Monday, 5 May 2014

A History of Civilisation in Ten Thousand Words.

The following blog is a new first-draft extract from my book-in-progress, The Complexity Revolution: uncovering the universal laws of life. This is a narrative of History extrapolated not from history books, but through complexity theory, and the way in which the self, culture, identity, and society emerge and interact. Again, the theoretical basis (chapters 2/3) is missing here, this just being a first draft extract. Please excuse any typos, mistakes, etc – this was written in two sittings, stream-of-consciousness, and I haven’t proofread, fact-checked, or referenced it yet. If you find any errors, it’d save me a small-job in the long run so feel free to point them out. What this extract represents is a fundamental narrative, as readers of History are accustomed to, but based upon a complexity-derived model that is previously presented in the book. If you would like to see these diagrams and models outlining the self-similar and universal dynamics underlying this narrative, please feel free to send me a tweet: @grimeandreason, or email me, same name, @

A Brief History of Cultural Evolution

Back at the dawn of cultural evolution, the bond we felt to the known, and the fear inherent in the unknown, naturally created power structures through the search for, and the proclamation of, ‘divine’ knowledge (and the fear and respect that such a claim would provide). The world needed explaining to minds that had evolved to rationalise their own environment: Why did these crops fail? Why did my mate just keel over dead? What the hell does it mean when the Sun disappears temporarily? Explaining all of this, or at least giving the appearance of doing so to our pattern-finding minds, derives the authority that we evolved to defer to, a natural extension of biologically emerging hierarchy. Imagine the questions and answers that would arise to explain natural phenomenon such as eclipses or extreme weather events! Such speculations brought forth power structures capable of administering huge networks of large-scale settlements, such as those evident in the Jungles of South America, complete with sophisticated calendar systems that mapped the stars and convinced those early minds that a) the heavens and the earth were somehow connected and b) that those in power weren’t entirely full of shit. They may have had primitive data sets upon which to draw, but these times would have had geniuses to work with it still.

The emergence of Religion as a fundamental identity 

Thus started what we would view today as religious identity, where preachers and spiritual-leaders would monopolise ‘divine’ knowledge through exclusive use of literacy and cultural production and transmit a cultural identity that, with high fecundity, would infect the everyone within the system. This would create an immensely strong, and entirely homogeneous shared cultural identity, one capable of extreme acts such as child sacrifice, yet also the source of an immense bond, with every mind having identical cultural influence, corresponding to extremely similar subjectivities, hence the slow pace of cultural evolution. Yet this tight bond also came with a great evolutionary advantage; it could maintain hegemony over cultural identity beyond that which naturally occurred prior to cultural evolutions emergence. Then, tribes most often fit what is called the ????, which placed the natural (pre-culture) cap on our optimal scale of self-organisation at around 140 (???),  still found today in army units and ????.  The ability to control potentially millions of people through what amounts to indoctrination is what brought about recorded History in the first place. If society hadn’t been a mere extension of our natural hierarchical organisation, belief and ideology would have remained too disparate, too small-scale, to begin to effect History in the global sense. The Greek historian Herodotus, ‘the first historian’ - apparently - wouldn’t have written all that he did if wars consisted of two family groups having a mega-tiff.

The Bronze age is a perfect example of how even large-scale cultural systems can take a relative (to our own time most obviously) age to slowly, ever so slowly, attain the complexity that forces a transition of self-organisation (let alone a transition to a new fundamental identity). To give you an example of how a highly homogenous and superstitious (that is, ignorant of science and objective knowledge or thinking) cultural system can pretty much come to represent stagnation, the Egyptians only way of calculating one-third of a figure, was to work out two-thirds first, and then half it. This method was used for around 1400 years, and it wasn’t until the cultural evolution bomb that was the Greeks that someone turned around and asked, “why”? It worked, nobody knew the fundamentals as to why, and there simply wasn’t the cultural variation or freedom of subjectivity to nurture, synthesise, and build-upon the necessary concepts. Seen in relative terms, this would mean that whichever freak-of-nature first worked out how to calculate two-thirds, and then half it (if indeed it was the same person!), achieved one of the greatest, relative, intellectual feats in all of humanity.

It would be thousands of years before growing complexity forced the emergence of the next fundamental identity, that of the State, yet this is still a slight grey area for me. Levy is happy to see the emergence of Greek city-states, and the Roman Empire, as examples of a new form of fundamental identity, territory, and I can understand why. They did indeed create new forms of identity to the prior Bronze Age - that is of no doubt. Citizenship is a fundamental characteristic of the State cultural identity, and it cannot be argued that Roman didn’t incorporate people of multiple religious identities under this term, and for a very long period of time. But there are three things that bother me.

Firstly, what is eminently debatable is just how much cultural production Rome was responsible for, particularly the further away you got. It is hard to imagine that the territorial, or state identity, in any way supplanted, or even mass subverted, the existing religious cultural identities of its occupied territory. Note the word occupied: without actually saturating conquered areas with your culture by way of synthesis (the most evolutionarily successful strategy), as the Moors did in Spain, all you are doing is finding ways to extract wealth through taxes, fear, and force, not create a new fundamental identity.

