Serpents in the Walled Garden
“Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast...”
A world without children cannot maintain a high degree of centralization indefinitely. In a way, this is the point that the whole series has been revolving around. Frankly this is a bit of a surprise to me, as I didn’t expect it to be as important as it’s becoming. Writers tend to be kinda thick in the head, and I’m no exception. In the last few months, the installments in this series have been slower than expected due to a very complicated house move that’s taken on epic proportions of its own (please accept my apologies on that front—installments should start coming more regularly again). But it ain’t all bad—it’s given me a chance to reflect pretty deeply on the themes that are emerging as I explore the nature of the change we’re all living through.
There are a few reasons that children keep cropping up in this series. There’s the obvious economics geek reason which I’ve already picked over (i.e. large consumer economies depend on the consumption of youngsters and the production of the middle-aged, and if it loses the youngsters then the economy implodes), but that’s actually just a very obvious effect of a larger underlying dynamic.
With most species, the younger generations ensure continuation of the species, full stop. With humans, they do more than that.
Humans, like other animals, seek to survive in the environments in which they find themselves. Unlike other animals, they create cultural and technological systems of immense dynamism, and it is the tension between the boundless competitive risk-taking energy of youth and the [relative] wisdom of age and experience that both keeps a culture fresh and keeps a civilization on track. Then, as one elder generation ages out, the younger generation takes its place, and this hand-off allows for changes to take place in response to ecological conditions (weather patterns, economic realities, geopolitical issues, plagues, etc.). This generational rhythm is older than humanity itself; we’ve just taken the age-old rhythm of life and turned it up to eleven.
In human cultures, regardless of their environment or ethnic composition, roles and labor get divided up along two axes: age and sex.
Let’s look at age. Roughly speaking, human life happens in stages that look something like this:
Childhood, during which people absorb the rules of life and explore the world around them. In most cultures, this period involves considerable independence and free play (including a lot of role-playing), as well as fleeting periods of apprenticeship with the various adult artisans who do the jobs that make the civilization function.
Apprenticeship and Initiation, during which a child passes into adulthood and begins formal training in the role which he of she will fill. In some cultures this period is quite short, lasting between a few weeks and a couple years. In agrarian cultures, this period usually lasted from age thirteen to age twenty-one. In WEIRD cultures, we call this period “Adolescence” and we tend to do all we can to encourage its extension further and further into what used to be called “adulthood.”
Adulthood, the stage during which one is a fully-invested participant in one’s culture and civilization. This is the stage of childbearing, of earning one’s bones, of building the respect, prestige, and good will that ultimately becomes the capital which one trades for decent treatment and social security during old age.
Elderhood begins at around the time one starts having grandchildren (late thirties to mid-forties, except in the WEIRD world). This is the stage in which one begins to exercise palpable social power, and at which point the influence, social capital, and expertise one has built up becomes bankable. One’s social obligations change, as well, moving from the position of a middle-of-the-pack worker to being a master who apprentices the younger generation. The WEIRD delay of the transition to elderhood, and the cheapening of its value (fostered by the growing bureaucratization of life, the commercial idolization of youth, and delayed childbearing brought about by the financial pressures of urbanization) has given us towering modern achievements like The Mid-Life Crisis and Middle-aged men who behave like petulant teenagers.
Finally, you have the Old Ones. These are the people who manage to live into their seventies, eighties, and nineties—long enough that, in pre-literate societies, they become living records and great storehouses of cultural knowledge. In pre-modern commercial societies they often are the matriarchs and patriarchs who control the marriages and other important choices of the younger generations by granting favors, securing dowries, financing home purchases, and setting those youngsters up in business. In WEIRD civilizations, they are mostly tolerated as “out of touch” or sequestered in nursing home so as not to complicate life for their descendants.
How each of these stages look depends on what civilization you’re in and (even in WEIRD countries) what sex you are, but the structure itself remains at such a basic layer that we’re seldom aware of it.
