Sunday, October 28, 2012

War and peace, order and chaos

We think of the World Wars of the C20th as being unprecedented in their death tolls. That is not true in either total deaths or, still less, death rates.

While the 1939-45 War did have the largest death toll of any war in history, the 1914-19 War does not come second. When one considers the huge increase in population the Industrial Revolution unleashed, they are both well down list in death rates; mostly due to starvation and disease not taking the proportional toll it did in previous major conflicts. The increase in technology -- in productivity, in transport capacity, in administrative capacity, in knowledge of disease and medicine -- created much more robust social orders.

We can see this quite clearly in these estimates of China's population over time (via). While the estimates are subject to all sorts of doubts about level and amplitudes, the pattern is likely broadly correct.

As a new dynasty imposes order on China, the population surges as people have more surviving children due to the expansion in farming production.

If that order breaks down, the population plummets (even taking into account shrinkage of official ability to take censuses) due to starvation and disease as the land people are able to reliably cultivate shrinks. The effect is increased as agriculture is an across-seasons activity and so more vulnerable to disruption.

Hence the supreme importance agrarian societies generally, and China in particular, have usually put on preserving social (and divine) order.

As heirs of millennia of monotheism, it is natural for Westerners to think of the (moral) universe in good-versus-evil terms. A perspective that likely dates back to Zoroaster, who historian Norman Cohn argued was its originator. But there is an older perspective that dates back to the beginning of farming societies and which still pervades Asian perspectives.

That is of order-versus-chaos. When things are ordered (both on earth, and in what the heavens provide -- rain, fertility-renewing floods), then the crops can be cultivated and planted, families get fed, children survive.

If chaos strikes, if order is lost, all that is imperilled. In a very direct and literal sense.

The ancient Egyptians -- running a complex society dependant on the Nile flooding regularly -- had the concept of maat or order. The ancient Mesopotamian religions clearly had a similar perspective of order versus chaos; creation is the construction of order out of chaos.

If order is the supreme social goal, then actions are justified according to how much they preserve, restore or extend social (and divine) order. The historical Chinese notion that if someone committed a sufficiently severe crime, then you killed their entire family, makes perfect sense in this context. That family had failed in its duty to defend order; it had proved itself a source of disorder and needed to be eliminated so that order could be preserved.

This order-versus-chaos perspective can also lead to a more limited notion of law. If families are supposed to take care of their own, and the family will be punished if its fails to do so, then the realm of law can be much more limited. The historical Chinese notion of law as "instructions given to officials" fits in with an order-versus-chaos perspective. You only do enough law to maintain order. Particularly given the lack of a priestly role in law, so no need to separate the righteous from the unrighteous, the "clean" from the "unclean". Being simply a guardian of order is a much less expansive role than being a gatekeeper of righteousness.

This perspective of there being delinquent families is alive and well in the operation of the North Korean police state (pdf), for example.

Of course, Leninism is a particularly intense version of the politics of salvation, so the full deal can be deeply concerned with controlling just about all aspects of life -- as was true in Maoist China and is still true in North Korea under the Kim Family Regime. But the more Leninism becomes a social game to signal acceptance of ruling authority (pdf), the more law in post-Leninist Asian societies is likely to shrink back to its more conventional role of whatever is needed to maintain order.

Which makes the apparent spread of Christianity in China a disturbing development for the emerging social order there. (Islam is a much smaller in numbers and much more connected to border problems.) Importing a strong good-versus-evil perspective does not sit well with "keep order, and that's enough". The regime's apparent interest in promoting a revival of Confucianism -- very much an order-versus-chaos worldview -- makes a great deal of sense in such a context, beyond Confucianism being indigenous Han in origins and so lacking any implied foreign connections or loyalties.

But just looking at that graph makes the deep Chinese fear of disorder make perfect sense.

[Cross-posted at Critical Thinking Applied and an earlier version at Skepticlawyer.]


  1. The Israelites also had the notion of chaos and order but as a result of the good v evil battle. Good leads to order, rains arriving on time and the enemies of Israel restrained by God, but evil leads to invasion and destruction.

    1. Yes, well, as the order v chaos view is actually older, the good v evil view did not involve a clean/absolute break, but a mutation from.