Secondly, and this merely provides the complexity-based proof of the first point, communication structures did not extend across the entire system, down to the local level, to the degree necessary to saturate culture in the first place. Communication across the system was limited to a tiny minority of traders (but more on this soon), and to the structures of power itself. For one, Latin was a language used only by the elite. For two, how this communication was then delivered to the various local contexts was most often at the end of a very sharp, very pointy sword (especially in rural areas more likely to be sustaining established religious cultural identity), which isn’t the best evolutionary tactic by which to convert new generations to your cultural identity (a lesson power has yet to learn to this day, - see: Mr I have a Drone).

Thirdly, and again, this merely proves my second point, History shows that these Roman experiments with proto-state cultural identity that have so fascinated historians ever since, still heavily reliant on and subject to the influences of Christianity from within, and multiple, strong religious cultural systems from without, simply wasn’t sustainable at the scale Rome had reached. Technological, tactical, and social advances were happening in a period that wasn’t ready, wasn’t creative or subjective enough at the societal level, to make much more use of these new tools than creating awe-inspiring urban centres, and a war machine that could conquer most of the known world. This had allowed Rome to overreach itself, and without the accompanying advances in communication technology (and greater democratisation of cultural production) needed to unite these peoples under a new fundamental cultural identity, it simply collapsed from all sides as other people’s, united by genuine shared cultural identity and desire to succeed, were able to react and adapt to Rome’s power and exact their long-built up need for revenge. I know that, again, this is rather tautologous, but the very fact that Greek thought and Roman technological advance were largely lost to humanity, almost forgetting entirely these experiments with statehood, and devolving once more to the religious fundamental cultural identity of divine rulers and large-scale, catastrophic culture clashes.

Although I have primarily used Rome in this narrative, the same principles apply to Greece. Here though, it was of a different nature, with different drivers and influences. The compartmentalisation of governance across multiple city states; the first experiments with mass-participatory democracy; Greece’s place on the Mediterranean ensuring a constant supply of outside cultural influences through traders and travelling philosophers and early scientists; the establishment of universities and halls of learning; and by no means least, the mountainous terrain, which made Greece an extremely difficult place to conquer; all of these combined to create an explosive enabling environment for cultural evolution, which, like Rome before it, managed to produce governing structures that bare many of the hallmarks of statehood. Yet, once again, it wasn’t enough. Religious identity still provided the foundation of everyone’s identity, with even the state-like characteristics - the attempts at direct-democracy - infused with religious symbolism, interpretation, and even inclusion in decision-making (even so, they still managed to be a damned sight more enlightened regarding the design of the systematic structure of politics than we have today even). Greece, like Rome, was not a closed system. Other, less developed cultural identities were quite capable of marshalling tens, or even hundreds of thousands of men on missions of conquest, and so Greece, like Rome, existed in a state of perpetual war, or threat of war. Communication networks were non-existent across societal scales, and these civilisations would have seen Greeks as no different than animals, such would the extent of homogenous indoctrination and dehumanisation. Genocide ruled this age, and it didn’t discriminate when it came to cultural advance.

Strict authoritarian rule defined the history-deriving scale of religious fundamental identity in the millennia that followed, for Europe and most of Asia at least, as did (by definition) stagnation of knowledge, since homogenous cultural identity minimised subjectivities, and therefore innovation, to the extreme. Meanwhile, in the Middle-east, Greek knowledge was being gathered together, synthesised, maintained, and disseminated across it’s growing empire, which correlates (guess what? By definition) with the less homogenised, less authoritarian ruled that emerged in feedback with the widening and diverging subjectivities held within, and brought forth from, Greek cultural identity.

If you haven’t seen it already, I cannot recommend the episode of Neil de Grasse Tyson’s Cosmos with the profile of Ibn Al Haytham.  When I first discovered this guy, it took me about two minutes of research to conclude that here, indisputably, lies the greatest scientific mind between Aristotle and Newton. It then took me a further 2.3 seconds to fall into desperate despair. Why had it taken 27 years of reading, of growing, keen interest in science, and having nearly completed my History degree at University, for me to have ever come across the name? Incidentally, it was through my own reading, not the university, that I first heard about him. Nowhere in my studies had this period ever popped up - not in political philosophy, intellectual and cultural history, or even the history of science. I quickly looked to see what book I might be able to buy about this incredible person, yet the only book I could find in English was a profile in a series of science books for small children. My mind was blown. Here I was, a highly educated, relatively independent mind in the UK, a country with Islamophobia running rife through the (vertical) cultural corridors of power, and I had to admit that my, and everyone else’s, entire historical and cultural knowledge was a biased, imperialistic mess, and I had no way to know to what extent anything was true. Selection bias was clearly enough to make even the most intellectual mind unknowingly shape cultural identity into the image power decides. This more than anything made me integrate self-reflection and self-falsification subconsciously, into my very worldview.

Anyway, I digress. Ibn Al-Haytham is an absolute, grade-A, historical badass. Let me just run down a few of the many things he accomplished having developed in the still here, despite the West’s best efforts, Iraqi city of Basra: the correct model of how light travels, and how the eye interacts with the light to allow us to see; a complete formulation of reflection, and a detailed investigation and (correct) description of refraction, including angles of incidence and deviation; other optical work concerning the light reflecting from the moon, halos and rainbows, and development of the ‘camera obscura’; alternative constructions and direct proofs of some of Euclid’s theorems; and the most complete understanding of the importance of the scientific methods, and human flaws of reasoning and perception to date. Here was a person who, with the right genes, and the right upbringing, with the right exposure to the right dissonance in the right order, could break free of the conceptual bonds of his entire cultural environment. Here is a quote from his biography page on Harvard University’s website (see, they do know about these guys, it’s just, well, Newton’s more European-y):

In a short autobiography, Ibn al-Haytham tells us that in his youth he scrutinized the claims of the many religious sects teeming around him. In the end it was the empirical strain and rational thinking he recognized in Aristotelian natural philosophy, and the rigor of mathematics, that finally won his heart.