Once upon a time, two fish went swimming in a stream on a particularly splendid day. The first turned to the second and said:
“The water’s nice and warm today, isn’t it?”
The second replied: “What water?”
Everything about the way every culture everywhere works is predicated upon our nature as animals. Not just the basics of eating, sleeping, waste disposal, and breeding, but the stages of life itself. Many of us find it hard to wrap our minds around that, especially when we’re young and immortal and convinced that somehow we can avoid becoming old and tired and “seen-it-all-before.” One of the features of being young is that we experience obligation (especially family obligation) as a form of oppression. It’s this feeling that pushes us out of the nest and spurs us to run from childhood and into adulthood, and to make our own place in the world. Lacking the experience to know what can’t be done, we are in an excellent position to provide fresh, stupid-sounding ideas during moments of upheaval—ideas that sometimes, shockingly, work out rather well. Having old fogies around who can moderate the more destructive of such impulses doesn’t hurt either.
But something strange happened on the way to the WEIRD world and the Long Peace. The world got...automated. In the world of the hunter-gatherer, or the world of the non-mechanized agrarian, survival is a full-time job. Oh, the tasks are more varied, and the schedule doesn’t hue to the demands of a clock—work tends to come in waves rather than at the steady drip-drip of a machine—but all of life is nakedly structured around the environment’s ability to provide food and water.
Automation changed that, and, in so doing, it threw a lot of people out of work. We’re used to this now—a new technology upends an industry, the old guard gets tossed out of work and either forced into retirement or forced to re-train and scramble to maintain their previous standard of living (with varying degrees of success), but the net result is that the new industry created after the disruption creates more opportunities that, in aggregate, employ greater numbers of people even if fewer of them are employed directly by the industry in question before the disruption happened.
But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the longer-term bend of automation—or, rather, the secondary effects of automation—which tend to throw entire identifiable classes of people out of work...permanently.
Well, the primary effect of automation is abundance and freedom. A tractor on the farm means you don’t need as many draft animals, so instead of spending two-to-three hours every day tending the animals, you can spend two to three hours every week maintaining the machines that replace them.
A tractor also makes faster work of plowing, hauling, etc. and can be set up as an engine that needs semi-passive monitoring instead of active constant engagement, so the farmer can read while he’s working—and, when the first tractors hit the first farms, this is what many farmers in fact did. That single tool (the tractor) with its common implements attached could plow fields, haul trailers, split wood, bale hay, power a saw mill, harvest crops (and, not too long after, winnow them during harvest), and drill holes for wells, fence posts, and piers.
Increased productivity and decreased effort creates abundance and freedom. That abundance and freedom raises the education levels of farmers and makes them dream about educating their children so that their children can make more money not-farming. It reduces the time that children and hired hands have to spend on the land, giving all involved more opportunities to develop side-interests. It eventually makes holding onto hired hands unprofitable, so longstanding multi-generational labor arrangements get replaced by seasonal migrant labor.
The same effect happened across all industries, at different rates. The increase in productivity initially helped fill a vast well of unmet-demand, resulting in a tremendous industrial build-out that economists call “base-effect growth.” Since the population was sharply rising while the available agricultural jobs were gradually falling, there was no shortage of labor in the factory towns.
When labor is a buyer’s market, labor conditions are typically terrible, and they were. Dangerous, poisonous, with a very high risk of death and disfigurement for very little pay, all while many of the bosses exercised dictatorial authority over the private lives and “morals” of their employees. Many work rooms were led by little Hitlers, Stalins, Maos, Calvins, and (especially) Mrs. Grundys, and life got miserable—but not *quite* so miserable that people were willing to leave the cities and return to life as an itinerant farm-worker. The factory life, at least, offered more security and the hope—however thin—that one’s children would have access to better opportunities and a higher quality of life.
But if that better future was going to happen, the problem of labor oversupply had to be solved, and fast.
The medieval world had a solution to the problem of labor oversupply: Guilds.
