In this installment of In Praise of the Bloody-Minded (a continuing series, appearing whenever I skip my meds), I consider the thesis advanced by Howard Bloom in his 1995 book The Lucifer Principle.
Bloom, a former record industry executive, obviously knows the value of cutting throats and motivating mobs. In The Lucifer Principle, he takes up the ancient gore-caked hammer of Social Darwinism, postulating that the survival of humanity depends on the nurturing of the “superorganism” - the evolutionary need of the greatest mass of humans as a whole. Among the forces that threaten the superorganism are not just the expected disease, genocide or mass slaughter - indeed, violence mostly strengthens the whole of humankind. Insidious and deleterious are humanistic concerns that focus on respect for human rights, the alleviation of suffering and injustice, and the personhood of the individual. To quote Anatoly Karlin, blogger and reviewer at sublimeoblivion.com:
In other words, George Orwell was not only right - he was righter than he could even know.
Karlin extrapolates from Bloom’s thesis an even pithier and equally compelling observation: Violence is reality. And indeed, it seems to be much realer in life than its opposing forces.
What do you think? Is Bloom wrong? Why? Do you agree with him? Why? Either way, what might be his motivating force in writing such a book?
I’m ready for you. What if the Western democracies knew enough to put aside their espoused principles whenever they might threaten strength, growth, and progress? There is where violence becomes reality. Beyond that, it becomes a kind of impersonal nurturance, the blood that makes the grass grow.
Bloom apparently goes deeper. Even the social networks that sustain individuals need to be fairly ruthless and exclusionary.
How does war weed out the weak? I’d say Germany and Japan in WWII experienced the exact opposite.
And what’s so great about weeding out the weak? What did the weak ever do to you? I will categoricially state that the human species does not have weeding out the weak as one of it’s goals. This is a typical layman’s belief in some sort of teleology in evolution. There is no teleology in evolution. It may please you aesthetically that the weak perish and the strong thrive, but evolution doesn’t give a shit about that. Why do you think there are so many weak little mice, worms, and bugs in the world?
Well, that explains why the societies that put aside their unrealistic principles in favor of ruthlessness were able to hold out for a little while against the societies that were based on ruthlessness to begin with. Of course, that could only delay the inevitable fall of the former against the superior strength of the latter… oh, wait…
That’s what you call “ready for me”? Batman would laugh.
Unless you define the word “fascist” too broadly to be useful here, ISTM fascist regimes are too rare to be considered the “natural state” – which you’d think would also mean, the “default state” – of human society at any level of technological or cultural development.
I’d say they just took it too far. Totalitarianism tends to either burn societies out or rust them out. But what if a society were not totalitarian, but only fascist when and where it really counted?
Me personally? Not a damn thing. I am weak - socially and mentally handicapped. So is Howard Bloom, who has chronic fatigue syndrome and is a virtual recluse. People like him and me would be Soylent Green in his vision of society.
But what might the weak do? Take resources away from the strong, the effective, the productive and reproductive? Undermine the cohesion of the greater society? It could be argued that people believe that’s happening, thanks to our political bullshit machine, which produces such mass ideologies as the Tea Party. In that sense it is indeed becoming a kind of reality - rhetorical, not physical, but in some sense socially compelling.
Maybe humanity as a whole does not recognize it as a goal. Maybe it is not even “natural” to us. But could it be that human institutions that somehow or another encourage the weeding out of the weak, the nonconforming, or the subversive, tend to reap more benefits for the remaining members? Just asking.
I don’t know. Bloom might say that their lack of individual selfhood is their salvation. I think it’s their vast numbers. But think of the problems bug society would have if bugs had things like consciousness and a concept of the individual.
Bloom and Karlin are being naively oversimplistic. It’s not a simple matter of “Is the most successful society one that does everything for the greater good, or one that does everything to suit individual needs?” It’s a caricature that ignores the reality that all societies are somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, not at one end or the other. Yes, there are times when individual needs must be sacrificed for the greater good. But nurturing individual needs and freedoms can (and demonstrably has) advanced the greater good of various societies. Generally speaking, those nations that have the greatest degree of economic freedom tend to also have the greatest degree of economic prosperity – which is a pretty decent gauge of the overall health of the “super-organism”. (The annual economic freedom survey conducted by the Economist is a good illustration of this tendency.)
