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Norms, Customs, Conscience and Power

The psychology and institutions of cultural conditioning

In the previous chapter, it was established with that the very possibility of human existence requires satisfaction of some essentials: food, shelter, clothing, health, safety and community. We can further say that meeting these universal needs depends on functional mechanisms: tools, techniques, problem-solving, and occupations. Behaviors are of universal value when they facilitate the actuating of universal human needs: lawyers get paid the big bucks for making well-functioning communities in large-scale civilization feasible via management of the law, doctors also as the most important factor in a population’s health, or engineers as the foremost source of safety in a society that is totally dependent on technology. Every profession has an important role to play, but those indispensable to the most challenging facets of universal need are preeminent, often the highest paying, and in possession of the most distinguished traditions. Capital tends to be diverted to these vital sectors of the economy.

There is more to life than universal need, however, as much of our behavior is dictated by the popularity of nonessentials that simply give us pleasure. Opportunities for pleasure are crucial to quality of life, extending lifespans by better hormonal balance, giving citizens contentment with their social systems and a greater feeling of actualization, but the exact way in which we experience it takes a huge variety of rapidly transitioning forms, and so even though mountains of cash are made with recreational products, this sector of the economy is more subject to the vicissitudes of fads, with even highest earning merchandise disappearing from markets when it goes out of style or the next craze materializes. Unless a pleasure-based company finds ways to dovetail with universal need or successfully reinvents itself over long periods of time against the competitive odds, it will probably either go out of business or avoid impending ruin by selling to a larger, speculating corporation that does impact universal needs, at the very least by having some key role in platforming the solidarity of communities, such as with megalithic social media, wireless service providers and information technology of all stripes. Bursting of the bubble during the internet’s initial stages is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

No social circumstances are ever identical, either by time or place, as cognitive states of the individuals involved vary, as do environmental conditions in play. Thus, behavioral judgements, whether or not we consider them of an ethical nature, always involve some level of novel complexity that must be creatively assessed by the mind in each moment if it is our responsibility to make an apt choice. Nevertheless, we can generalize the way ethics organically emerge in specific situations, at the nexus of mentality and context.

First of all, we can state that human decisions about whether to engage in a course of action arise from interests and goals: when we have the opportunity to reflect upon what we do, our behavior is based on determinations of what we want and how to get it. Our goals, the ‘ends’ of our conduct, are pursued by behavioral practices, the ‘means’, and combinations of means and ends become confirmed in habitual acts when they are proven effective by experience. Decision-making of collective import relies on the perception of mutual interests and goals to legitimize itself, and when we come to rely on not just personal success in working towards a goal but also the cooperation of other individuals in the service of our efforts, we acquire expectations about what others will do. Multiple individuals converging on a set of interests, goals, and the behaviors they anticipate cooperation will assist results in graduation to a type of collective habitualization we can call a ‘norm’, the mutual understanding between humans that they will carry out deeds for the sake of the group.

Norms can take all kinds of forms, but generally lie on a couple spectrums: relative reasonableness and relative collaborativeness. Some norms are extremely rational, such as laws regulating corporations, formulated in lengthy deliberations and court proceedings, with as much explicitness as possible, and some are irrational, for instance a meal of burger, fries and a soft drink as the staple of fast food menus, both a nonnecessity as well as unhealthy for the customer. Some norms are coercive, such as the U.S. law that anyone who blows a .08 or higher blood/alcohol content into a breathalyzer when pulled over while driving spends at least one night in jail, gets their license revoked for a period of time, must pay a large fine, and attend group counseling sessions, a multiyear ordeal. Some norms are based more on agreement, for example the law that every U.S. citizen has the right to vote. Some norms exist from historical causes, rationalizable when their origins are taken into account but basically arational in the present, such as standing during the Hallelujah Chorus of George Handel’s oratorio The Messiah, a tradition that exists because centuries ago a European king stood up while the song was being performed and everyone in the room followed suit. Some normalizations are more informal and some official, but when norms of any kind are indoctrinated by learning and mimetic transmission in addition to enforcement that might be in place, they become something more than rules and regulations, a psychoactive cultural or subcultural entity that makes thinking and feeling standardized, the keystones for what are regarded as appropriate beliefs about intention and behavior.

