Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Some thoughts on political polarization


Everybody seem to agree we live in times where partisanship and enmity between political factions have reached unprecedented levels. Even where traditional parties are experiencing significant voters’ disaffection (like in Italy, Greece and Spain) and new parties have surged to occupy a political space they saw as insufficiently represented, they have done so along very recognizable conservative/ progressive (or right/ left) lines. There is an apparently greater than ever inability for the heads of each faction to walk in the other faction’s shoes that constitutes the basis for collaboration and finding of common ground, and thus the vitriol and condemnation that is spewed towards the opposite side of the proverbial aisle seems to mount day to day.

I believe this doesn’t need to be so, and I can still remember how towards the end of the last century the talk of the sociologists was rather about the “end of ideologies”, and how after the crumbling of the communist model political discussion would turn more technocratic and devoid of passion, as politicians would discuss about fringe issues, whilst they kept a basic agreement about how to organize society, sharing a core of ideas that would be beyond discussion (the candidates for those ideas were things like representative democracy, the rule of law, private property  widely recognized, and a certain amount of redistributive taxation so the state had enough resources to ensure a modicum of dignity for everybody, regardless of merit or social circumstances, through the provision of free or very cheap health, education and old age pensions). In those times, that now seem so distant, the far right all but disappeared in most Western societies (outside of some skinhead and white nationalist movements in Anglo-Saxon countries, and Nazi sympathizers in Germany that were never that much popular), and although there were some old dyed in the wool leftists and anarchists, you probably could count ‘em with the fingers of a single hand. There were some countercultural elements that seemed to be still hung-over since the late 79’s and the only serious contender for a coherent narrative outside the mainstream was the environmental movement, that every now and then seemed to toy with achieving mass appeal and being close to be a deciding force in some parliament or other  where they could break a potential stalemate between the traditional parties, and even have some governing responsibility. Back then, alternating parties from one sign and the other seemed like a normal thing, almost a desirable built-in trait of the system, and when the party you less identified with won the elections you just assumed you would live a little worse than it would have been the case (most people assume the party not of their choice would be a somewhat worse steward of the economy, and that stewardship of the economy was really the big deciding factor on who to vote for), but that things would sort themselves out in the medium terms without much fuss.

Now if we take a look at what candidates say during the most recent (or still ongoing) political campaigns we can identify a clear difference. In Spain the governing party declares that an opposition win would spell the death of the country (as supposedly anybody but them would cave in to the demands of the separatist Catalonians they have done more than anybody else to encourage) and the triggering of a recession more severe than the one started in 2008 (which served to propel them to power). In Greece each party accused the other of certain doom, social collapse, and the expulsion from the European Union (never mind that the electorate had chosen a few weeks before to reject a set of bailout conditions that should have meant the same automatic expulsion they suddenly were eager to avoid, and that nevertheless the same party that championed that rejection was now campaigning to avoid it). In the USA… what should we say of the USA? As in so many other fields, they seem to lead the rest of the world in the level of hate and spite each side of the political spectrum holds for the other side. We are hearing, and we will hear it more as the electoral cycle advances (and there are still almost thirteen months to go until they finally vote, in their interminable electioneering!)  from each faction that if the other side wins every kind of unspeakable horrors will befall the nation: the end of the American dream! The end of American world hegemony! (probably the first somehow requires the second). The fall of the republic in the hands of an imperial presidency! The imposition of tyranny from a communistic world government led by the UN after they forcibly take away every law abiding citizen’s guns! The loss of any value, and all that is sacred! The forbidding of any public display of religious faith, and the prosecution of religious practice! The imposition of religious belief and of fundamentalist morals! The prohibition of abortion (depriving women of the right to decide over their own sexuality and forcing them back to the home and out of the labor force where they could be legally raped by their husbands)! The continuance of the massacre of innocent fetuses to sell their organs for profit! One yearns for the time when the disagreement were about a few percentage points on the marginal tax rate, the degree of reduction of the defense budget or the amount of federal deficit that was wise to reach on a certain year.

The most frequent explanation you can find for these apparently absurd levels of polarization have to do with the advent of the Internet, that allows people to get their news and with them their whole worldview from self-chosen, self-segregating  sources in a perennial self-reinforcing feedback loop that makes them more and more extremist, and also forces them unconsciously  to march in lockstep with the rest of the members of their particular tribe, so what used to be loosely defined groupings of people that intermingled with each other, so each member was frequently exposed to the thinking and opinions of the other side has become a couple of perfectly defined, zero overlap couple of groups, each of which has exactly zero exposure to the other, and is thus free to straw man their every position, to expose it to ridicule, make a cartoon of it and mercilessly mock it and degrade every person that entertains it for being stupid enough not to see it for the obvious idiocy it is (see Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly describing any liberal position, or alternatively Bill Maher or Paul Krugman describing a conservative one, although you may also notice a significant difference both in tone and substance between both camps). I do recognize that internet has been a tool for people cherry-picking the sources that provide them not with the most accurate, or most impartial view of what’s going on in the world, but with the one that better tracks with their pre-defined set of preferences, which in turn help to steer those preferences towards more extreme, more insular and more insulated positions. But I’m not sure that is the whole story.

There are a number of complementary narratives, from highlighting the role of fear of the other side (in this article in Vox: Partisanship driven by fear) or by tying the sense of belonging to certain political faction to some deep seated feature of every voter’s personality (which would make it like belonging by choice to a certain “tribe”, as brilliantly described by the always dazzling Scott Alexander in his Slate Star Codex: I can tolerate enything but the outgroup where he describes the “Blue Tribe” and the “Red Tribe”, each seeing the there as their outgroup, and thus using them to define themselves in reverse, in the process making them more a subject of scorn and derision) which are illuminating to a certain extent, but I would like to highlight a different aspect that I think has been neglected so far. What I will argue (surprise, surprise!) is that in a society engineered to compete against others (both in the ability to produce material goods and to keep powerful armies, which are but two aspects of the same process) and which has been selected as the most able to win that competition but then has run out of “enemies” (alternative, viable societies) that can compete along those terms (it is irrelevant for the argument if there is indeed any other term on which they could compete, or pose a substantial threat to the society we are talking about) has no option but to turn its energies against itself, and to look within its own ranks the enemies that it has successfully primed its citizens to seek out and obliterate. The form that “turning against itself” takes is the increased intragrupal competition we see in Western societies that are at the top of the economic food chain (China, India and Latin America still have a lot of catch up in which they can exert their energies, although I see very worrisome signs both in Brazil and Argentina that they are learning fast the worst aspects of Northern hemisphere partisanship, without having attained the necessary level of affluence… thanks God it has not happened so far in China), that have ended segregating themselves by ideology, and devoting their energies in an increasingly vicious manner against the part of themselves that is not fully aligned with a certain set of ideas that naturally cluster together.
Let’s recap for a moment how we got to our current predicament. Remember that since the beginning of last century we live in societies that impose in their members the following credo (already pretty familiar for any regular reader of this blog):

