Even many of the least observant of citizens of the U.S. will have noticed, by now, that there is a certain lack of good will across the political aisle in our nation today. Many possible causes for this are given, as well as the possibility that we are always at each others' throats and this is nothing new. While I agree that it's nothing new, it also hasn't always been this way; it's cyclical. Here's what I think is going on.

As is my wont, I will begin with my idea of what a prehistoric hunter-gatherer band would be like. I've never been a prehistoric hunter-gatherer, exactly, so obviously there's some guessing going on. But, the genetics of myself and all my fellow humans is still largely shaped by what worked for them, so I believe it's a useful thought experiment.

When there is a disagreement about what to do, is it better for such a band to stick together, argue it out, or split in two? I would think that would depend on what the argument is about.

If the question is how to defend against a carnivore, or what step to take next in battle with another group of humans, then this is easy: stick together. The worst choice on offer, if followed by the entire band, is often going to be better than the best choice on offer, if only half the group does it. Thus, it is not surprising to anyone to see that events like terrorist attacks or acts of war have the effect of causing people to pull together.

Sometimes, however, the nature of the threat is not of that sort, and here I think many observers of the nature or politics miss something. A "threat" to a nation is not necessarily going to trigger the "stick together" response, when the nature of the threat isn't felt similarly to a lion or a rival band of humans. What in the world of hunter-gatherers would be similar, in how humans perceive it emotionally, to a deep economic recession?

The naive answer would be, "nothing", since hunter-gatherers are unlikely to be worried about being laid off. However, even a moment's reflection gives us a better answer. The relevant factor is a perception of scarcity. If a hunter-gatherer group finds that there is less to hunt or gather in their vicinity, they will have a similar situation in many ways.

What would a hunter-gather band do in such a situation? Well, here are a few options:

  1. pick a fight with a neighboring band, in hopes of taking their food; even if you lose, you have fewer mouths to feed
  2. set off as a group in the direction that is thought to have more food
  3. split up, and go in different directions in search of more food
  4. pick a fight amongst yourselves, in order to reduce the numbers of mouths to feed that way (at the same time giving 'survival of the fittest' the opportunity to select for greater prowess in combat)

Of these, only options (1) and (2) would be recognizable as promoting group unity. In fact, options (3) and (4) are highly destructive of it. So, which ones would a hunter-gatherer group be best off picking?

I hypothesize that the algorithm goes something like this:

  1. is there a nearby source of resources which can be taken? if so, do the leaders of this band think it's a good idea to try that?
  2. is there a better area to hunt and forage in, that the group could go to? if so, do the leaders of this band think it's a good idea to try that?
  3. if neither (a) nor (b) are being done, then look for a new leader to follow off into a different direction
  4. if none of (a) through (c) are possible, fight amongst yourselves

At this point, the skeptical reader may ask, "how could we inherit such an algorithm? we don't get born with source code." It's a good question, and I haven't any good idea. However, similar algorithms for recognizing beauty, courtship, recognizing edible food, etc. are well known, both in humans and other species. More complex algorithms than this have been well documented in social insects such as ants and bees, so I don't doubt that a subconscious tendency towards this algorithm could exist in humans. I could cite anecdotal evidence of it, but really it's a question for more rigorous experimental testing. Let's take it as true for the sake of argument only, and think what it would mean if it is.

In times of economic crisis, the first possibility for a leader is to look for a scapegoat. Of course, the best sort of scapegoat would be one that is actually to blame (in part, at least) for the current downturn, but the effectiveness of retaining unity is probably the same regardless of whether the scapegoat is in fact culpable. One could imagine a national leader telling his fellow citizens that the IMF, or globalization and multinational corporations, or the EU, or big banks, or etc. are responsible for the downturn, but this is ineffective if it's not followed up with action against the scapegoat. If the leader says, "Those people are responsible for our problems! Let's give them more money", for example, this will not retain group unity.

The second possibility is to embark on some large-scale restructuring of how the economy works. Socialization, privatization, massive construction of visible infrastructure on an unprecedented scale; all of these would satisfy the instinct for "we're doing something". But, crucially, it cannot be small- or even moderate-scale. It must deliver a psychological impact similar to that of a hunter gatherer, who has lived in the same region all his life, migrating to a new one he has never seen before. If it is not massive, it will not allay the sense of rising panic in the face of scarcity. A change in how some bureaucratic procedure (e.g. paying taxes, getting health care insurance, etc.) works, will not be big enough to be reassuring. Even if people say that it's radical and dangerous, the reality is actually the opposite: it's too modest to be a believable solution to a serious problem.

The third possibility, which will be followed if neither of the first is used, will be to look for new leaders. Crucially, these do not need to be individuals capable of leading the entire band. Any young firebrand, ready to take half the band off in a different direction, will suffice. In more recent times, such a leaders has often been religious, and oftentimes the direction they took them in was West, to the American frontier. In modern nation-states, however, there is limited opportunity for this to occur. Thus, we are left with option (d).

At this point, it may seem that I am suggesting that all of the issues currently being argued about in the U.S. are fake issues, not actually worth disagreeing about. I don't believe that; although some of them feel like manufactured controversy, many of them are real and substantive. But, just because the issue is one we would argue about in any time, doesn't mean the way we argue about it isn't impacted by the response of human nature to a time of perceived scarcity.

In times when we are (or feel ourselves to be) under attack from an outside group, people are willing to tone down their partisan rhetoric, and give their leaders the benefit of the doubt. In time when we are (or feel ourselves to be) threatened by scarcity, the opposite is true. Issues that could have been managed, or resolved by compromise, lead to harsher and harsher rhetoric, to promote a split in two (to either go in different directions, or start fighting).

Thus, if you are the leader of a modern nation-state facing a serious economic crisis, you have only a few options: pick a fight, embark on a radical and far-reaching restructuring (which, given the way democracy works, also means 'pick a fight'), or just hold on and hope the recession ends before the infighting gets too vicious to bear.

Unfortunately, in both the U.S. and Europe, most leaders have chosen the third option. Unfortunately, the economic crisis seems destined to last a lot longer than they expected. We can expect the level of political infighting to continue to escalate. Europe and Arabia have already started to see rioting in the streets; will we see it as well?