Norms are essentially based on reciprocation: the principle is that I will give you the behaviors you want with expectation that you will offer equivalence to me in return. Behavioral preference is complex, depending on a host of situational factors arising from experiences of pleasure, pain, and varying obligation to different individuals and groups. But sometimes norms are stabilized as central to a culture or subculture as well as transmitted from generation to generation, and these ritualized norms we call ‘customs’.

Customs function as core standards for reciprocation, regulating when behaviors should be anticipated. Shaking hands is a normalized gesture of goodwill, and refusing an offer to shake hands without explanation is a minor insult. It is customary to regard picking one’s nose as rude in the Western world, a disrespect for others by inducing the experience of disgust against their wills, which might prompt a reciprocating “ew, you’re gross” or simple shunning, and likewise for picking one’s fingernails in some parts of Africa. Kissing the pope’s ring is a symbol of deference to elevated status, which includes his important role of intercessory reciprocation as God’s representative to Earth’s Catholic population. A rain dance is cooperation amongst a tribe in imploring the gods to deliver weather necessary for a sufficient food supply. Handcuffing suspects during an arrest protects police and others from those who may have violated the reciprocative customs we call laws, preventing any attempt to carry out further deviancies of resistance or escape that are likely to escalate the situation and possibly endanger officers, innocent bystanders, or the apprehended themselves. It is also a minor form of punishment via requited offensiveness, shaming citizens with a stereotypical sign that they lack self-control. All societies have innumerable customs governing behavior, with these traditions persisting over long periods of time.

One of the main facets of culture is our methods for inculcating customs at a young age. A simple example is forming a line without cutting while waiting your turn in public: children in American schools are taught to line up after recess or when preparing to walk somewhere, and by mid-elementary school most citizens fall into line without even thinking about it. Blatant cutting absent justification is an infantile faux paux, and on the road it leads to bad feelings between even adult drivers. A similar custom is appealing to authority when a wrong is committed rather than escalating the situation until one of the parties is subdued. Most children are taught to tell the teacher if someone violates them or the rules by hitting a peer, stealing or whatever it might be, so that as an adult it is almost reflexive for many to call the police or notify security instead of taking the law into their own hands. Individuals who want to reciprocate perceived offense with unadjudicated confrontation are often as likely to end up in jail as those they think are in the wrong, but sometimes brave citizens will intervene vigilante-style and be rewarded for it.

Basic customs instilled in young children can become a focal point of their most reflexive mental states, so that even discrepant trait profiles have similar responses to many stimuli, a common conditioning that produces coordinated social dynamics. All cultures have persisting criteria for when disgust, empathy, pleasure-seeking and pain avoidance are cued by a situation, cemented in the mentalities of their members by early interventions, so that though behavior’s precise nature is virtually infinite in permutability, everyone has a working idea of what to expect.

So an individual’s experiences and behavior are conditioned by cultural norms we call customs, also a huge array of more local norms that are constantly materializing and extinguishing, and these social phenomena exist in conjunction with mental states as a feedback loop influencing tendencies towards pleasure, pain, empathy, disgust, in all their various forms. As normalization shapes the meaning of events, reasoning is embedded with presumptions affecting what we think and how we act. Decision-making becomes about more than what works, but further what we preemptively should or shouldn’t do, which is the substance of conscience, complexes of reason and affect that generate feelings of compunction.

Conscience takes all kinds of forms: some believe they shouldn’t hurt a fly as the saying goes, some that they should tithe ten percent of their income to the Christian church, some that they shouldn’t eat meat, that they should call their relatives, buy flowers for their wife or girlfriend, serve their country, all kinds of attachments and obligations, but the most universalized dimension of conscience emerges from the implications of harm to humans. Though many individuals feel more responsibility for the well-being of the species in relation to some humans and social groups than others, most have a sense that their own fates depend on beneficence to those around them, and others likewise rely on them, further that quality of life in the communities they have chosen to affiliate themselves with rests upon their actions. Suffering induced by inadequate quality of life is one of the primary factors in whether citizens behave with integrity and trust, acting out of conscience rather than manipulating, deceiving and aggressing, for severe or prolonged suffering consists in danger, fear, inurement to pain, and can induce selfish disregard for others in response to complacency or ignorance about one’s own misfortunes. Those who are refused reciprocation of even basic necessities for law-abiding behavior are not going to feel compelled to obey, so preventing suffering from reaching a critical level is key for the security of a population as it attempts to maintain order. Concern for someone else’s well-being is the core of conscience, a cognitive prerequisite and collective foundation for all the personal shades of positivity — love, friendship, humaneness, along with derivative pleasures — to even have a chance of blooming.

