Free money for everyone?

Everyone should be rich

“No whining, everyone should be rich, vote Opposition Party, together for ourselves.” The Opposition Party was a fictional political party in the Netherlands run by two dubious characters. The creators of the fiction, Van Kooten and De Bie, intended to mock populist politicians. If the Opposition Party had been for real, the party would have fetched a few seats in parliament in 1981. Why isn’t everyone rich? Maybe it is because poor people haven’t enough money.

Perhaps everyone should get money for free so that no-one is poor. This is a universal basic income. Nowadays most people make money by doing a job. That is because without their work nothing will be done and nothing will be made. This has been true for as long as humans exist. On the other hand, there are many more people than needed for all the work that needs to be done, at least if everyone works forty hours per week. This has also been true for as long as humans exist.

Pointless jobs

In the past most people worked only a few hours per day on average. This changed with the advent of factories. Idleness became frowned upon and the elite promoted the belief that everyone has a duty to work, even when there is no work. But many people do jobs that do not contribute to making products or services people need and also do not contribute to society. And a pointless job can make you unhappy.

What is even more troubling is that people with useless jobs use finite resources to execute their jobs. They may drive to their office that is either heated or airconditioned. If performing pointless job consumes raw materials and energy that are in limited supply, and also pollutes the environment, there is a compelling reason to axe it. And that may require giving people money to remain idle. The anthropologist David Graeber estimates that at least a third of all jobs are pointless.1

There is no good measure as to determine which jobs are pointless and which are not. For instance, one might think of the job of a receptionist at a publisher. The receptionist had nothing to do, except for taking up an occasional telephone call. Another employee could easily have done this alongside his or her tasks, but without a receptionist no-one would take the publisher seriously. Graeber contends that when people who do the job themselves think it is pointless, this is the best indication of the job being pointless.1

A game of Monopoly

In our current economic system, wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated. The super rich have increased their share of global wealth. Whether or not it was at the expense of the rest is a matter of intense political debate. Nevertheless, to keep the economy going and to forestall a catastrophic global economic collapse, there may no be no other option than to make the rich hand out money to the poor. This can happen in two ways: negative interest rates on debts and a redistribution of income, for instance via a universal basic income.

One can think of the capitalist economy as a game of Monopoly. If you have played Monopoly more than once, you may have observed that at first players build capital in the form of houses and hotels. You can get rich by making the right investments. There is also an element of luck involved. The game ends when most players are bankrupt. It is possible to extend the game by letting the rest borrow money from the winners. The winners can now enjoy being rich while the rest can stay in the game. Of course, the rest can never repay their debts. The players could stop pretending and let the winners hand out money to the rest so that the game can continue. That might happen via a negative interest rate on debts or taxing the rich and giving this money to the rest.

monopoly1935

The alternative would be to start from square one, or more precisely, removing all the houses and the hotels, and start a new game. That might be fun for a game but in the real economy this would be a horrendous disaster. Imagine all the houses, roads, and factories gone. There would be nothing to buy and everyone would be poor. Economists figured this out long ago. The famous economist John Maynard Keynes thought that the state should borrow money from the winners and spend it so that the others would be employed and have some money to spend so that the game could continue.2

Keynes’ plan did get a lot of attention and that’s why he is so famous. Other economists weren’t so pleased. Governments could now justify lavish spending by borrowing money from the rich to spend it on public works or lower taxes, leaving a debt to be paid by future generations. Keynes also advised governments to reduce spending when the economy is doing well,2 but this rarely happened. And if there is no starting from square one, the rich are getting richer, while the rest isn’t getting ahead. Furthermore, the state borrowing money from the winners makes things worse as interest must be paid. In this way the others end up paying taxes to pay interest to the rich. This could become a huge problem in the long run. But Keynes wasn’t interested in the long run. “In the long run we’re all dead,” Keynes said. Now the long run has arrived and Keynes is dead.

The game of Monopoly has a bank too. The bank is a magical source of money. Every time you finish a round, a fixed sum of is given to you. That is great for a game. If it wasn’t for this everlasting fountain of money, the game would have ended after a few rounds. Giving free money to everyone is often called a universal basic income. It can help to keep the economy going. Adding money to the real economy can make money worth less. If people have more money, prices often go up as there is more money to buy the same stuff. For example, if everyone craves for that latest model mobile phone, producers can raise prices, unless people run out of money and can’t buy them. In a game of Monopoly the prices of rents are fixed, but the prices of Streets may rise. If you want to buy a street from another player when there is a lot of money in the game, you often pay more. The rich are bidding up prices of streets. In the real economy something similar happens. Inflation is low but prices of assets like stocks and real estate are rising.

