Human evolved from something else. The term human is linked to terms “humane” and “humanist”, and these terms imply benevolence and kindness. The suggestion being that alone among all animals and mammals humans have instincts towards charitable behavior. This isn’t strictly true – humans have a child-rearing instinct and that may in large part explain the temporary suppression in a default state of aggression towards the world. We humans are successful in large part because we have the ability to temporarily suspend our state of war with the outside environment. What we do with that is relative and not always humane”. For example, we are quite likely to abuse children as we are to seek to protect and nurture them. Likewise we may keep animals as pets or livestock (and feed them) but not much later our relative benevolence turns around and we suddenly spring the trap – we are omnivores after all.
So the human instinct isn’t about being cruel as such – in suspending aggression we maintain a temporary truce with the external environment, as to cultivate desirable traits in the external – we educate (indoctrinate) our children to turn them in to desirable adults – desirable meaning, the prospective adults are groomed in to equivalents or copies of ourselves who engage in behavior we deem preferable. Even in social interactions many people constantly calculate the benefit and cost of maintaining relationships. If the relationship loses relative value the human becomes superfluous – a stranger.
The Governor paused and looked reflectively over at Bond. He said: “You’re not married, but I think it’s the same with all relationships between a man and a woman. They can survive anything so long as some kind of basic humanity exists between the two people. When all kindness has gone, when one person obviously and sincerely doesn’t care if the other is alive or dead, then it’s just no good. That particular insult to the ego – worse, to the instinct of self-preservation – can never be forgiven. I’ve noticed this in hundreds of marriages. I’ve seen flagrant infidelities patched up, I’ve seen crimes and even murder forgiven by the other party, let alone bankruptcy and every other form of social crime. Incurable disease, blindness, disaster – all these can be overcome. But never the death of common humanity in one of the partners. I’ve thought about this and I’ve invented a rather high-sounding title for this basic factor in human relations. I have called it the Law of the Quantum of Solace.”
Human society is solely based on the recognition of kinship in other human beings. We are not a fully rational species (yet). We may have specific neurological wiring that propels individuals to regard others with inherent value. This tendency of humans to attribute inalienable dignity to humans they don’t know is stronger in some humans than it is in others. I know friends who do it automatically, but I also know people that always discriminate others solely on basis of ‘Randian’ merit and self-interest. In some cultures it is also more normative to be inclusive towards other people (or even animals) whereas in other cultures hostility towards the “other” is regarded as normal, and respect is only earned on basis of usefulness of the stranger, or the ability to retaliate with force by the stranger.
Humanity has a dark past. Humans can regard other humans as mechanistic tools to be exploited for personal gain. The excess of this exploitative behavior is visible in the practice of slavery. Slavery wasn’t just about using threats of pain and death to make other human beings obey to complex commands – most often the practice of slavery was based not on force but on conditioning. Slave owners regarded some humans as external commodities. Humans of other genetic lineages – humans of other income brackets – humans with different gender sexual expression – humans with disabilities – less smart humans – humans of other cultural backgrounds – humans with different skin pigmentation patterns; as soon as the person becomes the externalized other, the subject feels perfectly validated to exert whatever measured force as to domesticate, condition, commoditize and exploit the externalized human.
Culture, technology and science in the human sphere moves towards specific outcomes. A range of outcomes may not always be implicitly desired – for example, only a small minority of people was actually in favor of the implementation of steam trains. In other words – various forms of progress in history was imposed on the unwilling. By and large people are creatures of habituation. Humans prefer an uncomfortable state of existence they are used to over another state of existence that “might be more comfortable”, but what they do not know yet. In some cases this cognitive dissonance (if that’s what it is) can be massive – much to the chagrin of the ambassadors of progress.
“Primitive humanity must be brought in to modernity kicking and screaming”. Progress as such as presented as a form of delivery, or maturation from infancy. Consequently , the bedrock of progress itself is regarded as a form of “becoming an adult”, or “taking personal responsibility”.
Capitalism is all about this ephemeral Utopian ideal of progress. Society commonly (and probably intentionally) confuses social progress with technological progress, by and large because the two have for the last centuries become quite often two sides of the same coin. In other words – whenever there was technological progress there invariably have been large numbers of people forced to adapt, as the means of production became the property of an investor class, and these same people became “economically” superfluous. The whole diatribe of Marx was based on this self-evident mechanism where technological “progress” displaces and dehumanizes workers and forces these same workers to quickly ascertain new survival strategies to make sure they wouldn’t starve.
The flip-side of progress was of course the threat of societal violence that came with the French revolution. When the French peasantry went against established societal normalcy and violently deposed their owner class the mechanism may have been brutal and horrendous, but the respective owner classes in other countries were quick to internalize this lesson – treat your lower classes too badly and they will kill you.
This lesson was adjusted a little in the 20th century, with Bernaise. Before the onset of mass-consumerism the enlightenment ideal was that we lift up the underclasses with state-rationed benevolence, stern guidance and political ideals of theoretical inclusiveness. However in the US the answer to this (often expensive) social experiment was to provide the underclasses not with political blessings, but satisfy the underclasses with material blessings. This was a functional answer to the perceived threat of socialism – political empowerment of all people (including, from a US perspective – “people of color”) would not be acceptable, simply because it was too expensive. Instead the anglosaxon model concentrated on finding the most effective mechanism for bribing the underclasses with consumer goods, material prosperity and the subjective experience of freedom.
We now find ourselves in a society where this model is completely failing. We can endlessly argue the reasons why, but my personal insistence is that we are losing access to cheap and affordable natural resources and energy. In losing (primarily) access to oil, it has become unaffordable to constantly extend this particular form of “storefront affluence” (as opposed to actual prosperity, empowerment and privilege) the the majority of constituents in your country. Witgh technological automation there simply isn’t any reason to honor this contract any more. Why should your buy “the other people” off with expensive Beads and Mirrors, when the other people are of decreasing economic relevance?
This is a potentially gruesome political and societal road we are traveling on, and the outcome is potentially sinister. In human history, completely (political, military) disempowerment of people has invariably led to death. Granted, we live in extraordinarily empowering times, but I remain uncertain if adding more faxes, media and internet will stem the tide of seeping contempt. Privilege and merit in society is highly rewarded, and conversely inadequacy, marginalization, poverty, ‘unemployability’ and disability is becoming culturally treated with extreme contempt and disdain. I see it all around me, the rising tide of scorn that saturates even my formerly inclusive society of the Netherlands is still a far cry from what gruesome things are happening in the United States, but the writing is on the wall – if the system itself conspires to disempower people the immediate result is we all start treating each other more ruthlessly.
The end result may truly be ominous.