Conscience regarding the well-being of humans is pervasive, but also vulnerable to degenerativeness. Mishaps are always occurring, after which many seek to place blame. In the more lawless societies of antiquity this led to much long-term feuding, and even in the present day results in pursuit of retaliation. Eons of ethnic and class conflict have been integral to social solidarity in many subcultures, and some citizens are raised from a very young age to hate and demean traditional rivals or supposed inferiors, with prejudice to be found almost everywhere. This susceptibility to antagonistic chaos must be kept under control in order to have a well-functioning society, and though laws originated almost exclusively for the sake of defending the interests of enforcers, justice systems have grown towards a more legitimizable role of handling well-reasoned precedents for judging disputes over alleged infliction of harm, facilitating exaction of fairer consequences so as to bring about more peaceful resolution, ideally with the best possible closure for individuals and communities involved. Institutions of legal regulation, though liable to extreme and sometimes calamitous corruption, can help assure that deficiency of conscience in relation to harm infliction is held in check, a cultural selection pressure capable of upholding these most important norms in a way exceeding what has so far been possible for large-scale customs of even the most instinctive appeal. Sports, musical genres, media formats, corporate business models come and go, but many systems of legality have been in place for centuries. Expansive civilization without an honorable code of justice safeguarded by oversight from ordinary citizens is trending towards either apocalyptic collapse or totalitarian dystopia.

The concept of civic justice as an arbiter of conscience is a multifaceted entity, balancing a few main categories for evaluating and governing behavior. First of all, many citizens believe that crimes must be avenged, and official punishments are often crafted to achieve this end. When the judge in a mass shooting trial is reported by the media as claiming the court must assemble a “death qualified jury”, or when the U.S. government obtains a five hundred million dollar verdict against a social media corporation for simply advertising inexpensive medications, it is clear that some level of belligerence is motivating those involved. Punitive measures exacting vengeance are usually meant to do double duty as a deterrent, making it known to the public that many types of criminality will pay a heavy price.

The capacity for moral agency is also a factor in the outcome of judicial proceedings. We see this in the multiple degrees assigned to crimes, denoting the level of destructiveness, premeditation, brazenness and maliciousness of the perpetrator. Crimes of passion as opposed to those committed in cold blood are usually punished less severely because the convicted were incapable of restraining themselves in the heat of the moment for understandable reasons, such as violent instigation by the victim or other abuses. The precedent of insanity defense is also a salient example, occasionally employed to assert that punishment should be less stiff or more oriented towards medical care because the defendant was unable to understand consequences of his or her actions at the time of the incident, perhaps due to mental illness or low intelligence. Assessment of moral agency can frequently come into conflict with value placed on revenge and deterrence: the justice system views violent crime with enough seriousness that a guilty individual must have almost no memory of what transpired as well as show obvious mental incompetence in court for the insanity defense to meet with success, and even in these cases convicts are usually locked in the most restrictive and dangerous units of mental hospitals for many years.

General inclination to harm comes under consideration, as those who have committed prior offenses will be more harshly punished, and a defendant’s level of remorse is often scrutinized by judges and juries. Parole boards periodically assess the behaviors and attitudes convicted criminals have exemplified while imprisoned, and may release an offender early if progress has been demonstrated. Malleability to reform also figures into legal decision-making, for those who commit the most callous crimes receive the death penalty or a life sentence without parole.

