from The Psychology of Liberty
by Wes Bertrand © 2000, copylefted 2007


The Historical Societal Problem

Different political systems have been espoused and enacted far into human history. Most constructed societies that benefited a few at the expense of many, but some tried to be beneficial and generous to everyone. A study of history books reveals that the former was often sought under the guise of the latter. Many political systems were proposed and propagated with ulterior motives, by members of the populace as well as the typical component of these systems: the State. By inspecting the origins of formalized political systems, we can begin to understand the intentions of them in psychological terms (hence the inexorable effects of psychology on politics). To do this, however, we must first turn to explanations of how civilizations arose and developed.

Material progress of the human race through innovation is scattered throughout history, over the course of thousands of years. Often an innovation made in one place did not take hold elsewhere for hundreds or even thousands of years (if it took hold at all). So, for the individual, very little change was observed, unless one happened to live during a time and in a place of a remarkable invention—for instance, the creation of the wheel in the Middle East some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. Compared to what we in developed countries witness today, it was certainly progress at a snail’s pace. Of course, philosophical and psychological innovation was another matter; it had an even slower pace.

Toward the end of the Neolithic period (the late Stone Age), about 10,000 years ago, human beings used more refined stone tools and pottery. Most importantly, they also began to use animals to do work and provide sustenance. In certain geographical regions, people made a key transition from a hunting and gathering way of life to a food-producing way of life. The breeding of livestock and the growing of varieties of plants yielded many advantages over the former way of life. In addition to the obvious utilitarian benefits, the extended seasonal nature of ranching and agriculture broadened people’s outlook. They gradually developed greater understanding of the importance of time because their scope of mental focus now involved long range planning.18

Initially, nomads and farmers in small camps undertook these activities. They harvested wild grains and utilized domesticated animals such as dogs and sheep. The actual sowing of seeds along with the use of other animals, such as goats and pigs, gradually followed. The use of irrigation and more permanent dwellings arose also. Finally, the first civilization was formed (by some accounts) approximately 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.51

Such marked progressions allowed for the unparalleled production and storage of mass surpluses of goods. This ensured survival and well-being much farther into the future. The formation of communities that stored and exchanged vital supplies created large marketplaces for goods and services.

In addition, communication (and innovation) accelerated especially with written language. Prior to the creation of an alphabet, the oldest known writing occurred about 5,500 years ago. It consisted of pictures and impressions that could stand for whole trains of thought and that could represent all sorts of concepts. This was eventually supplanted by cuneiform script, which was somewhat more precise but still lacked the communication capability of a language with a written alphabet.

An alphabet was first created roughly 3,500 years ago by people in the Middle East (present-day Syria and Palestine) with outside influences by peoples of Egypt, Babylon, and others. The novel idea was to have one sound for each sign, facilitating efficient use of phonemes.27 (As we can see with the English alphabet, the possible combinations of vowels and consonants yield thousands of words. Nevertheless, humans had to wait until roughly 500 years ago for mass transfer of knowledge to take place, which was when the printing press was invented.85 Yet even then, the vast majority of humankind did not (and still do not) have access to the materials by which to learn to read and write.)

While the advantages of the new ways of life in civilization were many, some unfortunately led to potentially greater social problems—ones more destructive than those previous. Surpluses of goods and increasing populations invited a new form of barbarity. With the end of the Stone Age, the Bronze and Iron ages arose, yielding more effective implements for agricultural, domestic and commercial use—and also for war. What followed for millennia up to present day was a variety of dynasties, dominions, reigns, and conquests too numerous to mention.