A “Guild” was cartel of skilled artisans who basically used organized crime tactics to keep competition at bay. If you were a blacksmith, and wanted to move to a new town and set up shop, you first had to petition the local guild for permission to be allowed to do business. If you couldn’t convince them that you wouldn’t create the kind of competition that would lower prices or undermine consumer confidence, you weren’t allowed in. If you set up shop anyway, you could expect ostracism, broken legs, arsonists, and (in extreme cases) death.
Factory owners got around the guild system by breaking down the tasks involved in various forms of work so that you didn’t need skilled artisans to do most of the work. In response, workers adapted the old guild idea into the labor union. Today we think of unions—at least, healthy unions who are fulfilling their purpose—as being a form of collective bargaining which helps skilled workers get a better deal than they could get negotiating a’la carte. This is what they became after they first successfully became labor vending corporations that worked through controlling the supply of relatively unskilled (at least, by the standards of the time) labor.
The first goal of a union is to constrain the labor supply, and the most expedient way to do that is by appeals to public morals and prejudices. In the former camp are things like Child Labor Laws. Children on the factory floors were frequently employed to crawl into small spaces and do cleaning and repairs, getting them up-close-and-personal with the business end of rapidly spinning weights and blades and covered in chemicals whose toxicity and long-term health consequences wouldn’t be well understood for a generation or few. In a world where upwardly-mobile middle-class women are looking for ways to re-secure social power after having it stripped from them by the process of urbanization, the social welfare of children makes for a ready-made political crusade. Against the united front of concerned mothers and union workers, the presence of children in the factories didn’t stand for long.
In the latter camp, in places where Irish and black and Chinese workers could be kept out of the union by policy, a scab problem developed: minority workers were willing to undercut the union wages for any chance at bootstrapping their family fortunes. To deal with this, the same coalition of concerned middle-class women and union workers (and bosses) mounted a campaign for minimum wage, in the name of “worker dignity.” The natural (and intended) effect of the minimum wage was to further restrict the labor supply by excluding minorities from the labor pool, thus protecting the wage base of union workers.
With that done, the last group of people to get largely swept out of the industrial workforce were women. Importing the Victorian ideal of female gentility down the class ladder helped to increase the social pressure on women not to work, and the rising wages of union workers—especially those in more skilled positions—made it possible to support a small family on a single full-time income, with perhaps a little help-around-the-edges from other members of the family doing odd jobs.
Which only leaves one problem:
What do you do with all these people who’ve been thrown out of work, especially those who are now prohibited from re-entering the labor market either by law, custom, and union rules or by dint of retraining difficulty?
Well, privileged children had schools to teach them to be the leaders of civilization. Why couldn’t the common folk have schools that would teach them to be good workers? It would set them up for (relative) success, and, even better, it would ensure lower training costs for the industrialists, and really good schools would—in the long run—help turn out workers that were better disciplined, more trusting of authority, and less willing to stick their neck out if they felt they were being mistreated.
And even better than that, it took care of one of those most basic problems in life:
Children are...annoying. They’re loud. They pick their noses. A lot of them smell weird. They don’t respect other people’s space. They don’t know all the rules yet. They are so bothersome that even with Mother Nature constantly doping mothers and fathers with opiate-like chemicals when they’re around their babies, said parents still sometimes kill their babies and toddlers for the crime of being annoying and unmanageable. In other words, children are so bothersome and demanding that the best that millions of years of mammalian evolution can accomplish in the name of child-protection is a drug cocktail that usually keeps us from killing them before they get big enough to hit back.
And, as living standards went up, it became fashionable to have children who were “seen and not heard”—or, better yet, not even noticed at all except when put on show. The suburbs made this easier, creating a situation that, from a child’s point of view, was a lot like the small towns of the 19th century; enough freedom to more-or-less run free and have enough privacy to sort out their own affairs, while still being close enough to watchful eyes that there was little risk of getting into serious trouble. At home, children were out of the hair of parents—and, even if not truly out of public view, they were at least largely confined to suburban neighborhoods. And, for six-to-eight glorious hours per day for nine glorious months per year, they were locked up behind institutional doors where behavioral psychologists were continually monkeying with the terms of their imprisonment in the ever-progressing quest to create the perfect workers.
