Idle Theory Co-operative and coercive society

There seems no reason to suppose that humans are by nature social animals. In the first place, it would appear that the greater bulk of living creatures, ranging from bacteria and plants and insects and birds and mammals, lead largely independent lives. A grove of oak trees is not a society, but a chance aggregation of trees that each live entirely independently of each other. Where living creatures form societies, like ants and termites and bees, this seems the exception rather than the rule. For every predator that hunts in packs like wolves, there are lone tigers and leopards and snakes. So it would seem more likely than not that humans also once lived largely independently from each other.

Equally, the fact that human society takes many forms, and is frequently wracked with dissention and war, suggests that human society is a recent innovation, yet to evolve to any perfection. Human society has yet to achieve the political perfection of the human body, in which countless millions of cells co-operate perfectly.

It therefore seems plausible that the earliest human - Old Adam - was a solitary, independent, autonomous individual, entirely concerned with his own self-interest. For him the world of plants and animals (among whom were included his own kind) was something to be exploited. He ate their roots and seeds of plants, and he caught and ate any animal he could. Not living in any society, he lacked all social graces, having no need of them. And so long as roots and seeds and animals were abundant, this Adam lived an idle life. It was only when plants grew scarce, and his life became harder, that he began to associate, co-operatively or coercively, with other humans.

In co-operative society, a division of labour almost automatically increased social idleness. But the requirements of sharing within co-operative society meant that no individual achieved a life of perfect idleness. Co-operative societies shared gains in idleness equally among their members. The shift from solitary independent life to one of social co-operation increased idleness, but required something unnecessary for a solitary existence: consideration and concern for others. Members of co-operative societies could not act exclusively in their own self-interest.

Equal idleness in co-operative society

In coercive society, humans forced other humans and animals to do their work for them. Coercive society is inherently inegalitarian: there are winners and losers. And to the winners, coercive society offers rich rewards: the masters of coercive societies lived far idler lives than their co-operative egalitarian counterparts. Furthermore, coercive society did not require the development of a novel concern and consideration for others. Indeed, such concern or consideration ran entirely counter to the logic of coercion. However, even though the winners in coercive society lived very idle lives, coercive societies as a whole (the winners plus the losers) were always less idle than co-operative societies, if only because coercion requires extra work - guard duty, punishment, shackles, prisons, etc. - that is unnecessary in co-operative society. Therefore co-operative societies were generally more likely to survive times of increased difficulty and toil than coercive societies.

Unequal idleness in coercive society

Thus two kinds of human society, co-operative and coercive, emerged. Co-operative societies were characterised by consideration, equality, and exchange. Coercive societies were characterised by indifference, inequity, and theft.

Since it appears that much of recorded human history is one of coercive war, pillage, and slavery, some explanation is needed as to why coercive societies appear to have predominated over co-operative societies.

While co-operative societies were generally more idle than coercive societies, the gains of co-operation and trade were shared equally throughout society. In co-operative societies, everybody worked to some degree. And given low levels of technological innovation, social idleness only rose infinitely slowly, and anyone who wanted a life of perfect idleness would have to wait centuries or millennia for it. For some people, life was too short to wait that long, and they turned to coercion. For it was regularly coercion that offered a minority the greatest short-term reward with the least requirement for social consideration. In winner-takes-all coercive society, the minority of 'winners' were completely idle, while the majority of 'losers' worked almost continuously. Coercive society was the only form of social organisation that offered some people a life of idleness now, rather than at some some time in the indefinitely remote and maybe-never future.

And so Cain slew Abel, and coercive societies multiplied.

Winners and losers: Coercive society

In coercive societies, individuals act purely for their own personal benefit, and in indifference to other persons. In such societies, the natural inclination of anyone who wants anything is to steal it. Society is a battlefield in which the winner takes all.

In a general circumstance of low idleness, coercive societies allow the idleness of a few to be raised at the expense of many. In coercive societies such as ancient Greece and Rome, a minority of free men were supported by a majority of slaves. Such coercive societies could only increase their idleness by conducting wars against neighbouring societies, to steal their land and their possessions, and enslave or tax their peoples.

