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

How to Create a Viable Ideology

The most important question about any ideology or social structure are: “Does it win?” and “Can it defend itself?”

Hunter-gathering, if the land-capacity isn’t close to carrying capacity, is usually a pretty good way to live. What we see in the archaeological record is that when the land gets close to carrying capacity, there is ton of violence, the number one cause of death of adult males becomes violence. Enough below the carrying capacity and there is very little violence. This is a generalization, there are exceptions, but the data seem to indicate it is generally true.

Hunter-gatherers are, generally speaking, healthier than agriculturalists and pastoralists. They live longer, suffer less from disease, are taller, the women have wider hips and suffer less from childbirth, they have better dentition and so on. The societies, again with some exceptions, are more egalitarian than most agricultural societies (though very early agricultural societies are more egalitarian than late hunter-gatherer societies, again, in general). They also have vastly more free time than agriculturalists.

Basically, being a hunter-gatherer is about as good as it gets for most of human existence. There are some better agricultural societies to live in for brief periods (certain periods of Roman history, say) but they are rare. Industrial society produces better medicine and goods, but we work harder and have vastly more chronic disease even at the same age, and industrial society includes, as its concomitant, things like the widespread rape in the Congo and African poverty–that’s a requirement of our society, it’s not incidental.

But hunter-gatherers lose confrontations with pastoralists and agricultural societies. It’s a great way to live, but more dense societies were better at violence, so hunter-gatherers were forced to the margins.

Whatever your society is like, it has to be able to win confrontations. However your ideology organizes your society, even if that ideology produces a much more enjoyable society in which to live than your competitors, it must be able to persist in either the long or short term against its competitors. Otherwise, you’ve got a problem.

Time-scale matters. An ideology that produces a society that lasts for 150 years of pretty wonderful life then loses to someone better at violence might look pretty damn good to most of us.

An ideology may also have internal contradictions which doom it. The Soviet form of Marxist-Leninism was vastly successful in its early years, something we forget now. During the Great Depression, the USSR was doing far better than most of the rest of the world (except the fascist bits). The USSR is the only country larger than a city state to industrialize using anything but mercantilism. I am aware of no other exceptions.

But the USSR’s control mechanism could not deal with the information problem. It worked gangbusters at first, but then parties formed who were able to control information flow to the central planners, doomed it. Mancur Olson, in his book Power and Prosperity, deals well with both the rise of the USSR and its fall.

Neo-liberalism has amongst its internal contradictions the complete inability to manage climate change. This contradiction comes from its insistence on short term interest and its refusal to deal properly with public goods. To neo-liberalism, the future exists only at the point a market starts discounting that future. Unfortunately for the world, markets suck at recognizing the future beyond a few years out, and by the time a market notices, the key decision points for heading off an undesirable future may well be long past.

(Neo-liberalism also has a pile of other internal contradictions, but this isn’t an article on neo-liberalism, so we’ll pass them by for now.)

Within an ideology are prescriptions for internal vs. external power relations. So a society must be able to win its fights with outside societies running different ideologies, but it also includes prescriptions for how power is divided internally. In the European Middle Ages, most of Europe was ruled by rapacious nobles, but the Swiss Cantons had male suffrage. This was based on the fact that Swiss Pikemen could beat the pants off feudal noble cavalry. But the requirement for Swiss Pikemen was economically prosperous men who could and would fight, not starved peasants. And men who could fight, and had to fight together, insisted on having power.  There is a direct analogy between this and classical Greek Democracy (made up exactly of the fighting population), and the Roman Republican period, where citizenry is divided into three classes, based in part on how they fought (the Equestrian class, above the Plebes, could afford to fight on horseback.)

Power comes in a number of flavors. You have violence. You have productive capacity.  You have consumptive ability. You have social ties. You have ideological production.  The more of each of these any group has, the more power they have. The more power they have, the more of the surplus production of their society (or, in many cases, the non surplus production) they are able to control.  If you want prosperity, you want power spread as evenly throughout your society as possible. You never want complete equality in outcome, because you do want some competition, it helps drive society forward, but right now our problem is the exact opposite: too much concentration of power, too little equality.

Each of those groups, and they will exist, will compete against each other. Different people have different interests. If one group or a coalition of groups gains more  power, they will also gain more of the productive surplus. Part of an ideology’s job is to make it so that, as much as possible, everyone’s interests in society are similar.

John F. Kennedy once said “a rising tide lifts all boats.” People took that as a descriptive statement, but in a society it is not, it is a prescriptive statement: if you want any increases in production to go to everyone, you have to make that happen, and to make it happen you have to believe it should happen. But the step before that is making sure that power is divided relatively evenly through society, so that it does happen. But, again, that is an ideological choice: many people don’t believe that everyone should have relatively equal power.

