Monday, February 16, 2015

The Mutual Constraints of Identity and Social Fabric – Part 3 – The Transition to Industrial Society

What has been and remains fundamental to the human condition, is accounting. Beginning with the social bookkeeping that we see as grooming in primate groups, human social fabric is imbued with the concept of accounting. Accounting enables a human group to establish trust through continuous exchange which also enables the group to regulate and compensate for inclinations to, or opportunities for, individual self-seeking.

The important point that Graeber (2012) makes, is that the purpose of accounting is not to balance the books, but rather to enable a social homeostasis around exchanges in order to sustain social fabric. A classic example is the borrowing of a ‘cup of sugar’. Today we would think that returning the exact amount borrowed is the required behavior to sustain social fabric. But Graeber points out that the practice is always to return either less or more than was borrowed, as a means to ensure the ongoing relationship. Returning the exact amount operates as a signal that the initial borrower does not want the relationship to continue - that in fact the borrower wants no more obligation and thus no further relationship. Thus accounting serves the purpose of sustaining an informal ‘owing/debt’ that act as a homeostasis of trust and social fabric.

In this way, the informal system of accounting enables the sustainability of a continual indebted/credited-ness that is the substance of social fabric in the hunter-gather groups and early  emerging agricultural societies. The primal nature this sort of social and moral accounting is easily seen in ancient systems of ‘karma’ and ‘sin’ and even in modern relationships were people apply a sort of love bookkeeping – “I love you more than you seem to love me”.

In the last post I made the case that the inherent constraints of the small groups (hunter-gatherers and small agricultural communities) were shaped by the accounting that could be ‘held in collective memory’. In turn the accounting system was shaped by group status, kinship, and other dimensions inherent in social structures and processes.

Accounting was the technology that constrained individual identity and potential for self-seeking, within the group status-role-kinship structure – imbuing humans with a quintessentially social nature. Furthermore, this inherent social accounting also served to enable the shift to learning via 'memes' versus the instinct of 'genes'. Social-learning  enabled the fostering of requisite cooperative behaviors that enhanced group culture to operate as a well of learnable knowledge – further enhancing the group’s inter-group fitness and capacity to adapt to environmental change. Learning via memes also made the group more robust to accidental loss of high value skills/knowledge. When all knowledge was genetic, a small group was much more vulnerable to 'genetic drift' the loss of key individual genes. Learning via meme - helped to displace undue reliance on 'selfish genes'. 

Thus, it’s not selfishness or cooperation that constitutes essential human nature as much as it’s social accounting – a continual dynamic bookkeeping of relationships and exchanges that constrains individual identity within group ‘moral’ dynamics – that is the more essential core of human nature. 

Gregory Bateson noted – that the fundamental foundation of mammalian communication was ‘contingencies of relationship’ – in essence the eternal question in every interaction was ‘what does this mean about our relationship?’ This is also the same foundation for Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments as the invisible hand of social regulation. 

The threshold enabling a phase transition to the larger population, greater densities, increased divisions of labor and higher diversity of exchangeables inherent in  agricultural societies, depended on the technologies of a more abstract and yet concrete accounting systems. These systems of accounting were also the pre-cursors of writing. Once the phase transition was underway the attractor of efficiency for both social structure and social governance began to shift in significant ways. 

The new attractor of efficiency favored hierarchy, as the most efficient means of organizating large collective efforts. The ‘hierarchy in forest’ (Boehm, 2001) a social fabric sustained and sustaining anarchist self-governance was not able to scale to  incorporate larger levels of population and social complexity. The key constraint shaping hierarchy as the attractor of efficiency was the increase in transaction costs that corresponded with increased population and density. The old media of ‘pecking-order’ and social status structure became the content of the new media/attractor of hierarchy - e.g. class structures (pecking order).

The constraints of hierarchy also depended on extending personal networks as a means of establishing trust in the ever increasing new forms of complicated social exchange occurring over longer time periods. Complementing personal networks were new forms of establishing trusted methods of exchange that were better at enabling exchange when social fabric could not be relied on to provide trust.

Agricultural societies created civilizations that were able to develop large urban centers which drove the onset of large scale warfare. With the onset of warfare, currency was an innovation (Graeber 2012) that enabled scaleable form of exchange to happen without a context of social fabric.

