October 23, 2011

Protests and Mobs

We have recognized that humans are social animals who interact continuously. There is a constant tension between self-identity and group membership; between self-interest and group interest; between bonding, belonging and being a free independent person. There are important differences between acting alone and acting within a group. Group size also influences behavior. We have also recognized that humans do best living in working in small groups and become dysfunctional when they join larger groups. Social grooming is one of the most common everyday social interactions among chimpanzees and other primates. Chimpanzees allocate a large portion of their daytime hours grooming each other.

Humans often form social gatherings and interact with multiple partners at the same time in everyday interactions, such as conversation. Adult male chimpanzees compete for higher status by forming coalitions. Males have to renew or confirm their relationships with each other by frequent grooming sessions in relatively small clusters. Adult females do not compete for higher status by forming intimate allies and do better by having wider interactions with many individuals and tend to groom in larger groups.
Some primate species, including humans, come together in groups of several hundred individuals for conventions. These are temporary congregations that may have enduring benefits or adverse consequences for the participants. Humans also assemble in-groups to protest, to seek revenge and to attack real or imaginary enemies. Well-focused mobs with effective leaders can be agents of change. Authoritarian rulers are sometimes disposed when large numbers of people protest injustices on the street, risking their lives to demand rights, freedoms and justice. Democracies need activism and public displays of disapproval to survive corrupt and incompetent politicians who tend to disregard human rights.

Even in polite societies, mobs may become disorganized and destructive, transforming more or less well-behaved humans into combatants, who push, shove, raise their arms in the air, show fist gestures and shout meaningless slogans. Soccer fans, for example, will gather in large stadium to enjoy the game and then riot as they exit, crushing each other and destroying property down the street. Mass movements of humans occur regularly and often operate at the lowest level of intelligence with none of the moral restraints that are available when individuals act alone according to the rules and peer pressure of the local community.

Street Mobs with Opposing Views

Mobs of people have assaulted each in passionate encounters that lead to mass deaths. Kakar describes an ethnic riot as-the intense, sudden physical assault by civilians of one group on civilians of another group. He stated that: “In the 20th century, the number of dead claimed by the primitive weaponry used in ethnic riots was second only to the number killed by sophisticated armaments. Ethnic riots can be followed by secessionist warfare, terrorist violence, and a general undermining of democratic institutions.” Dictators often use protests as an opportunity to kill large numbers of disobedient citizens either by uniformed police shooting at the crowd or by more surreptitious attacks by mercenaries who form counter protest mobs.

Horowitz studied 150 ethnic riots in 50 countries and concluded that lethal riots combine passion and calculation. He identified four factors that lead to killing: a hostile relationship between two groups; a response to events that engages the anger of one group, a response dominated by outrage or wrath; a sense of justification for violence, such as viewing it as self-defense, part of a long drawn-out war, or punishment of the other group for wrongdoing. The participants in lethal riots believe that that their aggression will not be punished.

Societal assets that reduce outbreaks of violence include more liberal, humanitarian attitudes that negate ethnic animosity and increase the aversion to violence of all kinds. Increased personal risk assumed by would-be rioters is an important deterrent. Even in polite societies such as Canada, the deployment of riot police has become routine for crowd control. The politicians and police will argue that dangerous riots often escalate over days and even weeks so that early intervention and detention of aggressive rioters will prevent escalation toward property damage and of loss of life. Crowd control is not an easy task.

Suppression of Dissent

Despite token support of human rights, the right of free speech and the right to assemble and protest peacefully, governments everywhere prepare to suppress dissent by using force, arrest and detention. You could invent a scale to rate governments according to their tolerance for public protest and their willingness to abrogate human rights to stay in power. One of the problems with mob control by riot police is that legitimate and peaceful protest may be suppressed with the same vigor as potentially dangerous riots. Public protest is a citizen’s right in a free society and a necessary option when governments become corrupt and autocratic. A citizen concerned with civil rights will insist on strong civil control of police actions. Otherwise, corrupt governments will use police and military power to further their fascist goals.

