Monday, July 12, 2021

Ancestry, ethnicity and the hopeless confusions of race

Yes, ancestry matters but not in the way that makes race talk sensible.

A 1904 depiction of Asian ethnicities.

The early medieval scholar Regino of Prum wrote the following:
Diversae nationes popularum interse discrepant genere moribus lingua legibus.
For those (such as myself) not up on the their Latin, that translates as:
The peoples of various nations differ by origin, customs, languages and laws.
This quote has been much cited since. Its fourfold formula was frequently used by medieval writers. For instance, Bishop Bernard of St David’s wrote to Pope Innocent II referring to:
populos nostre provincie natione, lingua, legibus et moribus, iudiciis et consuetudinibus discrepare
In English,
the peoples of our province are distinct in nation, language, laws and customs, judgements and manners
But manners are part of customs and laws entail judgements, so it is a more poetic version of the same fourfold formula.

About law
This was a region and an era where your law could be as much about which group you belonged to as where you lived. A single sovereignty could readily entail a variety of systems of law. A single system of law (e.g. Brehon law) could operate across several sovereignties. A non-resident in a city involved in a legal dispute might be asked what laws he lived under.

For much of the medieval period in Europe, particularly early in the medieval period, law was: the custom of the area. Which tended to mean: whatever we remember doing, last time this came up.

Henry II, the first Plantagenet king of England, used his Chancery and royal judges to develop what became the common law precisely because different people in different parts of England had different law (Norman, Saxon, Danish), with local variations. Royal judges would offer judgements that were both common across England and sought to synthesise the common elements between existing local laws, creating the common law of England.

Common law can be understood as evolving customary law. One of its many fine features is that it provides a structure of law without any Parliament, or other legislating authority, having to issue any specific law. A system of law with, moreover, an inherent tendency to move towards consistency. Something that is not a notable feature of statutory law.

In the modern era, law is very much a matter of state jurisdictions. So, setting law aside, that leaves us with origin (so descent or ancestry), customs and language as identifying an ethnic group. (Nation is ambiguous between state and people, but it is ethnicity that we are concerned with here.)

Ethnicity is something that develops in a mixture of separation (you overwhelmingly interact with members of the same group) and differentiation (there is one or more other groups that are identified as not being of the same group). Geographical separation means that folk can much more easily have specific customs and a specific language. (And, of course, specific laws.)

Ancestry matters because it is how customs and language are transferred across the generations. Yet the key thing is connections between people and common features that arise from the patterns of connection. A child adopted as a baby will be raised in the ethnicity of their adoptive parents and local community, regardless of their genetic ancestry. People are overwhelmingly raised by one or more biological parents, or adopted within the same group, so ancestry tracks ethnicity very strongly. But it does not drive ethnicity.

The overwhelmingly dominant connection between ancestry and the ethnicity in which folk are raised, drives some muddy thinking about ethnicity (and race). The notion that DNA tests can determine ethnicity, particularly for policing boundaries between ethnicities in intermingled communities, is deeply confused thinking. The bits of ethnicity that matter are your customs, your language, your expectations, your received framings, your patterns of connection. None of that is genetic or genetically defined.

Ethnicities can arise and fade away while genetic lineages continue. In his The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, James C. Scott notes that people and families in Southeast Asia would periodically choose new cultural identities, creating “crazy quilt” ethnic enclaves that ethnographers found perplexing. Ethnicities are nowhere near as primordial as is often pretended and ethnic identities can often be situational and strategic.

Race has come to refer to continental ancestry and the concept, and its associated social meanings, has had the most social power when folk of different continental ancestry interact. Most notoriously in the Americas where settlers from one continent (Europe) invaded another continent (North or South America, as the case may be), imported slaves from a third continent (Africa) and then received migrants from a fourth continent (Asia). That skin tone and other physical features were strong indicators of continental ancestry interacted with these very different social roles to make race talk an easy, and sadly convenient, option.

Yet continental ancestry on its own does not tell us what customs or languages you, or anyone else, has. No continental group, including Australian Aborigines, is a single ethnic or cultural group or users of a single language. Nor are they a single breeding population. Hence the speciousness of race — continental ancestry — as an analytical category, however socially convenient it has been for various folk to invest social meanings in physical markers of ancestry. Particularly as a divide-and-dominate dynamic.

Race as continental ancestry is also a long way from the C14th chronicler John of Fordun describing Scotland as a land of one nation but two races:
Mores autem Scotorum secundum diversitatem linguarum variantur ; duabus enim utuntur linguis, Scotica videlicet et Theutonica, cuius linguae gens maritimas possidet et planas regiones, Scoticae vero montanas inhabitat et insulas ulteriores. Maritima quoque domestica gens est et culta, fida, patiens et urbana, vestitu siquidem honesta, civilis atque pacifica, circa cultum divinum devota, sed et obviandis hostium iniuriis semper prona. Insulana vero sive montana, ferina gens est et indomita, rudis et immorigerata, raptu capax, otium diligens, ingenio docilis et callida, forma spectabilis, sed amictu deformis, populo quidem Anglorum et linguae, sed et propriae nationi, propter linguarum diversitatem, infesta iugiter et crudelis. Regi tamen et regno fidelis et obediens, necnon faciliter legibus subdita, si regatur.
Or, in English:
The manners of the Scots vary according to their language, for they employ two languages, Scottish [Gaelic] and Teutonic [Scots/English]. The race of Teutonic language has the sea coasts and lowlands, that of Scottish language inhabits the mountainous areas and the outer isles. The race of the sea coasts is domesticated, civilized, faithful, patient, cultivated, decently dressed, refined and peaceable, devout in church worship, yet always ready to withstand any harm done by its enemies. The island or mountain race, however, is wild, untamed, primitive, intractable, inclined to plunder, leisure-loving, quick to learn, skilful, handsome in appearance but vilely dressed, and continually fiercely opposed to the English people and language, but also to their own nation, on account of the difference of language. Nevertheless they are loyal and obedient to the king and the kingdom, and also easily subdued to the laws, if they are ruled properly.
DNA as a convenient sorting mechanism is only likely to be reached for if people of different ethnicities (so different ancestries) are intermingling. If everyone lives in villages of the same ethnicity, but are aware of there being villages of a different ethnicity over there, the issue does not arise. It is only if folk within the same larger community have varied ancestries (and so varied ethnicities) that it is going to seem sensible to look for some “sure” marker, such as biological ancestry or (once the technology exists) DNA testing.

The problems of maintaining separate identities in a situation of intermingling is what led to the development of the “one drop” rule in the US. If you had any element of African ancestry you were “black” (i.e. not “white”). It is a sign of how intense the stigmatising social meanings attached to being “black” were, the extension of the inherited dishonour of slavery onto their descendants, that no mulatto or mixed-race identity emerged in the US, in contrast to much of the rest of the Americas.

Ironically, this pattern was largely because electoral politics — who could vote and for whom — mattered so much more in the US. In societies with proportionately smaller settler elites, where voting was not much of an issue, it tended to be convenient to have an intermediary group as social buffer and suppliers of services. In such situations, one gets gradations of ancestry rather than sharp continental-ancestry (“race”) divisions, where elite ancestry provides the most benefits and slave or indigenous ancestry the most handicaps.

With the current attempts within the US and the wider Anglosphere to stigmatise the social meaning of “whiteness”, we are nowadays getting the same one-drop rule exclusion working in contemporary society, but going the other way so that any degree of non-European ancestry confers a presumptive moral advantage, making one “a person of colour”. But this just flips the pejorative effect while also wrestling with the problem of differentiation in intermingled societies. Situations of intermingling are much more likely to see situational or strategic use of ethnic (or racial) identities. 

It looks "racial" as the elite came from Europe and the slaves from Africa. But all elite structures have a strong element of ancestry in them (including in Leninist states). It is just that differing continental origins associated and associate different physical markers with different social/class status.

To impose simple, dividing, categories on intermingled populations requires systematically ignoring (inconvenient) ancestry. The original “one-drop” rule in the US meant ignoring any European ancestry among those with African ancestry. The new version similarly generally involves ignoring any European ancestry among “persons of colour”.

There is a long history of ignoring inconvenient ancestry. Patrilineal kin-groups generally ignored maternal ancestry, as matrilineal kin-groups generally ignored paternal ancestry. But the point in such cases was also very much to enforce differentiating boundaries.

The great advantage of DNA is that it reveals the complexities of ancestry. It does not track the complexities of culture. It does, however, point to how genetic lineages pass through, and into, cultures.

The use of public policy to impose residential segregation in the US, to the extent of attempting to break up integrated neighbourhoods, was another way of wrestling with problems of differentiation among intermingled folk.