The U.S. justice system is relatively good at weighing intent in many trials if judge, jury and media bias are mitigated, but needs of the victimized and prosecuted alike, even aforementioned universal needs, are not always addressed. In the realm of lawsuits, class actions are often organized for commendable causes such as labor rights, antidiscrimination or product liability, but litigators typically make hundreds of thousands of dollars while those they represent can make merely hundreds. The majority of those jailed for crimes of all kinds are minority demographics or those below or near the poverty line, and U.S. society does not seem inclined to remedy this obvious correlation. Conditions in the jails and prisons of even developed countries are notorious for being unsanitary, dangerous and counterculturally deviant. When combined with cooccurring mass incarceration, much strain is placed on hundreds of millions to uphold traditional values, so much so that deterioration towards more lawless culture is underway in many locales. Some crimes are sensationalistically publicized by the media, tempting populations into sleazy voyeurism, fomenting obsession with criminality and general paranoia, also in some cases tampering with the effort to carry out a fair trial as well as compromising the privacy and safety of participants.

Historically, the origin of politics in administering justice for the purpose of bolstering the interests of ruling classes with lawmaking evolved in the direction of more complex institutions that better catered to all kinds of popular need, managing sprawling economies with budgeting and policymaking by representative assemblies, and effectuating intricate diplomacy with ministerial cabinets. Judicial systems became an auxiliary of total government, providing a check on political accountability to the citizens by some oversight of officials and their decision-making, in addition to the traditional role of doling out punishments, altogether a more subsidiary status. In the 19th century, civil service departments became widespread in European-influenced governments, subsuming a huge upgrowth in the scope of national politics throughout societies of the Western world. Modern U.S. government is a quintessential example of this outcome, divided into a legislative congress that spends trillions of dollars, the judiciary branch with a supreme court which rules on the constitutionality of many laws, an executive branch led by the president and his appointees that compasses war, public relations and even further monitoring of spending and policymaking, and an array of civil service departments such as the Social Security Administration, Central Intelligence Agency, Food and Drug Administration, Department of Homeland Security, or Department of Health that orchestrate the most challenging logistics.

So politics has gradually moved from sole concern with justice to supporting the social welfare of citizenries, and progressed from exclusively meeting the needs of upper class station to supplementing the financial and material status of entire populations. Though much advance has been made over the millennia, shortcomings can still cast a shadow upon attempts at reform such as those inspired by the European Enlightenment. As has been discussed elsewhere, enlargement of U.S. government finance converted representation into a more oligarchical system in which business interests are deeply infused into official proceedings via lobbying and campaign donations. This is not always corrupt, as imperatives of corporations and the general population sometimes coincide, but even when mutual improvements are made, this is often not for the express purpose of serving public need. With gigantic amounts of wealth pouring into the political system via taxation and corporate lobbies, the profession of politician has become one of elitism, staffed by those with the most expensive educations, from the most illustrious families, and individuals most complicit in upper class hegemony. The meeting of universal need is quite subservient to personal ambition and the culture of fiduciary domination.

Though economic investments are crucial to the health of a society, and governments are key for regulating this activity in a system of venture and vigilance that works on a very intuitive level, its values are largely implicit, at least in the U.S. left to every citizen’s own preference, with minimal binding declaration of commitment. Some are extremely devoted to furthering the public weal, and some have little if any desire to relinquish money for philanthropic causes. Individualism is probably vital to a working capitalist culture, for it allows minute adjustments to the economy by way of personal choices, preventing decay of self-interested optimization into paranoid zookeepers tasing a deadly herd of restive lions, but it also requires some kind of moral initiative to avert exploitation, an ethic of voluntary devotion to social causes beyond oneself and one’s immediate acquaintances. Everyone comprehends the meaning of generosity and has some inkling of universalizable values, but beliefs about relational reciprocation and giving are rarely if ever formulated by individuals as an explicit mission statement of sorts, criteria by which to justify a pledge to the common good in general. All human beings should of course have some freedom to fashion their own financial proclivities, but perhaps it is possible to express philanthropic inclination in the form of basic principles that both explain its rationale, manifest to all kinds of big-hearted individuals, and make this rationale clearly intelligible to all those capable of reasoned agency.

Firstly, much of our desire is for nonessentials, more like wants or likes. It does not really matter if we have Chi tea in the morning while sitting in a plush leather chair beside a burning fireplace before eating our Lucky Charms, versus some alternative drink in some other kind of chair at a kitchen table before eating a different kind of cereal. We are entitled to our predilections and should usually act accordingly, but in the domain of nonessential possessions, behaviors and cognitions, dictating them is burdensome as well as unnecessary, while dispensing with some creature comforts if it would make for a better society is an option worth entertaining, as many do.

