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

Social Facts Rule Your Life

The most deadly forces in the world for most people, for much of history and certainly today, are not physical forces.

If you are homeless in America, know that there are five times as many empty homes as there are homeless people.

If you are homeless in Europe, know that there are two times as many empty homes are there are homeless.

If you are hungry anywhere in the world, know that the world produces more than enough food to feed everyone, and that the amount of food we discard as trash is, alone, more than enough to feed everyone who is hungry today.

It is very difficult to argue that the current refugee crises are anything but social facts: War and famine are social facts, straight up.

How likely you are to be in jail is almost entirely based on where you live, plus race and ethnicity. Born black in the US? Too damn bad.

How much money you make is almost entirely a social fact. Yes, that includes billionaires. Born back when the top tax rates were eighty or ninety percent? You wouldn’t be nearly as rich.

The value of the money you have is determined almost entirely based on where you live. For most people, this is based on where they were born.

North Americans and Europeans have better standards of living than most of the rest of the world because they conquered or subjugated most of the rest of the world. And I do mean most. Americans and Canadians do well because they virtually wiped out the original residents of North America (and the remaining Native Americans live in conditions that are generally as bad as third world countries).

Most of the prisoners in American jails are there for selling or using a prescribed substance which was not prescribed–nor stigmatized–for most of history. Social fact.

If you don’t have a job, well, that comes down to how many jobs there are. If your job is shitty, it has less to do with you than the time and place in which you live: 40 years ago, the largest employers in the US were car companies, who paid much better than the largest employer today: Walmart.

Even most environmental facts are social facts. Climate change, the collapse of ocean stocks, the terrible pollution in China: These are all a result of human action.

If you live in China, how happy you are is partially based on a social fact: Those still in traditional villages are happier than those who moved to the new cities with the new higher paying, but shitty, jobs. (In terribly polluted cities, to boot.)

Virtually everything that matters in your life is a social fact. It was created by human decisions. That’s the good news, of course, since it means human decisions could make it better.

It’s also the bad news, for what it says about human decision-making.

I want to emphasize something here: Progress is not always good for the people caught in it. The people who lived through the industrial revolution were mostly worse off than those before it. Idiots who sneer at the Luddites, who wanted to smash the machines, are clueless; the Luddites were right for themselves, for their children, and for their grandchildren. It took a long time for industrialization to pay off.

A great deal was lost with industrialization, including, and most importantly, community. The loss of community increased with the rise of the car. Community, my friends, is practically the most important thing when it comes to life satisfaction (about tied with equality), so long as basic needs, including safety, are met.

Heck, agriculture was a goddamn disaster for 95 percent of the world’s population. Hunter-gatherers lived better in almost every way than peasants, and peasants were most of the world’s population under agriculture.

We can remain victims of social facts, including our dominant technology, or we can decide that social facts are choices and make choices.

This is becoming more possible, not less, because of the rise of global culture. I’ll discuss this later. But for now, remember, while biology determines we all die, society generally determines how and when. (Including when you have a heart attack, how likely you are to get cancer, and so on.)

Social facts.

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Clinton Looks Like Toast to Me


As the Dow Jones Drops


  1. S Brennan

    Headline: Tsipras quits and calls early polls

    Reacting Juncker’s chief-of-staff “swift elections in Greece can be a way to broaden support” for the bailout deal.

    Social fact: Having quisling leaders…means you are to be ruled by Nazis who view you as untermensch.

    Fact: Greece to become world’s largest open-air concentration camp.

    We should never have spent so much treasury, fought a cold-war, to re-unite Germany…all the Nazi sympathizers in the US who hid in plain view must be giggling with joy at a now re-united Germany re-conquering the Greeks…with Tsipras quisling help.

  2. Dave

    I see this line of thought occurring more frequently in a broad range of venues. I especially always love the simple point that humans appear to have been far better off in many ways out on the Savannah than what eventually became cities. In point of (social) fact, the spread of agriculture took nearly 7,000 years to take hold in human society…an incredibly long time for a supposedly useful innovation to achieve widespread adoption. Far longer than any other invention traceable through archeological artifacts.

    Although it remains a fact that humans made choices that led, in part, to the current miasma “civilization,” chokes on, it’s not at all clear whether those choices were made cognizantly, and they sure as hell weren’t made individually. Rather they are the aggregate consequences of an infinite number of self serving, short term decisions made collectively through time. I see no reason to infer there is the remotest possibility that a conscious choice will have any discernible impact.

  3. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    Without agriculture, how would we ever have built technological civilization?

