Originally published January 24, 1999 on the SWORG SWILL
[an exchange on anachronistic metabolism]
Law, Order, Crisis
Of course the relative absence of laws and law-enforcers does not mean the absence of control or of social order. But when we speak of the inevitability of hierarchy, or of law, we have to remember that neither hierarchy nor law can historically be shown to bear much relationship to social harmony and order.
Crash respondstrue there was not the organized law forces in the Wild West of America's infancybut law was still enforced by those who were able to divvy up the cash to hire people to eliminate those that were a threat to their economic concernsbounty hunters, less official hunters of humans, and Texas Rangers and sheriffs (often recruited from the forces of the outlaws themselves) were used to eliminate those outside the officially sanctioned economic activitiesnot to mention the brutal elimination of Native Americans and MexicansI can't weigh in on Britain's 18th and 19th centuries, but America’s was a time of brutal conquest, murder to eliminate those who were in the way, and suppression of the othernot exactly what I would call a more peaceful golden ageI'm kind of surprised that you would try to mythologize a grand golden pastthis is a hackneyed old trick of the rank conservatives in our country who attempt to use code words from the past to make us regress and repress.
Kubhlai retortsWell that's not exactly what I said. During the two centuries of the Industrial Revolution our society was both stable AND miserable without an organized police force or mountains of laws. The fact that it was miserable not golden makes the fact that it was remarkably stable all the more fascinating (and sad).
In the urban nineteenth century and in the rural centuries beforehand there was no universal or permanent police force, and immensely fewer laws or means of detecting trasngressions of them or of dealing with them from central government. There WAS social control, especially that which derived economically via aristocratic estates, and through the Church (which in effect was the precursor of the mass media since it controlled almost all information). Nevertheless, neither of these institutions had much need or inclination to interfere in much of the private lives of the people. In rural areas, way back into medieval times (especially prior to the normans) the economic interactions which held order together had even less to do with hierarchy being based almost exclusively on the exchange of goods and labour, not capital. Basically you grew potatoes and chickens and swapped them for apples and piglets. If the village didn't approve of someones goings on they would be ostracizedsince they had no where to go, they would avoid pissing everyone off. (and no doubt if they were total nutters they would quietly disappear). The main controlling force was that each person was tied into the land they farmed, their village, extended family and manor and had nowhere else to go. There is a hierarchic relation in this but not a complex one with fulltime agents of control.
Language also played a partthe aristocrats spoke french, later german. This ensured that the two differing lifestyles intersected little, and each must have had little notion of what it was like to be other than they werebut this isn't either hierarchy or law either, though it constrained social expectations and ensured that everyone had their place (a double-edged sword from a modern-values point of view, but harmony and stability-engendering none the less.) My only point is that centralized hierarchy and canons of Law are not essential for there to be a society that functions. I am not of the opinion that the absence of police and law was sufficient in order to call that earlier age "golden" or that the mere revoking of all law and the abolition of the police would deliver a better society overnight now. We cannot go BACK to that non-hierarchical non-centralized society, but it does suggest that we can go FORWARD to another one. It is obvious though that the police and the law exist today for a reason. It implies that there is less self-control in society now than there used to be, ie that its order has been disrupted by the state and that brute force now needs to be visibly deployed to reinforce its checks and control. This is my point really, that rather than "Law & Order" going together like "milk and honey" or "bread and butter" they are actually opposites, in that where you have a harmonious ORDER you have no need of LAW and its enforcers.
Such order has rarely been achieved in any near-permanent forms (although the longevity of chinese civilization is an example perhaps), because societies always had exploiters, and the existence of exploiters reflected the fact that technology could not prevent shortages. This must have been a major factor in the bloody history of your wild west. We now have more than adequate technology to eliminate shortage, yet those in power see this very fact as a threat to their exalted position as exploiters. Shortages are artificially created, new ones invented. Technology is bent to control instead of to construction and consequently we have a small number of people with small minds wielding big weapons. This is our crisis.
Shit! Didn't mean to sound like a redneck conservative.
I write: Wow! What a crock of belly-warming bread pudding. K's rendition of an authoritarian-shy but miserable nevertheless past is rather tortured, especially for him, my esteemed English friend who usually honors us with his piercing profundity. The gist of his aurgument however is sound. We live in an age where but for certain spirits of "cruel and unusual" penchants for dangerous exploitation now scattered across the globe in critical places, the species might very well be capable of snatching a "better, more improved" civilization from the brink of the devastating collapse and unreparable destruction we all foresee and fear with unspeakable loathing.
Laws and authority, however, exist from the beginning of time. The arrangements of molecules and the sciences of existence defy our attempt to reject conformity at the basic levels, while seeking to worship unbridled chaos and disunity. Nature, beastly power, religion, legislation, peer pressure, transcendentalism. All have taken a riveting shot at taming or at least shepherding the most basic instincts of earth itself, and this creature called mankind. A mutually assured misery tends to thwart all but the most ambitious of spirits in a time and location of widespread lethargy. Corrupted earth. Corrupted earthlings. Yet, despite our observations of (apparent) corruption, an astute prejudicial order does exist. However, it is our limited humanity's hunger and thirst to attain the incorruptable, the perfect, the eternal, the blissful, which always runs this discussion aground. This unfathomable unquenchable hunger and thirst brings us feast. It also brings us famine. Such is the nature of aspiration when in conflict with other realities on the ground. Frankly, I don't think we will solve this puzzle while wordsmithing over a free-range pizza with a cherrypicker mentality.
In a philosophy clamouring for the participation of all, it will not be the masses, but the brutal acts or two or three ringleaders who determine with amassed fealty our collective fates. Such, it has always been. Unfortunately, these two or three will control and marshal the weapons of surprise and power in nearly all its wicked and wonderful forms. In deed. In spirit. Such as it's always been.