Complacency, despite the fact that it is often simply a mundane, unquarrelsome acquiescence to the everyday status quo, should be regarded as a major problem the conscientious must tackle, because it diminishes prognosis for bettering our world, preventing spread of commitment to the philanthropic ethic that would further humanity’s collective cause. We must acknowledge that choosing indifference towards universal needs of our species instead of conscience will inevitably lead to an unsustainability of institutional paradigms upon which civilization depends during the worst kinds of disasters.
At the same time, this is not such an urgent issue that we must coerce populations into compliance by force, for a couple centuries of gradual consciousness-raising would be sufficient to hugely enhance the human race’s idealism while oppressive, ethically inferior standards currently in effect throughout most of the world remain as a baseline, perhaps we could call this the least common denominator. Herding around apathetic human beings during minor crises that are constantly cropping up everywhere is something authority has much experience doing, so much so that response to common emergencies is a well-oiled machine. And even if we wanted to somehow rush the aforementioned consciousness-raising, it would probably not be possible if we tried our hardest, for such deeply rooted social and psychological barriers exist in contemporary societies that changing global conscience, absent some powerful new form of memetic transmission, faces an inertia only transcendable over the course of multiple generations.
Unfortunately, philanthropy and civilization in general encounter a greater foe than complacency. Individuals and subcultures not only naively rely on unaccountable concentrations of influence while attempting to utilize the tenuous mechanisms of nonegalitarian social systems to strive after goals, but actively work to compromise the integrity of collectives for their own gain, conspiring against the public interest in ways that can be highly effective, at least when regarded from a short-term perspective. This is the leering beast of corruption, and while its machinations can be found in every organizational sphere, corruptive tendencies obfuscate progress within some of the most preeminent institutions on the planet.
Coopting of empiricism for oppression is a prime example, as technological advancement often centers around developing more potent methods of exploitation. Humans have spent the entirety of recorded history optimizing destructiveness of warfare in a multimillennial arms race, invading neighboring regions whenever tactical advantages materialize, then submitting populations politically and economically with threat and exaction of harm. War accelerated in calamitousness upon arrival of science-driven mass production in the 20th century with its fast-paced progress: from the start of WW1 to WW2, a mere twenty years was sufficient to go from fighting Western civilization’s battles with horseback riding and rifles that fire a dozen or less rounds per minute, to carpet bombing by airplanes at a range of hundreds of miles, armored vehicles, heavy bombing by vessels such as battleships and destroyers, and automatic rifles that fire more than twenty rounds per second, as well as the capacity of top militaries to reach any spot on Earth within weeks. In the 21st century, computerization has enabled U.S. armed forces to fight remote drone warfare anywhere in the world from installations inside the home country. All major militaries have spy satellites that track movement of paraphernalia everywhere, and ability to crack software encryption is on the rise, so that there is probably no virtual correspondence or computer system invulnerable to interception or attack.
Governments closely guard the most sophisticated technologies in order to maintain advantages over each other, but this is even more of a boon to dominating their own populations, as it becomes increasingly difficult for citizens around the world to engage in public advocacy. Modern law enforcement with its perfected discipline and high-tech weapons can easily disperse demonstrations into a chaos of fleeing, scuffling and arrest, which is especially true of countries that militarize the police and tightly regulate gun ownership. Total dependence of the developed world on networked computers makes it possible to monitor everything, so that privacy no longer really exists. This compromising of safety and freedom by invasive technologies of coercion is already proving divisive in its suppression of independent and honest expression, a trend towards inhibiting opportunity and fulfillment of a social kind, diminishing humanity’s aptitude for harmonious relationships as well as the competency of political discourse, our ability to keep the peace. Erosion of collectivity can produce anarchic draconianism in which human beings are more willing to violate each other at the whim of aggressive authority, intensified by a tide of repudiation for conventional law and order as human initiative disassociates from the morally demanding task of sustaining and building upon traditional norms such as customs, values, beliefs, civic responsibilities or respect for fellow members of communities, potentially breaking loose in a flood of social disorder.
As discussed in earlier chapters, the U.S. political system, a representation-based republic with democratically elected officials and voting on some governmental policies as ‘initiatives’, has become more oligarchic since the mid-20th century. Pricing of most products elevates faster than inflation, which is essentially a manipulation of the populace by businesses. This is possible due to corporations buying up most smaller scale companies or driving them out of business, causing a reduction in the competition that in principle places a capitalist check on price increases. Citizens must work longer hours to support themselves under these market conditions, interfering with their ability to agitate for causes and generally participate in architecting society, for the time is simply unavailable. Collective bargaining and activist measures such as strikes carried out by employees unions, which used to garner better wages and benefits, are no longer as effective because corporations can compensate for any losses in one sector of the economy by their involvement in others, with hundreds of businesses potentially shuttered for years before a significant impact would be made on the bottom lines of huge conglomerates. And American corporations have gone international in search of cheap labor, costing the population jobs, with the national government loath to increase taxation on business since the richest can even further shift their operations to other countries that offer the incentive of tax breaks. Altogether, the general population is being brought to its knees by economic mechanisms that usurp political institutions, shrinking the middle class and expanding the lower.