    Even if we had never damaged Earth, or could fix the damage tomorrow, neither the Earth nor the Sun will live forever. If the species is to survive these inevitabilities, we must move away. How can we get breeding populations of our species–and the companion species, both microscopic and macroscopic, we need to survive–established beyond our solar system without technological civilization?

  4. Ian Welsh

    Probably we wouldn’t have built technological civilization.

    That does not alter that billions of human lives were worse because of agriculture than they were under hunter-gathering.

  5. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    Then that misery, while regrettable, was necessary for the long-term survival of our species–unless there was some more just and compassionate way a spacefaring civilization could be achieved.

  6. Ian Welsh

    Was it? Only if we get to space colonization. And it’s easy to call other people’s suffering regretable.

  7. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    The death of the human species at the hands of an overheating Sun, or other cosmic disaster, would be even more regrettable. Of course, we haven’t achieved space colonies yet–but we would have zero chance of doing it without inventing technological civilization first. Again, maybe that could have been done in a kindlier fashion–but human nature being what it is, I doubt that.

  8. scruff

    Personally, I wouldn’t consider the eventual extinction of the human species as necessarily being regrettable. Especially if the choice is between extinction or becoming the aliens from Independence Day, which it probably is.

    Trying to be empathetic with the rest of the universe, no one wants to see us spread out across the galaxy colonizing other planets with the same god-awful behavior our civilization is currently exhibiting. And current behavior is exactly what *will* spread if this civilization is ever successful at interplanetary colonization, simple because if they succeed while following a plan they will interpret that success as a kind of cosmic condoning of that plan. That’s a terrible thought.

  9. markfromireland

    Given that the sun isn’t going to start to die for something like 4½ billion years from now I don’t think we need to worry about it overmuch. If as a species we had stuck with hunter-gathering, or an agrarian society(ies) or even mixed agrarian with light industrial we would not now be in the situation in which catastophic damage to the planet upon which we live is already a reality and is going to get far far worse in the immediate future leading to yet further damage. Perhaps our species will survive in severely reduced numbers and circumstances perhaps not. But to say that the damage our species did and is doing to our habitat was necessary to ensure our survival by dint of colonising space is to miss Ian’s point. As a final point I find the cavalier dismissal of others’ suffering deeply troubling.


  10. CMike

    Jared Diamond:

    …Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions…. [LINK]

    But see also [LINK]

  11. Ian Welsh

    Yes, Diamond was, I feel I should point out, not even close to the first person to point all that out.

    As I understand it in about 500 million years the sun will be too hot for most current life on earth, which means Earth is in its old age.

    Still, 500 million is a rather long time.

  12. JustPlainDave

    It’s not a coincidence that the amount of effort devoted to ritual facilities and furniture skyrockets with the transition to sedentary intensive collection and early agriculture in the Levant. Early on, once they’ve seen Paree one actually can keep them down on the farm…

  13. CRIPES

    “Most of the prisoners in American jails are there for selling or using a prescribed substance which was not prescribed”

    This is true only of the 220,000 or so federal prisoners. There are about 25% of the two million state prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses.

  14. atcooper

    How many of those drug offenses are pot?

    Lordy, de-criminalization of that substance cannot happen quickly enough.

  15. Purple Library Guy

    “the Luddites were right for themselves, for their children, and for their grandchildren. It took a long time for industrialization to pay off.”
    Indeed. And even when industrialization finally “paid off” for many, it was not through some sort of inevitable technological determinism but through the actions of the Luddites’ descendants, through trade unions and mass movements. Again, social fact.

  16. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    I live in a country where even the “center” would be considered right-wing by the standards of more genuinely democratic nations. So, even though I roll my eyes 🙄 at the idea that it was more fun eating raw roots and grubs than surfing Da Intertoobz (OK, I exaggerate the position of the resident defenders of primitivism, but not greatly), I find it valuable that I can still visit a site where I can find what I would consider “crazy Left” opinion, in a country and a Web awash in “crazy Right” opinion.

    Live long and prosper, y’all. :mrgreen:

  17. markfromireland

    @ Ivory Bill Woodpecker.

    Actually you live in a country where as the commenters here prove repeatedly I as a conservative European Catholic am to the left of those who by American standards are considered to be “liberal”, “progressive”, or even (whisper it who dare) “socialist”.

    That being said I hope your nation’s next president is either Trump, Santorum, or Rubio simply because I’d like to see that American saying about how a people gets the government it deserves proved true.

    Not very Christian of me perhaps but I’ll be sure to mention it on Saturday when I meet my confessor. Doubtless he’ll impose an extra penance but what the hell it’ll be worth it and lamming through an extra decade of the Rosary at high speeed will be no problem to me.