As for universal needs, we can rank them by relative essentiality. Food on the table, clothes on our back and a roof over our heads are the most indispensable, for without these most have no more than a month to live. Next is probably safety: it is possible to live a long life in war zones or other circumstances where we are under constant threat, but the chances are slim, and the psychological toll is tremendous, scarring generations of children especially, with it also being impossible in the most dangerous circumstances to maintain many institutions. As for health, we can sometimes survive for long periods while in poor condition, and populations tend to rebound from even the most dire epidemics of illness, but lingering unhealthiness is a huge drain on economies as citizens cannot work as effectively, and in some areas the costs incurred by medical care bring many individuals to the verge of financial ruin. The least obligatory universal need is probably community, for we can lead a mostly normal life without quality relationships if we have food, shelter and clothing, are not in persistent physical danger, and our health is intact. However, over prolonged periods of time a lack of satisfying connections can cause emotional problems, and any issues in the more essential domains will tend to be exacerbated by less social solidarity as citizens neglect or antagonize each other.

As was mentioned, new norms regulating relationships are always cropping up everywhere, and many disappear just as readily, so that behavior is only fractionally a matter of ethics, necessitation of what humans in general should or shouldn’t do. An ‘ethic’ emerges as sets of universalizable guidelines for behavior, necessary in order for universal needs to be widely met, which humans must largely reciprocate if society is to function. We all know the basics: human on human killing, stealing, lying and cheating are all wrong; even though individuals get away with it, there is not much anyone can say for themselves if they get caught and retributed, because if everyone condoned this core of criminality, merely leaving one’s home would be life-threatening.

As for how our central tenets of conscience are to be instantiated in behavior, the situation can get complicated; perhaps we could call it grayscale. Many citizens highly regard universalizable standards in relation to some demographics while not at all with others, and this is not likely to change without herculean, multicentury consciousness-raising, so as it presently stands, even those who have the most integrity must be willing to violate sanctity of life in war, law enforcement and self-defense in order for civilization to persist. The way ethical awareness is experienced also varies considerably between individuals: some are motivated to perform ethical actions and avoid the unethical by internalized feelings of respect for those around them, an introverted motivation, and some by reasoning about external consequences, the causes and effects in their environment, a more extroverted motivational complex. Furthermore, it is not simply one or the other, but rather a broad spectrum of context-specific introversion or extroversion in how the most inviolable norms, and all norms for that matter, are impressed upon ever-mutating personalities, so that conscience cannot be legislated in a one size fits all method of conditioning. The moral sense matures only over long periods of time in individuals who reflect deeply on the nuances of how their orientations towards behavior influence a convoluted world. But in general, we can say that the importance of reciprocating actions with like actions is proportional to how critical these actions are for making it possible to meet universal needs, and within the domain of universal needs, reciprocating actions is more important the more essential the universal need is. Complacency about bold-faced killing makes merely feeding one’s family a risk to one’s life, while telling unwelcome dirty jokes is a minor detriment to goodwill in some communities, so the former is without a doubt of much more weighty import.

It is straightforward that society can be more ethical if individuals are willing to sacrifice their complex and sometimes ineffable personal desire for satisfaction and reciprocation in nonessential matters to the more universal and essential needs of humanity as a whole. If everyone in the most affluent countries bought less expensive products or those with some kind of ethically redeeming value while donating to charitable causes, devoting some time towards thinking of ways to best help the less fortunate in addition to putting their strategizing into practice, huge progress would be doable in a very short time. With modern infrastructure, it is not a stretch to say we could remake global society into near utopia if the strongest possible commitment were made. But few have this outlook; we view our economic and material advantages as a perk of cultural supremacy and know that we are just as likely to lack wealth as anyone if we entirely disregard barriers between rich and poor that have secured privileged ways of life for centuries. If we give lavishly to the impoverished, will they be empowered to begin taking from us against our wills? Can we lose control?