Graeber argues that currency arose when 'military' efforts brought 'foreign/alien' groups into unfamiliar social environments. This posed the problem of trying to acquire the necessary goods needed in situations where the means of exchange had to be independent of systems of accounting dependent on social fabric. The invention of a concept of currency (as a form of circulating debt) enables a 'stripping of social fabric as the context that enabled an accounting mechanism for exchanges.' In many ways currency introduces the possibility of anonymity (comfort with it or at least tolerance of it) becomes necessary as a constraint on identity. Graeber gives the example of giving the soldiers 'coins' with which to acquire (exchange) food. The invading force could then 'tax' the coin back later.

As agricultural societies came to dominance, they continued to develop incrementally into the middle-ages, and eventually approached a point of complexity that not only heralded the onset of the industrial revolution but established new constraints on the concept of identity and governance.

Modern Ground-Figure Relationship

The rise of new forms of governance involved in both the market system and the more democratic state, represent the next a giant shift in the ground of economic, social, technological and demographic conditions.

The prelude, to the rise of these new forms of governance, involved the work of philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacque Rousseau (among many others). For example, Hobbes developed some foundational ideas including: the right of the individual, the natural equality of all people, the social constructed nature of political order of civil society and later the state and fundamentally that legitimate political power must be based on the consent of the people. His interpretation of law held that people should free to do anything not explicitly forbidden by the law.

I would argue that, in essence Hobbes was positing the need for responsible autonomy within a social contract. However, he also believed that outside of a social-political agreement human nature was ultimately a war of all against all and thus human nature to sustain a civil society required a strong undivided government. Below is a famous quote that summarizes his view.
In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
If the reasoning I have been developing in the previous posts is sound enough – we can continue to reason that increasing population and communication density created conditions of ‘social turbulence’ – as a transformation of the ‘ground’ that had shaped the ancient constraints of identity. The tribal social structures that had produced a sort-of fixed tribal-identity constrained as roles, characters, statuses, etc. became increasingly the source of friction and resistances to emerging socio-cultural-technological changes. 

What was necessary was a new ‘story’ about personhood as individuality. Thus while Hobbes’s ideas of human nature, as constituted by isolated, atomistic individuals engaged in a war of all against all is extreme to the point of being almost pathologically wrong – it may have been a necessary myth to enable the transformation of the ancient ground of constraints on identity, in order to enable the types of work (e.g. increasing diversity of impersonal exchange) required for the emerging industrial society.

Douglass North, an institutional economist (Nobel Laureate) argued that the rise of the market system and the state were interdependent. The state produced and sustained the necessary institutions that enabled wide-spread ‘impartial’ exchange – the primary strength of a market system. These institutions included a justice system that ensure a contract could be upheld by either party (rich or poor), institutions for upholding standards so that a pound was a pound and a dollar was a dollar, and more.

Fernand Braudel through his seminal work in economic history has established a very sound argument that ‘capitalism’ long preceded Adam Smith’s proposal of a market system – and that in fact capitalism is distinct from a market system. A true market system is more like a well governed and flourishing sports league, rather than a war of all against all. While competition is the figure of a sports league – the ground that makes a league interesting, profitable and sustainable, is the set of rules and regulations that ensure a ‘level enough’ playing field. The sports league must fundamentally be concerned with a sort of democratic ground, in order to be social entertaining and thus economically successful. This is a fundamental difference between capitalism and efforts to implement and sustain a state-dependent-market-system.

Just as the isolated, atomistic, individual was a required narrative – so was the shifting of tribal-identification to identification with a new constraint – a meta-tribe, the overarching ‘nation-state’. There are several other key points to make in describing the shift of ‘ground’ that helped to form the foundation of the industrial revolution and the corresponding political and economic systems. 

The obvious ‘figure’-to-‘ground’ during this shift, was the increasing social complexity, innovations, technology and diversity of types of work and exchange. The old ground of social fabric, constituted only by close ties and stable status, roles and character, could not accommodate this increasing complexity. A complexity that involved an exponential increase in encounters with those outside of the boundary of close ties (creating and extending a network of loose ties), and having to become accustomed to daily encounters with unknown strangers. As a result the traditional moral/social accounting that had sustained tribal social fabric began to be eroded through the friction of constant exchange with strangers and extended complexity of exchange accounting.

