Monthly Archives: October 2014

The root of the problem

Standardized curricula and testing necessitated arranging students by age, which made it easy to test students, whose results in turn reflected the skill of the teacher. Arranging by age in grades, coupled with compulsory attendance laws, today result in children as young as five being away from parents and with peers more than eight hours a day and often seven days a week, depending on sports and extra-curricular involvement. Twelve years of daily separation from family leads students to become dependent on peers for emotional support and has ultimately resulted in the development of negative “peer pressure,” bullying and gangs that our schools are now trying to solve. Those attempting to find solutions are doing so without changing the root of the problem: neither families, real life, nor work environments segregate by age.



Ran Prieur again:

June 23. Zimbabwe bans urban farming (dead link unrecoverable). They make ecological excuses but the real reason is to keep people dependent on the domination system for their food. Police threaten to destroy the crops, and they urge people to plant flowers and lawns! Here in America we have the same rule, but it’s enforced with subtle propaganda associating flowers and nice lawns and clean (dead) supermarket food with higher social status. In a few years when we get desperate, they might have to use the police, or robot aircraft loaded with herbicides.

Lawns take a lot of effort — you have to mow the damned things every week or two, and if you want to get them to be green and free from weeds, you have to put in that effort too — and produce nothing but status. Why do we have lawns?

My father once told me that, one year when he was growing up, his father got it into his head to have the best lawn in the neighborhood, so he set all his children to mowing, watering, and weeding it, which was apparently a lot of work.

Around here, the biggest ‘weeds’ are dandelions — they’re edible (that is, useful) and they don’t look bad, but the status-game says you have to get rid of them.

My mother used to have a cherry tree in her yard. Half of it was dead, but the other half put out some cherries every summer. The thing was ugly, because half of it was dead, but it was useful. She kept it against the protests of her neighbors until her lawn service cut it down — which she couldn’t stop because none of them spoke English.

Lawns are useless, and dandelions and cherry trees are useful. The status-game of the lawn requires burning utility. This is not an uncommon pattern: conspicuous consumption is the same way.

It’s possible to have status-games that protect utility: the old Calvinist status-game of frugality is explicitly oriented against conspicuous consumption. A penny saved is a penny earned, so if you don’t save your pennies, you’re one of the poors. The problem is that there are always forces aligned against this — if you grow your own food, it doesn’t get counted in the GDP, and if you save your pennies, you’re not passing them off to some corporation to let them get the larger profit margins that come from the exchange of money for status* — so it requires a great deal of coordination (and a great deal of coordination-promoting homogeneity) to protect it. The Calvinist virtues are not very popular anymore.

* I’m guessing here; I don’t actually know whether the profit margins are larger. Status is a form of value, so imbuing a product with status means it can be sold for a higher price than otherwise, but maybe it’s made up for by advertising costs or something.

The web of dependency

Ran Prieur:

Review of a book about uncontacted tribes in the Amazon. The best part is about how a large complex society defeats primitive people, when it is no longer socially acceptable to conquer them with violence. Quoting two bits out of order:

Pacification was accomplished through the proffering of Western goods, including machetes, axes, metal pots, fishhooks, matches, mosquito netting, and clothing. The seductive appeal of such things was nearly irresistible, for each of these items can make a quantum improvement in a sylvan lifestyle. Acquisition of several or all of these goods is a transformative experience that makes contact essentially irreversible.

With the convenience of matches, one quickly loses the knack for starting a fire. Shotguns decisively outperform bows and arrows, but cartridges must be bought at a good price. Such newly acquired dependencies fundamentally altered the life of the Indians, who were compelled to work for wages instead of spending their days hunting, fishing, and tending their gardens.

This is the kind of thing Ivan Illich wrote about all the time, and it’s still happening today, to you. With the convenience of frozen dinners and restaurant meals, one quickly loses the knack for preparing food. iTunes decisively outperforms radio, but music files must be bought at a good price. To navigate sprawl you need a car, to pay expenses on a car you need a job, and so on. But at the same time, many of us understand this web of dependency and are fighting to get free of it.


Right now, almost all genetic modification is being done to make crops that are dependent on industrial agriculture with high energy inputs. The danger is that inevitable biotech catastrophes will serve as the excuse to give central control systems a strict monopoly over biotech, and they will use it to stamp out biodiversity and create life that is dependent on those control systems for its survival.


As long as genetic modification is being done primarily by big agribusiness, plants will be altered to make them more compatible with central control of the food supply.

I’m not sure if he’s right about genetic modification, but if he is, it’s another illustration of the same pattern: “In practice, technologies will be used by control systems to maintain their power and stability.” People subject themselves to the control system for some perceived (and perhaps even real) benefit, and then get bitten by the tradeoffs.