Relinquishing hard-earned cash for the sake of the less fortunate is not a simple matter, as unscrupulous handouts can cripple the developed world just as easily as hoarding of wealth sinks the majority into disgruntling poverty. Massive progress is possible, but it has to be carried out sagaciously, without incapacitating the very mechanisms seeking to attain it. Philanthropy as not merely individual initiative but mainstream culture seems almost out of reach, and when reflecting on the daunting complexities and risks involved, one might wonder if organizing substantial aid to the destitute is even worth the trouble. We all realize assistance to the poverty-stricken would be the most ethical course for our society to take, but why should we want to be that ethical?

The history of France, Germany, the United States and modernizing European civilization as a whole gives us a revealing lesson in the truth of power. By the 18th century, French aristocracy was as well off as any landed class has ever been. Ongoing conflicts with England had been resolved, and peasant unrest was minimal despite an extravagantly rich upper class living large, probably assisted by the unifying effects of religious solidarity, a uniform Catholic demographic. The monarchy was able to commandeer the country’s GNP at will, funding huge, self-aggrandizing projects such as Versailles palace. France’s potential rival on the European mainland, a loosely confederated Holy Roman Empire that would one day become Germany, had been kept under its thumb for centuries by meddling in local politics. France’s ruling class bribed German princes in order to foster loyalty to its foreign agenda, which staved off consolidation into a unified nation mobilized to compete for economic leverage.

This arrangement started to unravel after the late-18th century American Revolution. Surprising success of an agrarian American populace in throwing off the shackles of imperial rule by a far more industrialized England reverberated around the world, and France’s subjects were inspired to agitate for egalitarian society. Residents of Paris resolved to overthrow the government and stormed the Bastille, the city’s weapons cache. Citizens encountered brutal resistance, and by the time they gained entrance, several hundred revolutionaries had been killed. The population was enraged, battle erupted throughout the city, and France’s royal family was seized, then executed in retribution. An interim political body was set up to organize France’s new government, but its idealism soon devolved into a bloody power struggle. As factions gained ascendancy, they engaged in reactionary purges, which incensed the population to resume the revolt, after which similar measures were undertaken by new leadership in a vicious cycle. This “Reign of Terror” kept the guillotine busy, as many thousands were parted with their heads by paranoid crackdowns, including peasants, bourgeoisie, aristocracy, politicians and foreign travelers alike, even American visitors who had initially been sympathizers with the revolutionary cause.

Unrest was finally quelled at the turn of the 19th century with a dictatorship headed by the famed general Napoleon Bonaparte, who was able to stabilize the country utilizing some underhanded intrigues, then raise a large army that reunited France behind the pursuit of European conquest. He met with mixed success on the battlefield, some legendary routes along with what he himself called disastrous campaigns, but was able to bring most of Europe under the dominion of French administration, reforming law codes in France’s international interests and strengthening the ranks of what became his Continental army with mercenary soldiers from all across the mainland.

Despite Bonaparte’s overtures, Russia refused to integrate into a European-wide system, and this recalcitrance eventually prompted an invasion. France had no reliable maps this far east, so once the Continental army reached Poland, it was required to station detachments of soldiers for hundreds of miles, and by the time it reached the stage of engagement with Russia’s main force, Bonaparte was outnumbered by his adversary. Even with this disadvantage, Napoleon was victorious by a slim margin and induced a Russian retreat. He encountered no further resistance and marched triumphantly into Moscow only to find the city deserted. France’s army was accustomed to supporting itself by scouring the countryside while on the march, razing fields and drawing from resources of towns, but Russia’s capital soon caught fire, and Bonaparte spent two weeks camped amongst ruins, useless for replenishment, trying to work out a course of action. The Continental army began a retreat, but the winter proved extraordinarily intense that year, 1812, so that freezing temperatures and starvation combined with a constant harrying from Russian guerrilla attacks along the way decimated a military that many thought had become almost invincible. When total destruction was assured, Napoleon deserted his disbanding army and sped back to France in a carriage posthaste. He attempted to raise a new force, but was soon defeated by imperial Britain at the battle of Waterloo, which brought this era of what the history books portray as French glory to a close.

