Culture, Society and The Erosion of Both

DARWINIAN theory suggests that our ancestor Homos have lived in evolutionary continuity with even older primate ancestors over several millions of years. Friedrich Hayek, in his book The Fatal Conceit : The Errors of Socialism suggested that, at its most basic level, human interaction is still controlled by simple, early primate behaviours. Think of the ‘fight or flight’ reaction, for instance. These are not learned responses but totally conditioned reflexes.

Hayek looked at remnant, innate behaviours in modern humans and suggested they included two separate patterns of behaviours for two separately identified groups of people. These he named as an ‘inner group’, comprised of family and close relatives, who could expect generosity, charity and altruism withing their circle, while ‘outer groups’ would be met with fear, suspicion and aggression. Hayek suggested that these behaviours are hard-wired, inherited from our primitive ancestors and developed over thousands of generations from an era when people lived in very small isolated groups in direct competition with neighbouring groups. Darwin would suggest these behaviours persisted because they conferred an evolutionary advantage to our hunting-and-gathering ancestors, who only rarely came in contact with ‘outsider’ groups.

Hayek also pointed to the significance of ‘culture’. With increasing interaction between groups caused by rising population densities, culture evolved as the set of learned behaviours which sit above this earlier innate behaviour and ameliorate its consequences. Culture is the set of negotiated ‘rules of conduct’ passed down orally, rather than genetically, which allowed people of an ‘inner group’ to deal with those of the surrounding ‘outer groups’ without having to resort to aggression, suspicion and fear. Thus, as Hayek put it, the purpose of culture is/was to override innate behaviour:

I have been attempting to explain how extended order of human co-operation has evolved despite opposition from our instincts.  (My emphasis)

This has allowed social cooperation and competition in a controlled form with a much broader group of people than would otherwise be possible if we allowed ourselves to be controlled purely by our instinctive behaviours:

This book has shown mankind as torn between two states of being. On the one hand are the kinds of attitudes and emotions appropriate to behaviour in the small groups wherein mankind lived for more than one hundred thousand years, wherein known fellows learnt to serve one another, and pursue common aims. … On the other hand there is the more recent development in cultural evolution wherein we no longer chiefly serve known fellows or pursue common ends, but where institutions, moral systems and traditions have evolved that have produced and now keep alive many times more people than existed before the dawn of civilisation, in pursuing thousands of different ends of their own choosing in collaboration with thousands of persons whom they will never know.

Thus, the success of ‘culture’ involves the controlling principles which underlie the rules of the market place of economics, and rules of behaviour in modern civilization, where ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ groups meet. These cultural rules have been arrived at by years of chaotic trial and error within an ever-expanding circle of possible social contacts.

It is difficult then to estimate for how many generations simple instinct/genetic programming/innate behaviours, call them what you will, drove human behaviour in our distant hunting-and-gathering past, and for how many generations culture has been ameliorating the interaction between tribal groups. However, for the rather brief and current period in the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens, many groups have moved on to a farming or post-farming existence. One should not minimise the significance of this shift as it involves a totally different strategy for survival for our species.

The hunter-gatherer societies live in the here and now — isolated family groups constantly competing with their neighbours. They need to be spontaneous, aggressive, impulsive. They hunt when they are hungry and consume food surpluses as soon as they are caught because there is limited capacity for storage. On the other hand, successful farmers need to be good forward planners. Farming societies tend to live in larger, closer-living communities, where aggression may not be a great advantage, and cooperation and negotiation skills more important attributes. Competition is not as important since they each have their own fields. Food needs to be husbanded (seed for next season’s plantings, domesticated animals for breeding stock). The propensity for deferred gratification is fundamental to survival. This new survival strategy renders old innate behaviours even more obsolete and counterproductive, making culture even more important than it was for hunter-gatherers.

Carrol Quigley in The Evolution of Civilizations identified three preconditions that he considered were necessary for a basic farming community to take the steps towards expanding and becoming a major civilization. It must have the type of culture that …

  • Provides incentives to innovate.
  • Provides incentives to accumulate surpluses.
  • Provides incentives to reinvest those accumulated surpluses back into more innovation and the accumulation of bigger surpluses.