1.       The goal of life is to satisfy desires

2.       The position in the social hierarchy of every person is defined by how many material goods and services exchangeable in a market he or she can exclusively command (that is, by how much money he or she has)

3.       The only desire that counts is to advance in the social hierarchy

The credo was firmly established in the West (as reflected in the works of Freud, who provided us with the canonical formulation of the 3rd rule) between the 1st and the 2nd World Wars, it started to be extended after the victory of the allies in the second conflict, and completed its expansion after the fall of communism in the 90’s (funnily enough, the communist countries adhered to a slightly different set of rules, the only difference being in the 2nd one, how the position in the social hierarchy was determined, which marked their dominant reason as bureaucratic rather than desiderative… the fun comes from the fact that it was Karl Marx, from which they supposedly derive their inspiration, who formulated the canonical expression of just the rule they chose not to follow, but that would be the subject of a separate post). As I’ve stated elsewhere, such credo is disastrous for the individual, but it has remained in force because it made the societies that most eagerly adopted it extraordinarily successful. So successful indeed that any society that showed to be somehow more lackadaisical in its adoption was either absorbed (and remade on the absorber’s image) or militarily invaded by the hegemon or its followers.

So competition between different societies (adhering to the desiderative credo with different degrees of enthusiasm) kept the system going and provided it with the ultimate justification: If somebody dared to question why keep on running the rat race, putting all of their effort to keep up with the Joneses and giving the maximum recognition to those that amassed the vastest fortunes, everybody else could point to the outer enemies and say “do you want to be like that? No? then shut up and keep running/ struggling, giving it your best”, and it is that mentality that kept the discussion between mainstream political parties limited to economic details, as anybody that wanted to expand it so things like the development model, the need to preserve the environment or to significantly alter the incentives so they were shifted from reckless competition to something more cooperative was immediately dubbed a sellout to the commies, a “fellow traveler” (something that had some grain of truth, as it was found after their Glasnost that the Soviets subsidized indeed some leftwing parties and individuals in the West) and thus someone disqualified to partake of civilized discourse and serious decision making. A somewhat cartoonish “other” (in Alexander’s terminology, an “outgroup”) was absolutely required to provide the ultimate rebuff to anybody that wanted to question the dominant reason, and thus to reinforce its commandments and keep the whole thing going, the happiness of the citizenry be damned. We can say in its defense that during the period between 1950 and 2008 it kept the greatest growth rates recorded in human history (we are talking of the growth in the ability to produce material goods and exchange marketable services, which correlate only weakly with other metrics of well being), more than trebling per capita GDP (from 16,000 USD in 1952 to roughly 50,000 USD in 2015, both measured in 2009 dollars) and substantially increasing life expectancy, comfort, security and even freedom (for substantial parts of humanity).

Admitting then that many things got substantially better thanks to the drive to accumulate priced thingies and compete with each other, I still maintain that intersocial competition was crucial for the system. Now in the 90’s something funny happened: intense intersocial competition came to an end, as the whole world ended up embracing the same credo, and sharing the same dominant reason. Some nations were more liberal, some were more authoritarian. Some more religious and some more secular. Some more individualistic (libertarian?) and some more statist. But it was more and more difficult to shut up people that may propose to substantially rewrite the basic assumptions of how life should be lived with the previous “do you want to be like “those guys” out there?” when those guys are the Danes (a pretty happy, quite rational bunch, however much American conservatives may cringe at them) or the French (great wine and food!) or even the Chinese, once they have transitioned to a basically market driven economy and the only thing you can truly criticize them for is being better at this capitalism thing than their original inventors. Of course you do have some fringe actors that have espoused the three commandments much less enthusiastically if at all (I’m not saying we have reached “the end of history” yet), but they are essentially basket cases yearning to be admitted in the concert of civilized nations once they get rid of the more or less mad leaders that are preventing them from doing so (Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Sudan just do not have the size or level of success at our own game to provide a credible alternative to our currently dominant value system, as much as neoconservatives in the USA would like to present them as so). So how do you keep the people “rowing in the same direction”, how do you keep coordinating the differing interests of the myriad subgroups that form each advanced society once the main rationale for their sacrifice (“just keep at it or we will be defeated and our values, our own identity, will be erased from the history books”) is gone? Of course, you recreate the external threat within yourself, and exacerbate what were rather puny differences until they seem truly essential, existentially defining ones. If they are secular we are religious. If they are tolerant of homosexuals we hate fags. If they like innovation we stand for tradition. If they think there should be more redistribution of riches we defend huge inequality (and justify it appealing to merit, desert and reward)…

But there is a problem with such construction. In the old days the “other side” operated from a substantially different set of values (in the case of the communist their way of recognizing social position, by adherence to the increasingly metaphysical “party line”, instead of by ability to amass money, led to a wildly inefficient set of incentives that ended costing them too much in terms of material and technological progress) that ensured that the group with the set of values better attuned to produce more material goods (us) would indeed outcompete them. But the way I see it, both groups within today’s societies operate from the exact same set of values. As much as people on the left may claim they are more communitarian, or the people on the right claim they are more for traditional values (both sound superficially as less materialistic) they share their strict adherence to the three original commandments (while of course each individual on both sides would loudly reject them and proclaim their opposition to such patently absurd rules), and it is very unclear that their purported differences (that seem to me to have to do more with group identification –cheap ways to signal their belonging to a group rather than the other than with any deep commitment to lead a significantly different life, ruled by a significantly different set of rules) may give any of them any advantage.

That may mean that we are in a stable equilibrium where we are condemned to a perpetual shouting match between irreconcilable factions ever more despising of each other, ever more scared of the other holding power and rolling back any measures towards the “good society” they may have taken in previous electoral cycles, ever more worked up about the other half of their own nation (with which they interact less and less, to the point of total exclusion) but unable to subdue each other or to convince each other. Until things finally break up and both factions finally decide they can not stand each other and rather prefer to create distinct polities. Is such creation possible peacefully? I have my doubts, but that would be the subject for another post.   

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A potential difficulty for any AT society revisited

In my latest post on this issue (here) I identified a thorny problem in the ideal society we should all be striving for (yep, I’m universalist like that), as there was an inherent difficulty reconciling the required openness of every small social unit (phratria) so they were effectively limited in their ability to encroach on the liberty of their members with their freedom to dictate their own rules according to any tradition they identified with, many of those traditions being pretty authoritarian and definitely non-open. To put it in more precise and recognizable terms, what do I think should happen if a gay couple wants to settle in a phratry that professes to enact the social teachings of Jesus Christ of the Latter Days Saints Church (or of the Catholic Church, for that matter)? Such teachings include the condemnation of homosexuality, the lack of recognition of homosexual weddings, the prohibition of adoption by homosexual couples, etc. In effect, the rules of the group would impede the normal flourishing of the gay couple as long as they wanted to flourish as gays, and saw the free expression of such feature of their lives as essential to their well being, as (if the attitude of a vast majority of gays in Western nations towards the public expression of their sexual preferences is any indication) they are very wont to do. It doesn’t take great wisdom to understand that what the group wants is to be able to effectively discriminate against the gay couple’s preferences, as indeed they may want to discriminate against a much vaster number of preferences that their belief system considers plain wrong or abhorrent (with a vocabulary of older times they would describe it as “morally” wrong, something our secular culture has great difficulty dealing with), so arguing against them that those preferences are just a matter of personal choice between consenting adults that can cause no harm to the rest of the community would likely not cause much effect.

