"... Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing."

Macbeth

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Mahler Sinfonia No. 1 
Kraftig bewegt

Individualism

Tribalism

Socialism

Fascism

Islamism

Feudalism

Globalism

Capitalism
CIA fact book
CIA fact book

"... Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing."

Macbeth

First baby steps
Planetary superhighway - NASA video

Real Player
There are a number of lessons that can be learned by disentangling the cats cradle of isms that span the tribalism-individualism continuum and function in the game of life

Having come down on the side of Physics then, why should we bother ourselves with the petty machinations of the monkeys that we of course are, an unpretty story certainly, long and tragic, one of scratching and crawling and killing, and eating and dying?  What are we to make of the tender little biological excrescences, of which we are a prominent one, formed quite without our will on this hard and largely unsympathetic rocky ball flying into nowhere?  Our species has long been peculiarly fascinated by tragedy.  Small wonder. 

The politics of our world, taken in its broadest sweep, certainly tell a tragic story.  It is not an accident that history is largely told in terms of battles and generals, of expeditions, failures and successes, alliances and treasons.  These are the stories of our puny efforts to form ever larger and more powerful groupings, ultimately those that today we call government, the systems that I, for generality, choose to term isms.  Ironically, we do this, plan these strategies, fight our battles and kill each other, to increase our security and our wealth and our numbers! 

Lest we, in despair, imagine that our big brains and advanced technologies have succeeded only in killing each other more efficiently, we should keep in mind that they have actually done their job remarkably well, if not always benignly: there are more than six billions of us today, with a world wealth that can be measured as nearly US$70 trillion, which in a real sense is a measure of the satisfaction within our society, a satisfaction that far exceeds that of any other time in our long history.  Furthermore this sharp increase is historically speaking of quite recent vintage.

Here, using the tools I have outlined, my aim is to look at some of the isms in our history, and those of today, in order to make a few very simple but, it seems to me, often unrecognized points:

  1. That an ism is formed or reformed to respond to the current circumstance in which a group finds itself, and that its morality is best evaluated on the basis of how it performed in respect of those circumstances.
  2. That isms themselves not only respond to present circumstances, they may also in time alter those circumstances.  This, in turn, affects the methods appropriate to the ism itself in a circularity of cause and effect: if security and wealth is increased by an ism, circumstances improve and isms move in some measure toward the Individualism end of the spectrum; contrariwise, if an ism diminishes security and wealth it inexorably, reactively moves a bit toward the Tribalism end of the spectrum.  Eventually, if the ism is successful enough, it will lead to a polity that carries a new name, another ism.
  3. That wealth generates satisfaction and well-being (in the most general sense of these terms).  Furthermore, that satisfaction and well-being are the ultimate goods for which all isms are created.  That wealth is contingent upon security and that the form that this security takes is dependent upon the current circumstances the society confronts: the security appropriate to a society on the brink of extinction is not appropriate for a wealthy society, nor vice versa.

These various isms constitute the politics of history, the politics that have formalized the underlying morality that governs our species, that of survival and replication and the search for satisfaction and well being.  Many of these isms may seem to us today to have been morbid and pathological, but it is a mistake to judge these systems by present-day standards; it is important when analyzing a system to see it in its contemporary context.  We must understand, as analysts, that there is no inherent right or wrong to any of these isms absent the context within which they exist. 

A beneficial political system, a moral systems by my measure, is one that successfully copes with the difficult or dangerous circumstance it was designed to ameliorate.  This success can be measured by several criteria:  Did the system ameliorate the fraught circumstances it faced?  Did the number of individuals brought within control of the system increase?  Did the system adapt well to subsequent changes in circumstance?  Was the polity successfully passed on to following generations?  All of these benefits can be roughly measured by a single observable fact: the length of time that a particular named system survived.

There are numerous isms that I have omitted in the discussion to follow for the reason that they are largely utopian and have never achieved what I will term scale, that is they have not become sufficiently powerful to have actually been a governing system on a broad canvas.  This is not to say that they are not worthy of discussion, only that space and my limited knowledge precludes their inclusion here.  The Quakers, for example, who founded first the colony of and then the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania proved unable to govern it for long.  They were an interesting polity, and, though no longer governing, the effect of some of their ideas is still felt in the state, if more and more weakly, after several hundreds of years.  Communitarianism is another example of an ism that, while interesting, is not of sufficient scale for my purposes here, where I confine myself to the major isms of history.

 

It would simplify our analysis if we could neatly place particular isms in precise positions on the spectrum I have formulated to the left.  There are several reasons why this is not practical.  The most important of these is that the terminology and meaning attached to particular isms is uneven, and often overlapping:  What is the difference between, say communism and totalitarianism?  Is communism simply a form of totalitarianism, an instance of a class?  What of fascism and Nazism? Do they not blend one into the other almost seamlessly?

