Introducing the Zombie Meditations Reading List (pt.1)

The reading list has been up now for a week or two, and I figured it would be worthwhile to provide a synopsis of each work and explain how each fits into what might loosely be considered the ‘ZM worldview’. This actually might be one of the most efficient methods of making it clear just what “the ZM worldview” actually is. 

The first three books, The Way of Men and Becoming a Barbarian from Jack Donovan sandwiched around Tribe by Sebastian Junger, all deal with the theme of tribalism—more specifically, with the idea that individualism has actually made modern life more anxious, more depressive, and more abrasive by corroding the tribal bonds that we’re wired for.

. In his own words, Sebastian Junger made the decision to write Tribe after:

“I was at a remote outpost called Restrepo. … It was a 20-man position, everyone sleeping basically shoulder to shoulder in the dirt at first and then in these little hooches.

And it was very intimate, very close, very connected, emotionally connected experience. And after the deployment, which was — the deployment was hellish. And afterward the deployment, a lot of those guys missed the combat and they didn’t want to come home to America.

What is it about modern society that’s so repellent even to people that are from there? And my book “Tribe” is an attempt to answer that question.” [1]

If you resonated with the themes of Fight Club, you’ll appreciate these books for taking a more prolonged and serious look at them. As Chuck Palahniuk put it:

“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war … our Great Depression is our lives.” – Fight Club

Sebastian Junger is a rather more mainstream figure than Jack Donovan (more than one of his books became international best sellers, and he’s been Oscar–nominated for his work as a documentarian), and his book adds several historical and modern case examples to the picture. For example, he starts off with a discussion of the hundreds of early American settlers captured by American Indians who, upon release, preferred to join American Indian tribes rather than rejoin their own societies—and points out that even after the settlers resorted to instituting harsh punishments to deter settlers from running away in the early 1600s, hundreds continued to do so regardless.

“ … modern society is a miracle in a lot of ways, right? But as affluence goes up in a society, the suicide rate tends to go up, not down. As affluence goes up in a society, the depression rate goes up. When a crisis hits, then people’s psychological health starts to improve. After 9/11 in New York City — I live in New York — and after 9/11, the suicide rate went down in New York, not up. It went down. It improved. Violent crime went down. Murder went down. There was a sense that everyone needs each other.” [1]

Junger starts growing lazy right around the point where he starts discussing solutions, however. On the one hand, he says that the Internet “is doubly dangerous for all — and, again, for all of its miraculous capacity, not only does it not provide real community and real human connection. It gives you the illusion that it does, right? … what you need is to feel people, smell them, hear them, feel them around you. I mean, that’s the human connection that we evolved for, for hundreds of thousands of years. The Internet doesn’t provide that.” He also admits that “humans lose the ability to connect emotionally with people after a certain number, right at 150. So there is a limit to the number of people we can connect with and that we can feel capable of sacrificing ourselves for if need be.”

Yet, when he goes on to suggest actual solutions, he sounds like this: “I think the trick — and this country is in a very, very tricky place socially, economically, politically — I think the trick, if you want to be a functioning country, a nation, a viable nation, you have to define tribe to include the entire country, even people you disagree with.”

But talk to any member of the Armed Forces, and if the conversation goes on for long enough, nearly without exception they’ll make it very clear that the “Tribe” they were really inspired to fight for wasn’t ‘America,’ it was the men standing right next to them. And it’s beyond obvious that a country is made up of more than Junger’s limit of 150 people. What Junger proposes is every bit as distant from our tribal evolutionary nature as modern society is, and if we could just define that core nature out of being a problem so easily, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.

That’s where Jack Donovan comes in with a far more rigorous discussion of what’s needed to replace what we have now. In an essay titled Tribalism is Not Humanitarianism in which he takes Junger to task directly, Donovan writes:

Junger thinks that while life in the modern West is safe and comfortable, some of the reasons returning soldiers find themselves yearning for the war, and why even civilians who have lived through conflict or disaster find themselves remembering their ordeals, “more fondly than weddings or tropical vacations,” may be because they miss being in a situation where their actions truly mattered, and people helped each other out. He writes:

“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.”

This is absolutely true, and I’ve written basically the same thing about the general ennui of men in modern post-feminist nations — where their natural roles are performed by corporations and government institutions, and they are reduced to mere sources of income and insemination.

Junger says people in modern society are missing a sense of tribe, and he’s right, but he stops short of either truly understanding or being willing to address the totality of what it means to be part of a tribe. The elements of tribalism that make it fundamentally incompatible with pluralism and globalism go unmentioned or unexamined in Tribe, and what remains is a handful of vague, disappointing bromides about not cheating and treating political opponents more fairly and helping each other so we don’t “lose our humanity.”