Civilizations grow, Quigley argued, because they have an ‘instrument of expansion’ — a military, religious, political or economic edge over their neighbours which accumulates surplus, and invests those surpluses in further productive innovations.

Key, then, is the idea of ‘deferred gratification’. Banks encouraged thrift and productive investment. Investment in education fosters innovation and future productive capacity. Marriage, the family, monarchy, church, all are institutions in which ordinary people were prepared to invest social capital in return for stability and the expectation of future prosperity. Religious institutions, at least historically, surely represented the most dramatic example of deferred gratification, since sacrifice in this life received no earthly rewards, but only the expectation of rewards in the next. On that subject, I cannot help thinking that, if nothing else, the Old Testament stories represent an interesting ‘case study’ in the negotiated, trial-and-error evolution of a ‘culture’ and its key institutions, in an expanding society from the simple one-on-one, insider-outsider dealings of the immediate family of Abraham, to broader tribal dealings, to national dealings, ultimately to the problems of living within empires. This evolved culture is called ‘traditional’ culture.

But while civilisations arise, they can also decline. Of interest to us here is Quigley’s analysis of how civilizations end. A section from Huntington’s, ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ is as good a summation of Quigley’s thoughts as you are likely to find:

Civilizations decline when they stop the ‘application of surplus to new ways of doing things. In modern terms we say that the rate of investment decreases’. This happens because the social groups controlling the surplus have a vested interest in using it for ‘non-productive, but ego-satisfying purposes … which distribute the surpluses to consumption but do not provide more effective methods of production’. People live off their accumulated capital and civilization moves from the stage of the universal state to the stage of decay. This is a period of acute economic depression, declining standards of living, civil wars between various vested interests, and growing illiteracy. The society grows weaker and weaker. Vain efforts are made to stop the wastage by legislation. But the decline continues. The religious, intellectual, social, and political levels of the society began to lose the allegiance of the masses of people on a large scale. …  There is a growing reluctance to fight for the society or even support it by paying taxes.

I am sure this description will strike a chord with many readers. The channelling of surpluses by vested interests away from productive investment into ego-satisfying, unproductive pursuits is termed by Quigley ‘the institutionalisation of the instruments of expansion’. Thus do the key cultural institutions which initially powered cultural expansion become the instruments of decline. The significance of this move from productive investment to unproductive investment in the life cycle of a culture was also noted by Alexander Fraser Tytler:

Democracy ends when the voters discover they can vote themselves the contents of the treasury. …  From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship. 

My own corollary to this: and when the treasury is empty, they will force the treasurer to borrow extensively to keep the benefits flowing on the baseless assumption that the future will somehow be more prosperous than the present and will therefore be untroubled in repaying the debt. It is the elevation of the personal joke, ‘Ha Ha! I’m spending the kids’ inheritance’, to the level of a national, economic policy. 

Earlier we saw Hayek’s thesis suggesting that human interaction is controlled by both innate and learned, ‘traditional’ cultural responses. To this Hayek added a third possibility:

…we live in a world where the three moral traditions are in constant conflict: the innate ones, the traditional ones, and the intellectually designed ones…. You can explain the whole of social conflicts of the last 200 years by the conflict of the three …

To Hayek, the ‘fatal conceit’ (also the title of his book) is the belief of the socialists that since they have access to modern rational thinking and logic, they could design a new intellectual order, an artificial ‘culture’, from scratch, which, because it is based on pure reason, would of necessity be superior to the cultural rules which had arisen higgledy-piggledy out of trial and error:

Imagining that all order is the result of design, socialists conclude that order must be improvable by better design of some superior mind (i.e. their own) 

As we saw, Hayek made a particular point in emphasising the importance of the distinction between the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ groups, and the need for the separate ‘rules of engagement’ for each. With one group it’s ‘family’, with another it’s ‘business’. However, according to Hayek’s thesis, socialists believe, because it seems so ‘reasonable’, they can extend the innate responses of charity, altruism and generosity, normally reserved for the person’s ‘inner group’, to the ‘outer groups’ without collapsing the special relationships within the individual’s ‘inner group’. We are all family now! This is the goal of ‘socialism’ and the Socialist State, which Hayek warned cannot be achieved without destroying the special relationships within the core group.

