Comments: Hard-Wired For Imperialism

Alright Henry Kissinger - take off that Mike Gerber mask!

Posted by AlanSmithee at June 10, 2009 09:29 PM

Nice!

My quick reaction:

1. I'm not sure most people here would get more goodies if might didn't equal right. Certainly I'm pretty certain if the world were reordered in a more "just" way, I personally would have less stuff and ease. Despite not being an investment banker, I'm pretty close to the top of the world pyramid just by being a healthy American with a college education.

And indeed, I suspect this is why efforts to reform the world often fail. The people doing lots of the pushing aren't honest with others or the world about the fact they themselves have a lot to lose...which leads others, even if they don't sense it consciously, to suspect the ones pushing truly ARE just attempting to grab more for themselves. And indeed, history certainly demonstrates that's often the case.

2. What's the answer, then? For me, it's to be honest about my place in the hierarchy, and that it's pretty damn comfortable...but that I've come to believe that human society is going to destroy itself if power isn't distributed more equally. So I'm willing to get behind some reformation because I'd prefer to lose some power rather than have all civilization perish with me in it. Of course, genuine reform is so far from reality right now that my expressed preference is purely theoretical, so there's no proof I'd actually follow through if push came to shove.

3. FUCK YOU IMPERIALIST GERBERIAN SWINE!!!!

Now that I've gotten #3 out of the way, please refrain here from standard gripes if at all possible.

Posted by Jonathan Schwarz at June 10, 2009 09:42 PM

It's not really fair (or useful) to disapprove of imperialist behavior unless it’s a choice, and the dearth of counterexamples suggests that it may not be. The desire to expand one’s influence, for reasons of security, self-aggrandizement, or neurosis, may be hardwired into homo sapiens...

I think describing the tendency as 'hardwired' may be not quite warranted. Circumstances do always seem to generate it -- but no human cultures which exist lack a common ancestor. Each generation learns war from its parents.

I believe it is sociologically possible in principle to have a peaceful, "Star Trek"-like society. Though it may NOT be possible to go FROM here to there, especially as the Earth becomes more and more crowded and used-up and nobody invents warp-drive.

Posted by Cloud at June 10, 2009 09:58 PM

How did you guess, Alan? Was is the "nicer legs than Hitler's" or "bigger tits than Cher"?

Posted by Mike of Angle at June 10, 2009 10:19 PM

There is a loophole in what you are saying: no state gets into a dominant position without conquest. The power and ability of the hegemonic scale required subjugation of opposing peoples within that state itself first. You saw "Phenomenon"? That cheeseball film with John Travolta acquiring great powers when due to a tumor within his head that is also killing him? Imperialism is to the state what that tumor is to the man.

Imperialism I believe will end one way or another because it will hit against that barrier known as reality. The existence of man has been 3 million years, the existence of Empire, 5000. The whole history of Imperialism is akin to a drunken wild night out in his daddy's car for a teenager in the history of man, and there is now more signs than ever that it's gonna either end with a crash into a lamppost or with a hellish hangover. But that's how we learn.

Posted by En Ming Hee at June 10, 2009 10:28 PM

I just want to say "NO" to power, that's why I only ask for a phonecall(1-202-225-0100). If THAT'S some sort of grab for power and world conquest then so be it.

Posted by Mike Meyer at June 10, 2009 10:42 PM

"It's not really fair (or useful) to disapprove of imperialist behavior unless it’s a choice, and the dearth of counterexamples suggests that it may not be. The desire to expand one’s influence, for reasons of security, self-aggrandizement, or neurosis, may be hardwired into homo sapiens..."

I would agree the desire of a small sociopathic claque to dominate, first, members of their own country, and second, the world, is probably hardwired. A certain percentage of the population are psychopaths, well-documented. Less quantifiable are the claims made by Lobaczewski (ponerology.com) about psychopaths in power, and that "evil is a disease." He may be right (I like his website, flashing images of the Bushes, Cheney, Karl Rove, Rumsfeld--is that agitprop? Showing images to make a point? Isn't that one of the functions of art?)

Quoting:

"The original manuscript of this book went into the furnace in 1984 ... Zbigniew Brzezinski blocked its publication...

'Political Ponerology' is a study of the founders and supporters of oppressive political regimes. Lobaczewski’s approach analyzes the common factors that lead to the propagation of man’s inhumanity to man. Morality and humanism cannot long withstand the predations of this evil. Knowledge of its nature – and its insidious effect on both individuals and groups - is the only antidote."

fMRI studies already are showing it's fairly easy to identify psychopaths--they simply lack the normal neural activation pattern when shown various emotionally-laden stimuli. Perhaps we should screen potential political leaders for these tendencies. Kind of like a swimsuit contest of the mind.

But, getting back to Mike Gerber's question: imperialism, the ugly business of exploiting humans for profit (Roger Casement documented how the Putumayo Indians in Peru, slaves on rubber plantations, would be flogged to death in stocks while their children were forced to watch--the reader can fill in their own examples, not hard to come by) obviously requires a psychopathic willingness to ignore human suffering. This must be kept, for the most part, hidden from the non-psychopathic population, or calls for reform will limit profitability, could even result in criminal prosecution. The exploited must, to the greatest extent possible, be dehumanized. Ideally, the non-pyschopaths should be conditioned by propaganda to accept these horrors as necessary (think '24,' or Hill & Knowlton falsifying stories about Kuwaiti incubators).

Psychopathy may be our true enemy. Hardwired and funtional in only a small minority, but perhaps latent and capable of activation in a larger group (per Jurgen Habermas, etc.). Identify it, cut it off, kill it.

Posted by Oarwell at June 10, 2009 11:14 PM

No, seriously, you're not really trying out the pedophile defense (ie: He can't help it! He's hardwired!) on international relations, are you? You don't really want examples of men who don't rape toddlers. This is just a joke, right?

Posted by AlanSmithee at June 10, 2009 11:20 PM

You mean I'm not wiser, braver, more humble and just than everybody else?

