The Human Swarm - Divided We Stand

Today's societies are intrinsically, invariably multicultural

By the twenty-first century, virtually every piece of land on earth was at least theoretically claimed by some nation-state, except for maybe places like remote islands or the Antarctic. Today's modern nation-states were formed out of the tribes, chiefdoms, kingdoms, and and empires of days gone by. They are a mixture of many different groups of people, which makes them unique and fundamentally different from the societies of the remote past. This forms the subject of the last few chapters of the book.

Moffett points out that a "nation" in the sense of a people with a unified ethnic background and shared common culture only really only existed in the days of tribes and hunter-gatherers:

I have argued that hunter-gatherers should said to have had nations despite lacking the governmental infrastructure associated with modern states. But the fact is that nations—in the sense many scholars think about them, as independent groups of people sharing the same cultural identity and history—really existed only in hunter-gatherer days when societies were far more uniform. Every state society, scrutinized carefully enough, is an ethnic mishmash. (317-318)

While Moffett rarely uses the word, what he is describing is usually referred to as multiculturalism. People in anonymous societies often speak different languages, follow different religions, wear different clothing styles, and look physically very different from one another. Moffett describes walking out the front door of his Brooklyn apartment and encountering a dizzying array of ethnicities and languages within just a few blocks from his home, all interacting—peacefully, for the most part—in the vast anonymous society of the United States.

The French scholar Ernest Renan defined a nation as a group of people who, "[had accomplished] great things together and [wished] to do more," rather than on language, race, religion or ethnicity. He also argued that any nation was subject to a "daily referendum" on the part of its people, and that nations were defined as much by what they collectively forgot as by what they remembered. The scholar Karl Deutsch described a nation as "a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbors."

In earlier times, the merging of disparate peoples was brought about by warfare, often driven by the need for arable land, natural resources, and slaves. In today's capitalist world it is primarily driven by immigration and the need for workers—both skilled and unskilled. The capitalist mode of production has supplanted the kinship and tributary modes production throughout most of the world, and is dependent on footloose and precarious labor to survive, as Eric Wolf describes:

As long as people can lay their hands on the means of productions (tools, resources, land) and use these to supply their own sustenance—under whatever social arrangements—there is no compelling reason for them to sell their capacity to work to someone else.

For labor power to be offered for sale, the tie between producers and the means of production has to be severed for good. Thus, holders of wealth must be able to acquire the means of production and deny access, except on their own terms, to all who want to operate them.

Conversely, people who are denied access to the means of production must come to those who now control the means and bargain for permission to operate them. In return they receive wages that will allow them to pay for what they need to sustain themselves. [1]

But immigration and multiculturalism mean that today's societies face a unique set of challenges in the age of instantaneous communication, international travel and globalized capitalism. How do people who look and act very different and often have opposing belief systems come together to form societies when we are instinctively hardwired on some level to divide the social world into us and them? How do the markers which make anonymous societies possible function when members of today's societies come from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, have different moral systems, and follow different traditions?

How did nations come to be open to such a generally cordial influx of so many new members? Hunter-gatherer bands could take in the occasional refugee who had escaped some tragedy with his or her birth society. At its root, immigration is this kind if acceptance of dispossessed peoples, amplified manyfold.

I suspect that historically this acceptance occurred in steps. In its earliest form the dispossessed would have originated not from foreign societies, but from within the state itself. After all, when a people were subjugated, there would have followed a period when their status as a foreign or native was murky. (328)...Until the outliers had assimilated enough to be relied on, their exodus from their birth lands into the rest of society, if permitted at all, would be treated as a germinal sort of immigration. Maybe the movements seen today between foreign societies got their start from there. (328)

New arrivals...are strangers in a strange land, and no matter how low their social stature or how they try to fit in, the native population can question whether their strangeness will be damaging. Just as people can recoil from too great an influx of traded goods as a threat to their culture, they can regard immigration as eroding their hold on their society. This is true, ironically, even in the Unites States, a land of immigrants. Thomas Jefferson fretted that the flood of immigrants in his day would "warp or bias [America's] direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mess." (329)

