September 3, 2012

Cocooning and authoritarianism, the basic picture

That seemed like a shorter title than cocooning and authoritarianism, Corporatism, Communism, technocracy, and bureaucracy. You get the idea of what kind of political and economic institutions I'm talking about.

In this first post, I'll take a look at the link empirically, both across regions and over time. Then in the next post, I'll propose two mechanisms that could explain this relationship, one social and the other emotional.

The groups with the lowest degree of cocooning are hunter-gatherers, e.g. the Bushmen of southern Africa, where people don't have private homes and spend most of their plentiful free time socializing and gossiping (and at such close distances that "personal space" as we know it scarcely exists). They also have established social ties to a variety of neighboring groups, wandering over toward one when they're in need of what it can provide, then touring around to another when they need that group's support. These people have nothing like an elite authority who manages their affairs, and come closest to the egalitarian ideal.

After them are the pastoralists, who also are not tied to any patch of land and thus spend much of their time interacting with others. They do hold private wealth, though (mostly in livestock and jewelry), so these interactions can take an antagonistic form over some contested resource like grazing land, travel routes, etc. But then there's the flip-side where they entertain guests to a higher standard than they would enjoy themselves, with the expectation that sometime later on the hosts will play the role of guests in their turn. Whether it's the culture of honor or the culture of hospitality, pastoralists largely carry on in a grassroots, face-to-face manner.

And they too have limited political hierarchy, although more nested grouping than hunter-gatherers have -- livestock herders are too fiercely independent and proud to tolerate too much for too long. They might band together to take out a common enemy, but even these phases show limited authoritarianism and more of a band-of-brothers ethos, like the early period of Mongol expansion. Hierarchical decision-making is not an enduring feature of their societies.

Then come the somewhat more cocooning horticulturalists. They hang out mostly around the home, where their gardens are, with the women doing the hard work at home and a handful of guys getting drunk or high, perhaps while playing music, in the men's hut (kind of like a small frat). They don't interact too much with their "neighbors." When they do, it is even more likely to be hostile than it is for pastoralists, who at least have a reason to be hospitable toward strangers. But gardeners do not go on prolonged travels where they may be in need of the kindness of strangers; lacking the expected benefits that they themselves would receive as guests, they feel little need to extend it as hosts. When kindness is shown to others, it is typically a potlatch kind of ceremony where the Big Man tries to show off how wealthy he is by giving so much away. That produces more of an implicit patron-client relationship between the Big Man and the peons, not a guest-host relationship between long-term equals, but where one is only temporarily in need and the other able to provide.

Their political institutions are also more stratified, going up to tribal chiefdoms or small kingdoms that are meant to last. Not being very nomadic, they don't have the option to pick up and move somewhere else if they're on a crash-course with their neighbors, so that higher authority gets implemented; it isn't just there symbolically.

Finally there are the agriculturalists, who have given birth to the most hierarchical forms of governance, from Ancient Egypt and the Aztecs to Communist Russia and China. These large-scale crop-growers are even more tied to a patch of land than the gardeners are, who at least move every now and then once the current garden is no longer worth planting in. Most of their day is spent carrying out the drudgery needed to make their own private farm work, pretty much restricted to interactions with close kin. Like the gardeners, they don't go on long treks, so they do not have elaborate hospitality cultures. But they do have larger common interests with their non-kin neighbors, like setting up and maintaining an irrigation system that will provide water to all of their fields. So tend not to interact with their neighbors even violently. There's just not much face-to-face socializing of any kind; even behavior needed to coordinate their interests is through intermediaries, e.g. some official who visits each household to collect the dues that fund a public good.

As for changes over time, which are better at showing cause and effect, consider the more outgoing and free-wheeling times in the United States of the early 1900s through the early 1930s, as well as the '60s through the early '90s, which reached their peak during the Roaring Twenties and the Go-Go Eighties. Those were also periods marked by a steady erosion of faith in technocrats and centralized authority, which was gradually replaced by a belief in entrepreneurialism and soft libertarianism (not the wacko kind), again peaking during the '20s and the '80s.

In the more cocooning mid-century, the public grew steadily more in favor of Big Business, Big Labor, and Big Government meeting up to hammer out a harmonious plan for the whole society, not quite outright Communism or Fascism, but about as close as America could get to it. (Speaking of which, the mid-century was also the peak of Stalinism and Fascism in Europe, so it wasn't just a pattern here.) The men in white coats had figured out what was best for you, and you had better take their prescriptions seriously -- or ignore them at your own peril.

Then in the cocooning era of the past 20 years, we've seen a steady reversal of Reagan-era beliefs in decentralization, distrust of experts, and action from below. Remember all those vigilante movies that followed Dirty Harry? That was the point -- the system and its experts are too limited in their knowledge, morality, and efficacy, that those lower down the chain of command may have to make more decisions on their own instead of just following orders.

It began with the worship of Clinton after the '90s economic boom got going -- praising the technocrats who set the right dials to the right settings, rather than the lower-down businessmen who actually did the hiring and expansion of their businesses. It only grew under Bush, whose massive top-down programs for widening home-ownership rates, making all the nation's children smart, and spreading democracy to the Middle East, hardly anyone raised an eyebrow at. And of course this airheaded faith in the experts has only gotten worse under Obama, who everyone thought was a magician, or who at least would know who to select as his magician sidekicks. Just look at how many true believers there were in the economic magicianship of Big Government there was during the late 2000s recession compared to the early '80s recession.

