The self-destructive society

Societies tend to have a life cycle that moves from impoverished struggle with a clear purpose to wealth without a clear purpose, followed by a long slow destruction.

What makes societies self-destructive? It’s as if they get through the hard times to the good times, and then bloat up and become self-pitying, and thus splash money around but stop achieving, and then decay like an abandoned building rotting from within.

Blaming wealth alone is tempting. We have all probably been lucky enough to experience the sense of relief and disinterest that occurs when there’s enough money in the bank and food in the fridge. There’s just less of an impetus than when we’re starving and broke.

The researchers argue that because wealth allows people to experience the best that life has to offer, it ultimately undermines their ability to savor life’s little pleasures. Once we’ve had the opportunity to drink the finest French wines, fly in a private jet, eat foie gras with edible gold leaf, and watch the Super Bowl from a box seat, coffee at Starbucks with a friend, a sunny day after a week of rain, or an unexpected Reese’s peanut butter cup on our desks just doesn’t provide the same jolt of happiness it used to. Indeed, a landmark study of lottery winners showed just that: People who had won between $50,000 and $1,000,000 (in 1970s dollars) were less impressed by life’s simple pleasures than people who experienced no such windfall. – Scientific American

However wealth alone makes a bad candidate because the decay includes decisions that have nothing to do with happiness, like functional design choices about how we repair and update our civilization and its infrastructure. Perhaps people are so depressed that they lose cognitive ability, but more likely there’s another reason for their lack of focus.

A more likely scapegoat is the loss of goal itself. Like a family starting out, a new civilization is hungry and desperate. As a result, it tends to be efficient, and closely bind its members not to each other but to a goal they share, which has the added side benefit of binding them to each other.

People work together toward a goal and when they look back over their lives, they can say that the choice itself defined them. They made their stand, and it made all the difference.

Without this, society becomes a process of servitude (for money) and control (when you have money). This is why people can go from their jobs where they got abused all day to a store, and abuse the people there.

Another theory suggests that this common goal may get us past a conflict as old as humanity, which is tension between the individual and the group:

Probably at this point, during the habiline period, a conflict ensued between individual-level selection, with individuals competing with other individuals in the same group, versus group-level selection, with competition among groups. The latter force promoted altruism and cooperation among all the group members. It led to group-wide morality and a sense of conscience and honor. The competitor between the two forces can be succinctly expressed as follows: within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. Or, risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue. – New York Times

A normal civilization is a tug-of-war between individual rights and the needs of the whole; in bad times, “needs of the whole” gets confused with needs of the mass, or of all individuals, instead of the concept of a body made of different elements as “whole” implies.

Without some transcendent goal like this, all that is left are material goals. Politics then becomes a science of pleasing the most people with rewards for them, at the expense of the whole. People pull apart from each other because there is no shared direction. Society becomes wracked by distrust and paranoia.

For a civilization to be healthy, it needs a goal that is more important than material things or making other people happy (social esteem). It requires that everyone set their individualism on hold, but instead of having the group rule them with its needs, they think of society as a whole tied together by its need to achieve this goal.

We call this kind of thinking “transcendent” because it allows us to transcend the daily concerns and focus on ideals, values and identity. With it, we can work together without feeling taken advantage of. Without it, we don’t work together except when forced or bribed.

Wealth seems to be what destroys civilizations, but it may be the lack of a non-material goal itself. Wealth is just one of the many consequences, none of which can serve as a successful surrogate for having a reason to cooperate.

A society with a reason to cooperate is a less miserable place. People have higher things to think about than what irritates, annoys and upsets them. They have a reason to think their sacrifice of time and effort was worthwhile. They have an identity, a shared faith in what they and their fellow citizens are doing.

Most importantly, this removes the non-functional drama of endless scrabbling for political and economic control, and allows people to focus instead on finding a role of beauty and grace in their own lives.

When we think about, finding that role is more important than wealth or even happiness itself. But oddly, being able to give yourself over to beauty can lead to a greater happiness than wealth, power, control and all the other fake forms of enjoyment that we can peddle.

12 Comments

  1. Jul210s says:

    Darker color of type would help us elderly read your work more pleasantly. I can hardly even with squint read this gray stuff.

    1. gg says:

      copy the article and paste it into a notepad. then transform the article with the font of your dreams.

  2. Jim says:

    People can’t find happiness or be content because many have never struggled to cherish what they do have. My parents came from deep poverty and childhoods of war and losing parents. Yet they were able to come here and make it and were satisfied even though they didn’t have the best of the best. But what they did have was enough.

    My mother used to tell me people don’t know what they want in today’s society. And it’s true because nothing it seems makes them happy.

    1. gg says:

      it is a slippery slope. suffering also makes people bitter and hold grudges and it can embolden things like pettiness. These things can be passed down and even made worse in future generations. Without knowing your parents I would say that what makes them the way that they are despite a hard life might have more to do with their innate qualities and their naturalness. This naturalness is easy too lose… that is why it is rare.

