Necessity: The Mother of Invention Or The Mother of Strife?

Scientists sometimes design a research project to study one thing only to discover something unexpected. Primatologists studying animal behavior may not have been expecting to find that captive apes are more creative than their cousins in the wild, but in fact, that is exactly what they did discover. This result contradicts reason. Captivity, it would seem, robs animals of the diversity that their natural environment offers and so they should be duller, less robust mentally.

Captive apes on the contrary are less fearful of their environment. They have no predators, no fear of starvation, and no stresses that cause apes in the bush to be cautious, even fearful of their environment. An object placed in proximity of a caged ape is a toy to play with, while that same object in the wild is avoided by the wild ape as foreign and possibly harmful.

Further, wild animals facing a loss of familiar food sources do not search for new and previously untried delicacies; rather they begin bodily processes that shut down their metabolism. Why do they avoid the search for new foods? Obviously, the risk of illness or even poisoning from untried food sources is greater than the risks of hunger due to avoidance.

In the secure, if constrained, environment of a zoo, caged apes have lost the fear of the new, or the unfamiliar. Fear gives way to curiosity and that opens up creative possibilities in tool-making. As primatologist Carel van Schaik says “ If you ask me, opportunity is the mother of invention.”

And that could be said of the close relatives of the orangutans – we humans. If we are stressed, we function poorly. Psychologist Eldar Shafir and economist Sendhil Mullainathan established in their studies documented in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much that being poor drains folks of their energy, including mental energy. Psychologists generally maintain that we have limited mental capacity to handle stressful situations. You don’t need advanced degrees to recognize the validity of this assertion. If we are preoccupied with balancing a meager budget, we don’t have surplus time to focus on much else. In fact, it may be painful to think of what is unaffordable. And further, this mindset can lead to obsessing about one’s condition, which in turn can lead to self-defeating actions, according to Shafir and Mullainathan.

Related to the stresses due to scarce resources that Shafir and Mullainathan write about, there is another stress that affects the poor and, also, the middle class. It’s the stress of taking orders all day on the job. Maybe we can call this the “scarcity of autonomy.”

There is no better proof of this than the studies of job-related miseries, from ill-health to even death. (150 US workers are killed each day at their jobs.3) Everywhere in workland jobs get done with the minimal effort, but bosses expect from their employees commitment and productivity and, not least, innovation.

Carrots, according to HR, are better than sticks to bolster creativity in corporate offices, in schools, in non-profits, everywhere. And motivational consultants always have more cultural snake oil to offer: more team-building exercises to arouse office ciphers to new heights of corporate loyalty, with no verifiable results.

If we return to the captive primates and the irony that the security of their caged world frees them of the fear that stresses their wild cousins, what do we learn? The apes’ captivity arguably is equivalent to what we humans call a social safety net: a guarantee that an overload of stress will be diminished so that we can pursue life choices that will lead to personal development. This is social creativity on the micro-level, on the level of the individual in society.

The social safety net, however as I use it here, is not limited to an argument for the welfare state. I’m not talking about simply social policies to provide universal health care and affordable shelter, unemployment insurance (or better, a guaranteed basic income) and free education, though these should be “givens” in all societies. A real social safety net refers to, and must consist of, social solidarity as the foundation for individual wellbeing.

One can hardly imagine a concept more foreign to Americans marinated with individualistic values, and yet what do young upwardly mobile families seek when they search for “good schools,” civic spirit and amenities? And what propels them to flee (dysfunctional) cities for semi-rural enclaves? Less stress and sense of community support. This is the aspect of the American Dream that knows not its name.

An intense social life, both traditional societies and in modern communities, is based on spiritual or ethnic affiliation, or most likely both. Are there secular versions? Of course – Paris in 1871, Seattle in 1919, Kronstadt in 1921, Shanghai in 1927, Barcelona in 1936, Budapest in 1956, and Cairo 2011 to name but a few cities where radical solidarity was experienced and practiced, if only briefly. I am partly factitious here, but aside from revolutionary upheavals, what would define a society with a secular commitment to solidarity? It wouldn’t be a society in turmoil; it would be a society almost boring in its everyday sense of conviviality.

Some years back David Erdal, a British advocate of cooperative ventures, studied a small city, Imola, in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy where he found the highest concentration of cooperative enterprises. One-quarter of Imola residents were involved in one way or the other, as worker or consumer members of cooperatives. Erdal reasoned that if there were so many enterprises that people had some control over – in co-ops each member has one vote – this fact of economic integration (and greater equality) would calibrate on all sorts of indices of well-being. To complete his statistical study he chose a town of similar size and prosperity, but with very few cooperatives. What he found was that the citizens of Imola had many opportunities to develop their social contacts. To quote from my review of Erdal’s book Beyond the Corporation:

Imola’s citizens are intriguing because they have created a truly cooperative culture by practicing democracy in their daily lives. But what does “practicing democracy” mean? It certainly is not spending nights at meetings debating abstract notions of economic justice. Nor are they standing on street corners seeking signatures on petitions. For them “practicing democracy” defines how they work together.

