Depressingly fatalist, morbidly truthful, irresistibly Nietzschean. That’s Howard Bloom’s “The Lucifer Principle” in a nutshell: a meandering trawl through disciplines such as genetics, psychology and culture that culminates in a theory of evil, purporting to explain its historical necessity, its creative potential and the possibility of it ever being vanquished. The odds do not appear to be good. For in the world painted by Bloom, peace is submission, social hierarchies are natural, ideas are polarizing, and liberal individualism is invidious to the collective “superorganism” that both oppresses, nourishes and saves us. Fascism really is the “natural state” in every sense of the term.
More S/O material on related topics:
- Violence is Reality – the grisly reality of prehistoric war.
- If Malthus and Ibn Khaldun were to meet for coffee… – the overwhelming importance of social cohesion, or Asabiyah, to national success.
- The Belief Matrix – my own ideas on the role of sobornost’.
Superorganism, or: The Whole is Greater than its Parts
Bloom starts off by providing reams of evidence on why it is completely logical for nature to be “red in tooth and claw”. Selfish genes need to replicate and it is no great loss if they doom billions of individuals to untimely deaths in the struggle for evolutionary survival. Hence, creatures battle for the “privilege of procreation”. High-ranking gorilla females kill their harem rivals’ offspring. Existence in primitive societies is so brutish and short that it is as if they were fighting World War Two every year and life eternal (the myth of the “noble savage” really is just that). The wellspring of Western civilization, the Romans, have the rape of the Sabines as one of their proudest foundational myths. In short, violence is reality.
[The Rape of the Sabine Women, Pietro da Cortona.]
One interesting theory he mentions is that of the triune brain, according to which the human mind is actually composed of three brains – the reptilian (stimuli, mating, territoriality), mammalian (loyalty to family and clan) and primate (reasoning faculty). The reptilian component makes creatures nasty and violent, while the mammalian reinforces the power of social groups. It is only the latter that allows man to dream about peace, even as they hack each other to pieces in the waking world.
In the next section, Blooms asks why people commit suicide. He cites a lot of research showing that isolation is the ultimate poison – without social approval, people not only tend to become depressed, but their physiology goes on self-destruct mode, encouraging illnesses, insanity and suicidal tendencies. This is a negative feedback loop because once you are depressed, other people no longer want to be around you or make friends with it (but that, too, works in the interests of the group). He ties this in to the larger idea that just as cells, sponges and ants can only survive as constituent particularly of a greater whole or not at all, so humans are part of a greater “superorganism” that is society.
Paradoxically, the logic of “group selection” encourages loyalty to the superorganism that cares little if at all for the individuals that owe it their fealty. For instance, upon seeing a pride of lions beginning to stalk a herd of gazelles on the African savanna, the beasts that notice the predators begin prancing about in warning. This actually diminishes their individual chances of survival, since lions are likeliest to go for animals that are acting unlike the rest of the herd. The best outcome for the individual gazelle upon noticing the lions would be simply to retreat slowly to the safe center of the herd. However, over the evolutionary eons, groups with many individuals exhibiting these self-preserving tendencies presumably got weeded out, for self-interest is the bane of group interests. Hence in real life we do get a lot of genuinely altruistic loyalty to the group – amongst ants, gazelles, humans.
Humans who are no longer needed by the group really are no longer needed and might as well wane and die (“the Moor has done his duty, he can now go home”). Durkheim suggested suicide was essentially individuals altruistically relieving society of their own burden to it, and I would suggest that this is especially evident in societies like Japan without the traditional Western Christian guilt. I would also suggest that this is the reason why ostracism and exile were so much more fearful punishments in the pre-industrial world than they would seem in today’s global rootless cosmopolitanism. In an age when bonds were strong and essential, but geographically tied to small regions, being shorn of human contact would have been psychologically crippling.
All this of course has a more than passing resemblance to Turchin’s and Ibn Khaldun’s work on social cohesion and Asabiyah. There’s a reason why through the ages soldiers have willingly charged cold steel pikes and machine gun fire for the glory of their nation. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and far more important too – and the superorganism knows this.
[The Battle of Gettysburg. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori!]
Though shalt not kill… but only as long as they’re members of your tribe. Otherwise it’s cool. Note that primitive societies believe “humans” to be only their own tribe or clan (in fact if you look at the etymology, many ethnicities call themselves “the people” in their own tongues). Civilization has expanded the definition of those considered to be human to their own nations: in the case of the Jews, to the Israelites; in the case of later “universal” religions, potentially to all humanity (except inveterate heathen, of course). Even many modern liberals are intolerant of those who don’t share their liberal ideals. Why these divisions? Having enemies is really good for social consolidation (see “castle identity”, “residential fortress”, “siege mentality”); human societies are defined not by what they are, but by what they oppose and hate. Or as Orwell would say, war is peace.