By the time World War Two ended, the labor oversupply problem had basically been solved. Killing a healthy percentage of the adult male population and then reflexively and unceremoniously shoving the adult female population back into their box will do that. The new theory of Keynsian economics promised that Those Who Know Best would be able to “Plan the Peace” just as well as they’d managed the wartime economies—with enough data, a good managerial class should be able to keep supply and demand more-or-less balanced and keep the economy (and, by extension, the culture) from the difficult times implicit in the boom-and-bust cycle.
Unfortunately, human nature did not comply. The Baby Boom that followed created a labor oversupply problem that broke the back of the unions, that broke the economic system, that created so much growth so fast that it shattered the continuity of culture and further alienated each succeeding generation from the preceding one to a degree unheard-of in the history of civilization. Nonetheless, the school system did succeed in its new mission: creating a good army of Cold Warriors.
Then, when the crisis of the 1970s finished turning America into a consuming nation in terms of its balance-of-trade, the system was able to shift gears and create the perfect consumers on the back of a rising economic tide—electronics—that had planned obsolescence built so deeply into its DNA that the economic churn could continue endlessly into the future.
However, there is a wrinkle with human nature that nobody really reckoned with:
Bored people are harder to control.
Peasant revolts, while they happen regularly throughout history, rarely accomplish anything lasting. Revolts of the bourgeoisie, on the other hand, tend to have lasting effects. The American Revolution, The French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, Mao’s Cultural Revolution—all were revolts by the well-to-do; overeducated, materially comfortable people trained and bred to the managerial class who found that the world they’d been trained for either did not exist, did not have a place for them, or was rapidly disappearing. When there aren’t enough managerial jobs to absorb such people, they tend to strike out on their own. They found NGOs, they become lobbyists, they go into activism, and in extreme cases they take matches to buildings.
Automation-enabled comfort opens human existence to boundless possibilities, and some brave souls step through the door of possibility and become visionaries. But the rest of us, the ones who are just a cut below those grand visionaries...well, we need some way to feel important. To “make a difference.” And, by the time we get to be adults, we’ve all learned through long cultural and institutional training that things like “parenthood” and “tradition” are things only closed-minded reactionaries value, so if we want those things we’d better prioritize them lower than we prioritize “career” and “social climbing” and voting for the right people.
In such a world, those trained to crave political power but who don’t have the gumption or leverage to actually spark a revolution have little choice but to create little pockets of influence for themselves as rule-makers, cultural enforcers, cult leaders—and to secure those positions, they must, of course, accept the patronage of whomever they can get to write a check. Over time they gradually bend themselves to the will of those who control the money hose. At every level, the managerial class becomes more and more susceptible to graft and corruption, all the while convincing themselves that their motives are pure and their actions unsullied, since it was their free choice to enter their field and to associate with their patrons. The small, drip-drip of compromises don’t even register.
And why would they? Since the age of five or six, they’ve been locked into a behavioral research laboratory and deliberately trained to enjoy the praise of their social betters, to scorn their social inferiors, and to regard the approval of authority as superior to the approval of their peers or the freedom of their consciences. The walled gardens of school, and culture, and economy breed their own serpents, and when the opportunities in every other part of the garden run dry, there’s always room for a few more snakes to suck the trust out of the river that keeps the civilization alive.
This process is called “centralization.”
And when, eventually, the opportunities dry up even for these entrepreneurs and the supply of managers and leaders still flows? Those surplus elites—be they visionaries or mediocrities—are forced outside the walled garden and into the wilderness . They may start companies, or new religions. They may invent new technologies that make an end-run about centers of power. They may build bombs. In any case, they gather other exiles about themselves and foment their fever dreams, imagining how the entire system might be re-designed, undermined, and brought low. In time, these exiles become an army of evangelists, or of soldiers, and they throw themselves against the garden walls.
This process is called “revolution.”