The enforced spread of residential segregation in the US, including attempts to segregate previously integrated neighbourhoods, is set out in Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law. A note in the book quantifies the path of residential segregation, including its intensification under FDR’s New Deal. In the ten largest US cities:
in 1880, the neighbourhood (block) on which the typical African American lived was only 15 percent black; by 1910 it was 30 percent, and by 1930, even after the Great Migration, it was still only about 60 percent black. By 1940 the local neighborhood where the typical African American lived was 75 percent black.
Reducing intermixing by residential (and other) segregation is an obvious way to sharpen identity differentiation in a mixed society. This is typically done by giving one group a greater say than another. Whether it was such things as hostile zoning and resident activism in the US producing the aforementioned residential segregation, shuffling people off into reservations or giving one group claims over land that others cannot have.

Such segregation can indeed sharpen identity, but at the cost of giving up the benefits of interaction with the wider society. Denying folk such benefits has often been the purpose of such segregation. It is likely to be the effect of it, regardless of intention.

As is well known, intermarriage, a very intimate form of intermingling, blurs ethnic identity. Hence groups that wish to retain their separate identity either block intermarriage or require outside spouses to convert to their group. Such marriage boundaries then provide a way to continue intense patterns of connection that differentiate the group from outsiders.

Religions have often been very much involved in setting up and policing such boundaries. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb notes, the right sort of boundary laws can turn a minority into a majority:
the spread of Islam in the Near East where Christianity was heavily entrenched (it was born there) can be attributed to two simple asymmetries. The original Islamic rulers weren’t particularly interested in converting Christians as these provided them with tax revenues — the proselytism of Islam did not address those called “people of the book”, i.e. individuals of Abrahamic faith. In fact, my ancestors who survived thirteen centuries under Muslim rule saw advantages in not being Muslim: mostly in the avoidance of military conscription.
The two asymmetric rules were are as follows. First, if a non Muslim man under the rule of Islam marries a Muslim woman, he needs to convert to Islam — and if either parents of a child happens to be Muslim, the child will be Muslim. Second, becoming Muslim is irreversible, as apostasy is the heaviest crime under the religion, sanctioned by the death penalty. 

The famous Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, born Mikhael Demetri Shalhoub, was of Lebanese Christian origins. He converted to Islam to marry a famous Egyptian actress and had to change his name to an Arabic one. He later divorced, but did not revert to the faith of his ancestors.

Under these two asymmetric rules, one can do simple simulations and see how a small Islamic group occupying Christian (Coptic) Egypt can lead, over the centuries, to the Copts becoming a tiny minority. All one needs is a small but continuing rate of interfaith marriages and little or no defection from the group folk are marrying into.

Such boundaries and group identities have often been reinforced by participation in common rituals.

Vanishing heritage
John Wood Jnr has observed that, on the Euro-American (“white”) side of his family, folk can talk about a heritage reaching back to Europe. As can Asians with Asia or recent African immigrants with Africa. On the (slave-descended) African-American side of his family, there is a striking absence of such. The descendants of American slaves have no such identifiable specific ancestral heritage(s), as slavery mixed ethnicities together while slaves had no family rights.

As sociologist Orlando Patterson has pointed out, the social death that slavery entailed, and the consequent natal alienation, separating slaves from any acknowledged line of ancestry or family rights, defined the slave far more then being property did. (Medieval serfs, for example did not suffer any such social death, any such alienation from family and heritage.) The process of Transatlantic exile of slaves, and their descendants, was a process of exile much more profound than that experienced by others arriving in the US and the rest of the Americas.

The descendants of slaves imported into the Americas have the most “American” identities, as they have had to create their identities within the Americas and within the context of European settlement. (Indigenous Americans have identities that reach back before European settlement, so are not anchored in the creation of new societies that American implies.) It is not accidental that various quintessential American cultural forms, such as Jazz and Blues, are grounded in the experience of American slaves and their descendants.

Within the US, the descendants of American slaves were an ethnic identity defined by “race”, i.e. African ancestry. They are now an identity submerged by “race”, as Afro-Caribbeans and recent African immigrants are both also “black”. (Though there is some evidence that American-born generations of such migrants may be at last somewhat socialised into attitudes of the descendants of American slaves; another instance of the effects of intermingling.)

That no descendant of American slaves has graced the Presidential nomination ticket of either major US Party is very much obscured by focusing on race rather than ethnicity. (President Obama and Vice-President Harris are both examples of migrant heritage, not US slave heritage.)

Culture is a notoriously ambiguous term, with literally hundreds of definitions being offered by social scientists. Custom also suffers from a certain ambiguity. Fortunately, philosopher Cristina Bicchieri has done the work, setting out a rigorous theory of norms that helps clarify thinking on these matters. This is done formally in The Grammar of Society and with a more practical focus in Norms in the Wild.

Using Prof. Bicchieri’s definitions:
Customs are things you regularly do because they work for you. They may generate expectations among other folk but they are not driven by such expectations.
Conventions are things you do because other people do them. They both generate, and are driven by, expectations. Language and fashion are classic convention-driven activities. Conventions allow people to coordinate with each other.
Social norms drive things you do because other people expect you to do them and are likely to sanction you if you do not.
Moral norms drive things you do because you believe it is the right thing to do regardless of the expectations of others.
The use of custom by Regino of Prum as quoted above clearly covers customs, conventions and social norms. In mixed societies, folk adopt and lose customs. They adopt and lose conventions. Both customs and conventions lose their distinctiveness, blurring identity. Similarly with social norms. So, once again, we can see the power of connection and the problems of intermingling.

Thinking in terms of custom, convention and social norms brings out the power of religion as a creator and preserver of identity. For participating in common rituals can be a great binding and a differentiating mechanism. Indeed, they are much of the social effect of ritual.

Corrosive contradictions
But thinking in terms of custom, convention and social norms also brings out how much politicising and legalising identity becomes a morass of corrosive contradictions. Such attempts to differentiate seek to draw lines in ways that social intermingling must undermine.

One ends up being at war with such intermingling — and so at war with any overarching common identity — while creating endless possibilities for strategic game-playing that is likely to be highly socially corrosive in its effects. Such identity-games can create simple categories that are appealing in their simplicity and disastrous in their lack of nuanced realism.

Ethnicities evolve. They change, emerge, weaken, strengthen, mingle and divide according to circumstances. Attempting to create a legal, moral and political order based on primordial, unmixed and fixed identities is to build a series of noxious fictions into the social order that are at war with the complexities of the human in ways that invite bad, even disastrous, outcomes.

There is no good form of identity politics. What look to be such (e.g. the various agitations for civil rights, whether for women, African-Americans, indigenous people, same-sex attracted …) have been attempts to gain the benefits of a common status, not a divided and differentiated one. To be judged by the content of one’s character, not some general, differentiated, category. That is true of every emancipation struggle, from the campaigns against slavery onwards.

Intermingling strengthens the case for a common humanity and a common citizenship. Contemporary identity politics do not represent the completion of the processes of celebrating a common humanity, and building a common citizenship, but the overturning of them. Hence contemporary identity politics replicating and adapting past methods for forcing differentiation on intermingled communities. But, then, divide-and-dominate retains its appeal to elites and forcing differentiation has always been very useful for that. As it still is.

[Cross-posted, somewhat improved, from Medium.]

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Being sensible about Patriarchy

Just because something is used propagandistically does not mean it is not a thing.

Patriarchy is authority being presumptively male. The more presumptively male authority is, the more patriarchal the society is. At its simplest, authority is competence + deference. The wider and more significant the realm of presumed male competence, and of expected deference to the same, the more presumptively male authority is.

That an area of life is presumptively male does not, of itself, generate patriarchy. Having presumptive sex roles is not patriarchal. The addition of expected deference is crucial. For without such expected deference, there is no authority, just things folk generally do.

To understand patriarchy, we need to start with the basics of sex and gender.

Sex is determined by what gametes your body is structured to produce. If it is structured to produce small, self-moving (motile) gametes you are male. If it is structured to produce large, sessile (immobile) gametes, you are female. This is so whether or not viable gametes are produced.

If your body is structured to produce both, you are both male and female. If your body is structured to produce neither, you are neuter. (As distinct from being deliberately stripped of the ability to produce gametes, which is being neutered.)

If your body has elements of both male and female sexual structuring, then your sex can be somewhat indeterminate (i.e., intersex), but normally your body will favour one type of structuring over the other. Such mixed cases do not mean that sex is not binary. It just means that a (very small) proportion of folk do not have bodies that are entirely on one side of the border between sex-typical biological structures.

[Sex is binary at the level of reproductive function, due to there being only two gametes, but, in humans, is bimodal rather than binary at the level of bodies.]