    Now if you’ll excuse me I need to wipe the tears of laughter from my eyes which are there as a direct consequence of you using the expression “crazy Left” in connection with the USA. Once I done that I’d better see if I can find a nurse to bandage my ribs.


  18. Ivory Bill Woodpecker

    Oh, I don’t consider the majority of opinions here, Ian’s or anyone else’s, to be crazy Left. Left, yes, but sane. It’s only when some of the others start proclaiming Butlerian Jihad against technology that I start peering about for straitjackets and Thorazine. 😈

    Trump I accept as a distinct possibility, even though I don’t care for the idea. Rubio as an outside possibility. But Santorum?

    Miss Kasuga reacts:

    If you think Thick Rick the Prick is a serious possibility for Preznit, I fear you may have kissed the Blarney Stone a bit too enthusiastically. :mrgreen:

  19. S Brennan

    Mark is often at the lectern preaching how worthless US citizens are…

    Today he conjectures that Trump, Santorum, or Rubio, are “what we deserve”.

    I know we deserve better*, indeed, it’s the corporations running our “two party” system and propaganda organs that leads Mark to wretch…so why does he support it’s whores? Does Mark revel in chadenfreude? Mark, your rosary will be well worn…unless you have the goods on your padre.

    Everywhere I travel this great country, I am reminded how good and decent most people are and how you could open a phone book, point at a name and do better than the best in DC. I’ve been on many a jury…and I can tell you, ordinary people work harder than anybody beinng paid in the courtroom, often mightily, trying to stop many a miscarriage of justice.

    *…”They [The American Marines] were particularly courageous and showed extreme bravery in extremely difficult circumstances.”

    French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve praising US Marines for their timely intervention.

    Read more:
    Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook

  20. brian

    We see a lot of wrongs in the world, and we complain and point out what is wrong. Why don’t we make up new stories in order to base our social cooperation around?

  21. RJMeyers

    Thanks for this post Ian–a good reminder.

    I want to emphasize something here: Progress is not always good for the people caught in it. The people who lived through the industrial revolution were mostly worse off than those before it. Idiots who sneer at the Luddites, who wanted to smash the machines, are clueless; the Luddites were right for themselves, for their children, and for their grandchildren. It took a long time for industrialization to pay off.

    It seems likely that we’re about to go through a transition that will make industrialization look gentle, but which may pay off even bigger in the long run. We’ll have to figure out how to survive an increasingly hostile climate, how to come close to fully recycled industrial material ecosystems, and how to live on a somewhat low level of renewable energy (though I hold out hope for fusion).

  22. CMike

    Credit where credit is due [LINK]:

    [QUOTE] I can already hear conservatives shouting about the evils of “redistribution.” But what, exactly, would they propose instead? [END QUOTE]

  23. Jessica

    Until the Industrial Revolution, we were dominated by material scarcity (with brief counter-Malthusian interludes). Since then, we are dominated by the social patterns we used to free ourselves from material scarcity, but through those patterns, we have created a new type of scarcity.
    The societies we live in are products of the choices each of us makes, but so many of those choices are unconscious that we experience social forces as alien forces, like the weather. To go beyond this, we must become conscious societies. That will be very different from anything that exists now.

  24. Ben

    “We can remain victims of social facts…or we can decide that social facts are choices and make choices. This is becoming more possible, not less, because of the rise of global culture.”

    I think plenty of people in the past recognised that they were partly victims of mass, social changes but also active participants with some choice who might have enough power to tip the balance. And some of them were right. The main social theories that inform the type of change you write about are economic and political. I hope you’re right that we are empowered by global culture. Just as likely it will causemore painful change and make more victims…and more winners.

    There are always winners and losers in history and we shouldn’t claim there is any fairness. You suggest it is unseemly for the beneficiaries of modern life to call the suffering of those who didn’t make it generations ago, “regrettable”. I agree. We should come right out and admit…we don’t care! It’s long enough back that I don’t feel any guilt at the idea that my ancestors surely killed others to survive, if not as humans then earlier forms. Evolution is about survival and is necessarily counter to the romantic, never-ending humanity you appeal to.

  25. Ian Welsh

    Nothing to do with feeling guilt for the past. It is about understanding the past and the future thru understanding the past.

    Evolution is shapes us, but to use it as a source of values is as meaningless as using gravity.

  26. Ryan

    Billions of lives that would not have existed at all without agriculture. Living out on the Savannah is all well and good, but agriculture allowed for the population density required for specialization and technological advancement. Perhaps you don’t consider the larger absolute number of human lives that exist today an improvement.

  27. Tom W Harris

    Yes, increased population is a boon to us all. Until it isn’t.

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