‘Socialist’ – The origin of the word is from the Latin socius/socii – an associate, colleague, or someone known personally to you. Thus ‘society’ is a group of people known to one-another and with an agreed sense of common purpose in forming that association, and perhaps accurately reflects the situation of human existence for many thousands, even millions, of years.  This principle has been misappropriated by the socialists, who use the warm and fuzzy (‘instinctive nostalgia’) sense of the word ‘society’ but apply it to a larger group who don’t know each other and don’t necessarily share a common purpose, ie., to Hayek’s ‘outsiders’. This is misappropriation.

Bertrand de Jouvenel has well described this instinctive nostalgia for the smaller group

‘The milieu in which man is first found, which retains for him an infinite attraction : but any attempts to graft the same features on a large “society” is utopian and leads to tyranny.’

The crucial difference overlooked in this confusion is that the small group can be led in its activities by agreed aims, or by the will of its members, while the extended order that is also a ‘society’ is formed into a concordant structure by its members’ observance of similar rules of conduct in pursuit of different individual purposes. 

It is worth visiting Rousseau and his idea of the ‘General Will’. From the Roger Sandall (2001) ‘The Culture Cult’:

According to the political theory of Rousseau, developed in the ‘Social Contract’, the rights of the group and the state flow from the ‘General Will’, which is infallible, and where the ‘General Will’ conflicts with the ‘individual will’ the latter must yield. In totalitarian politics this principle is important – it involves the authority of the state.

One will therefore see that Rousseau’s idea of the ‘Social Contract’ is the antithesis of the principle of a social contract with small group developing agreed aims and shared benefits. Rousseau’s ‘General Will’ is derived by ‘pure reason’ by the socialist elites and deemed to be infallible, and therefore can be legitimately imposed on the supposedly selfish ‘individual will’. De Jouvenel considered the derivation of the ‘General Will’ by pure reason by a self-serving elite to be utopian, and its enforcement over the ‘individual will’ to be tyrannical.

An interesting point noted by Hayek was that social contract proposed by Rousseau and the socialists taps directly into the innate behaviours of man – the idealisation of the life of the ‘noble savage’, the pursuit of personal freedoms and individual gratification – and by-passes the constraints of learned culture behaviours that we examined above. Therefore, Hayek noted, it is not surprising that the reaction by socialists to those individuals who refuse to yield to the socialist agenda of their ‘General Will’ would mimic the innate behaviours normally reserved for the ‘outer groups’ which the dissenters now represent — suspicion, fear, and ultimately aggression,. It is from the need to eliminate all opposition that stands in the way of the implementation of their superior ’General Will’ that the tyrannous response develops. Or as Alexander Fraser Tytler noted, the end is

… always followed by a dictatorship

Thus, Hayek noted that the new socialist order was all about ‘breaking through the network of learned rules that maintain civilization’:

As we have seen, conflict between an individual’s emotions and what is expected of him in an extended order is virtually inevitable: innate responses tend to break through the network of learnt rules that maintain civilisation. But only Rousseau provided the literary and intellectual credentials for reactions that cultivated people once dismissed as uncouth. Regarding the natural (read ‘instinctual’) as good or desirable is, in his (Rousseau’s) work, an expression of nostalgia for example, the primitive, or even barbarian, based on the conviction that one ought to satisfy his or her desires, rather than obey the shackles allegedly invented and imposed by selfish interests.

Thus, in effect, rejecting the restraints formerly imposed by culture, socialists use rationalism to justify a return to old, innate patterns of behaviour, particularly removing individual freedom from old societal/moral restraints, and also the rejection of behaviours like deferred gratification:

Curiously, these archaic, more primitive attitudes and emotions are now supported by much rationalism, and by the empiricism, hedonism, and socialism associated with it. 

