I ended my previous post by asking this question: If human beings are fundamentally good, what makes them act in evil ways? I suspect that if we were to make a list of all the factors that contribute to the persistence of human evil — factors that motivate, encourage, or cause us to act in immoral ways — then we would end up with a very long list . . .
But what if we don’t need to make such a list? What if the totality of anthropogenic evil can be traced to just a handful of variables? Indeed, what if there were only a couple of factors involved in all acts of human corruption?
I have recently come to believe just that. I think there are only two basic factors that contribute to the entire range of human depravity and immorality. I may turn out to be in error, but at this time it does appear to me that all of the usual suspects — all the causative or contributory factors that philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and ethicists have been able to identify — can be reduced to one of only two variables.
I am tempted to call these two variables the “evil twins.”
One of the “evil twins” is inside the human individual, in the soul or the psyche. The other is outside the human individual, in the workings of society and culture. The two can be identified and discussed separately, though in practice they often thrive on each other. I call the internal factor “lack of self-awareness” and I call the external factor “structures.” Today my task is to explain the latter, leaving the former for another day.
I have been nudged in the direction of identifying “structures” as one of the “evil twins” after reading Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Johan Galtung, Kenneth Boulding, Ronald Wright, Walter Wink, John Dominic Crossan, Derrick Jensen, and Marshall Rosenberg. None of them, however, can be held responsible for the errors of my interpretation.
By “structures” I mean the objective and systemic aspects of human society and culture. The social and cultural structures in which we live and move and have our being are the products of human interactions with each other and with their environments over hundreds of years; and yet, I locate them outside the human individual. Even though we are partially responsible for having created them, we haven’t created them with full awareness of what they are capable of doing, nor are we in full control of what they do to us. As such, structures are much more than human products. These structures have a life and a momentum of their own; once produced, they come to acquire an undeniable influence on how we think, feel, and act. The influence that social and cultural structures have on us tends to remain beyond our own ability to fully understand, control, or modify them. We are not absolutely determined by them, however. We are determined by social and cultural influences only to the extent that we suffer from the internal factor, i.e., from “lack of self-awareness.”
To sum up, society is more than the sum of its parts; it enjoys a reality that is pretty much independent of its members — particularly if the individuals who make up the society are lacking in self-awareness. Similarly, culture is made up of ideas, beliefs, skills, and habits that are ultimately human products; yet these ideas, beliefs, skills, and habits also act back on us in profound ways but do not easily change in response to our efforts — particularly if we are lacking in self-awareness.
It is very difficult to deliberately change social and cultural structures; they do change, of course, but very slowly and only after much concerted effort and sacrifice . . . and with a great deal of self-awareness.
Let me be more specific. When I say that social and cultural “structures” constitute the external factor responsible for human evil, I am referring to one very particular aspect of these structures. To understand that, we’ll have to look into the origins of these structures.
Human beings have been living on this planet for more than 150 thousand years. Human behavior is remarkably different from that of other living organisms in the degree of its range and flexibility. Like other primates, we organize ourselves socially; unlike other primates, we can organize our societies in virtually as many different ways as we choose. We also have the unique need for “meaning,” which creates the further need for cultural goods in addition to social ones. This combination of traits makes the creation of social and cultural structures a human inevitability. For most of our history, however, we created very simple forms of social and cultural structures, but things changed drastically with the beginning of civilization.
Civilization is a particular type of culture, characterized by the domestication of plants, animals, and humans; which usually leads to the development of writing, a complex division of labor, and the urban-rural divide. About 10 thousand years ago, humans discovered or invented large-scale farming and domestication of animals. This led the previously mobile populations of hunter-gatherers bands to start settling down in villages and towns. As we become increasingly proficient in our control of plants and animals, we began to abandon the old habits associated with subsistence living and encountered for the first time the mixed-blessing of food surplus. This led, about 5000 years later, to the birth of full-fledged civilization in at least 4 or 6 different cultural zones. With the growth of large-scale farming came private property, which produced a class system of landowners and peasants. With surplus food came the need for granaries; the birth of cities meant the concentration of wealth in a relatively small area, creating the need for professional warriors, taxation to protect the city-state, and a distinct religious class to justify all this as part of a larger sacred reality. The earlier hunter-gatherer communities were egalitarian, with few hierarchies, no organized stated, and no stratification. With the birth of civilization, however, Domination Systems emerged for the first time in human history. They have been with us ever since.
A Domination System is a social hierarchy in which those at the bottom live at a considerable disadvantage as compared with those at the top. This is not to say that hierarchy itself is problematic. In fact, many hierarchies can be advantageous to both parties, such as parent-child or teacher-student. A Domination System, however, is a particular type of hierarchy with the following features: (1) it consists of two classes of people, one of which is usually (but not always) more numerous but enjoys significantly less power than the other class; (2) it is a more or less permanent arrangement that allows little possibility of reversal or equality; (3) there is systemic exploitation, so that the advantage of those at the top requires the disadvantage of those at the bottom.
Primates as well as many other animals have social hierarchies, but human beings are the only animals who have created, perpetuated, and legitimized Domination System as an essential element of their social and cultural structures.
A domination system is intended to maintain a significant asymmetry of power between two classes; as such, it requires two additional mechanisms for its own continued existence: (1) violence or threat of violence; and (2) religious or ideological legitimation. A Domination System functions successfully in the long run only if a large majority of people continues to act in the expected fashion; the human tendency to help support a domination system results from a fear of repercussions on the one hand, and an acceptance of the Domination System as legitimate and moral on the other hand.
Civilization has had a paradoxical set of consequences over the last 5000 years, and it is not at all self-evident whether its positive contributions outweigh its many disastrous results. Civilization may be compared to the strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On the one hand, civilization is the engine that increases the level of complexity in social and cultural structures, thereby offering human communities a tremendous adaptive advantage. Without civilization we would have no cars, no hospitals, no schools, no computers, no books, no indoor plumbing, and no electronic gadgets. Without civilization there may be some art, science, history, philosophy, and music, but these would be of a very poor quality relative to what humankind has actually produced. We should all be thankful to the progress of civilization.
On the other hand, we should acknowledge that Domination Systems came into existence alongside, and as a consequence of, the same progress of civilization that has brought us countless desirable goods. Had there been no civilization, there would have been no system of domination—which means no stratification based on wealth and power, no organized violence, and no exploitative hierarchies.
Domination Systems cannot function in the absence of civilization. Whether civilization can function in the absence of Domination Systems is not yet known.
Domination Systems are abnormal and unnatural. They are not in harmony or alignment with human nature; instead of helping us realize our innate goodness, domination systems bring out the worst in ourselves by encouraging us to focus on our short-term and selfish interests.
Domination Systems tend to harm everyone — those at the top as well as those at the bottom; humans as well as animals, plants, oceans, soil, and air. The social and cultural structures serving the Domination System try to convince us that violence is a necessary element in human existence, that the only way to survive in this jungle is to carry a big stick and be ready to use it. Domination Systems are factories whose main product is violence—in multiple sizes, shapes, and brands — and the resulting suffering for both the victims and the perpetrators.
Can a Domination System be dismantled? Yes; better yet, it can be transformed or converted into something healthier and organic, something in harmony with human nature and in alignment with the needs of the creation. But this requires using a form of power that is very different from the one that the domination system likes to use. A Domination System thrives on violence, on destructive power. Throwing a bomb at a domination system is like feeding spinach to Popeye: it will only make the system stronger than before, and more deadly. Instead, the only form of power that has any hope of neutralizing or transforming a Domination System is integrative power. But that is a topic for another day.