Thursday, December 11, 2008

Beyond Civilization by Daniel Quinn - Excerpts

[Quinn develops the idea of tribal forms of making a living, as opposed to hierarchical civilizations. Mostly a theoretical discussion rather than a pragmatic how-to on how to pull off a transformation of work environments - except for why and how to be successfully homeless.]

Beyond Civilization: Humanity’s Next Great Adventure. Daniel Quinn. 1999. ISBN 0609604902


Making food a commodity to be owned was one of the great innovations of our culture. No other culture in history has ever put food under lock and key – and putting it there is the cornerstone of our economy, for if the food wasn’t under lock and key, who would work?

“If the world is saved, it will not be by old minds with new programs but by new minds with no programs at all.”

Programs never stop the things they’re launched to stop. No program has ever stopped poverty, drug abuse, or crime, and no program ever will stop them.

Old minds think: How do we stop these bad things from happening?
New minds think: How do we make things the way we want them to be?

Old minds think: If it didn’t work last year, let’s do MORE of it this year.
New minds think: If it didn’t work last year, let’s do something ELSE this year.

“What works so well that programs are superfluous? What works so well that it never occurs to anyone to create programs to make it work?”

Tribal humans were successful on this planet for three million years before our agricultural revolution, and they’re no less successful today wherever they manage to survive untouched, but many people of our culture don’t want to hear about it. In fact, they’ll vigorously deny it.

Clearly all spreading mechanisms have one thing in common: they confer benefits on those who do the spreading … The benefit conferred shouldn’t, however, be confused with the mechanism itself.

Most programs take this form: Outlaw the thing that’s bothering you, catch people who do it, and put them in jail.
Old minds think: We have to write tougher and more comprehensive laws.
New minds think: No unwanted behavior has ever been eliminated by passing a law against it.
The fact that programs of this sort invariable fail doesn’t trouble most people.

It’s been established beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is an exact correlation between how hard you have to work to stay alive and how great your dependence on agriculture is. Those who grow the least also work the least, and those who grow the most also work the most.

One can imagine how desperately the pontiffs, potentates, dynasts, princes, pendragons, princelings, rajahs, hierophants, priests, priestesses, and palace guards of all these tottering civilizations must have desired to implant in the minds of their vacillating subjects this very simple concept: Civilization must continue at ANY cost and must not be abandoned under ANY circumstance.

Our history is full of underclass insurrections, revolts, rebellions, riots, and revolutions, but not a single one has ever ended with people just walking away. This is because our citizens know that civilization must continue at any cost and not be abandoned under any circumstance. So they will go berserk, will destroy everything in sight, will slaughter all the elite they can get their hands on, will burn, rape, and pillage – but they will never just walk away.

This is an example of the Cultural Fallacy, which is: The memes of our culture arise from the very structure of the human mind itself, and if you don’t have them, there must be something wrong with you.

I visit many classrooms, and the students one way or another always bring me around to a point where I ask how many of them are champing at the bit to get out there and start working on the pyramids their parents worked on throughout their lives and their parents before them. The question makes them uneasy, because they they’re supposed to be absolutely thrilled at the prospect of going out there to flip burgers and pump gas and stock shelves in the real world. Everyone’s told them they’re the luckiest kids on earth – parents, teachers, textbooks – and they feel disloyal not waving their hands at me. But they don’t.

No special control is needed to make people into pyramid builders – if they see themselves as having no choice but to build pyramids. They’ll build whatever they’re told to build, whether it’s pyramids, parking garages, or computer programs.. Karl Marx recognized that workers without a choice are workers in chains. But his idea of breaking chains was for us to depose the pharaohs and then build the pyramids for ourselves, as if building pyramids is something we just can’t stop doing, we love it so much.

We can walk away from the pyramid, but we can’t melt away into the jungle. The Mayan solution is utterly gone for us, for the simple reason that the jungle itself is gone and there are six billion of us. Forget about going back. There is no back. Back is gone. But we can still walk away from the pyramid.

… in our meme about civilization there’s another meme that is implicit: Civilization is humanity’s ULTIMATE invention and can never be surpassed. That’s precisely why it must be carried forward at any cost, because there cannot possibly be any invention beyond it. If we were to abandon civilization (gulp!), then we’d be finished! If there’s going to be any future for us, our first invention must be a meme-killer.

Something BETTER than civilization is waiting for us. Something much better – unless you’re one of those rare individuals who just loves dragging stones.

Our cultural vision was shaped by people who were perfectly satisfied with the notion that the universe they saw was in its final form, and had come into being in that form – in a single stroke, so to speak. The Genesis tale of creation didn’t originate this notion; it merely affirmed it: God did his work, saw it was in no need of improvement, and that was that.

