, here it is and we can't really do without it: this energy capture is the substrate that actually fed all our subsequent cultural efforts
. Like Language, cooking is simultaneously a culture and technology that appears to have evolved as a sort of intellectual arms race for mating advantage: smarter, better sounding, better cooking, better looking and better making individuals had better reproductive prospects and proliferating technologies provided multiplying divergent avenues along which to compete in ever larger groups. All in a race of cultural evolution leaving traces in our genes only for intellectual capabilities like speed, invention and cleverness and for perceptual signals like beauty, voice, symmetry, skin, hair and eye color, but not for the manifest cultural behaviors themselves even as they have all been conserved over millennia. As we became smarter and our technologies more complex, culture co-evolved to support, integrate and conserve the results.

Our propensity to technology and the culture to support it is integral to our genetic break with our genomic relatives, and the defining technology was that of power. Power embodied both in the internal metabolic energy from cooking (external energy capture embodied), that from fire to forge to factory which makes our things, and in the language of power which commands demographically scaling, coordinated action. So power in the dual forms of material force and social coordination at scale, the two are related, is in our genome. Any understanding of human nature that leaves it out is missing the essential, and in "UltraSociety" Turchin is clear on this. Power has been at the center of culture from the start and has bequeathed us genetic artifacts beyond our large brain, particularly in the context of trust and warfare on which "UltraSociety" focuses, power has bequeathed us approximately one in one hundred people with genes that may express as psychopathy, an identification with a particular cultural form rather than our fellow humans, an identification with power.

From a genetic point of view, like rape, psychopathy has obvious selective advantages, but only as an outlier parasitic to a larger sociable community, either as a residual gene expressions from less social primates or as a new mutation within our species. This gene thrives at the margins as a free rider on the evolving growth of collective goods, or public goods, the culturally selective advantage of sociability. The absence of empathy

Thursday, August 18, 2016

ULTRASOCIETY

Cliodynamics is a name chosen for their collective pursuit by a group of historians trying to put the study and modeling of history on a scientific footing. Party to this effort, Peter Turchin's excellent self published book "ULTRASOCIETY" proposes a cliodynamic theory for how our biological being, the result of Darwinian genetic selection, has interacted with history through culture to create the kaleidoscopic complexity into which we all awake at birth. He has theorized in essential ways how we got here.  

Previously, in Culturally Constructed Individuals, we traced the development of expanding scopes of identity, how we all construct our own "selves" by identifying with cultural institutions and narratives experience of the world presents us with as we grow. Looking at how people embed themselves in the received stories of moral behavior they grow up with, we tried to understand what institutions set out those roles and why. People look to values familiar from tales, however relevant, for the choices they make about their place or actions in society: institutions have a stake in which tales are ready at hand when such choices ariseCivilization And The Bonds Of Freedom treated where this externally structured but individually constructed identity, this self-consciousness developed in acculturated individuals, finds itself in our present world. Turchin's book tells us how the complicated density of inter-dependencies that is our culture, including inexplicably complex technologies and infrastructures, could come into being in the first place.

He and his collaborators are in the process of building a database from which to construct testable models of historical causality. The importance of their effort is in ennobling culture with agency above or parallel to the individual agents who act through it. Biologists have stubbornly resisted the idea of cultural selection, that something like genetic selection can happen at a super-individual level, that beneficial behaviors can be developed, coordinated and sustained across generations culturally rather than genetically, but are at a loss when asked to explain the scale and complexity of modern industrial society. Particularly they object to the centrality of altruism, or more reductively, of trust at the heart of this vast, complex social structure. In the absence of genetically meaningful mathematical connections between individuals, Dawkins for instance, classifies altruism a spandrel: an artifact of another genetic intent that happens to have effects of its own, un-selected for, arrived at by happenstance.

The current book effectively makes the case that civilizational complexity is the result of warfare, the most acute form of cultural competition. In facing opposing societies in the deadly competition of war, the impulses bequeathed us by biological "kin selection", well documented in many social animals, are bent to a larger culturally defined form: those societies that coordinate most effectively win at war. More than that, the forge of war causes cooperating societies to engage in social structures exponentially more complex than they will consensually enter into under any other circumstance and this complexity yields efficiencies of a scale that not only makes them sustainable but actually produces large new surpluses by socially reintegrating evolving technologies, optimizing private innovations into public goods.

