House Conundrum

Another personal update.

I thought I’d start out with this little fun fact, since I write so much about ancient and medieval history here. I spoke with my dad’s cousin this week. Her husband went on Ancestry.com doing some genealogical research, and she suggested he look up her last name (which we share).

According to her, he found a family tree ending with my great-grandfather and extending back to—and I don’t know if I’ll believe this until I actually see it—805 AD!!!

So, apparently my family, the H***e family can trace its ancestry back to around the time when Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope Leo (800 AD), and 40 years before the Vikings sacked Paris (845 AD). We apparently come from a line of counts—minor mobility. That in itself is interesting, since the European title count comes from the Roman title comes, meaning companion or delegate of the Roman emperor. Maybe I can convince some Alt-right types to make me their rightful ruler.

I also found some papers from my great-grandfather, Otto, on my mother’s side (mother’s father’s father). Not as exotic as finding out your distant relatives were counts during the Dark Ages, but I did find out he was born in 1878 in Altendorf, Prussia (seven years after Germany became a country). My German isn’t good enough to make out much more than that.

Pretty sure this is my grandfather (1908-1968). Not the count side of the family, but he does look the part in this photo!

Kinda makes the fact that I’m the very last H***e alive a bit more poignant, I guess. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.

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My current situation consists mainly of trying to unload my mother’s house. This is the house my grandparents built in 1941.

Brand new – 1941

The house has serious foundation problems. VERY serious, as in there are significant cracks (up to half an inch wide) on all four walls of the basement, plus significant bowing of up to an inch. My guess is that the original builders were just not very good, and simply backfilled with earth, without taking any sort of water-protection measures. The grading slope away form the house is nonexistent, meaning that drainage is poor, plus there are no eaves or rakes to give some distance between runoff and the foundation, as you can see. There are gutters, but lots can go wrong with gutters.


(As as side note, eaves and rakes exist for a reason!)

The frost line in Wisconsin is 4′-0″ below grade, so based on the cracks, I’m guessing the freeze/thaw cycle in the first four feet of earth simply pushed against the foundation for seventy-odd years, and this is the inevitable result.

Water damage in the basement.

I don’t know whether this was typical for building at the time. My neighbors mentioned that they have no problems with their house, which I can tell from old photographs must have been built at the same time. Was their house built better, or had some previous owner done the work?

There is also water in the basement. Without some sort of destructive examination method, I cannot verify the source, but I believe it is coming in from above, and not through the wall itself. It looks as if where the stoop meets the house, there is a gap allowing water in from above. Again, fixable but expensive.

It’s deferred maintenance. My mother was far too poor to do the type of maintenance needed on a house like this, as was my grandmother.

So, basically, it’s kind of a wreck. Not a tear-down, fortunately, but hardly a sound investment.

(As a side note, owning a house in a Siberian climate like Wisconsin is just a losing proposition. I know what moisture and freeze/thaw cycles do. It’s a never-ending cycle of repair costs that will never pencil out).

(As another aside, a crumbling foundation is a good metaphor for the county more generally these days.)

So, just another bad break in a life chock full of them, I guess 🙁

Sometime in the 1960’s

Which means I have a couple options. I can either sell it ‘as is,’ or invest the money to repair the foundations myself and hope-against-hope that I can find a buyer, however long that takes.

Last week, I had some gentlemen come out to look at the house. It was three young (very young, I’m guessing in their 20’s) Hispanic gentlemen who buy houses, renovate them, and sell them. I think they’re pretty local—one of them said he even grew up in the neighborhood.

I liked these guys. They were not some national firm; they were local. They were entrepreneurial in the good sense—making money by improving neighborhoods and making them a better place. This neighborhood is quite the hot neighborhood right now with Midwestern Hipster/Lumbersexual breeder-types for raising families.

They made an offer of $65,000. They obviously emphasized the fact that they would have to excavate and repair the foundation walls, which isn’t cheap. They said it was a fair offer, and I believe them. I don’t think anyone else in their line of work would offer more. In fact, I had another home buyer walk through a few weeks earlier and he never called me back (the fact that there was a dead mouse in the basement toilet probably didn’t help).

Mom and grandpa. 1950 or therabouts

I got a spit-ball estimate of basement repair. It would cost $35,000 just to repair the basement, which I would have to pay upfront, of course. And that’s just for starters. I would also have to remove a fir tree from alongside the house–another $1,000. Then there are minor issues, like damaged walls and cabinets from my mom’s chronic smoking habit; the lack of GFI outlets near the sinks; the old, ugly carpeting; outdated appliances, and so on and so on…

If all those repairs/upgrades were made, one realtor estimated I could get from $120,000-140,000 for it. I’m a little skeptical of those numbers, but I estimate perhaps $100,000-110,000 is more realistic. According to Zillow, the median home in Town of Lake is $143,500, with similar houses (albeit in better condition) selling for $150-180,000. The city evaluated the house as $149,000, which is far above what it’s worth.


If I chose to repair the house, I’m stuck paying a huge amount of costs upfront, with the hope that I will be able to sell it later, and who knows how long that will take? Who knows what the Market will be like? Selling a house is a long, painful, arduous process for anyone. I’d have to engage a realtor, and even the realtor I spoke to charges 3.99 percent (lower than the usual 6 percent, but still…).

Pro tip: don’t plant trees near the house or the underground sewer lines.

To add yet another minor wrinkle, the next-door neighbor asked if I would consider renting the place out. It turns out that they are putting their house up for sale next month (August). Apparently they are building a house (!!) and would need a place to stay in the meantime.

I suppose if I rented it out, I’d make some money on it. But the basement would still be crumbling. All the other problems would still be there, festering. I’d still have to pay all the costs, like insurance and utilities, and do maintenance. Of course, I would receive rent money to help cover that, but it’s still a lot of hassle. And I’d be stuck here in the meantime.

This whole thing has been going on almost two years now. I never thought it would still not be resolved this far after the fact. Personally, I’m ready just to be done with the whole business and move on with my life.

But what life?

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I’m leaning towards accepting the offer of the home buyers. I’ve asked them to submit an offer in writing to my attorney for review.

There is still a $10,000 mortgage on the house, because as I explained in my last “personal” post, my uncle insisted on getting his share. He probably made more on the house back in 1993 than I will here in 2019, despite doing absolutely nothing. So it goes, I guess.

Back when children played outdoors.

So I have to pay that off. The major claim against the estate is my mother’s home equity loan (HELOC), which I’ve been paying out-of-pocket for the last year. That’s about $11,0000. Then there are the attorney fees, of course, and I have no idea how much that will be.

The other issue is that the probate proceedings were supposed to be wrapped up in August. I’m told by the attorney that we can file an extension to deal with that issue. But does it really benefit me for this to drag out even further?

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Reader bleg: any advice here? What would you do if you were in my position?

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As for my employment situation, I kind of fell into a job a few months ago. I thought I was finished, but the agency that had placed me with the architecture firm got me a few interviews. I explained to them what happened at the previous firm, and even the hiring fellow said, “Oh yeah, they can be kind of cliquey.” Um, yeah, now you tell me!

(As an aside, in my initial interview at unnamed architectural firm, my interviewer said that “We’re like a family here,” or words to that effect. My instinct told me–and I’m dead serious– to refuse the job on the spot right then and there and walk out of the interview. In hindsight, I should have listened to my instinct.)

Anyway, I got an interview at an MEP (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) firm in Oak Creek. I thought, I might as well go, because I didn’t think I would actually get the job. I mean, I’m an architect, not a mechanical engineer. As I said in the interview, we architects only thing about two things when it comes to mechanical: make it fit within my ceiling plenum, and make sure there are dampers at all fire penetrations. But they insisted that they actually wanted someone with an architectural background to work for them.

Well, I got the job. I think it really is true—the less you care, the better you do in interviews.

This video embedded below should give you some idea of the gist of my work. The gory details aren’t important.

I’ve been working there since then. The experience could not be more different. I constantly hear about what a good job I’m doing, how everyone says I’ve helped them out tremendously, how they hope I don’t leave, etc.

(Which brings up yet another aside: how much one’s fortunes are based on sheer luck. I mean, I’m the same person I was before. I didn’t just gain 20 IQ points overnight. I didn’t gain any new capabilities. It’s simply the environment, and not anything you do. It’s just luck, regardless of what anyone wrapped up in their bullshit self-attribution fantasies suggests.)

So, anyway, despite my best efforts, I do have a job again. Of course, since I never do anything (besides write this blog), go anywhere, or buy anything, I sock away every penny because, as I have learned, those may be the last pennies I may ever earn under American-style Neoliberal capitalism. And after that you’re on your own.

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I’ve been wondering whether or not I have PTSD. I mean, I’ve never been in combat. I’ve never seen people killed in front of me. I’ve never had to pull the trigger on anyone. I don’t want to make light of those things. There are many people who have been asked to do those things, and their suffering should not be trivialized. And certainly, many people have had much worse breaks than me (I?).

But I still have nightmares. I have panic attacks. Yes, I occasionally still have suicidal thoughts. I think a lot about the fact that I am all alone—utterly, totally alone. It’s hard to go through the quotidian traumas and vicissitudes of life that way. It’s hard to have no safety net in country that thinks Socialism is a dirty word. But it’s not like I’m the only one in that situation, after all.

I don’t trust anyone. I don’t believe anyone, anymore. I’m constantly waiting for the hammer to fall, or the other shoe to drop, or whatever metaphor you want to use. I wish I could say I feel secure, but I don’t, and I don’t think I ever will.