I feel the need to insist in a point I’ve previously made: for liberal, secularly educated readers, this is a hard argument to follow, as the dominant reason they have been indoctrinated by (and I know “indoctrination” sounds like a harsh word, and may make some assume I’m somehow disparaging them for that or calling them dupes for not realizing how their supposedly enlightened and universal value system is as much a product of their age and upbringing as any other in the history of humanity… let’s just say at this point this is not my intention, or not yet at least) makes them think human beings are infinitely pliable creatures, so whatever values they decide to adopt can only be arbitrary social constructions, and thus the only sensible policy is to live and let live (may be with a modicum of extra care for children and other historically oppressed minorities due to their limited agency, but anything beyond preventing the most blatant abuse would already be patronizing and to some extent demeaning). I’ve noticed that kind of person always reacts with surprise (and lack of understanding) to the fact that some people may still think that values can have an objective existence, regardless of how many people consider them valid or true (they, as the other side, tend to label people that hold beliefs different from theirs, including beliefs about beliefs, as “bigots”, by the way), and through the belief in such values stubbornly hold opinions that may be contrary to the majority’s consensus.

The problem is, only by nurturing communities that can indefinitely avoid such consensus can we hold our hopes of going beyond the three iron rules of desiderative reason that are the ultimate cause of our current predicament. What I want my readers to consider is that you start (innocently enough) thinking that values are complicated stuff, and that really history teaches us that they can come in any shape, color and flavor, so most likely they are social constructs through and through and not to put much stock in them. So from there you necessarily go to the proposition that, as values are arbitrary, there is only a minimal set that should be honored (based on our biology, or our understanding of natural selection, or what positive science has taught us –all circular constructions to boot, but I won’t dwell in that for now): things like not causing unnecessary pain, fairly reciprocating and letting people conduct their lives as they see fit as long as they don’t cause unnecessary pain either (at least to people lacking the maturity or the lucidity to accept it consensually). But in a social world were only those things are valuable and meaningful (acting now as a synonym for “important, worthy of respect”) we end up fairly quickly in “only pleasure is valuable/ meaningful” (because any other pursuit is founded on a social construct/ is arbitrary/ is finally a lie), which is another way of saying “the only end of life is to satisfy desires (as we desire that which we think will give us more pleasure)”… and of course if we think this of ourselves, we will also think that of everybody else, and we will create a society where only social position counts, where such position is determined exclusively by how much money we have. As experience teaches us, such society is low on trust and commitment, and requires enormous amounts of work to function properly (or as close to properly as it can get). In such society everybody ends worse off, as that work is unavoidably taken by flawed human beings that end up sucking more collective resources than what they enable to be produced, and distributing them according to their whim (but rarely in ways that benefit the majority of those involved in their creation).     

If we want then to avoid such slippery slope, we need to respect not only the liberty of individuals to pursue their lives’ interests as they see fit, including their liberty to discard every value except the minimal set agreed upon by liberals, but also the liberty of groups to embrace more restrictive sets, and to enforce them in public life, at least within certain boundaries. What boundaries are those? Well, the universal rights we defined as non negotiable (here) are a good starting point again, so our religiously inspired community not only can not, obviously enough, burn the gay couple (that seems quite a low bar to set, doesn’t it?), but it can not use any kind of force or physical coercion against them, it can not deny them the same means of subsistence they provide any other citizen (my cherished UBI), they can not bar them from running for office if they choose public officers through elections (although experience shows that religious people of those persuasions are not very inclined to vote for openly gay candidates). But on the other hand, the community can not be coerced in “accepting” them, can not be coerced in giving them a status similar to heterosexuals in their teaching, can not be coerced in giving them the same standing and legal benefits they choose to bestow in heterosexual couples beyond the basic means of subsistence, can not be coerced to create quotas for them if they have representative institutions… Because trying to force the community (any community) into accepting the universal set of values we happen to cherish results in getting us back into the anomic, dysfunctional set of values we defined at the beginning of our manifesto as the core cause of all modern maladies.

So the best we can hope for is to keep a necessarily unstable balance between individual rights and what we may call “groupal” rights (rights of the group, which in modern liberal theory are not that different from “tribal” rights that may be bestowed in non-majority communities within a given polity in recognition of the noxious influence that their assimilation willy-nilly in the greater community may have, even recognizing that those tribal rights may in some cases imply than the individuals within the tribe may have less freedom than their peers outside it). The extent to which groups (in our case, the phratria) can impinge in their members’ choices about how to live is however limited by the always existing possibility of such members leaving for greener pastures if the imposed rules (that in theory should have been freely accepted) become too rigid. Some groups credo will be, no doubt, downright obnoxious and beyond distasteful for the majority of humankind (like the white supremacist example we offered in our previous post), but accepting the existence of such islands of bigotry still seems like a small price to pay for an overall freer existence for all (freer, that is, from the invisible fetters of bending all of one’s will and one’s time to the three uncompromising commandments of current rationality). Of course, that is under the assumption that not all the phratria will be formed by self-segregated bigots, differing only in their persuasion and the identity of the features they shun and despise, and that there will be enough liberal, democratic phratria for everybody to find their place under the sun in a welcoming, accommodating group of fellow humans. If that is not the case, the ideal AT society we are proposing may end up being a varied menu of equally unappealing choices where some people just may not find any group willing to accommodate them where they could truly fit and prosper. Being myself quite the special snowflake (as I mentioned in a previous post, a Marxist –from Groucho, not Karl- who could never belong to a club that accepted people like himself) I don’t think I’m blindly asking my fellow citizens to accept a compact that would go better for me than for them (rather the opposite, it is the odd ones like myself who are at a greater risk of ending out of any major compact, ill-fitted and unwelcome in any polity), and so feel legitimately entitled to forge ahead with my proposals.

