A while ago I heard the phrase “insulting the meat” (or alternatively, “shaming the meat”) and it stuck with me. It refers to a practice by certain hunter-gatherer tribes of telling successful hunters how their meat is garbage. When I looked it up on Wikipedia, it was called a “leveling mechanism”. Basically, a leveling mechanism is a tool for keeping people from getting too proud.
Things have changed
The first thing I thought of when I heard of the practice of insulting the meat is that it is pretty dumb. I mean, if you shame people who bring home meat, won’t that create a disincentive to bring home meat? I mean, these guys really need to read Ayn Rand or something, right?
But perhaps things are different than they were back then. Let’s say there is a tradeoff between productivity and social harmony. Presumably, the practice of insulting the meat evolved after a long time, and balances these things in a way that is appropriate for their society. But you could imagine that if circumstances change, the tradeoffs can change too.
For example, imagine that roots and berries start to get more scarce and people need more big game to survive. At least initially, I would bet that people would reduce how often they insult the meat because the value of hunters increased. But eventually, a tribe may need to increase the frequency and intensity of insulting the meat because successful hunters would get really big heads if they are needed more.
Anyway, one of the ways that things have changed in modern society is that we now have these immense tournaments where winning holds the potential of providing great and lasting wealth (i.e., the business world). But the competition is very intense and the “hunters” need quite a bit of confidence to stick in the game long enough to succeed.
So maybe the reason why insulting the meat seems so foreign to me is that I live in a high stakes society where there are huge potential rewards for being a great hunter who is also an obnoxious asshole.
Things stay the same
After thinking about the issue for a while more, I still think the rewards for top competitors are much greater in today’s society than they were in hunter-gatherer tribes, but there is something else going on. Basically, leveling mechanisms didn’t go away, they just got more sophisticated.
So, for example, consider this famous leveling mechanism:
For the love of money is the root of all of evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. — 1 Timothy 6:10
Yeah, in fact, you could argue that keeping successful people in check is one of the primary roles of religion. Obviously some people use religion to gain power and prestige, but as an institution in society, religion is a very sophisticated, large-scale levelling mechanism.
So today I was listening to some music in the car with my family and the following song came on (which I love, by the way):
So, basically, in the movie Moana, Maui represents successful asshole. The song is him recounting how all the great things that people enjoy are due to him. It’s kind of like an extended justification of the patriarchy. But, importantly, it’s ironic.
The fact that in our society a song about the awesomeness of a great hunter and warrior has to be ironic points to the existence of another great leveling mechanism that has emerged in society: post-modernism. Basically, modernism represenrts the emergence of new ways for giant assholes to bring great benefits to society (namely, by doing things like creating new technology). Post-modernism is the inevitable response — i.e., the development of new and more sophisticated ways to cut the great hunters down to size.
In modern society, post-modernism is so ascendant that it doesn’t even really require explanation to understand that the song “You’re Welcome” is ironic.
It reminds me of spiral dynamics:
When new technologies emerge it provides more means of competition, and more ways for great hunters to benefit by being great hunters. Certain phases of the spiral dynamics evolution represent these new developmental phases (i.e., beige, red, orange — I am going to ignore yellow for now, cause I think the higher levels are kind of bullshit).
Anyway, anytime the great warriors gain the upper hand by taking advantage of new social and technological developments, the priests come along and develop new and more sophisticated means of keeping them in their place.
Priests and warriors
so one way to view society is that it there is always a great divide between those who engage in the competition, and those who are engaged in ensuring harmony. I.e., the hunters and the levelers. And because I love quadrants I want to add another dimension between those who do their job in a conventional way, and those who are more independent/creative:
In our society, “priests” mostly correspond to the “Deep State” institutions like academia, media, civil service (and of course, religion). The “soldiers” on the other hand, are those who compete in small business (and, to a smaller extent, sports and the actual military). In this model, the “warriors” are the entrepreneurs, and the “prophets” are the intellectuals who question the ethical foundations of society.
There is also a correspondence between the “priests” and the political left, and between “soldiers” and the right. See, e.g., one of my favorite political diagrams:
The role of religion
But wait, if I associate the political right with the “competing” side, and religion is a leveling mechanism, why are people on the right more religious than people on the left?
My answer, which I outlined in a previous post, is that religion is an old levelling mechanism which has been largely replaced by the state. Christianity emerged in the first few centuries AD as a response to the power structures of the day, and isn’t really fully equipped to deal with modern capitalism. Newer democratic institutions had to evolve to manage the redistribution of wealth and status necessary to maintain some kind of balance in society.
To put it in another way, people on the left aren’t “religious” because they have a new religion (i.e., leveling mechanism) that goes by another name. The old religions compete for the same social space with the new religion, so those who adopt the new religion feel some kind of rivalry with the old religion.
People on the right, meanwhile, are perfectly happy to adopt and utilize new forms of competition, but they are, naturally, a little skeptical of new and more powerful leveling mechanisms.
Ok, so if the main role of the modern state is to serve as a really sophisticated leveling mechanism, how is it doing?
Well, one of the big criticisms of the State that you sometimes hear is that the state isn’t effective (see, e.g., Mencius Moldbug) or that we should focus on making the Sate more effective in a limited sphere (see, e.g., State Capacity Libertarianism). A lot of people have complained that the State (in the US and elsewhere) has been ineffective in the face of the covid crisis.
However, if viewed primarily as a leveling mechanism, it isn’t really fair to accuse the state of being ineffective. The purpose of the state isn’t to be effective. It’s to prevent those who are effective (i.e., the good hunters) from destroying society with their pride.
So is the state effective at doing this? I actually think that is a hard question. On the one hand, inequality has been going up, and this is a sign that maybe the “hunters” are ascendant:
Of course, it may be the case the inequality has been going up since the 60’s because it was just at an all time low during that period:
Measures of street protests, on the other hand, seem to indicate that the US is seeing an increase that is part of a global phenomenon:
And of course, there is the whole Trump phenomenon. I basically interpret Trump as being a reaction to a feeling of political helplessness on the right. That is, the left is gaining power and the right can’t seem to do anything about it, so they chose an extreme representative willing to break some of the old rules of propriety.
Anyway, my assessment is that for the last 50 years or so, capitalism has been creating increasing social pressures due to increasing economic inequality. As a result, the left is slowly gaining in political influence. And as a result of that, the political right has recently become desperate, and may even fall apart.
Ok, so to recap:
- “Insulting the meat” is an ancient leveling mechanism, which is a means of maintaining social harmony by reducing the status of successful providers
- Technological changes provide greater and greater incentives for “winning”, which creates room for big-headed assholes to emerge
- After new forms of competition emerge that offer these greater rewards, new leveling mechanisms emerge to compensate
- Religion is an example of a powerful level leveling mechanism, that was new once, but is now insufficient to balance out modern capitalism
- Modern society is dominated by institutions directed toward competition (i.e., capitalism) and those directed toward keeping capitalism in check (i.e., the Deep State)
- We shouldn’t judge the state based on how effective it is at producing things or solving problems. Rather, the effectiveness of the state should be judged on how well it prevents successful people from causing disharmony by lording it over less successful people.