Thoughts on Civilization & Privilege

GotPrivFor nearly 200,000 years our human species (homo sapiens) lived on this bountiful planet in what most anthropologists now believe were mostly small egalitarian bands or tribes of hunter-gatherers, less than a million people scattered about Earth’s various habitable environs living for the most part peacefully with each other and within the larger web of nature. Each autonomous group might be as few as 10 to as many as 100 people generally woven together by a web of kinship with a basic equality among members including between men and women. It is generally believed today that all told, these people lived good lives in harmony with nature and were anything but the conventional pejorative notion of “savages”.

Unlike the tribal “chiefs” we are familiar with in contemporary indigenous societies, most bands of hunter-gatherers are believed to have operated without permanent leaders, with various community members taking initiative based on their expertise in the particular task being performed. Think more the informal organization of a contemporary large extended family or a group of people on a field or camping trip rather than a highly stratified hierarchy of decision making. The fact that this organization of our species evolved naturally and continued for nearly 200,000 years mostly unchanged speaks to its efficacy and compatibility with innate human nature.

What I’m really wrestling with these days is the most recent 5000 to 10,000 years of our history, specifically our experiment with “civilization”, which seems to have been quite a mixed bag. In an effort to see what lies beyond and maybe even evolve beyond our nature, we created complex human societies where we all participate (some willingly but many coerced) as a sort of super-organism that has been able to explore and take control of virtually all of our planet’s territory and natural resources, compile an edifice of knowledge now almost universally available through the Internet, and take at least the first baby steps to explore beyond the friendly confines of our planet. A super-organism mimicking a purely biological organism which has a certain small portion of that organism dedicated to its control and executive function.

At its best this experiment with civilization has created a world that currently allows seven billion unique souls to inhabit it at the same time, share an incarnation on a beautiful planet, and share ever more connectedness with (through diminishing degrees of separation from) each other.

But the downside is that we have created complex societies and institutions within those societies which as designed require a controlling elite executing that executive function in a way that generally favors that subset of people at the expense of the rest of us participating in the super-organism. This privilege of a controlling elite may or may not have been an aspect of previous human hunter-gatherer societies, but it continues to be a foundational cog of our “civilization” approach to human society.

What’s a species to do?

One approach that has been tried occasionally in our human history is for the majority to overwhelm the elite minority by force of superior numbers and force them to relinquish their wealth and power. But from my reading of history, the rare successful rebellion of this sort has generally led to the elevation of a different elite jealously protecting its new position at the top of a newly stratified heap. Perhaps more often, the threat of this sort of a revolt has led to some important changes for the better.

Civilization Beyond Privilege

Is civilization as we know it for the past 5000 years of written history even possible without creating a controlling privileged minority? Has our species evolved enough in our sophistication to transform our institutions and our entire societies into a “Civilization 2.0: The Egalitarian Edition”? Can we have the best of both worlds; the benefits of the coordinated effort of many thoughtful and capable people while still operating within our natural egalitarian rules of engagement with each other?

I’m convinced that we can… and moving in that direction is what gets me out of bed in the morning and makes life interesting and meaningful for me. It is a huge evolutionary challenge, and ironically so many of us with the time, freedom and speaking position to call out the challenge are enmeshed in various circles of privilege that benefit us every day, and that most of us naively take for granted.

From the wisdom of radical historian Howard Zinn and his book You Can’t be Neutral on a Moving Train, it is more important who is sitting at the decision-making table than the letter of the laws that are guiding those decisions…

I was acutely conscious of the gap between law and justice. I knew that the letter of the law was not as important as who held the power in any real-life situation.

Which would lead him to the observation that…

While our society may be liberal and democratic in some large and vague sense, its moving parts, its smaller chambers–its classrooms, its workplaces, its corporate boardrooms, its jails, its military barracks–are flagrantly undemocratic, dominated by one commanding person or a tiny elite of power.

As a starting point, the best advice (such as it is) I’ve heard to date to begin to address the issues of privilege is that we constantly acknowledge it, starting with any that we ourselves possess, keeping the reality at least on the table and ripe for further discussion and the possibility of some sort of remediation or other action.

The Corrosive Effects of Failing to Acknowledge Privilege

Failure to acknowledge one’s own privilege is a corrosive naivete that can lead to the worst of the worst, people “drinking the koolaid” and taking comfort thinking inequity is being confronted when in reality it is being reinforced.

The example that comes to my mind (though you may disagree with my take here) are the efforts by a progressive Obama administration and a bipartisan majority in Congress and most state legislatures to push for the increasing standardization of education and the high-stakes testing that enforces it as a path toward better educational opportunities for communities outside the circle of racial and economic privilege. Obama himself and likely the overwhelming majority of legislators supporting this effort send their own kids to private schools. Yet they sign off on educational policy that affects mostly other people’s children. Policy that critics now argue basically punishes schools in poor communities for failure while rewarding the success of public schools in more economically advantaged communities. The privilege of the decision-makers insulates them from the real impact of their policy decisions. The people most impacted by the policy are not at the table.

Thoughts on a Path Forward

As Howard Zinn and others point out, the possible good intentions of people making the decisions is less important than the breadth of people participating in the decision-making process and the broader range of perspectives they bring to that process. Ideally in line with the natural informal human governance model evident in earlier human societies, everyone affected by a decision should be involved in making it, but this is not always doable. The evolutionary challenge in our complex modern society is to somehow amidst all this bigness return to a truly egalitarian governance model rather than having a decisionmaking elite. Set policy at the highest levels that facilitates most decisions being made at the local level. And for those policy decisions that still need to be made at the highest level, continue to find ways of wresting the political process from the control by economic and other elites so there is broader representation making those remaining high-level decisions.