How does the old saying go-- "everybody's a bloody loon except me n' Mike GerBer, and I'm not so sure about GerBer?"

ok, I paraphrase.

by the by Oarwell, I think we're all hard-wired with the heart of darkness, it's just that most are only comfy expressing psychopathy as part of a mob, and a select few resist.

Posted by grimmy at June 10, 2009 11:35 PM

Mike,

Absolutely brilliant. The part that had me in stitches (well, at least so far as "LOL" online translates to a real-world "heh") was where you described all intraspecies communication as a form of imperialism, even though you did give it away.

On the one hand, of course, that's true. Every time you express the wish that other people could see things your way, you are being an imperialist.

On the other hand, it's such a universal fact of life that people want you to think only what they want you to think it's hardly worth mentioning. I doubt even those who lack the capacity to "help" others see their perspective would refrain if it suddenly were within their capacity.

So the only avoid this is to give the "colonized" the tools to defeat their (mental) oppressors: scientific reasoning. Which sounds like something Chomsky said about postmodernist beliefs. Ironically these very tools were the first to be branded as "mental imperialism".

Which is Sheer Awesome.

Posted by James Cape at June 11, 2009 12:42 AM

Yes,

...you've got my email

Posted by S Brennamn at June 11, 2009 01:20 AM

i don't know, i don't like the class-based analysis as much as i used to. i'm more inclined now to think that working the world with a big population requires great leaps of storytelling, to bring the big stuff down to practical mental scale, and this involves heavy compression of the subject material -- heavy simplification. in the end every big organization has to smoke its own dope or disintegrate.

i don't think every word spoken is an effort at domination (or an offer to barter). it can be a vector for control (or submission) but i think at its core it's about building harmony for collaboration and labor savings. there's no point to having a diverse vocabulary unless you're trying to win as a group.

Posted by hapa at June 11, 2009 01:55 AM

extra bonus graf: an argument against "peoples of the world: diversify your vocab and WIN!" is that there is fraud, but fraud is possible because of oodles of steady common wealth, courtesy the gift of gab.

Posted by hapa at June 11, 2009 02:06 AM

Hm. "Hardwired" doesn't really work, because human beings, like other organisms, don't have wires, don't have printed circuit boards, etc. It's a popular metaphor, but it's only a metaphor, so using it begs the question, assuming that biological organisms are enough like robots as makes no difference. And despite Dawkins's claim that we are lumbering robots, driven by our genes, it has not been proven.

Might doesn't equal right. Let's suppose that imperialists do have some neural condition that drive them to harmful behavior; let's suppose, with or against Alan Smithee, that pedophiles are driven by their genes.

(Which is odd, because I've never heard that argument applied to pedophiles before. I have heard my fellow fags say that we are born gay, and can't help ourselves, it's in our genes. Of course it is just as likely that pedophilia is genetic: would someone choose a lifestyle that causes them to be universally hated, etc., etc.?)

Anyway, those assumptions would make no difference. First, either you are assuming that all human beings have those imperialist neural paths, in which case one must ask why not all human beings behave like Stalin or Obama, so the assumption explains nothing. Second, perhaps you're assuming that some human beings have the imperialist neural paths, or the pedophilic or gay genes. In which case, one might very well refrain from judging such persons morally, while still judging their behavior harmful, and restraining them. So your assumption settles nothing. Also, you might want to look at some of the philosophical on "free will", because "hardwired" and "choice" are not logical or empirical opposites.

Your "intellectual imperialism" line won't work either. Either rebutting your argument is exactly equivalent to shooting you in the head, or you're making a false equivalence. I vote for the latter. In which case, why do some people try to persuade and others try to impose? "Hardwiring" or other other metaphors just won't do the job. Incidentally, you might want to have a look at Chomsky's demolition of B. F. Skinner, because you're making the same logical mistakes Skinner made. The same goes for some ethologists' and sociobiologists' attempts to find biological roots for "aggression", which tend to end by defining every possible behavior, including waking up in the morning, as "aggression."

Maybe there is no hope, maybe human beings are doomed to imperialism, but explaining it as "hardwiring" is mere handwaving. The most basic point is that might doesn't equal right, simply because so many people agree intuitively that imposing one's will on another by might is not right, however much they qualify the agreement in practice. Why they do that is another question. I was looking at an earlier discussion here where someone spoke of "massive layers of neural encoding [that] leap into action" to prevent us from recognizing that torture by our guys is wrong. Again, I'd like to see some evidence for that claim that the obstacle is massive layers of neural encoding. I think it's something else. If it weren't, I'd have to be judged superior in that realm because I either have different encoding, or have risen above it. But waving around scientific-sounding vacuities will not settle the question.

Posted by Duncan at June 11, 2009 03:23 AM

What Gerber says is contained in the paragraphs on consciousness life desire and struggle and finally the master slave parable in the Phenomenology of Spirit. Since I understood these dialectical facts I am more or less at peace. Read him, I mean Hegel, he is unique. You see, I am trying to possess your consciousness.

Posted by jlcg at June 11, 2009 04:50 AM

Hierarchical structures. With a hierarchical structure it is inevitable that the most ambitious, greedy, determined, and ruthless will get to the top and do their thing.

On planet Tranai (from Robert Sheckley's story) anybody can immediately become Supreme President with unlimited power. But no one wants to, because at any moment (no waiting for an election) any dissatisfied citizen can walk into the special room, press the big red button - and the mandatory necklace permanently locked around Supreme President's neck goes BOOM.

Come to think of it, that's something our friend Mike Meyer could use. Call 1-202-225-0100 and ask them to implement this policy.

Posted by abb1 at June 11, 2009 05:45 AM

Great, you're reducing the life's effort of, say, Noam Chomsky to that of, say, Dick Cheney. Don't you think you're missing something?

Posted by Paul at June 11, 2009 07:13 AM

Great, you're reducing the life's effort of, say, Noam Chomsky to that of, say, Dick Cheney. Don't you think you're missing something?

Posted by Paul at June 11, 2009 07:13 AM

It's a little hard to come up with an example, because how we know a state is dominant is usually that it conquers, but how about Tokugawa Japan?

