As I was driving to an appointment recently, I began to see the rows upon rows of telephone poles I was passing on city streets and country roads as crucifixes: symbols of the violence our society depends on for its daily energy and legitimization.
Take, for example, one of the most stalwart platforms of capitalism: the institution of private property. Property rights in our economic system confer on an individual exclusive authority to determine how a resource will be used, exclusive right to the services of that resource, and the right to delegate, rent or sell any portion of the rights of ownership. If I “own” a truck,. I can beat it up, or conserve it. Nobody but me me can drive it, unless I give someone else permission. And I can sell it to you for a price I deem appropriate.
One of the most interesting aspects of private property ownership is that the rules of ownership are enforced, ultimately, by violence. For example, if you don’t pay your mortgage, the bank will sue you and send a nasty guy to collect. If you still don’t, or cannot, pay the debt, the courts will force you to pay, or put you in jail for contempt.
As a society, we do try to interpose reason and moral suasion as inducements for everyone to play by the rules. We talk about “justice” and “reciprocity.” We call it “doing what’s right,” and assume everyone wants to be seen to be doing that. But, in the end, it is the ultimate threat of violence that brings everyone to heel: paying for goods and services, repaying debts owed to people and institutions, reimbursing for theft or damage of property owned by another.
Perhaps our use of violence is a little more nuanced than Caesar at the Rhine or Ghengis Kahn at the Volga. Nevertheless our human social capability has not evolved much further than it was for those ancient ancestors slaying and conquering.
By comparison, humans have made a great deal of progress in another area: our ability to make tools has advanced by leaps and bounds, thanks to the convergence of the Industrial Revolution and the “invention” of capitalism. We know quite a lot about how to exploit the Earth’s wealth of resources and take advantage of the needs of our fellow human beings as we make all manner of gadgets to sell to each other. This has made a few elites tremendously wealthy, while supporting a growing middle class that gave us a measure of social and economic stability for about a century (1870-1970).
Now, let’s compare the results of our tool making with the results of our social capability. We see our technological development has cost the Earth so dearly that we are on the verge of extinction of the human race. The middle class itself has been put on a slide to slavery. For those impoverished by the system we have no technology, no gadgets, no time, and no justice.
Our poorly developed social skills complement our technology as they lead us to use violence to enforce laws and contracts, private property and the compliance of other nations in the U.S. global economic empire. We make war and use police power almost automatically to solve the problems we face.
But here’s the rub: if we developed better social skills, we might arrest climate change and prevent our falling off the cliff of environmental disaster. If we worked harder at getting along with one another by forming consensus on difficult matters and spent less on technology and innovation, we might save ourselves from extinction.
Those telephone pole crucifixes are constant reminders that we’re great tool makerstoolmakers, but haven’t got a clue about how to deal with one another magnanimously.