People will (ordinarily) put up with being miserable for only so long. It’s not the quitters who are extraordinary and mysterious, it’s we, who have somehow managed to persuade ourselves that we must persist in our misery whatever the cost and not abandon it even in the face of calamity.

Before becoming full-time farmers, the Maya, the Olmec, and all the rest practiced hunting and gathering or some combination of farming and foraging. Doesn’t the fact that they eventually became full-time farmers indicate they were less than perfectly satisfied with these lifestyles? That’s exactly what it indicates … But doesn’t this indicate that their traditional lifestyles were less than perfect? Certainly it does. Natural selection is a process that separates the workable from the unworkable, not the perfect from the imperfect.

The tribal life doesn’t turn people into saints; it enables ordinary people to make a living together with a minimum of stress year after year, generation after generation.

The tribal life isn’t about spears and caves or about hunting and gathering. Hunting and gathering is a lifestyle, an occupation, a way of making a living. A tribe isn’t a particular occupation; it’s a social organization that facilitates making a living.

… there’s a difference between painting in order to make money and making money in order to paint.

Many small businesses start in a very tribal way, with a few partners pouring in all their resources and taking out only what’s needed to survive, but this tribal character quickly disappears if the company becomes a conventional hierarchy.

The rough outlines of this social organization are familiar to everyone through the Egyptian model. You have a highly centralized state organization that consolidates in itself all economic, military, political, and religious power. The ruling caste, headed by a living deity in the shape of a pharaoh, Inca, or other divine monarch, is supported by a priestly bureaucracy that regulates and supervises the labor force conscripted for (among other things) the construction of palace and ceremonial complexes, temples, and pyramids.

The way rulers benefit from the success of the society is vastly different from the way the masses benefit, and the pyramids and the temples testify to the importance of the rulers, not to the masses who build them.

Kids of all ages run off to join the circus. No one runs off to join Disney World.

Wherever civilization emerges, tribalism withers and is replaced by hierarchalism. Hierarchalism works very well for the rulers but much less well for the ruled, who make up the mass of the society. For this reason, the few at the top like it very well and the masses at the bottom like it very much less well.

Every civilization brought forth in the course of human history has been a hierarchical affair. The thing we call civilization goes hand in hand with hierarchy – means hierarchy, requires hierarchy … You can have hierarchy without civilization, but you can’t have civilization without hierarchy … All dedicated pyramid-builders should stick with civilization. The rest of us just want something else, and it’s high time we had it.

Spending more will certainly get you more, but it won’t necessarily get you more of what you want.

To overthrow the hierarchy is pointless; we just want to leave it behind. As everyone knows (especially revolutionaries), hierarchy maintains formidable defenses against attack from the lower orders. It has none, however, against abandonment. This is in part because it can imagine revolution, but it can’t imagine abandonment. But even if it could imagine abandonment, it couldn’t defend against it, because abandonment isn’t an attack, it’s just a discontinuance of support.

I wasn’t surprised to hear from many youngsters … who know the world is full of things they should want to do – and who imagine that there must be something dreadfully wrong for them for failing to want it.

Well-intentioned people often want to feel they’re giving up something, which is only to be expected in a culture where all ethical and religious systems commend self-denial. In hierarchical societies it’s always a good idea to make poverty sound like a blessing (and the rich are always especially vain about their austerities).

Civilization isn’t a geographical territory, it’s a social and economic territory where pharaohs reign and pyramids are built by the masses. Similarly, beyond civilization isn’t a geographical territory, it’s a social and economic territory where people in open tribes pursue goals that may or may not be recognizably “civilized”. You don’t have to “go someplace” to get beyond civilization. You have to make your living a different way.

Above all, nothing must be done that would encourage the homeless to remain homeless. In short, homelessness must be made as unremittingly difficult, degrading, and painful as possible, and you may be sure that our public guardians know well how to accomplish this.

Making and keeping the homeless as miserable as possible is cherished as a sort of tough love, the very best and kindest thing we can do for them. The only trouble is, for some strange reason, it doesn’t work worth a damn.

Every year we pass more laws, hire more police, build more prisons, and sentence more offenders for longer periods – all without moving one inch closer to “ending” crime. It didn’t work last year or the year before that or the year before that or the year before that, but you can be sure we’ll try it again this year, know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it won’t work this year either. Every year we spend more money on our schools, hoping to “fix” whatever’s wrong with them, and every year the schools remain stubbornly unfixed. Spending money didn’t work last year or the year before that, or the year before that or the year before that, but you can be sure we’ll try it again this year, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that it won’t work this year either. Every year we try to make the homeless go away, and every year the homeless remain with us. We couldn’t shoehorn them back into “the mainstream” last year or the year before that or the year before that or the year before that or the year before that, but you can be sure we’ll try it again this year, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that it won’t work this year either.