As an afterthought, an interesting and dystopian possibility is that the groups with the most fanatical, most retrograde views prosper (in the sense that their members find their lives so much more fulfilling that it still pays for them to transmit such gift, and keep reproducing at or above replacement rates) while the freer, more enlightened ones dwindle and finally wither away. As long as they are allowed to do so of their own accord, without any neighboring group attacking, conquering or imposing their will on them and taking advantage of their latest days frailty (something that would be a historical novelty, by the way, as a growing polity has always found it irresistibly attractive to plunder and submit any neighboring state or tribe that grew significantly weaker than itself), let it be so. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

A potential difficulty for any AT society

Some observers have noted a potential problem with the society I intend to propose as model (and thus devote my efforts to materialize) which I think raises a very valid point, so I am going to devote this post (a kind of interlude in the development of the Manifesto, if you wish) to try to clear it up. What my critics have noticed is that the whole schema of leaving behind the current dominant reason and its three noxious rules rests on the following premises:

·         Close-knit groups that can police themselves with a minimal institutional apparatus (4-10 leaders and a handful of guardians, plus occasional arbitrators with no specialist training), which can only be achieved if they consistently maintain a shared, coherent set of alternative values (the “traditionalist” part). Alternative, that is, to the current “respect people only insofar as they own lots of money (and the more money, the more respect should be bestowed on them)”

·         To avoid those groups impinging too much on the autonomy and liberty of its members (the “anarchist” part) we are trusting in an almost unlimited mobility, so people can leave with minimal impact those groups perceived as too stifling, or demanding too much from them. That would in practice put a limit on how authoritarian (or how constraining of their members’ freedoms) groups can become, under the threat of loosing too many of them and stop being economically  (or socially) viable

The problem comes from the fact that both premises may be conflicting, or even downright incompatible. For the “freedom to leave” to be meaningful and to work as intended (as a brake in every human group’s innate tendency to encroach on its members lives beyond what their individual interests would grant) people doesn’t only require a lack of impediments in the group from which they depart, but a moderate amount of goodwill from the group that receives them, without which they would find it very difficult to successfully settle and prosper. And, depending of the kind of values that the receiving group espouses, that goodwill may not be forthcoming at all.

To better explain the kind of problem the AT society we propose may pose, let’s imagine a couple of friends living in phratry A, and surrounded by three other phratria: B, C and D. Phratry A has fallen under wretched times, as the leaders that have come to power are reckless and authoritarian, have appointed their cronies to all the positions of power, are wasting the common resources in their own exclusive benefits and extracting ever increasing percentages of the rest of the populace’s earnings, and have so curtailed the election process (may be eliminating it altogether) that there is no reasonable expectation of ever dislodging them. So our friends decide to vote with their feet and look for greener pastures in the surrounding polities. They first arrive at Phratry A, and soon decide that it is not of their liking because it is entirely made of mormons, and they enforce a strict prohibition of alcohol, coffee, tobacco (or any other recreational drug) and homosexual activity and, guess what, our two friends are gay…   No biggie, they think, they will try their fortune at the next phratry, phratry C, where they have heard they have no problem with alcohol, coffee and tobacco (and even marijuana) and, as far as they know, have no prejudices against gay couples. Problem is, it is a phratry with a policy of blatant racial discrimination, as it is peopled exclusively by white nationalists. They teach their children that there is nothing wrong with being black, and are civil and polite when dealing with black people outside their territory, but they are virulently opposed with them settling in there or mixing with them. Needless to say, our two friends happen to be black… Sometimes life is a bitch, so somewhat dejected they turn their weary steps towards phratry D, where they have heard they have nothing against blacks. Indeed, there is a vibrant black community there, the falashas, as it is a predominantly (exclusively, indeed) jewish community. Reformed jews, so they are accepting of alcohol, coffee, tobacco, gays and blacks. But somehow our friends Rashid and Mohammed think it is not such a perfect fit for them… What I wanted to highlight in this somewhat contrived example is that maximum mobility (to keep communities in check internally and prevent them from becoming too overbearing) and maximum freedom to establish homogeneous, tradition based communities (so they require a minimum “government” to coordinate the individual wills and function harmoniously) are going to be difficult to reconcile. And of course, there may be people whose sense of belonging is so distributed (or distributed between combinations of groups so bizarre) that they can never legitimately aspire to ever find enough like minded people to form a community of their own, and so will necessarily have to compromise some aspect of their being, some expression of their truest self, to be able to live with their fellow humans.

Of course, that is a problem that liberal, multicultural societies have faced since the advent of modernity and the weakening of the traditional narratives that bounded people together (a common faith, a common language and race, a common understanding of their own history). The formulation of the Universal Rights of Men we incorporated in our AT Manifesto can be construed as an attempt to ensure that people with different origins and different preferences could coexist peacefully in a functioning group, sharing a minimal purpose which the liberal world defined as the “pursuit of happiness”, but was truly the unlimited pursuit of material goods accumulation, while being able to express different religions, aesthetic taste and sexual preference. The problem, of course, is that when the group only shares that minimal purpose we end up under the iron rule of the three laws of our current dominant reason, with anomic individuals who tend to think they are giving more than what they receive, so they require a vast state apparatus to coordinate and constrict their drives and impulses so they end up producing into socially acceptable behavior, and to punish them when such constrictions fail…


This being such a tough nut to crack, I see I’ll need to come back to it in a later post

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Society should be for man, and not the other way around! (AT Manifesto III)

After dealing with the general principles (here: AT Manifesto I) and our understanding of man (here: AT Manifesto II) it is time to define how we Anarcho Traditionalists believe that society should be organized  

The purpose of society

Men and women do not enter in society to achieve a certain goal. They are born into already functioning ones, and they inherit the only goal political groups have ever had: to perpetuate themselves, requiring most of its members to reproduce and all to accept a certain set of beliefs, assumptions and practices it deems worthy. In exchange for the achievement of that goal (a goal that, being honest, should mean nothing to the individual) they are expected to surrender a good deal of their freedom, as the belief set that all of today’s societies impose in their members (what I’ve called desiderative reason) can be summarized as follows:

1.       The only purpose of life (and the only valid mark of a life well lived) is to satisfy as many desires as possible

2.       There is only one desire (every apparently distinct desire is the manifestation of a single, original one): to improve one’s position in a strictly ordered social hierarchy

3.       The position in the social hierarchy is determined by the amount of material goods and tradable services that one is able to exclusively command (translatable into the amount of money that one has at his disposal)

We consider that set to be toxic and untenable: It condemns every single human being to a life of unnecessary work and reckless competition. It degrades the common goods that can not be monetarily valued (the natural environment, every cultural element that can not be parceled and sold separately, ideas and values themselves, which are deemed entirely irrelevant). It prevents the truer aspects of human flourishing (living lives of rich spirituality in densely woven communities that share a tradition and a value system) while it foments false ones (the accumulation of material goods beyond what can be actually enjoyed, or to the point where the marginal utility of every additional unit of consumption is negligible) that push their adherents to desperation, meaninglessness and anomy. In terms of the General Theory of the Organization, the original conflict caused by joining (again, something that happens at birth, with no choice from the unsuspecting babies) a political organization like any of the current nation states is too big, as we renounce to too much in exchange for too little.