We cannot do sex-reassignment or sex-change surgery. We cannot shift the structuring of your body to produce different gametes. We can only do gender-reassignment surgery that changes the visible physical manifestations of biological sex. Hence hormonal supplements are needed by trans folk, as we cannot change your body to change the pattern of hormones it produces.

Homo sapiens are mammals. Female mammals have mammary glands so that when the child emerges, their immediate food source is on-tap.

In most mammal species, that means the male plays no role in raising children, as the female is already committed (via the mammary glands) to feeding the children. This is the cad strategy for reproduction. The more the children have to be taught how to feed, and the longer they have to be fed before they can feed themselves, the more likely some male involvement in the feeding of the offspring is (the dad strategy).

Male provision is not to be confused with mate-guarding. Mate-guarding is about taking possession of the fertility of a female for one’s own use, excluding other males. It implies nothing regarding the care of children. Most mate-guarding mammal species have cad-strategy males. They are just possessive cads.

In contemporary foraging societies, on average, children do not “break even” in producing and consuming calories until about the age of 20. So, a Homo sapien child, on average, has likely represented about a 20 year-feeding-protection-and-instruction investment. This was not possible without provisioning males.

In contemporary foraging societies, men provide a majority of calories to the group, an overwhelming majority of the protein to the group and almost completely dominate provision of calories and protein consumed by post-weaning children. The only evolutionary stable way to get males to invest that much effort in provisioning children is having them feed the children that are presumptively theirs. That is, to go beyond biological paternity and create the social role of father. Especially given the level of teaching required to get Homo sapien children able to fend for themselves.

The need for provisioning males for the raising of children gave a powerful incentive for women to adopt and follow norms regulating their sexual behaviour so as to encourage such male commitment. This is interactive. The stronger the restrictive sexual norms, the stronger male provisioning is likely to be. The weaker the restrictive sexual norms, the weaker male provisioning is likely to be. A common cross-cultural pattern is for men to be willing to use violence to enforce fidelity norms, as their social standing, including their identity as a father, is at stake. Another common cross-cultural pattern is for women expressing aggression towards another woman to cast doubt on her adherence to fidelity norms.

A very common cross-cultural pattern is for a man’s mother to be concerned with policing the behaviour of his wife (or wives). She has an obvious interest in ensuring that their children are indeed (biologically) her son’s and in the protecting the reputation of her son. Remembering that propriety is, in this context, fidelity + reputation. Or, at least, preserving the presumption of fidelity.

All known foraging societies recognise the social role of father. A small number of (farming) societies do not have the social role of father. Instead, men invest in their sister’s children. As a genetic replication strategy, given one shares less genes with a niece or a nephew than with a son or a daughter, unclehood is inferior to fatherhood — provided males can be reasonably confident about the paternity of children.

The above patterns are the result of us being the big-brain ape and so the cultural ape. We are the fattest ape, as our energy-hog brains (our brains consume about a fifth to a quarter of our calorie intake) require a certain base level of energy to function. Hence we have more fat reserves than other apes. Women’s body naturally have significantly higher fat content than men’s bodies, as women regularly support two brains (the extra energy-hog brain being supported either in their womb, or via lactation).

Our brains need time to grow after birth, due to constraints on the size of a baby head’s able to emerge through pelvis (aggravated by bipedalism requiring narrower hips for physical stability). Hence how helpless our infants are, as far more of their development is after birth. They have to be fed and then taught. We have the fattest infants in the biosphere. Being the cultural ape, we have to learn to be effective occupiers of human niches by a mixture of being taught, observation and participation.

Risk and roles
Across this lengthy process of raising Homo sapien children, risks needed to be, where possible, transferred away from the care of children. Especially as if a mother died, her young children were also likely to die. This created human sex roles—sex roles being the behavioural expression of sex—that generally involved very different patterns of acquiring subsistence by males and females, hence quite different skill patterns.

In foraging societies, men would engage in the more dangerous forms of subsistence (hunting larger animals, getting honey). Women would engage in the less dangerous forms of subsistence that you could do while minding the kids (gathering plants, hunting small, relatively immobile, animals such as lizards).

A lot of the gathered plants would require significant processing, as plants (being immobile) evolve ways to discourage consumption of their flesh. This need for more processing of plant food tended to skew calorie and nutrient contribution in foraging societies to the energy-dense, highly bio-available nutrients in the food provided by men.

Men tend to form teams, because that is how they provided for, and protected, their women and children. Women tend to form cliques, as intimate emotional connections provided support for the long haul of motherhood. One can see this pattern in almost any schoolyard.

A complication is that the more disagreeable and less neurotic girls (“tomboys”) may gravitate towards team play. The more agreeable and more neurotic boys (“sissies”) may gravitate towards cliques.

Some cultures had explicit roles for “manly” women and “womanly” men. Generally, however, a male who attempted to adopt female patterns was rejecting the risks that males were expected to shoulder. This was not a way to be respected.

Being the cultural species, Homo sapiens do not only have sex roles. We also have narratives and expectations about sex. Hence, we have gender: the cultural expression of sex. To a large degree, the categories of man and woman are socially created.

Those who are same-sex attracted, or who are tomboys or sissies, are gender-dysphoric. They are somewhat alienated from standard expectations about sex. Trans folk are sex-dysphoria. They are alienated from the sexual structuring of their bodies.

Being sex-dysphoric is likely to also imply wishing to fit into the behavioural and cultural expectations of the other sex. Being gender-dysphoric does not imply alienation from the sexual structuring of one’s own body. Conflating sex-and-gender is a great way to engage in muddy, even disastrous, thinking.

The absence of matriarchal societies
While it is certainly true that families, and even groups, can have matriarchs, no known human society has been matriarchal. The requirement of men to take on higher-risk roles in order to support the raising of biologically-expensive children has meant that authority could not be presumptively female across a society. Hence the absence of matriarchal societies. Matriarchal families and figures are, however, entirely possible.

The non-universality of patriarchy
The absence of matriarchal societies does not remotely mean that all human societies are patriarchal in any strong sense. It is entirely possible to have a human society where male and female authority co-exists. That is, authority is not presumptively male across the society, so it is somewhat gender-egalitarian. Such societies are more common within particular patterns of subsistence, though a majority of societies known to the ethnographic record have been patriarchal. For instance, around 88% of traditional societies only had male political leaders (though political leadership is not the only manifestation of authority in societies). Nevertheless, even among generally patriarchal societies, the extent and intensity of the presumption of male authority has varied greatly.

There are relatively gender-egalitarian foraging and horticultural (hoe-farming) societies. If a society does not create the social role of fatherhood, then it is also likely to be relatively gender-egalitarian, as inheritance will be female-line and the connections of men to the next generation will be via their sisters. In many societies, men treasure the sister’s son relationship — they are males of the next generation a man is unambiguously related to.

Patterns of leverage
What determines how patriarchal a society is — i.e., how strongly authority is presumptively male in the society — is the relative social leverage of men and women. Women always have the leverage of sex and fertility. Men have whatever leverage comes from not being tied to the day-to-day care of children.

Any asset in a society that cannot be effectively managed while minding children, will be a presumptively male asset. Hence, while women have been very important for the transmission of culture, men have tended to dominate the creation of culture. Cultural narratives have thus tended to predominantly reinforce and validate male concerns. Hence also women have tended to be associated with nature (given their role in reproduction and child-rearing), men with the creation of culture. Such creation of culture is often conceived as a struggle for order against the more chaotic or resistant elements of nature.

The classic assets increasing male leverage are pastoralism (i.e., animal herds) and plough farming. In such societies, the predominant productive asset will be a male asset. This has been universally true in pastoralist societies. It is usually true in plough farming societies, with a few exceptions. One exception was Pharaonic Egypt, as land was re-allocated after every Nile flood. It was effectively Pharaoh’s asset rather than an asset of village males. Another is if the society does not recognise the social relationship of fatherhood, such as the in Mosuo of China. As there is no social role of fatherhood, land is passed down matrilineally and is not a male asset. (Men still do the ploughing.)

If the main productive asset in a society is presumptively male, this makes women largely dependant on male provision. This generates patterns of presumptive male authority, though the degree to which it does so can vary widely.

In low-population-density societies where the men are likely to be away, traditions of armed women are likely to develop so as to be able to defend hearth and home. This raises the leverage (and status) of women. In steppe societies, for example, while men owned the animal herds, women owned the dwellings; the yurts or gers.

Any pattern of periodic male absence tends to increase the status of women, as women will have to manage things in the absence of men. We can see this pattern operating in steppe societies, in Celtic and Germanic Europe, in Sparta (where men lived in the barracks for much of their life), in Rome (where elite men were often away in the service of Respublica) and in medieval Latin Christendom. This is generally an elite pattern, but elites disproportionately set social norms.

