Energy Future, Part 3: Authoritarianism and Sociobehavioural Control
In Part 1, I argue that energy underpins everything, including human complex societies. In Part 2, I suggest that the increasing need for diminishing resources, especially finite or limited ‘renewable’ ones, invariably leads to geopolitical tension between competing polities.
A corollary of this rising political tension tends to be increasing domestic authoritarianism as the ruling caste struggles to maintain control of its own population in the face of anti-war narratives and movements, and the resulting — at least for the masses, not necessarily for society’s elite — tightening of economic conditions as resources are directed towards the military/security/industrial complex and related ‘control’ mechanisms. This results in diminishing returns for citizens: they get less and less benefit from their ‘investments’ in supporting the ruling caste of society. To counter these diminishing returns, the ‘rulers’ of a society seek greater control via a variety of means, but particularly economic and behavioural. A larger proportion of a society’s ‘wealth’ must be allocated away from the masses and towards the ruling caste’s favoured ‘projects’ and citizens must be ‘convinced’ of the need for the resulting ‘austerity’.
This is neither a ‘modern’ phenomenon nor a unique one. It has its roots in pre/historical times with the development of large, complex societies. As human groupings became larger and necessarily more complex, organisational structures develop that give rise to occupational differentiation and thereby differential access to resources, including information. This differential access soon develops into hierarchical relationships within the community. With a ruling elite that is for the most part completely free of the restraining impulses that exist within kinship-based groups, motivation to maintain such a powerful/privileged position within a society results in a hereditary-based ruling elite or mechanisms for keeping particular interest groups/families/etc. in dominant positions.
When diminishing returns are encountered for the geographical region controlled by the sociopolitical elite, it was generally countered through expansion into unconquered, peripheral regions where wealth could be extracted to support the core (i.e., ruling caste). Political tension between competing polities often was the result with the elite of competing societies coercing and/or convincing their subservient populations of the necessity to engage in war with the ‘other’.
Archaeologist Joseph Tainter points out in The Collapse of Complex Societies that various theories exist as to how complexity in human societies has developed. For example: managerial hierarchies emerge as population or other stress increases; internal class conflict creates a need for protecting the privileged; conflict with competing groups leads to needed sociopolitical shifts; or, several interrelated factors combine.
Two main schools exist: conflict and integration. The conflict theory basically posits that “the governing institutions of the state were developed as coercive mechanisms to resolve intrasocietal conflicts arising out of economic stratification…to maintain the privileged position of a ruling class that is largely based on the exploitation and economic degradation of the masses” (p. 33). Integrationists argue that complexity arose because of social needs such as shared social interests, common advantages, and consensus; a positive response to the stresses affecting human populations and the differential rewards to certain members is the cost for the benefits of centralisation.
Both schools of thought have pros and cons. And although they differ in their fundamental premises, they both acknowledge the role of legitimising activities by the ruling elite — some of which must include real, material outputs such as symbolic manipulation and coercive sanctions.
Concerns about controlling behaviour through such mechanisms as symbolic manipulation and/or coercive sanctions has a long and sordid history, whether on an individual level or on a broader social level. As societies get both larger and more complex, maintaining social order becomes of vital importance to the ruling elite for various reasons.
As Noam Chomsky argues in Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance:
“While methods differ sharply from more brutal to more free societies, the goals are in many ways similar: to ensure the ‘great beast,’ as Alexander Hamilton called the people, does not stray from its proper confines. Controlling the general population has always been a dominant concern of power and privilege…Problems of domestic control become particularly severe when the governing authorities carry out policies that are opposed by the general population. In those cases, the political leadership may…manufacture consent for its murderous policies.”
This manufacturing of consent can be seen in the increasing influence/control of the narratives that circulate in a society, particularly by way of government propaganda and mass media institutions. This tends to increase not only because the ruling caste wishes to carry out military incursions in far-off lands (resulting in hardships/sacrifices for the majority of the domestic population) but because they wish to justify/rationalise/legitimise their positions of power and prestige since the domestic population far outnumbers the ruling elite and is a far more direct threat to them when/if they revolt/rebel.
Murray Rothbard similarly argues in Anatomy of the State a major concern for the ruling elite is how to maintain their power. Their typical approach is the use of force but their basic problem is ideological. Any government regardless of ‘type’ requires support from a majority of its citizens, even passive resignation, given the minority status of the State (its nobility and bureaucracy). The ruling class necessarily must be small as it is supported by production surpluses. While it can attract some allies in the population, “the chief task of the rulers is always to secure the active or resigned acceptance of the majority of the citizens.” (p. 19)
Creating vested economic interests is one way to secure support. Sharing the benefits of rule attracts followers but still not a majority. Thus, “the majority must be persuaded by ideology that their government is good, wise and, at least, inevitable, and certainly better than other conceivable alternatives.” (p. 20)
The ‘intellectuals’ of society take the role of persuading the citizens. They create and disseminate the ideas/beliefs passively adopted, for the most part, by the masses. These opinion-molders are needed by the State and thus offered security, income, and prestige within the State apparatus. The arguments by the State and intellectuals to garner support of the masses are varied and many but come down to a few basics: the rulers are wise/great (e.g., divinely appointed, society’s elite, experts) and leadership/rule/government is inevitable (i.e., evil would befall society without it).