Realising our full potential?

Proponents of a universal basic income tell us that it will all be fine and dandy and that we will be free to realise our dreams. If you always wanted to become a blogger or a vlogger, you can become one when there is a universal basic income because you don’t have to work for a living. The opponents of a universal basic income paint a dismal picture of people sinking into an abyss of idleness filled with writing blogs nobody wants to read and making videos nobody wants to see. A job can make you feel useful. And there must be a compelling reason to do unattractive jobs, otherwise they won’t be done, they argue. Many countries already have benefits for people without a job. In these countries the unattractive low paying jobs are often done by immigrants who don’t have access to those benefits.

Machines taking over?

In the future machines may become better than humans at most jobs. Until very recently only simple tasks have been taken over by machines. This already put a lot of people out of work. The surplus of workers could be employed in the government and the service sector. Computers in the future can do much more. Self driving cars will replace human drivers and cause fewer accidents. Robots can care for the elderly, and this could be an improvement as robots don’t have moods. Computers will be better at diagnosing diseases and operating them.

Few professions appear safe from the coming onslaught. Economists tell us that robots will create many new jobs for humans, for example programming and maintaining them, but that may be wishful thinking. There is however one big problem blocking progress, or our descend into the abyss of idleness if you like. If people lose their jobs they also lose their incomes so that they don’t have the money to spend on the products and services the machines produce.

Perhaps the market will be able to deal with the issue so that there will still be jobs, but we can’t know for sure. It is also possible that the economy will collapse because there are fewer jobs. Progress may halt if the economy can’t operate with fewer jobs. Without jobs people have no money so that humans may need to keep on doing jobs machines can do better. If there is an income guaranteed that is sufficient to live off, the economy may not need these jobs. In that case there will also be less need for minimum wages because of the income guarantee. In this way people could do a job cheaper than machines if they really like to do it. And so humans can still care for the elderly in the future while robots do the heavy lifting. And that may be good because when humans do their jobs because they like to do them, and not because they need the money, they can have better moods too.

That sounds great. Perhaps it will work out this way. A universal basic income can improve the bargaining position of workers. It might lead to the following situation:

  • unattractive jobs that machines can do will be done by machines;
  • unattractive jobs that machines can’t do will be paid well;
  • attractive jobs that machines can do will be paid poorly as there will be volunteers;
  • attractive jobs that machines can’t do will be done by humans, but it is hard to predict how these jobs will be paid.

Obstacles on the way

Implementing a guaranteed income may not be easy. There will be obstacles on the way. Some of them may be hard to predict as they will emerge once the income guarantee has been introduced. A few questions can be raised already. For instance, does an income guarantee make people fill their time with idleness or does it give them the possibility to realise their potential? It is plausible that both will happen.

Many people believe that the income guarantee should come in the form of a universal basic income that replaces existing welfare schemes. It would reduce the amount of bureaucracy as the administration would be relatively simple compared to existing schemes. Existing social security schemes redistribute money to those who lack sufficient means of existence. A universal basic income is given to everyone, including the people who don’t need it.

A universal basic income could easily become expensive and would require higher taxes. This would not please tax payers and it could lead to tax evasion. And why should the rich receive a universal basic income too? An alternative is a guaranteed income that is to be settled with the income tax. People with low incomes would receive income tax instead of paying it. If the income guarantee is € 1,000 and the income tax is 50%, the scheme works as follows:

gross income
income tax
net income
€ 0
– € 1,000
€ 1,000
€ 1,000
– € 500
€ 1,500
€ 2,000
€ 0
€ 2,000
€ 3,000
€ 500
€ 2,500
€ 4,000
€ 1,000
€ 3,000
€ 5,000
€ 1,500
€ 3,500

If machines are to replace human labour, other sources of taxing may have to replace the income tax to fund the income guarantee, but it is still uncertain to what extent that will happen and how long that will take. How a guaranteed income can be paid for remains a puzzle and the answer to that question may emerge over time. It will not work if the wealthy don’t pay for it. Like in the game of Monopoly the winners need to hand over money to the others to stay in the game. This can happen via taxes on wealth or in the markets for money and capital via negative interest rates.

