Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Culture, Markets, and Patterns in Psychology, Society, and History

I have written previously on Gravesean psychology, most recently here (at which there are links to more of my musings on the subject). To recap the theory: individuals' psychologies undergo increasing complexity -- when there are enough with that level of psychological complexity, a new kind of society emerges -- those new life conditions allow for the emergence of yet more complex psychologies -- etc. The theory further states that these psychosocial states go from collectivist to individualist to collectivist, etc. Collectivist tribalism to heroic individualism (think Homeric heroes and society) to collectivist authoritativism (think Medieval European society) to individualistic liberalism (pro-market, etc.) to collectivist egalitarianism (Marxism, etc.). There are more psychological levels beyond this, but these do represent the societies we now see. Further, there are mixtures. The transition from Medievalism to liberalism passed through the Renaissance, the guild system, and mercantilism. One could see fascism/crony capitalism/corporatism as the Hegelian synthesis of liberal and egalitarian economics (proving that the dialectical movement is not necessarily progressive), once egalitarianist economics proved untenable (at best).

I am now reading Arthur Pontynen and Rod Miller's Western Culture at the American Crossroads, in which they discuss Philip Rieff's idea from My Life Among the Deathworks

that there are three ontologically distinct modes of culture, each with its own methodology. What he calls FirstWorld cultures are pagan, in which human struggle to reconcile knowledge with fate and the gods. SecondWorld cultures seek via reason and faith to obtain wisdom, the realization of which results in a sacred order. ThirdWorld cultures center on power and self-interest. Rieff associates postmodern cultures with that view. (46)
Rieff thus seems to argue that there are three cultures, which I would argue map onto each of the collectivist social levels. But what, then, do we make of the individualistic social levels?

Let me restate the situation. The collectivist social levels are social orders approaching equilibrium/stasis (note I say "approaching," as true equilibrium is impossible). The individualist social levels are in fact far-from-equilibrium states that emerge in the transition from one equilibrium to another. As Stuart Kauffman points out in The Origins of Order, though, such states are in fact stable. One can see this if one understands life itself as being in such a state. Among the features of the far from equilibrium state is that it is both individuating and creative.

This then brings me to another book I am reading, Keith Roberts' The Origins of Business, Money, and Markets. Roberts' book is about the earliest evidence of economic activity -- which happens to have emerged during the heroic individualist era. More, his story ends right when the Medieval world emerged. Why? The final chapter's title says it all: "The Downfall of Ancient Business." I would argue that it is no coincidence that ancient business ended in a real sense when the Medieval world view became dominant. Stasis is anti-economic. More, the very feature of a market economy is that it is creative. That requires it emerge during creative periods, which I have already identified with far from equilibrium states. The dream of socialism is the dream of stasis, of equilibrium. Nothing new is created, only what has already been invented is produced.

Of course, the more complex a society, the more likely there are to be many people of different levels, and the more likely there are to be subcultures of different social levels. This in fact makes it more difficult to have a pure system -- socialism is impossible for many reasons, among which is the fact that not everyone is at the psychological level necessary for its acceptance. Nor will everyone be, since we have to pass through each level to get to the next. There is no jumping levels. More, the egalitarian level is not the final one, meaning people are going to evolve beyond that, further disrupting the stasis such people desire. Thus society is increasingly in a state of disequilbrium, with areas of equilibrium and far from equilibrium. The complexity is growing more and more.

To return to Pontynen and Miller, their thesis is that the SecondWorld culture is preferable to ThirdWorld culture, so we need to return to it. However, they modify this recommendation by also recommending the Anglosphere's emphasis on society as a spontaneous order -- which really results in a culture somewhat closer to that which emerged in the Liberal era (though they complain about this era, and identify it as the beginning of the problems we now face culturally). I argued that this model describes the eras of stasis -- which in essence seems to argue that times of business are times we move away from culture, while moves back toward culture are times that are anti-business (suggesting Nietzsche was right to criticize the market economy in his consistent support of culture). Of course, this only applies if we are talking about culture as a stable social condition. If that is how we identify a culture as being a culture, then far from equilibrium eras are culturally disruptive and are thus not cultures in this sense. They are periods of transition from one culture to the next. Many have discussed the current state of the arts, observing that nobody is doing anything new. Well, that's the main feature of a stable culture. Not many people were doing much "new" during the Medieval era in Europe, either. The transition -- which is in a far from equilibrium state -- is going to result in many new things, a proliferation of new forms, styles, etc., until a new stasis is achieved. We are now in that stasis, and thus have achieved culture in the sense being discussed.

In integrating the ideas of these writers, I think I have discovered some interesting historical patterns. They are patterns however are more like those found in a spontaneous order, meaning they are complex and not really predictable in a real sense. We can predict kinds of patterns -- the emergence of collectivist and individualist thinking -- but not how they will be realized. Further, we can predict whether there will be pro-market or pro-culture attitudes, and see why. These are mostly preliminary thoughts, but I think I'm onto something.
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