Posted by William Burns at June 11, 2009 07:25 AM

It's not really fair (or useful) to disapprove of imperialist behavior unless it’s a choice, and the dearth of counterexamples suggests that it may not be.

Or it could be that the counter-examples got conquered and then written out of history by the examples.

As to the question itself, it rather depends on how you define "imperialism". Persia was certainly an empire, but it was a very different empire from Rome. They didn't seek to impose cultural, religious or economic uniformity - as long as you paid your tribute. Was the late Iron Age meta-culture of northern Europe an empire? Certainly not in any conventional sense. Yet they dominated much of the continent, and even stood off Rome for a while.

Posted by Dunc at June 11, 2009 07:43 AM

"what is a blog but an attempt at intellectual imperialism?"

bravo! blogs are now finally getting the credit they deserve.

ATR, blog harder! much of the innertubes are ripe for conquest. screw you dennis perrin! i'm taking your shit.

and i like that "hard-wired" bit. let's reinvigorate eugenics. next time we'll kill dick cheney in his crib.

but maybe by "we" you mean once societies reach certain sizes, complexities, etc., they become "hardwired" for conquest. probably not. not as sexy. probably not as deterministic.

Posted by anonymous at June 11, 2009 08:00 AM

Sure, imperialism is a crime of opportunity (them that has the opportunity commits the crime) but the good news is this: Take away the opportunity, and the crime stops.

I mean, look at the Portuguese or the Belgians. They were some badass genocidal imperialists in their day, but who fears them now? And all that was needed was fierce resistance by the subject peoples, and enough time to allow the near-bankruptcy that is the inevitable consequence of imperialism.

In other words, your average Belgian is not any more moral than his great-grandfather in King Leopold's time, but who cares?

I find this encouraging, because it means that ending the US empire doesn't require us to remake every American into a better human being, it just requires resistance by the people we're occupying (thank you, Iraqis and Afghans!) and near-bankruptcy (thank you, Goldman Sachs!) to do the job.

And what comes afterwards? Why not ask a Belgian how much he mourns the loss of the Congo?

Posted by SteveB at June 11, 2009 08:46 AM

hello Mike,

Your post was good and made me think but ultimately I didn't understand what your point was....I dont accept that imperialism is hardwired...if you want to find examples I am sure you can, just as if you want to find counter examples I know I can, as in people who resist and try to do something about it...it is a choice which people can make...The world does not have to be like it is and has changed for the better in many ways over the years by people working to make it so....So your argument-as I understand it-is a form of TINAISM(There Is No Alternative) to imperialism...I dont agree...I dont accept that Imperialism is the only natural outcome of the state or some other form of political order that humans create....It is sort of like saying slavery is the only natural form of human relations since it lasted for hundreds of years.

I know it is hard to imagine things being different and there are times when it is certainly very hard to be positive and keep ones flame alive to make tings better-spoken from personal experience!-but it seems to me there is no other way.

If you assume there is no hope, then there is no hope....Anyway, I hope I got what you were saying and didn't misread you.-Tony

Posted by tony at June 11, 2009 09:14 AM

Duncan, if you want to see pictures of human hard-wiring, google images "tractography." Using tensor diffusion imaging, one can identify with great precision the fiber tracts that constitute our "wiring."

Here's an example:

http://www.medical.siemens.com/siemens/en_US/rg_marcom_FBAs/images/press_room_images/photo_gallery/MR/Clinical_Image_MR_syngo_DTI.jpg

As for Gerber's question, "what are blogs for?" I thought some of them tried to educate people, and lift the conversation above the strictures mandated by the corporate-controlled media. Some even employ sarcasm in an attempt to open people's eyes to hypocrisy. How is that "imperialism?"

Or was Gerber's whole post a joke?

Ever read 'Snakes in Suits?' You don't think if you showed GWB images of frogs with firecrackers in their mouths you'd activate not aversion but pleasure centers? How about the Abu Ghraib photos? You don't think Rummy got off on those?

So, per comments above, we're all basically Hitler? Sheesh. Agent Smith couldn't have said it better--"humans are a virus."

Beautiful. Happy Birthday, Jon.

Posted by Oarwell at June 11, 2009 09:40 AM

1. is it Jon's birthday?? Can we get him a blocked war supplemental?

2. lots of nations now and in the past have the power to conquer others and don't -- and here at home Congress has the power to conquer the executive and instead stands by its principled commitment to lie face down in mud and plead to be jumped on

Posted by David Swanson at June 11, 2009 09:40 AM

Duncan:

I wouldn't complicate the question of "psychopaths in our midsts" with discussions of pedophilia or homosexuality. But as an aside, the person I referenced above, Sir Roger Casement, was knighted in England for his exposes of the horrors of imperialism in the Belgian Congo and Peru. Later they hanged him for his treasonous work with Irish separatists. Later diaries suggest he was a lifelong pedophile (although some dismiss this as the work of British Intelligence to discredit him in perpetuity).

But isolating our discussion to psychopaths (or sociopaths, if you like), I would think it a useful exercise to identify them and prevent them from obtaining high political office. Because they lack human empathy and compassion and can't be trusted to make decisions benefiting mankind.

Would you disagree? Is that a handwaving argument?

Here's some thoughts a friend of mine had re: the willingness of certain people to resist propaganda, reject the neurolinguistic programming that would seek to make us less than human:

"We’ve been talking about myth (necessary or not, political or otherwise). I stumbled across an interesting paper by Ramachandran, the neurologist whose profile in the New Yorker I mentioned before, that relates. He was doing work with right parietal stroke patients who vehemently and persistently denied their paralysis – limb agnosia – which led to various speculations about our world views analogous to our “filling in the blank” in our visual field where the macula precludes any sensory input. He posits that there is a (mainly) left hemispheric function that discards inputs that don’t match the big picture and a (mainly) right hemispheric function that challenges the big picture once there’s enough conflicting evidence. In these stroke patients the right sided damage precludes changing the big picture making them unable on a conscious level to accept their paralysis. Of course not all patients with (as far as we can tell) similar injuries have limb agonsia. Why not? Are their functional areas more lateralized so more prone to unilateral damage? Was their set point for altering the big picture higher – requiring more contrary information – always higher (more – or less – synapses or neurons in this processing area) and consequently the damage wiped it out all together. It only seems likely that if these types of secondary processing areas exist (which they seem to – see the New Yorker article) then it likely that there is a continuum of set points for changing the big picture distributed across a population. Some people are more biologically oriented to “drinking the Kool-aide”, accepting the myths."