Citizenship allows us to outsource decisions on who does and doesn't belong to the state rather than people’s opinions. People become citizens of a nation not just by accident of birth, similar culture, or shared history but by voluntary choice. Citizenship is determined by laws rather than markers. It demonstrates Henry Sumner Maine's famous dictum that in modern societies the primary social relationships are based on contract rather than status. Thus, in modern societies there is often a clash between our evolved brain, which is designed to highlight differences based on surface appearances, and membership in today's multicultural societies.

In its current, widely recognized meaning, citizenship is a form of membership that extends beyond a sense of belonging to include basic rights and legal status and a role in politics...

The modern definition of citizenship means that the prerequisites to be a legal citizen for countries worldwide have in practice been reduced to a few conditions, among them minimal requirements, to the extent that these can be measured, that immigrants identify with the overall population and follow its basic social mores...(336)

Regardless of the reasonable probability that fellow members pick each other out by gait, accent, or smile, the fact that minority individuals are asked where they are from tells us that the days of near certitude in distinguishing citizen from alien are over. What this means is that even while our commitment to societies is undiminished, if not ramped up by the rhetoric of governments, possessing a passport has been largely uncoupled from how our brains register who belongs: citizenship and our psychological assessments of membership don't always match. (337)

There are both push and pull factors driving people to emigrate from the places of birth. They may be seeking more "economic opportunities." Their home countries may be undergoing political upheaval. They may be political dissidents. They may be refugees from a civil war. Their native countries may even be slowly becoming uninhabitable due to climate change—rising sea levels, natural disasters, and extreme temperatures. Climate refugees are already being seen around the world. It's now thought that the wanderings of tribal peoples during the late Roman Imperial period was brought about at least in large part due to changing climate conditions within their native territories.

Moffett notes two common characteristics of immigrants throughout history: 1.) They have rare skills that the recipient society desperately needs; or 2.) They do the jobs the natives either don't want to do, or that employers aren't willing to pay enough to get them to do.

One example of the latter are the metics of ancient Greece—migrant workers in Greek city-states who had all the obligations of citizenship without any of the benefits. They typically worked in occupations that natives did not want to do like slaughterhouse work (still done mostly by immigrants today). Migrant workers in France today are still sometimes referred to as métèques. An example of high-skilled immigration (albeit compulsory) is the importation of scientists and engineers from Nazi Germany to both the Unites States and Soviet Russia after the Second World War (known as Operation Paperclip in the United States).

It is often said that modern capitalist societies are utterly dependent on immigrant workers. This leads to an inevitable tension between those who want to restrict foreign immigration, and those who depend on the cheap labor they provide—including many of those hostile to immigration themselves. Without cheap labor, many industries under capitalism could not function in anywhere near their present form.

Immigrants without a notable skill still had a way forward. The baseline expectation would be that ethnicities—like slaves and the subjugated in earlier times—would assume responsibilities for which the local had no taste.

These could be menial jobs that took no special abilities. Or a group might take to employment that required training but was low in status. An example was the black Americans who became barbers for white clients in the nineteenth century. Offering an expertise with a deep foundation, however, could give anyone a boost. In the case of barbers, Italians who happened to have a family history in that trade became popular and had displaced most black barbers by 1910.

A small proportion of immigrants have always been highly qualified persons whose arrival is a sign of brain drain from their host countries. When the academy Plato had founded in Athens was shut down in 529 AD, its scholars went to the Sassanian Empire in what's currently Iran, hauling the scrolls along. Julius Caesar granted citizenship to doctors and teachers, vocations in short supply in parts of the world today as well. But historically the role most frequently filled by qualified outsiders may have been that of merchant. The laws established by King Hammurabi of the first Babylonian dynasty in 1780 BC included the right of foreign tradesmen to set up shop, and in the course of time many of them became naturalized. (330-331)