Is it possible for an economic system to give one PTSD?

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Anyway, at least I can pay the bills right now, and I guess that’s enough. But where do you go when you could go anywhere?

I admit to being delinquent with replying to all those who wrote to me last time. Since I’ve started working again, I’ve tended to devote my free time to writing new posts, and I have a bunch I’m currently working on. But, I assure you, I still have them all, and hope to get around to replying some day. Thanks!

Who would want to leave all this???

BONUS: Former homeless people, what did you need the most? What was the best thing someone did for you? (AskReddit)

Independence Day 2019

It’s a surreal experience to wake up on Independence Day to a country that is:

  1. Having a Soviet-style military parade, complete with tank procession, in the capital.
  2. Has concentration camps, complete with the aggressive and violent dehumanization of those interred, on the border.

That’s just before you get to all the other Soviet/Fascist-style facets of the modern-day Republic:

  1. Mass surveillance and incarceration of the citizenry (if prisons and jails were a state, they’d be larger than 15 different U.S. states).
  2. Multiple media organs that are outright, bald-faced agitprop (albeit co-existing alongside a nominally “free” press).
  3. Political brawling in the streets.
  4. Paramilitary groups threatening to kill police over a political conflict.
  5. “Cultural Marxism” as a mainstream political concept (taken seriously even by people who don’t typically consider themselves extremists).
  6. Nuremberg-style political rallies, complete with demonization of opponents and the non-allied press.
  7. The valorization of guard labor of all stripes (military, police, mercenaries, whatever) as unqualified “heroes” showered by unequivocal adulation.

I mean, I’m old enough to remember when those things didn’t exist in America. And I’m not that old!

The wholesale disintegration of the fabric of American society continues unabated. And every year I wonder the same thing: just how bad does it have to get? I saw a Twitter post that read “When you’re discussing what precisely constitutes a ‘concentration camp’, you’re already fucked.” Yep, well said.
It feels like creeping normality is inexorably sweeping us along to our ultimate destination: the inevitable sequel to World War Two that we have all been waiting for (something about humans tends to like sets of three). I’m afraid that this time, though, we (Americans) may actually turn out to be the baddies.

And no one can talk about it. If you do, “Godwin’s Law” is immediately invoked, along with a hefty dose of the customary “It Can’t Happen Here” mentality.

But the problem with the knee-jerk invocation Godwin’s so-called “Law”, though, is that it says that absolutely no comparisons can be made until the NASDAP literally reappears in our midst, complete with black-clad, jackbooted secret police, Totenkopf badges, extermination camps, and stiff-armed loyalty pledges.

Even in Germany that stuff didn’t happen overnight. Do things really have to get that bad??? The childish invocation of Godwin’s Law is as bad as the childish behavior the “law” is supposed to ridicule.

I mean, do we literally need to have extermination camps in our backyards before any valid historical comparisons can be made? From some people’s attitudes, it sure seems like it.

I’m afraid we may well see the end of Democracy in the United States in our lifetimes—in practice, though perhaps not in law. For example, in Wisconsin (I’m going for memory, so don’t quote me on this), but something like 54% percent of us vote for Democrats, yet Republicans maintain their majority in the state legislature. And thanks to gerrymandering, unless some almost impossible supermajority of the state votes for the opposition (something like 3/4 of the electorate), the Republicans will have essentially a permanent, iron-clad grip on Wisconsin’s state legislature, forever.

And the Supreme Court—which has been packed for years—just declared that such election-fixing is perfectly legal (or at least nothing can be done about it).

…when the Senate confirmed Trump’s first nominee, Neil Gorsuch, it was a watershed moment in American history. For the first time, a president who lost the popular vote had a supreme court nominee confirmed by senators who received fewer votes – nearly 22 million fewer – than the senators that voted against him. And by now, it will not surprise you to discover that the senators who voted for the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh represent 38 million fewer people than the ones who voted no.

With the supreme court in hand, all those other tactics – partisan gerrymandering, voter ID and the rest – are protected from the only institution that could really threaten them. But it doesn’t stop there. The supreme court can be used to do more than approve the minority rule laws that come before it. It can further the project on its own.

Rigging the vote: how the American right is on the way to permanent minority rule (The Guardian)

Then there’s the issue of disenfranchisement due to the majority of Americans living in urban areas, something America’s outdated and antiquated electoral system is not designed to accommodate (each Wyoming voter has 66 times the electoral power of a California voter in the Senate). As Brad DeLong pointed out:

  • 180.8 million people are represented by the 49 senators who caucus with the Democrats.
  • 141.7 million people are represented by the 52 51 senators who caucus with the Republicans.
  • 65.9 million people voted for Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tim Kaine to be their president and vice president
  • 63.0 million people voted for Donald Trump and Mike Pence to be their president and vice president.

https://www.bradford-delong.com/2018/10/remind-yourself-representation.html

Of course, roughly half of Americans (sometimes over half) don’t vote at all, forming the largest voting bloc in America (the resigned apathy party).

And that’s before all the other things: the “policing” of voting places by right-wing paramilitary thugs, the understaffing of urban polling places, etc. The voter ID law passed here in Wisconsin which was expressly designed (according to its proponents) to suppress voter turnout among minorities and college-educated young people (who move around a lot). North Dakota has a similar law (which disproportionately disenfranchises Native Americans).

And then there’s the electoral college. This article does a good job of explaining why it has no real reason to exist. Two of the last three presidents have lost the popular vote.

And there are proposals are on the table to restrict voting access even further. It’s a formula permanent minority rule. And that’s scary. When the people can’t express their popular will through the ballot box, what do you do?

And this is allegedly a “democracy?”

And we all feel so impotent and helpless because nothing ever changes. When was the last time a problem got solved in America???

Anyway, no sweeping conclusion; these are just rambling thoughts this Fourth of July holiday. I wish I had solutions, but the only hope I have for humanity right now comes from looking at what people are doing in places outside the borders of this benighted country.

Aztec Society, Historical Myths, and Understanding Collapse

Still working on that religion post and some others, but in the meantime, I’ve wanted to post this interview that I ran across on the BBC’s Civilizations podcast for years now. This particular episode concentrates on civilizational collapse, which is obviously of interest to me and, I suspect, to readers of the blog (if they exist LoL).

The first half of the podcast, however, is an interview with an expert on Mesoamerican civilization, Dr Caroline Dodds Pennock, who dispels a lot of the common myths about that culture. Some of this information will be relevant soon, when we talk about the economics of New World empires (hopefully coming soon?). But for now, read and learn (lightly edited for clarity):

On the Aztec practice of human sacrifice:

“Human sacrifice is what everybody knows about the Aztecs. And they certainly do practice human sacrifice on an extraordinarily large scale. What we do know is that this is actually a very sophisticated, very compassionate, very cultured civilization where death is not held cheap…

Sacrifice for them is a religious act, and they believe that if they don’t sacrifice people, then the world will come to an end. It’s part of a reciprocal relationship with the gods, where the gods nourish and nurture them, and they have to feed the gods with blood to keep the world turning, essentially. And they believe that if you die as a sacrifice, then you will go to a sort of privileged afterlife; it’s almost like a martyrdom. And so it’s a way of attaining privilege in the afterlife in a culture that doesn’t believe you get a very nice here-and-now, as it were.”

“And so they construct this very complex belief system in which sacrifice becomes something that is supposed to be a privilege. Something which to me is very vital in understanding Aztec culture is the fact that they have a universal education system. Both men and women are educated institutionally; where both learn at home from their families about day-to-day jobs like fishing and weaving and so on. And young men go into schools to learn to be priests and warriors. There is a third school which doesn’t get talked about—the cuicacalli—the ‘House of Song’. As teenagers, young men and young women go separately to this place to learn the history, mythology, and religion of their culture.”

“Now, you might call that indoctrination. But it’s really, really important for understanding why Aztec culture can commit human sacrifice without being dehumanized by it to know that every person witnessing it, or participating in it, understood why it was happening. This isn’t like Catholic Europe at the time where all the ceremonies are happening in Latin, and some people understand what’s going on, and other people have quite a vague grasp of the essentials. It is absolutely educated, informed knowledge of what the rituals are meant to represent. And it’s really vital to know that that is happening, because if everybody knows that all these people [who] are being sacrificed are supposedly going to a better place, and it’s essential [so] that the world [doesn’t come] to an end, it becomes possible to see how they might go along with it for reasons other than just kind of cheering at brutality.”

“They train priests in a way that suggests that they don’t think killing people will be very easy, so they go to lengths to separate them from their families; to train them in a very vigorous way much like you would if you were going into the army, maybe, to desensitize the people who were actually going to do the sacrifices. And they don’t have an awful lot of interpersonal violence in their culture. This isn’t a very savage culture as people suggest. Sacrificial violence is certainly normalized, but not day-to-day violence. That’s the thing. Just because people commit human sacrifice, that doesn’t mean they think it’s acceptable to stab their neighbors.”

On the Aztecs being a very ancient culture:

“People think they’re a very ancient culture sitting alongside people like the Egyptians or the Romans in people’s minds. But actually they’re contemporary with things like Henry VIII. They only are conquered in 1521–very, very recently. And actually, they have an extremely developed legal code. Lots and lots of strong rules. Perhaps even stronger, for some things, than in Europe at this time. They do have capital punishment. They have very developed systems of retributive justice, as well as restorative justice. So that means you punish people, but also you have compensation for things. So it’s actually a very complicated culture, and also a very, very recent one, and I think that’s something people forget.”