Negative interest rates can make the wealthy hand over money to the middle class via mortgages and loans as well as to governments via government debt. This is because debtors don’t pay interest but receive it. In this way the middle class has more money to spend while governments have more money to give to the poor. Negative interest rates might happen because the wealthy have trouble finding profitable investments and making these investments profitable might require them handing over money to the rest so that the rest has money to spend on the products and services made by the corporations owned by the wealthy. How a financial system with negative interest rates might work out is explained in the section about Natural Money.

Featured image: De Tegenpartij poster. Van Kooten and De Bie (1981). [copyright info]

Other image: Monopoly game.

1. Bullshit Jobs. David Graeber (2018). Simon & Schuster.
2. General Theory of Employment, Money and Interest. John Maynard Keynes (1936). Palgrave Macmillan.

New World Order

The direction of history

We are heading towards a single integrated world order, sometimes called the New World Order. Humanity is converging in three major ways, intellectually, economically and politically. The spread of religions and ideologies made it possible to unify different peoples under the same set of ideas. Trade and money enabled the cooperation between strangers all over the globe. And the increased cooperation between nation states is paving the way for a closer integration of governments.1

The world is now run by a global elite of business people, politicians, bureaucrats, engineers, journalists, scientists, opinion makers, writers and artists. No matter where they live, whether it is New York, Buenos Aires, Shanghai, Dubai or Cape Town, these people increasingly have the same interests, the same viewpoints about the world, the same culture, and increasingly live similar lifestyles. The individuals in these elites have more in common with each other than with their fellow countrymen.1

The need for global cooperation

Global issues such as climate change, human rights, international crime and financial markets require international agreement and cooperation. The Old World Order was based on the sovereignty of nation states, which means that, at least in theory, there was no higher authority than the nation state. All nation states were equally sovereign, at least in theory. Their power was restricted only by the treaties they signed.

Nowadays nation states are increasingly under pressure to conform to global standards as actions of one nation affect other nations as well. The global elite makes decisions on these issues. The elite believes that it acts to the benefit of mankind and that we need more international cooperation or even a global government. This is reflected in the words of the British politician Denis Healey, who had been involved in Bilderberg Conferences in which members of the elite gathered in secrecy. He told the Guardian:

To say we were striving for a one-world government is exaggerated, but not wholly unfair. Those of us in Bilderberg felt we couldn’t go on forever fighting one another for nothing and killing people and rendering millions homeless. So we felt that a single community throughout the world would be a good thing.2

It is hard to get a clear picture of the influence of meetings like Bilderberg. It seems that these gatherings influence the political agenda. For instance the European Union has been discussed at Bilderberg and it may well be that these meetings helped to create the European Union by making the elite agree on the agenda. As Europe had just been ravaged by two world wars, it probably seemed a good plan.

How much global government we need is a matter of debate. The more power is concentrated, the more pervasive the corruption will be. On the other hand, many important issues are of a global nature and require international cooperation. The only way out is to make people agree on what needs to be done and how differences must be settled. That reduces the for a centralised bureaucracy telling us what to do.

Neoliberalism or neofeudalism?

The share of the wealthy of global wealth and income has increased in recent decades. A 2017 report from Oxfam points out that the world’s eight wealthiest people own as much as the poorest 50%.3 Nation states have little grip on large corporations and billionaires. Until now there is no global government or binding international treaties so that nation states end up competing against each other to please large corporations and billionaires.

In the 1970s the situation in Western Europe and the United States was different. Most people were part of the middle class. Since then the middle class has shrunk and a growing divide between the rich and the poor emerged. This development coincided with the rise of neoliberalism, which is the idea that more should be left to the markets and that governments shouldn’t interfere.

The ideology of neoliberalism emerged in the 1970s when the ruling class was in trouble. The economy was stagnating. Unions had a lot of power. Businesses were struggling because of the competition of low-wage countries. The elite then started to promote freedom of the markets, privatisation, entrepreneurial spirit and individual liberty. The power of labour was curtailed and wealth inequality began to increase.4

Many good paying factory and service jobs were lost to low wage countries because of international competition. More and more people were forced to work for low wages. On the other hand, many products became cheaper. The rise of populism in Europe and the United States has a lot to do with a loss of security and perspective for many people. Immigrants are also blamed as they compete for jobs and put a pressure on wages.