Despite these trends, Americans are still some of the most affluent citizens in the world, and have not lost the right to vote in an electoral system that is relatively free from corruption as well as the intimidative violence found in many countries, at least in theory capable of curbing economic discontents by mass pressure on government to represent the general interest. However, international capitalism not only manages to exact some coercion upon the nation’s government by doctoring the economy, but is infused into the political system itself via lobbying and campaign financing, in some cases making careers of politicians more obliged to big business than local constituents. Ordinary Americans have remained somewhat vigilant about this threat to their power, and too much pandering to large companies at the expense of citizens remains likely to get a representative booted in the next election, but continued move in this direction may one day render the majority impotent to effect public policy changes, as all possible representation will be compromised, pitting an angry, radicalizing nationalism against uncommitted financial leadership and inciting widespread unrest.
Russia’s communist history exemplifies how corruption can arise from not only external economic pressures but also the internal dynamics of a political system. The revolution of 1917 was in part a backlash against horrendous treatment of the lower class by the Czarist administration during WW1, a rebellion which its orchestrators hoped would enable the country to instill empowering egalitarianism for the sake of rapid industrialization so as to catch up with and perhaps surpass progressiveness of the West. Communist ideology glorified worker’s rights, regarding the economic impact of a majority proletariat’s labor as key to reaching the next stage in humanity’s cultural evolution, engendering societies in which disruptions and inefficiencies of class-based rivalry would be abolished. The middle and upper class bourgeoisie, with their ties to the capitalist paradigm, were severely repressed as this system got up and running, and thousands of executions took place. Its single party format was designed to educate the population into a new lifestyle and way of thinking, with representatives well-schooled in communist ideology stationed as employees at all formerly capitalist businesses, assigned the task of clarifying the philosophy, objectives and mechanisms of political conversion as needed. Government was reorganized for redistribution of wealth via centralized control, which Communist theory predicted would dissolve class distinctions and lead to decentralizing collectivization. It was the most ambitious social engineering experiment ever embarked upon, intended to transform the whole population’s financial status by a radical remodeling of the economy, ultimately with the intention of expunging social discontents that had been operative for millennia.
Karl Marx, the originator of communism, anticipated that this system would initially evince totalitarian tendencies as society struggled to overcome conventional presumptions about human nature, cultural prerogative and financial license. He expected the idea that pecuniary status legitimizes dominance to manifest as resistance against transitioning towards collectivization, and went so far as to give the supposedly temporary arrangement that would fight to dismantle deeply rooted attitudes and inclinations a name: the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.
Whether decline of Russia’s experimental system is attributable to bureaucratic inefficiencies of centralization, the related exigency that its government cover up ongoing logistical failures arising from flawed theorizing of economics, which may have been an exacerbating factor in extreme centralization’s permanence, or some other cause may not be entirely clear, but the country had gone from a dictatorship of principle to party absolutism by the mid-20th century. The tradition of executing those suspected of sympathies with capitalism degenerated into a purge of at least eight million. What had been intended as tutelage of ordinary citizens by party representatives throughout the economy evolved into surveillance networks, a facet of determining who government purges should target. Under these conditions of ubiquitous abuse, unification was maintained by invasively propagandizing the population into rivalry with the U.S., which diverted much of the country’s economy into preparing for a war that never happened and never could have without instantly destroying all of Russia in a retaliatory nuclear attack. This Soviet system, ostensibly still on the road to communism, became one of the most authoritarian states of the 20th century, and alongside the United States terrorized the world with threats of a nuclear end to civilization. The government of Russia was eventually overthrown, its communist movement’s goal of ending the types of conflict associated with class a distant memory.
Over the course of civilized history, many thinkers have devoted effort to social engineering, endeavoring towards understanding the world and human nature in order to construct the best civic systems, analyzing consciousness, behavior, law and order, politics and economics within a wide range of circumstances. Most of this has viewed the cosmos as a static entity, operating according to fixed principles of divine, rationalizable, sometimes enigmatic kinds, but as technical analysis of the past attained proficiency in the Western world of the 19th century, many citizens began to acquire a more robust concept of historical change, with notions that existence’s ontology, the universe, Earth’s environments, and our cultures undergo drastic transformations all coming to the foreground of philosophy and science. At first, systematizing of history tended to look for simplistic patterns of fundamental recursion such as the Hegelian paradigm, but many individuals increasingly contemplated the possibility that spontaneous transfiguration of phenomena may radically defy all precedents for intelligibility.
The most epistemically significant aspect of historical analysis is theorizing of physical evolution, for it seems to promise integration of geological science, the fossil record, heredity and cosmology, a unified account of how the past led to the present and what we can expect of the future, giving humans more than our age-old, static reality to investigate with all its empirical erroneousness, bookended in classical thinking by the illusory conceptualizing of an absolute beginning and end, but rather malleable, long-term direction over which we can wield some control. Charles Darwin’s expounding of biological evolution was its most revolutionary moment, for he immediately made it provable to unequivocality that humans are animals with traits of essentially nonrational, often irrational constitution and temporal antecedence, which might however be alterable in dramatic ways by decisions made according to experimental reasoning in the present. It occurred to many that the most optimal methods for achieving change could in fact be nonegalitarian, perhaps controverting reciprocity as the foundational standard for human relationships, which had manifested in a brand of enlightened idealism instrumental to social development since the origin of law codes in antiquity. It was conceivable that European academia’s Enlightenment era portrayal of the human organism as a rational agent with an ethic universalizable via logic, the culmination of multimillennial discourse, might after all be delusion delaying or even obstructing progress.