We propose what we consider a better way, maximizing the freedom each member of society can enjoy while asking from them the bare minimum to keep the group functioning (that is the anarchistic part of our credo). That minimum would be enforced by a reduced set of rules oriented mostly to ensure a life of dignity even if fully detached from productive work (as work is more times than not the pursuit of commanding more material goods than your neighbor) and as much opportunity as the individuals want to create for themselves, without forcing them to take every chance that comes their way. However (and this is where the traditionalist part of our credo comes in handy) we recognize that humans can not act as legislators of themselves, creating laws and customs and values from scratch. The most important thing a group can provide a citizen with, from the moment of his birth, is precisely the set of shared narratives, common values and interpretative tools he will require to orient himself in the world and make sense of his environment. Those narratives, values and tools are what we call a tradition, and most historical traditions look with suspicion, if not with outright rejection, the set of values (embodied in the three aforementioned rules) that summarize and exhaust the dominant reason of our age. Thus, being frontally opposed to such reason, we propose a return to previous traditions that we deem more conductive to the common good.

Instead of a complex set of laws, statutes and regulations that favor those better connected and with greater insider knowledge to benefit from what end up being monopoly rent (be it from scarce resources like land or non renewable means of producing energy, from obscure legislation dictated by those more likely to abuse it or from intellectual property laws oriented more towards the profit of big companies than to  foster innovation) we would create a myriad of small units (called phratria, and encompassing between 5,000 and 15,000 people) adhering to particular traditions but with freedom to innovate in how they organize themselves and define their own charters, and ensure people had the possibility to move unimpeded between them, settling in those they found more to their liking. The phratria would collaborate between them in larger groups called phyla (composed by 50-100 phratria) in order to ensure they had the pooled resources required to provide costlier infrastructure. If they wanted, phyla could create further, larger associations (deimos?), the essential principle being that as people should be free to “vote with their feet” and change phratria if the one they found themselves in did not satisfy their needs of flourishing and developing, whole groups should be able to switch allegiances and bring their resources to different conglomerates if they disagreed with the collective decisions made by the ones they belonged to.

Rights and Duties

To achieve those ends without impinging in its members ability to pursue their own flourishing in the manner they deem more adequate, every and all phratria should recognize a number of nonnegotiable rights. Not bourgeois rights that in more than two centuries our society has been unable to respect, as it has never deigned to define who should  bear the burden of actually making them happen (so for example a right to decent housing is just an empty promise if nobody is burdened with the obligation of building the required houses). We take the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of man made by the UN General Assembly in 1948 as a starting point, but we keep only those that we can invest with meaning and whose respect our proposed organization can effectively guarantee. This is why we present them in tabular form, so besides each right we can show the corresponding duty. Only the citizens that accept and discharge the latter can lawfully claim to have the former respected:

Right
Duty
Life, liberty and security of person
Do not use violence against other people
Not to be held in slavery or servitude
Pay fairly for other people’s services, and always treat them as ends in themselves (as autonomous agents with inherent dignity), never as means to your own ends
Not to be subjected to torture, or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment
Do not abuse other people, or threaten them with either physical or psychological pain
Recognition as a person before the law?
The whole concept of law is ludicrously overblown and needs substantial simplification. However, the simplified set of rules that would regulate an AT society obviously would treat everybody equally
Equal protection before the law, and protected against discrimination or against incitement to such discrimination
See previous duty
Effective remedy by competent tribunals for acts violating fundamental rights?
Tribunals today are required by the unjustifiable morass of laws, rules and regulations that make it impossible for lay people to defend their interests without specialized (and very expensive) “help”. They will be replaced by arbitration courts, where qualified citizens (qualification will be limited to assert the inexistence of conflicts of interest) adjudicate between defendant’s competing claims based on tradition (historical precedent) and common sense. All citizens would have the duty to periodically serve in those courts as arbiters
Not to be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile
Defer to the guardians, who hold the monopoly on violence. Act as guardians when summoned by the legitimate authority
Fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal
As stated before, tribunals are to be replaced by arbitration courts. People will have the duty to submit to the decision of such courts, with limited chances to appeal (under strict conditions)
Presumed innocent until proved guilty (in a procedurally correct manner)?
When serving at the arbitration courts, citizens will avoid undetected conflicts of interest by recusing themselves if needed. They will consciously avoid any bias in their judgment by actively monitoring any potential identification with one of the defendants derived from similarities or shared affiliations
Not to be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation
When serving as guardians, or in any other capacity acting on behalf of the state, citizens shall abstain from pursuing any private interest, including the interest in acquiring information about their fellow citizens not voluntarily disclosed by themselves. If in the pursuance of a criminal investigation they need to acquire any such information, they will need explicit permission (to be extended with a limited scope and for a limited duration) by the highest authority of the land
Freedom of movement and residence
Do not impede other people’s movements, or hinder their settlement in the land granted to them
Seek and enjoy asylum in other countries?
Enact a policy of open borders, so that every human being is welcome to request resident status and be granted full citizenship after a period in which he proves his ability to productively contribute to society (for example, by the payment of a certain amount of taxes)
Nationality?
An AT society has no use for nationality, and denounces the traditional nation state as an instrument of oppression, stultification and overall degradation of its subjects. Instead, people have the right to join any phratry, and to partake of its organization (see further chapter on representation for how those phratria may in turn join in different phyla)
Marry and form a family (entered into with free and full consent of the intending espouses)
Respect other people familial arrangements (sentimental attachments, role assignment, economic distribution) and recognize the priority of parents in the education and disciplining of their children
Own property
Respect other people property, assuming the legitimacy of their possession claims
Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
Let other people believe, think and worship as they see fit, as long as it does not encourage violence towards others (or towards the non consenting between themselves)
Freedom of opinion and expression
Same as previous, regarding what they can say and how they can choose to disseminate their message
Freedom of peaceful assembly and association
Let other people join whatever organization they like, and let such organizations behave collectively as they see fit, with the usual caveat (not resorting to or encouraging violence)
Freedom to take part in the government (directly or through representatives) and equal access to public service
Let other people serve, according to the specific rules set at phratry and phyla level
Social Security and entitled to realize the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality?
Provide a certain amount of your income (taxes) to the representatives of the phratry so they can redistribute it ensuring every member has their basic needs covered (through a Universal Basic Income), and they also pay from that the dues to the phyle they belong to
Work, freely chosen, in just and safe conditions, fairly remunerated?
There isn’t a universal right to work, just as there isn’t a universal right to create an immortal work of art. Those who feel tempted to try it are welcome, but nobody has an obligation neither to hire them nor to admire the product of their craft
Rest and leisure, limitation of work hours and paid vacation?
With the guarantee of a UBI to all citizens the current perverse incentives to work an irrational amount of time and the threat of destitution and exclusion if demeaning conditions are not accepted will disappear. So will most regulations, except the one that guarantees that any employee can cancel his labor contract the moment he feels the agreed conditions do not adequately compensate his effort
Adequate and secure standard of living (food, clothes, housing and medical care)
As mentioned before, a certain percentage of the income of every income-earning citizen is redistributed in the form of a UBI to ensure the basic needs (food, clothing and leisure) are supported with no strings attached, and leaving entirely to the individual recipient how to spend it. Basic housing and healthcare will also be provided by the state and paid for by the common fund, as it has been shown that the free market is unable to reach solutions that are minimally close to optimal
Education, free and compulsory (how can a right be compulsory?), promoting understanding, tolerance and friendship, but freely chosen by parents (what then if they choose to educate in bigotry and hatred?)
Educate one’s own children according to the standards set within the phratry, so they are able to pass a citizenship test around age 18 that would enable them to enjoy full political rights (whatever those are defined at phratry level to be)
Freely participate in cultural life, enjoy art and science (and collect royalties)?
This is not a universal right for us, but an earned one. Those who through training, gratification delay and genius develop the ability to enjoy art, create art or contribute to science are welcome to do so (and pursue some rewards for it as they see fit), but it is nobody’s business to actively encourage disinterested people to do so
Social and international order in which these rights are recognized’
We will take care of the social order. Regarding the international one, disengagement and avoidance of foreign debt are the best course of action. An AT society has no army, no borders, no barriers to trade and no tariffs, even if other nations want to impose them in the wares they exchange with the rest of the world. Our expectation is that when those other nations see the greater happiness and differential flourishing taking part in our superior social organization, they will end up voluntarily copying it and become AT themselves