Deep state

Politicians come and go but many other officials remain within the governmental institutions for a long time. Most of these people aren’t democratically elected. They are often technocrats who believe to work interest of the country. Their activities are not always harmless and they may obstruct democratically elected officials.

The deep state is a conglomerate of interest groups that have captured the government. One can think of the Military Industrial Complex, lobbyists, intelligence agencies, think tanks. These interest groups often represent profiteers like defense contractors. They work covertly via social networks to influence politicians and other officials.

Conspiracy theory

Some people claim the elite has a secret plan to create a New World Order where ordinary humans will be mere serfs. Rather than seeing the emerging oligarchy as a result of social and economic developments, they believe it was deliberately planned. This plan is believed to be worked out in secretive meetings like Bilderberg.

Corruption in politics can be so pervasive that people seek refuge in conspiracy theories. In the United States politicians need to fund their campaigns. They often accept money from large corporations and wealthy individuals so that they often represent their wealthy donors rather than the people electing them.

Conspiracy theorists tend to mischaracterize facts and intentions in order to spin them into their narrative. On the other hand, traditional media often ignore their journalistic duties by under reporting issues that can threaten the social order. With the advent of internet and social media, everyone can start a website and become a source of information and opinion. And so traditional media are losing their grip on the public.

A better political system

It isn’t easy to see how the power of the elite can be curtailed. The proposed solutions are often to let the government curtail the power of the elite or a reduction of government power so that the elite can’t abuse governments for their own aims. History has shown that revolutions bring new elites to power so that most people might not be better of.

These matters aren’t easy to resolve. A socialist revolution might scare investors so that capital leaves the country. A reduction in government might leave people in need without support. Direct democracy as is practised in Switzerland might be a good way of improving decision-making in politics and reduce the power of the elite without a violent revolution or a destruction of capital.

Natural Economic Order

History takes unexpected turns. In 1916 Silvio Gesell published his book The Natural Economic Order in which he proposed a tax on money. His ideas stand at the cradle of Natural Money. His book was first published in German in 1916. It was named “Natürliche Wirtschaftsordnung”, which can be abbreviated to NWO. If Natural Money is to become the money of the future, this would be a peculiar coincidence. There may be a secret plan for a New World Order the elite is unaware of.

Gesell was inspired by natural selection like many of his contemporaries. He viewed competition as beneficial to mankind. Effort and talent instead of money and privilege should determine one’s economic rewards. This was a common belief amongst liberals around 1900. Interest was seen as a reward for doing nothing. People living from interest didn’t supply their talents to society. Gesell realised that the Natural Economic Order will not arise spontaneously as it requires choosing money that allows for negative interest rates. In the preface of The Natural Economic Order he wrote:

The prosperity of mankind, as of all living beings, depends in the main upon whether selection takes place under natural laws. But these laws demand competition. […] Only then shall we be justified in hoping that humanity may in time shake off the burden of inferior individuals imposed upon it by thousands of years of unnatural selection – selection vitiated by money and privileges.5

1. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.
2. Who pulls the strings? (part 3). The Guardian (2001). [link]
3. Just 8 men own same wealth as half the world. Oxfam (2017). [link]
4. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. David Harvey. Oxford University Press (2005).
5. The Natural Economic Order. Silvio Gesell (1916). [link]

one ring to rule them all

Multiculturalism

A very successful ideology

Perhaps the most successful ideology ever is multiculturalism. For thousands of years it has seen an endless sequence of victories. There were a lot of temporary setbacks, but the long-term historic trend is unmistakable. The world is gradually becoming one with the help of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism was initially thought of by kings who conquered an empire of different peoples and wanted to rule them all. These different peoples could keep their own customs and settle most of their own affairs as long as they didn’t pose a threat to the social order. This brought peace and stability, which improved trade and prosperity. For example, Cyrus the Great, who ruled around 550 BC, was one of the first to use multiculturalism to rule his vast empire. He respected the religions and traditions of the peoples he ruled. For instance, he helped the Jews to go back to Israel and rebuild their temple.

