Friday, January 7, 2011

Highly Efficient Systems and Agonizing Death

"Not one has shown an iota of fear of death. They want to end this agony." - Jack Kevorkian

Perhaps what we need as a society is a better understanding of "efficiency", since it is such a key aspect of all complex systems. Take the human body, for example, which is perhaps the most complex life form that has evolved on Earth. After increasing specialization and inter-connection of various bodily components through millions of years of evolution, the systems of the human body have become extremely efficient at their specific functions. The arteries, veins and capillaries of the cardiovascular system have evolved an intricate fractal design that competently delivers oxygen and nutrients to all of the body's cells as necessary.

What's important to understand is that every systemic component of the body has a specific function that serves to keep the body alive, growing and relatively stable over periods of time. These functions take place without any regard to concepts of fairness or equality. If my individual skin cells had an emergent sense of self-aware conscience (like me), then they would probably be very upset with my brain cells, which are much fewer in number and receive a disproportionate share of my resource intake (the brain receives 20% of the body's blood) [1]. In fact, the comfortable brain cells typically remain alive for a person's entire lifetime, while the average skin cell lasts for about a couple of weeks before it dies off and is replaced.

This systems theoretical framework of understanding applies just as well to our global economic, social, cultural and political structures. These evolved systems are amazingly efficient at keeping the overarching human civilization "alive", growing and relatively stable. Consistent material growth is achieved by exploiting limited resources and concentrating such resources in centralized structures through various mechanisms of action. Just as a biological species must eventually adapt to its surroundings or go extinct, human socioeconomic systems that are inefficient at promoting consistent growth/concentration will be marginalized, modified or replaced.

Of course, socioeconomic evolution takes place much more rapidly than its biological counterpart. Over the last few hundred years, every dominant system of human civilization has evolved to efficiently maintain the status quo processes of material growth and wealth concentration. These systems will almost always sacrifice "fairness" and "equality" for efficiency, because the former have no role in preserving the overarching civilization as it has come to exist. Each one of these systems also has its own unique evolutionary function:

--Economic System - Here is the foundational system of human civilization, as it allows vital resources to be extracted, manipulated and traded between humans. As greater resource pools are generated between diverse economic actors, larger populations of humans can be supported in a given area and more complex forms of social and political organization can be established. The Industrial Revolution took this logic to its parabolic extreme and has obviously allowed immense growth in net wealth and "standards of living". This system, similar to the human cardiovascular system, must deliver a disproportionate share of resources to centralized structures that are vital to maintaining/growing the current body of civilization (i.e. developed countries, large corporations, prominent corporate executives, strategic political groups, etc.)

--Social System - The dominant social structure is best described as one containing hierarchical class divisions determined by levels of material wealth. It is an inevitable byproduct of industrial economic evolution, and primarily serves to reinforce the legitimacy of the naturally-occurring wealth disparity in our world. People in the developed world, especially, are socially conditioned by parents, teachers, public figures, etc. to believe that everyone has an opportunity to be materially "successful", and to look down on those who happen to fall short. The severe stigmas that attach to poverty and homelessness, or even an "average" lifestyle, ensure that the distressing symptoms of economic growth/concentration will be tolerated for some time.

--Cultural System - Many people describe developed societies as having "consumption cultures", and that is probably the most apt description. Material consumption, of course, is absolutely necessary for the consistent material growth of human civilization, and therefore this cultural system is naturally dominant. The need to continually increase wealth concentration (due to limited resources), however, means that only specific segments of civilization can be imbued with this cultural feature, which comes at the expense of the less materially fortunate. A consumption culture provides an extremely efficient mechanism for directing resources to various centralized structures, since economic actors (individuals, corporations, governments)  within it  deeply believe such a process to be "normal" , routine and beneficial to all.

--Political System - The political systems of Western nations are currently, without a doubt, the most "corrupt" in the world, and this nature is typically criticized as being a disease marked by inefficiency. Corruption, however, could just as easily be described as a highly efficient means of maintaining the structures of global society by promoting growth and wealth concentration. It provides wealthy economic entities with direct access to sovereign power, a sweeping dominion conditionally granted by the people to their respective states. This power essentially allows the elites to force people in a certain direction through physical or financial coercion. It also allows them to use threats of violence or violence itself to obtain valuable resources and economic concessions. No other political system, such as one more "representative" or "democratic", would have allowed human civilization to achieve material growth/concentration at the frightening pace and scale that we have witnessed to date.

Still, there are many different types of economic, social, cultural and political systems that have emerged and/or survived in various regions of the world in the last few hundred years. It is true that not all of these systems have evolved to efficiently maintain/grow the existing civilization, and some of them may even be in direct opposition to the status quo. However, it is clear that systems which have failed to adapt to the dominant environment have been thoroughly isolated or have struggled to survive before simply going extinct. Eventually, they have all ended up as minor infections subject to the brutal mercy of a healthy immune system.

Some may point to China as an exception, since it is a country with a "Communist" economic/political system that has thrived in recent years. While it is true that they have been materially successful, it is only because they have adapted to the dominant economic, social, cultural and political modes of operation. There are many fundamental similarities between their models of speculative financial investment, bureaucratic government, careless environmental policy, pronounced socioeconomic division, etc. and ours. We cannot let simple labels or mainstream conventions distract us from the systemic reality lying underneath. Despite their different and misleading labels, all of these dominant systems in global civilization have evolved to efficiently promote material growth and concentrate wealth.

Of course, the life of every system eventually comes to its material end. The skin begins to sag and lose color, the bones becomes fragile, the blood flow meets increasing resistance and mental processes start to fade. The "immune system" of our global civilization is not nearly as effective as it used to be, and even the slightest infection could bypass its defenses and spell society's demise. Efficient systems will always and forever become fragile and burn themselves out, given enough time. It may take millions of years to occur in large biological or ecological systems, but it only takes a few human generations in socioeconomic ones. The evolved systems of global civilization are absolutely necessary for its survival, and they are all quickly deteriorating now. Given the surety of this impending death, the only thing left to fear is the possibility that our society dies in bitter and painful agony, rather than a state of composed dignity.

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