On whether the Aztec Empire was a brutal dictatorship:

“The Aztecs do have quite strong hierarchies, but they also have a reasonable amount of social mobility.”

“It’s a bit of a misnomer to call the ruler an ‘emperor’ because there’s some debate about whether it’s even an empire at all. The real name of the ruler is the Tlatoani—a speaker, ‘he who speaks’, which tells you something about the culture. It’s important that he’s the representative for the society and for the gods. And he is at the head of  a society which has quite a lot of checks and balances. They think it’s really, really important that you be competent in your job. And they have this balance of birth and competence as a way of organizing everything.”

“So, for example, to become the Tlatoani, it’s not the first-born son that gets to do the job. You are elected. We don’t know exactly how—probably nominated from amongst the high nobles. But they pick the person they think will do the best job. So, often it’s a  brother or a younger son of the previous Tlatoani; it’s not always the eldest son—in fact it isn’t usually. You have to be related to the previous Tlatoani, but being the eldest son doesn’t help you at all.”

“And you see these sorts of patterns go all the way down through the society. So they have two levels of nobility: Teuctli, who we usually call ‘lords’; that’s the high nobility. And then the Pilli, who we usually call the ‘nobles’—that’s kind of the low nobility. And you can’t be born a Teuctli – a high lord. You can only be born Pilli. To become Teuctli, you have to attain that through your own achievements. It’s jobs like being the head of the priesthood, or the head of the warriors, or having  senior warrior role. Things like this make you a Teuctli, but you can’t be born that.”

“And people who are born commoners—mācēhualtin—they can become Pilli—nobles–through their achievements, often through being particularly clever, particularly successful in the schools and  in the administration, often through warfare—that’s the most common way—to be a really good warrior. And then occasionally you have stories, for example, of a Tlatoani, a ruler, making someone into a noble just because they’re impressed with them. There’s a famous case of a ruler making a gardener into a noble because he’s so impressed with his honesty. Things like that.”

On social advancement compared to contemporaneous Europe

“One of the things I find most interesting about Aztec culture is that we make assumptions about how savage and ancient it is. And actually in some ways it’s far, far more modern than contemporaneous European civilizations. They have greater social mobility. They have a sort of social care system. They have collective grain storehouses. When you get married, if you’re rich you give capes—that’s the equivalent of currency—you give capes into the collective storehouses, and if you’re poor, you take capes out—you’re given some. So there’s a collective redistribution of wealth to make sure that nobody is too poor to set up their own household.”

“I’m not saying that this is a kind of idealized civilization, but it’s actually a lot better in some ways, I think—for women in particular, maybe—than some contemporaneous European civilizations. You’re allowed to enjoy sex if you’re a woman in this culture. Sex outside of marriage isn’t taboo. You can’t beat your wife. Men and women inherit property equally. Things like this.”

On the role and status of women in such a warlike society

“The fact that warfare is the principal focus of this civilization in many contexts certainly means that there are areas of life from which women are excluded. So they can’t attain high political office, because the high political offices are synonymous with high warrior offices and high priest offices, and they can’t do either of those things. On the other hand, we know that women were also scribes; they were  painters; they were the people who kept the records, which is a hugely skilled job. They must have been very, very important.”

“Childbirth is so interesting because it’s seen as the equivalent of warfare for women. They talk about having children as ‘capturing’ a baby; that the woman had borne the ‘small shield’; that she has returned ‘victorious from battle’–all these kinds of words. And they are honored as parents of warriors.”

“Warfare and childbirth are seen as equivalent fates for men and women. You can see that if you look at what happens in the afterlife. After you die, as a sacrificial victim or in battle, the man would spend four years accompanying the sun; carrying the sun god to its zenith at midday. What they then do, is hand the sun at midday, it’s believed, over [into] the hands of the souls of women who’ve died in childbirth, and they carry the sun to its setting. So you can see this parallel being drawn very clearly between the souls of men who’ve died in sacrifice and in battle, and the souls of women who’ve died in childbirth. It brings equal honor in the afterlife.”

On comparisons to European (Christian) Monotheism

“One of the real problems we have as historians of the Aztec world is that all our sources, except the archaeology, are from after the conquest…so everything we’re reading is reliant on the viewpoint of colonial Spanish men, usually friars. And they don’t want to see a similarity between Aztec religion and Christianity.”

“But, of course, both of them are based around this idea of blood sacrifice. There is, at the heart of Christianity, a sacrifice of blood…if you were a thousand years in the future, and Christianity had died out, and people were just looking at the texts of Christianity, wouldn’t you think maybe they were actual cannibals? Because you talk all the time about eating the body and blood of Christ. How would you read them if you simply took them cold with no contextual information? And so there’s actually a fascinating parallel–this focus on blood as a mythical, a religious, a spiritual totem, is something which is at the heart of Christianity as well as at the heart of Aztec culture.”

“Of course, the Europeans use concepts of their own to try and make this culture comprehensible to them. And it’s not that they see no cultural similarities, or things to admire. They very much admire how devout [the Aztecs] are. A lot of missionaries early on say, ‘obviously they’ve been very misguided in their religion, but they’re such devout people. If only we could bring them to the knowledge of the true God, they would be the most Christian Christians in the world.’ They hate the human sacrifice, but they actually don’t have any trouble understanding that this is from a religious point of view. Don’t forget, this is a society in which violence for religion is very, very familiar. This is a society where—if you think of early modern Spain—where it is very normal that people are being burned alive for being heretics, or crushed between stones, or stoned to death. It’s not unusual…”

And then the interviewer talks to Dr. Guy Middleton, an archaeological “collapsologist” about the realities of civilizational collapse as opposed to the sensationalized Hollywood movies and documentaries:

Guy Middleton (guest): “You wouldn’t find in the archaeological literature that kind of very sudden, very dramatic picture being drawn. You’d find a lot more cautious, a lot more nuanced positions being put forward.”

Viv Jones (host): “There’s a common story about how the Maya civilization collapsed, which you may have come across in articles and documentaries. The story goes, that a period of extreme drought withered their crops and killed off thousands. The Maya were powerless to prevent their own demise as food and water run out. Eventually the jungle reclaimed their palaces and pyramids. But…”

GM: “The megadrought story is very much a modern myth. Even if we accept that there were droughts—and undoubtedly there were; we know there were droughts there in historical times—the Maya area itself was very big and made up of very many—tens or hundreds of independent little states and big states. I think the idea that one massive megadrought killed off all the Maya and caused the collapse of their societies is wrong.”

VJ: “We do know that in the ninth century, many cities in the region were abandoned. What’s unclear is what happened to the people who were living there.”

GM: That’s the million-dollar question. Talking about one Maya collapse is a bit misleading. What we call the collapse of the classic Maya is really a process that takes 200-300 years to play out. And it plays out differently in different regions. So, sites in the north collapse around 1000 or 1050 AD; sites in the south are collapsing in the late 700’s AD. So you’ve got different trajectories, in different cities, in different areas. I think you get a decline in birthrate that happens over this 200-300 year period. So there’s not a certain depopulation. Some sites are abandoned–that’s absolutely right. But you get new cities coming up. It’s different across the whole Maya region.

VJ: So the Maya civilization didn’t suffer one collapse. It’s likely that different kingdoms met very different ends. Along with droughts, there was also a lot of warfare between different Maya kingdoms, and that caused populations to fall, and some cities to be abandoned. This period of sharp decline ended 900 years ago. Very few Maya settlements remained, but some were still thriving when the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century.

GM: “What really did for it, for traditional Maya society, was the Spanish. It’s something like a barbarian invasion. What I find particularly interesting is that you’ve got the very last independent Maya kingdom,–which was a kingdom called Nojpetén–that was only destroyed by the Spanish in 1697. And that’s really close to us in time. And it’s about 900 years after people place the Maya collapse. So they don’t disappear en masse, and they still have a complex culture which the Spanish encountered.”

“But when the Spanish come in, they behave particularly appallingly. For example, they take the children of the nobility to build schools for them and to basically brainwash them into a Catholic culture, and to reject their own culture. So there was a very deliberate process of cultural destruction performed by the Spanish on the Maya.”

VJ: So how did we end up with this popular idea in books, documentaries, and articles of a massive, apocalyptic Maya collapse brought on by drought?

GM: I think we’ve kind of got an inbuilt draw to these dramatic, sweeping stories. And I think you can go back to Biblical images, which are still very much a part of our society. We’ve got these images of disasters–God destroying cities. And then we’ve got the rise of Hollywood, and disaster films, and it’s quite exciting and dramatic and appealing, in that sense, to what we like from a story…

And Dr. Guy Middleton’s conclusion:

Like people say, you get the history you deserve at a particular point in time. You also get the collapse stories that you deserve at a particular point in time. People have looked at the modern situation and the environmental problems that we face now. We know that we have done terrible things to the environment. We can look at plastic pollution now, but also agricultural industry, and monocultural agriculture, and climate change. And we can look back and say we’ve got bits of evidence that suggest the same things might have been happening. And it’s dubious, in a sense, because the situations of ancient societies are so much different, and we’ve been much, much more destructive than any ancient society.

So I think, in a way, to blame collapse on things like climate change—the evidence doesn’t usually support climate change as a single cause of any collapse. If we do it, we’re kind of stealing people’s histories, and some environmental writers and other people try to use examples of ancient collapse—especially the Maya, and especially the Easter Islanders—as kind of moral tales on how we ought to treat our environment. And the fate of those societies is a fate that we can predict for ourselves if we continue in our immoral, environmentally destructive behavior. But I think that’s not doing history, that’s stealing people’s history–stealing people’s stories for our modern-day Western consumption.