Modernizing globalization had been in its preliminary stages during the Enlightenment 18th century, with most of the world not yet technologized to the level of European societies, and even the main body of Europe’s population lacking access to higher education. An upper class existed in every civilized culture, sustaining exclusivity as the most wealthy, learned, and politically powerful demographic, possessing a primary role in determining the course of culture. As economic advantage amongst the home territories and countries of Europe’s empires came to be seen as reliant on a populace mobilized for technical competence, civic-minded humanism gained more traction with intellectuals. The rich began to realize their security depended on committing to some concessions for the sake of the general population’s well-being and satisfaction, leading to groundbreaking philosophies that promoted pursual of egalitarian institutions. This would stimulate transition towards more democratic systems, initially intended as a mechanism by which to uphold legal equalities so that political organization would serve everyone’s interests, making civil unrest obsolete.
Despite the best efforts of enlightened thinkers, conflict erupted across the globe in the 19th and 20th centuries as lingering imperialism struggled to sustain a grip on rebellious locals, citizenries in Europe and elsewhere fought violent battles to overthrow the vestiges of autocratic rule, and oppressed demographics everywhere confronted persecution with civil disobedience and demonstration. The quest for egalitarianism had splintered into aristocracies and bourgeoisie warring for sustainment of their way of life, a proletariat seeking to free itself from the chains of economic exploitation, and innumerable subcultures whose very survival was at stake.
In the early and mid 20th century, as population exploded and turmoil escalated in many locales, declining egalitarian idealism and rise of a survival of the fittest competitive principle, already well underway, broke through remnants of moral and political tradition, washing over the human race in a devastating wave of power plays. Fascist Germany overran all of Europe and began to commit genocide against minority demographics in many countries. Imperial Japan severely subjugated the Chinese during its WW2 era occupation. After the war, as mentioned elsewhere, the Stalinist Soviet Union executed many millions. China’s new communism governed its population with surpassing strictness. Corporate capitalism in the Western world became less obligated to promote social welfare and more engrossed in consolidating financial control with every passing year. By the beginning of the 21st century, commitment to progressive reform in the mold of both religious and secular enlightenment had largely been derailed, devolving into a brazen cultural imperialism that may become unflinchingly nihilistic enough to erase every trace of any vulnerable individual on the planet, heedless of principle.
In the contemporary world, finance only stokes the flames of a growing nihilism (in the Nietzschean sense) that is despoiling ethical tradition. Profit models utilized by large corporations judge success based on rate of fiscal growth, with exponential expansion in wealth being the standard of viability in a company’s business strategy, for it guarantees larger salaries amongst top officials, indicates a trend towards market dominance via monopoly, and allows investment in additional sectors of the economy, a diversification which insures conglomerates against misfortune in any particular venture. Unfortunately, there are many aspects of society that are difficult to quantify and thus do not figure into profit assessments: quality of life, values of a culture, financial security of the general population, and the organizational integrity of political systems.
Neglect of more intangible factors that contribute to a society’s health has pushed some parts of the world way beyond what traditions permitted even a couple generations ago. Greedy acquisitiveness is more prevalent in populations than it used to be as corporate leadership spars for hegemony, and ordinary individuals fight to remain solvent in an environment where money is sucked out of their pockets at maximal levels by manipulation of the market. Transmission of memes has lost its sense for the ethical, mimicking the vitiated nature of advertising and character portrayals in corporate media, a shallowness, subversiveness and contradictoriness. Imagery along with behavioral mimesis in many cultures are more violent and sexual than they used to be, desensitizing citizens to exploitation. The empathetic dimension of ethical responsibility is degenerating due to desensitization, and its rational dimension rarely matures as inducement of superficial decision-making proves most effective in stimulating consumption. Individuals are less concerned with cogent discourse and vigilant about the ideological direction of their countries, political systems radicalize as they are infused with a market-driven bankrupting of values, pushing much of the modernized world towards exploitative authoritarianism within acquiescent populations.
In the United States, monopolies in the private business domain are expropriating many of the country’s institutions in order to consolidate financial control and maximize profit. The most sobering factor in this contemporary capitalism is its intersection with media and democracy. Whatever suspect, probably self-defeating economic thrust is being made, media seems to be one of the main vehicles, with mechanisms of publicity often devoted to the purpose of producing an illusion that unifying mass movements are taking place, most likely deflecting attention of some demographics away from declines in wealth, security, freedom and quality of life. Democracy has largely been assimilated into this circus of hype, so that political discourse is becoming more civically incompetent, endless jabbering about manufactured scandals that have no connection with what is really going on in the world. Decadence of official information has become so dire that it is impossible to discern from traditional communications mediums such as news, T.V. shows or big budget websites what exactly the status of the social system is. A network of independent publicity consisting in personal postings such as blogs, messaging and video is coalescing as a replacement for the descent of popular culture towards exploitation, but this format is extremely disorganized, so diverse that the overall course being set is almost incoherent, making it to this point marginally capable of countering imperialistic finance.