At this point we may be able to see a link between what Hayek described, and the agenda of the Gramscian Marxists. Peter Saunders of the CIS summarised the Gramscian agenda to promote a Marxist State:

Gramsci, an Italian Marxist, realized that Western capitalism would not be destroyed by economic class struggle, for it is good at meeting people’s material needs. What was needed, therefore, was a long-term campaign against the core institutions through which bourgeois culture is transmitted to each generation. Break the hold of the churches, take over the media, subvert the schools and universities, and chip away at the heart of the citadel, the bourgeois family, and eventually, the whole system will fall.

This is what was called for, and what fellow Marxist, Rudi Dutschke, termed the ‘Long March through the Institutions’.

Clearly, the socialist and Marxist agendas overlap with respect to their lack of respect for traditional cultural institutions, but we should not leave the liberal-progressives out of this either. Helen Puckrose (How French “intellectuals” Ruined the West: Postmodernism, and its impact, Explained) pointed out the difference between (small l) ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ in a way that allows us to better understand the internal workings of the Liberal Party here in Australia:

The desire to ‘smash’ the status quo, challenge widely held values and institutions and champion the marginalized is absolutely liberal ethos. Opposing it is resolutely conservative. This is the historical reality, but we are at a unique point in history where the status quo is fairly consistently liberal, with a liberalism that upholds the values of freedom; equal rights and opportunities for everyone regardless of gender, race, and sexuality. The result is confusion in which life-long liberals  wishing to conserve this kind of liberal status quo find themselves considered ‘conservative’ and those wishing to avoid [the label of] ‘conservatism’ at all costs, find themselves defending irrationalism and illiberalism.

Puckrose recognised that already the ‘conservative’ – ie., traditional cultural status quo — has been ‘smashed’ and replaced by a ‘liberal’ status quo, but, in order to avoid the perceived odium of the ‘conservative’ label implied by the support of any status quo, the liberal wing of the Liberal Party finds itself constantly having to virtue-signal its old progressive credentials, and therefore tends to side with any new destructive agenda proposed by the socialists. Having already achieved its goal of equality, the liberals are now forced to pursue an agenda of inequality, via positive discrimination for any victim group which cares to put up its hand, and to do so simply in order to be seen to be equally as progressive as the socialists. And so they walk in step as fellow travellers, following the Gramscian vanguard. As Joseph Stalin described them, they are the ‘useful idiots’. By the naïve gullibility of the liberals, the conceit of the socialists and the deceit of the Gramscian Marxists, the march through the institutions continues.

What appears significant to me is that ‘the core institutions through which bourgeois culture is transmitted to each generation’, are the very ones which evolved to support the idea of ‘deferred gratification’, the idea on which the very existence of a successful civilization depends. Their replacement by the pursuit of unrestrained freedom, the living off accumulated capital, and investment in ego-satisfying consumption is the mechanism by which our culture, and our civilization, will be brought down.

  • whitelaughter

    Interesting, but my gorge rises as the whole ‘pie-in-the’sky’ claim about religion – it’s rubbish. 20 centuries after Abraham, the Jews were still arguing about whether there was life after death..and whether it mattered. Buddhism is about *ending* such existence. Christianity, particularly early on, has looked to a temporal victory, with Christ ruling this world.
    As always – if Marx said it, it’s rubbish.

  • Jody

    Did anybody else detect a turning point in the last day or so? Several sitting members of the British Labour Party abandoned the party; OK, they might have had Julia Banks Syndrome, I hear you say. Not a bit; what they said about anti-semitism, bullying, repression, identity politics, lack of freedom of speech and a vicious culture of envy signalled to me a turning point for “Leftism” and “elitism”. And then our own PM, emboldened of late, made a great speech about the Coalition being unwilling to accept anti-semitism and the treatment by the Left of Israel. I hope this Leftist house of cards falls and falls quickly. And Morrison is showing he has ‘mongrel’ in him. At last.