Confusion often results surrounding the first part of a rising-crime, more outgoing, more decentralizing period, for example the 1900s or the 1960s. Each of those periods began at the epitome of the previous phase, the Gilded Age and the Fifties. The social-cultural shift away from that is gradual, so for awhile in the early transition there is still a good deal of the previous phase kicking around. The Progressive Era still believed in the power of bureaucracy -- just get the right people in office to pass the right laws, and problem solved. Same with the '60s -- just vote in Johnson, and pass the Great Society programs, and problem solved. That is an inheritance of the Gilded Age (or Victorian era in Europe) and the Mid-century Modern period in America, and it was steadily eroded as people gradually withdrew their faith in technocratic experts.

I won't go in depth for every period of rising and falling homicide rates (the primary link to less vs. more cocooning behavior). But consider also the falling-crime Age of Reason / Enlightenment era, who gave the world the idea of the Enlightened Despot, and whose faith in men of learning to wisely plan society was growing compared to the previous Early Modern period that was marked by the Wars of Religion and the Witch Craze in Europe. Indeed the Early Modern period (ca. 1580 to 1630) saw a revival of the Medieval culture of revenge and dueling, immortalized in all those revenge tragedies of the Elizabethan and Jacobean years. That showed a belief in local, face-to-face solutions to your problems, distrusting the central authorities' ability to solve them for you.

After the Enlightenment, homicide rates began rising during the Romantic-Gothic period, and there was by any look at these societies a more outgoing and free-wheeling culture. They gradually lost their faith in technocracy and placed their hope more in bottom-up, local governance, and an overall revival of all things regional, especially to break away from a huge empire.

And as with the other rising-crime periods, the very beginning of the Romantic-Gothic era still carried a good deal of the previous era -- namely the naivete that ushered in the French Revolution. As with the Progressive Era and the Great Society, that was a relic of the mindset in the previous period (the Enlightenment), which was steadily eroded and built over with the views shown in Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, the unsheltered and clear-sighted daughter of two naive ideologists from the Enlightenment era.

Even by the time people were cheering on Napoleon, it was not because they wanted authoritarian planning and rule within their own society, but because he could conquer foreign nations and enrich the glory of his fellow countrymen back home. It's like the regular high school students who cheer on the jocks at a football game, hoping that they'll crush the rival school's team and give them -- the regular students -- something to be proud of. It's not to celebrate the superior status the jocks will enjoy afterward.

That took a little longer than I expected, but I guess it's better to spend more time documenting the pattern in the first place. The next post proposing two related psychological mechanisms for this pattern will be quite shorter.


  1. Interesting stuff.

    Do you think that cocooning was instigated, and is being maintained, by government crime policies?

    This was started by Reagan, with the War on Drugs, and building of more prisons. Clinton continued with the mass hiring of police officers, and then of course there was the Patriot Act.

    Think about it. When you beef up the police force, you start cracking down on what were considered minor crimes. You crack down on drugs, guys fighting each other. You harass young people into going indoors.

    Apparently, under Obama there has been mass hiring of SWAT officers. What are they gonna use those guys for? Breaking up fights in high school?

    Anyway, on the flip side, Nixon was actually soft on crime. He did some kind of thing where those arrested for drugs were taken to a treatment center. Of course, the fruits of his policies was the 1975-1990 rising-crime period.

    Just to be clear, I don't like fights or doing drugs. Just saying.

  2. "You harass young people into going indoors."

    That's not my sense of what happened, which was that young people willingly and eagerly began locking themselves indoors. By now nobody needs to harass them at all.

    Kind of like the mid-century. The coppers were cracking down on youthful exuberance during the 1920s and early '30s, but by the '40s and '50s, young people were mostly happy to avoid raucous public spaces, and didn't need to be harassed into staying indoors.

    Otherwise we would've heard (then and now) most young people complaining about all the barriers to their plan of having fun outside their home. At most you might hear the skateboarders complain about police harassment, but that's about it.

  3. We are clearly overdue for a rising crime period. I think I see the early signs in a general increase of spiritual disarray, or they could just be symptoms of a deeper madness.

  4. Whether or not the 60s - 80s people believed in smaller government than the 30s - 50s people, they sure as fuck didn't make it smaller. They didn't reduce regulation or the sheer size in employment by the bureaucracy and they didn't make it cost less.

    Whether the 60s - 80s people believed in entreprenuerialism more than the 30s - 50s people, they sure as fuck didn't grow the private economy any larger. Is there any evidence small business grew better during the 60s - 80s than before, or that large business grew less?

    There is just no reverse of sign here. Who gives a damn what these 80s people idealised? - doesn't appear to have done them or us a whit or good.

  5. Don't spazz out. The secular growth of the state has been going on since forever, so changes from one period to another are seen in the second derivative -- accelerating or slowing / plateauing. Here's a graph:

    Most of the accelerating periods are in the mid-century and from the mid-'90s through today. There was a carry-over from the mid-century into the '60s, probably because legislation has more momentum and doesn't respond as quickly to societal changes as the grassroots do.

    The slower-growing periods are more from the '60s through the early '90s.

    Not to mention the acceleration or slowing-down growth of regulation, huge during the mid-century and in the past 15-20 years, but slowed down during the '70s and '80s. (Not all of that deregulation was for the better.)

    The main change is in people's moods, preferences, etc. If all you're pointing out is that these changes are interacting with independent changes, like the steady growth of the state or of the level of technology, so that zeitgeist changes don't map one-for-one into societal changes, well no duh.


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