Deterioration of the American value system, economic hardship hitting the majority increasingly hard, and rampant disinformation have worsened some long-standing issues in the country. The justice system has always been liable to discriminate against the poor and especially minority ethnicities, with these demographics the most arrested, falsely convicted and harshly punished, while the financially well off have better legal representation and are more apt to obtain lenience. Health care is of exorbitant cost in the U.S., requiring similarly expensive insurance that must usually be paid for as a perk of employment at the top-tier companies, so-called “benefits”. This makes medical treatment prohibitive for a large proportion of the citizenry, ruling out preventative care that would mitigate incidence of many illnesses associated with aging, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, which reduces lifespans and quality of life for lower income individuals. The country is quite multicultural, and tensions between those of different background can occur in many areas. These hot button issues have been inflamed by a less civic-minded lifestyle with accompanying disintegration towards “fend for yourself” and “take care of your own” social mores, exploding into divisiveness along class and racial lines, a subcultural isolationism that foments bullying, crime, hostility towards immigrants, political factionalism, smeared reputations, and prejudicial profiling along with stereotype-based accusations, all placing strain on law and order as well as leading to disillusionment about the feasibility of legal equality as a working standard for progress.
So corruption, the hijacking of institutions for purposes detrimental to the well-being and future of populations, surfaces in many ways. Technological advantages are used as a means to scare, goad, dupe, tempt citizenries towards a warlike lifestyle, making them willing to relinquish political prerogative based on assurances of defense from or sovereignty over cultural rivals, which tends to decrease the efficiency of progress and sometimes threatens societies with comprehensive destruction. Enlightened social engineering is susceptible to transitioning from a progressing sequence of idealistic reforms to mechanisms of oppression that avail themselves of bellicose ideologies such as “survival by conflict” whenever they can. In 20th century Russia, egalitarian idealism evaporated, replaced by a totalitarian state that posed grave dangers to its own populace as well as the rest of the world. In the 20th and 21st century United States, a political system of democratic representation began to transmogrify into elitist oligarchy as wealth was monopolized and consolidated in conjunction with financial mechanisms of the corporate paradigm. Forums of democracy were drawn into this system, with much of the general population becoming poorer while official information sourcing misleads, obstructs organizing, and renders unsustainable the values that had upheld solidarity in all sorts of communities, generating nihilism as well as growing rejection of the culture’s established legal channels. As exploitative capitalism took root in the U.S., the justice and medical systems served wealth more exclusively. All of this economic manipulation caused a multicultural society to be less conscience-motivated, coupled with renewal of the divisions along class and ethnic lines that had been attenuated by reforms some decades earlier, spawning a more hazardous society.
Corruptive forces clearly cannot be linked with any singular component of society or set of local conditions, for analysis of history finds them in many spheres of human activity and every era. Pinning responsibility on particular institutions and then attempting to rail against or otherwise assail these frameworks can be seductive, but corruption must run deeper than any single organizational strategy or form of culture. Does something about human nature predispose many communities to equivalent sorts of discontentments?
Firstly, all kinds of behavior takes place that is not highly normalized. Individuals interact throughout their lives for the sake of pleasures that relationships provide, such as humor, bonding, learning, helping, problem-solving, even the damaging acts of bullying or insulting. The social dimension of life provides entertainment and gives us opportunity to accomplish more, as an integral, simply unavoidable element of daily existence. When social norms are involved, this is frequently of an informal nature that allows for flexibility and personal preference, with any misunderstandings usually insignificant enough that those involved dismiss the incident or harmlessly part ways. Of course depreciation to one’s reputation as regarded by someone else occurs even under casual circumstances, in such a way that conflict is impossible to ignore, but while this can be difficult to deal with emotionally and require some deliberate reconciliation to overcome, most spats are a brief episode of immaturity or nonrationality and do not amount to anything big. However, there is a subset of behaviors, those associated with making the decisions which are core to actualization via collectivity, essential to one’s livelihood, and upon which maintenance of society depends, typically adjuncted to the exigencies of occupations or subcultures, having greater import for lives and presenting us with issues that absolutely cannot be neglected. In these cases, normalization becomes more than incidental or dispensable, but formative to social structure and a determining factor in long-term fates of individuals, the medium for humanity’s most intentional and often explicit purposes, placing the weight of necessity upon us. This is the kind of socialized environment that tends to seed far-reaching progress and on which institutions rest.
When individuals convene to complete a project they care strongly about, in relation to which they take themselves and the outcome seriously, requiring the group to engage in problem-solving of some complexity for the sake of creating something new, where each member’s self-identified success or failure is at stake, what does this entail absent all preestablished norms? First, introductory conversations will take place to break the ice and get everyone comfortable, including some anticipatory shop talk. When the time comes for getting tasks accomplished, their technical challenges resolved, multiple clusters of interaction happen simultaneously, arrangements which morph as affairs proceed. When someone has knowledge that others lack while not feeling too much reservation from personality or immediate conditions, he or she will step up and take the lead, informing collaborators and guiding the effort forward. Some individuals may become displeased with the direction in which the group is going and get animated, but will not be judged with much negativity if what they have to say is important. When an individual is uncertain, curious, recognizes an opportunity to assimilate new information, or is otherwise averse to dominating the proceedings, he or she will grow scrupulous and spend more time listening and observing than imposing on others. Altogether, participants have dual concerns: making sure they contribute expertise sufficient for the group’s objective to be accomplished, and also the adoption of various roles – leader, subordinate, cooperative peer, speaker, listener, pal, initiator – that are more passive, deferential, cordial or assertive as the situation seems to necessitate, a chameleonlike shifting between social postures.
While individuals relate, norms start to coalesce as relations and roles. Some have more expertise in certain domains than others, and acquire a measure of authority in association with technical matters. Some really like each other, some treat each other nicely while never getting that close, some have tepid feelings towards each other, some seem to always encounter friction when they converge, and some prefer avoidance. Those who are more socially adept can become hubs of the group’s organizing, responsible for mediating a variety of relationships.
