A post dedicated to setting down in black and white the great conceptual frameworks within which we understand the world.
The nature of the human race
Since the origin of our species, we humans have grouped ourselves to satisfy the needs of our own existence, which is to say, to produce everything that makes our survival possible. By joining into community to produce, humans make it the essence of their social organization to transform nature. However, in the course of time, a new result appears, which surpasses the initial objective of the mere production of tools and food: knowledge.
Applying knowledge allows humans to make their work produce more and more results. Acquired knowledge, by collectively transforming Nature, which is to say, by working, will materialize in new tools and ways of producing: what we call technology. Because production is a social, collective act, technological development will also drive changes in the organization of labor that, at certain times, will call into question the relationships of power between the different groups in each social organization.
Scientific truth and social stories
This inherent conflict makes it necessary to understand and justify alternatives. That is, knowledge of social matters appears as a result of the change promoted by knowledge and the evolution of ways of transforming of Nature through technology. But while the empirical knowledge about Nature that is materialized in science and technology of each age objectively expresses the transformative power of the species as a whole, knowledge of social matters will be always mediated, because in the discussion of social matters, each interest group, each power group, will understand as true those values and stories that effective at transforming or conserving the relations that align with their own interests and uncertainties.
In the same way, every community tends to define itself and explain the world, within the general conditions it lives in, according to a story that is effective for its objectives. That’s why what serves to describe the origins of the great tendencies, motivating stories, and ideas about historical change do not necessarily explain the behavior of the path of a real community in history. The Hutterites of the sixteenth century can be told as a product of the gigantic scenario of politics and class conflicts in the Europe of that time, but their descendants, current Hutterite communities, cannot be explained except as the result of the endogenous dynamic of a series of real communities of their descendants, reaffirming themselves until they are frozen into a set of beliefs and traditions that have been tremendously effective in their setting for almost five hundred years.
We real communities and individuals tend to define ourselves by ideas that are really just a set of answers to questions which we have only partly chosen to ask and which we constructed using the elements we had at our disposal. We have limits on knowledge of our times, on our historical context, and on the place we occupy in society. But also we have autonomy within the limits of the general development of knowledge and of social relationships existing in every age.
A ethic of autonomy, an ethic that can try to be emancipating for individuals and communities, must begin with knowledge. As we saw, knowledge is the result and the central tool of the human experience, our main weapon against uncertainty, and the point of connection between our species and Nature, between technology and society, and between historical change and social relationships. It’s not developed in a sort of big, open general chat, but within given contexts, under certain rules, and starting from a particular identity among those who take part in the conversation. All knowledge is, to some extent, community knowledge. That’s why the projection of an ethic of knowledge is not “political,” a theory of the State, but a theory of human communities that uses them to explain the societies in which they exist. To see the social world not only as an inter-communitarian terrain with many social “truths” in play, and also many kinds of truth, means accepting conflict as inevitable, but also understanding that, most of the time, the framework of that conflict can be agreed on.
Abundance as a goal for communities and species
While transforming Nature is the original definition of the species, which is motivated by the need to overcome uncertainty and scarcity, the development of knowledge—which turns species time into historical time—is the only creator of meaning in the great macro-story of the human experience. Obviously, this tale is not linear, always ascendant, or predetermined to reach any specific place. Knowledge is a product of the transformation of nature and in good measure is dependent on it. That’s why eras, societies, or communities where that transformation stops end up “forgetting” knowledge and technologies that were previously known and losing skills and structures, until they revert to subsistence economies; societies that, like several tribes still existing today, find a fragile “stationary state” in isolation, or communities like the Amish or the Hutterites, which simply “choose” not to grow. These are not more authentic or “human,” but just the opposite, the most dehumanizing and alienating, because they deny and abort what is central to the human experience on the basis of a social system in which passion for knowledge and diversity suffer what can only be iron control.
Thought founded on an ethic of knowledge has to be projected not only onto the knowledge of a community, but also onto a Socioeconomics oriented towards abundance. Abundance means that knowledge has been developed to where it allows the species to transform and produce to make freedom possible for each of its members. What constrains everyone’s freedom in every social order, what makes such constraint necessary, is the need to organize according to the best technology possible to overcome scarcity. A society of scarce surpluses is a stratified society, supported by the power of the groups that manage it. Abundance as a historical stage would therefore mean the end of uncertainty as a primary engine of knowledge, and the end of conflicts that result from a social structure determined by scarcity.