These were all, to varying degrees, single-spouse societies in that even an elite man would only have one wife, and a woman one husband. (There is some evidence that the original Indo-Europeans may have operated a single-spouse marriage system.) Celtic and Germanic societies often did, however, permit concubines able to produce legally recognised children. (In Brehon law, for example, it did not matter for your family identity who your mother was, merely who your father was.)

If elite males are required to have only one wife, then that tends to raise the status of women, as the natural thing to do is to have partnership marriages (united by care for their children), with the wife (or sometimes his mother) operating as their husband’s (or son’s) deputy when he is away and helping to manage the household when he is present. This is very much not the pattern in polygynous societies where wives competed for the prospects for their children. This meant that leaving one of the wives in charge in the absence of the husband was a recipe for disaster. (If concubines able to produce legally-recognised children were permitted, this tended to weaken the effect of having only one wife: mistresses are concubines whose children have no inheritance rights.)

Single-spouse marriage societies thus tended to make women managing assets a normal part of the society, even if the main productive assets were presumptively male. This tended to raise the status of women and lessen the degree to which authority was presumptively male. Though the effect was much stronger if there were patterns of male absence. Thus Sparta (where men lived in barracks for much of their life) was noticeably less patriarchal than Athens. Rome was also noticeably less patriarchal than Athens, with Rome become less patriarchal as its empire grew, increasing the pattern of elite male absence and so wifely management of assets.

Being a patrilineal society generates at least some presumption of male authority, as family identity is via the male line. If it is also a kin-group society, that means that family identity and kin structures will be organised around related males. This tends to increase male leverage within the society and the presumption of male authority. Especially if, as was commonly the case, the fertility of women is treated as an asset of their kin-group. (Treating women’s fertility as an asset of their kin group leads to honour killings, which are ways of enforcing commitment to the kin group.) As authority and wealth is typically transferred from father to son in patriarchal societies, such societies tend to be very controlling of female sexuality.

If a society permits polyandry (notably because of resource constraints where key productive assets lose value if divided), this tends to increase the potential leverage of women and to undermine any presumption of male authority. If a society permits polygyny, that tends to undermine the social leverage of women. This is particularly so if the main productive asset is presumptively male, as then the wives of (elite) males will be competing with each other for the prospects for their children, where the favour of the (shared) husband is crucial. Clearly, that will foster a general presumption of male authority.

Though it was true that even in societies that permitted polygamy, single-spouse marriages were the dominant form of marriage, again, elite patterns tended to dominate the generation of presumptions about authority.

Hoe-farming (horticultural) societies meant women having a (much) bigger role in food production than in plough (agricultural) societies, as hoe farming can be done while minding the kids. This permits much higher levels of polygyny (as it reduces the level of provision males have to engage in to support a wife) but also makes women less dependant on male provision. Hoe societies tend to have stronger patterns of female authority than plough societies. The question of the relative level of social leverage can become a complicated one.

In societies where assets are transferred between generations, there can be something of a trade-off between between transmitting genes and transmitting wealth. The stronger the incentive to minimise division of resources among children, the more likely single-spouse marriage systems are, bringing together male investment in high paternity-confidence children and female fidelity to her spouse so as to gain increased investment in her children. If such pressure is sufficiently strong all the way up the social system, polygamy may not be permitted.

The more important investment in the human capital of children, particularly sons, is for their prospects, the more likely it is that single-spouse marriage is going to be selected for. This likely helps explains why highly patriarchal Brahmin and Confucian societies had a wife and (maybe) concubine(s) pattern more than full-blown multiple wives. Indeed, the intense investment in memorisation required to raise a Brahmin child likely explains the rise of the Indian caste (jati) system.

Brahmin law was particularly insistent on male authority. It was, after all, the society that valorised widows burning themselves to death on their husband’s funeral pyre.

How well members of a sex can coordinate with each other also affects social leverage. In polygynous, patrilineal, kin-group, plough-farming societies the ability of women, particularly elite women, to coordinate with each other was often very limited. Conversely, it has tended to be very easy for men in such societies to coordinate with each other, especially if male-only cults develop. Such cults are very common across human societies. Greater male coordination tends to increase male social leverage.

Increases in population density, without a commensurate increase in applied technology, tend to reduce the status of women. As population density increases, there is likely to be less male absence, discouraging the arming of women and reducing the level of women’s management of resources. There is also likely to be more pressure on social niches, encouraging more rigid delineation of sex roles. England was significantly more patriarchal in the C18th than it had been in Saxon times, around a millennium earlier.

Precisely because social leverage matters, history is not simply a pattern of upward improvement in the status of women, but of shifts back and forth.

Raiding and warfare
How raiding and warfare operates in a society also affects social leverage. If raiding and warfare is sufficiently endemic, that generates a premium on male cooperation. That tends to favour patrilineal kin systems, as related males who have grown up together are likely to be more effective in combat operations.

In small-scale societies, especially patrilineal ones where women marry away from their natal kin, endemic raiding and warfare particularly tends to generate male cults as it is important for the men to be able to coordinate planned raids and attack without women warning their relatives. Such male cults often enforce their privacy through ferocious punishments. That increases male social leverage, generating a presumption of male authority and providing a social mechanism to establish and reinforce male authority.

Endemic warfare and raiding can, however, encourage single-spouse marriage systems. Polygyny means that some men are cut out of the local marriage market. If circumstances are such that a premium is put on local social cohesion, then single-spouse marriage systems can be selected for so as to maximise the number of local males with a commitment to the local social order via having their own wife and children. (Note, this does not imply that reducing reproductive variance among men is what is being selected for.) Such pressure for single-spouse marriage for greater social cohesion can also apply to minority religious groups, such as the Alevis.

Shifting social leverage
What is hopefully clear from the above is that patriarchy is not some nefarious male plot. It is a social phenomena driven by the relative social leverage of men and women in a society. The level of patriarchy can thus vary widely between societies. It can also vary in the same society across time, if the underlying social constraints change in ways that shift the leverage between men and women.

That the Christian Church sanctified single-spouse marriage (including no concubines), insisted on the importance of legitimacy (making it very important who your mother was and whether she was married to your father), insisted on female consent being required for marriage, strongly supported female testamentary rights (and the property rights entailed therein) and, in conjunction with manorialism, broke up kin groups, meant that the status of women was significantly higher in Christian Europe than was the case in Islam, Brahmin India or Confucian East Asia. As I have noted previously, feminism was only likely to arise within Latin Christendom-cum-Western civilisation.

Technological change since the emergence of mass-prosperity societies, starting with the development of railways and steamships in the 1820s, has tended to further increase the status of women. The increase in the number of low-physical-risk jobs, the development of domestic technology (reducing the time-and-physical-skill-burden of managing a household), and the development of mass education (reducing the time-and-attention burden of raising kids), as well as shrinking family sizes, have all greatly increased the capacity of women to earn income outside the home. The fall in transport and communication costs has also made it easier for women to coordinate and organise.

The most dramatic change, however, has been the legal and technological changes that have given women unilateral control over their fertility. This has decoupled sex and marriage, a huge social shift in itself. But it also meant that women have been able to invest in higher education, greatly increasing their employment as professionals, managers and other high-status jobs. These changes have also greatly increased women’s role in the creation of culture.

Hence we now have the first societies in human history increasingly without presumptive sex roles. This is a dramatic cultural and evolutionary novelty. Needless to say, gender expectations and narratives have been in considerable flux.

These changes also mean that men and women have fairly similar levels of social leverage. As biologist Bobbi S. Low notes:’s value to women is no longer solely or primarily resource value, and women’s value to men is no longer solely or primarily reproductive value.
Women still have the leverage of sex and fertility, but that is strongly age-dependent, is somewhat weakened by the relative availability of sexual outlets and the undermining of the status and value (and so the appeal) of fatherhood.

The presumption of greater maternal involvement in child-raising is a universal human cultural pattern that, while it shows variations among cultures, is substantially driven by biology. It is not a manifestation of patriarchy. Due to the biological processes of pregnancy and lactation, cultural conceptions of motherhood, while they do vary, vary much less than do cultural conceptions of fatherhood, which (unlike biological paternity) is a socially created role.

Apart from some rapidly fading cultural traces, contemporary Western societies do not face the problems of patriarchy. Instead, developed societies face the problems of dealing with a dramatic level of evolutionary novelty. Such as the dramatic fading of presumptive sex roles.

Beating the patriarchy drum may be emotionally satisfying, and have some residual propaganda value, but it is mostly just a giant, self-indulgent, distraction from working through the continuing implications of these dramatic changes and the sea of evolutionary novelty we find ourselves in.

[Cross-posted, somewhat improved, from Medium.]

