Civilisational competition, social change, and P2P

The evolution of civilization can be seen as dialectic between the systematic selection for power and the human striving for a humane world, between the necessities imposed upon humankind regardless of their wishes and their efforts to be able to choose the cultural environment in which they will live.

Book: The Parable Of The Tribes. by Andrew Schmookler. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984

This very important book poses a fundamental problem for social change. No nation can change without ignoring the competition with others, which constrains change. Do we have answers to this challenge. I think we have two, to be developed separately: 1) the objective idea of Peak Hierarchy; 2) the political answer of Multilateralism 2.0, recently explained to us by James Quilligan.

But here is the thesis that challenges social change advocates:


The book “argues that the history of civilization has been largely shaped by the way that, as a system, civilization has no mechanisms for restraining the raw struggle for power between societies. Schmookler brings a remarkable depth of both scholarship and insight to this issue, tracing (in the latter parts of the book) the myriad insidious ways that this struggle has thwarted human choice. He makes it clear that the problems we face now, as we try to come to grips with our planetary interconnectedness, can’t simply be blamed on personalities or ideologies, but are rooted in the fundamental structure of 5000 years of international anarchy. The problem of power that he raises and explores is a fundamental challenge for governance (at many levels) that we must deal with somehow if we are to have any hope of creating a humane sustainable culture as a successor to the darkness we call civilization. If you want to deepen your understanding of the full challenge we face, you’ll find the book a mind-stretcher and a sobering treat.”

Key Thesis

“power is like a contaminant, a disease, which once introduced will gradually yet inexorably become universal in the system of competing societies. More important than the inevitability of the struggle for power is the profound social evolutionary consequence of that struggle once it begins. A selection for power among civilized societies is inevitable. If anarchy assured that power among civilized societies could not be governed, the selection for power signified that increasingly the ways of power would govern the destiny of mankind. This is the new evolutionary principle that came into the world with civilization. Here is the social evolutionary black hole that we have sought as an explanation of the harmful warp in the course of civilization’s development.”



“In nature, all pursue survival for themselves and their kind. But they can do so only within biologically evolved limits. The living order of nature, though it has no ruler, is not in the least anarchic. Each pursues a kind of self- interest, each is a law unto itself, but the separate interests and laws have been formed over aeons of selection to form part of a tightly ordered harmonious system. Although the state of nature involves struggle, the struggle is part of an order. Each component of the living system has a defined place out of which no ambition can extricate it. Hunting- gathering societies were to a very great extent likewise contained by natural limits.

With the rise of civilization, the limits fall away. The natural self-interest and pursuit of survival remain, but they are no longer governed by any order. The new civilized forms of society, with more complex social and political structures, created the new possibility of indefinite social expansion: more and more people organized over more and more territory. All other forms of life had always found inevitable limits placed upon their growth by scarcity and consequent death. But civilized society was developing the unprecedented capacity for unlimited growth as an entity. (The limitlessness of this possibility does not emerge fully at the outset, but rather becomes progressively more realized over the course of history as people invent methods of transportation, communication, and governance which extend the range within which coherence and order can be maintained.) Out of the living order there emerged a living entity with no defined place.

In a finite world, societies all seeking to escape death- dealing scarcity through expansion will inevitably come to confront each other. Civilized societies, therefore, though lacking inherent limitations to their growth, do encounter new external limits – in the form of one another. Because human beings (like other living creatures) have “excess reproductive capacity,” meaning that human numbers tend to increase indefinitely unless a high proportion of the population dies prematurely, each civilized society faces an unpleasant choice. If an expanding society willingly stops where its growth would infringe upon neighboring societies, it allows death to catch up and overtake its population. If it goes beyond those limits, it commits aggression. With no natural order or overarching power to prevent it, some will surely choose to take what belongs to their neighbors rather than to accept the limits that are compulsory for every other form of life.

In such circumstances, a Hobbesian struggle for power among societies becomes inevitable. We see that what is freedom from the point of view of each single unit is anarchy in an ungoverned system of those units. A freedom unknown in nature is cruelly transmuted into an equally unnatural state of anarchy, with its terrors and its destructive war of all against all.

As people stepped across the threshold into civilization, they inadvertently stumbled into a chaos that had never before existed. The relations among societies were uncontrolled and virtually uncontrollable. Such an ungoverned system imposes unchosen necessities: civilized people were compelled to enter a struggle for power.

The meaning of “power,” a concept central to this entire work, needs to be explored. Power may be defined as the capacity to achieve one’s will against the will of another. The exercise of power thus infringes upon the exercise of choice, for to be the object of another’s power is to have his choice substituted for one’s own. Power becomes important where two actors (or more) would choose the same thing but cannot have it; power becomes important when the obstacles to the achievement of one’s will come from the will of others. Thus as the expanding capacities of human societies created an overlap in the range of their grasp and desire, the intersocietal struggle for power arose.

But the new unavoidability of this struggle is but the first and smaller step in the transmutation of the apparent freedom of civilized peoples into bondage to the necessities of power.”


“The category of “power maximizers” embraces a couple of different kinds of actors in the human drama. Most especially, it includes entire sovereign social entities (like the imperialistic tribes of the parable) who impinge upon other, previously autonomous societies. The parable of the tribes focuses primarily on the intersocietal system because that system forms the comprehensive context for human action, but more importantly because in that system anarchy has been most complete and least curable. Anarchy is at the core of the problem of power, making struggle inevitable and allowing the ways of power to spread uncontrolled throughout the whole like a contaminant. Thus, nowhere has power had so free and decisive a reign as in that arena of sovereign actors where, by definition, there is no power to hold all in awe.

Yet the problem of power exists in some form also within societies; for even though in one sense societies are governed, in another more profound sense they are usually subject to anarchy. The formation of government and the establishment of the rule of law can be – and usually have been in large measure – the embodiment of the rule of raw power rather than a restraint upon it. The search for a fuller understanding of the problem of power in social evolution leads therefore to an intrasocietal analogue of the parable of the tribes. And the category of history’s power maximizers includes those groups (like the feudal class) and individuals (like Stalin) who are successful in competing for power within a society’s boundaries. Again, it is those distinguished by their capacity to grasp and wield power who gain the means to shape the whole (social) system according to their ways and their vision. And again, the history makers are cast in their roles not by the people affected but by an unchosen selective process; and generally, they are not those whom mankind would choose to guide its destiny.”


“The process is not hostile to human welfare, simply indifferent. Many things that serve power serve people as well, such as a degree of social order and the provision of adequate nutrition to keep people functioning. (As this implies, there are a great many roads to hell that the need for social power helps close off.) But the parable of the tribes suggests that the service to people of such power-enhancing attributes of society may be entirely incidental to their raison d’etre. Those of us who now enjoy affluence and freedom as well as power are predisposed to believe that benign forces shape our destiny. But to the extent that our blessings are incidental by-products of the strategy for power at this point in the evolution of civilization, our optimism may be ill-founded. If the forces that now favor us are the same as those that earlier condemned masses of people to tyranny and bondage, the future requirements of power maximization may compel mankind not toward the heavenly utopia to which we aspire but toward the hellish dystopias that some like Orwell and Huxley have envisioned. Our well-being may prove to be less like that of the squire who feeds himself well off the land that he rules than like that of the dairy cow who, though pampered and well fed, is not served but exploited by the system in which she lives. The bottom line that governs her fate is not her own calculation; when she is worth more for meat than for milk, off she goes to the slaughterhouse.”

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