There is always a deep wellspring of frustration in any society. Bloom quotes interesting research showing that fro cells to ants to humans, each unit performs a preordained role. In any ant colony, there are industrious workers and lazy workers, soldiers and queens. Separate the industrious and lazy workers into separate group and new social roles are created as some former busybodies become idlers and former idlers become industrious. In observations of summer campers, it was noted that after a few hours, bunk-mates assumed four specific social roles: dominant “alpha male”, unpopular “bully”, “joker” sidekick and the over-eager “nerd” who is kicked around by everyone.
All human minds possess thousands of unrealized personalities which could have been but aren’t. This results in an undercurrent of frustration, which can be channeled into the hatred of the interloper that binds it together. Early cellular lifeforms discovered that they could dispose of calcium, poisonous in high quantities, by using it to build shells. In similar fashion, common hatreds glue societies together, such “that every tribe regards outsiders as fair game; that every society gives permission to hate; that each culture addresses the demon of its hatred in the garb of righteousness; and that the man who channels this hatred can rouse the superorganism and lead it around by the nose”.
From Genes to Memes, Yet Us vs. Them Always
In another chapter full of worthy insights, Bloom notes that the main vector of evolution shifted from genes swimming through “the protoplasmic soup of the early earth” to memes floating through a “sea of human brains”. Both genes and memes mercilessly exploit their hosts in their struggle for survival and bid to overspread the earth. Though rat broods are normally loving to each other, insert a rodent from a different clan that smells different, and they tear the unfortunate apart – even if he carries their genetic stock (rats tell who is who by smell). Humans are more advanced: they have language, culture and religions that bind closer than any uniform. The Hebrew genocide of the Canaanites was just and splendid, for their ethno-genetic stock was chosen by the LORD God.
Over the millennia of ancient history, memes gradually divorced themselves from the genetic level altogether, appearing in “universal” religions like Zoroastrianism and Christianity after St. Paul. Competing universal religions and ideologies now encompass nearly the whole world. The confer several advantages. First, the effective illusion of control, which is good guarantor of health and mental agility (note that most medical procedures even today are based on getting the patient to believe she will recover and hence doing so). Second, memes help consolidate huge communities, and hence ensure their own long-term survival.
A society is, in effect, a vast, problem-solving neural net – humans are to it like brain cells are to a mind. As a swarm of individuals interact in limited and simply ways (bees, humans), an extraordinarily complex structure emerges (a beehive, the modern economy). One feature of human society is male expendability – from cradle to old age, men have weaker immune systems, are more accident-prone and die quicker. This is especially marked in primitive societies where warfare is brutal and incessant.
The reasons are biologically obvious: whereas one man can inseminate dozens of women, one woman can only reproduce about once a year at most. So Mother Nature can afford to play with men as dice, ensuring that only the fittest survive. Interestingly, life is most brutal and profligate in the south, where resources are plentiful. In the tropics, male birds tend to have bright plumes to attract female attention (which also makes them highly visible to predators); but in the north, birds have grayer colors designed to blend into the surroundings, and their sex tends to be indistinguishable to the human eye. That is because the female needs male help to rear her chicks through the hard winter months of dearth. Likewise with humans, polygamy has been most prevalent in southern cultures – even if many guys die in battles for prestige, territory and slaves, the women can continue the race without most of them.
Most men failed, and died early or had little reproductive success (in primitive societies only 50% of men end up having offspring, compared to 80% of women). But those who made it, like Chinggis Khan, became the biological fathers of millions (King Saud was probably the last such very influential warlord). But as history progressed, memes steadily took center place. The generators of successful memes, like St. Paul, Marx or Sayyid Qutb, took the center place in the lives of millions and billions!
The Pecking Order: Hierarchy is Good
Stalin was right: the weak get beaten. That’s what happens to those at the bottom of the pecking order, the phenomenon observed in the 1920′s where chickens formed a fixed hierarchy that determined priority access to food and shelter. While the top hen was well fed, warm and respected, the one at the bottom was ostracized and pecked by everyone else. Likewise, those at the top are most sexually successful in primitive societies. In a series of experiments in which three male rats and three female rats were brought together in a cage, some 92% of offspring accrued to the dominant male!