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Narrative self-enforcement and the refusal to notice

If believing X makes one a good person, then avoiding evidence to the contrary preserves one’s virtue.

Don’t see, hear or speak anything that threatens my identity and standing.

Contemporary progressivism regularly treats failure to embrace various beliefs or narratives as a sign of intellectual or moral delinquency (or both). The various -ist or -phobe terms that get bandied about label people as suffering morally crippling cognitive delinquency.* At its most trenchant, this attitude to dissent leads directly into an ongoing pattern of “submit or be stigmatised”: either accept claim X or be stigmatised as an -ist or a -phobe.

The claim that those who significantly disagree are morally delinquent is often also tied to a claim of intellectual delinquency: that there are either (1) obvious facts or truths about the world that such dissenters are ignoring or denying. Or (2) that there are facts or truths about the world that folk clever enough to notice understand and yet those who disagree are ignorant of. Moreover, ignorant of in a way that is typically taken to either condemn them, or elevate those who do so understand, or both.

Both sorts of claims are claims about being well-informed. That the folk making such judgements are so very well informed about how the world is, what other’s beliefs are, how the crucial factors work, and so on. Such claims imply a certain willingness to make an effort to be so informed.

It is therefore quite striking to see a pattern of quite the opposite. A pattern of people using various techniques to not be informed. Or, more precisely, to not be inconveniently informed. Comedian Konstantin Kisin has observed that, in the Soviet Union, you would avoiding looking at (or into) certain things, for if you did, that would lead to wrong-thinking, which was dangerous. A similar pattern has become increasingly pervasive in Western societies.**

The protective flaw
The most common technique I have observed to avoid being inconveniently informed is finding some reason why some commentator, publication or other source is so inherently flawed that nothing that they say can be taken seriously. What that typically means in practice is that the source in question does not adhere to the correct narratives and perspectives.***

As a way of self-policing the information one receives, it is excellent. As a way of genuinely understanding what is happening the world around us, it is dreadful. Even if the alleged flaws ascribed to the source are actually in some serious sense a problem, just because a source has problem X it does not mean it is not an accurate source about Y. For instance, just because Sir Isaac Newton engaged in numerological examination of Biblical texts does not mean that he was not a great scientist.

Statements should be judged on their factual merits. But this is precisely what is not being done. Instead, their author or bearer’s alleged position in the moral universe is taken to eliminate the possibility of them providing useful information.

This is both a very bad strategy to being genuinely informed about the world and an attitude that is deeply corrosive to freedom, democracy and science. If a person, group, publication or whatever can be so comprehensively dismissed, then their entire participation in public discourse becomes “problematic”. The narratives of virtue are apparently so powerful, that it enables people and sources to be entirely cognitively dismissed in advance. While that is a deeply self-flattering attitude to take, it is also utterly incompatible with any serious commitment to freedom, democracy and science in its utter dismissal of any legitimacy for dissent and its blocking of anything resembling serious discovery processes.

A version of this strategy is to dismiss some perspective or analysis because of who also endorses, propounds or agrees with it. This is, if anything, even worse because it makes cognitive and moral illegitimacy contagious.

Such strategies are very obviously products of status strategies. They exemplify a sense of being profoundly morally and cognitively superior to any proponents of dissent.

Hijacking science
As part of the rhetoric of moral dominance, the hijacking of science to support narratives of virtue has become a recurring pattern. Such hijacking is a perversion of science in the service of establishing moral authority and narrative dominance. Philosopher Matthew B. Crawford, author of Shopcraft as Soulcraft (a nice review of which is here), expresses the fundamental conceptual error involved well:
You can’t really follow the science because science does not lead anywhere. It can illuminate various courses of action, for example by quantifying the risks that attend each, to specify the trade-offs. But it can’t make the choices for us.
Via such slogans as “follow the science”, science is being used as a rhetorical bludgeon in service of moral presumption. Any notion of rule by or through experts, including alleged moral experts, has to involve some moral framework, typically embedded in some legitimating discourse, that frames and directs the expertise. By pretending proper social action is a matter of “following” “the” science, the underlying moral framework is both hidden behind science (or claims about “the” science) and elevated out of the realm of the legitimately contestable.

As Crawford points out, falsifiability is a key to what makes science, science. Authority, on the other hand, requires certainty (or, at least, an aura of certainty). Turning science into a tool and prop of authority means trading in what makes science, science in the service of generating deference. Science becomes incorporated in alleged certainties, so a faith system, so becomes something more like a religion.

To wield science in such a way is to profoundly undermine it as a discovery process. This undermining is very congenial to all those who regard science as a tool of patriarchal, heteronormative, white supremacy. It is not remotely a path that is in any way good for the health of science. Nor for freedom of thought, nor for democracy, as any dissent becomes “anti-science” and so illegitimate.

Crawford makes the point that the expanding rule-by-expertise, which is also to a significant degree rule through emergency, involves:
... a de-legitimising of common sense as a guide to action.
This fits in very nicely with “woke” progressivism, which characterises the entire existing society as a set of moral emergencies due to being a structure of power, oppression and marginalisation. Such progressivism also pushes moral narratives regarded as of such obvious moral power that any significant dissent is inherently delinquent. It grounds its justifications in complex theory. It sets up a structure of ever-evolving linguistic taboos developed by, and selected for, the highly educated in a way that naturally tends to exclude those who are less educated from the realm of legitimate public discourse. “Follow the science” and the de-legitimising of common sense supports all these elements.

One of the reasons I have trouble identifying contemporary critical constructivist (i.e. “woke”) progressivism as “left” is because it is so profoundly antithetic to popular, and particularly working class, participation in public debate.

Identity self-protection
This hijacking of science as a moral bludgeon in the service of the prestige-and-dominance plays that are central to contemporary progressivism fits in very well with narrative self-enforcement. If progressivism is just “follow the science”, then any dissent must be “anti-science”. Anything that is “anti-science” is clearly not worth attending to, so can be excluded from one’s consideration, thereby protecting your adherence to the narratives that establish one as one of the smart and good people.

Such narrative self-enforcement, such not noticing, is required to sustain the claim that one has to believe X to be a good person, the more so the more particular to a time and place such a belief is. And many of the current you-have-to-believe X-to-be-a-good-person claims are very particular to this time and place. Such as all the results of conflating sex (which gametes your body is structured to produce) with gender (the sets of behaviours, expectations and cultural narratives associated with how your body is structured).

When folk wonder how mad and destructive claims keep spreading, the short answer is because so many folk have come to believe that either endorsing them is required to show you are a good person, that you are an informed person, that you are a smart person, or that adversely noticing their spread deprives you of such status. So long as such claims, or such avoidings of noticing, continue to be successfully paraded as being what the smart-and-good-people believe and do, people will continue to practice narrative self-enforcement so that they can stay within the set of persons who constitute the smart and the good.

If I wanted to summarise contemporary progressivism in one sentence it would be (1): the systematic sacrifice of discovery processes in the service of moral status. (Including shielding one's moral status.) Or (2) the possessors of human capital and the possessors of commercial capital getting together to screw over the working class. (But that is a pattern for another time.)

Narrative self-enforcement, blocking one’s own acquisition of inconvenient facts or confronting realisations, is engaging in such systematic, sacrifice of discovery so as to protect one’s sense of being one of the smart and the good. Doing so, so as to clothe oneself in the protective public status of being such.

I used to wonder how people in the past could not notice that the social system, or key parts thereof, that they relied upon was threatening to, or was, collapsing around them. I now realise that it can be remarkably easy to simply refuse to see what is too cognitively threatening to notice.


*For instance, finding some statement that, if you squint at it in just the right way, can be derided as racist, thereby discrediting everything from that person or source.

**Commentator Steve Sailer has just about built a career on noticing how (progressive) folk refuse to notice.

***This can be used to discount an individual, a group of individuals or an entire organisation.

[Cross-posted from Medium.]

Monday, June 14, 2021

The One-Stop Explanation of Why Marxism is Toxic Crap

The human disasters of actually existing Marxism flow directly from Marx’s theories.

Two toxic theorists and three mass murdering tyrants.

The most obvious feature of Marxism is that it has been the ruling ideology of a series of tyrannies, some of which murdered millions of their own citizens and all of which performed worse, typically disastrously worse, than their “capitalist” equivalents in promoting human well-being. The last point has been established by a series of clear natural experiments (North and South Korea, East and West Germany, China and Taiwan) but it also obvious if one just compares outcomes between reasonably similar states.

Communism (i.e. revolutionary Marxism) was strategically the best thing that ever happened for the US because it hobbled the two states most able to rival it, Russia and China. Both states have significantly fewer people, less wealth and lower standards of living, than they would have if neither had ever become Marxist.