… Tribalism is defined as, “strong loyalty to one’s own tribe, party, or group.” Tribal belonging is exclusive and the camaraderie and generosity that Junger admires in tribal people is functional because the group has defined boundaries [my emphasis]. Tribal people are generally not wandering do-gooders. Tribal people help each other because helping each other means helping “us,” and they know who their “us” is. In a well-defined tribal group where people know or at least recognize each other as members, people who share voluntarily are socially rewarded and people who do not are punished or removed from the group. Reciprocity is also relatively immediate and recognizable. There is a return for showing that you are “on the team.”

Junger writes that, “It makes absolutely no sense to make sacrifices for a group that, itself, isn’t willing to make sacrifices for you.”

He recognizes that American tribal identity, to the extent that it ever existed, is collapsing internally when he warns that, “People who speak with contempt for one another will probably not remain united for long,” and remarks, “…the ultimate terrorist strategy would be to just leave the country alone.”

… The nationalistic pluralism of the early United States was a project started by men with similar religious beliefs (however ready they were to die over the details). Those men also shared a similar European cultural and racial heritage. They all looked alike, and while they came from different regions, each with its own quirks and sometimes even a different language, they were all the genetic and cultural heirs to a broader Western heritage that stretched back to the Classical period.

American pluralism was initially a pluralism within limits, but those limits were either so poorly defined or relied so heavily on implied assumptions that membership was progressively opened to include anyone from anywhere, of any race, of any sex, who believes absolutely anything.

… People in Western nations haven’t “somehow lost” the kinds of ancestral narratives and common cultures that unite people and encourage them to look out for each other and stick together. Those cultures and narratives have been systematically undermined by the institutions of Western governments, in favor of a “multicultural” approach that better serves the interests of globally oriented corporations.

That brings me to another book on the list: Ricardo Duchesne’s The Uniqueness of Western Civilization. Uniqueness examines the systematic undermining of these American cultural–historical narratives by academia in rigorous detail, and exposes the flaws in the alternative, revisionist, “multiculturalist” approach that has taken its place. Advocates of the latter camp—who predominate in American universities, and are celebrated in the national media—argue that the extraordinary wealth and power acquired by Western society came late, as a result of nothing other than luck, and will therefore necessarily only be temporary. Duchesne, in contrast, places heavy emphasis on the cultural and intellectual life of the populations the founders descended from—the Indo–European, horse–riding nomads of the Pontic–Caspian steppes, whose culture represented a uniquely aggressive combination of the libertarian and aristocratic spirits.

In April of 2016, the students of Stanford University voted 1,992 to 347 against an effort to restore the college requirement for courses in Western Civilization. In a hostile article in the Stanford Daily, a student writing under the name ‘Erika Lynn Abigail Persephone Joanna Kreeger’ complains that “Stanford is already a four-year academic exercise in Western Civilizations … In her first lecture of the macroeconomics section of Econ 1, the professor rhetorically asked why Africa — yes, Africa — was so poor, and answered … [by failing to] mention colonialism, occupation and capitalism as driving forces in the creation of poverty…,” concluding that “… a Western Civ requirement would necessitate that our education be centered on upholding white supremacy, capitalism and colonialism, and all other oppressive systems that flow from Western civilizations….” and suggesting instead that the University should require “courses that will make students question whether they should be the ones to go forward and make changes in the world…”

It would be interesting to see students with opinions like Ms. Kreeger’s take a look at the actual correlation between Western colonialism and African wealth. (See here.) The per capita GDP in Haiti—which achieved its independence from France in 1804—in 2013 was about $1700. Meanwhile, blacks in South Africa, the most colonized part of Africa by far, have a per capita GDP of about $5800. (See here.) There’s also really no correlation between the wealth of nations and how deeply those nations engaged in colonization. (See here and here.)  The prevalence of these self–deprecating condemnations of Western Civilization as bearing blame for — yes, literally — the entire world’s ills are exactly why a corrective like Duchesne’s is so necessary.

War! What is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots by Ian Morris, Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth by Peter Turchin, and A Country Made By War: From the Revolution to Vietnam—The Story of America’s Rise to Power by Geoffrey Perret all address the same theme through the specific lens of war.

War! What is it Good For? takes a very broad historical approach to the subject, starting all the way back in pre–history and showing that at every single step towards civilization, people have only ever banded together in larger groups (whether individuals into tribes, or tribes into states, or states into countries) because they had to do so in order to overpower or defend themselves against another, outside, larger group. Referencing Stephen Pinker’s research in The Better Angels of Our Nature which shows that the world is actually becoming less violent over time (you were much more likely to be clubbed on the head by a neighbor or invaded by a neighboring tribe in a tribal society than you are today under a state government to be killed by an opposing state in a war or murdered by a neighbor), he expresses his thesis in an aphorism: “War made the state, and the state made peace.” In other words, just as tribes suppress violence between tribesmen because they need to be internally cooperative in order to successfully defend themselves against outside tribes, so states suppress violence between their citizens because they need to be internally cooperative in order to successfully defend themselves against outside states.