    And, BTW, have you noticed how the (mostly female) Left is bullying Coalition politicians of both genders in Senate Estimates? Take a closer look. Wong is vicious as is her other female Lefty cohort. Julia Banks is quite right and I wonder if the reason she won’t identity the bullies is because they’re mostly FEMALE?!!

  • Lacebug

    What’s a Gramscian Marxist? Am I the only one here that needs to Google it?

  • pgang

    Stopped reading at the word ‘Darwinian’. Any article associated with such clap-trap is simply part of the problem.

  • pgang

    Jody, Morrison has been a complete surprise. He is doing a stand-up job and we can only hope that he gets another 6 years at it. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised given his handling of immigration. Under Turnbull he was probably playing the waiting game, as there was little else to do be done. The consummate politician perhaps?
    We have often heard about the divisions within the Liberal party, but now we are seeing where the real divisions lie. Let’s face it, conservative parties these days are at a traditional left-of-centre position, and the so-called far-right are really centrists. There’s not a lot dividing them in reality. The left on the other hand have a very real extreme-left problem on their hands which is unfolding in an ugly fashion in both the USA and Britain. This could possibly result in a pendulum swing to the traditional right, who knows. Or we could end up with the secret police kicking in doors.

  • ianl

    The idea of re-opening Christmas Island is very clever as it completely discombobulates Phelps et al. She now realises that she’s not all that bright at politics.

    We also have the ALP publicly splitting apart over the Adanai mining project and the Galilee Basin in general, with Marles opining that $100bn/year in export income doesn’t matter and in any case the thermal coal market is imploding. Japan, Taiwan, China, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, India and others will all find that interesting. Morrison is yet to take advantage of that journey through the Looking Glass with Alice and I doubt he is able to while our Glad seems to agree with Marles.

  • Jody

    pgang; It’s not a surprise to me; I know him. He was loyal to Turnbull because – here’s a scoop – he’s a loyal person, and he has a lot of empathy. There are things I could wrote to prove this but won’t because it shouldn’t be necessary.

    I caution about over-egging the border issue; that’s the clear and present danger.

  • Jody

    PS: This is what Kelly O’Dwyer said in the house yesterday in her valediction:

    “……giving particular thanks to fellow Liberal MP Julie Bishop for her “friendship and guidance”, along with Scott Morrison, Speaker of the House Tony Smith and Senate President Scott Ryan,…”

  • Alistair

    Hi Jody,
    I think there has been a sharp move to the far Left all around the place in recent years – Corbyn, Sanders etc., and equally there has been a recognition by various long-term socialists of just how scary that is, as the ‘March through the Institutions’ looks like destroying their own socialists aspirations. Pascal Bruckner and Michel Houellebecq come immediately to mind, but there are many others. Here, even an ‘old Marxist’ like Paul Kelly writing in the Australian seems to show increasing alarm at the antics of the left. I doubt it will help – I suspect only a visit to ‘Veneztralia’ will halt the tide. The left have never been able to learn from their mistakes since Joseph Stalin was a boy.

  • Jody

    Alistair, I don’t detect Marxism in Paul Kelly. I have a book of his on my shelves, “Triumph and Demise”. He’s mostly prescient, even though married to the ALP ‘where’s my whiteboard’ Jackie Kelly. It’s possible to have a partner who thinks differently; my husband likes Elvis and Buddy Holly and I like Bach and Beethoven. He doesn’t really dig my music but he absolutely understands the genius and impulse behind its creation.

    The larger the cohort of public servants the further Left the society will move; the inexorably gravy train of the public purse. No risk-taking, no responsibility for the welfare of a workforce, no fear of loss of capital in an instant, no problems of competition, debt-obligation. Never out on a wire; never having to provide for their own retirement.

  • Jody

    At 11.25 here is a question with a great answer – for all those who ridicule religion!!


    For the Left the ‘transcendent ethic’ is the religion of Catastropharianism.

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