Despite this disastrous history being the most obvious feature of Marxism, there are plenty of people who still call themselves Marxists. They give this appalling history a series of hand-waving evasions that they would not, for a moment, grant to “capitalism”. Apparently, around a 100 million deaths in purges, persecutions and terror famines (i.e. from deliberate policies of Marxist regimes) and an unbroken series of tyrannies is not enough evidence that there might be something a bit wrong with the original theory.

The justification will be something like “they did Marxism wrong”. This is just a hand-waving evasion. If you get the same basic pattern every time, then the outcome is inherent in the ideology.

Marxism is based on two (interacting) fables that go back at least to Adam Smith (1723–1790). One is the labour theory of value whereby any return from production that does not go to the workers is return on labour that labour does not get. The other is the theory of class that emerges from the labour theory of value.

Getting class completely wrong
Marx’s theory of class is that it is based on the extraction of surplus (the return from labour that labour does not get) by landlords and capitalists. The state is the instrument or manifestation of the underlying class structure of society. This is a version of an historical fable that, even today, most social scientists accept some version of and has long dominated scholarly thinking about the state.

This historical fable is that when humans developed farming, farming created surplus and social hierarchy from which the state arose. The state can therefore be understood as essentially an extrusion of the society that creates it. Marx’s famous statement that in capitalist societies [t]he executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie belongs firmly within this standard historical fairytale tale, one promulgated by Adam Smith and his intellectual heirs (which includes Karl Marx).

Almost every element of this fable is incorrect. First, farming does not, by itself, create a surplus (that is, production in excess of subsistence). Farming does greatly increase food production, increasing the ability to extract useable calories from the arable landscape by up to a hundredfold, but that just leads to more people.

For most of human history, extra food mainly meant extra babies. That is, more humans, more human biomass. This was a far stronger result from farming than any creation of more resources per person. Especially as it generally did not result in any such increase.

Farming created more human niches rather than noticeably larger human niches. Indeed, it tended to create smaller human niches (in the sense of health and nutrition quality) than foraging, just (a lot) more such niches. The health of people living in farming societies was persistently worse than that of foragers. 

The metabolic health costs of farming were worth it adaptively because they lowered the cost of individual children, so enabling people to have more children. In the genetic replication game that is evolution, farming was definitely a big winner over foraging.

Human societies thus remained within the social dynamics originally analysed by the Rev. Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) of population tending to increase to consume the food available. For farming to create a continuing and substantial surplus, food had to be intercepted and diverted before it led to more babies. (Technological and commercial surges in available resources provide complications that need not detain us.)

Direct expropriation of food on any scale was only practical if there was significant stored food. This is why most farming societies did not create states. States arose in only a relatively small minority of farming (and no foraging) societies. Though all societies, including all farming, pastoralist and foraging societies, eventually had states imposed upon them.

Farming generally results in significant amounts of stored food only if one is harvesting seasonal crops, notably grains. (Also potatoes, as potatoes are a seasonal, temperate crop that is relatively non-perishable, so function like a grain.)

If one grows crops that can be harvested all year around, there is normally no significant storage, so no significant amounts of food to be systematically, and recurrently, seized before it supports more babies. New Guinea, in all its thousands of years of farming, trade and conflict, never produced anything resembling a state, or even a chiefdom, because it is a land of crops harvested all year round, with minimal storage of food. It lacked the taxable resource-base for chiefdoms and states to arise.

Moreover, if one is living off seasonal crops, it becomes vital to ensure that (1) the stored food is available between harvests and (2) the stored seed-grain is available to sow next year’s harvest. Seasonal crops thus create a particularly intense protection problem. Even more so if there were other groups, especially pastoralist nomads, within raiding range. That protection problem encouraged the rise of specialist protectors (or organisers of protection), thereby providing a basis for the development of coercive power across generations: the basis for creating chiefdoms and states.

The benefits of coordinating protection opened up the possibility for the systematic and recurrent appropriation of stored food sufficient to create and sustain chiefdoms and then states. Societies did not easily nor simply go from farming villages to states. There had to be some build-up of the capacity to defend, to coordinate and to appropriate. Hence chiefdoms preceded states (but not all chiefdoms created states).

So, the farming-leads-to-surplus-leads-to-states fable about the origin and nature of states falls over at the start. The story about hierarchy is not much better. Most farming societies did not create much in the way of social hierarchies. Stored food was the dominant source of social inequality and hierarchy. Though inequality and hierarchy was also a feature of controllable resources generally (such as salmon runs). But only some farming leads to stored food and only some stored food comes from farming. To generate enough surplus to support a state requires systematic and recurrent generation of enough stored food that the state can then appropriate sufficient food to reliably support itself.

Sedentary foraging societies with stored food (e.g. salted fish) could and did generate social hierarchy, chiefdoms, slavery and warfare. It was stored crops, particularly grains, that usually generated the scale of resources required to generate states. (Sub-Saharan Africa, with its mixture of seasonal and non-seasonal crops, generated trade-and-slavery states, but trade also generates a storable goods protection problem.)

States and class
Once the state evolved in (or was imposed on) any society, it dominated the generation of surplus in that society. In a real sense, each state had to remake its originating society so as to sustain itself (and then impose the same remaking on any areas it conquered).

The state was almost invariably not some “extrusion” of a society, it was the dominant structuring element in its society. If it could not structure society so as to sustain itself, it would either not arise in the first place or, if it could not sustain the required structuring of society, it would collapse. Even cooperative-bargaining (i.e. non-autocratic) states remade their societies. An example being the abolition of lineage-based tribes within both Athens and Rome and their replacement by territorial designations depending on where in the city one lived. (Judging by the disappearance of kin terms differentiating male- and female-line kin from classical Greek, such replacement of lineage-based kin groups seems to have been a general pattern in Mediterranean city-states.)

The first, and arguably the greatest of historical sociologists, Ibn Khaldun(1332–1406) discussed states structuring their societies, using the Aristotelian language of form for structure rather than the more economistic language that we are, post-Marx, used to. Thus he writes:
… dynasty and royal authority have the same relationship to civilization as form has to matter. (The form) is the shape that preserves the existence of (matter) through the kind of (phenomenon) it represents. It has been established in philosophy that one cannot be separated from the other. One cannot imagine a dynasty without civilization, while a civilization without dynasty and royal authority is impossible, because human beings must by nature co-operate, and that calls for a restraining influence. Political leadership, based on either religious or royal authority, is inevitable. This is what is meant by dynasty. Since the two cannot be separated, the disintegration of one of them must influence the other, just as its nonexistence would entail the nonexistence of the other.
(Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, Chapter 4, Section 1.)
In other words, the state structures society. It cannot be assumed to be the extruded product of a society.

Perhaps the most extreme example of such structuring is provided by Egypt, which generated the quickest, and most thorough, transition from seasonal-crop farming to highly centralised state. Yet, from the flight of pharaoh Nectanebo II in 343BC to the officers’ revolt which overthrew the Albanian Alawwite dynasty in 1953, Egypt was ruled by foreign empires or foreign dynasties. For almost 23 centuries, there was a state in Egypt, but there was not an Egyptian state. Even if each iteration of the state in Egypt adopted the techniques for exploiting Nile valley farmers developed by the pharaohs, whatever state ruled Egypt was not an extrusion or product of the society it ruled. It imposed structures on that society congenial for its continued rule and reflective of its (external) origins.

States are typically not creations of class structures. Typically, they have been the dominant creators of class structures. States have dominated the creation of class structures as they have dominated the extraction of surplus and, typically in alliance with priesthoods and clerics or (in the case of China) secular clerisies, dominated the socialisation of function: what status various social groups had; what access to surplus they had and on what basis; what were their rights and obligations. Surplus + socialisation of function => class structure.

So, states themselves are, historically, the dominant extractors of surplus and the dominant creators of class structures. The former is still true, by the way. Look at the size of the tax take in any Western democracy. It is way larger than the profit share of GDP. (Though, in the sense of income above subsistence, technology and economic structures dominate the creation of surplus, with the state taking far more of that surplus than do company profits.)

But the most dramatic example of states as the dominant creators of class structures is provided by every revolutionary Marxist state. In each case, the ruling regime seized the state, atomised society and restructured society to serve its own power and purposes, thereby creating the class structure of its society. Marx’s theory of class proved to be self-refuting by Marxism.

Marx’s theory of value claimed that surplus came from exploitation of labour by landlords and capitalists. So, if you abolished such exploitation, you abolished class. Marxist regimes abolished such designated exploitation by concentrating all social power in the hands of the ruling regime via the state: the actual historically dominant extractor of surplus and creator of class structures. So, of course Marxism-in-power created murderous tyrannies run by elites who extracted the surplus from society for their own ends.