It is a winning argument for "cultural selection", an idea so intuitively obvious I've always puzzled at the narrow mathematical vision rejecting it, like the "micro-foundations" movement in economics which has blinded a generation of economists to the obvious usefulness of Keynes General Theory, biological determinism ignores humanities greatest construct: culture. Turchin argues that warfare, the pitting of ever growing societies against one another in existential conflict, selects for the cultures that facilitate the greatest in-group cooperation yielding the most effective external projection of force. In-group trust is the foundation of out-of-group force projection and the medium through which newly efficient social, economic and technological arrangements are institutionalized

This happens despite entrenched power centers built on old inefficiencies being displaced: when a social, economic or technological system is improved, its innovators will tend to capture the benefit unless new institutional relationships are brought to bear forcing equitable distribution of gains. Conservative institutional structures then tend to preserve existing power relationships making the short term effect of innovation ever increasing rent extractions, entrenching existing power relationships except in existential extremis, that is except in war. When victory in war institutionalizes the new efficiencies that yielded its' issue, those innovations yielding the greatest civilizational benefit are molded back into their most useful form as public goods. Warfare tilts culture toward public goods to the extent it must to preserve its public, the vessel of culture.

That the lessons of war can be ideologically constituted to reproduce themselves culturally, sustaining the benefits of in-group trust across generations is explained in Chapter 9, "The Pivot of History". Here Turchin shows how Axial Age Religions, a new form of ideology, extinguish earlier Divine Ruler societies, societies that seem so archaic for the centrality of human sacrifice to their governing ideologies. This earlier form, seeing the population as tools of the divine, uses people for the divinity's grandeur: conquest abroad and sacrifice at the alter underpin the system's legitimacy: it is a system based on the terrifying clarity of brute power. The Axial ideologies see the community itself as the locus of the divine, making the strength of the community the goal of the ideological structure. The in-group cooperation of Axial societies relieves them of the substantial internal costs of exploitation. Where the central ideological function of the Divine Ruler state is keeping the population in awe, subjected by costly physical force and terror, Axial societies aim to normalize cooperative behavior across society creating strong, healthy  communities made entirely available for mobilization into the existential conflict of war when the occasion arises.

While the scale of societies built by Divine Rulers institutionalized efficiencies adequate to dominate simpler tribal neighbors and subjugate captive societies, Axial culture out competed the internally costly God Ruler governing form by husbanding society rather than exploiting it. Another transformative cultural adaptation, one quite possibly tied to our actual genome a hundred thousand years earlier, was the adoption of projectile weapons. In Chapter 5, "God Made Men, but Sam Colt Made Them Equal", Turchin describes how the primitive Big Man was banished from social dominance in simple tribal societies in a way analogous to the displacement of God Kings by Axial societies: incorrigibly dominant men were simply stoned to death from a safe distance by their more cooperative relations. In the process those cooperators created the egalitarian tribes God Kingdoms would later prey upon. Cliodynamics oscillates thus, between centralizing exploitative and distributive cooperative social forms.

With simple ambitions, itself the product of a much larger project just begun (the 2015 founded Society For the Study of Cultural Evolution), this short, clear and readable book opens up vistas that promise a fruitful future for its author and Society. Ian Morris' 2010 book "Why The West Rules - For Now" was my first exposure to the attempt to mathematically quantify, measure and test historical hypotheses. That book was pointedly ambitious both in its title and its subject matter. To my mind, Morris' idea of "energy capture" is the defining characteristic of our species and will be one of the lenses through which I view the current work in subsequent posts. Morris also noted that "technology changes geography", which, when we consider that technology is an artifact of culture, reduces to "culture changes geography," another lens I'll bring to bear on Ultra Society. Finally, Philip Bobbitt's "The Shield of Achilles" serves as a sort of prophetic illustration of Turchin's mechanism at work. In a future post, I'll use that illustration to bring my comments into the present to discuss the current meaning of Ultra Society with regard to the nonsensical end of Bobbitt's otherwise excellent book. It's fair to say Turchin's little book, at 233 8pt pages, has affected my thinking as much as these other two, weighing in at 622 6pt and 824 5t pages respectively.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Links