Multiculturalism has been imposed upon conquered peoples with force but the alternative was often more wars. If the empire lasted long enough, these peoples together began to form a common culture and became one. Over time smaller cultures became integrated into larger cultures. This happened, for example, in the Roman empire. Many Roman emperors came from the provinces such as France, Africa or Arabia. When the empire finally collapsed, the conquered peoples didn’t reappear as independent nations. They had become Romans.1 Roman culture was dominant. People in the rest of the empire took over many customs from the Romans while the Romans took over some customs from the provinces. The world is closely interconnected nowadays so a global culture may emerge without conquest.

Why do many people think multiculturalism is a failure? Most importantly, it is hard to believe that multiculturalism is great when foreigners come to your country in large numbers and remain loyal their tribe. This can threaten the social order. If large numbers of immigrants keep coming, and if they don’t adapt and get a lot of children, the nature of society can profoundly change over time. Many people in Europe and the United States fear that it will not be for the better.

If Europe becomes like Africa or the Middle East, then hardly anyone currently living in Europe will consider this to be an improvement, including the people who came from Africa and the Middle East. Similarly, many people in the United States fear that the their country can become like Latin America, and hardly anyone currently living in the United States would consider this to be progress either. Immigration is often caused by poverty and poor government, and these problems need to be addressed. The fate of poor people around the world should be one of our most important concerns.

Proclaiming that multiculturalism is a failure when it is on the brink of final victory is a form of historical ignorance. It may seem hard to foresee how the future global culture will look like but if war can be avoided and human civilisation doesn’t collapse then all the peoples of the world are going to be integrated into a single global culture. There will still be differences but tribes will become less important. There will be a framework that allows for everyone to coexist relatively peacefully and gradually integrate into the global culture. This process may require a similar level of education, governance and democracy all over the globe, and a rational approach to matters of importance. Currently this seems a bit of a stretch to say the least, but the more people become educated and can be made to agree on using rational debates to revolve differences, the less need there will be for an elite to guide them or for the use of force to maintain the social order.

multiculturalism

Setting matters straight

Many people believe that their own culture is superior. Every nation desires to have a sense of pride about its cultural heritage but it is hard to come up with valid arguments why this or that nation, tribe or religion is superior to others. Yet, there is something that can’t be ignored either. Many people desire to go to Europe or the United States, and not somewhere else. This has something to do with oppression and poor living conditions elsewhere. One can surmise from this that if the rest of the world becomes more like Europe or the United States, this would generally be seen as an improvement. Cultural superiority thinkers are eager to point out that this is because of the superiority of Western culture. But what is this so-called cultural superiority?

It can’t be moral superiority for sure. Huntington wrote that the West didn’t win the world by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organised violence. He believed that the West is still hated because of this.2 But is this really true? Most people in developing nations realise that they are shaping their own future. People in other parts of the world can’t blame their former colonisers until eternity. Most people in Indonesia don’t hate the Dutch for being their former coloniser, despite the oppression, exploitation and killings that took place during the colonial era. The Indonesians hardly think of the Dutch any more. And blaming the Dutch doesn’t help them.

Is there no superiority in ideas whatsoever? During the last 500 years science has completely altered the way we live. That happened because European scientists began to believe that when observed facts contradict religion and tradition, facts should take precedence. In other parts of the world tradition and religion held precedence. This made Europeans the masters of the world for a while until other countries followed the same path. Europeans were so successful in spreading their cultures that today billions of people have adopted significant parts of these cultures. Indians, Africans, Arabs, and Chinese learned French, English and Spanish. They began to believe in human rights and self-determination. They began to adopt Western ideologies such as liberalism, capitalism, communism, feminism, and nationalism that emerged in modern Europe.1

People in Europe weren’t more rational than others. There were rational people all over the world but they didn’t challenge existing wisdom and religion to the same extent Europeans did. Most Europeans remained religious, but when facts contradicted their religions, they learned to deal with it. People in Europe began to separate religion from worldly affairs so that these became different realms. This is reflected, for example, in the separation of church and state. As the search for new knowledge began to take off in Europe, Europeans used their new knowledge to conquer the world. But would things have been better if the Chinese or the Africans had developed science and conquered the world?

