This is a follow-up on my previous piece, “From Civilization to a Circle of Equals”, where I put forward a view that human civilization, since its flowering 5000 years ago with the invention of literacy, appears to have been built around the control of the majority of people within its purview by a minority elite. This piece focuses on some of the specific mechanisms of control, some developed in ancient times but continuing today, and others that are more recent “innovations”.
I think it is critical that progressive people understand this history and these continuing mechanisms of control, so we have more of a chance to rise above these manipulations by controlling elites. It is equally critical that we avoid advocating for these manipulations ourselves, in our efforts to create a more egalitarian narrative for human society going forward into the future. Control, even by the forces of egalitarian ends, is still control, and diminishes the natural human spirit to control ones own destiny.
So here’s my list of such mechanisms, certainly not a comprehensive one, but some of the obvious bigees and a few others you might not have thought of.
From the beginning of recorded history 5000 years ago it appears that the first tool of control was organized violence by elites against other people (and other elites) to bring those people within their circle of domination and exploitation. This has been such a powerful and effective tool that it has continued to be employed by ruling elites thru the ensuing fifty centuries. It seems only recently to have lost much of its efficacy in the 20th century of our Common Era when the deadliness of the weaponry and the capability to field militaries of such scope led to mass slaughters of human beings by each other for no apparent reason other than following orders from the chain of command.
I want to differentiate war with just general grudges and acts of violence between individual people or clans. War is all about mobilizing large numbers of people and weaponry within a hierarchy of command as a calculated tool of policy by ruling elites. Though fomenting hate among the “troops” may be a tactic by the command structure to motivate morale, generally the motives for war are more rationally calculated to seize resources, defeat or diminish enemies, and to broaden spheres of control.
The invention of chattel offset the human and material cost of war and allowed elites to increase their level of manipulation of the people under their control plus increase their capability to broaden their sphere of control. People could be conquered and rather than being simply slaughtered or left free but forced to pay tribute (the latter creating the possibility for rebellion), they could be put to work as additional soldiers and laborers with a minimum of resources for their upkeep. Thus a small elite with an effective use of warfare could build its capabilities to grow and dominate a huge empire.
It was such a compelling (addictive?) tool of control that male elites even designated women and children of their own clans as chattel. I suspect that when you put yourself in the mode of dominating others it gets increasingly hard to draw the line of when to stop.
From reading about the historical theory of the “Axial Age”, my take is that most of the great religions that are still popular today emerged during the third millennia of civilization (the one before our Common Era, roughly from 1000 BCE to 0 CE) originally not among the elites but among the rest of us dominated by those elites. My take is that the original goal of these religions was to challenge the ethics of organized violence and domination by elites by putting forward concepts like the Golden Rule and attempting to reign in corporeal warlords with, at least in the case of Judaism (and later key to Christianity and Islam), a more ethical heavenly authority figure they would have to ultimately answer to.
Human consciousness being thoughtfully imaginative beyond the day-to-day mundane aspects of existence, religion with its great narratives and metaphors has turned out to be a compelling metaphysical framework. So much so, that it has to a large degree been co-opted by elites to give an ethical justification (think divine right of kings) to their continuing exercise of control.
Case in point is Constantine I, a Roman general/warlord in the third century CE who defeated his fellow Roman generals and seized complete control of Rome’s European empire, reworking the Christian religion to his ends of conquest, domination and control. The link between church and state that he forged held complete sway in Europe for the next 13 centuries until it gave way to other means of control during the Modern Era. The main “us and them” mechanism of control was a calculated kindling of antisemitism, which led to consistent separation and persecution, plus repeated slaughter of millions of European Jews during the most recent millennium of human history.
The original practice of trade between peoples in different parts of the world has and continues to have a generally positive impact on human development with the sharing of human resources and the resulting sharing of ideas as well. But the co-option of that trade by political and economic elites during the most recent five centuries in the form of mercantilism, capitalism, socialism, communism (the reality rather than the ideal) and colonialism became a tool of domination and control of people as a more “civilized” adjunct to continuing warfare.
More recently, the advances in advertising and marketing in the second half of the 20th century – leveraging all the latest research and techniques of the behavioral, social and communication sciences – are all about the manipulations of the individual mind towards the collective shifting of opinion, taste and values. Media philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote a great book on this topic called The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, which takes apart a selection of the popular media and advertising of 1940s and 1950s American culture. It’s all about trying to create exciting and compelling lifestyles built around the ever-increasing consumption of products and services.
Though the best of science has represented the unquenchable human thirst for knowledge and efforts to facilitate human development, science like religion has been manipulated as a tool of “us and them” thinking, ranking and justifying hierarchies of domination and control.