We have tried to keep the duties that require coordination between different members of society at a bare minimum, so the amount that has to be collected in taxes is also comparatively small. There should be leaders necessarily that collect and distribute the taxes and give directions to the guardians. That means there are also guardians that keep the public peace. Finally, there are arbitrators that can adjudicate in case of disputes. A number of services are provided free of charge (elementary education, basic housing and healthcare) and a common infrastructure has to be maintained for communications, energy and transportation, so the leaders must appoint some administrators, or supervisors to ensure the provision is fair and adequate. We will elaborate in more depth how those different functions could work when we deal with the economic organization of the AT society, sufficient is to say at this point that both at the phratry level and at the phyle level it would be convenient for the citizens to have somebody to be devoted full time to those duties, ideally somebody who represent them and has their interest in mind when deciding how best to allocate society’s limited resources.

On representation

It is a widespread (and in spite of that, mostly true) opinion that the “representative democracy” that today purports to defend the interests of most of the world’s population is a sad travesty. The reason we believe that as a society we can’t take care not just of the most desperately in need (because of illness, old age, or plain old bad luck and wrong decisions), but of the basic wants of absolutely everybody is not because we are selfish or because it would be hugely expensive and condemn us all to a mediocrity of squalor and poverty. Those of us who still have a gainful employment already give almost half of what we earn to the state in the form of taxes, supposedly to be used for the common good, and that would be much more than enough to guarantee an existence well above the basic subsistence level to absolutely every member of society. Unfortunately it ends up being used for anything but that, sequestered by special interest groups and to line the pockets of the politicians who, in the name of representing us administer the fruit of our labor in such an inefficient way that most of the administered amount benefits them and their cronies, but not us or especially the most needy between us.

The key to end such scandalous state of affairs, shared by traditional anarchists and right wing libertarians alike, is to reduce the state to its minimal expression, and have the representatives of the people (those necessarily devoted to the administration of the common interests) be few in number, transparent in their dealings and accountable to a sufficiently small number of constituents that would have both enough visibility of the decisions taken in their name and enough understanding of the likely consequences in their close-knit community of the consequences of such decisions. Those representatives, which we call leaders, would have a more difficult time giving big corporations (or small ones) precedence over the interests of their fellow citizens, due to their proximity and the impossibility of diluting their responsibilities in complex, faceless bureaucracies. Given the much enhanced control every phratry would have over their leaders, it is of secondary importance how they are chosen (by direct vote, heredity or lottery), for how long they serve (a month, a year, a decade or for life) or how extensive are their powers (as long as they are compatible with the basic rights we have defined as non negotiable). If they are incompetent, corrupt and permanent the population under their command will dwindle, and they will find themselves isolated and poor. If they are energetic and fair their followers will prosper, they will attract more of them and they will gain clout and respect in larger forums. As long as the effective circulation of people is ensured, and the freedom of movement is effectively supported by the possibility of a UBI wherever families decide to settle the pressure of emigration will keep leaders well behaved and attentive to the needs of their followers. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Train for the day vs. train for the year (most likely, stop pursuing daily maxes)

As I mentioned in a previous post (My latest program), I’ve been doing a distinctly low intensity training, staying in the 65-75% range of my 1RM mainly for reasons that had nothing to do with my condition or my health goals. I just had too many things on my plate, so moving weights to become stronger had to take a back seat. Also some of the things I had to devote most attention to (studies and job) demanded a lot of mental focus, so I was finding more and more difficult to psych myself up enough to go every day in the gym and either lift more kilograms or do more reps than the day before.

But that doesn’t mean I have foresworn making any progress for some time. I’m more and more of the opinion that there is tons of improvement you can extract from working at those low intensities, and this is going to be a great time to test it. Nothing new or revolutionary here, it is well aligned with what Paul Carter has been preaching for ages (see here: LRB - progress with lower intensities). However, I’ve been engaged in all sort of discussions in forums in this last year about how going above 80% is almost compulsory if you want some improvement in maximal strength, and even that any training that doesn’t reach at least 90% is basically a waste of time, so I’ll argue in this post in favor of having some programmed periods well below those percentages, and explain my rationale.

First, I’d like to comment a bit about the experience of some brothers in the iron with whom I’ve been discussing these issues, that have been advocating the kind of “as heavy as possible all the time” that I’m moving away from. These are comparatively strong dudes (I’m thinking now of a guy roughly my age, may be 10 kg heavier  and with a total around 20 kg better than mine, and another one that albeit younger is roughly my weight and lifts a powerlifting total about 70 kg better than mine) that go every day they step on the gym to a daily max, and then follow it with back off sets. Lots of them. So they purportedly train “instinctively” (and tend to be quite dismissive of anybody that follows a program based on hitting a predefined number of sets and reps moving a certain percentage of their effective 1RM) but the one common thread is that they go as heavy as possible as frequently as possible (at least once a week for each one of the major lifts, and sometimes up to three times per week per lift). This sits well with certain tendency that was quite talked about last year, shaped around using the infamous (and normally very poorly understood) “Bulgarian system” developed by the likes of Ivan Abadjiev to train their Olympic lifters and apply it to powerlifting programs, the defining feature of such system being that they went to a daily max almost daily, and that they used almost no assistance exercises, so the training consisted almost exclusively in performing the competition lifts to a max, that was sometimes attempted multiple times, sometimes even multiple times per day. Well, the two guys I’m talking about (both of whom I respect enormously, as they have balls like a Buick and show enormous commitment and determination both on the platform and off) haven’t seen much progress for the last year, or even for the year before that.