Another example: the replacement of folk culture (decentralized/distributed, varying and variable, illegible to bureaucracies, difficult to control) with mass culture (centralized, impossible to edit, bureaucratic, easy to control) — less effortful and allowing for much higher production values and potentially much more talent, but in practice, buying in tends to mean letting your enemies put thoughts into your head.

Benjamin Franklin on the increase of mankind

People increase in proportion to the number of marriages, and that is greater in proportion to the ease and convenience of supporting a family. When families can be easily supported, more persons marry, and earlier in life.

In cities, where all trades, occupations and offices are full, many delay marrying, till they can see how to bear the charges of a family; which charges are greater in cities, as Luxury is more common: many live single during life, and continue servants to families, journeymen to Trades, &c. hence cities do not by natural generation supply themselves with inhabitants; the deaths are more than the births.”

The great increase of Offspring in particular families is not always owing to greater fecundity of Nature, but sometimes to examples of industry in the Heads, and industrious education; by which the children are enabled to provide better for themselves, and their marrying early is encouraged from the prospect of good subsistence.

If there be a sect therefore, in our nation, that regard Frugality and Industry as religious duties, and educate their children therein, more than others commonly do, such sect must consequently increase more by natural generation, than any other sect in Britain.

The importation of foreigners into a country that has as many inhabitants as the present employments and provisions for subsistence will bear, will be in the end no increase of people; unless the new comers have more industry and frugality than the natives, and then they will provide more Subsistence, and increase in the country; but they will gradually eat the natives out. Nor is it necessary to bring in foreigners to fill up any occasional vacancy in a country; for such vacancy (if the Laws are good, 14, 16) will soon be filled by natural generation. Who can now find the vacancy made in Sweden, France or other warlike nations, by the Plague of heroism forty Years ago; in France by the expulsion of the Protestants; in England by the settlement of her Colonies; or in Guinea, by one hundred years exportation of slaves, that has blacken’d half America?

Read the whole thing. Don’t miss the punchline.

Capitalism and bureaucratic modernism

Designed or planned social order is necessarily schematic; it always ignores essential features of any real, functioning social order. This truth is best illustrated in a work-to-rule strike, which turns on the fact that any production process depends on a host of informal practices and improvisations that could never be codified. By merely following the rules meticulously, the workforce can virtually halt production. In the same fashion, the simplified rules animating plans for, say, a city, a village, or a collective farm were inadequate as a set of instructions for creating a functioning social order. The formal scheme was parasitic on informal processes that, alone, it could not create or maintain. To the degree that the formal scheme made no allowance for these processes or actually suppressed them, it failed both its intended beneficiaries and ultimately its designers as well.

James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State, via Isegoria.

If the informal processes aren’t intuitively obvious to most of the bell curve, they will have to be passed down. If enough new people come into the same place at the same time, the processes are unlikely to be passed down, or even to survive — as happened in Usenet’s eternal September. The same thing applies if there’s no need to learn those processes — why put in the effort if there’s no payoff?

What sorts of informal processes animate a city or a village?

Some of these processes are negatively affected by increases in diversity, as Robert Putnam has shown. And they would be: one process is the existence of homogeneity itself. Thedish homogeneity increases both the ability to coordinate and the likelihood of coordination: ability because less inferential distance, more similar cognitive styles, and greater ability to mentally model others, and likelihood because it fosters a sense that “we’re all in this together”, whereas thedish diversity gives rise to competing factions, a principle demonstrated most vividly by the well-known but rarely-considered phenomenon of the ethnic gang war.

Scott compares capitalism to the high-modernist bureaucratic-totalitarian states of the last century:

Large-scale capitalism is just as much an agency of homogenization, uniformity, grids, and heroic simplification as the state is, with the difference being that, for capitalists, simplification must pay. A market necessarily reduces quality to quantity via the price mechanism and promotes standardization; in markets, money talks, not people. Today, global capitalism is perhaps the most powerful force for homogenization, whereas the state may in some instances be the defender of local difference and variety. (In Enlightenment’s Wake, John Gray makes a similar case for liberalism, which he regards as self-limiting because it rests on cultural and institutional capital that it is bound to undermine.) The “interruption,” forced by widespread strikes, of France’s structural adjustments to accommodate a common European currency is perhaps a straw in the wind. Put bluntly, my bill of particulars against a certain kind of state is by no means a case for politically unfettered market coordination as urged by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. As we shall see, the conclusions that can be drawn from the failures of modern projects of social engineering are as applicable to market-driven standardization as they are to bureaucratic homogeneity.

The high-modernist states often saw community and civil society as threats to their power: consider the Communists’ attacks on the churches, networks of hidden informants and spies, and attempts to incorporate all of civil society into the state in order to control and monitor it.