Growing Pains

Growing Pains

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March 22, 2012

While we grapple with the battles of the day, sometimes it behooves us to step outside the fray to examine what’s transpiring around us. In a metaphor I’ve found useful, we can ascend to an intellectual plateau where we are able to take time to think, as well as take a look around.

In the following 2006 rumination by my friend Paul de Armond, at the time research director at Public Good Project, he takes a look at organizational forms — past and present — and how they interact. His ruminations were copied from Metachat. Emphasis is mine.

It seems a bit of a tautology; this insight into manipulative culture and Empire. Society has serially evolved forms of social/political/economic organization that reflect larger and larger scales. Tribes, institutions, markets and networks. They represent a continuum of increasing scale of population, land area, energy consumption, communication bandwidth, etc

The earliest, smallest scale, most localized form of society is the tribe or clan (T): bound by kinship and personal relationships that connect all members of the society in very direct ways. Limited in scale, tribes tend to fission and migration when population grows so that the personal relationships are not able to be maintained across the geography of the food-bearing area. They are highly egalitarian, in the sense that political power is broadly distributed; frequently reflected in consensual and consultative group decision-making.

The institutional (I) form of society arose when agriculture made it possible to have populations spread over much greater geographic areas. Institutional societies contain and retain much of characteristics of tribal/clan organization on a local scale, but on the full societal scale, there is a division of labor (so to speak) in communication and political power, through a hierarchical organization and stratification of power relationships.

The oldest extent institutions (religions like the Catholic Church for example; educational forms like the university in Western culture and those surviving hereditary monarchies such as the Saudis or the British royal family) tend towards a climax form that combines tribal (i.e. hereditary) and institutional (i.e. hierarchical) forms in a highly homeostatic society. The Egyptian and Chinese empires were exemplars of the “dynastic water empire” climax form of T+I society. They tend to be very durable and yet ultimately slowly decay and collapse from within.

In a tribal society, power is based in individual competence, prestige and the depth of the network of kinship ties connected to an individual. This favors elders over youngers. Institutions, on the other hand, vest power in position and “place” in society — frequently passing power along hereditary lines such as aristocracies. Feudalism is a transitional form of tribal individual political power coalescing into the structurally imbalanced power of hierarchical institutions.

Empires are not solely institutions, however, there is another, more atomistic form of social organization: the market (M). Markets are driven by zero-sum games of directional flows of resources and wealth. Like institutions, they tend towards concentrating wealth, power and access to resources. Predatory monopoly capitalism is one of the most polarized forms of market organization, one where society resolves into monopolies of supply and rate bases of demand, where simply to exist on the demand side automatically makes one not a participant in trade, but simply a consumer who becomes a resource for the monopoly and cartel actors who control the market.

So the climax form of market organization ends up looking like the sort of “natural” monopolies that predominate in utilities, the energy cartels that have unified the global petroleum market or the “regulated” cartels that dominate finance — highly centralized and self-reinforcing imbalances of economic power. It should also be noted that markets exist at higher scales of resources, populations, wealth, etc. The climax form of M societies is highly dependent on institutions to make and enforce the rules and laws which perpetuate the economic imbalances.

In a truly free market (“black” markets in drugs, weapons, slaves, finance are the only examples of truly “free” markets), the ossification and predatory nature of monopolies always opens opportunities for competitors to emerge and displace the dominant actors. Therefore, the coercive power of the state must be enlisted to suppress competition — thereby distorting the market even further and hastening the change from below by more efficient competitors. The current attempts to legislate intellectual property laws to maintain entertainment monopolies are an exemplar of this corrupt and ultimately self-destructive tendency of monopolies.

The most recent form of social organization to emerge is the network (N) — a loosely linked meshwork of tribal, institutional and market organizations that act through flows of information and political power rather than material resources, wealth or stratified position. The network form is not historically new. Tribal confederations, Ghenghis Khan’s horde, revolutionary and subversive groups and most particularly social movements have all embodied networks as their exemplary form of organization.Indeed, social movement theorists like Wallace and Gerlach have postulated that networks and movements are the primary mechanism of social change in cultures that already have assimilated the tribal, institutional and market (TIM) forms of social organization.

Networks have very high communication costs and insufficient communication capacity is the most important limiting factor for the scale of a social network. The current turmoil in global civil and uncivil society is due to the “growing pains” of transition from an TIM to a TIMN society. That the most powerful actors on the world stage are the oil cartel (a market actor) and Muslim revitalization movement (a network/movement) goes a long way toward explaining why institutions like states or confederations like the EU or the United Nations are reacting, not leading the situation so inaccurately described as the “Global War On Terror.”

We are seeing the conflict between the disproportionate power of the most powerful market actor (the oil cartel) and the emerging power of the most dynamic network actor (Muslim revitalization.) The US is an institution struggling through the extension of military and political power to retain its centrality on the world stage. It’s not about “Freedom,” indeed, it’s not about much of anything that is traditionally thought of as a motive force in history. It’s about the changing forms of social organization brought about by the empowerment of networks by rapidly falling costs of communication.

The ideas about TIMN social organization are those of David Ronfeldt. The analysis is my own.

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