Like the initial challenge religion presented to organized violence and domination during the “Axial Age”, scientific thought challenged the religious dogma of social control that held sway in Europe during the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment.
Though not perhaps to the degree of religious thought and practice, as science became accepted by controlling elites, it was often manipulated by those elites as justification for and a method of controlling the rest of us. Charles Darwin’s breakthrough ideas about the evolution of species were reframed as justification for the endemic exploitation of colonialism and early industrialization. Early social and biological science built around phrenology and eugenics justified racism and the supposed superiority of the northern European “race” over all other “races”. Between religious and scientific antisemitism, the ground was prepared for sociopathic dictators like Hitler and Mussolini to rise to power and initiate the Holocaust.
Again, I don’t see the basic intent of science being to control people, but like religion rather to aid in our understanding of our place in the universe and how best we can chart a path for our lives. But again, as a powerful and compelling methodology for charting our lives’ courses, history shows us that it is easily manipulated by elites for the purposes of control.
From my reading of history, particularly the efforts of Horace Mann to launch the “Common Schools” in the U.S., universal state-controlled public education had both facilitative and manipulative motives behind it. Offering every young person in the county the opportunity to get a basic education was seen as facilitating the next generations of an informed citizenry a working democracy required. But the dark side of this was public education’s role in engineering the “melting pot”, reprogramming the children of immigrants with values consistent with and respectful of the country’s Protestant elite.
If public schools were mainly an academic exercise in education and normalization in the 19th century, in the early 20th circumstances led to this system being essentially taken over by the nation’s business elite. Schools were reframed under the banner of “business efficiency” to produce professionals and more low-level worker bees for burgeoning American industry and commerce. In the immortal words of business-trained public school system administrator Elwood Cubberley…
Our schools are, in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specification for manufacturing come from the demands of the twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils to the specification laid down. This demands good tools, specialized machinery, continuous measurement of production to see if it is according to specifications, the elimination of waste in manufacture, and a large variety in the output.
Today this exercise in control continues with all states participating in standardization of curriculum and teaching methodology, plus using standardized tests based on that standardized curriculum to evaluate, rank, and thus control students, teachers and schools. Even a politically progressive Obama administration is pushing for this standardization, including new national standards so that all states align their separate standards under federal control.
The complete control of individual human development is a very modern mechanism of elite control, developed by the Prussians in the 19th century when they conceived of the mechanisms to best build a totalitarian state. Prior to that in human history, ruling elites did not have the administrative infrastructure and scope of reach to attempt to manage each child’s formative experiences to such a degree.
It is amazing to me sometimes how this ancient control model continues to propagate itself through most aspects of our contemporary culture, including areas that at first glance would seem simple and straightforward, like the production, sale and consumption of food.
Even a hundred years ago, the great majority of food consumed by most people was “whole food”, naturally harvested plants or slaughtered animals that were either cooked or eaten raw, and also often combined in soup, stews or pies. But with all the advances in chemistry, biology and “food science” since the 19th century, much of the food people eat in our society is manufactured instead. Various components of plants and animals are separated from the “whole food” and recombined using modern culinary science (as hyped on the Food Channel) to create fabricated substances that are artificially high in fat, salt and sugar, and are engineered specifically to manipulate our sense of taste and smell and heighten our craving for such manipulated food. To a large degree consumption of these manipulated foods is responsible for our nation’s problem with obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other “lifestyle” diseases.
Remember “Soma”, the socially shared drug in the dystopian classic Brave New World, that kept the population passive and accepting of a totalitarian state? The argument could be made that much of the packaged, convenience and “fast” foods that most Americans consume to a large degree are such substances, designed as much or more so for their addictive qualities rather than their actual nutritional value. Often the nutritional value that is removed in the manufacture process is then added back in to some degree by “fortifying” the product.
Moving Beyond Civilization and Control
Increasingly I am dedicating my own life to moving our society beyond the structures of privilege that define elites and the mechanisms of control that protect that privilege. When we truly move to a circle of equals and forswear these techniques for domination and control I believe that it will be such a transformation of human society that the term “civilization” will no longer be an appropriate label for the way we choose to engage with each other. One can argue that the whole concept of “civilizing” implied that this was an antidote to an earlier more natural state of human society that was cruel, savage and unknowing, and needed to be remediated, by force if necessary.
In fact the state of the art of anthropology and current understanding of our pre-civilization hunter-gatherer forebears, is that their society was anything but cruel, savage and unknowing. The great organized cruelty and savagery has come to us with the broadening imposition of civilization and hierarchies of elite control over human beings that lived in small mostly egalitarian societies for 200,000 years.
Whatever form of organizing society we move toward beyond the privilege, elites and tools control deserves to be called something beyond the term “civilization”.