This spontaneous normalization of a pragmatic collective, the solidifying of relationship dynamics into persisting roles, eventually falls into one of two general types, and often both: logistical norms and status norms. Logistical norms are the social orientations within which it has been determined that behaviors will meet with technical success. When group members have agreed on a particular fact, interpretation of the facts, or procedural strategy, this mutual consent can become informally or formally binding, a foundation for further action. If it is decided amongst a group of physics buffs that their model rocket needs a greater amount of fuel than is on hand, those involved will proceed with getting more under this assumption, or if it is determined that a subsequent meeting is necessary for negotiators to reach compromise, the group will designate the next meeting time. Status norms are social orientations that define implications of behavior for the identity of both individuals and groups as affected by collaborating. This consists in the impact of logistical and relational developments on reputation, defining one’s fluctuating role in the collective as a relative influence upon decision-making. If group members are held responsible for a failure, the status of their judgement may diminish and vice versa, or if individuals are constantly offending or undermining others, they may be suppressed despite technical competence. The two categories often overlap, as in the case of someone with greater know-how becoming a leader, or someone with better social organizing talent granted sway in determining who will contribute to technicalities at which times and in what ways.
Reciprocation is the essence of normalization, for it is rare that someone pursues social behavior long-term without expectation of mutual respect or at least a gratifying response of provocation, tolerance or impotence, with relations that fall short of either party’s consent being almost by definition a conflict. But when differences in capacitation to reciprocate exist and it is vital to accept these discrepancies if collective purposes are to be satisfied, consenting to inequality of status becomes necessary, a trust that goes beyond the desire to have one’s social touchstones honored, further comprised of ceding control to someone else for the sake of procuring benefits or achieving successes.
Already touched upon, there are various criteria for consenting to relationships of dominance/submission during the kinds of collective endeavors regarded as particularly important. If individuals have greater aptitude, they are given a larger role in setting their collective’s course while it seeks to achieve its aims. If individuals are on good terms with many group members or easy to get along with in general, they will often be offered a bigger role in the collective’s activities. If individuals display leadership ability or especially want that role, they will be more likely to attain a commanding position. If structure of the collective makes a moderator obligatory, functional necessity may assign prerogative to regulate or overrule fellow members. Rules may be put in place delegating greater responsibility to some members, so that norms for obedience uphold status disparities.
Status norms essentially consist in distributions of the value that members attribute to each other within a collective. These attributions are complex and flexible networks of social identity that make group assent partially constraining to personal motive, a main determinant of who has license to do or say what to whom and when. Norms of status manage dominance and submission, the relative control individuals have in relation to each other, and when contours of status stabilize, social value transitions into a lasting array of ranks from which hierarchical organization emerges. When social hierarchies are reinforced over time such that they come to transcend individual members, indoctrinated as a condition of even highest ranking involvement in the collective, status norms have become customs, cultural traditions of the kind characterizing our own species’ way of life.
Customs of status are often logistically necessary as practical ground rules for consent, giving behaviors reliable meanings in a way fostering the orderliness and restraint that guard a collective against chaos and dissolution over long periods of time, but also participate in defining the relative worth of each member at any given moment, so that dominance typically corresponds in an approximate way to superiority, and submission to inferiority. Those capacitated for greater reciprocation to the collective as recognized by its customs have more authority, which often places a priority on their decisions, behaviors and well-being. Individuals entrusted with leadership tend to be more respected, better treated, diligently protected, wealthier, and stand a greater chance of becoming legendary. When it is customary for authority to constitute superior stature, the role of leader is in high demand with those inclined towards ambitiously making a name for themselves, so that high-level decision-making for the sake of a collective paradoxically attracts most strongly those desirous to promote themselves, or who unrealistically believe their competence is superior, or who simply view themselves as entitled to a more illustrious and comfortable life. Thus, social hierarchies which would work best by positioning individuals of greatest merit as authorities in actuality attract many of those who are most arrogant or willing to flaunt collective need for the experience of personal superiority. For this reason, logistical norms frequently become subordinated to status norms in ways that can be problematic, with influence more about becoming socially superior than progressing towards the most accurate, truest possible assessments of a situation, best addressed to practical need. Tension between responsible decision-making and the pursuit of prestige is perpetual as authority becomes power, and this power a struggle for supremacy at the more than occasional expense of functionality.
With logistical norms of both role-delineating customs and collective strategizing deeply entwined with status norms of superiority and inferiority in humanity’s social structures, the effort to arrive at working truth puts identity on the line. In an environment of power, the successful application of knowledge is not merely a means to sustain culture but additionally a status symbol, and occupational security as well as advancement depend on more than the collective’s well-being, but also getting one’s way together with politically navigating circumstances such that inevitable logistical failures do not erode respect for personal or collective authority enough to instigate disastrous conflicts. A difficult balance must be achieved between the decision-making group’s viability as an effective, trusted entity and each individual’s convictions and self-interests. When the scale tips in the direction of individual interests, power struggles can ensue with increased deception, and likewise if issues arising in conjunction with an organization or intrinsic to its operations are capable of destroying key decision makers, its overall reputation with the wider community, or its very survival.