It’s important to remember at this point however, that science, as a non-fundamental identity (more on that, and those, later) was never able to fully integrate itself into, or as, a fundamental cultural identity. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; however cultural and socially advanced this period, and this location, was, it was still utterly incapable of providing an enabling environment for it’s saturation of the entire cultural system. Again, language and literacy barriers are rife, and while scholars of multiple faiths were often invited to debate and contribute new books and new knowledge, this cultural evolution was inherently limited to a tiny elite, with the vast majority of people still living largely unchanged to how they had been for thousands of years (excepting urban areas, which like Rome, saw significant advances in aesthetics and functionality). Everything may have been theocratically under Islam's control, this region wasn’t homogenous in the way closed, European cultural systems were; they were the mid-point between East and West, an obvious location for such cultural evolution to emerge.

Unfortunately, that same fact also meant that they were perfectly placed to be utterly annihilated by more homogenous, less enlightened cultural systems that had the Middle East utterly surrounded. The constant waging of religious-based conflict, the constant genocide, whether from the West at the hands of the Crusaders, or the East at the hands of one of the most alien-seeming, blood-thirsty, and devastating warrior cultures ever known, the Mongols. Entire cities would be burned to the ground, their entire populace executed, down to the last child, methodically, each man being given his quota to maximise efficiency. They did both because it made tactical sense - striking terror into the hearts of your enemy at the mere mention of you heading their way will always give an advantage - and because they could. The Mongols, like the European crusaders, shared no culture with these people - they had no evident empathy for them whatsoever. Who knows whether individual moments managed to sneak glimpses of dissonance, hints of a more universal reality, into the minds of these men as they slayed babies that, lets face it, would have at least looked similar, who knows. What we do know is that the societal scale identity, these cultures fundamental, top-down identities, facilitated mass-genocide regularly. And it is a feature common to both religious and state cultural identities, as the 20th century showed. Hopefully, corporatism won’t follow suit, though has you will see later in this book, many would argue it already is.

At this moment such opportunities for a free mind was still a fragile basis of identity and was almost wiped out, were it not for the knowledge it produced being kept alive by the Muslim world. The Dark Ages represented a throw-back to that pre-Greek time of theocratic rule (divine kings), until that Greek seed was re-planted in Europe once more through the Moorish in Spain, and on through the Renaissance in Italy. It was following this time, when sufficient knowledge had been disseminated, replicated, and disbursed in Latin, the growing lingua-franca (SP?) of an emerging, international elite of thinkers, that science emerged as an unstoppable, but still, as ever, far from fundamental, cultural identity. Early Modern Europe saw the first major split in the dominant religious cultural identity, as new concepts and thoughts brought dissonance to a point whereby an enabling environment formed that allowed one man, nailing one piece of paper to a Church door, could be discerned as the cascade-triggering event (how accurately, who knows) that ripped that tension from its chains. Although Catholicism had been the major source of funding for science, and cultural production in genera, in the period of the Renaissance, it’s inevitable creation of dissonance meant that Protestantism’s embrace of early science’s ability to empower the individual, over the institution, was the next major catalyst for cultural evolution. This evolution advanced in feedback with advancing communication technology, such as the printing press, and the subsequent market forces driving the establishment of common vernaculars across large, geographical regions, each feeding the other to begin the process of accumulating truly objective knowledge.

This generated an unstoppable new catalyst to cultural evolution; the establishment of science as an indispensible cultural identity due to it’s wide spread, and ultimately, because of it’s tremendous use for power to achieve it’s own ends.  Complexity and cognitive dissonance grew, both from the religious cultural identity (continued fragmentation and growing synthesis - a precedent had been set)) and the resulting emergence and growth of non-fundamental identities such as science, art, and philosophy. This meant that the enabling environment for a transition to a new and genuinely fundamental cultural identity was arriving exponentially, in feedback with the exponentially increasing domestic and international institutional and communication network that formed the foundation of science in this time. Most importantly however was the emergence of common vernaculars across entire cultural systems, for it represented the medium through which disparate identities would be shaped into a new fundamental Identity, that of the State.

The emergence of the State fundamental cultural identity

The English Civil War, according to my premise, represents the moment when cultural complexity hit the maximum threshold that religious cultural identity could maintain. The dissonance had hit its peak. Such was the power of this uprising, against the very notion of King Charles being God’s personally chosen representative to rule over them, that families, communities, and the entire country were torn apart, Royalists, desperate to maintain the very fabric of their identity, indeed, their concept of reality, versus those who had seen enough to convince them that divinity could be found elsewhere. It is mightily interesting that it was during this time that, to my knowledge at least, the first hint of understanding of emergence first gained mass attention. Thomas Hobbes, on the front cover of his mammothly influential book, ‘Leviathan’, depicted the image of a giant King, looking out over his lands. Yet despite the head being that of a single, noble individual, the body that holds that held is comprised of a multitude of individuals, representing the subjects that make up his kingdom. The book itself didn’t directly challenge the sovereignty of the King - if it had, it wouldn’t have been so influential - but it did open the way to discussing the nature of that sovereignty in a different way. By including the subjects within the image of the King, Hobbes was making an implicit reference to the fact that the King was nothing without the people, whatever his original intent.

