The Pathos of Politics – Violence


“Blood alone moves the wheels of history.” ~ German friar Martin Luther

Despite pronounced capacities for language and empathy – the essentials of diplomacy – men remain violent creatures. This propensity for aggression is amplified by the highly materialistic and unbalanced societies which men have consistently constructed for themselves.

The availability of abundant resources lessens aggression in other primates. Human history has instead been enforced inequity in resource availability. This is economic violence. The beating heart of politics is coercion enforcing inequality.

“Political order rests ultimately on violence.” ~ Austrian-born American sociologist Peter Berger

All modern human societies are socioeconomically segregated, with the vast majority in an underclass that faces perpetual scarcity. This inequality is heightened by a sociopolitical system which esteems wealth and limits the means of the underclass to escape their predicament.

A strong determinant of intergroup relations is the power of possessing superior numbers: the ability to dominate. When natural foodstuffs are in short supply, aggressive primates organize themselves and prey upon weaker groups. If the neighboring territory of conspecifics offers a resource prize, war ensues if intimidation proves insufficient.

The skills and inclinations to exercise dominance are culturally transferred between generations. Group aggression becomes a cultural value unto itself. Conflict against out-groups, not cohesion within the in-group, defines what it means to be a tribe.

The emergence of states from tribes did not solve the problem of violence: quite the contrary. Statehood instead gave war surer footing, elevating violence.

There is prodigious emotional potency in shared stress as a vehicle for solidarity. Nothing is more stressful than war.

Almost all early societies developed a warrior class. With this class evolved the concept of honor: the willingness to risk one’s life for the respect of other warriors.

Historically, professional soldiers were typically loath to trade places with farmers or merchants, for reasons only partly owing to booty. The lives of peasants and traders were mundane compared to the thrill of danger and the comradery of fellow combatants. Nowadays, the warrior ethic, and its motivations, are readily found in police departments worldwide, where coercion, extortion, confiscation, and gratuitous violence are commonplace.

Human history is replete with savagery on whatever scale technology afforded. Since the times of the earliest clans to modern day, wars have been waged primarily to secure resources. Since human settlements became the norm over 8 millennia ago, hardly a decade has passed without a war somewhere.

Wars over ideology only came to the fore in the 20th century, instigated by states with overweening hubris and an itch to engage their military over nothing more than political philosophy. Ideological war represents an astonishing abandonment of self-interest as a guiding principle, replaced by myopic jockeying. If economic advantage is the ultimate aim, squandering resources in military adventure is antithetical.

“No one engaged in thought about history and politics can remain unaware of the enormous role violence has always played in human affairs.” ~ German political philosopher Hannah Arendt


Foraging clans were nomadic extended families, comparable to other primates in their social organization. Tribes did not arise until the emergence of settlements.

Foraging clans had nothing resembling modern economic exchange, nor even modern individualism. The almost universal practice of eating together derives from the hoary practice of sharing food.

Many of the moral rules for nascent tribal society were not directed at transgressions against private property, but against not sharing. Facing the prospect of perpetual scarcity, failure to share can affect a group’s survival prospects; hence, early societies were egalitarian.

Like other apes, humans are often exogamous and patrilocal. Besides engendering genetic diversity, it also encourages intergroup exchange.

Exogamy also mitigates conflict by establishing family bonds between groups. Into historical times, disputes over resources or territory have been smoothed over through the exchange of nubile females, including, at the top rungs of the sociopolitical ladder, the practice of strategic marriage alliances among European royalty.

The origin of political stratification lay with the evolution of agrarian society. Rather than communal plots, family-oriented groups worked fields separately, cooperating only necessary. This territoriality furthered the concept of private property and took materialism as a moral value to a new level.

Individualism versus communalism was not just a major distinction between foragers and agrarians. Groups were more or less interdependent depending upon the predominate cereal crop.

A collective culture grew along with the crops where rice was the primary grain. Before mechanization, growing rice took twice as many hours as wheat. To deploy labor efficiently, especially during planting and harvesting, rice-growing societies developed cooperative labor exchanges.

The history of social and political development in southeast Asia and Japan, where rice was the staple cereal, testify to the political inclination toward consensus born from collective work in the fields.