An influential collective is always facing three general conflicts of interest: solidarity must be sustained without stunting the freedom of its members to act and cooperate with spontaneous independence or vice versa, and neither solidarity nor independent agency can be emphasized to such an extent that persistence under external conditions is impossible. When a collective strays too far towards concerning itself with solidarity and away from independence, it is overwhelmed by groupthink tendencies, a colluding self-affirmation that detracts from innovatively dealing with novelty, insufficiently mobilized for adapting to its surroundings. If individualism becomes too extreme, complex collaboration grows impossible to coordinate and the collective is incapable of making major decisions or simply disbands. If any mixture of innovative liberality with collusive solidarity is ineffectual in discerning or responding to external causality, from complacency, deficient technical sophistication, inadequate precedents or even mere chance, the collective will encounter crises that may drive it to extinction.
Human prehistory provides exemplification of excessive independence’s consequences. Some scientists suggest that the entirety of Homo sapiens is descended from a single woman in what is currently Botswana, and even if the bottleneck does not ultimately prove to be this extreme, it is clear from genetic evidence that most of the world’s inhabitance germinated from migrations that could be as small as only a few thousand individuals in total over the course of tens of thousands of years. The multibillion strong population of our planet, with its diverse customs, languages, and wide variety of local traits, originated as close-knit, homogeneous communities that probably dispersed for noncombative reasons, perhaps because a tribe became too large, merely from out of wanderlust, or because family groupings had agreed to disagree and placidly parted ways. The species began as a single race, but with lack of commitment to maintaining contact within cohesive tradition, the potent force of genetic, cognitive and cultural drift produced thousands of languages, what seems in our keen intraspecies perception to be a large assortment of strikingly different traits, and the massive collection of beliefs and practices. Prehistoric tribes that had separated for peaceable, harmless reasons could become embittered, feuding rivals as populations swelled, contact was renewed, and competitions for access to territory developed, with regions throughout the world in the grip of recurring warfare for possibly more than a hundred thousand years. Alienation was not utter catastrophe, as precivilized humans were more than willing and able to engage in commerce also, the exchanging of ideas and material goods upon which success of the first civilizations depended, but also resulted in toleration for escalated, sweeping conflicts as a scion of tribal warfare, culminating with invasions, conquests, institutions of oppression, and an imperialistic outlook that threatens to disrupt the lives of millions to this day.
In our own 20th and 21st century time, immigrants with closely related ancestry, who may have been neighbors only a few generations ago, end up fighting massively destructive wars under the banners of their new countries. These citizens have common interests, wants, needs, modes of practical and technical thinking, but governments seem unable to extricate themselves from a competition-based, projection of power approach to political relations despite its long-term futility and encumbrance of progress. If our species had committed to preserving cultural integration as it expanded, beyond what seems relevant for our pleasure and survival, perhaps imperialism would have never existed despite occasional warring, but as it stands this fantasy could not be further from the real, for rivalry and the breaking off of relations are submerged in the very essence of humanity’s lifestyle.
Drawbacks of overstressing solidarity are also easily noted. Though the laissez faire system revealed itself vulnerable to downturns that can, without well-organized interventions, temporarily sink the global economy, lightly regulated capitalism surpasses by a large margin the economic capabilities of totalitarian societies in which access to information is tightly restricted in the service of inducing compliance to rigid centralization. Countries of this type tend to be less innovative, rapid in their adjustments to changing conditions, and seem shockingly unlivable to even the most banally consumerist cultures. These states’ economic inefficiencies and oppressiveness to their citizens make them almost impossible to sustain long-term without assistance from external sources, and even though totalitarianism terribly frightens its populaces into underperforming submissiveness much of the time, it usually succumbs to revolution or solidifies its power with weapons and wealth provided by governments of capitalist societies that are more than willing to contribute a bit of lucre towards cementing their advantage. It remains to be seen whether monopolistic corporatizing of capitalism will veer so far into the authoritarian that problems typical of totalitarianism begin to appear.
Invention of the personal computer in the latter half of the 20th century offers a lesson in how big problems can arise from deficient response to unforecasted conditions. In the mid-1970’s, a troupe of young technology aficionados including original members of what would become the computer corporations Apple and Microsoft had yet to make it in the business world. They were learning the ins and outs of hardware and programming as amateurs, working on their machines from home, then meeting periodically for collaboration in order to share ideas. It was a small-scale effort, but as ideal a collective project as human beings can likely muster, with very little pretentiousness or rivalry. These guys were doing what they loved, teaming up to advance their knowledge and the field of computer engineering as fast as possible from out of sheer pleasure.
Bill Gates, who had dropped out of Harvard to pursue a career in computers, founded Microsoft in 1975, and Steve Jobs quit his gig at an apple orchard to found Apple in 1976 with Steve Wozniak. A buoyant atmosphere of full bore progress at the expense of sleep, hygiene and a social life persisted as these founders hired their first employees, who possessed the same ethic of dedication. Gates was known to equip a room with pizza and soda for his workers’ all-night programming binges.
In technological terms, this environment was perfect for rapid growth, with a series of breakthroughs that by the mid-1980’s had made personal computers integral to business in the United States, placed a PC in the homes of tens of millions, and designed a GUI (graphical user interface) called “Windows” that has been the operating system template for every mass marketed computer since. But in cultural terms, the full steam ahead, no reservations approach towards developing computers gave rise to some social dilemmas. These unassuming startups quickly became huge, multibillion dollar corporations determined to protect their intellectual property rights and patents, exerting themselves to control the market as all successful companies do, yet individuals throughout the country still inhabited a subculture of spontaneous collaboration in the bent of early hobbyist programming, speedily acquiring levels of proficiency sufficient to produce computer technology of equivalent quality without pay, often distributed to fellow programmers and the general public for free. A battle commenced between big business and the amateur community, with many computer users bypassing technology that had required hundreds of millions of dollars to release by accessing free resources instead, and corporations generating ever more stringent safeguards with engineering and finance to make not-for-profit hardware and software inaccessible to consumers.