These aren't "scientific-sounding vacuities," anymore than Chomsky's original writings on neurolinguistics are. Chomsky described "an innate set of linguistic principles shared by all humans" known as universal grammar. Sounds like hard-wiring to me.

But no, you're right, the neurobiology of cognitive circuitry doesn't preclude Free Will. Neils Bohr, Heisenberg etc wrote books on why that is, Bohr arguing that quantum mechanics proves the reality of free will.

Posted by Oarwell at June 11, 2009 10:01 AM

This mirrors my own internal struggle. On reading the daily news and opinion, including blogs, my reaction to a particular item or issue is often a largely incoherent rage-slash-frustration that, in the event I'm moved to comment, almost inevitably takes the form of some anti-empire, anti-imperialist diatribe, full of, well, sound and fury, but perhaps signifying nothing.

So, reading this column, I'm struck with the following thought:

It's the root cause...but so what?

Empire and imperialism are the quest for power writ large, and just as we expect those who aspire to power to want more upon obtaining it,ultimately leading to corruption, perhaps it is equally inevitable that the most powerful of countries will aspire to empire and, in the course of so doing, become corrupt - either in the process or in the futile effort to retain dominance.

All this said, and perhaps I'm about to reveal nothing more than my ignorance, but isn't the British empire at least an example of a (relatively) graceful retreat from the precipice? Perhaps that counts for something, in terms of giving reason for continuing to emphasize the folly of empire and it's most usual denouement?

Posted by The Reality Kid at June 11, 2009 10:08 AM

Can you think of any country in a dominant position that hasn't succumbed to imperialism?

Your question is backwards*. Dominant nation states don't become imperialist - states become dominant through imperialism. This is often an historical truism even anti-imperialist Americans find it hard to accept - what with all that "light on the hill" crap you get in school.

But actually isn't this just definitionally circular? To be dominant, re international relations, is to be imperialist. What else does dominant mean - or do you think states dominate others through the blinding example of their superior way of life? You want to be less imperialist? Stop trying to be dominant. Try dealing with other nation-states as equals. You know, though international fora designed for such opportunities.

And, no, the will to power is not hard-wired into people**. It might be hard-wired into statist systems - which is why us anarcho-types don't like 'em - but societies have interacted throughout history as often via mutually beneficial and equal trading relationships or cultural exchanges as they have through conquest.

The source of imperialist systems seem to me to be the tendency of societies which have allowed parasitic exploiters to seize control within the society to then direct that system of parasitic exploitation outwards. Being parasites, the power elite don't have any ability to use their leadership position to construct another method of acquiring resources, not having any other skills or talents to speak of, and so have no option but to visit their parasitic ways on societies beyond the borders ad infinitum. Which sorta works right up until it doesn't. See Rome, the collapse of which, leaving aside footnotes like their unfortunate choice of state religion, was largely a result of running out of people they could rob.

(* Can you think of an imperialist state that isn't dominant? Yes, quite a few. In fact, in the fullness of time, all of them.)

(** Yes, when an idea exists in the world it tends to exist forever. But this doesn't mean human minds tend to it any more than to its opposite. Examples of authoritarian beliefs and systems appear throughout history - but so do anti-authoritarian beliefs and systems, and resistances. Why doesn't the ubiquity of the latter argue for a human tendency to the rejection of dominance? Perhaps we're letting the wrong people assess tendencies.)

Posted by RobWeaver at June 11, 2009 10:09 AM

It seems imperialism is hardwired into our social structure and by induction our own bodies (yea Duncan nerves are wires). Like Ming Hee said 5000 thousand years of imperialism, that's like half of the time since agriculture started.
But since man is the intellectual animal he cannot use this as an excuse.
What is done before the development of an enlightened conciousness or group consciousness is karma. And doubly after. The question is what you do when you "wake up."

Posted by tim at June 11, 2009 10:12 AM

Agitation Propaganda doesn't suffer from technical ineptitude any more than a person's dislike of King Crimson's album "Discipline" indicates that album suffers from musical ineptitude.

Bad thesis. Please try again.

Agitprop does what it intends. That you or anyone else may dislike it... your problem, not agitprop's.

Posted by Juan Seis-Olla at June 11, 2009 10:23 AM

I’d like to applaud the general gist of this thread: none of us are fundamentally better than our fellows.

The biological details of neural “hardwiring” are, in many ways, irrelevant, although fascinating. Contradictions in human behavior vs. beliefs are common in cultural/religious narratives – original sin as opposed to do unto others … from the Christian oeuvre, for example. We, as a species have recognized these contradictions for a long time. These contradictions almost certainly have biological foundations – “Hardwired and functional in only a small minority, but perhaps latent and capable of activation in a larger group” as per Oarwell.

I argue that none of us are free (special, better than others) from the tendency to impose rather than persuade – to paraphrase Duncan. One may have a higher anti-imperialist metabolism but can still get fat, so to speak. One key element in controlling one’s “weight” is the painful recognition that we are at our core no better than anyone else. This helps us to fight against the depersonalization of others and keeps “imposition” in the right perspective.

I suppose a cheerier spin is that we’re ALL special but you get my point.

Next discussion: when is the line between self defense and imperialism crossed?

Posted by conrad at June 11, 2009 10:43 AM

"Because we can all agree that this King of the Mountain shit has got to go; a lucky few get to spend a bit of time on top, but everybody spends most of their existence getting pissed on from a great height."

Isn't that also a description of capitalism? And wouldn't a shift away from capitalism lead a great power away from imperialism?