To put it another way, the need for violence (in certain contexts) is actually the only reason human beings have ever historically tried to suppress violence (in certain other contexts). Morris also explains that the development of agriculture was as central to the evolution of Western society as it was because it raised the stakes of war: with the development of a system of food production which tethered people to fixed resource bases, suddenly war meant that you could capture territory—and that outsiders were interested in capturing yours. Thus, the need for agriculturalists to band together in groups to protect their collective properties became instrumental in the evolution of the political structure of the West.

Peter Turchin’s Ultrasociety argues exactly the same point, but with a different spin that makes it entirely worth reading both books. Discerning readers may have noticed that there seems to be a tension between the ideas discussed in the first part of this essay and the apparent implication of Ian Morris’ work that the evolution of tribal societies into states is inevitable. Peter Turchin brings this tension full–circle, in his own words:

“Here’s how war serves to weed out societies that “go bad.” When discipline, imposed by the need to survive conflict, gets relaxed, societies lose their ability to cooperate. A reactionary catchphrase of the 1970s used to go, “what this generation needs is a war,” a deplorable sentiment but one that in terms of cultural evolution might sometimes have a germ of cold logic.

At any rate, there is a pattern that we see recurring throughout history, when a successful empire expands its borders so far that it becomes the biggest kid on the block. When survival is no longer at stake, selfish elites and other special interest groups capture the political agenda. The spirit that “we are all in the same boat” disappears and is replaced by a “winner take all” mentality. …

Beyond a certain point a formerly great empire becomes so dysfunctional that smaller, more cohesive neighbors begin tearing it apart. Eventually the capacity for cooperation declines to such a low level that barbarians can strike at the very heart of the empire without encountering significant resistance. But barbarians at the gate are not the real cause of imperial collapse. They are a consequence of the failure to sustain social cooperation. As the British historian Arnold Toynbee said, great civilisations are not murdered – they die by suicide.”

Rounding out the “war” section of the “world history” section of the list, “A Country Made By War” is more a mytho–poetic narrative of America’s conflicts than an argument for a specific thesis—though it does emphasize the ways in which war has impacted daily civilian life: for example, it was World War I that established the trend of mens’ use of wristwatches and safety razors. From an entirely different angle, A Country Made By War helps round out an understanding of how deeply war impacts our daily lives.

Next under the heading of “history”: A Farewell to Alms, in which economic historian Gregory Clark takes a close look at one of the most significant turning points in human history (and of course, again, Western society): the Industrial Revolution. Why did it happen when it happened?

The conventional arguments have always focused on institutional economic conditions, with claims that markets became freer, property rights became more secure, and so on and so forth. But Clark shows that none of this is true—in fact, markets were even freer before the period of time in which the Industrial Revolution took place.

But what did happen is that “Thrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work [became] values for communities that… [had been] spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving.” In other words, the traits of the upper class spread to the lower classes. As a result, people began to save instead of spend—and that is why capital accumulation finally began to exert its exponential increases on human productivity.

However, this shift in values didn’t happen due to cultural transmission—it didn’t happen because the rich began a campaign of propaganda directed at the pooror because the poor just decided to start being more prudent. It happened because the offspring of the upper classes were replacing the offspring of the lower classes in the population.

What difference between Europe, India, and China explains why the Industrial Revolution happened in the former instead of either of the latter two? According to Clark’s extensive research, the cause was the fact that Europe was much more Darwinian—the upper classes weren’t replacing the lower classes anywhere near as quickly in either India or China over the same period of time.

Since we know that several traits relevant to the ability to delay gratification in pursuit of one’s goals and act with foresight—like conscientiousness, or the tendency to procrastinate, or impulsiveness—are all heavily influenced by genes, the conclusion we end up with is that we literally owe the greatest explosion of wealth and productivity that mankind has ever seen to what essentially amounts to a process of eugenics. 

Find the claim distasteful if you want, but the evidence Clark presents gives incredibly strong reason to believe that it is true. Clark’s thesis is harsh—it suggests that if not for what was essentially a lot of innocent people dying off, the First World wouldn’t have become the First World. But Clark’s case is overwhelming. His follow–up, The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility (not included in the list), examines two points: first, he shows just how little social mobility there actually is in any society on Earth—it’s much less than most of us would have expected. Second, he shows that the tendency of the descendants of a particular familial lineage to regress to a ‘mean’ of social standing peculiar to that family despite temporary dips and jumps in each generation lines up exactly with what we would predict on the assumption that genetic inheritance was responsible for the larger bulk of this phenomena. He even tracks the heritability of social status over the course of the Maoist revolution in China, or the transition from the leftist Allenda government in Chile to the right–wing Pinochet administration, and finds that none of these policies had any impact on it at all. That’s not exactly the most exciting track record for anyone who thinks they can make different groups of people become more equal through social engineering.

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