We have had successes.

In the world of big business, the union movement brought workers to the table to negotiate with business management, but the governance model is problematic because it is often highly adversarial leading to one side trying to defeat, rather than collaborate with, the other. More recently the business efficiency of a more egalitarian approach to “knowledge work” may be a model for more local egalitarian political, legislative, and educational decisions as well.

In the realm of small business, an American culture that encourages entrepreneurialism has facilitated the blossoming of a multitude of high-tech startups, plus being an important path forward for immigrants to launch successful businesses to move into the middle class.

And in the arena of politics and legislative bodies, Women’s Suffrage and Civil Rights have facilitated women and minorities joining the circles of national and state-level decision making.

In my thinking, going forward, the path away from privilege and a small elite controlling the rest of us is twofold. Hierarchies within society, from huge institutions to small families, need to be “flattened” into more horizontal (peer) relationships and/or “flipped” into facilitative rather than directive leadership.

From my reading of history, particularly the “flattening” part emerged in the consensus governance model of the Iroquois Nation and the Quaker meeting plus the most thoughtful and high-minded vision of the philosophical anarchists; not the end of governance but evolution beyond the need for a privileged governing elite. From his book God and the State written in 1871, anarchist thinker Mikhail Bakunin wrote…

Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor the savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure. I do not content myself with consulting authority in any special branch; I consult several; I compare their opinions, and choose that which seems to me the soundest. But I recognize no infallible authority, even in special questions; consequently, whatever respect I may have for the honesty and the sincerity of such or such an individual, I have no absolute faith in any person. Such a faith would be fatal to my reason, to my liberty, and even to the success of my undertakings; it would immediately transform me into a stupid slave, an instrument of the will and interests of others.

Bakunin wrote these words with their very defiant tenor during a dark time for European civilization, in the midst of the Franco-Prussian War and the growing use of state-sponsored industrial militarism as a calculated coercive tool of state policy. The most inhumane “statism” that led to World War I, the calculated slaughter of millions of young men on the battlefield, and a near total abandonment of any ethical underpinning for Western society. If the privileged governing elite ever had an ethicaL justification for their stewardship of the rest of us, it lost all legitimacy. More than a century of continued war and genocide followed, including taking our species to the brink of nuclear holocaust, perpetrated by the ruling elites of some of the most “advanced” nations on the planet.

Today many of us, including many of my fellow progressives, see this difficult legacy as a failing of the human species. I do not, seeing instead the playing out and eventual failure of a governance model, our species’ 5000 year evolutionary experiment with a formal governing elite exercising “executive control” over the rest of us. When it comes to human learning, there is no greater teacher than self-initiated experiment, failure, then assessment of lessons learned. It is an experiment that transformed our society and there is no going back. Only going forward with a further evolution that will somehow take us beyond the super-organism and the biological metaphor of executive function by a controlling elite.

To the extent that in our complex high-technology society (the equivalent of the entire hunter-gatherer population of the Earth 12,000 years ago living within five miles of me in the northern suburbs of Los Angeles) that we cannot have purely egalitarian, informal governance, the other aspect of change is turning upside down what hierarchy there needs to be to keep all this complexity from falling apart. It is governance that facilitates and enables and serves rather than directs.

So much can be said, and much work still needs to be done on this topic, so I only briefly call it out here.

In the world of business this new approach was heralded in the 1990s by books like Reengineering the Corporation, with business efficiency gurus talking about team-based management and “flipping the org chart”, empowering workers who conventionally are at the bottom of the pecking order to act with full agency and authority. Yeah it was a fad, like many others in the business world, and I initially thought it pretty much came and went. But I certainly see it in play for real at my own workplace among “knowledge workers” as documented in my pieces “Much More and Much Less than a Boss” and “Dispatch from the Corporate Egalitarian Team Trenches”. Ours are high-skill high-wage jobs, and we still benefit from our middle class backgrounds (that help us find our way to being hired) and a meritocratic privilege that makes us more obvious candidates for true empowerment. When employers with low-wage, lower-skill workers like Wal-Mart and Starbucks embrace this concept, then you know the business world will be truly transformed.

Certainly the Internet is beginning to flip the paradigm in the access to the world’s knowledge, no longer requiring experts like teachers to be the gatekeepers to the world’s knowledge for the rest of us and direct our efforts at acquisition. The old paradigm of teacher as “sage on the stage” is giving way to a new paradigm of “guide on the side”, if a teacher is needed at all to learn.

So to finally put a stop to this perhaps somewhat unfocused rambling (so I can move on and write about other stuff) I leave you with this… when it comes to moving beyond privilege and every other aspect of the transformation and continuing evolution of human society… it’s all about the governance.

4 replies on “Thoughts on Civilization & Privilege”

  1. I think you are on to something. Key modern concepts may help us reach a new paradigm: the science of Emergence (which demonstrates that mediocre individuals make for an intelligent ant, bee, or human collective intelligence that surpasses that of supposed experts); the deliberative polling methodology (which allows for a statistically representative sample of citizens to deliberate for a few days and even change their minds through discussion and cross-examination of divergent-view experts; and then return to their regular life, without the need for professional politicians).

  2. Nelson… interesting idea, governance by representative “focus group” of sorts. Weave into that maybe Margaret Mead’s observation that it is a small determined (“focus”ed) group of people that makes most any change happen! Does the Internet perhaps give us the flexibility to have more informal representative governance of some sort based on statistical principles of what sort of small group represents the whole.

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