And that’s one of the reasons collapse is so interesting. Because you go back and look at what a society was, and look closely at how it changed and who it changed for in different ways. Our upcoming global collapse will be different in scale, and perhaps number of deaths…

Episode 6: How Civilisations Collapse and Understanding the Aztecs (The Civlizations Podcast, BBC Radio)

History Repeating?

Working on a new post about religion. But in the meantime, reader Gregg Winston asks:

It was reported this week that the City of Chennai, India, home to approximately 4 million people, is almost out of fresh water. It was also reported that the Himalayan glaciers are now melting faster than replacement rate of winter snow. It is now projected that by 2030 (10.5 years from now) 40% of the Indian population (now at 1.38 billion) will be without access to fresh water. This means potentially 600 million refugees on the scene looking for someplace else to live. Surely no government or human social system can stand under such immense stress. Would be curious about your thoughts in future posts.

That mainly gives me the excuse to post the video from the BBC below, which has been sitting in my drafts for a while.

But in answer to his question – what can you say about that? To me, this is the greatest vulnerability civilization now faces. He’s right, there is no way 600 million people will be able to migrate. Nor is it likely that some sort of technological solution could be pressed into service in time to prevent a catastrophe, even if the political will and technological capabilities existed (which they don’t).

Just that alone is enough to end civilization as we know it, at least in greater Eurasia. But it will, of course, still be slow-moving enough to stymie any sort of constructive efforts to address the situation. How this will affects North America is questionable. But Russia and China will certainly be in the thick of it.

As you see below, the irony is that the very first large-scale civilization in India was also done in by a changing climate. The Harappan civilization, which thrived on the alluvial plains for millennia and constructed some of the most impressive drainage works of the ancient world, was eventually forced to abandon their cities due to changes in the monsoon. No longer could they practice irrigation agriculture with the change in precipitation. So they moved northward, to the foothills of the Himalayas which were fed by rainfall, and reconstituted their civilization there.

But once they settled in agricultural villages, they did not need such sophisticated engineering and left fewer remains behind. It appears that their civilization experienced a reduction in complexity as well, even losing writing. It’s likely that rain-fed farming did not need the cooperative management and political centralization that irrigation agriculture did. As Wittfogel put it, “the scattered operation of rainfall farming did not involve the establishment of national patterns of cooperation as did hydraulic agriculture.” Gone were the blocks and blocks of identical houses, which had apparently existed peacefully for millennia prior. These folks were likely the ancestors of the Indians who were subjugated by the pastoral Indo-Aryan who invaded from the northern plains later on. That new mixture formed the core of what we know as the Hindu culture.

It was a very similar situation to the Tigris/Euphrates river valley, where a complex Sumerian civilization in the lowlands which depended on inundation (flood) agriculture coexisted and intermingled with northern rain-fed highland villages which spoke the Semitic language of Akkadian, and were probably descendants of the original Natufian farmers. Eventually, the highland inhabitants invaded and subjugated their neighbors on the southern alluvium, and incorporated aspects of their civilization, such as writing and religious ideas.

“Harappa and Mohenjo [archaeology sites in Pakistan] are twins, so much alike that archaeologists believed they could have been built by the same ruler… they were planned as deliberately as Brasilia or Salt Lake City and are just as predictable. Everything was arranged. The mechanical, conservative, windowless, unchanging architecture – block after block after block – implies a totalitarian attitude… 2,500 years before Christ… came these unimaginative, dark, flat-nosed builders who knew exactly what a city should look like. And they lived in their geometrical barracks for ten centuries without changing a thing. The style of building never changed. The language did not change. The first carved amulets are the same as the last.” The Aztec Treasure House, (p. 144)

What that can tell us about a subcontinent of a billion people today, however, is probably quite limited.

The Evolutionary Roots of Alcohol Feasting

Since the previous post was about the role that alcoholic beverages played in domestication, and hence the formation of large-scale societies, I thought I’d share this post that I ran across last week. It goes back to the evolutionary origins of our craving for alcohol.

If it’s correct, it would mean that the seeds for later large-scale social groups were sewn very early in human evolution, even back before we diverged form chimps. Millions of years ago, ancient tree-dwelling primates sought out fermented fruits in the canopy. Millions of years later, this craving would lead to the formation of the first civilizations.

According to the [“drunken monkey” hypothesis, formulated by biologist Robert Dudley in 2000], our pre-human ancestors regularly ingested small amounts of alcohol because the substance is produced when ripe fruit or nectar is decomposed by wild yeast. Through natural fermentation, yeast feeds on plant sugars and produces waste products of CO2 and ethanol — the chemical name for alcohol.

Although this spoils fruit, it presents an opportunity for animals that can digest alcohol. Creatures able to eat fermenting sugars would have an additional source of nutrients. Not only would they consume semi-rotten fruits, passed over by other animals, but alcohol itself has nutritional value: There are nearly twice as many calories in ethanol compared to carbohydrates of the same weight. (While this causes unwanted beer bellies today, extra calories are beneficial in the wild.)

Also, fermentation produces strong odors. An animal attracted to the yeasty scent would be able to follow its nose to edible fruit, and potentially find that food source before creatures without the taste for alcohol. And lastly, as many of us have experienced, alcohol stimulates appetite. Individuals munching on fermented fruit may eat more, obtaining bonus calories and nutrients.

In these ways, developing a taste for alcohol — the low levels found in nature — could have given our ancestors an advantage. In a forest full of animals competing for energy-rich foods, “drunk monkeys” would have access to an untapped resource.

It wasn’t until millions of years later, after Homo sapiens created beverages with unnaturally high ethanol concentrations (i.e. beer, wine, liquor), that alcohol consumption became a social and public health issue. According to Dudley, alcohol abuse and addiction are an “evolutionary hangover” of a deep-routed taste for fermented sugars, adaptive long ago.

‘Drunken Monkey’ Hypothesis: Was Booze an Advantage For Our Ancestors? (Discovery)

Food sharing—the basis for feasting—has been observed in bonobos (but not in chimps):

In the wild, sharing of food by chimps typically happens after a rare hunt, and the “sharing” of meat often involves the passive tolerance of theft or simply giving in to relentless begging and harassment by others.

In contrast, the bonobos voluntarily handed over nuts that were solidly in their possession.

“What we are seeing in bonobos is very unusual,” says Krupenye. “We do see food sharing in other species, but in the vast majority of cases it is that one individual tolerates another taking something from them.”

The finding adds to a growing body of evidence that bonobos are uniquely pro-social when it comes to food…

What’s Mine Is Yours, Sort Of: Bonobos And The Tricky Evolutionary Roots Of Sharing (NPR). And, related, scientists have discovered the oldest known evidence of humans cooking carbohydrates in Africa:

More than 100,000 years ago, humans lived in the caves that dot South Africa’s coastline. With the sea on their doorstep and the Cape’s rich diversity of plant life at their backs, these anatomically modern Homo sapiens flourished. Over several millennia, they collected shells that they used as beads, created toolkits to manufacture red pigment, and sculpted tools from bones.

Now some of these caves, along the country’s southern coast, have shed light on humanity’s earliest-known culinary experiments with carbohydrates, a staple in many modern diets. Small pieces of charred tubers found at the Klasies River site in South Africa date back 120,000 years, making them the earliest-known evidence of H. sapiens cooking carbs, according to recent research published in the Journal of Human Evolution.

The study joins a suite of new findings that illuminate the evolution of our ancestors’ diet. For example, in recent years, scientists have determined that hominins have been eating meat for at least 2.6 million years —with some researchers contending that hominins were butchering bones for marrow as much as 3.4 million years ago. And hominins were roasting nuts, tubers, and seeds about 780,000 years ago. Humans specifically, as another South African find revealed, ate shellfish some 164,000 years ago. And last year, ancient crumbs revealed that H. sapiens has been eating bread for 14,400 years.

Ancient Campfire Remains Hold Oldest-Known Remains of Humans Cooking Starches (Discover)

Drunk (and High) on Civilization

The Feasting Theory has gotten a new boost.

In brief, the argument is this: in complex foraging societies with significant food and material surpluses, social prestige was acquired through a consistent practice of one-upmanship by putting on ever-larger feasts, and that such competitive feasts were the impetus for the more intensive cultivation of desirable plants and animals, which eventually led to full domestication.

Feasts were thrown for a variety of reasons, but one end result was the emergence of elites and endogamous (closed) social classes. As this article states:

The practice of feasting—the consumption of large communal meals within a socially constructed setting—has attracted widespread attention as a result of its role in affecting social and ideological change…feasts have been shown to play essential roles in the negotiation and solidification of social relationships. Feasts are heavily imbued with meaning and are often associated with ritual behavior and socially important events such as burials.

Early evidence for feasting at a burial cave in Israel (PNAS)

The article cited above goes on to document evidence for feasting preceding the Neolithic (farming) Revolution in the Near East:

…community members coalesced at Hilazon [Tachtit cave, a Late Epipaleolithic (12,000 calibrated years B.P.) burial site in Israel] to engage in special rituals to commemorate the burial of the dead and … feasts were central elements in these important events … clear evidence for feasting on wild cattle and tortoises … includes unusually high densities of butchered tortoise and wild cattle remains in two structures, the unique location of the feasting activity in a burial cave, and the manufacture of two structures for burial and related feasting activities.