Predictably, the transition didn’t go smoothly. For a section of the populace to have executed the King, God’s own representative on this earth, chosen by him to govern you… it is impossible for us to overstate just how incredibly crippling and paralysing that would have been, to people across the entire nation. The closest we in the West have to imagining such an event of collective shock would be to think of the U.S. post September 11th. But magnified thousands of times. The natural order, the order that no one could possibly have envisioned beyond, had been irrevocably shattered. INSERT IMAGE HERE.  Not only that, but it had been shattered by their own kin. Nothing we could imagine could compare to what that must have been like. Every royalist would have been talking about the end-times approaching, and sincerely believing it. The fall-out lasted through two periods of intense, bloody conflict, as the newly conceived parliament struggled to impose its legitimacy. In the end, as always, the eventual equilibrium saw the first-ever separation of powers to have stuck through until modern day. King Charles II took the throne, his powers significantly reduced, and parliament was able then to establish itself to the point where opposing political parties created the dichotomy that drove cultural production, not the clash between religious power and civic, non-fundamental identities (within a cultural system), or large-scale religious cultural identities (inter-cultural systems). But most importantly, and what made this transition to statehood ‘stick’, was that the state eventually came to tame the democratising force of the printing press, impose it’s authority over cultural production, and begin the process of saturating culture with its own image, diluting the cultural capital of religious cultural identity in the process.

This ‘balancing-out’ of the religious and state fundamental cultural identities is the main, single, underlying cause of the enlightenment. While the state may have had a good deal of control over system-wide dissemination of cultural identity, religion still held the trump card of having millions congregate at the localised scale every week. The power of the sermon was still immense, and while the state may have lasted, and evolved, to this day, this first few hundred years of history was still dominated by religious conflict. Europe was ablaze, somewhere, for pretty much all of this period, as Catholicism and Protestantism fought back and forth, as though echoing the explosion Martin Luther had lit the fuse to, an echo that lingers still today. Religion still had the most cultural capital, stored and accumulated over thousands of years, and this will take an age to change; while the state may have been catching up in the UK - the Houses of Parliament, the tower(s) holding Big Ben (and Tom), etc - it could not be expected to compete with the thousands of churches, castles, and palaces accrued from time long past, and the identity held, and continuously transmitted from, within them. Even the rapidly evolving scientific cultural identity took hundreds of years to gradually rid itself, at both the individual and societal level, of religions influence, only to have to do the same for that of the state.

Although the network of early scientists that helped progress this new fundamental identity was extremely small, I bet that if you were to quantify it’s growth, the amount of letters sent in this time would have grown exponentially, just as the growth in peer-reviewed publishing has been shown to be. Yet we are still talking numbers in the low hundreds, as well as a pretty homogenous demographic of white men of wealth. Yet between the emerging universities, scientific institutions, and men of patronage free to further their studies whilst tutoring the young aristocrats (an important group, since institutionalisation would be less of an issue), enough people gained enough knowledge, through enough revolutionary books translated into enough vernacular languages, to bring the capacity of innovation to more and more people, only now to the benefit of the state, and the continued detriment of religion. Advances in communication technology such as the telegraph, photography, the establishment of newspaper and the fourth estate relaying ideology authoritatively and en-masse, combined with the gradual integration by the state of religious cultural identity (entirely naturally) meant that religions monopoly on system-wide cultural production, their ability to define themselves, waned dramatically, never to return in the West in a governing form. Gradually, mass-culture became state-culture, homogenising the nature of cultural production in a fashion that excluded religion entirely. The state began to define itself, and the populace was powerless to resist its message.

It is here that the story takes a tragic turn for the worse that is familiar to all of us, not just in the West, but also around the world. It was the first, globally reaching travesty of human universality to imprint itself, forever, on the cultural identity of hundreds of millions of people. No, I’m not talking about the two World Wars. I am talking about colonialism.

Colonialism was what happened when competing nationalist cultural identities realised they had the technology to basically conquer the world, in the good old fashioned way that all but the very most enlightened intellectual found entirely natural. And why wouldn’t they? Conquest of the ‘other’ has been a staple of civilisation since civilisation first began. While the state cultural identity may have contributed to one hell of a lot of cultural advancement, morality was still bounded by shared culture; some may have objected to killing other Latin speaking peoples, or destroying Greek architecture, no one gave a damn about people who were so different as to be a different colour! It wasn’t even an established consensus, until Darwin’s work had had sufficient influence (in the 19th century!), that they were even the same species as the clearly more civilised white folk. The state cultural identity, with renewed legitimacy derived from “science” that just happened to justify the abhorrent practices that were so enriching those in power. Yet it wasn’t just about wealth. The state cultural identity had co-opted religious identity, infusing its mission with religious righteousness and misplaced ‘good’-intent, combining it’s ‘civilising’ mission with good old fashioned It should come as no surprise then that so many should have travelled, sorry, been renditioned to the States, as part of a systematic and global crime against humanity that lasted for many generations. The justification through reason that the state, and its beneficiaries, employed was so sophisticated that it was even able, for a short while longer at least, to find residence in the minds of those few, wealthy men who designed what became the pinnacle, for many, of the emergent forms of ‘self’-governance. Personally, I see it as an idealistic high-water mark that has receded ever since. Fortunately, it was so ahead of its time that that didn’t, and doesn’t, matter. 