Cambridge Capital Controversy: Thomas Furguson: Naked Capitalism
Hall Of Mirrors: John Michael Greer: The Archdruid Report
Obama And Iran: M K Bhadrakumar: Indian Punchline
I Was Wrong: Chas Freeman: Mondoweiss
New Ruling Class: Helen Andrews: IASC
I'm working on a longer post (trying to make it shorter) on the points Bobbitt is making here about the world's advance toward his libertarian utopia. This article is important as a sort of Roman Catholic critique of the incipient Reformation:
Crisis Of State Form: Phillip Bobbitt: Stratfor

Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Glib Shit that is Bitcoin

If money is the commodification of trust, where an exchange value is abstracted from the constellation of productive relationships that generate actual real world value, money is then reduced to a state sanctioned power relationship and depends on the benevolence of that state for its sustained value. Similarly, Bitcoin is the commodification of waste, the monetization of pure shit that depends on the sustained production of waste to hold its value. Nathaniel Popper's June 29th New York Times article makes this clear: "Mr. Ng, 36, said he had become an expert in finding cheap energy, often in places where a coal plant or hydroelectric dam was built to support some industrial project that never happened. The Bitcoin mining machines in his facilities use about 38 megawatts of electricity, he said, enough to power a small city."

"Enough to power a small city", electricity is being diverted from productive use in the real economy to power the "mining" of Bitcoins, Mr. Ng alone owns 28 such facilities. In a reductio ad absurdum of financialization, the libertarian fantasy of commodity money independent of the state has layered an encryption dependent universally transparent accounting system, Bitcoin's blockchain, over the armature of globalized financial flows to support international gambling with pure waste energy: "Mr. Lee said the Chinese took quickly to Bitcoin for several reasons. For one thing, the Chinese government had strictly limited other potential investment avenues, giving citizens a hunger for new assets. Also, Mr. Lee said, the Chinese loved the volatile price of Bitcoin, which gave the fledgling currency network the feeling of online gambling, a very popular activity in China. There has been widespread speculation that Chinese people have used Bitcoin to get money out of the country and evade capital controls, but Mr. Lee and other experts said the evidence suggests this is not a significant phenomenon."

Like casino owners, the Chinese "investors" in this financially extractive and environmentally destructive mass psychosis are interested primarily in preserving or enhancing the cash flows they receive off the pure, unfettered waste of electricity and environmental destruction that underwrite Bitcoin: Bitcoin converts ecological shit into money. 

While western, libertarian rubes try to persuade them of the "moral purpose", "some Bitcoin advocates have complained that the Chinese companies have been motivated only by short-term profit, rather than the long-term success and ideals of the project," Chinese investors couldn't care less about western fantasies of ideal power relationships and the liberation of the individual to exploit the animate and inanimate world for personal gain: the Chinese Communist Party has already established a system fully supportive of individual expropriations through such exploitation, so long as it stays clear of politics. Investors in China, just like here, have proven happy to content themselves to personal material spoils.  

In fact, the Chinese are fairly contemptuous of the westerners and their proposals seeing them as naive, entitled and oblivious, "Bobby Lee, chief executive of the Bitcoin company BTCC, which is based in Shanghai, bristled at that — and at the notion that the Chinese companies represent any sort of united front. He attended the April meeting and pointed out that the Chinese companies had disagreed among themselves on how urgent it was to make changes to the Bitcoin software. He said the American companies failed to understand the power dynamics in the room that day. “It was almost like imperialistic Westerners coming to China and telling us what to do,” Mr. Lee said in an interview last week. “There has been a history on this. The Chinese people have long memories.”

I have to say, on this I'm much more sympathetic to the Chinese than to the westerners: the Chinese are clear about what they are up to and haven't confused themselves with some "objectivist" bullshit ideology that blinds them to the price the future pays for their present prosperity: Chinese "miners" may be callous, but they're not delusional shit heads.