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

Tag: Cruelty

Power, Pleasure, and Evil

I am human, and nothing human is alien to my consideration

– Publius Terentius Afer

Perhaps the most fundamental human experience is that of weakness. We are born completely helpless and our childhoods leave us at the mercy of other humans who are stronger and outnumber us. Everything we need, we must get from them, and there is little to nothing we can do to stop them if they choose to hurt us.

The physicist and physical therapist Feldenkrais wrote of being a child a seeing two men grab, kill, and butcher a small pig; almost exactly the same size as him. He realized he was defenseless, and spent decades trying to overcome that experience. He wrote a self-defense manual, figured out from first principles, and later he became the first western Judo black belt, before WWII, and when it was still a powerful combat art.

Even as adults, we know that there are many who are stronger than us, and society decides what we can and can’t do. This is more obvious to women, but even the strongest man knows he isn’t invincible. Most of us have to work for others, doing what they say, often on a minute-to-minute basis, and even those who escape close supervision still must please others for their daily bread. Few, indeed, are the genuine hermits.

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And then there is the body, which so often betrays us with injury, illness, and pain. There is the mind, over which we have so little control: we have thoughts and emotions we’d rather not experience all the time, and often feel like our own minds and bodies are tyrants.

So, humans are weak, and we feel weak. We often deny this to ourselves, because feeling weak is awful, frightening. A full admission of how much is beyond our control means admitting we can die or be in horrible pain at any moment, and the most we can do is influence the odds of it happening. We can never rule something awful happening out entirely.

The feeling of power is thus one of the strongest feelings available to humans. I remember reading a review of a book by a torturer in the Lebanese civil war. He wrote that torturing people was the most intense experience he ever had; so intense, in fact, that it ruined everything else for him. Food was tasteless, even sex was meaningless. After the rush of power from torture, the ultimate violation of social norms and one of the ultimate expressions of control over another person, nothing else ever came close.

This may horrify you. Perhaps you think you would be different (though it is best to never find out, by never torturing), but I think that most people would find the same.

Now, torture is an obvious extreme, but it’s done all the time. It’s routine in prisons in most countries, police even in “civilized” countries regularly inflict beatings severe enough to qualify, and when the US officially tortured in the 2000s there was no punishment for it beyond rapping on the knuckles of a few low-level grunts. The most severe penalty anyone received was given to the CIA whistleblower who revealed the details of the CIA torture — not the people who perpetrated it or ordered it.

Power comes in gradations. There’s the simple bully, which we’ve all experienced, I think, as children. “Do what I say, or I’ll hurt you.” Most authority is ultimately based on this, including routine authority of parents, teachers, and bosses. If you think otherwise, do the thought experiments of what happens if you just refuse to do what people with power want you to.

When a bully pushes you around, they feel powerful. It’s a good feeling, it’s pleasant. If you say otherwise, you’re lying to yourself. You must understand how the world actually is, even if you personally don’t enjoy forcing other people to your will.

But schoolyard bullies or screaming bosses — or even muggers and serial killers — are the Deltas of the world of power. They’re nothing, insects.

Real power is what top-level politicians, generals, executives, and ritual leaders have. There was an Indian guru who told some of his male followers to castrate themselves. They did.

Then there’s political power. Bill Clinton cut welfare, passed a terrible prison bill, and did many other horrible things, and he was beloved by so many of those he hurt. Obama, the first Black president, was terrible for African Americans, but they love him anyway. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s selfishness on staying on the Supreme Court when she was old and sick with cancer helped pave the way for the loss of abortion rights, but many women who support abortion rights consider her a hero.

George W. Bush sent the children of poor whites off to Iraq and Afghanistan to die, get PTSD, or get maimed, and the parents of those he sent and many of those he sent love him. Politicians, for generations, have pursued policies which impoverished 90 percent or so of Americans, and each of them was loved by millions.

Power is hurting someone, and having them love you anyway. Power is “believe me, not your lying eyes.” The sheer rush of being Clinton, Obama, or Bush and crushing your supporters — hurting them terribly, and having them worship you; this is pleasure.

Don’t think that they don’t get off on it. Don’t think they don’t enjoy it. Bush had brain damage by the time he was President (listen to him talk in ’92, then in ’02), but all three men were smart, and Clinton and Obama were borderline geniuses. They knew what they were doing; they knew who they were hurting.

And those people loved them for it.

That’s power. And for some people, that’s pleasure. They do it because they enjoy doing it.

Then there’s the executives. The ones who raise insulin prices so high that thousands die. They know. They know they’re killing you. They like it. They have that power, and even as you’re dying, begging for insulin money (or cancer money, or whatever) online, they’re laughing, because they know you’re powerless and will do nothing to hurt them, even while they kill  you.