Success breeds success, failure breeds failure. Low ranking baboons suffer increased levels of glucocorticoids, a stress hormone that acts as a slow poison, and walk around slouched and defeated. The same thing operates in human societies – being at the bottom of the pecking order is bad for you, as you suffer from increased rates of depression, blood pressure, heart attacks, etc – obviously this also makes you unattractive and entrenches your gutter status. In contrast, higher ranking monkeys people walk upright and their testicles hang down further. (So consequently no wonder that that is the reason why men are recommended Alexander posture and walking with one’s legs wide apart… it is to project the image of the physical aspects of the alpha male; on third thought that would explain society’s dislike for the “pick-up artist”, since their craft essentially cheats the naturally emergent hierarchy by getting men to mimic alpha traits instead of actually being one).
There’s a very good reason for the existence of these feedback loops that reinforce social hierarchy – the alternative to hierarchy, with its inherent, diffuse coercion, is anarchy. This entails a state of constant expenditure of previous, limited energy on banditry and defense. In this situation, the weak and friendless get trampled down even more quickly and ruthlessly than if they were (merely) oppressed within a hierarchic system. So it is actually in the interests of everyone, including even its lowliest members. (The exceptions are, of course, those who believe that their position in the hierarchy is unjustified on the basis of their abilities or beliefs, e.g. the Bolshevik insurrectionist, the Islamist cell member, etc, who would like to level the current hierarchic system in a cleansing purge before rebuilding it in their own image). Bloom notes that “superior chickens make friends”, not only within societies, but within the community of tribes and nations. Just as powerful Yanamamo tribes attracted allies and clobbered the weak and friendless tribes, and Rome maintained coalitions awed by its political and military prowess, so the modern US draws on the loyalty of many of its allies in the West and elsewhere through the visibility of its hegemonic power. (It even gets financial credit at low prices due to an effect called American alpha!)
In the last few chapters, Bloom ingeniously – or in an act of unintentional hypocrisy, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt – shows “us vs them”, memes and hierarchy at work in his own book! He states America’s refusal to support France and Britain in their neo-colonial 1956 endevour to seize back the Suez Canal was morally wrong, proclaims the superiority of the West over the cultures of the Third World and labels Islam a “killer culture” harboring the next barbarians. (Of course, the Islamist crazies promptly did their best to prove him right). No, you don’t need to be a PC-head to realize that in the last hundred pages Bloom strays from his fascinating insights into a morass of opinion(ated) projections of his social theories onto modern geopolitics and the “clash of civilizations”. They can be skipped. The only more or less useful additional point he makes is that giving gifts is insulting, like the World Bank does with Africa, because it created humiliating cultural dependency relationships (e.g. demands to Africans to do things the way armchair economists with no practical experience there want them to). China’s straightforward infrastructure or cash for resources approach is better for Africans, both spiritually and probably even economically.
The Lucifer Principle: Superorganism, Memes & Hierarchy
These elements combined form the Lucifer Principle. The superorganism – be it body, village, nation (“imagined community”) or civilization – curtails your individuality, and has no qualms about throwing your life and health away if doing so would serve the greater good. It can throw you against another superorganism so as to weed out the weak, identify the strong, and consolidate itself internally and ideologically (war is peace). It can – and does – trample your mental and physical health under the social stratification it requires to maintain its own complexity (peace is submission). But it also nurtures and protects you with a love harsh but true… for while you can surmount the burdens and realize yourself (slavery is freedom), without society, that would be impossible… survival itself is impossible (freedom is death). I would say that the essence of the Lucifer Principle is that fascism is the natural state.
[The essence of the book in one comic. Translation: "What's the matter, you fat monkey?" "Fuck off, fucking fascist!" "You say 'fascist', as if it's a bad thing. But dude, people love fascists. Have you ever met a woman who fantasizes about being tied up and raped by a *liberal*?"]
Though Rome “had been an oppressor, it was also “the source of nourishment and peace”. It’s end brought not freedom, but death, says Bloom, as roving bandits moved in to pick its carcass. (Though I would make the caveat that by its end the Western Empire armies were themselves no better than bandits). In conclusions: “Superorganism, ideas, and the pecking order – these are the primary forces behind much of human creativity and earthly good. They are the holy trinity of the Lucifer Principle”.
There were several problems with the book. It was tied in loosely with the book and while chock full of fascinating details, many of them did little or nothing to advance or support the argument. The poor organization made writing this review rather tedious. The two chapters at the end, in which Bloom tried to apply disjointed elements of the Lucifer Principle onto modern politics and geopolitics, were largely irrelevant and should have been split off into a separate volume.