The narrative that people were naturally isolated, atomistic and primarily selfish, provided the basis for the new ground of identity, more suitable to the work (of impersonal diversified exchange) required by the emerging political and economic systems. It could be argued that the movement to greater emancipation, democratic approaches and the assumption of mobility and self-interest also worked to strip the person from the ancient conditions of social fabric.

Psychologically this shift represented the birthing of a concept of individuality beyond the tribal constraints of status, role, and character. The daily encounter strangers were opportunities to explore & incorporate new behaviors. The experience of wider networks of loose ties and an overarching context of larger numbers of unknown (perhaps unknowable) strangers drove the development of a public and private self. New type of work also became opportunities to explore new modes of life and knowledge.

In relation to trust, currency eliminated the need for a personal network to confirm identity and formed a different foundation for social fabric. Cash enables impersonal, impartial, anonymous exchange. Correspondingly, along with the emerging institutions of a state (the meta-tribe), came mechanisms of identity verification and validation. It became possible to ‘steal a person's identity’. 

Thus, when authentication of identity was required, it was ensured by larger supporting social institutions providing: certificates, licenses, credentials, verifications, ‘papers’, etc. In most cases, personal endorsements of identity became the exception rather than the rule. The new ground took for granted that a person was fundamentally independent or capable of independence of the ancient ground of embeddedness in the social fabric of exclusively close ties.

Psychological independence, the private self, and institutional methods of authentication (of who one is) became a modern constraint on identity. This constraint has enabled the necessary work to support and sustain the needs of an economy based impartial exchange, market-approaches to allocating resources and a social fabric founded on concepts of equality, independence and a freedom to self-actualize in the pursuit of happiness.

For example, the reliance on concepts of equality and independence implicitly strip the individual from previous tribal embeddedness – they also implicitly assume a sort of atomistic, isolated self, engaged in a social contract (of independent individuals equally accountable to upholding the contract). As a constraint it prevents social approaches privileging the social embeddedness of our previous tribal community experiences. 

For the last 200 years industrial/modern societies have embraced a paradox. One one hand an increasing reliance on anonymity as a constraint on individual identity for the functional of our political-economies.  On the other hand, an increasingly awareness of the necessity of social fabric as a source of trust, capital and well-being. What we see is a paradox of yearning efforts to sustain community (e.g. Putman's 'Bowling Alone' or Turkle's 'Alone together') and a naturalized concept of the private self – enshroudable in anonymity - the desire/need to encrypt our personal information.

I haven't touched on the anonymity inherent in the concept of an industrial labor force, inherent in being a cog in the machine - previous posts have covered some of this ground (pun intended). The stripping of social fabric also enabled a faceless worker, as a new type of currency in itself. This too is part of what was required for accomplishing the 'work' of an industrial society. I will deal more with this in future posts. 

It was Durkheim who wrote on social anomie - the alienation resulting from the mass urbanization and dislocation of large number of people from their 'small town' transparent belonging. And yet we see that anonymity has been transformed from experiences of danger and social breakdown to a comfortable necessity and increasingly to a fundamental right (e.g. the right to be forgotten – in gatherer society such forgetting would be equivalent to banishment and death).

It seems that when we focus on the figure of anonymity we make invisible the ground of social fabric that has to be sustained and consistent with our real social nature. When we focus on the figure of our social nature, the ground of our political-economy which assumes the operational requirement of anonymity becomes invisible. 

Thus the industrial environment was shaped by an attractor of efficiency favouring hierarchy (e.g. due to transaction costs) and a constraint on individual identity that produced an enshrouding anonymity – that was a requisite form of stripping social fabric in order to enable impersonal exchange. There is of course much more that could and should be said – but I hope this is enough to make the essential point.

When the ground of modern social systems becomes the figure of our attention– the ‘monsters’ we become conscious of are: the Psychopath, the serial killer, the zombie apocalypse and on national levels the sort of global cultural colonization of secular and scientific standards.

In my next post I want to begin exploring the next attractor – the change in the conditions of change that the digital environment is enacting.


Boehm, Christopher. 2001. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Harvard University Press.

Braudel, Fernand. 1992. Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century. University of California Press..

Coase, Ronald, 1990. The Firm, the Market, and the Law. University Of Chicago Press; Reprint edition.

Ingold, Tim. 2011. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. Routledge; Reissue edition.

Lakoff, George. 1995. Metaphor, Morality, and Politics.

North, D. C. (2005). Understanding the Process of Economic Change. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press.