Human Nature

The Pipe Dream of Anarcho-Populism

elites, hierarchy, and large scale society

Share with your friends

More share buttons
Share on Pinterest

By Peter Turchin

I was interviewed by BBC for their show Analysis a few years ago. You can listen to it here. A good summary is on the Equality by Lot blog.

In the show Jeremy Cliffe examines the philosophy of Russell Brand, an English comedian and actor who gave the most watched political interview of 2013, the Brand-Paxman interview. If you want to read what Brand has to say, check out his article in the New Statesman.

Brand’s views got such attention not just because he is a celebrity, but because he has clearly touched a nerve. Many young and quite a lot of not-so-young people think that our world is developing in the wrong direction. One of the best ways of expressing it that I saw was a young Greek anarchist exclaiming, “It’s not right that our generation has it worse than our parents!”

And he is right. The generation who are currently 20-30 year old has certainly got a worse deal than my generation. This is true no matter how you measure it: by worsening employment prospects, by declining real wages, by the exploding proportion living with their parents (because they cannot support themselves), by the plunging proportion never married (because they live with the parents and can’t afford to set up an independent household). I have gathered much of this evidence in my forthcoming book.

Get Evonomics in your inbox

There is a basic tension in Russell Brandon’s passionate diatribe. He is aware of it, and tries to address it, but never resolves it in a satisfactory way. His critique is directed at the elites, but the irony, of course, is that he is a member of the elites himself. Remember that I use ‘elites’ in its sociological sense – they are the small proportion of population (typically 1, 2, or 3 percent) who concentrate the bulk of social power in their hands. Social power comes in four basic varieties, and while Brand does not wield any coercive or political/administrative kinds, he has an abundance of economic and ideological power, as he is extremely rich and glamorous. His wealth and fame put him not just into the 1 percent, but probably into 0.01 percent.

An elite status, however, should not disqualify him from being able to mount an effective critique against the present social order. It would only seem so if we were to agree with him and other ‘anarcho-populists,’ whom Cliffe interviewed in his quite excellent program. The anarchist idea is that our societies should dispense with the state and the ruling elites, and then everything will be right in the world.

Sorry, folks, but this is just a pipe dream. It goes against everything we know about how real human societies are organized and coordinated; how social cooperation operates in large-scale societies, such as ours.

Sure, humans can function very well in stateless and elite-less societies. For 90 percent of our evolutionary history that’s how we lived. But those were small-scale societies. Typical hunter-gatherer groups number in a few dozen. In such societies everybody knows everybody else. They also know who is honest, who is a cheat. They remember what John did to me, and what John did to Susan. And how David reacted. About every member of the band. Such ‘social intelligence’ takes a lot of processing power, which is probably why our oversized and energetically expensive brains evolved (no, it was not to prove theorems).

The problem is that even our remarkable brains (still more powerful than any existing computer) are overwhelmed by the complexity of keeping track of social interactions in groups larger than 100–200 individuals (this is the famous Dunbar number). You can go up in social scale to a few thousand people, and still have such egalitarian face-to-face sociality working, but not much beyond that. Certainly, once you get societies above a million people, a hierarchical organization is inevitable.

We are not ants. Social insects can cooperate in ‘heterarchical’ (non-hierarchical) societies of millions of individuals because they have such nifty means of coordinating everything as pheromones.

As an aside, I remember a remarkable book by Frank Herbert (the author of Dune, about which I had written before). In Hellstrom’s Hive, a splinter of humanity evolves into an ant-like socium. When a federal agent from the outside penetrates the Hive, they feed him a lunch laden with pheromones, and he is suddenly converted, becoming one of them, and cooperating with the Hive, rather than the United States of America.

Wow! A great yarn; pure science fiction. In real life humans learned to cooperate in humongous societies of today (in two cases counting more than 1 billion individuals) by using a variety of cultural mechanisms, one of the most important ones being the hierarchical organization.

There are no known large-scale (say, a million or more members) society today or in history, which was not organized hierarchically. Think about it this way. There is no large-scale society that doesn’t have full-time administrators devoted to make it run smoothly. We all hate bureaucrats, but the truth is that we cannot live without a bureaucracy. The same is true for the elites.

So, is it possible to dispense with the hierarchy (and bureaucracy) by going back to small-societies? In theory, yes. But, as I pointed out in my BBC interview, think of the consequences. Let’s say that we somehow manage to get a society of a few thousand to work on a purely egalitarian basis. Theoretically this is possible. But there are more than 7 billion people on this Earth. So dividing them into small-scale societies of a few thousand will produce at least a million of such societies!

What’s going to happen next? One of them will decide to use violence to achieve its goals. Warfare will spread and eventually all societies will become warlike, because pacifist societies will be selected out (in other words, destroyed in competition with warlike neighbors). So, in the absence of an overarching political authority capable of restraining and punishing aggressors, we will inevitably end up with a war of all small-scale societies against all others. That’s the way it was in prehistory, except there were many fewer people on the Earth, and they had much more buffer space between their societies.

Things are actually going to be even worse, because modern production of food and other vitally needed things requires social organization in large-scale societies. In short, going back to small-scale societies will mean an apocalypse in which more than 99 percent of people will have to disappear by hunger, war, and disease.

2016 March 8

Originally published here.

Donating = Changing Economics. And Changing the World.

Evonomics is free, it’s a labor of love, and it's an expense. We spend hundreds of hours and lots of dollars each month creating, curating, and promoting content that drives the next evolution of economics. If you're like us — if you think there’s a key leverage point here for making the world a better place — please consider donating. We’ll use your donation to deliver even more game-changing content, and to spread the word about that content to influential thinkers far and wide.

 $3 / month
 $7 / month
 $10 / month
 $25 / month

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

If you liked this article, you'll also like these other Evonomics articles...


We welcome you to take part in the next evolution of economics. Sign up now to be kept in the loop!