Stalin was able to extract far more surplus for his own purposes from a smaller-in-territory-and-population Soviet Union than Tsar Nicholas II had from the larger-in-territory-and-population Russian Empire. Stalin created one of the largest slave systems in history. He (re)imposed serfdom, as people were not allowed to leave a workplace without the workplace’s permission. The Kim regime in Korea is, in effect, a recreation of the dynastic God-kings of early states, with more advanced technology.

This pattern of tyrannical regimes extracting surplus for their own ends was not some weird, recurring accident. It was a direct result of Marx getting class fundamentally wrong.

Getting value wrong
So, why did Marx get class so completely wrong? Because he got value profoundly wrong.

On this point, as elsewhere, there is not much point in engaging in some forensic analysis of what Marx actually wrote. While he was a rhetorically powerful reasoner (and asked some good questions), he was also a persistently dishonest one. That is, when he makes some claim that might be critiqued he adds in some fudging protection, so that he can always point to the protective fudge to evade critique. As he put it in a letter to Engels, one just uses a bit of dialectic to get out of any difficulty in analysis.

So, consider Marx’s basic characterisation of profit: the return on labour that labour does not receive. Why do people engage in labour? Why did our original foraging ancestors engage in effort? To gain something they wanted. Why did they want it? Because it has some feature of characteristic they needed (nutrition) or otherwise valued (it tasted good, it was fun, it made getting food easier, and so on).

So, the labour was directed to what people valued. That is the basic connection between labour and value: labour is typically directed to what people value. If the labour is successful, the value is gained. If the labour is not successful, then the value is not gained. Since success is not measured by the labour, labour is not the source of value. It “creates” value only in specific circumstances.

So, labour is the “source” of value only if one completely ignores the discovery process involved in applying labour, in putting in effort, to successfully achieve value. Human history is fundamentally a history of discovery. The way labour is applied always relies on some previous process of discovery. Indeed, all of evolution is fundamentally a process of discovery: discovering what can be successfully replicated.

What increases the value that labour, successfully applied via discovery processes, provides? Well, land for one. Foragers engaged in a lot of search activity to find that which they valued. What was available to be discovered made a big difference in how they went about that (how they applied their labour) and what they were likely to discover (what was the outcome of doing so).

Foraging, especially hunting, is a skilled activity. People had to learn skills to be effective foragers. In contemporary foraging societies, the productivity of foragers peaks at about 45 years of age. As humans increasingly adopted skill-based foraging techniques, that meant that older males could be desirable mates. The older the male, the longer the telomeres of their offspring tend to be, so the longer such offspring tended to live. This resulted in more human females living past menopause, which enabled them to finishing raising the children they had when they were about 40 and to invest in the children of their children (as they stopped having children of their own).

The learned skills that meant productivity of the provisioning human males peaked at an older age were the cognitively incorporated — indeed embodied, including via muscle memory — results of discovery processes. Labour is always effort + (past or present) discovery. Skilled labour simply incorporates a higher level of (past) discovery.

What’s another thing that increases the value that labour, successfully applied via discovery processes provides? Tools. Which are a form of capital, the produced means of production. Humans became tool makers because that made their labour more productive. As skills are learnt, they are also a produced means of production, so human capital.

So, the more (useful) land, the more capital (including human capital) and the better the discovery processes, the more value the application of labour is likely to provide. Workers in developed economies have much higher wages than folk generally do elsewhere, or in the past, because they are supported by a great deal of productive land, capital and accumulated discovery processes.

How does one get folk to look after the land, provide capital and engage in discovery? Make sure they gain benefit from doing these things. Why does every society ever known generate returns to land, capital and discovery? Because these things magnify the value that labour can achieve.

Together, they create value in the sense of providing things people value. But the value comes from people’s reaction to the things provided. Economic activity “creates” value in that sense, and that sense alone. It “creates” value if it is successfully directed towards providing things people value and does not “create” value if it is not, regardless of how much labour and other resources might have been applied to such activity.

There is another feature of economic activity not yet covered in the above. That is risk. The notion of discovery implies the possibility of not discovering. Or even of disastrous discovery (e.g. that thing that tasted OK was actually poisonous). Search involves risk. Effort involves risk. Not doing anything involves risk. Risk has to be managed. Good risk management is a very useful thing. It makes creating value, particularly doing so recurrently, from the application of a given amount of resources much more likely.

Human foraging is cooperative. In contemporary foraging societies, individuals vary in their social connections, what anthropologists call relational wealth and economists social capital. Such connections function as information (i.e. discovery) networks and risk management networks, as they are constructed by exchanges of favours. Management of risk has always been part of human activity and social organisation. So has land, so has capital.

The analytical advantage of starting with foragers is:
  • that is where we came from, and
  • we can see basic economic patterns without exchange being a major factor. (Though evidence for exchange dates back to our emergence as a species.)
If exchanging something we produced or acquired for something that someone else produced or acquired has been going on for our entire history of a species, a mere 200,000 years or so, then we are probably adapted to engaging in exchange. Producing things for sale, for exchange, is not, in any useful sense, inherently alienating.

Though it is not exchange itself that is allegedly alienating. Rather, if labour creates (all) value, then any value from productive effort that does not go to labour is return from labour they did not receive. That is allegedly the source of alienation.

Those familiar with Marx’s writings, or Marxist theory, will notice I have ignored the use-value/exchange-value distinction. (Mainstream economics calls the first utility, and the second price, where cost is what you pay or imposed, which may or may not be priced.) This is because:
  1. exchange-value is driven by use-value, including use in exchange, as all exchange is driven by variation in valuations: we exchange what we value more for what we value less; and
  2. it is perfectly possible to make key points by considering foraging economies where exchange is not a major factor — they are instead dominated by connection and pooling. It makes it easier to see that that use-value/exchange-value distinction does not get you where Marx wants to go with it.
So, moving to an exchange economy, you put land, labour and capital together in the hope of creating more value than was consumed. Suppose you fail. That is, you make a loss. Who covers the loss? Who is in the best position to cover the loss?

Generally speaking, not the workers. They generally lack the resources to do so. More importantly, they lack the control to do so. Forcing folk to cover losses from processes that they do not control is a very bad incentive structure. So, the person who covers the loss better have sufficient control over the processes of production to affect the pattern of risk. Why would they cover the loss? Because of some hope of gain.

You could pay them to cover the risk of loss. That is how one gets an insurance industry. Or, you could have them not only cover the losses, but also gain the profits. That provides them with an incentive to cover losses and to organise production so that profits are more likely.

Hence the structure whereby business are owned by the people who put up the capital to cover the risk of loss and, in return, receive the profits. Does this remotely look like “the return from labour that labour does not gain?” Or does it look like the return from taking on the risks, from engaging in discovery, from organising land, labour and capital to be productive?

Would labour be as productive without those things? Does doing those things make the labour more valuable? Does doing those things increase the return to labour? No, yes, and yes. Hence firms and workers can contract for mutual gain.

The labour theory of value “works” by assuming success. By assuming that production of value is successfully achieved when labour is applied to production. So you don’t have to worry about discovery, risk, consuming more value than you produce, etc. But that just assumes away a whole set of hard questions.

If all the value of production is returned to the workers in an enterprise, how do you pay for upkeep of land, acquiring and maintaining capital, managing risk, discovery processes? No enterprise can operate for any length of time by returning all the value it produces to labour. So, burbling on about “return to labour that labour does not receive” is nonsense on stilts. Especially given how much all these things affect the success of the application of labour. Firms generally don’t happen by workers congregating together and assembling the processes for creating value, as there is a lot more involved than labour.

Marxist states were appallingly bad at looking after the land and at maintaining buildings and equipment, were not good at providing capital for anything beyond the convenience of the regime. Nor were they good at discovery processes (apart from stealing other folk’s discoveries). Why? Because they were command economies and based on Marx’s labour theory of value, with the latter tending to exacerbate the problems of the former. All value was deemed to be created by labour: not by land, capital or discovery. Folk owning land or capital was inherently exploitive because they extract a “return from labour” that labour does not receive. The consequences of this fundamental misreading of the processes of creating value were predictable, and predicted.

Pretending that payment for use of land, for creating and maintaining capital, managing risk, and discovery processes is not payment for value received is just another hand-waving evasion. As is pretending that it is payment for labour. Value is what labour (and use of land, and use of capital, and discovery processes, and risk management) is directed towards. Value is only produced by any of these things, including labour, if it is successfully so directed and is much more likely to be achieved if all these things are successfully so directed.

Property as incentive structure
The notion of private property emerges very early in human history, though it does not become a major feature of human societies until the development of sedentism, farming and pastoralism. The basic idea of property is not mine! — any silverback gorilla male with a harem can do that — but yours!