Feasts likely served important roles in the negotiation and solidification of social relationships, the integration of communities, and the mitigation of … stress [from increased group size]. These and other social changes in the Natufian period mark significant changes in human social complexity that continued into the Neolithic period. Together, social and economic change signal the very beginning of the agricultural transition.

Intensive cultivation of cereal crops for feasts appears to have long preceded domestication. So, early cultivation was not “forced” upon us to feed a growing population, but rather seems to have been largely voluntary, at least in the beginning.

Long before [the Neolithic] there are signs of human habitation in the [Fertile Crescent] by Acheulian, Neanderthal and Natufian people, indicated by the presence of many grinding slabs, hand stones, mortars and sickle blades…. analysis of the micro-wear on flint sickle blades [indicated that]…cereals were being cultivated by about 12,000 BP, but were probably harvested before they were ripe and may not have been domesticated, i.e…cultivation preceded domestication. The great variety of plant remains at Abu Hureyra in Syria, dated to 11,500-10,100 BP, has provided no evidence of cereal domestication, despite the all-year round occupance of the site. In this instance, at least, a sedentary life style preceded plant domestication.

Crop Evolution, Adaptation and Yield (Google Books)

Work Feasts were also the main means of recruiting large-scale labor in pre-market economies. As Michael Dietler states, “[A] work feast is… a particular form of the “empowering feast” mode of commensal politics in which commensal hospitality is used to orchestrate voluntary collective labor. That is, the work feast is an event in which a group of people are called together to work on a specific project for a day (or more) and, in return, are treated to food and drink, after which the host owns the proceeds of the day’s labor.” (Feasts, p. 241)

Note that this turns previous history books on their head:

– Previous histories argued that cereal domestication is what allowed sedentism. Wrong. Sedentism either preceded, or was encouraged by, cultivation in complex foraging societies long before domestication.

– Previous histories had us all living in small, isolated tribal communities with little to no contact with outsiders. Wrong. Complex, long-distance relationships were sustained by feasting and trade even before the Neolithic Revolution, especially among elites. Some of these stone-age cultures appear to have united villages over very large geographical areas even before the much later urban revolution in Southern Mesopotamia.

– Previous histories had elites first emerging with the large, complex civilizations of the Near East and the Levant. Wrong. It appears that specialized elites long preceded these first civilizations, although they may have been more akin to “big men”, paramount chiefs and shamans rather than “divine kings.” Such positions may not have been hereditary at first, but later became associated with certain preferred lineages over time.

– Previous histories claimed the first monumental architecture were the temples and ziggurats of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and these coincided roughly with both domestication and urbanization. Wrong. Temples and other ceremonial complexes long predating domestication have been uncovered in Anatolia (Turkey) such as Göbekli Tepe, Çayönü Tepesi, and Nevali Çori. Furthermore, large stone monoliths, cromlechs, dolmens, cairns, and tumuli are found all over the world thousands of years before the first alluvial civilizations. These range from Egypt (Nabta Playa) to Malta (Ġgantija), to Britain (Stonehenge) and even East Asia in Korea (Gochang & Hwasun) and Indonesia (Gunung Padang). Many of these sites have been definitively shown to be associated with large-scale feasting events over very large areas.

In particular, the foodstuffs which would have been most cultivated were those with psychotropic properties—i.e. those designed to “party”—meaning things like grains suitable for brewing alcohol, and various other psychotropic drugs. In other words, drug use and civilization are intrinsically linked. Addictive substances may have been what first lured us away from “the original affluent society” of egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands living within earth’s limits, and bound us with the yoke of domestication, hard,  labor, disease, malnutrition, and oppressive, hierarchical social dominance structures which continue to the present day. Brian Hayden et. al. write:

Partly through the agency of psychoactive substances, feasts in traditional societies are, and presumably were, used as arenas for inculcating ideologies, creating cohesion and social differentiation within a social group, and introducing new foods and technologies. Feasts require the production and storage ahead of time of large quantities of food and drink, and successful organizers can and do obtain political power and reproductive success. The social competition model proposes that a *wealth* rather than a dearth of resources enabled people to engage in high risk production activities such as cultivation and domestication. (emphasis in original)

Pharmacological Influences on the Neolithic Transition (Journal of Ethnobiology PDF)

Indeed, history has shown that human societies are fundamentally conservative in their outlook, and are only willing to tolerate novel social arrangements and endure disruptive social change in conditions of relative abundance, and not under conditions of scarcity and want (as the last few centuries have demonstrated).

Such feasting would have also inculcated a future-oriented mentality among elites quite different from that of simple (immediate-return) foragers. Those more able to engage in such future-oriented behaviors probably gained significant advantages in status, power, and reproductive fitness. Over thousands of years, this would have added up to significant social change. But it may have all started with beer:

Beer has plenty to recommend it over bread. First, and most obviously, it is pleasant to drink. “Beer had all the same nutrients as bread, and it had one additional advantage,” argues Solomon H. Katz, an anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Namely, it gave early humans the same pleasant buzz it gives us.

Patrick E. McGovern, the director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania, goes even further.

Beer, he says, was more nutritious than bread. It contains “more B vitamins and [more of the] essential amino acid lysine,” McGovern writes in his book, Uncorking the Past: the Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages. It was also safer to drink than water, because the fermentation process killed pathogenic microorganisms. “With a four to five percent alcohol content, beer is a potent mind-altering and medicinal substance,” McGovern says, adding that ancient brewers acted as medicine men.

Beer also played an important societal role in bonding early communities together. It was popular at religious ceremonies, communal events, and celebrations. Brian Hayden, an archaeology professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada, believes that communal feasting fostered social bonding—and lots of beer was consumed during those feasts.

Moreover, beer was thought to be a necessary component in the afterlife—throughout the Middle East, the dead were buried with jugs of frothy refreshments. It was even used as currency—in Egypt, the pyramid workers were paid in beer.

How did man originally discover beer? McGovern and Katz theorize that man first learned to make some sort of gruel from barley. Then, natural yeast, likely supplied by insects, would have fermented the gruel, leading to a primitive form of a beer. Beer was actually easier to make than bread. Once early humans sipped these ancient suds—whether barley, corn, or rice-based—they began cultivating grain, becoming sedentary creatures. “All of these grains could have jump-started civilization as we know it because you really have to stick around the whole year to take care of your plants,” McGovern says…

“The question is really a no-brainer,” McGovern writes. “If you had to choose today, which would it be: bread or beer?”

Beer Domesticated Man (Nautilus)

While large-scale irrigation works have long been implicated in the emergence of the first complex societies, the role of grain alcohol and other psychotropic substances has often been overlooked. But new evidence from China reinforces the notion that beer brewing played a crucial role in the formation of that ancient civilization as well. Specifically, they found that people there came up with two different ways to brew beer!

Was it the lure of beer that encouraged prehistoric humans to begin farming? Archaeological evidence from China suggests it might have been as the region’s first farmers had worked out how to turn millet and other cereals into alcoholic drinks in two distinct ways, hinting at how important alcohol was at the time.

Li Liu at Stanford University and her colleagues analysed the residues left on 8000- to 7000-year-old pottery sherds unearthed at two early farming sites in north China. At both sites, some of the residues contained cereal starch granules with signs of physical damage similar to that caused by fermentation.

At the site of Lingkou, tiny mineral particles from plants – phytoliths – in the residues suggest the brewers simply let the grains sprout, which frees up the sugars. But at the site of Guantaoyuan, 300 kilometres to the west, the mix of phytoliths and fungi suggests an alternative approach. Here, the archaeologists say the brewers triggered the breakdown of starches by using a ‘fermentation starter’ known as qū, which is made from grains that have been allowed to mould. Qū is still used today to produce cereal wines and spirits.

However, [Patrick] McGovern would like to see stronger evidence that the brewers at Guantaoyuan really were using qū. In 2004, he and his colleagues described even earlier evidence of fermented drinks in the region, at a 9000-year-old site in central China. The brewers there used honey and fruit as well as rice. It’s an important distinction, says McGovern. Not only are honey and fruit rich in fermentable sugars, they also naturally carry the yeasts that perform fermentation – which cereals do not. If they used honey and fruit as well as cereals, early brewers at Guantaoyuan would not have needed to use qū to get fermentation started.

But there is agreement that the new study emphasises the important of alcoholic drinks in early farming cultures. Liu suspects the spread of domesticated rice might have been encouraged in part because of its use in such drinks. “Alcohol would be used in feasting which helps some individuals to gain high social status and to form alliances,” she says.

McGovern thinks alcoholic drinks might even have helped encourage humans to adopt farming. The large quantities of grain produced by farming could be stored and turned into beer or bread all year round. Beer might have been seen as the more desirable product. Bread doesn’t have the mind-altering effect of alcohol, which I think is so important for social and religious reasons,” he says.

Early farmers liked alcohol so much they invented two ways to brew it (New Scientist)

And that’ not the only psychotropic drug that appears to have been cultivated in China. Recently, archaeologists have discovered the earliest use of cannabis, which they suspect was also used in religious ceremonies (no doubt administered by HIGH priests!):

Archaeologists…found evidence of burned cannabis with high levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (the cannabis ingredient responsible for the high) on 10 wooden incense burners, known as braziers; the burners were found alongside eight human burials at an ancient site known as Jirzankal Cemetery (also called Quman Cemetery) on the Pamir Plateau of western China.