To have relatively equal power you cannot allow the means of production or violence to be overly concentrated.  Jefferson was making a profoundly practical statement when he warned that banks and standing armies were dangerous to a republic and democracy. Banks allow people to print money, those who print money make money, it gives them a powerful advantage over people who cannot do so. Those who control violence: well, I’m sure I don’t have to make that point.

It is for this reason, for example, that I believe everyone (male or female) should have military training.  It is not an accident that Switzerland, where every male has an assault rifle and military training, has such a high standard of living or voted on whether to have a guaranteed annual income. It is also why I believe in cadre armies and that no large standing armies should exist.  (The solution for money creation is more complicated, and I’ll go into it at a later date.)

If you want a society, then, which is prosperous and egalitarian, with the proceeds of increased production going to everyone and not just a few, you must have an internal structure of power which gives ordinary people quite a bit, makes concentration of power in private hands difficult, makes the government unable to use too much power against its own citizenry while (and this is the important bit) still being able to defend itself externally, and able to resist internal putsches. Egalitarian societies which cannot defend themselves get overwhelmed by hierarchical societies which are better at violence.

This extends to monetary matters. If outsiders with money can buy up your society and upset your internal political and productive relationships because they are more efficient, or just bigger, or have their capital more concentrated, if you will let them buy you up because some part of your society wants to cash out, then whatever internal relationships you have are vulnerable. This has happened to vast swathes of the third world, where Westerners come in and buy out traditional relationships. NAFTA pushed millions of Mexicans off their farms, made Mexico weaker because those people now needed to pay for food (often foreign, and also less nutritious), and made Mexico, objectively, worse off than before NAFTA. But some Mexicans got very rich by selling out.

This is a particular problem for smaller groups trying to create societies within larger societies. If you can be bought out, if some of you want to sell, take the money and run, you are not viable. Quakers and so on have an ideology which doesn’t allow for selling out this way, thus they are viable in the long-term, whatever one thinks of them.

So, an ideology, a belief system, among other things, tells you what is and isn’t legitimate to sell for money. A stable system says you can’t buy key parts of the social structure. In a functioning democracy, anything that comes even close to buying a vote, for example, is verboten. When we moved from late Feudalism to early industrialization, feudal rights were done away with–including the commons. Enclosure of land took away rights from people who had them before and gave those rights to other people. Serfs, for all we sneer at them, had rights. Those rights were taken away. The ex-serfs who flooded into early industrial cities after enclosure lived far worse lives than they had under late feudalism (this is WELL established). They lived shorter, unhealthier lives, worked harder to earn money which left them living in worse circumstances than when they were back on the land.

So when you’re creating a new ideology, or modifying an old one, you have to consider these points: the relation to the means of production, the ability to generate violence in defense or offense and the effectiveness of that violence, the question of whether the system can be capsized by money or if the key parts of the system are off-limits (due to irrational attachment, absolutely it must be irrational) to capsizing through money or equivalents. If you want an egalitarian prosperous society is power objectively divided up so that the masses have the ability defend their share of surplus production? How will those who do get a little extra (and they will always exist) or who control a little extra, try to capsize that system and seize more? What are the protections against what they will try and are those protections based on strong, irrational beliefs and backed up by a willingness to employ violence? (If you aren’t, and they are, you will lose. Period.)

Note, finally, the use of the word irrational. We think of irrationality as bad, but rational decision making leads to betrayal. If someone’s going to offer me more than I can otherwise earn to betray the rest of my people, a lot of folks are going to take that deal unless they have the irrational belief that it’s wrong, and a rational belief that if they do it, those who have an irrational belief in the system will hurt them, or even kill them.

This is ideology. Any ideological system that doesn’t produce people willing to die and kill for it, will lose to an ideology that does. The question is not whether violence is permitted, the question is when it is permitted. Most of us want to live in a peaceful society; I certainly do. But that peace is always and everywhere under-girded by rules about when to commit violence, a willingness to do so and an ability do it well. Societies and ideologies that do not do violence well exist at the sufferance of those who do, and live under the conditions and in the places that those good at violence permit. Generally very bad conditions.

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  1. Alcuin

    There is no essential difference between neo-liberalism and capitalism, as it was defined by Marx. But we are forbidden to link “Marx” with “Capitalism”, on pain of being banished to the wilderness, where our howls are unheard. Karl Polanyi, who was a Marxist, covered the same ground as Marx in The Great Transformation, written in 1944, but he used code words to avoid the budding McCarthyites, who would have destroyed his career if they had been able to decipher what it was that he was writing.

