Oaks vs. Sandboxes

A Canadian study found that extreme conservatives are happier people. The sample group was 247 female college students. Here’s the abstract:

Although authoritarianism can negatively impact others (e.g., by predicting prejudiced intergroup attitudes), implications for the self are mixed and require clarification. Extending previous research, we examined the association between generalized authoritarianism (GA, indicated by right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation) and subjective well-being (SWB, indicated by positive affect, negative affect, and life satisfaction) by testing simultaneously the general-level association between GA and SWB as well as specific residual associations between GA and SWB components, independent of basic personality dimensions. We observed a significant general-level association between GA and SWB whereby heightened authoritarianism predicted greater SWB. No residual associations were found between specific GA and SWB components. Despite being “bad” for others, generalized authoritarianism may be “good” for the self.

To measure the presence of generalized authoritarian attitudes, participants were asked to express their level of agreement with statements like, “Some groups of people are just more worthy than others” and “In getting what your group wants, it is sometimes necessary to use force against other groups.” To assess their subjective well-being, the participants were asked to rate their current life on a scale of 1 to 10, as well as being given 20 adjectives (10 positive, 10 negative) and asked to what extent these words applied to how they feel “in general.” The study found a clear association between heightened authoritarianism, in-group orientation, and subjective well-being. The Salon article comments:

In some ways, this result is counterintuitive. Much previous research has tied conservatism to higher levels of perceived threat. It’s hard to reconcile how people can both feel threatened and have a strong sense of well-being. On the other hand, a strong sense of social hierarchy (the notion that everyone has their place) can arguably provide a coherent structure that makes the world seem less chaotic—and theoretically more controllable. That could, in turn, promote a sense of well-being. It’s also important to note that the study participants were overwhelmingly young and female. They were also Canadians, who as a group report higher levels of well-being than Americans. It’s conceivable that an older, more male-skewing, U.S. sample could produce different results. Still, this research calls into serious question the notion of far right-wingers being grumps who are taking out their misery on those around them. If these results are correct, they may be making others (such as, say, Republican moderates) plenty miserable, but on a personal level, they’re doing quite OK.

Let me make a few comments about the general idea of social hierarchy, which is explicitly mentioned above. Before the dawn of civilization, men lived in tribes and small villages. Leadership would have been primarily local, and the social pyramid relatively small; about 150 people. Then, roughly 5400 BC, something impressive happened. After 188,600 or so years of Homo sapiens living in small tribes, the first known city, Eridu, was built. The foundation of civilization brought many changes:

  • social differentiation and hierarchy, new social roles
  • writing systems, standardized language, record-keeping, mathematics
  • refinement of agriculture
  • social order, legal code
  • an official state religion and mythology
  • a true economy, mass production of bowls and disposable items
  • unprecedented population density (50-80,000 living in 6 kmof walled area)
  • permanent military and bureaucracy
  • sense of solidarity extending beyond the tribe
  • organized housing structures
  • organized ports facilitating distant trade and exploration
  • the first towers, including the likely structure that inspired the Tower of Babel story
  • networks of small cities, almost within sight of one another (national organization)
  • canal systems, called “Venice in the desert”
  • intellectual classes that didn’t perform manual labor
  • courtyard buildings, great halls, temples, elaborate buttresses, mosaics, aqueducts, fortresses, granaries, etc.

From the Wikipedia page on Uruk:

In addition to being one of the first cities, Uruk was the main force of urbanization during the Uruk period (4000–3200 BC). This period of 800 years saw a shift from small, agricultural villages to a larger urban center with a full-time bureaucracy, military, and stratified society.

Why did it take us 188,600 years to figure out this basic concept, civilization? No one really knows. It would have saved us a lot of trouble if we had founded civilization earlier. For all that time prior to civilization, life was nasty, brutish, and short, not to mention repetitive. Technological innovations occurred over the course of millennia.