The burners all carried a mystery residue, which a chemical test soon revealed to be cannabis…

Researchers have known for decades that ancient people in eastern China cultivated cannabis as long ago as 3500 B.C. But this cannabis was grown as an oil-seed and fiber crop, and so it had low psychoactive properties. In other words, the ancient people harvesting cannabis for these purposes probably weren’t smoking or ingesting it for its high.

The cannabis residues found in the braziers, however, tell another story. It’s likely that ancient people purposefully selected cannabis plants with high THC levels and then smoked them as part of a ritual or religious activity associated with these burials, “perhaps, for example, aimed at communicating with the divine or the deceased,” the researchers wrote in the study.
Of note, the burials are more in line with the ancient mortuary practices from ancient Central Asia, including the modern-day countries of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, than they are from China, the researchers said.

The study is the latest to look at cannabis’s origins and historic uses. In May, another group of researchers posited that the cannabis plant likely originated high on the Tibetan Plateau, according to an analysis of fossil pollen. The new finding “provides yet another piece in the biomolecular archaeological puzzle of the ‘abiding mystery of Central Asia’ and its impact on human cultural and biological development through the millennia,” Patrick McGovern, the scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia, who was not involved in the study, told Live Science. “Much more remains to be learned.”

People Smoked Pot to Get High at Least 2,500 Years Ago (Live Science)

Chinese tombs yield earliest evidence of cannabis use (BBC)

The widespread use of psychoactive substances didn’t end with the Neolithic, but only intensified, and is intertwined with the very history of complex civilizations. For example, the importation of coffee and tea had a major impact on European history. Rather than beer, coffee and tea could provide a source of clean, filtered water, but with stimulative instead of depressant effects. “Until coffee consolidated its hold in the 18th century, beer soup was the breakfast liquid of choice.” (New York Times) Coffee houses became centers of the new, merchant-oriented economy that reshaped Europe in the Early Modern Period. Insurance companies such as Lloyd’s of London were born in coffeehouses. The French Revolution was fomented in coffeehouses by overcaffinated intellectuals, and Americans dumped tea into Boston harbor. Later, Britain would get an entire country hooked on drugs to redress their trade balance, and the United States would use drug laws to imprison millions of its own citizens.

How Coffee Influenced The Course Of History (NPR)

As Hayden et. al. conclude, surveying the long record of psychoactive drugs in human history:

The use of [Psychoactive Substances] precedes agriculture and was widespread in forager societies. Many PAS were exploited for medicinal purposes or were mild stimulants, including tobacco in America and Australia, and khat and betel in Africa and Asia (all these plants were eventually cultivated by some groups). Much forager PAS use focused on hallucinogens for ritual purposes, such as to induce shamanic trances and communicate with the spirit world. Most hallucinogens are debilitating in high doses, and their powerful effects deter widespread consumption, restricting use largely to infrequent rituals by a few specialists. With domestication, however, the focus shifted from perception-altering to mood-altering, euphoric, or stimulating PAS. Domestication enabled the production of large and reliable quantities of such PAS. In the primary Neolithic sites, West and East Asian farmers produced alcohol, while American farmers produced alcohol, coca, tobacco, and cacao. European and Asian farmers added opium and cannabis to the Levantine crop complex; in Southern India farmers produced grains for alcohol; in Africa, coffee and kola were major trade items…

Mood-altering PAS stimulate brain reward pathways. They are highly prized and sought for effects such as amicability, reduction of stress, and feelings of liberation. They are widely used in many cultures, and have been major trade goods throughout history and prehistory. Psychoactive substances were not the only products of early cultivators, but they were typically the most highly valued and were given religious and social significance.

Even today, the majority of adult humans regularly use PAS derived from early domesticates including alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, chocolate, and sugars. Ancient users may not have perceived these as drugs in the modern sense but simply as desirable, good tasting, good feeling foods. In early modern times, PAS played a facilitating role in global colonization, used first to entice indigenous peoples into labor arrangements, and then to reward individuals for labor and production outputs. The effects of PAS upon mood and motivation are critical: “Habitual users tend to develop psychological or physiological dependency on them and, in turn, on the trader or merchant who provides them…

BONUS: It appears that Celtic people in what is today eastern France were importing food, drink and pottery for feasting from the Mediterranean: Early Celts in Burgundy appropriated Mediterranean products and feasting practices (Science Daily). Incidentally, McGovern was an advisor to Dogfish Head Brewing Company for their beer Midas Touch, which is allegedly “made with ingredients found in 2,700-year-old drinking vessels from the tomb of King Midas.”

The Market Is Not Natural

Coverage of Bernie Sanders’s GWU speech:

America’s existing political economy is much easier to defend if one posits that the gross inequities it produces are ordained by an invisible hand. If some natural economic process dictates that wage growth must be tepid while corporations sit on cash, or that urban workers must be rent burdened while landlords live high off their labor, or that major financial institutions must be insulated from risk while underwater homeowners are left to drown, then one can plausibly argue that government action to alter such outcomes would be hubristic and self-defeating.

Who is man to challenge the wisdom of the market gods?

By contrast, if the electorate were to recognize that these outcomes are largely determined by public policy, then apologists for the existing order would have a much harder time rationalizing acquiescence.

Bernie’s Right: U.S. Already Has Socialism For The Rich (NY Intelligencer)

I bring this up because I’ve been reading “The Power of Market Fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s Critique” by Fred Block and Margaret Somers. This passage resonates with the one above:

…Polanyi’s belief in expanding democracy to include the economy is expressed in his idiosyncratic definition of socialism: “Socialism is, essentially, the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society.”

Implicit in this definition is a critique of the Marxist stipulation that the coercive power of the state would “wither away” once the socialist revolution ended class exploitation. Polanyi sees this claim as a parallel utopian fantasy to that of the self-regulating [libertarian] market. Indeed, he explicitly follows [Max] Weber in recognizing that political authority and power would inevitably continue into any future social order, especially as a countervailing source of power to that of the economy.

Two fundamental points follow. First, socialists could not ignore the difficulties entailed in imposing democratic accountability on governmental power. Second, Marxists were guilty of imagining that a shift in property relations would—by itself—usher in a new and better society. According to Polanyi, Marx mistakenly had accepted the claims of classical economists, especially [David] Ricardo, that property relations can and will determine the entire shape of the social order.

Polanyi’s view here is based on his unique insight that market society was imposed in the nineteenth century through political means. What we think of as “modern capitalist society” was, for Polanyi, not the result of underlying inevitable economic mechanisms, but rather the consequence of a series of political choices and explicit government policies. The pretense now stripped away of the economy as a “force of nature,” it follows logically that these arrangements can be undone and reversed through the same mechanism–the use of political power.

While Polanyi is usually not explicit on this point, his argument is consistent with those who have argued that private property represents a bundle of different rights that owners had at one particular moment in time. It follows that political and legal changes introduced over time can change that bundle of rights until many of the most important structural inequalities in labor markets, capital markets, and product markets are effectively eliminated. (pp. 26-27)

Private property is a creation of legal systems—and hence of human beings—and not some natural force that we are powerless to affect. Why is this so hard to understand? At one point, land was not private property (but collectively owned with usufructary rights). At one point, other human beings were property, along with horses and oxen. There is no “universal law” of what is and is not property, and what rights ownership entails. As Chris Dillow writes, “The limited company was we know it was created by two acts of parliament in 1844 and 1855. (The notion that free market capitalism is somehow natural and emerged without state intervention is a fiction.)” As the article cited above points out:

…[L]egal markets are themselves a kind of “big government” program. Absent a sovereign entity capable of enforcing contracts by commanding a monopoly on violence, mass commerce between strangers is nigh-impossible. Less abstractly, the introduction of private property across the North American continent required massive state violence and investment. Meanwhile, some human agency must decide roughly how much sovereign currency should be in circulation at any given time, and this decision will inevitably have large, economy-wide implications on how markets function and whose interests they best serve. Tight money will privilege those rich in cash by increasing the value of their holdings — and thus, the interest rates they can charge for lending them. Loose money can privilege borrowers by triggering inflation that reduces the cost of their debts…

Americans already live in a country where unelected bureaucrats pick economic winners and losers, where public policy exerts a massive influence over the distribution of income, where some indolent Americans live off the hard labor of others, and where the state directs investment toward official, conscious ends. If these are the defining features of socialism, then the United States lost the Cold War before it began, and the real debate between left and right in the U.S. isn’t over whether “big government” should intervene in markets, or even how much it should, but rather who should have a say over how it intervenes — and whose interests such “socialism” should serve.

These points may seem banal. Sophisticated conservative thinkers are well aware that money doesn’t grow on trees and markets do not make themselves. But efforts to naturalize the economy’s basic ground rules — by obscuring the state’s inescapable role in setting them — remain pervasive in America’s political discourse.

Now, here’s Sanders himself:

“…President Harry Truman was right when he said that: ‘Socialism is the epithet they have hurled at every advance the people have made in the last 20 years…Socialism is what they called Social Security. Socialism is what they called farm price supports. Socialism is what they called bank deposit insurance. Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor organizations. Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.’

“Now let’s be clear: while President Trump and his fellow oligarchs attack us for our support of democratic socialism, they don’t really oppose all forms of socialism. They may hate democratic socialism because it benefits working people, but they absolutely love corporate socialism that enriches Trump and other billionaires…

The Evolution of Consciousness and The Soul


In our discussion of Julian Jaynes’s ideas, reader Speedbird recommended the book “Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry” by Owen Barfield. The above lecture covers that book and illustrates some remarkable overlap between his ideas and those of Jaynes. It’s well worth a listen.