    If anyone is interested in delving into what Ian is writing about, as good a place to start as any other is the work of Jason W. Moore. Take your pick – they’re all meaty and worthwhile reading.

  2. David Kowalski

    Your comment on the military is sound. Wars fought by civilian soldiers and sailors are less frequent and often shorter than wars fought by a professional military.

    Jefferson did not believe in a standing army but he did belief in training citizens to fight, if needed. The US Military Academy dates to his administration. Polk founded the Naval Academy. FDR chose George Marshall as Army Chief of Staff because Marshall was best at working with civilians among the contenders.

    Both the W Bush administration and the Obama administration have relied on a combination of semi-civilian “non-draftees”, a standing army, and actual mercenaries. Not at all good for democracy.

  3. atcooper

    I believe I was turned onto this one by Ian in a post a long time ago, but want to share the love among the recent spate of essays.

    Negri and Hardt’s Empire :

  4. Celsius 233

    Very thoughtful essay, pulling no punches.
    We’re (the U.S.) an ideology that has come off the rails…

  5. Compound F

    Many good observations here, including this:

    “…industrial society includes as its concommitent (sic) things like the widespread rape in the Congo and African poverty: that’s a requirement of our society, is not incidental.”

    It would seem that a growth-based economy, especially the tertiary economy, but any level of any economy when growth is involved will do when physical limits of efficiency are achieved, requires systemic exploitation, i.e., cheating to achieve growth.

    But my recognition of your decency in noting this fact did not bury your centrally important point about being convincingly violent when necessary. Indeed, what ideology is lying around when that time comes? If it did not already come multiple times this past decade plus? Bush v. Gore. The war crimes. Torture. Wall Street. BP/Fukushima. Endemic surveillance. Our ideo-shelves are poorly stocked in the public imagination, and they take decades to build.

    So, building a society ready to fight and die for something “good” they apparently fail to understand when boldly confronted by its antithesis, repeatedly…

    I’m not exactly turning my back on everyone, but give me a reason to hope for a sea-change.

  6. Celsius 233

    This has come to mind:
    In Kipling’s poem “Gentlemen-Rankers”, the speaker “sings”:
    To the legion of the lost ones, to the cohort of the damned,
    To my brethren in their sorrow overseas,
    Sings a gentleman of England cleanly bred, machinely crammed,
    And a trooper of the Empress, if you please.
    Yea, a trooper of the forces who has run his own six horses,
    And faith he went the pace and went it blind,
    And the world was more than kin while he held the ready tin,
    But to-day the Sergeant’s something less than kind.
    We’re poor little lambs who’ve lost our way,
    Baa! Baa! Baa!
    We’re little black sheep who’ve gone astray,
    Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
    Damned from here to Eternity,
    God ha’ mercy on such as we,
    Baa! Yah! Bah!
    Oh, it’s sweet to sweat through stables, sweet to empty kitchen slops,
    And it’s sweet to hear the tales the troopers tell,
    To dance with blowzy housemaids at the regimental hops
    And thrash the cad who says you waltz too well.
    Yes, it makes you cock-a-hoop to be “Rider” to your troop,
    And branded with a blasted worsted spur,
    When you envy, O how keenly, one poor Tommy being cleanly
    Who blacks your boots and sometimes calls you “Sir”.
    If the home we never write to, and the oaths we never keep,
    And all we know most distant and most dear,
    Across the snoring barrack-room return to break our sleep,
    Can you blame us if we soak ourselves in beer?
    When the drunken comrade mutters and the great guard-lantern gutters
    And the horror of our fall is written plain,
    Every secret, self-revealing on the aching white-washed ceiling,
    Do you wonder that we drug ourselves from pain?
    We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth,
    We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung,
    And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth.
    God help us, for we knew the worst too young!
    Our shame is clean repentance for the crime that brought the sentence,
    Our pride it is to know no spur of pride,
    And the Curse of Reuben holds us till an alien turf enfolds us
    And we die, and none can tell Them where we died.
    We’re poor little lambs who’ve lost our way,
    Baa! Baa! Baa!
    We’re little black sheep who’ve gone astray,
    Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
    Damned from here to Eternity,
    God ha’ mercy on such as we,
    Baa! Yah! Bah!

  7. nihil obstet

    The welfare state developed because war demanded mass armies, and for that nations needed healthy, committed citizens. As we went back to small professional armies deploying technology, the elite no longer saw the need for healthy citizens and started working to roll back the social programs. I wonder how long World War II will continue to function as the great propaganda machine for a standing army.

