Today’s column, oddly enough, was inspired by a quote from Konrad Lorenz used as an epigraph for Stephen King’s novel Cell: “Humans have not evolved any ritualized aggression-inhibiting mechanisms to ensure the survival of the species.”
In fact, this is not true. Aggression-inhibiting mechanisms are quite prevalent among hunter-gather societies like those in the Amazon, and simple fishing and farming societies like the Indians of the Pacific Northwest. Almost all such societies have had ritualized forms of warfare, relying on such practices as coup-counting to minimize the damage from conflict between villages or tribes. The peasant village communes predominant from the agricultural revolution to the emergence of the first states were mostly peaceful and cooperative. Even among highly organized and aggressive non-state societies, like the tribal confederations of nomadic Indians on the Great Plains, where genuine warfare took place it was still highly ritualized by all sorts of customary taboos that limited the damage done.
Relations between individuals and small groups tend to stabilize themselves on the sort of peaceful pattern game theory would predict, when they have ongoing, rather than one-off dealings, with one another and expect that “what goes around will come around.”
All this happens because human beings are rational utility-maximizers. But these damage-limiting mechanisms disappear in total war between states because states are functionally insane.
Institutions governed by authority relations behave in a manner analogous to that of a human being whose perception of the world is distorted by some cognitive dysfunction, and cannot logically evaluate the consequences of her behavior. This is because authority relations pervert and distort the institutional mechanisms analogous to an individual’s perceptions and evaluations of the world around her.
As Robert Anton Wilson pointed out, dealing with reality in a sane manner requires accurate environmental feedback about the consequences of one’s actions, which in turn requires two-way communications between equals. This is impossible under authority relations, because authority results in one-way lines of communication.
Those in authority give orders without accurate feedback on the results of those orders, because the upward flow of communication is distorted by power. Information is filtered by power relations as people tell those in authority what they want to hear. No one tells the real, unfiltered truth to someone with a gun, or even to someone with the power to fire her. When the genius MBAs in the C-suite decide to lay off half the production workforce in order to goose their own stock options, there’s not much danger of a factory manager, or even the head of a production division, saying “you know, that’s a really stupid idea.”
Those in authority are also insulated from the real consequences of their actions, because power is a machine for appropriating the positive externalities of others’ actions and imposing the negative externalities of one’s own behavior on those with less power. The net consequences of a decision for everyone in the organization may be negative, but what counts is that they’re a positive for the leadership. “It’s good to be king.”
The state is the ultimate in power relations. Its leaders are functionally insane; their own power distorts their perception of reality and the consequences of their actions. Total war, in which a major portion of a country’s population and wealth is sacrificed for the leadership’s purposes, seems worthwhile because they’re not the ones whose their families are slaughtered, homes bombed and crops burned. A state leader will send an army to devastate Georgia or to firebomb Dresden because he knows any retaliatory consequences will fall on other other heads. “Let’s you and him fight.”
There’s been no strategic nuclear war since 1945 because the leadership of the nuclear powers had enough residual perception of reality to understand that — for the first time in history — a nuke could be dropped at will right on the Kremlin or the White House, with virtual certainty of death for themselves. The bomb for the first time raised the possibility that, if war went total, the king would be the equal of his subjects before the Grim Reaper. That’s why, despite all the cries of alarm about “foreign threats” in the buildups to war, the U.S. government since WWII has only attacked those it thought couldn’t fight back.
Rational behavior is possible only when people voluntarily associate with one another, communicate as equals, and experience the full consequences of their own actions.