And, related, here’s an essay that cites both:

What Barfield points out is that the distinction between mind and matter, or inside and outside, didn’t exist in early peoples. (This is also the basis of Julian Jaynes’ The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, though being a materialist, Jaynes explains this with the dubious theory that our thinking was done unconsciously in one cranial hemisphere, which then “talked” to the other.) Thinking happened to the person, and was not felt as being produced by the person. In the beginning of the Iliad, Achilles is angry because Agamemnon has taken Achilles’ slave-girl away from him. Achilles naturally wants to kill Agamemnon, but if he does that would be the end of the Greeks’ siege of Troy, so he doesn’t. We would say that reason prevailed, but what Homer says is that Athena tells him not to. It is something outside of Achilles that controls his action. And of course, Homer credits his own work to the Muse. One may also note that it is only recently that “genius” came to mean a great thinker, and not some external source that inspires the thinker. There was innovation in ancient times, but such innovation was credited to divine kings and prophets, not to a common individual’s cleverness.

All this is to say that the growth of control in our thinking, feeling, and willing is a marker of the evolution of consciousness, which amounts to a change of common sense. This control moved from “outside” (belonging to the supernatural) to “inside.” Parallel with this change is a change in sense perception. Supernatural control was exercised equally on humans and nature, which means that humans were just as much “nature” as anything else, all pervaded by spiritual entities. And that was perceived. It was not an “animist belief system” that people made up to explain things. Rather it was, simply, experienced. But as our ability to think grew, the perception of spirit in nature declined, until in modern times it has disappeared. Hence modern common sense divides reality into two: our (more or less) controlled minds on the one hand, and on the other, a mindless physical system.

Idealism vs. Common Sense (Bernardo Kastrup)

And here’s an older article from Psychology Today describing the psychological transformations of the Axial Age. It feeds into our initial question: how was ancient consciousness different from that of contemporary industrial societies?

Before a certain time, some psychologists believe, ancient peoples also differed from us by exhibiting far less capacity to monitor their internal thoughts, feelings, and motives; they engaged in little or no self-reflection, and lacked a personal identity other than a name, parentage, and a recollection of a sequence of life events.

Before the Axial transformation, human beings told one another myths and other stories about how they came to be. The stories were not regarded as true or false; rather, their truth did not require questioning. Such was the state of human beings, Jaspers believed, because of a lack a self-reflective, fully conscious self-understanding. Under such conditions, abstract truths matter not.

During the Axial-age, however, some scholars argue that dramatic shifts took place in human thought across four geographically distinct regions of the world: India, China, the Middle East, and Greece.

New ways of thinking emerged that defined the world’s psychological culture for all time since. Jaspers wrote:

“What is new about this age…is that man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and his limitations. He experiences the terror of the world and his own powerlessness. He asks radical questions. Face to face with the void he strives for liberation and redemption. By consciously recognising his limits he sets himself the highest goals.”

Big questions that were specifically psychological in nature emerged: “Who am I?” and “Why are people different…

The Significance of the Axial Age (the Great Transformation) (Psychology Today)

Since we’re on the subject of podcasts, this is from an interview with Professor Richard Seaford, whom we first met when we talked about where the ideas about money came from in Classical Greece, and what it’s effects were. Here, Seaford makes the case that the emergence of something like an individual spirit, soul, or essence, was paralleled in both Greek and Indian culture.

This is interesting because one of the consistent criticisms of Julian Jaynes’s work has been that he only looked at Greek culture and ignored other, particularly non-Western, civilizations. But Professor Seaford’s studies indicate parallel developments in the civilizations of Classical India at about the same time (6-5th centuries B.C.). The transition from the Rigveda to the Upanishads seems to follow roughly the same trajectory as that which Jaynes sketched out as taking place between the composition of the Iliad to that of the Odyssey with regards to human self-reflective consciousness (the following transcript not blockquoted for clarity):

[Begin 2:36] SHWEP: “…If there wasn’t a soul, what was a human being before [the Axial Age]?”

Richard Seaford: “Well, the two Axial civilizations that I know best, which are also, I think, the two which are best placed…to answer your question, are Greece and India.”

“Interestingly, you have—both in Greece, and in India—early texts which are roughly speaking pre-philosophical. I’m talking about Homer, in particular, in Greece, and the Rigveda in India; followed by—in both civilizations—something like the birth of philosophy, depending, of course, on how you define philosophy.”

“So that in Greece, you move from the world of Homer—which is, roughly speaking, the eighth century B.C.—to a new conception, a radically new conception, of the universe and man’s place in it, in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C., known as pre-Socratic philosophy. And out of pre-Socratic philosophy you have Plato and Aristotle and the whole of ancient philosophy.”

“In India you have the Rigveda, which is (a bit like Homer but even more so) dated to very different periods…from at the earliest about the middle of the second millennium B.C., but clearly the Rigveda—particularly the tenth book—contains material which is much later. And, of course, Homer probably wasn’t written down until the sixth century B.C., but these early Indian texts were not written down until very much later. So the Rigveda was subject to centuries of oral transmission, and therefore very difficult to date.”

“However, what’s interesting, in answer to your question, is that in India from about eighth, seventh, sixth century BC (again dating is impossible with these early Indian texts), you have a new conception of the universe and the place of man in it. Just as in Greece you have a new conception [at] about the same time in the sixth century B.C.”

“And the transition from Homer to pre-Socratic philosophy has some striking similarities to the the transition from the Rigveda to these later texts, in particular the Brahmanas (which are mainly about ritual, but nevertheless contain some proto-philosophical speculation), and the Upanishads. The Upanishads [emerged] out of the need to interpret the sacrifice (which is what the Brahmanas are mainly concerned with), and as a result of the need to interpret the sacrifice, producing something that is legitimate to call philosophy, in which ritual has to a large extent been left behind. That, then, corresponds to pre-Socratic philosophy.”

“Now, what is it that’s similar between the Indian transition and the Greek transition?

Well, let’s take the idea of the ‘inner self,’ or soul. There are a lot of terms which are used for something like the inner self, the soul, the mind, the subject; and it can be quite confusing because they mean different things; they overlap. One is perhaps best advised to think of them in terms of their opposite: so the soul is the opposite to the body…the subject is opposite to the object, and the self is opposite to others. I like the term ‘inner self’ because it implies an individual, but just the ‘inner dimension’ of the individual. It’s quite close, therefore, to soul and mind.”

“Now, it’s striking—and this has been recognized for some time—that in Homer there’s no word for the inner self as a bounded, comprehensive entity of consciousness. That is to say, what we think of as the mind or the soul which constitutes the personality—the ‘real person’ of each individual.”

“I use the terms ‘comprehensive’ and ‘bounded.’ It’s ‘comprehensive’ in the sense that it contains emotions, perceptions, desires; it originates action, it contains the full range of consciousness. It’s ‘bounded’ in the sense that it has boundaries; it can’t be confused with what is outside it. My inner self is quite distinct from your inner self, and my inner self is quite distinct from that table, or my leg. It is a bounded entity.”

“In Homer there’s no word for that. What you have is a number of different words for the various organs of consciousness like thumos meaning ‘spirit,’ or menos meaning something like ‘might,’ and so on. Kradíē. You have a whole list of these Greek words, none of which refers to what later was referred to by the word psuchê (ψυχή), meaning ‘soul,’ which particularly from Plato onward meant precisely this bounded, comprehensive organ of consciousness.”

SHWEP: “We have psuchê in Homer, don’t we? But it means something very different.”

RS: “Yes, we do have psuchê in Homer, but it is has only one role, which is to leave the body on loss of consciousness—whether on death or on fainting. Now the psuchê, then, having left the body on death, goes down to the underworld, and the underworld then has psuchê in it.”

“The psuchê of Patroclus appears in a dream to Achilles late in the Iliad. Now the interesting thing about the psuchê of Patroclus—it’s the dead Patroclus—you can see him, you can hear him, he speaks, he is Patroclus. Except that, there’s a sense in which he doesn’t exist. He’s insubstantial. It’s not quite clear what’s involved here, but he not substantial. Were you to lean out and touch him, he would dissolve like a shadow.”

“However, the fact that he’s Patroclus for all eternity, and in most respects like Patroclus, meant that the psuchê was the word used later on by Plato—but also even before Plato—to refer to the most important part of you, which is the immortal part of you—the part of you which will survive after your death. So you have a development which, in Homer, there is no word for the comprehensive, bounded organ of consciousness. In Plato there is, but the word Plato uses, psuchê, has evolved from being simply the thing which leaves you when you die and plays no role in your life, to the thing which is the most important thing about your life, which is your inner self, which will indeed leave you when you when you die, and is immortal.”

“So, this is an enormous transition in which the psuchê becomes at the center of attention. It, for Plato, is enormously important for understanding the world, and above all for understanding how we should live.”

“Now, if you turn to the Indian material with this question in mind, and ask the same question of the Rigveda: ‘Is there a bounded, comprehensive organ of consciousness?’ The answer, insofar as I can see after some research, is ‘no.’ There are various words—manas, jiva, prana, atman, and so on—none of which refers to a comprehensive, bounded organ of consciousness. So it’s like Homer. And indeed, as in Homer, the words that do exist for organs of consciousness are not particularly important. They’re not at the center of attention. They’re not made into the subjects of sentences in the way that psuchê clearly in Plato is. So it’s rather like Homer.”