For the purpose of discussing earlier empires just substitute feudalism and extend the time you get to spend on top of the mountain commensurately.

Posted by Mark Gisleson at June 11, 2009 10:47 AM

Mike seems to be angling toward a theme my friend Andy L once offered to me:

Everyone wants the rest of us to think and act just like him/herself.

It's just another way of saying "Hell is other people."

But Mike has distorted the theme well beyond utility. Arguing that we're all Hitlers, eh? Trying to persuade others with rhetoric, that's the same as murdering innocent Iraqis?

No, not even close.

The only "discussion" stimulated by a flawed thesis is a discussion of distraction. This is like arguing when it's okay to torture. It's NEVER okay to torture. Pretending to plumb the intellectual depths of an abomination is sophistry of the worst, most corrupt sort.

Posted by Juan Seis-Olla at June 11, 2009 10:48 AM

quick aside:
What is Art? Is it not art if it has an agenda? Is it not art if it appears to show no craft?

No arguing, just curious...

Posted by StupidBaby at June 11, 2009 12:57 PM

Warbloggers, blog you got a pair!

since stupidbabies need the most attention, art is imperialism. didn't you read the blog?

Posted by anonymous at June 11, 2009 01:07 PM

Before you leap on my ass—and I fully expect everyone to do so—

Look, Gerber, I don't know what kind of kinky shit you got goin' on over at your blog, but this is a respectable place and we mean to keep it that way.

Posted by SteveB at June 11, 2009 01:30 PM

What Jonathan said, and for the most part RobWeaver as well.

There's no need for imperialist tendencies to be hard-wired into humans generally in order for imperialism to be hard-wired into certain kinds of human social structure. The distinction between emergent and inherent characteristics is useful in a lot of other realms, and I think that it's useful in this one as well. (I happen to think that whether it's hard-wired in individuals is debatable, but also that you need a testable definition of "imperialist tendency" before you even start trying to answer the question. In any case there's always at least a few sociopaths in any crowd.)

Since that's a bit question-beggy, lemme explain. I tend to think of imperialism is a common and perhaps unavoidable side effect of collective economic and/or military success more than anything else. It's not really that individual humans tend to be "imperialist" by nature. It's more that collective economic success limits the incentive (and ability) of the almost-leaders of the polity to replace its current leaders, while simultaneously making it possible for current leaders to make more resources available to potential rivals without reducing the resources available to allies.

That undercuts the dynamic that ordinarily mitigates the "power makes you stupid" problem and places some (admittedly imperfect and unreliable) limits on the stupidity of high-status individuals. And that is a problem inherent to humans and to the status relationships that we construct. When the lower status == less comfort == fewer children equation breaks down for political rivals, the "power makes you stupid" problem gets out of hand, at the same time that high status, powerful individuals find themselves stuck with an obligation to "bribe" an ever-growing population of potential rivals created by economic success. They pretty much have to do this by expanding the empire, but they wind up doing stupid shit sooner or later. If they weren't stupid to begin with they'll be made stupid by power.

This is why I try to avoid managerial responsibilities. I'm stupid enough to begin with and there's no need to make things any worse.

Posted by radish at June 11, 2009 01:47 PM

screw you dennis perrin! i'm taking your shit.

Perfect.

Posted by John Caruso at June 11, 2009 02:59 PM

On planet Tranai (from Robert Sheckley's story) anybody can immediately become Supreme President with unlimited power. But no one wants to, because at any moment (no waiting for an election) any dissatisfied citizen can walk into the special room, press the big red button - and the mandatory necklace permanently locked around Supreme President's neck goes BOOM.

Somebody--Voltaire?--said the best form of government was democracy tempered with assassination...

As to the 'hard-wire' for Empire, I dunno. I think it's not biological, but cultural: that when any aggregation of humans gets big enough, and domesticates itself and the surroundings, then the inspiration for 'empire' emplanted. Domestication increases the food supply, normalizes consumption, and more offspring ensue, Malthus-like, to consume the excess. This in turn places stress on the existing domestic arrangements ("civilization," we call it), and the idea of 'lebensraum'--anyway, its paleolithic root--starts cropping up. The increased breeding produces excess males, and wars of expansion/empire are a sure and certain way to reduce their numbers.

humans in pre-'civilizations' have a pretty much constant, low-level, animosity with their neighbors, but--absent some change in local parity--mostly refrain from trying to exterminate one another...

Posted by Woody at June 11, 2009 03:04 PM

"Isn't that also a description of capitalism? And wouldn't a shift away from capitalism lead a great power away from imperialism?"

Couldn't it be said that there's a fairly direct, functional analogy: Capitalism is to economics what imperialism is to politics...

Posted by Woody at June 11, 2009 03:09 PM

I don't understand what motivates the idea that "no one is better than anyone else" or similar things. There are people who would not use violence, or support its use even by proxy, even if it were necessary to save their own lives. You might disagree with or judge silly the thought "I would rather die than kill", but there are people who believe it, incorporate it into their lives, that is, they live it. So any theory that can account for the Hitlers, Stalins, and Cheneys must ALSO account for people who find e.g. pacifism intuitively appealing and the only way to live.

If some people are radically different from other people at any one point in time, then it is possible (at least in principle) that most people can be radically different from most other people at a different time. So there is (in principle) hope.

Here, I'm NOT talking about people who want to steal, rape, kill, etc. but don't because of some moral or legal code they rely on; I'm talking about the people for whom such codes are unnecessary. For these people the prospect of violence triggers a negative gut-reaction, something like disgust. Remember, many people intuitively agree with Socrates and disagree with both Glaucon and Thrasymachus in Plato's Republic. The task then is: why do some people consider others' well-being, freedom, etc. to be part and parcel with their own? What is the difference (in genetics, upbringing, culture, circumstances) between these two types?

Some people are high RWAs and others are not. The science doesn't end with the statement "it's natural" but rather in figuring out what that means: is it genes, upbringing, societal institution, economic circumstance, etc. The arm-chair only gets us so far. Might family type (pre-modern vs. modern, or Red and Blue) have something to do with this?

