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How to Destroy a Society

(photo: Liqueur Felix)

Republicans and their hyper-rich supporters are engaged in an all-out effort to destroy government and the institutions that support it. Rick Snyder in Michigan destroys local governments. John Kasich in Ohio and Scott Walker in Wisconsin wreck unions in order to cut the pay of teachers, police and firefighters. The House, run by the Tea-GOP, wants to cut every social program, every federal initiative that improves the lives of humans, and most regulations. The unifying theme is the simplification of the structure of society, leaving individuals to struggle against one another for resources, instead of cooperating to improve the lives of average citizens.

I’ve been wondering whether the people behind this movement, people like the Koch brothers, the Scaifes, the Mellons, the Waltons and other rich people who inherited the money they spend freely in the cause, are even slightly worried about the fact that most Americans are armed. There is some evidence that they are. For example, one of Jamie Dimon’s perks is a home security system that cost the shareholders of JPMorgan Chase $17,052 last year (page 25 of 2011 proxy ). Gerard Arpey, the CEO of the money-losing American Airlines, got $56,440 from shareholders to pay for “security for his family.”

If the hyper-wealthy aren’t worried that society will collapse, they should take a look at academic studies. Nature News described an article published in the journal Nature in October 2010 discussing models of evolution of societies. The study concludes that societies evolve in incremental steps, and it supports the theory that societies can suddenly collapse in to less complex forms.

The work started with a tree of languages showing the divergence from some common language, which two of the authors and others published elsewhere:

The team then noted the types of society that are found in the region today, and superimposed that information onto the tips of the tree. Working back through the branches, they estimated how societies had changed and evolved over time, using language as a proxy measure.

This technique is similar to one used in gene studies, which look at differences in genes today, and work backwards to find common ancestors, or to compare the effects of those genes over time.

Nature News reports that Jared Diamond admires the work, and that some anthropologists are more cautious, partly because the idea is so new; partly because the work is statistical, and is not based on direct observation; and partly because the underlying idea of the evolution of languages is not fully understood. With those caveats, here are some of the ideas of the authors of the study. (The paper is not available on-line free, but you should be able to get it through your public library.)

They report that societies evolve in incremental steps from less complex to more complex. They point out the advantages of more complex social organizations in producing material wealth and security and providing an edge in competition with neighboring societies, but they find that societies have to evolve rather than move directly to more complex forms.

This could be due to such factors as an evolved social psychology adapted to life in small-scale groups, the difficulty in reorganizing existing institutions that rely on the coordination of large numbers of individuals, or the requirement for the development of other institutions before more hierarchical organization is stable.

They also note that societies can collapse into less complex forms without going back through those evolutionary steps.

This could occur if small, peripheral groups break away from the control of a centralized state or complex chiefdom to found new societies with fewer levels of political organization, or it could occur as part of a rapid, more widespread societal collapse and the breakdown of political institutions leaving smaller, less politically complex groups in some regions.

Societies collapse when the institutions that coordinate the activities of large numbers of people are destroyed. These institutions, like unions, unemployment insurance, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, independent legislatures, competent regulatory agencies, independent judiciaries, independent sources of information and transparency and an educated citizenry, all support complex social arrangements, the arrangements from which the greedy rich benefit more than anyone else.

Once these are wrecked, can the hyper-rich count on their private armies to protect them from armed angry people with nothing to lose? Do they think the National Guard of Ohio will repeat the killings at Kent State? Will the underpaid, overworked and disrespected police care if their houses are burglarized?

Maybe these wreckers can get one of their University of Chicago economists to produce a theory showing that ill-paid firefighters with no health insurance will risk their personal safety to put out a fire at Dimon’s multi-million dollar apartment.

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I read a lot of books.