Of course, societies also cultivate options for temporarily using foreigners to solve short-term labor needs without bringing them on board as citizens, in effect importing them until their task is complete, as witnessed by the seasonal travel of farm hands between Mexico and the United States. Even when migrants are permitted to stay in the receiving country, they may not be granted legal rights, or may earn them only after the slow crawl of time, their alien standing making them all the more easily disposable. (332)

The idea that immigrants are clinging to their original cultures and not integrating properly is a major flashpoint in societies all around the world. It's behind the consternation around immigrants speaking Spanish in the United States or having to "press 1 for English" when calling customer service. In Europe it's led to things like banning the construction of minarets as well as the wearing of face coverings in public (except for health reasons)—both of which were recently approved by referendums in Switzerland. Denmark has proposed to limit the number of "non-Western" residents in certain neighborhoods in order to "aid integration" and prevent the development of "parallel societies."

Notions of who does and doesn't belong still causes us to make snap judgements based on surface appearances, regardless of legal status. A vivid example of this was when the former President of the United States told elected members of Congress to "…go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came...These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough." Three of the four legislators targeted for the president's abuse were born in the United States, and all were American citizens (and thus were, in fact, trying to fix the broken country from which they came).

Examples like this show that to a significant number of people, citizenship still means looking and acting a certain way—the way of the majority. It's conventional wisdom that the replacement of the White, Christian majority (i.e. those of primarily European descent) is behind a lot of the current divisive political atmosphere in the United States. Another recent mass shooting has caused an examination of the place of Asian-Americans in the United States.

This disparity between majority and minorities in their perception of proprietorship over the society is the Achilles heel of nations. Even in cosmopolitan America, where all men are created equal by decree, respect for citizens is one thing, for the diversity of those citizens another. (359)

Diversity presents social challenges at the same time that it brings creative exchange, innovation and problem solving, fueled by varied talents and perspectives. How long any society can remain strong in the face of shifting relationships among it people remains a troubling question. For a society to stay intact other than by force, all of its communities must be motivated to rally with equal passion around a core identity—easier said than done given the majority's greater freedoms and power to manipulate the rules of the game in its favor, often through institutions largely under the control of its social upper crust. A nation supporting strong ties among its people and similarly masterful in its dealings with other societies would serve the greater well-being of its citizens, extending its time on Earth and making its legacy a high point in the story of humankind.

It would be the height of foolishness to think such an outcome could be achieved through cheerful goodwill or careful social engineering. However optimistic you feel about our adroitness as problem solvers, human minds—and the societies we fabricate when those minds interact—are malleable only to a degree. Our willingness to enjoy an advantageous social position, and even hurt each other in the service of preserving our sense of dominance and superiority, is an abiding human trait. (361-362)

In the past, societies went to war mainly over resources. Now in the era of globalized markets, wealthy countries can funnel resources to themselves without firing a shot. Warfare is conducted mainly through financial means rather than pitched battles between armies.

For example, when colonialism was dismantled after World War Two in the wake of global independence movements, the former colonies were forced to become debtors to their erstwhile rulers which allowed them to continue to be exploited. It is no wonder, then, that mass immigration to the wealthy core tends to be mostly from the "Global South" whose economies are based largely around exporting raw materials and agricultural commodities by design. Today, these countries have been ravaged by falling commodity prices, climate change, overpopulation, kleptocratic governments and military adventurism. Yet the core countries of the global economy reject both immigration and an end to economic and military imperialism. The fundamentally economic nature of modern warfare can be seen in saber-rattling rhetoric against China deployed by both parties in the economically-fading United States.

