The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Environment: Politics Series Chapter VI

Previous: Groups and Coalitions

(Introduction and Table of Contents)

I struggled a bit with what word to use for this chapter; to most people today, “environment” means the natural world, but here I’m using it to include not just that, but the social and the built environment. The social environment is the people around us and how they act: a nomadic clan is very different from a peasant village, and both are different from an American city, which is different from a Chinese city or the rural areas in both countries.

The environment, things like geography, technology and upbringing, determines what politics are possible, but how which politics happen.

Time also matters. Growing up in the 1930s was very different from growing up in the 1950s, let alone in the 2000s. Although it’s controversial, generations do have shared characteristics, because they have shared experiences due to similarities in their lived experience.

Environment is not separate from ideology and identity, of course — what the people around you believe and try to make you believe is important. How they act based on their beliefs matters. What identity groups exist for you to join or reject also matters.

Environment forms people; it is a large part of what creates their characters and their abilities. Even if you reject something about your environment, even if you hate it and can’t wait to leave, by reacting against it, you are being formed by it. (Our relationships with the people who raise us is similar — there is no escaping their influence.)

Ideologies must explain the environment we live with in. Hunter-gatherer religions tend to be polytheistic and animistic and concerned with luck, cycles, and the bounty of nature, because hunting is an activity where luck matters a great deal. The deer can bolt at the last second, the seal can dive, and you’ll have nothing. Gatherers manage the environment more than most realize, but it’s still a gift from the spirits or the Gods.

Agrarian communities, on the other hand, tend to have all-powerful sky Gods. You must have rain at the right time and no early or late frosts, or the crops fail, and many starve. The earth is seen as more passive, and the farmer plants the seed, but the sky can be fickle.

The modern American equivalent is “job creators.” All good things come from money and you get money from jobs, so “job creators” are the modern Gods: Billionaires, in older times inventors, entrepreneurs, and so on. Because they are the the people who give others good things, they must be treated with reverence and not taxed too much, so they can keep showering their beneficience upon the people.

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From about 1930 to the 1970s, almost no one believed that “job creators” were a thing. The Great Depression had taught them that capitalists, bosses, and bankers were clueless idiots who if not kept in an arm-lock at all times would crater the economy and create untold hardship. So we regulated them tightly and taxed them, often at over 90 percent marginal rates and we saw government, which had gotten us out of the Great Depression as good, and believed in spreading wealth and income to increase demand, since a demand collapse caused the Great Depression.

But that distrust of business and the rich, and that belief in equality was a function of environment; it explained the Great Depression. In the 50s and 60s, business operated well, provided a lot of good jobs and didn’t overpay their executives. But then the government couldn’t handle the oil shocks and an ideology was presented, created by people like Milton Friedman and pushed hard by big money interests, that said that government regulation of business and taxation of rich people was the problem, and that private enterprise would create a new dawn in the US. Enough people believed this to swing the 1980 election to Reagan, and neoliberalism took power.

Now, in the early 2020s, private enterprise and government both look incompetent, and young people have huge debts and little chance of ever owning a home. The stage is set for another explanation to rise.

When written narratively like this, we could go back through ideologies and sub-ideologies for hundreds of years if we wanted to, it sounds inevitable. This is, in essence, the crude Marxist’s argument: Material circumstances control superstructure like ideology, so look at the material circumstances.

But this is only half-true; ideology is constrained by material circumstances, absolutely. It has to explain both the environment in which people live and the material support of ideologues often constrains them. The 17th century philosophes who created the Englightenment values which powered the American and French revolutions could not have happened without French Salon culture, a multiplicity of possible patrons and a robust book and pamphlet publishing industry. Before the printing press and during the time when essentially all intellectuals were under Church control, the rise of the bourgeousie and the Philosophes could never have happened.

So ideology is definitely related to material circumstances, but there are always multiple ways to explain the environment. Even within a major ideology, there are sub-ideological transitions — as with the one between New Deal/post-war capitalism and neoliberalism which we have discussed so much in this booklet.