The founding fathers of the United States, blessed with an abundance of resources, officially separated church and state (I say officially: thousands of years of cultural capital preserved through the minds of those first immigrants hardly vanishes overnight - churches were very soon aplenty), and laid the conceptual foundations for that which would come to supplant the very state as the new fundamental cultural identity. First though, back to Europe, where nationalism still had something nasty up its sleeve as its global power began to wane (strangely, all that communication and transport infrastructure Europeans built everywhere fed-back into a growing sense of indigenous collective identity built around oppression), and resource hungry state cultural systems, reaching their peak capacity of complexity given the increasing influences of other cultures on previously more closed cultural systems.  With a leadership in every nation state, every anachronistic empire soon to fall of the cliff-face of History, had a leadership whose cultural identity was at it’s most purely nationalistic, it’s most exclusive in terms of morality. Every such cultural system reflected this homogeneity of power, every young, male mind infected with glorious tales of noble and virtuous war, every young female mind disempowered into subservience, and with the ingrained sense of duty forcibly imparted on all, by families, by communities, by the state, an unquestionable cultural norm.

An unfortunate trend that has remained steady throughout History is the ever-increasing capacity for humanity to kill each other. Not in the sense of actually being able to carry out the deed, that has remained a constant, and we would be foolish to think it cannot reappear. People at the turn of the 20th century also regarded their own time as too advanced, culturally, to stoop the levels of depravity the continent soon witnessed. They were wrong. Again, communication networks, and the relatively closed and tightly controlled nature of each competing nationalist cultural system, pre-determined what was about to happen. Complexity had once again reached it’s zenith with the state cultural identity, but whereas in the U.S where the transition happened gradually (after a false start) - mainly due to nothing more than geography, that is, its distance away from the major powers, combined with its sheer land-mass and self-sufficiency in vital resources - in Europe it was sudden, explosive, and brutally unprecedented.

The First World War, seen through this complexity framework, has to be one of the most tragic sets of circumstances in the history of humanity. It came at a terrible time: power was still highly exclusive and almost at it’s peak of homogeneity; the mythology and cultural identity, embodied most fundamentally by those in power, built around the glory, nobility, and even the necessity of war; the largely untested technology that appeared at that time, so dangerous that the Hague convention of 1898 (????) saw the introduction of international law prohibiting certain technologies, such as gas, and aerial warfare; the sheer pig-headed, testosterone fuelled stubbornness created by the purity of the elites cultural identity, their unquestioning loyalty to 19th century thinking (at best); and finally, but most depressingly, the still huge gap between the cultural identities between the fundamentalist leadership, and the indoctrinated-to-all-degrees-and-none  multitude that was the drafted, and until recently civilians and students, armies. Together with whichever black regiments we could muster from the colonies, obviously.

The utter heart-break that is the first world war is, for me personally using this framework, summed up best (or worst, I guess) in the Christmas Day armistice of 1914.  As an aside here, I cannot implore you enough to listen to Dan Carlin’s latest series of Hardcore History podcasts, covering the First World War. Describing the following scene, Dan had me wailing with grief for a solid five minutes. Here’s why.

By the time that first Christmas of the First World War came around, it had already become clear that this was a war like no other. The most intense and complex opening round of hostilities in human history, featuring armies from a whole host of regions and states just piling into each other, saw tens of thousands from all sides dead within weeks. Soon, the whole thing devolved into what the Great War has primarily become known for, the trenches, stretching from the border of Switzerland right up to the Belgium coast. The wet, muddy, rat-infested trenches, where bodies would lie sometimes for months, unable to be removed, were these men's homes, their every-day lives for four long years, should they be so 'lucky’. Raise so much as a finger, and bullets would ring out. The brutal, constant pounding of the shells forcing men to dig themselves deeper and deeper, often finding themselves digging into the bodies of former comrades, adding to the images of gore and horror that would continue to torment those who witnessed them for the rest of their lives. Barely ten yards separated the two sides at various points in the front, two walls of flying steel forcing men to behave like animals, desperately burrowing deeper for any safety at all.  The ‘shell shock’ that would later be diagnosed as PTSD was enough to send even the bravest soldier insane, and yet within this hell on Earth, something incredible happened: a deeper sense of shared humanity than that held by the officers and politicians shone through, before being extinguished in the name of more killing.

Across the entire Western Front, with a few exceptions, guns from both sides were unusually quiet on that first Christmas Eve in hell, even non-existent in places for the first time in months. At first, some of the English soldier thought that the strange coloured lights appearing along the German trenches might be some kind of signal, perhaps indicating a fresh attack. Some even thought they might be some new weapon, or a ploy to make the allies curious enough to show their heads. Then they heard singing, and not just any singing: they heard the sound of Christmas Carols which, despite being in German, were utterly recognisable to all the allied soldiers that heard them. Many soldiers recorded the strange, surreal events in their diaries, talking of hearing nothing but the beautiful sound of carol singing, drifting eerily through the forest night, or out over the desolate and pitted no-mans land. Allied soldiers began to sing back, slowly inching themselves up, out of the trench, to get a better view of the Christmas decorations appearing along the Germans lines. Gradually, soldiers from both sides worked their way out of the trenches and across no mans land, where they met, exchanged gifts, and laughed together, language barriers overcome through sign language, a shared tragedy, and a joint sense of bewilderment, disbelief, and dissonance. So, so much dissonance.