Partially coeval with France’s period of sovereign aristocracy and then revolutionary and imperial bloodshed, a German principality just north of the Holy Roman Empire called Prussia had been making modest annexations of surrounding regions by negotiation and minor conquest. Upon subdual of Napoleon, France’s international influence over Germans and additional communities diminished. The long tradition of French intrusion in Central European affairs coupled with an oppressive era of humiliating submissiveness to scavengings of the Continental army made formerly Holy Roman territories more than ready to coalesce into larger nations for the sake of countering future incursion and furthering their interests. Prussia’s main competition for control of Central Europe, Austria, was defeated in the Austro-Prussian War, ceding multiple territories to Prussian possession and opening the way to Prussia’s political integration with its southern neighbors.

France had remained neutral despite a desire to prevent further declines in European dominance for reason of its Catholic population’s allegiance to the pope in Rome, who was opposed by an Italian majority that had pledged assistance for Prussia and made victory against Austria all but guaranteed. Drawing Italian military support away from Prussia would have required rebuffing papal mandate and risking possible dissolution of existing Catholic hierarchy, greatly damaging the popularity of French government. It was further assumed that this upstart north German nation could be easily handled in war regardless. Prussian Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck incited the French public with some discourteous diplomacy and France declared war, invading the north German frontier, at which time multiple southern German states that had previously sided with Austria joined Prussia. At the outset of the Franco-Prussian War, France’s army was formidable, but Prussia had superior artillery, the capacity to much more rapidly transport troops to the front, and a better crafted battle plan. Prussia incurred greater losses, but its superior deployment together with some good fortune overran disorderly French defense, and the Germans laid siege to Paris within a few months. Outlying regions of France failed in trying to muster more resistance on the fly, and a starving Paris opened its city gates to Prussian-led forces four months later.

This had two lasting effects: Prussia and its southern neighbors formed a unified German state as the foremost European power, and much of French culture became bent on exacting revenge, chiefly by reacquiring the ceded territories Alsace and Lorraine. Throughout the latter part of the 19th century, international relations in Europe were tense, with a delicate balance of power barely able to prevent all out war. As mentioned elsewhere, order finally collapsed in 1914 as assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne aligned Austria against Serbia, after which Russia declared war on Austria, and Germany came to the aid of what had become its Austrian ally by declaring war on Russia and preemptively on France. Great Britain was dragged in by alliance with France, so that all of Europe with its colonies began fighting World War 1. Russia’s inferior armed forces proved incompetent to invade the Central Powers, and France and Germany settled into an impenetrable front of trench warfare on French soil. Stalemate was broken when the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies to stop German submarine attacks on its trading with Great Britain alongside general detriment to the economy. Fresh troops overwhelmed German-led forces on the Western front and the Central Powers surrendered in 1918.

In the treaty of Versailles that ended WW1, Germany was strong-armed into accepting full blame and paying the total cost of the war as reparations, also disarming and returning Alsace and Lorraine to France among further ceded territories in the East and West. These were extremely harsh measures considering the events that started the war, and a bitter pill for German nationalism to swallow. Desire for vengeance festered over the course of two decades, finally coming to a head as German voters elected ultraradical nationalist Adolf Hitler of the Nazi party as their chancellor, upon which he and his accomplices immediately dismantled the moderate Wiemar Republic and mobilized a totalitarian state for war. In 1939, a revved up German military began invading its European neighbors who were unprepared. France and Russia declared war, but were unable to ward off German occupation. France’s ally Great Britain also declared war, but was impotent at the time to engage in battle. Nazi Germany seemed poised to impose its agenda of fascist culture upon all of Europe unimpeded, but Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, which destroyed the U.S. Pacific Fleet, prompted the United States to declare war on both Japan and Germany. The U.S. and Great Britain assembled a huge army and invaded Normandy, the Western coast of France, in 1944. Germany was caught unawares by the maneuver, expecting invasion to occur in a different location, and once the Allies had set themselves up on the mainland, this theater of the war was inexorably brought to a close with Germany’s unconditional surrender in 1945. Japan unconditionally surrendered three months later after two atomic bombs were dropped on the country by the U.S., destroying a couple major cities, and World War 2 was over.