Power. Pleasure. The groveling of the weak before the strong.

If someone does something and doesn’t actually need to do it to survive, they do it because they want to. When a very rich person decides to kill thousands to millions of people to get more money, they’re doing it because they like it. When Jeff Bezos treats Amazon workers like animals, having ambulances parked outside to take the fallen away, he does it because he wants to.

We humans are weak. The feeling of power is one of the ultimate experiences, and power over other humans, animals, and the world (destroying the world for money, knowingly) is pleasurable for a lot of people. It isn’t just that they don’t care, it’s that they like it.

Now, despite everything, power isn’t innately evil. It can be used for good, and there are cases and times when it has been. It’s been hard to do so for most of human history since the advent of agriculture, because we set up systems that incentivized cruelty, in which more cruelty led to more power. Capitalism is almost explicitly such a system, and certainly agrarian civilizations were almost uniformly evil, with few exceptions.

But power can be used for good, and you can get as much pleasure from using your power to help others as you can from using it to hurt people. I suspect there is even more pleasure, honestly. I think Obama, who had the opportunity to be the next FDR (who did some evil, but much more good), was a fool to choose the pleasures of elite regard and cruelty over what would have been a vast tide of love and loyalty from the majority of Ameircans.

We’ll talk about that in a followup piece.

But for now,  you’re ruled by evil people who hurt you because they like how it feels.


Is Cruelty Required?

Is it possible to have a society without cruelty?

That’s really the fundamental political question. (Economics, as you know, is a subset of politics, not different from it. So it’s also the fundamental economic question.)

It’s fair to say that there has never been a major society without cruelty baked into it, at least not since the rise of agricultural kingdoms about three thousand years after the invention of agriculture. Previous societies often had a lot of violence, but it’s not clear they all did, and some hunter gatherer band level societies seem to have had little cruelty.

But every major agricultural civilization has been cruel, and so has every major industrial society, though some are less cruel than others (insert reference to Scandinavia). Even those, however, are enmeshed in a system of industrial production that is, at best, exploitative, as in the case of conflict minerals, low paid workers, killed union organizers, and so on. Because it is not possible to run a decent society in the modern work in autarchy, even relatively kind societies are enmeshed in economic arrangements that cause great suffering hundreds to thousands of miles from them.

Cruelty is endemic even in good societies in the sense that our fundamental economic relationships are based on coercion; if you don’t work for someone else, probably doing something you wouldn’t do without the whip of poverty at your heels, and under supervision, well, you will have a bad life. School is based on coercion; do what you’re told when you’re told, or else, and so is work for most people.

That’s just the way our societies work, and while details vary, it’s more or less how they’ve worked since agriculture. Oh, the peasant may not have had close supervision, but they gave up their crops, labor, and lives under threat of violence, and they knew it well.

Even positive incentives are coercive. Get good grades and you’ll get a good job, etc… Please the mast… er, I mean, boss, yes, boss, and you may get a raise.

But a great deal of real cruelty lies behind the positive coercion in our major societies. American jails are startlingly cruel, filled with violence, rape, and fear. Chinese prisons aren’t so nice either. Police exist to throw you out of your house if you fail to pay the rent, which some double digit percentage of Americans are about to experience, because their society has mishandled an epidemic.

Sell cigarettes without the sanction of the state and your last words may be, “I can’t breathe.”

Our societies are based on positive and negative incentives. The amount of each varies with time and place. Finland right now has a lot more positive, and a lot less negative and a lot less consequences for disobeying. 50 years ago, the US put a lot less people in jail and gave those it allowed good jobs (white males) much better, nicer lives.

But there’s still always that threat in the background. And it’s always based on cruelty: “Bad things will happen to you, either actively or passively if you don’t go along.”

Now there are things we need to get done, collectively, in society. Build and maintain housing, grow and distribute food, keep the internet running (these days), but how much cruelty and coercion is required to do those necessary things? How much do you have to threaten people to get them to do those things? How cruel do you have to be to them if they don’t do them?

But another problem is that most of the coercion and cruelty in our societies has nothing to do with creating necessities like food and shelter and medicine and internet.

It has to do with making sure that some people have far more than they need, and others have far less. That some people have good lives with little coercion, while others live in constant fear. One problem with the boss, you lose your job, and you wind up homeless or in prison, and then even more terrible things happen.

Terrible things that are meant to happen, of course. We could lock up a lot fewer people and treat those few far better. We have more empty homes than homeless people and throw out at least a third of our food. No one need go hungry or homeless, and as for the internet, well, ISPs make close to 100 percent profit, so yeah, I’m pretty sure there’s no reason anyone should go without basic internet access.