What held back the establishment of civilization prior to the flowering in Sumeria? We can put the blame on several factors; lack of knowledge and lack of solidarity. Traditionally, village size had been limited to 100-300 people, a quantity known as Dunbar’s number. Some force had to intervene to make larger aggregation possible. From the evidence, we know the primary factor driving this: farmers growing enough food to support warrior and administrative castes.

Warriors and administrators made larger social aggregation possible. Warriors are needed to resolve internal social conflicts, defend the city from external invaders, enforce the law, and protect farmers outside the city walls. Administrators are needed to provide the core structure of the bureaucracy. Together, they make the city-state possible.

These early city states were the first forms of social aggregation significantly larger than the Dunbar number. A couple thousand years before Uruk and Eridu, there were cities like Çatalhöyük, but these were essentially slums with no public buildings or social differentiation. The population of Uruk and Eridu in 4000 BC were about 5,000 and 4,000, respectively, and these were true cities, complete with social differentiation and stratification.

According to the Sumerian kinglist, Eridu was the first city in the World. The opening line reads:

“When kingship from heaven was lowered, the kingship was in Eridu.”

Thus we see the the foundation of the first city, Eridu, is also synonymous with the foundation of monarchy and civilization.

Settlements significantly larger than Dunbar’s number meant new rules. It meant you would be living around so many people that you couldn’t know them all personally. To make society function smoothly would now require social roles that can be easily identified and mutually understood by citizens who happen to be strangers. It also requires a degree of trust and faith in co-nationals not required for the inhabitants of small villages, where everyone knows one another personally.

The foundation of a city state, like any human aggregation, rests on the idea of an in-group and an out-group. The members of the city-state are the in-group, visitors and outsiders are the out-group. Sumerian city states were raided by barbarians living in the mountains to the north, what is now present-day southwest Iran. To ensure their continued existence, these city states would have to kill or repel the invaders. They constantly struggled with the Elamite Empire to the north, as well.

Since co-nationals could not know each other all personally, but had a kinship with one another as citizens of the same nation-state, their relationship had to be abstracted in term of a “national idea.” For the Sumerians, their national identity would have been based on shared ethnicity and mythology. The concrete manifestation of this shared culture was the ziggurats, huge step temples. Their nationalism took Sumerians from being a small smattering of disconnected tribes to a history-changing and highly organized nation state, setting the foundation for a mighty empire.

Universalism and Equality

In historically recent time, the principles of monarchy, social hierarchy, and nationalism have been replaced with ideals such as equality and universalism. Reactionaries are revolutionary conservatives who reject equality and universalism, replacing them with the traditional principles of hierarchy and particularism. The Canadian study provides evidence that this makes extreme conservatives happier people. The study authors, psychologist Cara MacInnis of the University of Toronto and Michael Busseri of Brock University, said these findings are “in line with evidence that conservative ideology… may promote positive psychological outcomes.”

The structure in traditional societies such as Eridu and modern democracies such as the United States can be compared to the difference between an oak and a sandbox. In modern democracies, with their emphasis on human rights and discouraging social hierarchy as much as possible, we have an open stage to articulate ourselves, though there is a lack of social structure. They are like sandboxes. The focus is not on building lasting structures, but pursuing our goals in isolation, insulated from traditional social hierarchy by modernist and democratic principles. I specifically use the term “sandbox” to invoke open-ended games like SecondLife. SecondLife is a chaotic virtual world without much of a central organizing principle. When I use the term “sandbox” I am referring to this kind of virtual world, rather than a literal sandbox.