And how they do that is the core notion that is missing in studies of social psychology. What can be more transformative than dealing with others in an egalitarian way at work? [I mean membership in the worker cooperative assumes participation.] And if you do not participate in the decision-making opportunity afforded to you at work, your fellow workers in Imola wouldn’t immediately kick you out, but rather see your behavior as indicative of some deep trauma and come to your aid. (from “Will your co-op extend your life span?”)

As remarkable as this may seem, Erdal discovered from mortality data that the residents of the neighboring town, Sassuolo, with an undeveloped cooperative economy died two and one-half years earlier than their neighbors!

Erdal’s research is informative, but it is still a pretty small sampling. I think it’s futile to look for a larger sample of a society where solidarity exists on solid footing. The urban revolutionary upheavals mentioned previously, while inspiring, were all crushed mercilessly. And while historians now agree that peasant uprisings were more common in the feudal period than previously believed, they too were smashed. On the level of modern states, we have witnessed brief periods of social solidarity when threats, either natural or man-made, compel citizens to band together for protection or to aid one another. One could argue, as an aside, that the when social solidarity, in the form of a common religious confession, disappeared, literary utopias emerged in search of a new, secular, form of it. A heaven on earth.

If we leap back several millennia in search of a more expansive example of social solidarity, we land at the first European civilization, the Minoan, centered on the island of Crete. There, remains of a maritime urban society were discovered that thrived for a millenia before the rise of the classic Greek era, seemingly without warfare and a domineering patriarchy. In fact, in the early twentieth century, when British archeologist Arthur Evans first explored the Minoan ruins, a complex story was devised of Crete as a goddess worshipping, peaceful and artistic society, where athletic prowess was extolled, not military strength. Crete epitomized all those qualities exploded to dust by the warring societies of Europe during World War I.

But, as Cathy Gere thoroughly documents in her book Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, this story was almost entirely fiction, driven by a (semi-?) conscious attempt by Evans to construct an enlightened civilization to rival the war-like Aryan “creation” story.

One of the famous fresco depictions of bull jumping, this one at the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. It shows a male figure vaulting over a charging bull and two female figures (identified by their lighter skin tone, standard on the arts of the eastern Mediterranean) either assisting or preparing to jump themselves. From the figures’ expressions, the activity seems to have been an enjoyable, rather than frightening one. No one knows for sure what the sport signified, but one theory suggests that it was a rite of passage for young men and women.] One of the most mysterious aspects of Minoan culture, as revealed in the frescoes, is the practice of bull jumping. Young men and women, in what may have been a sport, or perhaps a religious ceremony, or maybe a coming-of-age rite, or some combination of these, took on a charging bull and leapt over its back by grabbing onto its horns as it approached. The artworks and artifacts also seem to indicate that Minoan civilization enjoyed relative gender equality, especially when compared to other, more patriarchal civilizations of the region. Women are depicted involved not just in the sport of bull-jumping, but also performing important religious and civic duties.

To discover a more peaceful civilization, we need to board our time machine and hurtle ourselves back a thousand years before the flowering of the Minoan civilization. The Indus Valley civilization, contemporary with the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations, existed over a vast territory that covered the area of present-day Pakistan and southern Afghanistan and western India.

The first systematic explorations of this civilization began at about the same time as Evans dug into Minoan ruins on Crete. The vastness of the Indus Valley civilization required, however, numerous archeologists and related personnel scattered across a landmass twice the size of France that was home to five million inhabitants.

The Indus civilization lasted approximately seven centuries. It was protected in part by the topography of its location between mountains and deserts. Like Egypt and Mesopotamia, it had large cities of up to 50,000 inhabitants, but unlike them, its cities give the impression of an egalitarian society. No huge residences existed. No massive ritual centers and few embattlements. Instead of weapons, archeologists found toys. However, though Indus does have a widely used notational system it has not been translated and so we have no conclusive information on its political makeup. Among archeologists, the consensus holds that given the two hundred kilometer distance between major cities they were ruled as city-states and since coherent neighborhoods existed with a mix of crafts/industry and residences, this may indicate a decentralized system of governance.