The outcome was that this field became obsessed with both cracking down on freedom and utilizing any sliver of freedom that remained for subversive purposes. Major corporations labored to assure incompatibility of their programming code with outside innovation, and many millions of dollars were spent on contriving invasive mechanisms for surveilling user behavior, while hackers continually found ingenious ways to circumvent these measures Robinhood style. The upshot was that a computing arms race between authorities and rebels eradicated citizen privacy, with all computer users subjected to unwanted monitoring. This has reconstituted the fabric of society, as anyone can be policed by organizations or have their information and activities scrutinized by competent coders at any time, with communication increasingly dangerous to both individual citizens and governance of all types. The first computer whizzes gave not a thought to security, and we have probably reached a point where there is no solution. The field of computing blitzed through its technological barriers heedless of impact on the culture at large, and despite some effort to cobble together fixes such as “password strength”, an ineffectual strategy if servers that store user passwords are cracked or keystrokes can be recorded, even the most basic social exchanges have come to involve risk. The safety of honest expression in all mediums of electronic correspondence will most likely be unsalvageable.
In much of the Western world, especially the United States, individualism has been glorified with good reason, for when a concerted effort is not made to champion independence, society falls victim to a toxic mix of mob mentality and divergent subcultural evolution that readily stirs up vicious disputes, as shown by prehistory’s feuding wars and subsequent transition to militant imperialism in civilized contexts. But the individual is not infallible, for one of the sources of corruption in modern society is mere absence of personal vigilance about the course of leadership’s decision-making, and conversely the negligence of supervision to adequately incentivize personal integrity in the education system and additional institutional settings. The typical citizen tends to permit a large amount of corruption in the domain of authority, and typical authorities take little personal responsibility for many consequences of their decisions, especially as applicable to domains within which those immediately involved are regarded as of low social status. Individualism in the upper tiers of a social system breeds corruption due to rogue ambition, intoxication with power, and convictions that one is superior, while individualistic inclinations in lower tiers can foment corruption when systems fail to credit or even grant the opportunity for personal achievement, infusing jaded morale into average civil action and inducing apathy about daily repercussions of familial and collegial roles, a patchwork of many billion thankless moments which nonetheless largely determine the whole temperament of a population.
Inaptness in reacting to logistical crisis is also a potential source of institutional corruption. When problems crop up that are severe enough to deeply tax a collective’s response mechanisms, perhaps because lack of predictive foresight brought an issue on too suddenly for mobilization, or it is unprecedented enough that preparation is deficient, or simply because the scale is larger than an organization’s design can handle, even firmly established, impeccably disciplined hierarchies may start to degenerate. In these cases, collective efforts must deal with sometimes grim failures, and even unavoidable blunder can threaten faith in intendances, leading to panic and a compounding of poor judgement as leadership exerts itself to contain damage to the authority structures themselves, with blame and suppression of dissent intensified into extremes that can destroy formerly powerful individuals as well as respected traditions. Top ranking officials are dismissed, internal squabbling breaks out, enforcement of standard procedure can become harsh or in the worst cases brutally violent, and governing bodies are susceptible to losing their mandate completely as communities they shepherd erupt into malcontented chaos.
So there is more to corruption in complex institutions than malicious abuse of control for personal gains, though contributions from both individualism and logistical complication are often oversimplistically interpreted as conspiratorial or criminal intent of a cabalized kind. The core dynamic from which modern corruption usually springs, by contrast, is drifting of an organization too far in the direction of all-encompassing solidarity, which may be intrinsic to the invasively regulated workings of most 21st century systems.
First of all, strictured settings constrain behavior so that individuals must constantly suppress their affective states in order to meet collective expectations and remain in good standing. This bottled up affect accumulates and festers over time until a particularly stressful or unsupervised moment occurs, at which time all kinds of citizens either act insensitively or blow their top and lash out at those around them, causing damage to relationships and decreasing trust. Even motivation of a more reasoned kind is confined by rules enforced in modern institutions, and individuals must constantly battle against bureaucratic resistance to getting their needs met and interests served, turning collective situations into unceasing disgruntlement, confrontation or litigation, which increases stress, reduces quality of life, and estranges human beings from each other. Pent up affect as well as the cerebral fight for one’s status and preservation often displace into a desire for domination, so that organizations are usually gravitating towards arrangements in which many members seek and acquire excessive control, seizing collective mechanisms for personal gain or recognition as a superior.
Whenever leadership of some exclusivity is achieved by way of self-interestedly exploiting a system, the effects of incompetent decision-making from out of bad intentions, technical ineptitude or flaws in character are magnified to sometimes destructive levels, where ill-advised judgement by single individuals can negatively impact thousands or even millions of lives. While authority pursues inordinate amounts of power, any complacency and passivity of underlings as well as the general population facilitates this effort, so that management often turns a blind eye towards indifference or even promotes it, which commonly conflagrates into so-called banality of evil when unaccountable leadership becomes reckless or malicious without any significant reduction in consent. Exploitation and negligence alike find modern institutions more than hospitable, affording a glut of niches for personal irresponsibility and declines in collective integrity.