Reason overcame religion in Europe. Many social, economical and political experiments have been tried in Europe that have not taken place anywhere else. Europeans developed models for society called ideologies. Tens of millions of people were killed in wars of conquest and clashes of ideologies. The Europeans made more historical errors than anyone else, simply because they had so many ideas to try. And there have been two destructive world wars for the most part caused by errors made in Europe and for the most part fought in Europe. In this way the Europeans had more opportunity to learn from their mistakes than anyone else. You can call that cultural superiority if you like, but it might be better to call it experience. And it would be a waste of time and cause unnecessary suffering to go through all these historical processes including all the wars, again everywhere around the globe, only to discover what you could already have learnt from studying history. In this sense Europe can still be a guide to the world.

Us and them

Us and them
And after all we’re only ordinary men
Me and you

Humans are group animals. We divide humanity between us and them. Us is the good people and them is the evil others that act differently, look differently, have funny accents and wear peculiar outfits. Welcome to human nature. This is who we are. In modern times it becomes harder to identify who are us and who are them. People differ in skin colour, religion, political preference, or some other quality, so that it is still possible to make distinctions. And that helps us to feel good about ourselves because us is the good part of humanity. Even if you think you’re open-minded you are likely to consider the narrow-minded others as the evil them. When you are an outsider, and subject to exclusion and regular bullying, life isn’t so great. The us and them question is often narrowed down to racism and discrimination.

There is no reasonable basis for racism so racists are unreasonable people. Discrimination is a more difficult issue. People have the right to associate with the people they prefer. And most people prefer the company of their own kind. This often leads to exclusion and bullying and making certain groups and people feel inferior. Should that be allowed? And what about the problems caused by cultural differences?

A lot of people from specific ethnic groups have difficulties in finding a place in society. These groups often dominate the crime statistics. Is it because they are discriminated or because they don’t adapt very well? The answer is often both. It helps when everyone agrees on that and that these issues should be resolved. There is a good chance that it will happen over time and it helps if everyone is willing. Multiculturalism has turned so many thems into usses in the past that this trend may continue until there’s no real them any more. That may be of little solace to those who are discriminated or suffer from the misconduct of people from certain ethnic groups, but we shouldn’t lose perspective.

To a hippie flowers and love can do wonders. Indeed, bringing people together can do miracles. A nationalist may think that everyone should stay in his or her own country. And indeed that could have saved us from trouble, but in the end nations will disappear and the world will become one, unless human civilisation fails, that is. Immigration can revitalise a nation but it can also destabilise it. Most immigrants seek a better life and want to work hard. They are on the move because they don’t see opportunities in their home countries.

But many immigrants aren’t successful and have trouble adapting or may not be willing to contribute to a society that doesn’t reflect their values. Ignoring the facts or distorting them isn’t helpful. People from different cultural backgrounds have different views about what is acceptable conduct and what is not and this can lead to conflict. But these conflicts can be seen as historical processes that have to be resolved.

Bigotry as well as political correctness don’t contribute to solutions. In a rational debate all genuine concerns and options are openly discussed. This requires both honesty and respect, which can be very difficult indeed as people tend to have very different ideas about honesty and respect to begin with.

Multiculturalism is on its way to final victory. It might help when people agree on some basic norms and values as well as the predominant culture. The modern world is shaped by Europe, and most notably scientific progress. A tacit acknowledgement of this, and acting accordingly, should suffice. There’s no reason to use these facts to offend or humiliate others. There should be room for an acknowledgement of the achievements and benefits of other cultures. It is also not helpful to think that European culture is evil because of all the bad things that happened in the past.

Civilisation is just a thin veneer that can easily disappear. If the world descends into chaos, no culture, religion or ideology can protect us from the beast that lives within us all. And there can be enough for everyone. These are perhaps the most compelling reasons for being a cultural relativist, embracing multiculturalism and allowing a global culture to emerge. It is not an achievement to be born with a specific cultural heritage nor should it be a reason for blame. On the other hand, overcoming the limits of your own culture and contributing to a better future might be an achievement, and you could be faulted for failing to do so.

Featured image: One Ring to Rule Them All. Xander (2007). Public Domain.

1. A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.
2. The Clash of Civilizations And the Remaking of World Order. Samuel Huntington (1997). Simon & Schuster.

The flag of the Iroquois Confederacy

The Great Law Of Peace

What society might look like

Is it possible to have a more equal and free society? The road to tyranny is often paved with good intentions. So can this question be asked at all? Or do we lack a vision as to how things can be? Perhaps there is a society that can show us the way. In the year 1142 five North American tribes, Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca, formed a league that came to known as the Haudenosaunee, Iroquois or Five Nations. In 1722 a sixth tribe, Tuscarora, joined and this league became known as Six Nations. The constitution of the league is known as The Great Law Of Peace.