  8. b2020

    “The most important question about any ideology or social structure are these. Does it win? Can it defend itself?”

    I believe that societies should be examined using an analogy of John Maynard Smith’s concept of “evolutionary stable strategies”. Too Big To Jail/Fail etc. is Too Big For Open Society. Our current implementation of democracy is, as the recent decades have shown, not evolutionary stable – its evolution is not under informed control of the electorate, and the changes that resulted have taken as away from an open society and democratic accountability, checks and balances. Our government and institutions are dysfunctional to a staggering extent – illegal war, broken economy, trillions wasted, a structural near-20% unepmployment, insufficient education. We have a corrupt and useless economic “science” to discuss markets, and we have virtually no useful areas of systematic research into how democractic societies could be reformed, re-organized, or otherwise improved as our numbers, our power, and our problems evolve and increase. As a society, we are ill-equipped to have a rational and informed debate about healt care or retirement, let alone instant run-off voting or other marginal improvements of the processes that have, again over recent decades, taken us into this dead-end in the evolution towards a sustainable, just and equitable society.

  9. Jonas

    Good article. I particularly like your emphasis on irrationality. Modern liberal thinking doesn’t focus enough on that. If you read any game theory, like Schelling’s book, you realize how powerful irrationality actually is.

    One fact nitpick though. Weren’t urban societies already under threat from hunter/gatherer barbarians nomads? It seems like the balance of power isn’t so clearly on the side of the urban societies.

    I do think long term though the urban societies won the confrontations because the nomads were absorbed.

  10. Instead of “irrational,” perhaps “arational” or “moral” ?

  11. larry

    I would make a small alteration in the comments on JFK’s quote regarding a rising tide. In its proper scientific context, the statement is descriptive. But the metaphorical use Kennedy is making of it, that of a rising economic tide and its effects on the metaphorical boats, is as you say, not descriptive, and can be interpreted as implicitly containing a use of “ought”, in the sense that it ought to raise all boats. In the current crisis, we are finding this far from being generally the case.

  12. Jessica

    I wanted to pick the same nit, but I can not think of an urban society threatened by hunter-gatherers. It was pastoralists they had trouble with. Repeated invasions from the steppes throughout Eurasia is the classic pattern.
    A great book that is about something close to this is “The Art of Not Being Governed” by James Scott, about cultures built on the choice to have a freer life outside the more advanced, but more hierarchical polities. Not quite hunter-gatherer, but a deliberately dispersed style of production that is somewhat similar to hunting-gathering.

  13. Jessica

    @ Ian
    Thank you so much for this recent burst of posts. It encourages me to see intelligent people grappling with these issues out in the open.
    My attempt at some contributions.
    1) Societies compete based on how much human capacity they can coordinate. Coordination can be coercive or cooperative. Anyone wishing to reduce coercion must replace it with at least as much cooperation or someone else will come in and do the coercion for them. (Napoleon, Stalin on a big scale, the suppression of various heretical movements in pre-modern Europe) I think this is a more general and more accurate way to understand what you are pointing at when you say that agricultural societies were better at violence than hunter-gatherers.
    2) We need to become much more sensitive to the difference between economic activity that contributes to the general welfare and economic activity that seems to generate wealth but only by taking it from someone else, one way or another. Most readers of this blog see the difference clearly but many people are somewhat unclear. And more than clear, we need to be incredulous and outraged. We really need to see that calling the heads of most American financial institutions pedophiles or drug dealers demeans pedophiles and drug dealers. And not just an active anger, leaning out of the window screaming “I’m not going to take it anymore”, but also a calm, persistent determination.
    The next ideology needs to helps make everyone acutely sensitive to this. This is one of a few most crucial points from which the other elements of the next ideology will flow and that they will depend on. For example, the more sensitive people are to this difference, the more obvious it will be to both the tempted and those around the tempted, that selling out is a form of theft. Another crucial point will be inclusivity and developing a broader sense of “we”.
    The current system will continue to inflict pain on us until we learn to be very clear about seeing and enforcing a difference between work/making a living that contributes and that predates/steals and until we learn to be more of a we and less of 300 million I’s.
    3) I think that we need both to develop as individuals and as a society. Both external physical and social development and internal maturing will be needed. Either one alone will tend to flounder. A key role of ideology is to coordinate these two aspects of our development.
    4) I think that much of what we are running into is driven at a deep level by a contradiction between new forces of production (knowledge instead of equipment/infrastructure) on the one hand and old rules of production on the other. This has been the key contradiction since about the 1960s and is why all societies across the first world have become less democratic and more unequal. This trend holds even for the northern European social-democracies: they are still light-years more humane and fair than the US, but they are less humane and fair than they themselves used to be.
    This contradiction has throttled the development of prosperity and social development and the stagnation it caused has turned into outright decay with the global financial crisis.
    My Point 4 is, of course, an ideology and its value rests solely in whether or not it can convince enough people to motivate them to develop themselves and create the social institutions we will need to birth and defend a new society.

