Trump, Brexit and all that
In anthropological terms, what we are facing is a disagreement about the boundaries of the tribe. Or a political disagreement over who is and who isn’t in our imagined community.
The educated/metropolitan/web literate “urban elites” have taken on board the idea that we are one humanity on spaceship earth.
Meanwhile outside the urban centres and in less storied minds, the size of the imagined tribe has not grown at the same pace.
Noticeably there is a fracture along the lines of age, education, and urban/rural voters.
This has bought about a division in older political groupings over the size of the group that you apply traditional political questions to.
Is political authority, or the issue of poverty to be framed on a global, national or some other level?i
And this is not, I would contend, just a simple value disagreement, but a more profound difference in mental wiring and consciousness.
If you are a squeamish liberal, look away now.
The Tribe in the Human mind
In our pyschology, lodged in our archetypes, we have an idea of wider community “people like us” which is, historically speaking, very flexible.
This wider community occupies the realm of narratives and symbols, it is the imagined community.
Our flexibility in the markers we use to ascribe kin style relations beyond kin is probably related to, or underpins our species specific propensity to tradeii.
At its most fundamental level, tribe appears to be connected to dialect, in that babies pay more attention to speakers that share the dialect of their mother
This connection with dialect is what gives the nationalist project of standardising the vernacular its genuine force in organising an imagined communityiii.
The idea of the human tribe
Since the birth of the Nation State at the very latestiv, when the French went off the Catholic Church and became humanist, there have been thinkers who have imagined a community of one humanity. This is summed up in the two phrases “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” and “workers of the world unite”.
In Human Rights in particular we see an attempt to unite the human tribe under a single set of rules.
Communication and mental architecture
But this is where I must digress as this is where the view of the imagined community digresses.
In the grandly titled “origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind”v, Jaynes postulates that the pre-literate human mind functioned very much like that of a full-blown schizophrenic, with the left side hearing commands from the right side.
With development of writing and the appearance of foreign invaders, the mind was confronted with an external set of commands. This changed the relationship between the left and the right hemispheres of the brain to that which we know today.
One of the staggering implications of this quite staggering argument (and it is compeling) is that writing rewires the mind. Or more broadly, the mind changes through the tools it uses.
If you accept this idea it’s not long before you’re asking questions along the lines of Colin Renfrew’s “what is the effect of the Minoan invention of coinage on the Western Mind”, what does the concept of zero do, etc…..
If the advent of writing could bring about such a fundamental rewiring of the brain. What else has a similar impactvii?
Well go on then what does?
Mobile internet telephony. The library of humanity, plus software, in your pocket, with news from anybody or anywhere in an instant (if you’ve got a connection). That’s basically the power of gods to a bronze age mind.
There is a beautiful debate among the ancient greeks that the spread of literacy will be terrible because no one will be able to recite the Homeric epics from memory anymore. Alas.
And while I don’t know remember any telephone numbers anymore, I am far more aware of goings on in Yemen or the lives of a small village on an island off the coast Canada that my friend moved to, than I ever could have been before. And far more aware of this than what the family across the road does.
We know from biology that large brained animals have a longer period of childhood dependence on parents than smaller brained ones.
We have essentially doubled, or aspire to double, our species period of childhood dependence over the last 150 years, first to teenage yearsviii, then to young adult hood.
The average life expectancy for most human existence was about 19, and various bronze age chieftains have been dug up who are probably about 13 years oldix. A PhD will see you socially dependent until the age of 25. Six years past average life expectancy for most of our existence.
If the brain has 100 billion or so neurons and each has from 10 to 1000 connections to other neurons, if this period of dependence adds just one more synapse to each neuron then increase in possibilities is enormous, if it adds a few, then it possibly equates to a whole new structure.
Spellcheck a racist
Racism correlates inversely with education in humanities. That is, if you study people to any level you are less likely to group people by skin colour or think that people who appear different are a problem.
The act of reading gives you access to the minds of others and allows you to form better representations of other minds in your own mind. This (percieved) increased understanding removes layers of uncertainty and provides comfort. It also improves your spellingx.
LGBT emphasises this connection beautifully in choosing an acronym as a political label, presupposing good literacy.
“the abuse I been getting since Brexit, I’m more offended by the spelling than the racism”
The modern metropolitan
Spreadsheets, animation programs, web graphics, live video feeds and speaking to people who aren’t physically there may dramatically rewire the connection structure of the human brain.
Combine this with living in the environment of a mobile web connected metropol with travel connections across the world in a day(ish) and you have all the ingredients for a mind that is aware of a single planet.
We have not arrived at this view of a human tribe simply through philosophy, as Buddha did, rather the tools and theories we use shape our minds.
It may be the photo of the earth from space, or the metaphor of the tempestuous butterly and global news feeds.
It may be that with global supply chains and communication you can meaningfully speak of having a connection to someone anywhere.
More fancifully, it may be that the surplus brain capacity freed up by mobile telephony/computing allows more space for thinking about more people, and thus an expanded notion of the tribe.
One key concept to grasping macro dynamics it is the idea of systemic causation, the impact of constraints,incentives and distant chain reactions on the behaviour of the agents within a system and the emergent behaviour of the system.
This is not a concept that we are hard wired to appreciate. We are hard wired to see patterns in things and with a basic understanding of cause and effect. But we essentially work backwards from effects to causesxi.