Now I don’t want to convey the impression that such lack of progress should be construed as an argument against ever training truly hard. Going balls to the wall is a proven strategy for improving, and sometimes the pedal really needs to be put to the metal, and you have to get as close as possible to your max in training to really push that max to a new level. What I would argue is that those periods can not be of a long duration (you can not train above 90% for more than 2-3 weeks, unless you are a rank newbie), and anybody that maintains the opposite  is either a) extremely experienced, so is very finely attuned to his or her own body and knows how much he can push before breaking down or b) can devote many hours to training, and has achieved a level that requires endless sessions adequately ramping up, then down, then actively recovering from such punishment or finally c) has freakish genetics (or free access to magic juice) so he can defy the laws of physiology without fear of breaking down. For all the rest that do not satisfy those conditions, it is more productive (and safe) to train at lower percentages most of the time, and ramp up the intensity only in a very controlled manner, during limited periods.

If we resort to Selye’s model of physical adaptation (a model I used in an entirely different context in my series about the General Theory of the Organization, by the way: Theory of Organization with Selye's GAM) we may see why such training ends up being counterproductive, and how such negative effects become more apparent as you grow more experienced:
As we can see, a novice trainee doesn’t have the physical capability to exert himself too much. He simply is not strong enough, so the negative impact of each training session is minimal (he could typically lift almost a 90% of what he lifted in a very punishing –for him- session with very limited time to recover, as his 1Rm is not that challenging) and the duration of that adverse effect is also minimal. In Rippetoe’s terminology, he is a beginner, and the most productive way for him to train is to repeat the same training than the previous day after 48 hours, only with a little bit more weight, as he will be then in supercompensation mode, and thus be capable of what for months will still be a 5-10% improvement over his previous best lift. Now after a few months of such linear progression he will have become able to dig deeper in his recovery reserves. Each session cuts more thoroughly into what he can recover from, so his loss of performance immediately after training is more marked (he can lift a smaller percentage of his 1RM, something around 80% already can be quite challenging right after a tough, demanding WO), and such loss of performance lasts longer, so now he can not recover in 48 hours and attempt bigger weights with a reasonable expectation of success. In Rippetoe’s schema, it is time to move the trainee to a weekly periodization, alternating between more intensity oriented days and more volume oriented ones (Texas method). Finally, an experienced lifter can seriously challenge his organism when going to near limit weights, which cause a much steeper immediate loss of performance (ask an elite level powerlifter to attempt even a 60% deadlift right after a competition and you may know what I’m talking about). Such a loss also requires much longer time to recover from, so the window to actually be able to push heavier weights becomes smaller and smaller, as most of the times is spent with a degraded capability (something I myself have experienced, when getting close to PR territory most of the week feels miserable, with constantly sore muscles and achy joints). At this level, lifters have to plan their cycles with blocks of many weeks (macrocycles), even many months, in which they go through different combinations of volume and intensity to be able to “peak” just once every few (or not so few) months.

Now we can analyze the effect of training with an increasing intensity (closer and closer to our 1RM, for now and for simplicity’s sake we will ignore the effect of other confounding variables like volume or exercise variance):
As we can see, the higher the intensity, the deeper the immediate loss of performance associated with it, and the longer it takes to recover (also, as a side note, the more fleeting the gain, as indeed the more extreme gains tend to be more short lived, and fade away faster).

So with that knowledge it is pretty fast to see how a well planned progression should look like, each workout building on the previous one and pushing what we are able to do ever higher:
Note how the duration of the period in which we are rested enough to make gains, but not so much as to have lost the gains of the previous session, becomes vanishingly small, as indeed it becomes more and more difficult to balance recovery and a challenging enough frequency to keep improving. It rings true that a seasoned lifter spends most of his days aching and sore, performing just the right amount of additional training that his body can take to force it to adapt. Now it is easy to overstep, and knowing that each session (and afterwards) is going to hurt no matter what and that to keep improving you need to keep increasing the volume, end up just in the following dynamic:

Now the effect is just the opposite, instead of progressing you are regressing! Of course any lifter worth his salt knows that getting to a point where you are physically weaker every workout is damn difficult, you have to be quite deaf to your body not to realize it is happening, and typically some sort of self-regulation would be kicking in before that and making each training session slightly less grueling, so what you would have is what you see most frequently: people not advancing at all in the main lifts for months, even years, but always finding some rationalization of why it hasn’t anything to do with “overtraining”, which is something that a) doesn’t exist and b) only total wusses complain about anyway. That overtraining would be that most elusive of beasts, so elusive indeed that many practitioners of the iron arts deny its existence entirely. I would readily agree that many instances of alleged overtraining are just laziness, or plain old being a pussy, but I would as readily maintain that mental satiation comes much sooner than what most hardcore lifters are willing to admit (and keep in mid Tommy Kono’s injunction, this sport is 80% mental), and that whilst the body may be physically capable of keeping on adapting, the mind gives up much sooner and starts finding ways to derail such course.

Now with all this I didn’t want to give the impression that training is a super complex science that requires a PhD and that if you are not able to plan every little variable with the utmost precision you will end up either stagnant or injured. Another way to look at it, again taken from the playbook of good ol’ Mark is to consider the difference between training and exercising (Rippetoe throws down). In his terminology, training consists in the methodical accumulation of the increased stress you want your body to adapt to, so it becomes more proficient at expressing a certain quality (obviously, being a legendary strength coach, being able to show maximal strength in short bouts, as in just one attempt at each of a powerlifting competition lifts, is the most desirable quality a human can pursue according to him, with which I basically agree). Exercising, on the other hand, is just performing some activity for the fun of it, focusing instead in the individual workout (which stops being a “training session”, as no methodical training is happening in it). So the trap that the two friends I mentioned at the beginning seem to have fallen into is that they have stopped training, and inadvertently started exercising. Each workout is indeed extremely challenging, and they go to very heavy loads once and again, but those loads fail to consistently increase as the months go by, because they are not able to hit the sweet balance between applying a stimulus the body can adapt to and letting that same body recover so it is able to deal with a bigger stimulus the next day. Although they are well aware of Selye’s theory, and how supercompensation is the name of the game, they consider that such effect (supercompensation) is to be called for only on the eve of a competition, so they would only lower their training intensity the week before competing (by the way, of the two examples I’m giving only one truly competes, but this methodological error applies to both of them) hoping all the previous supercompensations that didn’t occur in previous cycles (for lack of time to truly recover) would miraculously materialize, and with just one week rest (and a partial one at that) they will show up at contest day able to lift 10-20% than what they were lifting in the gym. So far hasn’t happened, and I’m still skeptical it will ever happen. Because during the cycle in which you fail to sufficiently recover and go heavy again while still in a status of degraded performance your body fails to fully adapt, and that missed “window of adaptation” is lost forever. The weight felt awfully heavy, and the next time they are attempted they feel exactly as heavy (I’ll allow for a little variance in how they feel because of non physiological variables like amount of previous sleep, state of psychological arousal, etc., and even for some not duly planned physiological ones, like hormone level), as the body has not grown systemically stronger to deal with them, and that situation can go on for years without the trainee knowing how to get out of it.