Formerly with bands, tribes, and to a lesser extent chiefdoms (which were more structured and hierarchical in social order), much of the fighting had been smaller feuds. Though hostility and revengeful tactics and raids of reprisal were widespread, large-scale wars could not be sustained in primitive economies. Further, the actual conquest of other domains was not usually practiced because societies were relatively unproductive (thus having little to offer the conquerors).95 However, larger resource-rich communities offered greater reasons for violence. As Historian J.H. Plumb put it:

Loot was no longer merely women and hunting-grounds, but citadels, treasure and, above all, the labour of peasants. Since the very dawn of civilization, war—with its concomitants—plague, famine, and devastation—has been woven closely into the fabric of human society. And this, too, has influenced the growth of societies in remarkable ways. Societies bent on war need not only specialized, or partly specialized, castes or classes to wage it, but also a heightened consciousness of their social group, a self-identification with a cause or a God, to strengthen resolve for the final personal sacrifice. Ideologies are contemporaneous with the sickle and the sword. Courage is easier with belief and so is labour. And so religion was needed not only to explain and sanctify by ritual the mysteries of fertility but also to provide both social discipline, social consciousness and social aggression. From this time war and belief were linked for humanity’s torment.18(p.24)

It is ironic that beneficial economic changes have generated such terrible societal outgrowths. Wars and their “concomitants” have basically destroyed the very structures and practices that give people life and well-being.

Yet to say that people are naturally driven by such things as greed, hatred, and power over others—a variation of Freud’s “aggressive instinct”—is to overlook the crucial factors. Having outlined the nature of Homo sapiens thus far alerts us to the contradictions in such cynical attributions. Ultimately, they assist in rationalizing past (and present) behavior. In many parts of the world today, conditions are not much different (as the news media often vividly reveals). Only the weapons and technologies changed much—which, coupled with population increases, enabled the slaughter of tens of millions during the last century alone.

The plain fact is that humans are animals quite capable of making life far more difficult than it ought to be. With the capacity to make life wonderfully positive comes the capacity to make life an incredibly torturous hell. Our species has frequently succeeded in cultivating the latter.

With the formation of civilization came the formation of the State, a ruling body of persons that presided over and controlled the affairs of the people. Since civilizations had more people and surpluses of goods, some individuals thought it convenient and in their interests to govern these new enterprises. This governing was often in exchange for services such as the construction and maintenance of “public works” and the formation of a military. The State protected the people from foreigners who possibly wanted to conquer civilizations for the wealth they provided.19

Branches of the obedient military could now be used to enforce the laws and edicts of the rulers to accomplish various ends. Rulers often kept the military loyal by providing them particular benefits and maintaining collectivistic ideologies. Political theorist Albert Jay Nock wrote of the obedient military attitude:

An army on the march has no philosophy; it views itself as a creature of the moment. It does not rationalize conduct except in terms of an immediate end. As Tennyson observed, there is a pretty strict official understanding against its doing so; ‘theirs not to reason why.’ Emotionalizing conduct is another matter, and the more of it the better; it is encouraged by a whole elaborate paraphernalia of showy etiquette, flags, music, uniforms, decorations, and careful cultivation of a very special sort of comradery. In every relation to ‘the reason of the thing,’ however—in the ability and eagerness, as Plato puts it, ‘to see things as they are’—the mentality of an army on the march is merely so much delayed adolescence; it remains persistently, incorrigibly and notoriously infantile.68(p.27)

The formation of the State required more than an unthinking military. The creation of conflicts, and at the same time unified beliefs and goals, were necessary to form governing bodies—for example, different classes, different castes, different enemies, promised safety and protection, sense of community, desire for someone to lead, and the like. High concentrations of people augmented threats of (or desires for) external conquest and, accordingly, the need for internal development and cohesiveness.

On account of States arising from many complex societal conditions, they have taken many forms. As scholar on the subject Lawrence Krader stated, “There have been and are city-states, empire-states, theocratic-states, tribal-consanguineal states, nation-states, centralized states, and decentralized states; autocratic, oligarchic, and democratic states; states stratified by class, caste, and social estate.”49(p.4)

Although primitive humans often squelched autonomy and discouraged new thinking, more “civilized” humans in positions of power used others as expendable parts for evil schemes. Slavery became a way to get various projects accomplished and needs met. Thus, the desires of some were fulfilled at the expense of the dignity of others. Others were treated as means to particular ends (i.e., as sacrificial animals).