Autocratic governments stay in power by limiting or banning public protest, suppressing free speech and using lethal force to punish individuals and groups for challenging their authority.

From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason.

October 5, 2011

Failing Economies

There has been a remarkable proliferation of euphemistic, metaphoric and deceptive descriptions of economic events in the 21st century , peaking in 2011 as global economic crises proliferated. Even the Economist Intelligence Unit, usually a reliable source of data and analysis, used euphemisms such a "soft patch" in economic recovery to describe an impending global disaster.

In the US, when Ben Bernanke sat at his computer and typed 800 billion US dollars into current government accounts, his action was described as "Quantitative Easing." In this century of economies as numbers in computer databases, printing money is old fashion. With the proper endorsements from high-ranking government officials, you just type in numbers and all is well. Not that quantitative easing is such a bad idea -- should be available to all hard-working citizens with increasing debt burdens.

Not to be outdone by US extravaganzas, the countries of the European Union began to fail as individual countries such as Ireland, England, Italy and Greece accumulated increased debt burdens with threatened defaults on paying both the interest and principal owed. By mid 2011, global economic recovery appeared to be a wish, a fantasy, a delusion more that a realizable goal. Krugman wrote: "These are interesting times — and I mean that in the worst way. Right now we’re looking at not one but two looming crises, either of which could produce a global disaster. We can only hope that the politicians huddled in Washington and Brussels succeed in averting these threats. Even if we managed to avoid immediate catastrophe, the deals being struck on both sides of the Atlantic are almost guaranteed to prolong the economic slump . In fact, policy makers seem determined to perpetuate what I’ve taken to calling the Lesser Depression, the prolonged era of high unemployment that began with the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and continues to this day, more than two years after the recession supposedly ended. "

I admit that I admire Krugman's social and political analysis. He favors governments spending their way out of recession to avoid stagnation or worse, depression. He confronts opposing economic strategies that demand fiscal restraint, debt reduction, increased taxation, and reduction in the size of government. To some extend my simplistic understanding of human nature restores reality but not optimism about the prospects for economic recovery.

Just to review the main dynamics at work:

Humans do best living and working in small groups. Their cognitive limitations become obvious when they attempt to manage large groups, corporations and countries.

Large systems will reliably reach an avalanche state and tend to fail suddenly and dramatically.

Economies are complex, somewhat chaotic systems that no-one understands well enough to manage from the top down.

No-one can know what will happen next.

Burning cheap fossils fuels was essential to wealth generation and environmental destruction in the 20th century. Cheap fossil fuels are becoming scarce. The environmental degradation they helped cause will become more threatening and more expensive.

Environmental degradation with extreme weather events, declining resources and increasing populations will not allow a return to the easy affluence enjoyed by a few in the 20th century. Reduced growth, reduced consumption, reduced expectations will be good for everyone.

Government leaders do not have the knowledge, skills, power or political will to rescue us from the impending crises they help to create.

The 2011 civilian revolts began in Northern African and the Middle East but were not signs of progress towards civil societies, new affluence and justice for all as some starry-eyed  politicians believed. They are recurrences of inevitable social chaos that arise from increasing populations and decreasing resources to sustain those populations.

There are many mechanisms that cause inequitable distribution of resources. Large numbers of educated, unemployed, frustrated young men in many countries are protesters, rioters, potential revolutionaries waiting to be inspired to take action against oppression. The combination of wealthy, armed dictators, expanding numbers of poor and defenseless citizens, with the overwhelming adverse forces of nature creates death and destruction that has no obvious solution. The role of climate change as an overwhelming force that threatens the survival of entire countries is generally ignored by economic theories. Events so far in the 21st century point away from all idealist visions toward the harsh realities of human conflicts and suffering that have prevailed as long as humans have walked the earth.

From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason


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