  14. Ouch!

    Hunter-gathering, if the land-capacity isn’t close to carrying capacity, is usually a pretty good way to live.

    How do you know?

    What we see in the archeological record is that when the land gets close to carrying capacity, there is ton of violence,

    How much violence is a ton? What if there was less?

    … the number one cause of death of adult males becomes violence.

    How do you know? Believe it or not, the number one cause of death is birth.

    Enough below the carrying capacity and there is very little violence. This is a generalization, there are exceptions, but the data seems to indicate it is generally true.

    What data?

    Hunter-gatherers are, generally speaking, healthier than agriculturalists and pastoralists.

    Some of them were and some of them weren’t. Hunter gatherers — whatever they might have been — died out, there aren’t any. They cannot have been healthier than those who have supplanted them, that this is so is self-evident.

    They live longer, suffer less from disease, are taller, their women have wider hips and suffer less from childbirth, they have better dentition and so on.

    Yes, and some of them suffer more and are shorter, have narrower hips, are overweight, are toothless, have blue eyes … and others don’t.

    The societies, again with some exceptions, are more egalitarian than most agricultural societies (though very early agricultural societies are more egalitarian than late hunter-gatherer societies, again, in general). They also have vastly more free time than agriculturalists.

    And maybe the hunter-gatherers, whomever they might have been, were bored silly because there was so little to do. After all, the agricultural societies invented writing, books, pianos, sailing ships, buttons, tapestries, oil painting, architecture, stained glass windows, canals, etc.

    But hunter-gatherers lose confrontations with pastoralists and agricultural societies. It’s a great way to live, but more dense societies were better at violence, so hunter-gatherers were forced to the margins.

    Wrong, pastoralists and agricultural societies were — and are — better at husbandry and agriculture, that is their advantage. The successful pastoral entities — whether they are empires or duchies — successfully avoid or maneuver around conflicts that dissipate the resources of less imaginative neighbors. Restraint and collaboration allows these advantages to bear fruit successful over long periods as the restive and warlike fall by the wayside.

    The problem with narrative history (and narrative sociology) is that it is written for the benefit of politicians who view themselves as dramatic characters in a form of theater with history as a parade of battles. Social success or failure occurs between the battles, power or coercion is at best presumptuous, at worst self-defeating.

    The large problem is the backdrop of determinism and the ‘immutable law of nature, red in tooth and claw’. This is ‘Mein Kampf’ in drag, please give it a rest.

  15. Ian Welsh

    1) When I say adult male cause of death, I’m obviously not including deaths at birth. Non-sequiter.

    2) the archeological record on this is clear. If you want a textual reference, Pandora’s Seed by Spencer Wells has the data on differences between agricultural health and hunter gatherer health.

    3) Hunter-gatherers existed into the modern era. Some still exist.

    4) That agricultural societies are better at violence, in general, is simply true. You may not like it, that’s irrelevant. Numbers matter, too, increased carrying capacity increases violent capacity (though it’s not the only thing that matters, or nomads wouldn’t have regularly overrun sedentary societies.)

    5) When someone starts saying “Mein Kampf” in drag, they’ve lost the debate. It’s also amusing. Why is Nazism not an ideology with a lot of adherents today? Because it lost a violent confrontation.

  16. JZ

    Hunter-gatherers existed for 99% of human history. That’s quite the survival rate. A survival rate of this magnitude required tremendous amounts of cooperation between those within and apart from said tribes. The Hobbesian notion of the hunter-gatherer life as nasty, brutish and short, with every moment filled with fear of violence is utter rubbish. Perlman, Sahlins, and Kintz, among others have obliterated that historical notion.

  17. tatere

    I was reminded of your post here when reading this Bruce Schneier post –
    The Battle for Power on the Internet

    Wondering if the nature of power conflicts have changed in any significant way. In one sense, obviously no – everyone is alive in the physical world, everyone eats, etc., so violence and resource control “out here” are the base. But I do think there are meaningful battles beyond that base too, that affect distribution of power, and tech is affecting the nature and outcomes of those battles. Maybe.

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