One very successful device to achieve support has been the union of the Church and State; with this, rulers were anointed by God or were God and it was blasphemous to resist. “The States’ priestcraft performed the basic intellectual function of obtaining popular support and even worship for the rulers.” (p. 23).
In addition, instilling fear about another system or none at all has also been successful and citizens are persuaded by the argument that present rulers provide an essential service: protection against marauders/criminals. Rothbard goes on to argue that our ruling caste wish a monopoly on such predation.
With the creation of various nation states, the State has discovered an additional means to persuade the masses of its necessity: identification of itself with the territory it governs. “Since most men tend to love their homeland, the identified of that land and its people with the State was a means of making natural patriotism work to the State’s advantage.” (p. 24).
The intellectuals of the State work to convince the masses that any attacks upon the nation are attacks upon them, not simply their ruling caste; this way, wars between rulers are marketed as wars between people and the masses come to the aid of their rulers who are protecting them. This leveraging of nationalism has only really arisen in recent centuries within the West as people use to view conflicts as between nobles and not the land’s people.
In contemporary times we are witnessing increasing attempts at sociobehavioural control via mass surveillance, militarisation of police, persecution of whistle-blowers who unveil government corruption, and especially mass media control/influence. We can expect the trends we are experiencing in these areas to continue and likely enlarge as conditions worsen due to diminishing returns increasing in severity and the elite feeling more threatened and worried about their positions of power and prestige.
Bringing this back to the issue of diminishing resources on a finite planet, one can imagine the increasing pressure upon the ruling caste to not only maintain/increase their competitive edge with other polities as resource control/access becomes more costly but also their ‘control’ over their domestic population as limited ‘wealth’ must be diverted to activities that support the ruling elite’s actions/policies. Even in tyrannical societies, the hoi polloi must be ‘persuaded’ to support, even grudgingly, their leadership.
As Tainter points out, as a society becomes increasingly complex we see a rise in centralisation and control through activity aimed at legitimising the ruling caste, symbolic manipulation, and coercive sanctions. These tendencies are costly in nature and costs must be borne by the masses as the elite siphon societal surpluses or manipulate the economic/monetary system to fund them. Tainter’s thesis maintains that the decreasing benefits of participating/supporting society lead an increasing number of members to ‘opt out’, until eventually a tipping point of withdrawn support leads to sociopolitical collapse.
The speed with which this ‘collapse’ occurs has pre/historically been relatively slow, sometimes taking centuries as was the case for the decline of the Roman Empire. Typically it appears a population can deal with diminishing returns on their investments in society for a long time believing that the situation is temporary, or due to recency bias and the belief that the current situation, as bad as it may be, is ‘normal’.
In a world of quickly diminishing resources that are necessary to support the complexities of society and in which people have lost the skills/knowledge to live self-sufficiently — and here there are no unexploited lands to migrate to — the path towards ‘collapse’ is likely going to be much, much faster than the pre/historical ‘norm’: it will probably be a Seneca-type decline given most of humanity’s reliance upon complex and fragile long-distance supply chains and the various subsystems that support these.
I could go on and on about this sociocultural shift towards control by the elite mostly because I view it as something that is so easily overlooked by most. To reduce one’s cognitive dissonance people deny or justify/rationalise away the actions/policies of their society’s ‘leaders’. They ‘allow’ themselves to be caught up in the fervour of ‘patriotism’. They are quick to point fingers at the ‘other’ that have been painted by the ruling caste as the cause of their problems/predicaments.
As I responded to another on a post in the Peak Oil Facebook Group I am a member: “ I think, in order to keep the various Ponzi schemes from collapsing for as long as possible, keeping people ‘in the dark’ is amongst one of the most important motivations for the ruling caste and snake oil salesmen leveraging all this to their self-interested machinations. Narrative management/control is a powerful, powerful aspect to not only legitimise their positions of power/prestige but to keep them safe from the hordes of the disenfranchised.”
I’ve come to find the following image humourous in a sad way given I don’t really think most are as close as depicted and will continue to have ‘faith’ that our ‘rulers’ are acting in OUR best interests when really they are acting in THEIRS:
And, I close with quotes from the late Carl Sagan and Malcolm X:
If you’ve made it to the end of this contemplation and have got something out of my writing, please consider ordering the trilogy of my ‘fictional’ novel series, Olduvai (PDF files; only $9.99 Canadian), via my website — the ‘profits’ of which help me to keep my internet presence alive and first book available in print (and is available via various online retailers). Encouraging others to read my work is also much appreciated.