Posted by Currence at June 11, 2009 03:42 PM

I still think imperialism is a function of corporations (British East India, Halliburton, Conoco, whatever) looking for profit (as per Smedley Butler's 'War is a Racket.' They buy governments to do their bidding. People must die to allow corporate take-over of resources, or be enslaved to extract the labor. It takes a lack of human empathy to be able to turn a blind eye to the human suffering involved.

Since we can't stop wealthy transnationals from buying votes, lobbyists, and politicians, as well as media organs to propagandize for war, maybe the solution is to prevent those lacking normal human empathy from gaining power.

That's all I was saying.

You don't have to "kill Cheney in the crib." It's not eugenics. Just keep sociopaths from running for high office.

The reason the snakes don't want those other Abu Ghraib photos published is because they know perfectly well that most people aren't snakes, and will be outraged at what was done (and, under Obama, is still being done, just more carefully hidden).


Posted by Oarwell at June 11, 2009 04:12 PM

you *don't* kill cheney in the crib? what's the fun in that?

ok, so don't let the sociopaths run for "high" office.(alderman is too much power even for cheney). better go ahead and disenfranchise them at birth, too. no lobbying either, so no "Empower Sociopaths" PACS. no lawyering either, same reason. no marriage licenses, cuz sociopaths are breeders. and no driver's licenses (see Orrin Hatch). etc.

typical liberal. set up this whole bureaucracy and all the paperwork and rules and hassles and invasions for what is really a simple problem.

Posted by anonymous at June 11, 2009 05:16 PM
RobWeaver: Yes, when an idea exists in the world it tends to exist forever. But this doesn't mean human minds tend to it any more than to its opposite. Examples of authoritarian beliefs and systems appear throughout history - but so do anti-authoritarian beliefs and systems, and resistances.

I don't think La Resistance is the opposite of authoritarianism, any more than Satanism is the opposite of Christianity. I'm not sure what would be the opposite of authoritarianism, but I don't think it would be defined solely or even primarily by what it's not.

Posted by grendelkhan at June 11, 2009 07:19 PM

"Imperialism" is the wrong category..."Imperialism" is just crime writ large..but too many of our liberal friends are unable to label what governments do as crimes.

Posted by Solar Hero at June 11, 2009 08:01 PM

Well, sure, I ordered a few hundred people murdered, but it's not my fault. I'm hardwired to do it. Just as Mike.

Posted by Sam Giancana at June 11, 2009 08:30 PM

Oarwell, that was a very pretty picture, but it doesn't give any indication of what those "wires" do, let alone that they caused the US invasion of Iraq. Show me a picture of telephone wires, which can be used to give orders to bomb Cambodia, or to sing a song, or to call Pelosi and the White House and tell them what's what, and my response will be the same.

In your second response, you missed a couple of key words in your quotation. I'll emphasize them for you: "... which led to various speculations about our world views analogous to our “filling in the blank” in our visual field where the macula precludes any sensory input. He posits that there is a (mainly) left hemispheric function that discards inputs that don’t match the big picture and a (mainly) right hemispheric function that challenges the big picture once there’s enough conflicting evidence."

"Speculations" and "posits." In other words, he has no evidence for these mechanisms, no hypotheses. So yes, this is handwaving, especially when logically and scientifically illiterate advocates wave it in my face to show that we are "hardwired." "Posits", especially, reminds me of Bertrand Russell's quip about postulation, that it has all the advantages of theft over honest toil.

You also wrote, "Chomsky described 'an innate set of linguistic principles shared by all humans' known as universal grammar. Sounds like hard-wiring to me." If you want to use that metaphor, fine, but that innate set of linguistic principles shared by all humans can be used to lie or tell the truth, persuade or yell abuse, write poetry or write US propaganda for the New York Times. There is not, as far as I know, any evidence that we are hardwired to write propaganda for the New York Times.

It's interesting how quickly some people jump, without real support, to embrace a kind of biological determinism that has no scientific backing, and still consider themselves more intelligent and more enlightened than the credulous masses. Of course, maybe that is an example of the "fill in the blanks" mental mechanism posited in these speculations.

Lately I've been imagining a scenario from the Stone Age: the first humans to leave Africa for colder regions in Europe are challenged by a Stone Age evolutionary psychologist. "You can't go there! We evolved in a warmer climate! We are hardwired to live on the savannah! You're interfering with evolution! You'll just have to wait until we better understand the biological mechanisms behind body hair and temperature regulation, and someday we will be able to intervene to make human beings who can live in the frigid north. But until then we'll just stay here and do research, okay?"

This thought experiment shows that in the most basic senses, biology isn't destiny. There's no doubt that we didn't evolve to live in cold climates, yet here we are, flouting the will of Nature.

Posted by Duncan at June 11, 2009 08:50 PM

Why are we talking about sociopaths? We've all read Hannah Arendt, right? Mike's right in that these people are NOT different than us - they have the same faculties, they just made different choices. Bad choices.

I don't believe in hard-wiring, as it seems few people here do, but more importantly I don't believe that human meta-systems can be described by any kind of general rules. We are rule-breakers; that is our primary skill. We change the way things work. Much as I love Ecclesiastes, there ARE new things under the sun. We invent new ways of interacting and coexisting all the time, and I don't doubt that we can (and will) come up with ways to exist that don't involve imperialism.

Posted by saurabh at June 11, 2009 09:32 PM

Mike, there aren't many passive leaders in the history of world governments, but oftentimes we as a society either forget or neglect the many empires of Africa, predating European expansionism.

You may want to read about the Kingdom of Nri, which lasted nearly 900 years and had no military - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingdom_of_Nri

"Colonization and expansion of the kingdom of Nri was achieved by sending mbùríchi or converts to other settlements. Allegiance to the eze Nri was obtained not by military force but through ritual oath."

Not really a sufficient answer to your question, but interesting nevertheless.