“Then you go into the Upanishads—sixth, fifth century B.C., and what you find is that one of the words that was used in the Rigveda as an organ of consciousness, though it sometimes seems to mean rather something like breath, Ātman, has become at the center of everything. The famous expression ‘Ātman is Brahman,’ which you find repeated several times in the early Upanishads, means effectively your Ātman—your inner self—is Brahman, meaning the whole of the universe. Your Ātman is everything. And in the discourse of the early Upanishads, Ātman is enormously important, just as psuchê in Plato is enormously important for understanding the world and how you should live.”

“Now, there are, of course, important differences between the Greek and the Indian material. But this is a respect—and there are others—this is a respect in which they’re strikingly similar. You have a movement from a world in which there is no bounded, comprehensive organ of consciousness, to one in which, not only is there a term for it, but it has become enormously important.” [12:15]

[14:15] RS: “Psuchê is, of course, still with us. We might call it the mind or the soul, but he notion of this bounded inner self is very much still with us…Interestingly, there has been, in the last fifteen years or so, a…debate in British analytic philosophy as to the question of whether the inner self exits.”

“Now, this goes back to David Hume…who said, actually, ‘No the inner self doesn’t exist,’ because if you examine your experience, your emotions, your perceptions, what’s going on in your mind; what you’re aware of is a constant flux of impressions, thoughts, motives, desires, and so on. And where is this ‘extra’ thing which is the inner self? It just isn’t there. We made it up! You don’t need to talk about it in order to describe your subjectivity.”

“Now this position was argued in great sophistication and detail by a man called Derek Parfit in the book called Reasons and Persons. And the counter-position was taken by Richard Sorabji in a subsequent book on the self in which he claims, ‘No, there is an inner self;’ the inner self is what owns our perceptions and emotions and so on.”

“One of the interesting features of [the debate] for me is the terminology used by Sorabji: owns, which must be a metaphor. I mean, ‘ownership’ is legally sanctioned possession. You don’t have legally sanctioned possession of your emotions, but he’s constantly using this word, owns. So the question is, what is it a metaphor for?”

“I don’t believe it’s a metaphor, ultimately. I think that ownership, historically, is crucial in constructing the idea of the inner self, in which I stand apart from my inner data—my desires and perceptions and all the rest of it—in the the way that an owner of goods stands apart from his goods, and yet he has exclusive rights to them in the way that he does to his own body, for example.”

“But another interesting thing, of course, is the fact that its happening at all. Because we just take it as a fact of nature that each of us has an inner self. We reify it. But neither of them—neither Parfit nor Sorabji—consider the question anthropologically. They talk about this issue as if they’re talking about whether Paris is the capital of France or not. It’s just a fact about the world, isn’t it, that you either have it or you don’t have it. But actually, if you look outside the tradition in which they’re operating; outside the Western tradition, particularly at Melanesia, you’ll find a wealth of anthropological writing which shows that these people don’t have a conception of the bounded, comprehensive inner self. They just don’t have it.

“So the question then arises: Have they just not noticed that they’ve got it? This is the question you might put to Sorabji. Are these people in error? Have they gone through their lives just not realizing that they’ve got this thing, they just never got around to noticing it or describing it?”

“And the answer, if you consider it in this light, is, of course, that the inner self is a construction. And, of course, the Buddhists who are cited by Parfitt take the view that we don’t have such a thing…” [End 18:08]

Episode 4: Richard Seaford on the Origins of the Soul (The Secret History of Western Esotericism Podcast)

The next section puts forward a fascinating thesis briefly touched on above. It is the idea that the notion of the the unique, individual ‘self’ is intrinsically linked with the emergence of inalienable private property rights in a culture! In other words, the idea that I am the absolute “owner” of something that is my own, personal “self,” corresponds to the  notion of “absolute ownership” over things like goods, land, livestock, and chattels, and hence more “modern” economic ideas:

[Begin 20:08] SHWEP: “…Obviously a priori reasoning has led in both directions—to a strong idea of the soul, and to a non-strong idea of the soul. But, you would argue, that this so-called a priori reasoning is always conditioned by the kind of society that a given reasoner finds himself in. That they reason a certain way depending on the kind of society they live in.”

Richard Seaford: “Yes, that’s right. The reason why the issue between Sorabji and Parfitt is undecidable is that the inner self, in my view, is a construction. That’s really pretty much all you can say when it comes to trying to resolve the dispute between them.”

“But then the interesting questions start, which is, why do you find this construction at all? Why do you find this in some societies but not in other societies? And if you look at the anthropological evidence, you can see how the arrival of Western economic models, in particular individual property, promotes the belief in the bounded, individual self.

SHWEP: “Can you talk about exactly what you’re talking about when you say, ‘the arrival of Western economic models?’ And when this is happening, what exactly we are talking about? Money has something to do with it, I believe.”

RS: “Money has something to do with it, but there’s a…for example, there’s a passage written by a Melanesian anthropologist who is describing the arrival of the trade store in a community. And he has experience of this…the arrival of the trade store makes a big difference, because it brings with it different ways of constructing the world in which you can’t just go and take your cousin’s things. If you do that you might get prosecuted. It’s illegal. And people don’t understand this.”

“But now, because of the trade store, what he says is—by looking the way the trade store operates, it does involve money; it does involve commercial relations rather than sharing and gift exchange. In commercial relations, there’s absolute ownership and absolute separation of goods and money from [the] possessor in the exchange, which never occurs in gift exchange. You are always, in some way, identified with what you’ve given, and that creates links between people.

The arrival of the trade store introduces a new model of the person, in which ownership is used to construct the new kind of individual. And if you go to a text which is no doubt somewhat out of date but nevertheless clearly contains some truth by [C.B.] Macpherson about seventeenth century England, you find something very similar. The new conception of the individual is created, he says, by reading back into it ownership of property. Because this is a period in which a new class is establishing itself through the individual ownership of property which is theirs absolutely—it’s not vulnerable to being taken away, in any form, by anybody else. So their freedom and their life potential is defined by the property that they own. And therefore, the notion of the individual is constructed, to some extent at least, out of the institution of individual property.

“If you go to Greece and India, there’s evidence—quite independent from everything I’ve been talking about—for the development of individual property at the expense of ownership by the kinship group.

SHWEP: “So, what is exchange like in the Homeric poems?”

RS: “Well, first of all, in the Homeric poems there’s no money. Second, there’s very little commerce, and its only at the margins and performed by disreputable people like Phoenicians. The main form of exchange is gift exchange, and it’s though gift exchange that you create relations.

“Now, what is exchanged in gift exchange? Well, in Homeric poems—because they’re only concerned with an elite group—it’s prestige objects like tripods and horses and so on. Fine textiles. And that creates links between aristocratic households in different places. And you have genre scenes in which it’s all beautifully described—it’s at the center of what’s going on, socially.”

“When it comes to the Iliad, you have a problem, because the Greeks stormed a city. Not necessarily Troy—they storm a number of other cities. And the issue arises of who has a right to distribute the plunder.”

“Now, it can be done by the Greeks in general, or by the king. The king does it in various versions, and he does it unfairly. So, what he should be doing, is taking this plunder and giving it to Achilles, or Odysseus, or whatever it is. That’s a gift—its not an income—it’s a gift, and by doing that he creates the links. There’s no other link that enables Agamemnon to hold the Greeks into a coherent body. It’s through distributing the goods, and they’re gifts.

“But things go wrong, and Achilles feels slighted, and he withdraws from the battle. So what does Agamemnon do? He offers gifts, lots of them, to bring Achilles back into the battle. But Achilles says, in effect, it’s too late. ‘I hate your gifts’—ekthrati moi tassadoura: ‘Your gifts are hateful to me.’ That is devastating, because it’s not just about Agamemnon and Achilles, it’s about a whole social system breaking down. He’s rejecting the principle of gifts. And there’s something similar that goes on in the Odyssey.”

“So the Iliad and the Odyssey are about what I call, ‘a crisis of reciprocity,’ in which the old economic system has broken down. And it’s precisely in the context, incidentally, of rejecting the gifts that Achilles talks about his own psuchê. And it’s the passage in Homer which becomes closest to the psuchê being what it is later, which is something infinitely valuable which he’s not going to give up in return for gifts.

“So it’s the isolation of Achilles as a result of the breakdown of this exchange system which gives you the first glimpse of what would be so important later, which is the valorization of the individual psuchê.” [End 27:08]

See also: Seaford on Soul, Ritual, and Money (The Secret History of Western Esotericism Podcast). This is a “members only” podcast, so if anyone would like to “donate” it to me (link, email, Dropbox, etc.), I’d love to have the chance to listen to it!

I Don’t Get the Alt-Right

Watching this clip, I had a thought:

I really don’t understand the Alt-right:

1/2 of them: Everything is completely under your control. You can just make your self happy! Individual solutions for collective problems. Poverty is always the result of poor decisions. Everyone can be rich and successful. Bootstraps!

The other 1/2 of them: Genes control everything, from the wealth of the individual to the collective wealth of nations. Your IQ is a fixed number thanks to your parents, and largely determined by race. Men are inherently better at math and science. Black people are born stupid. Chinese are born geniuses. Genetic determinism.

How do you hold both of these these contradictory views simultaneously? I mean, every Alt-right media source I’ve ever spent any time watching serves up a heavy dollop of both. Kind of depends on the day.

The only constant seems to be whatever confirms their views about the status quo and their spot in the money/status/race hierarchy.

Just a general comment.