None of this is predetermined. The 70s did not have to lead to neoliberalism. There were other threads to follow, including one which suggested the initiation of a green transition to reduce dependence on oil.

In the early- to mid-20th century, wars were fought to determine which political ideologies would be most important: Communism and Democratic Capitalism defeated Fascism (a capitalist ideology, but not a democratic one), then Communism collapsed later. There’s a very strong argument that capitalism won not because of any innate superiority (as its ideologues argue), but simply because it had a stronger geographic and economic position all through both wars and the Cold War, and that superior position was largely a historical accident.

Environment has other effects. Some of them are obvious and often commented on in geopolitics: location, climate, resources, whether there are defensible borders like rivers, mountains or coasts (Britain’s history is impossible for any non-Island state, the same is true of Japan). As they are often discussed, we’ll pass those by, and move onto how our lives create our character and abilities.

The Mongol conquests, nor any of the other great horse nomad invasions wouldn’t have been possible if horse nomads hadn’t learned to ride and shoot starting as very young children. The signature Mongol military maneuver of firing accurately behind them as they rode away from attackers, for example, is something most people simply could not do. Likewise, in the Middle Ages, knights trained from childhood, and it was said that anyone who didn’t start as a child would ever be any good.

Our lives give us our abilities, but they also form our character. In modern life, most people spend at least 12 years in school where they are taught to not speak unless given permission, to do what they’re told in exactly the way they are told, and are ranked by how well they do what they are ordered to do. Those who rebel or are otherwise bad at doing what they’re told when they’re told, sitting still and shutting up unless called on, are filtered so that most of them will never have good jobs. Those who succeed have shown exactly the abilities bosses want: Subservience to authority and willingness to do exactly what a boss orders in exactly the way the boss wants it done.

That we then expect a population trained this way, who in both their childhood and adult lives make almost no decisions, to be “free” is one of the grand ironies of our age. We march to war, in the millions if necessary, do what authorities tell us to, and are generally compliant to the demands of power. That’s our character, and it’s what our daily lives train us to be, not just in school but at work.

This is why people like Jefferson thought democracy required a base of Yeoman farmers: People who made their own decisions about what to do each day, even if constrained by weather, soil, and other natural demands. The term wage-slave was coined in the 19th century precisely because employees lost so much relative freedom, and, in many places, universal state schooling had to be imposed with military force against parents who felt their children were being stolen from them.

The great period of unionization was built on huge factories; where everyone was treated almost identically by employers. They did basically the same thing all day, in the same few factories owned by any employer. They saw each other regularly and were used to working together already — plus, factories of the time were places of hard, brutal, and dangerous manual labor, so early workers were often willing to risk physical confrontations. The same thing could be seen in China during its recent industrialization, with riots where workers would tear up beds in dorms to get the steel rods to fight with.

The environment, then, inevitably forms our character and our abilities — how brave we are, how used to thinking for ourselves, but it also it helps create our social ties. In a highly anomic society, where even families often live far apart due to traveling to get jobs, such as in the late 20th century US, social ties become thin, and concerted action becomes difficult.

Then environment also includes technology, especially the technology of conflict. Armored knights as the pre-eminent military force could never create an egalitarian society. Firearms, where anyone can kill anyone and where mass armies make sense and are feasible, did. Republican Rome and Greek City states exactly made citizens of those who could afford to fight in the Phalanx or row galleys and Rome had a class above the commons, the Equites, made up of those who could afford a horse and thus fight as cavalry.

The Swiss cantons, with their Pikemen, who regularly defeated cavalry, were a late Medieval equivalent, and while one of the first nations with male suffrage, were one of the last to give women the vote. But they also could not have existed outside a mountainous area like the Swiss Alps, because cavalry could have easily swept past pikemen.

By World War I and II, industrial production became key to winning wars, and with so many men conscripted, women went to work in the factories en mass during wartime and women soon gained the vote.