At the denouement of the war, the Allies took dramatic steps to curb central European power. The continent was divided completely in half by the Berlin wall, an “iron curtain” passing through the center of Germany, partitioning Europeanized culture into a capitalist West and Soviet socialist East sphere of influence. A coalition called the League of Nations had been unable to hold back deterioration of peace between WW1 and WW2, and an organization established after WW2, the United Nations, similarly failed to mitigate escalation between the two most powerful militaries of East and West, Russia and the United States respectively, resulting in the Cold War. Both nations postured for tactical advantage during the latter half of the 20th century, entering into a nuclear arms race with a policy of “total retaliation”, intended as a deterrent but capable of destroying civilization if actually executed. Both countries supplied massive amounts of weaponry to governments around the globe in pursuit of strategic advantage, contributing to militarization and an incline towards increases in totalitarianism. The Cold War ended and nuclear nonproliferation treaties rescued humankind from the threat of wholesale destruction, but it is still the case that more money is invested in military development than any other economic sector by far, with every new technology instantly weaponized or otherwise tailored for purposes of oppression.

It is desponding how quickly Enlightenment values championed during the American Revolution were soiled by traditional class antagonisms of France, creating a power vacuum in the country that led to a Napoleonic dictatorship, an early 19th century era of violent French conquest, more than a century of strain and sporadic war between Germany, France and their allies in Europe and abroad, then a nuclear confrontation between an America spurred towards imperialist policy and the Soviets that came close to obliterating world culture. Millions died brutal deaths in war, representative government in Europe was nearly dismantled during WW2, the United States’ political hegemony was coopted in the latter half of the 20th century by a corporate capitalism that instigated conflicts around the globe for monetary gain as well as reducing the answerability of this government to its majority, and authority became more invasive almost everywhere due to ramped up cultural and economic aggression. An epoch of both international and domestic bellicosity and terror gathers steam as information technology is customized for cyberwarfare, surveillance, and financial inequality via the subjugation of consumers, brewing what may become a renewal of class enmities as science and technology regress into instruments of elitism, perhaps inflaming the oppressed to outrage.

Obviously a life of self-induced, malignant, destructive animosity is far as can be from our ideals, but civilizations designed around the imposition of force cannot simply abandon these commitments as if they never existed and freely construct a new world. The Paris Commune of 1871 taught some this lesson the hard way. For two months after the surrender of Paris and departure of Prussian-led forces at the end of the Franco-Prussian war, the French military was in disarray outside the city, which gave ordinary Parisians opportunity to carry out a comprehensive coup, violently deposing weakened residuals of the old order with a battle in which two high-ranking generals were killed, then setting up a new government from scratch, one committed to reforms which would rapidly eliminate inequality by radical policies disregarding the interests of established business leadership, such as a law that any proprietor who deserted his shop forfeited ownership to his employees. This was the society revolutionaries had always wanted but never been able to institute due to reactionary oppression that had hovered over late 18th century reorganization efforts like a cloud of evil as the city proved unable to extricate political change from traditional militarism. Once the French army regrouped, it stormed the city, summarily discarded the commune’s reforms, and slaughtered more than six thousand citizens in one week. Few human beings want a life of miserable deaths, much moreso if bypass of harrowing means to our ends would simply require standing down, showing cooperative restraint rather than cruelty towards each other, but a community that is not equipped to promote its interests violently has thus far faced certain annihilation.

Despite the paradoxical lawlessness of law and order, many reforms have been put in place over the centuries that improve the quality of life in a human existence inseparably bound to large-scale, institutional civilization. Poverty assistance, labor and civil rights, as well as regulation of business are all more than possible if we so choose, working with multigenerational diligence towards furthering these goals. Social experiments have met with great success, setting new precedents for cultural organization, but ancient shibboleths such as war and class can conflict with these developments, and are so rooted in the psyche that dismissing them has rarely been sought, with flare-ups of exploitation at the expense of popular reform a constant thorn in humanity’s side, though coerciveness is salvational in some cases. Clearly, the interface of egalitarian idealism with security by force requires a balancing act, setting new precedents while making sure old ones are not rendered grievously ineffective during premature transitions. We must be willing to deescalate, but in a cogent, cautiously realistic way. This process is not at all an impasse, but something the human race has already experienced much triumph doing. What, then, might further revisionary standing down justifiably entail?

Chapters from the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, and more!

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