What had happened here? Subject to the fundamentalist nationalist ideologies of their leaders, drafted soldiers from both sides, civilians really, suddenly found that the enemy, forever demonised and recently dehumanised within their respective, nationalistic, top-down cultural environment, shared with them cultural identity. It was a cultural identity that stretched back much farther than even the foundation of the nation state. Christianities spread across the whole of Europe had left a legacy of shared music, lyrics, and traditions, never mind the language used, which came to the fore with the coming of a shared celebration, Christmas. Hearing those songs cut through the nationalist ideology like a knife, presenting a window for empathy that was grasped by minds desperate for relief, desperate to not be shot at, desperate not to have to shoot anymore. Hundreds of thousands of men succumbed to the desire to ignore the moral exclusivity, the hate, and the venom of their respective rulers cultural identity, even then more alike to each other than they were to the average populace. Conversely, common soldiers on both sides were slowly realising, as they chatted with the ‘enemy’ and swapped cheese for cigarettes, that they weren’t so different either. Singing carols together will do that to people, given the long, mutual, and pre-nationalist history that they represent. More than that, it would have hit them hard, right in their religious cultural identity, which for many soldiers would have been stronger then than the nationalism that had compelled them to fight in the first place. 

I can only imagine the dissonance, the heartbreak, the sheer existential fear involved in joining fellow men in celebrating your saviours’ birth one day, and then forced to resume killing each other the next. It wasn’t even just the deep-rooted Christian identity that united them; the mere appearance of a football would send soldiers on both sides into a frenzy of laughter and joyful competition. Yet the officers on both sides, their humanity unable to break through the pure, nationalistic state cultural identity that so consumed them, the environment they grew up in, and the group-dynamics they were trapped in, decreed that such deviations should never happen again, ordering regular artillery bombings on Christmas days thereafter. How dare they grasp for shared humanity?! It makes me openly sob to tell the tale.

Yet nationalism still hadn’t run its course, power still hadn’t finished with the development of ever greater horrors that it could turn science toward. More importantly however, power wasn’t ready to give up what was seen as a traditional, and given the lives lost, duty-bound obligation to make the losers, sorry, instigators (actually, in this case it was both, though all parties must share some responsibility), pay a heavy price. It’s not hard to see why. Nobody came out of this war victorious. Everyone, even those leaders who had supposedly won the war, must have had a severely dented pride and troubled conscience, even if they consciously denied it (I’m looking at you Churchill, though a lot of people took to justifying their actions following the debacle). Someone had to pay. Someone had to shoulder the blame. Yet all it did was create the perfect enabling environment for a backlash. The Second World War was essentially made inevitable; not only were communication structures still where they were at pre-WW1, worse in many places that were still being rebuilt; you had an entire generation suffering a bout of collective PTSD; you had economic hardship exacerbated by unfeasible reparation payments, but worse of all you had an isolated Germany. It’s the societal equivalent of taking someone’s freedom and locking them in jail, where they cannot make new connections and develop greater, more inclusive empathy, instead forced to introspect alone, with no outside help, with the inevitable outcome that they blamed someone else and reoffended. Big time.

Here it is we see the culmination of what homogenous, top-down cultural systems can become. The Nazi party are the single most extreme case of cultural identity engineering I know of, in terms of time taken to get to mass genocide. As you will see later, there is a contemporary example that in many ways goes beyond what the Nazi’s did. What the Nazis managed to do was take the science of propaganda and implement it, on a massive scale: by targeting schools, they ensured that they would complete their task as soon as possible; by using the Hitler youth to terrorise the populace, they protected themselves from a potential source of revolt, while also using them, a group inherently culturally different, and therefore more easily manipulated into moral divergence, to subjugate older people, those who potentially had actual power at the community level; by burning books, utterly disenfranchising the Jews, closing institutions, and vetting all cultural production, they rapidly reduced the amount of contrary cultural capital available to those developing, and those who would find solstice in them; by appointing Nazi supporters in prominent positions throughout culture, they ensured no independent, smaller-scale cultural identities could evolve without their influence.


The Nazi’s knew what they were doing here, none more so than Joseph Goebbels, in my view far more dangerous and evil a villain than even Hitler. Without Goebbels, Hitler may have come to no more than another hated dictator. Yet without Hitler, Goebbels would have made possible the machinations of whichever messed-up mind from the First World War had become obsessed with conspiracy theory and revenge.

Check out some of these quotes from this master of manipulation:

“It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words, and words can be moulded until they clothe ideas and disguise.”

“Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.”  

“Every age that has historical status is governed by aristocracies. Aristocracy with the meaning - the best are ruling. Peoples do never govern themselves. That lunacy was concocted by liberalism. Behind its "people's sovereignty" the slyest cheaters are hiding, who don't want to be recognized.”

“What does Christianity mean today? National Socialism is a religion. All we lack is a religious genius capable of uprooting outmoded religious practices and putting new ones in their place. We lack traditions and ritual. One day soon National Socialism will be the religion of all Germans. My Party is my church, and I believe I serve the Lord best if I do his will, and liberate my oppressed people from the fetters of slavery. That is my gospel.”