Those not enslaved were still relegated to a subordinate role, now to the “interests of the community”—meaning interests of the State. Many lived as peasants under the influence of various empires, kingdoms, fiefdoms, and manorial systems. In exchange for “protection,” they paid their “dues” by providing goods and services.96

Obviously, many aspects of these new societies were no step forward in psychological and political progress. Even though such societies assisted in the promotion of more trade-based and industrial methods, which facilitated economic progress, often the scale of massacre and misery was a hundredfold. Political theorist Murray Rothbard commented on the “black and unprecedented record of the State through history:

no combination of private marauders can possibly begin to match the state’s unremitting record of theft, confiscation, oppression, and mass murder. No collection of Mafia or private bank robbers can begin to compare with all the Hiroshimas, Dresdens, and Lidices and their analogues through the history of mankind.62(p.55)

As mentioned, with the advent of civilization, new orthodox religions formed. They were often utilized by states, monarchs, and emperors to advance destruction. Now enemies were to be crushed, states were to be conquered, lands were to be seized, communities were to be obliterated, and individuals were to be snuffed-out, with the supposed moral backing of the “Will of God” (hence during Medieval Christendom, the notion of the “Holy Wars”).

One could paint romantic pictures about the cultural diversity and so-called interesting ways of life of various peoples throughout the history of civilization. But this would miss the essential characteristic of these societies: rule by the force of the State. As Bakunin wrote:

...all the history of ancient and modern States is nothing more than a series of revolting crimes; why present and past kings and ministers of all times and of all countries—statesmen, diplomats, bureaucrats, and warriors—if judged from the point of view of simple morality and human justice, deserve a thousand times the gallows or penal servitude.63(p.141)

The primary crime that constitutes the very nature of the State consists of using force to attain certain ends. The State’s constant plundering of other countries, communities, and civilizations went hand in hand and was funded by the plundering of its own people. The idea that people belonged to the State was more actual than figurative. While individuals were typically not allowed to use physical force against others in their communities, the State thought nothing of it. “Crime” was a term ascribed by the State only to actions of individual citizens who did such things as murder, rape, and steal. Bakunin pointed out this longstanding legal inconsistency:

What is permitted to the State is forbidden to the individual. Such is the maxim of all governments. Machiavelli said it, and history as well as the practice of all contemporary governments bear him out on that point. Crime is the necessary condition of the very existence of the State, and it therefore constitutes its exclusive monopoly, from which it follows that the individual who dares commit a crime is guilty in a two-fold sense: first, he is guilty against human conscience, and, above all, he is guilty against the State in arrogating to himself one of its most precious privileges.63(p.141)

We might recall an earlier section that discussed the use of force as being an inherently anti-social act. Whether it is used in a primitive tribe or in an advanced civilization, aggression is still inimical to human life and to social interactions. Even though the State disregards the truth of the matter, aggression is no less destructive when declared “legal.” Nock noted of the workings of the State as follows: “The State is not...a social institution administered in an anti-social way. It is an anti-social institution, administered in the only way an anti-social institution can be administered, and by the kind of person who, in the nature of things, is best adapted to such service.”68(p.183)

Yet for various psychological and physical reasons people tolerated such harmful forms of government. Many throughout history grew up not knowing (and not learning) any differently; they matured not knowing the value of their individual minds and persons. A few probably had some vision of how things could be, of what possibilities could be open to them—if only they could rid their lives of tyranny.

By inspecting the developmental side of social organization, we can see why society has been the way it has; we can see how the mentality that drives social dependence is formed. Indeed, the factors that contribute to the genesis and function of both the tribal mentality (collectivism) and of statism are still very active in civilization.

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