Altogether, there seem to be two poles of the institutional spectrum: subcultural division and cultural uniformity. Social divisions of a well-adjusted nature can probably be defined as forms of experimental diversification, with significant problems caused by any trending into maladaptive extremes, such as individualism uncommitted to the collective’s fate, or experimentation dramatic enough that the prospects of whole countries come to depend on untested theory. Salubrious uniformity is something akin to a real democratic framework, where every segment of the system has an opportunity for contributing perspective to collective decision-making, and starts to become precariously radical when consolidated into uncompromising, nonadapting, imperious culture. Much of the contemporary world seems to be veering into the arena of oppressional solidarity, where citizens are forced to conform while independent thought is discouraged. This has the potential to devolve political organization into a coercion of mainstream beliefs and customs that attacks existing diversity, prevents further diversification, and generally cripples the ability of populations to change from out of intrinsic spontaneity, which is more nuanced, rapid and committed than the inertial momentum of extrinsic impetus. This environment is pitting majority culture against individualism, giving authority more control than is probably advisable, and making society more irrational, fallout showing up as a downward spiral into exploitation, nihilism of a conscience-spurning kind, and the displacement of frustrations into subcultural antagonism.
In the United States at least, society has not reached such an advanced stage of corruption that institutions are irredeemable, for the political system is viable enough that public reforms are possible, many remain vigilant and vocal about all kinds of injustices, scientific research continues to make innovations benefiting civilian life beyond that which sustains authority’s power, relatively uncontroversial opinions have forums for articulation in settings such as education and electronic communications, while civic action maintains some latitude for independent initiative. But nonetheless, politics are becoming less democratic and more oligarchic, public activism for progressive causes more dangerous, science more subservient to wealth, and communication less mobilized to bring individuals together for mutual causes in ways unrestrained by the distancing ushered in via dependency on virtual socializing. If culture persists in growing less individualistic and more coercive, then corruption following from conspiratorial collusion at high levels, the disenfranchisement of civic-minded behavior, and groupthink will worsen until we can only divert ourselves away from the inefficiencies and terrors of invasive totalitarianism by agitation that grinds the system to a halt, and if we pass even this point, poorly functioning dystopia may become reality, our “new normal”.
Corruption in modern institutions is like a cultural illness. After emerging in one domain of the system, it is liable to spread, as obedient behavior puts those who do not likewise bend or break the rules when possible at a competitive disadvantage. Individuals and groups engaging in corrupt practices must be occasionally caught to prevent order in a system from completely disintegrating, which leads to beefed up, roving enforcement, the institutional immune system if you will, posing threats everywhere. Enforcement often grows overreactively strict, assailing many who are not chronic rulebreakers, nor any significant danger to the system, as well as falsely identifying many individuals as malefactors, a corrupted anticorruption comparable to autoimmune disorder. If measures for combating corruption are not practiced long enough, widely enough, or effectively enough to completely remedy the problem, a rebound can occur as new strategies are found by which to again make mischievous activity rewarding, much like antibiotic resistance, after which corruptive contagion resumes. If corruption takes hold at high organizational levels, this is analogous to an infection of the nervous system or brain, causing forms of damage which are an acute threat to the whole social organism’s survival as well as its future health and potency.
In tightly regulated circumstances of the modern world, a deliberate deincentivizing, suppression or eradication of diversity can become like immunodeficiency syndrome, assaulting what little developmental faculty is sustainable within rigidly tiered culture, extinguishing independent thought, spontaneous innovation and collaboration, novel action, in essence the collective’s self-tailoring adaptivity. It is tempting to analogize social progressiveness to engineering a perfectly calibrated, flawless machine, but all mechanical systems require an outside agent to oversee their operations, maintaining, repairing and updating them in order to protract working order in the face of inclement conditions and inevitable wear and tear. Without nurturing this upkeep from within institutional civilization by fostering human ingenuity, society’s timespan is limited. Perhaps we can analogize systematized institutionalizing to our model of the living organism, a mechanistic system that adapts. This compels humanity to face a sobering fact: the maximum lifespan of higher eukaryotes such as vertebrates, which are the most intricate and dominant lifeforms on the planet, is usually much less than a hundred years. Even for a society that lacks corruption, absence of revolutionizing creativity and the cognitive flexibility required for a population to assimilate it spells doom.
Education is our most powerful tool because it allows us to reproduce humanity’s cultural consciousness as efficaciously as our physical trait profile. But if we suppress opportunity for individuals to learn and grow within the institutional frameworks necessary for large-scale civilization to function, either by overbearing anticorruption mechanisms or subjection to dictatorial authority that places its own subsistence above the collective’s progress, our species’ long-term well-being may be imperiled, and perhaps our very survival. Human history has thus far allowed ample occasion to improve upon mistakes and deficiencies of our predecessors by simple accident of logistical limitations to institutional invasiveness, but the increasing interconnectivity in human civilization is generating a more extensive tyranny of the present over the future, with recovery harder for subsequent generations to actualize. It will be our challenge in the 21st century and beyond to avoid the permanence of regressiveness and stagnation, negotiating a balance between individuals, collectives, and those qualities of humanity which are universal, optimizing stability and crisis management while minimizing exploitation and the trammeling of progress so as to give our species the greatest possible future.
A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below. Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.