Here is someone who knows all too well the fickle nature of free will, of the power that such knowledge grants you, particularly over those who are under your trust, or your under you will. The awareness of the German states’ supplanting of religion, in a very literal sense, allowed them to use religious identity for their own ends, again neutralising and utilising a potential source for revolt for its own ends. Finally, in an exchange from the Nuremberg trials between a lawyer and Hermann Goring, commander of the Luftwaffe, Goring makes clear just how universal they had perceived this power of propaganda to be:

Göring: Why, of course, the people don't want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.
Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.
Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

Now, I don’t want to sound glib, but does this tactic not sound incredibly familiar, to the entire West, nay, the globe? In a way it isn’t their fault, those in power that is; society produces emergent properties that can carry events way beyond the design or planning of any one person, or group of people. That’s the social forces version of History, and has culture and cultural identity become more complex, this force is growing stronger. It should come as no surprise in such an enabling environment that fear becomes ever-more resorted to, what with it being the easiest, and most effective, way of covering your own incompetence, and/or getting what you want (which in an increasingly divergent cultural context between rulers and subjects, will only get harder to achieve). But hate as I do to say it, Goring is right, and Gilberts riposte merely evidence of the superiority complex that comes with being able to maintain a narrative of owning the moral high ground. It is a legacy that lives on to this day.


In summary, they had utterly saturated the entire cultural environment with their influence, indoctrinating some to subjugate the others, and held it for long enough to facilitate the industrial-scale, and -form, killing of millions of Jews, gays, gypsies, disabled, and other cultural identities deemed a threat, or simply undesirable. The most depressing thing? It took less than a decade to create the enabling environment, a Stanford prison experiment writ large, with terrible consequences. After this, there could be no return to the old ways. People had finally learned the lesson, one they would misinterpret and soon forget anyway, but not before they could establish strong, if still intensely western-centric (obviously), European-wide, and then global, institutions. Yet, despite the EU, UN, and other supranational bodies undoubtedly helped by employing sound separation-of-powers principles at a scale above that of the state, I don’t think they can necessarily take the credit they may imagine they deserve (and certainly not a Nobel Peace prize, though neither could the main cause either. For that title, we need to go once more across the pond, back in the nursery of a corporate cultural identity, back in time just a wee bit to see what was happening while Europe was in flames, twice.

The emergence of Corporate fundamental cultural identity.

In the States, the state cultural identity was having a tough time of it themselves, though hardly to the same degree. Having come a fairly long way from the noble, non-interventionist (if you except the forced migration of millions of humans) ideal, and incorporating most of the Caribbean, and a good chunk of Mexico, into its domain, one has to wonder what on Earth went wrong. What went wrong was the emergence of a new cultural identity, not yet fundamental, but that nevertheless found itself with unimaginable wealth, and therefore power. Powers over politics, over the very state cultural identity, but not yet with a monopolistic hold on cultural production.  This created a stunning divergence in the cultural and moral systems of those in power and those under it, in feedback with the huge growth in inequality (see: wealth inequality as a measure of homogeneity of a cultural system), but not the required foundation to sustain it.

This is evident in the mass-mobilisation of religious communities during the Great Depression; cultural identity not yet cowed into submission and seeing morality practiced that was contrary to what they themselves believed. The combined efforts of religious and other, non-fundamental identities, was enough to create an enabling environment for the state to come down hard on those corporations, and their ideologue owners, who were seen, as now, as responsible for the market crash, and redistribute wealth to a degree that released the tension once more. But, after a period of brief societal equilibrium, fundamental and non-fundamental alike, the slowly, exponentially growing corporate identity did not just disappear. Rather, it gained control, control over the banking system with the introduction of the Federal Reserve, control over the newly emerging technologies of radio, telephony, and television. Then it bided its time, and became a fundamental cultural identity the way cultural evolution demands - slowly, and through gaining uninterrupted control over cultural production for a couple of generation. It became the background noise, the new shadows on the wall, and it did it first in the States.

This shift toward monopolistic corporate control of an unprecedented, one-way, system-wide communication network had the same consequences as would happen were religion, or the state, were (and are) in control of such a system: mass indoctrination. Again, it isn’t some evil plot. In fact, complexity theory practically rules out the possibility of a small group of people even being able to control such a complex system as society. The only reason people see the connection is because they are indoctrinated into viewing control by the metrics power itself does: money. Yet this isn’t control of the system, that’s control over wealth extraction, and to conflate the two is to submit to the definitions power has provided for itself. Eventually, the system will bite those people hard on the ass, but until then, the U.S. is largely, and sustainably (in the near term), trapped in Plato’s goddamn cave again.