Today, I'm struck by the fact that the major conflicts in the world today are no longer between countries, but within countries. Statistics show that even as organized warfare is at a historic low, violence and chaos within countries is increasing almost daily all around the world. Sometimes these are internal "cold wars" between opposing factions, such as conflicts between Republicans and Democrats in the United States. But other places which were previously held together by force are in the grip of full-on civil wars like Syria and Iraq. Ethnic groups like the Kurds are trying to establish their own nation-state. Independence movements are active in Scotland and Catalonia, among other places. A military coup just took place in Myanmar. Civil wars are roiling Ethiopia and Sudan, among other places in Subsaharan Africa, and Senegal is said to be on the verge of "apocalypse." India is gripped by tensions between Hindus and Muslims. Violent protests by citizens against their own governments are taking place all around the world. These internal conflicts seem to be the way of the future, as a quick glance at the news headlines will confirm.

While wars of conquest and assimilation may be mostly a thing of the past in the era of nuclear weapons, it feels as through our modern societies are perennially coming apart at the seams.

A Universal Society?

Given that the overall trend throughout human history has been a consolidation of formerly independent societies, an obvious question emerges: will all societies eventually merge into one giant, undifferentiated global society? Is this the logical endpoint? Is this possible, or even desirable?

Moffett doesn't think so. He argues that while societies come and go, belonging to one is an integral part of being human. We will always instinctively sort ourselves into groups that differentiate insiders from outsiders. That is, societies, on some fundamental level, give us meaning.

He cites the example of the remote island of Futuna in the Pacific Ocean which is only 47 square kilometers in size. Despite the island's small size and remoteness, it was still home to two separate chiefdoms—the Alo and the Sigave—who were often in conflict with one another. Henderson Island in the remote Pacific was even smaller at 37 square kilometers and supporting perhaps only a few dozen people—too small for multiple societies to form. Their population had died out by the time of contact with Europeans so we have no way of knowing whether they truly were a lone society in isolation, or if they still maintained some degree of otherness from those whom they knew were out there somewhere beyond the horizon in the vast Pacific Ocean.

Another example he cites are the Tukanoans—twenty or so tribes living in Amazonia each speaking a different language or dialect. Marriages between members of the same tribe are forbidden despite the fact that the tribes are economically completely dependent on one another: "Their compulsory spousal exchanges have created what to my mind are the tightest alliances ever recorded, currently totaling about 30,000 Amazonian souls. Yet for all that, the Turkuoan tribes remain clear and separate, each confined to specific area." (349).

People often point to supranational entities like the European Union or the United Nations as signs that we are continuing the trend towards larger and larger societies. Or they point to globalized, homogenized, corporatized culture: people around the world wear the same fashions, consume the same fast food, listen to the same music, and watch the same entertainment and sporting events. Is it possible to abolish borders completely and enable human beings to connect with one another directly without the mediating influence of society? As trade has broken down borders between the free movement of goods, could we also abolish borders for the free movement of people? Will all of humanity eventually dissolve into one amorphous, characterless mass where everyone is pretty much the same and there is no longer anything to fight over or any enemy to fight?

Moffett doesn’t think so. While we may be integrating culturally in certain ways thanks to global trade and mass communication, we always feel an inherent attachment to the culture of our birth, he says. Neither the EU nor global pop culture have supplanted the deep need for belonging that societies fulfill for their members. In any case, wars are not caused by enmity between ordinary people, so greater communication is not a panacea.

[H]umankind can erect umbrella organizations comprised of many nations. Yet such a universal group would also fail to completely supersede our bonds to societies...(349)...the failure of alliances to supersede people's affiliation to a society holds true universally, the United Nations and the European Union included. These intergovernmental organizations don't earn people's emotional commitment because they lack ingredients that make them real for the members. The EU may be the most ambitious attempt at economic integration conceived; yet it will never supplant the nations within it. The members don't see the EU as an entity worthy of their loyalty the way they do their countries, and for several reasons.

First off, it's borders are not fixed—in fact, are subject to revision as states enter or go. Additionally, its members have a history of conflict dating from the Middle Ages, and a split already exists from east to west between communist and capitalist cultures. To top that all off, the EU offers no grand foundation story, no venerable symbols or traditions, and there's little sense that anyone would fight and die for Europe as they might do for their nation.