We deeply believe in taking a military approach to problems. We proclaim a “war” on poverty. When that fails, we proclaim a “war” on drugs. We “fight” crime. We “combat” homelessness. We “battle” hunger. WE vow to “defeat” AIDS.

One element of acceding to homelessness is accepting the fact that the poor will consistently choose the least worst alternative available to them. If you find them living under a bridge instead of in a nice, clean municipal shelter just a block away, you can be absolutely sure they haven’t made a mistake – from their point of view. The shelter’s admittance procedures may be intolerably invasive, arbitrary, or humiliating, or its rules may be Draconian. Whatever, the discomforts of sheltering under the bridge are more endurable.

Acceding to homelessness would look like helping the homeless succeed WHILE being homeless. What an idea! I can almost hear the howls of outrage from both liberals and conservatives that must greet such a concept. Help people succeed at being homeless? We want them to fail at being homeless! (So they’ll return to the mainstream.)

Don’t try to drive the homeless into places we find suitable. Help them survive in places they find suitable.

The important thing to see is that we were not “giving up” something by being tribal. We were getting something by being tribal –something that would have been out of reach otherwise. We weren’t tribal because we were noble and altruistic; we were tribal because we were greedy and selfish.

I think what’s needed at a minimum is a group of people (1) who, among them, have all the competencies needed to start and run a given business, (2) who are content with a modest standard of living, and (3) who are willing to “think tribally” – that is, to take what they need out of the business rather than to expect set wages.

The fact that ethnic tribes can provide their members with cradle-to-grave security is a true measure of their wealth.

In a famous interchange at Columbia University, a faculty member who asserted that the faculty is the university was immediately told by the president of the university (former U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower) that the faculty are employees of the university. Mr. Eisenhower isn’t on hand to contradict me when I say that the members of the tribe aren’t employees of the tribe, they are the tribe. Indeed, that’s the whole difference. Because the tribe is its members, the tribe is what its members want it to be – nothing more and nothing less.

The tribe, in fact, is just a wonderfully efficient social organization that renders making a living easy for all – unlike civilization, which renders it easy for a privileged few and hard for the rest.

Communes never begin in this haphazard way. They’re “intentional” communities, originating among people who want to live together in pursuit of common ideals, usually in relative isolation. Communes are about living together and may or may not involve working together. Tribes (and I speak here of “new” tribes, of course) originate among people who want to pool their energies and skills to make a living together. Tribes are about working together and may or may not involve living together.

It’s a fundamental tenet of our cultural mythology that the only thing wrong with us is that humans are not made well enough. We need to be made of finer materials, to some set of better specifications (provided, perhaps, by greened-up versions of our traditional religions). We just need to be made kinder, gentler, sweeter, more loving, less selfish, more far-sighted, and so on, then everything will be fine. Of course, no one succeeded in making us better last year or the year before that or the year before that or the year before that – but maybe this year we’ll get lucky … or next year or the year after that.

If you can only be free living on a mountaintop or a desert island, then clearly you’re something less than free.

Whether by intention or not, suicides often reveal themselves in their choice of means. The guilty hang themselves. Sacrificial victims slash their throats. The discarded throw themselves off buildings or bridges. Tormented minds blow their brains out.

… the “story” we’re enacting in our culture is this: The world was made for Man to conquer and rule, and Man was made to conquer and rule it; and under Man’s rule the world might have become a paradise except for the fact that he’s fundamentally and irremediably flawed.

Old minds think: How do we solve these problems?
New minds think: How do we make happen what we want to happen?

Focus instead on what you want to happen and how to make it happen, rather than on all the things that might keep it from happening.

Most people formulate their own questions. Don’t take on the responsibility of figuring out what their difficulty is. Never try to answer a question you don’t understand. Make the askers explain it; keep on insisting until it’s clear, and nine times out of ten they’ll supply the answer themselves.


Jacques Attali
Machines are the new proletariat. The working class is being given its walking papers.

Jospeh Chassler
Yeah, well, it’s pretty lonely at the bottom, too.

Buckminster Fuller
You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Marshall Sahlins
The world’s most primitive people have few possessions, but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilization.

Marshall Sahlins
We are inclined to think of hunters and gatherers as poor because they don’t have anything; perhaps better to think of them for that reason as free.

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