Such coercive societies arose because, in the absence of technological innovation, the coercion of others - human and animal - offered the only route to an idle existence. One could only gain for oneself at the expense of others. And in a condition where idleness was low and falling, coercion was a desperate measure to which the only alternative was death.

Coercive society was always something of a lottery, throwing up few winners and many losers. Coercion was always a high-stakes gamble: the winners became idle free men, and the losers became busy slaves. And it was often chance or fortune that determined who ended up winners, and who losers.

The values of coercive society always emphasized war, physical fitness, weapons, courage, cunning, deception, luck, risk. Coercive societies were always a class-structured chains of command, with idle masters at the top, toiling slaves at the bottom, and various intermediates in between. Everyone had some rank in society, higher or lower.

Once coercive society became established, it would have rapidly overwhelmed co-operative society. To meet the threat of coercion, any co-operative society would have been forced to organise defences, train soldiers, and manufacture weapons. This extra burden would have reduced the idleness of co-operative society, losing all the gains of co-operation. And as co-operative societies became armed societies, their value systems began to reflect those of the coercive societies they mounted defences against.

And once all human society, apart from the poorest and least idle, had become coercive societies, humanity became locked into unending war, a cycle of violence fed as much by hatred and anger as by greed for fast reward. Great enmities arose, and lasted centuries. And since coercive society did not increase human idleness, but instead merely redistributed it - and reduced it -, it continually recreated the conditions for its own reproduction. And because social idleness stagnated, the requirement for coercion endured. Coercive society begot coercive society, and war begot war.

The history of coercive society is the history of war and empire, of looting and rape, of masters and slaves. If human societies have been wracked by war, subjection, slavery, and pillage, it is because for millennia this offered the only escape from a life of unremitting toil and early death. Technological innovation was almost entirely restricted to refining the instruments of coercion: weapons.

And because coercive society generally only innovated weaponry and the tools and methods of coercion, the innovation of idleness-increasing tools and technology languished. Masters had no interest in reducing the work of their slaves. And slaves had little or no capacity to innovate or invent. And even if they did, it would have done them no good, because their masters would simply have found more work for them to do. Therefore the overall idleness of society remained relatively low.

One advantage of coercive society over co-operative society was that the idle elites of coercive societies were able to devote their entire lives to study and practice: they could become artists, poets, mathematicians, philosophers. In co-operative societies, for the most part, nobody was ever as idle as the the elite members of coercive societies, and no individual could devote their entire life to the pursuit of excellence in some field of endeavour. While co-operative societies were capable of art and music, they could never produce anything as refined and perfect as those found in the elite circles of coercive societies. But, all too frequently, it was to warfare and weaponry that these elites devoted their attention:

The last word... should go to Hero of Alexandria, who begins the introduction to his Belopoeica, unexpectedly, with the words: "The largest and most essential part of philosophy deals with the absence of disturbance [ataraxia]." Though this observation is, in itself, an unexceptional Hellenistic truism, we may legitimately wonder what it has to do with a technical treatise on arms manufacture. We soon learn. The search for ataraxia, Hero says, will never be fulfilled through philosophical debate, mere talk. But mechanics - or at least that branch dealing with the construction of effective artillery - "has outstripped mere verbal training in this matter and taught men how to live a life devoid of worry."
(Pete Green. From Alexander to Actium. Thames. 1990)

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once remarked that: "The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." (A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 1929). If much of modern Western philosophy is derived from the literature of the coercive slave-owning societies of Greece and Rome, it may simply be because only in these societies there were plenty of people with sufficient idle time on their hands to think about the world around them, and set pen to parchment. And it might perhaps further be argued that if much of modern Western philosophy (ethics, economics, etc.) rests upon a rosy vision that tacitly assumes leisure as the datum of human life, it is precisely because Plato and Aristotle and their peers actually did live such leisured lives. And by the same argument it might be suggested that it is precisely this that renders the musing of a few members of the idle elites of coercive Greek and Roman societies inapplicable in modern co-operative society (unless of course one argues that modern Western society is as coercive in its own way as those of Greece or Rome).