The reasons for this are numerous, obviously, it’s massively complex, but can essentially be summarised as: it had the most complex and facilitative enabling environment. The freedoms enshrined, for what they are truly worth, in the U.S. constitution and its amendments granted unprecedented freedom for cultural evolution to occur; it was the only superpower left to fully exploit the now blindingly fast (supposedly, back then anyway) advances of technology; it suffered barely any significant damage back in the homeland, leaving a celebratory populace who had mostly been spared the lifelong, crippling, psychological legacy the two World Wars left. Times were bloody awesome, people had “never had it so good” - at least if you were white, male, and reasonably wealthy and/or lucky, but then, since they were the only ones on these new radios, and television sets, that counts as everyone, to a relative mind. The American Dream was here, first in black-and-white, then in full Technicolor! It was in Broadway, it was in every living room (that mattered), and it held, and grew, and got more and more clever, and manipulative, all with one aim; to make you part with the money you have earned.  What is this ‘it’ I speak of? Corporate cultural identity, everywhere, day and night. It isn’t capitalism creating this cultural identity, creating these new desires and insecurities and “personality disorders”, any more than it was nationalism creating state cultural identity, or spiritualism creating religious cultural identity. It was, and is, corporations and their CEOs. State governments and their politicians, and organised religion, with its priests. Capitalism doesn’t exist; it is an abstract ideal that complexity shows is as impossible to realise. All ideology has, at its heart, the belief that if things are done in just this way or that, optimal order will somehow emerge. That isn’t how it works. That isn’t emergence.

Having had two generations in which to spread a TV or Radio into just about every house, and having welcomed advertising and corporate involvement in communications infrastructure in a way Europe didn’t, the States saw the corporate cultural identity gain it’s monopolistic market share of system-wide cultural production. Nobody knew it, but here was the subversion of power that would inevitably lead to corporate cultural identity subverting both religion and the state. So all consuming was its reach, that even those who would consider themselves fully religious, or nationalistic at heart, are subconsciously forced to wade through a sea of adverts, each attempting to drill it’s way in new and innovative ways into your subconscious, explicitly, by design. There is a reason Bill Hicks hated marketing so much, and this is why. Marketing, PR, spin; all they represent are more subtle and nuanced forms of propaganda, pure and simple. No cultural system could withstand such an onslaught, and the exclusivity inherent in the moral fabric of such a homogenous cultural identity has reeked unimaginable devastation in its role of creating, sustaining and exaggerating the phantom of the ‘other’, Communism, that twin enemy of both state and corporate identity alike. You want to talk feedback? Look no further than the ridiculous arms race, with its self-imposed, twisted logic of mutually assured destruction evidence of ideologies inherent stupidity when it comes to thinking in terms of the greater (than themselves) good.

Reagan and Thatcher were on the same mission, but they were starting from different locations, and with a disparate amount of institutionalised power behind them in their ideological goals. In the states, corporate identity had already laid the foundation for the acceptance of neoliberalism, for the acceptance of the ideologues personal definition, under the idealistic myth that is capitalism, The American Dream, the End of History. Thatcher meanwhile, in a cultural system whose state cultural identity had retained its sovereignty over these new technologies (the BBC), and whose cultural identity stretched way farther back than the relative blank slate that was the U.S. Thatcher couldn’t take the neoliberal reforms as far as Reagan, and it took until New Labour betraying their working class base and embrace corporatism for the transformation, the subjugation, of the state identity to be complete (at least, in its top-down form). But how could New Labour have “betrayed their working class base”, while winning in a landslide? The answer is they didn’t - they changed in feedback with their changing base, a base that had by now had the same 20 or so years of dominant corporate culture that the states had had from the fifties onwards. There was no working class anymore, just a few diehard communities, suffering dissonance and exclusion in a sea of consumerism. Not only that, but as the U.S’s closest cultural system, the UK naturally and inevitably became the first and most receptive to the growing corporate influence across the pond. With no language barrier and an aura of glamour, U.S. culture found a home in the UK that only added to the acceleration of the corporate cultural monopoly.

Gradually, U.S. corporate culture reached every corner of the globe, and where corporate interests went, the state duly followed. The media gradually became more subservient the more their corporate masters diverged in culture, the more inequality grew. Religion embraced corporatism’s message, the appearance of vast, multi-million dollar turnover mega-churches, taking the traditional, religious way of extracting wealth (though still using fear, and other devices such as music and repetition that Goebbels was fond of) and applying economies-of-scale. Any counter-cultural possibility had been extinguished with the coming of Reagan and the freedoms he granted, in the name of an economic ideology, to corporations. The West was lost to fundamentalism, driven there by external fears and internal monopolistic control over cultural production.

If you think fundamentalism is too harsh a word, then you either haven’t been paying attention, or else disagree with my theoretical premise, that culture reflects identity, that culture is identity. U.S. system-wide cultural production is entirely corporate, either directly, or through power of mediation, with just the one public TV and radio channel in PBS and NPR (and even that is under constant threat of having it’s funding pulled). It has been this way for decades; every single large scale producer of cultural production, all functioning not for the public good, but for their bottom-line. For a reflection of how far we have come, consider this. We have just had a financial crisis like the West has not known since the 30’s. Yet unlike that time, there was no mass-mobilisation, no rallying cries of any influence from the pulpits, just a bunch of disparate, desperate, isolated voices crying out into the ether. Unlike that time, the state is no longer independent enough, cultural identity no longer diverse enough, to create the enabling environment to legislate against those that all but the most hardened ideologues know are to blame for this mess. A homogenous corporate identity, free to define itself in culture and law, had instead created the conditions required for them to survive such an enormous, and usually reform-generating, systemic shock. Yet nothing has changed. Inequality is still getting higher. The balance of fundamental and non-fundamental identities, united by the horrors of war and a vision of a brighter future, had once conspired to correct the greed of exclusive cultural identity, and bring about two decades of rising equality. Not this time. This time corporations have the power they then lacked, the power of mass-indoctrination.

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