This relationship of voting to production was also based on how the economy was organized during the late 19th through mid 20th century. It’s the economy, and its effects on politics (and vice versa), which we will discuss next.

Next: Economy


Table of Contents


What Would Chinese Democracy Look Like?


The Simplest Way to Control Consciousness


  1. Ian Welsh

    Thanks to Mark Pontin and Keith in Modesto for edits.

  2. gnokgnoh

    I personally and professionally believe that environment is the core, perhaps the most significant underlying cause for our politics and ideologies. The causality is not direct, but the outcomes, as diverse as they might be, are inevitable.

    At the highest level of the environment, abundance, especially of cheap, accessible, high-density, energy, has resulted in so much that the Western world takes for granted, and makes democracy and even egalitarianism (abundance for all) possible in human culture. We fumble our way to these possibilities, but the environment and our exploitation of it make this possible. Environmental bottlenecks also result, as a result of our degradation of the environment and ultimately our civilization/cultures.

    Examples are numerous: population growth is due to food abundance and health care; food abundance is very much due to the exploitation of energy and technology; large, complex civilizations are enabled by energy, technology, and enforcement of a global order by a powerful few countries and corporations.

    Ideology is a natural outcome of environment and, to me, describes the low-level, fluid environment. Pluralistic societies are chaotic, because identity (religious, ethnic, culture) is scrambled. Capitalism and neo-liberalism were coined after the systems were already nascent and emerging. The philosophers, ideologues, and power-brokers simply magnify and leverage an ideology that is rooted in exploitation of the environment and technology. Legitimacy and politics are much more ephemeral than the environment. The prior president has legitimacy in the eyes of his followers and therefore political power.

    I don’t mean to sound abysmally fatalistic, but at the huge scales of ideology and even effective democratizing political systems (i.e. that enlarge the middle class), the environment eventually intervenes. The environment is the one constant in a sea of variables.

  3. Trinity

    “but here I’m using [environment] to include not just [nature], but the social and the built environment.”

    And I am applauding, because the environment does include the social and built environments. For far too long, we have behaved as if we are separate from the environment, separate from nature, even “above” it in yet another manufactured hierarchy.

    We just can’t seem to admit or acknowledge the impermanence of our structures, or even our own lives, and our culture of “I got mine at your expense” does nothing to alleviate the problem of accepting the fact of our impermanence. A lot of what we are seeing today isn’t just greed, but also a desire to reach the summit of the hierarchy and attach “meaning” to what is essentially meaningless existence for many of us. This is one of many failures of our culture, and it needs to change, but it won’t change until we can acknowledge the truth of our existence and our naturalness. Again, some ancient cultures did a much better job at all this than we are doing, despite our “higher” education. We may live longer (although even that isn’t true anymore) but for what purpose? For some, it’s seems to be to immiserate a lot of other people.

    If the day ever came in which we can accept that we are not just stardust, but earth dust as well, things might get better. Even academia (and my own discipline) has continued to separate society from nature (for analysis, because it’s “easier”), as if society could even exist without nature. This is a huge hole in our thinking and our approach to how we act in the world, when you consider that nature can get along quite well for a very long time without human society.

    The idea of hierarchical separation of humans from nature is the basis for the activities that assume that resources are endless, and ecosystems do nothing but get in the way and must be transformed for rent extraction. It’s a fundamental flaw in our thinking, leading to myriad problems we are witnessing in real time. It’s self-defeating, and the evidence is everywhere.

    Now, if I could convince people that WE ARE nature, even our built environments are part of nature, built by nature (us!), that society is just one form of nature, then I could rest. (Everything is connected to everything else.) This is difficult to do because everyone is so invested in hierarchies, and everyone is trained to need someone/something to look down upon in order to feel “better”. The irony is that we are supposed to feel “better” by believing a lie that we are not “natural”, all so only a few can benefit from it.

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