Furthermore there is often a difference between the ideal of a particular ism and it’s actual implementation within a certain culture: is communism as an ideal—and socialism, for that matter—inescapably totalitarian in its nature as some have maintained, or was it merely in Russian or Chinese or Cuban practice that it became so, a consequence of their particular needs and perhaps of their pre-existing cultures rather than of the ideology itself? 

What precisely is the difference between socialism and communism?  Substantial aspects of socialism and of liberal capitalism overlap in practice, as is the case for many other named isms.  Even within a particular ism there ordinarily are a number of variants in practice using the same name in theory.  There is a socialism that mandates public ownership of the means of production, and there is a socialism that purports simply to ameliorate the excesses of private ownership, as predominates in Europe today. Isms regularly alter themselves into other versions with different names, but in doing so they retain certain essential features of the older ism, in the way, for example, that mercantilism morphed into modern capitalism.  The system I choose to term Islamism has had numerous instantiations over more than a millennium.  (My remarks will focus on the current one.)

Nevertheless, though one cannot align these isms neatly along the spectrum, it is not a complete loss.  Valid generalizations can be made: It is clear that liberalism and modern capitalism occupy  places on the spectrum farther toward the Individualism end than do, say, feudalism and the various forms of socialism.  And this distinction is sufficient for my rather limited aims here.  One must view this tool as a wide angle lense, and therefore be humble in the focus one can expect to achieve.  With it we see the forest, not the trees.  In spite of these severe limitations I believe this very broad view permits certain intuitions about the world-historic system as a whole that cannot be seen by focusing deeply on particular isms, in the way that a philosopher might do.  Think of how the famous photograph of the earth taken from the vantage point of the moon vividly gave us a different perspective about our world, its beauty, its isolation and its fragility, than has any earthbound picture.  Distance itself can offer an enlightening perspective.

Some isms have a very short life while others last centuries.  Some isms—the ones near the tribal end of the spectrum—may be quite damaging to individuals.  Other isms—the ones toward the individualist end of the spectrum—may be damaging or limiting, to the society in which the individuals exist.  Some isms that are beneficial to one social group might be—in fact, usually are—damaging to neighboring groups, as adjacent isms compete under the same or similar circumstances.  But what all isms have in common, should they last long enough to earn a historical name, is that they did benefit some group for a significant period of time. 

 

The graph at the left represents the long sweep of history; beginning at the top with Tribalism.  The start date is indefinite.  Then it proceeds downward, closer in time, listing several links to the isms that I have chosen to remark upon and ending at the bottom, and into the future, with Individualism.  The thickness of the graph over this long span of time roughly models two interrelated phenomenon that largely coincide: population and wealth, in effect representing the improvement of circumstance and satisfaction for our species.  What is obviously most striking about this graph is the pronounced, exponential increase in human population and wealth since the advent of modern technology.  It is our politics, flawed as they are (and, to give God his due, not without the early aid of religion), that has finally, after millennia, produced this radical change: technology cannot be developed in a political vacuum.  It is precisely our never-ending striving for larger and larger groupings (cohesion) that has supported the development of wealth, which in turn has supported the development of science and it’s child, technology, which then produces more wealth, in a virtuous circle.

The inconsequential protoplasm from which we are formed, controlled by the evolutionary process, which willy nilly, through trial and error, pain and suffering and tragedy, has, quite astonishingly, produced our self-conscious brains permitting us to observe ourselves, develop our politics and live the lives that we now do.  For some, perhaps, this is small comfort, a thin soup, and one that cannot make up for our loss of God and eternal life.  But, in a strange way, I find this quite satisfying.  It is of that class of phenomenon where the little guy triumphs, the underdog wins, the highly unexpected actually occurs, one wins the lottery, and beyond that, how fascinating to a have been a small part of it. 

Even more remarkable is that it is not completely unreasonable to think that now, with technology blossoming in so many new ways, and in particular with our nascent, deep understanding of physics and genetics, we have a distinct chance to continue this exponential increase in human wealth and happiness, controlling our destiny and even our own makeup.  Is it too radical a thought to imagine that our inconsequential species might someday come to understand and control our universe?  Probably.  But no matter.  What a grand ride it might be.

 

I began writing my analyses of the various isms at the top of the spectrum toward the tribalism or totalitarian end of the spectrum and then, to illustrate the radical difference at the two margins, I proceeded immediately to individualism at the bottom of the spectrum.  I then moved back up from top to bottom in the order in which I’ve placed each ism on the spectrum.  Though these short essays concerning what I believe to be the most important isms can be read in any order by clicking on any link on the graph, I suggest that some benefit may be had by proceeding in the order in which they were written, which may be done using the buttons below.