Posted by ChrisV82 at June 11, 2009 10:00 PM

Duncan,

Thank you for your thoughtful response. Since you remain a skeptic about the "scientific backing," you might be interested in further reading on functional MRI and psychopathy. I'll stack hard science against your thought experiment any day.

Nature 410, 296-298 (15 March 2001)
Into the mind of a killer

A free link can be found here:

http://www.uiowa.edu/~c036090/abbott.pdf

Also,

Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 2005, vol. 39: "Neuroimaging in Psychopathy."

http://www.fil.ion.ucl.ac.uk/SocialClub/pridmore-neuroimagingpsychopathy.pdf

Also, Psychopathy and Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Blood Oxygenation Level-Dependent Responses to Emotional Faces in Violent Patients with Schizophrenia 'Biological Psychiatry,' Dec 2008

It's a field in its infancy, certainly. We can see the wires with greater precision, but we're just learning to assign names to the circuits, and understand their integration with neurochemistry. A vast new neuroscience literature is being written with the emergence of these non-invasive probes into cortical activation. You've probably read in the popular press about fMRI being used as a "lie detector," as well as being investigated (egads!) by marketers. I have little doubt that the black budget folk are quite interested in these technologies, and funding-hungry neuroscientists will be happy to oblige.

The military spends tremendous time and effort to condition recruits to overcome their inbuilt resistance to killing other human beings. Studies showed that most troops in WW2, even when fired at, did not return fire. Even today, with more refined training techniques (even video games), some soldiers just won't pull the trigger. Wired differently? Who knows. What is known is that psychopaths are different from the rest of us, and lack basic empathic responses. They are able to inflict pain without remorse. And yes, Hannah Arendt wrote of the "banality of evil," but in that regard she was talking about Eichmann and the other leaders. In 'Origins of Totalitarianism' she does talk about 'brutes in human form' who did the actual killing.

Not here to "win" arguments, just to offer information and ideas. I'm not sure what your point about "consider themselves more intelligent and enlightened than the credulous masses" has to do with anything. As for "flouting the will of nature," speak for yourself: I live in Florida.

Posted by Oarwell at June 11, 2009 10:19 PM

Skip to this comment:

All above comments did not get the joke

You're welcome

Posted by Salty at June 12, 2009 12:29 AM
saurabh: Why are we talking about sociopaths? We've all read Hannah Arendt, right? Mike's right in that these people are NOT different than us - they have the same faculties, they just made different choices. Bad choices.

Or, as Primo Levi put it:

More often and more insistently as that time recedes, we are asked by the young who our "torturers" were, of what cloth they were made. The term torturers alludes to our ex-guardians, the SS, and is in my opinion inappropriate: it brings to mind twisted individuals, ill-born, sadists, afflicted by an original flaw. Instead, they were made of the same cloth as we, they were average human beings, averagely intelligent, averagely wicked: save the exceptions, they were not monsters, they had our faces, but they had been reared badly.

So long as we think of evil as something outside of us, we're certain to repeat the same failures over and over again.

Posted by grendelkhan at June 12, 2009 12:39 AM

After reading this, I have decided that the best course of action is to lay down and die.

If I'm lucky, I can convince my wife to do this with me, so I don't have to go alone and can enjoy one last moment of imperialism.

Posted by Dayv at June 12, 2009 02:54 AM

Damn you Oarwell!

This has been the coldest summer in memory, even by New York standards. I could use a trip to Daytona, but why visit when one can afford living there.

Oh well..

Anyone heard of the Milgram experiment? How about the Stanford Prison Simulation? The latter was especially heinous, a bunch of kids turned into such sadists that Dr. Lambardo canceled the experiment early.

Bizzarely, the hoodings, humiliation and other treatment endured by the test subjects fit the glove so well in Abu Gharib that the professor was called to testify to the committee investigation.

The desire to be alpha male is programmed into the best of us. I think if our lizard brain survived this far, the message that should be brought to the world is not necessarily that we must embrace our common good, but that we must realize our inherent evil.

At least that'll be a start.

Posted by Dayv at June 12, 2009 02:54 AM

Come on! Seriously?

Posted by Nikolay Levin at June 12, 2009 03:45 AM

Evolution is a helluva drug. We're all under the influence and free will is the punchline. Bill Hicks suggested to enjoy the ride. Like to try that before I die.

Posted by BenP at June 12, 2009 04:07 AM

"It's not really fair (or useful) to disapprove of imperialist behavior unless it’s a choice, and the dearth of counterexamples suggests that it may not be. The desire to expand one’s influence, for reasons of security, self-aggrandizement, or neurosis, may be hardwired into homo sapiens..."

First, expand one's influence isn't imperialism, for imperialism is the expanding of one's influence by all means, it's the obsessional need to dominate. Trying to convince your neighbour to vote for your favorite candidate isn't like the DoW (called DoD) program Global Spectrum Dominance. I don't think Global Spectrum Dominance is hard-wired in a sound human being.

Second, what makes us, human beings, different from other species is the capacity to analyse and judge, from an ethical point of view, what's hard-wired into us. A human being quite always has the choice to follow it's bestial nature, or, thanks to the strenght of it's spirit, to overcome it and to show empathy and retenue.
Following one's bestial instincts with the excuse that "it's the nature" shows soul weakness, one's loss of self-control and one's inhumanity.
Modern imperialism isn't a fatality, it's an evil "tournure d'esprit", a heinous hidjacking of the human soul, and a moral abhoration.
It works by equating "hard-wired" with "adequate" and "good", alike in supremacist propaganda, with the motto "what's good for us (white race, or americans) is also adequate and moral. Modern imperialists denie human beings their souls, while pretending being the light of humanity. Orwell, in 1984, has accurately desrcibed the mechanics of modern imperialism.

Posted by christian at June 12, 2009 08:16 AM

Thanks Mike! I always knew I was hardwired to have thousands of civilians executed. That's just the excuse I needed!

Posted by Generalisimo Francisco Franco at June 12, 2009 08:42 AM

Alan Smithee:

No, seriously, you're not really trying out the pedophile defense (ie: He can't help it! He's hardwired!) on international relations, are you? You don't really want examples of men who don't rape toddlers. This is just a joke, right?