So the cruelty in our societies is a choice. We can feed and house everyone, give everyone health care and have plenty left over, but we want billionaires and huge militaries or something, so we’re cruel. We’re cruel in the small details of everyday life (those maste…, er bosses) and we’re cruel in how we structure life, and it’s all a choice we’ve made.

Is it necessary? Must we be cruel? If we must be cruel, how cruel? What cruelty is actually needed, how much is just a preference or only required because we want very unequal societies?

Are we cruel of necessity?

Or desire?

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The Culture of Meanness

One of the most striking things about much of American culture is the simple meanness of it. The cruelty.

Most of this seems to come down to three feelings:

  • My life sucks. I have to work a terrible job I hate in order to survive. I have to bow and scrape and do shit I don’t want to do. You should have to as well.
  • Anyone who doesn’t make it must not be willing to suffer as I do, therefore anyone who doesn’t make it deserves to be homeless, go without food, and so on.
  • Anybody who is against us needs to be hurt and humiliated, because that’s how I see my superiors deal with people who go against them.

“Life is shit, therefore your life should be shit.”

“What you’ve got is what you deserve.”

There is also a culture of punching down, as commenter Lisa has observed. America has a high-violence, high-bullying society. As Lisa noted you can have a high-violence society in which it is considered unacceptable to attack the weak (doing so is viewed as cowardice), but that’s not the case in America.

In American culture, the weak are the preferred target. Failure is punishable by homelessness, suffering, and death.  Sick people sure don’t deserve proper pain medication. Poor people are poor because they “don’t add value.” If you’re poor, you definitely shouldn’t have good healthcare, because if you don’t have money, you don’t deserve money, and that’s because you’re a waste of space.

This appears to be a result of something simple: At every stage of American life, it’s a zero or negative sum game, and who gets ahead is decided by authority figures. Need to get into a good university? You need good grades from adults, you need to have done the right extra-curricular activities, you need references from adults.

On the job, only a few people will be promoted, and the competition is fierce. But worse, in many fields, people are often let go, and the competition to avoid getting fired or laid off is severe.

Who decides? Your boss. You’d better get down on your knees and do whatever your boss wants, because if you’re fired or let go you may never work again, and if you do hang on at a bottom-wage job, well, your life will suck.

When dealing with police, the constant American attitude is OBEY. If you don’t obey, then whatever the police do to you is justified. The police are like bosses in a way. One cop can ruin your life, even if you aren’t killed, beaten, or raped by them. A criminal record means you will never have a good job again.


On your knees, citizen.

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And as my friend Stirling once noted, the next demand after, “Kneel!” is, “On your belly, worm.”

Failure to comply means your advancement is over, and maybe your job.

Americans are desperate for the approval of those in power, because without it, they are destroyed. This is true to a lesser extent in many other Western societies, certainly in Britain.

Having learned that the right way to treat anyone who is weaker than them is with demands for acquiescence and dominance displays, to many Americans, to interpret any sign of weakness as requiring them, as a moral duty, to dominate and hurt the weak person.

People become what is required of them. They learn from authority figures how to behave.

The desperate need of certain demographics to keep, say, women or certain minorities down is part of this. These people need to know that there are some people who, no matter how degraded their own situation, are always lower than them, can always be beaten down.

Contrary what many right-wingers think, dominance structures aren’t innate to humanity. Evidence supports that, for most of human existence, we were hopelessly egalitarian. But surplus combined with scarcity changes that, as do large populations.

Still, while high-density agricultural and industrial societies are innately more inequal than paleolithic hunter-gathers, there is plenty of variation, and within that variation plenty more variation as regards to the level of meanness and cruelty–how much a culture can be defined as “bullying.” In the modern, Western world, America ranks high as a mean, bullying culture.

The effects of this cascade, and can be seen as high up as America’s constant wars, drone assassinations, and the routine torture in prisons, and as low down as cities passing by-laws that the homeless can’t be fed or the desperate competition amongst parents and school-children for those few elite university slots which virtually ensure one’s future.

The entire process makes America a far more unpleasant place to live or visit than is necessary. The structure of dominance, meanness and cruelty is palpable to the visitor, and distressing; even as it warps the best inhabitant.

I find myself without a real conclusion. Obviously (I hope), this is BAD. Obviously it should change. But it’s hard to change something that people have taken and turned into a moral imperative: Be mean to the weak and poor, who deserve their fates. Kick down, kiss up, because a failure to pucker up can have you thrown out of the charmed circle, and obviously higher-ups want to see you acting like them, imitation being the most sincere form of flattery.

It’s all very depressing, all very unnecessary, and all very much in the interests of the people who run your society.  Meanness in the chattel means they can rarely get together to challenge the masters, because they hate each other more than they hate the masters.

Kindness is a revolutionary act.

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