Donald Rooum: Beyond IC50

IC50 (entertaining as ever) speaks of “Ideology – that set of assumptions, beliefs, conclusions, doctrines, dogmas, ideas, inclinations, opinions, principles, theories and thoughts, values and a large etcetera.” This suggests that it is artificial to limit ideology to political/economic attitudes. We should also consider other aspects of culture. Most people prefer the foods they know, without thinking about it. Of those who study food, most are cooks or gourmets of the familiar. A few explore other foods, and a very few go for diets which others consider bizarre.

People who don’t know much about art know what they like, i.e. they like what they know. Those who study art mostly seek what is best in fashionable styles. A few explore other possibilities, and a very few are so unconventional as to be incomprehensible to the majority.

Most people stick to the religion they were raised to, without being especially religious. Those who take a great interest usually form a strong commitment to their home religion. A few convert to other beliefs, and a very few to some way-out cult.

Most people do not seriously think of alternatives to the existing social structure. Those who do think of alternatives mostly repudiate them. Some work to change the social structure, and a very few would like to change it a lot.

S.i. concentrates on the social structure part, noting that the ideal alternatives proposed by the various groups and movements form a spectrum and studying the implications of this. (At least, it claims to be doing that, although it actually focuses mainly on the alternatives in the direction of socialism, largely disregarding the social ideals of fascists, theocratists and legitimists). But we observe that the same rules apply in every cultural field. “Conservatives with a small c” predominate, and conscious conservatives are usually the second largest group.

In fact, all animals which learn are conservatives with a small c. If they are curious, they prefer to exercise their curiosity in the security of a familiar environment. In an unfamiliar one they become distressed and try to regain the familiar. They want to use what they have already learned, not to go through the learning process again and again. The relevant difference between humans and other animals is that humans can explore in imagination what they never experience in real life. They can think about alternative foods, alternative arts, alternative religions and alternative social structures. But they don’t have to.

Anarchists imagine, and desire, different social structures from the ones they know externally. With regard to other aspects of culture, however, they seem about as conservative as anybody else. In some Brazilian villages it is the custom for all the villagers to sleep in one bed, “for warmth.” Most anarchists have not considered this possibility (conservatism with a small c). Others will have considered it, but decided they prefer the privacy they are used to (conscious conservatism).

Back to non-human animals. An animal distressed by an unfamiliar environment does not lose its learning ability. It adapts to the new surroundings, and if these are more comfortable than the old, comes to prefer them. Gerald Durrell somewhere describes the distress of animals released after only a few days of captivity (when some financial sponsorship of a collecting trip was withdrawn), who had come to prefer handouts in cages to foraging and danger.

The prognosis for social improvement is optimistic. People resist change but adapt to new circumstances quickly. Remember when coinage was decimalised. Remember when supermarkets were introduced. Remember immigration from the “new Commonwealth.” The new rapidly becomes the norm. Of course there cannot be a human society where people behave in ways outside the repertoire of human behaviour, but that still allows many possibilities. Foraging and horticultural societies are mostly organised as autonomous clans or villages. Agriculture appears to have originated independently in three different places, and in each of those places there arose kings who were either divine or had a special relationship with the divine. In industrial societies great value is placed on popular will, by democratic political structures and dictators who claim a popular mandate.

The above suggests that social structures are largely linked to economies, but there is also evidence that changes in cultural and social attitudes can be brought about by the conscious efforts of enthusiasts. The changes do not proceed as rapidly as the enthusiasts would wish, but a brake on enthusiasm is no bad thing, except of course in the case of my own enthusiasm.

from Ideological Commentary 51, May 1991