In contrast, traditional societies like Eridu are like oaks. They have a central direction of growth, physical contact between constituent parts, fundamental interdependence, shared reserves, in-group mentality, a master plan, and long-term stability. The condition for establishing this kind of society is a group spirit that overcomes selfish impulses and ennobles man by connecting him to something larger than himself. In Men Among the Ruins (1953), Julius Evola describes the structure of the traditional State:

The statolatry of the modern age has nothing to do with the traditional political view; the impersonal State, when regarded as a heavy juridical and bureaucratic entity (e.g., Nietzsche’s “cold monster”), is also an aberration. Every society and State is made of people; individual human beings are their primary element. What kind of human beings? Not people as they are conceived by individualism, as atoms or a mass of atoms, but people as persons, as differentiated beings, each one endowed with a different rank, a different freedom, a different right within the social hierarchy based on the values of creating, constructing, obeying, and commanding. With people such as these it is possible to establish the true State, namely an antiliberal, antidemocratic, and organic State. The idea behind such a State is the priority of the person over any abstract social, political, or juridical entity, and not of the person as a neuter, leveled reality, a mere number in the world of quantity and universal suffrage.

The perfection of the human being is the end to which every healthy social institution must be subordinated, and it must be promoted as much as possible. This perfection must be conceived on the basis of a process of individuation and of progressive differentiation. In this regard we must consider the view expressed by Paul de Lagarde, which can be expressed approximately in these terms: everything that is under the aegis of humanitarianism, the doctrine of natural law, and collectivity corresponds to the inferior dimension. Merely being a “man” is a minus compared to being a man belonging to a given nation and society; this, in turn, is still a minus compared to being a “person,” a quality that implies the shift to a plane that is higher than the merely naturalistic and “social” one. In turn, being a person is something that needs to be further differentiated into degrees, functions, and dignities with which, beyond the social and horizontal plane, the properly political world is defined vertically in its bodies, functional classes, corporations, or particular unities, according to a pyramid-like structure, at the top of which one would expect to find people who more or less embody the absolute person. What is meant by “absolute person” is the supremely realized person who represents the end, and the natural center of gravity, of the whole system. The “absolute person” is obviously the opposite of the individual. The atomic, unqualified, socialized, or standardized unity to which the individual corresponds is opposed in the absolute person by the actual synthesis of the fundamental possibilities and by the full control of the powers inherent in the idea of man (in the limiting case), or of a man of a given race (in a more relative, specialized, and historical domain): that is, by an extreme individuation that corresponds to a de-individualization and to a certain universalization of the types corresponding to it. Thus, this is the disposition required to embody pure authority, to assume the symbol and the power of sovereignty, or the form from above, namely the imperium.

Going from humanity, through “society” or a collectivity based on natural law and the nation, and then proceeding in the political world all the way to a personality variously integrated, and finally to a dominating super-personality, means to ascend from lower degrees to degrees that are increasingly filled with “being” and value, each one the natural end of the previous one: this is how we should understand the principle according to which man is the end or the primary end of society, and not vice versa.

This view of society as a tool for the perfection of man, rather than as an end in itself, is a quintessential traditionalist perspective. The idea of a central sovereign or monarch as the “absolute person” is in direct defiance of the principles of equality espoused in the Western world since the French Revolution. The notion of “individuation and progressive differentiation” as the path towards perfection of man, implying social hierarchy and varying social roles, is also an illiberal notion.

The point of the traditional model is not to create a society where the strong rule the weak, but to create an organic social structure that operates as a harmonious unit. Certain people in this kind of society would have privileges and responsibilities that others do not. Through individuation and progressive differentiation, an embryonic, undifferentiated “man” becomes a man belonging to a given nation and society, and then a unique, differentiated person. This applies equally to every person from the top to the bottom of the hierarchy.

By belonging to a given group and articulating his own identity, man becomes part of a larger whole that goes beyond himself, and is distinct and valued because of his unique and particular merits in a rich social context. Rather than adhering to the universal leveling mentality of “everyone gets a trophy,” the traditional society rewards human excellence and accords due respect to the highest achievers within each group in the social strata. Through meritocratic allotment of social kudos and pursuit of honor and mana, a “metaphysical tension” animates the state, motivating citizens to heroic accomplishment. This is in contrast to the “American Dream,” which is more about achieving a life of consumer leisure and de facto social independence than any higher ideals.