Exchange is a fundamentally normative activity: it makes what was yours, mine and what was mine, yours. We humans engage in exchange so readily because we are a far more normative species than are our primate near relatives. Our normative and cooperative capacities have made us the global ape.

Chimpanzees conform much more to the predictions of game theory in strategic games than do humans because they are less normative than are humans. A Pan troglodytes in a lab is distinctly more homo economicus than are Homo sapiens.

As a group-living species that also pair-bonded, some notion of yours! had to develop to permit pair-bonding to happen. That is, both the males and the females in the group had to acknowledge some sense of the pairing being off limits to others.

In contemporary foraging societies, young folk do not “break even” in their calorie contribution to the group until about age 20. On average, in such societies, males dominate the provision of protein to the group, provide a majority of calories to the group and overwhelmingly dominate the provision of protein and calories to children, once they are weaned. There was no evolutionary stable alternative than investment in children that they could be reasonably confident were theirs to getting males to provide for children at the consistency and level needed to raise such remarkably helpless human infants into adults, a process taking about 20 years.

(Investing in one’s sister’s children — i.e., substituting unclehood for fatherhood — is a possible alternative, but it operates as the main mechanism of male provision for children in a very small number of societies. Given that nephews and nieces are more genetically distant from oneself than are sons and daughters, it is an inferior gene replication strategy. One typically adopted in circumstances of high uncertainty about the paternity of individual children.)

Once you have farming and pastoralism, then property rights develop in earnest. Having someone gain the benefits from controlling some thing (or some attribute of the thing) is often the only stable way to get around free rider problems and tragedy of the commons. It motivates better use (and maintenance) of the owned thing. This is why property rights are such a pervasive feature of human societies. Indeed, substituting control of attributes by their agents for more widely distributed property rights is often done by the powerful so as to make it easier for them to appropriate the labour, or products of the labour, of others. This was as true in Pharaonic Egypt as in Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China or Kim Dynasty Korea.

When regulation in modern societies goes wrong, it often does so by poorly aligning effective control over an attribute with the incentives to productively use said attribute. This is particularly likely to be true when discretionary power is given to an official. Especially as corruption is essentially the market for official discretion: the more official discretions there are, the more extensive such corruption is likely to become.*

Regulation, especially if it involves considerable official discretions, can often be a considerable source of commercial risk. This tends to favour larger enterprises, as they can better manage such risks. Being larger provides them with more capacity to influence, even manipulate, regulatory processes. This perverse interaction between regulation, risk and response can be seen in any jurisdictions that engage in extensive land management via official discretions.

The coercive basis of the state, and its consequent ability to operate with, even benefit from, poorly aligned incentives makes it a much less reliable mechanism for encouraging human flourishing than is often assumed. Especially as you functionally pay an organisation to do what makes its income go up. Thus, government health systems get more income if the metabolic health of the citizenry gets worse, not better. Government health systems colonise the ill-health of the population, so have pervasive institutional interest in metabolic health getting worse, as it has. Hence crap official nutrition guidelines that are not based on sound science but are generating obesity even in the US armed forces.

When Western states gave up their territorial colonies, they switched from colonising other people’s societies to colonising their own. (We call this process of internal colonisation “the welfare state”.) Much of that has involved colonising social pathologies, with the income streams received by state organisations tending to increase as the social pathologies that they are tasked with “solving” increase.

Perhaps the best protection for state action is being judged by the publicly declared intent of policies. (Which is, of course, much easier to do than ferreting out actual effects, especially as they often require consideration of counterfactuals.) Marxism has very grand intentions. So do Marxist states. As they will tell you. At great length.

Command economies become increasingly corrupt over time because they are so pervaded by official discretions. Informal “grey” market or illegal “black” ones emerged to try and keep the command economies working. They were both necessary to get around the pathologies of the system and a result of those pathologies. Command economies are also bad at managing and maintaining assets as those in control of such assets do not get sufficient (sometimes any) return from better management.**

When Austrian school economists von Mises and Hayek criticised command economics on the basis of the inability to calculate value, they under-estimated the resilience of actually existing socialism because people adapted to the pathologies of the system. The informal and illegal markets, and other adaptations, were not enough over the long run. But they kept the command economies functioning longer and better than they otherwise would have. (Especially as it turned out that the planners were surreptitiously putting market information from the West into their plans.)

As all human societies have to grapple with free rider problems and the tragedy of the commons they have evolved a range of responses to deal with them. Which can include local resource management regimes. How arrogant do you have to be to think that abolishing all the mechanisms that evolved to deal with such problems was remotely a clever thing to do? Marxist-level arrogant.

Though, with critical social justice and its associated forms of critical constructivism, we are getting a new wave of such arrogance, one concentrated more on cultural rather than economic revolution. Then again, critical constructivism is, like Marxism, also a form of transformative, golden-future progressivism. One that traces much of its intellectual lineage back to Marxism and, like Marxism, represents the worship of the golden-transformative-future splendour in progressive heads.

Not only crap, but toxic crap
Marxism has disastrous outcomes because it is a crap theory of class based on a crap theory of value. Marxist historians can only make their analytical framework work by either ignoring whatever parts of history don’t fit or by ignoring the framework whenever it gets in the way of doing good historical scholarship. But Marxism does give its adherents a reassuring, though false, sense of understanding how societies work, how history works and the direction that history is going in.

Marxism is a manifestation of progressivism: of belief in a transformative golden future that is taken to inherently ennoble its adherents. It encourages mutual worship of the splendour in their heads. It provides a heroic narrative that adherents can write themselves into. All based on disastrous falsehoods.

With enough mutual worship of the splendour in progressive heads, any amount of tyranny, mass murder and mass death is possible. As we have seen again and again.***

This is what makes Marxism not only crap, but toxic crap. Marx’s “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” (Jeder nach seinen Fähigkeiten, jedem nach seinen Bedürfnissen), a vision of a society without alienation — a vision of a splendid future so golden that any sacrifice for it is worthwhile — is combined with a disastrously wrong conception of value and economic processes and, as a consequence, a disastrously wrong conception of class and, as further consequence, a disastrously wrong conception of the role and dangers of the state.

The awful human cost of Marxism in power is not a result of some perversion of Marx’s thought. It is a direct consequence of his theories. It is a result of Marxism’s disastrous pretensions to, but profound failures of, understanding combined with justifying moral grandeur.

Tens of millions of dead in an unbroken series of tyrannies testify to how much Marxism is toxic crap. It represents neither understanding nor moral grandeur. Just delusions of understanding lost in self-flattering heroic narratives that shield those adherents from self-understanding. Or asking the right questions to gain understanding. Marxism is toxic crap at so many levels.

Yet Marxism remains profoundly influential, including via critical theory and its offshoots. Not due to its analytical value, still less its moral value, but because of its rhetorical power and its ability to generate self-flattering, but profoundly mistaken, senses of moral and social understanding.

We are a group-living species. So we are a status-concerned and status-driven species. Between the heroic narrative, the sense of moral grandeur, the mastery of arcane terminology, the sense of purpose, meaning, and understanding, Marxism--like golden, transformative future progressivism generally--is the basis of an industrial-strength collective status strategy. It turns out it does not need to be accurate about the world, it just has to provide the right motivation, the right sort of appeal, to enough folk who are happy to derive their sense of status and identity from what is in their heads. Apparently, no amount of tyranny and mass murder can trump that.


*Corruption need not be financial. There can also be moral and intellectual corruption whereby officials substitute status strategies, that is personal social or cognitive benefits (including ideological self-satisfaction), for genuinely public-interest-focused performance of their duties.

**It is a misnomer to think of command economies as abolishing property rights. They confiscate private property and allocate legal property rights to the state. But economic property rights, control of things and attributes of things, are distributed across the apparatus of the state because such control has to be distributed for production and resource management to function. Distributing economic property rights across the state apparatus does so in ways that tends to suppress key information feedbacks, misaligns incentives, undermines quality control and encourages waste. Command economies are, in no sense, “solutions” to any alleged problem of property rights. They magnify such problems in ways fundamentally antithetical to human flourishing.

***There is also the problem of such regimes selecting for pathological personalities. The notion that commitment to the transformative golden future is ennobling provides cover for Dark Triad personalities while the creation of a single hierarchy of power in revolutionary command economies provides them with a single target to aim at. Their narcissism makes them self-focused on personal advancement, their Machievallianism makes them effective players of the self-advancement game and their psychopathy minimises any self-constraint on their actions, making them more ruthless players of the self-advancement game. Needless to say, selecting for pathological personalities, and handing them great power over others, is not good for promoting human flourishing.

[Cross-posted from Medium.]