To understand systemic causation you ideally need a grasp of non-linear dynamics and a super-computer. But without the these, you are relying on the intuitive, parallel processing structure of your right brain. And if you feed it inputs from all over the world, your understanding of the world may reflect thisxii.
If you ask Brexit voters what they’re complaining about, many will say wages, jobs and immigration. “They come ere taking our jobs”, “they work for a pound less an hour” etc…
There is in the experience of many a correlation between wage stagnation and rising immigration. This taken to be a causal relationship. There is another between free trade and poverty.
However, immigration and wage stagnation both share cheaper logistics as an underlying cause. Cheaper logistics increases the affordability of international travel for people, and allows companies to export manufacturing jobs to countries with cheaper labourxiii. But that’s macro-economics, which is not supplied as a Jungian archetype.
However there is also a concept of the tribe, which is supplied in the hardware.
I have no experience of talking to Trump voters, but in my experience of talking to Brexit voters, their perspective is local, they know the street where their grandparents lived, their world is relatively homogenous, the information environment is locally focused, the connectivity an age away from the capital, and they have a more or less no grasp of systemic causation. And I can say that here, because they never will have read this far.
It amounts to a different way of looking at the world. Whatever the cause.
And this may be why the hyper-connected journalists and macro-informed politicians let out a collective “what-on-earth” in the face of anti-globalist populism.
And it may explain why two non-politicians, Trump and Farage, who speak a different political language, have been so politically successful.
It may be very difficult to occupy any high office and maintain a mindset blind to macro-dynamics.
Jaynes writes that the Oracle of Delphi relied on illiterate peasant girls who could talk in tongues after inhaling the gas coming through the rock. The Oracle eventually packed up in the 4th century AD because it became impossible to find a girl who had not been exposed to writing in one form or another, and thus petrol fueled prophecy perished in the Peloponnese.
It may in a generation or two become impossible to find someone who has not been exposed to the web, persistent use of computers and the obliteration of space by satellite,
However until that time, we are likely, for whatever reason, to see a basic division in politics along the lines of whether you think humanity is one or not.
Given Nationalism is anachronistic, both administratively and in demarking fields of communication, it is likely to morph. The racism of Alt-Right, whitey unite, represents an expansion on the imagined community relative to the nation.
It may take an Alien invasion along the lines of the Watchmen, it may take the invention of another source of energy as in Jeremy Rifkinds empathic civilisation, it may take the achievement of DNA rights, or it may in fact proceed as a result of our widened field of experience and newly freed up brain capacity.
But in time we may all catch up with what Buddha saw 2,500 years ago, we are one connected humanity on spaceship earth.
iThe educated urban left came to view humanity as one and shifted their traditional concern with poverty and inequality to the global south, development, etc…And in the case of the Green Movement, beyond to animals and ecosystems. This meant a. the national working class (who also suffer from the decline of unions as an institution in which to practice politics) were seen as relatively well off in comparison b. immigration and the export of jobs were tolerable trends in that they reduce global inequality. Whereas others do not include those beyond these shores as a legitimate part of the calculus.
ii Beneficial exchange with non family members. It has been argued that this is one behavioural feature that allowed homo sapiens to outcompete nehanderthals – we had wider trade networks, according to what archaeologists dug up from where with each. And you might add inclination towards water which probably enabled the trade. And you might say Crows trade too, I’ve seen it on Facebook. But chimps and gorillas don’t as far as observed.
If the underlying archetype is about which other primates will behave in a familiar way, it would help to explain how strikingly large strikingly large extended communities propagated in the form of religion and empire with very rudimentary forms of transmission and communication.
iii It is probably Stalin, in his wisdom who shall we say, executed this project across the most diverse population base.
iv As far as I know there is nothing in the Taoist texts against the idea of a single humanity, not to say cosmos, and Buddha essentially came to the same conclusion.
v https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicameralism_(psychology). Though slightly later, as Gore Vidal seeks to dramatise, something quite profound appears to have happened to the human mind, or at least, the minds of some humans in around the 6th century BC when Socrates, Zoroaster, Buddha and Confuscious were all alive within the space of a human life.
vii The Bible itself, not so much from it’s content, as from its structure, can be seen as a mind-altering information technology. It was the first piece of writing widely reproduced and distributed as a book and not a scroll. This allowed the development of the index. And the citation of chapter and verse.
There is also a suite of 16th century technology in clocks, optics and the printing press that radically changed stucture of the world and arguably the human mind. Ushering in science and globalisation.
viiiIt has been argued that “the invention of childhood” occurred in the Victorian era, and this would coincide with a period when the administrative classes of empire would have to be able to develop a mind that handled international thinking.
x There is an irony about liberal print media pouring their hearts out in long essays trying to affect the campaign when those who need swaying don’t read.
xi A brief tour of the history of causal explanations for the weather show that we can make-up nigh on anything for an accepted cause.
xii“If you only have a hammer every problem is a nail”. We have a very wide range of tools. If there is one cognitive artefact, one tool that the mind can internalise as a metaphor that helps to understand systemic causation it is arguably the hyperlink. The idea that this is linked to that which is served from some distant place to the screen in front of you.
xiiiIn my brief experience shipping commodities it cost as more to move a ton of tea from Folkestone to London than it did to move it from the hills Southern India to Folkestone.