The impact of the league on world history is considerable. The Haudenosaunee came up with the idea of equality and liberty for all. They may not have been the first but they influenced the European colonists settling in the United States as well as important 18th century European thinkers. As a consequence freedom, equality and brotherhood became the motto of the French Revolution. Freedom and equality are still amongst the most important values people believe that societies should be based.1

The formation of the league

According to legend three people made this happen. They were Dekanawida, known as the Great Peacemaker, Ayenwatha also known as Hiawatha, and Jigonhsasee, known as the Mother of Nations, whose home was open to everyone. The league was proposed to make an end to the constant warfare between the neighbouring tribes. The warrior leader Tododaho of the Onondaga kept on opposing the idea.

Deganawidah then took a single arrow and asked Tododaho to break it, which he did easily. Then he bundled together five arrows and asked Tododaho to break them too. He couldn’t. In the same way, Deganawidah prophesied, the Five Nations, each weak on its own, would fall unless they joined forces. Soon after Deganawidah’s warning, a solar eclipse occurred. The shaken Tododaho then agreed to the alliance.

The Haudenosaunee absorbed other peoples into their cultures as a result of warfare, adoption of captives and offering shelter to displaced peoples. During the American Revolution two tribes sided with the revolutionaries while the others remained loyal to Great Britain. The tribes were forced to take sides. They needed the favours of the winning party for disease had reduced their populations. After the war, the league was re-established.

The principles of the league

The Great Law Of Peace consists of 117 codicils that deal with the affairs between the Six Nations. The league is based on the consent of the peoples that are part of the league. When issues come up that need to be decided upon, the male chiefs or sachems of the clans are summoned to gather at the council fire in the territory of Onondaga.

The league aims for consensus. Decisions require large majorities of both the clan mothers and the sachems. This puts pressure on individual members of both groups not to impede decision making with insignificant objections or frivolous considerations. Referendums are held on matters of great importance.

Women have considerable influence. They are entitled to the land and its produce. The clan mothers deal with the internal affairs of their tribe. The clan mothers elect the sachems of their tribe and can remove them from office. Hence, the sachems heed the advice of their female relatives.

Influence

Compared to the despotic European societies of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Haudenosaunee was a liberal form of government. In the first two centuries of European colonisation there was no clear border between natives and newcomers. The two societies mingled and Europeans could see from close by how the natives lived. The North American natives had a level of personal freedom unknown in Europe.1

As for the Haudenosaunee, the colonial administrator Cadwallader Colden declared in 1749 that they had such absolute notions of liberty that they allow no kind of superiority of one over another and banish all servitude from their territories. Colden had been an adoptee of the Mohawks. Other Europeans complained that the natives do not know what it is to obey and think that everyone has the right to his own opinion.

Social equality was as important as personal liberty to the North American natives. They were appalled by the European division into social classes. The French adventurer Louis Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron of Lahontan, lived in French Canada between 1683 and 1694, noted that the natives he visited could not understand why one man should have more than another and why the rich should have more respect than the poor.

Some early colonists preferred to live with the natives. The leaders of Jamestown tried to persuade natives to become like Europeans. That didn’t happen. Many English joined the locals despite threats of dire punishment. The same thing happened in New England. Puritan leaders were horrified when some members of a rival English settlement began living with the local tribes. As Franklin lamented in 1753:

When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, though ransomed by their friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life … and take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods, when there is no reclaiming them.

usseal
United States Seal

The European colonists had to adapt or they stood to lose their people to the native tribes. And so American society became more free and equal than societies in Europe. The European philosophers of the 18th century took their ideas of freedom from the native Americans and this eventually led to the French Revolution. Freedom and equality have now become the basic principles of democratic nations.

The ideals of liberty and limited government influenced the United States Constitution. The ideals of equality and consensus however did not. The US Seal features a bald eagle holding thirteen arrows bound together representing the thirteen founding states reminiscent of the bald eagle and the five arrows from the legend of the Five Nations.

Featured image: The flag of the Iroquois Confederacy. Mont Clair State University website (Montclair.edu).

1. New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (2005). Charles C. Mann. Knopf. [link]