Sam Giancana:

Well, sure, I ordered a few hundred people murdered, but it's not my fault. I'm hardwired to do it. Just as Mike.

Generalisimo Francisco Franco:

Thanks Mike! I always knew I was hardwired to have thousands of civilians executed. That's just the excuse I needed!

The Church of the SubGenius counsels us: don't try to be funny if you're not.

Posted by Jonathan Schwarz at June 12, 2009 08:55 AM

Great comments, even if we "didn't get the joke." Maybe life's the joke. But free will allows us to laugh, or not. Heisenberg, in 'Quantum Physics & Philosophy,' noted that Planck's constant is the "stand-up comedian of subatomic nightclubs."

As if.

Posted by Oarwell at June 12, 2009 08:55 AM

I don't know, Jonathan, I thought they were funny. Even though I think we've all got some Dick Cheney inside us.

I stayed out of this thread until now, though, because I think Mike is partly right and partly wrong, but I'm not sure exactly where the wrongness part starts. But it seems to me he definitely goes too far in a way that deserves one or two Francisco Franco jokes.

Posted by Donald Johnson at June 12, 2009 10:16 AM

"Colonization and expansion of the kingdom of Nri was achieved by sending mbùríchi or converts to other settlements. Allegiance to the eze Nri was obtained not by military force but through ritual oath."

I recall reading that the Iroquois alliance worked roughly the same way. (It was small scale, obviously, and not exactly non-violent, but still...)

Haven't there been a few state or ethnic entities that gained influence through trade? I don't think you hear the phrase "Phonecian Empire" mentioned too much, just for example.

And in successful states, imperial sentiment seems to wax and wane by generations. (Even if it takes considerably longer than a generation to level out the benefits or detriments of invasion.)

All interesting asides, but I'm still going with the "it's what we do" argument. Exerting our social will and maximizing the gain for us and our group is part of the behavior of the sort of animal we are. Although "what we do" is pretty clearly a function of population density and standard of living.

And "how we do it" matters immensely.

Enjoyed the post.

Posted by Keifus at June 12, 2009 10:26 AM

This is an interesting thread if the notion is to try to mull over the frayed ends of a hair that has been split, and split again, and yet again ad infinitum.

Anyone who wants to know what creates the malevolent personality... the person who seems to make "bad choices"... the "psychopath" and/or the "sociopath"... all that curious person needs to do is read Alice Miller.

Corrosive, malignant people are CREATED by their childhood situations. Distant parents. Cold parents. Mean parents. Abusive parents. Parents who zealously use forceful physical contact as "discipline" or punishment. Parents who use emotional manipulation. Parents who use emotional cruelty for "discipline" or punishment.

Don't believe me?

Go ahead, then. Investigate the backgrounds of most serial killers.

Uh huh.

Posted by Juan Seis-Olla at June 12, 2009 10:47 AM

Juan--

Better we split hairs than skulls! (ok, stupid joke)

Yes, Alice Miller is excellent. Her writings should be more widely known.

And then there's this quote of Walter Raleigh's:

"All histories do show, and wise politicians do hold it necessary that, for the well-governing of every Commonweal, it behoveth man to presuppose that all men are evil, and will declare themselves so to be when occasion is offered."

Posted by Oarwell at June 12, 2009 11:05 AM

So long as we think of evil as something outside of us, we're certain to repeat the same failures over and over again. I'm not sure we'll repeat the same failures again and again, but we will fail if we view our neighborhood, town, . . . solar system,. . . as something alien to us. Did you ever hear someone refer to a chronic illness (diabetes, or cancer, e.g.) as "my disease" as though it is something outside the person? Imperialism (or being a smarty pants and expecting everyone to do what you say by asking to get your ass jumped) is the same thing. It is not something that is apart from me. Imperialism is a part of the world I inhabit. I react to it and it reacts (in a teeeeny tiny revolutionary kind of way) to me. To behave as though It is alien to me is to grant it total authority. This I will not do.

I'm with Donald Johnson. I'm not usually a fence sitter, but modes of domination are everywhere and I am ill equipped to chose the beneficial from the deleterious. The killing people comments were not funny, but they were apropos of the post, I thought. It has been stimulating to read Mikes post, read some comments, try to gauge my response and read some more. Happy birthday.

Posted by drip at June 12, 2009 12:20 PM

The brain is inconceivably malleable. It has some 'wires' at birth (as per linguist-Chomsky); but most are formed during life and from circumstances -- including the ones that tell us how to behave in a society -- as Juan has indicated.

Posted by Cloud at June 12, 2009 01:27 PM

You call it nature, and I call it nurture.

You call it reasoned dialog, and I call it mental masturbation.

Nature. Nurture.

Dialog. Masterbation.

Let's go and start a BLAWG!

Posted by AlanSmithee at June 12, 2009 06:41 PM

AlanSmithee, I agree.

A blog with dialog is a good thing to have.

Masturbation ain't half bad either.

Posted by Cloud at June 12, 2009 10:12 PM

Ya know, Cloud, it's only funny until someone starts a pogrom.

Posted by AlanSmithee at June 12, 2009 10:21 PM

following up on Donald Johnson's comment that Mr GerBer is partly right and partly wrong, I'm inclined to agree, insofar as most people, probably all people, have innate capacities towards both altruistic and horrible behavior.

(think of the cliched little devilish Schwarz and the little angelic Schwarz, sitting on our host's shoulders. Admittedly I don't know for a fact they're both there, but I suspect this is the case.)

Earlier I said all people are "hard-wired" with a capacity for evil, only I didn't use quotation marks, and I probably should rejected the term hard-wired from the get-go, instead opting for our latent capacities towards path x and path y.

Of course this bounces it back onto society to create frameworks that encourage goondness and discourage badness, er bad behavior, but the little devilish grimmy, appealing to both my sloth and my vanity, is telling me it's time for my beauty rest and to let others pick this up if they see it as a fruitful path. g'night.

Posted by grimmy at June 13, 2009 06:28 AM