Maybe economic freedom is less dangerous for society than other freedoms - political, personal, social, artistic, or sexual. China’s position as economic top dog seems unassailable right now, and perhaps it’s because the old men of the People’s Republic learned which freedoms to foster and which ones to beat down.
Why would that be? I think it’s more likely that the same forces that apply economically apply in those other arenas as well. A high degree of individual political freedom, for instance, is more likely to result in a vibrant, robust system that incorporates innovation than is an oppressive one.
As SteveMB points out, it is the more free societies that are most successful in the world to date. Individual freedoms have a significant role to play in creating the greater good.
As far as China’s success goes, they are currently growing very rapidly, that’s true. But they are still playing catch-up with the West in very many regards, and the long-term success remains to be demonstrated. Also, China’s growth didn’t really take off until the tight central controls were loosened somewhat and a bit more economic liberty was allowed to flourish.
Then why are so many social darwinists and other right-of-center types so pants-pissingly afraid of the free individual with rights? Why is he regarded as a cancer that must be contained at any cost? Is the threat he poses tangible and expressible in logic, or is it all just visceral reaction?
I’ll qualify that and say that the more economic freedom people have, the less of a threat it is when they - but only the economically free - exercise other freedoms. The clincher always seems to be when people without money or property are allowed freedoms or rights.
As I see the social darwinist view, the real, lasting, strengthening change does not come from individuals or ideas, but from organized mass action - ideally (as Karlin alluded) directed by the lust for power, wealth, or bloodshed. It’s as if something drains the life out of any mass movement that is not sufficiently ruthless.
A lot of people are irrationally afraid of a lot of things. I think there is a lot of visceral reaction going on there, rooted in mistrust of “the other”. It’s a natural human reaction to be comfortable with people like ourselves and mistrustful of people different from us. I think people who are distrustful of individual rights are distrustful of people who exert individual rights that are very different from the choices they would make. It happens on both the right and the left – there are righties uncomfortable with gay marriage, and there are lefties uncomfortable with homeschooling by fundamentalists.
As far as the strictly social darwinist view that you’re describing (I don’t have the expertise to know if it’s an accurate depiction of social darwinism), I think it’s flat-out wrong, for the reasons already stated in the thread. With freedom of ideas comes the necessary result that many of those ideas are wrong.
Evolution has evolved us to be nice just so long as the people we are nice to are returning the favor. once they turn out to be assholes or welchers we turn on them or shun them.
So evolution has already proven that conditional kindness and conditional compassion are superior to strict selfishness. A group of 50 people who work together in a conditional way (only helping each other when there is a reciprocation) will do better than a group of 50 sociopaths. And they will outcompete the sociopaths.
A major drawback of fascism is how inefficient it is. According to research by Rudolph Rummel, liberal democracies provide more freedom and an end result of this is more productivity by individuals. Science is, generally speaking, probably going to advance more in a free country than in a totalistic state. Plus totalistic states seem more prone to nepotism and corruption than free states.
Plus fascist states, theoretically speaking, tend to be socially conservative. Which means that a lot of human talent is never tapped or used. If you are a woman, or an ethnic minority, or a racial minority, or a religious minority, or a political minority, or a cultural minority you can’t contribute to the good of the nation. In a free country there is more of a meritocracy (although not anywhere near a perfect meritocracy, the 2000 presidential election was between 2 kids of rich politicians). But at least in a free country people who have good ideas can contribute whereas in a fascist state if you are not in the 5-20% of the country that ‘counts’ your ideas will probably go nowhere. Some of the jews who were kicked out of Fascist Germany ended up helping the US develop the nuclear bomb. Free states look like they’d have a bigger talent pool to tap into.
Stalin killed most of Russias military officers before WW2 broke out so he was at a disadvantage in the war. Hitler constantly overruled his generals and ended up fucking things up (FWIW supposedly Saddam did the same thing in the Iran-Iraq war). Plus when you mistreat people you give them a reason to turn on you. Then you have to mistreat them even more to keep them in line (witness what is happening in places like Iran or Syria). It becomes a self destroying cycle. In a democracy the state does not have to devote so much energy to repression.
All in all, no. Fascism is not the natural state by any means, and there is a reason that the majority of fascist and authoritarian states of the 20th century ended up collapsing sooner or later. I think it is a natural state in line with terror management theory, in the sense that when serious internal and external threats are present people become more and more fascist. But I think once the threat wears off people will tire of fascism.