Evola wrote about the relationship between leaders and followers in a traditional society:

Superiority and power need to go hand in hand, as long as we remember that power is based on superiority and not vice versa, and that superiority is connected with qualities that have always been thought by most people to constitute the true foundation of what others attempt to explain in terms of brutal “natural selection.” Ancient primitive man essentially obeyed not the strongest members of society, but those in whom he perceived a saturation of mana (i.e., a sacred energy and life force) and who, for this reason, seemed to him best qualified to perform activities usually precluded to others. An analogous situation occurs where certain men have been followed, obeyed, and venerated for displaying a high degree of endurance, responsibility, lucidity, and a dangerous, open, and heroic life that others could not; it was decisive here to be able to recognize a special right and a special dignity in a free way. To depend on such leaders constituted not the subjugation, but rather the elevation of the person; this, however, makes no sense to the defenders of the “immortal principles” and to the supporters of “human dignity” because of their obtuseness. It is only the presence of superior individuals that bestows on a multitude of beings and on a system of disciplines of material life a meaning and a justification they previously lacked. It is the inferior who needs the superior, and not the other way around. The inferior never lives a fuller life than when he feels his existence is subsumed in a greater order endowed with a center; then he feels like a man standing before leaders of men, and experiences the pride of serving as a free man in his proper station. The noblest things that human nature has to offer are found in similar situations, and not in the anodyne and shallow climate proper to democratic and social ideologies.

Consider — do you feel happier or fulfilled when 1) working with a team complete with a leader, a sense of camaraderie, and a difficult task at hand that requires cooperation to overcome, or 2) being socially disconnected, with no responsibilities to anyone outside your 9-to-5, pursuing leisure or entertainment for your own hedonistic desires? The second lifestyle is what capitalist democracies (sandboxes) tend to encourage, whereas the first lifestyle is what traditional societies (oaks) tend to encourage.

Hierarchy and social differentiation are a must for any society to run its best, and this is reflected in the strong hierarchies in the corporate and government worlds. The reason these hierarchies are necessary is that human productivity and sense of accomplishment is usually much enhanced (to a point) when large groups follow a coherent plan rather than taking actions based only on personal initiative and local information. Leaders of the group formulate plans and put them into action. Humans, being social animals who evolved in hierarchical tribes for millions of years, naturally respond to the charisma of effective leaders. We are more motivated by the guidance of an effective leader than we are working by ourselves. This also applies to abstract areas such as academia. It gives us a feeling of meaning and dignity we otherwise lack.

To revolutionary conservatives, reactionaries, and nationalists, people who embrace the “sandbox” vision of society are social defectors. By forgoing the “oak” societal vision, these democrats and republicans (in the original sense of the words, not the political parties) de-differentiate the individual, turning him into a faceless, “equal” citizen. The citizen’s vanity is flattered by having his opinion officially solicited (through voting) on political decisions he knows nothing about. Social alienation is magnified because there is no overall hierarchical structure that socially links all citizens and gives them meaningful roles. Instead, capitalist and materialist concerns provide the overall structure for society.

Some people are inherently more anti-authoritarian and less cooperative than others. In modern democracies, anti-authoritarianism is elevated to the level of a virtue. This might have something to do with the increasing population and multicultural mixing producing a more disconnected society where the average citizen believes more in himself and his immediate family than society at large. This concept of modernity-fueled social alienation, de-differentiation, and “turtling” is explored in detail in Robert D. Putnam’s academic work Bowling Alone: the Collapse of American Community and Charles Murray’s recently published book Coming Apart: the State of White America 1960–2010

Though there is much more to explain and justify, I will stop there for the time being. I have introduced key traditional principles and values that embody what revolutionary conservatives consider the foundation of civilization, and attempted to justify them. Some of these traditional principles may be underlying the resurgence in conservatism among youth in places like the United Kingdom and parts of the United States, and the significant recent growth of the online and offline neo-reactionary movement.