Indus excelled, beyond the other two civilizations it co-existed with, in hydraulic and metallurgic engineering. It may seem mundane to consider significant an extensive system of urban sewerage, but for thousands of inhabitants to live in close proximity without disease, waste removal had to be a priority; almost all the residences had toilets and baths, another indication of a relatively non-hierarchical society.

The Indus civilization thrived by building an elaborate system of reservoirs and deep wells to irrigate crops from water stored from the yearly monsoons. The agricultural surplus along with its advanced metalworking and pottery formed the basis of its worldwide trading network. Indus wares have been found as far as the Mediterranean to the west and in China to the east.

Can we postulate that the Indus civilization, with its hundreds of miles of roads, extensive trading culture, its advanced metallurgic expertise and jewelry making, its standardized weights and measures, its architecture and system of flood control, created all these things because it was a peaceful society? That is, a society not drained of its energy by subservience to hierarchical orders that enslaved its population into narrow channels like building monumental temples or palaces or developing warfare technology.

I think that this is a reasonable thesis. And it may be substantiated by the research of Joseph Henrich (The Secret of Our Success) who demonstrates that we as a species have gained ecological preponderance through our ability to contribute our special insights to create cultures from which we learn and innovate. We, collectively, absorb culture and complexify it and, in turn, culture literally makes us – we co-evolve with our culture.

Henrich persuasively argues that cultural evolution requires an abundance of resources and a large population. A sizable population provides for numerous interactions, which spur learning and encourage a division of labor, or a division of information. And while Henrich does not explicitly designate only pacific societies as developers of innovative cultures, he does state:

Innovation depends on the expansion of our collective brains, which themselves depend of the ability of social norms, institutions, and the psychologies they create to encourage people to freely generate, share, and recombine novel ideas, beliefs, insights, and practices. (The Secret of Our Success, p.330)

We hardly live in a peaceful society, either on the individual psycho-social level or on the collective political one. We do have, though, the incredible resources of the internet. Can this fact accelerate one aspect of our cultural evolution even if we suffer, with other aspects, like a deficit of real-time social interactions? As not a few social critics retort, it is dubious that knowledge solely acquired with machine interaction will have any depth. Or more importantly, that a machine can generate the passion to learn in the first place.

Anyway, our “collective intelligence” – Henrich’s term – requires more than intellectual satisfactions. We require an abundance of tangible resources. Without palpable experiences we become unbalanced and out of harmony with our potential. We crave music-making, cooking, athletics, crafts and arts, to name only a few pleasurable experiences which we as adults are deprived of, but most scandalously so are our children. Here we have scarcity. In the midst of an abundance of consumer choices, we have a scarcity of making.

The rise of farmers markets, the Fair Trade movement, urban agriculture and local craft production of all kinds testifies to the desire of people to appropriate a sense of participation in autonomous material creations. The limitations of time and money prevent a deeper involvement by a larger segment of the population, who must accept being consumers (if they can afford it) or spectators, but not creators.

Our jobs prevent us from being creators. Or to put this another way, the false scarcity that compels us to obediently perform our daily sacrifices to maintain our miserable survival veils the real, but unacknowledged scarcity of creation. And if we extrapolate, maybe beyond Henrich’s intentions, our condition of enslavement frustrates our species-work – the creation of culture. It is as if we are the compliant, if not the eager, agents of our own demise as evolutionary beings.

Collective intelligence manifests on a material basis as everything from jewelry to gigantic public works like the reservoirs of the Indus cities. I think it’s not hyperbolic to say that the inhabitants of cities of the Indus Valley practiced communing, a concept successfully erased from the consciousness of the modern (pseudo-) citizen. The Indus system of water storage surrounding their cities, irrigating their crops and plumbing their sewage removal exemplifies the materialization of the urban commons, achieved over four thousand years ago. While we, modern political chattel, labor under the illusion that we must pay tribute to the wealthy who own the monopoly of basic services in energy, healthcare, telecommunications and, in some cases, the water supply.

We return to the need, as stated above, for an authentic social solidarity so that we can devise the institutions and the social norms that Henrich postulates is basic to “the expansion of the collective brain.” Were to start? How about with the elimination of jobs? This institution known as wage slavery during flourishing of the labor movement and which today I would call a system of time thieving, is the major obstacle to our participation in cultural evolution. There is a major movement across the United States demanding the end to wage theft. It would be good to introduce the reality of time theft – to remind activists that at one time the labor movement fought for the reduction of the working day.

Given the reality of economic trends however, no matter how important it is to retrieve from the bosses every ounce of the value of labor that they are stealing, we need to confront the fact that jobs are not only increasingly precarious and stupid, they are disappearing. No effort to ignore this fact by focusing on immediate demands will make it disappear. There can be no effective political movement that does not meet changing reality with radicalism.