Co-operative society

However even the most coercive societies needed a co-operative core. The masters of coercive societies had to co-operate with each other, if not with their slaves, for their mutual benefit. If the elites of coercive societies ceased to co-operate with each other, their slaves and subjects would revolt, and they would themselves be reduced to slavery and subjection. The free men of Athens or Rome, although they coerced their slaves and subjects, came to form among each other democracies and republics. These free men regarded each other as equals, to be treated with due care and consideration.

In this manner, co-operative society re-appeared among the elites of coercive society. Free men did not enslave each other and steal from each other. Instead, they traded with each other as equals. While Roman roads were primarily military in origin, they served equally as trade routes. In the security of the Pax Romana, a vigorous trade sprang up along these trade routes, and a considerable body of law, and a quite high degree of technological innovation - sewerage systems, water supplies, stone and brick and concrete architecture -.

While coercive societies generate extreme inequality, co-operative societies tend to generate social equality. In co-operative societies, theft is replaced by trade. And when goods are traded rather than stolen, both buyer and seller benefit, rather than winner takes all.

And where a co-operative society of free men emerges in the heart of an essentially coercive society, there must always be a dichotomy, or an uneasy co-existence, between the values of coercion (war, theft, rape) and the values of co-operation (peace, trade, marriage). Jeckyll necessarily alternates with Hyde where someone beats his slaves in the morning and recites iambic pentameter to friends in the evening. One resolution of this dichotomy was perhaps to increasingly treat slaves with consideration, granting them freedom and equality. But in so doing, a society tends towards co-operative equality, with idle elites and busy slaves combining and dissolving to form largely egalitarian co-operative societies.

Indeed, while coercive society may offer the highest short term rewards, such societies are only maintained in existence through force and will, and any lapse of either must result in the collapse of coercive society into co-operative society. Co-operation is the default from which coercion is a temporary aberration.

And within trading co-operative societies, the only way anyone can increase their idleness is to find simpler and easier ways of performing the necessary tasks of everyday life - because with coercion prohibited, it is impermissible to compel some slave or serf to perform that work on one's behalf. Thus co-operative societies provide strong incentives for innovation and invention, largely absent in coercive society.

In the long term, it is only through technological innovation that the idleness of any society can be raised. And it is principally within co-operative trading society that such innovation occurs. But innovation and invention proceed with almost imperceptible slowness over the long term, and sometimes go into reverse as technologies are lost. And therefore, the short-term quick fix to raise idleness generally remains coercion.

But as human idleness rises, thanks to technological innovation, the resort to coercion is likely to become less and less frequent. For it is not as if anyone has ever wanted to coerce others, but rather that in desperate circumstances the coercion of others offered the only way out.

Coercive societies offer quick and substantial but uncertain rewards for a few coercive individuals. Co-operative societies offer slow and and small but comparatively certain rewards for many co-operative individuals. Coercive society has the character of a high odds gamble on a horse race, while co-operative society has the character of the small but certain income from a safe investment.

Winner-takes-all coercive societies do not act to increase overall human idleness, but to merely redistribute it in the favour of a few, and at the expense of many. It is only within co-operative societies that technological innovation and trade allow social idleness to rise. Innovation in coercive societies is largely restricted to developing new weapons and new methods of coercion.

Apart from anything else, coercive societies must always be less idle than co-operative societies. For coercive society has need of whips and chains and guards and informers in ways that co-operative society does not. The subjection of others in coercive society requires an extra effort. And coercive societies are always liable to experience periodic revolts by their slaves and serfs, which reduce their idleness and require considerable efforts to suppress.

And as human society becomes more idle, the rewards of coercion become correspondingly less, and more difficult to secure. Slavery does not decline because men become more virtuous, but because the returns on this form of investment become too small to sustain. If it takes someone nearly all day to earn their daily bread, then a slave who can relieve him of this chore offers him a considerable gain in idleness. But if it takes him only a few minutes, then a slave gains him little idleness. And if his intended slave works most of the day to survive, then he can put up little resistance to subjection. But if he works only a few minutes each day, he has the entire remainder to combat any effort to subject him.

The result therefore must be that coercive societies must collapse and disintegrate more regularly than their co-operative counterparts, and that co-operative societies must accordingly gradually predominate.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: June 2004