That makes the EU a political coalition much like the Iroquois Confederacy was, though with less power. Each member country handles issues relating to its citizens' identity and remains the focus of their self-worth, an outlook that makes membership in the EU secondary and disposable. An analysis of the 2016 Brexit vote shows that those most strongly thinking of themselves as English went against staying with the EU. Those voters saw an economic and peacekeeping tool as a threat to their national identity. (350)

Financial and security issues hold the EU together. The same can be said for Switzerland, a country subject to perennial scrutiny because, as the four languages and complex territoriality of its people attest, its nationhood rests on a detailed social and political alliance between 26 local communities, or cantons...The EU and Switzerland are regional entities kept together by the perceived needs to counter hazards from outsiders, which gives both a reasonable chance of success. A global human union would have no such motivation, and would therefore be far more precarious. (351)

China’s millennials, Generation Z leading nation away from Hollywood films, American culture, US brands (SCMP)

It's often been said that if we were to discover intelligent life somewhere beyond our world, it would suddenly cause us to become aware of our shared identity as Homo sapiens which would supersede all other distinctions between the members of different societies. A hypothetical alien race could act as the outsider allowing us to embrace our common humanity. But even that would not render superfluous the need to belong to a society. We would still want to feel a part of a group, even if a new race of space aliens were to emerge from somewhere out there in the galaxy.

Popular science fiction tales like The War of the Worlds depict all of humankind pulling together against a common enemy. Yet our societies will endure even this. Space aliens wouldn't make nations irrelevant any more than Europeans arriving in Australia caused Aborigines to dispense with their tribes...Moreover, when societies...turn to one another, whether for commercial advantage or to defend against aliens, that reliance doesn't diminish the weight they place on their differences. The notion of cosmopolitanism, the idea that the people of the world will come to feel a primary connection to the human race, is a pipe dream. (351)

This makes sense from a multi-level society perspective—the addition of an additional tier does not cause the levels below it to disappear. The structure of human societies is to some degree hard-wired into the human brain (c.f. Dunbar’s number) Our societies are what make us human, as surely as our intelligence, our tool use, our art and music, our capacity for speech, and our capacity to love. We would not want to erase such distinctions, Moffett says, even if we had the ability to do so:

What might happen if people could somehow forego their markers or somehow put aside the drive to categorize each other with labels? In such a world the only differences people would perceive would be between individuals—not between groups...[B]y discarding our differences, or our penchant for making judgements about the differences, could we [do] away with societies entirely? Would the beehive of networks built up through international travel and Facebook friendships interlink us so indiscriminately that we would actually secure that elusive panhuman unity, encompassing every man, woman, and child? (351)

While casting off ethnic and societal markers may sound good at first blush, the move would undoubtedly mean the loss of much of what humans cherish. Nationalists or patriots, people care about their memberships and few would willingly give them up. Nor could they, because human responses to groups are involuntary. Markers are two-edged swords, causing us to discount those who differ from us, yet at the same time imparting an esprit de corps with complete strangers who fit our expectations. To abandon human markers would strike against timeless psychological yearnings.

No doubt if a mass hypnotist caused us to forget our differences, we would scramble to discover new differences to hold dear. The only way to retool this human attribute would be for a surgeon with near-miraculous understanding of the nervous system to ablate portions of the brain. The result of this science-fictional adjustment would be creature we wouldn't recognize as ourselves. I'm unsure how one could measure whether such people were any happier than we are today, but surely, they would no longer be us...(352)

Rest assured, few facets of life match a society in striking passion in the human heart, so long as other societies exist to compare with our own. Provided we don't re-engineer ourselves and instead choose to remain fully human, societies, and the markers that bring us together and set us apart, are here to stay signifying the boundaries between people in our minds, and setting the borders between them physically, across the earth's surface. (353)

That’s the end of the book! In the final post of this series, I'll summarize what we’ve learned. (originally part of this post, but I decided to break it off separately)

[1] Eric R. Wolf, Europe and the People Without History, p. 77

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