Saturday, August 18, 2012

The War in Man's Soul

I've recently read a fascinating anthropology book about the creation of monarchies as a mode of human organization, and, got married.  The two aren't related, of course, but the former got me thinking about the big picture and the latter introduced me to a lot of new human relationships, which helped me understand the theory better.

Eli Sagan's book, At the Dawn of Tyranny, argues that human societies develop oppressive monarchies in order to break down the instinctive bonds that connect people into kinship---or family-based---societies.  The argument is that it requires a truly ferocious government in order to get people to start thinking about it first instead of parents, cousins, siblings, aunts and uncles, etc.  And until people start thinking that way, the "rules" get bent so often in favour of what the Chinese would call "filial piety" that it is impossible to run anything larger than an tribe or small village.  

The kings in these emerging tyrannies are able to overcome people's commitment to kinship because they are bloodthirsty tyrants who practice large-scale human sacrifice, fight brutal wars, and, break up families through migration.  Sagan argues that this situation is a transitional phase, though, as once the state is firmly established, more "institutional" monarchies emerge who's job is to protect the existing state of affairs by creating a more benevolent style of leadership that gains the support of the population through religious indoctrination rather than fear.  (As I've mentioned before the "God in the Sky" looks an awful lot like the King on his throne.)  Kinship societies do not seem to believe in an Abrahamic God but instead seem to follow the Daoist model of an impersonal force like the Dao plus a multitude of nature spirits.

Getting married shortly after reading this book allowed me the luxury of seeing how kinship actually works.  My wife's family is far smaller than mine, but it is more closely knit.  She lives with and takes care of her mother, who has health issues.  In addition, once the wedding was announced, her sister and brother-in-law moved Heaven-and-Earth to attend the ceremony.  As well, much to my surprise, a couple of my closest friends also made the thousand mile trip to another country to attend.  (Indeed, they absolutely insisted on attending.)  Family matters!   

When I crossed the border, however, I ran afoul of the Tyranny that Sagan was writing about.  I have a bad habit of telling the truth to people and when the "Homeland Security" guard asked me where we were going to live after getting married I foolishly started a rambling account of how we were going to have to figure that out.  He cut me off and acted like I'd just spit in his face and called his mother a whore.  I got sent to an office to cool my heels for an hour and another person (who didn't seem to have woken up on the wrong side of the bed) told me that while he believed me when I said I was going back to Canada, I'd better bring a whole portfolio of documents next time I come (it appears that a passport simply isn't enough anymore.)  

In retrospect, it strikes me that that guard with the attitude problem was just doing his bit to reinforce the point that the state is more important than family.  I'm just glad that I don't live in the sort of state that Sagan describes, or else he might have broken my arms and legs and left me at the side of the river for a crocodile to eat.  (One of the numerous unpleasant things that used to happen in the country that existed where modern Uganda now sits.)  

Having digested this bit of anthropological insight, it occurred to me today that there is more than just a war between family and state going on in our souls.  There is also a deep war within that involves a conflict between the household and the economy.

This conflict manifests itself in things like the way the family home has transitioned from being both a source of production and consumption to becoming just a place of consumption.  In my short lifetime I have seen people stop growing their own food and then stop cooking it.  With the younger generation I increasingly see people who no longer know how to sew their own clothes or do household renovation and construction.   In all of these transitions, people have become less and less independent of the economy.  As I see it, this is a very similar process to what has happened when the early monarchies fought against kinship as a means of social organization.  

My wife is getting back on her feet after a very long spell of significant ill health.  One thing that she is trying to figure out is just how much she can do to make money without threatening her recovery.  This is a difficult concept as the demands of the workforce don't really allow a lot of "slack" for people with subtle problems.  She is a very hardworking, intelligent, creative person.  But she finds it very hard to follow the rhythms and schedules of a complex organization.  She needs to be able to work when it suits her instead of when it suits someone else.  

As near as I can see it, this is a purely modern phenomenon.  I grew up on a farm, and in the old family farm system individuals had a great deal of personal autonomy which allowed them to set up their daily work pretty much as they saw fit.  Of course, agriculturalists have to work in harmony with nature, but that is really different from having to follow the dictates of the time clock and the moods of a boss (or a border guard.)  I can sympathize totally with my new bride, because I remember all the struggles I've had in my life trying to accommodate myself to the basic unreality of the workplace.  (In my case I've managed to find work where I had a maximum amount of autonomy----mainly by working night shifts and odd "generalist", "minder" type jobs.)   

It seems to me that anyone who tries to live in harmony with nature instead of human society (and nature includes things like the promptings of our hearts) is going to find herself in the same sort of dilemma that faces my new bride.  

I suspect that is disconnect with the modern world is what fuels a lot of the "back to the land" impulse that has been around as long as I have been alive.  For most people this manifests itself in wanting to move to the countryside, which remains only a pipe dream for most folks.  Personally, I don't find this dream terribly appealing because my experience in the countryside has taught me that in order to live outside of a city you have to either be independently wealthy of drive long distances in order to find employment.  As someone who cares about the environment, I do not see how this is helping save the planet. Moreover, I don't see how locking yourself into long commutes will bring anyone much peace of mind.  

IMHO, the "Hacker" movement is a much more positive development.  This involves people who refuse to be mere passive consumers of technology and instead want to learn how to modify and create.  One example is the "Ifixit" website that allows people to share information and access tools and parts of expensive, high-tech gizmos and work around the "planned obsolescence" that is built into things like IPhones.  Another are the co-operative "Hacker Space" workshops that are sprouting like mushrooms all over North America.  One last example are the "urban sharecroppers" who will grow large vegetable gardens in suburban lots and sell the results in Community Shared Agriculture programs and farmer's markets.

I'm close to retirement so hopefully I will be able to move in with my American wife once I stop having to go to work.  (How's that for alienation----my work forces me to live 1,000 miles from my wife!)   In her case, she thinks that the best option is to try and opt out of the money economy as much as possible by being very frugal and self-sufficient in an urban setting.  To that end, I've been doing some of the "heavy lifting" of setting up a garden for her and showing her how to do some of the food preservation techniques I learned in my childhood.  Hopefully she will eventually be able to find some sort of work that doesn't harm her health.  In the meantime, saving money on the food bill through an intensive garden is a good way to augment the income.  (It was certainly a key component of my family's support when I was young.)

It is hard to live in a cesspool without getting dirty, but it is possible to lesson the disconnect between our hearts and the world around us.  But the first step is understanding that the conflict exists in the first place.  One of the many thousands of things I love about my wife is the fact that she sees the problem.  Most people do not.