But, counterintuitive as it may sound (to grow stronger, lift less weight) the only way out is to check the ego at the door, and start basing the training around a lower percentage of the 1RM. Typically, in a higher range of repetitions for an increased total volume, so the muscle can grow both in size (one of the most surefire ways of making it capable of applying more force) and in efficiency (number of motor units, degree of innervations and capacity of fire simultaneously). And to ensure that I do what I preach, I’ll stay with my current training plan (organized around submaximal lifts in the range of 65-75% of my previous 1RM, and in a higher rep range than what I was used to) and confirm that Selye’s theory (and much more important, Rippetoe application of it) are as valid as ever (or rather, ar sufficiently valid for me, at my current level of experience). 

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Anarcho Traditionalist understanding of Man (AT Manifesto II)

In my previous post (AT Manifesto I) I began sketching my AT Manifesto justifying the choice of terms (or the big underlying principles if you prefer) and setting out the structure of what was to come (first man, then society, then economy). High time to fulfill my duties, then, and spell out what kind of anthropology underlies the politics

Man, the subject of rights and duties (but not of other men!)


In our quest to a more just, humane and sustainable society we must start by identifying the units that forms such society, highlighting the features that separate them from the rest of the natural world. It is self-evident that society is a set of human beings, and our understanding of what a human being is will inform all the recommendations we will make later on. What is a human, then?

A human is an animal of the homo sapiens species, able to use symbolic language and thus endowed with reason and will

What can we deduce from such a definition? Let’s unpack the consequences of each term:

·         Animal: a lump of animated matter, subject to the same laws and regularities that dictate how matter behaves, and owing its particular features to biological evolution, which have been selected during countless millennia for its adaptive value (by allowing those individuals who had them to reproduce in higher numbers than those that did not)
·         Homo Sapiens: a large simian mammal appeared relatively recently, which implies a high metabolic rate (needing lots of food), omnivore, with a moderate sexual dimorphism and, being a mammal, with highly differentiated parental investment
·         User of symbolic language: symbols being the potentially recursive and necessarily imprecise reference to some element of reality (so what the symbol can make reference to is another set of symbols, in ever more abstract hierarchies)
·         Endowed with reason (able to value): not only can we compute and categorize (recursively), but we are conscious beings who can detach themselves from the continuous flow of perceptions and contemplate themselves “from outside”. Thus we not only recognize ourselves, but recognize separately what we are thinking and feeling in any given moment, and we continuously assign different levels of importance to those separately recognized thoughts and feelings. Consciousness consists in minding, caring about, valuing what surrounds us
·         Endowed with will (free): now that ability to detach ourselves from the flow of consciousness enables a most surprising trait, not possessed by any other species (as far as we know). We can choose how to act (or not act) in a way that for all practical purposes is as unpredictable as if it were entirely detached from the chain of causality that encompasses every other lump of matter. It is fashionable nowadays to proclaim that such freedom is entirely illusory, and we are ready to admit that it has to rest in some metaphysical assumptions (dualism) that are decidedly out of favor, we will just say that the first step to enslave a whole species and deprive them of their freedom and their will to fight for it would transparently be to convince them they are not free at all, so there was nothing real to fight for in the first place. Rather than accept that all our intuitions are wrong (because evolutionary psychology! Neuroscience! The Libet experiment!) we stubbornly maintain that our intuitions are right, it is really in our power to choose how to conduct our lives, and when we weigh the pros and the cons of a certain course of action and finally decide for it… we have really decided (which of course implies there is really a “we”), and not fooled ourselves rationalizing what our unconscious chose for us, or what happens to be considered (always ex post) as the more convenient behavior to have more descendants in the African savannah thirty thousand year ago
So we are animals, yes, with all the urges and drives common to all animals. We want to mate and to eat, to rest when tired and to be cared for when injured or ill, trying to exert ourselves as little as possible more times than not. But animals with intelligence. Able to refrain from doing what our instincts impel us to do, and capable to pass judgment on such refraining (or on its opposite submitting to what the instincts dictate). This takes us to the crux of the AT position about men: just for the fact of being so they have dignity (and not, in a well known phrase from Kant, price), regardless of merit or desert, of their actual circumstances of race, religion, sex, age, wealth or academic achievement. Even regardless of how actually intelligent they are (as that dignity is inherent to every human, including the infirm, the seriously disabled, even the eldest after they have gone irretrievably down the path of senility and dementia). Just being of human descent they have dignity, and that dignity deserves recognition and respect. This sets AT’s apart from traditional rightists, for which dignity is only recognized unequally (only the few select are accorded it fully, whilst the masses are assumed less enlightened and less worthy), normally according to degree of similarity with your own position (the tribal and primeval “us versus them” mentality that requires first a cartoonish definition of some “other” to be properly demonized). But it also sets it apart from traditional leftists, for which “the system” turns everybody into a knave or a scoundrel, robs everybody of their dignity, and so every revolutionary finds himself in the paradoxical position of having to selflessly devote himself to the betterment of a humanity he secretly despises. The challenge for an AT is to love unconditionally every individual human, not because he or she deserves it, not out of sympathy (which is always in short supply, the less so the less features we have in common with the purported object of our love) but precisely because of their unavoidable shortcomings and failures.

It is due to our common animal nature that we have a set of non-negotiable needs: we need food (quite a lot), clothing and shelter. Probably also some intimacy and social recognition. But it is due to our non animal capabilities that we need  things more complex to provide: a culture of shared narratives and shared codes to decipher highly abstract symbols, which requires a long training period and free access to the vast records of our past, and to information of what is currently going on in a vast number of specialized fields.

Fortunately for us, we come to the world equipped with a powerful tool to coordinate our activities in order to provide one another with both categories: not just the ability to partake of the same symbolic language (an innate capability), but also an attunement to the way such language is used, so we can to an astonishingly accurate degree separate the true statements from the false ones. Although such attunement has developed in parallel with our ability to fool it, so for every advance in our lying-detecting capabilities has been both demanded and justified by a previous (and afterwards, a subsequent) advance in our capability to convincingly lie… The reason both developments have been so central is that, given our lackluster natural endowments, our survival demanded us joining forces with our kin, our ascent could only happen in ever increasing groups. Thus, armed with a basic understanding of what man is we can now turn our attention to how he forms such groups to thrive, which we will develop in our next post (on society)