Cultures which relied upon wheat and other grains that could be independently grown led to cultural individualism. This was clear in the Fertile Crescent, where concocted religious creeds became the brittle glue of tribal association among its flinty peoples, given to this day to ceaseless conflict rather than cooperation.

The social impact of agriculture was enormous. Depending upon climate, the population density of foraging societies was 0.1–1 person per km2. The invention of farming facilitated population densities of 40–60 people per km2.

Proximity begat interdependence on a much larger scale, furthered by labor specialization, which facilitated technological innovations. This gyre engendered structured social organization, oriented toward dealing with transgressions against material moral values. Polity evolved via property regimes.

Governance became even more important when tribes were conquered, and survivors absorbed. Rules of conduct are especially needed in reducing conflicts among groups with their own culture and norms. Government cut its teeth on post-conflict social management.

Under the tutelage of the state, human beings learned for the first time how to bow, grovel, kneel, and kowtow. In many ways the rise of the state was descent of the world from freedom to slavery. ~ American anthropologist Marin Harris

A state is an abiding political institution represented by a government. A nation is a political territory with which residents may feel identification (nationalism). As modern states try to promote and tap into nationalist fervor, the term nation-state is commonly used to emphasize the twining.

When tribal-level societies evolve into state-level societies, tribalism does not simply disappear; quite the contrary. In China, India, the Middle East, and elsewhere, state institutions were mere veneer over tribal ones; both existing in uneasy balance. Even today, ethnically diverse societies function according to tribal norms, with institutions favoring the dominant tribe. The United States is exemplary.

China was the first civilization to invent the modern state, but it has never succeeded in suppressing the power of tribes at the cultural and societal levels. The dynastic history of China is one of ceaseless tribal conflict.

The same may be said of every state. Complex clan structures remain the main social locus for most people, and strongly shape interactions with modern political institutions. Institutions themselves take on a tribal cast.


Sociality is not a cultural acquisition. It is instead sewn into the human psyche.

The need to belong is strong. Family forms the core of our sociality. Alas, whatever socialist sentiments extended from familial feelings were dulled during the evolution of civilization as a defense of materialism.

For men, individual well-being, not that of the group, has been the dominant drive. There were, as aforementioned, exceptions in the Far East as agriculture arose. But even there, communal spirit eroded as politics evolved. The hoary civilizations of China and Vietnam exemplify states that are communist in name but totalitarian elitist in practice.

To materialist mankind, cooperation always seemed a compromise. The notion of sharing everything is confined to the nuclear family, and even there, material conflicts arise. Hence, by dint of physical strength and propensity to use it, paternalism came to dominate.

The biologically based impetuses to cooperative behavior are kinship and reciprocal altruism. Like other mammals, people prize their offspring (mothers especially). Familial feelings are the evolutionary outgrowth necessary for rearing offspring. In a broader realm, we only give to those whom we feel compassion.

Reciprocal altruism is the ability to cooperate with those who are not family. Social cooperation depends upon an individual’s ability to repeatedly solve what game theorists call the prisoner’s dilemma: that serving self-interest results in a suboptimal outcome compared to cooperation.

This dilemma dissolves with reputation: knowing how an individual behaved in the past. Reputation evolved early on. Even microbes acquire reputations.

American political scientist Robert Axelrod showed that morality evolves spontaneously as rational decision makers interact, even though motivated by nothing more than self-interest. Self-interest drives both individualism and voluntary cooperation – but the later only when potential gain is perceived at some foreseeable point. When blatant self-interest becomes socially acceptable (as it has), society becomes individualistic, and societal well-being suffers.

With preserving their status as the paramount goal, ruling elites cast economic and political institutions toward individualism. In modern times, that corporations are legally treated as individuals is a profound example.

Obligation to society is an abstraction only realized by coercion or a delusional identification with the state: whence nationalism as a political ideal as an instance of the latter, and the military draft illustrating the former.

Most people think of a political state not in terms of community, but instead a supra-individual authority: a force of imposition, not sociability. Polity as societal adhesive does not come to mind. Instead, the state ostensibly enforces the limits of accepted behavioral norms, and acts to preserve itself as an epitome of individualism.

Individualism is a mind-set not easily set aside, especially when it is a norm reinforced by reward for self-initiative. Community spirit cannot find fertile soil in a ground sown with self-interest. Such is the state of the world of men.