      1. BillHopkins says:

        To argue a priori that some individuals’ behaviours must reflect their innate qualities is questionable. What ever the balance between genes and environment, remember this:

        Modern humans differ in no way from humans in the Pleistocene. Computers, atomic physics, classical music, quantum physics and death metal, and all other great achievements of this species result from a certain kind of environment acting on genes. This is not the argument that innate qualities do not mean anything, rather that whether a plant droops or strives for the sky is a reflection of how much water it is getting.

        1. gg says:

          I emphasized “can”.

          People differ in many ways. If observing environmental conditions is easy to correlate cause and effect over the course of a persons life or over the course of a few generations. Easy when one assumes that we all have the same starting point in life at birth or something close too it. Some people start with less than what would be called normal attributes or abilities. Others start with more. It is easier for what is much more to become less and for what is there to become obscured than it is for what is hardly there to become more or for what is hidden or dormant to become revealed or awakened. Nature of the beast.

          Of course there are an infinite number of ways for those of the lowest quality to better themselves beyond what is commonly beleived possible but It is just very very difficult.

  3. EvilBuzzard says:

    Moderns have concept of decreasing marginal utility. They expect to get off just as hard the 15th time they do meth as they do the 1st. Reality doesn’t work that way, so they either overcompensate or stay in a perpetual state of bummer dude.

    1. EvilBuzzard says:

      Moderns *don’t* have *the* concept of decreasing marginal utility.

  4. ferret says:

    “A more likely scapegoat is the loss of goal itself.”

    The loss means there was a goal. What was the goal?

    “People work together toward a goal”

    A goal, whatever goal, doesn’t matter what goal exactly?

    “For a civilization to be healthy, it needs a goal that is more important than material things or making other people happy (social esteem). It requires that everyone set their individualism on hold…”

    The same “a goal”. If it is “a” goal, how can you know it “is more important than…”?
    Also, how can “everyone set their individualism on hold”, if we have the majority represented by sheep, proles, etc., that are so stupid that cannot be nurtured and educated? They pursue only their self-interest destroying the society like termites. Or this huge group doesn’t belong to “everyone”?

    “Wealth seems to be what destroys civilizations, but it may be the lack of a non-material goal itself.”

    Non-material goal implies independence from and inability to infuence the material world. In practice, that means, one should retire to a quiet place, set some goals for himself, and meditate, meditate. What benefites would be for “the whole” in this case?

    “A society with a reason to cooperate is a less miserable place.”

    To cooperate for what? Would be military action a good reason?

    “Most importantly, this removes the non-functional drama of endless scrabbling for political and economic control, and allows people to focus instead on finding a role of beauty and grace in their own lives.”

    That would be nice. As Dostoevsky said, “Beauty will save the world.”

    Don’t you think, the target should be defined so that all groups of the society would benefit from the process of achieving it; and this target should comprise “material” and spiritual values?

    And maybe to articulate the idea basing it on a more material, such as the Quality of Life concept. I believe, if understood, it would be supported by the all, including the extremelly rich and powerful.

    The point is, that the profit as a target function allows to reach only one of the local maximums of the Quality of Life function, while the Quality of Life Index taken as a target is leading to the global maximum. This would be a realistic way to rid of “the non-functional drama of endless scrabbling for political and economic control”.

    Here we have an optimized “whole” without wasting a lot of work aimed on redistribution of wealth, killing the competitors, producing consumerist grade crap, and so on.

  5. BillHopkins says:

    An interesting article, but it raises an immediate question. The assumptions are:

    1. A society, to be healthy, needs trascendant goals
    2. Modern society has none
    3. Modern social is not healthy

    But I would like to discussion (2).

    It seems *your* idea of a transcendent goal is limited to a subclass of all transcendent goals. There are plenty of people working for goals beyond the material world, but these would not appeal to conservatives. I.e. equality. I know plenty of people who devote their lives to refugees, environmentalism, vegan lifestyles (you get the picture). A ‘transcendent’ goal pervades their actions. This goal is equality.

    So i think you need to be more specific about what kind of goals you are talking about.

    1. ferret says:

      There are many kinds of equality: equality before the law, social equality, gender equality, racial equality (see wiki). What equality you are talking about?

      Why this goal – equality – is beyond the material world?

  6. A relevant book on this topic is “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty “by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.

    Their focus is on political institutions.

    Their core argument they advance is that the strongest indicator of a successful economy is the presence of what they call “inclusive”, rather than “extractive”, political institutions. Extractive regimes “are structured to extract resources from the many by the few”, to preserve their privileges and their hold on power. Such regimes do not protect property rights (except those of the state) and provide few incentives for innovative economic activity; indeed, they are likely to resist any innovation that threatens the status quo. By contrast, say the authors, “Inclusive economic institutions that enforce property rights, create a level playing field, and encourage investments in new technologies and skills, are more conducive to economic growth.”

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